A Murder At The Dream Diner, by Zubair Simonson
I can only remember in fragments.
I was driving, or maybe I was drifting, on a stretch of lonely highway that sliced through barren flat terrain. My hands were tightly gripping the steering wheel at the ten and two o’clock positions. The horizon ahead of me seemed as distant as the stars themselves. The firmament was as vast as the heavens. Brother sun sought desperately to shine upon me, but his rays were sporadic, dimmed by ever-shifting clouds disrupting the azure sky. Brother wind howled at my solitary, from outside. Was brother wind trying to warn me about something?
I drove my car down the main street of a town. The single-story buildings lining up to Main Street’s sidewalk touched, like guards that stood shoulder-to-shoulder. I once drove through a town in Montana that looked much like this. The sidewalks of this town were empty, devoid of all commerce, as if some cataclysmic event I was yet to hear of happened. It looked like some godforsaken ghost-town. Why was this town abandoned? Did some event, either natural or man-made, kill it off? Or was this small town a casualty of our modernizing world, slowly killed off by the forces of atrophy?
This particular town had a sign at its skirts that read Welcome to Dream. I don’t recall ever being in a Montana town called Dream.
The heavens were grey. Those shifting clouds that masked brother sun consumed the full firmament. A snowflake carelessly fell, finding final rest from its descent on the windshield of my lone car. My eyes shifted for just a moment, looking at the pristine snowflake. The snowflake’s pattern was unique, like that of any diamond. No snowflake has ever looked quite like this one before it, and none of the countless snowflakes in the future shall ever look quite like this. This is truth of all snowflakes. It melted away, and the drop of water that was its corpse ran its humble course down my windshield, leaving a wet trail as the only evidence it once existed.
Then another snowflake landed on the windshield. Then another.
The town had a library, one that I could recall visiting before. I remembered that behind its modest red-brick facade was an interior space, grand as the cosmos themselves, with stacks upon stacks of books that stretched as far as any horizon. This particular library was illumined not by bulbs, but by candles. Being in that library caused me to wonder if a person was like that, a puny facade containing a whole universe within, illumined by what I would dismiss as archaic. Then I remembered that I once borrowed a book, a couple of books actually, from that library, and that I had forgotten to return them. Or maybe I just never cared enough to return them. I pondered whether the librarian would be mad at me. I don’t think he ever gave me a return date. And besides that, borrowing is what the books were for. So I decided not to step inside.
The books I had borrowed and never returned were pretty good. They gave me ideas, caused me to wonder about a few things. None of my ideas are really mine. None of our ideas are really ours. At least not the good ones.
There was a diner across the street from the library. It stood at a corner on Main Street, the only intersection that actually had a proper stoplight. This diner looked like any typical diner, something like a trailer, painted azure like the sky. I realized that I had not eaten in a while. So I parked my car.
I stepped into the diner. The diner did not look as vast as the cosmos inside as the library did. It was narrow and streamlined, just like any other small town diner. There was a counter, with a few cushioned round bar chairs rising up like trees from the floor tiles. Booths were lined up against the windows, for customers to gaze out at the ghost town. As I looked out of those windows, I could see the snow starting to get heavy.
A man stood behind the counter of the diner. The man wore a purple apron over his otherwise plain clothes. His face looked familiar, common, neither ugly nor handsome, as though I had come across such face a million times already. Our eyes met. There was a twinkle in the pupils of his eyes, like shining stars. He nodded at me as though we had met before. Then he said welcome back. His voice was a whisper, yet just as audible as any normal voice. Was it an accent?
I was seated by my lonesome self at one of the booths, at the window right across the sidewalk where I vaguely remembered parking the car. But I could not see my car. I did not care.
I turned my head to look at the man standing behind the counter. Is business slow? I asked him.
The man shrugged his shoulders. Yes, he replied to me. This has been a very slow season. But soon it will be spring again.
I turned my head and looked back out the window. The snow was getting heavier, cloaking every last inch of the ghost-town. All I could see was white.
A waitress was standing over the table of the booth I had planted myself in. She put her hand over mine, gently caressing the crease between my thumb and index finger, as though we intimately knew one another. I knew right then that I loved her. She kissed me on the cheek. How have you been? she asked me.
I sighed. Tired, I replied.
Do you want something to drink? she asked. Wine? Mead?
Coffee, I said to her.
Coffee? she asked, tilting her head, looking at me like I was an alien or something. Okay, but it’ll be a few minutes. I have to brew some.
Hey, what are you doing? she asked.
When I looked down at the table space, I saw a notepad laying atop, only half an inch below the pen in my hand. How did it get there? I thought to myself. Am I drunk or something? Or am I on drugs?
A gentle bell chimed from the front door, announcing the arrival of another customer. A man stepped in through the front door. He looked about the diner, bewildered. His eyes were like those of an elderly person with dementia. But he was young, much too young to have dementia. And then he stepped back out. The gentle bell chimed again.
I looked back at the waitress. I only remember in fragments, I told her.
She slapped the notepad shut. Don’t take notes, she told me. You might give away too many secrets.
Yes. A person is supposed to hear a riddle, not the answer to a riddle. The answer if for him to figure out on his own.
I put the notepad back in my inner coat pocket without complaint, because she asked me to. I would have done anything for her. I loved her. I’ve always loved her.
I’ll be back with your…coffee, she said to me. And then she turned. I watched on as her figure got just a little bit smaller with each passing step, passing behind the counter, getting swallowed up behind the doors to the back.
Then I remembered her name: Thalia.
Thalia dropped a mug of coffee onto the table. Steam rose from the top of the mug like a smokestack.
The gentle bell chimed again. I turned my head and watched two men step into the diner.
Thalia had a worried look on her face. Was it because they were strangers? Was it because she sensed foul intentions?
Both of the men had then frames and serious faces. One the men was tall and his eyes hid behind thick box spectacles and the bottom of his face was blanketed by a bright red beard. He wore jeans and a black t-shirt and a blazer as an overcoat. Greying hair gave away that he was probably forty-something years old. The other man was much shorter, around my own height, and his spiked hair reached several inches up toward the ceiling and was dyed purple at the tips. He wore skinny jeans that hugged his thin and sculpted legs and a sleeveless black shirt. The shorter one looked somewhat flamboyant and twenty-something years of age. These two men walked side-by-side, up to the counter.
Are you Morpheus? the shorter one asked. His voice had a lisp to it.
I am, the man behind the counter replied.
The taller one suddenly pulled a gun from out of his coat pocket. His trembling hands took aim, trying to line the front sight with Morpheus’ chest.
Morpheus did not flinch.
The taller one pressed on the trigger, firing the gun. The boom echoed in the diner.
Morpheus collapsed to the ground, quickly sinking behind the counter as though he had just stepped into quicksand.
The shorter one pulled a gun from the waistline of his skinny jeans. He turned and pointed the gun in Thalia’s direction.
I stood up from the booth, ready to shield her if need be. This seemed out of character for me. I am far from a poster-child for valor. But I would do anything for Thalia. I loved her. I’ve always loved her.
She turned her head to me, darting a desperate look, shaking her head. Her eyes pleaded for me to sit back down. I would do anything that she asks of me. I sat back down in the booth, looking at the shorter one with enough fury to make a devil tremble.
Thalia looked back at the shorter one, raising her hands up before her breast.
The rest of the staff! the shorter ones snapped. Where are they?
In…in the back, Thalia replied. They’re on break.
The taller one jumped over the counter and stepped over Morpheus’ corpse and shoved his way through the door to the back of the diner.
Other waitresses poured out from the back of the diner, their hands up before their breasts. They were followed by the taller one, holding a gun to their backs. I realized that I knew several of their names as well: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Melpomene, and Polyhymnia. I knew their names because I loved them too, but I loved some of them more than others. There were nine waitresses in all. Three of them I did not know by name.
You’re coming with us, the shorter one told them. All of you.
Melpomene looked down at Morpheus and covered her mouth with her hands. Her eyes began to well. Why did you kill him? she asked.
Shut up! the shorter one snapped. You’re coming with me. All of you.
What did he promise you in return? Melpomene asked. She turned to look at the taller one.
The taller one sighed. A Pulitzer.
The taller one hesitated, reluctant to answer her question. Maybe he was trying to think of a lie. But he could not lie, even if he wanted to. Only true things are spoken in this town. It’s…an award for authors, he replied.
Are you a storyteller?
The taller one nodded his head.
But I’ve never seen you here before.
What does that have to do with it, the taller one bursted out. What would you know about it anyway? You’re just some waitress, in a hick town. I’ve got a doctorate, in English. Have you ever even met anyone with doctorate? Do you even know what a doctorate is? I’ve written a book, a great book, that’s been picked up by a publishing house. I don’t need to visit this shithole to figure out how to craft a good story.
Your story, what’s it about?
My story chronicles the disillusionment of a middle-class family raised in a suburban town.
O. A family? Are there gods in this family?
Of course not.
What about devils, or witches, or perhaps wizards?
Then are there vampires? Or talking animals or elves? Or at least some robots?
The taller one shook his head. None of that bullshit. I’m a realist.
Your story sounds rather dull.
It only sounds dull to dipshit waitresses. Maybe if you had bothered reading stories like mine, you wouldn’t be working in this dump at this hour.
Melpomene turned to the shorter one. And are you a story-teller as well?
The shorter one shook his head. I’m a composer.
And what did he promise you in return?
The shorter one kept his gun pointed pointed at the ladies. I’m not gonna waste my time explaining what a Tony is to a bunch of rednecks. Our client, he made it clear what he wants: for us to kill the owner and hand all of you over to him.
Your client? He told you to come here and do all of this?
Of course. What are you retarded of something?
Do you even know who this client is?
The two men looked at one another, perplexed. He calls himself the prince, said the shorter one. And he pays handsomely.
Erato took a step forward. She stood a foot before the line of ladies who were being held at gunpoint. She tapped her fingertips to her shoulders and she pulled down her skirt in one smooth gesture. She stood there, naked before her would-be kidnappers. Her fair skin was as smooth as silk, and it glowed, that I could almost see the golden beams bursting from her figure like a halo. She was tall and slender, but not too tall and not too slender. Her face was round and her cheeks were rosy and the bridge of her nose was narrow, but not too narrow. Her breasts perked and her nipples were erect. Form! Never had I dared imagine that such perfect form as hers existed. And I realized right there and then that every lustful thought I had ever had was a calling to her.
Thalia shielded my eyes with her hand. Don’t worry, she said to me. No harm will come to thee.
I wanted to slap Thalia’s hand away, to see the Erato’s naked figure, even if just for a moment, even if a glimpse would kill me. Maybe Thalia was protecting me from something. I’ve always loved Thalia, and I know that she has always loved me. But greater than my love for Thalia in that moment was my desire to fuck Erato. Whatever in me was human, whatever could ever be holy, gave way to animal instinct.
All was dark, like a cave. But I could hear the voices speaking.
What…what are you doing?
There was mockery in her voice.
Morpheus stood before his assassins. There was still crimson stain over his purple apron, just over his heart. His glare was as calm as his gaze.
B-b-but w-we k-killed you, the taller one stuttered to Morpheus.
You should have known that that rule has already been revised, Morpheus replied. Did you think it would be easy? To assassinate me and kidnap my staff?
The shorter one twisted, to point his gun at Morpheus.
The gun was suddenly in Morpheus’ hands. He grasped the weapon with both of his open hands, holding it close to his face, inspecting the barrel with curious eyes.
The taller one vainly tried to lift his trembling hand, to point his own pistol at Morpheus. His hands failed him.
Morpheus turned his gaze away from the gun, looking into the eyes of his would-be assassins. That twinkle in his eyes was bursting like a nova. Your client knows full well that I have been given charge of this realm. I am the one who decides the rules here.
The assassins looked to the floor, doing what they could to avoid Morpheus’ gaze.
You say that you are artists? But I have never met either of you. You could have come here, peacefully, anytime you wished. All of your race are welcome here. But when you did finally visit Dream, it was not for fellowship, or for inspiration. You came here as invaders. As kidnappers. And all for what?
For acclaim, the taller one replied, still looking shamefully to the ground.
How crude. Do you truly believe that your client covets my staff?
The taller one reluctantly shook his head. N-n-no.
No. His nature is destroy, not to create. Then you know why he sent you?
The taller one nodded.
Yes. You simply agreed to a fool’s errand. Morpheus raised a clenched fist and opened his palm. I have no idea what happened to the gun. There was sand in his open hand. He blew it into the taller one’s face.
Suddenly the taller one gripped his own temples. He began to ramble. A clown and an astronaut switch places and the clown claims the sun for himself. A man finds out that his wife is a goddess and that she’s having an affair with Ares. A cow jump over the moon, but he jumped too far and drifted off into the asteroid belt, where he was killed.
The shorter one was pale, looking at Morpheus like a child caught stealing from the cookie jar. What are you going to do to me?
Nothing, Morpheus replied. Now leave.
The taller one darted to the door, still gripping his temples, still rambling. The protagonist is turned inside out so that his body is on the inside and all of the hidden realms are on the outside. I watched through the window as a car, driving, struck him and he flew up into the air like a rag doll. It was the first time I had seen a car driving since I got here.
The shorter one looked downcast, his shoulder drooped. He left like a dog with his tail between his legs, stepping over his associate’s corpse, aimlessly wandering toward the skirts of Dream. I don’t think he could ever bring himself to come back.
I was seated at the booth, again. Thalia lifted an empty plate from the table space in front of me.
I heard the gentle bell ring, and then it rang again.
Calliope stood beside the counter and her eyes lit up. She turned to Morpheus, who was back behind the counter. The customers are coming back, she said.
Yes, Morpheus replied. Slow season is over.
I was standing next to the booth. It was time to go. Too much time at this place could drive me mad.
Thalia smiled at me and the look in her eyes spoke adoration.
When will I see you again? I asked her. I wanted her all to myself, but I knew she had other customers to attend to. I loved her, enough to know that I could never own her.
Next time you come back, she replied, giggling as she did.
Do you ever get out of Dream?
She shook her head. We’re not as lucky as you.
I was driving, or maybe I was drifting, on a stretch of lonely highway that sliced through barren flat terrain. My hands were tightly gripping the steering wheel at the ten and two o’clock positions. The horizon ahead of me seemed as distant as the stars themselves, but maybe the stars are not as distant as we assume. The firmament was as vast as the heavens. Brother sun hovered proudly over the clear azure firmament, warming my hands through the windshield with his gentle rays. Brother wind kept silent, content.
The radio was turned on, and between songs there were news announcements. It was mentioned in passing that some author, one with a rising star, had just committed suicide, that he shot himself in the chest. I don’t remember the name, but I knew exactly who they were talking about.
I kept on driving down that lonely road. Only this time, I was going home.
But I can only remember in fragments.
Zubair Simonson lives in New York, but he grew up in North Carolina. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in Political Science. Many of Zubair’s non-fiction thoughts have been published by Vulgate Media, the Philos Project and Providence Magazine. Several of his fiction thoughts have been self-published on Kindle. He is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order.