Authors: Clayton Smith
For Tom, Patrick, Percy, Jordon, Tara, Tobben, Kelly, Tim, Serbus, Shipley, Shawn, Jenny, Jon Hamm, John Goodman, Mark Twain, Vincent Price, Harry Truman, and everyone else who knows what Missouri’s really all about.
The road was clear, and the drive was smooth…until the bridge over the Missouri River decided to collapse, plunging two cars, three people, and one ton of concrete into the frigid water below.
Mallory rolled the car to a stop before the line of flashing blue and red lights of the Saline County Sheriff’s Department patrol cars. One of the deputies signaled her with a slow wave of his flashlight. He held up a hand and approached her Impala.
“Shit,” she whispered.
Mallory grabbed the purple Jansport backpack from the passenger side floor and stuffed it into the backseat. She gave herself a nervous glance in the rearview mirror. She looked like she’d just crawled out of a cave that doubled as a hurricane in its spare time. Maybe he was into that. She shook out her hair so it covered half of her face.
The deputy tapped his finger against the window, and she rolled it down, trying desperately to conjure up the Mallory Jenkins of fifteen years ago and smiling what she hoped was a coy, flirtatious smile.
She had a feeling it was more of a tired, crooked snarl in execution.
“What’s the problem, officer?”
The deputy leaned down and spat a stream of brown liquid onto the highway. “Bridge’s out,” he gargled over the huge, wet glob of tobacco in his cheeks. “Gotta turn around.”
Mallory peered across the tops of the patrol cars, at the gaping maw of empty air where there should have been a bridge, and the empty road beyond.
She sighed. “What’s the best detour?”
The deputy leaned a pudgy hand on the window frame. The whole car groaned and lurched downward. “Depends,” he said, glancing around the inside of her car. “Where you headed?”
, she thought. She shifted in her seat, swiveling her shoulders in an attempt to block his view as his eyes slid slowly over the Impala’s interior. “East,” she guessed.
The deputy spat again. A trickle of brown dripped onto the car door. He wiped it away with his sleeve. “This road heads north.”
Mallory’s grip on the wheel tightened. The leather creaked under the pressure, and her heart skipped. “I’m…taking the scenic route,” she said.
The deputy snorted. He lifted his hand from the window frame and slapped it on the hood of the car. “Turn around, take this highway to Marshall, jump onto 65, it’ll take you to 70 West.” Another pair of headlights appeared around the bend behind her as the deputy waved her on. “Go ahead.” He rubbed the back of his hand against his stained lips. “Be safe, now.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled. She raised the window and made a U-turn around the officer. She couldn’t say for sure, but as she drove away into the dying light, she thought she saw him grip the radio at his shoulder and speak into it, his beady eyes following her car—and her license plate. She held her breath and sped around the bend, and she didn’t exhale until the red and blue flashing lights had faded behind the trees.
“Not good,” she told the Mallory in the rearview mirror.
“Worse than not good,” the mirror Mallory replied.
A new road opened up on the left, and she pulled the wheel. The Impala squealed against the pavement and cut off down the backwoods highway. The road wound deeper and deeper into the heart of nowhere; the trees loomed high above and crowded her in, blotting out what little sunlight was left. For the hundredth time since leaving Ladue, her fingers itched to turn on her phone and check the Google map. But phones could be tracked, and she didn’t know if anyone was keeping an eye on her signal. She didn’t want to find out the hard way. She wasn’t even sure that turning the phone off made it untraceable.
had been mixed on that point. “Thanks for nothing, Mark Harmon,” she grumbled.
She knew she should probably just chuck the thing and be done with it, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. For one thing, it was
; she’d been able to bring so few of her own belongings, it was weirdly comforting to hold the phone, even if it was just a cold, dead, plastic rectangle that was two whole models shy of being trendy. And for another, it had three years’ worth of photos stored on it…pictures of her sister, whom she loathed, and her nieces, whom she thought were always a little too sticky to be very endearing, but still. They were family, and who knew when she’d see them again?
she’d see them again…
So the phone sat uselessly in the cup holder, and it mocked her with its black, silent screen.
“Shut up, phone,” she muttered.
The highway twisted through the woods, and Mallory started to feel uneasy, passing through what felt like two solid walls of trees. “This is the Midwest,” she said aloud, frowning at the tall, dark shapes that spread out on either side of the road. “Where the hell are all the fields?”
She rounded a curve and saw a sign at the edge of the highway that read ANOMALY FLATS – 2 MI, with an arrow pointing to the left.
, she thought.
Flats sounds fieldish, right? Flats sounds good.
She turned on her blinker, slowed down the car, and pulled onto the road that led to Anomaly Flats.
The welcome sign for Anomaly Flats could best be described as odd. It was huge, for one thing, the size of a billboard, though it was propped up not two feet above the ground by a trellis of weathered wood that sagged and struggled under the weight of it. The woods had thinned out at this spot, but they hadn’t disappeared altogether; the sign was just stuck in among the trees, partially hidden, as if it had grown there like a weed. It was painted with a quaint village scene: houses, a steeple, and a water tower, all nestled against the crook of a gently sloping rise, giving way to a field abundant with corn. A blue, cloudless sky stretched above the little town, and a big, round sun beamed down in cheery yellow and orange rays.
But the sign was old…1950s old. And it hadn’t been kept up along the way. The color had faded unevenly, and the paint had peeled and flaked, and there was almost more weathered wood visible beneath the little village scene than there was actual village. The sign was lit from above by a trio of unreliable light bulbs screwed into rusty light fixtures that hooked over the top of the billboard. It was just enough to illuminate the words NOW ENTERING ANOMALY FLATS painted across the sky in looping cursive letters, and the span at the bottom, below the town’s modest skyline, where it read, WELCOME HOME.
Mallory drove on past the sign, and as she did, her dashboard lights flickered strangely. For a moment, the inside of her car matched the fluttering dimness of the billboard. Then she smacked the palm of her hand against the top of the dash, and the lights brightened to a full glow once more.
“I should’ve bought a Toyota,” she mumbled.
The trees continued to thin as she traveled. By the time she left the forest, the sun had set, and the night sky twinkled with stars; millions of stars,
of millions of stars…more stars than Mallory had ever seen before in her life. She craned her neck and gazed up through the windshield in awe at the softly pulsing points of light. There was the Big Dipper. And there, just below, its little twin. She could see the three stars of Orion’s belt marching across the southern end of the sky, and the five points of the regal Cassiopeia sparkling bluish-white against the darkness just above. So many constellations…so many stars she’d never seen, that she’d never known existed…so much beauty…such a swirling, dizzying, glorious universe, quiet and beautiful and wonderful and cold. The stars almost seemed to swirl across the sky, spinning in easy, graceful patterns…turning, twisting, each constellation bowing to the next, asking for a dance, whisking its partner in light, airy steps across the blanket of darkness. The stars were captivating, mesmerizing, beguiling. Hypnotic, even.
“So beautiful…” Mallory whispered. She reached up toward the stars with both hands. Her fingertips brushed against the glass of the windshield…she tried to push past it, push
it, to let her hands dance and sway with the constellations above, to join them in their ethereal ball—
A truck horn blared, and headlights exploded onto the road, flooding the car with violent yellow light. Mallory screamed, and her hands flew back to the steering wheel, jerking it to the right. The tires squealed, the car lurched, and she missed the oncoming pickup by just inches. The truck honked angrily as it passed, and the driver yelled something obscene out the window, but Mallory didn’t hear it. She couldn’t hear
over the sound of her heart hammering, trying to break free of her chest. She stomped her foot on the brake, and the car screeched to a halt in the soft, grassy shoulder of the road.
” she screamed, slamming her hands on the dashboard. Her blood surged through her veins; her lungs couldn’t pump fast enough to cycle the air she heaved in and out. When she lifted her hands again, she saw that they were trembling, and they weren’t alone; her entire body felt like it was set on
“Calm down,” she said, trying to soothe herself back to normalcy. “Calm down. You’re fine. Calm down…”
she fine? Nearly plowing headfirst into a truck because she was looking at the
? Since when did she get emotional over
nature. It was all bug bites and poison ivy and heat stroke and sweat. It was only beautiful when enjoyed from indoors, at a distance, in an air-conditioned room, with no fewer than one drink in hand. She hadn’t looked at so much as a single star since she was a Girl Scout, much less swooned over them—and she’d only done it then because it was absolutely required. Truth be told, stars and the idea of space in general made her feel nauseous. Sometimes, it gave her hiccups.
“So what gives?” she said aloud. But she knew what gave. She was crashing hard after a full day of adrenaline. Her body was freaking out, and her brain was making too much dopamine, or serotonin, or whatever the hell it was that made someone stare up at the stars like a drooling idiot.
She took a few more deep breaths, closed her eyes, and waited until her hands stopped shaking. Then she shook some life into her head, put her hands on the wheel, and pulled the car back onto the road.
The highway (and it still was technically a highway, according to the road sign ahead, though it looked more like a half-tarred horse trail) curved around to the right. Mallory rolled cautiously along, wound around the curve, and crested a small hill as the town of Anomaly Flats melted forth from the darkness ahead. The word that instantly popped into Mallory’s head was “quaint.” She’d never called
quaint before, but there was no denying it: Anomaly Flats had quaintness in its blood.
The highway unfurled through the center of town, lined with old, low, brick buildings that seemed almost alive with warm, watery light. Lantern-style streetlamps shone down on the street as couples walked beneath them, enjoying the cool air. A bakery with a pink-and-white-striped awning had closed up for the night; a small line formed at the Anomaly Bijou ticket booth, the patrons glowing green beneath the marquee’s neon lights. There seemed to be a crowd gathering at the Dive Inn, which was just a smoky little bar, judging by the buzzing neon beer signs in the window. Mom and Pop’s Grocery was locked up tight, but big blue letters and a flashing blue arrow welcomed one and all into the Nite-Owl Diner.
If the American Dream were a town
, Mallory thought.
Just then, the interior lights of the Impala flickered again. “Son of a—come on,” Mallory said, slapping the dashboard. “Come
” But instead of coming on, the lights went out. The panel went dark, the engine cut out, and Mallory’s car rolled to a dead stop.
“No, no, no, no!” She put the car in park. She turned the keys back, then forward again, but the engine only clicked. “Please start…pleeeeease!” she pleaded, turning the keys back and forth. She pumped her foot on the gas pedal in case that might help, and she put her other foot on the brake, because, what the hell? But despite her begging and pleading and turning and pumping, the car refused to start.
Mallory slumped forward and knocked her forehead against the wheel. “This is the weirdest day I’ve ever had,” she declared.
She glanced over at her phone. If ever there was a need, this was it. But she couldn’t take the risk…and besides, who would she call? Everyone she knew was now everyone she’d once known; that was one of the rules. And it wasn’t like she belonged to AAA, because who needed reliable 24-hour roadside service when you had all of the Internet in your cup holder?
“I hate you, phone,” she decided. “You’re useless and dumb, and I hate you.”
Saying it out loud made her feel a little better.
She leaned back in her seat and sighed. “Well,” she said, “time to mix with the locals.” She glanced over her shoulder at the purple Jansport in the back and frowned. “Yeah,” she finally decided, reaching back, “you’re coming with me.” She grabbed the pack, stepped out of the car, locked the doors, and headed across the street to the Nite-Owl Diner.
A little bell above the door clanged softly as she entered, and everything inside the diner stopped. Conversation ceased, forks froze in midair; chairs scooted and squeaked as the diners turned and swiveled to stare at the woman who’d walked through the door.
“Um…hi,” she said, giving a little wave.
A man near the back of the diner cleared his throat. No one else moved. No one else responded.
Everyone just stared.
“Park yourself on down anywhere that looks comfortable,” the woman behind the counter said, breaking the silence like a hammer against a pane of glass. She was old—or old-
—with frizzy gray hair and wrinkles under her eyes. She wore a pink smock with a white pocket at the chest and white trim around the edges of the short sleeves. The white apron tied around her waist showed years of grease stains and soda spills. Her nametag said TRUDY. “What’ll you have?”
“I’m not eating,” Mallory said, leaning forward against the counter. The Formica surface was tacky under her palms with a lifetime of spilled syrup. “Is there an auto shop in this town? I’m having car troubles.”
Trudy smiled. “Can’t trust cars,” she said, shaking her head with a chuckle. “Leaded or unleaded?”
Mallory raised an eyebrow. “My car?”
The older woman grabbed a mug from the shelf behind her and set it down on the counter. “Your coffee.”
Mallory raised her hands defensively, as if the mug might spring to life. “I don’t want coffee, I need a mechanic. A 24-hour one, ideally.” She glanced uneasily around the diner. The other patrons continued to stare. A fly buzzed about the drooping mouth of a man at the far end of the counter and came to a rest on his bottom lip. The man didn’t flinch.
Trudy grabbed a coffee pot with an orange handle from a burner near the stove. “Seems like you’re plumb worked-up as it is, honey. It’s decaf for you.” She poured the steaming coffee into the mug. It fell out in a thick, viscous stream and piled up in heavy layers.
Mallory recoiled from the gloopy mess. “No, please—really…I don’t need any coffee. I just need to know where I can find a mechanic.” She shook her head. “And I’m not worked up,” she added.
Trudy reached across the counter and patted her hand. “It’s kinda late for full-on leaded anyway,” she said kindly. She clasped Mallory’s wrist, the tips of her fingers digging into her skin. “Drink your decaf, sweetie,” she said, the kindness on her tongue tinged with steel.
“But I don’t—”
“Drink it,” Trudy instructed firmly.
“Drink it,” the man with the fly on his lip agreed.
“Drink it,” said an old woman, her mouth filled with a half-chewed piece of waffle.
“Drink it,” intoned a middle-aged man with a syrup-coated chin at a table across the room.
“Drink it,” his elderly parents chanted in unison.
“Drink it,” Trudy said again, taking Mallory’s hand and placing it around the mug. “You should drink it.”
Mallory tried to pull her hand free, but the older woman’s grip was hard as stone. “I’m really not—I don’t—”
Trudy leaned in across the counter so she was close enough for Mallory to smell her perfume. It smelled of gingerbread and honey, and something about it made Mallory feel calmer somehow. “Drink it,” Trudy urged yet again, in a gentle whisper this time. “Okay, honey? Just…drink it.”
Mallory looked down at the coffee in the mug. It sat there in its sloppy, uneven pile. “It…looks old,” she said doubtfully. “And solid.”
“It’s fresh as fresh is,” Trudy whispered. “Drink.”
“Drink,” the man at the other end of the counter whispered.
“Drink,” the woman with the waffle in her mouth whispered.
“Drink,” the man with a syrupy chin whispered.
“Drink,” his parents whispered together.
Mallory nodded. “Okay, okay,” she said, wriggling free of Trudy’s grip, “I’ll taste it, okay? I’ll taste it.” She lifted the mug to her nose and sniffed it carefully. It smelled like burnt tires.
She lifted the mug to her lips, closed her eyes, and took a sip…which was really more like a bite. The thick goop spilled over her teeth and coated her tongue. It seemed to expand in her mouth, taking on a life of its own. But it wasn’t unpleasant. Not really. It tasted a little sweet, and a little smoky, like blueberries roasted over hickory. Mallory relaxed, the tension melting from her shoulders. She smiled as she set the mug on the counter. “It’s…good.”
The other patrons broke their stares and returned to their plates, chewing and slurping and talking in hushed tones.
Trudy smiled. “Now that weren’t so hard, right?” she said. She slid a menu across the counter and patted it twice. “Take a gander; see what looks good.”
Mallory sighed. “Honestly, I’m not hungry,” she said, even though she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and now that Trudy mentioned it again, the smell of waffles and syrup was definitely stirring something in her stomach. She thought about the sheriff’s deputy standing in front of the collapsed bridge, speaking into his radio and watching her drive away. “What I really need is to get my car fixed…I have to get going.”
Trudy shook her head. “There
an auto shop, but it’s closed now. Don’t open ‘til 9 tomorrow. Might as well make yourself at home.” She patted the menu again. “Take a look. I’ll be right back.” She shuffled off down the counter to refill the coffee cup in front of the man at the other end, who had resumed his chewing, even though the fly still clung to his bottom lip.
Mallory sighed and sat down on the stool. She let the backpack slide off her shoulders and tucked it between her feet. She slid the menu over; it showed a blue owl wearing dark sunglasses perched on a tree branch with the name of the diner carved into the wood. She flipped the menu open. The pages inside were blank, except for one line in the center of the right-hand page. It read,
Nite-Owl Waffles with Field Mouse Syrup
. There was no price, no further description, and not a single other item on the page. Mallory frowned. “Excuse me,” she said, holding up the menu. “Is this everything?”
Trudy squinted at the page from the far end of the counter. “Bless me!” she called, laughing. “Sorry ‘bout that, sweetie.” She swayed back over to the stack of menus and plucked a new one from the middle. “I gave you the breakfast menu.” She slapped the new menu down next to the other. This new cover was nearly identical to the first, except the owl was no longer wearing sunglasses; instead, his eyes were wide open and bloodshot, and there was a mouse tail wriggling out from the side of his beak. “This here’s dinner.”
“Appetizing,” Mallory muttered. She flipped the menu open. The inside was perfectly identical to the inside of the breakfast menu, with the same item listed:
Nite-Owl Waffles with Field Mouse Syrup.
She looked quizzically up at Trudy. “Is this a joke?”
“Where’s the rest?”
“The rest of what?” Trudy asked.
“The menu…where’s the rest of the menu? You know—bacon, hash browns? Steak? Club sandwiches with stupid little toothpicks?”
Trudy put her fists on her hips. “You don’t like waffles?” The other patrons put down their forks and turned to stare once more.
“No—I do,” Mallory said. Then she said it again, louder, so everyone else in the diner could hear. “Really, I do!” They turned slowly back to their plates and resumed eating their waffles. “It’s just that…is it all you serve?”
Trudy shrugged. “We tried adding eggs and grits back in ’93. It ended badly.”
“How can eggs end badly?” Mallory asked.
Trudy sighed. “Ask the seventeen folks who died that day.”
Mallory squinted suspiciously across the counter. “Seventeen people died because you served eggs?”
“We don’t talk about it with strangers, Trudy,” snapped the man at the other end of the counter. He glared at Mallory until she was sure his pupils would burst into flame.
Trudy leaned in close. “One of ‘em was Rolly’s brother. He gets real touchy about it. Matter of fact, he’s the one led the charge to kill every chicken in the township the very next day.”
Trudy nodded. “Every single one. Killed ‘em for what their offspring did to our friends and family. To this day, you won’t find a single chicken in Anomaly Flats. If you do, it’s an illegal, and you can bet on the body count going up, up, up until someone finds it and breaks its neck.”
“Wait, how…” Mallory began.
Trudy pushed on. “Mob tried to burn down the diner, too, like
knew what the eggs’d get up to! Hell, I ain’t even sure it weren’t the grits that done those people in. But it was a bloodbath, you know, and people, when things go sour, they want revenge. The mayor stepped in, though, thank the Lord, said wouldn’t no one be burning down the Nite-Owl Diner, home of the best waffles in the quad-counties.” Trudy clasped her hands in front of her throat and beamed up at the general direction of the Lord. “The mayor loves my waffles something fierce.”
An uncomfortable blanket of itchy-wool silence settled on the diner. The patrons stared at Mallory, and Trudy stared at the air, and Mallory stared down at her menu. “So it’s just the waffles, then.”