It wasn’t that he remembered the sounds. He had never stopped hearing them.
The whip crack of the shots and watermelon wet of their impact. The clattering cacophony of metal and ceramic, tile and Formica. The rising screams of his divas. A lunatic opera, a symphony in the key of red.
She seemed to appear out of nowhere. Jess, her nametag read. She wore the faded gingham of a truck stop waitress, philosophic smile and all. Smelled of jasmine, cinnamon and ammonia. Though she cosseted a steel coffee pot on an oven mitt protected hand, Jess was as out of place in the uni cafeteria as he was. His fingers tightened as she filled his cup, but the noise dulled a little. He didn’t throw it in her face.
He took her all in; hair pulled back tight, west coast sun kissed and pretty, without looking at her. He looked at them. They were seated now, three rows away. Talking, laughing, no one really eating. Colorful and wonderful and full of life. Exchanging thoughts and hearts and spit. Eight at the table. One behind the counter. The stark lights illuminated them into movie stars.
The waitress hadn’t left and that confused him.
Jess tabled the coffee pot and slid into the chair next to him. She punched a small fist into the padding of the quilted mitt.
“I used to play with my two brothers. They always needed a catcher.” Jess tapped a finger to a faint crooked scar near her temple. “Bobby got me a good one the first time. Knocked me flat” she chuckled. Jess raised the glove, shaking her head. “I got better though. Fact is, I got real good at it. I loved it.” She pulled the mitt back, perhaps this time gloving that slider from Bobby. “What do you love doing?”Her smile was more cinnamon than ammonia.
“Don’t start that let’s fucking compare scars bullshit with me.”
A girl with glasses at the other table glanced over at him, a black pit where one eye should be.
“Do you know what happened here?” he spat.
“In eighty five? Sure. Everyone knows what happened here. Michael Vandover shot and killed eight students and one of the staff. Injured plenty more. Then he put the gun in his own mouth and blew his brains out.”
His nod was almost imperceptible. “What a coward.”
“Everyone knows the rest too. How he was mistreated, bullied. Abused. What his father did to him.”
The boy sat in silence, struggling to break the glue on his lips. “Guitar” he finally managed. “Playing guitar was what he lov-what he liked doing best” he muttered.
The others had moved one table closer, their friendly banter now a foreboding wind of whisper.
“None of the dead did a thing to him. Not one of them. Fucking coward.”
“It’s never too late to be brave.”
“Brave? There is no brave, lady. Everyone hides behind someone or something. A crew, a cause, a gun, a fucking cross! What do you know about brave?”
“My boyfriend was beating me. I stood up to him.” Jess unbuttoned her dress, exposing her breasts. No camera phones clicked. No one whistled. Not a murmur. The straight crimson kiss of a knife ran down the inside of one breast. The cut was deep, angry. There were others, continuing down her stomach and out of sight. He wondered if they ever ended; such was the hate in those wounds.
He swallowed it down with his own.
“Did it hurt?” he asked quietly as she rebuttoned.
“Only for a little while honey.”
He spun away quickly, angry for caring. “I told you I didn’t want to see any scars, bitch. So your courage got you stabbed? Great fucking job.”
“It got me free” smiled Jess, more jasmine than ammonia.
He looked up. The others were now at the next table. Their dead stares turned his gut to ice.
“Can’t you see them?”
“FUCKING THEMMMM!” he screamed. The girl with one eye raised her index finger at him with a sneer.
Jess scanned the neat and empty chairs and tables, chiaroscuro stark in pre dawn light.
He watched her face hopefully, but they were his phantoms alone.
“It was thirty years ago honey. “
He heard the whip crack bullets and watermelon wet. The lunatic opera. Saw the girl with glasses beg him not to shoot. Tasted the oil blue heat of the barrel.
“Not if you were there.”
The one eyed girl crawled under the table towards him.
“You need to get out of this place” whispered Jess.
He laughed, though his eyes were as dull and black as a shark. “There’s nowhere I can go.” His head dropped into his hands. The back of his head was a crater; a white chocolate, grey marshmallow Easter egg bitten by God. She stroked his hair nevertheless. He felt her touch, even where the nothing was, all jasmine and cinnamon.
“There’s no place I belong” he sobbed.
“There’s one place. All you have to do is get up out of that chair Mike.”
He looked down at his lap. The one eyed girl’s arms held him tight.
“Is there a heaven? A h-hell?
“No honey. There’s just after.”
The first thin strings of sunrise crept across the cafeteria.
“W-what do you do there?”
“Whatever you love.”
She rested her fingers on the back of his hand. Her thumb slipped under his wrist and her grip tightened, more ammonia than jasmine. He realized Jess could take him, just like that, if she really wanted to. But her eyes beseeched him to do it.
He knew what the brave thing was.
But he couldn’t forgive himself. Not yet. Maybe never.
The one eyed girl reached up. One by one she peeled back Jess’s fingers. The sunlight reached their table, dissolving all but Jess to the recurring dust of memories past.
She sighed, smoothing the stitches on the oven mitt. Remembering how hard it could be to truly set yourself free.
(written for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge-Genre: ghost story, location: university cafeteria, item: oven mitt-1000 words/48 hours.)