Birdsong and blue sky framed the horizon, and a pale grey path of asphalt drifted past a gravel bedded single pump gas station with a restaurant attached. Busmeat cafe was a strange name, everyone agreed on that, just like they agreed the proprietor made the best pulled pork this and potentially every other side of the nearby mountains.

There was a consensus among many of the locals that Alexandra was a real good looking lady, though she didn’t seem to shine brighter for anyone in particular so they let it be. If anyone looked carefully, they might glimpse shadows haunting her darkly intense, intelligent brown eyes but Alex was well versed in the art of masking what she was thinking. And many people don’t see what they’re looking at if it doesn’t fit a narrative they’ve decided to adhere to. Most just saw a friendly waitress/cook at a small cafe in the middle of nowhere in particular.

Even the locals found themselves accustomed to her presence among them without much fuss or consideration of her origin. It might have seemed strange that no one could recall exactly when she had arrived, but the folks who’d lived around these parts for a time were well versed in the notion that it was better to mind one’s business and leave things be if they weren’t causing any harm.

However, there are always those inclined to speculate. Among them, the story was that she had some sort of connection to Herb, the previous owner, who’d been called away to settle some family issues. Right around the time the murmuring was about to transition to muttering en route to gossip, a very timely letter came in the mail, addressed to Doris at the post office.
Sent direct from Herb, it said only that Alex would be staying on for as long as she liked. Since Doris was the only one to see the envelope the letter came in, no one else made note of the lack of return address. With the assurance of a connection to Herb, and Doris’ assertion that Alexandra could be trusted, it wasn’t long before everyone had made sure to stop in and welcome her properly.

And so life moved along within the little town just down the road from the Busmeat Cafe, which sat at an intersection of a nondescript highway which either went toward the mountains or away from them. There was nothing in particular to draw the eye or indicate just how many people lived in the area. There was a sense of timelessness or maybe of placelessness, as though it had been missed when maps of the area were created, as though it was more of a remnant of an idea than an actual town.

Anyone who did stop would find themselves welcomed with a cheerful smile, the scent of luscious barbecue, and a polite, if determined, query as to their eventual destination. Most people were passing through, on their way from somewhere bland to somewhere grand. Searching for something they could attach to their memories to as a reminder that life wasn’t just eat, sleep, work, die.
If Alex thought it funny how much time people spent leaving where they’d been in the hope that the next place would be better, only to find themselves there, she never said a word about it. She always had a ready smile and friendly suggestions of places to visit which were further afield. Much further.

For those who had followed whispers, ghoulishly drawn to the scent of tragedy, seeking something beyond the usual carnival of roadside attractions and monuments, Alex had a slightly different smile. Anyone who knew her might say it had a crispness to it, a certain frosty bite. Plates in hand, she would slide their dinner onto the table along with a suggestion that perhaps they’d prefer to stay the night at a local motel, before making their way elsewhere in the morning.
“It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s cozy and has its charms. And Jeff is a real good sort, as is his wife Georgia. They’d be happy to accommodate you.”
It might have been something in her tone, or perhaps there was a secret ingredient in that sauce which filled people up and made them more amenable to her suggestion that there were better places to be, away from the dark places within the surrounding hills, regardless of what they’d heard.
Now and then she knew that they had smiled and lied to her face, insisting they weren’t following a trail of internet crumbs to line up the murmurs of fantasy and the faded screams of reality. Her lips compressed into a thin line by that point, Alex always said the same thing.

“Everyone thinks they’re the main character in the story. But by the time you realize you’re wearing a red shirt, it’s too late to change.”
Two of the three women sitting at the table looked down at themselves with a confused expression. A sweet faced blonde was the first to speak.
“Um, none of us are wearing red. I don’t…” She was interrupted by the third, a brunette with glasses who fully grasped both the Star Trek reference to expendable crew members and the meaning behind Alex’s words.

“What did you say the name of that hotel was?” Her response to the sounds of dismay coming from her friends was a hand raised. “Look, we agreed when we started this trip that if any of the places gave us the heebie-jeebies in a bad way, we would skip it and head to the next one. No questions asked.” Her eyes never left Alexandra, who met her gaze unwaveringly. What she saw there must have satisfied her because she continued, finally turning to her friends. “Besides, lots of people talk about visiting that camp in the mountains but how many stories have we heard about people who actually went and came back?” The other two women groaned but acquiesced, Alex was relieved to see. “It’s okay, we still have lots of places to choose from which don’t have such a dark history and are just as interesting. Is the hotel near here?”
“I think motel would be a better descriptor, but it’s really easy to find.” She gave the women directions, assuring them that their little off the beaten path town had it’s charms and the locals were very friendly. On their way toward the door, one of them made a last ditch attempt to change their plans.
“I mean, all the bad stuff happened so long ago. It’s probably safe up there now.” The brunette who had asked for the name of the motel shook her head.
“I’d feel better if we skipped it, regardless. Besides, no one really knows how it ended.” The door slammed behind them, their voices fading as they headed to a car just to the right of the entrance. Alex was left standing alone in the empty cafe. She sighed, momentarily feeling the weight of what she’d been through, and what she’d subsequently taken on.

“If it had ended, we would not be here.”

With a sigh, she stepped through the saloon style doors into the kitchen and picked up the phone.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash