Herb had switched off the burners and turned toward the dishes he’d left soaking in the sink. There wasn’t much cleanup, due to the lack of traffic these days. The onset of autumn was good for that. It might not make much sense for his business to be pleased by the lack of customers, but he slept better when he knew that the surrounding hills were empty of tourists.

He was setting the last of the pans on the sideboard to dry when the familiar sound of a vehicle rolling across the signal bell pierced his musings. He glanced at the clock and then toward the pump outside. The telltale dusting from dirt roads suggested they had come from where most people this time of year were headed to. That raised some alarms at the back of his mind and he felt the groove between his eyebrows reset itself.

With a sigh, he reached over and turned on the two front burners, then grabbed a container of sauce from the fridge. With any luck, they’d got turned around and just needed directions back the way they should be headed. WiFi was spotty out this way, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to think their GPS was steering them right when the map feature was offset due to lack of consistent connection.

Once he’d put the sauce into a low pan to heat, he wiped his hands and stepped out into the restaurant. The group of kids had meandered in with that bleary sort of shaky legged walk people have when they’ve been sitting too long. These were no day trippers. When he cast his eyes across the group, his blood seemed to freeze in his veins.

2 girls, 2 boys, somewhere between 19 and 24. A bombastic blonde, outfitted in tanktop, leggings and short boots, luscious and toned with a vibrant smile. Her purple tipped nails currently rested on the muscular shoulder of her equally fit male companion, his smiling blue eyes suggesting he was not dismayed by the attention. Another girl, her black hair pulled back into a braid, wearing a summer dress paired with practical boots. She had curious eyes and a warm smile, unlike the curly haired boy standing next to her. He seemed suspicious, or maybe distracted, his eyes darting about the restaurant as though he expected to find someone waiting there. The door slammed against the wall and a fifth joined their party, his eyes red and his startled manner apologetic. He mumbled something about the door opening easier than expected, the scent of cannabis not in the least bit masked by the smell of barbecue coming from the kitchen.

Seeing them felt like a punch in the gut, sending him back to that fateful summer when everything went horribly wrong. Before they could see the anguish in his eyes, he pasted on a smile and walked forward.

“Welcome to the Busmeat cafe, home of the best pulled pork in town. To be fair, it’s the home of the only pulled pork in town, so there’s that.” He turned away with teeth clenched to grab some menus. “Sit anywhere you like. As you can see, things get pretty quiet around these parts once summer ends.”

They filtered into a booth midway down the length of the restaurant. Only the dark haired girl hung back, a question in her eyes. He focused on keeping the smile on his face, hoping that their plans involved getting back in the van and heading back to civilization. He met her eyes. They were dark, expressive, curious.

“Are you alright? We haven’t interrupted you trying close, have we?” He shook his head, looked at the clock. The hands told a story of sunset in less than three hours. Plenty of time to get them fed and on their way home.

“Not at all. I was just doing some tidying in the kitchen when you rolled up. Sauce is on the stove, and there are plenty of ribs, pulled pork, whatever you might be hungry for.”

Tommy gave Kirk a sly smile, the lacquered nails of her hand disappearing below the table. “Maybe I should get a job here. I’m an expert at pulling meat.” Kirk jumped while the rest of the table groaned. Cassandra rolled her eyes.
“Oh my god, Tommy, you’re such a cliche.”

Herb stared at them in horror.


Photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash