On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The roadside cafe was like any of a thousand others, but its two compelling advantages were hard to argue with: Warren Toller was already standing in the car park of the place, and he was too tired and hungry to go anywhere else.
It was late afternoon, just shifting towards evening. If he was being absolutely honest, Warren couldn’t really remember most of his journey today, which was a sure sign he needed a break. He’d seen too many warnings about the consequences of falling asleep behind the wheel, and it was probably a minor miracle that he’d made it here safely.
As if to punctuate the thought, he heard emergency sirens approaching from the distance on the big highway that slashed through the scenery just fifty metres away. After a few moments he saw the blue lights, and then the vehicles themselves. They were in the opposite lane, and they blasted past in a blare of noise and then quickly went out of sight.
Maybe some poor bastard really did nod off and wrap himself around a tree, Warren thought. It was an uncharitable assumption, but he’d find time to care about that once he’d eaten and then had an hour’s sleep in his car.
He went in, the small bell above the door jingling as he entered, and then stopped in the entranceway. It smelled like any other such place; fried food and burnt coffee, but his stomach thought it was pretty much ideal. Red plastic and leatherette were everywhere, much of it faded to a deep pink by the sun and abuse. Beside the cash register there was a rack with travel-sized board games and other baubles designed to entice children and extract a few additional expenditures from weary parents.
“Table for one?”
The female voice drew his attention, and he turned to face the middle-aged waitress with a smile. “Thanks,” he said, and she nodded. Warren could see from her name tag that she was called Jean, just like his mother, and he considered remarking on it for just a split second before he realised how inane it would sound.
Jean led him to a booth about halfway along the front of the place, away from the handful of other patrons, and with a view right out to the car park and beyond. It wasn’t so bad.
It was the kind of place where the menus were tucked into holders on the tables, and the pages had pictures as well as words. Warren thought that was just fine, because he was too damned tired to conjure up the dishes in his imagination anyway.
That’s probably the reason for it, actually, he thought, pleased with himself for the insight. Jean asked if he’d like some coffee while he decided what to eat, and Warren nodded, so off she went to fetch a pot.
He patted his trouser pocket to make sure he had his wallet, and he did, just like every single one of the countless times in his life when he’d checked before. It was a nervous habit, so ingrained as to be unconscious. Warren opened the menu and flipped through a few pages, not really paying attention until his gaze scanned over a particular title.
Mexican pasta bolognese, it said. The accompanying text indicated that the pasta was fusilli, and the bolognese sauce was made with taco spices as well as the more traditional ingredients, but Warren already knew because the dish was immediately familiar to him. It was one of his mother’s so-called secret recipes, apparently originally invented to use up various leftovers (and to account for her dislike of the difficulty of eating spaghetti).
“Huh,” he said aloud. It had been his favourite dish as a boy, and it had taken years to realise that it wasn’t a standard dinner option in most people’s homes. His mother had served it at least once a week, sometimes with parmesan on top, sometimes with garlic bread on the side, and very occasionally in a vegetarian form instead of with minced beef. He had honestly though it was her own invention, but here it was.
She must have seen it somewhere and copied the recipe, he thought, bemused at the conclusion. He looked out of the large window, seeing that the sun was lower in the sky. Shadows were deepening, and the few cars besides his own had started to look a little lonely.
He focused on the most distinct one first, because of its age. A K-plate maroon-coloured Fiat Tipo, just like his first car. Even the same year. He squinted at the full license plate, and an unpleasant feeling of unreality spread through him. Surely he was misremembering.
But no. No-one forgets their first car, not even the license plate. And there it was, sitting outside.
He gripped the formica table surface and took a ragged breath when he realised he hadn’t inhaled for a good twenty seconds. His first car, here, all these years later. What were the odds?
He looked over towards his current vehicle, suddenly needing to make sure it was still there, and it was just where he’d left it. The Volvo gleamed blue, its shade deepening with the fading light. Modern and packed with conveniences. And then he looked back to the Tipo, which leaked through its sunroof when it rained, had no power steering, and handled like a Soviet tank powered by a lawnmower motor. How he had loved it.
Closer to the window, in a space just beside the wider accessible space for wheelchair users, there was a black 60-plate Focus. Right year, and even the right half-year. Right colour, make, and model. Warren read the full plate.
I sold that two years ago to buy the Volvo, he thought.
Jean the waitress arrived with his cup of coffee, but Warren didn’t acknowledge her. He was still looking around the car park, forearms prickling with gooseflesh, and he ticked off the entire inventory.
Silver Peugeot 206, at the start of university. Red VW Passat, for his first job. The ugly-shaped model year of Mondeo, in that weird brown shade, when he met his wife. The TT in bright yellow, bought from a friend, definitely as a midlife crisis after the divorce. He’d got rid of it after six months, and often wondered where it had ended up.
It had ended up here.
Warren had personally owned every one of the vehicles out there, and he found that he was no longer hungry or tired. He looked up at Jean, who was waiting patiently to take his order.
He didn’t speak, and the silence drew the attention of the handful of others in the place. Warren’s uncle had been dead for twelve years, and was reading a road atlas at the table nearest the cash register. His favourite schoolteacher had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and had to retire early, but you wouldn’t know it from how elegantly she was poised on a red-topped stool at the main counter, the long spoon for her ice cream sundae held perfectly still in her hand.
A friend from university who dropped out after two years, lost to alcohol abuse and resultant multiple organ failure, had chosen what looked like a cheeseburger with cajun fries. Warren’s beloved cousin, asthmatic and allergic to many things, had suffocated when her windpipe closed in a restaurant whose mixed salad was not, in fact, nut-free. She smiled at him when she came out of the women’s toilet.
He looked back out of the window, strangely calm now, and all the cars of his life were lined up in a procession towards the Volvo, whose myriad safety features had clearly been no match for physics.
Its entire front end was crushed and crumpled well into the rear seats of the cabin. It sat there as if it had been placed gently down by a recovery truck, one wheel and its tyre missing completely. The burst white balloon of an airbag was just visible over the broken arc of the steering wheel, splashed with something that looked almost black in the twilight. A hand fell gently upon Warren’s shoulder, and he looked up.
The eyes of Jean, who was his mother, shone with affection and compassion.
“Wednesday night, son,” she said. “Want me to make your favourite?”
She pointed to the photo of the bolognese, which Warren could see had been taken on their dining table in his childhood home. She had probably taken it herself.
“I’d like that,” he said.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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