Harborside - Interlude (Bridgman, Michigan)

A faint breeze fluttered through the open window of the diner and carried the fresh scents of Lake Michigan in, momentarily scattering the scents of coffee and grease that permeated the air. The diner was small and dingy, coldly lit by a row of tubes, the white tiles yellowed around the edges with age and grease. Only two other patrons were inside when the man with the moustache and the cowboy hat came in. A girl with about two pounds of piercings and tattoos from neck to cleavage was feverishly tapping away on an old laptop, a half-full ashtray and a stack of self-printed flyers by her side. Monika was at the counter, digging into a slop of mushrooms and cheese squeezed between two sandwiches, the result of ordering a mushroom burger without the patty. The man with the moustache seemed to consider them both, then walked over to the stool beside Monika and sat down.

The waitress, an ashen blonde just past her prime, came over and asked the man: "Getcha anything?"

"Hey Paula. Black coffee and a red burger if you please," the man with the moustache said with a smile.

The waitress nodded, looked at Monika and said: "'Nother cuppa, mista?"

The man with the moustache did a double take while Monika chewed, for the question had come at a most inopportune time. He scraped his throat and said: "Beg pardon, Paula, but I think you're misgendering my neighbor here."

Monika looked at the man with the moustache, looked back to the waitress, nodded, pointed at her neighbor, and finally managed to swallow her bite. "Yeah. No biggie though," she added, seeing the waitress go red in the face. "Happens all the time."

"Oh, still, real sorry miss," she said. "Coffee's on the house."

"Appreciated," Monika nodded, and stuffed the remainder of her mushroom sandwich into her mouth.

As the waitress walked off to get a fresh pot of brew, the man with the moustache looked appreciatively at Monika. She didn't notice at first, until she looked sideways and caught his eye. She stopped chewing for a moment, then looked straight ahead and resumed. She swallowed hard, washed it down with a tepid remnant of coffee.

Finally she turned back to him. "Could you... stop staring?"

The man with the moustache looked taken aback. "Of course," he said. "My apologies. I, erm... I appreciate strong women, like yourself. You look like you can handle yourself."

"I can," she said, nodding to the waitress as she poured a fresh cup. She pointedly held her tongue, waiting.

It took only a few moments silence for the man with the moustache to insist on smalltalk. "So where you headed?"

"Who says I'm headed anywhere?"

The man chuckled. "Only two sorts come here," he said. "People who come here everyday, and people who only come here once in their lives. I'm the former, and never seen you before, so you gotta be the latter."

Monika nodded. "Checks out." She wiped some grease from her mouth with a paper napkin, balled it up, left it on her plate. "Came from the middle of nowhere, Nebraska, headed to middle of nowhere, Vermont. Hunting trip."

"Long way for some hunting," the man with the moustache said.

"Yep." Monika sipped her coffee and found it decent. She didn't elaborate any further, merely let the silence linger.

The man with the moustache didn't seem quite ready to give up. "Name's Jack. Jack Branson. Born Chicago, moved here couple of years ago." He waited for her to answer. When she didn't, he added: "Can I ask your name?"

"Monika." Her answer was flat, without room for elaboration.

Jack raised his eyebrow slightly. "Huh. Really?"

Monika whipped around and glared at him. "Yes really, think I don't know my own fucking name?"

"Whoa, sorry!" He threw up his hands, a mix of shock and amusement on his face. "Just... unexpected, is all!"

"The fuck you expected? Aadya or Prisha or Fatima?"

Jack looked increasingly uncomfortable. "Well... Tell you the truth, yes, I did," he said. He lowered his hands a little. "You... not Indian, then?"

"None of your fucking business," she said, standing up. She slammed a couple of bills on the counter. The waitress made a little jump, but was clearly too frightened to admonish her or question the amount put down.

"I didn't mean to insult!" Jack protested.

"Great," Monika growled. "Least it was accidental. Woulda felt really bad if you were an asshole on purpose!"

"Tell him, girl," a voice came from behind her. She whipped around to see the punk girl with the ancient laptop give her a firm, appreciative nod.

For a moment, it felt like the tiny diner was holding its breath. Even the sounds of traffic outside seemed momentarily muted. Then Monika rolled her eyes, pushed her stool in with a loud screech of wood on tile, and marched to the door. Before anyone else could say another word, she was out the door and heading to her truck.

She turned the ignition and with a heavy, heaving sound, the engine stuttered to life. She rolled the window down, spat, and muttered as she rolled out of the tiny lot: "Guess I got a face to picture when I light that fucking wendigo on fire."

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