Chapter Two: Let Them Eat Cake
There are really only two kinds of people in the world; people who like waffles, and people who are wrong.
I stand by that mantra, and I’d like to go one step further, too. The only thing prettier than a waffle is three of them in a stack, also known as a Carlie in the language of the Hawthorn Diner. That’s my place, or rather where I work. You’ve seen a place like the Hawthorn before, with the comfortably squished pleather booths and the counter where old men gather to drink coffee and tell lies. In my town, Halfway, we just call it The Diner, and that’s good enough for us because we are the only diner. My name is used for the short stack of waffles as a nod to me being the shortest member of the diner staff. Until we hire someone under five feet, the waitresses will keep barking out orders for the Carlie unless I forget how to make waffles. So, never.
I was born in Halfway, and this is where I belong. My folks retired three years ago and moved to New Mexico, where they produce art and sunburns with equal frequency. I love them, they love being retired, and we chat online once a week where they tell me about the exotic nature of the desert around them.
My Gran lives just up the street; her lineage as a witch is longer than I care to think about, as is her power. It’s vast, and pure, and tinted with mercy. She is what I aspire to be, and I’m proud to follow in her footsteps as a protector of the lands that surround Halfway. Gran and I are more than wardens, and less than saints. The tourists who pass through Halfway don’t know of our skills at keeping their lives free of things that are either hungry, or evil, or both. It’s a complicated world, and the veil between our reality and the Everafter is too thin by far. That’s why I work to perfect a family magic that has been honed over centuries. It’s also why my name is known to locals as someone who can help when there are problems outside the normal scope of our human experience. Gran used to take care of spell requests, but frankly, her magic is too strong to be used on minor issues of grief, lost love, or restoring hope.
But back to the waffles. Since I’m only five feet tall, seeing out of the window into the diner is a bit of a challenge. That’s why I wear Doc Martens at all times, unless I’m being chased by a bear in which case I will suddenly perfect the ability to fly or at the very least run barefoot while screaming. The Docs give me enough height to keep from singeing my nose on the griddle, and I’ll thank you not to make any short jokes while you’re visiting my place of work. I have several spells which aren’t permanent, but might cause you to have a bad day.
You’ve been warned. Kinda.
I keep my black hair back in a ponytail, and my gray eyes are always looking at one of two things: the grill, or the customers. I was plating an excellent omelet when my friend Brendan Kilmeade came in and took up his usual station at the counter. It was 10:18 in the morning, a fact I would later recall only because of what Brendan would say to me while I went out to greet him and pour his coffee. Glynna, the waitress handling all counter traffic, moved to the side while I went to speak to our town librarian and all-around good guy. Brendan is fully aware of
the Everafter, my witchcraft, and everything that those facts entail. So when he looked at me with a half-quizzical smile, I knew something was up.
He’s a librarian, and being inscrutable is part of his job description, so I just waved at him and said, “Spill it.”
He took a leisurely sip of his coffee and made a show of enjoying it. I smiled sweetly, then pointed my charms at him and raised one brow. The message—talk or I’ll do something horrible and witchy to you—was received.
“Interesting gentleman in the library this morning. Thought you might want to know.” His green eyes twinkled with the joy of holding out on me, then he caved and added, “He walked in, looked gobsmacked, and walked out. All in about ten seconds.”
“Why is this news? You still trying out that new body spray?” I sniffed him and shot him a questioning look. He’d gone through an awkward patch last year that involved skinny jeans and body spray. The results hadn’t been pretty, and I wasn’t going to let him forget it. Brendan was more of a smart-but-hot librarian type, not a hipster.
“No,” He said, defensively. “I’m free of scent, if you must know.” After his own chilly look, he continued. “I think he was confused by the technology.”
“Why? Was he an old man trying to use the internet for the first time? You have to admit, that kind of thing isn’t unheard of unless you’re referring to the door, in which case he’s a few thousand years old,” I laughed.
And then I stopped laughing, because Brendan pointed a finger at me and said, “Now you’re on the right track.”
I felt a chill despite the warmth of the diner. Old things tended to be bad things. “How do you know he was. . . .what did he look like?” I amended my question out of curiosity about the man’s appearance. Usually that was a good place to start with all things unknown, including people who don’t understand computers.
“He was dressed for the turn of the century. The early twentieth century, to be exact, or somewhere around there if I’m any judge of his clothing.” He thought for a moment as the noise of the diner crowded in on me. I was getting twitchy at not knowing what Brendan was about to say. “Baggy pants with a high waist. Suspenders and a heavy shirt. He wore boots that looked like he was used to hard work. His sleeves were rolled up and there were some kind of marks on his arms. He knows his way around tools, I think. He’s taller than me, maybe six foot two or so, but ropy and muscular. I’d put his age just past thirty.” He looked thoughtful, then asked me, “Do you believe in time travel?”
I snorted, causing some of the customers to give me a look. “Don’t be ridiculous. Who would ever believe something that crazy?”
Brendan put his chin in one hand and gave me a patronizing smile. He dropped his voice and said, “Right. Who would believe in something crazy like time travel? I mean, it’s not like a werewolf or a vampire or something.”
“Will you shut up?” I hissed. Even in the clatter of the diner, that was a bit too much information to let drift into the conversation. “And yes, I get it.” My charms jingled against my wrist as I poured a small amount of coffee into his mug while I thought. He was right, I of all people shouldn’t dismiss things out of hand. My entire life was beyond crazy, and I was just getting warmed up. I’m not even twenty-two yet, who knows what waits for me on the other side of adulthood?
“I’m not saying that’s what he is, Carlie, but he was confused by everything in the library except one thing. Where it was located.” Brendan’s finger tapped the counter as he related the detail. “We’ve been here for more than a century. I’m just saying you might want to talk to the guy.” He raised his hands in supplication and looked off across the lake toward other park. Halfway is more or less one enormous park with a town in the middle, but there are two distinct places where anyone can access the lake. Brendan indicated what we call Golden Beach, then blew on his coffee to cool it. “He wandered off over there. He’s a bit stunned, I think. Want me to keep an eye on him until your shift is over?”
I peered into the brilliant winter sun. “Sitting outside? Go ask him if he wants breakfast on me, and see if he’ll come to the diner. Do you mind? Is there any chance the guy isn’t human? I don’t want you exposed to danger because I had to finish a shift.”
“I don’t get that vibe. There’s something, I don’t know, steady about the guy. He seems lost, not dangerous,” Brendan summed up.
“Good.” I looked back to the grill, where tickets waited for me like flapping laundry. “I’ve gotta cook. I’ll watch for you, and if he won’t come inside from the cold, at least keep an eye on him so we can find him later.”
Brendan winked awkwardly and said, “Gotcha boss.” And with that, we made the decision to invite an unknown person across our threshold, if only to leave the Adirondack winter behind.