This story turned out to be much, much longer than 500 words, so I’ve cut it off around 500. Click the link at the bottom to expand the post and read the rest.
“Where are we going?” Rob asked. He leaned forward in the driver’s seat as though the dark were a tunnel he could see his way out of.
“E-ka, it’s this hibachi restaurant. It’s up here on the right. You see the Wendy’s? It’s that street right after.”
Hailey massaged the left side of her neck that had been aching since she woke up that morning. She had lain in the hotel room and listened to Rob brushing his teeth in the tiny bathroom, imagined him looking through the mirror and straight at her. She couldn’t for the life of her, however, imagine what he would be thinking.
“God damnit, what do these people have against street signs anyway?”
“Joan and Frank didn’t build the roads here. No need to take it out on them.”
“I’m not taking it out on them,” was his defense.
Hailey nodded, more to test the effect of her massaging than in agreement.
They pulled into the little strip mall that housed E-ka, the restaurant where Joan suggested they meet up for dinner while Hailey and Rob were in town. The strip had a Big Lots and a car rental service. Aside from the Big Lots, all of the storefronts were dark, several of them vacant with blue and white FOR LEASE signs in the window prompting you to call Josh Sheffield. Rob pulled into a parking spot; he jerked the emergency brake up before the car was stopped all the way. Hailey opened her door, stepped out, and leaned back in to speak to her boyfriend.
“I’m here,” he said.
Joan and Frank sat on a tiny bench at the entrance of the restaurant. When they saw the other couple, they stood and Joan fidgeted the way Hailey remembered her doing. They exchanged brief, self-conscious hugs.
“It’s going to be just a few minutes,” Joan said. “I think they’re just clearing off a table for us. We’ll be with other people. I hope that’s okay.”
Rob nodded, looking away, and Hailey spoke up. “That sounds great! It smells fantastic in here.”
Joan’s smile had a hint of self-imposed guilt. “We can’t get enough,” she said. “Frank and I come here for our anniversaries, for birthdays. We even have our favorite chef and they treat us so well.”
“So well you can’t even get your own table,” Rob mumbled. Hailey wondered if anyone besides her heard him. Joan turned to Frank and kissed him on the cheek, so Hailey figured she hadn’t. She turned to Rob and gave him a dagger look.
“That your Camaro out front?” Rob said to Frank.
Joan shook her head and looked at Frank.
“No, we’re the proud owners of that Nissan Quest out there. Baby blue,” he added, pulling Joan to him with the arm draped on her shoulder. He kissed her on the forehead and she recoiled in mock embarrassment.
“Ah,” Rob said, nodding.
“You like that?” A man standing nearby spoke to Rob. “I’ve had her since I was sixteen years old.”
“That’s pretty impressive,” Rob said. He turned to the man, who introduced himself as Jimmy, and began asking about the car’s specs.
“So, how’s the baby doing? Shoot, she’s gotta be not a baby at this point, huh?” Hailey said, a little too loud.
Joan and Frank exchanged glances then looked back at Hailey with the expression of a doctor about to break the terrible news.
“We don’t have any kids,” Joan said in a quiet voice.
Hailey inhaled a sharp breath.
“Joan’s sister has a daughter. Were you thinking of her?” Frank offered.
Hailey bit. “Yeah, yeah, that must be it.”
“Yeah, it’s great having a niece and Margaret’s a great mom. And I mean, we’ve been trying and all,” Joan added quickly, as though to console Hailey’s disappointment at their not having any kids. “It’s just, you know, God taking his sweet time.”
“Good thing we love each other so much,” Frank added, giving Joan another squeeze. “I don’t need an excuse to make love to my wife.”
“Frank!” Joan slapped Frank on the chest, and burrowed her face into his arm. When she pulled her head out from hiding she looked at Hailey. “I apologize for Frank. He can be just like his name sometimes.”
Hailey continued to smile, embarrassed at her slip up. Joan and Frank just seemed like the kind of people that always had a kid on the way. Joan laughed at her own joke, and Hailey joined in, hoping for a long laugh to segue them out of her faux pas.
“Oh, our table’s ready,” Joan said, leading them down the aisle between the hybrid grill tables full of families and hodge podges of couples making dramatic sounds at the bursts of flame and smoke.
A young girl held her arm out Vanna-style at an empty table. The vents were open above the grill and the air was cold. Frank pulled Joan’s chair out and gave her arms a quick rub before taking his seat. Hailey sat and placed her napkin on her lap before she noticed that Rob hadn’t followed them. She turned to the door where he still stood, talking to the owner of the Camaro. She waved, which he didn’t see, then turned back to the table.
“He’ll figure it out,” she said, looking down at her menu.
“Do you eat meat?” Joan asked.
“Yes, I do. I went veg for a while in college, but I’ve since gone back. My parents never made it easy when I was home.”
“Well, the Manager’s Delight is awesome,” Frank said.
“It’s a lot of food,” Joan said. “But Frank usually brings it for lunch the next day.”
“We don’t have a fridge at the hotel,” Hailey said. She looked up when she felt Rob’s hand on her back.
“This is Jimmy and his wife Donna,” Rob said, gesturing at the couple he’d been chatting with. “They’re sitting with us.”
The three of them took their seats, still chuckling at something.
“Glad you could join us,” Hailey whispered to Rob without looking at him.
He squeezed her leg and smiled at her. “Jimmy won’t let up on the price of his sweet car out there.”
“It’s not for sale!” Jimmy said with mock incredulity.
“So what’s good here?” Rob said, rubbing his hands together and looking down at his menu.
“Frank swears by the Manager’s Delight,” Hailey said.
Frank read from his menu, “Scallops, shrimp, filet, and chicken. Jesus Christ, that’s a lot of food! I see why you chose this place when Hail offered to take you guys out.”
His voice was jovial, but Joan blushed. Frank swallowed several times, smiling only when he noticed Hailey looking at him.
“He’s just joking around,” Hailey said to Joan in a low voice.
“How’s your mom doing these days?” Joan asked Hailey.
“She’s doing well,” Hailey said. “We’re going to see her tomorrow before our flight leaves.”
“If we have time,” Rob interjected. She hadn’t realized he’d even been listening.
“We’ll have time,” Hailey said, but Rob had turned back to Jimmy.
“I was telling Frank about that sleepover we had at your house, when we all climbed into the washing machine and the dryer and took pictures,” Joan said.
“My mom was so mad!” Hailey said. “I kept up my innocence until she found the pictures.”
The young woman who had shown them their table approached with a tray of cups of water and a notebook.
“Can I get you something to drink? Are you ready to order?” she said as she distributed the cups.
“Yes, I think so,” Rob said. “Everyone up for a round of sake bombs?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Joan said.
“It’s on me, of course!” Rob said.
“They don’t have to if they don’t want to,” Hailey said. “I don’t know if you should drink one either since you have to drive back to Atlanta.”
“Jimmy? Donna?” Rob turned to the waitress. “We’ll take a round of sake bombs.”
The girl nodded and scribbled into her notepad. “Are you ready to order your food?”
“I’ll have the steak,” Frank said. He shut his menu with a loud clapping sound and held it up to her. She took it from him and shifted her gaze to Joan.
“I’ll have the same,” she said.
“No Manager’s Delight?” Hailey asked Frank.
“I’m not too hungry,” he said.
“Well, you made it sound so good,” she said, and turned to the girl. “I’ll take the Manager’s Delight.”
Frank took a sip from his water.
“Whoa, honey,” Rob said. “I’ll just have the shrimp meal. And that round of sake bombs.”
Jimmy and Donna ordered steak and shrimp respectively, making sure to remind the girl that the sake bombs were on the nice gentleman’s tab to their left.
“So what do you do, Frank?” Rob said.
“I’m a group leader at the PetTrust warehouses in Columbus,” he said.
Rob nodded, and Hailey feared what he would say next. “Sounds like a bank for animals.”
Joan snorted, caught off guard by her laugh. “That’s what I always say!”
Hailey put her hand on Rob’s leg. “Do you like it there?” she asked.
“I do,” Frank said, opening up. “I’ve been there three years, and they treat me so well. I don’t have to work every other Friday in the summer, and there’s a lot of room for growth.”
“So you’ll be CEO someday,” Rob said and laughed.
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Frank responded. “But I do like it there. How do you like being a lawyer?”
“It’s, uh, good,” Rob said. “You know, I was never very creative when I was younger, so I knew I’d have to just work for a paycheck and make myself happy some other way.”
He turned to Hailey, signalling he meant she was how he made himself happy. Joan made an aww sound and snuggled against Frank. The young woman returned with a pot of sake and two large cans of Sapporro with glasses and chopsticks for each of them.
“Here we go!” Rob stood and reached for one of the cans of beer. He lifted the can, catching the girl off guard. The tray tipped and the hot pot of sake spilled onto Hailey’s shoulder.
“Shit!” she screamed. “Fuck, that’s hot! Rob!”
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he said, standing back. “I was just trying to help her.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said over and over again. She gathered the pot from the floor and rushed to the kitchen.
Rob grabbed a napkin from his place setting, letting the silverware fall to the floor. He dabbed at Hailey’s shoulder even as she stood and walked away toward the bathrooms. He sat back down, looking stunned.
“I’m going to check on her,” Joan said and went after Hailey.
Hailey stood in front of the mirror with her shirt pulled off her shoulder. The skin was red, but the pain had subsided and she felt embarrassed at the harshness of her initial reaction. The expression on the girl’s face returned to her, and the embarrassment doubled back.
“How you doing?” Joan poked her head into the doorway before coming all the way inside. “Is it badly burned?”
“I’m fine,” Hailey said. “It just scared me.”
“Yeah,” Joan said, looking at her friend in the mirror. “You doing alright otherwise?”
Hailey lifted her eyebrows and sighed. “I guess? I’m sorry, Rob’s in rare form tonight. I think it’s stressing him out having to work and trying to visit with people while we’re here. I hope he hasn’t offended you.”
“Oh, not at all. I just didn’t want you guys to feel obligated to pay for us or even to stay that long. I should’ve asked what your schedule was like. We could’ve come into the city.”
Hailey pulled her sleeve back over her shoulder. “That’s very sweet of you to offer. It’s fine. I’m just embarrassed I screamed all those cuss words. I hope Pastor John wasn’t sitting out there.”
“Oh my, I haven’t seen him in ages!” Joan said. “You know, Frank and I don’t go to Cobblestone Christian anymore.”
“Oh, please, Joan, I haven’t been to church since I lived with my mom.”
When the women returned to the table, a man with a big white chef’s hat was shooting soy sauce into a pile of onion slices.
“Everything okay? How’s that shoulder?” Frank asked as the brown liquid bubbled up out of the white tower.
Rob pinched the corner of Hailey’s shirt and examined the skin underneath. “Doesn’t look too bad at all,” he assessed.
Hailey pulled her shirt back over her shoulder and shrugged. “Sorry, I screamed. I have kind of a potty mouth these days.”
“We don’t mind that at all, do we Joan?” Frank said, winking at Hailey. “That’s one reason I’m glad we don’t have kids just yet. Joan here doesn’t have a wide vocabulary when it comes to expressing her emotions.”
“My anger,” Joan corrected.
The chef began piling noodles and vegetables onto each of their plates. Conversation fell silent while they ate. The girl returned with a tray of fresh glasses, cans of beer and a new pot of sake. She eyed Rob as she neared the table, and began placing the glasses near each person with the movement of a curtsy. Hailey stopped eating, but didn’t say anything.
“It’s on the house,” the girl said. “Is your shoulder okay, ma’am?”
Hailey nodded. “I’m completely fine,” she said, feeling embarrassed again.
“Oh, good,” the girl said. “I’m sorry again.”
Hailey turned back to her plate where there were scallops and shrimp and sliced chicken and steak piled on top of her noodles. She’d forgotten she ordered all that food and regretted it.
“Do you want some?” she said to Frank, whose chunks of steak looked meek compared to her own.
“No, thank you,” he said. “This ought to be plenty.”
“You going to eat all of that?” Rob leaned in and speared a bit of filet. “That’s a lot of food.”
Hailey started in on the pile, chewing only long enough to make more room in her mouth. When she paused to take a sip of water, she noticed Joan and Frank were looking at her. She returned their gaze, and they both looked down at their plates, caught.
“Slow down there, babe,” Rob said, patting Hailey on the back. “It’s not going anywhere.”
The chef paused from scrubbing the grill in order to watch her. She was aware of how she probably looked, but she couldn’t stop. There was so much food. She noticed the salad and the bowl of soup sitting in front of her plate that she hadn’t noticed until just then. It occurred to her that she might never have room or time to eat everything set in front of her. She felt a surge of panic and began eating faster.
“Hail,” Rob said. He sounded concerned but far away. “Hailey, stop this. You’re going to choke.”
“Hailey?” Joan set down her fork and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder.
Hailey didn’t look up at any of them. She could barely hear them over the roar of the food, half-chewed, making its way down her esophagus toward her stomach where, finally, she could feel full.