30/30 - Divides
by Darklady and Chicago
Disclaimers and other information in "Opening Credits"
"Not going home?" Kyle Rayner asked as he ringed over a cup of coffee. Normally he would have asked Wally to run out for Radu's, but after the day they just had? Even a Speedsters feet had their limits.
Wallace West's were currently bootless and resting on a pillow. Kyle took that as a hint that his fellow JLA member wouldn't be moving any time soon.
"Have to write this up." Clark settled himself feet-up on one of the Observation Lounge sofas. "Then finish that romance column."
"Right. I remember." Kyle's voice held the knowing sympathy of someone in the same business. "Miss Faithful ran off with that fencing champion." He ringed up his own couch - then let it flicker out and opted for the real thing. The way his concentration felt, the ring construct would likely vanish and dump him onto the floor. "White stuck you with covering for her."
"Ah, the burdens of duty."
Even the Batman's tone was less snarky then usual. Possibly friendship. More likely plain exhaustion. Although? Kyle considered the point. He hadn't noticed hard missions making the Caped Critic any more amiable in the past.
"I do so regret I shan't be able to contribute to your efforts this time."
Now that - Kyle smiled - was more the Bat. He hadn't exactly said anything when one of his recent 'dates' had ended up in the Daily Planet's lifestyle section under the headline "Don't Try This At Home" But then? Kyle deliberately averted his eyes as Plas tried to stretch out an upholstered arm in Wonder Woman's direction. He hadn't had to. One didn't qualify for the JLA by being completely obtuse. However much some of the members might try for that image.
"Why not?" Clark's blue eyes were mischief-bright over his glasses.
Kyle shuddered. And the Guardian's thought he was 'The Man Without Fear"?
Batman moved into a pool of shadow. One that - no doubt co- incidentally - held another lounge chair. "As it is now 11:30 in Gotham?" A lifting eyebrow showed thought the eye hole of the grey-black cowl. "Hardly time for a date."
"Perhaps." The Martian Manhunter drifted in from his task of securing the space-bay doors. "But we might at least check if any of today's suggestions would work."
Everyone agreed that Juan was a damned fine short order cook, but he was spooky. Everyone but Gladys. Gladys knew better. He wasn't spooky; he was spooked.
It had unnerved Gladys at first, sharing a shift with the quiet half-breed. Unnerved her more when the first ghosts started coming through, making their confused way to the other side with a final stop on the continental divide for a slice of pie or a cup of coffee.
After a while, though, she got used to it, got to even like it. The spooks were drawn by Juan, but they were good to Gladys, brought out the mother in her. It made her feel good, just by being on this overnight shift in this particular place, she could give the recently departed a final taste of living before they resigned themselves to their dying.
They came early this night, a couple looking to be in their late 30s. Married, to judge by the way they moved together, with a taste of long familiarity. Gladys swallowed a bit of sadness. Young ones were always hard to see over, and this pair were definitely spooks. They had walked in from the dark night, no glare of headlights preceding the little tinkle of the bell that marked their entrance. Juan's eyes had flashed to the door with the exact expression that always accompanied the arrival of the dead.
Gladys gave them a moment to choose a booth, trying to suss out what kind of ghosts these were. They had a certain solidity to them that bespoke an unawareness of their death, and she wondered what sudden event had taken them from the world. Something unexpected, to be sure, and as yet unrealized, to judge by the confident way the man turned over the two coffee cups on the table in the universal signal for coffee. The ghosts who suspected they were dead were always more tentative, lost-looking.
Gladys picked up her coffee pot and sashayed to the table, her brightest grin on her face. "Evenin', folks," she greeted pleasantly, filling their cups. "Menus are just there and the specials tonight are chicken fried steak and chili con carne." She studied the couple surreptitiously, taking in their athletic builds and mountain hiker clothing. "'less you folks are vegetarian. Then I can get Juan to whip up something salad like or some omelettes."
A look passed between the man and woman, smiles on both their faces. It was the man who looked up to answer Gladys. "Oh, we're not really up for dinner. Maybe just some pie?"
Gladys set the coffee pot on the table and pulled out her order pad, shifting her weight to one hip as she rattled off the options. "We've got pumpkin, apple, cherry, blueberry, peach, rhubarb, banana cream, lemon-"
"Wow," the woman interrupted, giving Gladys a marveling look. "How do you remember so many?"
"Years of practice," Gladys replied. "''Course, I always have to say them in the same order or I'll forget some."
The woman smiled, glancing at the man across from her. "Well, I haven't had rhubarb pie in ages."
"Is it good?" the man asked.
"Bruce!" The woman sounded surprised. "You've never had rhubarb pie?"
The man - Bruce - shrugged. "Not yet." He turned back to Gladys with a warm smile. "Guess that'll change tonight."
"Two slices of rhubarb pie, then," Gladys acknowledged. "A la mode?"
"Please," the woman decided, and Bruce nodded.
"You got it," Gladys said, picking up her coffee pot and returning to her station by the kitchen. The smile on her face disappeared when she was away from the view of her customers, and as she handed the order slip back to Juan, she sighed. "So sad."
Juan did not reply, did not even accept the order slip from her fingers. Instead he continued to stare at the couple.
"Juan?" Gladys turned to follow his gaze, watching as the woman rose and crossed to the juke box sitting silently against the wall. She began flipping through selections, and after a moment, Bruce left the booth and joined her, wrapping his arms around her from behind and resting his head on her shoulder as they went through the selections together.
Gladys turned away again, stung by the idea of young lovers taken from life to soon. "Juan, they want some rhubarb pie," she said with a roughened voice, shaking the order slip at him.
This time Juan looked at her and took the order slip. "They're not ghosts," he said succinctly.
Gladys started. "Juan, of course they are. They didn't come in a car, they don't look like they've been out camping. They don't have any gear."
Juan shook his head firmly. "Not ghosts. Something else." Then he turned and retreated to the walk in cooler.
There was a hiss and crackle in the air as the jukebox needle found the groove of a 45. Gladys turned in time to see Bruce and his wife? girlfriend? face each other and wrap their arms around one another, his hands at her waist, hers on his shoulders. And then the music started, the first bars of "Unchained Melody" filling the small diner.
Gladys felt her eyes fill with unexpected tears, and she turned away, blinking fiercely. No one played that song here anymore. They didn't take it off the juke box, but everyone knew better. All the regulars, anyone who might ever stop at the Peak Diner on their way from coast to coast - everyone left it alone. Only the spooks might play it, but most ghosts never looked twice at the juke box.
Everyone here knew about the night shortly after Juan Frederickson began working at the Peak Diner, when it seemed the world was ending but there was nothing to do but carry on. How on that night - right about this time, Gladys remembered suddenly - the little bell above the door had tinkled and a real live - well, dead - superhero walked through the door.
Everyone who had occasion to frequent the Peak Diner knew about the night that the ghost of Barry Allen came in and danced with the ghost of some sweetheart to "Unchained Melody."
Just exactly the way that this "Bruce" and his lady friend were dancing now.
A ping came from the microwave, and Gladys watched as Juan removed plates and scooped ice cream onto the two pieces of pie. When he handed the plates across to her, his eyes were again riveted by the still dancing couple.
Gladys took the plates and turned, pausing for a moment as the song wound down. Bruce and the woman had settled into what was more a full body hug than a dance pose, swaying together silently to the music. The woman's blonde head rested on Bruce's shoulder, her eyes staring out unseeingly, the hint of tears in them evident even where Gladys stood. The startling sea-green of her eyes was a shade that only came with the gloss of unshed tears.
Bruce for his part was resting his cheek on top of his woman's head, turning his face as the song ended to press a gentle kiss to the blonde hair. Gladys bustled to their table, feeling strangely voyeuristic.
Behind her, she heard Bruce murmur, "I love you, Jenn."
The reply was a gasping sort of chuckle. "You better, Bruce."
His tone came back solemnly. "Always." Then more lightly. "Unless this rhubarb pie is not all you make it out to be."
Gladys stepped back from the table as the couple approached. "There you are, folks. Enjoy."
"We will," Jenn promised, shooting an amused glance at Bruce.
Gladys retreated again, returning to the table twice to refill coffee and to present the check. The check was a formality, really - most spooks couldn't pay. It was often the moment that they realized they were no longer of the world, the moment when they would dissipate into the night.
But Juan had said these weren't ghosts...
Twenty-five minutes after they arrived, Jenn and Bruce left the way they came - through the door. They didn't stop to pay their check. No car started up outside; the darkness beyond the light of the parking lot merely swallowed them whole. Spooks, Gladys was certain.
She went to bus their table, still saddened by such a young couple so clearly in love having lost their lives.
They hadn't forgotten to pay their bill.
Not at all.
Lined up in a neat row were five stacks of $100 bills, 10 to a stack. "Juan!" Gladys called, reaching out with trembling fingers.
Juan was at her side in an instant. "Madre de dios!" he exclaimed, staring at the green. $5000. Enough money in this neck of the woods to cover both their rents for a year.
Beside the row of bills, there was a note written on a napkin. Gladys picked it up, reading the words. "The pie was excellent, thank you. And thank you for keeping that song on the juke box. If you could play it once in a while - for Barry, and for us - it would make the ghosts happy."
Nothing else. No clue who "Bruce" and "Jenn" might be. Just another ghost story for the Peak Diner, the eatery at the edge of the continental divide.