I was dawdling over my fifth cup of coffee at Deacon’s when it happened.
It was just after six am and I’d been busy keeping my counter stool warm for the last 45 minutes. I’d been at the R. A. Stranahan Arboretum with Chester since three thirty that morning, getting B-Roll for a piece on how the Arboretum keeps their collection of magnificent urban flora warm and alive during these brutal Toledo winters. To be honest, I’m pretty sure nobody cares in the slightest about trees in the cold months, but who am I to argue? I don’t pass out the assignments, I just cash the paychecks. Next my editor will have me doing a story about where the ducks go when the pond freezes, and I’m pretty sure that hasn’t been a thing anybody has cared about since the 50s.
After filming the ever-suspenseful winterizing process for the Arboretum, (They wrap the trees in scarves and give them giant mugs of hot cocoa. Well, that’s not true, but what do you care?) we opted for a late-night/ass-break of day breakfast over at Deacon’s Diner. The diner wasn’t in Toledo proper; it was further southeast, in Abingdon, near the lake. Deacon’s is nothing fancy, but with their motto (It’s Supposed to Taste Like That) how can anybody resist?
One incredibly unhealthy (and therefore extra delicious) breakfast and two steaming cups of Joe later, Chester and I were satisfied and warm. We swiveled our stools around to look out of the windows behind us. At just after five twenty, it was still black as sin outside. The small oases of light that the parking lot lamps made where reflected back in the countless snowdrifts around the lot’s perimeter. This led to great views of piles of dirty snow, and little else. The small herd of parked cars were huddled as close to the entrance as possible, to make the door-to-door journey more tolerable for the patrons. Truck drivers weren’t so lucky. They had to park at the far end of the lot and hope they made it to the building before their balls froze off.
Currently, there was only one truck parked. It was an old bruiser of a vehicle. I couldn’t see it since it was so far from the window and the falling snow did its best to obscure everything outside, but the distinct neon green cab and the word “Micmac” in large, black Helvetica letters are clearly visible from the warmth of the diner. Chester and I played a little game of “Coming From? Going To?” with the semi, to keep our minds occupied.
“From NORAD, to Area 51,” I said.
“Neither of those places are near here. You’re an idiot. I say Mount Rushmore to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” Chester replied.
“How very National Treasure of you,” I said. How about the Overlook Hotel, all the way to ‘Salem’s Lot in Mai…”
The discordant chime of the entrance being opened brought us out of our game and forced us to turn our attention to the front door. The fact that somebody was coming into the diner took everybody by surprise, because, as far as I could gather from the nonplussed expressions being universally worn around the room, nobody had heard a car pull into the lot or park. And with the odd, echo-y sound effects falling snow can create, we should have all heard a parking car as well as feet shuffling on the wooden floor of an empty room.
A stranger entered the diner. Which is actually a more ominous thing to say than it really is, when you consider that besides the doughy cameraman on the stool to my left, everybody else there was a stranger to me. Hell, who knows if there is even a Deacon? The new customer was borne in on a cloud of snowflakes and frozen wind. He was a tall man, though his height was most likely augmented by his large, black boots. He was wearing a black suit with the lithe ease of a person who is probably not used to wearing anything else. He looked like he slept in that suit. Not that it was wrinkled, or anything, it just had an air of belonging on him, like he was unsubstantial underneath and much like taking the wrappings off a mummy would lead you to an empty space (if cartoons are any gauge of how the Egyptian mummification system worked, that is) I got the feeling that if you removed his suit, you’d find an empty space there too, where a body should be.
He walked directly up to the counter and sat down on the stool next to me, waving the waitress over. Being next to me, I didn’t really have the opportunity to study what he looked like, because just staring at random people a foot away from you is usually frowned upon in society. I turned around back to the counter and tried to ignore the odd sensation I felt when the stranger had walked in. My eyes traveled around the room as much as they could without me turning my head too much and making a spectacle of nosiness. I knew it couldn’t just be me and the pervasive, shared uneasiness confirmed it. I saw nothing but looks of bafflement mixed with dread. As if everybody in the diner was 75 percent sure they had just eaten raw chicken and weren’t entirely sure which end it was going to come out of, but they knew it was going to be explosive. The room filled with the tangible weight of looming, but incoherent apprehension.
I reined in my eyes and focused on the cup in front of me, my conversation with Chester forgotten. That’s when the stranger spoke.
At this point, I wish that I had that Mary Lou Henner disease, because looking back on it, I barely remember anything he said. And we just talked a few hours ago. Maybe my brain didn’t want to remember his words. Maybe as an evolutionary thing, our brains are wired to delete the really bad stuff. I’d heard stories from vets about being in war and blacking out, their minds turning off to scenes of utter violence and destruction. Or maybe it’s like people who had traumatizing events happen when they’re kids, but only remember after several expensive psychiatric appointments.
I remember only that the stranger’s name was Mr. Brooks and he said he was a collector. Not entirely sure what he collected. I’m pretty sure I made a joke about Antiques Roadshow which he laughed off with a wave of a very thin, papery, translucent hand with faint streams of blue veins peeking through the skin. He mentioned that his collection had more to do with rare, but non-valuable items. He owned one-of-a-kind possessions with value only to a small number of people in the world. It didn’t make much sense to me, but then again, I collected lunchboxes featuring cartoon characters when I was a kid and in hindsight, that doesn’t make much sense either.
I know that I asked him why he was in town, but his response is somewhere, lost in my foggy brain. He was in town on business. Though, who has business in Toledo in the middle of December, is a mystery to me. Something about flowers maybe? I think he mentioned flowers blooming. From what I had just seen at the arboretum, I was pretty sure that flowers didn’t bloom in the winter, but I distinctly remember the word Rosebud.
And here things get even more disjointed. You know how in dreams you end up changing locations, or the people around you will mutate into other people, but instead of being confused by the environment being so fluid, you just go with it? You’ll be in your bedroom, say, and then you turn around to walk out and all of a sudden you’re at work. Shit like that. Well, that’s kind of how the rest of things went with Mr. Brooks and our conversation. One minute he’s sitting next to me and I’m trying to wash the taste of something disturbing he told me (Something about cats? Dogs? A couch?) out of my mouth with a swig of coffee, and the next minute, he’s gone, the stool’s empty and I’m just staring into the black abyss of my mug of coffee, feeling uncomfortable without knowing why. Like somebody walked on my grave. I know that sounds weird and overly dramatic. I can’t help it. As a journalist, I’m supposed to be entirely objective; I rarely get to tell any stories with emotional content or depth. So please excuse my attempts to channel a better storyteller. Anyway, like I said: disjointed.
However Mr. Brooks managed to disappear from Deacon’s, the diner instantly let out a collective sigh of release. We all felt better. He had taken the oppressive vibe of dismay with him and left us to contemplate how to spend the rest of our day. Most of the early morning customers cleared out, emptying the parking lot with them. Even the big rig in the back left.
Fifteen minutes and another cup of coffee later and we’re back at the beginning of the story. Life is circular like that. Like a big old pointless circle that goes around and around, usually trapped in place. At least wheels get to travel. Especially the 18 wheels of a tractor trailer.
It was just after six am when I got the call. Seems that a couple of young girls had decided that sledding at Dark O’Clock in the morning was a good idea. Turns out that it is was the worst idea. One of the girls went down a hill that led straight out onto I-98. I guess they figured that by going so early in the morning, the road would be empty enough that cars wouldn’t be a problem.
My editor called me while I was still at Deacon’s. He had us go over to the hill to try and get whatever footage and interviews we could. You know how it is, if it bleeds, it leads. So, we paid our bill and headed over to eastern Abingdon to learn what we could.
It was a horrific scene, to be sure. I’ll spare you the gruesome details. Nobody needs to know what happens to a 105-lb human body when it encounters an 80,000-lb monster of metal and noise. I tried to interview the surviving girl, but she was hustled away before I could speak to her. Losing a sibling can’t be easy, a twin even more so. I was able to interview the truck driver, but he wasn’t much help. His words kept sputtering and he was too dazed to get anything out other than his breakfast from Deacon’s that he’d thrown up on the side of the road. I stayed there with Chester for about 40 minutes, but nobody was very talkative. From the cops, to the guys tasked with cleaning things up and getting the remains to the hospital, it was a wall of silence. I hadn’t expected much in the way of good quotes anyway. It was a tragedy, but not a rare one. Well, I guess an identical twin seeing the death of their other half is a rarity, but that kind of tidbit won’t bring in The Great Unwashed or boost the ratings.
The only thing that did stand out to me is that at one point, after the sun had risen and the snow had stopped falling, I looked up to the crest of the hill and even from 70 yards away, I could see a single figure up at the top. I couldn’t make out the details of the figure’s face, but their black clothing stood out in stark contrast to the frigid ocean of white around them. The person was just standing there, looking over the busy scene at the bottom of the hill, full of bright, rotating lights, loud engines and people scurrying around, busy in their morbid work. The next thing I knew, the figure was gone, disappearing into the snowy landscape.
It wasn’t until later that I learned that the body of the deceased girl had disappeared from the county morgue. Just vanished. Nobody knew what had happened to the remains. It became quite the scandalous mystery, for about two weeks, before people lost interest. And in the end, there was no body to bury under the tombstone for Rosemary “Rose” Budston.