It’s still dark when Maeve wakes up. Briefly, she thinks she’s forgotten to open her eyes, but even after she blinks a few times and rubs at her eyelids and sits up to peek through the windshield of her Camry, the sky is still pitch black. A singular moon reflects off the shiny concrete below, a divine creature laying stake to the night. Maeve is disappointed but not surprised that light hasn’t returned. She’s lost track of how long they’ve been waiting, halted on a slab of concrete with a car running on empty. It’s too dangerous to go out and look for gas in the dark.
A yawn erupts from Maeve’s mouth, and when she stretches her arms out over her head, she feels her spine crack and pop from the hours she’s spent curled up in the driver’s seat. In a moment of superstition, she draws two fingers against her lips and then presses them against the dashboard, help us help us, to whoever might be listening. Maybe her mom, from whom she inherited superstition and a weak stomach and a natural talent for gardening, is.
It doesn’t always work, this gesture of supplication, but either someone benevolent must be watching Maeve today or she got a lucky roll of the dice, because when she peers out the windshield again, a building flickers into existence. ‘The Roadside Diner,’ the accompanying sign announces proudly, as the surrounding area is suddenly awash in lights of neon pink and blue. It’s not exactly what Maeve was hoping for, but she’s learned by now not to turn her nose up at a gift. Her spirits renewed, Maeve reaches into the passenger seat to shake the denim-clad shoulder of her sleeping companion.
“Fitz,” she says, and then when she’s met with silence, “Fitz, come on,” more loudly and insistently.
Fitz bats her hand away. “Shhh,” he grumbles, bordering on incoherent. “I’m sleeping.”
“There’s food,” says Maeve.
This draws Fitz out of his stupor, and he raises his head with a bleary look. “We don’t have to kill it ourselves, do we?”
Maeve rolls her eyes and gestures for Fitz to get up. “Look.”
Fitz pulls himself into a sitting position, his jaw promptly dropping as his eyes fix on the newly materialized diner. “That wasn’t there before.”
He turns to look at her, still gaping. One of these days, Fitz has got to stop being surprised by this sort of thing. “You did this?”
Maeve laughs at the sheer ridiculousness of Fitz’s proposition. “Me? No. Like I have the power for that.”
Maeve shrugs. “Like hell if I know. In all honesty, it might not have been anyone. Things come in and out of existence, Fitz. It’s just a fact of life. Come on, let’s go before it decides to disappear again.” Before Fitz can respond, Maeve pulls open the driver’s door and steps out.
“Not the life I was living,” she hears faintly, but Fitz follows suit.
Outside, the wind catches on the worn-out patches of Maeve’s sweater. No longer in the safety of her car, she feels small and on display, every bit of her falling victim to the cold night air. The night is a hungry predator and Maeve is a standing target. She shivers.
A heavy weight dips on her shoulders when Fitz drops his coat over her. “Thanks,” she murmurs, hugging it closer. The collar smells like smoke and laundry detergent.
They stand next to the car for a few long moments before Maeve finds her legs again. Fitz says nothing, just waiting for her to shake off her paranoia and falling in step with her when she starts to walk.
The diner door opens with a cheerful jingle. The heat inside the diner is overwhelming, almost claustrophobic, but it’s a welcome reprieve from the cold that Maeve’s been sitting in for the past however long. She wants to bury herself in the warmth. A gust of cold pushes in as the door shuts behind Fitz, and then that’s it. The outside world is lost to them, even if only for a few moments.
Maeve inhales, taking in the smell of bacon and scrambled eggs and just the faintest hint of pine-sol. She’s surprised at the rumbling of her stomach. She’d forgotten her own hunger. For the past few weeks, she and Fitz have been surviving on nothing but protein bars and water bottles, and the occasional apple when Maeve can get the summoning right.
Someone pops up from behind the counter, a young blonde woman in a raggedy blue uniform. Two impressive antlers rise from her hair, which make Maeve feel dizzy when she looks at them for a moment too long. Maeve feels Fitz’s hand grab onto her wrist, tight, like he’s looking for reassurance.
The woman looks at them with suspicion, leering at them over the counter. “You look remarkably human to me,” she says.
Maeve knows what she’s looking for. Any hint that she’s not an unbidden traveler that stumbled on this diner by accident, that she and Fitz have a reason to be here. She reaches out the hand that Fitz isn’t grabbing on to and channels all her energy into it, willing it to work this time, for her good luck streak to continue. She’s relieved to feel her arm heat up as a golden glow emanates from it for the briefest of moments before sputtering out. It’s not much, but it’s enough to prove that she belongs here, in this liminal space.
“Ah. Welcome.” The woman’s suspicion breaks out into a catlike smile, and she moves toward them with a fluidity that feels artificial. It makes Maeve’s head spin to think too much about the woman’s movement, so she focuses her attention instead on the name tag pinned to the woman’s uniform, which reads ‘Deidre’ in messy Sharpie. “Sit here.” Deidre gestures to an empty booth, on which she sets two menus that she hadn’t been holding before. Maeve didn’t even see them materialize.
She walks toward the booth, pulling Fitz along with her. He doesn’t release her wrist until they have to separate to sit on opposite sides of the table. All the while, Maeve feels Deidre’s eyes on her, unblinking.
“So,” Deidre says as they shift around in their seats, the sticky vinyl clinging to their clothes. “What brings you travelers to these parts? Something nefarious, I hope?”
There’s a twinkle in Deidre’s eyes; Maeve can’t tell whether or not she’s joking.
Maeve looks over at Fitz, but he’s looking right back at her. His eyes are steadying, and Maeve feels less unsettled as she returns her gaze to Deidre. She’s not sure how much she can trust her, but she’ll take any help she can get.
“We’re looking for my mom,” she replies, reaching into her back pocket for the picture she’s kept there since she and Fitz first started their journey about a month ago.
It’s frayed at the edges, but the photograph itself is still clear. In front of a small white house, a brown-haired woman in a long floral dress holds the hand of a smiling toddler. The woman is smiling as well, but the curve of her mouth is mischievous, like she’s got a secret to keep. She probably does. With Maeve’s mom, there’s always another secret to uncover. Even now. Maybe especially now.
Maeve places the photograph on the table for Deidre to see. “She disappeared a year ago. I didn’t think I would ever hear from her again, but about a month ago, this arrived in the mail.” Maeve pulls out the other item she always keeps in her pocket and places it on the table too – a black compass about the size of her palm that has no cardinal directions and only one arrow that rarely actually points north. “I think that it’s pointing me toward her.”
Deidre looks at the photo for a long moment, and then picks up the compass and holds it in her hand like she’s testing its weight. “You think your mom sent this to you,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“It had to have been her,” replies Maeve. It’s the same thing she said to Fitz when he expressed doubt at first. “Who else could it have been?”
Deidre nods absentmindedly, then puts the compass down and points to the menus. “Order first,” she says. “We can talk about this after you eat.”
Faced with the possibility of getting more information about her mom, Maeve finds that her stomach is knotted in a way that’s gotten rid of her hunger, but she thinks Fitz is probably still starving. She forces herself not to bombard Deidre with questions, instead looking down at the menu and ordering the first thing her eyes land on. “I’ll take a breakfast platter,” she says.
Deidre scribbles this down on a notepad that Maeve didn’t see her retrieve, and then looks over to Fitz. “I’ll do the same,” he replies, without looking at the menu.
“Sure,” Deidre says, writing his order down as well. “I’ll have those out in just a moment.” Then, she picks up the menus and leaves them alone.
Fitz leans across the table when Deidre’s out of earshot and says, voice low, “Are you sure we can trust her? Should we be eating anything she brings to us?”
It’s a fair question. For someone that grew up around these sorts of strange phenomena, Maeve really should be more cautious of them now. But something tells her that, even if Deidre seems a bit tricky, she doesn’t mean them any real harm. She lets her hand hover over the table, looking for any telltale signs of danger. A prickling in her palm. A spidery sensation climbing up her arm. There’s nothing but stillness. “I’m not feeling any malicious energy,” she responds. “We should take what she says with a grain of salt, but I think we can eat anything that she brings us. The diner appeared after I asked for help. That has to be a good omen.”
Fitz, at least, looks reassured by this. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
The food comes quickly. Deidre balances two plates on one arm and holds two mugs of coffee with her opposite hand, moving with practiced ease and the same dizzying fluidity as before, promising that she’ll be back in just a moment. Fitz dives in pretty immediately, eating with the ravenous hunger that only a teenage boy can muster up.
Maeve nibbles at some bacon but finds that she doesn’t have the stomach for it. Fitz eyes her worriedly. “Eat,” he says through a mouthful of potatoes, pushing her plate closer to her.
His concern is touching. Maeve takes another bite of bacon.
When Deidre returns, she raises an eyebrow at Maeve’s plate. “Not hungry?”
“Not really,” Maeve replies.
Deidre seems to understand Maeve’s answer for what it is and pulls a chair from a nearby table to their booth, crossing one leg over the other as she sits down. “Okay,” she says. “We can talk about your mom.”
Maeve perks up at this, dropping the bacon back onto her plate, and even Fitz stops eating for a moment to listen. “Have you seen her? Where was she?”
Deidre picks the photograph of Maeve and her mother up, holding it up to the light. “I can’t be sure,” she replies. A familiar sinking disappointment starts to trickle through Maeve’s chest, a symptom of getting her hopes up for nothing. “You have to understand, traveler, that I meet so many people. They come in, stop for a cup of coffee. Most don’t even say hello. I can hardly remember all of them. Your mom…” Deidre trails off for a moment, carefully laying the photo back down. “There was a woman who came in here a while ago. I can’t be sure when, exactly. Time always works so differently in every place I land. I’m not good at faces, but this dress.” Deidre taps on the floral dress. “I remember she was wearing this dress. She came in. Didn’t order anything. Just asked me if I had any spare lemongrass, and when I said no, she hurried right back out.”
Maeve leans back in her seat, lets the new information absorb.
“Lemongrass?” asks Fitz. “Why would your mom be looking for lemongrass?”
“I don’t know,” Maeve replies, frowning, and then to Deidre: “You’re sure she didn’t say anything else?”
“Do you remember where you were?”
Deidre shakes her head. “I just go where the diner takes me. I don’t usually take note of the location.”
Frustrated tears prickle at Maeve’s eyes, but she refuses to let them through. At least she knows that her mom is alive, probably. Fitz reaches out across the table and takes one of Maeve’s hands in his.
“I’m sorry I don’t know more, traveler,” says Deidre. “Look, is there anything else I can help you with? Anything at all?”
Maeve forces herself to look past her disappointment and move on to the next problem. “Well, it’s been dark out for, I don’t know, three days? And we’re out of gas. I don’t know what could be hiding out there, so we can’t proceed on foot. And anyway, I’m not willing to give up my car.”
“Ah. Well, places like these have a mind of their own. I can’t really do much to change their course. But rest assured that the darkness never lasts for more than a few days. Wait it out. And here.” Deidre reaches into the pocket of her uniform and pulls out two buttons, placing them on the table next to the compass. “Sew these onto your clothes and they’ll protect you from whatever might be lurking out there.”
Fitz eyes the buttons with marked suspicion. “How do we know that these will do what you say they will?”
This makes Deidre smile, faintly. “Do you know who I am, travelers?” Met with blank faces, she continues. “I promise you. I’m not here to lead you astray. If it will make you feel better, I’ll swear a host oath.”
A host oath would keep her from giving them any gifts that would harm them, so long as they’re under her roof.
“Okay,” says Maeve, letting go of Fitz’s hand and holding it out to Deidre instead. “Swear.”
Looking amused, Deidre reaches over to grasp Maeve’s hand with hers. A faint white glow emits from their joined palms, and then as quickly as it appeared, it’s gone.
“Good?” Deidre says, letting go of Maeve’s hand. When Maeve and Fitz say nothing further, she nods with satisfaction. “Okay. Finish your food now.”
Maeve looks down at her abandoned plate, and, finding her appetite rapidly returning, picks up her fork.
It’s still dark when Maeve and Fitz leave the diner. It lingers for a few moments before vanishing, taking its neon shadows with it, like it was never there in the first place. In Maeve’s pocket, she has the photograph, the compass, and Deidre’s button, ready to be sewn. Something is rustling in the bushes, but Maeve knows it’s better to leave things alone around here, lest she stumble onto something she’d rather not see.
Off the concrete, two moons are reflected back into the sky. This is a good sign. It means light is coming soon. The wind is gentle now, barely tugging at Maeve’s hair, so she takes off Fitz’s jacket and hands it back to him.
“Thank you,” she says.
“It’s no problem,” he replies. “You run colder than I do.”
“No,” she says. “I mean, thank you for coming. You have no idea how much it means to me. I couldn’t do this alone.”
Fitz smiles at that, wrinkling his nose like he always does when he’s a little embarrassed. “Yeah, well. Without you around, who would I have bothered every day?” He pokes at her cheek, which gets her to smile too. “She means a lot to me too, you know.”
“Yeah,” says Maeve. “I know.”
They climb back into the Camry. Maeve locks the doors. Turns on the tiny portable radio that Maeve brought from home, the one that her mom gave her, that runs on seemingly nothing and plays the same three songs over and over and over again.
Then, they sit, and they watch the sky, and they wait.