This is a disclaimer.
Home in the Darkness
Rachel has never been afraid of the dark. In fact, she kinda likes it, likes the way it transforms the world, wraps around her warm and comforting, enclosing her in familiar mystery, teasing her with possibility.
So perhaps it's no real surprise when she finds that working graveyard shift in the café-cum-gas-station is the most fun she's had since the day after graduation, when she went with Max Randyll and a bunch of his friends to graffiti as much of the school buildings as they could before the cops showed. She lost her virginity to Max somewhere in the middle of the adrenaline rush that was that night, climbing walls and running from cops and defacing the school that had cared Sweet Fanny Adams about any of them, hidden away in the grass behind the gym hall, wrapped in darkness.
Week after that, she'd broken it off with him. Max was fun, but the real world wasn't high school; out here, detention meant something a little different. The line between "sit down and do your damn homework, Randyll" and "make sure you don't drop the soap while you're in there, bitch" was a thin and treacherous one, and Max was walking it.
Rachel, fully aware that her prospects and education were far from good, had no intention of being on it with him when it finally shattered under his weight.
Besides, he wasn't really all that good in bed anyhow.
So. Two years later, she has a small apartment, a job at the local grocery store, and now the graveyard shift at Estelle's place, and Rachel is, in a quiet way, pretty happy. Not many people come by after midnight, and the ones that do are almost without exception interesting to talk to – been all over, know loads of stories. Not that they're all nice; been a few come by that scared her, and once a hold-up, but that was a while ago now, and it's an old habit of Rachel's never to dwell on the past.
You do that, you miss out on the present and the future, her daddy used to say, on the rare occasion he was both at home and sober at the same time.
Wasn't anybody in the whole continent who could still be dwellin' on anything when faced with the guy the glass doors just opened for. Rachel, hunched over the counter, straightens up, suppresses the urge to pat her hair into place. He's gorgeous, tall and dirty-blond, with eyes a girl could drown in and never notice. Wearin' a beat-up leather jacket and an attitude that draws the eye like a magnet.
He swaggers – swaggers! – down the short corridor to the entrance of the café (shop on the other side, in darkness now, so Rachel gets Gorgeous in duplicate: once for real, and once reflected in the glass), gives it all a quick, searching look before heading over to Rachel, and gives her a wide grin that manages to be little-boy charming and totally depraved at the same time.
No drooling over the customers during office hours, she tells herself firmly.
"Mornin'. Two coffees please, black, and – are you still doing food?"
"Sure, honey. What can I get you?" She's grateful he ordered black. It's simpler to make.
He orders two breakfasts and then chooses a table, sprawling in a chair like it's a throne on a dais, and he's lord and master of all he lays eyes on. Rachel isn't shy about admirin' the long lines of his legs, his shoulders under the jacket, those quick hands; and then the door opens again and another guy walks in. Tall as Gorgeous, but broader, and there's no swagger there; he holds himself with an unshakeable self-confidence that doesn't need an attitude to back it up. Solid as a rock, and just as immovable.
He's older, too, Rachel realizes when he rounds the glass separating seating area from corridor, coming into the light. Maybe in his early fifties. Close-cut beard and a weariness around his eyes that's got nothing to do with ordinary exhaustion, but it dissipates when he sees Gorgeous, and he moves cat-quick.
The stories these two could tell. Rachel wants to hear them almost as much as she'd like to drag Gorgeous home with her and tie him to her bed for a few days.
"What happened to coffee to go?" Older Guy (Rachel's having trouble assigning him a nickname; he sorta defies categorization) wants to know.
"Oh, is that what you said?" Gorgeous asks innocently. "I couldn't hear over the gas pump."
Older Guy glares. "Dean –" low and dangerous. Growl that would send most guys Rachel knows runnin' for the hills.
Gorgeous isn't in the least bit intimidated. "Even you gotta eat, Dad. Breakfast's comin'."
"Breakfast's here," Rachel says, bringing it over with her most charming smile, but then she lets it widen into a grin instead, real and honest amusement showing, and is rewarded by a full-on smile from Gorgegous.
"In other words, you gotta pay for it one way or the other," Dean tells his Dad, who sighs.
"Sneaky little bastard. All right then."
Rachel smiles again when he sits down. "It's not that bad cooking, you know."
Dad glances up at her and gives a shadow of a grin that was once as mischievous as his son's. "I was in a hurry is all. Up till now," pointed glare for Dean, who's blithely tucking away huge forkfuls of bacon and eggs like he's never tasted 'em before.
Rachel pauses, about to turn away, and then doesn't. "Mind if I sit with you?"
Dad looks up sharply, warily, face gone hard, examining her closely, but Dean kicks out a chair for her. "Sure. Must get pretty lonesome out here this time of night."
"A bit. But I like the graveyard shift."
"Seriously? How come?" He's fascinated.
"The people are interesting," Rachel says, and both Dean and Dad laugh out loud. She grins too, a bit sheepishly. "It's true. Got more stories, more miles on 'em. One day I'll write 'em all down, everything I've heard in here, and get 'em published."
Dean's grin just gets wider. "Cool idea. What would you call it?"
"I don't know yet. Bedtime Stories. Tales from the Diner."
"Enter Sandman," Dean suggests.
"Bad Company," Dad says quick and dry, and all three of them laugh. It's fun, sitting here with these two strangers, talking about everything and nothing. Rachel feels perfectly safe with them, even though she can tell Dad's packing, and suspects Dean isn't nearly as harmless as he looks. She tells them about Graffiti Night, although not about the grass, and Dean tells her about the time he and his best friend Jake cordoned off their high school with police tape and hung a mannequin out the window by its neck, like some kid had committed suicide. Dad asks about her life, and Rachel finds herself telling them about Mom and Daddy, about Crazy Uncle Kevin and That Mutt, whose real name of Pluto (bit embarrassing, true, but Rachel was only seven) is long forgotten by all the family. Dad tells her his sister had a cat known colloquially as Katie's Doormat, and Dean tells her about the time he and Sammy found an injured fox at the bottom of the garden.
The story slips out without thought, it seems, and Dad's hands flex and tighten around his coffee mug, face impassive, set in stone, while Dean grimaces just a little, barely there, but…
"That your brother?" Rachel says.
"Yeah," Dean answers, and she nods and moves on to something else.
Looking back on it, that's when they became soul mates.
They've been talking for over two hours when Dad puts his hands down flat on the table-top and says, "I hate to break this up, kids, but we've gotta be moving. Caleb's expecting us, Dean."
Dean looks regretful. "Yessir," he says. "Sorry to leave you alone in the middle of the night like this, Rachel."
She laughs as she hands Dad his change. "That's all right. I've never been afraid of the dark."
Dad gets an odd look then, somewhere between amusement and regret and a touch of sorrow. "I sure hope that never changes. Don't be long, Dean."
And just like that, he's gone.
Rachel turns to Dean, a bit puzzled, but "Thanks," is all he says.
"You made my Dad laugh. More than once. Doesn't happen often."
His attitude had mostly disappeared during the conversation anyway, but right now all the lines of his face are softened, all the angles smoothed over, and his smile is just heartbreaking. Suddenly, Rachel knows – knows – that if he'd been alone, they would have gone back to her place, or maybe just had a quickie here in the café, and he would have been great in bed and gone by morning, never to see or think about her again. But she's done something for him by making his Dad laugh, something more than a bit of fun and a physical release, and he won't forget her. Not now.
His hand in hers is cool and quick, calloused fingers sliding a folded paper into her palm. She squeezes his hand without quite knowing why, and then takes the paper.
"In case you ever need anything," Dean says. "You know, if you ever… if you ever find you are afraid of the dark after all."
"Thank you," she says.
He pauses a minute at the doorway, looks back. "I hope you don't call," he tells her, and Rachel smiles slowly.
"So do I," she says. "Even though I'm guessin' I could turn your real stories into an entire novel."