When I awoke, it was already nighttime. The image of a familiar man from my dreams fading from muddled memory. I rubbed my eyes and reached for my cigarettes on the bedside table. Counting the hours in my mind, a raspy groan escaped from my dry throat. I didn’t even realize it was possible for a person to sleep that long. I pulled my aching body out from the musty couch and felt heavy summer air already weighing me down despite the late hour. Using my two fingers, I parted my dusty plastic blinds and peeped down at the city from my apartment window. The city was sleeping soundly and I welcomed the quiet, only to have it broken by a vicious rumble in my stomach.
I stumbled over toward the clanking fridge, hoping somehow food magically manifested itself within. Every night I open the open the fridge door with high expectations, and every night I am disappointed. It had been months since I last seen the inside of a grocery store. My stomach issued another desperate cry for sustenance. The store was likely long-closed by now and the change in my pocket consisted of a few pesos and lint. It seemed, once again, I would be paying a visit to my old pal Chuey. I snatched my keys off the counter and gave my clothes a quick check for stains before heading out the door.
Chuey was an archaic diner just down the road from my apartment that specialized in stale food and coffee-flavored water, all at a price barely fitting within my budget. Most importantly, it was open 24 hours. Meaning it was the only place within walking distance that would accommodate my sleep schedule. The familiar green glow of the neon sign stained the empty trash strewn street with its nauseous color. Its loud buzz pierced through my skull and I winced at the pain. Despite its dilapidated charms, the place was beginning to feel like an old friend.
The rusted bell chimed as I opened the dusty, glass-pane door. The haggish and plump waitress behind the counter raised her head from her palm expectantly, but as she recognized my face her brow furrowed and her body returned to its lifeless posture. I found my usual seat next to the streaked window. I sat there in silence for a few moments before forcing out a fake cough to alert the waitress I was ready. She rolled her eyes, and reached for the coffee pot that had been sitting there for god knows how long and wobbled her way over to my table. She splashed hot coffee into my chipped off-white cup before looking down at me with her head cocked to one side.
“And a cherry pie, please,” I curled my lips up at her while her stone-like expression remained unchanged.
Taking a sip from my coffee, which had remarkably even less flavor than usual, I watched as the waitress disappeared into the dank kitchen to grab a piece of pie from the fridge. I wondered if she was alone here. Out of all the times I’d frequented, I’d never seen a single other person working. It was always solely her. I realized then I didn’t even know her name. Though, judging by her expression, she definitely didn’t care to know mine. She returned from the kitchen and slammed the pie onto the table before returning to her spot at the counter.
The pie was still cold, but I ate it anyway. I took my time, watching out the window as I ate. I could still hear the buzzing sound of the sign even from inside. An orange glow was beginning to creep its way up the street, overtaking the sickening green. I wondered if it was dawn already. I looked down at my watch and realized that there was still at least an hour left until sunrise. The glow flickered and I felt my heart seize up. No, it couldn’t be happening again. I leapt to my feet, and was about to make a break for the door, when I saw him.
A young man walked calmly down the road, his well-worn and shabby clothes hung limply off a tall and lanky torso. Straight black hair was combed back over an asymmetrical head with Aztec hawk-like features. His black shoes were scruffed and the laces frayed. There was pain on his face. I looked back to the bloated waitress at the counter who had since fallen asleep, completely unaware of the situation. I could feel my body growing hotter as my lungs screamed for air. The young man was now outside the window, I could feel his eyes turning towards me. I attempted not want to look, but some unseen force was pulling me towards him.
Our eyes met, separated only by a pane of glass. His calm expression slowly began to contort and I clenched my jaw. His forehead tensed, his mouth opened, and his jaw quivered. I could see that he was screaming, but not a single sound escaped his mouth. Tears streamed down my face and it felt as though my teeth might break. His face continued to change, showing such a terrifying pain. I pounded my fists on the glass. I had to save him.
I heard a voice yell out to me and I turned to see that the tired waitress with her eyes narrowing at me. I did not respond, but as I looked back to the window I found no-one there. The street had returned to its uneasy shade of green and there was no sign of the man. I ran for the door when the waitress yelled out, reminding me I needed to pay. I reached into my pocket to grab a handful of change. As I set the change down on the table, I noticed something else in my hand: a crumpled old photograph. I grabbed it and as I headed out the door, I heard the waitress mutter under her breath in Spanish.
“Every goddamn night.”
The street was as empty as empty as always, with no sign of that young man. I looked down at the photograph in my hand, the edges of it were slightly charred. I carefully unfolded in. It was me and the man, we were both smiling and I had my arms wrapped tightly around him. We stood in front of a gloriously golden sunset over crashing waves of a beach. I couldn’t remember the last time I looked or felt so happy. I ran my fingers down the creases in his face. It had been a very long time.