When they entered the diner they got more than a few strange looks from the night staff and the handful of late-night patrons. Julia assumed they were mostly due to her companion’s sheer size and imposing, intimidating presence, but perhaps also to the fact that they looked like they had just climbed out of the river. The crabby hostess sat them in a booth away from everyone else, and began walking away again without saying anything. “Could we get a couple cups of coffee?” Julia called after her, trying to sound pleasant. She didn’t get a response. “Always a nice place,” she muttered to herself.
Her coffee buddy simply grunted, resting his elbows tiredly on the table. His head was tilted down, his one visible eye closed. Julia glanced around the diner awkwardly, catching a few other people watching them. Remarkably, their sunny waitress returned with a full pot of coffee and silently filled their cups, then turned away again. “Leave it,” the large man said loudly, forcefully tapping the table with an index finger.
The waitress whirled back around, her mouth open to protest, but found the man glaring up at her. Julia imagined that any other customer would have gotten an earful at that point. Her companion got his pot of coffee. She was starting to feel a bit peckish herself, but she didn’t want to press her luck with this wait staff. “So,” she said, taking a sip of the bland brew in her cup, “you know my name. Well, my first, anyway. Julia Fitzsimmons. What’s yours?”
She held out her hand to him across the table. He scowled at it as if it were a dead animal, but grudgingly shook it. “Doran.”
“Seriously? That’s my grandfather’s name. Small world, huh? Guess you have some Irish in you.” He neither confirmed nor denied her guess at his ancestry, just drained half his first cup of coffee in two quick gulps. “He told me what it meant in Gaelic once. ‘Wanderer,’ I think.”
“Or ‘exile’,” Doran grumbled.
“Ah.” She was not used to making polite chit-chat, especially with strangers. Her cat was a poor conversation partner. “Are you from out of town, Doran?”
She nodded, taking another sip. “What brings you here?”
“Well, I hope for your sake that it’s a business trip,” she said, chuckling, “and not a relocation!” Not even a glare from him. Her smile faded as she cleared her throat. He was definitely not making this easy for her. “So, um… what kind of work do you do?”
“Military,” he grunted, then poured himself a second cup and downed half of it.
“Oh.” She frowned. To her limited knowledge, there were no bases in the area. “Is that, um… how you got…” She trailed off, glancing conspicuously toward his injured side.
He glowered up at her from his mug. “Gun battle. Just a grazing.”
“Oh. Well, I suppose you know best. I’m no doctor, but it just seems like the kind of thing you’d want to have looked at. Especially if it’s fresh—“
One of Doran’s hands slammed down on the tabletop, rattling silverware and sending the coffee in their cups and the pot sloshing. His other hand rubbed his forehead in frustration. “Do you ever not talk?”
She jerked back a bit, stung by the criticism, then let her gaze fall to her lap. “I’m sorry, I guess I’m just nervous still… I did almost hit you with my car a little while ago.”
Again, no response. She fell silent, keeping her eyes from rising to his face again, instead focusing anxiously on his hands wrapped around the comparatively tiny cup. Though she certainly felt intimidated by the man, she realized she was not afraid for her safety. It was more like he was judging her, like a disappointed teacher, or her disapproving father, even though this man knew next to nothing about her. In fact, she was reminded of her father’s outspoken criticism and trivialization of her life decisions. A career military man himself, “the Major” always stressed the importance of schoolwork, math and science, and discipline. She had been more interested in dance, art, and theater during high school, which led to many arguments when he was home. She had never intentionally done anything to disappoint him; she simply didn’t have the aptitude for or dedication to schoolwork that he seemed to assume were buried somewhere within her.
Doran finished his second cup and poured another. “I’m sorry,” he offered, still sounding like a snarling animal. “Tell me about yourself.”
Surprised by his request, she looked back up at him. He was still grimly inspecting his mug. She shook her head and smirked self-deprecatingly. “There’s not much to tell, really. I, um… I clean offices. At night. To feed myself and my cat.”
Now he met her gaze. “That’s it?” he said flatly. “No goals? No aspirations?”
She leaned back, sighing. “You sound like my father. If you must know, I’d always pictured myself on stage, dancing or acting. The powers that be said I didn’t have enough raw potential. They were probably right. When performing didn’t pan out, I turned to teaching. Children’s dance. The school where I taught lost business and closed when the recession hit. The arts are always the first thing to suffer in a bad economy. After that, I needed to do something to pay the bills. I took what I could find. Don’t really have time or energy for anything else.”
Her brief autobiography brought another disapproving frown from Doran. “Any family to help you?”
“Only child,” she replied. “You’d think that would improve my situation, but Dad cut me off when I quit college. When he died—when he was declared dead—Mom offered to start helping me, but I was making just enough to fake pride and sugarcoat my situation for her. I… I’m an adult, I can’t take money from her now.”
He squinted at her, but she couldn’t read that particular expression. “What happened to your father?”
She lifted her mug to her lips before answering. “He was in the army, like you. Served in both Gulf Wars, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. M.I.A. during the second one, declared dead but Mom and I never got a body. They still don’t know what happened to him.”
“My condolences,” Doran rumbled.
“You remind me a bit of him… your demeanor, anyway. Probably about the same age, too. Maybe you served in Iraq together.”
He looked away again. “I managed to… avoid that one.”
“Well, you’re too young for Vietnam. Where did you serve, Afghanistan?”
“That was one of them, yes.”
She smiled ruefully. “I guess the general public doesn’t know about all our deployments and actions.” He offered nothing else on the matter, so she decided to change the subject. “So, where are you staying while you’re in town?”
He drained his third cup and reached for the pot. “Just arrived,” he said, refilling his mug.
“You don’t have a hotel reservation or anything? Boy, you’d think the army would plan things better than that. And no luggage either? You travel really light!” He simply glowered at her in response. “Well, I suppose you might be able to find an available room in one of the motels on the highway. You’re probably used to sparse accommodations anyway, right?” Still nothing. “Right. Well, listen, I should really get to work. Why don’t we call you a cab so you can find a room somewhere and get some sleep before… whatever it is you’re here to do?”
He lifted his head suddenly, sitting straighter than his previously hunched posture, as if his attention was suddenly piqued. But he wasn’t looking at Julia. At first he stared past her, perhaps listening for something, then focused out the window next to them. Julia glanced outside as well, noticing two police cars pulling into the diner’s parking lot. Their lights were not flashing, but Doran seemed agitated nonetheless. “We need to leave,” he growled, much more alert now than he had seemed seconds ago.