Curt brings it up, the next time they all grab a beer.
“My sister’s got a place upstate,” he says. “We only use it for holidays or family reunions. It’s off the grid, but well-stocked—booze, food, you name it. Even has a hot tub.”
Frank snorts. “Swanky.”
“C’mon, man,” Bill says, leaning on the bar. “When’s the last time you got out of the city?”
Frank takes a drink before answering. He’d thought about taking a road trip, a few months back—even put new tires on the van, bought a heavier sleeping bag for the nights he didn’t want to pay for a motel. The plan was to drive until the car broke down or he hit ocean, whichever came first.
He didn’t make it an hour out of the city before he had to turn around. That stretch of highway ahead of him, a road without an end—it was too much. He’d driven back to his apartment with his knuckles white around the steering wheel, bitter adrenaline coating the back of his throat.
Three years after losing his family, he was still too goddamn scared to have a life without them.
Bill waves a hand in front of Frank’s face. “Earth to Frankie. You okay, man?”
“Yeah,” Frank says, blinking. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just beat from today.”
Curt frowns. “You’re gonna burn out if you keep working extra hours like this.”
“It’s good money,” Frank says. “And it beats sitting on my ass in a cubicle.”
Bill drains his beer and gestures to the bartender for another. “You know my offer still stands. Consulting’s a good gig, Frank. Pays a hell of a lot better than swinging a sledgehammer, I can tell you that.”
Frank just grunts in response. Both of his friends have made lives for themselves since getting out of the service, doing what they know best. Bill wines and dines and consults for big-name companies, and Curt runs a group for veterans on the days he’s not working at the VA office. Frank is proud of them, he really is—they kept him from sliding somewhere truly dark after he lost Maria and the kids—but he can’t help but compare his life to theirs.
The problem is, Frank’s not sure what he’d do differently if given a choice. Most of his work is in demolitions, and he likes it. There’s something cathartic in the destruction, putting his brain on autopilot and letting muscle memory do the rest. He’s bone-weary by the end of each shift, which helps him sleep. He hasn’t had a nightmare in months.
It’s steady work, and it pays the bills, but Frank knows he could be doing more. Going through the motions—lather and rinse, day after day—it’s not a life. But it’s all he can do. He can’t see beyond it, and he doesn’t want to. Knowing that he's alone, that every day is one he has to endure without his family—sometimes it’s all he can do to drag himself out of bed in the morning.
“Can you even lift a sledgehammer, Russo?” Curt says, hiding his smile behind a swig of beer.
Bill flips him the bird. “Kiss my ass, man.”
“Guess I'll have to get in line.” Curt tips his head, and Frank follows his gaze to where a younger woman is casting coy glances over at Bill from across the bar.
“Jesus Christ,” Frank mutters. “Everywhere we go.”
Bill’s smug expression slides across his features like it’s what his face was made for. “Another beer, please,” he tells the bartender, slipping her some bills. “For the lady over there.”
A few minutes later, the woman makes her way over to where they’re standing. Frank’s honestly surprised it took her that long.
“I’m more of an IPA girl,” she says, teeth flashing. Bill leans in close to reply, bringing his hand to the small of her back in a fluid, easy gesture. His words are lost to the dull roar of the bar, but the woman laughs. No surprises there—Billy Russo is good with people in a way that’s entirely foreign to Frank.
Curt pretends to gag, and Frank chokes on his beer.
“What about you, huh?” he says once he’s recovered, shooting Curt a knowing look. “Aren’t you still seeing Delia?”
“One month and counting,” Curt says. He pulls a face as Bill snakes an arm around the woman’s shoulders. “Just promise me you’ll kick my ass if we ever start acting like that.”
Frank grins, about to open his mouth to agree when he’s jostled by someone pushing their way up to the bar. The guy is plastered, judging by his lack of body awareness and how strongly he reeks of alcohol. Just another asshole who doesn’t know his limit.
“Hey,” the man slurs, leering at the bartender. “Another pint. And one for yourself, on me.”
The bartender doesn’t look up as she pours the drink. “Thanks, but I don’t drink when I’m working,” she says.
The man leans further over the bar. “C’mon. Just one drink. I want you to have a drink with me.”
Curt raises his eyebrows, taking a pull of his beer, but Frank notices how he subtly angles his body toward the newcomer. The bartender looks like she can handle herself—she’s young, maybe just out of college, and Frank’s sure this isn’t the first night she’s had to fend off drunken idiots like this one. Still, his hand reflexively balls into a fist as he watches the man give her a very deliberate up-down.
“You’re really hot,” the man drawls. “I like your tattoos. Maybe you could show me where that one goes.”
“Wouldn’t that be fun,” the bartender deadpans. She seems unfazed by his behavior. “Too bad I’m working.”
It’s as if a switch has flipped. The man’s face twists into something ugly, his lips curling as he sneers, “Bitch.”
Curt’s eyes darken, but Frank is way ahead of him. “Hey,” he says, loud enough to get the man’s attention. “Leave the lady alone, yeah?”
“Who the hell are you?” the man says, drawing himself up.
“Just a guy trying to enjoy my beer,” Frank says. “Kinda hard with you being an asshole over there.”
Anger flashes in the man’s eyes. “What did you just—” he cuts off as Curt silently moves to stand beside Frank. For a moment, the man looks like he’s considering throwing a punch, but then he backs off. “Whatever. Fuck this.”
Frank doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath until the guy is out of his line of sight. He feels like he’s just left a warzone—his palms are slick with sweat, and his pulse is racing.
He’s almost—disappointed. He would’ve thoroughly enjoyed kicking that guy’s ass.
Curt must be reading his mind. “Kinda wish he’d given me an excuse,” he says. “Probably for the best that he didn’t, though.”
“Yeah,” Frank says, staring in the direction that the man went. His blood is still thrumming, his muscles itching for release. He digs his nails into his palm, hard. “Yeah, probably is.”
“Hey,” a woman’s voice says behind them, and Frank turns. The bartender is looking at both of them. “Thank you.”
Curt bobs his head. “Don’t mention it. On behalf of all men, we’re sorry.”
The bartender laughs. “I appreciate it. Thanks again.” She moves further down the bar as someone calls for another drink.
They finish their beers in silence. Frank can tell that Curt is still tense—he keeps fidgeting, all potential energy with nowhere to go. Curt’s day job isn’t as conducive for working out built-up tension, but he’s always been the most level-headed of the three of them. He knows the value of using words to solve a problem, instead of his fists.
Bill has disappeared, which is typical. Frank sometimes wonders if he agrees to come out with them for their company, or to pick up women. It’s probably a little bit of both.
By the time he's polished off his beer, his pulse has evened out. He’s teetering on the edge of tipsy, and that’s how he knows it’s time to stop. “Think I’m gonna head out,” he says to Curt.
Curt nods, tipping the rest of his beer back. “I’m right behind you. Just need to close my tab. You see Casanova anywhere?”
“Nah," Frank says, “but I’m sure he’s doing just fine, wherever he is.”
They make their way toward the entrance. Frank shrugs into his coat, craning his neck to scan the bar one last time for Bill—
There’s a blur of motion to his right, a fist flying into his periphery. He reacts instinctively, twisting away—and the punch that was meant to take him above the ear lands between his shoulder blades.
Frank lurches forward. He’s dimly aware that Curt is shouting, and he turns on his heel, fists raised defensively.
It’s the asshole from earlier. He rushes at Frank again, swinging his entire arm in a wide arc. Frank ducks, then jabs his elbow into the man’s face. There’s a crunching sound, and the man staggers to the floor, clutching his nose.
“Alright, Rambo,” Curt says, hauling the man up by the shoulders. He shoves him roughly out the front door, then turns to Frank. “You alright, man? I’m sorry, didn’t seem him coming—”
“Me either,” Frank says. He rolls his shoulder, assessing the damage. The pain has already receded to a dull ache, though he’ll probably feel it more in the morning. “We’re getting rusty, brother.”
Curt laughs dryly. “Speak for yourself. I’m not the one who just got sucker punched.”
Karen has just finished closing up when she feels the blow.
It hits like lightning—one moment, she’s locking the diner’s front door, and the next she’s thrown onto the blacktop. Pain blossoms between her shoulders, and she whips around, expecting to see whoever just hit her—
But there’s no one. The parking lot is empty and quiet, save for the hum from the nearby streetlight. Karen squints against the darkness, straining to see if there’s a silhouette of her attacker disappearing into the night. She drops her right hand into her bag, fingers sliding around the .380 stashed there. Muggings aren’t a common occurrence in Fagan Corners. Most likely this is one of the local high schoolers messing around, but Karen keeps her hand clenched around her gun as she moves quickly to her car.
The roads are mostly empty on the drive home. She scans them uneasily, unable to shake the sensation that she’s being watched. She’s been on her own for years now, but she rarely feels unsafe. This is something new, and it’s more than a little disconcerting.
The song that’s playing on the radio crackles with static, and Karen goes to switch the station.
Karen jumps in her seat. Someone’s in the car with her—
She swerves onto the shoulder and hits the brakes. As soon as the car skids to a halt, Karen lunges for her gun and points the barrel at the backseat.
There’s no one there. Of course, there’s no one there, but that voice—it sounded like it had come from inside the car, like someone was sitting right behind her. Even now, she can hear the low rumble of many overlapping voices, threaded through with music. It’s like she’s sitting in a restaurant, or a bar.
Karen shakes her head furiously, and the noise stops.
She remains frozen where she is, her gun trained on the backseat—but all she hears is the thin shimmer of static from the radio. There’s no voice, no music.
Karen lowers her pistol and sits back. She blinks at the clock above the dashboard. It’s only just past eight, but it feels like it could be midnight. She’s been working twelve-hour shifts for the past week—maybe it’s finally starting to impact her brain function. She probably just needs some sleep.
Karen drives the rest of the way home feeling vaguely on edge, but mostly exhausted. Her apartment is only a ten-minute drive from the diner, but by the time she’s pulling into her carport and unlocking her front door, it’s all she can do to keep her eyes open.
She collapses into bed without taking off her coat or shoes, asleep within minutes.
The rest of the week passes with little incident. Her daily routine at the diner is monotonous, but it keeps her busy—the phantom attack and strange voice are quickly forgotten in lieu of more pressing concerns like the stovetop’s leaking gas line and a server out with a nasty bout of flu. There’s a tidal wave of shit that needs fixing, bills piling up, customers who only give her business because they knew her father—but she does it. She treads the water.
She doesn’t touch the photo of the four of them. It aches to look at, the memory stinging like soap to a cut, but it’s proof that they were a happy family, once. It’s all the closure she has.
Penny’s Place hasn’t given her much else. She couldn’t make things right with her dad, even after he got sick. A broken bone never heals quite right, and the chasm between them was no different. Karen still considers it a small miracle that he left her the diner when he passed, though she doubts his intentions were benign. It feels like karmic retribution—punishment for surviving, for being here when the rest of her family isn’t.
Fagan Corners is her penance.
The week ends on a high note—she’s able to fix the gas leak herself with a bit of mechanical tinkering, and she finds someone to cover the sick server’s shifts, so she celebrates by going to the grocery store. Her pantry is painfully bare, and she’s been subsisting off diner leftovers for longer than she cares to admit. Her body is craving something—anything—that hasn’t been deep-fried in oil.
It’s early enough in the morning that the parking lot is fairly empty. Karen snags one of the coveted spots near the front doors, grabs a cart, and makes a beeline for the produce section.
She’s inspecting the strawberries, her hand reaching for one of the containers, when she’s suddenly staring at—someone else's hand. She blinks several times. The hand in front of her looks masculine, fingers long and callused. She can see a thin scar running up the length of the index finger, and some light bruising across the knuckles. It fades slightly, an almost transparent image on top of her own fingers—
A car horn blares, and Karen flinches. She snaps her eyes up—and she's not in the produce section anymore. She’s crossing a busy street, but there’s a taxi right there, it’s going to hit her—
“Watch out!” she yells, shoving her arms out in front of her protectively. Her shopping cart careens away from her, crashing into the banana stand.
Karen freezes. It’s the voice. A different one from before, but unmistakable.
“Who said that?” she demands, spinning around. There’s no one else in the produce section besides a store employee, who is looking at Karen with a mixture of concern and fear.
“Everything okay, ma’am?” the employee asks hesitantly.
“Yeah, I’m—” Karen swallows. “I’m fine—”
“Who is that?” the voice asks, louder this time. Karen’s heart kicks in her chest.
The voice—it’s coming from inside her head.
“What the fuck,” she whispers, hands bracketing her face. “What the fuck.”
“Who is that?”
Karen slams her hands over her ears and runs out of the store, not stopping until she’s back in her car. She sits like that for a minute, nails digging into her scalp and her pulse in her throat.
She’s still sleep-deprived—she’s just tired, that’s all this is—
“I’m not gonna ask again,” the voice says, low like thunder. “Who the hell is this?”
Karen’s eyes dart to her purse, to the .380 tucked away there, but it doesn’t matter—whoever this is, they’re not actually here. They’re in her head.
Maybe living in this bumfuck town really does drive people insane.
“Get out of my head,” she says through gritted teeth, “get out of my head, get out of my head—”
“Listen, lady, I’m not in your head, I’m—” the voice cuts off. “Am I in a car?”
“I am,” Karen answers slowly. “It’s my car.”
As if on cue, her steering wheel blurs and she’s looking down a sidewalk. Tall buildings line either side of the street, and the air is thick with noise—taxi drivers laying on their horns, people shouting, distant sirens.
“What the hell is happening?” she says. “Who—who is this?”
“I asked you that,” the voice replies, sounding irritated.
“Is this in my head?” Karen says, feeling slightly dazed. She focuses her eyes. “I can see—a city. But I can see here, too. It’s like one is close and one is far away.” She relaxes her gaze, and the steering wheel swims back into view. “I can see what’s—in my head.”
“I told you, this ain’t your head, lady. It’s New York City.”
Karen focuses again, and she’s back on the sidewalk. New York. After Kevin died, she almost moved to the city. She wanted to be anonymous, just another face in a sea of many. Now she’s there, somehow—she can see it as clearly as the interior of her car.
“This is real,” she whispers. “You’re real.”
“Sure as hell hope so,” the voice grumbles. It’s definitely a male voice, low and gravelly.
Karen squeezes her eyes shut. “I don’t understand what this is. I can hear you like—”
“Like I hear myself,” the voice finishes.
Karen presses a hand to her mouth. Every rational and logical part of her brain is scrambling to accept that this is real. It’s like something out of a science fiction novel—she can see what this man is seeing, feel what he’s feeling.
Karen opens her eyes, tipping her head back against the seat. “This is—shit, this is crazy.”
“Yeah, you got that right,” the voice says. “So—where are you, then? If you’re not in my head?”
“Fagan Corners, Vermont.”
“Never heard of it.”
Karen smirks. “Not surprising. Trust me, you’re not missing much.” She has a sudden thought. “Wait, what day is it there?”
“Thursday, I think. The 24th.”
Karen nods. “Okay, that’s today. So you're not from the future or anything.”
"Big concern of yours?"
Karen frowns. "Just ruling things out." She pauses. “I’m Karen, by the way.”
The voice huffs. “Wow, didn’t think of that. I’m Frank.”
“Frank,” she echoes. “It’s—nice to meet you?”
The voice—Frank—makes a noise that’s halfway between a grunt and a laugh. “Interesting definition of that word, ma’am.”
“So, what now?”
There’s a long stretch of silence, and she wonders if Frank left, or if she somehow lost him. She has no idea how any of this works. But, no—she can feel him in the back of her head, a hazy sensation like she’s coming up from underwater. He’s still here.
“Would you—” he pauses for a beat. “Would you want to talk later? I’m on my way to work right now, but—” he trails off again, and when she doesn’t respond, he backpedals. “I know that’s probably way out of line, you don’t know me from Adam—”
Karen shakes her head. “It’s not out of line. I’m sorry, I’m just—processing. But I agree, we should talk again.”
“I get off around six. That work for you?”
“Great. If, uh—if for some reason I can’t reach you, or it doesn’t work again, it was nice—talking with you.”
Karen laughs. “I think we have the same definition after all.”
She can’t explain it, but she can feel Frank’s mouth tug at the corners like it’s her own. Like she’s the one trying not to smile.
“Take care, ma’am,” he says.
And he’s—gone. She can feel his presence in the back of her head, and then he’s sliding away like dust to a breeze, and she's alone again.