Nehemiah stared into the diner from the safety of the unlit sidewalk, watching Margo wrap napkins around silverware. No customers so late on a Monday. That’s why he’d chosen this night. But even without an audience, his stomach gnawed on itself like an animal chewing its way out of a trap.
You need a drink, friend. Steady your nerves.
He recognized the whisper in his mind for what it was. He squeezed his eyes tight.
“Go to hell, Whiskey,” he said.
He ignored the throaty chuckle of his eternal enemy and pushed the door open. The clank of cowbells announced his entrance. Margo looked up, her eyes as big as a startled owl’s.
Her walnut hair was shot through with silver. The harsh, fluorescent lighting made every line on her face look chiseled in.
She was too young to look so old.
How had two years changed her so much? Or had the amber haze he’d lived in for so long before she left made him unable to see her?
“What do you want, Nehemiah?” she spat. The muscles on her neck stood out, cord-like against her skin. Her disgust deepened his shame. Even in his thrift-store jacket, t-shirt, and blue jeans, he felt naked.
He let the door swing shut behind him. The bells clanked again. The place smelled of decades of eggs, bacon grease, and coffee.
“Nothing bad. I ain’t here to cause a scene.” It sickened him to have to say it. His hands trembled, and he hid them in his pockets. “I only want to talk.”
“Well, I don’t want to talk to you.” She finished wrapping a paper napkin around the silverware in her left hand and dropped the bundle into a grey, plastic tub. “You go on and get, or I’ll call the cops.” She picked up the handset of the old red phone on the wall behind the counter.
“Go ahead, if it will make you feel better. I can say what I need to before they get here, anyway.”
She stared at him a long time, brown eyes underlined by dark smudges. She remained still until the dial tone gave way to angry beeping.
“I let you say your piece, you’ll go on and go?”
She hung up the phone. Then she braced her hands on the counter, wide to the sides so that the crooks of her elbows showed.
“Get it over with, then.”
He pointed at one of the counter stools, bolted to the floor as though they might flee if given the opportunity.
“Can I… can I sit down?”
“You stand right there. That way you won’t have so far to walk when you’re done.”
She ain’t making this easy, Whiskey whispered. Nehemiah ignored it.
What have I ever done to deserve easy, he thought.
“I, uh, I came to say — ” he began, but his words failed him. He’d written it out this afternoon. Memorized it, so when the time came, this wouldn’t happen.
“Let me guess. You came to apologize. Twelve-stepping it. Is that it?”
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I’m not doing twelve steps, but — ”
“So you’re still a drunk.”
Her words ran up and down his spine like cockroaches.
“I am not. I ain’t had a drop since — ”
Since he hurled the bottle at the door after she slammed it for the last time. He had sliced his fingers to ribbons picking up broken glass with shaking hands.
“I don’t even want it anymore.”
“Liar,” she said.
Liar, Whiskey said.
“I don’t,” he whispered. “You ain’t me. Not anymore.”
“Who are you talking to?” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh. Whiskey. Like always.” She crossed her arms and dug her fists into her ribs. “Like it’s some other person inside of you, making you do things.”
His face burned.
The hell with her. Let’s get out of here. You know they’ve missed you at Charlie’s.
No. He was never going to be that man again. He breathed in deep, through his nose.
“I only blame myself.” And then the words he’d memorized came back to him in a torrent, rising so fast he feared they would choke him if he didn’t let them out.
“I did wrong by you. I treated you worse than anyone deserves. I ought not have said the things I said. I had no right. You never gave me anything but kindness and I repaid it with cruelty. I spent the last two years thinking about that. Regretting it. And now, I’m here to say… to say I’m sorry, Margo. I’m sorry for everything.”
Silence pressed down on him like a sack of gravel draped across his shoulders. He had thought he would feel better once he got it out, but his guts still twisted.
Margo pressed her lips into a bloodless line.
“Then you can leave, now.” She plucked a knife, spoon, and fork from a tray and started wrapping them in a napkin.
The cockroach sensation ran up and down his spine again, then down into his legs.
She didn’t even listen.
“You didn’t listen to a word I said!”
“I heard every word you said.” The words ricocheted off the counter, the walls, the floor. “And I heard all the things you didn’t say.” Her eyes shimmered.
“You think I owe you something now. Don’t you? I’m supposed to tell you I forgive you, and you can go on and feel better about yourself. Is that it?” She slammed the silverware bundle into the tub so hard it bounced out. She drew the back of her hand across her eyes, but new tears bubbled up to replace the ones she wiped away.
His mouth gaped, and his mind whirled.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, now you can listen to me. You put me through fifteen years of hell.” She thrust her finger toward the door. “So, you turn around and march yourself out that door, and you keep thinking about that for another thirteen years before you come back and apologize to me.”
All you wanted to do was apologize.
“All I wanted to do was… set things right.”
“Set things right?” She slammed her hands down onto the counter. The tray of silverware rattled.
“You can’t set things right, Nehemiah. Some things, you break them, you can’t fix them.” She sucked in a deep ragged breath.
“Get out!” she screamed.
He slipped out into the night. He looked back, over his shoulder. Margo was slumped over the counter, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook.
A plume of steam escaped Nehemiah’s nostrils.
Where you headed, friend?
He looked down the street. The neon lights of Charlie’s beckoned. He turned his back on them.
“I’m going home, Whiskey.” He started walking.
“I got another thirteen years of thinking to do.”