The Highway Diner


The Highway Diner 


Gladys flipped the sign in the window to close and peered cautiously outside. The squat, red and white Highway Diner sat on the corner of East Second Street and West Coleridge, surrounded by tan and brown stucco buildings that housed a dentist, an accountant, and a thrift shop. A few Rivieras and Corvairs were parked curbside further up the road. The Madonna prayed for them from her shrine across the street. 

Nervously tidying her gray bun, Gladys left the blinds open as instructed and clicked the lock on the door. Her red waitress uniform hugged her ample form and her orthopedic white shoes squeaked on the checkered tile floor as she scurried behind the counter. Plates with half-eaten food remained at two of the booth tables in the empty dining room. A crumpled napkin and crumbs dirtied the end of the counter in front of the last stool.   Gladys switched off the coffee maker, grabbed the last pot from the burner, and snagged a few coffee cups.   She pushed through the swinging door into the dark kitchen. Anyone looking in through the front windows would hopefully believe the diner was unoccupied. 

"It's me," Gladys called quietly, with a light rap on the office door. The scent of recently cooked bacon and grease hung in the air. The busboy Fernando's anxious, pock-marked face peered at her as he cracked open the door. He let her in and quickly shut and locked the door behind her. 

Seven people crowded in the tiny room, made even smaller by the metal desk, rickety chairs, filing cabinet, and bookshelves crammed with business manuals and cookbooks.   Luckily, José, the whipcord thin head chef and owner, kept a tidy office. He sat at his desk, hunched in front of a radio, trying to get a clearer signal.   Pete, the homeless Korean War veteran who scraped together enough money for a cup of coffee every day, stood crammed in the corner of the room. Plump and pregnant Susan perched on one of the extra chairs, smoking a cigarette. Henry stood behind his wife, Phyllis, who had the other chair. The senior couple faithfully ate oatmeal at the diner every Tuesday morning.

Gladys squeezed between Fernando and the desk, and set the coffee cups down. "Coffee?" she offered, filling the cups. Pete and Henry accepted gratefully. Susan shook her head. Phyllis held up her hand, passing. The third cup remained untouched. 

"Got it," José murmured, as the static finally cleared enough for the radio broadcaster's voice to be understood. 

"...Stay indoors and away from the windows. Persons requiring emergency medical assistance should contact the police and remain in your home or business until help arrives. The cause of the outbreak is unknown and should be treated as an airborne illness until further information is received. Remain calm, and stay indoors-" 

The seven gasped and exchanged terrified glances when the first screech was heard.