Lost – Interlude 11

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Sarah ran her hands over the twenty dollar bill in her pocket.

She’d taken it from one of the scientists’ wallets after hearing him call Mrs. Clyde an ‘old bitch’, and now that Mr. Clyde had given her a rare afternoon off before they flew back to Palmer, she had to find something to do with it.

Mr. Clyde had told her the afternoon off was a reward for a job well done, but she knew better. She was aimless without a task or goal in mind, and he knew that as well as she did. This was a punishment.

She turned, glancing at each shop in the strip mall to her left–a dollar store, a hair salon, a low-end grocery store, and a few hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Not a lot of appealing options.

She climbed the stairs to the parking lot, then crossed to the sidewalk, taking a second look at the trio of restaurants. She didn’t eat, but maybe she could at least get something to drink.

The first restaurant was a questionable-looking seafood place with the equally questionable name Fishy Crab. There was also a restaurant called Journey to India with a fragrant aroma coming from it that almost disguised the smell coming from the fishy place, and a restaurant that didn’t seem to have a name–just a large LED sign proclaiming ‘Pizza’.

Maybe ‘Pizza’ was the restaurant’s name, as stupid as that would be. It was arguably still a better name than Fishy Crab.

Okay, then. Indian restaurant it was.

It was somewhere between lunch time and dinner time, so the restaurant was empty when she entered. It was nicer on the inside than it was on the outside, with a white tablecloth and a small vase of flowers on each table, and wrought-iron chandeliers providing a warm glow. Only the drop ceiling and scratchy-looking carpet served as reminders this place was in a shady strip mall.

Sarah looked up at the farmhouse-style iron chandeliers. They looked way too heavy for the flimsy ceiling. It would be kind of funny if one of them came crashing down onto the tables, she thought.

They also weren’t the type of lights she’d have expected to find in an Indian restaurant. The lights looked like they belonged in a place Lily would have taken them to dinner, some upscale American restaurant that was trying to pretend it was rustic and folksy.

Not that she knew what kind of lights an Indian restaurant would have. She’d only been to restaurants with the Clydes, and they would never eat food from another country. Unless Billy wanted tacos, of course.

The middle-aged man at the counter looked up from the book he was reading, startled to see a customer.

“I’m very sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see you.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I just came in a second ago.”

She stood where she was, suddenly feeling awkward. She’d never been into a restaurant on her own before. Was there something you were supposed to say or do?

“How many?” said the man.

It took her a minute to figure out what he meant. She almost asked ‘how many what?’, and she was glad she hadn’t.

“Oh, just a table for one, please.”

The man gave her a strange look.

“All by yourself?”

“Yup.” She tried to sound upbeat. “All by my lonesome.”

The man led her to a table. It was in the back corner of the restaurant, secluded and far from the windows. It was the kind of table the Clydes would have complained about, yelling at the host and demanding to see the manager, but Sarah didn’t mind. It was kind of nice to be at a table that was tucked away.

The man handed her a menu in a plastic sleeve, then disappeared into a door behind her. He returned moments later with a plate of something that looked like thin, crispy crackers or pieces of flatbread, with two small cups of sauce on the side. She shook her head.

“Oh, no, thank you,” she said.

“It’s complementary,” said the man. “No charge.”

She paused, trying to think of what to say. What was she supposed to tell him? She didn’t know what was in the food he was serving her, so she couldn’t lie and claim an allergy, but she couldn’t tell him what she was either.

“It’s free,” explained the man, interpreting her silence as confusion. “You don’t have to pay for it.”

“Oh, I know,” she said. “I’m just not all that hungry.”

“This is a restaurant,” the man said with a confused laugh.

Sarah’s face flushed. This had been a mistake. Restaurants were for real people. She didn’t know what she was doing here.

“Right, sorry. I was just hoping I could get something to drink.”

“Of course,” he said. “The drink menu is on the back. Do you have any questions?”

She turned the menu over.

“No. I already know what I want,” she said. “I’ll have the masala chai, please.”

“Yes, of course. Just a minute.” The man hesitated, then placed the plate in front of her. “I’ll leave you the papadum. In case you want to try it.”

He seemed nervous, like he thought she might shout at him. She saw that kind of nervousness a lot in servers. When she went to dinner with the Clydes, it was usually warranted.

Mrs. Clyde would have shouted at the man for trying to give her food she didn’t want. Sarah just nodded and mumbled a thank you.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there staring into space and tapping her fingers against the table–it could have been one minute, or it could have been ten. The man returned, placing a steaming cup in front of her.

The moment she breathed in the fragrant steam, she let out a soft gasp. This wasn’t the syrupy, artificial chain coffee shop tea she’d had in Naomi’s car, this wasn’t the pale, dirty dishwater-flavored tea from the bags in the breakroom, or even the fancy tea the friendly woman had offered her earlier that day. This was something special, something she hadn’t smelled in so long, but would have recognized anywhere.

She lifted the cup to her lips and drank, feeling the warmth wash through her as she tasted all the flavors–rich, milky, bold, and sweet, with just a hint of bitterness.

When she put the cup down, she felt moisture on her face. At first she thought it was from the steam.

“How do you like the–” the man started to ask, then cut himself off. “Is… is everything alright, miss?”

At first, Sarah didn’t understand what he meant. Then, she touched her hand to her cheek and realized tears were streaming down her face.

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