A string of bells jingled obnoxiously against glass as Hugh entered the Jukebox Café. The first thing he noticed was the pepless fan rotating just enough to move hot air and the smell of grease from one side of the restaurant to the other. No one came for the food, or at least that’s what he assumed upon sight of the sticky red tablecloths and French fries that speckled the checkered floor. That and the fact that he was the only soul in sight.
He walked up to the bar and squinted at a sign asking customers to “Please seat yourself or ring for service.” What kind of café required its customers to ring a bell for service? Not sure if there was an employee in the place, he rang it despite the sheen applied by dirty hands, and the shrill sound barely cut through an old tune produced by the jukebox in the corner.
Almost a full minute later, a young woman appeared from the back, wiping her hands on her waitress’s apron. She smiled and said, “Can I get you a menu?”
“No, thanks. I’m looking for the proprietor of this establishment.”
“That would be me.”
He looked her up and down, noticing every detail from her worn-out clothes and dirty blonde hair to her beach of freckles and the lime green polish chipping from her nails. Certain his face betrayed his skepticism, he asked, “How long have you owned the place?”
“Well, it kind of fell into my hands about a year ago. Why do you need to know?” She frowned, quite positive his cheap excuse for a suit jacket and ten dollar sunglass didn’t belong in her café and certainly had no right to question her.
He paused a moment, then grunted. “Right. I always forget.” He fished around in his pocket and produced a wallet, flipped it open, and held it out for her. “Hugh Cartwright, Fault Line Management.”
Without batting an eyelash, she inspected the card carefully. “I wouldn’t have accused you of being a management man.”
“I’ll count that as a compliment.”
Not knowing exactly how to continue, Hugh returned his identification to his pocket while considering his words. “Do you get much business?” he asked obviously after a moment of awkward silence filled by a sad song from the jukebox.
“It’s a madhouse most days; you just came at a bad time."
She said it totally deadpan, and he had to hesitate, not sure whether to acknowledge the statement as sarcasm. So he moved on to the real business of his visit. “Management has reported numerous fault line disturbances at this location. I assume you can collaborate that.”
“Disturbances?” She blinked at him. “Hardly.”
“Something’s going on, hence my visit.” He waited for what he assumed would be her inevitable explanation, which never came. “Since you’re making me ask, here it is: This is an official investigation, and I need to know what at this location is causing the disturbances.”
“Well,” she said plainly, “why don’t you do a little actual investigation and find out for yourself? Or aren’t you management types paid to do anything more than talk?”
“Ah, so there is something to find.” He seemed satisfied with himself for getting that insinuation out of her, and she frowned.
“Either there is or there isn’t. I’m simply saying it’s your job to find out, not mine.”
“Fair enough.” He pushed up his sunglasses and stepped away from the counter. “It’s not like I expect cooperation from you keepers.” Reaching into his pocket, he produced a translucent, bean-sized device and adjusted it into his ear. Then he stood perfectly still and listened—listened to the beat of the fan, to the throbbing of traffic outside, to the sizzle of the fryer in the kitchen, and then to the strum of guitar chords artificially vibrating from the jukebox.
That was it, the jukebox. He walked over, around a few tables, and leaned in to notice every detail. He determined every color of its psychedelic arches and every condiment-tipped smudge, but most importantly he noticed the minute fracture in the tile at the machine’s base.
He smiled to himself and knelt down, slowly tracing his fingers along the line. “It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a sound disturbance,” he said mostly to himself. “In a fault this small, it’s one of the few things that can worm its way through. But it obviously does.”
“Obviously? Really? A crack in the floor of a dump like this?” She’d walked up behind him and crossed her arms. “That’s quite a stretch.”
Hugh turned and finally removed his sunglass. “I’ve been in management a lot longer than a year. I know obvious when I see it.” He paused for a second. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“I didn’t give it.”
“And now I’m asking.” At her look of defiance, he added, “Officially.”
“Annie ... ?”
“Okay, Just Annie, tell me about this jukebox.”
She shrugged. “There’s not much to tell. It’s been here since I acquired the place, playing music, you know, like jukeboxes are known to do.”
“And you’ve been its keeper.”
She rolled her eyes. “You can see how well I take care of it, so yeah, let’s go with ‘keeper.’” She added air quotes for sarcastic emphasis.
“You have quite the well rehearsed defense.”
“And you have no proof.” She narrowed her eyes at his smile. “What?”
“You did it again, implied that there’s proof to be found.”
“You have your work cut out for you if you want to transform that fancy to truth.”
“That’s why you’re going to help me.”
She uncrossed her arms and placed them on her hips. “What exactly about our discourse thus far has led you to that conclusion?”
“Only that I’m sure a year’s been long enough for you to have seen first hand how dangerous fault disturbances can be. Management sent me to negate those dangers, no matter how slim you may perceive them to be.”
“Yeah, I understand that disturbances are dangerous, but there’s no disturbance here. It’s a perfectly functioning fault.”
Something in her voice hinted otherwise, and he studied her closely. “Perfectly functioning?” Her expression faltered, and he didn’t need to say more. He simply waited.
“Well, certainly nothing that qualifies as a disturbance, but things have happened. Nothing dangerous, just ... out of the ordinary. This fault line is unique, it’s evolving.”
“Nothing evolves when it comes to fault lines.” He sighed and took a seat at the nearest table, gesturing for her to join him. Locking eyes with her, he explained, “They only devolve and mutate over time into something unstable at best and death traps at worst.” He tried to conceal the pain in his voice, but he doubted with much success.
“You lost someone to a fault, didn’t you?” She spoke softly for the first time, which transformed her youthful defiance into innocent concern.
Hugh swallowed and cleared his throat, then said, “My wife and daughter.”
An awkward silence; it endured pitifully.
Finally, he composed himself. “That’s why I’m here. I don’t want anyone else to lose the people they love like I did. You understand why this is important?”
“Yes.” She examined his expression but could find no sight into his soul. “I assure you, nothing like that could happen here.”
“Come see for yourself.” She moved back to the jukebox and held out a hand. “Give me a dime.” He produced one from his pocket and dropped it onto her palm, and she flicked it into the machine with skilled ease. “Now pick a song.”
He read a few of the album titles and shook his head. “Power by Kansas? I’ve never heard of any of these.”
“Is that the music’s fault or yours?”
“Fine.” He read through the songs and said, “How about ‘Taking In the View?’”
“Great. This song will give you the answer to your question.”
“I didn’t ask a question.”
“But you still want to know the answer.”
Hugh’s eyebrows furrowed in perplexity. He’d never met quite such a riddlesome keeper before, but there was something about her that intrigued him, so he decided to stop questioning everything and let her show him whatever she intended.
“Are you ready?” she asked. He nodded, and she pressed in the buttons P7. The record dropped into place and began to play the song’s eerie cords. “Close your eyes and just listen,” she said. “Feel the heartbeat of it.”
Hugh wanted to shut his eyes and join her in tranquil stillness, but he couldn’t remove himself from the transformation happening around him. The lights flickered in tune to the rhythm of music, and then all the material furnishings joined the dance around enchanted lyrics.
The world began to change
The children moved and they had children
It was all arranged, you couldn't live there anymore
All you had was that old place
In the middle of the path of progress
So they took the space and put the ceiling on the floor
In one of the rooms all the walls were blue
It was hidden so well that no one knew
Just the place for taking in the view
Blackness struck like the beat of a wing and then vanished into a hazy afternoon. The music continued, but now dull and tinny, barely escaping the jukebox speakers.
Annie opened her eyes nodded to the now bustling café. “Welcome to my other palace.”
A quick glance around revealed the same café but even more worn out, though this time the florescent light gleamed from a polished floor and clean tablecloths. The same fan swung overhead, but it seemed to have a little more pep. The real difference was the people. The place now brimmed with laughing children who gorged themselves on fries while spilling ketchup and smiling parents who tried their best to clean small faces.
Hugh stepped forward into the place, amazed. “This is—”
“Annie!” A stout young man sporting an apron and buzz cut emerged from the swinging doors of the kitchen and interrupted him. “About time you got back. Table twelve is ready to order.”
“Thanks, Chuck. I’m on it.”
Chuck nodded and disappeared within the depths of the kitchen.
Hugh turned back to Annie. “Who was that?”
“My boss. I hired him shortly after acquiring the place.”
“You hired your own boss?" He raised an eyebrow, then lowered it again. "Never mind, I don’t want to know.”
“What do you want to know, exactly?” A glare began to take shape on her face. “Does this place look like an unstable death trap to you?”
“Well, no, not at first—”
“I didn’t think so. I brought you here so you could see for yourself that there’s nothing disturbed about it, so why don’t you hurry up and do your investigating so I can get on with my business. As you can see, it’s booming, and I have tables to wait.”
“Whoa, okay.” He held up his hands on reflex. “I’ll get started. Please bring me a glass of water.”
“I always start by drinking the water.”
She narrowed her eyes, then sighed, not in defeat but in resignation. “I’ll be right back.”
Hugh walked over to the bar and took a seat on one of the faded red stools while he waited. He listened to the chatter and paid attention to the rhyme and pitch of it, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The string of bells rang as the door opened, and two new patrons entered the café. A mother guided her middle school aged daughter to a booth, and they began to chat softly to each other. They looked so much alike, both with thickly curled black hair, tan skin that glowed even in the worst of lights, and inquisitive dark eyes.
Hugh leaned forward, not sure he could believe what he saw. Was it even possible?
“Here you go.” Annie set a glass of water on the counter with unnecessary force, startling him from his thoughts. But he didn’t say anything and didn’t look away from the booth. “What is it?”
“That’s impossible,” he said.
“What?” She followed his line of sight. “Sophia and Marie? They’re regulars.”
He abruptly turned to her, imploring her with intense eyes. “You know them?”
“I just said they’re regulars. Why? Do you know them?”
“They’re my family ... but they can’t be here. There were erased from time itself.”
“Unless you’re wrong.”
He watched his wife wink a secret message to his daughter, and Marie laughed the laugh of a hundred bubbles bursting all at once. “I want to be wrong,” he whispered.
“This place is a haven,” she said simply, and he believed her.