It was a hot summer. Rust-colored rocks and dirt met dark green cactuses and brush. Sal’s staff enjoyed the lull in customers and prepared for dinner
“Cheryl, get over here and look at this!” Beth waved the fellow waitress over and pulled a scarf from her head, letting curly white hair spring free.
“What is it? I got table three throwing a fit over their corn chowder.” Cheryl stepped with an attitude.
Beth’s age-spotted hand pointed to a white envelope tucked under a ketchup bottle. The seal faced upward.
Cheryl brushed red hair from her pimpled forehead. “It’s a letter? So, what?”
“Not just any letter. Haven’t you heard the curse of Café Lizard?” Beth couldn’t look away.
Leonard came to clear the table and froze in his tracks. His gaze fixed upon the envelope. He’d been the cook there for some time, helping to clear the tables when things were slow.
The empty tub he carried slipped from his hands and bounced on the floor. “Oh, my Jesus. Is that what I think it is?”
Beth rose from the bench and stood next to him. “I haven’t turned it over yet, but maybe ya ought to call Sal.”
“Beth, we gotta be sure first.”
Cheryl clucked her tongue. “Can someone tell me what in the world is going on?”
They both hushed her.
“Fine! Well, I’m going back to table three. Thank you very much.”
As Cheryl stomped off, Beth reached out a shaky hand and grabbed the envelope.
Leonard encouraged her. “Go on. It’s not gonna bite ya.”
“Easy for you to say.”
Taking in a deep breath, she flipped it over and gasped at the writing on the front. It was the same as before; she knew without even reading it.
Leonard stepped away. “I’ll call Sal.”
Beth slipped the letter in her apron and looked around the café trying to remember who was just at the table. It was like that last time too. No one remembered who sat there. Some say it was the devil himself.
She wanted so badly to get rid of it. It’s spot against her hip feeling warm and electric. Though she also knew the letter would choose the right person. Their fate already sealed. It wouldn’t be her, and she would be sure of that.
Leonard met back up with her. “Sal said to lock it in his office.”
She nodded and did as she was told.
Cheryl was packing to go home for the day when she elbowed Beth in the side. “So? What gives? Why is everyone so jumpy?”
“Girl, are you too young to remember? I guess you are. Heavens, I can’t even talk about it without my heart racing.” Beth put her hand on her chest and walked away.
Cheryl rolled her eyes and headed through the kitchen where Leonard grew quiet when she appeared.
“Ya want to tell me what’s going on? I’m getting creeped out.” Cheryl pursed her lips and waited for an answer.
Leonard, waved for her to come closer. Then in a whisper, he started, “About ten years ago, this place burnt down. You remember that?”
“Kinda. I was just a kid.”
“Well, I started to work here when they reopened. When I did, Beth told me about the curse.”
Cheryl snickered, then clapped her hands and smiled. “Sorry. I’m listening.”
“Sal took over for his dad about twenty years ago. It was sudden because he died of a heart attack, and Sal had to step in. He was about your age when that happened. He never finished school. Started to work instead.”
“Are you going somewhere with this because my shift is over?”
“Sal was thrown into the deep end. The town got it, gave him a break while he figured it all out, but he ran the business into the ground. Story goes he was gonna close the place down. The day he met the bank, he prayed for a way to save it. That same night Sal was waiting tables…”
“Wait. Sal waited tables?”
“Yeah, he couldn’t afford a staff anymore, so it was just him and Harry, the old cook. He was clearing tables when he found the envelope. It said something about granting a favor. Sal put it in his pocket and walked into the kitchen to catch Harry crying. Apparently, Harry knew the café was closing and really needed the job to feed his family.”
“Sal went into his office and thought about the money he needed to turn the place around. So he opened the envelope hoping there’d be a big check inside or something, but it was empty.”
“Yeah, but once he opened it he was due a favor.”
“From who?” Cheryl cocked her head suspiciously.
“No one knows. Later Sal closed up and headed home. He got a call at midnight saying the restaurant was on fire. When he got there, he learned Harry was bringing his family in after hours to feed them. There was a gas leak, and the entire family died.”
“Oh, my God!”
“There was an investigation, but the insurance company paid up, and Sal built a new Café Lizard.”
She couldn’t help herself, and a laugh escaped her lips. “That’s the craziest story I have ever heard!”
“It’s real. The devil tricked Sal, and if you go near that envelope, he’ll get you too.”
“Thanks for the warning.” She batted her hand at him.
Beth’s voice rose from inside. “Cheryl? Can you do a double? Megan called in sick.”
The extra money would be helpful, so Cheryl agreed. Every penny helped her save for a move to somewhere lush and tropical. She had grown tired of dirt and dust and dreamt of places like Miami.
The staff stayed quiet all evening, only interacting as needed. Cheryl rather enjoyed the silence. It was as if she ran the place herself, and her tips were double the usual.
At closing time, she counted the money in the register while the others rolled silverware, and took out the trash. She unlocked the office with Beth’s key and left the cash in the safe. When she turned around, she noticed the letter on the desk.
Written on the front: Here is the favor you need. Open this letter, and it’s yours. However, there might be someone who deserves this more than you. If so, give it away.
“Well, that’s odd,” she mumbled. Then she considered her senior year had passed, and she had no plans. She thought it was ridiculous to think there would be something inside that would allow her to get away. But what if?
Sure, Beth’s arthritis was flaring up, and Leonard couldn’t read above a third-grade level. But there won’t be anything in an envelope to help them, she figured. So she ripped it open only to find nothing inside.
“Of course,” she groaned. Then packed her things and put the envelope in the trash before going home.
The next morning Sal noticed a light blinked on the café’s answering machine. He hit play and sat back in his chair.
“Hi, Sal. This is Cheryl. Sorry to do this to you but I won’t be coming back to work. My mom’s new boyfriend is moving us to Florida tomorrow, and I have to pack. Bye, now.”
Sal shook his head. When he tossed his coffee cup into the trash the envelope caught his eye. He reached in and held up the two pieces.
“Who opened this?” He ran out to the kitchen.
“Not me, boss!” Leonard said, his hands up in defense. Everyone else shook their heads.
“You don’t understand! The curse of Café Lizard is real! It got my old man and me. The last thing Pop said to me that day was, ‘I wish I didn’t have to work anymore.’ He got the envelope that afternoon and died that night. I need to know who opened it?”
Sal shook with furry. No one admitted to opening the letter which drew Sal to conclude it was Cheryl. He tried to get through to her, but her voicemail box was full. He worried about the young woman for weeks, but no one reached her.
Business continued at Café Lizard. Locals buzzed about the waitress that disappeared, everyone swearing the curse struck again. Sal was sure business would grind to a halt, but it seemed a good story brought in more people. So much so that money flowed in better than ever. Leonard signed up for GED classes, and Beth afforded better medication for her arthritis.
Beth tried to convince Sal it was nothing.
He responded, “That’s how the curse works. It does the greedy person in and favors everyone else. I have dreams of Cheryl laying in the desert, a lizard scurrying past her red hair. Suitcases packed for Florida with nothing inside.”
Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash