Patrick stepped into the air-conditioned comfort, already a relief after just a few moments between the car and the truck stop diner front door.
Mercifully, he found the place only sparsely populated, and thus all that much easier to pick out Chuck from a description so recently committed to memory: young, average height and build, dirty blond hair shaggy but off the collar, department store clothes and shoes. He was in a booth, appreciatively studying the menu. Patrick slid into the seat opposite him. "Good afternoon."
"Afternoon," Chuck said, and continued studying the menu, as if having a stranger join him for lunch was a common occurrence.
Patrick waited a moment, to see if he would say anything else. When it was clear he was more interested in the menu, Patrick continued, "I'm Frank."
Chuck glanced up and then back down to the menu. "What happened to the old Frank?"
"Re-assigned. Moved on to other things."
"I liked the old Frank."
Patrick shrugged. "I don't know him. But I'll pass along your regards through channels—"
"You don't have to call me 'Frank' if you don't want to. It's not really my name—"
"I know. I don't mind calling you Frank, it's fine. It's not as if my name is actually 'Chuck'."
"None of this was my idea, you know."
"I understand. I've been fully briefed."
"I imagine that took all of ten minutes. Local minutes even."
Patrick laughed. "Slightly longer. But most of what they told me was preceded by 'we think' rather than 'we know'."
Chuck chuckled quietly to himself. "And what was your reaction?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, I'm always fascinated on how new people process that kind of information."
Patrick thought about it for a minute. "Well… I mean, I was pretty freaked out at first, I have to admit. But I guess you just have to find a way to shoehorn it into your mental picture of the universe, don't you? "
"I suppose so."
"So, that's what I did. I mean, you don't get into that briefing in the first place if you haven't met all sorts of psych-evaluation standards. And here I am… "
"The new Frank."
"The new Frank."
Before he could continue, Chuck asked, "You eating?" The waitress was approaching; he held out the menu.
Patrick awkwardly took it. "Uh… Maybe."
Chuck smiled at the waitress, and spoke before she could. "Hi; I'll have the Reuben. And a milk."
She wrote it down, and looked at Patrick. "And for you?"
"Cheeseburger and fries. Medium well. And a regular coffee."
"Coming right up," she said with a smile, and after retrieving the menu, sashayed off towards the kitchen.
"She seems nice," Chuck offered.
Patrick was uninterested in the waitress. "So do you have anything you'd like to talk about?"
Patrick shrugged. "Like, anything."
"Have you—" The waitress was approaching with their drinks. "Have you spoken to your friends?"
"My friends? All the time. We're always in contact."
"Right, but: have there been any changes of plan that you think we should know about? Or," Patrick leaned in a bit, "any messages you'd like to pass along?" The waitress was placing the coffee very carefully in front of him, depositing tiny containers of creamer onto the saucer rim.
To Patrick, Chuck responded, "Not really. I can ask, but I doubt it." To the waitress he smiled and said, "Thank you."
"Any time. Your food will be out in a few minutes."
"Thank you." Patrick added. "Do you think… that is to say: do you have any specific information about their arrival time that you'd like to pass along?"
"But they're still coming?"
"It's been quite a while, you understand. Not that anyone is impatient. It's simply the anticipation of it, you know."
"But you can't say when—"
"Oh, they'll be along." He took a deep draught of his milk. "In good time."
Patrick said nothing, took a moment to mix his creamer into his coffee, add some sugar. He lifted and blew away a wisp of steam from over the cup; he didn't attempt to drink it yet.
"You seem disappointed," Chuck observed.
"Not at all."
"Come on, Frank." Chuck said, wiping away a milk mustache. "Look at me. Imagine the information my friends had to gather to construct such a convincing replica. And to reproduce believable behavior. You don't think they would also give me all of that information in a form I could use to read people?"
"Okay, I'm disappointed. Happy?"
"Not at all. But if you're going to be the new Frank, you have to be honest with me: that's the deal. That's the deal, Frank."
"I understand the—"
"Of course you're disappointed: a week ago you were called into an office and told that the little green men were coming and they already had a guy here and how would you like the job and congratulations and I know you won't let us down. You probably walked out of that meeting not knowing your own name, Frank. But you had a few days to think it through, and now you're excited. You want it all to happen, and happen now."
"Well, why wouldn't I?"
"Why indeed. But here's what you need to know…"
"You know you're not the first Frank. But you're not the second, either. You're not even the eighth or the twentieth. There've been a lot of Franks, Frank. And there'll probably be more Franks after you. Get your head around that right now. Think of yourself as a caretaker, Frank. That way, if it does happen while you're Frank, it'll be a nice surprise."
For a long moment, Patrick stared out the window. Waves of heat were rising from the pavement, to accompany the steam rising from his coffee.
The waitress arrived with their food. As she laid down the plate with his burger, Patrick asked, "Could I get a glass of milk also?"
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