Did you know that Mokkie’s Double Diner is the only place in this sector that serves everything from Trilenkarian froth to Earthlingian burgers and fries?
A sound machine sits beside a self-serve frozen cream fountain, and both are loaded with enough variety that even a sample of each choice would occupy most beings for multiple lifetimes.
And that’s just the first level. Such luxury. Who would want anything more?
That’s just one of the questions I ask myself these days whenever I approach the door to the diner. And I always hesitate a bit before I open it and walk through.
It’s Mokkie’s. You may or may not be ready for what you find on the other side. But then, that is true of most doors.
I’ve always appreciated the diner, but I didn’t always appreciate all the diners.
There are two kinds of diners in the diner. The regulars and the just-passing-through-ers.
Mokkie’s was close enough to a main thoroughfare to always get a healthy rotation of new customers, like that lady sitting at the bar in the green hood. She looked human but couldn’t be if she was drinking that acid lime fizz.
It was far enough away to never be too crowded or too loud—unless there was some special event happening. That’s why Harv was able to get through his personal quota of thirteen books a month, every one of them read at his usual spot on the barstool beside the service bell. That’s why Stubert and Roy always found a spot where they had enough room to wrestle each other without disturbing other diners…much.
When I was young, I used to admire the regulars, because the diner seemed to be their domain, and Mokkie liked them. When I got older, I wanted to be one of the just-passing-through-ers. Even though I came to Mokkie’s every day after lessons, and during vacations when I’d return home from training academy. Even though I was on the sure and certain path to becoming a regular. Even though I loved the diner, and still admired Mokkie herself, I had completely changed my mind about the regulars. They made me feel… uneasy. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. They weren’t old-timers who had retired from lives of hardship and glory with stories so inconceivable they had to be true. The regulars at Mokkie’s were just people who had never done anything at all. They had gotten their schooling. But then, nothing had come of it. They all worked at one of the local plants. The repair shop that mostly serviced trawlers. The rarium mine. The ordinary-matter-packing factory.
Whatever happens, oh great cosmic maker, do not let me end up at one of those places, I would pray. I don’t ever want Mokkie’s to become my only joy in life.
It’s good to have people in your life who put things in perspective for you with a little bit of tough love. My dad is the love part. My mom is the tough part.
I started on my current path when my mom heard me on a trans-sector call telling a friend how much I loved Mokkie’s but hoped the path of my life would lead me far away just like him to a more exciting and exotic sector. Or maybe I’d travel through the galaxy, sector-hopping until I found the place that felt like home at last. Maybe then I’d return to Mokkie’s one day and have the best of both worlds, reminiscing with old friends and passing through with new stories.
My mom didn’t object to any of that. But when I started bad-mouthing the regulars at Mokkie’s, looking down on them for spending their lives in factories and shops, she stepped in and ended my transmission. She asked me to think about where I’d gotten the clothes on my back, the roof around my head, and the food on my plate, much less the books and supplies for training, the gifts I received on holidays, and the latest model of communicator I’d been using to complain to my friend. That’s all she did, just asked that question, nodded, and tossed the communicator back to me.
That’s all I needed. I knew the answer already, of course. All of the things she had listed had come from wages. Her wages and Dad’s wages. And all of the people I’d been looking down on had something that I didn’t have, and had never had at that point in my life, a job. A job from which they earned wages, which allowed them to feed and clothe themselves and their families.
I’d stopped listening to the stories that the regulars told, because I’d heard them all before. But after my mother’s reprimand, even as I listened to the passing-through-ers tell tales of their adventures, I began to watch the regulars whenever I went to Mokkie’s.
It was only because I began to watch that I began to notice odd but obvious things that I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed before.
Strange reddish dust on Harv’s clothes a few times after he came up from the basement storage room. The way Roy sat in a booth by himself sometimes, his long eely body coiled in a pile in one seat, with an untouched glass of mint milkshake in front of him. How paradoxically exhausted Mokkie looked on most mornings after the slowest nights in the diner. And how many of the regulars seemed to be helping Mokkie out with carrying supply shipments down into the storage room.
I’d noticed it before, but thought maybe they all had crushes on Mokkie and were trying to impress her by lifting and carrying heavy objects. I thought maybe some of them had even succeeded in wooing her, because sometimes, Mokkie and whoever was helping her wouldn’t come back upstairs for a while.
One day, I saw Harv carrying some boxes down and I yelled over from the booth where I was sitting alone, studying, and told him I’d help him. He insisted he was fine and I let it be, until I heard a thud and a curse after he disappeared down the stairs. I glanced around to see if anyone was watching me. I suspected by then that there had to be something going on in the storage room, something beyond torrid love affairs.
I made my way down the stairs as quietly as I could, which was very quiet. Most people couldn’t hear me coming when I really tried to be quiet. I saw Harv at the bottom of the stairs. He’d dropped one of the boxes. He was putting it back on the stack. The storage room door was left open during the day, so all Harv had to do was push it with his shoulder and sidle in. But the stack began to teeter, so I rushed down the stairs. Harv managed to make it through the door just as I reached the bottom. I waited, so I wouldn’t bump into him, then I opened the door, ready to offer my help before he dropped any more boxes.
I swung open the door and looked.
I didn’t see Harv anywhere. There were stacks of boxes and rows of shelves all around and against the walls, but Harv was taller than any stack or shelf. I should have seen him right away. I called his name and walked in further. Harv didn’t answer, so I searched the whole room. It was dim, so I rolled the lights to a higher setting.
I frowned. The room was much smaller than I’d expected it to be based on all the supplies I’d seen coming in over the time I’d been watching. A big shipment had just arrived, in fact, a few days prior. I recognized a few boxes in the corner. There should have been dozens more like them, but they were nowhere to be seen. Mokkie must have stocked the contents in the diner already.
I went back upstairs without being seen, and I watched the stairs. After a few hours, I gave up and focused on my studying, and by dinnertime, I was ready for a break and a frozen cream. And that’s when Harv came back upstairs.
There had to be some hidden room.
Right? I thought. What else could it be?
I was spending a lot of time at Mokkie’s. I thought someone would say something soon. My friends. My mother. Mokkie herself. But I guess it didn’t seem out of the ordinary, because no one mentioned anything to me. I stayed for hours in a booth where I was sometimes joined by friends, or by another trainee or two. But mostly, I studied on my own.
I studied my training materials, and I studied the diner. I searched the storage room, but found no hidden rooms, cubbies, or passages. I followed a few more regulars into the room, and sometimes I saw them on the other side of the door, and sometimes I didn’t. I explained my absences from the booth with frequent restroom visits, taking more than I needed.
One time I found a pile of reddish dust and the dead husk of some pest I didn’t recognize along the wall adjacent to the door.
It was a strange thing. That storage room should have been the most boring part of the diner. Mokkie’s boasted two levels of food, drink, music, games, and an assortment of travelers, wanderers, workers, players, natives, and aliens to mingle with. Until then, I’d spent my lifetime being mesmerized by all of them. I’d been mesmerized by the regulars when I was young. I remembered I that envied them then. Mokkie knew them by name. They knew each other. They had specials named after them on the menu. They knew just how to jostle the sound machine to fix it when it got stuck.
It turns out that sometimes we know better when we’re younger than we do when we get older. There was some intriguing mystery surrounding the regulars—not all, but a good number of them. And I needed to find out what that was.
I needed to see where they were disappearing to.
It wasn’t much of a plan, but if I thought too hard and too long, I would have come up with something too elaborate and more likely to fail. I was already myself a fixture of the diner those days. Even as stealthy as I could be, I’d be noticed coming in through the front door even on a busy day, which were the days where Mokkie or a regular was most likely to disappear into the storage room for hours. But I couldn’t get into the storage room any other way. There was an alarm on the alternate exit that was meant for emergencies.
So I disguised myself, and slipped into the diner during the lunch rush. After that, it was easy to get down the stairs into the storage room. Inside, I crouched in a shadow where I had a clear view of the door leading up to the diner’s first level.
Once or twice, someone came in to get a box, or drop off a box. No one even came close to noticing me. There were lots of supplies in the room, but nothing so valuable that Mokkie needed a high level of security. She kept all the expensive equipment on the second level.
I waited for many hours. I’d prepared for that. I’d put every part of my body except my head into hibernation mode, so I wouldn’t need to use the restroom for a few days. I hoped I didn’t have to wait that long. I had exams to study for.
I was, however, in danger of dozing off. I was trying not to when I heard voices again, and thought someone was coming down the stairs. But I could tell that the voices weren’t coming from outside the room. My eyes flew open. I recognized the voices. I hadn’t heard them for a few days.
“Your mucus is flowing again. That’s a good sign.”
That was Stubert’s deep growly voice.
“But the color, Stu. The color isn’t quite right.”
And that was Roy. He rarely spoke in public. It seemed to startle most people. Roy only appeared to be simple at first glance, a long pink slimy eel with a giant golden eye where a head might be expected. Roy’s mouth was a well-hidden slit just under that prominent eye. Supposedly he had ears too, but I’ve never been able to spot them.
“How can you tell in this light?” Stubert said. “Just wait until we get home.”
Suddenly, a thin slit of yellow-white light appeared just before the door to the storage room.
My breath caught.
The tips of Stubert’s horns emerged from the light first, then his face. Then Roy’s face—eye—nestled against Stubert’s neck. Stubert had his arms around Roy’s body, just as he did when they wrestled (roughly after arguments or gently in celebration). But they weren’t wrestling now. It looked as if Stubert was supporting his best friend’s weight, and dragging him along and out from wherever they’d been. They just appeared as the slit of the light widened into a crack and then a large gap.
As soon as Stubert and Roy were completely out of the shining gap, it snapped shut and vanished. Without missing a step, Stubert pushed through the storage room door and carried Roy up the steps.
I stared for a moment, and I brought my body out of hibernation. I felt hunger and the urge to relieve myself. I had not been dreaming. I was certain. But if I’d just seen what I thought I’d seen, I had some decisions to make.
There were a number of reasonable and responsible decisions I could have made—confronting Mokkie, or seeking advice from someone else, or even betraying Mokkie and the regulars by reporting what I’d seen.
I chose the one decision that was reckless and rash, and possibly dangerous.
A few minutes after Stubert and Roy went upstairs, I left my hiding spot, and I saw in the dim light of the storage room, as clearly as I could see the boxes all around me, a thin shard of yellow-white light, hovering just a few steps into the room.
I reached out to it and as my hand moved closer, the light expanded wide enough to fit my hand, then my arm and shoulder. I moved closer, and the light grew longer too, until it grew into a gap as big as the one that Stubert and Roy had passed through. Standing in front of it, I saw what I couldn’t see before from the angle of my hiding spot.
I saw a glimpse of the storage room. Not the same room I was in, but a room with an unfinished floor, covered in red dirt.
I passed through the gap and took a few hesitant steps into that other storage room. It was about the same size, but there was less space because it was fuller. It was far less tidy and organized. Neat stacks of fresh new boxes stood beside lopsided stacks of stained and worn boxes. Dusty shelves were lined with rusty parts and musty rags. I turned to look behind me at the gap. It was closing, but if I stepped toward it, it stopped closing and then began to widen again. Fairly confident that I wouldn’t be stuck in what I was certain was a different storage room very far from the one I’d just come from, I stepped away, and glanced around the room for some clues.
I heard the rapid thudding of someone running down the stairs and spun around in time to see the door swing open and a woman walk through.
It was the woman I’d seen at the bar a few cycles past, the green-hooded human. She wasn’t wearing that green hood anymore. She was dressed in reddish-brown clothes that were covered in red dust.
She spotted me, stopped, and frowned. She swept past me and started rummaging through the bins of parts on the shelves. She stopped again and turned to me.
“Mokkie sent you?”
“No,” a voice behind said. “I didn’t.”
My eyes widened when I heard the voice. I turned around and there she stood before a slowly closing gap.
She must have seen me. From the look on her face, she must have seen me all along.
I gulped. “You’re taking me back, aren’t you?”
“This isn’t the kind of door that can be locked,” Mokkie said. “You’ll just keep coming through it until your curiosity is satisfied. The only way to keep you out is to show why you should stay out.”
She tilted her head toward the door leading up the stairs and turned that way. I followed her up, and the first thing I noticed was the gritty taste of the air. It had to be all that red dust. The diner began to rumble and shake, and a sudden jolt almost knocked me to my feet.
Mokkie was at the top of the stairs already. She looked down at me and smiled a kind smile. “We’re closer to the thoroughfare here. We can feel it whenever something really big passes through…which is often.”
“Are we in another dimension?” I asked as I joined her at the top of the stairs.
“You know we are.”
“Is this…a parallel dimension?”
“If it is, we’re not in the parallel part of it. There’s no other me or other you here, at least not here,” she said gesturing to the diner.
The layout was the same, but the details were different. The barstools had red tops instead of teal. The shelves behind the counter had more canned food than fresh. Some of the patrons were rougher and some far gentler than the ones I was used to seeing in my native Mokkie’s. The tabletops, the chairs, and the floors were grimier, and the mood felt grimmer. But it was Mokkie’s place. Another Mokkie’s. In another dimension.
And then I spotted something all too familiar. The checkered shirt, the bald gray head, the huge black eyes buried in a book as he sat at the bar. It was Harv. I blinked.
“That’s him,” Mokkie said, nodding. “His shift is over, but I think he reads at the bar to add an atmosphere of normality. And he claims it’s quieter here sometimes, despite the—“
Her words were cut off by another rumbling passage of a frigate or passenger transport or something just as big. I wondered just how close to the thoroughfare we were. I glanced out of the windows, but it was night, so I couldn’t anything beyond a dark and cloudy sky.
After I used the facilities, Mokkie sat me down at the bar and served me a simple juice. She left me there to drink and observe, while she saw to other patrons. On occasion the door would open, and a small group of people would walk in and present papers to one of the other regulars I recognized from my native Mokkie’s, and that regular would take the people up to the second level. The second level of this dimension’s Mokkie’s didn’t seem to be open to the public.
Paper news bulletins were arrayed in the magazine rack, and running bulletins scrolled along the displays in the corners.
So even though Mokkie didn’t leave me alone for long, I began to understand what the situation was in this sector of this dimension. I began to understand there were dangers and troubles outside of the diner. For some people, there was death outside of the diner.
When Mokkie first discovered the dimensional portal in the basement of the diner she’d been running for many years, she was devastated. Reporting it would mean that she would have to close the diner, and make away for authorities to establish a perimeter around it that would likely never be breached by common citizens again. She wouldn’t just lose her livelihood. The diner had special meaning to her. She had come to the diner when she was a child, when it was owned by her predecessor. It was her second home.
So she made the same decision I had made. She walked through the gap connecting the dimensions.
She ended up in a dirty shack, no sturdier than a makeshift lean-to. She was astonished when the shack didn’t shake apart each time a ship passed. No one lived in the shack or even seemed to own it. She later would come to wonder if the diner’s previous owner had built it.
She found her way into the company of wary but decent people. From them, she learned that the sector was still recovering from a long-smoldering war that had sucked it dry of many of the resources that we still had in our native dimension. The continued scarcity seemed to have resulted in continuing resentments and rivalries. Continued aggression by a stern regime. Rapid decay of culture. She couldn’t truly understand. She only understood that there were those who were caught in the middle, some of them innocent, and some not so much. But all in need of something more enduring than just food and shelter. And something more tangible than high-minded dreams and hopes.
And that gave Mokkie an idea. An idea she’d had before, in her own dimension. The friends she’d made tried to discourage her. They told her to return to her native dimension and close the rift if she could. Their troubles were not her troubles. They wouldn’t help her with her idea, so Mokkie recruited her friends from her native dimension.
She recruited her regulars.
“They helped me build the diner,” Mokkie said, sharing a juice with me. “Now they help me maintain it. Parts. Supplies. Food. And we help many people who come into this diner seeking more than just a meal.”
“Help them to fight?”
Mokkie frowned at what she thought was my excitement. I wasn’t excited about fighting or battle. My excitement was about this new discovery, and what it meant about everything I knew and had known about the diner and the regulars.
Dimensional portals were usually discovered and claimed by authorities, and cordoned off for study, and official business. It never occurred to me that I might know someone who was hiding an unregistered portal. I began to wonder whether there were others in our sector, and where they might be and where they might lead.
“We help them get to safety,” Mokkie said.”
“Why don’t we just bring them all into our dimension?”
“Two reasons. This dimension is their home. Some may want to go elsewhere and leave it all behind. But many don’t want to escape their home. They want to save it. And then live in it.”
I chewed my lip. “I guess.”
Mokkie crossed her arms. “Maybe you’re too young to understand. You have that twinkle of wanderlust in your eye.”
I blushed. “You…said there were two reasons.”
“Ah, well, the second reason is a bit more serious in the greater scheme of things.” Mokkie sighed. “When I first discovered the door, I did bring people through to our dimension. I hoped for our diner to be their haven, or even their refuge, their new home. But after a while, the people—various species—all grew sick. A few even died before I realized that something about our dimension was killing them. I sent the rest back, and they recovered once they returned.
“I don’t know if this is true of all other dimensions,” she said, “but for this one, we can safely send through and bring back all the dead and inanimate stuff we want, but living matter can only abide in its native dimension. I noticed it in myself too. If I spent more than a certain amount of time here, I’d grow ill. Everyone seems to have differing levels of tolerance. Some can’t even pass through the portal. Some can stay long enough to travel a distance. I can only stay for a few days at a time. But once I return to our dimension, I recover fully. That is the advantage. I can keep doing what I’m doing so long as I live and so long as there is a need here. Though I do dream of the day things settle down here, and I could sell this place to someone else.”
I was quiet for a while.
“I have asked all the questions that are probably running through your mind now,” Mokkie said. “And I have sought the answers. Maybe something might change in the future. But for now, I cannot offer our dimension as a haven. The best I can offer is this diner.”
Mokkie’s place was a haven in our dimension too. Even people living decent lives needed a place of rest from work, school, training, or loved ones who had grown momentarily irritating.
“Isn’t it dangerous, what you’re doing, Mokkie? What if the wrong people found out about this place, or about you and what you’re doing? What if they found out you were from another dimension?”
“I only provide a refuge. But you’re right. It is dangerous, and that’s why you must not return. You’ve seen the doorway. You’ll always see it now, and so it will always remain open to you. That’s the way of it. I can’t close it to you. All I can do is trust you to heed my warning, and be wiser than I would have been at your relative age.”
I nodded. “I’d still like to help, if I can…from our dimension.”
Mokkie nodded. “I will allow that so long as you don’t let it interfere with your training. Or else I might have to face something more fearsome than an oppressive empire.”
I frowned, confused.
“Your mother’s wrath,” Mokkie said.
I finished my juice, and Mokkie took me back to her diner, her first diner. And my second home.
Most people think the “double” in Mokkie’s Double Diner means that the diner has two levels. But there are those who know different. Mokkie herself, and those whom she’s initiated into the diner’s deepest secret. The regulars.
It’s a double diner, because it lives a double life. It sits on the edge of a dimensional thread.
At one end of the thread, it’s where beings from the surrounding sector and passing through on the main thoroughfare come to grab a meal, get directions, relax, and maybe even get some paperwork done that they can’t seem to get done at home. You might overhear a harrowing travel tale from one of the passing-through-ers. Or complaints about an incompetent boss at the matter factory.
At the other end of the thread, it’s where beings from the surrounding sector and passing through on the main thoroughfare come to get a decent meal, a decent night’s rest, and maybe gain passage to a sector where they can live freely. On the second level, you might overhear an older sister telling a bedtime story to her younger siblings. Or a ragtag group of people discussing a way to approach Mokkie about building another level to the diner.
Mokkie’s Double Diner is a haven on both sides of that dimensional thread, that portal, that doorway. It’s been my haven since I was young. It still is. I still come to the diner all the time to study. I still see Harv reading at the bar. I still spot Stubert trying to keep Roy’s mucus from dripping into everyone’s food. I still see Mokkie jostling the sound machine when it gets stuck between songs. These days, between my studying and my training, I’ve been doing my part to help Mokkie maintain the haven. On both sides.
Maybe one day, I’ll even be a regular.
Copyright © 2017 Nila L. Patel.