"I don’t see a place for dinner," Carling muttered, waiting for the traffic light to turn green. A sign warned, no right turns on red. "Not another vehicle in sight and here we sit, waiting." Carling tapped the steering wheel, his Morse code for irritability.
Matt looked at his phone. “According to this, two restaurants are out of business. There’s a bar-slash-restaurant, a Subway franchise, and a Chinese restaurant. I don't know,” he said, “but Chinese, in this town?"
"Bars serve booze. I vote for bar-slash-restaurant. Give me enough to drink, the food doesn't have to be gourmet."
"Turn right. It's around the corner." Matt said. “Whoa, Carling. We nearly missed it. It’s a former gas station. You can still make out the Sunoco sign.” Carling turned into the parking lot.
“Five pickups and a car,” Matt said. “You wouldn’t know it was open if it wasn’t for that neon sign.”
“That sign says AYCE shrimp or frog legs. Any idea what an AYCE shrimp is?”
“None," Matt said. “I’m not about to order frog legs, either.”
As they walked in, Matt leaned over. “I expected country and western music. That’s a Nora Jones ballad.” Conversations in the room stopped. Everyone, including the bartender, turned to see who walked in.
"The natives look restless," Matt muttered.
"It's the car, Matt. Someone made us as soon as we parked."
"You don't suppose it’s anything to do with our wardrobe? I don’t see anything except jeans and plaid shirts here. You’re wearing the only fedora."
The stares weren't exactly hostile, simply the way people stare at outsiders. Drama over, they turned back to their meals and drinks. Conversation resumed, and Nora Jones was replaced by Enya.
"Not the music I anticipated," Matt said to the bartender. Matt and Carling took chairs at the bar.
“What’s an AYCE shrimp?” Carling asked.
“You’re kidding, right?” The bartender laughed. “Did you two come from another planet? It’s shorthand for all you can eat.”
Matt watched his friend’s face flush crimson. It wasn’t often he saw Carling embarrassed.
The shrimp turned out to be gigantic. Matt ordered his steamed. Carling decided on breaded lightly. The man behind the counter, who said his name was Bryan, smiled when Carling said, "This is really good."
That’s not the first time Bryan heard someone say that about his food, Matt thought.
"Look at the time," Matt said. "Is there any place to stay?” He stammered trying to say Wewahitchka.
"Y'all aren't from around here, that's for sure, the bartender said. We call it Wewa. Makes it a lot easier. You might try the Dead Lakes Sportsman Lodge.”
Matt saw Carling flinch.
“Your only other choice is to drive back to Panama City or head to Port Saint Joe, the same distance either way."
"Thanks,” Carling said, wiping his chin with a napkin. “I'm not staying any place with dead in it’s name." He nudged Matt and whispered. "No sense snooping around tonight. We need to figure out a different approach tomorrow."
Ten minutes later they were driving back toward Panama City.
“Have you ever seen a sunset like that?” Matt said. “Bright ginger-orange, and look how it's framed by trees along the highway.”
Carling sat as if he was thinking deep thoughts. “Isn’t it odd how we think the sun is moving when it's our Earth spinning around like a top.”
A deer munched grass at the side of the road, paying no attention to them as they passed.
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