Down at the Ol’ Sallawalla Diner, people don’t tend to look each other in the eye. It ain’t no place for socializing; the folks there are too busy dealin’ with their own worries, let alone those of others. Some would call it the last true refuge of the scarred and lonely. But I got another way of thinkin’ about it.
The Sallawalla Diner ain’t no form of bastion. It ain’t no sanctuary. You can look in all the cold corners, peek under the rotting, wooden floorboards, take apart the whole dang place, but all you’ll find is the illusion of safety. It’s a fake fireplace in the dead of night, a bug zapper bringing in the transient souls who aren’t ready, or aren’t willing, to acknowledge the truth: that the Ol’ Sallawalla is just a pit stop, and everyone needs to leave at some point.
Some folks take longer than others.
Some don’t want to move on, too afraid of what’s waiting just down the road. But they will, in the end. Nobody wants to wind up like the Diggers.
It was years ago, far more than most people here can even remember. A few of the stubborn ones sitting in the back of the Sallawalla might claim they were there, that they managed to get away, but don’t you listen to a word of what they say. No one who was part of that doomed group made it back to tell the tale. It’s all just rumors and heresy now, passed on as a warning to others. But rumors or not, it’s a warning people ain’t gonna try to confirm anytime soon.
Story goes that a young man showed up in the Sallawalla Diner, panting and heaving, sweat and tears pouring down his face. Something awful had happened, but he wasn’t exactly sure what. Didn’t really know who he was, for that matter. That tends to happen to some folks when they first arrive. Names and such from before just don’t seem to hold as much weight here as they used to. People still got feelings though, remnants of the past that haven’t quite slipped away. The more you got, the harder it is to leave, at least from my experience. This kid, well, he was on a whole other level.
He begged, pleaded for someone to help him find his way home, but like I said, the patrons of the Ol’ Sallawalla have enough of their own worries as it is. They stared at their drinks; eyes glazed, mouths silent, and only shook their head. They knew there wasn’t much he could do. There’s only one road away from the Sallawalla, and it only goes forward.
But the kid wasn’t having any of that. He walked right out those doors, stepped off the road, and struck out across the bleak desert of nothingness that stretched on for eternity. Even this didn’t surprise people much. Every so often someone thinks they’re different, that they can stop fate as long as they try hard enough; really push up those sleeves, hunker down, and will it to happen. But even they come back after a little bit. Hard to rebel against infinity.
Until then, that is.
Now, no one around here ever actually saw the kid again, but that don’t mean his influence wasn’t felt. You’d hear stories, how he was building something out there in the nothingness, a workshop of sorts. Looking for volunteers.
It happened slowly, over decades, but once in a while you’d see someone walk right out of the Sallawalla dinner, step off the road, and just keep on going in the wrong direction, out the way the kid had gone, never to return. Maybe his actions had given them hope, a glimmer of a chance that things could be different. Maybe they were just curious. Either way, hundreds of folks left to work for him out there, disappearing off into the abyss. They were betting their fate on an unknown hand, but the kid had given them something they hadn’t had for years: a choice.
The stories continued, and evolved. Whatever they had been building had long since been finished, and now, after centuries of work, the next stage was ready. The digging had begun.
Even those at the Sallawalla felt it, small tremors below the ground, faint aftershocks that extended from out in the vast ether, like the ripples from a rock thrown into the ocean. No one seemed to mind. At least it was something different.
Then one day, there was a scream, from off in the distance. It was the sound of thousands of voices crying out in terror, and then immediately silenced in one sweeping rush.
We didn’t get any more tremors after that.
What had happened to the Diggers? There wasn’t any way of knowing, and people didn’t particularly feel like trying to check. But there wasn’t a single person from that group that ever returned.
Soon after, things went back to normal. No one strayed from the road, or went the wrong way. The Sallawalla grew full again. Fate reclaimed its rightful place, and that’s the way it’s been to this day.
What were the Diggers looking for? I wouldn’t be able to tell you for sure, but everyone’s got an opinion. Whatever it was, they hoped it would save them; that it could take them back to the home they had long since abandoned, the world that had passed them by.
But you know what? I don’t think they found something out there, deep beyond the outer crusts of stars and hopelessness. Not exactly.
They didn’t find something…but something found them.