by Marian Exall, 1939 words
From her position behind the cash register, Meghan Price stared through the rain-smeared window at a dreary downtown. She didn’t want to be here. Helping Mom out at the diner had been fine when she was in high school, and even during college vacations, but she’d imagined a different life for herself far away from this damp little burgh with its shuttered shops and fading factories.
Graduating into the teeth of a pandemic had put a crimp in her plans. She’d parlayed her English degree into a poorly paid job as communications director for a Seattle non-profit that lasted a year. After that she bounced from a P.R. position (she wasn’t cut out for it) to helping a boyfriend with a start-up that fizzled about the same time as the relationship did. When her mother called, she was back to waitressing, but in an upscale Belltown bistro where the tips were double the average check at the Excelsior Diner, and the portions half as big. She had no real excuse to refuse her mother’s request.
“I have to go away for a few days—a week or so—and I need you to take over here.” Mom was evasive about where she was going. “Gran can carry on doing the ordering and the books, but you know she can’t handle the day-to-day.” Meghan’s grandmother, known to all as Phyllis, was the original proprietor of the Excelsior. She was crippled with arthritis, but still kept an iron grip and a steely eye on the operation.
“I suppose I could get a week off, but what’s the urgency, Mom? I don’t understand.”
“It’s complicated. Something’s come up I have to sort out. I don’t want your grandmother to worry—or you. I’ll be back in no time.”
That had been three weeks ago.
Ted McGuire shoved his coffee cup across the counter for a refill. He’d been a regular at the diner for more than a decade, sitting on the same red vinyl stool which, over the years, had acquired the contours of his ample rear. Retired sanitation worker and lifelong bachelor, Ted cultivated a grumpy old man persona which effectively kept the world at bay, and hid what Meghan suspected was a heart of gold. She filled his mug and wiped down the counter.
“No news, then?” Ted grunted.
“Nope.” Meghan sighed. “You’re sure she didn’t say anything to you before she disappeared?”
“Me? Christ, no! I don’t get involved.”
“Oh, Ted, come on. You and Amy are pals. Can’t believe she didn’t say something,” Flora Perez piped up. She was another counter stool habitué. Tiny and dark-haired, she taught a morning aerobics class at the senior center and dropped in at the Excelsior afterwards for a Californian omelet. She might be anywhere between forty years old and sixty. “Meghan, dear, you look worn out. Are you drinking enough water? Exercising? Why not come for a run with me after you close up this afternoon.”
Meghan laughed. “I couldn’t keep up with you! Anyway, I have to report to Phyllis when I finish here. I’ll be in trouble if I don’t give my grandmother a complete account of the day’s business.”
“Order up!” called Jerome, the cook, as he slid two laden plates onto the shelf that separated the kitchen from front-of-house. Jerome was new to the Excelsior, and a definite improvement on his predecessor who had finally succumbed to his wife’s demands that they move somewhere warmer. The menu now included innovations like Flora’s Californian omelet, as well as gluten-free options and a daily vegetarian special. Although Jerome was always pleasant, he wasn’t talkative. Meghan had found out little about his background, how he’d become a cook, or where he’d worked before. She wanted to ask him if he was married but hadn’t dared in case he thought she was coming on to him. He was good-looking though.
Meghan grabbed the plates and turned to hand them to Bilan, the waitress, on the other side of the counter. Bilan was another welcome innovation. A Somali refugee, tall and slim, she glided between the booths with the elegance and disdainful frown of a Paris runway model. In spite of her limited English, her beauty and efficiency had won over the regular clientele, and, along with Jerome’s menu additions, had attracted new customers. The Excelsior was in danger of becoming retro chic.
The breakfast rush was over, and Meghan’s thoughts drifted back to the mystery of her missing mother. Growing up, she had taken Amy for granted: always there at soccer games and parent-teacher evenings. She realized now she hadn’t appreciated the struggles of a single mom with a business to run, and an increasingly frail mother to care for. Meghan’s infrequent visits from Seattle were on her own schedule, not her mother’s. Often, she was ashamed to admit, they were to beg for rent money—“Just a loan!”—or even just for the comfort of a home-cooked meal. Had she closed her eyes to Amy’s life beyond the family and the diner? “It’s complicated,” she’d said. Meghan hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant.
Last orders were at two p.m. but it was close to four when Meghan arrived home. With Jerome, she’d made up the list of supplies for Phyllis to order, and mopped the floor while Bilan cleaned the booths and tables. The lad who came in at nine to load the dishwasher and clean the pans left promptly at two, but Jerome kept a sparkling clean kitchen and finished his work as Bilan finished hers. They left together. Meghan then took care of a few tasks to prepare for the next morning’s opening, totaled the receipts, and deposited them in the safe.
She inserted her key in the front door of the Craftsman bungalow where she—and her mother—had grown up. Phyllis and her husband Joe had bought the house shortly after they were married. They’d moved to the town for Joe to take a good-paying job at the paper mill. The good times didn’t last, however. The mill was already slated for closure when Joe was diagnosed with cancer. He died three months later, leaving Phyllis the house, ten-year-old Amy to raise, and just enough insurance money to launch the Excelsior.
Without the money or time to do more than essential maintenance, the house was beginning to look shabby. “Lived in,” was what Amy had called it; Meghan found the worn rugs and scuffed furniture were soothing in their familiarity. She shed her coat and walked through to the kitchen. That room was the heart of this home, and, although the appliances had been updated, it still had an old-fashioned feel with a scrubbed oak table and the original light fixtures.
Phyllis was sitting at the table, gnarled hands gripping a cup of coffee. Meghan dropped a kiss on her grandmother’s silver-haired head.
“Did she call?” Meghan asked instead of a greeting.
“No,” the old lady replied. “How was business today?”
Meghan pulled a folder out of her shoulder bag and slid it towards Phyllis. She headed for the coffee pot, then changed her mind and opened the refrigerator to draw out a bottle of wine. As she poured a glass, she nodded toward the folder. “Receipts weren’t bad for a rainy Tuesday.”
Her grandmother sighed. “If rain kept people home, we’d never have a customer. You’d better make a deposit at the bank tomorrow.” She perused the list of supplies needed, the second item in the folder.
Meghan looked over her shoulder. “You know, Gran, Jerome could do the ordering. He’s perfectly capable.”
“But the suppliers don’t know him!” Phyllis reared back. “Nor do we. What’s to stop him from taking a cut?”
Meghan knew her grandmother’s reaction sprung from a fear of losing any of her remaining control of the diner. “Come on, Gran! He’s been at the diner for over four months, and he’s been great! Anyway, I can’t believe Mom would have hired him without checking his references out carefully. Speaking of, I was looking for the personnel files. I wanted to get to know the new employees’ backgrounds. But I couldn’t find them at the diner.”
“Maybe Amy brought them home, you know, for security: prying eyes and all that. You should check in the basement. There’s a file cabinet down there.” Phyllis paused. “Mind you, Amy kept a lot of things on that little laptop of hers. Maybe the personnel records are there.”
“And where’s the laptop?” Meghan didn’t need an answer. Her grandmother’s frown confirmed what she had guessed as soon as the question left her mouth: Mom had taken the laptop with her.
Later, after they had eaten and moved into the living room, Phyllis turned on the TV to watch her favorite British crime series. Meghan was trying to read a novel, but her thoughts kept wandering back to her mother. Why had she left? Where was she? Would she ever come back?
She shut the book with a clap. “We need to contact the police.”
She suspected her gran’s thoughts had been drifting in the same direction because she turned at once to Meghan. “I hate to get the police poking around in our affairs. Surely, we’d have heard if something bad had happened?”
“Maybe not. What if Mom is lying in a coma in a hospital? What if she’s suffered amnesia?”
“Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?”
“But the police could trace her through her credit cards, the car, her phone. Surely it would be better to know where she is?”
“I’m not sure the police would investigate. Your mother’s a grown woman. She told us she was going away for a while and made arrangements for her absence. It doesn’t qualify as a missing person case.” Meghan started to disagree, and Phyllis held her hand up for silence. “Your mother has spent her whole adult life devoted to you, me, and the diner. She never goes on vacation. If she’s finally taking some time for herself, I can’t blame her, although I wish she’d explained beforehand.”
They lapsed into silence, Meghan digesting this new theory about Amy’s absence. The television program ended and Phyllis clicked off the set. She stood up slowly using the arms of her chair for support but didn’t move toward the door.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about why your mother left. This is a longshot, but what if it has something to do with your father?”
“But he’s dead!” Meghan blurted. Amy had told her that she was very much in love with Jeff. When Amy got pregnant, they’d planned to marry. Jeff was on his way back to Missouri to tell his folks about Amy and the baby when he was killed in a multi-car accident on the interstate.
“Did you get in touch with his parents?” Meghan had asked, and Amy had told her she was so distraught at the time she couldn’t think straight. “After you were born five months later, I tried, but I didn’t have an address or phone number, Smith’s such a common last name…”
When she was younger, Meghan had peppered her mom with questions. What did Dad look like? What were his interests? Did Meghan resemble him? But it clearly pained Amy to talk about him, so by the time she was a cynical teenager, Meghan had dropped the subject, consigning her father to the minor role of sperm donor. She hadn’t thought about him for years.
Phyllis picked up her cane and shuffled toward the door. Over her shoulder, she said, “Dead? Are you quite certain about that?”
by Linda Quinby Lambert, 1784 words
After picking up assorted flyers and letters from the mail slot, Phyllis pursed her lips. “Why did I say that?”
She glanced at Meghan, slouched on the sofa, leaning over her phone, earbuds in, as usual. Maybe she hadn’t heard.
Meghan looked up, excitement in her eyes, “Gran? I was wondering why you named the café Excelsior?”
The old lady raised her eyebrows, allowed a slight smile, and opened her mouth to speak. Meghan rushed on.
“In one of my classes, we read a poem Longfellow wrote. It was called ‘Excelsior!’ At the bookstore, I stumbled on a mystery by P.G. Wodehouse, Death at the Excelsior. Then I started seeing “excelsior” all over the place, attached to things that weren’t around when you started the restaurant—a song by Smashing Pumpkins, the name of a lumber company, a restaurant in Amsterdam, a starship in Star Trek, even a college.”
“And did you look up the meaning?”
“Well, yeah, something like ‘ever upward’ or ‘higher.’ You must admit, it’s kind of a weird name, sitting in the same neighborhood as Sushi Delight and The Velvet Fork. Does anyone ever ask you about it?”
“Harumph. They just want to know that their toast isn’t burned, and their eggs are over easy.” She shifted in her chair, directing her gaze out the window. “There was one guy, a printer, and he got all excited because some tiny print on the menu was written in a font he knew, Excelsior typeface, 3-point. I just shrugged. News to me.”
“You could have named the diner Groovy Grub or The Vintage Vinyl.”
“No way. Is that your best offering after four years of study? I wanted something with meaning, a word that stood out and made people curious. I had my reasons.”
“Well, what were they?”
“I was so exhausted from taking care of Joe that I wanted something positive. I didn’t care that Excelsior sounded too fancy for a diner. At 40, with a little girl to support, I had to have some sense of hope, so making the diner the best I could was my goal. My mother was an immigrant from Poland. She saw ‘Excelsior’ on New York’s state flag, and it was one of the first English words she learned. Excellence became a motto for her life and then for me.”
“That’s cool, Gran. Not something stupid like my boyfriend’s start-up, Ctrl-Alt-Defeat, which he thought was oh-so-clever but it didn’t mean anything, and nobody knew what he did.”
“If people like my biscuits and they never ask about the name, I’ve decided that’s fine with me. I’m just glad that nobody’s gotten tired of the checkerboard floor and the patched red vinyl booths.”
“That duct tape scratches my butt when I sit down,” Meghan said.
“Nobody,” Gran said with pride, “has ever complained but you. Besides, we’re the only place in town with a jukebox, and we still make milkshakes with the machine I bought in 1968. Customers get an extra stainless steel cup half full of a chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla shake. And I don’t add on a surcharge for the extra, even if it means less profit for us. I figure we’re plenty modern, with a couple of high falutin’ entrees…and we take credit cards.”
“Going to my room, now,” Gran said, patting Meghan’s arm. “Might watch a couple of “Midsomer Murders” episodes. Fix yourself some dinner. Make a deposit tomorrow and bring me the receipt so I can keep up the books. She pointed to a heavy black binder with Records stamped in gold on the front, an ancient precursor to QuickBooks. Three sturdy steel posts held the pages together.
Meghan and Gran’s three weeks together had been amiable, even loving at times. Meghan listened to her grandmother’s nightly advice, though she already knew how to beguile customers—by being personable, unobtrusive, and fast. She did wonder if Gran would ever relax her grip on the business and trust anyone besides family to run it. What about those words of hers, “And we take credit cards?” Did she really think credit cards were “modern?”
There was one thing she didn’t understand. I’m not a mother, Meghan thought, but it seems like a mother would be anxious. Wouldn’t Gran be worried about real possibilities like a car wreck or amnesia? Why had she scuttled the idea of calling the police? Why would she excuse her daughter for taking some time to herself? Gran acts unconcerned, but I think she knows something.
Shrugging off her own concern wasn’t easy, but in the moment, as Gran returned from getting the mail, Meghan had made a choice: she needed to do her own sleuthing. Now wasn’t the time to react—of that, she was quite certain—to the idea of a sperm donor who might not be dead.
Flora Perez climbed onto her customary stool at the Excelsior and requested her namesake omelet.
“No class today,” she said, aiming her words at Meghan, balancing three plates in her left hand, a coffee pot in the other, and looking as graceful as a cirque du soleil gymnast on a high wire. “There was a flu outbreak, so gimme, if you please, a tall O.J. and some Energen-C if you have any under the counter.”
“Right,” said Meghan, “I’ve got Echinacea, elderberry, and some hot ginger tea with honey too.”
“You’re livening up this place with happy, healthy extras; it’s about to enter the 21st century.”
“Yeah, but don’t tell Gran—she already thinks we’re way too retro.”
“Did she say that?”
“No, that word’s not in her vocabulary, but I know how to read her scowl when she wonders why gluten-free flour and asparagus and jicama are on the order list.”
Meghan crossed her arms and lowered her voice.
“Listen, Flora, you know my mom, right? Yesterday, you grabbed Ted by the lapels, well figuratively, and teased him about being pals with her. Is there something going on between them?”
“Oh, hell, no. Ted’s almost as old as Phyllis, but he was Joe’s friend first. After Joe died, he’d come into the diner after hours and help out. Sometimes, he’d play with Amy so Phyllis could tidy up faster. You were around sometimes too, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, he was nice to me, although I didn’t seem him often.”
“Anyway, Amy and Phyliss, and Ted, they’re all friends, family-like. He knows that they’re not after his money.”
“Like I said, he has a heart of gold, but he also found gold. When he wasn’t doing seasonal work here, he panhandled in Alaska. At first, just for the adventure of it. He started with a second-hand pan and an old sluice box, but now he’s got a multi-frequency metal detector that can find gold that’s under the ground. It runs on batteries and has wireless headphones. He’s not rich, but he’s got a stash.”
“How come people don’t know his story?”
“He’s a private guy. He doesn’t let many people in. He uses his gruff exterior, scroungy beard, and low-level job as a sanitation worker to keep gold-digging widows away who might get wind of his off-season exploits. He’s a hands-on expert at cleaning shit out of public restrooms. Not the most attractive occupation.”
“I get it, and my mom and grandmother are in his small circle. Do you think my mom might have said something to him about why she was leaving town?”
“Pretty likely, I’d say. Since Phyllis isn’t at the diner very often, he’d have had a chance to talk to Amy.”
“Order up!” Jerome called from the kitchen, interrupting their conversation. Jerome’s flair for plating was apparent: a sprinkling of parsley atop a patch of melted smoky cheddar, avocado slices placed in perfect sequence, a pinch of cayenne for color and subtle kick. Flora leaned over the plate, inhaling the savory blend, unable to coax further conversation from her mouth.
Yes, thought Meghan, I do want to know more about Jerome too.
That night, when the blinds were drawn, the doors were locked, and the soft sounds of an old woman snoring punctuated the night air, Meghan unlatched the door to the basement and switched on the light…along with her memory. As a child, she had fallen down those very stairs and was rushed to the hospital, a nasty gash in her head generating rivers of blood. She could still conjure the anguished face of her mother and the composed countenance of her grandmother, a team of two opposites hustling her into the car, her grandmother driving, her mother carrying and cradling her.
An emergency doctor stitched up her head—not so many stitches as the smeared blotches of red seemed to merit, but a sufficiency, and no concussion, no permanent damage. She was three, merely a curious child exploring without thought of injury. After that, Ted had attached a black metal latch out of a child’s reach.
When the house was first built, the basement floor was dirt, with clay tiles added later. Wooden support beams and unfinished columns were visible. The area was a partial space, like most houses in the neighborhood not meant for much living. Most residents spent their money on making the upstairs comfortable. To Meghan, the basement had always seemed rustic and cozy but a bit scary, a place where a ghost might live.
As she descended, she saw that little had changed. The old roll-top desk was on the faded 9 x 12 oriental carpet that Joe had loved. The green banker’s lamp with brass base had been moved from the left to the right. Of course. As a lefty, Mom often moved lights and other things around to suit her.
Meghan lowered herself into the chair. The deep file drawer was locked, but she found the Chinese puzzle box buried beneath some papers in the lower right-hand drawer. Ted had shown it to her and pointed out the ivory and jade and intricate designs. “Expensive,” he’d said, “I wonder where it came from.” Although the box contained nothing, he taught her how to open it. They pinky-swore to not tell anyone.
I wonder, thought Meghan, if anything is in it now. I wonder if I remember how to slide the panels. I wonder if it even works. Like the muscle memory allowing a rider to jump on a bike after years of inactivity, the fingers on her hands knew what to do. As she slid the last panel open, she saw and removed a small brass key. She placed it in the file drawer’s lock and turned the key to the right. The drawer popped open.
Inside, a folder: Ancestry.com Smyth Family records.
by Amory Peck, 1633 words
Fighting the wind and rain, Alice Smyth pulled open the heavy door to the Excelsior and slipped into the diner. Although the bell attached above the frame gave its customary jangle, no one seemed to notice her arrival. Despite the calm it gave her to be back inside, she didn’t stop to appreciate the ambiance until she was safely tucked into the booth she claimed as her own. Since it was the booth closest to the bathrooms and furthest from the counter, it was rarely occupied. Alice skooched across the cracked vinyl bench until she reached the security of the corner of the booth which would be her refuge for the next hour or so, perhaps longer if she felt she could extend her visit without causing a fuss.
“Hey Miss, the girls are both busy right now, but they’ll be with you in a jiffy,” Jerome called out from his vantage point in the kitchen behind the counter.
With a sigh, Alice bobbed her head to show she’d heard him. She’d been coming to the Excelsior every day for almost three weeks now. From day to day, Jerome gave no indication he remembered her and her consistent early-lunch order. Under her breath she said, “I’m Alice Smyth. I’ll have a cup of today’s soup and black tea, please.”
Alice was used to going unnoticed. She knew she was ordinary: five foot four inches tall, a bit skinny. Brown hair tied back, brown eyes. If pressed, she’d name her eyes as her best feature. Deep brown, with flecks of gold. Always a touch of sadness in them, often an unshed tear or two.
Her clothing would most kindly be called serviceable. Jeans of no particular style, faded from years of use, but without fashionable rips or tears. Serviceable canvas shoes. Not runners, or trainer—just what used to be called tennis shoes or gym shoes. Serviceable T-shirts, too, the sort Hanes would sell three to a package. If you were to notice anything it would be the enormous, well-used, army-green sweater Alice wore daily, whatever the weather. She held it wrapped around her as a security blanket or, perhaps, a protective shield. Maybe, even a garment just like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
A ward of the court, Alice had been placed in the Sisters of Charity School for Girls. Reverend Mother Hildegard had a clear picture of the proper deportment for a good Christian young woman, and she had that proclamation prominently displayed throughout the school and dormitories. “Put on then … compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” While many of the girls were able to ignore those words from Colossians 3:12, Alice found the commandment riveting, troubling, and a touch prophetic.
Those early days kept proving to Alice that she was invisible. Sitting primly at her assigned desk, the first to arrive in the morning, Alice would hear the next student arriving say, “Oh, no one’s here yet.” Always the first to tuck in at night, the next couple of girls would arrive, giggle, and say, “Good! We’re the first here, let’s take a peek at the magazine you found.”
The cruelest cut of all was that no one would bother to learn her name. Whenever asked, she’d say, with as much spunk as she could muster, “I’m Alice Smyth.” “Ah yes, Miss Smith,” would be a reoccurring response. Alice was proud of one thing. She wasn’t a Smith; she was a Smyth—and people kept missing that important piece of her identity.
That morning, as she waited for Bilan to take her order—the same soup/tea order day after day—Alice filled the time thinking about the Excelsior regulars she’d come to know, quite well in her own private way. Alice had learned early on that when people tend to overlook you, you, in turn, can watch and listen to them as intently as you wish.
Even though Alice was becoming more and more comfortable in the diner, Jerome made her a bit uneasy. Not that he had done anything to cause that. Just this morning, his “… they’ll be with you in a jiffy” was pleasant and appropriate. He was just “too much,” too much smile, too many teeth. Too good looking. Too comfortable in himself. Too much everything I’m not, thought Alice.
Ted, on the other hand, made her the most comfortable. His gruffness seemed much like her quietness, his scruffiness the same sort of costume she wore every day. He, of all the regulars, knew she was there. Every day that kindred soul would nod his head to her. Shortly after leaving the Sisters of Charity at the required age of 18, Alice branched out and took an introductory yoga class. While she didn’t find the money to continue, she remembers the beautiful farewell exchanged at the end of the class: Namaste. That beautiful word was accompanied by a nod of the head. She understood the word to mean “I see you.” And, Ted nods his head as he walks by!
She envies Bilan for her lack of skills in English. Envies her, and daydreams of living somewhere, Nepal or Tibet, perhaps where she’d be free of any expectation of conversation. Lovely!
Flora seems a bit silly, but she makes Alice yearn for something she can barely name. All of those school years Alice had been bombarded with instructions: “Get in line, lights out,” “stand up straight,” “don’t dawdle, bow your head!” Flora, instead, asks questions: “Are you eating well, exercising enough, sleeping well?” Alice can’t imagine what it would feel like to have someone show concern for her well-being.
Meghan gets lots of her attention. Just imagine being able to step right into a situation, to take charge … to be the boss! Alice can’t stretch her imagination nearly enough to picture herself in charge of anything.
What she can imagine, though, is the life of the dishwasher. Three weeks and she still hasn’t heard his name. They call him only “the lad.” He lives in her world.
At a sound, Alice turns to see Ted shuffling by to claim his seat at the counter. He nods.
* * *
It’s not often that a person finds a job that’s just exactly right. Dwayne Schwartz knows he’s one of the lucky ones. Sure, most people would laugh to hear someone say that five hours a day scrapping congealed eggs off greasy plates is ideal, But, ideal it is.
As the Excelsior’s dishwasher, he gets to work five hours a day. Phyllis isn’t especially generous money-wise, but she does pay him $12.00 an hour, plenty of money for his expenses. One day when he was still in school, his English class learned a new word: parsimonious: stingy or frugal, unwilling to spend money. Dwayne couldn’t believe all the joking that followed, all the talking about Old Scrooge. To him, being parsimonious seemed a word of pride. Of course, he counts every penny that comes to him! His question was why others didn’t do the same.
After graduation, Dwayne knew he wanted to stay around town. Mom and Dad let him know that, as a graduate, he was on his own now, money-wise. Nosing around town, he found a single room (with bath down the hall) to rent over Sven’s tavern. Sven shouldn’t have rented to him since Dwayne was not yet 21 and the only way to get to the room is through the bar and up the back stairs. But Sven knew that Dwayne would be an okay renter—and probably the only one around who would find the run-down room acceptable. He just looks the other way whenever Dwayne passes through the bar.
“Yes,” Dwayne tells people, “I wash dishes at the Excelsior, but I’m going to be a policeman! That’s what I’m meant to be.”
In such a small town, there aren’t many on the police force. And, when there’s an opening, the chief usually chooses someone with experience. Dwayne is determined to make himself so qualified the chief won’t be able to say no when he applies. The plan is to crack open some crime in town.
What better place than the diner to keep tabs on what’s going on around town? Everyone, except those who only go to Sven’s, stops in. Washing dishes doesn’t take any brains—he can keep his keen mind focused on the conversation in the restaurant; the opening where Jerome slides through the meals is plenty open enough for him to hear everything and see quite a bit as well.
Dwayne had thought the crime, the evidence of the crime would be talked about in the diner. He had never imagined the crime might be happening right in front of him. Amy left, unexpectedly. Amy’s been gone way longer than expected. “What’s up,” Dwayne ponders.
Concerned about making the very best impression on the Chief, whenever that inevitable interview occurs, he makes one of the biggest purchases of his life—a 6 x 4 ft magnetic white board. He got a used one cheap from a lawyer remodeling his office. The guy even threw in a box of magnets and some barely used marking pens. Dwayne is going to be an Incident Board expert. It’ll be a crunch all the while he’s tracking the comings and goings at the diner, for the board fits in his room only if it stands kitty-cornered in his room. But, no one’s ever reached their life goal without some sacrifice.
Since he doesn’t own a smart phone or a camera, he’s beginning by drawing portraits of the Excelsior regulars. He’s determined to be the best—just like Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman and Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, the best two British crime solvers on TV.
by Victoria Doerper, 1671 words
“Who-cooks-for-you….who-cooks-for-you,” the unique call of a barred owl, hushed and haunting, broke through the quiet of the dark forest. Buff, beige, and deep brown feathers rippled silently in the wind. Excelsior the owl was alert, his eyes deep golden pools of watchfulness. High atop a venerable cedar towering over the diner, he scanned the building, a special place producing tasty tidbits that attracted ravenous rats, famished mice, and the occasional vole and shrew. Excelsior’s favorite nocturnal delicacies. His family had perched in this place for generations, roaming the woods that edged downtown, winging through the tree-lined neighborhoods, following flightpaths that had, over the years, proven their worth for hunting and safety. From his lofty vantagepoint he could track the comings and goings of most any creature that moved down below. If they weren’t targets for possible meals, he found most of them to be pretty much benign and boring. Though the humans could be dangerous. The humans cut down trees, destroyed nests and hunting grounds. Some of them were gratuitously cruel. Avoid, his father had cautioned, but if you sense danger, then swoop in with a warning. If need be, attack. Attack with fierce purpose to protect your family.
Owls had a special intuitive sense about humans. Excelsior knew through family legend that the woman who ran the diner was a friend. His father had told the story of the day he’d seen her shouting at the men who’d come in a bright yellow roaring machine, the one that had already felled a tree in the wood next to the diner. She’d shaken her fist, then rushed over to the trunk of a shaggy cedar tree, his family’s favorite cedar, and would not move. The bad men went away. They never did come back. Excelsior himself had a knack for discerning human intentions, as if his ability to see through the dark let him see right into the hearts of humans. The other human, the daughter of the tree-defender, was good too. But the man who recently kept coming around the diner to see the daughter, he was not. Excelsior had warned him to stay away several times by hissing and clicking, flying close enough to ruffle the man’s blond hair. Once Excelsior, claws extended, knocked him in the back of the neck and bloodied him. But the man did not go away. He’d yelled and cursed. The daughter came out and talked to the bad man, then put her arm around him and walked him inside. Excelsior had been trying to protect her. He’d never stop trying to protect her and the tree-defender. He was patient. He’d keep a watchful eye. He’d do what needed to be done.
“Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you?” Phyllis heard the familiar haunting call from the nearby woods as she sat at the kitchen table with her first cup of coffee. Decaf nowadays. The call came again, though from another part of the woods, over by the diner. A comforting sound. Joe used to smile and say he knew the answer to the owl’s question. Of course he did, Phyllis thought. She’d always cooked for him. Even breakfast. She rose from bed before he did, which was early because he worked the early morning shift at the paper mill, and lured him to the kitchen with the fragrance of cinnamon rolls warming in the oven, bacon and eggs sizzling in a pan. His place at the quarter-sawn oak table was neatly set with a thick white plate, white paper napkin, plain silverware. Ceramic salt and pepper shakers in the shape of owls. Fresh coffee steaming in a celadon mug. Such a sweet time they’d had together. Even during the chaotic days and sleep-deprived nights with the new baby. Phyllis would never get over missing Joe.
She took another sip of her decaf. Not the same kick as coffee, but better for her heart. Meghan was still sleeping but Phyllis would hear the alarm buzzing soon enough, perpetually set, as it was for Amy, for 4:00 am. But that wouldn’t be for half an hour yet. Phyllis had gotten up early after very little sleep. She’d awakened every hour, twisted up in her blankets. Oh how she missed her daughter. She missed their evening gossip and banter. The hug before bed. The very smell of Amy, that waft of sugar and cinnamon she carried with her back home from the diner.
Amy had always loved baking, and Phyllis had taught her well. She thought back to the early days at the diner, after Joe had passed. Those were days of hard work and hard grief, but with a diner to run and a young daughter to raise, Phyllis perfected the fine art of camouflaging her worry and sadness with a veneer of gruffness that protected her broken heart and allowed her to get on with life. She enjoyed her customers but would take no guff. She developed a cynicism that was practical, protective, and oddly, charming. And on Saturday mornings with the pre-teen Amy, Phyllis was all charm. She’d rouse her sleepy-eyed girl, yawning and complaining, and hustle her into old Gertrude, their bright yellow rattletrap of a Buick, for the short drive to the diner. Phyllis had been so glad that Amy had taken to baking. Their biscuits, light as clouds, and cinnamon rolls, sweet and comforting as a morning kiss, were locally famous. She hoped that Amy would carry on the tradition. But, Phyllis thought with sadness, things were changing at the diner. Hoity toity ingredients. And calorie counts printed on the menu that might as well have been chastising fingers shaking in front of a customer’s face. Her order sheet listed fewer quantities of sugar, butter, and cinnamon these days, more egg whites. Egg whites! What was wrong with a fresh egg?
Now, though, Phyllis had more serious things on her mind than egg whites. Where was Amy? Was she OK? Sure, Phyllis could put on a calm face for Meghan, suggest that Amy was just taking time off for a vacation, but the truth of it was, Phyllis could not stop worrying about Amy. Call in the police? That was a laugh. The local police were good at taking reports but not so good at investigating crimes. She’d called them in the past when customers had dined-and-run. Nothing from the cops but a friendly visit and copy of the report that contained only what Phyllis had told them in the first place. The police would be of no help. But gawd, she’d never forgive herself if something bad happened to Amy.
Phyllis regretted showing anything more than a neutral face when Amy had confronted her more than a month ago. But she’d been taken off guard.
“Who is Alice Smyth?” Amy demanded one evening, standing so close that Phyllis could feel the hot breath of her anger.
“None of your business,” Phyllis countered before she’d realized her mistake. She’d just admitted to Amy that she knew there was an Alice Smyth.
“Someone called the diner today. Said her name was Alice Smyth. Said she had some information about our family that I should know about. Important information about Jeff. She said I shouldn’t be kept in the dark any longer.”
“It’s nothing,” Phyllis said, “nothing at all. A mistake. Someone who wants to trade in lies and secrets. Forget it. There’s nothing to know.” Phyllis had clammed up then but Amy hadn’t given up. A little more than a week later, Amy had gone off to “sort things out.”
After getting not a crumb of information from her mother, Amy was determined to find out more. She’d talked to Alice Smyth by phone several more times. In each conversation, Alice hinted at family relationships, untold information about Jeff, health issues that might affect Meghan. Information about the diner, whatever that could mean. But Alice wouldn’t say anything substantive over the phone.
“We have to meet in person,” said Alice, “so you need to take a trip back to Missouri. There are things here I need to show you. Will you come?”
“No, no, that’s out of the question,” said Amy. “I’ve got a diner to run and a mother to take care of. Besides, I can’t afford a ticket to Missouri. It’s drastic, don’t you think? When you could just as well tell me about this over the phone.”
Alice hesitated. “Let me think about it for awhile,” she finally said.
And that’s that, thought Amy. But early afternoon the next day, Alice called back. “I really want to meet you in person. So I’ll come to you. It will take me a few days to get some materials together. I have a friend who’s on vacation and she’ll let us stay at her place for a week or so. Her house isn’t more than a half hour away from you. This is important for both of us, Amy. Please say you’ll come.”
Amy finally agreed to the plan, made the arrangement with Meghan, packed for a week’s trip, programmed the address into her GPS, kissed her mom goodbye, and hit the road. She didn’t tell her mom about meeting up with Alice Smyth. Why should she? Her mom would only have tried to dissuade her from going. She didn’t tell Meghan either. This was a puzzle Amy was going to have to solve on her own. And Alice Smyth seemed to hold the key.
“Who-cooks-for-you…who-cooks-for-you.” Amy heard the call of the barred owl from the tiny upstairs bedroom of Alice Smyth’s friend’s place. At first she’d found the owl’s early morning call to be a comforting sound of home. Alice Smyth had seemed to be a friendly, normal person and Amy thought that maybe a week with Alice would shed some light on Jeff’s side of the family. But one week had turned into two, and then three. The owl’s morning call had lost its comfort. And now Amy wasn’t sure what to do next.
by Dick Little, 1362 words
Willoughby Smyth sat chest-deep in his backyard wading pool. The afternoon sun glazed his reddening face and continued to melt his double-tall iced mocha (with whip) in the clear plastic cup he jiggled in his hand. He slowly drifted off, pondering this latest of endless brain-flashes.
If memories were tears, he’d be sobbing. Imagine his brain oozing a steady stream of salty moisture past his nose, over his cheeks, and dripping off his grizzled chin. A dissolute life finally catching up with him. These days, chapter after chapter of his ill-lived days and years played like a vinyl record from his carefully curated collection. He’d lift the tone arm and place the needle in a different groove, but the same catastrophizing continued.
No matter that healthy sunlight dappled the tiny pool waves, that a whiff of breeze rustled the elm tree leaves overhead, that he was living rent-free in a buddy’s apartment in the warm coastal community where he’d lately landed. Willoughby’s memories wouldn’t stop; like actual tears, he had to dry them with a towel to scratch a persistent itch by his nose.
At least he was no longer “Willoughby.” For most of his youth, he’d spent as much time hiding his first name from people as he did correcting his last. Bank tellers, store cashiers, volunteer sign-up sheets, dinner reservations, day after day. The times were beyond counting that he’d silently curse his parents for not settling for something reasonable. Wasn’t the last name penance enough, anachronistically rooted in the
Old Sod. Both parents, drop-outs, somehow found it de rigueur, so Seventies … along with the incense holder (Nepal 1965), tie-dyed shirts, and a collection of Ravi Shankar’s greatest hits, displayed conspicuously beside the still-functioning Harmon-Kardon stereo and twin, floor-mounted speakers none the worse for wear.
“Jeff Smith” he declaimed on the first day of college classes and the name passed parental muster. He even invited friends over. Never, however, any girls. Ah girls, that terrifying terra incognita lying somewhere offshore of his tangled psyche ever since the teenage neighbor girl whose awkward attempts to “like him” left him fumbling without a compass or a map.
After college, however, he did become acquainted with a lovely lass named Amy from a small Northwest town. They moved in together, and then surprise surprise, they were pregnant. Ultrasound told them they were expecting a daughter. Jeff’s internal monitor began beeping like a runaway car alarm. He made an excuse about breaking the good news to his parents back in the Midwest. He wasn’t exactly lying, but he needed time to think.
In fact, he managed to disappear entirely. It was daring and clever, if a bit ghoulish, to have handed off his identity to a hapless hitchhiker, who sadly had the misfortune to die in a tragic accident on I-25 in Wyoming; a freak series of events involving Jeff’s “lost” wallet, whereby he was able to slip out the back door of his previous life and begin another.
From then on over the years, it was odd jobs here and there, cadged lodging from acquaintances, community meals at the local mission, forged eligibility for occasional government handouts. He chose the word vagabond, not wanderer, vagrant, hobo, or God forbid, bum.
Jeff Smith was his own guy, gift of gab and all, rootless, and he liked it that way.
So what on earth possessed him lo these two decades and counting to take the risk? An open laptop, a bored afternoon of aimless Internet surfing, including curiosity to check on the woman who represented his daring escape from the jaws of husbandhood and fatherhood closing around him.
The problem started when he’d gotten word via the grapevine – he swore he’d never divulge from whom – that his old pal Ted McGuire back in the Northwest Corner had made a fortune metal detecting. Truly, it was more than innocent curiosity, rather a longshot of maybe tapping into the gold bullion fortune of his one-time buddy. Had it not been he, Jeff Smith, who’d taught Ted the trade? Trudging along riverside sandy beaches, across busy downtown playgrounds and through wet grassy parks, the two of them taking turns lugging an old vintage model detector that played false alarms like a pennywhistle – not one of the newfangled lightweight gadgets with double the sensitivity, pinpoint accuracy, earphone jack, even digital readouts. Will even knew a thing
or two about good old Silent Ted’s checkered past. Blackmail? Well, call it graymail.
So, what could go wrong with looking him up and giving him a history lesson?
The step too far took place when, just on a hunch he decided to check on his old girlfriend on Facebook. For God’s sake, it’d been over twenty years. But what in the world was he doing signing in as “Willoughby Smyth,” which of course would show up on her page suggesting “People You May Know”? IA and algorithms don’t forget.
An Internet Message followed, then the phone call.
* * *
Flora Perez got to her Pilates class late.
“Hi Flora,” chorused the five women from their mats, along with giggles.
“Sorrrry,” sighed Flora. “Car trouble.”
More giggles. “Car trouble” was code for “Jerome trouble.” The allusion to a vehicle substituted nicely since everyone in the room could recite from memory details of “Jer-ooohme’s” vintage pickup, pale green, rusting out, and missing part of a back fender.
Flora pulled off her sweats and joined the group lying on blue foam that spanned the gym’s floor. Each of the mats other than hers was occupied by a prostrate body in one stage of rigor mortis or another, from twenty-five to mid-forties, waiting to be twisted and wrapped and abused – hard-core “hot” Pilates for which they paid well. In an adjacent
room, an ominous array of “reformer” machines lurked like medieval torture devices.
After preliminary stretches, Flora called time-out, and the class rearranged itself in assorted sitting positions on the mats. This was Flora’s A-Team, the ones who’d been with her the longest and each of whose biographies she and the others knew by heart. After all, what would Pilates class be without catching up on personal lives, incidents about which the women wouldn’t tell their therapists? It beat discussing bodice-rippers in a book club.
“So bring us up to date,” called Micki.
Flora, expecting the inquisition, gave them the expected sigh. Five heads nodded or tsk’ed in sympathy. They knew the story: that hunky Jerome (at least twenty years Flora’s junior) had his eyes on the cute little newbie at Excelsior, Bilan, who was much more in his ballpark looks- and age-wise. Flora, despite her age, was still okay in the looks (not to mention body) department. But, adding to the mystery was that Flora hadn’t seen a sign that Bilan was remotely intrigued in the young short-order cook slingin’ hash. Flora puzzled over that one.
The windows of the studio were open part way even though it was fall; the heater was on, and the bodies gyrating to Taylor Swift became six space heaters, turned on high. The room smelled of whatever antiseptic Flora used to wipe down the big floor mat and the perspiratory cologne six women’s exertions produced.
Business resumed: huffing and stretching and pretzel-like poses, assisted by hands-on help by Flora who knew her stuff. Toward the end of the hour, the chatter died down as one or more turns of the rack got everybody serious. Nothing masochistic, mind you, but serious, yes, about honing and preserving what God had given the ladies, sending them on their way refreshed and confident that evening, back to jobs or parenting or finding the exact outfit to impress the in-laws. Or the neighbors. Somewhere on the list was a husband or boyfriend.
Fifty minutes and the group was out the door, after hugs all around. Flora locked up and walked a block to where she was parked. She got in the car and started it and would have pulled out, but her way was blocked. A beat-up pickup truck had stopped behind her and wasn’t going anywhere though the road was clear.
The driver got out, and Flora froze.
by Susan Chase-Foster, 1756 Words
In the bathroom, Bilan pulled a lilac tunic over her head and eased it down around the tender lump she’d been carrying in her left breast for as long as she could remember. She stretched the dress past her slim hips and the knees of her jeans. Will I ever get used to wearing clingy, American clothing? Or, she wondered, not wearing a qamar, as her mother called the head covering she wore even after she died. Bilan studied herself in the mirror. She twisted and pinned her dark hair into a coil. She wrapped a periwinkle blue scarf around her head, and tied it into a bow at the back of her neck. During her second week at the diner, Bilan had tried going bareheaded one day, pretending she’d forgotten to put on a scarf that morning. Maybe, like her ESL teacher had written on the board, “Practice makes perfect.” But Bilan felt so exposed, so unprotected without a scarf that she developed a migraine and had to leave work early. How could she survive without a silk security blanket hiding her head from the rest of the world? On the other hand, perhaps like her mother—May she rest in peace—Bilan simply loved the feel and look of a traditionally framed face. Nothing wrong with that. She blew herself a kiss and hurried into the kitchen.
Astur and Aamiina, her twin seventh grade girls, whose names meant “conceal” and “feel safe,” in Bilan’s first language, and who had once whispered to Bilan that they would never cover their heads like they’d heard Grandma had, sat at the table, each with a plateful of malawa, pancakes drizzled with honey. They sipped small cups of tea spiced with cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon, made by Bilan each morning just as her mother had done for her.
“Why are you whispering?” Bilan had asked her children.
“So Ayeeyo won’t hear,” they whispered.
“But she’s in heaven, my darlings.”
Bilan heard the hiss of the school bus brakes.
“Girls, the bus comes! Get going!” Bilan kissed her daughters on the head. She ran to open the front door and wave to the bus driver to let him know the girls were coming. “Your lunch is in the bags? You did brush your teeth?”
“In the backpacks, Mama! We already brushed our teeth!” Astur shouted.
“Before you eat breakfast? Not so good.”
“Mama, we love you. Bye.” And they were gone.
Bilan filled her large mug with spicy tea and sat down at the table with the iPad that Tawfiiq, her brother, had given her. She did thirty minutes of Duolingo before walking to work each morning. After the girls were asleep each night she did thirty minutes or more if she had time and wasn’t too tired. Hers was the free program of translations between Arabic, her second language, and English, her third. At the end of each lesson there was a bit of advertising, but not as much as on television, so Bilan didn’t mind. It was free, and free was good. Plus, along with talking to customers at the diner she was learning slowly, yes, so slowly, but until Tawfiiq finished his residency in Seattle she would need to conserve every penny. Thank goodness she had a job that included tips.
Bilan tried not to be ashamed of her poor English, but she was. Her family, well, what was left of it had lived in the United States for many years now. After Bilan’s two older brothers were killed in the war in Somalia, her father Hassan, her mother Yasmiin, and baby boy Tawfiiq had to live in a series of refugee camps. In the last one Hassan died, but Yasmiin, pregnant with Bilan, and little Tawfiiq survived. Eventually, they were moved to a huge community in Minnesota, Bilan’s birthplace, then to a smaller community in Ohio, and finally to West Seattle. It was there that a series of important events took place. Tawfiiq, a brilliant student, made the decision to become a surgeon so that his family would never have to be displaced again, and Cumar, another Somali refugee, fell in love with beautiful Bilan, and without the benefit of consent impregnated her under the canopy at Fauntleroy Park.
Tawfiiq, who by then was moving along nicely and supporting himself, his sister and his twin nieces with scholarships and grants at the University of Washington Medical School, threatened to kill Cumar, as soon as he completed a surgical residency. But Bilan felt too ravished to press charges within the refugee community, and besides, she adored her babies even before they were born and especially after. Back then, she just wanted to forget their violent conception. And anyway, she told Tawfiiq, as an imprisoned or maybe even executed murderer he’d never be able to practice his skills or save the family from being displaced again. So, the idea was scrapped. As it turned out, Cumar, a non-swimmer, drowned in Puget Sound, just off Alki Beach, when his rented jet ski flipped over and over and over. There was, however, one further displacement when their apartment rent in West Seattle exploded into the economic stratosphere and the family of four would have needed to move further north or become homeless.
It was a no-brainer. Tawfiiq would sleep on the floor in a studio apartment stuffed with five other surgical residents until he was board-certified. Bilan and the twins would head to one of the more northern counties where rents were rumored to be cheaper. That turned out to be somewhat true, cheaper than Seattle, but still expensive. Luckily, Bilan found her job as a waitress at the Excelsior almost immediately, and a man there called Ted had a furnished cabin on his property and a heart so compassionate that he offered it to Bilan for half the price Tawfiiq was able to pay. The cabin was only a short walk to the diner and a school bus stopped just outside the front door to drive her girls to the middle school they’d be attending. And best of all, if she could save enough money perhaps Bilan would be able to afford the operation she might need to remove the lump in her breast.
* * *
As always during the previous three weeks, it was somewhere between mizzle and rain the morning Alice Smyth slipped, yet again, into the diner. She was one of those vague, fog-like people moving in and out of a space without anyone looking up or over, like a breeze blowing through the gauzy curtains of an artless, unoccupied, ecru-painted motel room along a road without a name or number … except for the massive army-green sweater surrounding her otherwise unremarkable presentation like a well-worn tent. Alice headed toward her booth at the back of the diner only to have to put on the breaks a heartbeat before crashing into the table. About then she noticed what appeared to be four corpulant lumberjacks taking up every inch of the two red vinyl seats, and the table piled with plates of flapjacks, hash brown potatoes, scrambled eggs and mountains of sausage.
“Well, good morning to you, too, madam,” the one in her exact spot growled. The other three guffawed as Alice backed away from the booth. She spun around. What was going on here? All the booths were filled with diners, and there was only one stool available next to Ted, the man who’d noticed her before. But that seat belonged to the tiny dark haired woman, what was her name? Why was her seat empty? And then Alice saw Ted waving her over and patting the stool beside him. Alice had two choices: stay or go. But she needed to stay in case you-know-who walked in, according information gathered from Amy. And he surely would. And if he did, Alice was ready to do what needed to be done. She had the papers, the photos, the postcards, the letters, and the genetic test results. She headed to the stool and without looking directly at Ted, eased herself up. Her heart was racing.
“Yep, this is probably confusing, eh?” Ted said. “Jerome is promoting a tofu scramble this morning and all the vegans in town have dropped by. Not the guys in your booth though. They’re true carnivores.”
Alice nodded. Bilan glided over to take her order. “You’re a little cup of soup and black tea today?”
Alice looked sideways at Bilan without turning her head. “I’m more than a little cup of soup and black tea, but yes, I would like those. My name is Alice.”
“And I am Bilan. I will go get those things now, Alice.” Bilan headed toward Jerome’s window.
Ted took a sip of his coffee and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. He bent down so he could look into Alice’s eyes. “Hey, lady, you have gold flecks in your eyes and I really like gold. But who are you and what the heck are you doing in this place?”
Alice took a few deep breaths. This is what she hated. Risking conversation was her torment, and yet there was no other way to get what she needed and she needed it now. This was an emergency situation. She willed herself to look up at Ted. And then, thundering from the Reverand Mother Hildegard who still resided in Alice’s head she heard, Stand up straight, young woman! Look at me! Now say it! Say it! Say it!
Alice stood up straight as a cedar. She took a a few more deep breaths, and looking right into the eyes of every diner in the Excelsior she screamed loud enough for each of them and all critters on the outside to hear, “My name is Alice Smyth and I am looking for my family!” Alice kept on screaming those words until Meghan, who had been working from home because her grandmother did not feel al all like climbing out of bed that morning, pedaled up on her bike. Upon hearing the word “Smyth” wailed like the howl of a dying animal, she took Alice by the hand and pulled her into the storage room where the two of them sat on crates of canned black beans and had a conversation unlike any either had ever had before.
Meanwhile, Ted, who had noticed a shocking similarity between Meghan and Alice, especially in their eyes, headed over to Phyllis’s house, for they also had something to talk about.
by Judy Shantz, 1794 words
Alice had arrived in Madison three days earlier with a daypack, a briefcase and a half-baked plan. Her ‘friend’s’ home was so non-descript that she was sure she could just disappear into it and no one would notice. So far, the plan was working. Amy had arrived and seemed to take everything at face value. They had had pleasant conversations with little substance—just enough detail to keep Amy interested.
Now Alice was on the Connector Bus, heading east, past ever-diminishing and empty towns. As the towns grew smaller, so did the road. First the left turn lanes disappeared, then the center line. The “Caution: Narrow Bridge Ahead” could more rightly be said “Sure hope you don’t meet a logging truck or a Winnebago on that bridge.”
Then, surprisingly, the Excelsior turned out to be in a rather pretty spot near a bend in the river, with tidy older homes climbing up the hill behind the diner. There was a car mechanic, a clinic and a florist all lined up on the main street and a sushi restaurant at the end. Clearly, there was more to this town than she had imagined.
Alice walked up the two steps to the front door and slipped into the diner. It was hot and steamy on this crisp, fall day and she managed to dart into a booth at the far end by the kitchen. No one seemed to have noticed.
Dwayne Schwartz had been a police cadet in high school and one of the most enthusiastic since the program had begun five years earlier. He sat upright and attentive at the front of the class, taking notes in a tiny, neat hand in his flip up, spiral-bound notebook. It was good practice. He had watched cop shows on TV and knew that’s what officers always carried in their left breast pockets. He liked this detail. He also liked his fine pencil drawings of police badges and insignia. He was actually quite artistic which really bugged his dad who considered any art effete.
But he was not without self-doubt. Tucked in the back of his mind was the unsolicited and unauthorized advice he had received from one of the instructors who had caught Dwayne nosing around the school doing quick sketches of everyone coming and going.
“Listen, Kid. You’re too eager. I’m going to give you some free advice you’ll never get in the classroom. I’m gonna tell you, there are four kinds of wannabe cops. And they’re all over the board, just like the rest of the population.”
Dwayne felt that he wasn’t going to like what he heard but he just nodded.
“First is the ex-Military. Mostly good guys, quiet and effective. But they’re also haunted. They’ve been living by their wits for so long, and always with a gun in their hand. They’re tough. They want to serve the community. But many of them can’t imagine working without that gun’s authority.
“Then there’s the Power-hungry. The psychologically stunted people who need power over others to feel good about themselves, to feel admired.
“Third, there’s the Fantasy-hero. This guy dreams of being the local hero who solves complex crimes or, better yet, saves someone’s life. He believes that he has some secret and special talents that will make him a great officer. He lives a fantasy life where everyone is grateful to him.”
Dwayne was starting to squirm. He wasn’t a soldier and he didn’t think he was a psycho. But was he just a pretender? Living in a dream? A fantasy?
“Fourth, and most important, are the Realists. Normal people. Yes, there really are some of those and they make the best cops. They know that it’s sometimes thankless work. Know that they could become victims of violence. But they still see value in it and want to help improve their communities. They see it as a basic need and a good job. And they work their tails off.
“You’ve gotta decide which type you’re gonna be. And if it’s not the Realist, then forget about being a cop.”
After finally deciding to go ahead and meet with Alice, Amy had climbed into her old VW and headed ‘down valley’ to Madison, where the road became a highway and the highway became a freeway. Where the countryside ended and greater Seattle began. As far as Amy could tell, Madison’s only identity was as a strip-mall. Every medium-
sized chain in America was represented in a three-mile stretch and frequent red lights ensured that the traveller would have to stop every street or two and take it all in.
Alice’s friend’s home turned out to be a square, two story, beige duplex, right on the highway. The interior was just as featureless, with all the charm of a cheap motel room. And all the utility, too. There was little in the way of cookware and no food in the cupboard except for tins of vegetable soup and store brand black tea. For the first few days she had ignored her surroundings, preferring to concentrate on the tiny, soft-spoken woman who had lured her here. Alice was certainly different from what Amy had imagined but was pleasant to talk to. She had some interesting ideas and, at times, Amy felt like she had known her for years.
After a few days, Amy ventured out to the Safeway and picked up groceries for a few decent meals. But Alice wasn’t interested and would only eat her tinned soup and a few crackers.
Now, every time Amy said that she needed to get back to the diner, Alice would offer up a tiny bit of knowledge about the Smyth family.
“Just a few more days, Amy. Honest. I have to go meet with this lawyer. He has all the ‘paperwork’. Soon I’ll be able to tell you so much more.”
Amy waffled back and forth between curiosity, concern and the suspicion that she was being conned. Alice had a substantial briefcase like a small suitcase with a lock on it. At night she would open it on the kitchen table and take out dozens of unlabeled folders which she claimed held her ‘evidence’. But Amy was not allowed to look. And each day Alice left on one of her many investigatory errands, briefcase in hand.
On the eighteenth day of this strange adventure, Amy stood at the window and watched as Alice left the building and turned down the street toward the crosswalk. She got across just as the Connector pulled up for its first trip of the day, east up the valley. Alice got on. She no longer had the briefcase.
Dwayne Schwartz sat on the edge of the bed in his tiny rented room. His huge white board, supported by the only chair in the room and the bottom corner of his bed, was
covered in drawings and code words. He was using an old headlamp in the dim light and putting the finishing touches on a miniature portrait of Alice. What an unusual creature with the emotionless, staring eyes.
Dwayne looked over what he had produced so far. The code words all described what he had observed the last few weeks. He could feel it. There was a crime going on somewhere in the diner.
Even two years after his graduation, he still felt the prickle of sweat beneath his collar when he thought of the warning from his instructor. If he was honest, was he really just a wannabe, a pretender? He brushed that thought away and started on another. Maybe he just needed to change his name. His father had chosen the name ‘Dwayne’ but he had imagined a son with more swagger, more dude-ness, more attitude. Maybe he should shorten it to Dan. Quick. Empathic. Manly and efficient. More appropriate for police work.
Dreaming on, he checked the detail in his little portraits. Then it struck him, the portraits of Alice and Meghan were almost inter-changeable.
Meghan sat on the crate of beans and listened intently to the torrent of words spewing from this strange woman. Alice was hunched over and nearly enshrouding herself in her fuzzy green sweater. The words made no sense. She had tons of evidence. Evidence of what? Alice couldn’t say. Wouldn’t say? Did she need a ride home? NO! No one understood her pain! What pain? Did she want to lie down? NO! now she was screaming again.
There was a part of Alice’s mind that could not believe what her mouth was doing, giving up every pent-up emotion she had ever felt. There was a part of Meghan’s mind that was starting to panic. What could she say to make all this just go away?
Meghan decided to shut up and let it play out. She imagined that under that odd garment was a whole pile of suppurating neuroses. But she wasn’t up to playing therapist to this poor soul.
After a few moments, Alice’s breathing slowed and her facial affect went blank. She stood slowly and checked her wrist-watch. “I have to go. How do I get out of here?”
Meghan was relieved. She pointed toward the kitchen, then guided Alice past the freezer and out the back door. Without a word, Alice hurried toward the street and practically ran to the bus stop. She was just in time for the westward Connector to Madison.
While Alice was boarding her bus, Amy was making her decision. She had already figured out that Alice must be locking the briefcase in the storage locker in the carport. Did she do that every day? Was there anything at all in those locked up folders? Did this apartment really belong to a friend? Who was this humorless woman who had been playing with her for days, weeks?
Ted pulled Meghan aside and whispered, “after you get off tonight, I think we should go talk to Phyllis together”.
“She’s feeling pretty miserable today. Maybe another time, Ted.”
“All the more reason we should go together. I went up earlier and she wouldn’t see me.”
“I’ve got my bike today.”
“That’s okay. I can walk.”
By the time they left it was growing dark. Excelsior was watching from his perch in the cedar. He had been there for some hours. The blond-haired man was hanging out in the trees, just out of human sight. When Meghan left with Ted, the blond man melted into the forest. Excelsior followed silently.
Then, in the night, the sirens sounded. Too many sirens. Dwayne bolted upright in bed. Had his moment arrived? Was there really a crime? Would the cops appreciate his white board? He was pulling on his boots when Sven ran up the stairs and pounded on his door.
by Tiahna Skye, 1480 words
As the sirens wailed, lights were popping on all through the town. It was the middle of the night, but it was rare to hear such a commotion in the quiet little mountain town. The residents came pouring out their houses in bathrobes and slippers, hoping for some hint of what might be happening. It was impossible to miss the flames licking up to the sky, the smell of smoke choking the air. On many streets, neighbors huddled together trying to guess what was on fire.
“Is it the church?!”
“No, I think it might be the auto repair on Main. The smell is awful! Burnt rubber maybe – you know, tires.”
“I’m going inside to watch the news. Y’all are welcome to join me. I’ll put on a pot of coffee, and we’ll get the deets without breathing that nasty smoke.”
Amy stood at her window watching the fire grow. She knew, she just knew, it was the diner. Madison was ten miles east of home, but as dawn broke the smoke was clear to see. A memory long forgotten sliced through her. She could hear his gravelly voice, “You don’t want to mess with me. I’ll burn it all down.” Tears dripped down her ashen cheeks as she quietly shook her head and whispered, “No. No no no. This can’t be happening.” Is this my fault, she wondered?
Guilt consumed her. Why had she let Alice convince her to come? The voice on the other end of the phone line had sounded so familiar. Goosebumps had crawled across her skin. Some part of her knew this girl was a key to the mystery she had been trying to solve since she gave birth to Meghan. She wasn’t awake when she gave birth. It all happened so fast. She had felt dizzy and nauseous and the last thing she remembered was calling a nurse. When she woke, the nurse told her the baby was fine and she should get some rest. It was hard to think. Amy felt like she had cotton filling her brain. Her thoughts were jumbled, but she knew there was something very wrong, something she could not quite remember.
Alice was a strange girl, and Amy was no closer to knowing what she wanted than the day Alice first contacted her. In an odd way, she looked a lot like Meghan. Their eyes were virtually the same, and though Alice’s hair was unkempt, it was the exact same color as Meghan’s. There was something so compelling about her and Amy couldn’t bring herself to walk away. She had been here in Madison for weeks, but she just kept hoping that Alice could answer the question she had lived with for decades. She couldn’t let it go. She wouldn’t let it go. Something happened in that operating room and Amy would have no peace until she figured it out.
Amy had not contacted her family even once since she had been gone. She knew her mother must be worried – Phyllis had just enough information to know the situation could be dangerous. She had seen the Ancestry.com report and her fears had been confirmed. Willoughby was not dead. She had already been suspicious, but when she saw there was another daughter the exact same age as Meghan, the truth was too plain to deny.
Phyllis had tried desperately to convince Amy not to go. “Amy, what good can come of this? Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.” When that didn’t work, she reminded Amy that she was no spring chicken and could not possibly run the diner by herself. As soon as Amy told her that Meghan would come to help at the diner, Phyllis knew the battle was lost. All she could do was caution her daughter to be careful… and not to set her hopes too high.
After the first week came and went, Amy thought about calling but didn’t want to listen to her mother and daughter beg her to come home. She was so close to finding out. With just a little more time, she might actually be able to put the past behind her once and for all.
Excelsior winged through the thick air, following the blond man through the woods. He watched him hide the gas can under a bush next to a giant redwood tree before continuing his run back to his hide-away deep in the woods. The man would have to pay for what he had done. Excelsior had no patience for wanton cruelty. Dipping his golden-brown wing to the right, he turned and headed back to the diner.
Sven kept banging on the door. “Open up you little twerp! I swear I’ll break your nose if this door isn’t open in ten seconds.”
“What the hell?” shouted a still sleepy Dwayne as he slipped his right foot into his boot. Couldn’t a guy get some peace? Shoving his hair out of his eyes, he went to open the door, “Get out”, Sven shouted “Get out! The building’s on fire!” Instantly wide-awake Dwayne tried to go back in his room to collect his few belongings, the codes he had made, the evidence he had found so far. Sven grabbed his arm roughly and pulled Dwayne along behind him. Coughing, eyes watering, and with fear gripping their guts, the two men raced to the door. Sven cursed as he tried to turn the knob, his flesh burning. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, Sven knew he couldn’t let that stop him. He grabbed the knob again and screamed in pain as he pushed the door open. The tavern crackled and spat as they sprinted into the yard. Both men bent over their knees, gasping for fresh air. The smell of gasoline and rancid oil hung in the air, adding an acrid smell to the stench of fire.
Meghan and Ted had been talking with Phyllis long into the night. Phyllis had revealed a lot. Ted seemed to know most of the story already and encouraged her to tell Meghan the truth. She knew it was time and shared the secret she had kept for so long. Ted held her hand comfortingly as Gran poured out all that she knew. “Meghan dear, try to understand we did this to protect you. Your father…well, let’s just say he was not a good man.” Ted jumped in and confessed that he knew Willoughby was up to no good, but he was family. His eyes foggy with age, filled with regret as he told Meghan the worst of it. “Darling girl, you have a sister, a twin sister.”
She had a twin sister?! How could that be? How could her mother have kept something so important from her? There was so much more she wanted to know, but seeing how exhausted Gran was, Meghan sent her to bed. Phyllis went willingly. Her body ached as she worked her way up to her room, each stair creaking when she stepped on the dried-out wood. It wouldn’t be long now she knew, and she was glad. She was done with this life of hers. She had done her best to take care of those she loved, to protect them, and if that meant keeping secrets, she didn’t regret it. But she was tired now – so very tired.
Meghan and Ted sat at the worn kitchen table trying to process what they had learned. It seemed this town was full of mysteries. Both of them jolted when they heard the sirens. Each looked at the other in shock. Could this be it? Meghan thought. Ted, speaking as slowly as ever unfurled his large body from his chair with a soft groan, “Well now, I guess we best go see what is happening.” Meghan simply nodded in resignation and headed to the door, Ted following behind, shoulders slumped in the posture of a broken man. He didn’t like secrets, never had. He knew they always brought trouble.
The firefighters looked grim as they battled the blaze. It had started at the diner, but quickly spread to the building next door. “This town is a tinder box” Alex grumbled as he continued to hose down the fire. It was true. Most of the buildings were old and the ramshackle additions and sub-par compliance with building codes only made things worse. The interiors of the buildings were a maze of hallways that were almost impossible to navigate with all the smoke. He prayed nobody was in the buildings because they sure as hell couldn’t go in. With a loud crash, the roof of the diner caved in sending up a gigantic spray of sparks and flames. The heat was so intense Alex thought it could probably be felt a mile away. A long wail of pain was the last sound heard from the diner.
by Katie Fleischmann, 1779 words
Wiping her tear-streaked cheeks Amy turned at the sound of Alice’s door creaking open. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes Alice cocked her head quizzically at Amy standing by the window.
“Coffee’s almost ready” Amy said, heading toward the kitchen.
Alice stood still, not sure whether to follow her or go back to her room and shut the door.
“Come sit, sweetheart” Amy said softly, as she patted the second stool at the counter and went to the fridge for cream.
Alice sat ridged on the stool. Only her eyes moved, tracking Amy as she moved to grab two mugs from the cupboard and pulled the coffee pot from the machine.
“I think I know the missing piece you’re looking for now.” Amy started in a voice so soft and warm that Alice was caught off guard. They’d spent the last three weeks tiptoeing around each other. Being cordial but non-committal. This shift in attitude surprised Alice. She’d never had someone speak to her with such care, such affection.
“Your father’s name was Willoughby Smyth though he went by Jeff. He was,” she paused. “Is, from Camden County, Missouri. You were born here, or more specifically, at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle on the afternoon of March 8th, 1999. How am I doing so far?”
Amy’s eyes had never left Alice’s face and she watched the girl’s expression change from guarded to confused to astonishment.
Amy took a sip of her coffee, pretending to be mesmerized by the creamy swirls, giving Alice a chance to gather her thoughts while considering how to continue.
“How do you know all that?” Alice asked cautiously. She’d come to town looking for answers and believing she held all the secrets. Now this woman was spewing facts about her that she had never shared.
Amy sat silent, still staring into her coffee. The words in her head still didn’t make sense but she knew them to be true.
“Because I am your mother.”
Amy’s soft expression watched the poor girl as she took in this information. A girl who had spent her life bouncing around in foster care and group homes, never knowing the love of a family or a sense of place. Her girl. Meghan’s twin. The missing piece of her that she’d spent the last 24 years wondering why she never felt whole.
Alice’s voice broke through her thoughts asking the question neither of them could answer. “Why?”
Dr. Schwartz was on call when a young pregnant girl was rushed into the ER unconscious. She had no identification and it was unclear how she’d arrived at the hospital. The full moon always meant things slipped through the cracks. He was surprised they saved as many lives as they did on these nights. He checked her vitals and while the mother seemed otherwise healthy, the fetuses were intermittently showing signs of distress. Dr. Schwartz ordered the familiar looking Jane Doe be moved to a private room, put on IV fluids and attached to fetal monitors. They’d wait a little longer and see if the mother came to before making any further moves.
A nurse got the Jane Doe settled in her room and changed into a hospital gown. As she was folding her clothes and placing them in the Patient Belongings bag, a letter fell to the ground. As she picked it up to stuff it back in with her belongings she saw a familiar name clearly printed on the sealed envelope: Dr. Schwartz.
Before she could page the on-call doctor a CODE RED came over the intercom. All hands to the ER. She tossed the letter on the bedside table and took off, duty called.
Amy didn’t have insurance and lied to her mom every time she asked if she’d been to her prenatal checkups. She took a drive every few weeks pretending that’s where she went but really she just drove into the woods and wandered among the tall cedars. She’d rub her growing belly and tell her baby how much she loved it. She’d tell the baby all her dreams for them as they grew together. How she always thought she wanted to get out of their sleepy little town but being back just felt right. It felt like home and she was going show her baby how much love there was in their hometown. How the diner brought them an extended family.
“It may just be me, you and Gran, little one. But this town is going to love you too, you’ll see. This is home. The forest, the diner, this town. This is home.”
Working her way back to the car Amy stopped and placed a hand on a towering trunk and closed her eyes. Raising her head to the sky she took in a breath connecting herself, and her baby, to this place. Finding peace within she slowly opened her eyes. Startled to see two sets of eyes staring back at her, she dropped her hand from the trunk and started to place it protectively over her bump. Realizing there was no threat she just stared. The two owls, one wise, the other still young, sat silently on their branch. The three of them locked in a trance.
“Thank you for watching over us.” Amy whispered as she nodded her head in farewell.
“I don’t know” Amy said simply. “But I’m so sorry.” As tears filled her eyes, Amy slid off the stool and slumped back to the window. She gulped back a sob at the sight of the black plume in the distance and the ache in her heart. She’d had two babies, but she’d only been allowed to love one. Why had it not been enough for Willoughby to ruin her life once? Why did he have to keep dropping in? It had been six years since she’d last gotten a warning from him and she thought he’d finally given up. How many ways could she say she was sorry? And why now?
“Will you stay?” Amy asked, turning her broken face to the sad girl still sitting alone. “I don’t know why or how but I do know who and by the looks of it, they’re close by. I can’t give you back the past, but if you’ll stay I’d love to get to know you. Right now, I need to go, but please tell me you’ll stay?”
Alice’s mind was full of questions yet entirely blank.
“I’m coming with you.” Alice downed her coffee, dropped off the stool and started pulling on her boots. Before Amy could protest Alice was out the door and waiting at the car.
Sure, why not. Amy shrugged, grabbing her purse and pulling on her coat. How could the day get any worse?
The Excelsior employees trickled to the scene just after daybreak, gathering alongside the crowd of locals gawking at the charred remains.
Dwayne Schwartz, the lowly dishwasher and town know-it-all, was trying to keep everyone up to speed with what had happened. He’d been peppering the fire crew with questions all night and took this opportunity to show some leadership.
“It was 3:36am when the call came in. Fire crews showed up at 3:54am but it was clear the fire started long before the call was made. It appears the fire started at the diner then jumped to Sven’s. Stan’s Barber and KJ’s Pawn Shop have minimal damage but they were able to stop the flames before total destruction.”
He sputtered on with no one really listening as the fire crew cleaned up their gear and reinforced the perimeter with a fresh round of caution tape.
A police detective questioned Ted and Meghan at length but after the revealing conversation they’d had together and with Phyllis through the night, neither of them was comprehending much of what the detective was asking.
Finally released they jumped in Ted’s pickup to fill in Phyllis before facing the masses. When they walked into the bungalow it was filled with the smell of fresh coffee and buttermilk biscuits. Gran was frail, but she still knew how to care for her people.
“Oh Gran, it’s all gone. There’s nothing left.” Megan voice was hoarse with smoke and exhaustion.
“I know, Dear.” Phyllis said patting Meghan’s arm and placing a plate and mug in front of her. Taking a bite of Phyllis’s biscuit took Meghan back to her childhood. She closed her eyes and let her senses savor this quiet moment.
Rejuvenated, Meghan pulled down a travel mug and filled it for the long morning ahead. Setting it on the counter she gave Gran a kiss, Ted a hug, pulled on her shoes and coat and walked out the door. At the bottom of the drive she realized her mistake and turned to get her coffee but the silhouette through the window made her pause. Their foreheads together Ted held Phyllis so tenderly in an embrace that Meghan felt she was intruding on something much bigger than a lifetime friendship. Quietly turning back down the drive Meghan decided they could keep this one secret a little longer. They both deserved all the happiness this small town could give them.
Calm and collected, Meghan made her way back to remains of the diner and the staff a little after 7am.
“We’ll figure it out” she said calmly as they all started in with questions. “It’s going to take some time, but we’ll figure it out. Go home, get some rest. I’ll call each of you tomorrow with an update.”
As the staff split up Flora came up and enveloped Meghan in the biggest hug her taught body could muster. “I’m so sorry, Meghan. You know the whole town is here for you – just say the word and we’ll help you rebuild.”
“Oh, Flora, this is what I needed. I needed a hug.” She really needed her mom, but without her, the love of a friend would get her through a little longer. As they let go their embrace Meghan spied a familiar car pulling onto Main St. It parked and Meghan took off running but stopped dead in her tracks as the passenger door opened and the strange girl from yesterday stepped out of her mother’s car. The driver door opened, and Meghan’s eyes met her mom’s. Meghan had never seen her mother look so lost and in need. She took off running again and they stayed locked in an embrace without words as the world fell away, if even just for a minute.
With all the commotion it wasn’t until the crowd started to disperse that Dwayne made his biggest discovery yet.
by Lorinda Boyer, 1042 words
Pressed close to her mother, Meghan exhaled for the first time in weeks. Though she wanted, needed, to know everything. Like, where her mother had been, why she’d left in the first place, and why the shouting lunatic from the diner was riding shotgun, for the moment, she just wanted her mom.
“Oh baby, baby,” Amy squeezed Meghan, rocking her back and forth. Meghan let her, unwilling to give up this moment of comfort she so desperately needed. A breeze had picked up just enough to carry ash and smokey air to where the women embraced. The scent hit Meghan like a rock in the head and she jerked away from her mother.
“Mom, the diner!” But Amy had already woven her way amidst the smoldering remains. Her mouth hung open as she witnessed the devastation, the charred walls, twisted metal. Tears welled in her eyes, she turned again to Meghan.
“We will rebuild,” Amy assured. “We will. All of us.” She nodded towards the car where the screamer stood. Alice remained by the car, feeling an overwhelming mix of emotions. The news of her connection to Meghan as her long-lost twin had shaken her to the core. Her mind whirled with questions. She grappled with conflicting emotions of excitement at the potential of this newfound family connection, mingled with the discomfort of the unknown and the sudden shift in her reality. But now it seemed she must shelve everything she’d just discovered. None of that was important compared to the tragedy before them.
As Amy and Meghan shared their heartfelt moment amidst the ruins, Alice felt like an outsider, uncertain of her place in this intimate family moment. She hesitated to intrude.
“Why is she with you?” Meghan finally asked. “How do you even know her? Amy wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. The smoke stung or were those really tears? She wasn’t certain.
“Let’s go home and I’ll explain everything.” Amy wrapped her arm around Meghan’s waist and the two of them made their way to the car.
Alex, a seasoned firefighter, reacted instinctively to the haunting wail echoing from the direction of the burned-down diner. His training had honed not only his physical reflexes but also his acute sensitivity to signs of distress. As the mournful sound pierced the air, a chill raced down his spine, urging him to retrace his steps back toward the charred remains of the establishment he had fought so tirelessly to save. With a swift yet cautious stride, Alex hurried back, his firefighter instincts on high alert. The sound was not just a mere noise but a lament, a call that echoed the pain and suffering embedded in the smoldering ruins. He knew the dangers of re-entering a structurally compromised building, but the haunting cry for help spurred him forward. As he navigated through the debris and remnants of the once vibrant diner, his keen eyes scanned the surroundings, searching for any sign of life amid the devastation. The acrid scent of smoke still lingered in the air, a grim reminder of the fierce blaze that had raged not long ago. With each step, Alex’s heart pounded, fueled by a mix of adrenaline and concern. He approached the epicenter of the sound, cautiously moving the debris, not knowing what or who he might find amid the wreckage. Every creak and groan of the compromised structure amplified the urgency of the moment. Then, amidst the chaos, he discovered the source of the mournful cry—an injured barred owl trapped in the debris, a symbol of the devastation that had affected not just the human inhabitants but all life in the vicinity. Alex swiftly mobilized, carefully extricating the distressed creature, offering solace amid the desolation. His firefighter’s instinct to protect and serve extended beyond human life, embracing the welfare of all in need.
“Come now fella. I got you.” He held the stunned animal gingerly between his gloved hands and picked his way back outside. The owl’s eyes remained opened wide, staring directly, intently into Alex’s. Alex was almost certain the owl was trying to tell him something.
Dwayne felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach as an unsettling realization struck him—Jerome, the cook, was nowhere to be found. Why wouldn’t he have shown up to find out what had happened and what was going to happen next? Or just to show support? He must have known there had been a fire. Everyone knew. The town wasn’t big to begin with and news travelled like crazy. He hadn’t been around long but long enough that people knew him and were learning to appreciate his fancy new menu ideas. Even if Dwayne thought Jerome was a little too pretty, a bit too cool to be cooking in a greasy diner, he had to admit he liked him. He didn’t have a reason not to. But his not showing up did raise questions, at least in Dwayne’s mind. What if, and it was a big if, Jerome was responsible for the whole fire? The thought was like an electric surge, igniting a spark of excitement and suspicion in Dwayne’s mind. It was a sudden twist in the narrative, a mystery waiting to be unraveled. The prospect of Jerome’s involvement offered a chance for Dwayne to step into a role he had long dreamt of—a role that stretched beyond the confines of a dishwasher. The notion of playing a part in uncovering the truth and, possibly, fulfilling his aspirations of being a part of law enforcement created a rush of adrenaline within him. All he had to do was find proof. Which he had none of. He needed to understand Jerome’s potential motives. This of course would involve delving into his personal life, seeking any signs of distress or conflict that might have led to such an extreme action. Perhaps there were unseen struggles, personal crises, or conflicts that had gone unnoticed. But how was he going to find that out? Obviously the first step would be to go to where Jerome lived and snoop around. He could do this. He knew he could. He was more than merely a dishwasher. He was Dwayne, super cop in the making.
by Carmella Bauman, 1797 words
Like everyone else, Bilan and her daughters had woken to an acrid sun.
“What’s going on, Mama?” Astur asked.
Bilan’s brow furrowed as she looked at the sky outside. “I don’t know, Habiib. Let’s get ready for school. I don’t want to forget the bus.”
Aamiina giggled as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “’Miss,’ Mama,” she corrected, “not ‘forget.’”
Bilan felt her furrow soften as she smiled at her daughter. Cradling her tea as the twins wandered to get ready, she wondered how much longer she’d have her sweet girls. They were cresting into their teenage years and yet, though they corrected her English, they never seemed embarrassed by it. Or by her.
This temporary joie de vivre was replaced by concern. The sky outside was dark, but not in a stormy manner. What was going on? Though she had missed the hardship of the refugee camp, she heard stories growing up, and she had not forgotten them. Vacillating between guilt and relief, Bilan knew she was glad to have not witnessed the despair and destruction that her brother had seen. She had always thought this part of the United States as safe. Was it? She absentmindedly touched the lump in breast. Was she?
A sound roused her from her thoughts. A zipper. Then another. She must have been lost in thought for some time because Astur and Aamiina were already putting on their coats by the door.
“You have all the things?” Bilan asked, moving close.
“Yes, Mama,” they responded in unison, the way twins sometimes do, as they swung on their backpacks.
“I’ll find out what’s going on,” Bilan said in a tone she hoped was reassuring.
“Oh, don’t worry, Mama,” said Astur with the confidence – arrogance? – of an American. “We will, too.”
Bilan looked startled for a moment and then laughed. Ah, yes, she thought, her twins were living in a small town.
* * *
After the girls left, Bilan refilled her mug with spicy tea and sat down to complete her thirty minutes of Duolingo. When she finished, she sighed. She knew she would find out about the darkness when she arrived at work and there wasn’t any sense in delaying the enviable – no, that’s not right… inevitable. But the closer she approached the diner, the more worried she became. Trucks, crowd, commotion. And, most importantly, no diner.
Bilan was stunned. No diner. Despite all she and Tawfiiq had done to carefully orchestrate their lives in the Pacific Northwest, she hadn’t considered what the loss of this simple, yet precious, waitressing job could mean for her and her girls. Or, heaven forbid, her health.
As she took in the scene around her, she couldn’t help but do math in her head, calculating her finances. She had always been good with numbers. Given they were able to rent the cabin for half of what Tawfiiq could afford, that would buy her a little time. But Bilan wasn’t one for risk. She wanted a quiet, safe life.
A little time, she thought to herself. Though the thought was comforting, she couldn’t relax. The lump in her breast didn’t allow for relaxation – didn’t afford her the luxury of a metaphorical deep breath.
She shook her head to no one but herself. Bilan didn’t need to continue to witness the destruction. She didn’t understand this American ideal of guffawing – no, gawking – at tragedy. She had found Meghan and Dwayne amongst the onlookers. Meghan had looked wild and wired, hollowed out from weeks of missing her mother, holding the reigns of the family business during tragedy, and… something else. Bilan could sense that Meghan was drawn in another direction, too. Dwayne, usually quiet and reserved, seemed almost animated. Bilan had watched him carefully. He appeared overcome with adrenaline, talking with nearly everyone on the scene.
Meghan had said that she would call tomorrow with news. Nothing left to do, Bilan could go home, call Tawfiiq, plan, and wait for the girls to return home from school.
But as she turned to leave, Dwayne caught her eyes. Or was it just “eye”?
“Hi Bilan,” he said as he sidled up next to her. She noticed that he sounded almost cheerful. “Can you believe it?” he asked, nodding at the rubble as he thrust his hands in his pockets.
Though Bilan’s English wasn’t perfect, she was expert in communication unsaid. Body language held meaning that the speaker often didn’t realize they were relaying. Bilan was sure she picked up on things others couldn’t, unburdened by her imperfect comprehension of the spoken English words.
“It is terrible,” she said, after a pause. She felt her fingers twitch above her jacket, wanting to caress the lump; looking for comfort. She just wanted to go home and plan.
“Have you seen Jerome?” asked Dwayne.
Bilan frowned as she glanced around the dispersing crowd. “No, but I have not been looking.” She gave Dwayne a curious look.
Dwayne shuffled in an awkward manner. “It’s just, you know…” he trailed off, as if he was trying to find something reasonable to say. “We work together in the kitchen, and I want to…”
Bilan gave a faint nod as if she understood.
“Do you know where he lives?” Dwayne asked.
Bilan looked at Dwayne, her big brown eyes taking him in. She sensed his eagerness. Was his enthusiasm apparent to everyone else? She paused.
“No,” Bilan said. Dwayne looked crestfallen.
“… but Flora does.”
* * *
“What?” asked Dwayne, dumbfounded. He must’ve heard Bilan wrong. “Flora knows where he lives? Are you sure?”
How could he have missed this? he wondered. Of all the employees, he worked closest to Jerome at the diner. How could Bilan know something so basic that he didn’t? It couldn’t be possible. He thought he had been paying attention. And he had the closest proximity to Jerome…
“Where who lives?” asked a light voice. Flora emerged through the thinning crowd, a concerned look on her face.
Dwayne felt both confused and fortunate, at the same time. He had wanted to sneak quickly and quietly away to check up on Jerome and write down his observations from the scene, but connecting with a regular and his colleague could prove helpful. Maybe he could get a little more information before slinking off to snoop. And, realizing he didn’t know where Jerome lived, it would help if he could find out where to do said snooping. He didn’t have access to the databases of an actual cop. Yet.
“Hi, honey,” Flora said, offering reserved Bilan a warm hug. “How are you doing?”
Bilan accepted Flora’s embrace, albeit a bit rigidly and nodded. Dwayne wondered if this was because of her limited English, or, if it was because there wasn’t really anything to say. Flora seemed to accept Bilan’s quiet response as the later, gave her arm a squeeze, and turned to Dwayne.
“So, I know where who lives?”
Dwayne swallowed. He needed to stay on high alert; needed to remember everything. Every bit of information was valuable to him right now if he wanted to prove himself worthy of joining the force.
“Jerome,” he said, carefully watching Flora for her reaction. “I haven’t seen him this morning. Have you?”
* * *
Later that evening, after several discussions with exhausted surgical-medical-resident Tawfiiq (between patients, of course), Bilan felt equally exhausted. She and her brother had done nothing to come up with a plan for her future. There were too many unknowns tonight. They simply illuminated all the difficulties that could be before them, like two children with flashlights talking about unseen, scary monsters in the dark.
As her daughters worked on their homework at the kitchen table, Bilan sank into the soft, overused chair in the sitting room. She watched a bit of stuffing protrude from the soft fabric and felt a kindred connection with the chair. Both of them were a bit worn, though Bilan didn’t show it. She appeared intact. Bits of soft stuffing weren’t coming out of her – yet.
Her brother had promised he would speak with his mentor, Dr. Schwartz, about any possible, local opportunities, and Bilan resolved to reach out to Flora for ideas. She hoped Tawfiiq wasn’t so tired he’d forget. The surgical community in Seattle was tight-knit. While Tawfiiq was a student at the University of Washington Medical Center, he met Dr. Schwartz at a three-day conference on emergency obstetrics surgery. Dr. Schwartz had taken a shine to Tawfiiq once he learned about his immigrant background, took him under his wing, and helped him secure a residency at Swedish Medical Center. Dr. Schwartz was invested not just in Tawfiiq’s success – he never failed to ask how Tawfiiq’s twin nieces were doing.
Wasn’t it Dr. Schwartz who had pointed them in the direction of their little sleepy town? Bilan thought she remembered hearing that he had family in the area. She didn’t think much of it, though – she often felt like she misheard – and Schwartz seemed to her to be a common surname in America. Wasn’t Dwayne’s last name similar? She couldn’t remember – he mostly kept to himself, until today.
Bilan closed her eyes and wrapped her hands around her hot cup of tea. Usually, she tired from communicating in English. Today, she tired from witnessing the nuance of communication unsaid. She had watched Flora go white when Dwayne asked if she’d seen Jerome that morning. She hadn’t understood what Flora said in response – she had seemed to stammer – but then Flora’s eyes flashed in anger – or, was it passion? defiance? annoyance? – and she had seemed to tell Dwayne off, hissing at him in tones and glances of disapproval. Dwayne tried to protest but seemed to think better of it, then grumbled and grimaced as he hustled away, muttering to himself.
The small scene happened so fast, that Bilan wasn’t sure what to make of it. Did she need to make anything of it? She was just so grateful to rest.
There was a knock at the door. Bilan stood, and from her vantage point, she could see through the window that it was Ted. Big Ted with his big heart. He looked serious. But then again, it was a serious sort of day.
She opened the door, and behind her, the girls paused their homework to listen.
“Hi Bilan. Sorry to drop by unannounced. Can we talk?” asked Ted.
Bilan looked him over. After a full day of reading people, Bilan surprised herself. She couldn’t read Ted. Not one bit. He was unlegible.
As she welcomed him into the cozy cabin and he took off his hat, she realized that she didn’t know if he was arriving with an offer… or a warning.
by Al Clover, 1482 words
Dwayne had always been odd. During his early childhood his fellow younglings couldn’t let the odd spelling of his first name go. There was lots of “Duuuwayne” and other insults that only nine- and ten-year-olds could conceive of. He had retreated into books and then when the used book store he frequented bought a comic collection he discovered comicbooks. Specifically, Batman. He spent many a rainy Saturday perusing those comics. Relaxed in his favorite chair with a hot chocolate filled to the brim with those yummy little marshmallows, he devoured the stories. Stories of Batman fighting crime his way. Taking the night and making it his own, Batman caused justice to storm throughout his body, and he knew that was his future. He knew Batman was fiction but also knew there was some truth behind Batman’s search for justice in today’s world.
Dwayne began checking out books from the local library. This was where he slacked his thirst for justice at the well of knowledge. He was amazed at the information available for learning. The library became his Bat-Cave. He had access to computers (where he could be anonymous) and he found books on the FBI and many other organizations pertaining to the defeat of villainy. After his high school days, he attended law enforcement classes at the community college. Justice became his obsession. And Batman was his mentor.
He stood in the darkness surrounded by the flickering lights of the fire engines and the flames. Sven had drug his sleepy ass out of the burning building, his soot-covered shirt showed a burned spot or two where embers had fallen during the miraculous escape. Among the chaos he drew a lung full of oxygen than coughed in the smokey air. The thought, that was dumb, bounced around while he heard the firemen shout commands while they attempted to keep the flames from consuming the town. Something felt off as he looked around at the crowd. He realized Jerome hadn’t shown up at the scene. Hmm, that seems like a red flag. Was Jerome somehow involved? Dwayne remembered the instructor in his Law and the World Around Us telling him that when a crime was involved there are no coincidences and Jerome not showing up at the disaster of the Excelsior burning down seemed odd. Dwayne remembered the talks they’d had in the kitchen during slow times. Jerome had said more than once how much he loved his job.
He was super bummed that the fire had consumed his “tech” books—every Batman comic he’d purchased and dissected with annotations in the important parts—but he had a good memory and knew what his next step was. He needed to find Jerome. And if Jerome was a bad actor then Dwayne would see justice done.
Fortunately, Dwayne didn’t keep his most precious crime fighting equipment in his room. That was now gone. He’d been going out at night and patrolling the small-town finding crime in progress. In the dark of night, he was a shadow. He forged an understanding of the town residents. None of them were evil doers but Dwayne didn’t slack in his self-appointed duties. Of course, Mr. James wasn’t cleaning up after Tootsie, but Dwayne understood as Tootsie was a Saint Bernard that tipped the scales at one hundred pounds and when Tootsie went, it was a landfill of a dump. Still, he left a note on Mr. James’ door after that last time when Dwayne, in the dark, had stepped in the leavings of a Tootsie evacuation. He was proud of the fact that he didn’t puke when his shoe sunk into and was covered with poop. He’d observed Jimmy the Snoop, as he was known around town, peeping in the windows of the local hot MILTHSW (his version of the NSFW MILF) and rather than confront the kid about his unacceptable conduct he shoved a note under the suspect’s door reminding him that that type of behavior was wrong and he, the suspect, should mend his ways. It seemed to have worked as Dwayne hadn’t noticed any more late-night spying by Jimmy.
Dwayne had a 1959 Aston Martin that his great-grandfather had left him after his Grandpa passed. It sat low to the ground and its jet-black exterior gave it a mean “don’t mess with me look”. When necessary it could also take your breath away when you put the pedal to the metal. This was Dwayne’s Batmobile and he kept his most prized possessions in the boot of the fancy car. Not that he drove it much, gas was expensive. Still, he did keep it washed and maintained. He didn’t have a covered area (garage or covered parking) but he was able to use a car cover that kept most of the weather from affecting the car. It was the only part of his life that he still had after his parents essentially kicked him out when he graduated from high school. Not that he was complaining. Most kids in his high school graduating class got a Pinto or a Chevy Vega. And those were the lucky ones. In hindsight maybe not so lucky?
Dwanye had spent the day trying to find Jerome. His conversation with Flora had been frustrating but he wasn’t going to let that deter him from his self-appointed assignment. The sun had shown brightly throughout the day in an attempt to drive away the sadness that encompassed the town. For Dwayne waiting had been tough. He spent the time mindlessly wandering around town listening to the town talk about the fire. But now that darkness had descended on the sunlit hours, Dwayne needed his crime solving equipment to crack the mystery of Jerome’s disappearance. Approaching the Aston Martin and looking around, he popped the car cover off and lifted the lid to the boot. Pulled out his detective equipment, he’d modeled his “Detecting” belt after Batman’s utility belt. There were pockets for finger print analysis—fine scrapings from a #2 pencil—and a small brush, one he’d found in the bathroom at the Excelsior, probably left by a woman who was re-doing her make-up. He also had a pouch attached that held a pepper spray canister. He’d practiced with the spray but never planned on using it after he’d caught a whiff and spent twenty minutes throwing up from the effects. At least he hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. But if he did, remember he told himself, stay up wind. There were other items essential to crime solving on the belt. He ought to get moving though, if he was going to solve any possible crime associated with the burning of the buildings.
He closed the boot, adjusted his black stocking cap, and settled the belt around his waist. The belt fit snuggly and didn’t make a sound when he moved. Zipped up his dark hoodie and drew the hood about his head. His face sank into the inky blackness. Then pushed his hands into dark blue driving gloves. The gloves provided a more tactile feel for those moments that needed a discerning touch. Catching his reflection in a store front window he saw a mysterious hooded figure who would solve the mysteries of the night.
The murkiness was broken only by the moon slithering out from behind drifting clouds in an otherwise starry sky. A chiaroscuro effect deepened by the ebb and flow of the passing clouds. Night-time was his time to explore and follow the clues that were laid out before him. All was quiet. He drifted from one veiled spot to the next staying just out of reach of any street light or any errant lights. It was a good thing that even though Flora hadn’t offered up Jerome’s address when Dwayne first asked, he’d been able to convince her to tell him.
He gave his heels and toes a workout that would take him to Jerome’s apartment. There, Dwayne hoped to begin the journey to solving the mystery he felt was at the heart of the fire. Passing an alley, the night came alive with a cry of pain and Dwayne jumped at the sound. He reeled back a step and peered into the alley but couldn’t see anything other than the deep darkness.
Who knows why, but that sound sent Dwayne’s imagination into overdrive and the prominent thought that forced its way to the forefront of his mind involved the possibility that someone was trying to silence him.
Yes, the Excelsior had burned but so had his rooming house with Sven. And if not for Sven, Dwayne might not have survived. Not having thought of that, Dwayne stood there going over his activities during the last few months. Oh, crap he thought. Yes, but don’t they say it’s not paranoia if it’s true?
Of course, he could be wrong? Were the clues all in his imagination?
by Lisa Spicer, 1788 words
“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you—all.” The pair of barred owls’ serenade drifts into Phyllis’ dream through the window, slightly ajar in the night. She likes fresh air for sleeping. It wakes her up and she thinks, their hoots at night, intruder alert. She knows their call has with different meaning depending on how they hoot. Not a warning because they’re calling back and forth. Looking for love.
She rolls over and intends to go back to sleep. But the clock reads 2:30 AM. Since the fire, she’s been waking steady at that time and her mind goes right to work solving problems she can’t face during the day.
She’s visited by a parade of things lost in the fire. When the jukebox appears, she sits up in the dark and cries. The owls sing again, back and forth. She blows her nose and returns to her pillow. Her thoughts wander to the meeting she arranged for tomorrow afternoon with the crew from the diner. Thank God it’s not early, I’d be late to a meeting at my own house.
She rolls over facing the window, knowing that soon she’ll be hearing the early birds singing in the new day. I’ll let them know I’ve got insurance to rebuild, but it doesn’t cover pay checks. I want to keep them, it’s hard to find such a good local crew. Especially Bilan. Dewayne’ll be fine. Might be just the bump in the butt he needs toward his dream of police detective, what an odd ambition. He says the training takes too long, well so does rebuilding a restaurant. Okay then there’s Jerome. Something about him, can’t put my finger on why, but I want to keep him employed somehow. Maybe it’s because he’s the first to do Mother’s cabbage rolls right. And his pierogi! Maybe he’d go for part time. He could cook for me. Who knows when Amy’s coming home? Gotta remember, tell Amy there’s nothing to come home to.
The next afternoon, it’s nice out so Phyllis wants to meet on the front porch. She directs Meghan how to set up lawn chairs in an oval shape, and where to set the card table for refreshments.
“Okay, Gran. I’m gonna do the iced tea, holler if you ned me.” Going back inside, she lets the screen door slam like an exclamation mark that says she needs a break.
Getting comfortable in her favorite wicker chair, Phyllis looks up and smiles when she sees Jerome walking toward the front steps. “Thanks for coming early. I wanted to talk to you separately.”
“Am I in trouble?” He stops before he climbs the stairs.
Phyllis wants to hold her idea cards close to her chest to hear what he says before she shares her plan. “Well, first, the bad news. I have to let go of my employees.”
Jerome exhales like a puffer fish, closes his eyes and tilts his face skyward. He knew this was coming, “Where else can I cook? There’s no other restaurants around here within walking distance.” He’s just getting back on his feet, he wants to keep it together, get his driver’s license back, get a car again. Not have to hitch and bum rides. Live like a normal person. “It’s not my fault the diner burned down, but now I’m out of a job.”
Thing of it is, Phyllis can’t help wondering if maybe it was his fault, unintentionally. Like a grease fire.
Carrying a tray, Meghan uses her hip to push open the screen door, then uses her foot to keep it from slamming in front of a guest. The tray holds a pitcher of iced tea, stack of plastic cups, sugar bowl, and a dish of lemon wedges.
“You must’ve really liked cooking at the diner,” Phyllis says to Jerome. “We got ‘lot a compliments to the chef.”
“Well, thanks. I like cooking, but in particular, I like to people watch, but I don’t like interacting with ‘em. Slingin’ hash back there, with that long kitchen counter window open like it was, I’d glance up and check out everything going on in the dining room.”
“Remember anything interesting?”
“There is one thing. Something I never told anyone.”
“Because I’m the only one who saw it. Besides maybe Alice, she—”
“What? What was it?” Phyllis is intrigued.
“I think that place was haunted. Not haunted, but you know, like that kids book with the magic toll booth, well I swear, that diner had a time booth like that, the one back in the corner by the bathroom. That was none other than strange.”
“Strange, like what?”
“Like the time, I swear, there was a group of loggers all crammed into that booth. Big guys, which I thought was weird because that big round table was open. Bilan was dealing with a fussy kid table, so I took the guys’s order, grilled it all up, delivered it. They cleaned us out of link sausage, wolfed down a mountain of pancakes. Funny thing is, I noticed they were wearing old time wool clothes.”
Phyllis isn’t quite sure what to make of Jerome’s story. Aside from their talks about keeping the kitchen stocked, she’s never really had a conversation with him. “And Bilan never saw them?”
“Not that I know of. At one point, I looked out from the kitchen, and they’re gone. Poof.” Jerome snaps his fingers on both hands. “I mean, what the hell?”
Phyllis is upset, “You mean they ate all our sausage and dashed?”
“Well, I grabbed their ticket and went over to the table. They left a gold piece.”
“Yeah. Gold. Date-stamped 1898.”
“To pay for their food?”
“Yeah. But don’t worry. I paid their ticket with my own cash. And I hid the gold.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Because I can’t remember.”
“You never told anyone?”
“Hell no, never said a thing, ‘til now. I’m in recovery. I’m not gonna say I’m seeing things. And who the hell pays for breakfast with gold from 1898?”
“I recall that booth being open a lot. The vinyl seats were cracked, and I patched ‘em with duct tape.” She sits back and takes a deep breath. “Anyone else sit there?”
“On occasion an odd character would have coffee or tea, they rarely ordered food. Once a tramp was sitting there. His clothes were old time, like Charlie Chaplin. I gave him up a bowl of soup and pierogi, hope you don’t mind. When I glanced up again he was gone. Funny thing, Alice always sat at that booth. But she always came and went like a normal customer. Otherwise, that booth was usually empty. But I have a theory.”
“What’s theory got to do with it?”
“It’s a way to explain. It was some kind of time booth into another world. Like a—“
“Like a portal?
“That’s it. I’m not crazy. Please, I don’t want anyone to think I’m crazy.”
“Well, you can’t remember where you stashed the gold.”
“I was stoned, not crazy.”
Ted walks up to the porch, interrupting the conversation. “What’s this I hear ‘bout being crazy?”
“Why, Ted, We didn’t expect you, but come on up.” Phyllis leans over and calls through the screen door. “Meghan, can you bring out another folding chair?”
Ted takes a seat. “I came to lend an ear, lend a hand, whatever I can do. We gotta get another diner up and running. It was the only place between here and anywhere for decent food, good coffee. Pie.” He speaks as if he’s being deprived of his basic human rights.
The spring twangs on the screen door when Meghan swings through, without the extra chair. “Don’t need it. Dewayne called, said he can’t make it on account of being a conflict of interest. He just applied for a job at the police station.” She sits between Jerome and Ted.
“As what, janitor?” Ted never did care much for the guy, who made so much racket washing dishes, slamming the trays. He was surprised Dewayne didn’t break all the Excelsior’s Buffalo China.
Belin walks up the steps to the porch.
“Belin!” Phyllis pushes back the chair beside her. “Thank you for coming. Sit anywhere.” She redirects the conversation. “We’re sharing what we liked about the diner. How about you?”
Belin sits in the chair between Phyllis and Jeremy. She wiggles to get comfortable and uses her smile to cover her anxiety about losing her job. “I can say, I like being waitress. All the customers, they have stories. They leave nice tip. Everyone patient with my English, I learn more, serving their food. The regulars, I hear of their families. I like the customers who stop on their drive. I heard so many things.”
Phyllis taps her hands on her lap. “So everyone is here, except Amy of course. But help yourself to iced tea and let’s get started.” She looks over at Ted, “You were saying what you liked about the diner.”
“Yeah, it was an important spot in our town. Now that it’s gone, where do I hear the local grapevine?”
Meghan sits forward in her chair. “Being right at the crossroads, all that customer traffic goes right on by, we’re losing business like a leaky faucet.”
Phyllis rubs her forehead, massaging memories. “After the mill closed, I was so worried we’d be next. But we were one of the few businesses in town that actually thrived. I think it’s because of our location, where we’re at. Our lifeblood is that highway.” She looks at Jerome, “And of course, they come for the great food. You’re one of the first cooks we’ve had who can do my mother’s recipes proud. Did you know she carried those with her from Poland, sewn insider her coat?”
“Gran,” Meghan interjects. “Let’s not go into World War Two right now. We’ve got our own battle.”
Phyllis relates her plan to rebuild with insurance money, but it won’t cover everything. “The challenge I have now is, how to keep you all employed. There’s lots to be done. So today, I want to find out who can do what. Knowing what works good, let’s include those things. What I need to do is figure out how to keep y’all on the books. Jerome, I could use help cooking here at home, and that’ll give Meghan more time.”
“Thank you!” Meghan sighs.
“I have idea,” Bilan says. “Where I come from, when family has emergency, we have big dance party, everybody bring food, and people give money.”
“A benefit dance, great idea!” Meghan says.
“I also have an idea,” Jerome says. “Ted, you know about gold, right?”
by By Ellen Graham, 1399 words
“Jer-bear, if you were a chapter in a book, you’d be a mighty quick read.” Mother said the strangest things to him. Or was it one of his many aunts? Or sisters? Or sister wives?
He had no idea what a chapter was. Boys didn’t learn to read and write at the compound. Boys were supposed to farm. Take care of the few animals in the dilapidated barn. What a joke, he thought, trying to grow food in a desert. They could barely feed themselves let alone livestock. There were a few puny chickens, one sad milk cow and two skinny pigs who lived on meager scraps.
“Jer you never talk. What’s goin’ on in that pea brain?”
His mother’s garments peeked out of her rolled up sleeves like curious children.
“Chop these onions for me.”
Jerome was small as a boy. When he tried to work outside, he would faint in the unforgiving and relentless heat. Father called him scrawny. Useless. And after he started to help in the kitchen, sissy. The other boys started to call him Judy.
Inside babies were everywhere on every surface, smeary faces and knotted hair, on the chairs, the laps, the arms, the floor, crawling and walking in shirts and pants and dresses and diapers that were all too big or too small. Milk smells, the sounds of sucking and gurgling and crying and spitting, rags, grimy hands and sticky walls. He never felt like he fit in.
But he did learn to cook. There were a lot of mouths to feed in the compound and Father had very specific tastes.
“Add water to make your eggs fluffy.” “Fry sage to add to Father’s chicken.” “When you freeze jam be sure to leave a little head space at the top of the jar.” “When you knead the bread put your back into it.” “Keep the fat from Father’s chicken in a can.” “Watch the spinach when you boil it.”
Only Father got to eat chicken. Jerome learned to wring the chicken’s neck, pluck them, bleed them, how to remove their organs and how to cook their organs.
He learned to cook Father’s favorites: biscuits and gravy, roast chicken, greens boiled beyond recognition, huckleberry jam, toast grilled with precious cheese and scrambled eggs. He learned to cook for the wives: cookies to be secreted away, fresh bread, green beans in butter and corn pancakes. The wives had to like you. Father could ignore him, but he had to be in good favor with the wives.
Yet at age 14 Jerome was blindfolded and put into the blue pickup by his brother Bob. No one said goodbye. No farewell hugs or kisses. He was not surprised. Boys of a certain age were a threat to Father.
Jerome didn’t know how many miles they drove. Left with a striped canteen and a small apple he saw the highway. Bob palmed him another apple.
“Lookit. I’m sorry we was so hard on you. But this place is hard on everyone. I don’t know why Father has kept me, unless it’s because I do this. And, you know, I can run the tractor. This highway will take you north. Put out your thumb like so. Be nice. Don’t say a word about where you came from, or they’ll never let you in. Maybe some day I can find you.”
An 18-wheeler was his first ride. A doughy man opened the door. Jerome had never seen anyone so fat. It was comforting. This guy must always be able to eat. He had a pink face and a sleeveless inky shirt. And no garments. Just his hairy arms and fuzzy fingers. And he didn’t have a beard. No garments!
“I can take you all the way to Oregon. Just talk so’s I don’t fall to sleep.”
The red dirt and red rocks and silence of the desert slowly gave way to sunflowers and silos. Hawks and herons. Cottonwoods, cattails, ditches, sprinklers, and rain. Glorious, beautiful rain. It soaked the pine trees and ferns along the road. He opened the window to smell it. This was home.
Jerome walked the woods by the café almost every day. His fingers trailing over the cedar trunks. Stepping around slugs. Listening to the scrub jays complain and hoping to hear his owl. He thought of his boyhood as he walked. Sometimes he could still feel the chicken necks under his hands. Probably why he didn’t touch meat. He would cook it but could not stomach eating it.
Tall, with lean muscles, no one would recognize him from the child he was. Wishing that the compound had blown up or turned to dust or fallen apart brick by brick. No one could ever know the shame of where he came from. He fights the familiar itch to make someone pay.
When he first came to the diner, he thought Amy suspected he couldn’t read or write. When she handed him the application, he started to leave. He folded it up and said he would be back.
“Wait–can you just cook something for me?”
Jerome made an omelet with asparagus, goat cheese, avocado, and shallots. That he topped with fried sage. A pinch of sea salt and a curve of parsley.
At first Amy said nothing. But she kept eating. And eating.
“You are SO hired. Oh my God how did you make this so fluffy”?
Jerome swore he would never marry. Never have children. Never get involved enough to tell someone where he was from. Flora, with her tiny, sweet body was just for…what? Fun? A way to be with someone where he didn’t have to talk?
Bilan was a different story. Bilan with her dark deep eyes. There was a mystery to her. He wanted to take care of her. He had never felt that. Even though she had two kids and he hated kids. But these? When they came to the diner, he tried to learn what they wanted him to cook. He tried lamb pan fried in butter and onions for tibs but these girls had never been to Ethiopia. Peach milk shakes and fries coming right up.
Who-cooks-for you…who-cooks-for you? His owl. Jerome laughed and thought, well no one cooks for me. I cook for everyone. And it’s the first time I have fit in.
Would Bilan talk to him? Would she dance with him? Could he hold her hand?
And what would she think if he told her about the visions he has had his entire life?
Phyllis sat on the edge of her sagging bed and thought about what Jerome had said. What a peculiar idea. But right now she had to rest. She had never felt this tired. It happened overnight, as quickly as the snap in the air tells you it’s Fall. One day you are young and the next day you look in the mirror and your grandmother is looking back at you. Starsza pani. Old lady.
Puckered chest. Knuckles as big as chestnuts. Sagging eyes. She looks like the dried apple dolls Amy used to make as a child. When did everything start hurting? When did it become so hard to get out of a chair? Out of bed?
Phyllis lets her mind wander, which is easier and easier to do these days.
“Phyllie! Let’s get away—come quick—we have an hour.”
Ted would knock on the screen door and pull her outside. Running to their clearing, giggling and tearing off their clothes. Bodies supple and warm. Grass and rocks and sticks pushed into her back. Just the feel of his hair in her fingers. His smell. Not even her Joe made her feel this way. She got to be soft around Ted. She could talk or she could be silent. Sometimes they watched the baby owls learn to fly, protected by their father. She fit just so, in the crook of his arm. Sun warming their skin, cirrus clouds in the sky and the gentle who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for you. Phyllis feels that time has stopped. Ted has no prospects. He’s just a sanitation worker. She has a child to raise and a business to run. But oh, how good that sun feels. Heating her from head to toe. She wants to close her eyes, just for a minute. Yes, now, that feels good. And right. She sighs.
“Phyllis, wake up!! Wake up! What happened?”
by Lisa Gioia, 1402 Words
While her grandmother conducted the meeting on the porch, Meghan had stood just inside the screen door. She reflected back on the day before and thought about all that transpired after her mother’s reappearance.
“Let’s go home and I’ll explain everything,” Amy had said to Meghan as they headed to the car. Alice, head down but gazing through the fringe of her long hair at her twin sister, (she still couldn’t believe it) didn’t know if she’d be invited back in the car. She’d overheard Meghan ask Amy why she was there, with her – their mother. Perhaps her coming along with Amy had been a mistake. No one would welcome her into this family, no matter what Amy said. Meghan had been nice to her in the diner when she’d had that embarrassing meltdown, but accepting her as a sibling, well, that might just be asking too much.
“Alice, honey. Get in the car. It’s okay. I’m going to explain everything to Meghan. At least I’m going to try. Granted, I don’t know everything, but I do know, you are my daughter. Together, the three of us are going to figure all this out.
As Meghan was about to slide in the driver’s seat, she looked over at Alice. Could it be true? Could this crazy woman be her sister? Her twin? That’s what Gran and Ted had told her. Now her mother seems to be confirming it. But Meghan didn’t want to believe it. Had her whole life been a lie?
No, Meghan said to herself. Gran said they were trying to protect me. From what? From this girl? But why?
Meghan couldn’t wrap her head around it, not now. With the fire, the loss of the diner, and her mother’s reappearance, Meghan figured her brain was overloaded with information and confusion. Maybe they were all confused. This mousy, unhinged woman couldn’t be anything but an unfortunate stranger and Meghan couldn’t wait to be rid of her.
As Meghan drove the short distance to the bungalow, she kept stealing glances at her mother who stared straight ahead out of the windscreen. Just before they turned onto their street, Amy suddenly reached for Meghan, grabbing her arm, and said, “Stop! Pull over.”
Amy pulled to the side of the road, put the car in park and turned to her mother. “Mom? What’s wrong? Gran is going to be so happy to see you.”
Shaking her head and glancing toward the backseat to look at Alice, Amy said, “No. We can’t go home yet. I’m not ready. Your grandmother, she knows the answers to what happened when you and Alice were born,” she points her thumb over her shoulder. “Meghan, I’ve been gone these last three weeks trying to figure something out. Your father, and Alice’s father – he’s not dead. But I wish he was because he’s a very bad man. Meghan, Alice is your sister. Your twin sister. But I didn’t know that until today, although I think I did know, deep down inside me because I felt incomplete. I’ve been trying for all these years to forget about your father. His name isn’t really Jeff, it’s Willoughby, but that’s a story for another time. I couldn’t forget about him because he’s been stalking and threatening me for years.”
As Amy stopped to take a breath, for she realized she’d been rambling, anxious to get the words out, Meghan stared at her, not understanding what was happening. Her father was alive but was a danger to her mother. The woman sitting behind her was her twin. Closing her eyes, Meghan shook her head to rid herself of the impossible. Just as she reached up to put the car in drive, Alice spoke up from the back seat, her voice just above a whisper. “I’m sorry.”
In the rearview mirror, the two women locked eyes, the same hazel-flecked-with-gold eyes.
Amy said, “I have someplace you can take me and Alice. Just until we sort this out. Don’t tell your grandmother I’m back. Not yet. Just give me more time. I don’t want Willoughby to know where I am. I don’t want him cottoning on that I know what he did.”
Amy directed Meghan to a house about ten miles from town. Apparently, this is where Amy had been the whole time. Not completely understanding what was happening, Meghan left after a long embrace with her mother and a cursory nod to her sister.
Later that day Phyliss went off to bed after the meeting; she’d looked so worn out that Meghan insisted she rest. Meghan and Ted sat on the porch under the canopy of stars. Should Meghan tell Ted about Amy’s return and that she’d been with the strange girl from the café (she better get used to saying her sister)? Before she could decide to open up, they heard a thud coming from inside the house. Together they ran in and found Phyliss in a heap on the floor just outside her bedroom.
“Phyliss, wake up! Wake Up. What happened? Ted leaned close to her face and shook her gently.
It took a minute, but Phyliss opened her eyes and looked at the hovering faces of her granddaughter and her friend. She was dazed, but once they helped her to sit, her head began to clear. She turned to look into her room. When she returned her gaze to the two of them, she said, “Willoughby, he’s here. He was looking in at me through my window. I came out here to warn you, tell you to watch out. I guess I fainted or something.” Phyliss grasped Meghan’s hands in hers and said, “Honey, I think he’s come for you.”
Willoughby Smyth saw the old lady fall to the ground after she’d seen him. Good, he thought to himself. I hope she’s dead. Rather than stay and see if his wish was true, he headed back to the woods. I can torch the place another time, after I’ve gotten even with Amy and have my hands on my daughter, my other daughter.
Smyth had a score to settle with Amy and the old woman. Because of them he’d lost out on being a father. Granted, when he first heard Amy was pregnant, he wanted nothing to do with it. That’s why he split. He’d changed his mind though and when he’d heard Amy had given birth, well, he wanted to be a part of his kid’s life. Then he discovered Amy had twins. It was Ted that had informed him. He also learned Amy was in a bad way, had some medical complications after giving birth. That’s when he decided he was going to take the girls, raise them himself.
When he’d gone to the hospital to claim that he was the father, he was barred by Amy’s mother Phyliss from going anywhere near her daughter or grandchildren. It took some doing, but he was able to sneak into the hospital and nursery one night. He had one of the twins in his arms and was ready to pick up the other when a nurse entered the room. “Hey! What are you doing here? Put that child down!” she shouted. Willoughby bolted for the door, pushing the nurse aside and getting outside before he was caught.
It didn’t take long before he realized the mistake he’d made. He didn’t know how to care for a squalling kid, didn’t know how to feed it. But he was sure as hell not going to give her back to her mother. Instead, he placed the kid on the doorstep of The Sisters of Charity School for Girls.
It was after that he began his campaign of terror, contacting Amy, telling her she would never be rid of him. The funny thing was, Amy never once asked him about the kid. Was she glad she only had one to raise? Had he done her a favor? If she begged him to tell her where her other baby was, he would have another way to torture her.
But Willoughby was unaware that Amy never knew anything about the second baby she’d given birth to. That was a secret only he, Phyliss, Ted, and the hospital staff knew. That is, until things started to unravel. Alice appeared looking for her family. Phyliss and Ted confessed to Meghan. And Willoughby Smyth decided it was time to exact revenge.
by Sky Hedman, 1352 words
Flora had heard the swoosh of her front door closing. She had turned over in her sleep and reached out for Jerome, his warmth, his hairy chest, his strong hands. But he was gone. Flora glanced at the clock. 3:15 am. Through the window, she saw the November darkness, that powerful fall darkness that robbed late afternoon light and withheld the sun until after breakfast. Flora knew that Jerome usually arrived early at the café to start prepping for the breakfast rush. Still, she felt disappointed that he had not wakened her to say goodbye. Just the feel of his lips on her check, or his breath on her hand…
Flora pulled the floral covers up to her chin and tried to go back to sleep. She slept better with him alongside her. The aloneness kept her awake, but also her worries. Once again, she wondered if she and Jerome had lost that special feeling between them, a feeling that smoothed their differences, that spanned the years between them. She wondered again, was he really looking for a mother, a home, safety? Was he looking for another lover?
Jerome was used to walking the mile to the café in the morning dark. He could have followed on the streets through the little town, but he turned instead onto a path that led him through the woods. The moon was bright, and he could easily find his way despite the hour. Walking was his balm, his therapy, his way to be in the world and to leave it behind. His body relaxed when he left the human chatter. He had grown to love this little town for the ease at which he could escape it.
One jump over the drainage ditch, and a scramble up the dirt path landed him in the forest. The canopy of orange and yellow leaves closed over his head. Seldom did Jerome run into another human being taking this route. In ten minutes, he would be through the familiar paths and come out behind the café.
Only once had Jerome been frightened in the forest: the day that he had explored a new direction, and came upon an isolated cabin. Jerome had stepped out from the trees and stood looking at the unkempt yard, the overgrown grasses, the dirty windows and the mossy roof. Disoriented, he wondered where exactly he was. He was standing still, looking at the old red F150 truck in the driveway when a disheveled blond haired man emerged from the cabin, pointing a rifle at him.
In an instant, a shot rang out over Jerome’s head. Jerome spun on his heels and crashed back into the woods, expecting to be stricken by a bullet at any moment, glancing over his shoulder when he could, feeling close to death. Fueled by adrenaline, he almost tripped when he heard one more shot, but kept moving. He soon dropped into a gulley and scrambled behind a boulder. He crouched frozen, willing his breath to calm down, listening for the man’s footsteps. The forest was quiet. After a few minutes of silence, he picked his way through the brush back home the way he had come in. As he put more distance between himself and the man, his mind tried to sort out what had just happened. In a small town, there are few strangers. Why had he never seen this man before? Where exactly was that cabin?
Jerome saw the red Ford truck again, a few days after his chance intrusion on the cabin in the woods. This time, it was out on the street in front of the café. The same blond haired man was leaning on the truck, one leg crossed over the other. Jerome saw Meghan standing a few feet away. In short order, she turned away from this stranger and came in the back door of the café, directly into the kitchen. Jerome quietly watched her and noted the stress lines in her face. Through the front windows of the café, he saw the truck pull away, and made note of the Washington license plate: SFU943. He considered telling her about his run in with the man, but uncertainty kept him from speaking. He had no interest in tangling with this violent person.
Weeks passed since Jerome had seen the red Ford. Amy was away and the café had a different feel with Meghan in charge. It almost seemed to take on a new life, to feel a little more rad without Amy’s restrictions. The business grew. Jerome had to order more supplies when he filled out the grocery list, and he got less pushback when he requested Cotija cheese and avocadoes. The usual gang didn’t change, but newer faces wandered in, brushing Seattle off their shoulders as they seemed to soak up the peaceful aura of the Excelsior.
The morning of the fire, Jerome had left Flora’s house for work in the dark as usual. He took the forested path towards the café. He was thinking about Flora. He was also thinking about Bilan. Jerome wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Bilan didn’t speak English with enough confidence to start a conversation. Or was she not interested? Yet he felt fascinated by her: her gentle grace, her innocent charm, her understated beauty. Jerome was thinking about Bilan as he approached the back side of the Café. He was startled out of his thoughts by movement that he saw in the dark. Jerome hurried up to the building and almost crashed into the blond haired man. The man was carrying an empty gas can in his right hand, and the rifle in his left. Behind him, flames were licking the café’s walls, while smoke was swirling up to the sky. Just as the man tried to push Jerome into the fire, a powerful brown and white owl flew between them, momentarily blinding them both. As Jerome started to fall backwards, the man snarled “You will be next!”
Jerome caught his balance and scrambled to his feet, twisting around and running back the way he came. Expecting a rifle shot, he retraced his steps in a panic, trying to read the path and not fall on the roots and rocks that made it perilous in the dark. Jumping back across the drainage dish, he approached Flora’s house with caution. The area was still middle-of-the-night quiet as he tried the door handle. It was locked. He soon filled the silence with his knocking. Flora opened the door to a frightened and breathless Jerome. Unable to stop himself,
he spilled his story. That was the moment when Flora felt compelled to act. “We have to call the police,” Flora insisted.
“He’s going to kill me, if he finds out where I am,” Jerome pleaded. As the words tumbled from his mouth, the sound of sirens mixed with smoky air outside Flora’s window.
Jerome was now the one who needed comforting. Afraid to be alone, afraid to walk in the woods, he tried to put up a good front in the days after the fire, but he hardly felt safe without Flora’s presence. The image of the blond haired man’s angry face, the sound of his snarl, the smoke and flames and the rifle kept Jerome from sinking into the deep slumber that he had taken for granted for the last year. He stayed out of the woods, and even when on the streets, he noted every car and flinched when a truck went by.
Flora urged him to share his tale with Meghan, Amy and Phyllis. “Together,” Flora pointed out, “you are safer.”
“You can say that because he’s not out to kill you!” Jerome retorted.
“You can’t live your life in constant peril.”
“Maybe I should just leave. I could go to Seattle. I could go south.”
Flora soothed him by rubbing his back. Despite their relationship, she did feel like his protector. “Let’s get all of them together. Together we are stronger.”
Jerome hung his head. “He’ll kill us all.”
“Or he’ll end up in jail. Your choice.”
by Kate Miller, 1465 words
That evening Jerome talked Meghan into picking up Phyllis and Ted and driving over to the house where Amy and Alice were staying. He had filled everyone in on Flora’s advice. With Willoughby Smyth on the prowl in their small town, posing a danger to Amy, but also to Phyllis and Meghan and Alice, the diner gang would be much stronger working together.
And so, here they all were, sitting in the motel-like main room in the house by the freeway, ready to share both their individual knowledge and their collective ideas about how to protect each other. Flora came to take notes, Meghan made decaf coffee and tea, and Jerome brought his famous Baklava.
First Amy shared the story of “Jeff Smith”, how they were a couple until “they” became pregnant and then “Jeff” promptly exited, apparently for good. Until he started stalking her. Amy herself did not know she was carrying twins so when she woke after Meghan’s birth there was only a lingering feeling that something was terribly off.
After Amy was done, Phyllis and Ted contributed their part of the story. They both knew that Amy had two infants, not just one, and that one of the infants had been kidnapped from the hospital while Amy was recovering. What they did not know was who had taken the baby, or why they had taken the baby, or even where they had taken the baby. “Jeff” aka Willoughby, unskilled as he was with child-napping, somehow managed to leave no clues, seemingly vanishing into thin air. Phyllis talked to local officers but with no clues, no leads, and with Amy unaware there was a second infant, she and Ted decided to “forget” the second infant. Better all-the way around they told themselves.
It was Alice’s turn next, and in a small, quavering voice she recounted her solitary life in orphanages and later, ever revolving foster care homes, always unloving and often abusive.
Amy told Alice that she was probably “lucky” that Willoughby was not her dad, as he would have been no better than the nuns or foster parents, but all Alice could think of now was how much better her childhood would have been with her birth mother and her twin. Underneath her quiet demeanor, Alice wept for what might have been hers, and raged at the man who was responsible for her misery.
Now it was Jerome’s turn. He recounted the run-down cabin in the woods, the blond man who shot at him, whose red truck he had seen in front of the diner multiple times. He told them he had seen the same blond man carrying a gas can into the trees behind the diner on the morning of the fire. They all knew it had to be Willoughby. Jerome told them that he was sure Willoughby saw him and now he too was afraid of the man. “He meant to kill me the first time, and now that he knows I saw him leaving the diner with a gas can I’m sure I’m not safe” Jerome said.
Phyllis broke in to let everyone know about her “peeping tom” experience with Willoughby the other night. “I was so scared to see his face again after all these years that I fainted right there in my bedroom doorway” she sighed.
But if he had indeed torched the diner, what further revenge could he inflict on Amy and her family, and why?
“I’m not sure we can answer those questions now” Amy said. “But figuring out some good safety strategies would probably be a good idea. Flora, we’ll start by brainstorming ideas, so you just write them down as we say them, and then we will have a good list to start with.”
Alice lay in bed, awake in the early morning, as sleep eluded her. “Kill him, why don’t we just kill him” Alice muttered over and over to herself. Not that she had voiced that sentiment in the brainstorming session. No, she just sat there, head bowed, silently seething with rage over everything she now knew that her “father” had ripped from her, her chance for a family, for her mother’s love, for a sister, for a home. She could barely breathe; she was so furious at Willoughby she thought she could kill him. But all the others in the room had no idea that Alice, the silently shrinking woman in the corner, was plotting murder.
It took Alice a few days to figure out what she could do about Willoughby but finally it all came together. She spent part of those days essentially spying on the guy, where he drove his old red Ford, where he ate now that the diner was gone, when he went to the library to use the internet, and what bars he drank in late at night.
Alice knew that all her years of practicing being invisible could pay off in her plan. And if anything went wrong, she felt that no-one would miss her. She knew that Meghan wasn’t very happy with her new, strange sister showing up, ready to share their mother. And the “Alice stolen” story caused pain for Amy, plus the whole disaster seemed to have drawn crazy Willoughby back into the equation, endangering a much wider circle of people. She felt guilty for being the cause of so much pain in other people’s lives. At the same time, she felt so angry at the man who had initiated this whole chain of sad events, stealing her and her future life because of mistakes he had made himself. Now her luck seemed to have changed and Alice wasn’t at all sure she deserved the love of found family that might finally be in reach. In fact, Alice didn’t think she was deserving at all.
“WHO COOKS FOR YOU? WHO COOKS FOR YOU?” The large Barred owl shrilled loudly on the lonely back road. Then it flew a full circle around the young woman standing in the center of the road. The woman was dressed in a ragged pale blue nightgown and furry old slippers. The owl hovered right in front of the girl’s face and did its best crazed laugh, “If anything will wake this human out of her trance, this should do it” the owl thought. And sure enough, the woman’s eyes flew open. Stepping back in surprise, she found herself face to face with a very large owl. With one final flap of its wings, it turned and disappeared into the trees.
Alice knew she had a problem with sleepwalking, but it had been years since her nighttime journeys had taken her outside whatever bedroom she was sleeping in at the time. Where was she now? It would have been totally dark, but the crescent moon overhead cast a wan silver light, weak but enough for her to see the road stretched out before her.
Suddenly there it was, the old red Ford truck, headlights on high beam, weaving right down the road toward her. Must have been going at least sixty. The man at the wheel was slumped forward. In just a short while the car would crash into her, and they would both be gone. Willoughby would no longer be a threat, harming her newly found family. Alice and the troubles trailing her would be no more. Everyone could get on with their lives, not able to miss a girl they had never known.
In these last few seconds several things happened at once. The Barred owl swooped out of the woods again, flying so close to Alice that a wingtip brushed her forehead. Alice knew in that instant she wanted to live, not be killed like a deer on the road by the man who was her biological father but never her dad. And Willoughby sat up, blinking. He could see something in the road up ahead that looked like a person. He pulled the wheel sharply to the left and the truck crashed into the ditch, plowing up into the trees, rolling over twice before coming to rest against a huge old Cedar.
Alice watched in horror, staring into the woods at the largest Cedar she had ever seen. A crumpled red truck with a smoking engine lay on its side at the base of the tree. She couldn’t see if the driver was alive, or injured, or dead. She didn’t want to look. Shaking with cold and adrenaline, Alice turned and ran back toward the house, somehow finding her way in the coming light of dawn. Before going back inside she called 911 to report an accident, then went inside and crawled into the bed. Wrapping her arms tight around herself, she sobbed into the pillow until she fell into an exhausted sleep.
by Mary Louise Van Dyke, 1685 words
Bilan shivered as she watched the morning sun lifting in a sea of pinks and purples into the morning sky. Or was the word “rising?”
Two days now since the fire destroyed the Excelsior Café. Two long days of wondering if her suggestion about a dance party to help fund rebuilding the diner so Ted could eat his pies once again and Jerome could once again lord over the kitchen once again in his apron as he prepared the meals ordered by citizens of their small community.
No one had contacted her since the meeting a day earlier. Not Meghan or Amy. The twins slept peacefully in their beds probably dreaming of school and cute American boys and the classes that demanded their bookbags be filled with papers and –
She shook her head, feeling a migraine starting to come on.
What was she to do? If she didn’t have a job, how was she to take care of her girls and afford even the half rent that Ted asked for this cabin?
She pulled her cell phone out and stared at it once again. No messages where, or was that were?, displayed there. Not from her brother Tawfiiq or from his, his mentor.
And she still didn’t understand why Ted had dropped by the other day saying he wanted to talk with her. All he’d said was something about a gold coin dated from long ago – lost in the fire? Or had she overheard Jerome say something about a coin before their meeting with Phyllis? She’d just arrived for it and overheared, no, overheard, Jerome talking about loggers.
Or was she imaged things? She rubbed her head. Her mind felt stuffed as if it was filled with sand that shifted with the winds this way and that.
What truth lay under that sand?
Badly needing tea, she stumbled to her small kitchen and prepared the fragrant brew, adding a teaspoon of sugar and hoping it would sweeten this morning and allow the sun to shine through her mind.
Gold? A gold coin and lost. That much she was certain of.
Somehow Bilan managed to smile and to behave as if life was usual as Astur and Aamlina went through their usual routine, only pausing to correct their mother’s words a half dozen times before running out to the bus that rode them to the middle school and the life they knew as American children in a small town.
The door closed behind them and she sank down on the old couch, wishing she had someplace to go, that she was sliding into her tunic and yes, even into the American jeans and framing her face with the head scarf for another day of serving food and smiles of customers and for those shiny coins mixed with the dollar bills as thanks for her service.
No. She always received silver coins that she brought home and deposited into a clear glass jar, coins that sometimes seemed to empty magically when the twins needed funds her for school and field trips – although that was another strange word. The girls were never taken to the raspberry or blueberry fields, but to plays at the old theatre in the downtown area and to the museum.
Gold coins. The words throbbed with the force of the sudden headache that shifted the sands in her head.
A gold coin. Lost? In the diner?
Wasn’t gold valued? Valuable, she corrected. Could that coin be worth enough to help Phyllis with paying for restoring the diner?
If it were found?
Bilan buried her face in her hands. Quiet and rest. That was all she wanted.
No. No. It wasn’t. The sand seemed to tilt to one side leaving the other side of her brain suddenly as clear as the blue sky showing itself outside.
No. She wanted to stay here in this little cabin. She wanted her girls to grow up here. She didn’t want to only depend on her brother for answers – even closest as they were after growing up in refugee camps.
No American women like Meghan. Like Amy. Were strong.
Her hands automatically rubbed the back of her neck, easing the twisted muscles there, the ones that sent the pain messages to her brain. She could be strong too. At least enough to look for a shiny gold coin that meant life.
She tilted her head, feeling her uncombed hair tumbling over her face. She must dress and she must go to the diner and look for that coin.
A short time later, with headscarf neatly framing her face, she walked downtown to the place where the fire had tried to take everything of value from not only her, but from her boss and from Jerome and even Dwayne, much as he was so full of strange energy and purpose. Taken away Ted’s pie – especially the strangely named bumbleberry pie even though there was no such berry as a bumble berry, and from Jerome the cooking away from people doing what he loved.
And what she loved. She loved knowing the food she bore to people made them happy. Filled their stomachs. Made their day better to have company with others who often visited the diner.
Her feet stumbled to a stop when she reached the diner; the burnt smell slammed her nose and the yellow tape shouted keep out.
Was she breaking a law to go there and search for the shiny coin?
She glanced around uneasily but it was so quiet here. Surely no one would think this was wrong? To search for something to help Phyllis, to help so many people. No police were here acting like the greedy guards who’d monitored the refugee camps, demanding money and goods.
No, she closed her mind and resolutely stepped through the open doorway, burnt wood crunching underfeet. No underfoot, she corrected. The coin if it was here should be over here, where people had eaten their meals at the tables sat at tables to eat their meals.
Crunch. So much damage. The tables broken like the crayons her daughters used to snap in half while they drew pictures, insisting on using the same colors.
How could she ever find a coin in this black mess? The burnt wood was also wet, she discovered quickly as water soaked her sneakers
Was she strong enough to do this – or should she go home and rest?
“What are you doing here,” demanded a rough voice behind her and Bilan froze. Police? Would they take away her green card that showed she was here legal.
“I said what are you doing here?”
Bilan thrust her hands into her jean pockets, suddenly glad for the American garment and turned to face a blond-haired man who stood scowling at her.
He wasn’t wearing a uniform. No, he was wearing a plaid shirt made from sheep hair, no, sheep wool, and he– like what had Jerome said, the men who left the gold coin. His forehead was strangely purple, like the morning sunrise, and black too as if he’d bumped something.
“I’m looking for a coin,” she said. “The one you left.”
Was she crazy? Willoughby, also known as Jeff Smith, stared at the veiled young waitress. Why would anyone want to sift through this pile of crap for a coin?
“What do you mean a coin,” he snarled. After the morning he’d experienced with crashing his truck into a tree and having to walk here to town, he didn’t have much patience left. Besides she shouldn’t be here anyway, not when he needed to check through the damage to see if there was anything of value left that he could steal as part of his campaign to screw Phyllis over for the lies she’d told about the twins. His daughters!
“A gold coin,” she repeated as if she was a robot.
Willoughby stilled. A gold coin? Belonging to Ted? Maybe really valuable? “Yeah? You think its here?”
“I think so. I have to find it to help rebuild the diner,” she gestured at the wreckage, “And to keep my twin daughters safe.”
Twins. Willoughby almost lit up fire at those incendiary words. Twins. Not his ones of course but still …. He grabbed onto his last gram of patience, realizing that if she knew where the coin was – or even could find it. He wouldn’t have any trouble taking it from her none at all, for as slight as she was. This was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I can help,” he offered in what he thought passed for a helpful offer.
“It’s under here somewhere. I think.”
Zeus almighty. A gold coin. It better be here, that was all he could think of. Make his day, that was for sure, and it would be something more to score over his old buddy, Ted. “Well, let’s get at it,” he said and reached for what had been a silver coffee pot and bent over to move ash and charcoalized debris to the side.
On the other side of the room, he saw her doing the same, kneeling, scraping away using what his ma referred to as a butter knife.
He swore as he dug and tossed junk to the side. He wouldn’t have started the fire had he known something of value was here. No, he would have rescued it first and then poured the gas on and lit the flame.
An hour passed. Two. Three before he sat back on his heels and started swearing under his breath, startling the young woman who gazed at him with huge eyes and smudges of dirt covering her sleeves and that wimple thing.
“This is useless,” he barked. “Absolutely barking useless. Is this one of Ted’s games he set you on?”
“Set me on? I do not understand you.”
“Look lady, I don’t like it when people play games with me. And I think you’re playing one with me now.”
A shadow swooped over him, a dark shadow with wide stretched wings and an unearthly voice shrilled “Who Cooks for You!”
by Matthew Morgan III, 1247 words
By the time the overnight patrol car slouched down the country road to where the woman said a pickup had rolled, said truck was devoid of human life. Officer Barney Pfeffer had lit up the car and wandered in an ever-wider circle around the battered Ford. He would have called for backup, but everyone else was asleep, and he would rather find the body himself, assuming the driver had been ejected. That was when he would call for an ambulance.
The truck had fetched up against the cedar. Barney thought of it as “the” cedar because, to his knowledge, it was the only old-growth Western Red Cedar for more than a hundred miles from here. And the idiot, most likely drunk, who had driven into the trunk might have done some damage to it. If the tree died, Barney would find the murderer and pump all of his rounds into the jerk. But maybe he’d save one for the next guy who asked if he kept his only bullet in his shirt pocket.
He was hungry, so when the pair of Barred Owls that nested in the cedar started talking about cooking, he muttered that he’d appreciate it if they cooked for him. Rather than providing him food, which would probably be a still-warm mouse, the owls circled overhead, then started a slow march northward along the road. Barney was sure they were leading him to the missing driver, but he hoped they didn’t make him walk too far. The chances of the driver circling back and stealing the cruiser weren’t good, but Barney liked his job.
After fifteen minutes, he absolutely knew they were guiding him to an important discovery, but he was straying too far from his car. He called to them, “Sorry, friends, but I have to get the car. Can you stay with me?”
When he turned back and lit the road with his spotlight, hoping to help them understand his quandary, the owls, heretofore silent but for the hint of air under their wings, started talking about cooking again and circled around him with increasing agitation. Before he made it halfway to the car, the owls gave up on him and swung back toward town. Barney could have sworn they hooted “We’re not cooking for you.”
He waited till almost the end of his shift to call in a BOLO on the driver.
Bilan, standing amid the stink and wetness of the diner, watched in awe as one of the owls she often saw as she walked to work dive-bombed the blond man, who cowered and shielded his face with his arms. The other owl followed the first, screaming what sounded like English words. Bilan thought the owls might be looking for nesting material, as they both grabbed tufts of blond hair, but then she realized they lived in holes in a tree and probably didn’t need to build a nest.
The man screamed loudly enough to attract the attention of passersby who had not noticed Bilan and him while they prospected for the gold coin. A couple of people yelled at them to get the heck away from their precious diner, and Bilan decided to take their advice. As for the man, he stumbled in circles beneath the barrage of Barred-Owl vengeance. Once she made it outside the yellow tape, Bilan watched the spectacle of a man, who had been threatening to her but a coward when faced with birds, crying and begging his tormentors for mercy.
When a patrol car pulled up to the curb, Bilan rejoiced that she was outside the off-limits area. The man did not notice the police car until its lights blazed into life, then he tried to run away from the car. The birds, however, herded him toward the street, approaching him from two angles over and over to keep him from escaping.
At that point, Bilan chose to fade into the background. She was well-regarded in town, but she knew that immigrants did not always get fair treatment from law enforcement.
It took Phyllis one day more than it should have to realize why Amy’s stalker had peeped in her window. Now that they knew Willoughby was their arsonist, and thank goodness he was a burner rather than a shooter, they needed police protection around every building Willoughby could associate with the diner and Amy.
She wondered for a moment if Ted, Jerome, and perhaps Dwayne could be deputized for the purpose, which would allow Jerome and Dwayne to draw some pay. She discarded the idea, as Dwayne was too eager to be a hero, and Jerome might not be allowed to carry. She didn’t know enough about his background.
Assuming the proper thing to do was call in the real police, who probably should have contacted her already, she called 911.
After Bilan stripped off her stinky clothes, she soaked in a hot bath to hold a migraine at bay and forget the trauma of the morning. When she nearly fell asleep in the tub, she climbed out, pruny and shivering, and dressed in the fashion of her culture.
She settled on the couch and pulled out her phone to start her daily dose of Duolingo. Today she would not have to stop and prepare for work, but she wondered how much new English she could handle in one sitting. She would find out.
As always, she lamented that Duolingo did not have a course of English for Somali-speakers. She had to settle for English for Arabic-speakers, which left her struggling in two languages at once. And yet, the benefits of this little programme, which had opened this new world to her, were priceless.
She checked first to see her ranking in the Diamond League. She was #4 at the moment, but #2 was attainable today with a little effort. Some student with nothing else to do had 3,000 more XP than she did. She would not finish first this week.
Now, to learn. First up was a listening exercise: “I will cook a chicken for dinner tonight.” She was given a list of buttons to tap, each one containing one of the words she had heard. When she hit the Continue button, her answer turned red, and she realized she had forgotten the “a.” Not a great way to start the session.
Next up, a sentence in Arabic:
.سوف تجد العملة الذهبية في جيب عامل المنجم
She frowned. This was where a Somali-to-English course would help a lot. Fortunately, the English words were supplied, and she simply had to arrange them properly.
She tapped, “You will find the gold coin in the miner’s pocket.”
Her answer turned green; it was correct.
Next, another translation:
.يجب أن يتحدث أخوك مع معلمه ليدفع للجميع أجر شهر واحد
She tapped, “Your brother should talk to his mentor to pay everyone one month’s wages.”
When her answer turned green and she read it, she screamed and dropped her phone on the rug. She started babbling to herself:
“Tani waa inay noqotaa riyo. Duolingo igama hadli karo noloshayda. Malaha waan waalanayaa!”
She had promised herself to speak only English here, but this dream, or hallucination, could not be expressed in English. She grabbed her phone, which fortunately was not broken and still showed the Duolingo sentence. She took a screen shot to prove she was not crazy, and she did as the Duolingo owl had told her: She called her brother.
by Heidi Beierle, 1291 words
When Bilan faded into the background, the owls noticed. In that instant, Willoughby ran. Downhill. Toward the water. He ran as he’d never run before. He’d show them.
Alex sped toward the diner in his firetruck, sirens wailing. Given the different stories twittering about town, Alex suspected the blond man who started the diner fire had paranoid personality disorder, depression with psychosis, maybe borderline personality disorder. Alex wasn’t a mental health specialist, but he’d worked enough with unhoused people to know that mental health disorders were pervasive. The 911 call from Phyllis cemented his opinion that this man was suffering in his own way – not that it excused violence and violent behavior. He was still human.
Ahead on his right, Alex registered a lone figure running and tumbling downhill. In a snap, he hit the brakes. The truck squealed, and Willoughby crashed into the side. The truck shuddered.
Alex hopped out of the truck and snapped on blue nitrile gloves as he scrambled around the vehicle’s side to check the man’s vitals. Willoughby was alive, breathing on his own. Alex sighed with relief.
Three crewmembers carrying a backboard and spine immobilization gear joined Alex in the slice of road between the hill and truck where Willoughby was crumpled and motionless.
“Sorry about the abrupt stop,” Alex said to them. “Are you ok?”
“Sure thing,” Mina said. “Unconventional intervention. Are you ok?”
“Yeah. Let’s stabilize this guy.” Alex pointed to Willoughby’s forehead, “Preexisting contusion.”
They straightened Willoughby using the traction in-line method to prevent spinal cord injuries, put on a cervical collar, and log rolled him onto the backboard. As they were velcroing the shoulder stabilization straps, Willoughby came to swearing, flailing and kicking. “Fuck off!”
Alex focused on holding Willoughby’s head still, grateful that his shoulders were already secure to the board. “Hey now, buddy,” Alex said with his practiced calm voice. “What’s your name?”
“Jeff Smith. I’m dead.” Willoughby thrashed.
Alex didn’t know if this guy knew his name, but he wasn’t dead. “We’re here to help you,” he said.
“The fuck you are,” Willoughby spat, kicking the crewmember holding his feet.
“No, really,” Alex said. “If you’re aiming to kill yourself, keep on wiggling around like that. You crashed into our truck at high speed.”
“The fuck I did.” Something about how Alex was looking at him confused Willoughby. He tried to move his head but couldn’t. Instead, he lifted an arm and whacked Alex in the face.
Alex was unfazed. “Look buddy, do you want this over easy or over hard?”
The owls flapped in confusion above the diner ruin.
Officer Pfeffer and Dwayne stood at the edge of the parking lot looking down the hill at the activity around the firetruck. “Doesn’t look like he’s dead,” Officer Pfeffer said.
“Dead?” Dwayne hazarded. He started to feel tingly all over and closed his eyes.
“Whoa now,” Officer Pfeffer said. He steadied the swaying Dwayne with his hand. “Are you gonna pass out on me?”
Dwayne opened his eyes. “That was weird. Like electricity crackling all over my body. It didn’t burn, but it was like my skin was squirming or something.”
They looked at each other the way people do when they hope the other person can explain something inexplicable, like Zen koans or imaginary numbers.
Out of nowhere, Jerome appeared among the burnt bits of the kitchen. His legs seemed to crumple, and he made no effort to get up. He held his head between his hands, gently massaging his temples, eyes closed.
“Jerome?” Dwayne said with disbelief.
Jerome dropped his hands to his lap and took a deep breath. He slowly raised a finger to his lips, “shhhhhhh.”
“Officer,” Dwayne whispered, reaching for Officer Pfeffer’s arm. “It’s coming on again.” Dwayne’s skin prickled and his hair stood on end. “Do you feel it?”
Officer Pfeffer looked between Jerome and Dwayne. He didn’t feel anything. It was a normal late afternoon. The air temperature was mild, the day dry, the sky white. “No.”
Dwayne tightened his grip Officer Pfeffer’s arm.
The ground rumbled.
A bed appeared in the diner ruins where the back booth would have been. A small woman in a ragged pale blue nightgown and furry old slippers slept on the bed, hugging herself. She rubbed her head into the pillow as if suddenly pained.
A barred owl landed on the top of the bed’s headboard and crooned, “Who-cooks-for-yoooooooooo.”
“Officer,” Dwayne whispered again, eyes wide. “Do you feel it?”
“No, Dwayne.” Barney looked over at the young trainee.
The ground rumbled again. A sofa appeared in what used to be the Excelsior’s main dining area. A reclined Bilan held her phone to her ear and blinked. “Tawfiiq? Tawfiiq!” Bilan sat up, looked at her phone, then shook it. She put the phone to her ear. “Tawfiiq? Waxaan joogay guriga oo hadda waxaan ku suganahay burburkii uu dab ka kacay. Maxaa dhab ah? Maskaxdu waa iga luntay. I caawi!” Dwayne and Officer Pfeffer looked at each other.Bilan took in the charcoal bits of the diner and her ruined life. How could she be here? How did she even know where here was? She must be having a bad dream.“Jerome,” she said, “Where are we?”Jerome winced. “Not so loud, Bilan, I have a pounding headache.”“I do, too. All day. Get up.” She reached a hand to help him to his feet. “What is this mess?” She gestured to the ruin of the diner. “This will not do. You must cook. The people will return, and we will have jobs.”“Cook what, Bilan?”“I do not know, Jerome. Cook whatever you like. In a dream anything can happen.”“This isn’t a dream, Bilan.”“How do you know this?” Bilan raised her voice. “Tell me. How do you know this is not a dream?” She shook her fist at the ruin of the diner and at Officer Pfeffer and Dwayne, as if they were the sole members of a theater audience. “Look, there is even a sleeping person in a bed, in the diner! In a dream anything can happen. I am not crazy.”The woman in the bed rose slowly and stood up straight as a cedar. She took a few deep breaths and screamed loud enough for all the critters in the woods to hear, “My name is Alice Smyth and I am looking for my family!” Meghan pedaled up on her bike. “No, Bob.” Jerome looked straight at Meghan. “I will not go with you. This is my family.” He grabbed both of Bilan’s hands and knelt before her. “I will cook for yooooooo?”Megan turned to Dwayne and Officer Pfeffer. “What’s going on?”Officer Pfeffer shrugged. “I could hazard a guess, but maybe, Dwayne, you have some thoughts?”“Umm. There’s a wormhole here, and our time-space continuum folded in on itself?”Officer Pfeffer folded his arms across his chest and nodded. “Plausible. I think a few too many people have lost their ability to distinguish what is real and what is not. It’s a kind of group psychosis brough on by a variety of stresses colliding at the same time. Sort of like a rogue wave.”“Well reasoned,” Megan said and turned to the diner. Her new twin connection was like an eczema flare up, hot and crazy itchy.Alice pumped her fist in the air and yelled, “My name is Alice Smyth and I am looking for my family!”
Meghan woke in a cold sweat scratching the inside of her left thigh. It burned, and she’d dug bloody gouges in her sleep. She felt like she was having a panic attack. Was it possible to have one while asleep? She took a couple breaths.
Alice! Where was Alice?
by Janet Oakley, 1525 words
“Shh, shh,” Alex said as he held the injured barn owl against his chest, mindful of the bird’s sharp claws “You’re going to be all right.” How it had survived the café fire, the fireman couldn’t image. Its feathers gave off a sickly smell of singed feathers. Were its claws burned, too? Alex would assess that as soon as he got the bird home. He covered the owl with his wool scarf and picked up the pace.
Alex was no stranger to caring for wildlife, especially birds of prey. Ever since he was a kid, he had been fascinated with them. While some thought them a nuisance, killers of chickens and occasionally cats, Alex admired them for their grace and silent stealth. In fourth grade, while on a field trip to a nearby wildlife rescue center, he saw an owl close up. Barne, the barn owl, had been injured after it flew into a car’s windshield on the area’s scenic highway. The horrified driver brought him to the rescue center where, after being treated for a broken wing, the owl remained. Barne never could fly properly again, so he became the ambassador for the center. So taken with what he was seeing, Alex asked if he could volunteer. The bemused director said, if he liked, Alex could come the next Saturday and get a tour. Then he could see if this was something he really wanted to do. There was more going on behind the scenes. Alex said, yes, and never turned back from his desire to help the big birds.
Starting out for a few hours on the weekends (after chores at home), cleaning out bird cages and the large flight areas, Alex’s volunteering stretched to all day on Sunday by sixth grade so he could play soccer on the weekends. Seeing how he cared for the raptors, the director invited him to attend a special workshop by a nationally known veterinarian on the treating of birds of prey and the many scenarios that could befall them. In addition to breaking a wing by flying into a window or windshield, raptors also fell prey to poisoning, gunshot, entanglement in wires, loss of habitat or illness caused by climate change. Alex was hooked. A careful student, Alex was soon entrusted in rendering first aid to the birds rushed into the center. By the time he graduated from high school, he was paid staff.
Alex had another love: firefighting. In college, he pursued a degree in biology, focusing on wildlife, forestry, and the environment, but during his first summer off, he signed up for fighting wildfires in the North Cascades. He found that he liked the physical challenge and the teamwork that it took to bring a fire under control and save the forests, but when he rescued a fawn with badly burned hooves, he saw firefighting as another way to serve his beloved creatures of the woods. Soon, he was asked to teach fellow firefighters what to do when they encountered a fire-stricken animal or fowl. For following summers, he went through grueling fire-fighting training in Idaho and Montana before being permanently stationed in the North Cascades. Graduating with a degree in biology with an emphasis on avian species and forest ecology, Alex looked for employment in his field.
Then tragedy struck.
Many of the homes in his hometown were approaching one hundred years, the legacy of the boom in logging and mining at the turn of the last century. Made of old growth lumber and covered with moss as they were often tucked under the massive Doug fir and cedar trees of the area, many were unfortunate victims of a knocked over candle, cigarette butt in the hay barn or the ashes from the woodburning stove set on the porch. Alex was out on a temporary job as a biologist with the Forest Service when he got the call that a fire was raging at his Aunt Ellen’s log house. He rushed back into town to assist. But it was too late. His aunt, her pets and home were lost. Except for two Stellar jays she had raised after falling out of their nest. Ellen, like Alex, liked and cared for birds and had an outdoor flight cage as part of their recovery. Alex took the birds home. The next day he applied for the open position on the district fire unit that served his town. He never regretted his decision. He could fight fires, save lives, educate people on being fire safe, and continue to look after birds. He was now in his fifth year of service.
In his arms, the barred owl Alex rescued from the ruins of the café acted like it was still stunned. Or did it recognize it was in safe hands, so did not struggle? Alex could feel its heartbeat, always faster than a human’s, against his chest. There was something familiar about this owl. As if he had handled it before. There were always owls around the town and lately, in particular, the café, but often when he was in the woods behind the town, owls would follow him. At least, he felt them following him. Unless, they called, he never heard them, only guessed they were there. Like ghosts, the feathers on their wings muffled their flight as they glided between the trees in search of prey. He imagined them as friends and were there to protect him.
At his house two blocks back from the main street and next to a forest, Alex entered his garage where he had set up a bird rescue facility. Lights went on automatically, exposing stainless steel tables and cages. The space was heated and clean. He laid a towel on a table one- handed, but before he set the owl down, he tested its wrath to look at one of its talons. The owl hissed in protest, then blinked and pivoted its head away. Not terribly surprised, Alex saw that its leg was banded. “One more look, my friend,” Alex said. He turned the band around and read the words, “Excelsior.”
“Where have you been, old friend?” Alex set the bird on the towel, slowly pulling away. He was relieved to see the feet and legs of the owl were unharmed.
Excelsior responded by climbing up on one of Alex’s thick gloves. Even though the bird was gentle, its talons dug into the leather. He twisted his head around to study Alex.
When was the last time he had seen Excelsior? Nearly eight years ago when he was an owlet. “You’re almost an old man, aren’t you?” Barred owls only lived nine to ten years in the wild. “What were you doing at the café?” Alex lifted his arm, taking the owl off the table with him. “I need to check your feathers. Are you burned anywhere?”
Excelsior ruffled his feathers like he was all right. He lifted his left leg, then put it down on the glove. He swiveled his head away. Alex moved his arm so he could study the feathers on the owl’s back, but Excelsior shifted position on Alex’s wrist. “All right. I get it. Can I put you on the perch over there? I have treats in the freezer.”
Excelsior’s eyes seemed to widen. He willingly stepped onto the perch and turning his head around, watched Alex bring two frozen mice over to him and put them into a cup attached to the perch. “Enjoy.”
While Excelsior ate, Alex did a quick look at the bird’s back and ascertained that only a few of feathers looked damaged. The owl would be OK.
Alex looked at his watch. He was getting hungry, but more importantly he needed to report back to the station. He patted his coat pocket and realized that his cell phone wasn’t there. Did he drop it somewhere? He looked back at Excelsior and then remembered back at the ruined cafe, the owl had acted like he wanted to tell him something. It would be weird if the bird was warning him that he had dropped it. “I guess I better go back,” he said. “You stay put.”
Alex closed the door to the garage, assured the owl would be safe. He’d give him a few hours, then release him in the woods. Back at the ruins, Alex gingerly made his way back to where he had found the owl. Stepping gingerly over downed boards and unrecognizable furniture and broken restaurant supplies, he realized that he was back by the old booth where he had seen a strange girl sitting a few days ago. Even after two days, the stench of smoke and acrid water made him put a hand over his mouth. He picked up something that looked like a chair leg and used it to clear debris. There, not far from where he had discovered Excelsior, he spied his phone, its black case blending into the charred remains. He bent down to pick it up. Under it, he discovered a gold coin with the date, 1898.
Where the hell did that come from? And why didn’t it melt?
by Kate Austen, 1631 words
The fundraiser for the diner took place—appropriately—in the old firehouse. The cavernous event space’s former use was evident from the hooks on the wall that once held helmets, axes and other equipment, and the oil stains on the concrete floor. One of the huge overhead doors was open in spite of the November chill, and a food truck outside dispensed tacos and empanadas, fifty per cent of the proceeds to go toward the rebuilding of the diner. Sven, whose own business was still closed pending a damage assessment, had contributed a keg of his special IPA and was pouring pints in exchange for a $5 donation to the diner fund.
Meghan’s face ached from smiling as she greeted the hundred or so community members who came to offer their support and ask questions to which she could only mumble vague responses. Inside she was seething; it should have been her mother accepting the platitudes and hugs of strangers, not Meghan, but Amy was off hiding somewhere with Alice. Although she knew Alice was vulnerable and pathetic, Meghan couldn’t help thinking of her as the Evil Twin. She had stolen Meghan’s mother from her. It was hard to get her head around the new reality: her father was not dead; he was not even called Jeff Smith. Her mother had lied when she described a fairytale romance cut tragically short. And all this on top of a new sister who claimed her mother’s exclusive attention. She longed for the days when it was just Phyllis, Amy and her.
Phyllis sat enthroned on the only comfortable chair in the place, with Ted hovering beside her. She looked pale and exhausted. The news that Willoughby had been taken to hospital after a freak accident did little to calm her frazzled nerves. She knew he wouldn’t give up on his vendetta against her family. Her statement to the police that Willoughby had set the diner afire carried little weight: she had not witnessed the crime, and Jerome was strangely reticent about identifying the blond man he’d seen with a gas can as Jeff Smith, the name Willoughby was now going by. All the police needed to do was check the records to discover that Jeff Smith was officially dead, but Officer Barney Pfeffer was not the sharpest crayon in the box.
Flora had commandeered a mic and loudspeaker and was encouraging the crowd to donate generously. Her diminutive stature belied a forceful presence. “Come on, guys! Let’s fill this up with cash,” she yelled through the screeching feedback, as she lofted an old fire bucket over her head.
“What about the insurance money?” came a shout from the crowd.
Flora looked over at Phyllis, who pursed her lips and whispered something in Ted’s ear. Ted ambled over and took the mic from Flora. “The insurance investigation’s ongoing. They’ve confirmed the fire was set deliberately, but until they identify the arsonist, they won’t pay out a penny. In the meantime, we have good folks out of work without a paycheck and bills that still need paying, so please give—”
“Where’s Amy?” another voice interrupted from the back of the room.
Again, Ted looked to Phyllis, who shook her head. Then to Meghan, who shrugged. He decided to ignore the question. “Please give generously!” But his voice was drowned in a rustle of conversation that sounded like wind through trees. Arson! Where’s Amy? Set deliberately! Where is she? Ted could almost see the rumor take off like a forest fire. Did Amy set the diner on fire for the insurance money?
Dwayne Schwartz had consumed three pints of Sven’s 8.5% ABV beer and was feeling the effects. The room shimmered, and bodies seemed to swim past him. He heard the whispers though. So maybe Jerome wasn’t responsible for the fire. Maybe it was Amy. He needed to investigate…tomorrow. Suddenly, one face across the room came into sharp focus: the man talking to Bilan and another guy who from his looks and coloring could only be Bilan’s brother. It was Dwayne’s father! Dwayne hadn’t seen him since Dr. Schwartz had thrown him out of the family’s Seattle home. Schwartz Sr.’s ambitions for wealth and prestige had set an impossibly high bar for his just-below-average son. Dwayne would never be smart enough, athletic enough, good looking enough. What was he doing here?
Dwayne veered between the urge to confront his father and smash a fist into his face, and the need to run away and hide from him, as he had done so often as a child.
“Are you okay?” Sven asked.
In reply, Dwayne folded forward and puked.
Alex arrived late at the fundraiser, having stopped at his house first to shower off the ashy grime, change into jeans and sweater, and polish up the gold piece he’d found. He walked over to where Ted and Meghan were trying to persuade Phyllis it was time to go home to bed.
“Hi, I hope I’m not too late to contribute.” Alex extended his hand, palm upward. In it lay a shining gold piece about two inches across with a coat of arms and strange lettering around the edge. The coin bore the date 1898.
Ted’s eyes widened. “Where did you get this?”
“I found it in the wreckage of the diner, so really I’m just returning it to its proper owners. Do you know what it is?”
Ted picked up the gold medallion by its edges as if it was a delicate piece of china. “Yes, I saw others like this when I was prospecting in Alaska. It’s a Peter the Great medal.”
Alex took the piece back from Ted and examined it. “Isn’t that Russian lettering around the edge—Cyrillic alphabet?”
“Yes,” Ted pointed to the coat of arms. “And that’s the Tsar’s seal. You know that Alaska used to be part of Russia? Even after it became a U.S. territory, lots of Russians continued to live there. These medals were given to those Russians who had performed a special personal service to the Tsar. They’re very rare.”
“So, is it worth much?” asked Meghan.
“Oh, yes! A collector might pay as much as two-fifty for it.”
“Two hundred and fifty dollars?”
“No. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
The four stared in awe at the medal. Alex broke the silence. “Hello, Meghan. You probably don’t remember me from high school. It’s nice to see you again.” He smiled into her eyes and she felt herself blushing. No, I don’t remember you. How could I have forgotten that smile, those eyes, those shoulders… “Not surprising. I was a spotty little runt in those days.” And you were the Homecoming Queen, he thought. I worshipped you.
Alex held out the medal to Meghan, and as their fingers touched, she felt a charge of electricity between them.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
At that moment Barney Pfeffer pushed his way through the remaining guests to the group around Phyllis’ chair. He was panting and red-faced.
“I thought I should let you know. That Jeff Smith—or whoever he is— has checked himself out of the hospital. We don’t know where he’s headed, but he was making some pretty wild threats. He might be dangerous.”
Bilan didn’t know what to make of Dr. Schwartz. Yes, he had been very helpful to Tawfiiq, and said flattering things about her brother’s intelligence and medical skill. But he completely ignored his own son. Only tonight had Bilan understood that Dwayne the dishwasher was her brother’s mentor’s son. Or perhaps with her limited English, she had misunderstood. And she was also confused by his keen interest in her twin daughters. Tawfiiq explained that Schwartz was conducting a long-term study into twins, something about nature and nurture, genetics and environment. The long words were unfamiliar to her. Duolingo concentrated on everyday situations, not scientific experiments.
Her instinct as a mother was to protect her girls from Dr. Schwartz. She didn’t want them prodded and poked, examined and interrogated, even in the interest of science. There was something creepy about the doctor and his obsession with twins. Tawfiiq told her that he had been collecting data for over twenty-five years and was soon to publish a book that would assure his place not just in the medical sphere but make him world famous. Schwartz just needed one more case study to contrast with the very first case study in the book: twin girls who had been separated at birth and brought up in different circumstances. Astur and Aamlina would be the perfect contrast.
“Sister, do this for me,” Tawfiiq urged. “With Dr. Schwartz’ recommendation I can get a position anywhere I want after my residency is completed. You can stop waiting tables and the girls can go to the best schools.” Tawfiiq had walked Bilan back to her cabin after the fundraiser. She made tea for them both after checking on the sleeping girls.
Bilan sighed. “I don’t know. I’m going to talk to Dwayne first. It’s strange that his father has rejected him. Maybe Phyllis or Amy can advise me. They are wise and have raised daughters.” She sipped her tea.
Tawfiiq expelled an exasperated breath. “Don’t spoil this chance for me, Bilan! It could change your life too!”
Bilan thought about the lump in her breast, resisting the urge to touch it. She had put off doing something about the lump for many reasons: not wanting to miss work, not being able to afford treatment, but above all fear of the diagnosis. But she knew she had to take action soon. Perhaps if she agreed to the twins’ participation in the study, the doctor might treat her for free. Do such things happen in America? Free healthcare? She would ask Phyllis.
by Cami Ostman, 1466 words
Phyllis resented people treating her like she was fragile. She may be in her early seventies, and she may be tired from fighting the good fight as a single mother, mother to a single mother (Amy), business owner, and pillar of the community for decades on end, but she wasn’t sick. Why everyone was always insisting she go to bed early she didn’t know. When she was tired, she’d sleep. She knew her own mind. What she also knew was that she was worried beyond belief about Willoughby harming her beloveds. She was mentally working hard to figure out how to outsmart a man who had been stalking her for years. If she’d made the connection between Dr. Schwartz and Willoughby, she would have been even more concerned and, thus, tired enough to stay in her room with the door locked.
That connection was about to come.
She watched as Bilan wove her way through the small crowd to approach her. Phyllis reached up once Bilan was beside her and they clasped hands. “How are you dear?”
“Phyllis, may we speak,” Bilan asked in that sweet voice she turned on the customers at the Excelsior—that warmth that made her so liked by everyone who encountered her.
“Of course, honey,” Phyllis said. She indicated for Ted to find a chair and bring it near so that Bilan could sit. “What’s on your mind?”
Once Bilan was level with Phyllis, she watched as the young woman’s face studied her, imploring her to be motherly as she started a stuttered monologue.
“Phyllis. I hope we will rebuild Excelsior. So much. We raise money tonight. Maybe a lot?”
“I hope so Bilan,” Phyllis said. “But something else is on your mind. What is it?”
“It is true.”
“Tell me,” Phyllis urged.
Bilan started. “I have some problem. If I have no job, I have no money. And also,” here she paused, because she was about to say out loud what she had never said to anyone in town. “And also, I have a bump. Here.” She indicated her afflicted breast.
Phyllis cocked her head in sympathy. “Oh honey. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” She fully understood that Bilan didn’t have health insurance.
Bilan went on to explain that her brother worked for a doctor who wanted to study her twins and she wondered if in the United States doctors would trade favors for treatment.
Phyllis shook her head solemnly. “Not typically. But also, it doesn’t sound like the doctor is a cancer doctor—if that’s what your lump is.” Then she thought for a moment. “Someone told me your brother is here. Point him out to me.”
Bilan scanned the party, found him standing with Dr. Schwartz, now near the food truck, and pointed to Tawfiiq. “He is there,” she said.
Phyllis followed Bilan’s finger. When she laid eyes on Tawfiiq, right next to him, she was astounded to see someone else—the man who had saved her daughter during the birth of Alice and Meghan. Dr. Schwartz.
Because Phyllis had been sitting stationary and letting people come to her, she hadn’t greeted everyone at the party. She hadn’t seen Schwartz until that moment. Now that she realized he was there, come from the big city as Bilan’s brother’s mentor, her heart began to flutter. She wanted to rise to greet him. There had always been gratitude in her heart for how he’d worked to make sure Amy made it through her birthing process. She looked at Bilan and asked, “That guy? That’s the man who wants to study your twins? He delivered my grand-daughters.”
This revelation seemed to register something important for Bilan. As Phyllis was rising to make her way to greet the doctor, Bilan seemed to understand something. She may not have a perfect grasp on the English language. And she may not know how things worked in the medical community in the United States, but she had good instincts. She knew that Meghan had a newly revealed twin sister. She knew Doctor Schwartz was studying twins separated at birth and those raised together. And now she knew this doctor had delivered Phyllis’s granddaughters—who had been separated.
She rose at the same time Phyllis did. Suddenly, she had to find her daughters. They were somewhere here, huddled together with the handful of other children in attendance. A protective instinct rushed through her body. She needed to find her girls and get them home. She couldn’t understand exactly what the danger was, but she knew she had to protect her children.
“Astur and Aamlina,” she called through the crowd.
At the same time Bilan was calling for the kids to come to her, Phyllis was wending her way to Dr. Schwartz.
She was intercepted by Dwayne, who stood across the lawn from his father, watching the arrogance ooze off him with every interaction. His dad, he knew, would be bragging about his work, breathing in the narcissistic supply of admiration.
“Phyllis,” Dwayne said, “it’s a good turnout. Hopefully my father’s presence doesn’t disrupt anything.”
Phyllis paused in her trajectory to look at her dishwasher full in the face. She had no idea what he was talking about. “Who’s your dad, Dwayne?”
“That guy,” he pointed at Schwartz. “Bilan’s brother’s mentor. I swear I didn’t know he was coming. He can be a prick.”
“Dr. Schwartz is your father?” Phyllis was trying to piece this whole thing together. What the hell was going on here?
Before Phyllis could take her leave from Dwayne to get over to Dr. Schwartz, there was the sound of a loud explosion coming from somewhere nearby. Gunshots. One. Two. Three.
And then yelling, “You bitches have this coming to you,” the voice said. “You all have this coming to you.”
Everyone at the party reflexively responded. Parents began looking for their children. Some people froze in place. Others hustled inside the house.
By the time Willoughby came into view with his rifle pointed at the air, there were only a few people left on the lawn. Phyllis, Meghan, Ted, Dwayne, and Dr. Schwartz were holding ground. Tawfiiq had instinctively grabbed his sister and nieces and taken them to his rental car.
Hearing the noise, Amy emerged from the back room where she and Alice had been talking. Alice was in tow.
Willoughby came onto the lawn waving his gun in every direction screaming, “You fuckers have this coming! You have it coming.”
His shouting was erratic. His blond hair was standing on end, clothing flecked with dirt and blood. His eyes were open wide and darting hither and thither. He was a man crazed by anger and grief and a drive for revenge. Phyllis saw that Willoughby’s eyes were crazed. He was not in his right mind. This made him more dangerous than a calculated stalker. You could potentially outsmart someone with a plan, but a crazy person? All you could do was hope you weren’t in their way when they lashed out.
Next to the house, Phyllis stood frozen, watching Willoughby flail. He spun. Lost a shoe. Yelled, “How dare you!” Spun again.
With the final spin he lost control of his rifle and it fell out of his hand. Dwayne dove for it, throwing himself onto the lawn on top of it until he could get his feet under him, pick up the piece, and run with it into the house, where he threw it under the sofa in the living room before coming back out to the lawn to see what unfolded next.
Without his gun, Willoughby was even more distressed. “Give me my gun!” he shouted. “You’re going to get what you deserve.” His shouting devolved into general screams.
Until he saw Schwartz.
Dwayne, who was observing everyone carefully, was startled to see his father’s horrified expression as he watched the shitshow of Willoughby unfold. Because his dad’s protégé had left him standing exposed when he’d pulled his sister and nieces into the car, the doctor was there alone. The look on his face was something in the family of fear—something Dwayne had never seen that bastard register before.
And then Willoughby saw Schwartz.
Suddenly, Willoughby’s demeaner completely changed. He stopped his screaming and seemed to stumble backwards several steps.
There was a long silence while everyone ping ponged their glances between Dr. Schwartz and Willoughby. Dwayne was the first to speak.
“What the hell is going on here?”
Willoughby spoke next. “You. You set me up,” he said.
To everyone’s surprise, Willoughby spontaneously began to cry—ugly cry. Schwartz remained stiff but did not break eye contact with the crazy man.
“You said she’d be okay if I took her. No one is okay. They all deserve to die, but most of all you.”
by Sean Dwyer, 934 words
Donald Schwartz glared at Willoughby Smyth. Leave it to this moron to blow up an entire town and several families. When Schwartz had sacrificed the weaker of the twins to get Smyth to leave town, he had understood that his sketchy medical decision could cause him more trouble than shooting Smyth would, if he claimed that he was preventing a kidnapping.
It was unfortunate that he had not had a gun handy when Smyth tried to swipe both twins. It was unfortunate that he didn’t have a gun on him today. Like Indiana Jones, confronting a flashy swordsman, Schwartz could have shrugged and blown a hole in Willoughby’s chest.
How far does one go to placate a nutjob? How far does one go to support such a creature in his schemes? Schwartz knew that Smyth had terrorized his hoe town to the point that they let him get away with everything he decided to do. And here Smyth was, back to wreak more havoc after he had overcome incredible odds to escape this situation unscathed when he impregnated Amy.
Smyth still sobbed, not the sobs of a penitent, but the howls of a wild animal. Schwartz looked around, hoping the medical people would take control of the situation, rather than the police, because this man needed to be committed, not jailed. A police guard would be in order, of course.
Meghan also gawked at the sperm donor who had stolen her twin sister. He had not even had the decency to try to raise poor Alice or let his family in the Missouri hills take over her care. As much as she hated the idea of having her position as daughter usurped by Alice, Meghan was beginning to understand that this shift in attention was probably temporary. Amy depended on Meghan to keep the diner running when she disappeared, and Meghan knew that Alice could never have been useful in that crisis.
What, in fact, could Alice do that was useful? She had led an existence as a sheltered but probably abused child, isolated rather than sheltered, really. She had good genes from Amy and Phyllis, but nurture clearly had not worked in her favor. Both Alice and she had shitty dad-genes, Meghan knew, so anything good that came of Meghan’s rearing stemmed from the love and wisdom imparted to her by her mother and grandmother.
Willoughby had provided no positives to the lives of the twins, and he might have donated to Alice a touch of his craziness. Or that could be simply the result of her lonely, tortured childhood.
What could she do to improve this mess? Summoning Phyllis’s inner strength, Meghan did something neither her mother nor her grandmother would do. She walked slowly toward the trembling, soggy mess who had burned down her inheritance. She knelt beside him and put her arms around him. When he leaned his head on her shoulder, she finally believed he would not strangle her. This might even turn out acceptably.
Bilan may have run from Willoughby Smyth, but she could not run from her health issues. Once again, she approached the site of the diner. A sight she would never have believed confronted her: Meghan was comforting the shooter. Dr. Schwartz was shaking his head in wonder. The police officer had his gun drawn; she supposed he was ready to shoot the criminal.
Now might not be the best time to barter with Dr. Schwartz, but the previous night’s Duolingo session had told her not to fear, but to talk to the doctor. Here she was, obeying her own little owl, Duo.
“Dr. Schwartz,” she whispered, “may I have a word with you? I am Tawfiiq’s sister.”
He started from his reverie and turned to her with a sad smile. “Of course. You must be Bilan.” She nodded.
“Doctor, Tawfiiq tells me you are interested in twins for experiments.”
He chuckled. “You make me sound like a mad scientist. I want to contribute to our knowledge of what role genetics play in humans, and identical twins are ideal subjects.”
“I have twin daughters, and they can help you, but I also need your help.”
“Even if you don’t let me work with your twins, tell me what I can do for you.”
Bilan’s eyes began to water, and she wondered if it was the stench from the fire, blown her way by a puff of a breeze, or tears caused by her relief.
“I have a sore lump on my breast.”
He frowned. “How long have you had it?”
“Since the girls were babies. I could not get doctor help then.”
He let out a deep sigh. “If you have had it for several years, your girls are not babies, right?”
“Then it could be something as easily fixed as a cyst or sclerosing adenosis. By now you should have metastases everywhere if this lump is cancerous, so I’m betting it’s not.”
Bilan began to shake with relief. “Really?”
“Yes. But you need to see a friend of mine quickly, just in case. And there’s no reason to continue to have pain and fear. Does that help?”
All she could do was cry quietly.
Phyllis was afraid to watch what was happening with Meghan and her father, so she looked toward the other section of the ruined diner. She almost fainted when she saw three men appear from nowhere, probably where Alice’s booth was, burly men in flannel shirts, all sporting lumberjack beards.
One walked over to Bilan. “I hope you found the coin we left for you,” he said.
by Carol McMillan, 1228 words
The relief Bilan felt after her conversation with Dr. Schwartz poured through her like melting wax. Uncertain that her legs could hold her, she let herself sink onto the grass as years’ worth of unshed tears fell in two parallel rivulets down her cheeks. The lump in her breast would be attended to, and it probably wasn’t cancer after all.
When Jerome saw her collapse, he could no longer contain himself. Rushing over, he knelt beside Bilan, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. With so many emotions churning through her, Bilan let herself be comforted.
“Thank you for your contempt for me,” she managed to sniffle out.
Jerome pulled back in shock. “Contempt?”
Bilan knew from his response that she must have mixed her words up again. Despite her tears, she could almost read the word she wanted from the Duolingo screen in her mind.
“Con. . .” she was sure that was how it started. And didn’t chocolate tempt you? So wasn’t “tempt” good? But Jerome had pulled his head back and was staring at her. Tempt must be wrong.
“‒cern! Concern! Thank you for your concern.” Now she felt foolish. “My English gets refused.”
Jerome’s face had relaxed a bit, but still looked questioning.
“Oh, it’s another “con”, isn’t it? My English gets con-fused.” She couldn’t stop her tears. Tears of relief had turned to tears of frustration as she tried to voice her thoughts in this third language she was learning. “I’m sorry. I am very bare assed.”
Jerome pressed his lips tightly together, forcing them not to curve up into the smile that threatened to leak through.
Bilan opened her eyes wide as she heard herself. “Oh no,no! I am EMbarassed!”
She stared in horror into Jerome’s dark eyes. Seeing the twinkle he was trying so hard to suppress, Bilan’s sobs morphed into a gale of laughter, which released the failing dam of Jerome’s attempts to stifle his own.
Flora watched the two of them collapse into each other’s arms. Jealousy reddened her cheeks as she imagined what those strong, dark arms would feel like wrapped around her own body. Ah well, she sighed to herself, that man is just going to have to join the list of her might-have-beens. Asi es la vida.
Alice had been standing at the edge of the group where Phyllis had left her, when she’d watched the ravings of her seemingly mad father go from dangerous to pitiful. She had fallen to the ground, trying to make herself as small as possible when Willoughby had swung a rifle around yelling that everyone deserved to die. She had been hugely relieved when Dwayne managed to disarm him. She had watched her father crumple from a raving wild man into a timid fool. Now she was horrified to see her sister drop to the ground beside him, hugging him! Was the woman insane? What could she possibly be thinking?
Fury rose in Alice. She hated them both. They were the ones who deserved to die. Both had stolen her mother’s love from her. Meghan had done it unconsciously, but Willoughby had done it with malice.
Dwayne had taken the rifle into the building and left it somewhere. Could she find it? Could she grab it and do them both in before they stopped whatever ridiculous interaction they were having right there in front of God and everyone? So what if she’d be caught immediately, her life was shit anyway. No one cared about her, even though her mother was trying to make her believe she did. There was no way to make up for all those lost years. Her life had been ruined by those two demented humans in front of her. Maybe somebody would just shoot her if she shot them, and then her pitiful life would be over.
Alice made up her mind. Determined to get the revenge she could almost taste, she started to get up and make her way to the door. Just as she got to her feet, the earth heaved and rumbled. Alice grabbed her head as she fell back down. Electricity raced through every molecule of her body. After lying paralyzed for a moment, she started feeling around her head, wondering if it had split into pieces. Finding it intact, she opened her eyes. Only Jerome seemed to have been affected the way she had. Now it was Bilan who was looking concerned as Jerome bent over, holding his head in his hands.
Finding her body able to function, Alice sat up. She felt dazed. Four men were striding across the yard toward the group. Large and bearded, they looked powerful in their lumberjack shirts. As three of them headed toward Bilan, one turned and strode straight toward her. If she’d been on her feet, Alice would have backed away. Sitting on the ground, however, there was nothing to do but wait to see whether he really was heading for her and, if so, what he wanted. When he drew closer, she could see that the man was not fat, but muscular. Large and strongly built, he was what people sometimes called “a man’s man.” His dark hair fell in waves onto his shoulders, and his beard was thick and wide.
“A purty lady like you shouldn’t be settin’ by herself on the ground like that.”
He reached a calloused but clean hand toward her. “Oh my, will you look at those eyes! Why I could prospect in those eyes, just searchin’ out every little fleck of gold that’s sparklin’ in there.” His own eyes were twinkling as he looked into hers.
No one had ever spoken to Alice like that. She had no idea how to respond. He had called her pretty. Well, darn it, maybe she was pretty! People thought Meghan was pretty, and Meghan was her twin sister, even if they weren’t identical. Maybe everyone around her had just been too mean to tell her how attractive she was.
“Well, ma’am, we could hold like this all day, but I think my arm might get a bit tired and all. Why don’t you let me help you up?”
Alice settled her small hand into the large one being proffered. With a fluid motion the man effortlessly helped her to her feet.
“Now my name is Langdon, ma’am, and I bet you have a name that’s just as purty as you are. Am I right in thinkin’ that?”
Alice felt light and floaty beside the strength of this gentle giant. An unusual sensation, something like warmth, seemed to wrap itself around her. Safety, she thought. Is this what it’s like to feel safe?
Alice reached behind her head and unclipped the plastic barrette that held her dark hair pinned tightly against the back of her neck. With a deep breath, she shook her hair loose, then squared her shoulders, raising her chin up toward the surrounding trees. With a shrug, she allowed the army-green sweater to fall away, revealing a snug white t-shirt outlining her surprisingly amply breasts. As she and Langdon began walking together in the direction the men had come from, Alice flipped her hair over her shoulder and glanced back at Amy, raising her eyebrows in a well-why-not kind of gesture. Her clear, strong voice answered Langdon’s question: “I’m Alice Smyth.”
by Michaela von Schweinitz, 2627
Nice to meet you Ms. Smyth.” Langdon, the burly logger, smiled and offered Alice his elbow. He was a stranger who appeared out of nowhere, yet he seemed to understand her. Without hesitation Alice put her hand on his arm and together they walked towards the house as if it was theirs. It was the very house in which police cadet Dwayne Schwartz had hidden the firearm he had taken away from Willoughby. Going up the steps Alice leaned a bit more on Langdon’s arm. Feeling his strength and steadiness, Alice allowed herself to depend on the security he seemed to offer.
Inside the house they headed for the living room where Alice wanted to sit down and get to know Langdon. As she passed a mirror hanging in the hall way, she got a glimpse of her reflection and stopped. Her hand slipped off of Langdon’s arm who continued towards the sofa. Alice did not pay attention to Langdon who had reached the sofa and bent down to retrieve the rifle. She seemed frozen in place staring into the scared eyes of her reflection. Alice did not like this doubtful look, undermining her newly discovered feelings for Langdon, questioning her taste in men. Alice turned away to see Langdon returning from the living room with a rifle. Is he going hunting with his friends, leaving her already? Behind her she could see the open door in the reflection of the mirror. She did not care about the commotion outside, only for the tender feelings inside of her.
Amy had seen Alice enter the house. Thinking Alice was safe inside Amy turned her attention to her daughter Meghan. Was Meghan unaware of the danger she put herself in by getting so close to Willoughby?
“This is all your fault.” Amy hissed and gave Phyllis a start who hadn’t noticed her daughter coming up behind her. Feeling guilty, Phyllis didn’t respond. What was there to say? How could she ever right the wrong she had done to her daughter? She wondered, if given a chance, would Willoughby had been a good husband to her daughter Amy? A good father to her granddaughters?
Amy was right. It was all her fault that Meghan grew up without a father and that Alice got lost. Phyllis should have taken better care of Amy, keeping her close, making her feel trusted and safe. Instead, Ted had convinced her that she did the right thing. Denying her other granddaughter. Pretending she didn’t exist. How could she have done such a thing? Looking back Phyllis couldn’t make sense of what so many years ago seemed to have been her only option. It hadn’t felt as if she even had a choice. How could she have lost control over her own life without even realizing it? As these thoughts raced through Phyllis’s head the situation on the lawn spun out of control.
“This is all your fault!” This time Amy yelled her accusation. Meghan looked up in time to see her mother sprinting towards her with a vengeance. She let go off Willoughby to guard herself. But Meghan was not who Amy was going for. Amy’s fists rained down on Willoughby hitting him on his head and back. He recoiled and Amy shook him as she screamed guttural sounds of pain and anger. For years Amy thought Meghan’s father was dead. Since he’d shown up alive, all she wished for was that he was dead. How could a man she once loved be so menacing, cruel and full of hate towards her and her family? What had she ever done to him? Amy had thought about how her life could have been if she had him by her side. Now she knew her life would have been a nightmare. The very nightmare she was experiencing right now. Now, it was too late to go back to ignorance. To believing that running the diner together with her mother and her daughter was all she wanted. To thinking that this was the life she chose and that this was what happiness meant. She had given Meghan all her love and now she knew it wasn’t enough. She had felt the emptiness in her heart and understood that it wasn’t her heart that gave her trouble. Her heart was big and it knew what was missing. Her heart had been craving, not fortune, but to love and care for her twin daughters. She wasn’t sick. This man was sick and Amy wanted nothing more than for Willoughby to disappear from her life. To leave her and her daughters alone. It made her sick that he didn’t seem to mind the beating. He didn’t seem to feel anything. He didn’t even defend himself. Amy’s fury grew with every hit she landed. Her body found a valve and finally released all its tension. This was an exercise of healing. An exorcism in that each blow lightened the burden that Amy had felt as a mother. The burden wasn’t the child she had. The secret her mother kept from her was the burden. The lies they told her about the day she gave birth to her twin daughters. That burden she unloaded, one hit after another.
Meghan had struggled to get to her feet and away from her mother. She didn’t recognize this woman who had never laid a hand on her. Where did she get her strength, Meghan wondered. Her mother, as she knew her, had never worked out. The only thing she ever saw her mother lift was a paper receipt, pushing it on the food order spike. Meghan wanted to pull her mother away from the man who obviously felt deserving of her beating. But she fought against her compulsion to help. Was it her duty as a daughter to keep her mother from expressing her feelings? Who was she to interfere in this relationship which unfolded in front of the entire town. She was an English Major, not a therapist. Meghan decided to stay out of this. Nobody was expecting her to do anything anyway. Dr. Schwartz, Dwayne, Ted and Phyllis, everyone around was staring at Amy. Nobody moved in on Willoughby. If it was anyone’s duty it would be the police. With the thought of calling the police, Meghan noticed Officer Pfeffer. He had already arrived at the scene, weapon drawn. But like everyone else he didn’t move. Why was everyone acting as if this was nothing more than a school fight? Somebody has to do something, Meghan thought, when a shot rang out. The echo reverberated through everyone’s head.
Dwayne had seen Alice enter the house. Only now he made the connection to Willoughby’s rifle he had hidden under the sofa. She must have found it. Damn, what did she do with it? Dwayne sprinted towards the house and was the first to enter with Meghan close behind him. He stopped cold in the hallway and Meghan had to push him out of the way to see what was going on. Alice, rifle in hand, had her back turned towards them. Meghan’s heart skipped a beat and her eyes widened when Alice began to turn. Before her stood a young woman looking like her with a smile Meghan recognized from her mirror at home. A smile she gave herself whenever she felt good about herself. Meghan was clear about one thing; this was not a mirror she was looking into. These were the eyes of her sister Alice. But what made her smile? This smile was not the grin of a crazy person and no blood was anywhere. Well, there was a tiny drop of blood on Alice’s cheek. While Meghan took all this in, Dwayne took the rifle out of Alice’s hand.
“I killed her,” Alice said with the satisfaction of someone having done a good job.
“Who did you kill?” Officer Pfeffer, a bit out of breath, had caught up with them.
“Her!” Alice pointed over her shoulder. “She wasn’t worth keeping around.”
“She shot into the mirror, Officer.” Dwayne explained holding the rifle up. Officer Pfeffer acknowledged him with a nod as the glass shards crunched under his boots. While Officer Pfeffer searched for the projectile, Dwayne couldn’t take his eyes off of the twins.
Meghan spoke to her sister in a low voice. “Hey sis, good to see you.” Her heart opened up a bit more with every step she made towards Alice. This is what it feels like to have a sister, Meghan thought and tears rolled down her cheek.
When she was close enough to reach her, it was Alice who raised her hand and caught a tear from Meghan’s cheek. Meghan felt the tenderness of her touch and watched Alice put the salty fingertip in her mouth. Now Meghan reached for Alice’s cheek, wiped the drop of blood off and put it in her mouth. Alice smiled. “Sisters forever.”
The hallway darkened. Dr. Schwartz, followed by Ted, appeared in the doorway and blocked the daylight. When he saw Dwayne with the rifle in his hand Dr. Schwartz stepped forward which gave Ted a full view of the scene. With Meghan and Alice unharmed and Officer Pfeffer at work saving tracks, Ted shifted his focus to Dwayne. What was he doing with the rifle? Ted couldn’t make sense of Dwayne’s expression as he was facing Dr. Schwartz. What did the doctor want from Dwayne? Then he heard Dr. Schwartz say “My son.” Ted knew little about the doctor but he knew that Dwayne had an inferiority complex. Seeing him straighten his shoulders and tighten his grip on the rifle, Ted feared Dwayne might do something stupid. Yet, Dr. Schwartz had more to say. “I know I should have said this more often. I hope it’s not too late for you to hear: I’m proud of you son.” Dr. Schwarz grabbed Dwayne’s shoulders in an awkward mix of clapping him on his back and giving him a hug.
Confused by his father’s affection Dwayne became aware of the rifle between them. As he moved his arm to the side, he felt its weight lifted. Ted had taken the rifle out of his hand. Dwayne didn’t know what else to do and so he patted his father’s back. Encouraged Dr. Schwartz pulled him into a bear hug.
Despite the gun shot Phyllis didn’t move. She was too old for this, she decided. She finally gave in to the fact that she had lost control over her life. What kind of life had this been? A false life, a make-believe-everything-is-okay life. She had failed.
Her daughter Amy was still beating Willoughby like the scumbag he was. But Phyllis remained standing still on the lawn. She was unable to do anything about the things that were going on in her mind. But then she saw Ted coming out of the house with the rifle. Phyllis had an idea that brought her back to life. While Amy seemed not yet finished with Willoughby, Phyllis wanted this to end. She approached Ted who was studying the rifle in his hand. That’s when Phyllis recognized the weapon. “Ted, isn’t this your old rifle?”
Ted seemed surprised but nodded. “I think so too.”
“It’s such a beautiful piece. I thought you had taken it to an auction or something.”
“Did I? I don’t remember. It feels weird to hold it after all these years.”
“Let me see.” Phyllis asked for the rifle and Ted put it in her hands. She weighed it and sniffed the smell of the shot fired. To Ted’s surprise she handled the rifle as if it had always been hers. Phyllis checked if any ammunition remained in the magazine. Indeed, there was. “Great,” talking to Ted over her shoulder Phyllis rested the butt of the rifle on her hip. “Let’s see if we can put this to good use.”
Ted couldn’t help but think of Annie Oakley. He fell in love with Phyllis all over again. She was a woman who took matters into her own hands.
Phyllis lifted the weapon and fired.
She had aimed into the gras before her feet. “Stop this nonsense right this second!” she yelled. “Or I’ll shoot you. Both!”
Another shot brought Amy back to her senses and on to her feet.
Stepping away from Willoughby she yelled, “By all means, shoot the bastard!” Her face red and swollen from the rage that coursed through her body.
“Nobody is shooting anyone.” Officer Pfeffer voice boomed from the house. With Dwayne on his heels, he was marching towards Ted and Phyllis and declared, “I need this. Thank you.” He took the rifle from Phyllis and handed it to his cadet Dwayne. “Make sure nobody gets their hands on it.” With that he left Dwayne to handle the evidence and marched over to Willoughby. “Stay down. You are under arrest. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Officer Pfeffer had always wanted to say the Miranda Warning. He knew it by heart. Willoughby didn’t move. Was he dead? Officer Pfeffer stepped closer. “Did you hear what I said?” A slight nod confirmed that he was still alive. “Put your hands behind your back.” As Willoughby complied, Officer Pfeffer kneeled on his back and shackled him. “Now get up.” Grabbing his arm to get him on his feet Officer Pfeffer felt he had it all under control. The people of this town could see that he was in charge and that nothing got past him. “That’s all for today. Now go home, folks.” To his surprise the people didn’t follow his order. Instead, they came out of their homes and closed in on him and his prisoner.
Phyllis announced, “This is a fundraiser, people are welcome to stay as long as they like.” Amy wanted to know, “Where are you going to keep him?” Alice and Meghan, elbows hooked and giggling, came out of the house and joined their family. Everyone was taking stock of the similarities between them. Their youth and beauty were without question the most obvious assets the two had in common. Amy couldn’t believe the change she saw in Alice. Her face had the glow of a woman in love. Meghan leaning on Alice’s shoulder, suppressed another giggle coming up. She raised her voice and declared, “Mom, Alice wants to tell you something.” Meghan’s lost twin had been looking for her family all her life. Now that she found them everyone wanted to hear what Alice had to say. But when Alice opened her mouth, her words made no sense.
“I am going to marry Langdon and have my own family.”
Worried about the new development, Amy stepped closer to Alice. “May I ask who Langdon is?”
Was it possible that Alice’s smile could illuminate her face even more? With a shrug of her free shoulder Alice stated with pride, “He’s from Alaska. That’s where he’ll take me. Isn’t he gorgeous?” And with that she leaned her head on Langdon’s shoulder. Only she knew he was there. Alice could feel his arm around her making her feel safe and loved. Meghan raised an eyebrow towards her mom and nodded in Willoughby’s direction. Amy understood this to mean that Alice and Willoughby both were hopeless nutcases.
“Of course, you have my blessings, Alice.” Amy opened her arms to give her daughter a hug. From behind her she heard a sniffle and a cough and then Willoughby Smyth’s voice. “You have my fucking blessings too. But, Langdon,” Willoughby shrugged his shoulders, arms behind his back “Buddy, you have to pay for the wedding.”
by Marian Exall, 1754 words
Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, had no mother. She was born by parthogenesis from Zeus’ forehead. Her symbol is the owl. By association, owls have gained a reputation for wisdom, even by those with no knowledge of Greek mythology. The barred owl whose territory included the charred remains of the Excelsior Diner, as well as the nearby retired firehouse, the scene of this night’s dramatic fundraiser, was wise enough to recognize that the humans had the situation more-or-less under control, and his aggressive disposition and sharp talons would not be needed. His classic four-note call “who cooks for you?” faded away as he flew into the woods.
Under control, that is, except for the previously motherless and currently transfigured Alice. She smiled adoringly up into the eyes of a lover only she could see. Meghan was at once happy that her sister had emerged from her colorless cocoon to become a beautiful butterfly, and concerned that Alice was exhibiting similar psychotic tendencies as their father Willoughby. When Meghan had first read the Ancestry.com file hidden in her grandmother’s basement, she had not known that the Willoughby Smyth whose genealogy it contained was Jeff Smith, named by her mother as her dad. Now she approached Phyllis, who had commissioned the research.
“Alice and I need to get tested,” she hissed into Phyllis’ ear.
Taken aback, Phyllis struggled to make sense of her granddaughter’s demand. Then she remembered the genetic information in the file. “It’s alright, honey! It was your DNA I sent to Ancestry to initiate the search. Your DNA doesn’t share the marker. You’re fine!”
“But…” Meghan and Phyllis turned their eyes to where Alice was conducting an animated three-way conversation with her mother and Langdon, Amy gamely pretending she understood what was going on.
“The delusions are episodic. And they’re treatable. King George III of England had the same condition,” Phyllis explained. “It’s a hereditary physical disorder called porphyria. It interferes with the body’s production of hemoglobin and injections of synthetic hemoglobin can cure it. Poor Alice, she must have been in such pain—there are physical symptoms too.”
Meghan was furious. “You knew all this and said nothing?”
“I wanted…I mean…” Phyllis stumbled around looking for an excuse but found none. Her desire to present their little family’s life as smooth and successful had led to secrets that caused serious damage. How would she ever get her daughter and granddaughters to forgive her?
Amy joined the couple, her brow creased in a frown. “Alice says Jerome has met Langdon and his pals too. And that gold coin. I just don’t know what to think.”
The three looked over to where Jerome was entertaining Bilan’s twins, their mother looking on with approval.
“I don’t think this is the moment to confront Jerome, do you?” asked Meghan. Since meeting (re-meeting?) Alex, Meghan’s interest in Jerome had waned, although she’d still like to know something about his background.
Amy sighed. “Jerome’s a recovering alcoholic. He had an abusive childhood and a spotty job history, but he’s a fabulous cook so I hired him anyway. But he had a lapse. He may have seen some customers in flannel shirts. He says they left the gold coin, but then he couldn’t remember what he did with it. He was drunk. He promises it won’t happen again.”
“Gran, you have to tell Mom what you told me. We can get help for Alice.”
Phyllis sighed. It was indeed time to let go. To let go of secrets and let go of control. Let the younger generations take charge.
The New Excelsior Diner staged its Grand Reopening on a bright late spring day six months after the fire that destroyed its former premises. The proceeds from the sale to a coin collector of the Peter the Great medal had kickstarted the rebuilding, but once Willoughby was indicted for the arson attack on the diner as well as other crimes, the insurance money had arrived to complete the process.
Willoughby’s lawyer attempted an insanity defense, but once the porphyria problems were resolved with medication, his client was revealed as what he had always been, regardless of illness: a scumbag. He would remain a guest of the prison service for many years to come.
Dwayne had finally passed the entrance exam for the police academy and was pursuing his dream, with the support and encouragement of his father. Tawfiiq had finished his residency with flying colors and Dr. Schwartz had taken him into his practice as a junior partner. Sven had revived the bar after the smoke had cleared, and was doing a great trade in a new cocktail he’d invented: the Flaming Excelsior, a brandy and vermouth concoction on which three coffee beans were set alight before serving. Imbibers had to blow out the fire before all the alcohol was consumed, which often resulted in singed eyebrows and nose hairs and much hilarity. Flora had found a new lover from the hard bodies who attended her hot yoga class, but she missed her daily Californian omelet and couldn’t wait for the diner to reopen.
Amy had decided against rebuilding on the previous site of the Excelsior. That quarter acre had been donated to the city, cleared of rubble, and planted with trees. In time, the woods housing a growing family of barred owls would extend a finger right into downtown.
Instead, she had taken over the old firehouse, the larger space where they had held the fundraiser. Now Jerome presided over a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen staffed by a sous-chef and a new dishwasher (who preferred to be called a commis de range). The front of house was as close to the original décor as Amy could source it, except that the red vinyl banquettes were no longer patched together with duct tape, and the black and white linoleum tiles on the floor didn’t curl up at the edges. The menus had been reprinted with several new items joining the traditional diner fare, and asterisks to indicate vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free. The new owl logo on the menus was reprised on the elegant pearl gray tunics worn by the waitresses over slim black pants.
Bilan waited for the first customers to arrive with a frisson of nerves. She had worked hard at her English while the diner was closed, but she still made bloopers which embarrassed her, although they made Jerome and her daughters erupt with laughter. Formally engaged to Jerome, she had declined her brother’s offer to move to Seattle where he now had his own apartment. As soon as they could find a suitable house, she and Jerome would marry, although she would challenge tradition by continuing to work. She loved the diner. And she loved Amy, Meghan and Phyllis, who had given her a job that accommodated her need to be home for her daughters after school. They had also accommodated her desire to wear the hijab and arranged for one to be made in the same pearl gray fabric as her new uniform.
Most of all she loved the new waitress, Alice. Bilan was given the responsibility of training Alice in skills needed to serve diner customers, and it had been difficult at first. The younger woman’s physical recovery had been straightforward, but her emotional adjustment took longer. She had lived her whole life deprived of love, feeling worthless, and unable to trust. The painful symptoms of her illness for which she had no name and had received no care, had led her to grasp at fantasy and delusion as an escape. Her health restored, she was slow to trust her new family. Amy had been tireless in assuring her long-lost daughter of her love, and Phyllis and Meghan had helped, showing affection in as many ways as they could think of. But it was with Bilan that Alice had finally blossomed. Given a job to do and a way to repay her new family for rescuing her, Alice determined she would be the best waitress ever. Bilan was thrilled to help her.
“Ready?” Amy called from her accustomed place behind the cash register.
“Ready!” came the chorus from kitchen and dining room. Bilan opened the door and the first customers entered.
“Well done, everyone!” Amy turned the “Open” sign to “Closed” and gestured the staff up to the counter. “Let’s take a moment to celebrate before we clean up.”
Jerome and his helpers emerged from the kitchen. Hugs were exchanged all around, including with Meghan who had arrived in time to help with the lunchtime rush. Since she’d moved in with Alex, she no longer worked at the diner, although she made a point of frequently dropping in at home on Phyllis, Amy, and Alice, who occupied Meghan’s old bedroom.
“I have some good news too,” Meghan said when the mutual felicitations had quietened down. “My book has been accepted for publication. It will be out in time for Christmas!” Meghan had finally put her English degree to work on a children’s book about twin Somali refugee girls and their adjustment to life in the Pacific Northwest. Only Bilan, her cultural consultant on the story, knew the details of the project, but Amy and Alice had noted Meghan’s new confidence and sense of fulfilment. They’d ascribed it to Alex, but now understood Meghan had found her true vocation.
Amy’s phone rang interrupting the renewed round of compliments. “Hush, everyone! It’s Phyllis.” True to her resolution, Phyllis had stepped back from any role in the New Excelsior. She and Ted had been spending more time together, and had told Amy they were going to stay in Seattle for the long weekend while the Grand Opening took place.
“Hello, dear. How did it go?” Phyllis’ voice was coming in and out and the Facetime image of her face was shaky. “Ted’s here too, He sends his best.”
“How’s Seattle?” asked Meghan.
“Well, I have a secret to tell you.”
Amy and Meghan groaned in unison. “No more secrets, Mom!”
“You might like this one.” Phyllis panned the phone away from her face and over a grinning image of Ted until it focused on a familiar tower in the background. “We’re in Paris! And we changed planes in Las Vegas on the way to get married!”
The room erupted in cheers. Amy had to hold the phone to her ear to hear what Phyllis said next.
“We found this charming little bistro for lease on the Left Bank. How about we open a nouveau New Excelsior in Paris?”