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.