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.