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.