This story was inspired by a photograph I found online at Inspiration Lab (http://inspirationlab.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/gregorycrewdson9.jpg). I’m open to comments and critiques since I’m new at writing short fiction.
It’s Sunday. 7:38 a.m. The rain has stopped. The sky is clear, except for a few pink-tinged wisps near the horizon. The sun is warming the town. Steam rises from the streets.
The girl stands at the intersection. She looks west. A car drives by. She doesn’t cross. She looks north. The lights change. She doesn’t cross. The sidewalks are quiet. Where is everyone?
I sit here at the diner drinking a coffee. I couldn’t sleep. Who is that girl? She looks so lonely, so despondent.
She steps back onto the sidewalk again. Again she looks west, and again north.
I wonder if she needs help. Should I go out and talk to her?
Again the lights change. Still she does not cross.
She leans against the light pole. I see someone step out of the building near her. I lean forward. No, he’s okay. He just looks her way, pauses, then turns and goes on his way. He doesn’t seem to care. I know why I’m out this early on a Sunday morning. I had to open the diner, even though I know it won’t be busy until nearly noon. A few people will come for coffee. A few of the regulars. A few will talk with me; others you can tell by their demeanor that they just want to be left alone with their Sunday morning thoughts. I can easily tell, because I’ve gone to Joe’s Diner across town when I want to be alone.
I look back out to see the girl light a cigarette. She takes a deep haul and blows out the smoke with a huge sigh. She looks at the cigarette, turns over her hand, and stares at it for a moment. I wonder if her fingers are yellowed from too much smoking. Has she been wandering alone for long? Is it just insomnia, or is she troubled? Maybe she’s mentally ill and shouldn’t be out by herself. Maybe I’m mentally ill for obsessing over her.
Her clothes are pretty much nondescript. A loose pale green dress reaches just past her knees. Her hair, almost as dark as the black coffee I’m nursing, falls just past her shoulders. From where I sit, she looks like she’s in her mid twenties.
She finishes the cigarette and grinds out the butt on the ground. She stands straight and takes a deep breath.
Clara comes in. I tell her I’ve already made coffee. She looks at me oddly, but says nothing. She looks like she just crawled out of bed. She’s my best friend. We’ve known each other since we were knee high to a grasshopper, as my granddad always used to say. She notices that I’m looking out the window. Then she spies the girl. Her head tilts questioningly to one side and her brown eyes squint slightly. She stares at me for a moment. I swear she’s reading my thoughts.
“Well, are you going out there?” She knows it’s bugging me to just sit here even though neither of us could guess in a million years what might be going on with that girl. She knows it’s killing me to not know.
“How long has she been standing there?”
“I guess it’s been about fifteen or twenty minutes now. One minute it looks like she’s going to go across toward the apartment building, and the next it looks like she’s going to head up toward the theatre.”
The girl suddenly turned toward the diner window where I was sitting. She starts to walk toward us. Four steps later she turns back and leans on the light pole again. She takes out another cigarette and lights it with her hand cupping the lighter against the rising breeze.
That’s it. I get up, make sure Clara knows I’m going out, and step out onto the sidewalk.
No traffic. I jaywalk.
The girl turns and sees me approach. She doesn’t move.
“Good morning,” I say as I get near.
Up close, her brown eyes look like they’ve seen a hundred years of hurt.
“Is everything ok?”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“You look sad. Do you need someone to talk to?” Right. Like she’s going to want to talk to me, a complete stranger who’s been staring at her for the last twenty minutes.
“I just can’t figure out what to do.”
I kind of guessed that. But, I wait.
“My mother passed away on Wednesday.”
“Oh. I’m very sorry.”
“Not your fault.”
Well, no, but isn’t that the proper thing to say? We all think we have to say something, don’t we. Probably, we should just learn to keep our mouths shut. Words like that certainly don’t help, do they?
“Well, anyway, my biological father lives in that apartment building over there.”
Oh. Didn’t see that coming.
Words? No. No words. Just wait.
“I’ve never met him. He ran off as soon as he found out my mother was pregnant with me.”
Shit. No words.
“The asshole ran off, just like that bastard over there did.”
Shit. Shit. Shit. What did I get myself into this time? When will I learn to keep my nose out of crap where it doesn’t belong?
I see a tear roll down her cheek.
“Would you like to come over to the diner for a cup of tea? Maybe you’d like to sit down for a bit and talk. Or maybe just sit.”
“Well, I ain’t accomplishing much standing here except tarring its lungs along with mine.”
It probably doesn’t have lungs yet. Shit. What a stupid thought. Glad I didn’t say that out loud. Jesus! Why is she calling it it?
She heads across the street to the diner. I follow.
I hasten to reach the door and open it for her. She steps inside and looks around. She sees my coffee cup still at the booth and sits down opposite it.
I go behind the counter and fetch the coffee pot, get a mug of hot water, and grab a couple packets of flavored herbal teas.
“Didn’t know which flavor you’d like.”
She spreads them out and chooses a lemon-chamomile packet.
“Good choice.” I smile.
“I like the yellow packet.”
“Chamomile is relaxing.”
She glances up at me, back to her cup, and starts to make her tea. I see Clara motioning from behind the counter. Should she make some breakfast for the girl? I discreetly nod. I turn back to the girl.
“Mind if I ask your name?”
“No. It’s Janice.”
“Good to meet you, Janice. I’m Vince.”
I’m starting to feel a little uncomfortable. I have no idea what to say. A man thing, I guess. I’m hoping she will say something soon. I think she might want to talk. Needs to talk. To someone. Maybe not me. After all, the last guy — the asshole — didn’t turn out to be best buddy, did he? I wonder if she’d talk to Clara. I’ll wait. Maybe after she’s had something to eat. My mom always said you’d feel better after you got some good food in your belly.
She sipped her tea and looked around. “Busy spot.”
“It’ll pick up in a while. Sunday’s mornings are always slow at first. I just like to come in and enjoy the peace and quiet for a while. Not much else to do on a Sunday morning when you can’t sleep.”
She glances behind the counter. “Your wife know you’re bored?”
I chuckle. “Clara? Clara’s not my wife. We’ve been friends way too long for that!”
She actually smiles a little and raises her eyebrow.
“I see. Makes sense.”
I wait for her to ask if I’ve ever been married or have a girlfriend. I’m praying she doesn’t. I don’t want to talk about it.
Clara comes to the table bearing what smells like an amazing breakfast. Ok, well it’s breakfast. It is my diner. I have to think shit like that. She’s got eggs over easy, several strips of bacon, and toast with peanut butter.
She sets a plate down in front of each of us.
Janice looks at me and starts to say she didn’t order breakfast.
“I know. I just thought a nice warm meal would make you feel a bit better.” I shrug. I’m thinking a hot meal isn’t going to make everything all better. Oh well.
“Thank you. I am kind of hungry. I hope I can keep it down. Morning sickness you know.”
“Oh. Right. I forgot. Would you rather have something else?”
“No. I like bacon and eggs.”
“Good. And, just so you know, the breakfast fairy is paying. It’s on the house.” I grin at her.
She is rather good looking under all that wind-blown hair and sad eyes. I study her face as she eats. She has beautiful, big brown eyes. Her skin is nearly flawless. I think she looks after herself. She looks fit. Her nails are cut short, neatly filed, and finished with clear polish. Her sole piece of jewelry is a ring with a small ruby on her right hand. Her ears are pierced, but she’s wearing no earrings. Her appearance is deliberate but completely unpretentious. Except for that ugly dress. What’s up with that?
“You’re staring at me.”
“Sorry. Just wondering how you’re feeling now.”
“Fine. The food seems to be staying down.”
Clara comes by and tops up my coffee. She says nothing. She discreetly goes back to the kitchen. I can hear her cleaning the grill. She hates cleaning the grill.
“So, do you feel like talking? Is there someone I can call?”
“No. No one to call.”
I wait. I’m getting good at waiting. Sort of. I try to figure out a way to broach the subject of her father or the father of her baby. But before I do, she sets her fork down and looks up.
I smile slightly and nod.
“I got myself into a terrible mess with the asshole. I should have known better. I’ve never picked the best sort of guy to hang with. I just like the attention and approval I get, I guess. We did have a lot of fun together, but it was obvious he was going nowhere. He lost his last job because he kept showing up late.”
She sips her tea and look at me. I’m thinking she’s trying to read my expression to decide whether to go on.
“I just found out I was pregnant about two weeks ago. Then my mother informed me that she got the results of her tests and she is in a bad way. Not expected to live for very long. I didn’t expect that she would have only two weeks. It was so fast. It feels like we had no time to say things we should have said a long time ago. Life sure is a bitch sometimes.”
I simply nod in agreement. She finishes her tea.
“Do you think I could get a glass of water.”
I motion to Clara and ask her to bring a glass of ice water.
After she drinks about half the glass of water she continues.
“I never told her I was pregnant. Somehow it just didn’t seem right, me carrying life while she was dying. I think she would have been sad for me and I didn’t want her to be sad. She was very perceptive. She knew Rick was an ass. She kept telling me he’d never stick around. Should have listened! Never did listen too well.” She grins, sadly.
“Parents always seem to know things we don’t.” Oh boy. That was profound. I fiddle with my fork.
“I don’t know why I suddenly had the urge to talk to my real father. Not that I ever had a fake father, or any kind of father. Mom never had a steady relationship after Dad. I think she was gun-shy after him. I can’t blame her. Maybe it’s hereditary. I’m thinking all men are bastards at this point. I don’t even know what I wanted to say to him. I don’t know if I’m angry, if I just want to tell him that Mom died, or whether I need a father — someone to talk to. She grunts. Not that he’s a talker, I’m guessing. If he was maybe he would have stuck around and tried to work things out.”
“So, what happened with Rick?” I ask cautiously.
She inhales slowly and deeply like she can’t get enough air into her lungs and sits back against the back of the booth. I wonder why I don’t have more comfortable seating here.
“To be honest, I’m glad he’s gone. When I told him I was pregnant, he just looked at me and asked what I was going to do about it? What was I going to do about it. That very second I knew he was gone. He had no interest or even the slightest sense of responsibility. It was all my fault, of course. That I got pregnant, I mean.”
“What will you do?”
“I’m seriously contemplating an abortion. I don’t think I want to raise a kid on my own. I’m not ready for a family.”
“Or you could give it up for adoption.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think I want to carry it for nine months just to give it away.”
“How far along are you?”
“About six weeks.”
“So, it’s not too late. Are you afraid you’d regret it one day?”
“Mmm, maybe. But under the circumstances, I think I’d regret it even more bringing an unwanted child into the world. Enough of those are out there already.”
Just then the diner door opens. In walks Ed. Ed has been a regular here since I’ve owned the diner. He comes in almost every Sunday morning for coffee. We always chat and sometimes play a few rounds of crib. Besides Clara, he was the only person I was able to talk to when I broke up with my fiancée last year. I suck at cards and he usually beats me, leaving me down about five bucks. He’s an editor and usually works from home. He even acts in the local dinner theater a few times a year. On a few occasions, we’ve gone out drinking or played a few rounds of golf. He’s a great guy and we’ve become pretty good friends.
I start to wave and say hey when Janice’s face goes pale, her shoulder stiffen, and she seems to freeze on the spot. I stop and look at her.
“Jesus. That’s him.”
“Him who?” I stare at her.