//hey this is another short story. there will b even more in the future, brace urself :0
Six-thirty in the morning and you pull the keys out of the ignition, open the dented door of your new Nissan, and step out into the still, freezing air of late January. You shift your knit grey beanie over your forehead, stuff your hands in your windbreaker pockets, and make your way to the warmly lighted windows of a local diner.
A bell above the glass door dings as you step in. A family of three sits in one booth, munching away on pancakes and bacon, and a teenage cashier sits behind the counter, fixated on her iPhone. The place has a dated atmosphere—the booths and the counters and the linoleum floor tiles are styled as if from the eighties, but they aren’t some cheap replicas. It’s all the real deal, kept in good shape by the family who has owned this place since times forgotten.
This is what you love about the state of Maine: nothing ever changes. Your grandmother brought you to this exact diner as a kid and, you swear, it looked just like this. Same checkered linoleum, same food, same radio station playing over the speakers in the corner, same wooden sign reading “Best Pizza Around!”, same everything. Your grandmother is long dead now, buried in a cemetery a few miles away, the same cemetery where your relatives have been buried for generations, possibly even centuries, the same cemetery where you one day will be buried as well.
Your grandmother was a kind woman who wore flowery blouses and knit sweaters and smelled of spices and warmth, and who greeted every guest by waiting for them out on the porch, who taught you good morals, who taught you to be charitable, to do the right thing. She was your favorite relative and you miss her more than anyone.
The cashier looks up and smiles. “Morning, Henry,” she says. “How’re ya?” You’ve never asked her name, but you’ve spoken to her a few mornings a week in the months since you moved to this town. She has a round, freckled face and blonde hair up in a sloppy bun. She scratches her forearm with painted fingernails.
“I’m great, thanks. And you?”
“I’m fantastic. Just finished my finals, I’ll be startin’ my last semester of high school Monday.”
“Good luck. I’ll have, uh, a breakfast sandwich to go. Bacon, egg, and cheese, please. And a large coffee with sugar, no cream.”
She calls out the order to someone in the kitchen behind her, and smiles at you. “About five minutes.”
You smile back at her and take off the beanie and run your fingers through your bedhead and unzip your windbreaker. Hanging your outerwear carefully on the metal coat rack, you walk past the family of three. There’s a bald man in a button-down shirt and slacks, talking urgently on his flip phone, a woman wearing blue overalls, her short red hair cut in a severe bob, and a little girl in shorts and a long-sleeved Dora tee. They seem a bit strange, but you really shouldn’t be so quick to judge. You enter the single bathroom and lock the door behind you. The ceramic countertop has a large crack in it, but the sink basin is unaffected. The lights are already on and the wallpaper is yellow gingham. A half-empty bottle of dish soap sits on the counter.
When you exit the bathroom, your breakfast is waiting in a brown paper bag next to a styrofoam travel mug. You can see the cashier in the doorway of the kitchen, talking to the other employees and loudly smacking her gum. You pull your arms through the sleeves of your windbreaker and zip it up tight and as you grab your food from the counter, the cashier looks over and hollers goodbye before turning back to the kitchen.
In the parking lot, you press your hands to the hot mug rather than keep them in your pockets. You open the unlocked door of your car and sit down in the driver’s seat. Turning your key in the ignition, you look up at the rear view mirror and see a dark shrouded figure hunched over in the backseat. You whirl around and brace a hand on your headrest. “The hell are you doing in my car?”
The figure sits up and pulls skinny bare child-legs from its oversized dark navy raincoat and pushes the hood back to reveal the pink, tear-ridden face of a little girl. Her curly red hair is awry and she has a sore on her lower lip. Your face softens. You recognize her as the kid in the Dora tee from the diner.
“Oh, I’m sorry, honey, are you okay? What brings you here? You okay?” you inquire, and wait patiently as she opens her mouth and pauses in thought. She seems about six years old.
“No. I’m running away.” She takes a deep breath and releases it. Her voice carries no trace of the familiar Maine accent you’ve adjusted to.
“Why’s that?” You lower your hand to the seat and shift your legs around to face her.
“I hate my parents and I want them to die.” Her eyes well up with tears that threaten to fall.
“Honey, that’s no way to talk about your parents. Was that them, back in the diner?”
“Yeah,” she sniffs.
“Well, let’s go back inside and talk to them about this.”
She looks at you with a blank face and then looks at the dirty, trash-covered floor of your car and then through the window to the warm diner covered in snow. “Fine.”
“Good girl.” You smile at her, knowing you’ve done a good deed. You open your door and she opens the door of the backseat, pulling her hood back over her hair. It’s a summer raincoat—-surely never intended for such horrendous weather.
You push open the door and the bell dings. “Back already?” the cashier asks from across the room.
“Yep. Found this little munchkin in my car.” To your right, the girl’s parents leap from their seats and hurry towards you, exasperation in the mother’s face and anger in the father’s.
“Hailey! What did I tell you about running away?” her father says in a gruff voice.
You look at the little girl—Hailey—and she looks at the ground. “I’m sorry, sir,” she says.
“Hailey, you don’t know this man. You can’t just jump in some stranger’s car and expect them to be nice,” her mother says, grabbing the child’s hand. She looks up at me. “Really sorry for the trouble. She’s a bit, uh.” She waves her pointer finger around at her left temple. “Y’know.”
Her father glares at her. “She’s a fuckin’ brat, that’s what she is. Needs to learn her manners.” You flinch—that’s no way to talk about one’s own little girl.
“And everything’s alright? She’s fine?”
“Yup,” the bald man answers, and places a large, meaty hand on the shoulder of his daughter. She looks at you with tearful eyes, and yours are drawn to the sore on her lip. It’s probably nothing, you think. Your stomach grows uneasy nonetheless.
“You sure?” You look into the man’s furrowed eyebrows and squinted eyes, and he directs his glare at you. Every instinct in your body and mind tells you to run.
“Yes I am goddamn sure. Thanks for asking, buddy.”
“Oh, okay then. You all have a great day,” you say quietly, and you turn around and open the door which dings behind you and your heart races with unreasonable fear and you walk across the icy pavement to your dented car inside of which you climb and pull out of the parking lot and onto the quiet two-laned road and you drive along to the cemetery on the anniversary of your grandmother’s death with a sinking feeling in your stomach that you’ve done the wrong thing after all.