Static fizzled away into the smooth golden voice of the radio disc jockey, ‘KSSSSSHHH -up is a new favourite of our audience, the refreshingly smooth sounds of Tony Bennett’s The Good Life, but first, a word from our sponsors. You’re listening to Chronkite West State radio…’
The crisp, amber sunlight cascaded through the windows and onto the table tops; dust drifted lazily in its rays like pepper floating in melted butter, and the headlights of cars on the nearby highway painted everything with a sweeping, honeyed glaze, glinting warm colours in the diner’s every glass surface. It was almost a frozen moment in time, slow and stifling. The mood was as molasses.
A tinkling bell announced the entry of a young woman, her smooth olive skin peeking out from behind a headscarf and sunglasses. Some of the male patrons, clad in flannel and loose denim, took a break from their liquid breakfasts to crane in her direction. The woman scanned the diner before whipping off her glasses and pocketing them in her high-waisted leather jacket. Taking another look behind her at the parking lot, she glided in and sat down at a window seat, closely shadowed by a young girl, clinging to the belt loop of her mom’s jeans, who sat in the red pleather sofa seat opposite with a teddy bear that was given a seat of its own. The mother unravelled her headscarf, allowing full locks of luscious, chocolate brown hair to fall free, and scanned the diner again, finding the undressing eyes had strayed upon the appearance of a child. With one hand, she picked up the menu and slid it in front of her daughter.
‘Alright sweetie whaddya want?’ she said.
‘I want daddy,’ the girl responded, deciding her teddy bear didn’t want its own seat after all and preferred to sit on her lap instead. She hugged it tightly by the neck.
‘Maybe later honey but for now you need breakfast’, the mother said, disarming the question and distracting the child by tapping one of her glittered nails onto the menu.
The youngster held the menu vertically, appearing to studiously examine each of the scarce few items on it, nodding all the while, before putting it back on the table and picking one at random, her process complete with tightly shut eyes and her eenie, meenie, miney, mo routine for dramatic effect. She looked closely at the name of what she’d picked, referred to the sub-par illustration next to it, and proudly declared with a toothy smile: ‘Pancakes!’
The mother smirked at her antics and leaned in close, ‘Pancakes it is then.’
‘Hello young ladies,’ said a voice. It was as sweet as apple pie and soft as morning oatmeal.
A kindly, old man ambled up to them with notepad and pen ready. The mother reckoned he looked like the diner’s owner – around retirement age but still rosy cheeked, despite the fact that his face seemed to have far more skin than was necessary for a man of his leanness. His red and white striped apron already had some splashes of grease on them. His name tag read Willis.
‘What can I get you two today?’ he quavered.
‘Two pancakes,’ said the mother.
‘No!’ the girl cried out.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Jack Jack says he wants pancakes too.’ The girl held up the bear to sit on the table as if it were confirmation.
‘Well can he not share yours? I don’t think he’d eat much.’
‘Yes he would. Because, because,’ she stammered. ‘Because he’s really hungry.’
The girl’s mother laughed and shared a look with Willis.
‘I think we can sort something out,’ he said. ‘You just beat the early rush; should still have some pancakes on the grill. Shouldn’t be long.’
The man shuffled off back to the kitchen, leaving the mother and daughter alone at the table. The elder watched the deserted parking lot and the younger in turn watched her parent. They did not speak to one another during this time. As a long distance truck driver pushed back his chair to stand and leave, it scraped along the floor and made the seemingly paranoid woman jump, while in her hands, she fiddled with the headscarf.
As they both sat and stared and said nothing, the day continued to run on around them. The sun climbed higher in the sky and a rich slice of orange light graced the diner with a piquant energy that began draining away the lazy, timeless atmosphere. People were getting up to leave for work, some shoving the remnants of their meals into their mouths as they situated themselves outside. Before long, though it certainly seemed longer, two large steaming plates of pancakes accompanied by small pots of syrup were placed before them, and a third one originally designed to fit a teacup was planted delicately in front of Jack Jack’s furry snout. Despite a clear lack of immediate enthusiasm, Willis smiled, mimed to tip his hat, and chuckled ‘Enjoy your meal ladies.’
The mother passed her daughter a knife and fork and began tucking in; drizzling on the sticky syrup and carving a thick slice out for herself. The smell alone was mouth-watering, the taste pure magnificence, but neither were appreciated nor noticed. The radio fizzled back to static.
‘...nother great hit-KSSSH- the classi-KSSSSH-jaz-SSSSH,’ it spat out, before completely cutting off, replaced by empty silence.
Outside, that glorious orange dish rose up into a large cloud and disappeared in an instant, extinguishing the warm texture of the morning sun and leaving behind only the dull reflection of the blank sky and the bitter winter breeze travelling down the highway. The girl’s expression was equally cold.
‘Why are you being nice to me?’ said the daughter.
‘What do you mean? Am I not always nice to you?’
‘No,’ the girl was quick to respond. ‘Where’s daddy?’
The mother stopped mid-slice and let the cutlery fall with a clatter to the plate.
‘Never you mind where he is. I couldn’t care less and neither should you. That lowlife could be off getting mauled by a grizzly for all I care’. Her attempt at a carefree attitude was somewhat spoiled by her constant glaring out the window.
Normally, this would have been the end of it, but the girl was suspicious of bribery in the form of pancakes and this time she was keen on an answer.
‘I want to go home,’ she said, her face scrunching into a sour expression.
‘Well-!’ her mother shouted, then quickly readjusted her volume, ‘Well we can’t go home. Not anymore, do you understand?’
The girl didn’t, and kept up the sulking. The older woman began to say something, but struggled with how exactly to word it. Eventually she swallowed, and settled on: ‘Tasha, daddy is a bad man.’
The phrase was allowed to waft through the air. She pointed to her black eye, and soldiered on.
‘You’ve seen what he does Tasha, you know what daddy’s like when he gets angry. And I don’t want the same thing happening to you too. I don’t want you growing up having to suffer the same way that I’ve suffered. You’re the greatest achievement he’s ever allowed me to reach, and I can’t let him have you too. I can’t let him.’
‘Only bad people get punished.’ It wasn’t intended to be malicious, but it packed a punch that made the girl’s mother clasp a hand over her mouth to stop her publicly sobbing. She took a moment to calm her quaking voice.
‘No honey, I’m afraid it doesn’t always work like that. The world’s a crazy, messed up place. There’s a lot of bad people in this world, and there’s not always enough good guys to stop them. Daddy is one of those bad people, because he hurts other people, you see? So it’s up to us to do what’s right, and we’ve got to get as far away from him as possible, yeah honey?’
The girl was looking down at the floor. She grabbed Jack Jack and gave him a squeeze. She didn’t like this story. She didn’t like seeing mommy or daddy upset. She simply nodded.
‘Alright, OK, now let’s finish up our pancakes so we can hit the road, yeah?’
She nodded again, looking back up at her mom to see her wipe away tears with the headscarf. Neither of them had much of an appetite anymore, but the girl stabbed her pancake with a fork and made an effort regardless. The time went back to being slow again, oozing seconds out of the day like an hourglass filled with treacle. Eventually, the pancakes were cold, and the mood had gone stale.
‘Mommy,’ the girl said. The mother took a second to acknowledge, but looked up, ‘Why was-’
But her mother had stopped listening, bracing the table in shock. She heard the faintest crackle of gravel, and realised that in her despondency, she had been ignorant, and had left herself completely vulnerable. She glared out the window, and her eyes were immediately drawn to a specific light blue Cadillac parked out front. The sound of a tinkling bell announced a customer, but much less cheerfully this time, befitting of a sprinkle of salt on an open wound.
The girl’s face lit up.
The woman’s eyes went wide in terror. As she whipped her head round, without another word said, she entered darkness, and her salty tears were met by a distinct metallic flavour.
Steven Humber is currently a student of Film and Drama at the University of Kent, Vice President of the UKC Creative Writing Society, and aspiring creative. Author of nothing so far, but a lover of the lyricism of language and never one to pass up a shameless plug, follow @_StevenHumber_ on Twitter.