Jon Tyler stood outside the small diner. What was he doing here? It had been seven years. Seven hellish years. A nightmare that he would never awake from. The constant pain in his neck, shoulders, and upper back a continuous reminder of what had happened, what he had become. A monster. Worse than any Hollywood creation. This latest trip to the VA hospital was yet another memento.
So, why was he here? He was incredibly glad to see that the place still existed. With the economic downturn, too many small businesses were failing. He did not want to examine too carefully why it should matter so much to him that this one had not.
But he knew. He knew the truth. This was the last place that he had known even a modicum of happiness. That night had been burned into his charred brain. He had relived it tens of thousands of times over the past seven years.
Not that he thought he would catch a glimpse of her. Alicia. She would be long gone now. A shrink somewhere. Maybe even helping fucked up people like him, but he was beyond all help. Why he kept going was beyond him. But something inside him refused to die, as his friends had that night.
He might have turned then and fled from the memories of what lay on the other side of those glass doors. Except that a young couple, another Marine and his girl, practically pushed him through them. He adjusted the hood of his jacket, making sure that his face was covered entirely.
She looked up from behind the cash register and smiled. His heart stopped. Came to a complete standstill. “Ya’ll take a seat. I’ll be right with you as soon as I finish up here.”
The couple slid into a booth by the window. Jon’s heart accelerated as the young Marine reached across the table to grab the hands of his lover. He could only hope that their course was happier than his had been.
He almost turned and left then. But she looked up at him, “Have a seat at the counter. Alison will get you some coffee while I take care of them.”
Was it curiosity that made him stay? What was she still doing in this place? What about that psychology degree? Jon was not sure, but once more, that indefinable something compelled him to follow her order.
He alternated, staring into the darkness of that cup and sneaking glimpses of her light. She took the couples’ order as she had his that night a lifetime ago. She smiled and joked with the other waitress and cook as she placed the order. The other woman took off her apron and left a moment later.
When Alicia returned to take his order, Jon panicked. Not that there was any chance this woman would recognize him. That IED had made damned sure that not even his own mother could do that. Even his voice had been changed by the tight burn scars that constricted his throat, lowering his voice.
He kept his head down as he placed his order — apple pie. It held precious memories. Her smile radiated, filling some dark reaches of his mind, “Always a good choice.”
He knew that she would have stayed and chatted. At three o’clock, the diner was practically empty, just the young couple, what appeared to be a homeless man, and himself. He dropped his head further and brought the cup of coffee to his lips to forestall any conversation. But his brain screamed a million questions, wanted to know all the answers, especially that all-important one: what was she doing here?
Jon could not bring himself to take the risk. That night and this woman was his one perfect memory. If he knew the truth, it might shatter that illusion.
So, she turned her attention to the homeless man. “What else can I get you, Steve?”
Her smile was just as bright for this man that most would ignore and many would condemn. His chest tightened, and it had nothing to do with another spasm of the muscles constricted by the scars that covered half of it.
“Thank you, ma’am. But I’m good. How much do I owe you?”
She turned and grabbed a broom from the corner, “The sidewalk out front could use a sweep if you have the time.”
The man nodded, and Jon would have sworn his eyes clouded over as he took the broom and disappeared out front.
She went back to the kitchen to collect the couple’s order but managed to smile as she passed him. His eyes were riveted as she chatted with the couple, ensuring they had everything they needed.
Then she turned her attention to him once more. How he had craved her attention that night. How he had savored those memories for the past seven years, replaying each and every one of them over and over again in his darkest moments. He was determined to catalog each movement, each word, and add these too to his precious cache.
She poured more coffee into his cup and brought the pie, steaming hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Jon need not have worried about deflecting the conversation that he was sure to follow as a tiny whirlwind of energy and joy blew through the door, followed closely behind by the other waitress.
“Mama, mama,” the little girl squealed in delight as she propelled herself at the woman he loved.
Yes, somewhere in the darkness of the past seven years, Jon had come to accept that in a single night, he had fallen helplessly in love with a woman he would never have. Why else would those memories that sustained him? Her face that he had seen in that split second, which had determined life and death for a dozen men.
As his chest tightened even more, he told himself that he should be happy for her. As he said to her that night, she was white picket fences, a half dozen kids, a cat, and a dog. But the lump in his throat told him it was not that simple. His heart filled with jealousy at the lucky bastard who had given her what he never could.
“How was school, Hope?” She beamed at the child as she returned the embrace.
His mind drifted back to what it felt like to be wrapped in those arms, drawn close to her warmth.
“Bene, Mama. It was good. Can I have ice cream?”
Jon chuckled at the normality of it. As much as it pained him, this was what she deserved. Whatever had become of that other dream? Did it really matter? She obviously loved and adored this little person with sandy blond-brown hair and warm brown eyes like her mother’s.
Alicia looked at the clock on the wall, “I suppose one scoop won’t spoil your appetite for dinner. Do you have any homework?”
“Si, Mama. I have a story to read.”
The door opened, and the homeless man sheepishly entered, holding out the broom. “All done, Miss Alicia.”
“Steve!” the little girl squealed with almost equal delight as she had with her mother. As before, she ran and embraced the man, mindless of his dirty clothes.
It seemed that Alicia had named her daughter well. Hope definitely applied to this child, as much as it did her mother.
Alicia smiled as she brought two bowls of ice cream from the back and motioned for the man to take his seat again. “Hope has some homework, a story she needs to read. Do you have the time to help me out a bit more? Let her read it to you?”
The man nodded, “Anything for the two of you, Miss Alicia.”
She fussed a bit more as she got them settled at the end of the counter. Jon was glad that his hood allowed him to observe without being noticed. The years had been good to the woman. She looked almost the same as she had that night. Perhaps her breasts were a bit fuller, maybe from having children. He should definitely not imagine how they would overflow his hands now.
The young couple smiled as she approached their table. They declined the pie and settled the bill instead. She cleaned their table. Jon watched her every move. He stored all of them for later – when he was alone once more. Alone as he always had been. Except for that one precious night.
He half-listened as the child read the book to the homeless man. The duality of his emotions warred in his mind and heart, joy that she had the life she was meant to have and deep-seated jealousy of the faceless, nameless man who had given it to her.
The story ended, and Alicia hugged her daughter, praising her efforts, as she thanked the homeless man.
“I better be going, Miss Alicia.”
“Where are you staying tonight, Steve?”
“Oh, you know, wherever I can find.”
Jon watched as she reached into the pocket of her apron and drew out something, pressing it into the man’s dirty hand. “For all your help today.”
The man shook his head, “No, Ma’am, you do enough for me as it is. Always feeding me.” Tears streaked down his unwashed cheeks, “Heck, treating me like a human being. Letting me spend time with your little girl like I was normal.”
“You are a human being, Steve. A hero. And the food, well, that’s just our way of showing our gratitude for all you did, jarhead.”
Jon could not breathe. It was a familiar feeling. Sometimes he woke in the night, the scar tissue around his larynx tightening to the point he could not get air past it. But this was not that. Those words, so similar to the ones she had first spoken to him that night.
He looked at the man in a new light. A brother. A Marine. Like too many of their kind, adrift and lost. Unable to adjust to civilian life, come to terms with the things they had seen and done over there. She saw that. She and her daughter.
Jon’s eyes burned. Once upon a time, the tears would have gathered in them. Now he relied upon eye drops to avoid further damage to them. Not that it would have mattered; the hoodie would have covered any tears as it did the scars that had changed him.
“Does it hurt?” The tiny soft fingers brushed his cheek.
Jon thought of how her mother had caressed his cheek all those long years ago. How had he not noticed that the child had moved behind the counter? She was standing practically in front of him, staring at his scarred visage.
He had been so lost in her that his usual alertness was muted. Good thing his life and the lives of his men no longer depended upon his senses. Not that they had done him or them any good in the end.
How did he answer her question? You did not tell a child – every minute of every day for five years. Some truths you hid. Instead, he did his best to smile, an action that on the rare occasions he attempted caused a slicing pain to shot to his brain.
It was not just the pain, though. He knew that what passed for a smile now was more frightening than one of those B-grade horror movies. But this child did not run screaming as others had.
“Some times,” was the half-truth he settled upon.
Jon heard the tinkling of the bell. Noticed that Alicia had let the man out. She, too, saw belatedly that her daughter was conversing with a stranger. She came to stand behind the little girl, her hands on the tiny shoulders. “Hope, you know better than to bother customers.”
Turning to him, “I’m sorr-…”
The words died on her lips as for the first time she looked at him. Really saw him. What he had become. Jon felt his heart stop. His worst nightmare was fulfilled. He saw the fear in the eyes of the woman he loved.
The words froze on her lips. Alicia’s heart stopped. Her worst nightmare or perhaps fondest wish was fulfilled as she stared into those blue eyes that she could never, would never forget.
His scars barely registered. Her mind was on a far different track than the injury that must have caused such damage to her once handsome lover.
No, her thoughts were centered on the tiny scrap of humanity that stared up at her. Her daughter. Their daughter. How did you introduce a child to her father? How did you tell a man he had a daughter? After seven years? What did a mother do?
How many nights had she lain awake, especially in those long months of her pregnancy, after her grandmother’s death, when she had felt so all alone in this world, overwhelmed. How many nights then had she dreamt of this moment? But whatever words that younger self had said in those dreams fled her now?
Fear gripped her. The fear that only a mother can know. The fear of losing her child.
Oh, she knew it was not that simple. She would not actually lose her daughter. The man would never go so far as to demand full custody of the child she had never told him about. Would he? Would he even recognize paternity? After all, they had been so careful that night to use protection.
Heck, even she had not realized she was pregnant until well into her second trimester when her tummy began to bulge. She had dismissed the tiredness, loss of appetite, and occasional nausea as nothing more than stress and grief following the loss of her Abuelita. She had been both shocked and overjoyed when that little stick turned blue.
The child had been such a blessing. When she felt at her lowest, utterly lost and alone, with no family other than the mother that had swooped in following her grandmother’s death, suggesting that Alicia sell the diner and move in with her family.
But Alicia had known. It was not some re-ignited sense of motherhood that drove the woman, but the money — the chance to profit from her daughter’s loss. Even then, Alicia had been tempted. She could transfer her studies to UCLA, live with her mother, and make a fresh start.
That little stick had changed it all. Given her life purpose. It was as if her Abuelita and perfect lover had conspired to keep her safe. She had told her mother of her pregnancy, watched the look of shocked worry on the woman’s face. She was unsure which of them was more relieved when she announced that she would keep the diner and stay here.
She had quit university. Between the diner and pregnancy, she did not have enough energy for anything more. Crawling into bed, the bed they had shared that night, exhausted, hugging her growing baby as she fell asleep.
But that was the past. And her present was held in those blue depths and the little girl in her trembling hands. Her future uncertain.
Alicia forced a reassuring smile, “It’s okay, sweetie. I’m sure he understands. Why don’t you go home with Alison? See if DeShawn has levelled up yet? I’ll be home in time to tuck you in as always.”
Her daughter nodded as she turned back to her father, “I hope you feel better soon.”
Alicia barely contained her tears as she nodded towards her friend and employee, who followed her orders despite the questions and concern in her eyes. Alison quickly bundled her daughter out the door to the house down the street. It had been her grandmother’s, but like this place was hers now. Alicia said a silent prayer to the woman.
Then she turned back to the man at the counter. What she would give for just a few moments of her Abuelita’s practical wisdom right now. It all came down to – what now?
Did he recognize her? Did he suspect that Hope was his child? What do you say to the perfect lover who returns after so long? Obviously, his life had changed as much as hers. What was the right thing to say or do now?
Alicia closed her eyes and prayed for wisdom as she picked up the towel and began to wipe down the counter where Hope and Steve had left their bowls. She snuck glances at him as he pushed the pie around his plate and took the occasional sip of coffee.
The scars marred the handsome face that she had studied as he slept that night. She supposed they would frighten or disgust some people, make most others uncomfortable. But that was not what upset her.
It was what she should do now that continued to plague her as the man pushed the plate away. The man? The father of her child. The perfect lover. The only man she had been with in close to a decade. And he was still – the man.
Would he forever be nothing more? He looked up and asked, “What do I owe you?”
Before she could stop them, the words burst from her lips, “It’s on the house. My way of showing gratitude for all you did.”