"Customers at one of your stations, Maggie."
Maggie O'Reilly lifted her attention from her essay to watch four girls in low-rise jeans and pink GAP shirts seat themselves at one of her tables. So much for squeezing in any homework this morning, she thought, and tossed her pencil to the countertop. "Why," she asked, "do all the college girls sit at my tables?"
Jackie Burkowski, the diner's other day waitress, turned from the coffee station with carafe in hand. "Maybe they can tell you're one of them."
Maggie found that doubtful. Last time she'd been 'one of them' was ten years ago, during her initial directionless and uncommitted attempt at college. Ten years of bad retail jobs and waiting tables had much improved her academic focus. You live, you learn, she thought. She'd just taken longer to do it.
"Wolves are like that, y'know," Jackie said.
"You know this because of your many years of living in Long Island?"
"I saw it on TV. You know. One of those animal shows. The guy said wolves hang out in packs. Tryin to figure out who's the head wolf."
"So you're saying I'm the head wolf?"
"I'm saying they think so. Must be the mom thing."
Maggie watched the group of young girls at Table Eight primp and chat and pull out their cell phones and show not one sign that they were ever going to be ready to order. "Is that an age crack? Because you're almost as old as I am-"
"I didn't mean an old gray dumpy mom who sits around all day eating potato chips. I meant a young not even thirty years old mom- a hot blonde mom, mind you- who waits tables days and studies nursing nights to help provide for her family."
Maggie decided to allow the young woman this bit of backpedaling. "That's better."
"A tribute to her pink polyester uniform," Jackie continued. "An inspiration to women all over the Lower East Side-"
"Some days more than others." Maggie said, and gave a long yawn, remembering well into the gesture that she should be covering her mouth. "Sorry."
"Oh, I am so very offended." Jackie poured a cup of coffee and held it out to Maggie. "I take it the baby is still teething?"
"Either that, or she just enjoys waking Ted and I up three times a night. I cannot wait until she gets all her baby teeth. I can't afford to sleep through my morning homework time again."
"You should have called out sick today. Enjoyed a day at home. Watched some soaps."
"You and your soaps." Maggie stowed her books beneath the counter, trying not to think about how much she would love a day off. Unfortunately such a thing was beyond her reach right now. Money was just too tight. Her waitress job and Ted's construction work barely covered their bills. Her night nursing classes were covered by loans, but the books and the other expenses weren't. God bless my mother-in-law's free babysitting, she thought. Without it she and Ted would never make it through this financial pinch.
"Hey, is this the week that the hubby is gone?" Jackie asked.
"All week in Jersey at the construction site." Which was another reason Jackie's idea wasn't very appealing. Though she loved being with Erin, if she was home all day alone with her, she would probably spend her time worrying about Ted, up there on some half-built skyscraper of his, walking the steel girders.
"Well then," Jackie said into her thoughts, "we should have a girls' night. DVDs and wine and-"
"Formula and diapers." Maggie smiled at Jackie's exaggerated sigh. "Maybe in a few months we can start that up again. When I can be sure of more than four hours of sleep."
"You sure?" Jackie asked, as she picked up several plates of food from the kitchen order counter. "A little wine might help the kidlet get some sleep."
Maggie swatted Jackie's arm with her order pad as the younger woman walked by. "Go tend to your customers, you delinquent," she said, and after another gulp of coffee, followed her into the sea of tables.
Two hours later the diner's patrons had dwindled to one lone table of a few older ladies. Grateful for the break, Maggie resumed work on her essay. Three sentences into her first paragraph she heard the chime of the front entrance bell.
"Here comes another one," said Jackie. She was perched on the stool next to Maggie, watching an episode of General Hospital on the diner's TV.
"Let me guess. Another Coffee-And-A-Bagel, right?"
"A big tipper for sure," Jackie said, managing with her Long Island accent to put three syllables in the last word. "And he's headin for Table Twelve."
Maggie glanced up at the retreating back of the brown-haired young man who had entered the diner. Sure enough, he sat at the corner table, the one preferred by all poor college students seeking several hours of study time over a single cup of coffee.
"Yowza." Jackie gave a suggestive whistle and elbowed Maggie, jostling her writing hand. "Wouldja look at this new doctor on General?"
"I guess that means you can't do me a favor and take Table Twelve's order for me?"
"Do you see this new doctor? Major hottie."
Maggie erased the word "hottie" from the sentence she'd been writing. "Come on, Jackie, please? I'll give you my next break-"
"Not for all the eligible bachelors on the Island, Ro."
"How do you know that Table Twelve isn't an eligible bachelor?"
"You see that overstuffed backpack? I like beefcake, not brains. This one's yours."
After stowing her schoolwork under the counter, Maggie walked through the maze of empty tables to where the young man sat digging through his backpack. "Good morning," she said, and flipped over a new page in her tablet, in the vain hope that he was going to order enough worth writing down. "What can I get you?"
"I'll be right with you."
Maggie watched him shove two thick science books and a binder onto the table before locating his wallet at the bottom of his bag. When he opened it, she glanced at its contents. A library card, a driver's license, a student ID, a photo of a pretty redhead, and three well mangled dollar bills. Oh yes, she thought. A big tipper for sure. "Should I come back in a few minutes?"
"I don't suppose there's a breakfast special for less than three dollars, is there?"
As he spoke, he looked up. When she saw his face, shock stole her breath from her.
Sandy brown hair and wide blue eyes and a baby face, good God, she'd forgotten about his baby face, how had she forgotten about that-
"Is something wrong?"
Maggie couldn't answer his question. Her thoughts were tangled in memories.
Erin fussing in her arms and warm bodies pressing in on her as she stood staring down at the exposed face of the man on the train floor, his red and blue costume tattered and filthy, his body almost broken from the strain of stopping five train cars full of human beings from crashing five stories to the ground.
"Are you all right?" he asked, in a voice far softer than she'd ever imagined.
On shaking legs she staggered backward, somehow forcing out words. "Don't- don't go. I'll be- I'm coming back. I- Okay?"
Without awaiting his response she fled into the ladies' room, closing the door hard behind her, falling back against it.
"Oh my God," she breathed. "Spider-Man!"
Breathless and giddy, Maggie eased open the door and peeked back into the restaurant.
It had been four months since that day on the train. Four months since he'd saved her and her daughter's life. Often since then she'd often imagined what she would do if she met the young hero again. Not one of those times had she pictured herself in a ladies' room, spying on him like some thirteen year old girl with a crush.
He doesn't remember me, she realized, and for a moment felt a profound sense of disappointment. But then her rational mind kicked in. Of course he doesn't remember me. How many people has he saved in this city? He couldn't possibly remember us all.
Maggie watched him reach into his backpack and pull out another large book. Papers fell out as he opened it, and he bent to retrieve them.
Spider-Man doing homework, she thought. No one will believe it.
But who could she tell anyway? She'd promised the young hero to keep his secrets, and she'd done so faithfully. Even her husband hadn't gotten the description of Spider-Man's appearance, though he did know what had happened that day.
But what about her friends from the train? Gus and Ellen and Gary and all the rest would give anything to see him again. But that would mean a crowd, and a crowd could mean trouble. And he didn't deserve that. Not after what he'd done for her.
Through the crack in the door, Maggie watched him glance around, then snag a leftover packet of crackers from a nearby table Jackie hadn't cleared yet. As he tore into them with the intensity of the half-starved, Maggie remembered the contents of his wallet.
And just like that, she knew what to do.
After patting her long blonde hair back into its bun and soothing nonexistent wrinkles from her waitress uniform, Maggie stepped out of the bathroom.
As she approached the actually rather unremarkable young man, she felt a swell of doubt. Was he really who she'd thought he was? Spider-Man had been a giant of a man, someone she could easily imagine at the front of her train, gripping hundreds of webs with power enough to crush the train car into the shape of his body.
This young man looked barely able to carry his overstuffed backpack. With his Oxford shirt and jeans and neatly combed hair, he could have been the poster boy for a 1950s science scholarship. Not someone you imagined facing armed criminals.
Half convinced she'd imagined the whole thing, Maggie stepped up to his table. After a moment he noticed her, and lifted his attention from an open book of equations and cracker crumbs to look up at her.
All doubt vanished when Maggie looked down into his blue eyes and round face. It was him, all right. It was Spider-Man, right here at her table, waiting to order breakfast from her.
She just couldn't get over how normal he looked. She found it impossible to imagine him in his red-and-blues, crawling on the outside of her train car, trading blows with that maniac with the metal arms.
She realized she'd been staring quite a while without speaking. "I had to- I mean- there was- a problem."
"Is everything all right now?"
She felt her cheeks grow warm. She was blushing. Damn she hated blushing. "I'm fine- It's fine." She glared down at her order pad. "So. Um. Let me tell you about the specials. This week we're offering an off-hours deal. All you can eat breakfast. Just a dollar fifty."
"A dollar fifty?" he asked, his voice rising in pitch enough that Maggie wondered how long ago he'd graduated high school. "Seriously? All you can eat?"
She pointed to the breakfast platters on the left side of his menu. Not one of them was less than fifteen dollars. "Anything on there that you'd like."
"Well… In that case… I'll have the Supreme Platter."
"That comes with a muffin, juice, and coffee."
"How do you make any money giving away so much food?"
"It's slow this time of day. We need to bring in as many customers as we can. It's a new thing. By offer only to college students who look particularly hungry."
"Well you sure found one."
Relieved that she'd survived this first interaction, Maggie put in his order and returned to her seat. In the corner of the diner, the city's most famous hero sat alone, bent over his books, doing his homework.
"So what did he order?" Jackie asked.
"Huh? Oh. A Supreme."
Jackie gave him a brief inspection. "With that old nappy jacket he's ordering a Supreme? He should save his money and buy a decent coat instead."
"Yeah," Maggie said, half to herself. "A nice coat. That's a good idea."
Fifteen minutes later, Maggie delivered a tray full of plates to the corner table. Her hands no longer shook but her stomach held a swarm of angry butterflies. "Here you go, Sport."
He pushed his books and papers to the far side of the table as she set plate after plate in front of him. "Gosh, that looks great."
The man who can stop a train says gosh, she thought. Who even said gosh anymore?
Over the next half hour she returned to his table twice for refills. Only when she showed up a third time with an unsolicited plate of pancakes did he lean back from the table, amazed that she was foisting even more food on him. "No more, please. I already won't be able to eat anything until tomorrow."
"The special runs all this week," she said quickly. "So you can come back then."
"I think I just might."
She dug her fingernails into her palms to suppress a smile. "Here's your check for today. When you're done, bring it up front. I'll ring you up."
After only a short while he gathered his things and rose from his table. From behind the cash register, Maggie watched him shrug on his old jacket (he was her husband's size, she was sure of it), pick up his backpack (was his costume in there? Or did he wear it under his clothes like Superman?) and approach her at the counter.
She took his dollar fifty wishing she could return even this small amount. He shouldn't have to pay for anything in this city, ever, as far as she was concerned.
After wishing her a good day, he joined the crowds outside. Maggie watched him walk down the sidewalk, amazed that someone so powerful could move so unnoticed among the unsuspecting public, a nuclear reactor amid millions of tiny sparklers.
A motion at Maggie's side announced Jackie's arrival. "Someone have a crush?"
"I do not have a crush," Maggie informed her.
"Oh, come on. You were fawning over that guy the whole time he was here. You can admit it. He is kinda cute, in a nerdy sort of way."
"He is not nerdy," Maggie said, though all the advanced science books she'd seen probably made a liar out of her. "And I do not have a crush. He's- family- of mine. A nephew. On Ted's side of the family. He just doesn't remember me. It's a long story," she added, and before Jackie could pry any further, she went to clear his table.