This was started in early November... that's just embarrassing. ScullyAsTrinity is a betastic lifesaver. It's a word.
I didn't have some lifelong dream to be a waitress. And even if I had, it would've been at one of those swanky-ass places you see in movies, where the waitresses are called servers and they wear smart-looking cocktail outfits. Someplace out in New York City or Los Angeles.
Someplace other than Toto's Diner in Hope, Kansas.
But you end up where you end up, that's what I always say. I've lived in Hope since I was nine, back when I was Cristina Diaz. Now I'm Cristina O'Sullivan, a forty-two year old waitress with a lazy-ass Irish husband who I love to pieces.
But this story isn't about me.
"I'll have steak and eggs with coffee and a side of hashbrowns."
This guy doesn't need any of that stuff. He needs granola and fruit and a treadmill. But I write down the order and give him a smile before wandering back to the kitchen.
"Steak, eggs, an' browns!" I bellow before grabbing a pot of coffee and returning to the fellow's booth.
"Thanks," he murmurs, watching the level of coffee rise.
"Say when," I tell him, even though people always stop me at the same exact level. Gives them a sense of control, I guess.
"When." He's already shaking the sugar packets with one hand, reaching for a couple of creamers with the other.
"Your food should be ready soon." We're right off Route 4, and that means a lot of truckers and a lot of steak and eggs. The kitchen just keeps making them, and the customers just keep wolfing them down.
I make my way back into the kitchen. Marina's waiting there, her arms folded. Her smirk of anticipation makes me want to stump her this time.
"Lay it on me."
"Okay..." I purse my lips. "Big rig trucker with three illegitimate kids in various parts of the Bible Belt. Two months away from a massive heart attack."
"Eena, order up!"
That's Mac, the cook. He claims he can't tell the difference between me and Marina, so he just calls both of us Eena. He's kind of a jackass, if you couldn't tell. Likes to say all Hispanics look alike, when in fact Marina and I are polar opposites. I'm short and squat and dark-skinned, and she's... well, yeah, like I said, the opposite.
Marina's grandfather on her dad's side was a Mexican immigrant, but you'd never know it. All she really got from him was a Spanish-sounding name. She doesn't look like she's got an ounce of Latin in her (the Guatemalan dishwashers say they'd like to put some Latin in her) and she doesn't know more than a handful of Spanish words. I was bored one day and decided to give her lessons. She's pretty good at picking stuff up – enough so that now the dishwashers have to be more careful when they talk about her.
"Eena, shake a leg!"
Marina rolls her eyes, grabbing the plate and heading through the swinging doors. I crack the door and peek out.
We came up with the system accidentally, back when she'd just started here. She was having trouble remembering the table numbers (in her defense, there's no rhyme or reason to the numbering) and so I started just describing the customers to her. Then it became a game, where I'd create a character out of them, and she had to figure out who I meant.
Thing is, though, I'm pretty good at my descriptions. And Marina's so good at guessing, it's scary.
She sets the plate down in front of our guy and heads back, shaking her head at me and laughing. Comes through the doors and says, "Month and a half away from that heart attack. You're slipping, Tina."
We tease each other for a while, until Mr. Toto shows up. Then it's back to business.
I'd never have stayed in this job for so long if it weren't for Mr. Toto. He's this tall, thin guy with a pointy nose and – ha, look at that, I'm profiling him just like I profile the diners. Anyway, Mr. Toto was one of the first people in my life to give me a chance. Hired me when I was sixteen, helped me fill out all my working papers, even let me study geometry in the back room when business was light.
Mac's a jerk, and the dishwashers are letches, but my boss has a heart of gold. Every year he'll hire some abused girl who's on the run (Marina's the latest) and pay her under the table until she gets back on her feet. He lets us eat all we want for free, and gives us paid vacation time, and cooks Christmas dinner for us every year.
So when the boss comes in, we all work extra hard.
But this story isn't about him, either.
The man comes in the front door around four. We have a couple customers at that point, but they're just chewing the fat over a shared slice of pie, so the new guy catches my interest. He's older than me. Gray hair, beard, glasses. Really thin, like Mr. Toto, but you can tell he hasn't always been. He lost some weight recently.
"Hey there," I say to him, with that wide smile I reserve for potentially big tippers. "What can I get for you?"
"Um..." He blinks at me blearily. "I'm not sure."
"Take your time," I say, and he stares back down at his laminated menu.
"I guess I'll have the fruit salad."
My mind races as I mentally inventory the refrigerator in the kitchen. Any fruit in there has to have spoiled weeks ago. We put fruit salad on the menu so we look like we offer responsible choices, but nobody ever orders it.
"I'm so sorry, but we're fresh out of fruit salad," I tell him. "For some reason, it was really popular today."
"Oh, okay." He glances back down. "Then I'll have the oatmeal, please."
I swallow the urge to tell him he should order steak and eggs. This guy could use some meat on his bones. "Coming right up. Coffee?"
I head back into the kitchen, hollering at Mac to make some oatmeal before I turn to Marina.
"What are you doing after work? You want to catch a movie or something?"
"Maybe." She's slow to open up to people, even after all these months. Must be the abuse thing. She didn't even have to tell me when I met her – it hangs off of her like hand-me-down clothing. Plus every time a fight breaks out in the diner, she gets all pale and shaky.
My husband can be a bum sometime, but I look at these poor girls who come through here, and suddenly my bum's looking pretty damn good.
Mr. Toto chimes in with some good movies that he's seen, and the three of us chat for a while. Then Mac yells that the oatmeal order is up.
"Who've I got?" Marina asks. She looks tired, and I almost just tell her it's the guy with the gray beard. But she'd be insulted, probably.
"Um..." I squint, thinking. "College professor whose pretty wife ran off with a younger guy. So now he's drowning his sorrows in lumpy oatmeal."
She laughs softly. "What does the guy teach?"
"Something really dull. Like, plant-ology."
"Botany," she corrects me, grabbing the oatmeal.
I don't bother peeking around the door to see if she gets the guy right. The only other two customers are still chowing down on pie, and that doesn't go well with oatmeal. I turn back to Mr. Toto, and when he starts talking, I almost miss the sound of shattering china coming from inside the diner.
There's only a few cars in the lot when I get to work. Back when I opened the diner, that sort of thing used to make me nervous. Then I realized that if there are four or five customers in the place at all hours of the day, well, it works out okay.
"Hello, Mr. Toto," the girls chime as I walk in.
"Hello, girls," I reply as I take off my jacket. "How's everything going?"
"Good, good." They scurry off to organize the stacks of coffee mugs and cereal bowls.
Mac waves to me, and I head over to the stove, making sure to ask about his grandsons. Two tall boys – taller than me, even – with scholarships to Big Ten schools in their future. Nothing puts a smile on Mac's face like talking about his grandkids. In fact, it's pretty much the only thing that puts a smile on his face. Not the friendliest sort, but he's a good cook and a hard worker, and we're all pretty used to one another around here.
Everyone except the new girl.
She gives me a shy smile as Cristina disappears into the diner to take an order.
"How's your apartment?" I ask. "All settled in yet?"
I could ask more, but I don't. These girls come through here every year or so, their psyches as bruised as their skin. They work hard and save up money until they can move on, or until their men find out where they're hiding. Marina showed up five months ago with lily white skin and the most haunted eyes I'd ever seen. Reminded me of my mom, back when... well, that's another story for another time.
This isn't about me, you know.
Cristina comes back in and leans against the cooler, chatting with Marina for a minute before turning to me. "So how was your morning, Mr. Toto?"
"Just fine, Mrs. O'Sullivan."
She laughs. "You do know you're the only one who calls me that."
I shrug, winking at Marina. "As long as you girls call me Mr. Toto, I'm going to respond with the same formality." Truth is, with the abused girls that roll through here, I've got to be sure not to make things too casual. They're slow to trust men as it is.
Cristina shakes her head and starts talking about movies. We keep talking even after Marina leaves to bring food out to a customer, and the only thing that breaks our conversation is the sound of a dish shattering.
"Butterfingers," Cristina says, glancing at the door with a warm expression. "I'll help her clean it up."
She heads into the diner, and I start flipping through a newspaper. I freeze, though, when I hear her yell.
"Mr. Toto, red light!"
That's the signal, and I can feel my heart sink in disappointment. Marina was fitting in nicely. I'm going to miss her.
Mac's already heading into the diner, and the dishwashers are close behind. I bring up the rear as we come out of the kitchen.
The man isn't the usual, that's for sure. No bulging muscles, no tattoos, no stink of cheap liquor. He's just sitting quietly in his booth, looking like a skinny version of Santa Claus. I'd never know anything was wrong if not for the oatmeal on the floor and the tears streaming down Marina's face.
Cristina's got a meat cleaver in her hand. Hopefully she won't have to use it this time. "Get out of here," she says sharply, glaring at the man. "Go on, get going."
He doesn't move, but then I'm not sure he heard her. He's just staring at Marina. "Sara?"
So that's her real name. They always use aliases, these girls. I should've known.
Julio starts yelling at the man. I don't know much Spanish, but I get the gist. So does the man. He gets to his feet slowly, and Cristina darts forward with a nervous squeak.
"Marina, you okay?"
She nods, and I can see that she's trembling. "I'm fine, Tina, don't worry."
"Marina." The man has a sour look on his face, like he just tasted a mouthful of burnt bacon. "That's just great."
Now, I've been doing this kind of work long enough — people watching, that is — to become something of an expert. I'm not saying I haven't been fooled before, but standing here, watching this stranger and Marina stare at one another, I know, without a doubt, that this situation is different. This man wouldn't hurt her if his life depended on it.
"How did you find me?" Marina – I mean, Sara – chokes. The man just shakes his head.
"It wasn't easy, but I guess that's because you didn't want to be found after all."
"Damn straight she didn't," Cristina's still trying to look as menacing as possible, but even she's wavering now. She can tell, just like me, that nothing bad's going to happen here.
My gaze slips down to the man's hand. He's flicking his fingers nervously, and I catch the glint of a wedding band.
So that's it.
Marina's never struck me as the mistress sort, but then maybe she didn't know about the wife. I squint at the man, pondering. Maybe Marina – Sara, Sara – found out he was married, and that's why she left.
The man's resolve finally breaks. His face kind of crumples and he looks away. He might be crying.
"Gil–" Sara takes one more step, moves as if to put her arms out to him, but it's too late. Whatever this guy's been bottling up inside himself for however long comes spilling out. He grabs his coat, turns and leaves.
We all just stand there for a minute, watching Sara. Cristina looks at me, then shrugs a little. What should I do? she mouths, but I sure don't know.
"Oh god... what have I done?" Sara's voice is a low, desperate moan, and when she breaks into a run and chases Gil out into the parking lot, none of us attempts to follow.
This isn't about us, after all.
I could claim I knew today would be the day, but the truth is, I didn't.
It starts out like every other day. I take a shower, brush my teeth, and head to work. Serve up breakfast food at all hours and chat with Cristina. Everything is the same.
And then, well, it isn't.
I'm halfway into the diner when I see him. He's skinny – too skinny, that blue polo shirt I bought is hanging on him now – and he's regrown the beard. He doesn't see me at first, and for an instant I wonder if I can run back into the kitchen without him noticing. But my nerves betray me, and suddenly the oatmeal bowl is on the floor and he's looking straight at me.
It's like time stands still as we gaze at each other. There's something warm on my shoes (oatmeal) and my cheeks (tears). His hair is grayer and his eyes are sadder, and at the moment I can't remember why I ever left.
But then Cristina comes out swinging the meat cleaver, and before I can catch my breath he's gone. And I do the only thing I can think to do.
He's halfway across the parking lot already. He doesn't turn around.
"Gil, please, just... wait!"
"I've been waiting," he snaps, fumbling in his pocket for his keys. "I've been waiting for seven months, Sara, and for what?" He throws a dark glance in my direction. "So you can go work in some crappy diner in the middle of Kansas?"
"I don't–" My voice trails off.
He unlocks his car door, only to slam it shut. "You've made a fool out of me."
"You have." He looks at me again, and the pain in his eyes takes my breath away. "I supported you when you left. I made excuses to your friends and I... and I kept my phone with me at all times, in case you'd call. And then, after a couple of months–"
I can't help the sob that escapes my throat.
"After a couple of months, you're just... gone. Your mom doesn't know where you went, and suddenly I'm getting a postcard a month from these random places across the Midwest, and all of them say–" He breaks off, unable to continue.
"Back when you left, you said you needed to bury your ghosts," he says sadly. "And here you are, in the middle of nowhere, living a new life with a new name. The only person you buried was Sara Sidle."
There's a new wrinkle on his right temple. I stare at it, wondering when it started showing, and whether I would have missed it if I'd been there.
"It wasn't working," I tell him finally. "I spent weeks talking to my mom, and my brother, and my old neighbors, and a psychiatrist, and it still wasn't working. Everything was just as bad as it was in Vegas. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't shake my demons. So I left."
Gil shakes his head ruefully. "I didn't figure into the decision at all, did I?"
"You figured in more than anyone. I wanted more for you than to be saddled down with some emotionally unstable–"
"What about what I wanted?"
"Without me around, you'd have the chance to move on, to find someone who could–"
"Let me just make one thing very clear," he says in a low tone. "Without you around, I work. I work, and when I'm done working, I work some more. I don't sleep, because the bed's too cold now. I don't eat, because food doesn't taste right. I neglect my housework and my dog, and according to Catherine I've got an attitude that makes me thoroughly unpleasant to be around. So if you think you left me better off, think again."
My body overrides my common sense, and I reach my hand out to touch him. Before he can move away, though, I hear the door of the diner open, and Mr. Toto calling out, "Excuse me!"
"Great," Gil mutters, watching Mr. Toto stride toward us. "This your new boyfriend?"
"Stop," I whisper quickly.
"Your tastes just keep getting older and older, don't they?" he scowls.
Mr. Toto reaches us, and I notice he's holding out my purse. "Didn't want you to forget this, if you're leaving."
"Oh... thanks." I give him a tight smile.
"Are you, um–"
"Okay." He glances at Grissom and then back to me. "Okay. Well... good luck, then."
Mr. Toto ambles back toward the diner, spinning around when he gets to the door. "Oh, and Miss del Rey?"
"Be sure to send us a postcard." He waves, disappearing through the door.
I grit my teeth, waiting for a smart comment from Gil about postcards, but when I look up he's got a funny look on his face.
"You chose the name Marina del Rey?" he asks after a moment.
"It's the town where you grew up."
"Well, I know, but–"
"It reminded me of you."
This makes his eyes soften, and I remember the way he used to look on Sunday mornings, lids half-closed, peeking at me from under his lashes. "I thought you wanted to forget me."
I can feel tears prickling at the back of my eyes. "You're the last thing I'd ever want to forget."
"Then why disappear like that?"
"I wanted you to–"
"Move on, yes. The problem is, Sara, postcards are one-way. What if I'd moved away? What if I'd been killed on the job? You'd just keep sending your monthly postcards and never know it."
This time, he lets me reach out to clasp his hand. The warm slide of his fingers through mine sends a familiar tingle down my spine, and when I notice he's wearing the wedding band we picked out together, I have to swallow hard to keep from crying. "Come back to my apartment, and you'll understand."
She's quiet on the drive.
I keep both palms on the steering wheel – I don't trust my hand not to wander over to her otherwise. She's right beside me. Not a foot away. She smells like Sara, and hums under her breath like Sara, and only my wounded pride is keeping me from pulling to the side of the road and kissing every last millimeter of her mouth.
At every red traffic light, I keep my eyes pointed straight ahead. My peripheral vision betrays me, though, sweeping over her form desperately.
Hey, I never said I didn't miss her.
"How's Hank?" she asks quietly.
"He's fine." He's not fine, actually. He's gained nearly ten pounds since she's been gone, and he keeps peeing in the spare room. But now's not the time to get into all that.
"And the team?"
"They're fine too."
Her hair is longer. It's pulled back in a ponytail. "Turn left here," she says with a faint sigh.
Not surprising that she doesn't have a car. It's how I found her, after all. The postcards were all sent from towns that had major bus lines. I just plotted the points on a map and followed the routes to an epicenter: Salina, Kansas. From there I checked neighboring towns, and when I saw there was one called Hope, I just knew. Didn't know she was working at a diner, though. I'd just stopped for something to eat and, well... there she was.
Marina del Rey.
I shake my head, driving down a quiet street until she tells me to stop.
Sara's been living in a small studio apartment over someone's garage. She climbs the outside stairs slowly, unlocks the door, and waves me inside. The place is small and pretty sparsely decorated. A bed, a folding table, a small kitchen area. Nothing on the walls except for a big bulletin board over by the bed–
I squint at it, and Sara nods.
"Take a look," she says, stepping back.
The bulletin board is covered with newspaper clippings, I can tell. The closer I get, the more my heart clenches. She's got every newspaper photo of me from the past seven months. Along with every single article that's mentioned me. I look over them slowly, noticing where she's underlined my name. Noticing how the photos are pinned on top of all the other items, so as not to cover my face. She must have gotten subscriptions to every Vegas newspaper.
"That's how I knew how you were," she says, coming up beside me. "Like in this one, you look pretty stressed, but in this one a week later you look okay. And then in this one over here, you're smiling at something Nick said. That one's my favorite."
I turn to look at her, and she meets my gaze hesitantly.
"Stalker," I whisper.
Her eyes fill with tears. "Gil–"
Whatever she was going to say is swallowed up as I pull her into a tight hug. She's here, Sara's here, and the feel of her in my arms, clutching me as tightly as I'm clutching her, is like nothing I've ever experienced. I'd thought it would take away the pain, but if anything it's made it grow. Because there's no way I can let her leave me again.
She's kissing my neck frantically, her fingernails digging into my shoulders, and I'd tell her to calm down, but I'm kissing her hair just as desperately.
"I'm sorry," she murmurs again and again. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
I don't remember forgiving her, at least not out loud. I don't even remember us taking our clothes off. But the first time her bare skin touches mine, the first time I feel myself slide inside her, the first time she gasps my name, I know I'll remember this for the rest of my life.
She keeps trying to talk, to get something across to me. But I can't stop kissing her. It's funny, for the past seven months I've held onto our last kiss at the lab as a lifeline, but now I'm trying to rid that desperate taste from my mouth. Each time our lips touch, it's another promise, and nothing Sara could say could speak as loudly.
Eventually we wear ourselves out, and lay together on her little bed. She keeps stroking my arm, my chest, my face. She tells me I'm too thin. "We'll take walks," she says, "and I'll make you those pita grilled cheese sandwiches that you love so much."
I just listen and nod, smile and nod again. Every time she refers to the future, I relax a little more. When I fall asleep, though, I can't help but wrap my arm tightly around her.
My first day on the job, and I've already cried twice.
Not a good sign.
"It'll get better," Cristina says. "I promise."
She's been a lifesaver all day, teaching me the bizarre table number system, cleaning up my messes, and helping me learn the diner lingo.
The cook yells, "Eena, order up!"
"That's you," Cristina tells me.
"I thought you were Eena."
"We're both Eena."
I blink at her. "But my name doesn't have that sound in it."
"I'm telling you, he means you."
Sure enough, Mac's staring right at me, holding a plate up with a menacing look.
And now I'm close to crying a third time.
The boss – Mr. Toto – is a nice guy. He found me a place to live while I get back on my feet, and he says he won't put anything in writing. Maybe this time Chuck won't be able to find me.
Two truckers give me big tips during lunch, and I stick them in my jar in the back room. Already made thirty dollars in tips alone. If I eat all my meals at the diner, and make do with the clothes I have for a while, I might even be able to sign up for night classes. Cristina's been telling me about a GED program over at the high school.
"Eena, shake a leg!"
This time, I know it's me.
It's a long day, and by the time my shift is over, I can barely walk. I've got blisters on my toes and I burned my finger on a hot skillet. But I've got a pocket full of money, and it's all mine this time.
"You survived," Mr. Toto says with a big smile.
I shrug, embarrassed.
"Tomorrow will be easier," he tells me. "The first day seems to last forever."
This reminds me of Chuck for some reason, and I can feel my mood darkening. "Okay."
Mr. Toto cocks his head. "What's wrong?"
"It's..." I sigh, frustrated. "This is, like, my fifth time trying to start over. Maybe I'm just fooling myself."
He looks sad, and like he almost understands. Then he smiles suddenly. "I want to show you something."
Anyone else, and I mean anyone else, I'd be expecting something dirty to come out of that. But this guy is Mr. Rogers and the dad from Full House all rolled up in one, and I'm expecting a pet goldfish or something.
Instead, he leads me down the hall, back into his office, and shows me his bulletin board.
It's covered with postcards. There's one from Maine, and one from Barcelona, and Toronto, and Moscow, and Cape Canaveral, and Tokyo, and my eyes are starting to swim from reading them all.
"You went to all these places?"
"Not me," he says. "These are from Sara. She was... well, she was the Eena a few years back."
I draw in a breath of understanding. "And now she's..."
"Traveling the world with her husband. They give seminars at–"
"I don't even have a GED yet," I admonish him. But I can't stop looking at the postcards.
"All in good time," he says softly. "It's all about you now, Elise. There's a reason you chose to come to this town."
I pretend I don't know what he means, but on the way home I stop off at the drug store for an impulse buy, lightening my tip load by 1.05. That night, I lay on my little bed in my little apartment, and stare at the wall, where I've tacked a Hope postcard.
You have to start somewhere, I guess.