Not a Regular
K Hanna Korossy
At first glance, he looked like a thousand others who'd stopped in the diner over the years: tired, a little dusty, looking for a quick bite and a hot cup of coffee. The leather jacket, the swagger: I'd seen it all before.
Then he got closer and I took a look at his eyes.
"You all right, sweetie?" I asked him as I stepped over to the counter with a fresh pot. Because, no matter what, the boy was getting coffee.
"Yeah," he answered automatically, which pretty much meant none of my business. I could respect that. Didn't make his pain any easier to ignore, but it was his pain. "I need some coffee to go. And toast." He focused on me for the first time. "Do you have any juice?"
"Sure do, sweetie—apple and orange, take your pick."
Those pretty hazel eyes went distant for a moment, then he was back. "Apple. That's good."
I nodded. "And toast?" I asked. "Nothin' else?"
He shook his head tightly. His whole body, fine as it was, was wound tighter than a drum, but really…still. No nervous tics on this one.
He didn't say another word as he waited for his order, just studied the place: Dewey over in the corner booth, the rifle mounted over the front door, the back door behind Homer. He paid his bill just as silent, and I didn't ask about the cuts on his hand or the bandage I saw peeking out of his sleeve as he handed over the money. Nothing except, as he was leaving, "You gonna hit the road?"
He paused at the door, looked back at me, and that gaze was something fierce, all right. "We're staying in town for a few days," was all he said, and then he walked out.
It was the next day, about a half-hour before the lunch crowd—which meant Willy Painter, the sheriff, and Rube from the grocery—when he came in again.
I smiled at him, meaning it. He looked like he could use a friendly face. He was wearing the same clothes as the day before, minus the jacket, but rumpled like he'd slept in them. But those beautiful eyes weren't as shadowed, and he actually thawed a little. I could tell he'd be a real swooner if he ever all-out smiled.
"Coffee, juice, and toast?" I asked pleasantly.
He dropped down at the counter, and up close he looked even more tired than before, but definitely not as pinched. A puzzle, this one was. He glanced over the menu. "Uh, no—BLT, coffee, juice, and…" This smile was private, not for me. "Pancakes, please. Oh," he looked up, "you don't have any watermelon, do you?"
It wasn't the craziest request I'd gotten. "'Fraid not, sweetie. I could have Homer run down to the grocery, see if they do. But all we've got is honeydew."
He nodded, trying not to look disappointed. "Yeah, okay. That's fine."
He still wasn't a we, and I watched him out of the corner of my eye as I got his food ready. No ring on his finger, but he did look a mite…unbalanced. Like he was used to somebody sitting next to him. I'd seen enough folks to know the loners from the ones who had people, and this one was missing somebody.
I was putting his order in a bag when I asked offhandedly, "You travelin' alone?"
He took a second to shake his head, like he was measuring what he could tell me. "No, I'm…" He broke off, shook his head. "Never mind. Long story." The smile was pure honey, apology but not the least bit sorry. This boy just got more and more interesting.
He left me a nice tip and took off with his food, down the street toward Millie's, which made sense. Closest thing we have to a motel in town. I was tempted to call and ask her, but…no. I'm not that much of a busybody.
It was only then I realized he was limping a little bit.
I still didn't call.
I almost didn't recognize him when he showed up the next morning, because the boy was glowing.
Some burden had been lifted off those broad muscled shoulders—hey, honey, I'm not dead—and the difference was night and day. I was right about that smile, too. My heart actually fluttered when he turned it on me, and I'm old enough to be his mother.
"Well, don't you look happy this morning," I said, pouring him a cup.
"Had a good night," he said cheerfully, and it just made all kinds of difference for his face. Took about ten years, most of them hard, off him. "You're not looking too bad yourself this morning," he added and, oh, that charm. It should come with a warning label.
I rolled my eyes but I was grinning, and my face got a little warm. No woman's immune to being looked at like that, even if I knew we were just playing. I poured him a cup as he settled at the counter. At least he'd changed clothes, even if these were almost as wrinkled. Definitely not married. "Got some watermelon today," I said casually as I pulled a menu out and dropped it in front of him.
The ten-dollar smile faded just a little, and I was surprised to see the uncertainty sidle into its place. Hadn't anybody ever done this boy a kindness before? Seemed like the one thing he wasn't prepared for. He cleared his throat. "Really? Watermelon? Just happened to get some in, huh?"
I met his eyes frankly. "Something like that."
He nodded slowly, looked like he was debating something, opening his mouth a second before he started to speak. "My brother—he's laid up back in our room. Got a little banged up in an…accident." Twenty-some years experience listening to people and you notice things like that little hesitation before the last word. "Watermelon's one of his favorites," he finished, corner of his mouth twisting up in some kind of private joke before he looked at me again. At least his eyes were clearer, like he'd gotten some sleep. "Okay. So, watermelon and, uh, a couple of sandwiches. Grilled cheese," he added, looking over the menu.
I didn't react, but like I said, I've been doing this a long time. The only people old enough to drive who all order grilled cheese are the ones who can't afford more than the cheapest sandwich on the menu. I nodded, writing it down, asking idly as I did, "That your brother's favorite, too? Grilled cheese?"
"Naw, he's more of a tuna and chicken salad guy. Just…don't want to give him too much, too fast, right?" There was that grin again, and this time I saw right through it.
"Right." I nodded wisely, turned around to give Homer the order. "Coffee and juice?" I asked him when I came back.
I knew that look, too, that trying to figure out what he could afford. I had a feeling this one wouldn't be taking charity, though, so when he finally said, "Just juice," I was already talking as I set out two cups.
"Coffee's free while you wait."
That look he gave me…he knew. He'd obviously been around the block a few times himself, even if he looked too young for it. But his eyes didn't. And he didn't say anything, just let his mouth kinda twitch up again.
He cleaned out his wallet for the tip, I could tell. And I kinda wondered what he'd think when he found the two chicken salad sandwiches I'd accidentally ordered up for him instead of the grilled cheese.
Gossip travels fast in a town like ours. I'd already heard a newcomer had cleaned out that blowhard Jimmy Pritchard at pool, before the diner door even opened.
It was after dinner but we were still serving, and if earlier in the day was anything to go by, I knew he was hungry.
"Late dinner?" I asked agreeably, already getting him his coffee.
"Oh, yeah," he said, grinning back. "And I think I owe you something for lunch."
I shook my head, shrugging. "You paid for that already, sweetie, remember?"
I paused, honestly surprised. I couldn't remember the last time someone passing through had bothered to introduce themselves. I nodded. "Brenda."
He gave me an amused look, and I flushed up a bit when I realized why. Nametag. Oh well, so he got me a little worked up, no harm in that, right? I laughed, catching the twinkle in his eye, and asked, "So how's your brother doing, Dean?"
That one surprised him. It was no act when he said quietly, relieved, "Better."
I patted his hand, truly happy for him, and refilled the coffee. "So, what'll it be, sweetie?"
Boys and their growing appetites. Cheeseburger and fries, a milkshake, a side of slaw, pie. Watermelon and juice. And then he got kinda thoughtful. "Maybe a salad?"
It was like he was asking, so I didn't mind telling. "This for your brother?" He nodded. "How 'bout a ham and veggie omelet? Good for you without being too heavy. That salad's not gonna help build his strength back up much."
His smile was different this time. Finally the real deal, I realized, honest, softening his eyes. I gotta say, I liked it a lot more. "Omelet it is."
He left a twenty-dollar tip, and I had a feeling it was only partly to cover the sandwiches at lunch.
I didn't see Dean again until the next afternoon. He looked a lot better now, more rested, less lines in his face and darkness in his eyes. I liked this boy, even if he was the kind I knew you were supposed to watch out for.
"Brenda," he smiled at me, the real smile now.
"Dean," I said warmly. "Your brother doing all right?"
He accepted the coffee, took a sip. "Yeah, he is. Even got up and around some today."
"Glad to hear it," and I was. "What can I get you two, sweetie?"
It was chicken-fried steak this time and, with a small grimace, corned beef on rye. Wasn't hard to tell who'd asked for what.
"I'll have you know, Irish folk from all over the state come here for our corned beef," I scolded him.
"All three of them?" he asked, swallowing a smile.
He had a point. It is New Mexico, after all. But I made a face at him. "You're incorrigible, young man."
"Yeah, Sammy tells me that, too." And there went that distant look again, like he'd gone a thousand miles—or down the street at Millie's—for a second. I wondered suddenly if these two only had each other. And then he was looking at me like he'd never gone. "You got any more of that awesome blueberry pie?"
The hot food took Homer longer to fix, and it wasn't busy, so Dean and I chatted some until his order was ready. I told him my life story, which took about a minute. He told me he was on a road trip with his brother—Sam—picking up work occasionally on the way, which was how Sam had gotten hurt. He didn't really go into that part and I didn't ask; I'd seen how he picked his words sometimes, how his spine went kinda stiff whenever Tom came in in his sheriff's uniform. There was history there I wasn't going to hear, but I knew a bad person when I saw one and Dean didn't worry me. Except for the part where he talked about his dad and his brother but never mentioned his mother.
I wanted to tell him that if his mama was any kind of woman worth her salt, I think she'd have been proud of him. But I never did.
The last time he came in, he wasn't alone.
I hadn't seen the car before, and that black beauty suited him. So did the almost gangly, even younger man who climbed out of the passenger side. Or would have tried to climb out if Dean hadn't beaten him to it. He helped Sam—because this had to be Sam—up by one arm, then walked him inside, hovering like a heifer with a new calf, one arm out ready to catch if Sam fell.
It was true that Sam did walk like my grand-daddy in the last years of his life. He was bent over a little like he was protecting his middle, his left arm was bandaged to the fingertips, and bruises puffed up the left side of his face. I'm not surprised Dean was so worried about him those first few days.
But when he finally sank into the booth nearest the door, Dean making sure he was settled before moving to the opposite side, I saw a smile chase the lines of pain from that young face, first aimed at Dean, then including me. And that's when I saw Dean's little brother in there. Maybe this one warmed up more easily, but they both could melt when they did.
I came over with menus and coffee, and Dean managed to brighten a little more. "Brenda. I want you to meet Sammy."
Sammy managed to flush despite the bruises. "Actually, it's Sam," he said politely, lifting his good hand. "It's really nice to meet you." If their mama hadn't instilled manners in them, someone surely had.
I didn't shake hands, just held his, gave it a little squeeze. "You, too, sweetie. Your brother can't stop talkin' about you."
I knew it would embarrass Dean, but I figured he was the only one so far who hadn't turned red yet, and darned if he didn't. Sam's politeness broke into something a lot more delighted and young as he saw his brother's reaction, and this time the grin I got was full sunshine. Mm-hmm, I was right, this one gave his heart a lot easier.
Or so it seemed, anyway.
They ordered hotcakes and sausage, biscuits and hash browns, and I passed their table regularly bringing food, drink refills, an extra fork when Sam dropped his. I heard snatches of conversation, enough to make me wonder, and watched their faces.
"…not like the one in Grand Junction…" Dean was cutting up Sam's sausages while he talked, keeping Sam too distracted to really notice.
"…stupid move—" Sam broke off to kick his brother under the table when Dean was clearly more interested in watching Ginnie Mathers cross the street than in listening. Dean winced, then just grinned.
"…clean out the car…" They broke off when I came by to top off Dean's coffee. Those pretty hazel eyes turned to me, and he asked about getting some sandwiches to go. Sam knocked against his coffee mug with his bad hand, but Dean didn't look away, didn't even pause, just reached over and caught the cup and wiped up the spill, then gave me their order.
"…next job…" Sam took off his sunglasses in the middle of a bite and passed them over when Dean rubbed at his forehead.
Their eyes kept hanging on to each other when they talked and when they didn't, and the smiles they shared put to shame even the ones Dean had graced me with. The dark glasses couldn't hide his joy over his brother being back. That boy lit him up. It was everything I'd wished for my kids and hoped they shared.
I was sorry to see them finish up, because I had a feeling this was good-bye, and it was. Dean came up to the counter on their way out and surprised me by leaning forward to give me a peck on the cheek. There came the blushing again. "Thanks," he said.
I nodded, actually feeling my eyes get a little prickly. "You take care of yourselves," I said back just as low and serious.
A glance at Sam. "We will," Dean promised, and he turned away.
Which was when Sam met my eyes and very seriously mouthed, Thank you, eyes flicking over to Dean and back to me. Not just the pampered little brother, then. Good. Dean needed looking after, too.
I watched him pack Sam into the car, then get in on the other side. And with a wave, they were off. I sighed and went to clean the table.
The hundred dollar bill was wrapped in a piece of Millie's flowered stationery: If you ever need help, was all it said, with a phone number.
I never used it, but I still have it, tucked into my Bible. There are some good memories right there.
It gives me hope.