Twenty minutes, Nancy Calloway tells herself as she wipes a smudge of ketchup off the speckled formica tabletop. Twenty minutes and this shift is over. She'll check out the register in the back, lock up the safe, and head on home. Maybe she'll even have time for a shower before Rodney gets there, wash away the smells of fried meat and stale beer and ten hours on her feet saying, Can I get you anything else?
The last customers leave, two gruff truckers so exhausted from the road they'd barely attempted to grab her ass, and Nancy thinks of closing early, of not only taking a shower but maybe putting together some sort of dinner too, something cheap and light and easy that she and Rodney can share. Maybe it'll tempt him into giving her foot massage. Lord knows she could use one.
Then the bell over the door tinkles and Nancy suppresses a sigh, steeling herself to face this late-night patron and wishing she'd flicked on the neon Closed sign. It'll be another traveler, she guesses, another red-eyed, bone-weary driver off the interstate who doesn't know what day it is and squints at the clock on the wall like it holds all the answers in the universe. Or maybe it'll be one of the town's drunks, Mr. Landing or maybe Mary Beth, looking to fill a craving at the tail-end of their latest binge.
But it ain't either of those. It's two kid boys, one older, one younger, the younger one limp and heavy with sleep in the older one's arms. Nancy looks behind them for a parent but the door swings closed and stays that way. She looks back at the children to find the older one looking right back at her, sizing her up with an expression that's shrewd and calculating and a little alarming to see on such a young face. Then his gaze flicks away and flies all over the small diner, and Nancy's seen enough cops and people looking to avoid cops in here to recognize this kid's checking for other customers, memorizing the layout and finding the exits.
Apparently satisfied with what he sees, the kid makes his way over to a booth and lowers the smaller child onto the vinyl seat, gently pulling pudgy arms from around his neck then settling in close, tense and waiting like a jack-in-the-box ready to spring. Nancy hesitates for a second before following them to the booth, swiping a menu off the front counter on her way.
"Can I get you boys started with something to drink?" she asks like they're her normal fresh-outta-the-truck late-night customers, because with the way the older is one is looking at her makes it almost easy to believe they are. The younger boy is still asleep, face smushed against the other's arm.
"Just water, please," the kid says, polite as you please, and don't that set him apart from most of her customers. "And could we please see the menu…?"
He holds out the arm that isn't currently being drooled on by the smaller kid and Nancy hands over the menu without another thought, completely caught by the seriousness in his eyes and voice. This kid can't be more than ten years old, yet he's conducting himself far better than most the adults she meets on a regular basis.
"Where are your—" Nancy begins to ask, but something else in the boy's face stops her, something closed and steely that makes her take a step back. It's not an expression she'd ever really like to see on an adult's face, and it's about a hundred times worse seeing in on the face of a child. So she smiles, because it seems like the world and these children especially could use a smile right then, and she says, "Take all the time you need."
When she comes back from the kitchen with two glasses of ice water the older boy has set the menu aside and the younger one is just starting to wake up, mumbling and pushing the tangled mop of hair on his head out of his eyes.
"Thank you," the older boy says as Nancy sets the glasses of water down. One of his hands goes to the back of the smaller child's neck, quietly reassuring, and now that the little one is awake and blinking sleep-squinted green eyes up at her Nancy can tell they are brothers. "We'd like the number six, please."
"Sure." Nancy jots it down in her notebook because it seems like the boy expects her to. "Anything else?"
The littler kid, fully awake now and aware of his surroundings, opens his mouth but the older one cuts him off with a squeeze on his neck and a hasty, "No, thank you."
"Be just a few minutes, then." Nancy offers them another smile, then heads into the kitchen. The cook went home an hour ago, the menu restricted to the basic burgers and fries at this time of night, but she's pretty sure there's most of the boys' order in the fridge and Nancy has no problem heating it back up over the stove. It's not like the food is anything particularly special when it's fresh that reheating will ruin, and she is pretty darn sure these boys deserve a hot meal.
Nancy doesn't really have anywhere to go once she brings the plate and two sets of silverware out to the kids and they both chorus a thank you at her, so she returns to wiping down the tables, watching these strange, solemn creatures out of the corners of her eyes.
They eat with enthusiasm that suggests it's been a while since their last meal. Nancy takes in their worn, crumpled clothing— the younger one's several sizes too big, undoubtedly hand-me-downs from the older brother— the purple smudges under their eyes, the older one's wary, defensive attitude, and her thoughts again stray to the parents. In a town this size, you can get to know everyone in it in about a week's time, and Nancy's lived here her whole life. These kids aren't from around here, so they must have come in by way of the interstate, and for as grown-up as they may seem, they certainly didn't drive themselves. But there's no car in the parking lot— she already checked when wiping down the table by the window— and the only logical place Nancy can imagine they came from is the motel a mile and a half down the road.
Noticing the boys have finished eating, Nancy returns to the table and picks up their completely empty plate. The older one is looking less pale beneath his freckles, and the little one is brimming with energy, running the salt shaker across the tabletop and making noises like it's a car.
"Anything else I can get you, boys?" Nancy asks.
"No, thank you," the older one responds immediately, throwing up a well-practiced hand to stop his younger brother from running the salt shaker off the table onto his lap. He digs the other hand in his jeans pocket and pulls out a wad of cash. Painstakingly he counts it out, laying down everything but a few coins.
And Nancy knows they're about to leave, to disappear like ghosts into the night the same way they came out of it, and she can close up and go home and take her shower and maybe get that foot rub from Rodney even if she doesn't make him dinner, but she finds herself offering, "Maybe some pie?" instead.
The older boy looks up at her and for just a second there is an expression of hopeful delight on his face that makes him look every bit a normal ten-year-old kid offered a treat. Then his eyes fall back to the few meager coins in his palm and the expression vanishes like it's been murdered by the cold, far-older-than-ten-years one that replaces it.
"No," the boy says in a small voice.
"Hey," Nancy says, unconsciously making her own voice softer, wanting the kid to look at her again, wanting to see those green eyes brighten without all that hardness. "It's free, honey. My treat."
The boy glances at her but then looks straight back at his hand, and Nancy knows he's going to refuse, and while part of her marvels at his maturity another part of her wants to cry because of it.
"His favorite's cherry."
Both Nancy and the boy turn to stare at the younger kid who has abandoned his salt shaker and even climbed to his feet on the bench for a better view over his brother's head.
"Do you have cherry?" he asks Nancy, all earnest-eyes and round cheeks and pouty little lips, ignoring his brother's warning hiss.
"Sure, sweetie." She gives him a smile and he returns it, and there's dimples and white baby teeth and Nancy has the urge to scoop him off the bench and hug him until he squeals. "What about you? Do you want cherry too?"
The smile morphs into an expression of disgust that is almost as endearing. "No," he says as though she just asked him if he wanted to eat worms. "I don't like it. The cherries are all slimy. I just eat the whipped cream on top." He frowns at her, suddenly worried. "Are you going to put whipped cream on top?"
"Of course," she assures him, then, though she feels slightly silly doing it, checks for a final okay from the older boy. He is staring down the table, one hand still curled around his brother's wrist in attempt to get him to sit back down, but he nods once like it's a surrender, and Nancy feels a small sense of victory.
She cuts a slice of cherry pie big enough for two people, just in case the smaller one changes his mind, and covers nearly the entire plate in whipped cream.
When she sets it down on the table in front of the boys, the little one immediately climbs to his knees and sticks almost his whole hand in the whipped cream. The older one picks up his fork but doesn't start eating right away. Instead he looks up at Nancy, serious but sincere.
"Thank you," he says, and smiles. It's the sweetest sight Nancy's seen all night, like the sun coming out, and she thinks if she shut off all the lights in the diner it wouldn't matter because this boy's smile would still light up the night.
He digs into the pie, knocking his brother's hand aside with growl that does nothing to lessen his smile, and doesn't do much to stop his brother either. Nancy watches them for a bit before realizing what she's doing, then moves forward to take the wad of cash the boy set out for her. She wants to give it back to him, tell him to keep it and buy something fun for himself and his brother, but she can tell he would never let her. Getting him to accept the pie had been hard enough.
So she takes most of the money, leaving a few bills behind, and deposits it in the cash register. When she returns to the table the boys are wrestling over a napkin, the older one trying to wipe the younger's face clean of cherry-colored whipped cream smears and the younger one trying to squirm away and insisting on licking the plate.
Nancy whisks the plate away to be helpful— it's nearly spotless anyway, barely a crumb left— and the older boy overpowers the smaller one, cleaning him up and ruffling his messy hair for good measure. They scoot off the bench and Nancy is struck anew by how young they are, just children, apparently alone in the world.
She wants to say something as they head for the door, the younger one reaching automatically for his big brother's hand; he wraps the small fingers in his own and holds on tight. She wants to follow them as they slip into the night, the bell over the door ringing slow and sad like a church bell at a funeral. It's dark and it's late and they are two small children without anyone looking out for them.
But she thinks about the way the older boy held himself like a solider, and the way the little one listened to every word he said and never strayed more than a foot from his side. She thinks about the way the older boy just picked at their food until he was sure the younger one was full, and the way the younger one had been so intent on getting his brother the cherry pie. She thinks about their eyes, too old in their faces, and their smiles, too bright for darkness.
She thinks they're not really that alone after all, and she thinks— she might even go so far as to say she knows, and if Nancy we're a betting woman she might even put a wager down— that they're going to be just fine.