“Is he going to wear that damn hat every day?” Kylie whispered to Nessa as they watched Frog Man scramble, flip and fry his way through the breakfast rush, a foam rubber Nebraska Huskers Cornhead hat perched precariously atop his head.
“I’m sure,” Nessa replied on a weary sigh. She’d picked it up on her latest whirlwind trip to Allman Falls to spend the weekend loving on her Norse god, Chief.
Frog Man hadn’t taken it off since.
“I still think he’s going to catch himself on fire.” Kylie grabbed the coffee pot and made a round through the café. When they met back at the counter, she added, “He’s going to look ridiculous with no eyebrows.”
“I think he could pull it off,” Nessa said with a hop of her shoulders as Frog Man hollered out “Table seven!” from the kitchen. Nessa hooked a glass dispenser of maple syrup onto the pocket of her apron, scooped up two plates heaping with pancakes and rushed off as the door to the diner opened again.
Quickly, Kylie bussed table twelve before seating a family of four at it.
“Would you like some coffee while you look over the—”
“We’re ready to order,” the woman interrupted. Dressed younger than her age, overly made up and highlighted, the woman plucked a series of napkins from the dispenser and briskly scrubbed the table Kylie had just cleaned. “The kids will have the FrogCakes with a side of apples, I’d like scrambled eggs, whites only, with fruit salad. My husband will have the Denver omelet with bacon and wheat toast. Bring milk for the kids, coffee and juice for us.”
She held the wad of napkins in pinched fingers for Kylie.
“Yes, ma’am,” Kylie replied with a forced smile that disappeared the moment she turned her back to the table. She tossed the napkins into the trash and slipped their ticket in line on the clip.
“Play nice,” Nessa whispered in warning to Kylie as she twirled past.
“No promises,” Kylie’s eyes twinkled in reply.
As she worked her tables, Kylie’s attention kept returning to the family. The children, a boy of around seven and a girl close to Brayden’s age, both dressed in designer brands and hundred-dollar shoes, fought over the crayons as they colored their placements. The parents did not speak to each other, or to their children. The woman’s thumbs danced across the screen of her cellphone as she texted. The man scrolled mindlessly through his phone, never pausing long enough to register more than a headline.
When Nessa passed by their table, carrying a tray heavily loaded with beverages, the husband’s eyes shifted from his phone to Nessa’s backside, following her journey through the diner, to the corner booth. Unabashedly, he watched every bend and twist of Nessa’s figure as she distributed juice and water, hot coffee and cold sodas amongst the table.
A slight turn of her body away from her husband, an increase in flurry of her thumbs across the screen of her cellphone, gave indication the wife noticed. Her silence gave indication she didn’t care.
Once again, Frog Man hollered from the kitchen. “Table twelve!”
Kylie loaded her tray and delivered it to the table.
“Here we go guys!” With a flourish, she placed the pancakes in front of the children.
The boy grabbed his fork and stabbed it repeatedly through the center of the stack, growling on whisper, “Die, die, die, demon frog!” while the little girl’s eyes sparkled in delight at the smiling frog prince and princess faces Frog Man had created out of halved grapes, kiwi and apple slices. Kylie couldn’t help but chuckle when she noticed the pineapple chunks on top looked remarkably more like Cornhats than crowns.
“Look, Mommy!” the little girl tried to get her mother’s attention.
“Cute,” the woman answered without looking up from her phone.
“Do you like my picture?” the girl asked, holding her paper placemat high for Kylie to see.
“Very pretty,” Kylie praised. “I like way you colored the frog blue.”
Her cute features scrunched in frown. “Wyatt hogged the green.”
“Did not!” he protested.
“Did so!” she countered and stuck out her tongue.
Wyatt pinched his sister.
With a squeal, she smacked him.
“Knock it off,” their father chastised.
With a weary sigh, their mother finally set down her phone and picked up her silverware. Without pause, she sliced the frog princess in half, then quarters, then into bite-sized pieces. The sudden destruction of her joy brought a tear to the little girl’s eye, but she did not cry. She didn’t eat the pancake, either.
While his wife was distracted, the man ran a light touch down Kylie’s arm. “Would you bring some cream for the coffee, Doll?”
His request was innocent, but the way he asked sent a chill creeping down Kylie’s spine. More, she despised being called ‘Doll.’ Still, she smiled and pulled a handful of creamer packets from her apron pocket. “Can I get you anything else?”
Neither adult at the table answered. She’d become invisible.
Kylie moved onto the other diners; to the pair of teenagers in the back booth, who shared a single plate and sat close enough to fuse together. To the middle-aged couple who sat in a comfortable silence, not speaking, but no cellphones in sight as they shared a meal together. To a trio of elderly gentlemen who sat shoulder to shoulder at the counter, the one in the middle talking enough for the three of them. To the single father, fully engrossed in his tween daughter’s animated reenactment of her cheer audition.
Kylie found them all fascinating, but her eyes kept drifting back to the cold and distant couple at table twelve. They could have been having an off day, Kylie told herself, but it felt too much like the norm. They ate in silence, paid by credit card, and left the diner without exchanging even a single glance with each other.
As quickly as it started, the morning rush died. Frog Man disappeared out the back door to take a smoke break. Kylie wiped down the last booth and sunk into the worn, vinyl bench. Nessa slipped in across from Kylie, her back against the wall, and sighed.
“Oh, my feet are killing me,” she moaned. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“I can’t either,” Kylie agreed, but not because of the ache in her feet. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Me, either.” Nessa closed her eyes for a moment. “But I already got a job waitressing at Charlene’s lined up for when I move.”
“I still can’t believe you’re leaving me in a few weeks.”
Nessa reached across the table for Kylie’s hand. “I still can’t believe you’re not coming with me.”
“I will. Eventually,” Kylie said. Without Nessa, Huntington Beach held no meaning. She missed her mother and her friends, the town. But she still needed more time to herself, time to think, to reflect. To figure out who the hell she was, who she wanted to be. “I still can’t believe Ashley. I almost didn’t recognize her at the airport. She looked like a whole different person, like she was all grown up.”
“She looked happy,” Nessa added.
“Fulfilled,” Kylie agreed. She laughed. “Maybe I should join the Army, too.”
“What you need to do is focus on your art.”
A week ago, Kylie would have argued a million reasons why it was foolish—selfish—to draw pictures and play with clay all day. Any more, she felt foolish denying her own talent. She was good. Every day, she was getting better. Why couldn’t she find a way to turn her passion into a livelihood. Why shouldn’t she at least try?
“I signed up for a few classes at the college for the next semester.”
“You’re staying through spring?” Nessa asked, disappointed.
“Yeah,” Kylie nodded. “I think I need to.”
Nessa didn’t argue. “What are you taking?”
“The fundamentals of illustration, and an introduction to art therapy. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Ashley said about wanting to study psychology, and I thought about how those sculpture classes helped me find my focus, and… I don’t know, it just feels right.” She shrugged, thought of the detached couple at breakfast, of her own struggle to find joy in life, peace with herself. “If I like it, I think I’m going to enroll in college full time in the fall, work toward a degree.”
“To be a psychiatrist?”
“To be a therapist,” Kylie quickly corrected. “Using art.”
“That’s really cool, Ky.” Nessa squeezed her hand. “So, four more years in California?”
“Nebraska. The only way I can afford it is to move back in with my mom.”
Nessa squeezed tighter. “That’s the best part!”
A bright flicker of reflected sunlight flashed across the far wall of the diner as a car pulled into the parking lot. Late for breakfast, early for lunch, Nessa and Kylie flipped a quarter to see who would have to get off their ass to wait on the customer. Kylie lost.
The bells attached to the handle of the door jingled in warning an instant before a wave of heat rushed inside, filling the diner with an energy so heady, so raw and sensual, Kylie didn’t have to look up to know who had walked in.
Still, she did.
The sight of him stole her breath away, silencing her disbelieving whisper, “Jimmy?”