The crashing sound of plates hitting the tile floor jarred Mindy out of her thoughts and she looked around in panic, sure that the sound was Tom charging in to drag her home. But, no, there was just the red-faced cook bending down to clean up the broken dishes and piles of hash-browns while some rowdy customers cheered him on. She glanced down at the child asleep on the bench next to her, matching her breaths with her daughter’s, waiting for her heartbeat to return to normal.
“You okay, honey?” A waitress, heavy and brusque, appeared next to her table with a pot of coffee. Mindy nodded at the offer of a refill and coffee splashed into her mug. “I don’t mean to pry, but take it from me, whoever did that to you ain’t worth it.”
Mindy touched the skin around her right eye, wincing at the pain that shot down her cheek. “I’m okay, really.” It was surprising that she was able to keep her voice steady and the tears from flowing. The waitress leaned over and hard blue eyes surrounded by wrinkles gazed into hers, asking questions Mindy wasn’t willing to answer.
“Yeah, you’re okay, ain’t ya? I can see that. You’re going to be just fine, honey.” The older woman took Mindy’s hand and squeezed it. And then she was gone, back behind the counter to talk to the new customer who had just come in, as Mindy looked down in surprise at the crumbled piece of paper that the waitress had pressed into her palm. Smoothing it out, she read the name and number of a domestic abuse shelter.
Mindy stared into black depths of her coffee cup. Normally she hated black coffee, but tonight was different. She needed all the caffeine she could get, undiluted by sugar or cream. The clock over the diner’s kitchen pass-through window showed it was nearing the end of the midnight hour and Mindy had a lot more driving to do. As if he had some inkling of what she was planning, Tom had insisted on staying up and watching TV, finally falling asleep, mouth gaping open in front of some infomercial. She had resisted the urge to grab the beer bottle from between his legs and bash him in the head with it, instead snatching her keys and whatever she else she could find at a moment’s notice. Then she had fled, driving away from California, away from the years of abuse. She had stopped at an ATM and withdrawn her daily limit of cash, with plans to do the same again at the next machine she spotted now that the clocks had turned over. Passing a crowded parking lot on her way out of town, she had swapped license plates with an old beat-up Nissan in the hopes of making it harder to find her. She didn’t think Tom would come after her, but she knew he would travel to the ends of the world to find Gracie.
She looked at the sleeping girl curled up on the seat between her and the window. Gracie. Wispy brown hair in matted tangles, the pink princess nightgown and matching slippers, with a thumb in her mouth and the other hand clutching a ragged stuffed cat. Just a month shy of turning three, she was Mindy’s everything. She would have taken every beating, every insult, that Tom could dish out, but that had all changed mere hours ago when he had pointed his gun at their daughter because she had stepped on his foot while dancing around the living room.
A car pulled in to the parking lot, its headlights washing over everyone inside. Mindy squinted into the brightness, trying to make out the car and who was getting out of it. It wasn’t Tom, but a man in some type of uniform. My God. Would Tom have sent the police after her? She couldn’t sit here any longer. It was only a matter of time before…
She threw a couple of dollars on the table. “C’mon, Gracie, love. We gotta go.” She grunted under the weight of lifting the sleeping girl to her shoulder and hurried out of the diner, almost running into the EMT who held the door open for her.
Frank climbed out of his car, rolling his head in an attempt to relieve the tension in his neck. Nope, not working. He started to open the diner’s door just as a young woman carrying a small child came barreling towards him. He jumped out of their way, feeling the woman’s purse smack against him as she hurried past. He had a fleeting glimpse of a pale, drawn face with frightened eyes. Wow, that’s a hell of a shiner, he thought. And then they were gone into the dark night.
“Hey there, Frank. Rough night?” The waitress greeted him as he took his usual seat in the corner booth. He nodded, too tired, too anguished, to speak. He lowered his head onto his hands and rested, trying to erase the things he had seen that night. The waitress touched his shoulder briefly as she left him his usual order of ice water and a rueben sandwich before returning to her post behind the counter where she continued rolling silverware.
Frank rubbed his eyes, wiping away the tears at had formed there. Yeah, it had been a rough night. Very rough. He blinked rapidly but he couldn’t un-see the pile of mangled, twisted cars. How the street glittered like diamonds from all the broken glass. The smells of smoke and gasoline and blood hanging thick in the air, choking him and the other first responders. The screams of the injured, the silence of the dead, both loud, both jarring. And the baby. The baby who had been riding on someone’s lap, not in a car seat. The baby who… Oh, dear God, that baby.
Frank lowered his head again and began to sob. The waitress left her station and went to sit down across the table from him. She took his hand and they sat in silence until Frank’s tears slowed and then stopped. He gave her a wavering smile of gratitude and, without a word, she returned to work.
The horror of the night started to fade as the smell of the sauerkraut reminded of how hungry he was and he took tentative bites, savoring the crunch of the grilled bread between his teeth. For more than a decade, he had been working as an EMT and sometimes there were nights that just got the better of him. Tonight, though. It had been a long since he had been this messed up by a run.
He finished his sandwich and wiped his mouth. He looked around for his server. Such a kind woman, I wonder if she has someone waiting for her at home, he thought, and motioned for the check.
“Not tonight, Frank. Go home to your wife.” She looked at him over the salt shakers she was filling.
He smiled at her, afraid to speak and feeling the tears welling up in his eyes once more. Yes, time to go home to his wife. No matter that it would be well after two before he got home, Janice would still be waiting up for him. Sitting in bed most likely, reading a book of baby names and asking her bump what name it wanted.