Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Welcome Back Diner, Chapter Two



Chapter Two

~~/*\~~

Tap-Tap-Tap.

Cassie slid her bedroom window up to see Tobias outside. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Just before dawn." Tobias nodded. "I… I wanted to see you, before I went."

Cassie stared at him for a moment, and then ducked back inside. Tobias knew her well enough to know that she was getting dressed, and sneaking down the hall past her parents room. He knew her house well enough to follow the tiny sounds of the floorboards squeaking, even from outside.

Right on cue, she appeared at the backdoor. They didn't speak until they were away from their respective houses.

"You remember the last time you ran away from home?" She almost accused him. "You had accidentally driven your dad's car into a wall? We were… Ten, I think? A little younger?"

"Sounds about right." Tobias nodded. "Maybe a little younger."

"If I remember right, you were back by midnight." Cassie said, not looking at him. "But that was almost eight years ago. Why do I feel like you really mean it this time?"

Tobias shrugged, as though that explained everything. "I didn't say I wouldn't come back." He offered.

"Are you planning to come back?"

"No."

Cassie nodded, expecting that. "Where do you plan to go?"

"France. I can scrape together enough for a plane ticket, if I don't have any bags with me." He hefted his backpack. "I have what I need."

"For a day. What do you plan to do when you get there? You don't have any money, you don't know anyone. The only French you speak is the stuff you got out of cookbooks…" She had tears gathering in the corner of her eye. "And you won't have me to kick around, so you'd be bored after a week."

Tobias nodded, eyes staring straight ahead of him. She was trying to get him to look at her, but he wouldn't do it. "I can make it to France." He told her. "Half my cookbooks and chef biographies were written by guys who slept on the floor and chopped onions for their first year in the Four-Star places. They own franchises now! I can last that long."

"Tobias, not everyone makes it into the second group." She argued. "The guys that never make it that far? They just… Well, they don't get books written about them."

"I know." Tobias nodded. "I know it's crazy, but I have to try."

"Why?" She demanded, getting angry now.

Before she had even spoken, he had presented her with a small stack of folded papers. "They turned me down."

Cassie sighed.

"Five culinary schools and restaurants in a year." Tobias told her. "And that doesn't even count the ones I never heard from at all. Maybe I'm not that good."

"I think you are." She offered. "I know I'm biased, but every six months my weight goes up and down the same thirteen pounds, depending on what your latest obsession is."

"They're not obsessions, they're practice."

"The whole month of French Onion Soup." She retorted. "The Lasagna Years-"

"It wasn't years!"

"The cheesecake in every flavor variation, the year your second best mate became legal and you discovered cooking with liquor, the-"

"I get it." Tobias couldn't help but break out in a smile, and she swiftly leaned into him, wrapping her arm around his side. He hugged her back, and they sat on her front fence together as the sun came up. "You just kinda made my point, you know?" He said softly. "I know you would have got me a job at that Cafe of yours, but-"

"But what? You're too good for it?" She said evenly. Her tone was light, but they'd had the conversation often enough that he knew she didn't like it. "Because that's my workplace you're writing off. And since when do you knock Diners?"

"I know, and I'll never say a word against any place my very best friend cares about, but…" He sighed. "The kind of things I make, the kind of things I want to make… Your boss would give me a job, but I don't want to flip burgers."

"No, far better that you have a bunch of French Guys yell at you because you're not chopping onions fast enough."

"You've never seen me go through a bag of onions." He joshed her.

Long silence.

"Don't go." She said finally. "I can't make you stay, but if you go, I'll miss you, and I don't want that to happen. There's jobs here. Even for a foodie. If they won't give you a kitchen, you can do it yourself. Food trucks see more customers than Five Stars ever will."

"If I don't get the diploma, nobody will take me on, let alone give me a loan to start my own business."

"You're nineteen years old." She snapped. "Why does this have to happen today?"

"Because it hasn't happened anywhere else."

"So you either get a restaurant of your own as your first job, or you go to France and be a homeless kitchen hand that doesn't speak the language?" She was getting worked up now, anger showing. "That's not exactly the smartest choice. If you want to do that, then why not do it here where you have a place to live?"

"Because France is where it's happening for people like me!" He snapped. "It's like wanting to act, so you move to California, or wanting to be a Tech Genius, so you move to Silicon Valley. For people who want to cook, it's either France or Italy. And I know I'll be living out of my backpack for a while. That's how it works. Sooner or later, they'll notice that I know what I'm doing… and I don't think it'll happen if I stay. I don't belong in this town any more."

She jerked back like he'd slapped her. Because she did belong in their town, the place where they'd grown up together, and they both knew it. Tobias wished he could take the words back.

"You need a ride to the airport?" She asked tightly, and he deflated. She was mad at him.

~~/*\~~

He'd turned down the offer of a ride. It would either be a chilly silence all the way there, or she would find a way to talk him out of going; and he'd already gone through that fight with his family.

He walked.

The decision had been made, and he was listening to French Lessons on mp3, when a familiar dog went running past him, trailing a leash. "Axe?" Tobias called after him reflexively. But how is that possible? Axe has been gone for years.

The dog ran off, and Tobias took off running after him.

~~/*\~~

Later, he would wonder why he took off running after a dog that happened to look like one that he'd had as a boy. Axe was not an obscure breed, and there were probably thousands of people who had a similar looking dog.

But after running back and forth for several minutes, the dog turned a corner and vanished completely by the time Tobias caught up with him…

And then Tobias looked up, and found a familiar building right in front of him. One that he hadn't seen since he was a boy.

~~/*\~~

The Welcome Back Diner hadn't changed a bit. Except that it was in a totally different place. Tobias actually had to look around and make sure. He knew this street. He had walked it dozens of times, and this was supposed to be a vacant lot. It had been an empty hole in the ground less than three days before, the last time he had walked past.

In disbelief, he walked up the step and checked. The door opened. The place was open. It was barely fifteen minutes past dawn. They shouldn't have been open for hours, and yet…

...and yet, it was full of people. People that he recognized as he came in, gawking. All the same regulars were there from when he was a boy. The same decor, none of it seemed to have any dust or wear and tear. The same jukebox in the corner, and the fixtures all gleamed… And the wall full of pictures and Polaroids was there too. The last time he'd seen the myriad of images, he'd been a boy, and didn't know any of these faces. Now he knew plenty of them; and he couldn't believe it.

None of the photos looked old or faded. Aside from the technology used to print or develop them, they all could have been taken that day… Including one in the middle. It was a picture of him with Marie, the waitress. Tobias found himself smiling at the memory, but he didn't remember anyone taking a picture.

"Welcome back, Sugah." A familiar southern drawl spoke at his shoulder. "We reserved your usual spot."

Tobias turned with a big smile, and his jaw dropped open. "Marie?"

She hadn't changed a bit. She looked exactly the way she had when he was a boy, down to, and including the shape of the small coffee stain on the corner of her apron. She hadn't aged a day, hadn't changed her hairstyle or makeup.

"Take a breath." She directed him warmly, and led him back to the same booth he'd been sitting in the first time he'd been there. By the time she'd taken away the little ‘reserved' sign, he'd emerged from brainlock. "Roll with it, kid. Most of the regulars freak out at this point."

"Some of those pictures on the wall?" Tobias croaked. "A lot of those people… died of old age decades ago. You and George are posing with them, and you don't look a day older."

"Clean livin'." She excused that, fluffing her shoulder length hair. "Does wonder's for a gal's complexion, even if ah do say'so mahself."

Her accent was laying on a little thicker than usual, but he barely noticed. "The directions you gave me that night? My dad followed them back so that he could thank you. He said there was nothing there but an abandoned shoe store, and I'm pretty sure that there was a vacant lot right here where I'm sitting last week. Explanation, please?"

"Sugah, if ah gave you one, would you believe it?"

"Possibly not."

"And you're back for the first time in far too long. You know that Diners depend on repeat business." Marie chuckled a little. "So, you all grown up enough to drink coffee yet?"

"Coffee is for the weak. I just hit myself in the head with a frypan every morning." He retorted.

Ding! "Order up!" A familiar voice groused from the kitchen.

Zip! Marie was off like a shot. Tobias followed her with his eyes as she made a speed lap around the Diner, collecting plates, balancing them across one arm as she powered back and forth, topping up coffee here and there, calling out orders in Diner-Speak that made Tobias laugh.

Marie's route took her past his booth and she put a frypan in front of him without breaking stride. It was meant as a joke, but Tobias couldn't figure out where in her apron she'd kept a full sized frypan. She came back around soon after and collapsed into the other side of the booth. "Whew."

"Haven't changed a bit." He smiled at her. "A friend of mine, Cassie? She works at a Diner too. A regular one, not a crazy impossible one." He gestured at her notepad. "I made an order once, and I used all those crazy shorthand slang terms. She didn't have a clue what language I was speaking."

"What happened?"

"Well, I got a complete jumble instead of what I actually ordered." Tobias admitted. "It became something of a line joke for us."

Marie put a hand over her heart dramatically. "I'm crushed. You've been seeing other Diner's behind our back."

"If I had a clue how to find this one, I would come back every meal." He shot back. "I did offer to teach her Diner-talk. She took a swing at me."

Marie snorted a laugh. "People skills, kid. The only thing yah need to stay employable yah whole life. Find ah Diner, and show off yah people skills."

Tobias grinned, just as another familiar face lumbered up to the table. "Marie, you plan on doing the job I pay you good money for any time today?"

"And then, there's the opposite end of the scale." Marie told Tobias without blinking. "George, lay-off will yah? Ah'm havin' words with mah favorite customer. Repeat business, remember?"

"Really? Because if I remember right, he didn't pay for those fries, he took a steak bone for his mutt on credit, and he doesn't seem to have ordered anything just yet. Shall we take a moment and examine the definition of the word ‘customer'?" The cook shot back.

"You have all that committed to memory?" Tobias said in jaded shock.

George pointed a stubby finger at Tobias as he chomped his cigar. "You. Come with me right now."

Tobias followed him, with a last look at Marie, who looked after them smugly.

~~/*\~~

The Welcome Back Diner was impossible. The kitchen was even more so. Tobias had approached from behind the building, and there was no chance that the kitchen could have possibly fit within the walls that he had seen. The fridge was enormous, the cooktops went almost a dozen feet and there was room for at least three counters.

Despite the size, there was no kitchen staff. Just George, and now him.

"The high end places in those Snooty Food Camelot's like Paris?" George told him. "The books and the biographies will tell you that the place a lowly drudge like you starts out is in the art of slicing onions, for five hours a night. That's a joke. You're less than a footstool to them at this point, and onions actually make it into dishes that paying customers eat. They're not going to trust actual vegetables to a blunt edge like you. They'll put you to work slopping out the scraps and washing the dishes." He pointed at the other end of the kitchen, which was nothing but two large kitchen sinks, each one the approximate size of a bathtub. They were full of dirty pots and pans and plates. "Get to work!"

"I don't work for you."

"You don't work for anyone else, either; your royal highness." George snorted. "You wanna know how it works in this industry, then work!"

"I'm sayin', I'm not a rookie. You want me to get to work, I'm worth a lot more than a dishwasher."

Marie chose that moment to sweep in again. "George, table four is still after their soup, and table nine wants to know what's keeping their spare ribs."

"Tell them that as soon as someone washes a plate, they can have their food." George waved a hand at the big sink full of dirty dishes… and Tobias standing awkwardly next to them, doing nothing.

"Well they ain't going to wash themselves, Kid!" She joshed him lightly. "C'mon, hustle. You're pouring mah gratuity down the drain."

"I actually can't stay, I was on my way to catch a plane…" Tobias started to call after her… before George hit him with another sub-zero gaze, and he surrendered, grabbing a pair of rubber gloves.

~~/*\~~

Tobias wasn't sure how long he worked. Every time he emptied the huge tub and refreshed the water, another load of plates came in. He watched George out of the corner of his eye and shuddered at the sheer efficiency of how the large man worked. His face bore a permanent scowl, but he didn't slow down for an instant, working three workstations at once.

Tobias craned his neck to look out the window. It was getting dark. He had been there the entire day, doing nothing but scrubbing their dishes.

The kitchen was equipped with everything. Tobias couldn't believe how much equipment was being used on a regular basis, but somehow the man kept it all straight in his head, even as he plated each dish attractively and kept on a conversation with Tobias. It was like watching Marie zip around the tables like she was on skates.

But finally, George came over and held out a beer. "Here. Dinner rush is over. Take a break."

"I'm nineteen."

"You plan to live in Europe, where the legal age is eighteen."

Tobias pulled his dishpan hands out of the water and took a long pull off the beer in relief. A moment later he moaned. "Ohh, that's really good."

"Homebrew." George hoisted his bulk up to sit on the edge of the counter. "You think I'll drink that cold piss they sell as beer in regular stores?"

Tobias scoffed and took another sip.

~~/*\~~

The work was back-breaking, and the day was hot. The entire work-crew was exhausted, on edge, and aching in places that not even their wives knew about. But then the foreman made it up to all of them with a bucket filled with ice, chilling some beer bottles. The work was finally done, and the building would stand for a hundred years after they gone.

"That's worth drinkin' to." Someone groaned.

The first sip was a refreshing wave of icewater, banishing the heat. The second sip was pure ambrosia. There was nothing better than a cold beer for a hard won thirst, shared with brothers who knew exactly what they were all worth...


~~/*\~~

Tobias shook off the memory of another person's blissful moment, and turned back to George. "So, what was all this really about?"

George shrugged. "You tell me, Kid. You were about to hitch your way to France to do exactly what you did here. How'd'you suppose that my plates and pots are any different to five-star plates and pots?"

"I don't suppose they are, but the goal was-HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT?" Tobias spluttered. "I never told you what the plan was! Who the hell are you people?"

"I. Am. Talking." George shut him down instantly. "Now, you wanted to go there, knowing that you'd be a kitchen drudge, but you were hoping to work your way up." He said, knowing the answer. "You can scrub a plate to my satisfaction. The whole time you were doing it, did anyone thank you?"

"Of course not." Tobias agreed, not offended.

"When was the only time that Marie noticed you all day?"

Tobias blushed a little at the implication. "When she needed a clean plate."

"Bingo. The most important people in any business are the ones that nobody notices. So, you wanna be famous, or you wanna be important?"

"Neither." Tobias shook his head. "I wanna be the best."

"Out of seven billion people on this planet, you wanna be the best at something? Tall order, kid." George scoffed. "And before you tell me that you're up to it, bear in mind that your hands are shaking from exhaustion after one day doing the most menial tasks a kitchen has."

Tobias was stung deep by that one, and reacted the strongest way he knew how; with anger. "Hey, you don't get to judge me. You're a fry cook. I don't know what this place is, exactly; but I do know that I want better than flipping burgers and deep frying fries."

"It was my fries that made you wanna be a chef." George shot back.

Tobias was caught out by that one. After eight years, he still hadn't forgotten how he'd reacted to the food Marie had brought him that night. "I... I want that." He admitted. "I want to do that. I want to make that happen. And I thought that if I went to..." He checked his watch. He'd missed the flight and hadn't noticed. He sank into himself a bit. "I don't even know why I stayed." He admitted finally.

George gave him a long look, and sighed. He went over to one of the myriad of cabinets, and pulled out a large jar from behind a sack of flour. It was identical to the tip jar on Marie's counter… Except it was stuffed full of hundred dollar bills. Tobias let out a low whistle.

"My rainy day fund." George said by way of explanation. "You've seen that wall of pictures outside. We've had some big names in here over the years and years and years." He rolled his neck till it popped. "Make you a deal. You can cook something for me and Marie. If you impress us, which is not an easy feat, then you can have the whole jar. It'll get you to France, and cover some expenses for a while."

"And if I don't?"

"Then… what? I'm not your father, kid. You wanna live like a hobo in Europe, it's your business."

"Then why?" Tobias asked, genuinely confused.

"Because if you want better than this?" George gestured at the long cook-top bench, and the gathered ingredients around it. "You better be ready to show that you ARE better than this."

Marie swept in and held out a menu. "Dinner rush is over, George. Ah'm starving."

"Well you're in luck. The Rookie is going to cook for us." George took off his apron and held it up to Tobias without hesitation, dangling it off a single finger.

Marie smirked. "Ooh, this should be good. George hasn't handed over his spatula to anyone in years."

Tobias took the apron with due gravity. "Okay. Anything I want?" He pulled his moleskine notebook out of his jacket pocket. "Because I've been collecting and experimenting for years..."

"Well, tell you what; let's make it interesting. Anything on the Menu. You don't want to be a hash-slinger? Let's see if you can sling Hash first." Tobias was about to say something against that, when George put a hand up. "I mean it, kid. Easiest things to make on the menu is eggs and hash. Make me an omelet and some hash browns, with any fixin's you want. Anyone can get it right, let's see if you can get it perfect."

It was a cheap taunt, and Tobias knew it. But he also knew that George was right. An Omelet was a beginners dish, but one that was easy to upgrade from good to amazing, with the right chef.

As Tobias cracked some eggs in a bowl, they heard the bell above the front door ring, and Marie slipped out.

~~/*\~~

Cassie came into the Diner, a little stunned by the clientele. She'd just been walking past, on her way home from work; trying not to think about Tobias, who would have been halfway across the ocean by now. She wished she had contact details for him. She hated how they left things.

A waitress swept up to her with a warm smile. "Welcome back, sweetie."

Cassie frowned. "I… I haven't been here before. In fact, I don't think this place was here yesterday." She looked out the window. "Was it?"

"Had ah hard day, huh?" The waitress smiled sympathetically, and Cassie noticed a southern accent for the first time. "Well, you just get off your feet and try to put it behind you. Ah'll bring you something. Ah'm Marie, and we've got your usual table reserved for you."

Cassie would have protested, as she couldn't have a ‘usual table' but Marie had already led her over to the booth by the window, and taken a ‘reserved' sign off the table.

Cassie didn't argue. After having a fight with her best friend, working a double shift, and her car refusing to start, she didn't have the energy to fight anything any more, and she had no idea why she'd even come into the Diner.

Just wait until she goes back in the kitchen, and sneak out. Cassie told herself. Go home, take a hot bath and try not to think about it.

She resolved to do just that, when she noticed raindrops hitting the window beside her. It hadn't even been overcast the last time she'd looked, but now it was raining. Cassie sighed and surrendered. One meal. She pulled the tips from her shift out of her pocket and started counting out her coins.

Marie came back around and squeezed her shoulder warmly. "Hang in there, Sweetie. The worst day of your life can only last until midnight." She set down a cup of coffee in front of Cassie. "On the house. I don't imagine they pay you better than me."

Cassie was too strung out to argue the point, and nodded her thanks. She took a sip of the coffee...

~~/*\~~

They were walking along the Seine, her arm through his. They had toured the world, and yet, even through the whirlwind, they suddenly felt so peaceful, so content. Paris lit up around them magically, and the smell of rich, delicious coffee that they each carried was like a warm blanket for their hearts. The air cooled, and the warm coffee cup felt so good in her hands.

Neither of them were in a rush, wandering sedately, leaning happily into each other. She sipped again, and leaned in to give him a slow, loving kiss...


~~/*\~~

Cassie emerged from a memory of a life she could only dream, and stared into her coffee cup for a moment. "Whoa. That's really good."

"Ah'm so glad you think so." Marie said primly, before she called back to the kitchen. "George, ah'm takin' mah break!"

Cassie took another luxurious sip as Marie sat down across from her.

~~/*\~~

George took a bite. "Not bad. What do you think?"

Tobias sighed. "Not as good as those fries."

The older man smirked. "Marie tell you the story of her mom's tomato soup?"

"Yeah."

"One of our more popular entrees." George allowed. "She told you the story behind it. That soup was the culmination of a hundred hot summer nights spent around a table too small; and a family that never knew how much their mom worked to show them love. I wanted to put that story in the menu."

Tobias nodded with a soft, nostalgic smile. It had been years, but he still remembered Marie talking about her mom.

"Now, kid; what you have to learn is this: How do you tell that story with just the food?"

Tobias blinked. "Get a paper towel and write it out in Soup droplets?"

"You're an idiot." George said blandly. "But I can forgive that because so are most of my customers. My point is, Tomato Soup is one of the simplest peasant dishes you can find in a restaurant, but to Marie; it's her mom, and it's her huge family, and it's every time one of them did something nice for her. You got anything like that in your book?"

Tobias chewed his lip, flipped open his moleskine again... and turned to the back, where he had a perfectly pressed Maple Leaf. "Just one. My Grandma's waffles."

George nodded, satisfied. "Good. Make me that."

"Ohno." Tobias shook his head. "This is one that you have to cook at home. Can't make it in a Diner. Or even a Five Star place, come to that. See, the syrup for this one is a family tradition. You won't find those ingredients here."

"Oh, I think you will." George said with a gleam in his eye. "Go check the walk in fridge. Right at the back."

Tobias gave him a strange look and did so. The kitchen was impossible, he already knew; but the fridge was worse. The fridge extended for at least two hundred feet. There was no way it could fit in the building. Tobias walked through it with his jaw hanging open. It had everything from cheeses of all vintages and backgrounds, to tanks with live seafood, to handmade jars with ground spices that Tobias had only heard of in history books.

The labels were even stranger. 'First Date Fondue Strawberries.' Was on a small punnet of bright red fruits. "Baby's First Comfort Food.' was scribbled on a jar of what looked like applesauce. 'The Taste of A First Kiss' was inscribed on a steel pot, sealed with wax.

Tobias kept walking, feeling like he was in a dream, when his nose twitched. Among the myriad of scents that overlapped, but didn't seem to conflict, he found the hint of a sweetness that he knew. He followed it right to the back, where a small jar of clear liquid sat in a bucket, identical to the one his mother used when she harvested the sap of the maple tree that her father had carved their initials into.

Stunned, Tobias picked up the bucket, and found a piece of wide tape on the side. In what looked a lot like his father's handwriting, was his parents initials, with a heart drawn around them, exactly the way they appeared, carved into the maple tree.

Tobias returned to the kitchen, carrying the bucket. "You know, even if you have all the equipment, turning raw sap into syrup can take hours."

"Then you'd better get started." George was unconcerned. "I've got pancake syrup, rookie. I can go buy a bottle at the supermarket, and I can get the same experience that a million other people get in their convenient little lives over their convenient little tables. You tell me: Are the waffles your mom taught you worth more than a can of syrup from the store?"

"Yes." Tobias said instantly.

"Then show me what the fuss is about." George leaned against the counter with a newspaper. "I can wait." He gave another secretive smirk. "The time will pass faster than you think."

~~/*\~~

Cassie had no idea why she was pouring her heart out to Marie, but the waitress was just so amazingly easy to talk to. And with her parents away and Tobias gone forever, she had nobody to tell.

"I mean, its not that I want him to give up on his dreams. It's just that I'm going to miss him more than anyone I've ever known." Cassie explained. "He's right, I am small town. But that's not so terrible, is it?"

"Let me tell yah something, sweetie; Ah've tried the big city thing." Marie told her, stretching her neck out. "People go to lose themselves in the big bad city, but they still wear a path from their home to their job to their favorite Diner. You get them six blocks further than they've evah been, and they're lost. The only difference between a small town and a big city is how many people yuh gotta push through, and whether they take a subway or a bus."

Cassie snorted. "That's true, I guess."

"That's why I like working here." Marie yawned. "It's exhausting, usually thankless; and the money makes you wanna cry, but dang if you don't see it all." She grinned. "See those guys in the corner? Back in the 30's, they were a Jazz Band in New ‘Awlins. After every show they'd come to the Diner. Most of them time, they played music, they got paid so little. But every night, they'd play a little smooth jazz, and the whole place would stop and listen for a while."

"The thirties?" Cassie blinked. "Wasn't that like, a long time ago?"

"Don't sass your waitress." Marie told her lightly. "It's not polite to make assumptions about a gal's age." She gestured back at the Jazz Group, who brought their instruments up to play, as if answering her cue. "I remember one night, they had someone new with them. Cute young thing, who clearly worshiped Dale --he was the bass player, by the way-- and they had a little concert right here. Ah remember, because two years later, Dale came back in, and with him was the cute young thing, with a wedding ring on her finger."

Cassie smiled. "That's a great story."

"You must have a few of yuh own." She gestured at Cassie's uniform.

Cassie smiled a bit. "Yeah. All Diners have their regulars. I've watched two kids go from bassinets to kindergarten. They had a terrible first day, and their mom had to bribe them to go back to school with ice cream." She looked around the crazy Diner. "This is a nice place. How did I not know you were here?"

"We're new here." Marie excused. "We've been in another location for a while, just set up here. You want a refill?"

"Oh, yes please." Marie glanced around again. "Oh. Am I keeping you? I mean, I basically work for tips..."

Marie poured her refill. "Nah, it's a lull. Another hour or two, and we get the evening regulars. People who work shifts, people who work clubs. People need to decompress, and nowhere better than a Diner. That's why we have breakfast all day around."

Cassie moaned. "If it's half as good as the coffee..."

Marie chuckled. "On the house. You strike me as a waffles kinda girl."

Cassie wore a very sad, nostalgic smile. "I was. I don't know if I'll ever enjoy waffles again. I have very particular waffles in mind now. You ever have something like that? Something you enjoy, and then something happens and you know you'll never enjoy it again?"

~~/*\~~

Tobias tasted the syrup. "It's perfect."

"We'll find out in a moment, won't we?" George was unimpressed.

Tobias put the syrup in a small bowl to warm, and suddenly noticed the clock. "That's... impossible." He checked his watch. "That was a lot of work I just did, and..." He looked back up at the wall clock. "How?"

"I told you. Time flies when you're boiling tree sap." George was unconcerned. The tattooed man was over at the opposite counter top, methodically slicing some russet potatoes. "So. Waffles?"

Tobias got to work at the waffle iron, still unnerved.

George had shifted over to the deep fryer. "Every home in France that I ever went to? They all have a household deep fryer." George commented. "They all think it's strange that Americans don't, given our need to fry everything."

Tobias was still glancing around the kitchen, his brain trying to find an explanation of how it could be real. "Who are you people?" He asked quietly.

"Does it matter?" George asked him. "From what I hear, you're not planning to stay for lunch."

Tobias set his jaw. "This place is impossible, and so are you and Marie."

"Then you probably don't want another plate of those fries, huh?"

Tobias felt his whole mouth fill with saliva, and his stomach roared instantly. It had been years and years, but he remembered those fries. "Um... give me fries now, or I will be forced to severely hurt you."

"That's what I thought." George chuckled.

"Waffles are done." Tobias arranged the freshly cooked breakfast food on a plate as attractively as he could, with some sliced strawberries and some squares of butter. He poured the warming syrup into a pouring jug. "Trade you for a plate of fries."

George gave him an unsettling grin, and slammed his hand down on a silver bell by the serving counter. "Order Up!"

Marie swept past like a shot, snatching the plate from Tobias' hand without breaking stride.

"Wait! What?!" Tobias froze. "No, those were for..."

He went to the doorway and froze, suddenly paralyzed. Cassie?

~~/*\~~

Cassie's nose twitched the second the smell hit her nose. "No way."

Marie swept past like a blur, and suddenly there was a plate of waffles in front of her. Cassie leaned closer and drew in a deep breath, her hand closing compulsively around a fork without looking. "No way!"

When the first bite hit her tongue...

~~/*\~~

Cassie was suddenly a little kid again. It had been a family outing for Tobias, but he'd insisted that Cassie come along. His parents had smiled broadly and agreed. They had gone for a long drive, and stopped at a strand of maple trees.

His mother had shown them the spot where his father had carved their initials, and his father had brought along a spile, with which he'd promptly tapped the tree, collecting the maple sap in a large jar.

Cassie had traced her fingers around his parents initials. And she suddenly saw two more sets of initials there too. She'd seen a park bench once, where her mother had carved her own with her father's...

Tobias had come up behind her and covered her eyes from behind. "Time for lunch!"


~~/*\~~

Cassie came out of the memory with a dreamy smile. An instant later, she knew exactly who had made the waffles she was eating. Somewhere between her first bite of waffles and the second, the Diner had emptied. Cassie looked around and discovered that she was the only one there. It was strange, because she could have sworn the place was full a second ago, but she found she didn't much care. She was looking for someone in particular. She spun for the kitchen door, absolutely certain of who she would find in the kitchen. "Tobias?"

The kitchen door swung open a moment later, and sure enough, there he was, apparently as stunned to see her as she was to see him.

A moment later, Tobias was shoved out into the dining room, and the usual chef came out quickly. "There. There it is!" George pointed at her face, and they both looked at her. "Kid, you see that look? There it is."

"There it is." Tobias nodded sagely, knowing exactly what that meant.

"There what is?" Cassie asked, looking between them.

"Oh let the boys alone." Marie told her, wiping down the counter. "Guys like to tell each other how awesome they are."

George had a grip around Tobias' face and was looking him square in the eye, imparting life wisdom straight into his soul. "You see that? How many people want to be artists and think that comic books are beneath them? Comics make billions of dollars a year. You think there's no such thing as a Five Star Burger?"

Tobias nodded. "George?" He said slowly, his mind exploding with ideas. "I have an idea for a really good Monte Cristo Sandwich!"

George grinned. "Good, because I'm still hungry."

They both bustled back into the kitchen, and Cassie was left staring after them, with the fork still in her hand, staring blankly. "Did that really just happen?"

Marie toasted with her coffee cup. "I love this job some days. Such rich pageantry."

~~/*\~~

Tobias stayed in the kitchen another five minutes. Cassie had returned to the booth. She could smell melting cheese and looked up as the kitchen doors swung open and Tobias came over to her table. "So. You're still here." She said flatly. "Flight delay?"

Tobias strode up the length of the room, until he was suddenly within reach of the young woman. She actually took a swift lean back, the approach was so sudden. "Cassie." He said softly. "Be honest with me about one more thing." He said in a low voice. "Did you want me to stay because you didn't think I'd make it as a Big-Time Chef?"

Pause.

"No." Cassie admitted. "I wanted you to stay, because I knew you would. And if you did, you'd never come back."

Marie swept past them at high speed and put another knife and fork in front of them. They both took the hint and Tobias sat down, both of them taking slow, small bites of their shared life, told in the form of a plate of food.

"Last week, I went back to that maple tree." Tobias admitted softly. "I went to carve your initials."

She smiled, happily surprised. "You did?"

Tobias nodded. "When I got there, I found someone had carved my initials there already."

Cassie smirked. "Yeah. It was me." She ran a finger through the syrup still on the plate, and licked her fingertip clean. "I remember that day, your mom showing us how to turn the sap into syrup, and we poured it all over everything…"

"I didn't tell you this..." He said softly. "But my parents weren't the first one to do that. Gran, on my mom's side, was the first one to tap that tree for syrup. My grandparents? On both sides of the family? They all carved their initials there too. So did my aunts and uncles. Three generations. And when I found my initials carved into the tree, I put yours there, wrapped right around mine."

She smiled softly, almost teary. "You did?"

Tobias reached out and took her face between his hands. "I have to do this every time I put a plate in front of someone. That look on your face when you realized it was my... Our recipe. When you knew it was our thing? I need to make that happen every time." He said seriously. "I thought that the way to do that was to go Five Star."

"Tops, I've never had dinner in a five star restaurant that made me think of anything but the bill." She said seriously. "But when I saw you walking out of that kitchen, and... That was just… that was so…" She searched for the words for a minute, and then promptly leaned in and kissed him soundly.

Tobias kissed her back, until suddenly the smoke alarm went off. He broke for air with a goofy grin. "Wow."

"As much as I'd like to take credit for that…" She chuckled. "You probably left the Monte Cristo on the sandwich press."

Tobias jumped up and back ran to the kitchen. After a moment the alarm went off and he returned. "When you tell your guy that I need a job, leave out the part where I set off the smoke alarm."

Cassie laughed. "I will."

Tobias grinned. "You wanna get out of here?"

Cassie gestured back at the kitchen. "Aren't you on shift?"

"I don't work here."

Cassie snorted. "One day, you've got to tell me this story."

Marie swept past them again. "Scoot you two, before George gives you dishes to wash. Go! Be young an' in love." She plucked the little 'Reserved' sign out of her apron and put it on their booth. "In the meantime, we'll hold your usual table for you."


~~/*\~~

End of Chapter Two

AN: Read and Review!

photo credit: Broadway Diner via photopin (license)

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Welcome Back Diner, Chapter One





Chapter One

~~/*\~~

"Now how did I wind up here?" Tobias whined a little. He looked back the way he came and had no idea what he was looking at. One street looked like another after dark. He'd only taken two chocolate bars with him, and had eaten them both within an hour.

He was hungrier than he'd ever been, and his feet were killing him. He thought about going home for a while, but suddenly realized he had no idea where home was. He hadn't seen another person in what felt like forever.

School taught him that when you were in trouble, you should find an adult. School also taught him that you shouldn't talk to strangers. He didn't know what he was supposed to do.

I'm not going back. He told himself firmly. There's no way I'm going home.

His stomach was growling. It had been making sounds for almost an hour. The street was dark. Most of the buildings were boarded up, most of the streetlights were out, most of the cars were up on blocks.

Then his nose twitched. He smelled meat on the grill. He had turned around and started walking again, before he even fully registered the smell. After following the scent for a few minutes, he caught sight of a bright gleam in the dark. Neon lights.

In the middle of the next street, between a burned out storefront and a boarded up newsagent, there was a bright, gleaming Diner. The glass windows were clean and huge, and Tobias could see people inside. The lights were warm and golden. After walking so long in the cold and dark, it seemed nearly angelic. And along the top of the building, written in a flowing neon script, was the name. 'The Welcome Back Diner.'

The smell of food was strong, and Tobias didn't hesitate to go inside.

From the inside, The Diner was larger than it seemed from the outside. The railings and countertops were all polished enough to gleam. The checkered floor was so clean that the muted golden lights were reflected off the tiles, and a jazzy tune was playing on the jukebox. Tobias was young enough that he hadn't been in a room with this many strangers since his first day of school. And what a collection it was.

Tobias was young enough not to understand everything he was looking at, but he knew period costumes. Some people were dressed in the kind of clothes he'd seen in movies.

"Wow." A voice said, and Tobias turned to face a couple that were standing at the door, over by the wall of pictures. A man and a woman, who were both looking at him with a strange sense of sincerity. The woman was wearing a shiny new engagement ring. "You're so cute." She said with a dazzling smile. She nudged the man beside her, as if letting him in on a private joke.

Tobias stepped back nervously as the man bent at the knees, to meet him at eye level. "So, come here often?" He grinned, as though he'd just said the funniest thing in the world. The woman beside him cracked up. The man waved it off and returned his attention to Tobias. "Having a rough night, huh?"

Tobias gripped the useless leash tighter. "Yeah."

"Well, take some advice from the one person in the world who's been there." The man said. "You came to the right place."

"We all did." The young woman beside him smiled. Tobias studied the two of them for a moment. He knew he shouldn't be talking to strangers, but there was something oddly familiar about these two...

"There you are! Welcome Back, Sugah. We got your regular table reserved for you." A warm woman's voice said suddenly. Tobias turned, and a woman his mother's age swept up to them. She was wearing the classic waitress uniform, and promptly took Tobias over to the other side of the Diner. Along the way, she took him past the counter, where she called out an order to the cook. "George, Table four needs a Cup o' Mud and a 'Wrecked Raft, sunny side up. Table Two wants Beef-On-Wreck and Clean-up-the-Kitchen for Table three! Eighty-Six the First Lady for Table Nine and give 'em a Heart-Attack-On-A-Rack instead!"

Tobias was a little overwhelmed by her as she swept back and escorted him safely to a booth near the end of the counter. He had a nice view of the place. She didn't even break stride between seating him, handing him a menu, and sweeping a little ‘reserved' sign into the pocket of her apron.

"Who's coming?" Tobias asked numbly.

"What do you mean?"

Tobias pointed at where the little sign used to be. "You've got it reserved."

"Well then it's a good thing you showed up. It's your table." Marie gave a secret little smile. "People get where they need to be." She quickly ushered him into a seat. "So, you're in a strange neighborhood. Strange for a kid to be walking alone in the middle of the night, anyway."

Tobias blushed. "I saw a movie once, where a kid rode the rails. In boxcars, y'know?"

Marie grinned. "So you figured you'd head for the rails, and wound up on the wrong side of the tracks, huh?"

"Right." Tobias tried to pull his head into his shoulders.

Marie smirked. "Hungry?"

"Starving."

"How about I get you some of the best French fries you'll ever eat?"

A sharp bell tone rang from behind the counter, and Marie was off like a shot. Tobias jumped at the sudden speed. His new friend had quickly zipped up to the counter and collected a row of plates. Tobias wasn't sure if she was juggling them, or if she was somehow balancing four meals across her two arms, but she kept moving, as though she was on roller-skates.

Marie made three circuits of the Diner. Tobias couldn't help but watch her. On the first lap around, she'd handed out plates, and recited every order. The food was in combinations that Tobias didn't really recognize, but Marie knew every customer, some of them by name, as she commented and complimented every notable fact about each of her customers. Without noticeably pausing to take a breath, or even breaking stride, she'd delivered a row of dishes correctly. The first lap ended back at the counter where she scooped up two coffee pots, one regular, one decaf; and promptly made a second circuit, filling every cup. She never got the two mixed up, and she never so much as paused for thanks, but she knew which customer was on which refill, and which one had nice kids, and which one had a hard day at work…

And then she was back at the booth. Tobias half expected to see smoke trails in her wake; she had moved so fast. But she put a large bowl of fries in front of him, and they smelled amazing.

"George! I'm takin' mah break now!" She called back to the kitchen door. There was no answer, but Marie produced another cup of coffee, as if from thin air, and settled into the seat across from him. "Ahh, nice to get off my feet." She sipped her coffee. "You don't mind if I sit with yuh for a second, ah hope?"

"Sure." Tobias wasn't bothered by it. He actually felt better, not sitting alone.

The fries smelled heavenly. Tobias picked one and took a bite...

~~/*\~~

Crunch.

"Mmm." The little kid beamed. "I love the crunchy ones best!"

"Really? His best friend said with a grin. "I like the soft ones. My brother calls them 'soggies'. He says they have the most potato in them." The boy lifted the shaker. "More salt?"

"We could just eat a big heaping ball of salt." His best friend suggested, and the two of them laughed loud and long.


~~/*\~~

He was completely lost in the memory, a memory that seemed to glow with an addictive warmth, as the past seemed so much brighter than his present, and he didn't want to leave. On some level, he was aware that he was picking up another fry, stretching the moment longer and longer… But then he heard her voice, calling to him from somewhere, and despite himself, he followed it.

"My momma always told me, that home is where the food is." Marie crooned, and little by little, he came back to himself; listening to her talk. "That nevah made sense to me when ah was a kid. Ah knew that a lot of places in the world don't have any food, but they got families, don't they? Then ah started working here. Sure enough, this place feels more like home than anywhere else I've lived."

Tobias chewed on one of his fries. It had an absolutely perfect amount of crunch to it. He liked the little crunchy ones. They were smallest, but they tasted best. The plate had a few dipping bowls, tomato sauce, sour cream, salsa... Tobias dipped a fry into each of them, and ate slowly, comparing the combinations.

"You know what's worse, though, sugar?" Marie asked him primly. "It's the people who do have a home, but they don't really feel like they do."

Tobias suddenly swallowed hard. She knows. How can she know?

"When ah started working here, George- he owns the place, by the way - George said that I could add a dish to the menu." Marie snuck one of his fries. "I'd never gotten an offer like that."

"What did you add?" Tobias glanced at the menu, as if he could tell.

"My momma's tomato soup." Marie said with a warm smile that made Tobias want to smile too. "We didn't have a lotta money, see. But there was a whole lot of open ground back behind the house. Nobody much owned it, and my momma went out at night once all six of us were asleep, and she'd pull weeds for a few hours. When ah was about nine, ah wised up enough to know she was doing that instead of sleeping like her six kids. Once a year, we took every bag, every basket, every pot and started collecting tomatoes."

She almost had his complete attention, but Tobias was having a religious experience with the fries. He studied them intently. The salt wasn't the ground powder like the stuff he had at home. It was rock salt; little crystal points that didn't melt into the food like it did at home. He was finding the little pockets of flavor like buried treasure.

"She couldn't really tend them like a regular garden because she worked so much, but my big brother, he realized how much work momma was putting into it, and he'd help out." Marie gave Tobias a firm look. "Families are like that, see. Yah don't spot half the things yuh family does until yah get big enough to start doing it yahself."

She knows. Tobias thought in sudden panic. "Did you… I mean, when you got older, what happened?"

"Now me, ah was barely a week older than seventeen." Marie continued her story. "Had to bring some cash in, to help with the family, y'know? So ah was out every week, begging for a job. Nobody was hiring. Hard times, y'know?"

Tobias knew this one. He's been hearing that phrase for most of his life. ‘Hard Times' all over the place. He was never exactly sure what made them so hard, but they didn't seem soft or easy, even for a seven year old.

"Ah'd tried my luck everywhere. Even at a McDonalds. When Macca's won't take you, you know you're in dutch." Marie sipped her coffee. "Me and my momma met at this Diner for lunch, and ah told her ah was about ready to give up. Momma kicked in the kitchen door and told George that ah was going to work for him." Marie chuckled at the memory. "Ah was mortified. The things parents do in front of their kids…" She shook it off. "George told her that he didn't have enough regulars to pay me a decent wage. Ah offered to work for tips, because even change was more than ah was earning at that point, just wearing out mah shoes. George took that offer, and told me to add something to the menu. Momma found out what ah asked for, and she went with him into the kitchen, and showed him how-tah make her Tomato Soup."

"And you stayed?" Tobias said, mostly because he didn't have anything else to say.

"I stayed." Marie nodded. "My momma passed a while ago, and George told me that her soup is one of the more popular sides on the menu. Enough to give me a steady paycheck." She smiled warmly. "And ah tell yuh, sugah… Every time George cooks up a bowl of that soup, Ah'm nine years old again, listening to mah momma hummin' a tune over her stove." She gave him one of those looks again. "Like ah said, Home is where the food is, and it's sad when people don't have those connections. Makes them feel like they don't have a home, even when they've got a great one staring them in the face."

She gave him a look so full of knowledge and understanding that he cracked instantly. "It's not my fault!" Tobias blurted in a complete panic. "The dog ran away, and I knew I'd get blamed, because mom said I'd have to take care of him, and I knew I'd never catch him on foot, but they wouldn't get me a bike, so I didn't have a choice, and I knew where the car keys were, and mom was on the phone and I had to hurry up while I still knew where the dog was, and the car was too big, and I couldn't see over the steering wheel, so I had to stand up on the pedals just to see and the car just lurched; and it went straight through the wall, and I heard mom screaming my name really loud, and I just…" Very suddenly, he ran out of words.

"And you just bolted." Marie nodded. "Sugah, you are fine. You think your parents care more about a garage wall than you?"

"They're going to be so mad."

"Probably." Marie nodded. "But that's what family is. People who love you to bits, no matter how mad you make them."

Tobias struggled with this idea for a while.

"I went to a Diner like this with my family once. My mom, dad, and sister." Tobias said around a mouthful of fries. "My sister drank her milkshake so fast that she got brain freeze. She got sick on the way home. Mom was fuming the whole time. She let my sister have it for scarfing all that junk food. I thought that was bad, and all she did was puke on the carseat. I actually drove the whole thing through a wall!"

Marie laughed. "Maybe. But I'll tell ya this, Sugah; and you gotta take mah word for it: When you and your sister are all grown up and looking to have kids of your own, your momma will look back on that day and she'll be smilin'. It'll be one of those stories about the people she loves." She collected the empty plate from Tobias' side of the table. "And even if you're old and grey, sooner or later, the garage wall will be the same."

Tobias sniffed. "I hope so."

Marie gestured around. "We got a crazy cast of regular customers breezin' in and outta here. But the ones you really hope for? Families. Home is where the food is. If they're eatin' here with their families, that means this place is home for them. Even if just for a little while."

Tobias chewed another french fry, savoring it slowly. It was strange. In his life, he'd never eaten anything slowly. But these were something else entirely. He was almost mewling from the explosion of flavors. But it wasn't overwhelming. It was… familiar. He'd eaten fries before, but this... This was every time his mom had taken him out for burgers after a game. This was every time his best friend and he had split a pack of fries while walking home from school. This was every time Cassie had snuck him fast food while he was grounded.

Marie left him then, and made another speed run around the Welcome Back Diner. Tobias knew she'd be back, and he looked around.

There were teenagers sharing milkshakes, and a few grown ups in three piece suits standing around the jukebox. One woman was wearing a short sequined dress and lace headband, dancing to the music that was playing, and Tobias suddenly noticed that the jukebox was playing large vinyl records, and not CD's. Over at the other end, sitting in a booth, were two men in uniforms that looked like something that would appear on Star Trek, and one guy was dressed in a top hat and tails, making a coin vanish and reappear between his fingers.

The couple that had made a fuss over him at the front door were still peeking over. The man was scribbling something down on a napkin; and Marie suddenly reappeared back at the table. "Something wrong?"

Tobias shook his head, and pointed to a man in a Zoot Suit by the Jukebox. "I know that guy. I saw him in a movie once. I've never seen him in color before."

Marie burst out laughing. "Yeah, he was a big name in Hollywood, back in the day. Ah got his autograph in exchange for a bowl of beef stew. George took it out of mah tips. So worth it." She gave him a look. "So. Be honest with your waitress, kid."

Tobias flushed. The woman could see right through him. "I wanna go home. But I can't. I'm lost."

Marie reached one hand up delicately, as though reaching to pluck something from mid-air. Almost on cue, the same man that had noticed Tobias at the entrance swept by, putting a folded napkin in her hand without breaking stride, immediately returning to his girlfriend at the door. The two of them waved and slipped out.

Tobias wasn't sure which way to look for a moment, and Marie had promptly unfolded the napkin… which turned out to be a sketched map of the neighborhood. Marie turned the page to him, and Tobias felt his jaw drop. His street had already been circled on the map. Marie plucked a pencil from her hair and started drawing arrows on the map. "Like I said, people get where they need to be, and find what they need to find."

Tobias looked around the Diner again, suddenly realizing that none of it made sense. The door opened, and in strolled a big game hunter, with a shotgun over his shoulder. He mounted it on a frame above the booth where he sat down, taking off his pith helmet.

Marie grinned. "What can ah say? George likes his meat fresh. Ah'n speak of the devil..."

"What did you call me?" A heavyset man strolled up. He was wearing a white tunic and flannel apron. He had a parcel wrapped in newspaper in one hand, and a spatula in the other. "Marie, do you still work here, or what?"

"This is George, our Chef. His bark is worse than his bite. He made the fries."

"They're amazing." Tobias said immediately.

"That's right, and my other customers would like to find out just how amazing they are." George said roughly. "I don't suppose you're paying for your fries, so if my waitress would kindly get off her provocative little tush and get back to work before she finds out how bad my bite is..."

Marie rose to her feet with a sigh. "Seems mah break is ovah." Marie winked at him. "Get home safe, Tobias."

"Did I tell you my name?" Tobias asked, confused; but she was already gone.

George put the newspaper bundle on the table. "For you."

Tobias picked it up. "What is it?"

"Your doggie bag." George was already heading into the kitchen.

"I don't have a doggie any more!" Tobias called after him. "That's the problem!"

But George was gone. Tobias sighed and headed for the door. The lights of the Diner had been so warm and friendly that he'd almost forgotten it was the middle of the night. But armed with his map, and no longer cold or hungry, he made his way home.

He was halfway there when he unwrapped the package George had left. In it was a T-bone. It was fresh, still with leftover meat. There was some kind of rib-sauce on it too…

Wruf!

"Axe?" Tobias spun around, and found a familiar shape trotting after him, drawn by the smell of the meat. Tobias couldn't help it, he burst out laughing as he reattached the leash. "Well, let's go home, boy."

~~/*\~~

Cassie was waiting for him when he got home. Axe broke away from him again, trailing his leash, as he ran up to the girl on the porch. Cassie caught his face between her hands and the pup nearly wagged himself in half, so happy to see her.

"Axe, you're the most useless killer attack dog on the street!" Tobias complained as he came out of the dark.

Cassie saw him and jumped to her feet. "You're okay!" She ran over and gave him a hug. She broke it instantly. "Man, your folks are losing it! I could hear them from next door."

Tobias winced. "I'm dead."

"Not quite." Cassie reported. "They were furious when they saw the car, and by the way, you have to tell me all about that one." His eight year old neighbor smiled adorably at him. "But they're calling everyone from the cops, to the school, to the fire department. Last I heard, your mom was trying to buy a helicopter. Where have you been all night?"

"I was at a Diner, and they gave me directions home. Oh, Cassie; you gotta try the fries there!"

Wruf! Axe barked again, just as the front door flew open, and Tobias' mother came rushing out. "Toby! Are you okay?! Thank god you're safe; I'm going to kill you!"

"I had to find Axe!" Tobias wilted under her glare. When his mother threw her arms around him, he held on longer than she did, just so he wouldn't have to look at her face. "I'm sorry about the car."

"The car? Are you kidding? I don't care about the car. I got extra insurance the day you were born, just for this reason! I care about the fact that you've been out all night and I don't know where!" His mother snapped. "Cassie, go home. Tell your mom that he's safe."

"Yes'm." Cassie jumped up instantly and headed to the house next door. Tobias knew she wouldn't go any further than the mailbox before she turned to watch the whole thing.

Tobias spoke first. "I love you, mom!"

She shook a finger hard at him. "Oh, don't you dare! You could get away with that when you were cute and eight years old. But now you're nine and I'm not buying it! Didn't we cover stranger danger? Didn't we warn you about staying out late? Why didn't you call? No, I don't care. Where did you go?"

"I was… I found a Diner." Tobias told her. "There was a nice lady there who gave me directions home." He held up the napkin that Marie had written the directions on.

"She gave you directions?" She snatched the napkin off him. "She should have called me. Or called you a cab!"

"She sent him home." A voice said from the door, and Tobias' father stepped out. "And we can be glad that she did." He looked at Tobias. "So. If you were hiding out at a Diner all this time, I suppose you've eaten?"

Tobias was about to tell them about the life changing fries when he caught a glance of his mother's face and changed his mind. "No, I didn't have any money." Tobias told his mother.

"Well. I guess we'd better get you some dinner then." His mother let out a breath.

"We will not. Bed without supper." His father commanded. "And in the morning, we'll go through the whole ‘stranger danger' thing again, followed by a long list of reasons not to run away from home, no matter what you did; and then we'll figure out how long I'll have to dock your allowance to pay off what you did to the car."

Tobias shrank into himself. He knew it would be a long time.

"Now. Get to bed." His father finished, and took the napkin off his wife. "Right now, I'm going to this Diner of yours, and I'm going to give your waitress friend a generous tip."

~~/*\~~

Tobias came out to breakfast the next day, and his nose twitched. "Waffles, homemade syrup."

His mother smirked. "You can guess the syrup from the smell?"

"Marie said that ‘Home is where the food is'." Tobias said, as if that explained everything. "Your syrup smells better than the stuff from the store."

His mother gave him a look as he sat at the counter. "Well. This ‘Marie' apparently taught you a few things. Except for one thing." She put a street directory down on the counter next to his plate. "Her directions suck."

"They got me home."

"Your father followed those directions back precisely, and found a boarded up shoe store. He drove around in circles for half an hour, and couldn't find any Diner."

Tobias stared at her. "What? It was called The Welcome Back Diner. It had neon lights along the roof above the windows, and-"

"And it wasn't anywhere within ten blocks of where those directions lead." His mother said firmly. "Now then, you'll be eating this in your room. You're still extremely grounded. And if I hear your xbox switch on, I'm throwing it away."

"Yes'm." Tobias slid down from the counter, and took his plate with him. When he got to the door, he looked back. "Mom? You don't use a mix on these waffles either, do you?"

"No, I make them from scratch."

Tobias took a bite. They tasted better than he remembered. "Would you teach me how to make them? Please?"

~~/*\~~

Knock-knock.

Tobias went to his bedroom window and slid it open. Cassie was balanced on the fence between their bedroom windows. "How bad was it?" She asked.

"I may never see my allowance again, but mom made waffles. They're my favorite; so she must be glad to have me back." He reported, and held the plate out toward her. "Try the syrup."

Cassie ran a finger through the syrup left on his plate and tasted it. "Yummy."

"My mom makes it from tree sap. There's a maple tree somewhere out past the edge of town. Dad showed me once; he carved their initials on it. Every year on their anniversary, they go back there, and she taps the tree."

Cassie smiled. "That's a nice story."

Tobias nodded, thinking the same thing. Marie would have liked the story. "My mom's going to teach me how to make waffles." He said. "When I learn, you want to come over and have some?"

Cassie smiled hugely. "Yeah."


~~/*\~~

End of Chapter One

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