The diner’s light shines into the lonely darkness like a warm beacon, offering comfort to those unfortunate enough to be up at this peculiar hour. From inside Claire squints, trying to see past her own reflection in the window, but she can make out nothing beyond the blue-black sky and the slightly darker shadows of the surrounding buildings. Settling herself deeper into the vinyl seat of the booth, she yawns and rubs her eyes with the cuff of her worn sweater.
“You okay?” Declan asks from beside her, his own eyes a map of vivid red lines, his hands jittering with caffeine.
Claire smiles and nods, burying a yawn in the crook of her arm.
Across from them Marcus’s leg bounces up and down impatiently while he stares into the impenetrable night through the glass. Doubt deepens the creases around his mouth, and Claire wants to ask once more if he’s certain. Certain that River’s mother is ready to move on. Certain that this is the place where they’ll find her. Instead she takes a sip of her coffee, grimacing despite the copious amounts of milk and sugar, and glances around the diner where she’s spent the majority of her day waiting for a woman who might show up.
It’s nice enough, but not a place most people would choose to go in the light of day — the faux-granite finish of the tables is peeling away, revealing the cheap particle board beneath, and each of their three plain white coffee cups can be differentiated by its unique chips and hairline cracks. The sandwiches and fries they had shared hours earlier had been greasy and plain, but at least the bumbleberry pie Claire had ordered afterwards had been flaky and sweet. It was the kind of place that catered to regulars — the ones who had long ago found something to love (maybe the pie, Claire thinks) and had developed a sort of loyalty to the place — and to people out so late that they didn’t have any other option. Claire wonders which type of customer Lana would be.
With a snort, Marcus turns and drops his heads into his hands, running them back through his tousled black and silver hair. “This is stupid. I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”
“You didn’t really drag us,” Claire points out. “We came willingly.”
“Yeah, but you really didn’t have to stay this long.”
“It’s fine, Marcus,” Declan says through a yawn, “We’re fine.”
Marcus levels his gaze at him, raising an eyebrow. “You look terrible, kid.”
“You do look a bit rough,” Claire admits, “You should take a break. Get some sleep and text me in the morning.”
“I don’t need…” he begins, but stops to stifle another yawn.
“She’s right,” Marcus says, “We got this for a while longer.”
“You sure?” Despite the question in his voice, Declan is already pushing himself to his feet, pausing to stretch once out of the booth.
The door to the diner jingles behind him and they all crane their necks in anticipation. A trio of women in heavy work boots enter noisily, pushing each other and laughing at some private joke. After a moment, Declan turns to his companions and shrugs. “Let me know if you see her, or hear anything, or… whatever.”
The others wish him goodnight and return to vigilant silence once more.
Occasionally one or two people slip inside, but more often people trickle out and most of the booths remain empty. On a Friday night, Claire imagines the place might have a livelier crowd, but on a Tuesday like today it is quiet enough to hear the soft jazz that plays from speakers in the ceiling.
“You should have went with him,” Marcus says without looking her way.
“It’s kinda nice actually.”
“What?” he asks.
“I don’t know if I can put it into words.” She sips her lukewarm coffee and tries to make sense out of her sleep-addled thoughts. “It’s like… you know that relaxing feeling when it rains and you can enjoy it from somewhere safe? Or like… the way you feel around a campfire, where the darkness is always an arms length away? Like you feel that much more comfortable because discomfort is right there, just out of reach? I feel like that here.”
“Is that what this whole restaurant thing with Lucy is about?” There is a shortness to the question, a hint of disapproval that Claire hopes is just tiredness.
“A place for people to hide from the rain?”
“Well,” Claire says, rifling through her ideas for the best explanation, “sometimes, yes. But I’d also like to give people an umbrella.”
“An umbrella?” Marcus raises his brow skeptically.
“Hey you picked the metaphor,” Claire jabs, “I just mean that I — we — want to create a safe space. Somewhere like Ganymede, if less long-term, but also… also something more. A larger community that can network and provide for each other. A place that connects people to the tools they need to get where they want to go. Maybe that just means a quiet place to do homework on weeknights. Or somewhere for a cheap meal where they can find out about mental health resources. Or somewhere where they can feel at home when they can’t actually go home. A place people are drawn to for the food and comfort, but that is also educated and prepared to help people through crises.”
“People like Lana.” Resignation laces Marcus’s voice, and he sighs heavily.
“People like all of us,” Claire says.
“And what do you get out of all of this?”
A few years ago, when Claire had only known how to live for others, this question might have taken her aback. A few years ago she might have branded it as selfish and dismissed it. Tonight, she is all too ready with the answer:
“I get to create it.”
“Is that what you want?” he asks, but there is less bite to this question and the hint of a smile plays at his stubble-lined mouth.
“He’s gonna miss you, you know.” Marcus inclines his head toward the empty space beside her.
Claire smiles, a wistful melancholy settling over her shoulders. She wraps her arms around herself, trying to dispel it. “I’m going to miss him too. But I’ll visit a lot. We’re not going far and… who knows… maybe we’ll end up building it right here.”
Marcus chuckles, “That’d be nice.”
“Are you going to miss me too?”
“Nah,” he says, “If that happens, I’ll just come find you.”
Claire laughs and then pauses, “How come you asked us to come tonight? Me and Declan?”
“Company?” He shrugs. “Seemed better than waiting alone.”
“Yeah,” Claire says, “but why us? Why not River and his grandma? Or Art? Or Mack for that matter?”
“I dunno,” he grumbles, “Didn’t seem right getting the kid’s hopes up. And Mack’s been busy with the shop. Guess I was kind of nostalgic.”
“Nostalgic?” Claire says, quietly enjoying his poorly-concealed embarrassment, “You mean our lantern hunting days?”
With a roll of his eyes, Marcus takes a drink from his empty cup of coffee. Claire is about to tease him further when his cellphone rings.
“Hey,” he answers, “what’s up?”
Claire listens but can’t make out the voice on the other end of the call.
“Nope. Still here,” he groans, pinching the space between his eyebrows. “I don’t know. Could be all night. Yeah, I love you too.”
Mack, Claire realizes.
“Go,” she mouths at Marcus. He shakes his head and she makes a shooing motion with her hands.
“One sec,” he says into the phone before pressing it into his shoulder. “I’m not leaving you alone.”
“No,” Claire corrects, “you’re not leaving him alone. I got this.”
“Marcus,” she interrupts, “I promise it’s fine. Take a break. Check in with me in a bit if you want. I’ll call you if anything happens.”
He squints at her, lifting the phone and then setting it against his shoulder again.
“Go!” she urges. “I love being in places like this by myself. It’s mysterious and haunting and it’ll help me with the concept stuff for the restaurant so just go already.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! You can buy me breakfast in the morning if you feel so bad.”
“Hell, I’ll cook you breakfast in bed,” he says, lifting the phone to his ear. “Yeah. It was Claire, she’s gonna cover for a bit and I’ll come home.”
Home, Claire notices, the warmth of the word rushing from her head to her toes. When was the last time Marcus thought of anywhere that way? she wonders.
Marcus hangs up and hurries to his feet. “Thanks Claire. Call me if you need anything.”
“Alright,” she says.
“Anything,” he repeats, walking backward towards the exit.
“Yes!” Claire says, shaking her head and waving.
Once he is out of sight, Claire rubs her eyes again and begins rifling through her bag for a book to read. A visit to Mack’s shop this afternoon means she has a handful of options and first she selects the last installment of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series. After rereading the first page three times, she returns it to the bag and pulls out the Prince and the Dressmaker instead, letting the bold images wash over her even when her brain refuses to process the text.
After casually flipping through more than half of the book, she is interrupted by the sound of a woman clearing her throat. She might have jumped if she’d been more awake, but instead she blinks slowly and turns toward the source of the sound.
“I’m sorry,” the waitress apologizes, her voice hardly more than a whisper. She lifts a carafe of dark liquid. “More coffee?”
Claire cringes but nods her head, holding out her cup.
“I don’t like it either,” the waitress half-whispers, “but when you’re up this late…” She shrugs and begins clearing away Declan and Marcus’ mugs.
“Difficult shift,” Claire says, pouring three plastic containers of milk into her cup.
“Weeknights aren’t bad. At least they’re pretty slow,” she says, tossing her head to clear her long dark hair from her eyes. As she does Claire notices something glinting at her neck.
“That’s a beautiful necklace.” Claire’s eyes drift from the jeweled compass to the name tag pinned to her shirt. Her mind feels suddenly awake, a low hum of electricity running up her spine and forcing her upright in her seat.
“Thank you. I… I think it might be a gift from my son.” The woman’s long, delicate fingers brush the blue glass face of the compass and lovingly stroke the fine chain. “The package had my name but no card or return address or anything.”
“He misses you.” It slips out, but Claire isn’t sure there is anything else she could have said.
Without hesitation the woman — Lana — sets the cups back down onto the table and slips into the booth across from Claire. “Do you… do you know him?”
Claire nods. “River.”
Lana inhales sharply at the name, reaching across the table to take Claire’s hands.
“Is he okay?” she asks. “Is school going alright for him? Does he… does he hate me?”
“He misses you,” Claire says once more, breathing deeply to steady her voice.
Lana nods, tears silently coursing down her brown cheeks.
“Do you want to see him?” Claire asks, “Are you ready to come home?” She tries to infuse the word with the same warmth that Marcus had used but, she realizes, that’s really up to Lana.
“I… I think so,” she says, “I’ve been so scared. That he’d be angry. That I’ve failed him.”
Claire grips her hand tighter. “I’ll wait here until you’re ready to go.”
Lana considers her, and for a moment Claire thinks she might question this stranger that says she knows her son. Instead she just says: “Now.”
While Lana gets her coat and makes some calls in the back, Claire dials Marcus’ number.
“Hey Marcus… I know you just left but… I think you might want to be here for this.”
An hour later, Mack is driving them home from the diner in a little green Hyundai that Claire has never seen before. Marcus sits in the front passenger seat while Claire continues holding Lana’s hand in the back. The sky is already lightening outside the window, and Lana watches the streaks of bruise-coloured clouds float by like sand through an hourglass, like time slipping away from her, or perhaps not moving fast enough. Claire lets go of her hand long enough to text Declan a request. To her surprise, he answers quickly; she wonders if she woke him, or whether he’d even managed to fall asleep at all.
The drive is short but feels much longer in the silence. When they arrive in the driveway of the big Victorian house, Lana hurries out of the car and strides to the front door as if pulled by a thread, almost stumbling up the steps. Claire follows close behind, Marcus and Mack a few short steps behind her.
Before Lana reaches the door, Declan opens it and motions her inside. The hall light is on and its brightness forces Claire to blink several times. As her eyes adjust she sees the little boy, jumping up from his grandmother’s lap where she sits on the couch in the sitting room. Without a word he embraces his mother’s legs, but she pries him off and instead lifts him into her arms, plying him with kisses.
“I’m home, baby. I’m home now.”
Declan moves beside Claire and grasps her hand, and she notices the shining trail down his cheek. Marcus nudges her with a shoulder and motions with his head out the window. The slightest hint of pink is appearing over the horizon.
“I believe I owe you breakfast.”
“I believe you do,” Claire says, trying to conceal a sniffle.
“I know I said I’d cook, but think you could lend a hand? We’ve got a few more people than I was expecting.”
Claire glances around the crowded hallway where Lana, still holding River, is now embracing her mother. Toward the kitchen she can hear the shuffle of slippered footsteps before Art’s head pops around the corner. She’s sure Sara isn’t far behind.
Claire rubs the tears and the tiredness from her eyes, turning back to Marcus. “Pancakes?”