“I’ve been at work five minutes and already have butter on my pants.” Rona swiped at the spot with a napkin.
“Could be worse,” I said.
“Hot bacon grease. On your arm.”
“Looking on the bright side all the time must hurt your eyes.”
“I’m only an optimist compared to you.”
The morning regulars trickled in — some coming off a night shift, others still slitty-eyed with sleep, all clutching fresh newspapers. They took their places while I moved among them, coffeepot in hand.
Some might call my life boring, but boring is how I keep myself from coming undone. The routine keeps everything tamped down. I don’t have joy and laughter, but I also don’t have weeping and heartache. Not anymore.
When the boy walked in, my flat little life rippled as if someone had dropped a quarter in a wishing fountain. But it wasn’t him. This boy was still a teenager, small and thin, shivering in a t-shirt and jeans.
“What’ll you have, kid?” Rona asked.
“I… I need a phone.” His voice quaked. Dirty fingernails clicked against the counter.
“Pay phone by the restrooms.”
“I… I don’t have any money.”
I touched Rona’s elbow. “Who do you want to call?”
His glance darted around the diner, green eyes wary of the danger he’d learned was out there, everywhere.
“Junkie,” Rona muttered.
“No,” I murmured back.
“I need to call my parents.”
“They local?” Rona asked.
She threw her arms into the air, washing her hands of the whole mess. I nudged her aside. “Would they accept a collect call?” I spoke quietly, resisting the urge to clasp his hands, to warm them, to feel the fragile bones beneath the thin flesh.
“I’m not sure,” he whispered, his face flushing in shame.
I plunked some quarters in front of him. “In case they don’t.”
He stared at the coins before sliding them into his palm. He headed for the phone.
“You know he’s just calling his dealer,” Rona said.
“I don’t think so.”
“There’s that bright side again. One of these days, you’re gonna go blind.” Rona left me to pick up her orders.
I didn’t correct her. This time she was right.
He lifted the receiver.
I closed my eyes, praying the voice–his mother? his father?–on the other end would accept the call, would welcome home a wayward son, like I’d so hoped to do. Did they wonder, like I used to, what if he calls tomorrow or next Tuesday or a month from Friday? Or never?
I opened my eyes. The boy sagged against the wall, receiver to his ear.
One of the regulars whistled, held up his cup. Another called for more cream. I hurried over.
When I returned to the counter, the quarters were scattered by the register. I looked, but the boy was gone. Home?
I picked up the quarters. They were still warm.
Madeline Mora-Summonte writes from one extreme to the other — from flash fiction to novels. She lives in Florida, with her husband. This story won an Honorable Mention in the WOW-Women On Writing & W. W. Norton 2008 Flash Fiction Contest.