ARIANA: As Vicky refilled my mug (“Free refills,” she said.), she asked, “Haven't seen you in here before. New in town?”
I nodded. “Just moved here from Dandridge.” I held out my hand. “I'm Ari.”
She shook my hand. “I'm Vicky.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Likewise,” she said.
“If you don't mind me asking,” I said, my curiosity getting the better of me.
“Be my guest,” she said.
“Are you first-generation like I am or has your family been here a long time?” I asked.
“Fourth generation,” Vicky said. “My great-grandparents moved here from Chicago about a century ago. They started this restaurant in 1923. I've got some old photos of them, if you want to see them.”
“Yes, please,” I said.
She went into the back of the restaurant and returned with a small pile of photos. “They're mostly black-and-white. The first one is what this area looked like in the early 1920s. The town wasn't called Ellington back then, though.”
“Oh?” I said. “What was it called at first?”
“Before the Civil War it was called Pryor,” she explained. “But after it successfully resisted attacks by Union General Sherman and his army, it was nicknamed Sherman's Folly. It wasn't until the 1950s when most of us voted to change it to Ellington.”
“As in Duke Ellington, the Jazz bandleader and composer?” I asked.
Vicky nodded. “Not everyone approved of the name change, though. Some still don't like it. My grandfather certainly didn't. I asked him why once and he'd get mad and say, 'Pryor was good enough for all these years. If you ask me, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' We never discussed it again after that.”
“I wonder what the late Richard Pryor thought it,” I mused. “Assuming he knew about it, of course.”
“He did,” she said. “He came here in the mid-1970s. When people told him about the name change after his show at the local theater, he laughed and said that if people didn't like his last name, that was their problem, not his. At least they'd left the theater's name alone.”
“What's it called?” I asked.
“The Pryor Theater,” she said. “Built back in the 1900s and first opened on September 30, 1910.” She showed me an old black-and-white photo of it from the 1920s.
“Does it still look like that?” I asked.
Vicky nodded. “It was renovated a few years ago. As beautiful now as it was a hundred years ago. You should go there and see it for yourself.”
“I think I will,” I said. “Maybe tomorrow after work.”
“They have an annual Christmas show that honors the local vets,” she went on. “There's a toy drive and the money earned from tickets to the show is donated to local charities.”
“That's nice of them,” I said. “I wish I could've gone to it while I was still in the Marines.”
“You're a vet?” she asked.
I nodded. “Discharged a year ago after returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan.”
Vicky made a face. “You should've told me that sooner.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because vets get to eat here for free,” she said.
“I didn't want any special treatment,” I said.
“Even though you've earned it?” she asked.
“May I ask why?” Vicky asked. “Or is it none of my business?”
“You can ask,” I said. “I always thought that people were sorry for me. Even in Afghanistan. Kind of like in the story, 'The Ugly Duckling'.”
“You seem just fine to me,” she said. “Did they ever get to know you? The real you?”
“Most didn't,” I said and wished that I hadn't said anything about this. I'd had trouble discussing it with my parents. Yet here I was talking about it with someone I'd just met and barely knew. “It was a war zone and my buddies just accepted me as I was. One in particular. A very nice man named Isaac.”
“Sounds like you should've married him,” she said.
“I wanted to,” I said. “But not until we were both back Stateside. I didn't want to be a war widow in case he got killed.”
“Did he?” Vicky asked.
“I'm so sorry, Ariana,” she said. “Is that why you moved here?”
“One of the reasons,” I said. “I wanted a new start. Somewhere where I had no past.”
“You picked a good town, then,” she said. “Some of my regular customers did the same thing. They like the low amount of nosiness in Ellington. Even those who said that living here was only temporary have stayed longer.”
“I can't blame them,” I said. “It's a beautiful town. Like Dandridge, there apparently are few people complaining about the old homes and buildings.”
“They exist,” Vicky said. “But they're definitely in the minority. We even like having an artists' colony scattered across Ellington.” She pointed at a painting on the wall behind me. “That was a gift from one of the artists.”
I looked at the painting. It was of Ellington's town square with the town hall at its center and a sunset sky behind it. I could also see part of the town square around it.
“Wow,” I said. “That was some gift.”
“And he was some guy,” she said wistfully. “We dated for a little while, but eventually we grew apart. Nothing lasts forever. Not even love.”
“Does he still live here?” I asked.
“He moved away,” Vicky said. “I knew it was pretty much over and done with when he stopped contacting me. He didn't even say 'Good-bye' because it felt too permanent. He would ask, “After all, who knows what'll happen in the future?' ”
“What if he comes back?” I asked.
“That depends on if he comes alone or with someone,” she said.
I finished my second hot chocolate, turned down a second free refill, and handed the mug to her.
“See you tomorrow?” Vicky asked. “You might meet some of the regulars at breakfast. They arrive here about 7 a.m., have breakfast, and then head off to work.”
“No promises,” I said. “But I'll come if I can. Thanks for the hot chocolate.”
“You're welcome,” she said. “Nice meeting you, Ariana.”
“Likewise,” I said and left the restaurant.
Outside, the sky was darkening. But whether that had to do with time of day and/or the weather, I didn't know. I hadn't brought an umbrella along. Better to walk home quickly than to go slowly. Just in case.
About an hour after I got home, the phone rang. I put down the book I was reading and answered the phone on the third ring.
ARIANA'S MOM: I sat in silence in one of the two chairs in the living room. My daughter's absence yawned inside of me like a huge shell-hole on a battlefield. I couldn't even think of making any plans for Christmas. I wanted something or someone to fill that hole.
My husband calmly sat in the other chair, reading today's newspaper. I tried not to stare at him.
“How can you do that, Dominick?” I asked him. “Just take it so casually.”
“I'm not taking it so casually, Marina,” he said. “There is nothing I can do to change what happened, short of driving back to Ellington, kidnapping him -- I mean, her -- and bringing her back here by force. Since kidnapping is illegal, what would you have me do instead? Don't you trust her to be able to take care of herself? She is an adult now, after all. Or why else did we agree to help her move to her new apartment in Ellington?”
I sighed. “You're so . . . so infuriating . . . when you're right.”
He smiled. “There is something you can do. Actually, we could both do it.”
My left eyebrow rose. “There is?”
Dominick nodded. “We can call him -- I mean, her. Sorry about that, Marina. I'll try to keep it straight as best I can. I'm still not used to it as much I wish I was.”
“How call her?” I asked.
Just so you, the reader, knows, I'm not usually this thick-headed. But during this conversation, I didn't always think clearly and logically. Fortunately, the same wasn't true for my husband. Lucky him.
“The usual ways,” he said. “Either by phone or via Skype or Zoom. She might not have her laptop turned on, though, so the phone might be the better way. Didn't she give you her new phone number?”
It was my turn to nod. “Yes, she did. Just after we finished helping her assemble her new bed.”
“Then call her,” he said. “We can even take turns talking with her.”
I picked took the cell phone out of my pants' front pocket and dialed Ariana's phone number. It rang once, twice, and then on the third ring Ariana answered.
“Hi, Mom,” she said. “It's nice to hear from you. Though it's only been about six hours since you headed back to Dandridge.”
“Hi, Ariana,” I said and remembered to press the “speaker phone” button. “I just wanted to know if everything's all right.”
Once a mother always a mother. And mothers, as my own mother used to tell me, will always worry. No matter what. We can't help it. It comes with the territory. After all, terrible things could happen when you're too far away to do anything about it.
“Everything's fine,” she said. “I walked to the town square and had two mugs of hot chocolate at the ice cream fountain. The current owner, Vicky, is really nice.”
“Does she know?” Dominick asked her.
There was a pause. “I haven't told her yet, Dad. She only knows me as Ariana. I'd like to keep it that way for now. It's easier that way. For me, anyway. Hopefully I'll be able to tell her in a few months. And anyone else I come into contact with. I'd rather not lie unless there isn't a better option. I prefer the truth whenever possible.”
“The truth is always better than a lie,” I said.
“I know,” Ariana said. “You both raised me well.”
“Any ideas about what you're going to do for Christmas?” Dominick asked her. “It's only a few weeks away. Would you rather celebrate it there or come back here and celebrate it with us?”
“I'd rather be with you both,” she said. “I'll let you know if I'm staying in Ellington instead.”
“Take care of yourself,” I said.
“I will,” she said.
“We both miss you,” I said.
“And I miss you both,” Ariana said. “If I run into any problems I can't solve, I'll call you. I promise.”
“Call, write, or email,” I said.
“Of course,” she said. “Anything else?”
I glanced at my husband. He shook his head. “That's all for now, I guess,” I told my daughter. “Love you.”
“And I love you both,” she said. “G'bye.”
“G'bye,” Dominick and I both said.
The phone call over, I tried not to cry. Even when a child isn't a child anymore it's not always easy to let go of them. All I could do is keeping trying to and eventually I might succeed.
“There,” my husband said, reaching over to me and holding my right hand in his left hand. “Feeling better now?”
I shook my head. “Not really. At least when she left for college, the university wasn't far away.”
“What about when she had to travel to Afghanistan?” he asked.
“It hurt, but I figured she'd come back home between each tour of duty,” I said. “I trusted that God would watch over her and keep her safe.”
“And when she fell in love with Isaac?” Dominick asked.
“I felt that he would do his best to protect her from harm,” I said.
“Say -- why don't we go out for dinner?” he asked. “And maybe see a movie at the drive-in theater afterward.”
I almost turned his suggestion down. But then I realized anything was better than staying at home, missing Ariana, and crying my heart out.
“All right,” I said. “Let's.”
He stood up, walked over to me, lifted me into his arms, and kissed me. “I've been wanting to do that all day.”
I found myself smiling. “I love you, Dominick.”
“And I love you, Marina,” he said.
ARIANA: I sat near the living room window, looking outside. A light rain was falling from the evening sky. Some of the drops hit the window and slid down.
It hadn't rained much in Afghanistan. Not during their dry season, anyway. How the farmers kept their crops irrigated enough was a mystery to me.
I remembered the day when Isaac and I both had leave. We decided to spend it together, climbing up a hill near the base. Armed, of course, because you never knew when the Taliban would attack and which direction they would attack from. This hill had been cleared by an American patrol earlier that day, but it could've been reoccupied by the Taliban in the meantime. We got lucky, though. When we reached the top of the hill we were the only people there. There wasn't much vegetation. Some low bushes and a few clumps of wild grass. We sat down side-by-side in a clear spot between two bushes. We were far enough from any eyes at the base below that it felt safe enough to hold hands. His hand was warm and strong.
“Have you had any second thoughts?” Isaac asked me.
“About what?” I replied.
“Whether you'll re-enlist after you return Stateside,” he said.
“Aren't you going Stateside too?” I asked.
He looked thoughtful. “I thought I'd stay here. The base commander said that I might get a promotion if I stay and start new duties.”
“Despite the dangers?” I asked.
Isaac shrugged. “We've faced those dangers a thousand times.”
“Together,” I reminded him. “Not when we were alone.”
“True,” he said with a nod. “But I think I'll be okay. I'll feel better when you're out of harm's way. You might have to deal with a letter or email or Skype call every day from me, though.”
“I'd rather have you with me instead,” I said, gently squeezing his hand. “Lacking that, frequent letters, emails, or Skype calls will be just fine. That way I know you're okay. That you aren't hurt. Or worse.”
“Then why worry about what might happen rather than what will happen?” he asked.
“I probably inherited my worrying from my mother,” I said. “When my father had to get surgery for his back, my mother was at the hospital every day. And sometimes also every night. I couldn't go with her. I had college classes and a part-time job. I couldn't skip either one, even if only temporarily.”
“I never went to college,” Isaac said.
“Not even for a semester or two?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Couldn't afford it. Joined the Marines right out of high school. Can't say I don't miss the chance to go to college. Well, maybe I do a little. But it's been a great time serving my country. Especially since I met you, Nicky.” He smiled and gently squeezed my hand. “What about you? Sorry you didn't get a job Stateside instead of here in Afghanistan?”
“If I'd stayed Stateside, I would never have met you, Isaac,” I said.
“So it's been worthwhile?” he asked.
I smiled. “Definitely.” And kissed him.
VICKY: I finished cleaning up, locked up the restaurant, and headed home. My husband was already there, waiting for me.
He put his arms around me and kissed me. “Our house always feels emptier when you aren't here, Vicky.”
“Likewise, Nate,” I said. “Any news to share?”
“Nothing beyond the usual,” he said. “What about you?”
“Met a new resident today,” I said.
He looked interested. “Oh? Good-looking?”
“Only if I was a lesbian,” I said.
“Hmm,” he said. “Would it be okay if I also met her?”
“Seriously?” I asked.
Nate shook his head. “I wouldn't trade you for anyone. Ever.” He noticed my silence and went on, “What else about her?”
“She said she used to be a vet,” I said.
“And you don't believe her?” he asked.
“I'm not sure what to believe,” I said. “I know it's rude to be nosy, but she's so mysterious it's hard to avoid being nosy.”
“Why not be patient and wait until she's ready to tell you more?” he asked.
“Because it isn't the easy thing to do,” I said.
Nate laughed and held me close.
I laid my head on his shoulder.
“Don't ever change, my darling,” he said softly. “I love you just the way you are.”
“Likewise,” I said.
Another pause and he asked, “Are you going to try to learn more about her?”
“You know me too well,” I said.
“Just be careful,” Nate said. “Some people have very good reasons for not discussing their past, or even their present.”
“I'll be careful,” I said.
“I have an idea,” he said. “Why don't we have a picnic on the back deck, beneath the stars?”
“You mean, like we did on our first date?” I asked.
He nodded. “Well?”
“If you'll grab the towels, I'll get the picnic basket ready,” I said.
“Consider it done,” Nate said.