A pale orange square-handled coffee mug sat on the counter in front of Nina as she sketched, completely oblivious to the din of the diner.
“One slice of cherry pie, fresh out of the oven,” said Jess, the pregnant 32-year-old server. She placed a speckled blue plate with a slice of sweet, steaming pie on the counter.
“I didn’t order that,” said Nina, not bothering to look up from her sketchbook. Despite being almost forty, she spoke with the tone of a teenager.
“Eat it. It’s on the house,” said Jess, a hint of motherly irritation in her voice. Nina was losing weight just as quickly as Jess was gaining it.
Before Nina could protest to the pie, Jess squeezed her bulbous belly through the little gap in the counter, a tray of eggs, waffles, and sides of bacon balanced above her head. She wished she could tilt the whole tray toward Nina’s mouth and force feed her back to health. But she knew from years of experience that forcing anything on Nina, even when she wasn’t grieving, was a wasted effort.
A young couple walked in the front door just then, their black raincoats slick with summer rain. They waited patiently at the hostess stand, but the diner hadn’t had a hostess in over a year. Not that they would know that.
“Gonna be a few minutes on a table,” Jess told them, “but there’s room at the counter.”
Back at the counter, Nina stared at the pie. She imagined dipping her finger in the gooey red filling and spreading it like paint—like blood—over the portrait she’d been sketching. The slightly smudged memory of a man with light curly hair, laughing and alive.
“What can I get you two?” Jess asked the couple who had just sat down two seats away from Nina. They were beautiful people, probably mid-twenties, both tall and lean with straight-but-not-too-white teeth, dressed in clothes a bit too sharp to be comfortable. They smelled like wet pavement and expensive cologne. And now that their faces were no longer hidden by hoods, Jess could see the man’s hair: blond and curly. She eyed Nina anxiously.
“Just two coffees for now,” said the man.
Jess nodded, smiling. “You got it.”
As she walked to the other end of the counter to grab the coffee pot, she passed Nina, who was just looking up from her sketchbook for the first time all morning to take stock of the strangers two seats down.
“Eat your pie, young lady,” Jess ordered, tapping the counter in a vain attempt to redirect Nina’s attention.
But Nina didn’t respond. She was now staring at the couple, practically ogling them, her neck craning like a hungry cat that had just spotted a sparrow in the grass.
Jess tried to ignore her growing worry as she returned to the couple with the coffee, pouring some into a sleek gray cup for the woman and a simple black mug for the man.
“Where are you two from?” asked Jess, trying to ignore Nina’s looming figure in her periphery.
“Chicago,” said the man. “We’re in town for a friend’s wedding.”
“Fun,” said Jess. “Are they having it at the old mill?”
“How did you know?”
“It’s the only wedding venue in town,” said Jess. “My wife and I got married there just last year.”
“Congratulations,” said the man.
As Jess and the man continued chatting, the young woman’s eyes wandered around the diner, taking in all the vibrant colors, the rich decor, the mismatched furniture and eclectic dishware. The laughter. The warmth. The life. She couldn’t help but compare the scene to their cold Chicago apartment. The one with too much glass and too much gray. She thought of the little watercolor painting she’d bought on a whim from a street artist and hung just above the mantle, only to take it down that very evening after the man sitting next to her insisted it threw off the room’s aesthetic.
When the woman’s eyes fell on Nina, she was taken aback. But it wasn’t the fact that Nina was staring that startled her. It was Nina herself. Her wild red hair pinned to the top of her head with paintbrushes, the gold and purple tasseled shawl draped over her shoulders, the heavy handmade rings that adorned her fingers, the tattoos of turtles swimming up her arms. She was chaos embodied. Exquisite. Creative. And free.
“And for you, love?” said Jess.
The woman looked up at Jess, then down at the laminated menu. “Sorry,” she said, “um, can I just have a bowl of fruit?”
“Sure thing,” said Jess. As she took their menus, she noticed the woman glancing back at Nina. “Don’t mind her,” Jess whispered. “She’s harmless.”
“Why is she staring?” The man looked down at his sportcoat. “Do I have something on my shirt?”
“No, she’s just…quirky,” Jess sighed. “And she’s my sister, so I can say that,” she added.
On her way back to the coffee maker, Jess stopped in front of Nina. “Cut that out,” she scolded. “You look like a madwoman.”
“His hair,” said Nina. “Do you see his hair?”
“Yes, I see his hair. Now please Nina, you have to eat something.”
Jess watched her sister’s face—her hollow cheeks and tired eyes—contort, crumple, and then go lifeless like a scrap of paper eaten by a flame. She glanced over her shoulder at the couple. The man had taken the woman’s hand and was holding it to his lips.
Jess looked back at her sister, who seemed to have just shrunk to half her original size. In an effort to console and commiserate, Jess placed her hand on Nina’s arm. But the gesture startled Nina, and she yanked her arm away, knocking the orange coffee mug onto the floor. With a sharp, sad, and symbolic shatter, the square handle broke off and slid across the checkered tile floor, stopping just under the young woman’s stool.
At the sound, the diner went quiet, and everyone peered in Nina’s direction. But Nina didn’t notice. She was making a b-line for the woman’s feet.
Jess hurried to the kitchen to grab the broom and dustpan as the diner noise resumed. Everyone went back to their meals, to their conversations and their laughter and their aliveness. Except for Nina. Nina was on her hands and knees, searching for the broken handle.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” said the young man, looking down at Nina just as she picked up the little orange handle. “Can we help you?”
Nina was momentarily entranced by the man with her late fiancé’s hair. But just as quickly, the spell was broken. It wasn’t him. The hair was familiar, but the eyes were wrong, the jaw too long, the nose too small.
As Nina got to her feet, looking down at the broken handle in her palms as if it were a fallen baby bird, the woman felt a strange urge to reach out and touch her.
Slowly, almost fearfully, Nina held out the handle, presenting it like a ring to the man. There were tears in her eyes as she spoke. “You don’t have as much time as you think. Don’t waste it.”
Confused and somewhat wary, the man accepted the handle. And then, in an instant, Nina was gone.
Jess appeared then, broom in hand. “Sorry about that,” she said to the couple, slightly out of breath. “Here, I’ll take that.” She motioned to the broken handle in the man’s hand.
But the man didn’t give it up. He was looking at the woman in wonderment, who was watching him, worried.
“Lauren,” he said, presenting the broken handle like a ring, just as Nina had done to him a moment ago. Jess stood motionless off to the side, holding both the broom and her breath.
“No,” whispered the woman. It was almost an involuntary response, one that seemed to surprise her as much as it surprised him.
The man’s expression fell. “What?”
“No,” said the woman, somewhat louder, somewhat surer.
“No?” asked the man.
She shook her head and began to back away. “No,” she said again, apologetically this time. “I’m sorry.”
The woman bumped into Nina’s empty stool then, the abandoned sketchbook catching her eye. Without thinking, she scooped it up, took one last look at the man, and then ran out of the diner and into the rain.
The man was stunned to the point of stillness, his hand still outstretched in offering to the woman that was no longer there.
Gingerly, Jess took the little orange handle from his grasp and walked back to the kitchen to dispose of the broken mug. When she returned, she had a piece of cherry pie on a plate, which she placed in front of him.
“I didn’t…” he began.
“Don’t worry. It’s on the house.”