The Lost Girl This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 16, 2011
Outside, the asphalt sidewalk is dark and moist in the heat. The parking lot is empty. The air is still.

Bells ring above the dirty glass door of the diner. A white hand reaches in, followed by a face, obscured by blazing sunlight.

“Can I help you?” asks the waitress behind the counter. She watches as a child enters and lets the door snap shut. The sunlight fades.

“My name is Molly. I want a Coke. Please.”

The girl wears a yellow sweatshirt, jeans, and dirty sneakers. Her hair is brown. Her face is broad and ordinary, streaked with sweat. The waitress pours one for her and turns away, preparing to forget yet another face.

The waitress finds it best to forget every face she sees. She doesn't want to know the people who stumble in to escape the heat. She likes to keep to herself, and she likes everyone else to keep to themselves. She doesn't ask where they're from or where they're going, and she doesn't answer when they ask her.

“I want another Coke, please.”

The waitress is reminded of the girl. She glances at the table by the door where the girl sits alone, a canvas purse draped over the edge of the red leather booth. The purse looks empty, deflated. Maybe there's nothing in it but a few dollar bills and a chewing gum wrapper.

“You didn't finish the first one,” the waitress says with mild reproach.

The girl's brown eyes flicker to the half-full glass. A pool of water has formed around it.

“The ice melted. I want another.”

Wearily, the waitress lifts a section of the countertop and makes her way to the table by the door.

“Hey, kid, I don't mean to pry, but you've got money for this, right? I think I'd let you leave without paying if it was just one Coke, since you're some poor lost kid, but if I get you another, I want to see how you're paying for it. You got a few dollars in that bag?” The waitress reaches out for the glass but points at the canvas bag instead.

“Sure, I've got five dollars left over from birthday money. Can't you just get me another one? Please.”

The waitress doesn't like to pry, so she takes the half-empty glass and doesn't look at the girl until she returns with a new one. This time, she doesn't put in any ice.

The girl wraps both hands around the glass. She rests her chin on the edge of the table and doesn't seem to notice anything different. Hoping the girl will be quiet now, the waitress returns to her sanctuary behind the counter and washes and dries the first glass. There's a dishwasher in the kitchen but she likes doing it by hand if she has the time.

“Why didn't you put ice in this one?” the girl asks sharply. The question startles her, and the glass almost slips from her fingers.

“You said you didn't like it when the ice melted,” she replies, her voice becoming tight. She doesn't like creepy kids who think they can order adults around.

“I didn't say I didn't like it,” the girl counters without lifting her chin. The waitress notes with distaste her mocking tone. “I just said it had melted. Can't you put ice in this one? Please.”

“Can't you show me those five dollars from your birthday money, please?” demands the waitress snidely, setting down the glass and folding her arms across her chest. She's had about enough of this girl's nonsense.

The girl lifts her head and looks out the window as if she hasn't heard a word. This is very nearly the last straw. The waitress squares her shoulders and heads over to demand payment, but as she nears the table she is confronted with a rare and unexpected phenomenon.

Molly is crying. She makes no sound, not even a sniff, but bright tears leak from the corners of her dark eyes and stain her pale pink cheeks. She is perfectly still except for an occasional blink. The glass with its lack of ice is suddenly forgotten, pushed to the other side of the table, leaving tracks of water across the laminate.

“Well. I'm sorry.” The waitress doesn't know why she's sorry. She doesn't know why Molly is crying, and it certainly isn't because of the Coke, so the waitress has nothing to be sorry about. But she suddenly feels that this kid has something to be very, very sorry about, so she says it again. “I'm sorry, kid … Molly.”

“Guess why I'm here,” says Molly in a rush of words. She's still staring out the window and her cheeks are still wet, but her eyes aren't full anymore. Now she just looks worn, as if those silent tears took all the fight out of her.

“You wanted a Coke or two,” jokes the waitress, trying to lift the mood. Up close, Molly's sunny yellow sweatshirt is faded and has bits of grass stuck to the back as if she was lying on a lawn a second ago and hadn't bothered to brush it off.

“I ran away from home. I did. For real. Loads of kids talk about running away, you know, but it's like they haven't got the guts, but I actually did it. And here I am. Alive and everything. Lots of kids say they will but never do.” She pulls the sleeves of her sweatshirt over her hands and curls her fingers into fists full of cloth. There's grass in her hair too.

“Did you?” the waitress says politely. She used to think about running away but never did. Is this what it would have been like if she had? Would she have stumbled into this diner with grass on her yellow sweatshirt and tears in her eyes, desperate for the solace of a soda? “You want another one?” she asks suddenly. She doesn't realize that she's been leaning on the red leather booth across from Molly, and now she straightens up, “I'll get you another one.”

This time the waitress puts in extra ice and puts a small felt coaster under the glass, even though these are usually used just for beer. She hates to see those little pools forming around the bottom of the glass like it's decomposing.

Molly says nothing as the new glass is placed in front of her and the old one is removed. She glances away from the window and makes a brief swipe at her tears before reaching for the third Coke, the flash of a smile on her face. This makes the waitress's heart rise, even though she doesn't know why, since she doesn't know her, but she feels that it's better for lost kids to find a reason to wipe away their tears.

The waitress returns to hand-washing glasses, a mysterious smile on her face. Somehow a girl in a sunny yellow sweatshirt has brightened this day that had promised to be dull.

When she looks up from the checkered towel, the third glass of Coke is half-empty again. The ice is gone. Her smile begins to falter as the waitress takes in Molly's changed expression: narrow-eyed and grim, her jaw tense. There is no sign of tears now except for some redness around the rims of her eyes. Her shoulders are hunched.

“Finished?” asks the waitress carefully. She sets down the second clean glass beside the first. They cast pale reflections on the plastic countertop.

“The ice melted.”

The waitress is still unsure. She hesitates as she gets another glass from a shelf. She feels that something is suddenly not right, either with the girl or with the sweltering day beyond the dirty glass door. Just a moment ago all the colors seemed brighter, but now a cloud has passed across the sky. Molly's sweatshirt looks more gray than yellow. There is something unexpectedly menacing in the curve of her back and the chaos of her untamed hair.

Molly takes the fourth Coke without a “thank you” and draws it close while swiftly pushing the other away. This movement makes the waitress flinch. She puts a hand on the glass before it slides right off the edge of the table. She picks it up and peels the felt coaster from the bottom, slides it into her pocket. The glass is warm. The Coke looks dark, not diluted by melted ice. The straw is straight and round, unmarked by grinding teeth or bent by searching lips. The waitress wraps both hands around the glass and pauses, looking down.

“The ice melted?” the waitress asks, her voice high and thin. Her hands tense as she hears the leather squeal beneath Molly's shifting weight.

“Yup,” says the girl.

As she hurries back to her place behind the counter, the waitress is followed by the sounds of ice clanking against glass. She turns the faucet on high, ignoring the droplets that spray her apron. She thrusts the glass under the water and tries not to hear, but still the sound of ice being crushed between teeth reaches her ears. Didn't she hear it before? She takes the checkered towel and rubs the glass vigorously, focusing on familiar motions: once around the outside, around the rim, now the inside, down to the bottom, soak up every drop. The glass is dry but still she polishes, waiting for the noise to stop.

When she suddenly hears the bells ring, the waitress slams the third glass onto the counter beside the other two and looks up, ready to shout, but the girl is gone. The dirty glass door swings quietly shut behind her, and the brief flash of sunlight fades. A wave of heat rolls across the empty diner. A half-empty glass of Coke is sitting alone on the table by the door. The waitress feels a stab of desperate loneliness.

The girl has left her canvas bag hanging on the red leather booth. The waitress shakes it over the table. Nothing falls out. She reaches in with a weary hand. The bag is empty. She hangs it carefully over the booth again. She takes the glass in her hands, noticing the untouched straw, the undiluted soda, and the lack of ice. She returns to her place behind the counter, flips on the faucet, holds the glass under the water. She glances up out of the corner of her eye at the dirty glass door. Outside, the asphalt sidewalk is dark and moist in the heat. The air is still. The parking lot is empty.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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