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It was only eight o’clock in the morning; the sun streamed through the glass panels that bordered the walls on the east side of the diner. The crimson seats, dark and worn, sparkled as the light refracted off of the plastic, giving the place almost a magical feel.
Well, it would’ve been magical, if it weren’t for the cracked floor tiles, the out-of-date coffee machine and the chipped dishes that lined the back counter.
Aside from Henry, the homeless man that sat hunched in the booth in the very far corner—just like he did every day, without fail—the diner was completely empty. It was a slow day. But, then again, wasn’t it always?
Ellie tied her black apron around her waist and pulled back her golden hair into a loose ponytail, pressing her palms against the back counter as she peered through the window that opened too the kitchen in the back. “Good morning, Jim,” she greeted, just like she did every morning at the beginning of her shift.
“Nice to see the sun’s out,” he replied with a warm grin, throwing back the same remark as he always did—a reference to her hair, no doubt. Jim was the owner of the diner; a large, African American man with grey hair and a smile that could brighten the room. His voice was low and rough, and sometimes, Ellie wondered if he was somewhat related to Louie Armstrong. Jim was like the father she never had growing up with her single mother.
Laughter rang from the street, and Ellie naturally looked out the window to see the neighborhood kids engaged in a game of kickball.
“Jim, do we have any leftovers from last night?”
More often than not, the diner had a surplus of bread from the previous day. It was policy not to serve the leftovers. Instead of throwing it away, Ellie would give the food to Henry, who once told her that breakfast here was often his only meal of the day.
Jim handed her two sets of hamburger buns and a cinnamon roll in one of the blue plastic baskets that meals such as burgers, fries, and chicken strips were served in. Ellie smiled to herself when she saw the cinnamon roll, knowing that it was a very rare treat for the homeless man.
She trotted over to the booth at the end, and Henry glanced up at her from under his tattered Baltimore Orioles baseball cap. “Hello, Miss Ellie,” he acknowledged with his crooked smile.
“Good morning, Mr. Henry,” she responded, placing the basket in front of him. His eyes brightened at the food, and immediately, he dug his hands into the bread, shoveling it up to his mouth.
She left him alone and traipsed blissfully back to the cash register. For some unknown reason, Ellie was in an exceptionally good mood this morning.
It was quiet for the next few minutes, but Ellie found herself enchanted by the kickball game going on outside of the diner door. She watched as a little boy chased a girl near his age around the bases—he was unable to catch up to her, and when she hopped onto home plate, he slammed the ball down in frustration. He had to be only four or five.
“Excuse me, Miss Ellie?” Henry called from the other side of the diner, raising his left hand half-heartedly by his ear.
She made her way back to his booth.
“How may I help you?”
He wiped his hand subconsciously over his brow. “Would you do me a favor, Miss, and let me tell you about something very dear to me?” His boundless politeness never failed to astound her. Compared to just about everyone she knew, he had the best manners.
It was against policy to sit and talk with customers, but Jim was hidden in the back, and there was obviously very little business for the time being. “I can spare a few moments.”
Sliding carefully into the booth, opposite of the homeless man, she propped her thin hands delicately on the surface of the table.
Henry reached with shaky palms into his coat pocket. He had one jacket that he wore every day—it was green, ripped, and caked in dirt. She didn’t mind. Underneath his coat was a very complex individual, and over the past six months that she’d worked at the diner, she’d only peeled back a few layers of his shell.
She watched intently as he pulled out a small rectangular piece of paper. It was white, shiny, and in perfect condition, contradictory to the rest of his appearance. She frowned in confusion until he flipped it over and laid it on the center of the table.
It was a photo. To be more specific, a school picture, by the looks of it.
In the two-by-three piece of cardstock, a little girl was framed. Her skin was pale, her hair dark, curling in thick tresses past her shoulders. She had to be only five or six, with her rounded cheeks and button nose. Her smile was crooked, but her brown eyes were glimmering—she was truthfully a very beautiful child.
Before Ellie could speak, Henry leaned closer and voiced, “Her name is Daisy. Daisy Jane Pippen. She is five and a half years old.”
Ellie was a bit skeptical of the possible reasons for Henry to have a picture of a little girl in his pocket, but she didn’t dare interrupt. She interlaced her fingers together, swallowing any words or questions that bubbled to the surface of her throat, letting him continue.
“I wasn’t always homeless, you know,” he resumed, gazing down at the photo of Daisy with an expression of reverence shimmering in his dark eyes. “ I used to have a home, and a job, and a beautiful wife. We lived in Ohio, and got married in the spring of ’99… And we bought a beautiful old house with a white picket fence out front. Genevieve, my wife, got pregnant soon after, and we had the most beautiful baby girl in the entire universe.”
Ellie watched the man as his eyes scanned the photo, exploring every detail. A slight hint of a smile lingered on his cracked, dry lips—he traced the edge of the picture with his index finger.
“Daisy is your daughter,” Ellie stated placidly, recognizing the similarities between Henry and the child in the picture. They had the same thick, dark hair, their crooked smiles matching. But the primary resemblance between the two were the chocolate eyes that seemed to hold a thousand secrets.
The man nodded, gulping, and then continuing. “Genevieve picked up Daisy from school every afternoon. But one day…” His voice was cracking, each word tinted with tremor. “It was October fifth, 2005. I remember that day like it was just yesterday… It was strangely warm for that time of year, as I recall. My wife went to get my baby and the teacher told her that Daisy was marked absent for the day. That she’d never showed up. Genevieve told the teacher that there must’ve been a mistake, because she remembered Daisy walking through the front doors, into the school, that very morning. But no. There was no mistake.
“The police did their searches, their interrogations. They pinned the blame on me at first because I had no alibi. But then they found evidence that cleared me, although they wouldn’t tell either me or my wife any details. Our daughter was abducted, and she was just a baby! Only five and a half!”
A tear escaped from the corner of Henry’s eye, and even Ellie could feel a thin coat of liquid forming behind her lids. “What happened?” she whispered.
He just shook his head, wiping off his cheek with his hand and sniffling. “Genevieve drove herself mad. She would go out in the afternoons, a total wreck, and then not return until morning. She would say, ‘The police aren’t even looking for our baby, so I have to do the work.’ But she never found any leads, and the police were at a dead end… I never gave up hope that Daisy would come back to us, but there was just nothing I could do, you know?
“I think Genevieve eventually realized that she was getting no where. But she wouldn’t admit it to herself. At first, she would take it out on herself, and I’d try to comfort her. Then she’d just take it out on me. She’d say things like, ‘If you truly loved me, you’d help,’ and ‘You don’t want to find her.’ And every day it would just grow more and more painful, because Daisy was my life. I would’ve given everything just to get her back. But there was nothing to be done. And I told Genevieve that, one day. And she didn’t want to hear that. So she threw me out, and told me I could come back once I started caring about my family.”
Beside the sound of tires skidding against the pavement outside, the whole world seemed to have fallen absolutely still.
Ellie wanted to speak. She desperately wanted to say a string of words that could comfort the man, but she knew in her heart there was nothing that could make it better.
“So I left. I packed my bags and headed out, following the one lead that I had. And it led me here, to this city. The lead, in the end, was a complete bust. I found nothing. I tried to build some sort of home here for me, but I had no money. I had to sell my clothes and belongings for money to buy food. I slept in homeless shelters, which was humiliating. But those places can’t keep you forever. So now, I stay in whatever place will take me. I rarely eat, except for here in the mornings. I want to go back to my wife someday. But I don’t know what I’d say. And I don’t know how I’d get there.”
The bell on the front door jingled, and a woman with a baby on her hip pushed through the entrance. Ellie glanced up at her, and then remembered her place, springing off the seat like a jack-in-the-box and prancing over to seat the woman at a booth in the middle. After taking her order and handing it to Jim in the kitchen, she sat back down at Henry’s table.
“I’m really sorry,” she murmured quietly. “Don’t get me wrong, but why are you telling me about this today? You’ve sat here in this same booth, every single morning, for six months…”
Henry looked up, staring straight into her bright green eyes.
“Today would’ve been her eleventh birthday.”
Absolute silence followed for what could’ve been a thousand years.
Ellie managed to retain her composure for the final duration of the conversation, that ended shortly after. She apologized again for his situation, and offered to get him some coffee or a soda, on the house. He refused politely and told her that her time was worth more than anything, and that was all he could ask of her.
She nodded marginally, and then slid carefully from the booth.
Jim handed her the woman customer’s order, and she walked it to her table. “Bon appetite,” Ellie muttered, mustering up as much enthusiasm as she could manage.
“Jim, I’m going to take a quick bathroom break,” she announced as she poked her head through the window into the kitchen. Before waiting for a reply, she dashed to the restroom, slamming the door behind her.
The artificial light that bled from the ceiling tinted everything slightly blue, and with shaky hands, she pressed her palm to both sides of the porcelain sink and stared blankly at her reflection in the mirror. In her head, she replayed the conversation over and over, her heart plummeting in her chest with each thought.
Today would’ve been her eleventh birthday.
And with that, Ellie lost it. Uncontrollable sobs ripped through her chest, escaping from her lips. She covered her mouth as to muffle the sound, but that didn’t stop the tears from streaming down her cheeks. Pressing her back to the wall, she slid to the floor, her head falling in between her knees. Every time she closed her eyes, all she could see was the photo of the five-year-old girl. She felt sick to her stomach.
After quite some time, she heard a knock on the bathroom door.
“Sunshine, are you alright in there?”
Ellie sniffled, trying to make her tone even. “I’m fine,” she responded as unemotionally as possible, but her voice cracked.
There was a pause before Jim spoke, but she knew he was still there. She stood up slowly, wiping her pants with her hands, and then running her fingers through her hair. They were still shaking.
Jim coughed. “Well, please be quick. We have customers.”
She listened intently for his footsteps as they began to fade. When she was sure he was gone, she coughed a few times, and then turned to the mirror, wiping off any makeup smudges.
And with a round of deep breaths, she swept her hands across her apron, clutching the brass doorknob, and twisting it open.