"Now how did I wind up here?" Tobias whined a little. He looked back the way he came and had no idea what he was looking at. One street looked like another after dark. He'd only taken two chocolate bars with him, and had eaten them both within an hour.
He was hungrier than he'd ever been, and his feet were killing him. He thought about going home for a while, but suddenly realized he had no idea where home was. He hadn't seen another person in what felt like forever.
School taught him that when you were in trouble, you should find an adult. School also taught him that you shouldn't talk to strangers. He didn't know what he was supposed to do.
I'm not going back. He told himself firmly. There's no way I'm going home.
His stomach was growling. It had been making sounds for almost an hour. The street was dark. Most of the buildings were boarded up, most of the streetlights were out, most of the cars were up on blocks.
Then his nose twitched. He smelled meat on the grill. He had turned around and started walking again, before he even fully registered the smell. After following the scent for a few minutes, he caught sight of a bright gleam in the dark. Neon lights.
In the middle of the next street, between a burned out storefront and a boarded up newsagent, there was a bright, gleaming Diner. The glass windows were clean and huge, and Tobias could see people inside. The lights were warm and golden. After walking so long in the cold and dark, it seemed nearly angelic. And along the top of the building, written in a flowing neon script, was the name. 'The Welcome Back Diner.'
The smell of food was strong, and Tobias didn't hesitate to go inside.
From the inside, The Diner was larger than it seemed from the outside. The railings and countertops were all polished enough to gleam. The checkered floor was so clean that the muted golden lights were reflected off the tiles, and a jazzy tune was playing on the jukebox. Tobias was young enough that he hadn't been in a room with this many strangers since his first day of school. And what a collection it was.
Tobias was young enough not to understand everything he was looking at, but he knew period costumes. Some people were dressed in the kind of clothes he'd seen in movies.
"Wow." A voice said, and Tobias turned to face a couple that were standing at the door, over by the wall of pictures. A man and a woman, who were both looking at him with a strange sense of sincerity. The woman was wearing a shiny new engagement ring. "You're so cute." She said with a dazzling smile. She nudged the man beside her, as if letting him in on a private joke.
Tobias stepped back nervously as the man bent at the knees, to meet him at eye level. "So, come here often?" He grinned, as though he'd just said the funniest thing in the world. The woman beside him cracked up. The man waved it off and returned his attention to Tobias. "Having a rough night, huh?"
Tobias gripped the useless leash tighter. "Yeah."
"Well, take some advice from the one person in the world who's been there." The man said. "You came to the right place."
"We all did." The young woman beside him smiled. Tobias studied the two of them for a moment. He knew he shouldn't be talking to strangers, but there was something oddly familiar about these two...
"There you are! Welcome Back, Sugah. We got your regular table reserved for you." A warm woman's voice said suddenly. Tobias turned, and a woman his mother's age swept up to them. She was wearing the classic waitress uniform, and promptly took Tobias over to the other side of the Diner. Along the way, she took him past the counter, where she called out an order to the cook. "George, Table four needs a Cup o' Mud and a 'Wrecked Raft, sunny side up. Table Two wants Beef-On-Wreck and Clean-up-the-Kitchen for Table three! Eighty-Six the First Lady for Table Nine and give 'em a Heart-Attack-On-A-Rack instead!"
Tobias was a little overwhelmed by her as she swept back and escorted him safely to a booth near the end of the counter. He had a nice view of the place. She didn't even break stride between seating him, handing him a menu, and sweeping a little ‘reserved' sign into the pocket of her apron.
"Who's coming?" Tobias asked numbly.
"What do you mean?"
Tobias pointed at where the little sign used to be. "You've got it reserved."
"Well then it's a good thing you showed up. It's your table." Marie gave a secret little smile. "People get where they need to be." She quickly ushered him into a seat. "So, you're in a strange neighborhood. Strange for a kid to be walking alone in the middle of the night, anyway."
Tobias blushed. "I saw a movie once, where a kid rode the rails. In boxcars, y'know?"
Marie grinned. "So you figured you'd head for the rails, and wound up on the wrong side of the tracks, huh?"
"Right." Tobias tried to pull his head into his shoulders.
Marie smirked. "Hungry?"
"How about I get you some of the best French fries you'll ever eat?"
A sharp bell tone rang from behind the counter, and Marie was off like a shot. Tobias jumped at the sudden speed. His new friend had quickly zipped up to the counter and collected a row of plates. Tobias wasn't sure if she was juggling them, or if she was somehow balancing four meals across her two arms, but she kept moving, as though she was on roller-skates.
Marie made three circuits of the Diner. Tobias couldn't help but watch her. On the first lap around, she'd handed out plates, and recited every order. The food was in combinations that Tobias didn't really recognize, but Marie knew every customer, some of them by name, as she commented and complimented every notable fact about each of her customers. Without noticeably pausing to take a breath, or even breaking stride, she'd delivered a row of dishes correctly. The first lap ended back at the counter where she scooped up two coffee pots, one regular, one decaf; and promptly made a second circuit, filling every cup. She never got the two mixed up, and she never so much as paused for thanks, but she knew which customer was on which refill, and which one had nice kids, and which one had a hard day at work…
And then she was back at the booth. Tobias half expected to see smoke trails in her wake; she had moved so fast. But she put a large bowl of fries in front of him, and they smelled amazing.
"George! I'm takin' mah break now!" She called back to the kitchen door. There was no answer, but Marie produced another cup of coffee, as if from thin air, and settled into the seat across from him. "Ahh, nice to get off my feet." She sipped her coffee. "You don't mind if I sit with yuh for a second, ah hope?"
"Sure." Tobias wasn't bothered by it. He actually felt better, not sitting alone.
The fries smelled heavenly. Tobias picked one and took a bite...
"Mmm." The little kid beamed. "I love the crunchy ones best!"
"Really? His best friend said with a grin. "I like the soft ones. My brother calls them 'soggies'. He says they have the most potato in them." The boy lifted the shaker. "More salt?"
"We could just eat a big heaping ball of salt." His best friend suggested, and the two of them laughed loud and long.
He was completely lost in the memory, a memory that seemed to glow with an addictive warmth, as the past seemed so much brighter than his present, and he didn't want to leave. On some level, he was aware that he was picking up another fry, stretching the moment longer and longer… But then he heard her voice, calling to him from somewhere, and despite himself, he followed it.
"My momma always told me, that home is where the food is." Marie crooned, and little by little, he came back to himself; listening to her talk. "That nevah made sense to me when ah was a kid. Ah knew that a lot of places in the world don't have any food, but they got families, don't they? Then ah started working here. Sure enough, this place feels more like home than anywhere else I've lived."
Tobias chewed on one of his fries. It had an absolutely perfect amount of crunch to it. He liked the little crunchy ones. They were smallest, but they tasted best. The plate had a few dipping bowls, tomato sauce, sour cream, salsa... Tobias dipped a fry into each of them, and ate slowly, comparing the combinations.
"You know what's worse, though, sugar?" Marie asked him primly. "It's the people who do have a home, but they don't really feel like they do."
Tobias suddenly swallowed hard. She knows. How can she know?
"When ah started working here, George- he owns the place, by the way - George said that I could add a dish to the menu." Marie snuck one of his fries. "I'd never gotten an offer like that."
"What did you add?" Tobias glanced at the menu, as if he could tell.
"My momma's tomato soup." Marie said with a warm smile that made Tobias want to smile too. "We didn't have a lotta money, see. But there was a whole lot of open ground back behind the house. Nobody much owned it, and my momma went out at night once all six of us were asleep, and she'd pull weeds for a few hours. When ah was about nine, ah wised up enough to know she was doing that instead of sleeping like her six kids. Once a year, we took every bag, every basket, every pot and started collecting tomatoes."
She almost had his complete attention, but Tobias was having a religious experience with the fries. He studied them intently. The salt wasn't the ground powder like the stuff he had at home. It was rock salt; little crystal points that didn't melt into the food like it did at home. He was finding the little pockets of flavor like buried treasure.
"She couldn't really tend them like a regular garden because she worked so much, but my big brother, he realized how much work momma was putting into it, and he'd help out." Marie gave Tobias a firm look. "Families are like that, see. Yah don't spot half the things yuh family does until yah get big enough to start doing it yahself."
She knows. Tobias thought in sudden panic. "Did you… I mean, when you got older, what happened?"
"Now me, ah was barely a week older than seventeen." Marie continued her story. "Had to bring some cash in, to help with the family, y'know? So ah was out every week, begging for a job. Nobody was hiring. Hard times, y'know?"
Tobias knew this one. He's been hearing that phrase for most of his life. ‘Hard Times' all over the place. He was never exactly sure what made them so hard, but they didn't seem soft or easy, even for a seven year old.
"Ah'd tried my luck everywhere. Even at a McDonalds. When Macca's won't take you, you know you're in dutch." Marie sipped her coffee. "Me and my momma met at this Diner for lunch, and ah told her ah was about ready to give up. Momma kicked in the kitchen door and told George that ah was going to work for him." Marie chuckled at the memory. "Ah was mortified. The things parents do in front of their kids…" She shook it off. "George told her that he didn't have enough regulars to pay me a decent wage. Ah offered to work for tips, because even change was more than ah was earning at that point, just wearing out mah shoes. George took that offer, and told me to add something to the menu. Momma found out what ah asked for, and she went with him into the kitchen, and showed him how-tah make her Tomato Soup."
"And you stayed?" Tobias said, mostly because he didn't have anything else to say.
"I stayed." Marie nodded. "My momma passed a while ago, and George told me that her soup is one of the more popular sides on the menu. Enough to give me a steady paycheck." She smiled warmly. "And ah tell yuh, sugah… Every time George cooks up a bowl of that soup, Ah'm nine years old again, listening to mah momma hummin' a tune over her stove." She gave him one of those looks again. "Like ah said, Home is where the food is, and it's sad when people don't have those connections. Makes them feel like they don't have a home, even when they've got a great one staring them in the face."
She gave him a look so full of knowledge and understanding that he cracked instantly. "It's not my fault!" Tobias blurted in a complete panic. "The dog ran away, and I knew I'd get blamed, because mom said I'd have to take care of him, and I knew I'd never catch him on foot, but they wouldn't get me a bike, so I didn't have a choice, and I knew where the car keys were, and mom was on the phone and I had to hurry up while I still knew where the dog was, and the car was too big, and I couldn't see over the steering wheel, so I had to stand up on the pedals just to see and the car just lurched; and it went straight through the wall, and I heard mom screaming my name really loud, and I just…" Very suddenly, he ran out of words.
"And you just bolted." Marie nodded. "Sugah, you are fine. You think your parents care more about a garage wall than you?"
"They're going to be so mad."
"Probably." Marie nodded. "But that's what family is. People who love you to bits, no matter how mad you make them."
Tobias struggled with this idea for a while.
"I went to a Diner like this with my family once. My mom, dad, and sister." Tobias said around a mouthful of fries. "My sister drank her milkshake so fast that she got brain freeze. She got sick on the way home. Mom was fuming the whole time. She let my sister have it for scarfing all that junk food. I thought that was bad, and all she did was puke on the carseat. I actually drove the whole thing through a wall!"
Marie laughed. "Maybe. But I'll tell ya this, Sugah; and you gotta take mah word for it: When you and your sister are all grown up and looking to have kids of your own, your momma will look back on that day and she'll be smilin'. It'll be one of those stories about the people she loves." She collected the empty plate from Tobias' side of the table. "And even if you're old and grey, sooner or later, the garage wall will be the same."
Tobias sniffed. "I hope so."
Marie gestured around. "We got a crazy cast of regular customers breezin' in and outta here. But the ones you really hope for? Families. Home is where the food is. If they're eatin' here with their families, that means this place is home for them. Even if just for a little while."
Tobias chewed another french fry, savoring it slowly. It was strange. In his life, he'd never eaten anything slowly. But these were something else entirely. He was almost mewling from the explosion of flavors. But it wasn't overwhelming. It was… familiar. He'd eaten fries before, but this... This was every time his mom had taken him out for burgers after a game. This was every time his best friend and he had split a pack of fries while walking home from school. This was every time Cassie had snuck him fast food while he was grounded.
Marie left him then, and made another speed run around the Welcome Back Diner. Tobias knew she'd be back, and he looked around.
There were teenagers sharing milkshakes, and a few grown ups in three piece suits standing around the jukebox. One woman was wearing a short sequined dress and lace headband, dancing to the music that was playing, and Tobias suddenly noticed that the jukebox was playing large vinyl records, and not CD's. Over at the other end, sitting in a booth, were two men in uniforms that looked like something that would appear on Star Trek, and one guy was dressed in a top hat and tails, making a coin vanish and reappear between his fingers.
The couple that had made a fuss over him at the front door were still peeking over. The man was scribbling something down on a napkin; and Marie suddenly reappeared back at the table. "Something wrong?"
Tobias shook his head, and pointed to a man in a Zoot Suit by the Jukebox. "I know that guy. I saw him in a movie once. I've never seen him in color before."
Marie burst out laughing. "Yeah, he was a big name in Hollywood, back in the day. Ah got his autograph in exchange for a bowl of beef stew. George took it out of mah tips. So worth it." She gave him a look. "So. Be honest with your waitress, kid."
Tobias flushed. The woman could see right through him. "I wanna go home. But I can't. I'm lost."
Marie reached one hand up delicately, as though reaching to pluck something from mid-air. Almost on cue, the same man that had noticed Tobias at the entrance swept by, putting a folded napkin in her hand without breaking stride, immediately returning to his girlfriend at the door. The two of them waved and slipped out.
Tobias wasn't sure which way to look for a moment, and Marie had promptly unfolded the napkin… which turned out to be a sketched map of the neighborhood. Marie turned the page to him, and Tobias felt his jaw drop. His street had already been circled on the map. Marie plucked a pencil from her hair and started drawing arrows on the map. "Like I said, people get where they need to be, and find what they need to find."
Tobias looked around the Diner again, suddenly realizing that none of it made sense. The door opened, and in strolled a big game hunter, with a shotgun over his shoulder. He mounted it on a frame above the booth where he sat down, taking off his pith helmet.
Marie grinned. "What can ah say? George likes his meat fresh. Ah'n speak of the devil..."
"What did you call me?" A heavyset man strolled up. He was wearing a white tunic and flannel apron. He had a parcel wrapped in newspaper in one hand, and a spatula in the other. "Marie, do you still work here, or what?"
"This is George, our Chef. His bark is worse than his bite. He made the fries."
"They're amazing." Tobias said immediately.
"That's right, and my other customers would like to find out just how amazing they are." George said roughly. "I don't suppose you're paying for your fries, so if my waitress would kindly get off her provocative little tush and get back to work before she finds out how bad my bite is..."
Marie rose to her feet with a sigh. "Seems mah break is ovah." Marie winked at him. "Get home safe, Tobias."
"Did I tell you my name?" Tobias asked, confused; but she was already gone.
George put the newspaper bundle on the table. "For you."
Tobias picked it up. "What is it?"
"Your doggie bag." George was already heading into the kitchen.
"I don't have a doggie any more!" Tobias called after him. "That's the problem!"
But George was gone. Tobias sighed and headed for the door. The lights of the Diner had been so warm and friendly that he'd almost forgotten it was the middle of the night. But armed with his map, and no longer cold or hungry, he made his way home.
He was halfway there when he unwrapped the package George had left. In it was a T-bone. It was fresh, still with leftover meat. There was some kind of rib-sauce on it too…
"Axe?" Tobias spun around, and found a familiar shape trotting after him, drawn by the smell of the meat. Tobias couldn't help it, he burst out laughing as he reattached the leash. "Well, let's go home, boy."
Cassie was waiting for him when he got home. Axe broke away from him again, trailing his leash, as he ran up to the girl on the porch. Cassie caught his face between her hands and the pup nearly wagged himself in half, so happy to see her.
"Axe, you're the most useless killer attack dog on the street!" Tobias complained as he came out of the dark.
Cassie saw him and jumped to her feet. "You're okay!" She ran over and gave him a hug. She broke it instantly. "Man, your folks are losing it! I could hear them from next door."
Tobias winced. "I'm dead."
"Not quite." Cassie reported. "They were furious when they saw the car, and by the way, you have to tell me all about that one." His eight year old neighbor smiled adorably at him. "But they're calling everyone from the cops, to the school, to the fire department. Last I heard, your mom was trying to buy a helicopter. Where have you been all night?"
"I was at a Diner, and they gave me directions home. Oh, Cassie; you gotta try the fries there!"
Wruf! Axe barked again, just as the front door flew open, and Tobias' mother came rushing out. "Toby! Are you okay?! Thank god you're safe; I'm going to kill you!"
"I had to find Axe!" Tobias wilted under her glare. When his mother threw her arms around him, he held on longer than she did, just so he wouldn't have to look at her face. "I'm sorry about the car."
"The car? Are you kidding? I don't care about the car. I got extra insurance the day you were born, just for this reason! I care about the fact that you've been out all night and I don't know where!" His mother snapped. "Cassie, go home. Tell your mom that he's safe."
"Yes'm." Cassie jumped up instantly and headed to the house next door. Tobias knew she wouldn't go any further than the mailbox before she turned to watch the whole thing.
Tobias spoke first. "I love you, mom!"
She shook a finger hard at him. "Oh, don't you dare! You could get away with that when you were cute and eight years old. But now you're nine and I'm not buying it! Didn't we cover stranger danger? Didn't we warn you about staying out late? Why didn't you call? No, I don't care. Where did you go?"
"I was… I found a Diner." Tobias told her. "There was a nice lady there who gave me directions home." He held up the napkin that Marie had written the directions on.
"She gave you directions?" She snatched the napkin off him. "She should have called me. Or called you a cab!"
"She sent him home." A voice said from the door, and Tobias' father stepped out. "And we can be glad that she did." He looked at Tobias. "So. If you were hiding out at a Diner all this time, I suppose you've eaten?"
Tobias was about to tell them about the life changing fries when he caught a glance of his mother's face and changed his mind. "No, I didn't have any money." Tobias told his mother.
"Well. I guess we'd better get you some dinner then." His mother let out a breath.
"We will not. Bed without supper." His father commanded. "And in the morning, we'll go through the whole ‘stranger danger' thing again, followed by a long list of reasons not to run away from home, no matter what you did; and then we'll figure out how long I'll have to dock your allowance to pay off what you did to the car."
Tobias shrank into himself. He knew it would be a long time.
"Now. Get to bed." His father finished, and took the napkin off his wife. "Right now, I'm going to this Diner of yours, and I'm going to give your waitress friend a generous tip."
Tobias came out to breakfast the next day, and his nose twitched. "Waffles, homemade syrup."
His mother smirked. "You can guess the syrup from the smell?"
"Marie said that ‘Home is where the food is'." Tobias said, as if that explained everything. "Your syrup smells better than the stuff from the store."
His mother gave him a look as he sat at the counter. "Well. This ‘Marie' apparently taught you a few things. Except for one thing." She put a street directory down on the counter next to his plate. "Her directions suck."
"They got me home."
"Your father followed those directions back precisely, and found a boarded up shoe store. He drove around in circles for half an hour, and couldn't find any Diner."
Tobias stared at her. "What? It was called The Welcome Back Diner. It had neon lights along the roof above the windows, and-"
"And it wasn't anywhere within ten blocks of where those directions lead." His mother said firmly. "Now then, you'll be eating this in your room. You're still extremely grounded. And if I hear your xbox switch on, I'm throwing it away."
"Yes'm." Tobias slid down from the counter, and took his plate with him. When he got to the door, he looked back. "Mom? You don't use a mix on these waffles either, do you?"
"No, I make them from scratch."
Tobias took a bite. They tasted better than he remembered. "Would you teach me how to make them? Please?"
Tobias went to his bedroom window and slid it open. Cassie was balanced on the fence between their bedroom windows. "How bad was it?" She asked.
"I may never see my allowance again, but mom made waffles. They're my favorite; so she must be glad to have me back." He reported, and held the plate out toward her. "Try the syrup."
Cassie ran a finger through the syrup left on his plate and tasted it. "Yummy."
"My mom makes it from tree sap. There's a maple tree somewhere out past the edge of town. Dad showed me once; he carved their initials on it. Every year on their anniversary, they go back there, and she taps the tree."
Cassie smiled. "That's a nice story."
Tobias nodded, thinking the same thing. Marie would have liked the story. "My mom's going to teach me how to make waffles." He said. "When I learn, you want to come over and have some?"
Cassie smiled hugely. "Yeah."