Short Story Saturday: Last Stop ’til Home

Thought I’d share a story I wrote with you guys.

I wrote it for a competition a little while ago, and I am pretty darn proud of it.

It’s kind of long, so grab yourself a snack. Brownies are preferable, but cookies will work too, if your options are limited.

(For those of you wondering, I did not win the competition, but it’s okay. I only cried for three nights.)

(Just kidding.)

(It was four.)

Last Stop ’til Home

I hung my hand out the open window as the Blue Ghost raced down the highway. I didn’t like to drive slow. I liked to speed down open roads, to push the pedal until the engine roared, to feel wind and memories whipping through the cab of the small blue truck. When I drove fast, I remembered Mom.
My phone buzzed on the seat beside me, lighting up the dark cab.

Where are you? Everything alright?

Dad was worried. In all fairness, he had a right to worry–it was getting late. I sighed. He was probably waiting on the porch for me, sitting in his rocking chair and watching for his daughter who hadn’t been home in a year. Everything was alright, but I was just . . . late. I had been thinking.

On my right side, trees whizzed by, briefly lit by the Blue Ghost’s headlights and then disappearing into the darkness behind me. Trees, trees, trees, trees, and then a sign. Though it flashed by too fast for me to read it, I knew what it said. It said I was close.

Ahead, a neon sign buzzed into view, a patch of light in the hot summer darkness.

Everything’s fine. I’m close. Gonna stop by the diner for some coffee. Then I’ll be home.

I pulled into the cracked, empty parking-lot of an old diner. I parked near the door and shut off the engine, but I didn’t go in. Sitting in the truck and tapping my thumb on the wheel, I gazed into the brightly-lit diner. How many times had I eaten here? I had known it would be hard to go back home, but I hadn’t even thought about the diner.

It was our road-trip diner. The waitresses knew us and our favorite orders, and we knew them. We used to travel all the time: vacations, day trips, school trips, camp-outs. We stopped at the diner on the way out of town and on the way back in. It was like a stepping-stone, stuck in between home and the rest of the world.

When I stepped inside, nostalgia swept over me. My brain reeled with old menus, vinyl seats, the smell of burgers and fries. My family had been coming here since before I was born. There were twenty-three years of memories wrapped up in this diner.

“Hey, sweetie!” I opened my eyes. It was Shirley, our favorite waitress. Wiping her hands on her apron, she moved toward me, smiling. “Been a long time since we’ve seen you!”

“I know,” I said. I had broken the rules the last time I left. I had left town without stopping for the diner.

“Sit yourself down, sweetie. What can we get you?”

“Just a coffee, please. And just a spl–”

“Splash of heavy cream.” She smiled. “I remember.” She whisked into the kitchen, and I was left alone with my memories.

There wasn’t a table in the place that I hadn’t sat at. I slid into a window booth, the booth we sat in at the beginning of the Washington trip. Will and I had named the trucks from this booth. We’d come in Dad’s truck, which Will named Charlie. I named Mom’s truck the Blue Ghost. Mom had laughed.

I smiled. I’d loved family trips, and I’d loved trips with Dad. But trips with Mom were always my favorite. She drove fast, rolled the windows all the way down, and cranked the music all the way up. We sang and whooped and laughed everywhere we went. Dad called her a gypsy-child.

“You gonna take after your Mom?” he asked me when I was little.

“You bet she is!” she would say, putting her arm around me. “We’re gonna be thick as thieves, aren’t we, girlie?” We were. Together, in the Blue Ghost, racing down highways, we conspired all sorts of things. We planned the best surprises and the worst pranks. We laughed till we cried. My whole family loved each other–all of us and each of us, but Mom and I were special friends. And Dad and Will were, so it was good.

“Here’s your coffee, sweetheart.” Shirley slid a steaming mug of the world’s best coffee under my nose.

“Thanks, Shirley.”

“Where you been, sweetie?”

I closed my eyes and cupped my hands around the mug. “Thinking,” I said.

“You ran off for a year to go think?” I didn’t have to look up. I could picture her–her hand on her hip, one eyebrow raised.  

I nodded.

“Do you any good?”

I nodded again.

She sighed. “Sweetie, we missed you around here. Your daddy especially.”

“I know. I missed you all too.”

I breathed in deeply. I’d always loved the smell of coffee, but I didn’t learn to love the taste until college. Mom ordered me a cup the day I left. My family had come to see me off. They all ordered their coffee, and I was going to get hot chocolate again.

“C’mon, girlie.” Mom nudged me with her elbow. “You’re eighteen. You’re a big girl now! Get some coffee.”

“I always get hot chocolate. It’s like a tradition. They make the best hot chocolate in the world.”

“They also make the best coffee.”

“That’s great, but I don’t like coffee.”

“You’ll like this.” She ordered coffee for me. I let her. I don’t remember actually drinking it, but I remember that we laughed a lot that day. Maybe that was why I liked it.

I picked up the warm mug and took a sip. There was no laughter now. Only the sound of dishes clinking in the kitchen and a fly buzzing somewhere. No, it wasn’t a fly. I looked around, a memory scratching vaguely at the back of my head. It was the light–the light over the booth in the corner. It flickered every once in a while and made a buzzing sound. I had forgotten. Where did I hear it the first time? I was talking to someone, sitting in that booth, and it interrupted our conversation . . . Ben.

I was talking to Ben.

That was the first time I came home from college. We had gone to high school together, but we ran in different circles. I’d met him a few times and remembered liking him, but we never talked long. Until we met in the diner that night. We talked for three hours. We talked until the light started buzzing above our heads and made us wonder what time it was. Then he walked me out to my car, and before he left, he kissed me on the cheek. He was sweet. In that cracked, empty parking-lot, with the neon “Eat” sign buzzing over my head, I fell in love.

Dad and Will were protective, and they spent multiple dinners staring threateningly at Ben. But Mom liked him, so he could stay around. She made him feel comfortable, and she made him laugh. Mom had that effect on people.

Eventually, Dad warmed up to Ben. It took Will longer. It took Will until he fell in love himself. He fell even harder than I did. One summer he met a California girl, and the next summer he married her, and then he moved out there with her. That was hard for all of us, but especially for Dad. His little buddy was gone. The rest of that summer, he spent a lot of time alone. I understood that–I knew he was thinking. He and I were alike in that way. We had to think about things for a while before we could move on. Will and Mom just kept moving when things happened; they adapted faster. Dad and I had to slow down for a while. Sometimes we had to stop.

I opened my eyes as the familiar tang of guilt turned my stomach. I had stopped too long this time. I had stopped too long and Dad was waiting. I took a drink. I’d finish my coffee and I’d head back.

Ben was waiting too. He’d called me while I was gone and asked how I was doing. “Okay,” I said. I was lying, but he knew.

The summer after Will left, when I was coming back from college, Ben asked to meet me at the diner. His grandfather had cancer. “I’m gonna go stay with him for a while.”

“Where does he live?”

“North Dakota.”

“That’s far.”

“Yeah. So, I’ll–I’ll be gone for a while.”

I had a sick feeling in my stomach. “Do you know when you’re coming back?”

He took a deep breath and pushed his cold coffee to the edge of the table. I knew what he was going to say. “Sweetheart, I don’t know if I’m coming back.”

My throat felt tight. My eyes were hot and my nose was stinging. “That’s okay,” I murmured.

“I’m sorry. I just–he’s the only family I have left, and he might not be here long.”

I nodded. “I know. I know. It’s okay.”

He walked me out to my car and kissed my cheek. “You gonna be okay?”

“I’ll be okay. I just need to think about it for a while.” That was true. “When are you leaving?”

“Beginning of next week.” So I would have all summer to think about it.

It took me all summer to think about it. I wasn’t heartbroken all summer; I was just . . . thinking all summer. I didn’t want to talk about it until August, and by then, it was time to head back to college. Mom came to the diner with me as I left.

“How are you?” she asked as we sat down.

“I’m okay.”

“You heard from Ben?”

I grabbed a napkin and started twirling it on the table. “No. Not much. We decided not to do long-distance. It’s okay.” And it was.

We talked about other things. We conspired and planned and dreamed and laughed. After we finished our dinner and our coffee, we went outside and leaned against the side of the Blue Ghost, and we talked more. The moon was full, and it hung just above the “Eat” sign.

“I think when I die,” Mom said, “I’m going to go up there and chat it up with the man in the moon.”

I smiled. I didn’t really take after Mom. No one could. She truly was a gypsy-child, all fire and flowers and laughter. I was quieter. But I loved her.

In the two hour drive to the college, I thought a lot. I thought about Ben, and I thought about Mom and the plans we had made for Dad’s birthday. We had spent hours planning it. Will and I were going to come home for it.

So Monday morning two weeks later, I was at the diner again, grinning into my coffee. Ben had called me. His grandfather was cancer-free, and he had decided to come back. Will was on his way back. Mom already had the party preparations in progress, and the sun shone through the window onto my table. The world seemed bright and beautiful. And then–

“Sweetie, you want a refill?”

I snapped out of my past and looked down at my empty mug. “No, thanks, Shirley. I’ve gotta be heading home now.”

She smiled. “You go see your family,” she said.

I went outside and leaned against the Blue Ghost like Mom and I had done that night. The night before I left. The last night I saw her.

I never got to see her when I came back. That morning, in the diner, Dad called me. Mom was in a wreck. They rushed her to the hospital, but there was nothing they could do. She was gone.

My world shattered.

We had a funeral instead of a birthday party. I spent the day in a sort of cloud while person after person squeezed me and cried. The whole town felt it. The gypsy-child was gone.

I stood in my black dress looking at the hole in the ground where they’d put her, wondering if she was already on the moon. Then someone touched my shoulder, and I turned, and there was Ben. He’d come back early for the funeral.

“Hey,” I said. I felt like crying, but I’d already wasted all my tears. There were none left.

“I’m so sorry, sweetheart. Is there anything–” He stopped when I shook my head. I could tell that he wanted to help. And I could tell that he knew he couldn’t.

“I’ll be okay.” I didn’t know if that was true. “I just–I wanna be alone.” That was true.

I couldn’t. Our town was too small. Everywhere I went I saw someone that knew me, and I saw the sadness in their faces. Most of them stopped me and asked me if there was anything they could do. No, there was nothing they could do. I wanted to think. I wanted to be away. I wanted to race down the highway with the windows down.

So I left. I took the Blue Ghost and I left.

I told Dad and Will that I was going to leave. Dad understood. Will didn’t. He was angry, and he stayed angry for a long time. But Dad understood. He and I were alike in that way.

My phone buzzed.

Will’s here. We’re waiting up for you.

Time to go. It had been a year. I had thought a lot. And I was ready to go home. Dad was there, and Will was there, even if he hadn’t forgiven me, and Ben was there, too. And Mom. Mom was there, in the house, in the town, in the sights and the scents and the sounds.

My phone buzzed again.

Hey, are you okay?

I’m okay . . .

I looked up. Was that true? Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath of summer-scented air, felt the warmth of the Blue Ghost’s side, and soaked in neon mixed with moonlight. Crickets chirped. The lights buzzed. I opened my eyes. The man in the moon was laughing. Maybe he was talking to Mom. She had that effect on people.

I’m okay. I’m almost home.

I pushed myself off of the Blue Ghost. Trailing my hand over the faded blue paint, I walked around to the driver’s side and gazed at the smashed door. The mechanic had never been able to replace the window–in all the crookedness, there was no room for anything straight. He said it was probably time to get rid of her, anyway.

“It’s old–practically falling apart. It doesn’t have much more time. I’d sell it now and see what I could get for parts.”

I refused to give her up. I sold my car and started driving her. A year and 1400 miles later, she still ran smoothly.

As I opened the door and tossed my phone onto the seat, I glanced up again. The full moon hung just over the “Eat” sign, just like it had a year ago. I waved at the moon, smiled to myself, and slid into the Blue Ghost.

I pulled out onto the road and felt the wind whip through my hair, mixing with the musty scent of memories and old leather. I glanced into the rearview and saw the neon sign still buzzing behind me. The diner was there if I needed it. But right now . . .

As we raced toward home, I smiled into the wind. I heard Mom laugh. I rounded a turn, and the neon “Eat” sign disappeared.  

Right now, I was okay.

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