by Sarah Clayville
Riley is nineteen with nowhere to go.
She enjoys the silence of the diner at night. Still living at home pretending to save money for school, Riley has stopped fighting the loneliness that used to settle beneath her skin. Her friends all escaped to towering limestone colleges in distant states. No one believed Riley, the valedictorian, when she explained her sick father needed her, even though the sickness is in his mind.
But there are ways, her friends sing to her in a condescending chorus, if you want to leave badly enough. None of them knows how slick the walls are in her prison. How unyielding the locks. Riley worries no one taught her how to leave, and the empty diner only bakes that worry like bread rising in her brain.
Tonight, she has recklessly let a thin, redheaded woman and her son finish their meal well past the midnight closing time. The boy inhales his soup, licking the rim and motioning for seconds. His mother, with hollowed cheeks like she might cave in on herself, ferries spoonfuls back and forth from the bowl to her lips, never swallowing.
At 12:47 a man bangs on the translucent doors. He is also tall and thin, but he looks unbreakable. Riley has locked the doors out of habit with the oversized keyring hooked on her jeans belt loop. She worries he can break the glass. In minutes, his fists are bloody from pounding, leaving pretty red streamers wherever he touches.
The mother covers her son’s ears with her small, gloved hands.
“He wants to kill me. Call the police, will you?” she asks as calmly as she if she wants a clean fork or a cigarette.
Riley nods. She dials 911 like she’s seen people do on TV because no one calls that number in real life. The woman who answers is nasal, breathless. She sounds shocked even though she probably digests 20 tragedies a night.
“Officers are eleven blocks away. Hold on.”
Riley nods as if the woman can see her, hangs up the ancient receiver, and turns up the music over the loudspeaker. All three begin bobbing their heads. The little boy with sloppy brown hair and shivering blue eyes beats a rhythm on the counter with two yellow straws. Riley pushes the stereo to its limit, turning the knob right as far as it can stand.
The man has stopped shrieking and pounding now. He simply stares at the three of them like he could tow them outside with his rage. Riley liked it better when he was pounding. Now, he’s thinking. She’s grateful for the double-bolted steel door in the back. She is also grateful that this lunatic doesn’t belong to her. Then she frowns, remembering the little boy in front of her belongs to him.
Riley turns to face the fidgeting kid.
“I’ve got coconut cream pie, if you’d like some. Or checkers in the back. Oh! I found a $20.00 bill on the floor. Want it?”
She slides her biggest tip of the night across the counter. Anything to keep the boy from turning around. Riley worries if he sees what’s behind him, he’ll be in a prison too.
Eleven city blocks feel like the length of an ocean.
“Take the money, no pie,” the mother instructs the boy who happily pockets the cash. With one hand on her son, the mother reaches across and places the other over Riley’s
“You’re saving my life, you know? Tell people that if they ask what you did today.” Her eyes are steady, unblinking.
“Look, it’s like Christmas.” The boy points to red lights reflecting along the row of drinking glasses lined up between the counter and the kitchen. The police lights paint their skins red as if the man made it inside and hurt them. But the blissfully unaware boy stands on his metal stool, as if he’s discovered a disco. Behind him, three policemen wrestle his father to the ground.
“I need to step outside for a few minutes, Elias. Stay with our friend Riley.” The mother nods at her name tag. “Maybe the pie, now?”
Riley thinks his mother is brilliant because she knew to save the pie for worse times.
“I like cherries on my pie, with the stem.” His lips are chapped, like he’s walked all day in the cold. She finds a brand new chapstick buried in the bottom of her purse and hands it to him.
“Maybe it is Christmas,” he jokes.
“You watch me cut the pie.” Riley will die before she lets him turn around. “Is this piece big enough?”
He shakes his head no, no, no until she’s marked off a third of the pie with the silver, jagged knife.
Behind him, one of the officers takes his mother’s statement. Riley wishes she could eavesdrop, since their story has become her story this evening, too.
Later, Riley drives the boy and his mother home even though it’s clear across town and she’s broken curfew. At 19, she doesn’t think she should have a curfew anymore, but her dad is afraid of the dark and of losing her. She’ll die before she lets that happen, either.
They pull up in front of a large house with bowed windows and an iron fence. Riley feels foolish for assuming they were poor.
“Elias, let yourself in. I’ll just be a minute.” The mother hands her keys to the boy who races up the path but turns to wave goodbye.
“I’m not stupid,” the woman says proudly, arranging the pleats on her skirt like a fan. “It’s hard to leave, you know?”
“I didn’t think you were,” Riley says quietly. “Is he gone now? For good?”
“Not as long as I’d like, but long enough. Will you be all right?” she asks, looking at Riley like they’ve known each other longer than two hours.
“Sure,” Riley smiles. “I saved a life tonight.”
* * *
Sarah Clayville is a teacher and writer in the wilds of central Pennsylvania. Her work has been featured both online and in print, and you can read her other works and catch her literary adventures with her daughter at SarahSaysWrite.com.