The sun is setting as we walk into the diner. Leo follows me in as the bell hanging on the door chimes softly, announcing our arrival. The ancient juke box in the corner by the door leading to the kitchen gently floats old jazz music.
The soft glow of the lights lining the ceiling of the narrow yet long diner makes me feel cozy. My stomach grumbles as I smell the food cooking in the back. We take a seat a couple of booths away from the door. The iconic white and red leather has multiple cracks of age.
A waitress comes by with menus and gives us a few minutes to look over the selection. Leo decides on a burger with fries and I get the chicken strips. As we wait for our food, I distract myself by folding the paper wrapping that came on the straw in my fingers.
Leo stares at the table. I look up and catch his eyes before he looks out the window.
“The grocery store is the last place we will go to tomorrow. We will wake up at around eight, grab a bite to eat and go to the store. After that we head straight home.” I tell him as I see our waitress carrying our food.
“One burger and fries for you and chicken strips for Elsie.” Lily says.
“Thanks Lily. Could I get a cup of coffee?” I ask before she goes.
“Sure thing, sweetie. Cream and sugar?” She asks.
I smile softly, “Like always.”
“I’ll take one as well.” Leo pipes up suddenly.
She nods after a few seconds, registering him across from me. I can see her forming observations in her head about the pair of us. She looks back at my gentle smile and sends a wink my way, which makes me roll my eyes at our silent banter.
“So you come here often?” Leo accuses.
I nod, “Every trip I make, I always stop in to eat here. They know my coffee order. I have tried everything on the menu at least twice.”
He looks around nervously, “So everyone here is a regular?”
“Most of them, but there are always a few truckers stopping for a hot meal and nice jazz music. Sometimes teens come in here on dates, which is cute.” I reassure him.
I see his shoulders lose a fraction of the tension they usually have. I cut my chicken and dip them in the honey mustard and sip on my water. As I focus on finishing my meal, I forget about the person in front of me and hum quietly and sway slightly in time.
I feel Leo’s foot nudge mine and I snap out of it, an embarrassed blush rising to my cheeks as I realize he saw me do that.
“So I take that you know all the songs on the juke box?” He teases lightly.
I disregard his tease and bow my head, cleaning my plate with the last of the chicken. Lily comes over about a minute later and takes my plate. She replaces it with a mug of coffee and creamer. Sugar was already on the table.
“Any desert tonight, honey? We have your favorite.” She says gently.
I nod, still looking down at the table. She sighs and goes to fetch the slice of apple pie with ice cream on top.
Sensing my discomfort, Lily changes the song. I smile as I recognize the soft piano of Cheek to Cheek with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. In that moment, I don’t feel so alone in this town. These people, who rarely see me besides a night a month, know me better than most people do and did.
Almost better than my parents. I fight the squeeze that grips my heart in sadness as their faces flash to mind. I clench my jaw and distract myself by gulping down half of the bitter, black coffee as a punishment for being so emotional tonight.
After I set the mug down, I start to add the cream and sugar to it. I lean back against the booth and cradle the mug in my hands as I drink in Leo.
Today must have been a toll on him as well. He is still hunched over. A small frown adorns his lips.
I nudge his foot with mine and his eyes flick up in attention.
“You can relax and stop hunching or you will be stuck like that forever.” I tease him.
He copies my form but doesn’t meet my eyes. Mentally, I cheer, as he has finally listened to me.
Lily brings over the apple pie. Instead of one fork, there are two. Once again, Lily sends a wink my way and I send her a shit eating grin back. George, the cook, gives me two thumbs up of encouragement. I put my arm up on the table and hide behind my hand.
“Leo, do you want some pie?” I ask in a low, tense voice.
He looks up at me and silently takes his fork and breaks the tip of the pie off. I avert my eyes to my nearly empty coffee cup and motion for more coffee.
Lily comes over and I ask for a to go cup and a check. She curtly nods and presents the check and a fresh to go cup of coffee to me. I stand up and slap a bill on the table. I stalk out of the diner with a red face and the cool air helps.
I hear the bell chime as Leo catches up to me. With his long legs, he catches up to my strides in no time. I can feel his worried looks but I keep my gaze ahead.
We reach the motel on the edge of town and I unlock the jeep. I reach for my bag that has my clothes and Leo shifts on his feet behind me.
“Might be a room left.” I mumble to him as I hand him his bag.
He nods and follows me in to the lobby. The bored teenager manning the front desk doesn’t look up as she hands me the keys to the only room left.
I let the key bite into my palm to keep me focused.
“I’ll sleep in the car.” Leo tells me.
“Don’t be stupid, you’ll freeze. You are sleeping with me.” I tell him in a stubborn tone.
I throw open the door and let my eyes adjust to the darkened room. Leo sets up his laptop as I turn on the lights and draw the curtains closed.
Leo stands up and mutters about taking a shower. As I hear the water hit the tiles, I reflect on the weeks I’ve hosted the trio. More importantly, about Leo.
I know I’m attracted to him. He is always on my mind at night and when I’m alone. I catch myself staring at him often and yearning to feel his touch. My dreams are plagued by crude fantasies about him that leave me breathless when I wake and ashamed when I see him moments later.
I think it’s reciprocated.
His touches linger, he sometimes smiles at me and my jokes, he blushes as well. Day by day he is opening up to me. I can feel it, but I can’t stand this little game of longing stares and excuses for physical contact. I have to tell him how I feel.
I go over every outcome there is. I think I have a chance at gaining his affections.
My eyes snap to the door as it opens. Leo has his clothes bunched up against his damp chest only clad in a towel. Oh fuck. My eyes take in his torso greedily and I scrunch my eyebrows in confusion at the last second. He grumbles about a dirty shirt and reaches into his bag to grab a new one.
“I know we are attracted to each other and I think it’s time we stop playing what ever game this is.” I blurt out.
I clutch the sheets to keep my hands from trembling. He freezes like a deer in headlights. For a second I thought I saw his vulnerability in his guarded blue eyes.
With a deep breath he straightens up and says, “I don’t know what game you are talking about. I don’t know you or trust you. I have no feelings towards you, a human, no matter how you are tied in with the social affairs of the company that my father made. You are only a girl looking for someone to hold her and a shoulder to cry on. So now, girl, go to sleep and focus on the important things, like surviving.”
He glares at me before slamming the bathroom door behind him. I fight the shiver that crawls down my spine. Rejection sinks it’s ragged claws into my lungs and I’m holding my breath. My heart counts the seconds it takes to mumble some sorry excuse to go outside and run away.
I end up in the parking lot next to the jeep. I unlock it and climb in. Thankfully the way it is parked, it is facing away from the motel. I lean the seat as far as it can go with the items we purchased in the back and finally let out the anger, rejection, shame, and loneliness claw out of my throat in muted screams that press on my vocal chords while hot tears glide down my burning cheeks.
A headache thrums with pity and the beat of my heart as I tremble and silently sob into the worn leather. I wish my parents were still alive. George said I could trust them, that I had to help them, that they were good people.
I scoff, if he could see me now. A foolish girl crying in her car because a strange man turned her down, pushed her away.
After crying as hard as I did, I grew sleepy and drifted with my face tucked into a blanket that I always have in the jeep.
Just as I fall asleep, a brisk knock startles me. Leo is standing by the window. He wears a mask as I shove the blanket behind the seat and follow him back inside the hotel room.
I grab a pillow and a spare blanket, curling up beside the heater with my back to Leo. I don’t know him. For all I know he could kidnap me and sell me on the black market. My mind is numb as I fall asleep.
I wake up to the grey light of dawn. I see that Leo has packed up his laptop and his bag is by the door. I change clothes and slam the door to wake Leo up as I start the jeep to warm it up. Leo walks out of the motel room and climbs into the passenger seat.
I park in the lot in front of the grocery store.
“Stay in the car.” I state as I jump out of the car and stalk into the store.
I swallow down my pity and sadness as I quickly pay for the food and load it into the back. The drive back home is as icy as the dead, brown grass that is frost tipped on the edge of the road. I bite my lip as I park in my spot at the cabin.
I honk once and a few seconds later, Max and Mia come out with smiles and greet us.
“Let’s get the ladies warmed up Max.” I greet him.
He smiles and that lifts my spirit a little. He helps carry the heat lamps out to the coop. It takes about thirty minutes and the ladies are huddled under the red light with fresh water and feed. We double back to the jeep and see that the rest of the items are gone.
Mia closes the lid of the washer as I walk in.
“I’m washing the flannel sheets.” She explains.
“Good work, Mia.” I weakly say as I pass Leo and go upstairs.
I pause on the edge and turn back around. I need to check on the solar panels. I set the ladder against the side of the house and brush off the frost that is on the edges. I make a mental note to start monitoring the panels daily.
I go back inside and face the awkward tension that is now my life. These next few weeks are going to be hell.