They find themself out walking the darkened streets, the tears now dried but the redness still yet to fade. Something like numbness has settled over their shoulders like a cloak, leaving Jackie unaware - or at least uncaring - of the miserable misting rain that kept the heads bowed of the unlucky few out with them, their shoulders bunched up around their ears. Someone jostled them, their black umbrella dripping collected droplets of cold, polluted city water onto the back of their neck.
“Sorry,” the jostler mutters without stopping, and Jackie doesn’t have the presence of mind to respond.
But the discomfort of the water seeping into the collar of their shirt is enough to drive them into the first diner they find open at this hour. It’s a greasy looking establishment, a garishly bright and flashing sign announcing its current open status. It hurts their tired eyes to look at, so they step through the door to escape it.
Their new neighborhood in Nickelport isn’t what one could call ‘high class’. Or even ‘middle class’. Circumstances being what they are, Jackie’d had to leave their last place of residence in something of a hurry and their now single-person income could only be stretched so far. The new apartment is livable, if only barely. Unsurprisingly, the state of the diner reflects this. The red leather of the booths is cracked, stuffing poking out in places, and the worn linoleum is stained with countless spilled coffees and sodas. But it’s dry and they haven’t eaten since they arrived in the city in the early morning.
They make their way to one of the booths, sliding in all the way to the window so they can rest their temple against the cool glass. There’s been a headache building behind their eyes for what seems like months, ever since they’d found out what Raf had really been doing when he went to work.
A waitress in a pale blue old-fashioned uniform appears, setting a menu in front of them and holding her notebook and pen up with all the enthusiasm of a cat who knows it’s on its way to the vet. “Get you something to drink?”
“Cof - no, just lemonade.” Caffeine wouldn’t help right now.
The only acknowledgement the waitress gives is a sharp click of her pen after she scribbles the order down, disappearing behind the counter soon after.
Jackie feels so out of place here, with their pale pink sweater over a bright white collared shirt, wingtips, and black peacoat. There are only three other customers in the diner, each with their own booth. One has the hood of their jacket pulled up and hunches over their fries sullenly, and another wears no coat or jacket and the sodden shoulders of their t-shirt cling in a manner that seems uncomfortable. The last accidentally makes eye contact and they both look away swiftly.
The clink of ice cubes against glass as their lemonade is brought to the table has Jackie sitting up a little straighter to grab the straw it arrived with and shuck its papery wrapper. But once they put it in the lemonade and stir it around, they realize they don’t really want it. They don’t really want food either, though their empty stomach protests this assertion convincingly enough that they consider their options anyway. Running a finger down the menu, they stop arbitrarily at the specialty burger and try to avoid thinking too hard about what might make it specialty. Surely it can’t be something all that exotic. Subpar ingredients, perhaps, but nothing truly distressing. Not that it matters. Very little aside from their new work feels like it matters now.
Almost without realizing it, their hand drifts to their pocket, where their wedding ring still resides. They’ve almost thrown it away countless times, but every time they find that they just can’t do it. The ring, which they pull out and begin spinning on the table, had seen two of the best years of their life; had been the result of four other good years. Something in them still can’t let go of the man they’d loved all through college and the next handful of years after graduation. Something in them feels like there’s something missing.
Of course something is missing. Waking up with Trixie squished up against their side in the morning is missing. The garden they’d tried so hard not to kill is missing. The comfortably worn-in couch they’d fallen asleep on while watching movies so many times is missing. Raf is missing. Not the Raf that played around with villainy, but the Raf they met freshman year. The Raf that picked worms off the pavement after a rain so they wouldn’t get stranded once the sun evaporated all the moisture. The Raf that always had to check for a smile when they teased him, just to be sure they weren’t really bothered. That Raf couldn’t have been an act, not for six whole years. Something changed, or something happened. Something that made him think this is the only solution. Something. Anything that would mean the Raf they still love isn’t gone.
The ring spins out of control, escaping the guidance of their fingers and shooting for the edge of the table. Suddenly filled with an unreasonable panic, Jackie scrambles to catch it, knocking over the full glass of lemonade in the process. They don’t even manage to save the ring. It hits the floor, rolling to a stop at the feet of the put-upon waitress.
For a moment, neither of them move. Jackie is still leaning over the table, one hand planted in the spreading puddle of lemonade and the other gripping the edge of the table where the ring fell, face growing warm in a debilitating mix of embarrassment, impotent frustration, and a swell of despair that’s been haunting them as long as the headache. The waitress just looks tired.
Fighting back a fresh wave of tears, they pull their hand out of the mess, wiping it furiously on their jeans while reaching for napkins with the other. “I’m so sorry,” they say, voice catching a little at the end.
Something in the waitress’s expression softens marginally and she bends to pick up the ring. She rubs it on her apron as if she’s well aware of how questionable the linoleum appears and looks at it for a moment, turning it over so that the fluorescent lighting glints off the gold band and the tiny pink diamond. “It’s pretty.”
Jackie laughs, a half-choked sound, and reaches for more napkins. They don’t know what to say. ‘Thank you’? ‘It doesn’t matter now’? The relationship the ring represented is over. What’s a small circle of metal in the face of what Raf’s done? Is still doing? And yet they’d been so afraid of letting it touch the dirty floor; of the possibility that it might roll somewhere out of reach.
The waitress steps closer to help clean up the spill, close enough that Jackie notices her name tag reads ‘Taylor’.
“Here,” Taylor says, and Jackie accepts the ring, immediately putting it back in their pocket.
“Thank you,” they murmur. “Don’t worry about the mess, really. I’ll… I’ll get it. It’s my fault.”
“If my manager catches me standing around while a customer mops up lemonade I’ll lose my job for sure,” Taylor says dryly. “Tell you what, you look like you’re having a rough night. Pay for the lemonade if you want, but whatever you order to eat’s on the house.”
The unexpected kindness of a stranger undoes them. They clench their jaw hard and turn to look out the window when they feel the tears about to overflow. Caught up in their little battle of will, they almost blot at their eyes with a lemonade-soaked napkin but catch themself in time, letting out a mirthless laugh. It’s enough to help them gain the upper hand against the tears, though.
They turn back to the waitress with a half smile. “I want to say no, but saving a couple bucks would be the only good thing that’s come out of the past twenty-four hours. So… okay. I hope this doesn’t get you fired either.”
Taylor shrugs and gathers all the used napkins into a soggy ball, letting Jackie run one last napkin over the table. “What’re you having?”
“Just the specialty burger. Please don’t tell me what’s on it.”
With a snort, Taylor scrubs her hands on her apron and jots it down. “Sure thing. Be right back, hon.”
Slowly, Jackie sits back down, dropping the knee that had been propped on the seat cushion so they could stand without the table digging into their stomach. Their hand drifts back to the pocket with the ring, and this time they really aren’t aware of it, and they don’t take it out, and they try valiantly not to think of Raf.
The misting outside has turned into a real rain, leaving them to stare at the neon glare of signs on murky puddles, distorted even further through the wet glass. The water slides down the window, and Jackie slides down in their seat. Just a little more time. Just until The Rust helps them get what they want. That’s all.
She isn’t paying attention when the customer in the pink sweater leaves. They’d agreed to her little bargain, so there was no need to drop off a receipt, and so she’d stayed behind the counter and watched the door, trying to resist the urge to pull out her phone to stave off the boredom. She had watched the customer for a little, just until she was sure they wouldn’t start crying again. They’d looked so small, sitting there in that booth meant for four or more people. Skin washed out and pale under the unflattering lights of the diner, hands swallowed up by the sleeves of the coat they wore, they looked young, tired, and so lost.
It wasn’t hard to find a sob story, especially not at this time of night in this neck of the woods. No one in the diner really wanted to be there. Maybe it was the way they’d tried to make her job easier as they mopped up the drink they spilled, or maybe it was the panic in the way they’d grabbed for the ring. Maybe it was the ring itself. When she’d looked at it before handing it back she’d noticed something engraved on the inside of the band.
‘Wuv, twue wuv, will fowwow you foweva’.
It was ridiculous. Worse than cheesy, it was dumb as all hell. But from the look of that customer, ‘twue wuv’ really had followed them, though perhaps not in the way they’d intended. Carry baggage like that around… Well. A free burger wasn’t going to solve anything, but free food was free food. Sometimes that could be enough, for at least a little while.
When Taylor looks up and the booth where they’d been sitting is empty, she moves to clean up the dirty dishes. She realizes as she gets closer that there’s money on the table: a twenty dollar bill, more than the burger and the lemonade cost together. Scribbled in the corner in pen is, ‘For Taylor - thanks’.