The diner is nearly empty; the loudest sounds are fluorescent lights ringing, the tired employees shuffling around in the back, the whisper of the sprinkling rain on the tin roof, and two patrons sitting in a booth in the far corner across from the windows, unspeaking. One is tapping his fingers anxiously on the checkered table, the other playing with her utensils, clanging them together. It’s just barely five in the morning, and the sun hasn’t really started to rise, so the sky outside is inky and gray and hopeless.
A waitress walks over to the booth, suppressing a yawn, and hands the pair some menus. She can’t be much older than the girl sitting at the table, probably working her way through college. She doesn’t notice the tension between the two of them, and her monotone voice bellows in the hollowness of the restaurant. “Good morning. Welcome to the Sunny Side Diner. How are you doing today? Our special this morning is our maple-pecan French toast with a side of hash. Can I start you two off with something to drink?”
The girl at the table is not paying attention. Her shaking, spindly fingers dance over the fork and knife that she’d unwrapped from their napkin almost as soon as she sat down. “Water, thanks,” she says, not looking up. She feels a bit rude but doesn’t do anything about it.
Her father, sitting across from her, makes a face but immediately softens it, smiling politely at the waitress and reads her name tag. “Anna. What a lovely name. I’ll have a black coffee. Actually, make it two, in case Tillie here changes her mind. We’ve got lots of traveling to do today!” His laugh fills the nearly-empty room.
The waitress feigns a smile and walks away, scribbling on her notepad.
“Your mother’s middle name was Anna,” he says. He raises his hand to his scruffy beard, running his thumb and forefinger along the sides of his mouth.
This gets Tillie to look up from her utensils. Her jaw is fiercely clenched, so tight that it seems as if it would have to be pried open. Her features are naturally intense, her brow and jaw bones as defined as her father’s, though his are hidden by his masses of facial hair. The look she gives to him, however, is concentrated, more powerful than usual. She doesn’t speak but takes an unsteady breath through her nose. Her right hand’s fingernails dig into her palm in a fist on the table, and her left hand is tucked tightly in between her legs to keep it steady.
“Listen, you’re the one who insisted we stop to get something to eat. We have a long drive ahead of us, and I’m not going to let you sleep all the way there, so you’re going to drink the coffee I ordered.”
Tillie swallows, her eyebrows shuffle in quickly, and she nibbles on her lip. She speaks to him for the first time since entering the restaurant, and the sharpness of her voice matches that of her features. This is something she’s taken pride in. “You know I hate coffee.”
“I was trying to be considerate.” He pushes his elbow against his waist, not breaking eye contact with his daughter. “And lay off the attitude. We’re in public.”
Something about the way he moved makes her lean back in her seat, soften her expression, and unclench her right hand. It joins her left hand in between her shaking legs. “Alright,” she says.
“Good,” he continues. “Like I was saying, your mother’s middle name was Anna. For the first few years of us being together I would call her Flo Anna. She would call me Teddy. Of course, neither of us held onto those nicknames for long. I grew out of mine really quick, even though she still insisted on using it for a while. Drove me crazy. Still, at the time, it was very cute of us.”
Tillie takes another unsteady breath, this one with an open mouth, so the staggering is more obvious. She shuffles her hands, indecisive on how she wants to hold them down. “I don’t particularly want to hear about this. I don’t think exchanging stories about things I didn’t know about her is what I need right now.”
“Well it’s relevant, Tillie-pad. You’re supposed to be off to college soon. That’s how we met!”
“Am I still going to college, then?” Tillie leans forward, challenging.
Theodore pushes past the question. “She was studying English and I was studying Biology, and I was working at the front desk, and she would show up every day and ask me what I was reading, and I would ask her what she was reading. She looked at my assignments to figure out my name, and I didn’t know hers until I asked her out to dinner. It all started out perfect, you know. She really made it seem like she cared about me, and I really tried to care about her. It’s amazing how much interest she took in my work, because she never seemed to care much once we got together. After then, well, you know. I’m glad you’re interested in science, though. You’re just like your old man.”
Tillie’s heel is vibrating against the panel under her seat, harmonizing with the rain that’s started to come down harder above them. She’s prepared to respond when the waitress returns with their drinks.
Anna looks as though she’s taken the first sip of her own coffee for the morning while she was back in the kitchen, more alert than she had been, but still oblivious to whatever scene is unfolding in this corner of the diner. “Have you decided what you’ll be having to eat this morning, or do you need more time?”
Theodore shifts his attention from his daughter to the waitress, putting on a smile bigger than the one he had before. His teeth shine and crinkles his eyes and picks up the menu. “I know that I’ll be getting two fried eggs with toast and sausage links.”
“How would you like your eggs cooked?”
“White, wheat, or rye?”
“Oh, rye sounds fantastic.”
“Perfect.” Anna turns her attention over to the daughter, who isn’t hiding her discomfort very well at all. She glances over at the Tillie’s father quickly for a hint at what might be wrong but gets nothing from him. “And for you?”
“I’ll just have the same,” she says. Her voice is forced steady when she speaks, so Anna relaxes.
“Same of everything?”
“Yup.” She pops the ‘p’ sound with her lips.
“Alright, I’ll put that in!” Anna takes the menus and walks off. She looks back at Tillie when she reaches the kitchen door. The two of them make brief eye-contact, where Tillie’s eyes are pleading and Anna clearly doesn’t know what to think, and Tillie is the one who looks away.
“You only eat your eggs scrambled,” Theodore says when their waitress is out of earshot. “You hate your eggs sunny-side up.”
“I didn’t really look at the menu. I don’t think I’m going to like what I eat, anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.” She looks out the window. The sun is rising slowly, rays peeking through the dripping trees. A bit of orange mixes with the gray in the sky. Tillie thinks it’s pretty but doesn’t say anything.
“You better eat it. I’m not going to listen to you complain the entire trip that you’re starving and tired, because we’re not stopping again for a while.”
“You haven’t even told me where we’re going,” Tillie snaps, both hands smacking against the checkered tablecloth, leaning forward in her seat and piercing the tension with bared teeth. She almost immediately recoils.
Theodore smiles tight-lipped, turning around in his seat to check if anyone has poked their head out of the kitchen at his daughter’s outburst. Tillie jumps a little when the door opens with a jingle bell, and an older couple walks in, tapping their umbrellas on the ground like canes. His left hand taps at the space right above his waist. “Probably down south.”
Tillie doesn’t respond. She brings up her knees, sits cross-legged with her thumbs twiddling on her lap between them. Her boots are slightly muddy but have almost dried anyway since they’ve sat down. She’s sure she gets some mud on her jeans and on the seat, but nothing that won’t rub off. She’s not worried about it.
“Your mother would tell you to get your shoes off the seat.”
“Are you telling me to get my shoes off the seat?”
“No,” he says. “I can’t say I agree with everything Florence ever told us to do.”
Tillie looks up, hesitant. She swallows a thought, her eyes shifting from the sugar-caddy to her thumbs to the knife sitting on the napkin. Her father’s eyebrows are raised. He’s challenging her, and she knows it. “I can’t remember a time when the two of you have ever agreed on anything.”
He lets out a soft laugh. “Me either.”
“You hated her so much,” her voice cracks when she says this and she shakes her head quickly, throwing the comment away.
“I didn’t always,” Theodore says.
It’s a meaningless statement. Tillie doesn’t remember much from when her parents didn’t hate each other. She has no frame of reference for what a healthy parent relationship looks like.
She doesn’t say this, but she knows that her father hated her mother because he thought she was a liar. It might have been true, but it never bothered Tillie much. Her mom was a writer and the stories she told were magnificent and endearing. It was understandable why her father was drawn to that, but she’s also always understood that it was off-putting. It was like her mother lived in these extravagant fantasies, felt whimsical all the time, and valued imagination in a way her father didn’t.
Theodore isn’t quirky the way his wife was. He’s hard and explosive and factual. He’s unapproachable. Tillie gets this from him. They both have more mathematical brains. They are a lot alike. Tillie knows this. It’s why they’re at each other’s heads most of the time.
“Well, you’ve hated her since I’ve known you. I don’t know how two people can have a kid and still treat each other like shit.” She squints. “How can you pretend like everything’s okay right now?”
“I’m trying to lighten the mood, Till. You could help me out here, at least pretend you’re okay for your own sake. You’re making a scene by focusing on the negative.”
“I’m making a scene,” Tillie scoffs loudly. “I refuse to take responsibility for this.”
“Lower your voice,” he says, voice deep.
“No, this is ridiculous. What do you plan to do, even? Keep going on like nothing happened?” Her voice is near hysterical, but it’s barely above conventionally appropriate speaking volume. It booms in the hollowness of the diner. “How long do you think this is going to work? I’ve played your game.”
“Hardly,” her father spits back. “Will you behave? You’re really reminding me of your mother right now.”
“You’re the one asking me to play pretend. For someone who hated her this much, you’re really fucking so much like her. I’m serious,” she shifts so she’s sitting on her heels, now, toes live, hands gripping the edge of the table. She makes eye contact with another few people who come walking into the diner. There’s dry blood underneath her fingernails that she only notices when the pressure she puts on the table is great enough. She notices that he does as well.
“Sit down,” Theodore says, his voice low and his face red. He hasn’t moved, hasn’t really thought of what to do in this situation, realistically. “I’m serious.”
Tillie complies, tilting her head to the side. She’s not sure how she got the power from him in this situation, but she decides not to question it. She slides her ankles to the left, plopping down onto the bench again. “You’re the one who’s insisting we talk about her.”
“Can you think of something else to talk about?”
It takes a moment for Tillie to respond. She thinks about this seriously for a moment. “Am I going to school next week?”
Theodore turns around in his seat again making eye contact with Anna, who is coming out of the kitchen with a tray of food. She’s not within earshot but he lowers his voice anyway. “That’s a stupid question.”
Anna’s holding a big black tray with two full plates on it, both with two sunny-side up eggs, two triangle-slices of rye toast, and two greasy sausage links. Tillie’s stomach groans loudly, and she looks desperately at the food like she’s not sure if she’s the hungriest she’s ever been or completely disgusted. Anna is still smiling broadly but doesn’t make eye contact with Theodore anymore. She poses her question specifically to Tillie. “Would you like me to grab anything?”
Tillie smiles softly, trying to make her features as pleasant and sweet as possible, shaking her head politely. She wonders if Anna could hear their argument from the back. She wonders if the other people in the diner are paying attention, if she’s gotten their attention, if it’s too early for them to pretend to care.
It’s still early in the morning, and not much time has passed since Tillie and her father entered the diner. The thing about early morning, though, was that every second that passes, the higher the sun goes in the sky. After not looking for even a moment, the world outside is more alive. Tillie thinks this is ironic. The sky is blue-gray, now, slate instead of orange, and the rain beats harder against the roof and drips off the side in heavy streams. It’s more fitting.
“You better eat your eggs,” Theodore says, spreading jam on his toast.
“Yeah,” she starts, picking up her fork and making it do pirouettes along the edge of her plate. “Or what?”
Tillie looks up at her father. She notices the way his eyes glint with anger. She hardly recognizes him. Her hand grips the fork tighter, but her voice remains calm. It’s chilling. “What’s going to happen if I don’t eat my eggs? You can’t threaten me in a crowded diner.”
Theodore scoffs. There are only about five other people in the entire diner. “I’d hardly call this crowded.”
“Still, there are people here. Anna knows what we both look like. What are you gonna do?” Her voice is steady, but her hand betrays her by shaking, clanging the fork against the plate. “Kill me?”
“You’re really being stupid, Tillie.”
Tillie shifts so she’s sitting on her heels again. Her voice isn’t raised but it’s stronger than it had been. “Is that what you told mom?”
“Absolutely,” her father spits back.
“Tell me again about how I don’t understand love or how two people could possibly fall out of love with each other, or how when you met everything was perfect and how everything else pales in comparison, and other bullshit. Normal people divorce their wives, Teddy.”
Theodore bares his teeth at this. His hand draws back against his left side, pulling the flannel away from his front and exposing a gun in its holster. He doesn’t touch it, just reveals it, reminding Tillie that it’s there. Another challenge. She freezes for a moment, debating if she should take it. Tillie looks up over the booth at Anna, who’s coming out of the kitchen again.
They make brief eye-contact before she launches herself over the table.
Her knee ends up in her eggs, left hand stabilizing on the other edge of the table, nearly knocking over the second untouched cup of coffee. Her right hand wraps around the grip of the gun, and she yanks it away from the holster, flying back so she’s standing upright on her booth seat, yolk running down her shins.
Both hands are braced on the gun, and Tillie aims it at her father’s head. He looks around, nervous laughter bubbling up in him. For a moment, the diner is loud. It rumbles under the weight of the rain hitting the roof, other customers gasping, dropping their silverware, hiding under the tables, their shoes squeaking on the linoleum from the rain. Anna’s tray flies out of her hands, falling like a cymbal on the ground. The diner has become an orchestra toppled over, light shining in everyone’s eyes, the sky sunny-side up, patrons scrambled.
It goes silent after this. All Tillie can hear is the violent thud of her heart in her ears. She makes eye contact with Anna again, flicking her eyes over to the corded phone and back at her. At the sound of the shuffling of her shoes, her father turns to look behind him, but Tillie turns off the safety.
There’s another moment of silence. The patrons watch on, shaking, silent, bated. Beyond the crackle of the wall phone, a voice says “911, what’s your emergency?” and this is when Tillie speaks up again.
“I want everyone to hear me, and I don’t want anyone to stop me,” she starts, voice louder than it’s been all day, maybe all her life. It shows, her throat fighting against the volume. She doesn’t have anything planned. What is she supposed to say? That a few hours ago this person she thought was her father was standing over her mother’s body? That he’s holding her hostage? That he thought he had her under control? That that’s the only reason he took her out to the diner? She doesn’t know what his plans had been. She doesn’t know much of anything.
She pauses for a moment. Her forehead is quivering, her eyebrows are drawn together, and the sun is in her eyes still, despite the rain. She doesn’t know if the headache will ever go away. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever go to college. She doesn’t know if anyone will believe her. She doesn’t know if she has it in her to pull the trigger, even though it’s been itching for hours. She doesn’t know if someone is going to try to stop her. She doesn’t know if the police will come in time to stop her. She doesn’t want them to.
Theodore isn’t laughing anymore. He makes a move, maybe to pull her down, maybe to fight for the gun back, maybe to stand up and get out of the booth. Maybe he has a second gun that Tillie doesn’t known about. Tillie doesn’t think. With egg running down the front of her jeans, with mud caked to her shoes, with a heavy gun and even heavier implications in her bony hands, she pulls the trigger.