Excerpt: Dine & Dash

10:12 AM
“Eat your fries, Bird,” Mother said. She had shadows in her eyes again and beneath that, they seemed to be made of glass. She looked at me, but I could tell she wasn’t really seeing me. I put more ketchup on my plate and the bottle made a sound Mother calls a phoot.

She ordered toast with butter, then took all the little jams that sat in the metal bowl and stacked a tower out of them. She didn’t touch her toast.

Donna's Diner in Fallmoore (Black Bird by Alanna Rusnak)

 I learned about time-lapse videos in media class and I knew if someone made a time-lapse of her toast we could watch it go from firm and steaming to a floppy, moist stack. If someone made a time-lapse of Mother it would go from beautiful girl in a pretty yellow dress to grumpy woman in a torn t-shirt that showed her bra under the armpits. She scratched at the dressing on her forearm where she’d gotten a new tattoo the day before.

When Mother went to the bathroom, I stole one of her jams and peeled back the foil cover. It smelled like raspberry, but was only a jelly. I dug into it with a fry and popped it into my mouth where the sugar sent a wave of pleasure over my tongue as sweetness mixed with the salt. I palmed two more from her tower and slipped them in my pocket for a treat later. I also took some sugar packets and a round little pack of butter.

“More iced tea?” a waitress asked. Her name tag said “Margaret.”

I nodded eagerly.

Mother stumbled back to the table when I was more than half way through my new drink. She knocked over her jam tower and then lined it up in a row. Strawberry, raspberry, strawberry, raspberry. The bandage was gone from her arm and I read, ‘Mitchell, may I?’ etched into her skin. A month before, her shoulder cap had been completed: a full colour replica of the Turbulent Indigo album cover. I thought it looked like a Van Gogh painting, the way the brush strokes showed like a nod to Starry Night. It took eight sessions with the needle. She told me it was going to help sew her back together. I told her she should tell Joni about it, but she said she knew Joni could feel it.

Mother shoved her soggy toast into her pocket and grabbed a cold fry from my plate. She popped it in her mouth and watched the waitress back into the kitchen. “Now, Bird,” she said around the fry and slid from the booth.

I followed her to the door, eyes to the ground. Shame burned through me as we slipped out and it continued to smoulder as we walked back to our apartment. I kicked at an abandoned dime then bent and slipped it into my pocket.

Later that night, after Mother slept against the dirty couch cushions, I pulled the old relish jar from beneath my bed and dumped it onto my mattress, adding the dime I’d found earlier to the humble stash.

$3.86.

I’d been saving for a lunch box, picking coins up off the sidewalk on my way to and from school for over two months. I didn’t want to keep taking the same old bread bag every day when my classmates brought their lunches wrapped in Ninja Turtles or Gravity Falls.

I put the coins back into the jar, checked on Mother who was drooling on the couch, and slipped from the apartment.

The same waitress was still working when I sheepishly approached the counter. “You gave me more iced tea,” I said.

She leaned against the opposite side of the counter, her arms crossed, dish cloth in one hand. “And you snuck away before I could bring you the bill.”

I nodded, but forced myself to maintain eye contact with her. “What happens when people don’t pay?” I asked.

“It’s stealing,” she said. “And stealing is illegal. And it hurts the places that get taken from.”

“Did it hurt you?”

She uncrossed her arms and straightened up. “It hurt my feelings,” she said.

“My Mother is sick,” I said.

“I’m sorry.”

“No,” I shook my head. “You shouldn’t be sorry. She should be sorry because she forgets to be a grown up all the time.” I put my relish jar on the counter and pushed it over to her. “I know it’s not enough, but it’s all I have.”

The waitress dumped the coins into her palm and counted them out. “This will do,” she said and her kindness surprised me. “Doing the right thing is hard.”

I shrugged. “Maybe. But doing the wrong thing makes my stomach hurt.”

“What’s your name, hon?”

“Bird.”

She nodded knowingly and smiled as she dumped coins into their appropriate slot in the cash register.

“You’re getting your wings,” she said.

I reached my right hand over my left shoulder, looking for them. I felt the gravity of the words written there though my skin was smooth beneath my shirt. “Am I?”

“You are. Stay good. Do you want some pie?”

I eyed the glass pie safe behind her but shook my head. “I have no more money, and I have to get back before she knows I’m gone.”

The waitress slid the glass panel aside and lifted a piece of banana creme into a small cardboard box.
She handed it to me. “Stay good, Bird.”

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“I hope your Mother gets better soon.”

I ran back to our apartment, a burden lifted. I checked on Mother who was still asleep, though a piece of her toast now lay on the floor in front of her, one bite taken from it.

I sat in the outside hallway, eating the pie without a fork as if it was a piece of pizza, and a small wave of pleasure washed over me. I pulled one of the sugar packets from my pocket and shook it onto the last bite. The sweetness made me lay my head back against the wall, sighing with the rare joy of that strange moment.

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