“A beautiful child you have there,” said Horvath.
“Think so? Really? Take her. Be my guest.”
It was mostly a tough crowd and everyone knew Jeanie and her broken-glass sort of banter. But the room went quiet.
“I mean it,” she said; “you think she’s so gorgeous.”
With so many missing pieces, Jeanie and Liane together didn’t make a whole person. The boys were with their father and he’d hardly needed a lawyer to get them. No one came wanting Liane.
Liane looked younger than her age and Horvath’s notice oughtn’t have bothered us. Who doesn’t admire pretty children?
“Ah,” he said. “Yes.” He left a tip on the table and took his check to Arlette at the register.
“And for the little girl’s breakfast, too,” he said.
Arlette hesitated and then took Horvath’s money, and he went out, mild as he’d come in.
He was there the next Sunday and nothing so strange about it, even for a man like that; The Holdout had no glamour but served spectacular food.
We all assumed Horvath in his foreignness had something to do with the college, two exits over, though he’d bought an old farm spread on our side of the river. Local men were doing his renovations and they said he knew quality and had more books than anyone ought to need.
The car more than anything said money. A big old car, solid and kept purring; the kind that costs a lot to feed. A car like that’s an expensive hobby. We try to do errands in one run because of the price of gas; that car got under our skin.
Jeanie tried to catch his eye, that day, but his gaze swept the room without preferment. We felt sorry for her, when he left, paying just for his own meal; she looked like the dumb kid in school who’s had a mean trick played on her. But why would he have owed her anything?
And the week after, Jeanie ignored Horvath, three booths down.
He had to walk past her, to pay. He stopped, smiling at Liane.
“Would you like to ride in my car?” he asked, with the warm rich voice of a kind uncle from another side of the family.
“Yes,” said Liane.
She slid out from her seat and took Horvath’s hand, and he seemed to see all of us without looking at anyone, except Liane, and the two of them walked to Arlette’s register where he paid his own bill.
Jeanie went a gray bloodless color and stumbled up front, like a sleepwalker pulled rudely into a harsh morning. She was fumbling for her money when Horvath said, “That one too, surely,” as though Arlette’d overlooked it, and Arlette, flushing, stood there facing the three of them, holding the bills counted out as Horvath’s change.
Jeanie grabbed at Liane like the kid was a bag of chips.
It was easy to forget how Liane was, she looked perfect and you could imagine that face in paintings, light gilding it in ways that words can’t properly describe — when she started screaming we flinched though we’d all heard her go off before.
Horvath stood there, Liane’s hand in his, and Jeanie was gathering force to wale it to Liane and put herself back in shit again, and all of us, feeling sick, sat there with our splendid breakfasts congealing on our plates.
“Such an unpleasant noise,” said Horvath, “isn’t it?” And Liane shut herself up and smiled.
They walked out together, to Horvath’s car, and Jeanie followed, looking like she couldn’t breathe.
Arlette told me it wasn’t more than half an hour til Horvath dropped them back in the parking lot, and Jeanie and Liane got into Jeanie’s dad’s old pickup and left.
As it went on, we all felt trapped in someone else’s bad dream. The usual Sunday mornings, colored over with a gray crayon.
Something was eating Jeanie from the center outward, leaving the smooth roundness under her skin intact but crumpling up her heart. The fire, useless as it’d been, had all gone out of her. That girl’d always had a good appetite and she still ordered those massive Sunday specials that kept the parking lot full of truckers’ rigs, but she was shrinking into herself anyway.
Liane never’d had much expression to her though there’d always been something inside, lurking at the corners of her eyes, and now she returned your own gaze, steady and level. It surprised you to see how much was in there and how you’d missed it, all along.
These days she smiled when you greeted her, though she never said anything back.
“Wasn’t it senior year,” said Arlette, when I asked her, “when Liane was born? Mid-winter baby.”
Horvath had thrown us off with his way of speaking. Like the old uncle in books, calling everyone children.
The rides got longer though they always ended up back in The Holdout‘s drive. Horvath tucked Liane into the back seat while Jeanie slid silently beside her, and sometimes now, while they walked to his car, Liane would rub her head against Horvath’s shoulder like a cat marking her own.
It was just after that December’s first light snow. Horvath was in his usual booth, waiting, and Jeanie came in with Liane.
Jeanie was finished, we all saw that.
She sat down but Liane went over and stood smiling in front of Horvath, and he got up with his strange courtesy and saw her into the seat beside him.
They took their ease about it. Waffles piled with syrup and fruit, and a pot of tea. Once Liane put up a graceful hand to Horvath’s face, laughing, as though she’d been his chatelaine from before any of us were born; when they’d done, he left the money on the table and they walked out together, his arm around her waist as though it had been created only to rest there.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives”–keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)