FRED NOTICED the kid right away. Of course he did. It was 2:00 a.m. on a Tuesday night in a roadside Denny’s; it wasn’t exactly teeming with people.
The kid stood pigeon-toed, shuffling on his feet as he waited at the hostess station until Leslie called, “Sit wherever you want, hon. I’ll be with you in a sec.” He was wearing those—what did Amira call them?—skinny jeans and a hoodie. He kept his hands tucked in the hoodie’s front pocket as he slipped past Fred’s table and into a corner booth.
For lack of anything better to do, Fred watched him. Leslie handed the kid a menu and, without looking at it, he asked for a coffee. She nodded—“Sure thing, honey”—and left him to it. The second he took his hands out of his pocket, Fred could see why he had kept them in there. They were jittery, agitated. They flipped the menu’s pages back and forth, bent them, picked at the corner of the paper tent that advertised the specials.
Fred used to do this all the time, sit and watch people, quiet and unobtrusive. Sometimes he scribbled the traits of the more interesting ones in a notebook: bounced in his chair whenever he spoke… smelled like bubblegum when she walked past… added five sugars to her tea….
James used to laugh about it, used to tease, “I married such an artist.” That was when they still laughed together, when they could still tease without the words being tight around their edges.
Fred pushed the thoughts out of his head. It was too easy to get maudlin on these late nights when he couldn’t sleep, and that made it too easy to “forget” to take his meds.
Fred pulled himself out of his thoughts when Leslie delivered the coffee to the kid’s table. The kid poured in two sachets of sugar, two creams, and then proceeded to rip the sugar packets into smaller and smaller pieces while he perused the menu. Reading? Or zoning out? His gaze looked too vague to be focused.
Fred looked up into Leslie’s gaze. “Yeah,” he said, “please,” and pushed his mug to the edge of the table.
“Your food’ll be right out,” she said as she poured. “You want jam?” She asked that every night he was here, even though his answer was always—
“No. Thanks. I’m good. Just ketchup.”
She nodded and walked away, leaving him to his thoughts. His thoughts and his book, which he hadn’t opened the last two nights he’d been here.
He looked at it. Flipped to his bookmarked page—page 36—and read a line. Two lines.
Snapped it shut.
The kid raised his head at the noise, which had been louder than Fred intended. Their gazes met, and Fred’s breath caught at the deep green eyes that stared back at him. A smile that seemed more automatic than genuine flitted across the kid’s lips, a learned and practiced response. Fred blinked, too startled for a second to respond—people rarely made eye contact with each other here, and when they did, they never smiled. By the time he’d told himself to smile, idiot, that’s what normal people do, the kid had looked away, his head ducked over his coffee cup.
Gut clenching with embarrassment, Fred tore his gaze away. He wanted to keep watching. It wasn’t just the smiling. Nothing about the kid fit in here. The usual crowd was made up of truckers, insomniacs reading books with red eyes, and Fred, who fit in more with the latter group than the former. The kid was too… too pretty to fit in, with his messy brown hair and beautiful eyes.
Why, why had it taken him so long to smile? He guessed that’s what happened to your social skills when most of your life took place in a Denny’s after midnight. It was only when Leslie came by with his plate that Fred braved another glance at the kid.
He was gone. The only traces left behind were a coffee cup, the confetti of two ripped sugar packets, and a ten-dollar bill.
THE NEXT morning, Fred felt hungover. He wasn’t; he hadn’t been drunk in years. He was just tired, but it felt like a hangover: the heavy limbs, the head filled with bricks and cotton wool, the sandpaper in his throat.
It didn’t help that his phone rang at 7:36 a.m.
He groped for it. Finally found it on his bedside table and brought it to his ear. “’Lo?”
“Hey, Daddy.” Amira. Bright and chipper, as if she had never heard the words too early in her entire life.
“Hey,” Fred rasped. “Hey, Amy. Hey. Hi.”
“Hi,” she echoed. “Did I wake you?”
“No,” he said automatically. “Well. Yes. But that’s okay, it’s fine.”
“No,” he said, and instantly regretted not saying don’t be, the way a normal father would have, the way James would have wanted him to. “What’s up, hon?”
“Well,” she said, and the way she slowed down made his skin prickle with anticipation. “It’s my birthday soon—”
“I know you know,” she replied, her words still too slow for his comfort. “And I’m putting a party thing together. Nothing huge, just a… thing. And I thought….” She sped up so suddenly he almost missed her next words. “I thought it might be really nice if you came.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.” Where’s the “but”? he wanted to ask. What aren’t you telling me, Amy?
“It’s here,” she said. “Like, at the house. Um. Dad’s going to be there.” She paused, apparently expecting him to say something, and she was better at the waiting game than him because the silence stretched out long enough to make him uncomfortable.
“Oh,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Oh,” he repeated. Then, “No.” He shouldn’t have been surprised. When Amira had started college, she’d chosen to stay with James rather than move into dorms. Of course she was having her birthday party at her house. At James’s house.
“Daddy, it would mean so much….”
“No.” I’m sorry, he wanted to add, but he couldn’t, not when he didn’t mean it. Self-preservation. Surely self-preservation came ahead of attending his daughter’s birthday party? His adult daughter.
“He wants to see you,” she said, now stubborn. It reminded him of when she was five years old and insisted that, yes, all her stuffies absolutely had to sleep in bed with her. “He says you’re avoiding him.”
“He’s wrong,” Fred said automatically.
“He’s not,” she replied before he could add anything else. “Daddy, come on….”
“Sweetheart.” He pressed his fingers to his temples and pinched against the headache he could feel forming there. “I’ve got to go.”
“No, you don’t,” she said, quiet and resigned. “But okay. Bye.”
And before he could say anything else, before he could say the sorry he did mean this time, she hung up.
ON FRIDAY, when Fred arrived at Denny’s just after midnight, the kid was already there. His hoodie, the same one he had been wearing on Tuesday night, was fraying at the cuffs; the bags under his eyes were an even deeper purple than before. He was ripping sugar packets into shreds again, and when Leslie saw Fred looking at him, she shrugged. “Don’t know what his story is,” she said in an undertone as she splashed coffee into his mug. “He’s been here every night since Tuesday.”
“He has to have a story?” Fred asked.
Fred watched her walk away before his gaze slid back to the kid. He was in a booth closer to Fred’s this time, close enough for Fred to see that his hair wasn’t the uniform mouse brown it had originally seemed. There were streaks of dirty blond too, and some brown dark enough to call brunet. He wore it long; on Tuesday, it had been loose, falling to just above his shoulders, but tonight, it was twisted up in a bun at the base of his neck. A man bun, Amira would have called it. The thought of her made Fred drag his gaze away. The kid was probably Amira’s age, a few years older at the most, and as intriguing as Fred found him, he refused to look anymore, refused to be the creepy old man who wouldn’t stop watching the boy who was his daughter’s age.
But when he finished ordering his usual—bacon, two eggs, brown toast, hash browns—his eyes flicked back to the kid and his stomach got a jolt when he found the kid staring right back at him with those startlingly green eyes.
Fred looked away. Then back. Then away again. He stared at his hands, clasped together on the tabletop, and tried to make his skin stop buzzing. It was a familiar feeling, but he couldn’t place it. Attraction? He’d never been into age differences. There had been an exactly two-day difference between him and James, with James’s birthday on June third and Fred’s on the fifth. He’d always found it oddly charming.
The thought of James reminded Fred where he’d felt this feeling before—the day he and James had met, when James had winked at him from across the room at a party and Fred hadn’t been able to take his eyes off him for the rest of the night.
And look where that had led him.
Enough, he told himself, mental voice as firm as he could possibly make it. No more.
The voice made him jump, and before he even looked up, Fred knew who had spoken. Sure enough, the kid stood right beside his table, both hands curled around his cup of coffee. “May I?” he asked, gesturing to the seat opposite Fred, and Fred, vaguely numb and with no idea what else to do, nodded mutely.
The kid slid into the booth, put his cup on the table. “Hey,” he said again, eyes darting away from Fred’s face for a second before they returned. “I’m Callum.”
“Callum?” Fred repeated. The kid nodded. “I’m Fred.”
A smile tugged on the corner of Callum’s mouth. “Nice to meet you, Fred.”
Silence. Fred cleared his throat in the hope it would help him come up with something to say, but his mind remained blank and the sound hung in the air.
He didn’t know if the situation was made better or worse when Leslie brought Fred’s plate of food over. She held her face carefully blank, and that was somehow worse. The blank façade’s implication that there was judgment to hide made Fred entirely too aware of what this looked like, him sitting across a table from a man half his age at midnight. It suddenly felt a whole lot less awkward and a whole lot more skeezy.
At least his food gave him something to do with his hands. He shook the ketchup bottle, then drizzled its contents over everything on the plate, even his toast. He stabbed an egg yolk with his fork, dipped a corner of toast into it, and took a bite. Only then, still chewing, did he look up at the kid again. The kid, who was staring at him with his eyes wide in some sort of abject horror.
“Did you just put ketchup on toast?” he gasped, as dramatically as if he were some sort of soap opera character. If he’d had pearls, Fred was sure he’d clutch them. “That’s… that is disgusting.”
Fred raised his eyebrows at the kid—at Callum. “It’s actually very sophisticated,” he found himself saying. “It’s a deconstructed fried egg sandwich.”
Callum laughed loudly enough to make the only other patron of Denny’s, a dark-haired woman in her midthirties, glance up from her book, but Callum didn’t seem bothered. “Deconstruct all you like,” he said, “but ketchup on eggs is barbaric. On toast it’s even worse.” But he was still smiling, his entire body now relaxed in his seat. His smile was wide and easy, his teeth slightly crooked. “You were here the other night too, weren’t you?” he asked, voice hesitant, shy, soft, but no longer stiff with awkwardness. “Tuesday?”
“I was,” said Fred. He took another bite of his apparently barbaric toast. “Les says you’ve been here every night since then.”
Callum shrugged, nodded. His mouth worked as it searched for sentences, but when he finally spoke, he only said, “Yeah.”
“Why?” Fred asked, genuinely curious. His curiosity was in his chest, right in his rib cage, and it startled him. It was the same kind of curiosity that’d had him carrying around a notebook for years, making observations about strangers and drawing stories from those observations, gently crafting them into something worth reading. He hadn’t felt it for—God, for years.
“Well,” Callum said, words slow, “there doesn’t really seem to be anywhere else to go.”
Fred didn’t believe that for a second. “There’s the whole rest of the town.”
“Anywhere else that’s open twenty-four seven?”
Fred took a moment to think about it. “Well, no,” he admitted when he came up blank. “That’s important?”
Callum smiled into his coffee cup as he took a sip. “I’m here after midnight, aren’t I?”
Why? The question was the only thing running through Fred’s mind. He bit it back. He didn’t want to interrogate Callum, but that curiosity was burning burning burning. He scooped up a forkful of hash browns to distract himself. He chewed slowly, hoped a change of subject would come to him.
Callum beat him to it. “Why are you here?”
“I’m old,” Fred said once he’d swallowed. “Insomnia’s in the job description.”
“You’re not that old.” Callum’s gaze turned sharp. “How old are you?”
“Forty-nine,” Fred said. His skin crawled; he’d never had a problem with his age until he had to admit it to a skinny, slim-hipped boy who was barely in his twenties. Then, because he really wanted to torture himself by making his point, he asked, “And you?”
Callum’s chin stiffened. “Twenty-three.”
Well. Twenty-six years. Fred could consider his point well made. He swallowed. “See?” he said. “Much too young for insomnia.”
Callum scowled into his cup. When he spoke, it was in a mutter so low Fred barely heard. “Been getting it for years.”
Fred instantly felt a stab of regret somewhere around his diaphragm. What was he doing? Trying to act like he knew better? Pulling an older-and-wiser act? All to try and convince Callum that it would be a bad idea for them to sleep together when the kid had given no indication he was even remotely interested.
“Sorry,” he said, and Callum looked up, surprised. “I shouldn’t… I’m sorry. It’s late. I’m being arrogant and rude.”
“Nah,” Callum said. “No, it’s good, it’s fine. You have a point. My, um.” His tongue darted out to wet his lips. “A friend of mine, Leah, she used to say the same thing.”
Fred kept his voice soft. “Where is she now?”
A tired smile flitted over Callum’s face. “Not here,” he said.
Fred didn’t want to accept the not-answer, but he didn’t seem to have much of a choice. “I guess not.”