"More coffee, darlin'?"
The question came innocently enough. The waitress was standing almost at his elbow, but Harlan Lewell hadn't seen her approach. He jerked a little, making the fork rattle against the plate in front of him. Harlan swung his gaze away from the window to peer blankly up at the waitress. She smiled patiently, one hand on her hip and the other holding a carafe full of coffee. He shook his head to clear it.
"Yes, yes, thank you."
She leaned over to pour. Young, brown-haired, Harlan thought she was pretty and that she smelled like vanilla and cinnamon. He swallowed hard, the scent stirring up ghosts in the back rooms of his mind. He flicked his eyes back to the window, staring down the street. His breakfast, a "hog and hominy" affair of bacon, sausage biscuit with gravy, and grits, was only half eaten. His appetite had drained away, floating on a flood tide of fatigue and bittersweet memories. The waitress topped off his cup.
"You okay, hon? You look a little pale, and that breakfast hasn't gotten much smaller."
She was watching him as she spoke. Harlan looked back at her, her hazel eyes showing what he thought was genuine concern. He mustered up a weak smile.
"I'm fine, really. I'm just...tired. Been on a week long business trip, supposed to be home in two days." He picked up his fork in an effort to show some spirit, scooping up a big lump of grits. "I'll be right as rain once I get some more of these in my belly." He pushed the grits into his mouth, chewing mechanically while maintaining the grin. The waitress flashed her own smile.
"Okay," she said, turning to go, "take your time. I'll check up on you in a bit."
Harlan watched her walk away, his jaw moving slowly as he struggled to swallow the grits. They were good, but felt like he had swallowed a whole walnut as they made their way to his stomach. He looked out the window and down the street. The cafe in which he had once relinquished his heart and soul to the greatest love he had ever known was just down the street. The sign hung out over the roadway, and he could feel the condensed heat of their past rippling over the pavement, through the glass behind which he sat, and coiling around his heart.
She wasn't here, he well knew, but he felt her presence.
Harlan sucked in a breath. The smell of coffee and butter, and he was there again, leaning across the table with her hand on his head and a gentle kiss on his mouth. She was smiling, eyes shining, as she ran a thumb across his lips to rub a small blot of jelly away. He sat, stunned at the kiss, as she daintily licked the tip of her thumb while sitting back in her chair. A low laugh escaped her perfect mouth, bells from the cathedral.
Harlan cast his eyes downward, and made another half-hearted attempt to finish the breakfast. It was no good. He was exhausted, his heart and his mind arguing with one another, and it was time to go home. His mind had said it was foolish to detour an extra day out of his way to come here. The heart had other ideas, looking for any straw to grasp when it came to finding her, getting her back. Ultimately, he hadn't the courage to go into the cafe; he knew she was gone, but lacked the backbone to confirm the truth. That realization had led him to the diner in which he sat. Harlan set the fork down and reached into his travel bag for the map.
The grits sat, growing cold and forgotten while he tried to find his way back home.