The diner is empty but for me. Ghost ship or slammed, I’ll take it. I love this place. Here, I am “Honey, Sweetheart, Babe.” I draw because they give me crayons. I drink cups and cups of coffee because a waitress both kind and indifferent keeps it coming. The grease on my plate? A grounding ritual. Simple. Gigantic.
But just now I don’t need grounding. I’m itching for something. It’s time to go.
I don’t dislike my little home town, but I’m back because I have nowhere to go; I can’t find a job. Turns out a bunch of people graduated intending to become marine biologists these past few years. Only so many institutions pay people to commune with the undersea.
I’m not the only one listless. I’ve seen lots of my high school class wandering around.
I doodle little fish with bulging eyeballs. The waitress’s nametag says “Orange.” I don’t believe it, but I happily accept.
Out the window a real treat comes. Amelia Swift, one year ahead of me in high school, prom queen. She’s wearing her prom dress.
Amelia is beautiful. She has also always been a little bit crazy. We uttered a communal “uh-oh” as she strutted toward her prize. We loved her but expected her to go on and on, weeping with her flowers and crown, reciting poems. Instead, she looked out at us all gathered there and said, “Wow thanks guys. Let’s dance!”
She danced and spun at the vortex of our party, very cool. She buoyed us and united us, just before we launched into our various trajectories.
Amelia doesn’t come into the diner. Instead I watch her cross the street right in front of a car. I jump up and yell “Watch out!” but of course she can’t hear me and neither can the driver. The collision doesn’t happen, thank God. Amelia doesn’t register the car at all, just continues. The driver of the car sits there gaping for a minute and then creeps away.
“You alright honey?” Orange the waitress asks, because I stood up and yelled like that.
“The car,” I say, gesturing. But the action has passed. Amelia is safe. She’s into the video rental shop across the way. Orange shrugs in a way that absorbs my outburst, sponging away any sense of danger from the inside of the diner, all without invalidating my feeling. I regret that I’m the only soul here to appreciate her.
“In a minute I’m going to invite someone outside to come in. I’m not like, leaving without eating or paying or anything,” I tell Orange.
“Alright Honey,” she says. She touches the pencil behind her ear.
“I’ll order as soon as I come back.”
She winks and refills my mug. I sip the coffee and watch the video rental door for Amelia’s reemergence. The sight of her jiggled a stagnant spot in me. I am certain Amelia will make something happen.
My wait is brief. The door opens. Amelia emerges onto the sidewalk, visibly jumpy—yes! She’s definitely wearing the same prom dress as the day she won. Her crown too.
“I’ll be right back!” I yell.
“Okay Sweetheart,” says Orange.
I lunge for the door. I need to catch Amelia before she crosses the road without looking again. It’s alright though; the road is quiet.
“Amelia! Amelia!” I wave my hands above my head, and she looks over with a twitchy smile. She’s so tired. Her hair is not curled, piled, and gleaming; it’s knotted up in the tilted crown. She walks over with an armload of videos, papers and books spilling all over the place. She’s got Jaws and Flipper. I can’t see the rest in the second I have to look before she grips the pile against her chest.
“You probably don’t remember me but I remember you were the prom queen.” My face is flushing red and pinpricks of sweat win out against my antiperspirant. I’m shaking a little and I fight an urge to crouch down and make myself smaller. “Amelia Swift!” I kind of yell it.
“I remember you, of course,” she says, dilated eyes darting over my face. I study her too: her decline into insanity is recent. Not drug-induced, more like insomnia. The prom dress has some missing sequins and torn silky fabric at the bottom.
“I voted for you,” I say. She barks a manic laugh which makes me bark a manic laugh too.
“Want some breakfast?” she asks, pointing with her chin at the diner.
“I’m actually already in there, yeah, please join me.” I hold the door open for her and sweep my arm and bow a little. It must be the dress commanding respect.
Orange, sweet genius, has already plated and placed the works for two. Eggs potatoes scrapple short stack. Amelia and I sit, slide, and touch knees on the way to our plates.
“Coffee is coming, Sweetheart,” Orange tells Amelia. She watches a few bites disappear before she makes good on this promise.
Do I offer her a crayon? Fix her crown and hair? I reach out to still her shaking hand.
“What’s going on with you?”
“I haven’t slept in a week,” she says. “And this is the first I’ve eaten in—I don’t know.”
“No offense but I can tell. Please let me help.” I move my hand so she can eat. She’s not crying but tears are close. I wiggle in my seat and grow an inch in posture.
“I don’t know what to do. Obviously I’m not crazy. I’m actually fine with doing it. Sort of. I don’t know how to talk to them. I can’t stop trying until I do.” She’s indicating the mess of video tapes and slipping papers.
“What do you mean?” I ask. I put my hand back on hers.
“It’s time to tell the dolphins.” She whispers it. No one moves.
“What do we need to tell them?”
She looks at me with such relief and longing, takes a giant bite of pancake. A declaration of friendship loud as any. I suppose it’s the “We” that did it. For the first time she smiles, a little one like she’s trying it out. And then we’re both grinning.
“I’m not entirely clear on that part,” Amelia says. “The dolphins are taking over? Underwater world, underwater cities. But I am sure, that if we don’t pass along the message, it’ll be bad.”
As Amelia goes on, her shoulders drop. Her hands steady. I don’t stand a chance; I’m absorbed. I can tell Orange is listening to every word, though her face remains impassive.
“Anyway it’s been a few weeks and every time I try to do something other than work on the mission, I think It’s time to tell the dolphins. It seems urgent.”
I want to help her. Not just insist on a hot shower and a nap—I will help her talk to dolphins.
“I don’t think you need to wear that dress, Honey, to do your dolphin thing,” Orange says.
Amelia and I nod—considering, chewing. We mop our plates clean with rye toast.