“Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.”
BERTRAND RUSSELL, The Conquest of Happiness
I didn’t see it at first, sitting between the cash register and a stack of order pads. It might have been there for hours — or longer — just waiting, while I spent another day of my summer dying of boredom inside Gracewell’s Diner.
There were just two of us left to lock up tonight. I was hovering beside the register, drumming my fingernails on the countertop, while Millie, my best friend and partner-in-waitressing, glided around the diner and sang into the push broom like it was a microphone. Everyone else had left, and my uncle Jack — manager not-so-extraordinaire — had stayed home with a hangover.
The tables stood resolutely in rows, flanked by straight-backed, burgundy chairs and the occasional rubber plant. The door was locked, the lights were dimmed, and the window booths were clean.
I was trying not to listen to Millie destroy Adele when I noticed it: the jar of honey. I picked it up and studied it.
“I think I’m getting better,” Millie called mid-song-murder from across the diner. The only thing she got right was the faint British accent, but that’s only because she was British. “I can hit that high note now!”
“Big improvement, Mil,” I lied without looking up.
The jar was small and rounded. Inside, honey dotted with crystals of gold swayed lazily as I tilted it back and forth. A fraying square of cloth covered the lid and, instead of a label, a thin velvet ribbon encircled the middle, finishing in an elaborate bow. It was black.
Homemade? Weird. I didn’t know anybody in Cedar Hill who made their own honey, and I knew almost everyone in Cedar Hill. It was just that kind of place — a little pocket on the outskirts of Chicago, where everybody knows everybody else’s business; where nobody forgives and nobody forgets. I knew all about that. After what happened with my dad, I became infamy’s child, and infamy has a way of sticking to you like a big red warning on your forehead.
Millie hit the last note of her song with ear-splitting vigor, then skipped behind the counter and stashed the broom away. “You ready to go?”
“Where did this come from?” I balanced the jar of honey on the palm of my hand and held it out.
She shrugged. “Dunno. It was here when my shift started.”
I looked at her through the golden prism, which made her face distorted. “It’s weird, right?”
Millie rearranged her features into a classic I-don’t-really-care-about-this-topic-of-conversation look. “The honey? Not really.”
“It’s homemade,” I said.
“Yeah, I figured.” She pulled her eyebrows together and reached out to touch the glass. “The ribbon is kind of odd. Maybe a customer left it as a tip?”
“What kind of customer tips with pots of honey?”
Millie gasped, her face lighting up. “Did you …” She breathed in dramatically. “By any chance …” She exhaled. “Serve …”
I leaned forward in anticipation.
“… a little yellow bear …”
I can’t believe I fell for it.
“… called Winnie-the-Pooh today?”
Her laughter set me off, it always did. That sound — like a duck being strangled — was what drew me to her when she moved to Cedar Hill five years ago. At school we would always find ourselves laughing at the same things. It was the silly stuff — making stupid faces; giggling inappropriately when someone tripped and fell; enjoying long, nonsensical conversations and discussing ridiculous hypothetical situations — that brought us together. Back then I didn’t know it would be the only friendship that would survive what happened to my family eighteen months ago, but it didn’t matter anymore because Millie was the best friend I’d ever have, and the only one I really needed.
We laughed all the way through closing, until we were outside in the balmy night air.
Located on the corner of Foster and Oak, the diner was a modest, low-lying building made from faded brick. It was perfectly symmetrical, its squareness reflected in the boxy windows that dominated the exterior and the small parking lot that surrounded it on all sides. Along the overhanging roof, a scrawling “Gracewell’s” sign was half-illuminated by streetlamps that lined the periphery of the lot. Right across the street, the old library loomed against the night sky, half-hidden by a line of neatly clipped trees that continued west past the general post office and on down the sidewalk.
I was still holding the well-dressed pot of honey as we crossed the empty parking lot. It’s not like anyone would care, I told myself — with my uncle Jack at home nursing his self-induced headache, there was no one official around to claim it. I’d only done what any jaded, underpaid employee would do in my situation — claimed a freebie that I had no immediate use for and walked away from the diner feeling triumphant because of it.