"Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" Michelle whipped out the cloth that hung from her apron and blotted the coffee that she had dumped on the customer's lap. He stood, swatting at the wet black stain on his jeans, looking annoyed.
"So, so sorry," Michelle muttered, her tired gray eyes glued to the floor as she expertly wiped the coffee from the cracked plastic seat cover and the table. "I can get you an ice pack or-"
He slapped some bills onto the table. "No, that will be all, thank you."
Michelle picked up the money and held it out to him. "It's on the house. Again, so sorry."
But the man just left the restaurant. Michelle stood there, frozen; her hand stretched out like a branch on an old dead tree that was too tired to stand any longer.
A hand squeezed her shoulder: Natalie. "You gonna be okay?"
Michelle nodded. Cracked a pitiful attempt at a smile. It had been a long time since things had been okay. Michelle couldn't remember what okay felt like. Wasn't sure it had ever existed.
Brendan was tugging on her apron. She almost always took him to work these days. It was no environment for raising an impressionable seven-year-old boy, with truckers swearing and spitting and trying to grab her, but she had no other choice. She couldn't leave him alone at home, and she couldn't afford - or bear the thought of trusting - a babysitter. The scare on Saturday afternoon had turned out to be nothing - Brendan had found a wandering stray cat and followed it down the street. Still, it had almost killed her, reliving the fear, the sheer panic. She couldn't let it happen again.
"Mommy, I want a gumball, can I have a quarter?"
Michelle gave him one of the bills she still held in her hand and told him to bring it to Natalie and exchange it for coins. She tousled his unruly blond hair as he thanked her, feeling a thread of energy flow into her veins. Just touching him, feeling the solidness of his little body, gave her the strength to keep going, to keep trudging through this thick, black, waist-deep sludge that was her life - or what was left of it. Brendan was all she had. It was just the two of them, against the world. Three of us, she corrected, suddenly swallowing a mountain of grief and pain. Even for a moment, how could she forget? Sarah was out there.
The photo was bent and stained already, though it had only been a couple days since she had found the letter. It was always with her, stuffed in her pocket, her sock, her purse, or her bra, and she took it out frequently, never fully convinced it was real.
She wanted to believe that she knew her own daughter's face, but reason and doubt and fear plagued her mind like blood-sucking parasites. It might not be Sarah. It couldn't be.
To allow herself even a sliver of hope was asking too much. Her heart had been broken a million times over. It would not survive another fall.
But if it is her...
Even if it was Sarah, who would believe her? Certainly not her friends, her mother, or even the police - she was the crazy woman who had lost her daughter and refused to let her go.
"So sad," they would say behind her back. "She probably found that picture in a magazine or something." They would be understanding and patronizing, at first: "Of course it's her, Michelle. When she first disappeared, you called us five times a week, telling us you had seen her face in the supermarket..." But then it would get old, and they would tell her to let go, tell her she wasn't coming back, tell her to see a therapist.
She was on her own. But even if the picture was real, she had no other information. Where would she even start to look? And even if she found Sarah, would she still be alive?
The note said that she'd be returned, just as she left.
Michelle dismissed the thought. She did not believe in this kind of thing. The note was the part that made her doubt the authenticity of the picture that rested in the pocket of her apron. It sounded like a chain letter: "Send this to twenty people and you will meet your true love within the week. Throw it out and you will have bad luck for a year."
Sending a letter to twenty people, however, is very different than killing nine people. The more she thought about it, the sillier it seemed. Finding nine people given only their names, killing them somehow - it was not a funny joke. The idea was absurd. Probably some kind of advertising scheme. They were always coming up with new and stupid ways to trap innocent people and take their money. Brendan had probably found it in the mail and left it in his sister's room. Sarah's story and picture had been splashed on the news, and some creeps had found - probably photoshopped - a picture...
"Can I get some more coffee?" A man in a ripped t-shirt held up his empty mug.
Michelle poured carefully this time, pushing the thoughts away. Maybe she was crazy. Maybe it was time to let go. To finally sever the last thread of hope to which she clung so desperately. Sarah would have wanted...
Michelle sat down at a dirty booth, resting her coffee pot on the table. She pulled out the photo, spreading it smooth with her thumb. Her eyes raked every detail. Every crack in the concrete wall, every smudge of dirt under the girl's fingernails. Sarah's nose still looked just like the one on her ex-husband, Karl, and the stubbornness in her eyes reminded Michelle of her own mother. She tried to bend back the top left corner, which had begun to curl, and saw a mark she hadn't noticed before. There was graffiti or something on the wall. Michelle bent closer, trying to make it out.
"Ma'am, can you quit cryin' and bring me my burger? Extra mayo and cheese, hold the tomato?" A corpulent man with only one suspender and a couple teeth missing wiggled his eyebrows at her impatiently.
Michelle pocketed the photo and rubbed her eyes, surprised by dampness - tears that had escaped without her notice. She picked up her coffee pot with a long, weary sigh and looked out the window that faced what was left of a park. There sat Brendan glumly on a swing, scratching at the dirt with his shoe.