Karen is used to seeing the same faces at the diner. It’s only been a couple of years since her dad’s stroke, but business is as slow as it was when he was alive. She’s honestly amazed the place hasn’t gone under. It must be cursed—she sometimes thinks she could douse it in gasoline and set it ablaze and it would still be here, like a seeping wound that won’t heal.
She recognizes everyone here tonight, but the sight of Chief Bernie stonily observing her from across the counter still sets her nerves on edge. He’s retired now, but all those years slough away under his scrutinous gaze—she’s a teenager again, young and afraid.
“The usual?” she asks him, averting her eyes. She can’t look directly at him without seeing the flash of ambulance lights, her brother strapped to a gurney. Some small part of her wonders if that’s why he still comes here, to make sure she hasn’t forgotten the consequences of that night.
Like she could. Those memories are a stain, permanent. All the bleach in the world couldn’t scrub them clean.
“Please,” he replies. His eyes are on her like a brand, and she bobs her head, grateful for the excuse to escape to the kitchen.
Tony is on chef duty tonight. He’s removing a batch of onion rings from the deep fryer, but looks up as Karen enters.
“Steak and eggs for Bernie,” she says.
Tony’s mouth quirks as he shakes the basket of onion rings onto a plate. “Shocker.”
“I got these,” Karen asks, taking the plate from him. “Mrs. Olson, right?”
“Yep. Said she wanted them ‘extra crunchy’ tonight, so—” he shrugs. “I did my best?”
Karen smiles. Tony’s a good kid, reliable. He’s home from college for the summer, and she’s already dreading having to replace him when he goes back in the fall. She’ll manage, though. She always does.
She pushes open the partition that separates the kitchen from the dining room, pointedly not looking at Bernie as she delivers the plate of onion rings. There’s a handful of people in tonight, the space humming with conversation and a mix of greatest hits leaking from the stereo in the corner, but his presence is a black hole, sucking all the air from the room.
Karen knows she should be grateful. If he hadn’t kept her name out of Kevin’s report, the landscape of her life would look very different right now. She would have gone to jail, the diner would have surely closed down for good, and her dad—
She swallows around the ball in her throat. Paxton would probably have preferred that—he barely acknowledged that she was his daughter after the accident. What better way to shun her than if she was locked away, out of sight and mind?
Karen grabs a pitcher of water off the counter, making the rounds and topping off drinks to give her hands something to do other than shake. She hates this, hates dragging the past around like a pair of shackles around her ankles, but that small voice lodged way back in her brain reminds her that this is what she deserves. She’s not sure she can picture a world where she finds peace, not with her brother in the ground. Not with her heavy heart, an ocean of unspoken hurt and regret beneath her ribs.
She circles back to the kitchen, pausing once she’s behind the swinging doors to brace herself against the wall.
“You okay?” Tony asks.
“Fine,” she breathes, drawing herself upright and pushing her hair out of her face. “Table four wants more fries.”
“Cheapskates,” Tony mutters. “That’s their third basket. They haven’t ordered anything else since they got here.”
“Yeah, well—” Karen pushes off from the wall, heading toward the deep fryer. She runs a batch of potatoes through the slicer, then shovels them into the frying basket. “That’s the diner business, for you.” She smirks. “Sure you don’t want to stick around in the fall?”
“My parents would love that,” Tony snarks. “Me giving up a full-ride scholarship to wait tables and flip burgers.”
He says it lightly enough, but Karen must go quiet for just a second too long, because he rapidly backpedals. “Not that there’s anything, you know, wrong with that—”
“It’s fine,” Karen cuts in, forcing her voice to go all light and airy. She glances up and sees Tony’s hangdog expression. “Really,” she insists. “No offense taken, I promise.”
A semi-awkward silence filters between them, and Karen focuses on slicing her potatoes, the hiss of her knife against the cutting board. She doesn’t blame Tony for what he said—all the blame is squarely on her shoulders, for allowing herself to settle into this stagnated holding pattern. Not for the first time in the past ten years, she feels caught in a tug-of-war between the life she wants and the one she’s chained herself to.
Karen slides the remaining potato strips into the basket, but she’s distracted, thoughts swilling like water around a drain. She doesn’t realize that she’s setting the basket into the fryer with more force than intended until the oil sprays up, scalding her wrist.
“Shit, ow!” she yelps, the basket of unfried potatoes clattering to the ground. The pain is sharp and stinging, and she barrels toward the industrial sink, plunging her wrist beneath a stream of ice-cold water.
“What happened?” Tony is asking, craning his neck, but his words are lost to a shimmering sensation at the back of her head, water crashing against a levee.
It’s been a while since he last went to one of Curt’s groups. He’s missed the last month or so, got off-routine when he volunteered to cover a few shifts for a sick coworker, and then the longer he was away, the harder it was to go back. Curt never pressured him, which just made the guilt fester worse. Frank remembers the headspace he’d been in following the carousel shootout, ready to tear the city apart to get to the ones that took his family from him. Curt brought him back from that ledge. It’s a debt Frank isn’t sure he can ever repay, though he knows his friend doesn’t look at it that way.
This week’s meeting goes smoothly enough. All the old regulars are there, with a couple of new faces—a young woman fresh off her first deployment, and some assshole in a MAGA hat who’s more noise than anything. Frank considers it a sign of personal growth that he doesn’t put his fist through the guy’s face before the hour’s up.
He tries—and fails—not to think about Karen.
Seeing her face made everything real in a way it hadn’t been before. He’s not sure what he’d been expecting, but he knew he was in trouble the nanosecond he locked eyes with her. She was objectively beautiful, but it was more than that—it was the way his stomach jolted when she said it was nice to meet him, the kindness behind her gaze. He remembers the last time someone looked at him like that, knows with laser-sharp certainty where that road leads.
Frank doesn’t want to be a martyr about it. He knows that Maria wouldn’t want him to live the rest of his life like a monk, he knows that. But the thought of anything less is a bucket of ice water down his spine, cold clarity bringing him back to his senses.
He had his shot at a happy ending. He’s not sure he deserves another.
After the meeting is over, Frank stays behind to help put the folding chairs away. He and Curt work in comfortable silence, and the small space is clear within minutes.
“You wanna grab a bite?” Frank asks, wrinkling his nose at the bag of instant coffee on the table. “Maybe some real coffee?”
Curt cranks a grin. “I knew your social life was sadder than mine.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Frank snorts. “You in or what?”
“Can’t, man. I’m supposed to see Delia tonight.”
Disappointment flares in his chest, but Frank squashes it down. He’s happy for Curt, he really is—the man has taken all the shit from his life as a soldier and built something from it, something good. He found someone to share the after with. It’s not his fault that Frank’s either unwilling or unable to do the same.
Curt’s appraising him with one of his looks, so Frank plasters on a smile of his own. “Hey, say no more. Rain check, yeah?”
“Absolutely, man,” Frank says with a nod. “I’m pretty beat, anyways.”
Curt looks vaguely unconvinced, but he shrugs. “Alright, well you know—”
But Frank doesn’t hear what it is that Curt wants him to know. His head swims, and then a blistering pain erupts in his hand at the same time that a familiar voice shouts, “Shit, ow!”
Frank wrenches his arm reflexively toward his body, hissing through his teeth. His hand throbs fiercely—he glances down at it just as Karen’s wrist shimmers into view, the skin there already turning an angry red.
“Frank? You okay?” Curt’s voice yanks him back, and when Frank blinks up at his friend, he sees concern darkening his eyes.
“Fine, just—muscle spasm,” Frank says, already turning away. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Curt. Have a good night.”
He feels Curt’s eyes on him as he heads for the door, so he’s careful to keep his movements calm and natural until he’s out of the other man’s line of sight. By the time he makes his way out of the church and onto the street, he’s broken out into a slight jog. It’s early evening, but the day’s swelter lingers, clinging to his skin like wet paper. Unusually warm, even for summer.
Frank slows to a stop, shaking his hand. The pain has receded, but he can still feel it simmering under the surface. “Karen?” he says under his breath. “Karen, you there?”
There’s no answer. He can sense her in the back of his head, but it’s like there’s a wall between them. He can’t push through.
Frank paces for the next few minutes, fingers twitching restlessly at his sides. The swirling panic in his chest is acutely familiar, even as he tries to tamp it down. Could be that she’s with someone right now and can’t talk—he doesn’t know. All he knows is that she’s hurt, and he’s helpless to do anything about it.
The barrier in his head dissolves, and her presence floods through like tidewater.
He blows out a breath. “Hey, you okay? Your hand—”
“I’m okay. Just got a little careless with the deep fryer.”
Relief washes over him, and guilt on its heels. He shouldn’t feel relieved. He shouldn’t feel anything at all, not where she’s concerned.
So why does he?
“Yeah, I felt that,” he says. “How’s it looking now?”
There’s the sound of running water being shut off. “Better. Less red, at least.” She sighs. “God, that was stupid. I was—”
She cuts off, and before Frank can say anything, he hears the sound of someone approaching, someone on her end. Karen turns, and Frank sees a lanky kid stalking into the kitchen.
“Everything’s good,” the kid says. “How’s your hand?”
“Better, thanks. And thanks for checking the front, Tony.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” The kid looks slightly apologetic. “Bernie heard the noise when the basket fell.”
Karen groans. “What did he say?”
“Not much. Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Karen is quiet, but it feels like something heavy has been draped over her shoulders. It takes Frank a moment to recognize it as guilt.
“Okay,” she finally says. “I’ll clean up back here. Would you mind doing another round?”
Tony gives her a two-fingered salute. “Sure. I’d rather take my chances out front if you’re gonna be flinging oil around back here.”
“Hilarious,” Karen snorts, and Tony retreats. She waits until he’s disappeared behind a swinging partition before asking, “You still there, Frank?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Sorry about that. I didn’t think he’d be back so fast. That was Tony, one of my employees.”
Frank nods. “Seems like a good kid.”
“He is,” she agrees.
Frank takes in Karen’s view of the kitchen. It’s smaller than he expected—from where she’s standing, he can see almost the entire space. He watches through her eyes as she scans the overturned fryer basket on the ground, thin potato strips scattered around it like a halo. She sighs again, then grabs a broom and dustpan from the corner.
“So—this is the scene of the crime, huh?” he asks.
Karen chuckles. “In all its glory.” She starts sweeping. “I still can’t believe I did this. I haven’t made a mistake like that in the kitchen since I was a kid.” There’s a shade of embarrassment behind her words.
“Hey, that’s nothing,” Frank says. “My smoothest move was with an avocado. I was making guac for a block party, right? Got a little too cocky with the knife when I was cutting the pit—nicked an artery pretty good.”
“Your poor guac.”
Frank laughs. “Wow, thanks.”
“Well, you obviously lived to tell the tale,” Karen says, smiling. “And good guac is hard to come by.”
“Must’ve been passable, at least. It was one of my wife’s favorite recipes.”
The words roll off his tongue like water, too fast to stop. Karen’s broom freezes mid-sweep, and he catches a flash of confusion mingled with something else—but then it disappears behind a wall, and the broom is moving again, bristles hissing against the floor. A new sort of silence yawns open between them as she continues to sweep—curious, but not pushy. She’s putting the ball squarely in his court, letting him decide to elaborate or not.
The thing is, he could. Their names balance on the tip of his tongue, and he imagines saying them aloud. Imagines choosing to. He can’t remember the last time he spoke about his family casually, without their names dredging up old grief and pain. He can’t remember the last time it was easy to talk about them—and the revelation is an anchor dragging him back to reality. Curt would call this progress, being able to remember them without reliving the trauma surrounding them, but for Frank, it’s the polar opposite, like he’s allowing himself to forget. And he can’t forget. Not ever.
“Well, Tony’s going to back any second,” Karen says, and her voice sounds different. Too light. “And I have to deal with this, so—I’ll see you, Frank.”
She’s fading away before he can blink, before he can say anything. He can pinpoint the exact moment she vanishes, a small space inside him going empty.
His hand throbs. Frank flexes it, feels his tendons burn as he extends his fingers.
He’s in more trouble than he thought.
A wife. He has a wife.
Or had a wife, at least. Karen hadn’t missed his use of past tense.
She makes an exasperated sound, curling into herself on her couch. The rest of the evening at the diner went relatively smoothly, with the exception of Bernie staring down at every given opportunity. She could almost see his thoughts swirling as he watched her—maybe he was attributing her accident in the kitchen to something other than distraction or clumsiness. Maybe he thought she was using again. As far as she knows, he’s the only person left in town who has firsthand knowledge of that part of her past.
Between that and her conversation with Frank, she’d been more than ready to close up at the end of the night.
Whatever his story is, it can’t be good. He’d clammed up after mentioning his wife, and even though she sensed that he wanted to say more, he hadn’t.
Not that it matters. A week ago, she didn’t even know that Frank existed. She was none the wiser to this person who can see through her eyes, feel what she feels. And yeah, maybe she’s spent the last twenty-four hours trying not to think about his sharp jawline and intense eyes and how the gravel in his voice softens a bit when he laughs, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still strangers. This new nugget of information about his personal life is proof of that. They hardly know anything about each other.
Karen wonders if it’s possible that she glimpsed something about his life through their mental connection, something she might have dismissed until now. She remembers having severe mood swings when she was a teenager, but had chalked that up to the compounded trauma of losing her brother and mom.
Frank had seen the car accident, though. He just hadn’t put it together until he had the rest of the puzzle pieces from her end.
Karen lets her eyes shutter. Her head is empty. There’s—nothing. Or, that’s not quite right. There’s something—but the hollowed-out sphere of space in her head where Frank’s presence lingers now feels like it’s been packed with concrete. She probes it gently, and it’s like hitting a solid wall.
He’s there, but he’s not letting her in.
She can sense something else, though—a name, bubbling to the surface like seafoam. Karen reaches toward it, wincing as it flares against her consciousness with the brightness of a signal flare.
A week passes.
Karen doesn’t bother to check the connection. She can feel that solid wall in her head as clearly as she feels the ground beneath her feet. She can’t help but wish that he would have severed the connection—it’s almost worse, this way. The bond is an ever-present something taking up space in her skull, difficult to ignore.
That doesn’t stop her from trying.
She sinks into her routine the way she always has, as an escape. She works the diner, helps Barb seed the vegetable garden, numbs her brain to the latest reality show on Netflix as soon as she gets home. Emotions filter through her—disappointment, anger, sadness. She lets them crest over her like waves, here then gone. It’s useless to wonder what she did wrong, or why this is happening. Everyone in her life has left her at some point.
Why would this be any different?
She falls asleep that night to the flickering light of her television. Her dreams are a whirlpool of sound and color, until the picture crystallizes.
The trailer is on fire. She feels the heat as soon as she wrenches the door of Todd’s truck open, and then she sees her own car, someone moving behind the glare of headlights—
You stay the hell away from my sister!
More sounds, more color—Todd throws her brother to the ground, gunfire cracks like thunder, and the world blurs as they speed away, narrowed to her jackhammer pulse and her foot slammed down on the accelerator.
I already lost mom.
The world lurches, and Karen jerks awake with a gasp. Her television is still on, the light from the screen flickering like one of those flip-books she used to make as a kid. She fumbles for her phone and sees that it’s just past three in the morning.
She’s so groggy and disoriented that it takes her a second to realize that the wall in her head is gone. She’d gotten so used to it that the open space feels slightly alien now, like standing beneath a wide sky, nothing between her and the horizon. Tentatively, she reaches out.
His presence is half-formed and hazy, but he’s here.
“Frank,” she croaks.
“Was that—the accident?” His voice is husky with sleep, and she realizes that he must have sensed her nightmare—or experienced it alongside her.
“Yes,” she answers simply, because after a week of radio silence, she’s not sure she owes him more than that.
“The kid, in the flipped car—”
He’s quiet for a minute. Karen knuckles the grit from her eyes, blinking. His room is still dark, but she can vaguely see the outline of his hands, curved like claws over his knees. He’s sitting on the edge of his bed.
“I don’t know what to say,” he murmurs.
Karen pushes up on one arm, folding herself into the corner of the couch. “Why did you shut me out?”
“Am I an asshole if I say it’s complicated?”
She can’t help it—her lips twitch at the corners. “Absolutely, yes.”
There’s a twinge beneath her ribs, only it’s coming from him. She identifies it immediately as shame, and it’s like looking into a mirror, seeing an emotion she’s intimately familiar with laid bare in someone else.
“Our last conversation—that’s the first time I’ve talked about my wife in as long as I can remember. I didn’t think I could, anymore. And it scared me. That’s not an excuse for my behavior, but—” he sighs. “I’m sorry, Karen.”
Something is swelling in her chest, something she can’t quite put a finger on. “Maria,” she finally says, and she feels him recoil slightly at the word. “That was her name?”
“Yeah.” His throat is tight as a vice—it hurts to swallow.
Karen squeezes the back of her hand gently, hoping he’ll feel it on his own. “You lost her,” she says, understanding.
“There was a firefight, a gang drug deal gone south. We got caught in the crossfire—me, Maria. Our kids.”
Karen’s breath swoops from her lungs. It’s all slotting into place like a missing puzzle piece—her unexplainable mood swings, sadness so deep she sometimes felt like she could drown in it. It was him—and also her.
“I’m so sorry, Frank,” she says.
He bobs his head. “I’m sorry about your brother.”
They both sit like that a moment, wrapped up in each other’s pain.
“There’s something—” Karen cradles her knees to her chest. “There’s something that didn’t make any sense to me at the time, but—I always felt like there was someone with me. It was just a feeling, but—it helped, after losing Kevin.”
“Yeah,” Frank says softly. “Yeah—I know what you mean.”
Karen suddenly feels how tired she is—she blinks blearily against iron eyelids.
“I can let you go,” Frank offers, some of his own exhaustion bleeding through. “Talk to you tomorrow?”
Her heart skips a bit, jolting through her haze of fatigue. “You sure? You don’t have to—”
“I want to,” Frank interjects softly. His thumb drifts idly across the back of his hand, and she’s not sure the touch is meant for her, but she feels it all the same.
She hugs her knees to her chest a little tighter. “Okay.”
“Okay,” he echoes.