Josh Dygert grew up in a corn-bound town outside Indianapolis. He attended college at a small school in Michigan, moved to Manhattan, and then moved home, where he now teaches middle school English. Since then, he’s self-published one children’s novel, The Story Traveler. He can be found on Twitter @josh_dygert and on Instagram @joshdygert.
Jake Marrins stood outside the restaurant waiting. He fingered the box in his pocket. Inside it, there was a ring. Three month’s salary. Bigger than Sarah’s. Better designer than Amanda’s. More unique than Roquita’s. Now where was she?
He couldn’t call her again. He’d called her five times already. He’d texted too. She wasn’t showing up. He needed to admit it to himself.
He watched the cars whiz by. A few drips of rain fell from above.
He sighed and stepped underneath the gold and black awning of the restaurant. Checking his phone again, he saw an hour had passed.
He closed his eyes and clenched the box in his pocket.
“Ahem,” came a voice from behind him.
He turned around to face an old woman with white hair and deep sand-colored skin. Her
eyes were the color of mud, and her face was very wrinkled. She wore an old coat and looked like she might be homeless.
“Hi,” Jake said.
“Hello, Jake,” said the old woman with a big smile.
“You know my name?” Jake asked.
“Of course I know your name,” she said. “Why, I’ve known you since you were just a boy. I know everything there is to know about you.”
He stared at her. On another day, he might have walked away. On another, he might have
asked if she needed him to buy her dinner. Tonight, though, he simply stared, unable to process what she was saying.
“Ah, I see you need some proof,” she said. “Understandable. Understandable. You won’t
recognize me.” There was something familiar about her voice, Jake thought. Something out of his childhood, something old and comforting. “You nearly drowned when you were five. When you were seven, you fell madly in love with Katrina McCarvey, but she was always in love with Marcus Bilsack, God love her. And, of course, you were always the quiet boy, always doing well in school with your all A’s except you didn’t do so well in economics, though, you do look like you must have gotten that together because…”
“The suit belongs to a friend,” he said.
She patted his jacket. “Well, I was going to suggest a tailor, dear,” she said quietly. “But,
let’s see, to go on… Now, things got serious when you were about twelve. That was when you came and talked all the time. And you did that all through junior high and high school. About how the other kids teased you. And about little Mary Sasson. I wished I would have told you, then, to stay away from her, but you know how children are. Always wanting what’s worst for
them. Always wanting the girls that won’t have them when all the while little Marissa Flintstock was eyeing you.”
“Marissa?” Jake gaped. “But she was…”
“Out of your league?” asked the old woman. “Not so much, dear. She was in love with
you. Pity about what happened to her. Oh well.”
Jake stared at the woman in confusion. “Who on earth are you?”
She simply shook her head and smiled. Then she hoisted up her belt and tapped her old
umbrella against the concrete. “You’ve waited for this girl long enough. You aren’t waiting a moment longer.” She wagged a purple velvet gloved finger. “There’s a coffee shop just down the street. You’re going to buy me a coffee. And maybe a piece of pie. Well! What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
And Jake, still in a daze, followed her out from underneath the awning and down the
street. The rain came down harder now, but, despite the fact that she held an umbrella in her hand, she did not open it. She used it as a cane, turning her head up to the rain and sticking out her tongue.
“Go on, Jake,” she prodded. “Stick out your tongue. Catch some rain. It’ll do you good. You used to love to do that when you were a boy.”
“I don’t think rain water is very healthy to drink,” Jake said.
“Nonsense,” Laughery said, her face turning pink. She brought the umbrella down hard
on the concrete. “The nonsense they teach in these schools these days. All this science. They think they know everything about everything when they know a little about some things. Ah, here we are!” she said with glee. “Well, aren’t you going to open the door for an old lady?”
Jake opened the glass door.
The diner was an old-fashioned sort of place. Neon lights in the windows advertised coffee and hot food twenty four hours a day. The smell of breakfast food broke through Jake’s mental torpor.
The old woman hobbled happily to one of the tables, leaning her umbrella carefully against the edge of the red plastic booth before sliding in.
Jake sat down opposite her. His hand remained in his pocket, gripping the box hard. “What can I get you both to drink?” asked the waitress.
“I’ll take a coffee,” Laugher Creek said. “With cream. And sugar. And milk. And also…”
Here, Laughery leaned over to get a look at the display of pies. “I’ll have one piece of every pie.” The waitress, a young woman with a head of frizzy hair, smiled and turned her attention
to Jake. “And for you?”
“Diet Coke,” he said, “and scrambled eggs.”
“Is that all?” asked the waitress.
“Yeah,” Jake said.
“Nonsense,” Laughery said. “He’ll have the French toast with strawberries and whipped
cream, too. He loves that.”
The waitress gave Jake a curious expression. “That sound good?” she asked.
“That sounds…” Jake began, “amazing.”
The waitress smiled. “Coming right up.”
“You’re welcome,” the old woman said. “You’re a handsome boy. No need to go
starving yourself and making yourself feel even worse for yourself than you already feel.” She shook her head. “You always were one for the wallowing.”
“Hey,” Jake said. “That’s not fair.”
She put out a hand and touched his free hand gently. When she touched him, an image
flashed in his mind. His father throwing him into the river as a little boy. He’d opened his eyes underwater and seen rock and mud and weeds. “No one ever taught you how to believe that you were worth something. But you are, Jake. You always were.” Here, she leaned very far forward.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I thought I was doing a lot about it,” Jake said. “I’m here. I’m dating…”
“Mm, no, you really aren’t. Sweetie, this is worse than what happened with Jane in the
tenth grade. And you know it. And that’s why you’re with her. And as for this city…” She gave a derisive laugh. “People who think that living in a big city is the same as breaking free of their hometowns and solving all their problems are just on the run. Not that there’s anything wrong with living in a big city. But big cities don’t solve your problems for you.” Here, she brought her fist down on the table, and the coffee cup tremored. “Pie!”
Sure enough, the waitress had arrived with a heaping tray full of pie, along with Jake’s
“Thank you,” Jake said.
“May all the gods bless you,” said the old woman. And for the first time since she’d
appeared behind Jake, she fell silent as she dug into the pies, eating with ferocity.
For a while, they simply ate, the cheerful pop music playing from a jukebox in the corner.
The old woman sighed suddenly and put down her fork. “Jacob,” she said.
“Yes?” Jake asked, putting his own fork down.
She put out her hand and squeezed Jake’s. Again, he felt that sudden onrush of kind,
friendly water, of memory. “Life is more than dreams and dream girls. And the dream girl, let me tell you, is never the right girl.” She shook her head. “I wish to heaven I could promise you things would get better for you, but I don’t know the future. But I do know life. And it’s always moving. Around you. Within you. Like a river. You dive in, and you think you’re swimming, but really, the river’s just letting you think that. And the water’s finding its ways to move you, to change you, to get underneath your skin. That’s what life is, sweetheart. Because the Great Creator in the sky threw you into the river just like your daddy used to throw you when you were just a little boy. You hear me?”
“Good. All right. I said what I came to say. Also, the waitress thinks you’re cute. Ask her
out,” she said, pulling her long velvet gloves back on. “Now, I’m not telling you she’s the one. I don’t know what will happen. But life wouldn’t be any fun at all if I did.”
She scooted to the edge of the seat, taking a last bite of pie.
“Oh,” she said as she got up and picked up her umbrella. “By the way, did you ever figure out who I am?”
“It…it’s impossible,” Jake said.
The old woman winked. “I think you’d be surprised the things that are possible in this
world. Once you figure it out, come visit. Bring your kids. Make sure you throw them in good and high just like your daddy used to throw you.’
“I promise,” Jake said.
She put her hand on Jake’s face. “I love you, Jacob Marrins,” she said. “You won’t let me
down. I know it.”
She patted Jake’s cheek and then hobbled off toward the door. The bell above it jingled,
and she walked out into the rain.
Jake watched as she turned her face up to the rain. As the rain hit her tongue, she turned
to water and splashed onto the pavement.
The waitress appeared again. “Your grandma have to go?” she asked. Jake glanced at the
nametag on the waitress’ lapel.
“Yes,” Jake said, taking his hand out of the pocket with the ring. “Hey, um, Laura. I was
just wondering…you wouldn’t want to get coffee sometime, would you?”
Laura smiled wide. “You’re my last table,” she said. “Pay up, and I can be done in five.”
In five minutes, Laura sat down across the table from Jake. She picked up a fresh fork.
“Oh, she didn’t touch the peach. It’s my favorite.”
“Mine too,” Jake said. “Hey, have you ever heard of Laughery Creek?”