Billy poked at what the waitress, dressed in blue and white, had called meatloaf. He eyed the brown mass warily, as if expecting it to grow arms, steal his fork, and poke back at him. His black-rimmed glasses slipped down his freckled, pre-teen face to the tip of his nose. They never seemed to stay in place since his little soap-box race incident last fall.
He nudged his younger brother, Kyle, who was shaking the entire booth, attempting to smother his “hamburger” with ketchup from the unwilling bottle. Billy considered erring on the side of caution and dousing his meatloaf as well, knowing he at least enjoyed the salty taste of ketchup.
“Watch! It jiggles.” The boys laughed as Billy again poked the tormented meatloaf, smiling in triumph over his inanimate beef-like product.
“Stop that Billy!” Mrs. Miller hissed from across the diner’s red, white, and blue linoleum tabletop. She shook her finger sternly and eyed both boys with a warning before examining her plate with the same expression. The “country-fried ham steak” smothered in “home-style gravy.” She’d never served her family anything even resembling this in their home.
Mr. Miller’s face remained buried deep in the US road map, his face crinkling as he sought out the route they had been on, apparently somewhere off the beaten path from a place called Mercer, PA. Billy watched the grease-drenched fries droop as his father absently slopped them into his gaping jaw, chewing with his mouth open.
His mother only shook her head and asked again. “Are you sure we couldn’t have made it a little closer to Pittsburgh tonight? I’m sure they’d have a more reputable eating establishment there.”
“Sharon,” the annoyance in his father’s voice made Billy shove his fork at his plate again, exasperated. “I told you we are already here and I had to fill the gas tank. Besides, isn’t this what it’s all about? The open road? The diner dives? Quality time with the family?”
Billy looked up at his mother and rolled his eyes, noting the quality time his father was sharing with the map, even while speaking to them. She only shrugged and returned to her study of her “meal.”
The sudden zapping and popping noise from above the front counter made both boys and Mrs. Miller jump as another moth was attracted (unnoticed by Mr. Miller) to its eventual doom. It left a lingering soft acidic smell of burnt bug flesh, before dropping into the plate of another shabbily-dressed patron. Billy watched as, the man, whom he took to be a regular, plucked it nonchalantly and tossed it aside as if this happened often.
“Wicked!” Kyle grinned from ear to ear and snorted a laugh. “Do you think they realize what’s coming before the end? You’d think the heat would give them a clue and they’d have enough time to turn around. Stupid, clueless bugs.”
Billy knew better than to answer his little brother’s questions and raised eyebrows. There was never really a good answer, and any attempts only earned more ridiculous questions.
Outside, the early evening rain had started and thunder rolled off in the distance. The lamps, just outside the windows, flickered several times before casting a faint glow on the wet sidewalk. Their light spotted the night with eerie, little circles – the only brightness in the darkness.
“Just eat your dinner, boys; if you’re talking, you aren’t eating.” Mrs. Miller looked around, apparently still in shock, at all the other parties who were mindlessly eating. Most of the patrons appeared to be truckers or what could only be locals. She flagged down a waitress.
“Can I just have a slice of your grapefruit pie? It sounds interesting.” Billy’s father finally looked up from the map as the waitress turned away.
“What?” she glared at her husband’s unspoken admonishment, rubbing her hands together in her typical nervous habit. “I’m on vacation.”
The boys watched the staring match until their father’s eyes dropped in defeat to study the map some more.
Billy shrugged and then scowled at his dinner again. He stabbed it through the side and lifted the fork to his mouth. He guessed one bite wouldn’t kill him.