High School Prose Winner from the 2010 issue
Prices of Freedom
Destiny’s Diner sat on the corner of Lilac Lane and Peach Street, pushed back from the road with a dusty dirt parking lot situated in front of it. Behind it ran a river, the only body of water in the entire town. The river was surrounded by fragrant trees with leaves that bloomed bright green in the spring and fell orange, red, and yellow in the fall. The building itself was nothing special; the outside was painted a pale blue that appeared worn and faded. Big squares of glass windows made up the front and side walls of the place; sunlight streamed in at all hours of the day and provided the majority of the lighting. In these glass walls, reflections of the people inside as well as the action outside bounced around, giving off a constant flurry of motion. People ate and talked, laughed, and secretly checked themselves out in the smooth glass. On the top of the one story building a sign written in deep, bright, red scripted letters, read Destiny’s Diner.
Inside there was continual shuffling around and noise. Pots and pans clashed and clanged in the kitchen. Servers shouted orders to the cook through the window behind the counter. Ice cubes clinked as they hit glass, and coffee brewed. Stools squeaked when turned, silverware tapped against glass plates. Unrecognizable music played in the background.
Andrew Williamson sat alone on one of the squeaky stools at the far end of the counter. His plate, still littered with bread crusts and drops of egg, was pushed off to the side away from him. He now sipped on coffee as he looked at the three papers in front of him. One was a birth certificate with an official looking gold seal. The name Andrew Parker caught Andrew’s eye every time he glanced over the papers. The second document was an adoption certificate—Andrew Parker had become Andrew Williamson at the glide of a pen. The last piece of paper was a photograph, worn around the edges. There was a couple in the picture, young and happy. They both had straight dark brown hair, nearly black as Andrew’s. The man’s eyes were green, the woman’s brown. Andrew was nearly the spitting image of who he now knew to be his biological father. The man in the photograph wore his hair short, and Andrew’s was slightly longer, but both possessed the piercing, startling green eyes. Their names were Lily and Scott Parker, and Andrew was so obviously their son.
“Will you try to find them?” the voice of Cindy, the waitress behind the counter, startled Andrew out of his deep reverie. He looked up at the sound of her voice but sighed and looked uncertainly down again at the photograph.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” he replied.
“You can’t just leave,” Lily Parker again attempted to explain to her daughter, Zooey. “There’s me and your father to worry about. And the house.”
The same argument every time, the same words. Zooey didn’t understand why her mother couldn’t be a little more creative and original. Her mother always put herself first.
Whenever they had this conversation, her mother’s words stung Zooey like obstinate bees that wouldn’t die. Lily just did not, could not, understand. What’s more significant is that she frequently told her only daughter—the one who had recently graduated high school and was about to embark on a road trip adventure, that she couldn’t leave because she’s needed at home! No culture, experience, knowledge, or fun for Zooey. That, for some reason, wouldn’t be at all fair in Lily’s judgmental and self-serving eyes.
This time, Zooey stood in the doorway of their two story, restored Victorian home, her hand on the cool metal knob that when twisted and pulled would open the door to her freedom. Her mother had begun the hackneyed tirade hoping one last time that Zooey would change her mind and choose not to leave. Why can‘t she see that I am not about to change my mind, especially when standing on the threshold of freedom? Zooey thought, getting more annoyed and impatient as the minutes slowly ticked by. She thinks your staying would be the best for all, the voice of reason sounded in Zooey’s head. Best for all is just a mask. Best for her is what she really means, the voice continued to argue. Just go, be free, it whispered softly.
Zooey had worked too hard and survived too much to be easily swayed into believing it was all for nothing. The first 18 years of her life were now over, and she would never again have to endure another discussion about her future that did not include her input. All that was over. This knowledge of a final ending and a new beginning made Zooey smile as she turned the cool metal door knob, pulled, and walked straight to her future freedom, leaving the past in the past, and the only things to worry about being the next day, and the next, and the next—and whether her run down, beat up, hunk-of-junk car would survive long enough to get her to that future, or desert her somewhere where her freedom would have to take flight in ways she could not expect.
The beginning was fairly easy. Zooey was high on her freedom, and it seemed like it would never wear off. She was excited at every turn, happy to venture into any place she needed to stop at. The supply of money she had earned at her waitressing job back home, originally for the purpose of paying for college, had dwindled; if she wanted to continue to spend nights in comfortable hotels and inns instead of crap shack motels, she would have to spend more than a day in a place in order to get a job.
Zooey was on her third cup of coffee and blasting Tom Petty through the car speakers one morning when she passed a wooden sign that read, “Welcome to Chanceton” in large letters.
“Chanceton,” she said to herself, weighing the word on her tongue. “Odd name.”
Zooey passed a few well-kept houses with beautiful lawns and gardens, a couple of clothing stores, and a park complete with a white picturesque gazebo before she heard the terrible puttering of her car through the voice of Tom Petty.
“No, no,” she said determinedly. And I‘m free, free fallin’.
Zooey pulled off into the dirt on the side of the road and slowed to a stop.
“Don’t you dare,” she spoke as she turned the key in the ignition, praying the engine would catch. It didn’t. Zooey sat back in her seat and took a deep breath. She most certainly did not have enough money to get her car fixed. “Should have bought a new car before I left,” she grumbled as she reached down to the passenger seat to pick up her phone. The action proved to be useless; no service. “Damn,” Zooey muttered. She hadn’t remembered seeing a gas station or a service garage for miles. She sighed and unlatched her door, taking her keys with her. Zooey knew nothing about cars, so she didn’t even dare open the hood to assess the situation. Instead, she took in her immediate surroundings. What place would be her best bet for information and help? Then, she spotted it—Destiny’s Diner.
Looks promising, she thought. Zooey looked down at her clothing. Rumpled jeans and a wrinkly oversized t-shirt were practically her road trip uniform, and she decided they were in decent enough condition to be seen in public. She walked over a worn path that led to the diner, her sneakers crossing over a mixture of gravel and grass.
The metal on the door handle was warm under Zooey’s hands. It was a sunny morning, the diner was brightly lit and packed full of people. Zooey stood in the doorway for a moment before spotting an empty place at the counter. As she moved toward it, she nearly collided with a waitress rushing in the opposite direction.
“Sorry!” Zooey exclaimed. She heard no apology back, so she mentally shrugged and went to the empty stool. It didn’t appear as if anyone was going to come over to her anytime soon or that anyone’s attention could possibly be commandeered. Zooey took the opportunity to look around. The inside decor of the diner only added to the brightness the sun provided. The floor was checked with yellow and white tile, the walls painted a lighter shade of yellow to compliment the floor. The counter Zooey currently leaned her arms on was made of a light wood and was carved along the edge. She ran her fingers along the carving; she was impressed with it. It was an extremely detailed and exquisite job, though it had no definite design.
A group cheering from a corner booth distracted Zooey from her observations for a moment. She leaned back slightly in her seat to get a better look at them. It was a group of young guys, clearly happy about something. One in particular caught Zooey’s eye. He was facing her, smiling like the rest, but had the greenest eyes she had seen on anyone besides . . . Zooey shook the thought from her head. She tried not to think about her family; it would only cause her to become distracted from her journey of freedom.
“Can I get you something?”
Zooey’s thoughts were drawn back to her problem. She turned to her waitress, a frizzy haired blonde, whose nametag read Cindy. “I don’t want any food,” Zooey started.
“Coffee, then?” Cindy interrupted.
“No—” Zooey tried again.
“Why are you taking up space at my counter if you’re not going to order anything?”
“Well, you see, I—”
“Never mind that. Can you pour?” Cindy’s tone was impatient.
“What?” Zooey asked.
“Pour. Can you pour coffee?” Cindy picked up a pot of coffee and mockingly pretended to pour it.
“Yes, I can pour,” Zooey replied defensively while at the same time being a little wary.
“Get to it then,” Cindy set the pot down on the counter and turned to the order/pickup window. Zooey hesitated for a moment, then walked around the end of the counter and picked up the coffee pot.
As she poured coffee for customers who sat at the long, expansive counter, she thought of the somewhat strange predicament she found herself in. She came in to ask for help for her broken down car and now she was pouring coffee during a rush at the local diner. Did she have “Waitress” stamped across her forehead?
“Get the order for the table by the window,” Cindy rushed by Zooey again.
“What?” Zooey asked. Pouring coffee was one thing, but full on waitressing was far more than Zooey wanted to do.
“Are you deaf?” Zooey again got the impression that Cindy was a little impatient and a teeny bit stressed.
“No, but I don’t work here,” Zooey tried to explain as calmly as possible.
Cindy reached under a shelf in the counter and tossed a white waist apron at Zooey. “Today you do,” she said.
Zooey pursed her lips and furrowed her dark eyebrows. She did need the money, but it was just like home, and that was something she did not want to be reminded of. Reluctantly, she tied the apron around her waist and took the pad of paper and pen Cindy held out to her.
Cindy pointed to the table by the window she had indicated earlier. Zooey got to work.
It never slowed down. Despite herself, Zooey was having a good time. She had forgotten about her car dilemma sometime during the early dinner rush. Before she knew it, it was nine o’clock and time to close.
Zooey was resting on a stool at the counter. Cindy had poured her the coffee she was now sipping on. Cindy was far nicer when she wasn’t stressed.
“Where are you staying?” Cindy asked as she restocked sugar packets and straws.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Zooey replied with an air of uncertainty. “I haven’t spent a whole lot of time outside this diner. My car broke down close by; that’s what I originally came in here for.”
Cindy smiled at the memory of her own hurried actions from earlier in the day. “You can stay at mine and Nikki’s place tonight,” she said, nodding her head in Nikki’s direction, the other waitress who had come in for the dinner rush.
“Hell, she can stay for more than a night if she wants,” Nikki said in response. “That was some impressive work you pulled off today. Not everyone can jump in on a job like that and not fail miserably.”
“Thanks,” Zooey replied, smiling and looking down. “I’ve had a lot of practice.”
After looking around one last time, Cindy said, “All right. Let’s go.” They headed out.
The next morning, Zooey got into a rhythm at Destiny’s. Neither Cindy nor Nikki had asked any questions, aside from her full name and age, and their silence was perfectly all right with Zooey. Her car had been towed and was currently sitting in the shop down the street and around the corner from the diner. For the moment, she had no worries. She was doing exactly what she had in mind when she left home; she was exercising her newfound freedom.
She poured coffee, filled orders, talked, joked, and laughed with the regulars. The town was welcoming, even if they asked too many questions. Zooey was able to skillfully evade them, however, always with a smile and a coffee refill.
It was during lunchtime that she noticed him—the same boy she had noticed the day before because of his bright green eyes. He was alone; he seemed to be studying something.
“Can I get you anything?” Zooey asked as she walked up to him.
Mystery boy looked up.
Whoa, Zooey thought. It was as if she was looking into her father’s shamrock green eyes. She looked away quickly as he answered.
“Just coffee, please.”
Zooey nodded and turned to fetch one of the red ceramic mugs, and the coffee pot.
“New in town?” mystery boy asked when she set down the mug in front of him and filled it.
“Very much so,” Zooey smiled.
“And what do you think of our little town so far?” he asked, taking a cautious sip from his cup.
“Exhausting; questions never cease to be asked.”
Mystery boy laughed.
His laugh reminded Zooey of something, but she couldn’t place what. She didn’t allow her puzzlement to show on her face.
“You get used to it,” he explained. “I’m Andrew,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Andrew,” at this repetition he paused. “Just Andrew,” he finished.
It sounded to Zooey as if Andrew was about to offer up his last name but for some reason decided against it. Zooey pushed it from her mind. It was not important.
“Zooey Parker,” she said, taking his hand.
“Parker?” he asked. He seemed anxious.
“Yes,” Zooey replied.
Suddenly, something on the countertop caught Zooey’s eye. It was a corner of an old photograph.
Andrew noticed her staring and tried to nonchalantly shuffle his papers around. In his haste, however, he allowed the photograph to slip out and land on the counter.
Zooey snatched it up before Andrew had a chance to recover it.
Andrew waited for Zooey to say something.
After a moment or two, she whispered, “These are my parents.”
Andrew took a deep breath and held it. “Are they?” he asked.
“Where did you get this?” Zooey asked, still incredulous.
“Adoption agency,” Andrew replied.
Zooey continued to stare at the picture.
“Zooey!” a shout came from the kitchen. “Order’s up!” Zooey remembered where she was and looked again at the young man in front of her.
“We have to talk,” she said to him, putting down the picture and walking away to get her order.
Her head was spinning. A brother? She had a brother? There was no question; he had her father’s eyes, and she had recognized her mother’s musical laugh coming from his mouth. He had their photograph. Why didn’t they mention this to me? Zooey wondered over and over again. Why don‘t I know him, why didn’t they keep him? Questions floated in and around her head as she mechanically did her job. She avoided looking at Andrew when she passed him at the counter.
Later, when Destiny’s had calmed down some, Zooey and Andrew sat in an empty booth far from the other customers who lingered over their meals.
“I found out I was adopted two months ago,” Andrew started. “And I was able to get the things you see here.” He showed Zooey the birth certificate, adoption certificate, and the photograph.
Zooey was quiet for some time before she said, “I don’t understand this. I don’t understand how this is happening.” Zooey got up abruptly and swiftly walked out of Destiny’s, leaving many of her questions still unanswered. She walked to the payphone outside in the parking lot. The evening was cool, and a breeze brushed against her face. The lights of the town were on and reflected in the glass panels of Destiny’s. She slid a few quarters into the slot and slowly dialed the number she had wanted to forget existed.
“Hello?” the voice on the other end answered after a few rings.
“Mom,” Zooey said.
“Oh, Zooey, darling. How are you? I didn’t expect to be hearing from you so soon.”
“Mom,” Zooey repeated, firmer this time.
“What is it, dear?”
Her mother was silent.
Zooey could hear her breathing softly. “Ring any bells?”
“How do you know that name?” demanded her mother.
“I can see him from where I’m standing,” Zooey’s voice remained sturdy and firm. On the other end, Lily Parker sighed but said nothing. “Explain this, Mom. What’s going on?”
“I might as well tell you, I suppose. It doesn’t matter so much anymore.” Zooey’s mother sighed again. “When your father and I were about your age, we didn’t think twice about college or anything like that. For years we had been dreaming about traveling. Europe, Asia, Africa, everywhere. The only problem was we were dirt poor and couldn’t afford to cross any oceans. So we decided to start with the States. A lot like you dear.”
Zooey was annoyed with this remark but said nothing.
Her mother continued. “We were young and foolish, and somewhere along our adventure, I got pregnant. I’ll spare you the details, but a baby was not in the plan. There was no way we could have a baby and still live the way we were living, and we weren’t ready to settle down. I wanted the baby to be safe and in a happy home. I really did not have any other choice. I hope you can at least understand that, dear.”
Zooey looked back at the diner. The product of her parents’ past was still sitting where she left him. Zooey suddenly felt a feeling of sadness overwhelm her. What must he be thinking? Zooey wondered. What must he be feeling? He must feel as confused as I am. She made her decision then. She would be staying in Chanceton for a while, regardless of the immediate consequences.
“Yeah,” Zooey quietly replied to her mother. “I guess I can understand that.”
“Good,” her mother replied curtly. “I also hope you’ve learned something from this.” Zooey rolled her eyes, but her mother continued. “Giving up that baby was the price your father and I had to pay for our freedom. What will you pay, Zooey?”
The line went dead, leaving Zooey Parker alone with her thoughts.