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Ready When You Get Back

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The bell over the door makes a musical ring as he and his grandfather enter. Daniel hasn't eaten much of anything in two days, and is surprised when his mouth waters at the sweet scent of maple syrup. The aroma is the same as when his parents took him to a Rhode Island sugarhouse over a year ago, when the snow was beginning to melt.

The sign on the hostess podium says, "Please SEAT YOURSELF". A short, blonde, curly-haired waitress walks by with a plate of waffles and fruit. His grandfather spots an empty booth, and they each slide into a vinyl-covered bench the color of pea soup.

"H-how do you say 'waffles' in Nederlands, Grampa?"

"Nick."

"Ik zal nik eten."

"What?"

The kitchen next to them is noisy, so Daniel speaks louder. "IK ZAL NIK ETEN."

"No, no, Danny," he scolds, his kind, tired face darkening into an angry scowl. "You must call me Nick, not Grampa. And it is very, very wrong to say 'I shall eat Nick'."

Daniel slumps lower into the booth seat. The weight in his chest feels heavier. He's always called him Grampa. So many things have changed forever that he's not sure of anything now.

His grandfather continues: "Waffles is wafels. You say 'I would like'. Ik wil graag wafels."

VAH-felz. Change the W sound to a V sound. Easy. The kgrahgch word is much harder; the consonants not at all like English. Daniel takes a deep breath. "Ik wil kra... um, graak… graag wafels."

"Very close."

"H-how do you say milk?" He's surprised to suddenly feel hungry after almost a week of not having an appetite.

"Melk."

"And syrup?"

"Stroop."

The words sound the same as the English ones, only pronounced with a Dutch accent. "Ik wil kra... graag wafels en stroop en melk, atsub-alsub-alstublieft." Why is "please" so many syllables? Daniel sits up straighter. "Ik wil graag wafels en stroop en melk, alstublieft."

"Very good," Daniel's grandfather says sternly, his face impassive. "Your stutter is much improved. Maybe you will become a linguist like your dad."

"But Daddy is— was..." Speaking of his father in past tense is still so new, so frightening. Should "daddy" become only one syllable, like Grampa becoming Nick? "Um, Dad was also an archaeologist. I wanna be an archaeologist like him. And Mommie. Uh, Mom." He looks into Nick's hard, ice-blue eyes, the same color as his mother's. "A-a-and you."

Nick shakes his head dismissively. "My daughter Claire was twice the archaeologist Melburn was. But her colleagues mistook her achievements as being her husband's. However, I shall allow that she married an exceptional linguist, and a good person. There is no shame in that. I am proud of her."

For a brief moment, his grandfather's eyes soften, and grow a little brighter with tears.

Then the man continues, his eyes unfocused, "Uy ah ual ing ual ing wetail."

Daniel has no idea what it means, or what language it's in. "Now that you're back you can teach me to speak Dutch, Gramp— uh, Nick. And archaeology, too."

"No. I could do neither subject justice for a young, growing mind. I cannot stay here with you, and you cannot come with me back to Belize. I will be travelling all over the world because of my latest discovery."

Daniel's stomach clenches at each word. Everything is crashing down again. His grandfather must have noticed him trying not to cry.

"Danny, you know that nice couple at the funeral who sat next to us?"

Barely. Daniel shakes his head.

"The ones who hosted your first birthday party in Baja?"

That was seven years ago.

"They want to foster you. They have houses in Martha's Vineyard and Montreal, Budapest and Cairo, but have always wanted children. They appraise art and antiquities for an insurance company, and can send you to the finest schools. You will learn so much, so many languages, visit so many museums. More than I—"

"But I can be helpful on a dig. Mommie said I was more helpful than some grad students."

Nick ignores him and says, "Yes, miss, my grandson would like waffles, syrup, and milk. I would like a ham sandwich, and scrambled eggs on toast with hash browns."

There is no waitress standing where Nick is looking. He is speaking to someone who isn't there.

Daniel sees across the room the only waitress in the diner, busy and frazzled as she clears plates and refills coffee.

But Nick continues giving his order to no one, as though a waitress were standing right next to them and responding. "Well, perhaps he'd also like warm apple pie with a slice of cheese."

No one is there. The diner is full of people, but his grandfather is talking to nothing.

"Danny, she asked you a question. Do you want bacon on the side?"

Daniel's appetite is gone. "No." The ceiling is falling. The walls are crashing down. His parents are underneath and he can't save them. "I gotta go to the bathroom, 'kay?"

"Yes, go." Nick sounds relieved. "Our breakfast should be ready when you get back."

Daniel slides out of the booth and flees to the men's room. He pushes open the door and enters the diner. The bell over the door rings musically as he enters.

The place is familiar, but he can't quite recognize it. The sign on the hostess podium says, "Please SEAT YOURSELF".

Daniel spots an empty booth, and slides into a bench colored pea soup green. He talks to the waitress, who reminds him of his mother, even though she looks nothing like Claire Ballard Jackson.

"How deep is the river if you cannot see the bottom?" she asks.

He knows exactly who she is, but can't remember why he knows her so well.

"Frank," she calls to the short-order cook behind the counter, "I need a Noah's boy in a blanket, two hen fruit wrecked on a shingle, with a mystery in the alley. A warm Eve with a moldy lid and two checkerboards, all right?" She clips the order to a carousel. "Oh yeah, hold the pig."

He remembers being eight years old, crying in the bathroom, and coming out later just after the other waitress had put breakfast on the table. Waffles for himself, and only a cup of coffee for Nick. His grandfather never got what he ordered from the waitress who wasn't there. Nick just kept pouring sugar in his mug as he drank it, while Daniel ate. Daniel had eaten both his waffles before realizing Nick's order would never come.

He had then wished for four waffles, to share half with Grampa.

Now Daniel's alone in a diner filled with people eating breakfast. He speaks to them, but they act like he's not there.