The rain had stopped but the sky remained the same deep overcast it had been all day. Years ago, the large red neon sign saying "Ernie's Diner" would have shined brightly, reflecting off the wet sidewalk. But the sign had stopped working nearly twenty earlier; Ernie himself had been dead over ten years. And while some might consider the dimly-lit interior "mood lighting", it only served to accent the gloom.
He arrived as he did the third Tuesday of every month; nervous, looking around to make sure he wasn't recognized. Why would he be recognized? He was just another sullen office-gray figure who stepped from the downtown bus that stopped just outside the diner. A waitress might remember him from a previous visit, but he was not a regular. Just someone who ate there once a month and then went on his way, leaving a polite if forgettable tip.
She arrived moments later and sat down with him. Her jeans and denim coat were more casual as was her demeanor. "Hey there," she said, smiling. "Glad to see you made it."
"Was there ever a doubt?" he replied, a slight smile coming to his face.
She chuckled, watching as the waitress brought over the menus. "I'll have the seafood platter," she said, taking a quick glance at the selection, "and a diet cola."
He took a moment to read through the menu. "The chicken club combo," he said, focusing on the menu, "and coffee, cream and sugar."
The waitress took the order and the menus and then left.
"Happy Valentine's Day," he said, pushing a small box across the table.
She smiled and opened it. Inside was a woman's wrist watch. "It's perfect," she said, clearly pleased. "Not too feminine, slightly sporty. Something I might buy for myself." Then she reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a small bag, folded over several times. "This is for you," she said, grinning.
He opened the envelope and looked inside. "Very interesting," he said, pulling out a small USB thumb drive.
"Part of it is password protected," she said, giggling. "I put a few things in there I think you'll enjoy."
He chuckled and nodded his head. "Thank you," he said, putting his hands on hers. "I love you," he whispered.
Their meals came moments later. They would eat and then go to her apartment; the one night every month it was safe to do so. But their time was all too brief, and by seven, she'd be dropping him off several blocks from his home.
They had both found love, but far too late for it to be part of their normal lives. So they met once a month at this gloomy diner. Somehow, what they shared during their short time together was enough to sustain them for the next thirty days.
-- Daniel Mulhollen
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