The little girl looks like my Gabby did when she was nine or ten—dark eyes, long pigtails. Chewed fingernails and ripped jeans. She’s drawing on the back of the kids’ menu, a line of eight or ten horses standing in an oval pasture.
It doesn’t seem right that she’s in a casino diner at three in the morning, even if she’s with her momma. This place is dingy from fifty years of greasy burgers, gamblers, truck drivers, and old guys like me who can’t or won’t sleep.
About the time Trish brings my burger, the girl puts the crayons down and opens her schoolbook. Colorful pictures of maps and clocks cover the pages.
The girl says, “Momma, did you know Alaska is so big it has two time zones?”
Momma’s drinking coffee and shredding a napkin onto her plate. “No, honey, I didn’t.”
“Some little tiny islands are in the same time zone as Hawaii.” She says Hawaii like it’s a magical place on another planet. For folks like us it might as well be. “The rest of the state is in another time zone. The biggest city is called Anchorage.”
Momma looks out the window to the parking lot full of rain falling on empty cars backlit by casino neon. Her eyes are full of weight, of barnacles and rust, of anchors sinking through cold, dark water.
A skinny white guy bursts into the diner. He looks like a jerk and he looks like the little girl. There’s no way he deserves her. None. He grabs a chair from another table, spins it around backward, and sits next to Momma.
Momma’s whole body tenses. She starts shredding a new napkin. The jerk’s sweating and picking his feet up and down so fast it looks like he’s prancing.
The girl flips her book closed and grabs a crayon. Thick black lines lock each horse into its own cell.
Momma asks, “How much?”
The jerk looks out the window.
“Aaron. How much?”
He mumbles, “All of it.”
Momma drops the half-shredded napkin. “That was the rent money.”
Aaron doesn’t respond.
“What time is the race?” It’s more a sigh than a question.
That’s when I see it. The fenced oval, the caged horses lined up in a row. It’s not a pasture. It’s a racetrack.
Aaron’s still looking out the window. It’s still raining. “Noon. In Florida.”
The girl perks up: “Noon in Florida is nine in the morning here in Nevada.”
Both adults startle a little. Like they’d forgotten all about her.
When I finish eating and head to the cash register, I tell Trish I’d like to pay their tab. It’s not much, it’s nowhere near enough, but it’s all I can do for that little girl. I see it as a birthday present for Gabby. Or maybe from her. She’d be twenty-eight today, and I can’t do anything for her but lay flowers on her grave.
When he’s not hiking Mexico’s volcanoes, Jim Latham lives and writes in Cholula, Puebla. His stories have appeared in The Drabble, Spillwords, Better Than Starbucks, Eunoia Review, and elsewhere. He publishes free flash fiction every Wednesday on Substack at Jim’s Shorts.
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