By John Thomas Tuft

It is a vast, open hall. Tall windows on three sides let in brilliant light. Beyond this atrium like structure the hallways to the different gates extend like spokes in a giant half-wheel. New Travelers walk into the bright light blinking and looking around with a dazed look, like they cannot believe they are here. It doesn’t take long to realize that the traffic is one way. Travelers come into the cavernous building, linger a while, then disappear down one of the long hallways to the departure gates. But no one comes from the gates out into the atrium. At one end a Waffle House franchise offers sustenance to the weary and woebegone. Tracey is working her shift, her WH baseball cap perched backwards on her head, blue eyeliner showing off penetrating eyes. She is fit looking, brash, loud, too close to either side of forty for comfort, a bravado mix of cockiness and kindness. “It’s not your dang waffle!” she cries loudly to a man trying to tell his companion what she wants to eat, followed by a slow wink to ensure the tip.

Traci enters the eating nook, eyes cast down, seeking out a seat as far from other Travelers as possible in the small space. Although she is twenty, she is forever aged. Her face is expressionless, no affect displayed, a worrisome indicator in and of itself. She looks around seeming uncertain of her surroundings or how she got here. She quietly accepts the proffered coffee and studiously arranges the mug, spoon, napkin, creamer packets, salt and pepper shakers, and jelly rack in a precise pattern, a shield protecting her space. Traci then folds her hands in her lap and stares straight ahead. Her jacket is zipped up to her neck, hair neatly arranged in a no muss, no fuss style. Tracey approaches and sets a laminated menu in the center of the chancel before Traci. “What can I get you?” Tracey asks. Traci murmurs her order. Tracey barks it out: “Eggs light, raisin dry, hog on the side, hash wet!” Then, “anything else?” Traci hesitates. “I’m looking for Tracey.” The waitress hesitates, looks her customer over before, “You found me.”

There is a silence between them. Those seated in the nave of booths take no notice as Traci’s long, slow sigh envelops them all before drifting toward the light high overhead. “You don’t know me?” she whispers at the end of her unction of breath. “Honey, folks are in and out of here all day long. Travelers are too busy wondering–wondering about where the trains go, is the journey short or forever, is it comfortable or confining–for them to stop to get to know me…” She breaks off and studies Traci’s face. “Should I?” she asks as she resettles the cap on her head. Traci’s next words stop her in her tracks, left hand hovering over the reversed bill. “Poppa made waffles every Sunday.” Tracey’s hand finally drops to her side, cap forgotten. “What is this? Who sent you? What do you want? I ain’t got time for games, Miss.” Traci meets her gaze. “When Poppa came through here, you found me.”

Tracey is clearly shaken. “My Poppa died when I was twenty.” She leans against the counter for support. “I was devastated. Didn’t know how I’d go on, it hurt so bad. Him and his big laugh, shoveling a hot waffle onto my plate and giving me a kiss right on top…” Tracey’s hand goes to the top of her head. “It was like the world stopped,” Traci’s voice is filled with pain as she murmurs, “A little frightened girl filled you up, didn’t she?” Her words are not unkind. “A lonely little girl afraid of the world.” Tracey sinks into a seat, remembering, “He would put a big dab of butter on the waffle and say, ‘That’s your heart. Now circle it with syrup and eat your heart out.’ Damn.” Tears spring to Tracey’s eyes as she laughs. She is startled to see tears on Traci’s cheeks as the corners of her mouth crinkle in a matching smile. “Wait a Hokie minute,” says Tracey. “You found me?”

“You thought you left me behind at Poppa’s grave, but you secretly kept me alive.” Traci’s words are hard to hear, which does not mean that they are not true. “Maybe you thought that would keep Poppa close. Or maybe you thought the little girl needed to be kept safe. You found me and would not let go.” The PA scratches to life and announces the next departures. Tracey swipes at the tears. “You found me and now what?” Traci reaches for her hand and touches it gently. “I’m a Traveler now. It’s my time. You found me in time.” Tracey turns away. “I can’t. I need you.” Traci takes her knife and puts a dab of butter in the middle of her waffle. Then picks up the syrup and makes a circle. Finally, she takes the fork and extends it to Tracey. “Eat your heart out.”

Carlos, working the grill, looks up and sees Tracey, head bowed over a plate of eggs and a waffle, as though in prayer, tears softly dripping from her chin onto the hash browns. “Tracey, you lose something?” She looks up, shakes her head. “No, I found her. Be right back. Gonna walk her to the train…”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.