His name is Frank Cunningham and he lives in a small town called Snow, located somewhere between Dallas and Austin, in the great state of Texas. But don’t bother pulling out your map to look for it, you won’t find it. The town has exactly 467 people, that is, after you subtract Old Man Stone from the town register. You see, it was exactly one year ago today when he wandered off one night, never to be heard from or seen again by anyone in the town. At least that’s what everyone claims. Everyone except his wife, aptly named, Old Lady Stone. The kids in the town have turned her into a scary story already. Whenever they walk by her house she’s out on her front porch, rocking and talking to someone in the empty chair next to hers. It’s where her husband liked to sit and rock his troubles away. Only now he’s been missing for exactly one year today. But the town officially declaring him dead will make no difference to Old Lady Stone.
As the sun begins to hit the highest point of its day, Frank Cunningham can be heard by Old Lady Stone, making his daily routine walk past her house on his way to the local diner.
“Good morning Master Cunningham. The Old Man says it’s gonna be a right scorcher today. Be sure to find some shade whenever you can,” she shouts to him from across her small front yard.
“Yes Old – I mean, yes Lady St – Lady St –. Yes ma’am,” he stutters, walking faster than he did when he started out this morning. Old Lady Stone has called him Master Cunningham for as long as he can remember. He’s never heard her give such a distinction to anyone else in the town. Only him. Sometimes he likes the honor, but not today. He’d much rather skip the whole routine and stay home where it’s safe.
Today is the last day of school and while many students across the whole United States find this day to be the happiest time of the year, the day they look forward to, probably even more than Graduation Day, for Frank it’s the worst day ever. For you see, in a small town such as Snow, the last day of school means it’ll only be one week before the July 4th Celebration that leads into the start of Camp for just about every one of his classmates, except him. Frank can’t go to camp because most camps only take normal children, and Frank isn’t as normal as you may think.
“That poor boy. Ever since he was old enough to talk he stuttered so. Hmm, what was that dear? Yes, I’m sure you’re right. He’ll grow out of it.” Frank can still hear Old Lady Stone as he crosses the street, tapping his cane loudly to try and drown out the sound of her shouting voice. She shouts because her husband was beginning to go deaf just before he went missing. Among the many rumors going around, one of them is he ran away from his overbearing wife, and just as he was crossing the train tracks that form the border of the town, he didn’t hear the train whistle as it struck him. Some of the children, and adults, believe the Sheriff and his deputies found his body and buried him out there by the train tracks so as not to further upset Old Lady Stone who seems to not be aware that he’s gone missing.
The other half of the school kids in town believe she killed him in the middle of the night and has his body hidden somewhere in her house. Rumor has it, when the Sheriff went to interview Old Lady Stone, after her nosey next-door neighbor, Cookie Sanders, reported him missing, she would not let them into the attic. It was locked at the time and she claimed her and her husband misplaced the skeleton key to the house years ago. But they never bothered to get it replaced or to change the locks in the house because they never locked their doors anyway. When Sheriff Hartley asked if she knew where her husband was, she stated, quite angrily, that he was sleeping right there in his recliner in the sitting room and wanted to know if the Sheriff was becoming as blind as the Cunningham boy? Of course there was no one in the recliner in the sitting room but Old Lady Stone was the towns’ former Sunday school teacher, of which Sheriff Hartley was a student, and so he left her believing her husband wasn’t missing, and never bothered to further investigate the locked attic door.
Frank Cunningham, after ceasing to hear the shouting voice of Old Lady Stone, and safely making it across the one busy four lane freeway that has no stop light, he relaxed his muscles, took a deep breath, and resumed counting his footsteps. Two hundred twenty eight steps straight ahead would get him to his first morning destination; Liberty Diner.
Frank was born blind and although his very wealthy parents took him to every eye specialist they could hoping to get him his sight, it was no use. On his fifth birthday he sat his parents down and told them no more tests. He explained that he rather learn to be the best blind boy ever, just like they were the best scientists ever (to him), and what else could they do but agree? So from that moment forward they found him the best teachers and schools that he attended every summer. He didn’t want to be sent away and his parents didn’t want to be apart from him for an entire school year at a time. So his summers, unlike his classmates, right when he began going to school, entailed Blind School instead of Camp. This was what his summer was like for several years until he finally felt he had learned all he needed and wanted to go to Camp like everyone else. Much to their dismay and his disappointment, every camp they called either would not or could not provide what was necessary to ensure his safety. Not unless one of his parents would accompany him for the duration of the camp? It was embarrassing enough not being able to go to Camp like everyone else, but to have your mom or dad there would have been worse. So instead Frank had to be content with staying in town, listening and observing the ins and outs of the adults, while his classmates went off to camp.
Liberty Diner is almost as old as the town and management has always stayed within the family, handed down from generation to generation. Every generation has had a daughter named Liberty to carry on the tradition of having the owner be named after the diner. Liberty Taylor is the current owner of the diner, who Frank visits every morning, rain or shine, to have his morning breakfast. His parents being scientists are often too busy or still at their lab at work overnight, to cook him breakfast. Besides that, Liberty is the only person in the whole town he can talk to without stuttering. She doesn’t baby him or treat him any differently than anybody else. He knows the reason is because he was born on the same day her first child, a boy, was born, but he didn’t make it to his first birthday. That was twelve years ago now and she hasn’t tried to have another child with her husband, Mark. Her Aunt Liberty, everyone calls her Auntie Lib for short, comes around about once a month to remind her that she’s not getting any younger and needs to have a daughter soon otherwise the business will die with her and there has never been a non-Liberty owning that diner since her great-great-grandmother Ma Libby, whose picture is kept behind the counter as a testament to the women of their family owning their own property for so long. To Liberty Taylor however, it serves as a reminder of the legacy she’ll be destroying if she doesn’t get pregnant soon because as much as she hates to admit it, she is getting on in years.
“Good morning Frankie. My you’re here a bit earlier than usual?” she said, holding her hand out waiting for him to fold up his walking stick and hand it to her. She places it behind the counter in a box that used to hold her pool cue, but she hasn’t played for ages and thought the nice leather felt would be an excellent case for Franks walking stick whenever he visited. Also because the first time he walked in, quite by accident, to her diner, she was so surprised to see him that she spilled coffee all over him and his stick when she tried to assist him onto a stool at the bar. They’ve come a long way since then and learned a lot about each other just about every time they have one of their little morning talks.
“Old Lady Stone is out on her front porch talking with her husband.”
“Say no more. She rattles me sometimes to when I’m closing up the diner for the night and I have to walk past her house. I just don’t think it’s good for a woman her age to be up at one o’clock in the morning. But enough about that old hag. Let’s not let her ruin our day. It’s your last day of school. And that means two glorious months where I don’t have to see kids--,” she said, stopping herself short when she realized what she was about to say.
“It’s okay Liberty.”
She puts her hand on his to let him know she’s still there but getting a little choked up so she can’t speak. He knows this gesture very well because she gets like this twice a year, every year since he’s been going to the diner. On the day her son was born and on the last day of school in the town.
“I’ll have a full breakfast today Liberty. I don’t think I’ll be able to stomach lunch later so I need my strength.”
“Of course honey. Whatever you want,” she says, blinking back the tears appearing in her eyes. “And you know you mustn’t do this to yourself every year Frank? I know how upsetting it can be, knowing everyone will be going off to camp again and you’ll be stuck here with me and the rest of this boring old town. But it won’t be like this forever. I get the feeling you’ll be saying more of this world than those kids anyway,” she continues, writing his order down on a piece of paper, and placing it on the counter behind her. She hits the bell to signal the fry cook that an order is up, before she takes off her apron and walks around the counter to sit next to Frank like she does every morning.
“Liberty, how do you suppose I’m going to see this world if I’m blind?”
“I’m not talking about seeing with your eyes Frank. I’m talking about what you see with your heart,” she answered. She was just about to place her hand on his shoulder, but she hesitated, knowing it might bring about more tears. Instead she watched him closely as his face showed his usual expression of processing her words and trying to decipher their hidden meaning. He believes she is far wise beyond her years and when no one is around he will sometimes call her Yoda, making her laugh so loudly he can feel her happiness deep in his heart. He realized just then what she meant, but before he could get her to elaborate further the chimes on the door of the diner rang out to signal a customer was entering. Not just any customer. Frank knew instantly who it was because this person always enters the diner so forcefully that both he and Liberty swear he’s going to break the door one day. “Mayor Hill I do wish you wouldn’t come in here like you have news that the sky is falling,” Liberty scolds the mayor as she gets up off the stool, puts back on her apron, and reclaims her place back behind the counter to take his order.
“Well Liberty, it just so happens today I do come bearing news that might just be even more frightening than the sky falling,” he shouts, sitting on the other side of Frank who is beginning to lower his head and shoulders while sitting on the stool, hoping the Mayor hasn’t seen him. “Why hello there Cunningham my boy!” he shouts, giving Frank a good and strong pat on the back, almost causing him to fall off the stool.
“Mayor Hill, you leave that boy alone. Today’s his last day of school and I won’t have you spreading silly gossip that might upset him,” she says, placing his order of a full breakfast down in front of Frank. “Now you eat up Frank. I won’t have you going hungry all day at school.”
The Mayor looks over at Frank, amazed as always, at how a blind person eats. Liberty waves her hand in front of Mayor Hills face to get his attention away from Frank.
“Why yes Liberty, give me what the young man over here is having, only scramble my eggs. And you’ll never guess what one of the Sheriffs’ deputy’s just told me?”
“No I probably won’t Mayor. What did he tell you?” Liberty asks, placing a cup and saucer in front of the Mayor and pouring some coffee. Frank begins to sit up a little more in his seat because he knows the sound of pouring coffee means the Mayor will be going into his ritual of preparing it just the way he likes it. To Frank this means both of his hands will be occupied and not able to pat him so strongly on the back again. The Mayor is one of many two-handed coffee drinkers. Liberty explained the difference between a person who holds their coffee with one hand or two hands to Frank one rainy summer Sunday years ago when the diner was empty and he had nothing planned for the day.
“A one-handed coffee cup holder is much more independent. Whereas a two-handed coffee cup holder lacks in confidence and is usually filled with tall tales and lies.”
When Frank asked her how she knew this she explained its fact based on generations worth of her family observing hundreds of regular customers and strangers who’ve come and gone throughout the years. Apparently it’s how they’ve been able to stay afloat all these years. Every Liberty that has come before her has been able to decipher which stories told in the diner are true, and therefore can be used as blackmail, and which ones are lies. Frank never liked the idea of using gossip to make money and neither has the current owner of Liberty Diner, which is part of the reason why, aside from her lack of child rearing, she is also in danger of losing the diner altogether.
“He told me that the Sheriff got a court order to give him access to Old Lady Stone’s attic. The Sheriff—,” but before he could finish his thoughts the bell above the diner door rang out once more, announcing another customer. Mayor Hill looked back quickly to see who had just barged in. “Well hello Sheriff. We were just talking about you. Weren’t we Liberty?”
“Hi Tom, can I get you your usual?” Liberty asked, getting the ready plate of food for the Mayor and placing it in front of him on the counter.
“No thanks Liberty. I’m just here to inform the Mayor he shouldn’t go spreading gossip about things he knows nothing about.”
Frank recognizes whenever Sheriff Tom Hartley is around from the combined odor of his strong cologne and the cigars he’s always smoking. You can smell the Sheriff coming from a mile away.
“I don’t spread gossip Tom. I just feel the people of Snow, TX deserve to know what their tax dollars are paying for when it comes to the Sheriff’s department upholding safety above town rumors.”
Sheriff Hartley takes one step towards the Mayor causing Frank to flinch when he hears the spurs on Tom’s cowboy boots make the kind of noise you think only happens in Westerns. The Mayor and the Sheriff have been known to attack each other verbally. Rumor has it that the Mayor’s wife was once engaged to Sheriff Hartley, long before Frank was born. No one knows why she married Mayor Hill who everyone says isn’t even half as handsome as Tom. Some believe it was for power. She’d had ambitions to run the town and thought she had a better chance marrying Boyd Hill.
“Boys, take your petty fight outside. I won’t have you creating even more gossip in my diner this early in the morning. Now get out before I wake my husband and have him throw you out.”
“But I haven’t even started my breakfast yet Lib. Besides, he started it. Barging in here like he owns the place. Why don’t you go investigate that attic before someone tells the old hag and she moves the body on you again?” the Mayor says, laughing and turning back to his breakfast, as Tom places his hand on the holster of his gun as if to draw it, but instead turns on his heel and the sound of the bell above the door chimes once more as he leaves. “Good riddance. Can you believe that man? Accusing me of gossiping?”
“Finished your breakfast already Frank? It’s only 8:30am, you still have a few more minutes before you have to go. Would you like some coffee?”
“I ca—I can—I—I—,” he started to say but couldn’t get the sentence to form.
“Alright young man, just take a deep breath. I think old Liberty here was just teasing you. No need to get in such a state,” the Mayor said, taking another sip of his coffee.
“I know,” Frank says, holding his hand out, a signal for Liberty to put his walking stick in his hand. She does so and he unfolds is, puts his book bag on, and taps his cane a few times till he reaches the door. He opens it, causing the bell to chime, turns back towards the direction where he knows the Mayor is sitting and says, in a loud voice so everyone in the diner can hear him, “and Liberty is NOT old!,” letting the door close behind him. Leaving Liberty to laugh out loud as the Mayor spills the coffee he’s holding with two hands all over his breakfast, and a tear escapes her eyes, rolling down her cheek.