The full name of the diner was actually the Horsham Palace Diner and Bakery, but everyone who lived in the area simply called it The Palace. It first opened back in the 1960s off Route 611 in Horsham and has been a fixture of the community ever since.
One of the reasons The Palace was so popular with locals was that it was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no exceptions. If you had a craving for an omelet at four in the morning on Easter or wanted a cup of coffee and a burger at noon on Christmas Day, The Palace was the place you wanted to be.
Most of the waitresses had been there since the diner opened and their terse interactions with the customers was considered part of the “charm” of the place. That and the fact you could sit in a booth at two in the morning just drinking coffee and they would be more than happy to leave you alone.
Diego hadn’t seen The Palace in years but nothing about it had changed in the least. For some reason he couldn’t really explain, he found that comforting.
Diego and his sister had been coming to The Palace for almost as long as they could remember. Their parents used to bring them here every Sunday when their father’s computer club would meet for breakfast. The group, which could include as many as 15 people on a good Sunday, honestly wouldn’t talk about computers all that much. Instead it was a chance to catch up, have a conversation with other adults and get out of the house for breakfast on the weekend.
Diego and Liz would eat their breakfast and then be given a roll of quarters to go play whatever video game machine happened to be in the vestibule that week. These were older arcade machines that had seen better days, but it was more interesting than listening to the adults talk. Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, even an ancient Space Invaders game had kept the two of them busy and entertained over the years.
At least that was until Liz lost interest and started to bring a book with her to read. She stopped going altogether by the time she was old enough to be left home alone, and Diego would have the game (and the quarters) all to himself.
Diego looked over to where the arcade cabinet used to sit, between two massive windows that looked out at the highway. Instead a ATM now sat there with an Auto Trader magazine rack next to it.
As Diego got older, The Palace was where he and his friends would go to hang out. One of the only places in town you could go if you weren’t 21 and able to get into a bar, it was a popular spot with the kids who called the Hatboro-Horsham area home. They would sit and drink coffee for hours, talking about comic books, role-playing games and movies.
Liz even waitressed there for a summer before realizing after a couple “incidents” that she was not cut out to work in the food service industry.
They walked through the vestibule and Diego pulled open the door to let Liz go in ahead of him. The hostess held two fingers up as she grabbed a pair of menus from a large stack and showed them to their booth.
The moment they walked in Diego’s senses were overrun by smells and sounds that brought back a tidal wave of memories. The sound of the coffee machine going, a fresh pot being brewed. The aroma of fresh baked rolls and pies, the hustle and bustle of the wait staff moving swiftly from table to table. The near constant drone of conversations going on as people talked over their early dinner.
It was almost like Diego never left.
Liz and Diego sat opposite each other in the booth, the blinds pulled shut due to the bright late day sun. They both leafed through their menus, even though they knew them almost by heart after all the time they had spent here.
A short, dark-haired woman who had to be in her forties walked over with her notepad in hand and pen at the ready to see if she could get them anything to drink. Liz ordered a cola while Diego got a coffee.
“You want cream with that?” the waitress asked before walking away.
“Yes please.” Diego answered.
After a moment Liz closed her menu and folded her hands in front of her, looking down at them like she was trying desperately to avoid eye contact with her brother. The waitress brought their drinks and they ordered, a turkey club for Liz and a bacon and cheese omelet for Diego.
Once she was gone, Liz finally looked Diego in the eye and said “So I guess you have some questions about what happened.” It was a statement, not a question.
Diego exhaled and tried to gather his thoughts. “Of course I do. Like why the hell didn’t you call me when Dad first went into the hospital?”
“It was a crazy time Diego. Mom was a mess and Dad was in rough shape. No one was really sure where you were and after a few days it seemed like everything was under control.”
“But that’s why I gave Mom and Dad my cell number. So they could call me if something happened.”
“So what, Dad having a heart attack rates high enough on your importance scale that we should have reached out and called you?”
Diego just looked at his sister, trying to blink back the shock and hurt that suddenly enveloped him. It was like someone had just punched him in the stomach.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what I said. You say you’re upset you didn’t get to come to my wedding and that nobody called you when Dad went into the hospital but you sure as hell wouldn’t know it by the way you’ve been acting.”
Diego closed his eyes and shook his head like he was trying to understand what Liz was saying.
“What are you talking about?”
Liz looked Diego right in the eye, her voice rising ever so slightly. “You left Diego! Four years ago you ghosted everyone and everything in your life! It was six months before anyone even heard from you. We had no clue if you were dead or what. Do you know how crazy that made Mom? The phone calls from your friends, from your graphic design clients, wondering where you were? I had to take a leave from work to move home just to try and keep Mom from losing her shit.”
“I can explain…”
“No, I’ve been thinking about this for years. You’re going to hear this.” Liz took a deep breath and was about to continue when the waitress brought their food to the table. When Diego looked at Liz he could see that tears were forming in the corners of her eyes and her cheeks were flushed.
Liz took another deep breath and looked down at her sandwich. She steepled her fingers in front of her and rested her forehead on her thumbs.
“You disappeared Diego. No note, no warning, no nothing. Four years ago you up and vanished without a trace. All that was left was an empty apartment and a ton of questions with no answers. No one had any clue where you were or what happened.
“Finally after six long months Mom and Dad get a letter from you with a cell number and some half-baked explanation why you vanished. That you wanted to explore for a bit and see things. That your life was too much to deal with and you needed time to think. We won’t mention that most of that was your own damn fault.”
Diego opened his mouth to say something but the words caught in his throat when he saw the look in his sister’s eyes.
“Then we find out that Dad knew about you and your little trip. That you told him what you were planning. Did he ever tell you that him and Mom almost divorced because of that? That she felt if he could keep a secret like that from her for half a year Lord only knows what else he was hiding from her?”
Diego just looked down at him omelet, his hand playing with the fork on the table next to the plate. “No. I didn’t know that.”
“And why should you? It’s not like you could get a ton of information about our family in the five minute phone conversations you and Mom were having every few months.”
Liz took a bit of her club sandwich in an obvious attempt to calm down. Her face was still flushed with anger and hurt as she chewed and then took a sip of her soda before she spoke again.
“And what really got me, what really pissed me off was that you never once reached out to me. You never tried to explain what was going through your head when you did it. Mom I can understand, she is who she is and I get why you told Dad what you were going to do. But why didn’t you try talking to me? Why didn’t you at least give me a head’s up? Or stop in Pittsburgh once all those times you crossed the country?”
A tear was rolling down Liz’s cheek as she caught her breath and closed her eyes.
“I thought we were closer than that Diego. We’re brother and sister. Sure, we hit some rough patches but what pair of sibling doesn’t? I always thought no matter what you had my back and I had yours. No questions asked. After you disappeared, I realized that wasn’t the case and that really hurt.”
Liz took a deep breath, held it for a second and then exhaled slowly. Diego noticed that her shoulders visibly slumped and she seemed to relax. Almost like she had been carrying this around for a long time and now that she had finally said it and it was out there, she could decompress and just let it go.
Diego still hadn’t touched his food, his mind racing. He was aware that he had upset a lot of people when he left and he knew that there were going to be ramifications, but he had no clue the hurt had cut this deep.
“Can I talk now?”
Liz was digging into her burger, her appetite apparently back with a vengeance. “Sure. The floor is yours.”
“Okay. First of all, yes I fully realize what I did was a crappy way to deal with what was going on in my life. Looking back there are a ton of other routes I could have taken, ones that wouldn’t have hurt anyone. But I was way too cowardly to try any of them. I admit it, I was scared. The whole bottom had fallen out of my life and I didn’t know what to do. So I left. I took the easy way out.
“Am I proud of that? No. But would I do it again? Hell yes. It turned out to be the right decision for me and I’m sorry if your and Mom thoughts on it didn’t get factored into the decision making process. You didn’t give my feelings a lot of thought when you moved to Pittsburgh so we’ll call it even and move on.”
Liz looked up at that last statement, seemed as if she was about to say something and thought better of it.
“As for Dad. Yes I told him what I was going to do and I swore him to secrecy because he and I both knew Mom would stop me from going if she found out. Dad understood why I was leaving, more than anyone else so he kept my secret. If I would have known it was going to cause that much friction between him and Mom I probably wouldn’t have told him and I feel terrible about it.”
Diego turned and looked out the window, his voice quivering as he spoke.
“And the worst part is that now I can never say I’m sorry for the pain I may have caused him and thank him for doing what he did. And that’s something I’ll have to live with.”
Liz had put her burger down and focused all her attention on her brother. She felt like she should reach out and hold his hand, try to comfort him but couldn’t bring herself to do it.
After a moment Diego continued. “Look, I know you pretty well, or at least I used to and I realize you may never forgive me. And if that’s part of the price I have to pay for what I did, so be it. The last four years have given me a whole new perspective and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
Liz picked up her burger again but paused before she took another bite. “I didn’t say I would never forgive you.”
Diego could feel the beginnings of a smile forming on his face.
“It won’t happen overnight and I’m still pretty pissed. And it’s going to take a while for me to trust anything that comes out of your mouth again. But …”
“We’re going to be okay?”
Liz sighed heavily. “Yeah.”
“Good. You know, I was in Pittsburgh once. About a year after I left.”
Liz had a french fry halfway to her mouth as she stopped and looked at her brother. “Seriously?”
“Why didn’t you stop by the house and say hello?”
“I almost did. I actually stood in your driveway for a good five minutes before I turned around and left.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. I just couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door.”
“I was scared. Of how you’d react. Of what you’d say to me. Of how disappointed you were in me. Before I left I had made some pretty bad decisions. Things I’m not really proud of that hurt people I care about. I wasn’t ready to hear your opinions on all of that just yet.”
Liz looked her brother square in the eye. “Are you ready now? Because I have some thoughts I could share with you.”
Diego rolled his eyes. “Maybe later. Once we get through the funeral and I deal with Mom.”
“Oh right. The funeral.”
For the briefest of moments the two had forgotten the reason for Diego’s return home. The weight of it came crashing back down on both of them with a suddenness neither was expecting.
“Did Dad ever talk about me to you?”
Liz seemed surprised by Diego’s question. “Of course he did. Whenever I would come home to visit and Mom and I would start talking crap about you Dad would always come to your defense. Say how you needed some time away, that you deserved a chance to ‘find yourself’ as he always put it.”
Diego smiled. “When I told Dad about my plans, he didn’t judge or give me a hard time. He asked me why and if I was sure I wanted to do it this way and when I said yes, he just nodded his head in that way he always did and said ‘Okay then.’ It’s why when I realized I needed to tell someone I was leaving, I chose him.”
Liz looked down at her empty plate, using her fork to push around the handful of fries that were left.
“I’m really going to miss him.”
A few moments later the waitress came with their check and asked if they needed anything else. When they both said no, she gathered up their empty plates and walked away.
As Liz reached over and grabbed the check, she said “So I’m assuming you don’t have any money on you and our late lunch is on me?”
Diego gave her a hurt expression as he reached into his back pocket for his wallet. “How dare you. I always pay my own way. I’ve been doing it for four years now and I’m perfectly capable of …”
He looked down at his open wallet, then up at his sister. “Actually, I spent all my cash on the train ticket to get here and I haven’t had a chance to hit an ATM yet. So yeah, lunch is on you. Consider it my welcome back gift.”
The two got up from their booth and headed towards the front of the diner. Liz paid the bill and they walked outside into the cool afternoon air. The leaves were already beginning to change and a handful crunched under their feet as they walked through the parking lot toward the SUV.
“You ready to have a very difficult conversation with Mom?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. I might as well get it over with.”