The women who ran the diner were sisters. The elder was tall and angular, and the younger was short and sinuous, and one was Velma and the other Ellie, it was assumed, and in any case all their customers called them simply “ladies”. Both ladies had dark green eyes that matched the padded seats in the diner’s booths, and although they were courteous and not unpretty, their manner in moments of repose was agreed upon as “spooky”, and were it not for the vanilla iced tea they would not have nearly as many customers. Still:
‘Ladies,’ Burt Chalmers from the coffee plantation would say, ‘another of your vanilla iced teas, if you please,’ and one or the other would pour out the dark amber liquid from the huge crystal jug that sat sweating on the vinyl counter. The recipe for the vanilla iced tea was a secret. The ladies brought out the jug from the rickety fridge every morning, and when it was gone, it was gone, and the people of the town would trickle away into the sweltering afternoon.
On this day it was hotter than usual and the tea ran out early. After the diner emptied the ladies took off their aprons and turned the sign in the front window. The screen door in the kitchen slapped shut behind them and they left their shoes and socks like fallen fruit on the grass that streamed down the slope from the back of the diner. At the bottom of the slope was a creek shaded by jade vines and paved with smooth, flat stones. The ladies slipped their brown feet into the water and felt the current tug at the small hairs on their legs, and there they stood with their skirts bunched in their hands and their faces lifted up to the afternoon sun.
A ghost moon hung like a torn circle of napkin stuck to the side of a glass. The sharp wet-green smell of the swamp downstream caught in the ladies’ hair and slid through their fingers. The younger slipped a pebble between her toes. She shivered.
‘Do you still think about him,’ said the elder.
‘Hardly at all any more,’ the younger said. She squeezed the pebble in her toes and it turned to diamond. She took a step back and looked at the pebble diamond glinting at the bottom of the creek. The elder plucked it from the water, holding her sleeve to keep it from drawing up the wet.
‘Haven’t done that for a while,’ she said.
The younger looked at her. ‘I know someone who might need it.’
The elder held the pebble diamond against the moon.
The heat broke the next day and the ensuing storms flooded the creek almost to the diner’s back door. They left the pebble diamond on the counter next to the vanilla iced tea jug, which sweated out all the water in the air and blanched the vinyl, but no-one came to the diner until the rain stopped a week later. Then:
‘Now whose could this be,’ said Maisie Brimblecombe from the sugar mill, but she said it very quietly so as not to wake the child she was carrying in one arm, and so as not to draw the attention of any of the other patrons who had, miraculously, passed the diamond by. The pebble diamond was cool and heavy in her hand and she knew, even though she was young and barely educated and had the sickly-sweet stink of molasses on her all the time and could barely keep up with the two kids she had already and that was without taking into account the fussy new one currently cradled in her arm, she knew it was worth money and she knew it could easily be an heirloom from, say, a wealthy and distant but favourite aunt, who was perhaps recently deceased and who had perhaps remembered Maisie in her will, and she knew that that was not such a far-fetched idea, really, considering her daddy once owned the sugar mill instead of merely drunkenly working there until leaving his debt to Maisie with his untimely death (god rest his soul). She knew all this somehow, so she took the pebble diamond and put it in the pocket on the front of her blouse where it rested with a comforting weight and she paid for her vanilla iced tea and almost looked the ladies right in their dark green eyes as she left and went out into the still-drying street with plans to look up an evaluator, a word she had not known previously but which she knew now was someone who might help make her a very different woman.
The ladies watched Maisie leave, and that evening after they had shut the doors and the fireflies began to loop beyond the screen door the ladies took a jug of tea and two glasses and sat on the damp bank and toasted each other. The elder drank immediately, but the younger paused before putting her lips to the glass. The chickens in the coop behind the diner murmured, still grieving. She looked at the rippling creek and the fireflies, and beyond them to the half-moon and the lights of the suburbs and the dark bulk of the sugar mill, and she felt cold in the place where her soul used to be.
‘Will it ever be worth it,’ she said.
‘We could do more,’ said the elder, and the younger nodded, as though that was enough.