Hope Lights the Way
by Camille Eide
When I clocked on to work, my newest regular was already waiting at his usual booth. Mark was hard to miss—tall, athletic build, neatly trimmed auburn hair. And strong hands. I’d noticed them the first time I served him---including the gold band on his left hand, which told me everything I needed to know.
Well, almost everything.
Because there was something about Mark. Something familiar I couldn’t quite place, even after serving him breakfast a half dozen times.
Approaching Mark’s booth, I heard his voice, then saw a young girl in a purple dress studying her menu beside him.
“So, is it breakfast for two?”
“Yep,” the girl said. “It’s my Daddy day.”
Mark looked up from his menu with a polite smile. “Hello, Lily.” His tailored suit and deep red tie struck a stunning contrast to his usual jeans and work jacket. “This is my daughter, Ava.”
“Nice to meet you, Ava. What a lucky girl, having your daddy all to yourself.”
“Yep. We can do anything I want today. Right?”
He nodded. “To the best of my abilities, princess.”
I filled his coffee mug, then turned to Ava. “And something to drink for your highness? Juice? Hot cocoa?”
“I’ll have coffee.” Her fingers covered a giggle.
With a nearly straight face, Mark said, “She’ll have cocoa.”
Ava’s lower lip sagged. “You said whatever I want.”
“I reserve the right to exercise a royal override,” Mark said. “Only when your best interests require it.” He turned to me. “Whipped cream and sprinkles?”
After I posted their order, I made my rounds. When I returned to Mark’s booth, he was telling Ava all the things he loved about her. A mixed wave of appreciation and sadness washed over me. What a priceless gift!
I refilled Mark’s coffee. “So, Ava, you must be about six?”
“Wow—how’d you guess?” Mark asked.
“My daughter is six.” I smiled at Ava. “You’re a very lucky girl. My daughter would love to have a daddy to spend special time with.”
“What’s her name?” Ava asked.
Ava slurped her whipped cream, then turned to Mark. “Daddy, can Katie come to the pumpkin patch with us tomorrow?”
Oops. Poor Mark. He’d have to pull out the “royal override” again. I decided to spare him. “Ava, that’s really sweet, but—”
“Katie is welcome to join us,” Mark said. “And you too, of course.”
Great. Using my child to finagle an invite to another family’s outing was a first. “That’s really nice of you, but—”
“Please?” Ava’s pleading look, complete with whipped cream-mustache, was hard to resist.
Katie would have a blast and could really use a new friend. “Well,” I searched Mark for signs of reluctance. “Only if you’re sure your wife won’t mind a couple tagalongs....”
Mark’s gaze fell to his mug.
Blowing on her cocoa, Ava shook her head. “Mommy’s in heaven. She won’t mind.”
I stared at Mark’s wedding band, pulse racing. As if sensing my scrutiny, he twisted his ring a few times. Slowly, he raised his dark eyes to mine, revealing an awkward discomfort I understood.
And then I knew why he seemed so familiar.
A quiet ache trailed him like a shadow. Like a lingering whisper reminding you someone is gone, but not gone.
I touched my left ring finger. The groove had almost vanished. Almost.
“It’s okay, Mark,” I said softly. “I wore my ring for two years after Evan died.”
Something sparked in his eyes, like a light in the distance after a long, dark journey. He studied me. “Does it ever go away? The ache?”
His words nudged the tender, healing wound I’d kept carefully guarded. “In time, it fades. But never completely. I think...you just learn to live with it.”
His eyes never left mine. “So you can go on. Find normal again.”
I smiled gently. “A new normal.”
“Do you feel...anchored again?”
So you feel that too. “I’m working on it.”
“My strawberry pancakes!” Ava pointed to the galley.
I served their food and then left them to enjoy their special day. In a silent prayer, I thanked God for the chance to offer what little encouragement I could.
As I neared their table again, Mark stood and stopped me. “Lily? Ava and I would be very honored if you and Katie would accompany us to the pumpkin patch tomorrow.”
How could I resist? “We’d love to. But it’s really muddy there. You’ll probably want to wear something less...formal.” I winked at Ava. “I guess your daddy will just have to escort an undercover princess.”
“You mean three princesses,” Mark said.
“Right, three.” I chuckled lightly to mask my singing heart. “Lucky you. Too bad nobody will know we’re royalty.”
“That’s okay.” He hoisted Ava in one arm and smiled. “I’ll know.”