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Atonement
About the Author: Michael Bracken, recipient of the 2016 Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in short mystery fiction, is the author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories, including two published in Mystery Weekly Magazine.


Centerville’s only traffic light quit working in 1963 when a stray bullet caused it to short out, and it had never been repaired. Hanging over the intersection of Main Street and Central Avenue, it confused out-of-towners who occasionally passed through. Some stopped at the intersection and looked around nervously; others passed beneath the broken traffic light, never noticing it nor the dying town where it hung as they rushed from one side of the state to the other.

Most days I sat in front of the Blue Bonnet Cafe and watched the intersection, only rising from my broken-legged chair when called inside to cook a meal for someone who didn’t know better or didn’t care. I often didn’t have all the ingredients to prepare the few items remaining on the limited menu, and over time had crossed several selections off rather than refill the larder.

Though I had long ago paid off the bank loan taken out to purchase the business, I was still paying for the Blue Bonnet Cafe in my own way. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment above the restaurant, monthly Social Security checks paid my bills, and I planned to keep the place open until the town finished dying or I did.

Most of the other businesses along Main Street had closed years before, leaving behind slowly disintegrating buildings, and the county had assumed responsibility for the town services when Centerville lost its charter. The post office, which had never been anything but a counter in the back of Dickson’s, had closed years earlier.

I had just stepped out of the restroom one hot summer day and was drying my hands on my apron when I saw an unfamiliar couple sitting in one of the booths. He wore a gray muscle shirt and colorful tattoo sleeves. She wore a fat lip and a black eye.

I walked to their table. “Can I help you?”

He ordered beef stew.

“We don’t have that,” I said.

“It says right here on the menu—”

I took the menu from his hand, pulled a black felt tip marker from my shirt pocket, and crossed off the stew. I held out the updated menu but he didn’t take it from my outstretched hand.

“Well, what do you have?”

“Burgers,” I said. “With cheese or without. Fries.”

“Burger with cheese. Side of fries.”

I turned to the woman. “And you?”

She didn’t look up. Instead, she looked at her hands.

He said, “She’ll have the same.”

“Two cheeseburgers,” I said. “Two fries. Drinks?”

“Dr Pepper,” he said. “Think you can handle that?”

I said I could and disappeared into the kitchen. As I dropped two fistfuls of frozen French fries into the fryer and flattened two balls of hamburger meat on the grill, I remembered the last woman I had seen with a black eye, a glaring symbol of my own frustration.

Lydia and I had known each other all our lives, had become lovers in high school, and had married upon graduation because we could envision no other future. I had worked at the Blue Bonnet since junior high—as a busboy, a waiter, and a short order cook—and Lydia began waitressing there when she was a high school junior. When Alzheimer’s stole the owner’s ability to manage the place on a daily basis, I became the general manager, and when his family put him in a home, they sold the place to Lydia and me. That’s when we moved out of her parents’ house and into the apartment above the Blue Bonnet.

We worked together every day, slept together every night, and rarely had time apart from one another. Even then the town showed signs of its eventual collapse, and the diner returned less money to our pockets with each subsequent month. The stress of running the business was more than I could handle and I took my frustration out on Lydia.

I dressed the burgers with mayo, pickles, and lettuce—I was out of tomatoes and had been for weeks—and delivered the plates to the waiting couple.

The Blue Bonnet had no air conditioning. A pair of ceiling fans languidly moved tepid air around the room while they ate, and I leaned against the counter, watching them until I was needed.

The couple finished their meal and he wanted dessert. “What kind of pies do you have?”

Despite the faded hand-painted sign on the window, the Blue Bonnet had not offered homemade pies since my wife disappeared. I explained that the dessert options included frozen Snickers bars and some banana pudding I’d made three days earlier.



This story appears in our APR 2017 Issue
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Reader Discussion

4
Apr
By Excellent story, Michael. Thanks for a good read.

4
Apr
As has been true of everything I've ever read by you, Michael, this story was highly entertaining and left me with a big smile. You're awesome and one of my inspirations!
By Gay Alson

4
Apr
Terrific imagery and atmosphere. Great story. Sad tale.
By Bruce Harris

4
Apr
A terrific story filled with justice and injustice all at the same time. And a masterful stroke of pathos. At the very end I wanted to give a comforting hug to a man who had murdered two people. Amazing.
By Terrie Farley Moran

4
Apr
Great job. As always.
By Robert Petyo

5
Apr
Wow, Michael, it's a dark and powerful story. Injustice meets justice for sure. The opening, sorry to say, reminded me of the sad state of my own small hometown.
By Cathy Seckman

5
Apr
Good story Michael from beginning to end. Liked the way you ended the story with the way it began.
By Darlene Torday

6
Apr
I really liked the story, ad the way it moved along without clutter or any extraneous detail was refreshing. I look forward to your next one!
By Mo Bock

10
Apr
This was a great story. The ending with two bodies in the freezer in a dying town had me grinning. A very enjoyable read.
By Frances Dunn

15
Apr
Great story with a twist I didn't see coming?. Nicely done!
By Bill Baber


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