She’s never reserved a table for anyone before. It’s a small town, and the restaurant just doesn’t ever get that busy, nor has anyone ever tried to reserved a table in her small restaurant that’s about to go out of business. After all, not many people become that desperate over soggy fries and hastily made burgers.
However, on a cloudy summer day Juliette finds herself carefully writing ‘RESERVED’ on a piece of paper and placing it on the table in the very far corner. She stares at it, and finds a small smile tugging at the ends of her lips. After straightening out the silverware and napkins that are spread out on the table, she glances at the clock hanging by the kitchen. It’s nearly four P.M. Hastily wiping her hands on her apron, Juliette scurries into the kitchen and makes sure that the two dishes are prepared - a plate with a pile of pancakes, no sauce, just strawberries on the side; and a bowl filled with potato soup, sprinkled with sugar and parsley.
The clock hits four, and the door opens. A pair of silent footsteps, one quieter than the other, enters the restaurant. Rushing out of the kitchen, Juliette greets the two men with a wide smile. “Hello, boys,” she says happily while directing the men towards the reserved table. “The usual?”
There is a short pause. Steve, the redheaded man, looks at Riley, who seems entirely unresponsive. His green eyes are staring straight ahead. “Yes, please,” Steve finally says. With a hand on Riley’s back, he guides the other man to the table, pulls out a chair and gently makes him sit.
It’s always four o’clock when the men enter her restaurant, and they come every day except Wednesdays and the weekends. After two weeks of Steve and Riley sitting at the same table and ordering the same dishes, Juliette has now placed a RESERVED sign on the table and makes the dishes beforehand. It’s a strange rhythm that she’s fallen into alongside strange men, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel too foreign.
Steve smiles at her when she brings out their food. She sets both the plates in front of Steve - something else that she has gotten used to. After retreating with a smile and a bright “Enjoy your meal, boys”, Juliette stands behind the counter and pretends to examine the cash register. When she finishes shuffling the pile of quarters, she glances up to a familiar sight. Steve, his own plate pushed to the side, is scooping up spoonfuls of the potato soup and carefully pouring it into Riley’s mouth. Riley is sitting stiffly, unmoving except when Steve taps his lips with the spoon, which makes him open his mouth and swallow the soup. His eyes stare at the wall, unfocused and glassy. Yet again, Juliette finds herself wondering if there’s anything at the end of his gaze that she can’t see.
It takes only about half an hour for the men to finish their meals. Steve puts the plates into an orderly pile and stands up, guiding Riley to do the same. While walking to the door, Steve slides fifteen dollars over to Juliette, who takes it with a wide smile. The smile, however, melts away as the men step out of the restaurant, and once again Juliette finds herself thinking, wondering, yet coming up with no answers.
Steve and Riley come back the next day. Then it’s a Wednesday, and their table sits empty in the corner. But the next day they come back, and Juliette’s strangely happy to see the table filled up after a day of absence. For many more days the men come and leave, and every time Steve has a sad small smile on his face that Juliette’s gotten used to now.
On a Monday, Steve and Riley come into the restaurant and Juliette brings them the same dishes. As Juliette watches them behind the cash register, there’s something strange that she can’t place her finger on. She only realizes it as the two men walk out of the restaurant; the plates are piled up neatly as always, but the bowl with the potato soup sits on top of the plates, untouched.
The next day, the men don’t come back.
It takes a week for Juliette to break herself out of the habit of preparing the pancakes and the potato soup. It takes another week for her to put away the RESERVED sign. It takes a little more than a month for Juliette to stop checking the door whenever the clock strikes four.
At some point she finds herself gently placing the RESERVED sign into the trash, the paper now dirty and worn. There’s a strange pinch in her chest whenever she glances at the empty table in the corner, but even that soon fades away.
Later, as she walks away from her now-abandoned restaurant, she stops and looks back.
And she wonders.