The last thing I wanted after the night I’d had was to wake up first thing Sunday morning and drive back to the diner, but I’d long ago resigned myself to never getting what I wanted, and so into the Jeep I climbed at an ungodly five a.m. to go help open the place up.
I was met there by a bleary-eyed Benjamin Chase, our other cook. He had parked out back, in the closest spot to the door, and was leaned against the hood of his rusted out old Buick, smoking a cigarette in a spill of halogen white that shone down from the rear floodlights.
We had graduated together. Been friends, once upon a time. United by the fact that we were both biracial in a town whose council members had recently argued a case for re-segregating prom. His mother was black, his father white, and with skin just a shade lighter than mine, only with honeyed tones instead of my more olive complexion, he wasn’t black enough for the black kids, or white enough for the white kids, and had been ostracized by both because of it. Until high school, when he joined the football team and became one of the best running backs in the state. Everyone seemed to love him after that.
Except for me. I had been so jealous that I’d stopped talking to him. I had dressed up my jealousy in righteous indignation, instead telling myself that it was the fact that he could so easily ignore everyone’s hypocrisy that bothered me. That he’d forgotten all the names they had called him. That he was just as big a hypocrite for reveling in their sudden acceptance. Like I said, I was angry at the world and everything in it when I was younger, and I was still trying to make amends for that.
We’d been working together for two years now, and in that time I had apologized for my shitty behavior, he had accepted, and we’d settled into comfortable roles as co-workers who were casually acquainted and sometimes hung out together.
Like a lot of people in town, Ben was poor as hell and took good care of the things he could afford. He was almost meticulous about his appearance most of the time, but this morning his shoulder-length braids were spilling out of the low ponytail he’d pulled them into, his clothes looked rumpled, like he had slept in them, and his skin had a green tinge to it. The fact that he was smoking when he had quit five months ago was another sign that something was off.
“Hey, Ben,” I said as I passed.
He grunted in response, and I caught a whiff of sour alcohol on his breath.
He dropped his cigarette and stomped it out. “Downed half a bottle of rye trying to get to sleep,” he said. “I’ve been having some seriously fucked up dreams.”
I froze with my hand on the doorknob and turned to him, trying to look casual, trying not to think too hard about my own continued nightmares or how Mark had responded last night when I had mentioned them. “What about?”
Ben scrubbed a hand over his face. “All sorts of weird shit. Monsters lurking in the closet like I’m a little kid again. Birds attacking me. Gators wandering up out of the swamp and into my front yard. Eating my dog.”
“Did the alcohol help?” I might have to try it myself if it did.
He barked a humorless laugh. “Not a goddamn bit. And now I’m tired as fuck and hungover. No idea how I’m gonna cook anyone breakfast without throwing up in their food.”
That was a nice picture. “Coffee and grease will help,” I said, pulling open the door.
Amy, a tall, pretty, curvy brunette in her early thirties was already inside, going through the opening checklist. “Hey, Ruby girl,” she said when she caught sight of me. She and I had always gotten along well, and I was thankful that it was her I shared this shift with and not Lucy.
“Hey, Amy,” I said, still troubled by what Ben had said.
She hit start on the coffee maker and frowned over at me. “No offense, but you look like shit. You weren’t out with Ben last night, were you?”
I shook my head. “Nope. Had the late shift.”
She gave me an exasperated look. “I don’t know why you let Patricia write your schedule like this.”
I shrugged. “I need the money,” I said, deliriously thankful to be having a normal conversation for what felt like the first time in days.
“We all need the money, Ruby. But there’s no sense in working yourself to death for it.”
“I only have three months to go, Amy,” I reminded her. “The more money I pull in now, the more I’ll have when I get to Atlanta.”
She patted my shoulder as she walked past, toward the front of the restaurant. “I know, honey. I just worry about you. All you do is work and read. It’s not good for you. You need some real human interaction in your life.”
“I’ve had some,” I called after her.
“I’m talking outside of work,” she yelled back, flipping on the lights in the dining room.
“I’ve had some,” I repeated.
“Fucking rando dudes for a few weeks before dropping them doesn’t count. You can’t fill the void your mother left in your life with dick.”
“Well this is an awkward conversation to walk in on,” Ben muttered, slouching in through the door and beelining toward the kitchen.
I ignored him, following after Amy. He’d heard much worse out of her blunt mouth.
“I had a coffee date yesterday morning,” I told her.
She turned from where she’d been rearranging the stale muffins we displayed in a glass container near the register. “Oh, really?” she said, one highly arched brow cocked. “Do tell.”
Suddenly I didn’t want to. My damn pride had made me speak up in the first place, unable to let her comment go without correction, but now that she was interested, I had no desire to say any more. I’d already relived my time with Levi over and over again in my head, becoming even more embarrassed and confused with each re-screening. The last thing I wanted was to talk about it with someone else. But if I knew anything about Amy, it was that she wouldn’t let it go.
“His name is Levi. He just moved here and doesn’t know anyone. I offered to show him the town.”
See? No big deal. Leave it alone, Amy.
She leaned back against the counter, bracing her elbows behind her. “Go on,” she said, a twinkle in her brown eyes.
“That’s pretty much it,” I said, deflecting.
I turned and retreated toward the back, but she pushed off from the counter and followed me, having none of my coyness.
“What’s he look like?”
“Tall, white, black hair, clear skin, blue eyes,” I said, trying to be vague.
“He’s handsome, isn’t he?” she pressed, catching up with me when we reached the racks of clean silverware that had been left out to dry overnight.
I sighed and began pulling some free. A fork, a knife, a spoon, all of which got folded into the one of the napkins stacked beside them.
Amy would find out soon enough through the gossip mill that Levi was handsome if I didn’t answer her now. And if she found out that way, she’d read something into it, like I was being the lady who doth prosteteth too much, and assume that I was embarrassed about harboring feelings for him and never leave me the hell alone about it ever again.
“He is,” I told her.
She gasped in excitement. “I knew it. You gonna see him again?”
She elbowed me in the ribs. “What do you mean you have no idea? How’d it go? Did he ask for your number?”
How’d it go? God, what a loaded question.
“He asked for my number,” I told her.
She squeed in response.
“Please don’t make that noise again,” Ben called from the kitchen, sounding like he was in pain.
“Sorry!” she yelled back, and then, lowering her voice, asked, “Do you like him?”
“Amy, I just met him,” I said, exasperated. I did not want to be having this conversation.
“Fine,” she said. “I get it. You don’t want to jinx it. I understand.”
You really don’t, I thought. Christ, even I didn’t understand.
Half an hour later we were done setting up for the morning and had unlocked the front door. Amy turned on the small flatscreen that hung suspended in a corner behind the counter so we could do what we always did on Sunday mornings: drink a few cups of coffee together before the first patrons wandered in and make fun of the local news, or lack thereof.
“Our first story this morning is a strange one, let me tell you,” the bubbly blonde behind the news desk said. “An entire flock of starlings was found dead on Hastings Road near mile marker forty seven late yesterday afternoon.”
“What the hell?” Amy said, turning up the volume.
I watched the story unfold with laser focus, hanging on every word as I waited for the latest information. Turned out, there was very little. The cops they talked to assured them that there wasn’t anything suspicious about the birds’ deaths. Then they showed a brief interview with a woman I immediately recognized. Daisy. I half expected her to tell the reporter the same thing that she had me, but instead she remained vague and cryptic, refusing to make guesses while doing her best to explain why there was no need for people to panic. That if the air or the water had turned toxic, much more than a flock of birds would have turned up dead.
“I actually met her yesterday. Rooster Crick was flooded and I had to take Hastings home. They were still picking up the bodies when I got there,” I said.
Amy jammed the mute button and turned to me. “What?”
“Yeah, what?” Ben said, poking his head through the service window.
I relayed the whole story for them, even what Daisy had said about thunder being the likely culprit.
“Weird,” Amy said when I was done.
“I’ve heard of that before,” Ben said, and belatedly I remembered that in middle school he had talked about wanting to become a biologist. “Birds die in all sorts of weird ways. I interned with one of the local government ecology labs right after high school. They died in droves during migrating season. Crashed right into that cell tower out near Highbank one after another after another. Something about the steady red light fucked with their internal compass and attracted them right to it. Which is why we have a flashing red light now. The tower gets way less bird strikes because of it.”
“Wow, Ben. And this whole time I thought you were nothing but eye candy,” Amy said.
He shot her an unimpressed look and disappeared back into the kitchen, muttering about white women.
“No sense of humor when he’s hung over,” Amy said, shaking her head before unmuting the TV.
The rest of the morning dragged by, and I spent much of that time thinking about the birds, but also about Ben, and why he hadn’t pursued a career in biology.
It was Sunday, so everyone was taking their time waking up and starting their day. Then it would be off to church. The Baptist, Methodist, and Protestant churches all let out at the same time: ten o’clock. They also all held coffee hours after their services, so that the parishioners could thank their ministers, indulge in a little good Christian gossip over sticky pastries and burnt cups of coffee, and then head their separate ways. Come ten thirty, eleven at the latest, a lot of them descended upon us and we’d be slammed from then until one in the afternoon. It was our busiest time of the week, and so we had three waitresses scheduled to work. Me and Amy, and Lucy, who showed up at nine.
“Hey,” she said in her low, asthmatic voice. It sounded rougher than normal. Her skin looked sallow beneath her fake tan, and her pale blue eyes were bloodshot, as if she’d done the same thing as Ben last night. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Amy shot me a “what’s this about” look. She knew I didn’t really like Lucy, and, I’m sure, that Lucy didn’t like me all that much either. I shook my head at Amy, mouthing “later”, and followed Lucy out back.
“I’m sorry for last night,” she said, surprising the hell out of me. “I’d had a bad day, and I’ve been sleeping like shit.”
Another person who hadn’t been sleeping well. What the hell was going on in this town?
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I had my own shit going on and took it out on you and the guys,” I said.
“We’re okay?” she asked.
“We’re okay,” I told her. Well, as okay as we’d ever be.
My shift ended at two. It had been a good day. Really good. Good enough to more than make up for last night. Once I clocked out, I retreated to the back office to recount my tips because I was having trouble believing that I’d made so much. One or two of the church services this morning must have been about the blessed act of charity. We always saw a spike in tips when that happened.
A knock sounded from the doorway, and I lost track of where I’d been in my counting.
Frustrated, I turned from the desk to see Amy beaming at me.
“There’s a handsome man out front asking for you,” she said, dropping her voice. “Very. Handsome.”
I had a sudden urge to bolt. To race past her, jump in my car, and tear out of the parking lot like a bat out of hell. But that would have been cowardly. And after the way I had self-sabotaged my entire goddamn future in school because of cowardice, I had promised myself never to let it happen again. I’d broken enough promises to myself this week, so I would just have to suck it up and face Levi and my very confusing, contradictory feelings about him head on.
I stood from the desk, tucked my tip money back into my apron, and walked out to the front, Amy hot on my heels.
Levi was leaned against one of the empty tables with his arms crossed over his broad chest, making his biceps look even larger than I remembered. He had his sunglasses on, and was wearing another v-neck, this time black, that he wore untucked over dark washed jeans. He looked completely out of place in the diner, with its flaking linoleum floors and rusty chrome table legs. Like a model from a high end magazine that had been strategically placed here by an ad agency to try and sell us clothes we couldn’t afford. He looked aloof, untouchable. Unreal.
Until he caught sight of me and smiled. That smile brought him to life. I had seen it countless times already, but only then did I realize why it made him seem like he was actually attainable. It was slightly crooked, higher on the left than the right, causing his left eye to crinkle up until it was almost shut. He only had one dimple, too. If beauty is nothing more than an illusion caused by symmetry, than this subtle lack of it should have made him seem less beautiful. Flawed. It somehow had the opposite effect. Because the fact that he wasn’t perfect made him even more attractive in my eyes.
It wasn’t a poof! I had been wrong. It was more like a whoosh. Like all the air had been knocked from my lungs by the sight of him. Behind me, I heard Amy sigh in what sounded like a mixture of wistfulness and lust, and I was momentarily comforted by the fact that she sounded just as affected by him as I was.
“Hey,” I said, taking deep, even breaths.
Potatoes. Think about the potatoes, Ruby.
“Hey,” he said, pushing away from the table to come lean his forearms on the counter across from me. He ducked his head just enough to pull his sunglasses down onto his nose so I could see those unbelievably blue eyes. “I remembered you said you got off at two today. Want to go throw rocks at that old derelict building on Thurgood and see if we can knock out the rest of the windows?”
Behind me, Amy snorted. I’d somehow already forgotten she was there.
“Oh, um, Levi, this is Amy. Amy, Levi,” I said.
Levi didn’t offer to shake hands, just leaned sideways to gaze past me at her with a slow, charming smile. “Hey, Amy,” he said, before turning his focus back to me.
“Hi, Levi,” she said, sounding a little dazed. Poor woman.
Someone from one of her tables flagged her down then, leaving Levi and I in our own little bubble.
“So, what do you say?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, hesitating.
The potatoes, goddamnit! the logical part of me shrilled.
I paused to inspect it for a minute, wondering if it really was the logical part of me. I was beginning to think that it wasn’t. That it was nothing more than my pride masquerading as logic.
Faced with Levi, I was much less confused than I had been last night and this morning, and I suddenly understood what had happened. There was nothing nefarious about him. He wasn’t mysterious, or dangerous, or a goddamn warlock come to bewitch women into sleeping with him. He wasn’t the reason that animals had been dying. Because how could he be? That was a completely ridiculous and irrational thought to have. The fact that I had entertained it at all made me worry a little for my sanity. Amy was right. I had been spending too much time alone with books, having imaginary conversations with my superstitious dead mother, and that was beginning to warp my reality.
Levi was just a man. Albeit a very handsome man. And therein lay part of the problem. I had promised not to take my baggage out on him, but my subconscious had found another route: self-sabotage.
The truth was that I was one of those people after all, and my pride had refused to let me admit that to myself, instead coming up with outlandish excuses for my behavior. I suddenly felt like the worst kind of asshole. Here was this handsome, hilarious man who wanted to spend time with me, who was so much fun to be around that I had completely dropped my shields in his presence for the first time in years, and I, in turn, had suspected him of putting drugs in my coffee because of that.
Wow. This was a new low. Even for me.
“You’re having second thoughts, aren’t you?” Levi said, dropping his voice so that only I would hear it.
I glanced around quickly, noticing that we had an audience, and likewise lowered my voice. “No, that’s not it,” I said. “Well, not really.” Christ, how to explain this to him without making him hate me?
He leaned forward and took my hand. His skin was warm, his grip firm. Those blue eyes met mine steadily. “It’s okay if you are. I’m sorry if you felt pressured at all by me yesterday. I’ve been told that in addition to being a tremendous flirt, I can also be a little impulsive,” he said, grinning.
“It’s not your fault,” I told him. “And I’m not having second thoughts. It’s just that it’s recently come to my attention that living the life of a recluse may not be so great for one’s mental health.”
His expression became deadly serious. “Defacing private property with new friends is an excellent remedy for that.”
I smiled in response, totally forgetting to hide my crooked teeth. Levi didn’t even seem to notice. Or if he did, he didn’t care.
“Okay,” I said.
He straightened, raising our hands between us. “Meet at the dilapidated building on Thurgood in an hour. Deal?”
“Deal,” I said, shaking his hand.