No real preamble here, these pages were pretty easy to make out. Enjoy!
Thinking of Josh and the Taram and the start of what I’d thought would be my new life tumbled in and through my aching head like the itch of a freshly growing scab. I wished to scrape it out, to wipe my memories as clean as the bleaching of my signal but memories were always stickier, especially the ones you wanted more than anything to be rid of.
My first thought of finding a hotel and getting some sleep was forgotten once I took a good look through my windshield and realized where my wandering mind had led. I pulled my car to a stop at the clearing of grass and trees where everything had started, where my life had changed. I would take a quick walk through the park, my own Taram memorial service, the closure I would need to truly lay my old life down. Dropping the car keys in my pants pocket I took a wide slow lap around the mature oaks and weeping willows, the park bench where I’d sat tipsy and unaware of what was to come.
I saw the girl I’d been then and the one who’d taken her place. I thought of my life on that bench, before Sara, before being cloaked, before Josh and Doc and destiny and all the things in between. My circling thoughts adding impetuous to my nomadic impulses I got back in my car driving until it seemed right to stop then getting out to walk again.
I was alone in the dark walking down one street, turning then down another. Past postcard houses, gingerbread shutters and impossibly green lawns luminescent against the night. I pictured pools in the backyards, giant Labrador retrievers and toddlers with curly hair and plump legs pumping side-to-side to run across the grass. It was a perfect neighborhood. Like the one I drew in my head as a kid. The one I promised to search out once I was free.
Now I was.
I wandered to the end of a cul-de-sac before turning around then left opposite the way I’d came. I wanted to live a boringly normal life. I wanted to forget Josh and Essex, Persuasion, the balance. I wanted to forget my father, my childhood. I wanted to see my Mom. If I was a birthright then she would have known, would have answered my questions, been able to tell me what to do. I hoped she wasn’t disappointed in me. I hoped she understood why I had no fight left.
Looking around I realized I’d wandered onto some sort of main street, ‘Welcome to Fairhope!’ a small burgundy sign read, ‘Population 742’. I smiled, the 2 in 742 was written in what looked like magic marker on top of a rectangle of white paint, that, when I looked closer, was covering up what used to be a number 1. I walked past the sign running my fingers over the raised brush strokes of the white paint and stood at the top of the street. Funky store fronts and cozy cafes dotted the tiny strip of asphalt. A travel bookstore, vinyl records shop, boho chic boutiques, a jewel box of a stationary store compelling even through darkened windows. I stared past the store’s closed sign at the wedding invitations on display and imagined a life allowing for the planning of such things. I imagined living in the middle of that life, away from every shouldn’t be that had taken over, that I’d offered myself to as a sacrifice.
I was crying again. I was becoming such a sap. I never used to cry now it was the only thing I seemed consistently able to do. Tracing my finger down the glass of the display window I took a deep breath then turned away eager to take in the rest of the street.
There was an ice cream shop vibrant in primary colors instantly making me remember Doc’s flashing eyes. Next to it what looked like an auto body shop though I couldn’t see inside, next to that a bakery with poundcake specials written on a wall mounted chalkboard.
It was Mayberry for the 21st century, Gilmore Girls’ Star’s Hollow, the hip evolution of the quiet southern town. I pictured people walking down the street knowing their neighbors, saying hello, inviting them over for backyard BBQ’s.
My life had been on autopilot before Essex, breathe and survive, breathe and survive. Essex had been a trade off for my life – sacrifice myself, save somebody else. Now I just wanted to live and walking down this storybook street I realized living was the best plan I ever had.
Rounding the small curve at the end of the block I noticed the illuminated windows of a building just visible past the hanging limbs of a massive tree. Walking closer, the smells of fried chicken and warm pie wrapped around me like the answer to prayer.
Inside most of the tables were empty. An older man with brilliant silver grey hair sat exposed in the middle of the restaurant, reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, newspaper rustling as he folded and refolded pages. He smiled when our eyes met then returned to his creased paper and sipped his coffee.
Two women sat at a table in the corner. Obviously old friends they laughed easily orchestrating the sharing of food with the ease of those who’ve been doing so for years. I envied them, found my gaze lingering just past the beat of uncomfortable before I turned to saddle up to the empty bar. Walking in I hadn’t noticed anyone working but as my behind settled on the seat a waitress appeared.
She was not at all Mayberry. She was the most stunning girl I’d ever seen, brown butter skin, full even lips, hair curly and cropped like a halo framing her face, young, maybe just a few years older than me, but definitely not older than 20, even though her clear even eyes made it difficult to know for sure. She soundlessly dropped a coffee cup and saucer in front of me pouring coffee from a steaming pot as she spoke. “Assume you’ll be needing some coffee. Sitting at the bar at 2:00 a.m. usually requires coffee.”
“Thank you.” I said pulling the cup towards me as she produced a small silver pitcher of cream and a white porcelain bowl of sugar. She stood casually. One hand rested on the counter, the other hung easily at her side.
“Want some food too hon? Kitchen stays open.” I formed my mouth to respond but she continued before I could. “We don’t really have a menu right now,” she paused leaning back in the direction of the kitchen yelling over her shoulder. “Eddie we still got that chili?”
I heard nothing in response but she nodded as if she’d gotten the information she needed. “Right now we’re out of chili but we’ve got some fried chicken with or without waffles, mac and cheese, Eddie can always grill up a burger and I think there’s some pasta and meat sauce if that’ll suit ya. I’m not sure what he’s working with sides right now but he’ll be sure to fix your plate up nice.”
I’d already drained half my coffee happy for the caffeine buzz. She topped off my cup while continuing. “Sorry things are so haphazard hon, when it’s late like this Eddie tends to do his own thing.”
I spooned a small bit of sugar into the coffee stirring before taking another sip. “That’s fine. In fact, I’m perfectly cool with um…Eddie sending me out whatever he wants, everything smells so delicious I’m sure anything coming from the kitchen will be good.”
“Oh girl,” she tapped her knuckles lightly on the counter, “he’s going to love you.”
She walked away backwards blindly navigating the landscape of the diner. “I’ll go put your order in. I’m Susan, just give a yell if you need anything.” She disappeared around the corner. I took another comforting sip of coffee.
It was only a few minutes before she returned with a full plate. Mac and cheese still bubbling from the oven, fried chicken golden and crispy, asparagus steamed bright and glossy topped with still melting butter. I popped a crisp spear in my mouth unfolding the napkin Susan offered in my lap. She placed a knife and fork along the right side of my plate.
“That okay hon? Anything you don’t like I can let Eddie know.”
“It’s perfect,” I managed between bites, “Really delicious.”
She stood silently while I ate. I waited to see if she would voice the questions fighting behind her eyes. Halfway through my second chicken leg, a bite of mac and cheese aimed for my parted lips she finally did. “So,” she said, her arms crossing smoothly in front of her chest, “I know the face of everyone in this stretch of land and air and yours hon is a new face. If you need a place to stay for the night I can give you the number for the hotel down the street.”
I swallowed my last bite looking up appreciatively. “I’d be grateful, thanks.”
“Sure, sure. I’ll go get that for you, maybe bring some sweet tea on my way back?”
“Sweet tea sounds perfect.”
She nodded disappearing again around the corner returning quickly with a slip of paper in one hand, a tall tumbler of iced tea in the other. “Liz and David run the hotel,” she passed the slip of paper across the counter, “they’re usually down for the night after 10:00 but I gave them a call, let them know you’d be on the way. They’ll make sure you get set up for the night.”
I put my fork down trying to swallow suspicion rising in my chest. My hand slid against the cool surface of the tumbler rubbing the condensation between my fingers. My voice was caution coated. “Why are you being so nice to me? You don’t know me. You don’t know me at all.”