*** Lizzie Patterson – The Diner, Monday morning***
Lizzie washed down another table. Her feet ached, her back too. Thirty-year-old women shouldn’t have so many aches and pains, should they? But for the past decade, Lizzie knew that she had been burning the candle at both ends and sometimes the middle. She had pushed herself beyond her limits, physical and emotional. But what choice had she had?
Sometimes she could still see herself sitting in that hospital waiting room in Houston. She could hear Gareth’s aunt and grandmother, ‘Maybe it would be for the best if the boy doesn’t make it. What kind of life would he have?’ But her half-brother had made it.
And she had fought those women for custody of the boy, not that they put up much of a fight. They didn’t really want him, especially not once Chris Monroe’s will was read, and they learned that the diner and his inheritance were to be split equally between Gareth and Lizzie. Without a financial incentive, her step-father’s family had slunk back into the hole from which they came. Leaving her with a severely scarred, paraplegic, and angry ten-year-old to raise and a diner that had been closed for close to three months to resurrect.
But she had done it. Gareth would be eighteen soon, and while her brother was still angry and depressed, he would graduate and, hopefully, go off to college. Lizzie brushed her face with the back of her hand. There was no point in crying over spilled milk, as her mother would say. If she had given up her dreams of college to come back here, raise Gareth, and save this diner, it was no significant loss. She had not even known what to major in. No, it was her other dreams that she was watching circle the drain that had her misty-eyed.
The bell over the front door rang, and she turned to see a boy, perhaps a bit younger than Gareth and an older couple, probably his parents, enter. “Just grab a seat anywhere. I’ll be with you in a moment.” The girl that waitressed the breakfast shift had left for college, and the woman who helped out during the lunch rush wouldn’t be in for another hour at least. It was just her during the lull between the two.
She saw her preacher and a couple of deacons watching the family closely. Not that she made it to church very often. Most Sundays, Lizzie was too busy at the diner to make services. But she had made the extra effort yesterday. Though she had broken with family tradition and not gone to the large Baptist church. It was a favor for her friend Mercy whose brother-in-law was the pastor of the struggling Methodist church.
Maybe it was the man’s sermon about reconciliation that had her down today? She could never find ‘reconciliation’ with the drunk driver who had murdered her mother and step-father and left Gareth physically and mentally scarred in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Even if the woman had not died in the head-on collision, Lizzie wasn’t sure that she was ‘Christian’ enough to forgive her for robbing that ten-year-old Little League star of his dreams. But she had come to terms with the woman’s husband and children, who had lost just as much as she had.
But it was not the woman’s sins that kept her up all night tossing and turning in bed. It was her own. She had destroyed a man’s life. Well, his career, at least. In her self-righteous campaign against driving while intoxicated, she had become judge, jury, and executioner of a good man’s dreams.
If what Bradley Williams said was true, she needed to find a way to right that wrong. Perhaps she could write another letter to the editor? Rescind the accusations she had made about Sebida’s former district attorney. Adam Holloway had been good at his job, a fair man. She should have known there was more to the story in this town. Especially when the man was taking on Earl Kerr and the corruption in the sheriff’s office.
But she had let her overweening passion for stricter DWI laws and enforcement overcome common sense and that tiny voice that urged restraint. Instead, she had pinned that scathing letter which demanded the man resign pending further investigation. She had questioned the authority of a DA who broke the laws to enforce them. While Holloway’s career might have withstood Kerr’s allegations long enough for him to clear his name, as he had before the state bar, that letter had been the nail in the man’s political ambitions.
Last she heard was that tiny four-sentence paragraph on page three of the local paper which said the man had been cleared of all charges and had a practice in Bryan. That was a far sight different than the page one headlines that showed her in front of the diner, hands on her hips, and Gareth hunkered head down in his wheelchair beside her.
She wasn’t sure if her brother had forgiven her yet for ‘touting out the crippled freak’ to make her point as he had accused. Guess she needed to make amends to her brother, too, for this one. Gareth was, after all, the only family she had left and likely all she ever would.
How different her life was from those teenage fantasies of prince charmings and happily ever afters that she, Abby, and Mercy had once swooned over. Maybe that was part of it too? Seeing her friends yesterday for the first time in weeks.
Mercy was deliriously happy. And had turned in her vestal virgin club card. After meeting Will, Lizzie understood why. Sure, the man was hot, but what was hotter was the way he looked at her friend. She would give anything for a man to look at her that way.
Heck, Abby Jean might have been balling about that worthless, piece-of-shit fiancée cheating on her. But she and Mercy had been telling the girl to dump John William Cummins for months. A woman should never settle for one man when she was in love with another. Still, at least, Abby had had a fiancée.
Lizzie had not been on a date in a decade. Sure, all the good ole’ boys that came in the diner joked and kidded about sweeping her off her feet so she could cook and clean for them. But those weren’t genuine offers. Neither was Jack’s wife hunt proposition. If the man was serious about fulfilling the stipulation in his grandfather’s will, she knew just where he should look.
The truth that kept Lizzie up all night was her future as the crazzy cat lady of Sebida, Texas. Single and alone with every stray cat in the county. Not that Gareth would not always have a home with her, but she hoped that one day, somehow, her little brother would pull his head out of his butthole and make a life of his own. While she ran this diner, read every trashy romance that Mercy wrote, and a few others.
The bell over the door rang once more. Lizzie smiled to see her friend materialize as if she had conjured her up with one of those spells the vestal virgins had toyed with during their wicked Wicca phase in high school. Mercy was the only one who had not been grounded for dyeing her hair and the yin/yang henna tattoo on their ankles.
She rushed to hug her friend, then Will. “Take a seat wherever you like. I’ll bring coffee.”
Mercy groaned, “Decaf, the baby, remember?”
Lizzie nodded even though it felt like her friend had stabbed her in the heart. Who cared about stupid coffee? Mercy was having a baby. She would not cry. What would she not give to be in her friend’s shoes then? But then again, this was probably another sin to add to her list. If she was not supposed to covet her neighbor’s wife or ass, then babies probably counted too. “Sure.”
Her friend grasped her hand, and Lizzie plastered that smile on. She had learned the damn thing early. From the day that her mother married Chris Monroe, she learned to keep her mouth shut and her thoughts to herself because in Sebida where appearances meant more than anything. “Find a table.”
Mercy looked around the almost empty diner and smiled, “It looks like we have one already. We’re meeting someone here. But we’re still on for tonight, right? You don’t have to drink. Laura and I won’t be. But you have to come. Promise me?”
Lizzie sighed; a bachelorette party in a casino was just about the absolute last thing she wanted to do tonight. But this was her friend. This was about more than appearances. This was about supporting Mercy and celebrating her friend’s happiness. Even if she was pea-green with envy. “You know I’ll be there.”
Mercy smiled, and they walked over to join the family in one of the booths. Lizzie wanted to hide in the back, maybe even go out back for a good cry. Perhaps the old tabby stray that she had been feeding for months would have had her kittens by now. She might as well embrace her destiny as the crazzy cat lady of Sebida, Texas.
“Good morning, Lizzie. I was sorry you couldn’t make services yesterday,” the middle-aged preacher with his bad toupe held out the ticket for their breakfasts as two of his deacons flanked him on either side.
It turned her stomach that one of them was Gareth’s uncle Josh. Not that her brother saw much of the man or that side of his family. What number wife was the man on now? Five, or was it six? Hell, the woman was younger than she was, and the man was pushing sixty. “How’s Gareth? We haven’t seen him in church in a while, either.”
It was likely no coincidence that the men had chosen to have breakfast here this morning. Sure, this was the only place to eat in Sebida, but they could have met at the church or even the other traditionally male hangouts around town, the Feed & Seed, or barbershop. No, this was Sebida, and in small-town Texas, word got around quickly. Someone must have told them that she had been one of those showing their support for that ‘uppity’ city fella at the ‘other’ church. So, here they were to apply that not-so-subtle pressure that had everyone in this damned town toeing the line.
But Lizzie wasn’t in the mood this morning for their bullshit. She took the paper from the man’s hand, looked him in the eye, and tore it in half. Comping their breakfast was more manageable than sitting through an hour and a half of this man’s hate, fear, and eternal damnation for anyone who disagreed with him. She wasn’t even sure that this man served the same Jesus that Bradley Williams spoke about yesterday. And if it weren’t for her baby brother and this damned diner, she’d tell these men exactly what she thought of them.
Then she’d leave this place and never look back. No, it was more than her mother, step-father, and Gareth’s dreams of playing baseball in the major league that had died on Farm to Market Road 149 that night almost a decade ago. All her hopes of marriage, children, and a man who looked at her the way Will was staring at Mercy as she chatted with those folks, had gone up in flames, too. Her scars might not be as visible as those on Gareth’s body, but they were just as deep.
“Hope ya’ll enjoyed yourself. If you’ll excuse me, I need to check on a delivery in the back.” She would make it through the kitchen and out the back door before those tears came.
Her cook, Connor, might not like leaving his kitchen, but he could pour some decaf and take a couple of orders. It wouldn’t be the first time. Right now, Lizzie needed to get the hell away from these people, even her best friend. A good cry, and she should be good to go. At least until after that god damned bachelorette party. “See you in church Sunday, Elizabeth,” were the last words she heard as she raced through the swinging doors. When hell freezes over was Lizzie’s silent reply.