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It was one of those mornings.
No, Josie Whitford corrected herself as she poured another round of coffee into Mr. Benetta's cup, smiling even though she had a hammering headache, that was a laughable understatement.
It was one of those years. The ones in which you just couldn't catch a break, couldn't get ahead, couldn't even run fast enough to stay in place. Ones where you felt yourself stumbling, slipping backward, as if life were a treadmill set on the highest speed, programmed to cycle out the weak.
Of course, the morning itself was lousy, too. Raindrops as fat as marbles, true Texas raindrops, bounced off the oily pavement, and the windows of the Not Guilty Café had turned gray and runny. They reminded Josie of the last plate she'd carried to the kitchen, prune juice splashed into the remnants of over-easy eggs. For a minute, just remembering, she thought she might get sick.
Oh, God, she wasn't finally catching that flu, was she? She'd managed to avoid it all winter, but lately she'd been so run-down, so damn tired. The splat of gravy on her apron, courtesy of the kid at table two, sent up a wave of odor, and the banana she'd had for breakfast rose in her throat.
No. She clamped her jaw. Not on the customer. That would be the perfect excuse to fire her, the one Ed had been waiting for.
She pivoted away from Mr. Benetta, breathing through her mouth to avoid the smell of bacon grease wafting from the grill. The Not Guilty Café didn't use the best cuts of anything, but it had the benefit of a great location. Tucked into the shadow of Riverfork City Hall and courthouse for the past fifty years, the café hadbecome a tradition for the local politicians, businessmen and lawyers.
For a minute, she just stood there, the coffeepot hot against her hand, the banana roiling in her stomach. She looked around, panicked, but oddly paralyzed. On a day like this, when the rain made a good excuse for arriving late to work, the customers lingered, and the café was jammed. Where could she throw up without having to pay someone's dry cleaning bill?
Nowhere. She felt sweat break out on her forehead even as a chill passed across her back, from shoulder to shoulder. She set down the coffeepot, which suddenly felt as heavy as an anchor.
Oh, how she wanted to go home. She longed for a nap, for the soothing warmth of the expensive sheets Chase had bought her that day in the Galleria. Sometimes, when she snuggled down into the five-hundred-thread cocoon, she could imagine that Chase, with his hot hands and his
That she wasn't completely alone.
But she was alone. And unless she intended to sell those sheets to pay next semester's tuition, she'd better stay put, chills or no chills. She needed every penny she could make today. And then some.
"Hey, gal, come out of that trance. Is your blood sugar low? Table six is getting cranky. And you know Ed's watching."
Josie snapped to attention, anxiety taking precedence over nausea. She tossed Marlene, her favorite coworker, a grateful grimace, then glanced toward the front register, where Ed stood, giving her the evil eye.
The bastard. If she was exhausted, it was his fault. He'd been working her double shifts for weeks, seating all the most demanding customers in her section, riding her like a devil. No one could keep that pace, and he knew it. He would torment her as long as he could, for the sheer fun of it, and then he'd fire her.
"Don't let him get to you, hon." Marlene leaned in, her shoulder warm against Josie's, her voice a raspy whisper. "You know he's just cranky 'cause he can't get into your pants."
Josie nodded, though that wasn't exactly true. Ed was angry, all right. But he wasn't upset just because Josie always told him no. What made him positively rabid was that she'd told Chase Clayton yes.
Fat lot of good that had done her. At least if she'd slept with Ed she might have gotten a raise and some decent shifts. Sleeping with Chase Clayton hadn't left her with anything but a bruised heart, a cynical attitude toward romantic dreams and a C on her English lit examher first C in four long years at the community college.
And, of course, a set of supersoft sheets. Maybe her blood sugar was low. She felt tearful suddenly, just at the thought of Chase, which was really dumb. He'd been gone for two months now, twice as long as the fairy tale had lasted in the first place.
She dug in her pocket for a glucose tablet and popped it surreptitiously into her mouth. Ed saw, of course, though he probably thought it was gum, or an aspirin. Marlene was the only one who knew about her diabetes and the shots she'd taken every day since she was a kid.
Frowning, Ed called her name out in a booming voice. He always talked like a radio announcer, probably to compensate for being shaped like a stick of spaghetti. And maybe other shortcomings, as well. There must be a reason the waitresses secretly called him "pinkie."
"Josie!" He made a circular "hurry up" motion with his hand. He pointed toward the waiting area, a ten-square-foot nook where some of the biggest deals in Riverfork politics were forged by big, redfaced men with soft drawls, Stetson hats and lizard-skin boots.
It wasn't Josie's turn to straighten the area, and, just as Marlene warned her, the dad at table six was tapping his menu and shooting her dirty looks, but she knew better than to argue with Ed.
Still, there might be trouble, and she didn't have the energy to cope with it today. The dad looked like an Alpha male and would undoubtedly complain about her slow service. Ed obviously expected thatwanted it, even. He had a stack of write-ups on her now, and when he got tired of torturing her, he'd stuff them down her throat.
She should quit.
But even that took more energy than she had today.
As she gathered old, crumpled paper coffee cups, dirty stir sticks and torn straw wrappers, she felt Ed's gaze crawl across her back like bugs.
She took shallow breaths, trying not to smell the old, spilled coffee. Though her hands shook, she moved aside the mints and the rumpled newspaper sections, which felt clammy, absorbing the stormy air. Putting those back together would take forever, but she might as well get started.
Ed was a fool to keep the customers waiting, just to play this power trip on her. Someday one of them would complain to the owners, and he'd learn that managers could lose their jobs, too.
That ought to please her, but somehow it didn't. She couldn't really feel anything but this pulsing nausea. She ought to start stumping for a new job. She ought to sue him for sexual harassment.
But the very idea of any of those things felt like climbing a jagged, frozen mountain. She couldn't even summon up enough indignation to hate him right now.
What on earth was wrong with her? She wondered if her insulin dose might be out of whack after all. Surely this weary exhaustion wasn't completely emotional. Surely it wasn't all about Chase Clayton.
Coming home to find her fairy-tale lover vanished, her idyll smashed, had been painful, but not completely crushing. As beautiful as the fantasy had been, she'd always known it couldn't last. A rich, handsome rancher with 25,000 acres romancing a twenty-five-year-old waitress struggling to make her rent and finish community college?
Yeah, right. Everyone knew how that story ended.
So, though it had hurt, she'd fully expected to nurse her bruised heart and childish disappointment for a while, then dust herself off and get back to work.
But instead of feeling a little stronger every week, she'd actually been sinking, going deeper each day into this shadowy hole of lethargy. Last night she'd been so depressed she had even picked up the phone and begun calling her mother's house in Austin.
Luckily, she'd come to her senses before the last number was punched. Her hands had trembled as she put down the receiver, grateful for the near miss. Suppose her stepfather had answered? He'd warned her she couldn't make it on her own. She'd spent the past seven years proving him wrong, by God, and she wasn't going to give up now.
She picked up the sports section, the most pawed-over of the lot, naturally, and rearranged the pages. Then she added the front page, with its war news and bold black headlines predicting bird flu, rising murder rates and new taxes.
She closed her eyes, fighting back another wave of nausea.
It must be the flu. Maybe she'd better see the doctor next time Ed gave her a day off. If he ever did.
Finally she located the feature section, which had been folded inside out. The page on top was all weddings and engagements, row upon row of finger-sized pictures of beautiful young women who radiated confidence and optimism, as if they were lit by the shimmer of their engagement diamonds. As if they'd been sprinkled with the magic dust of True Love.
She squeezed the paper so hard it bent and softened in her damp fist. How lovely it would be to feel like that. Adored, pampered, beaming. Your whole life in front of you, and a loving partner to stand beside you, in sickness and in health.
To know that you would never be alone again. "I've transferred table six to Marlene," Ed said, his swollen voice suddenly right behind her shoulder. "They were ready to get up and leave. For God's sake, I had no idea cleaning up over here would take you so long."
Yes, you did, she wanted to cry out. But vomit closed off her throat, and a deep heaviness flowed into her veins, as if she'd been injected with mud. She didn't even look at him. She kept her eyes on the happy women, the healthy, happy women standing on the threshold of paradise.
Aleshia Phillips to marry Timothy Braxton. Sandra Culter to marry Arthur Brun. Susannah Everly to marry Chase Clayton. What?
Her heart stopped. She tried to take in air, but her throat wasn't working, either.
Susannah Everly to marry Chase Clayton.
Chase Clayton. Josie felt her head bobbing, as if her heart beat She saw her own brown bangs, which needed cutting. They looked dull and lank as they trembled across her vision. She tried to think, but none of the gears in her brain seemed willing to turn.
She held out one hand toward Ed. "I," she began, strangling the word. "I"
He had no pity, as usual. He looked annoyed by her incoherence. He shifted, and his cologne filled the air. "Jeez, Josie, get a grip."
And then, finally, she lost the battle, all the battles. With her pride, with her heart, her exhaustion, and even, to Ed's dismay, her roiling stomach.
"I" She tried one more time.
And then she threw up all over his lizard-skin boots.