I’M NOT NAÏVE. I know I don’t get the happily-ever-after. My knight in shining armor took the highway detour around this godforsaken shit hole. I’ve made peace with that. That doesn’t mean I’m going to lie down like a doormat and let every cocky prick in the trailer park have his way with me.
“I’ll be right there,” I snarled at Larry. He is the cook here at Aggie’s Diner, and he is also Aggie’s husband. His hair is long and greasy, hanging in thick, gray clumps around his weathered face. He is almost always a mean and nasty old man.
I turned back to my heavyset, middle-aged customer with a quick smile as he continued to leer at my chest. I slid the milk for his coffee across the table, making sure it tipped into his lap “accidentally.”
“I’m a waitress, not a whore,” I warned through gritted teeth. I tucked a strand of my dirty-blond hair (which some would call dark wheat) that had fallen loose from its ponytail behind my ear and gave a loud sigh. Cass Daniels was a lot of things, but not that.
It was always the same. Some guy pulls off the main highway and decides to try out a little local joint, maybe try his chances at getting lucky with a waitress. Some even took him up on it. But I wasn’t that kind of girl. Besides, I had a man of my own. My blond hair and blue eyes were nothing but a curse sometimes.
I made a beeline to the back, my empty tray held tightly between my fingers as I talked myself out of hitting Larry upside his damn head.
“I hit the bell five minutes ago, Cass,” he scolded. I ignored him as he went on and on as I put the hot plates onto my tray, burning my fingers. I rolled my eyes and walked back out to the floor as he continued, getting louder as I walked away.
“Don’t act like you’re the only one in the trailer park who can carry a plate of food. You ain’t nothin’ special!”
I slapped my tray down on table four with a little more force than I intended, biting back my tears. I didn’t need some low-rent cook in a run-down diner telling me I wasn’t worth a damn. I forced a smile at the elderly lady in front of me.
Her hand moved on top of mine as I placed her dish in front of her. It startled me, and I had to force myself not to pull back.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not special,” she said in a hushed tone.
I smiled as a single tear escaped my eye and trailed down my cheek. I pulled my hand free and wiped it away quickly, looking at the dingy peach-colored walls to hide my crying. “Enjoy your meal.” My voice cracked with my words.
I turned quickly and made my way across the dining room and out the back entrance marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. I pulled my pack of cigarettes from my apron and stared at the box while I walked to the corner of the building. I hadn’t had one for four days, but I couldn’t force myself to throw the pack away.
I stared off at the trailers that were on the other side of the parking lot. A tattered fence lined the area with an array of signs that read KEEP OUT. I snorted.
No one went in there unless the person had no choice. The fence just kept us away from the people who mattered.
I held the lighter to the end of my cigarette and closed my eyes as I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with the delicious smoke.
“That’ll kill ya, you know,” a deep voice called from in front of me. My eyes shot open. A man in worn-out dark-wash jeans and a formfitting, dark-gray T-shirt that read I’M WITH THE BAND stood in front of me, motorcycle helmet in hand. His head was cocked to the side, and a half grin played across his lips. His hair was dark brown and unruly, but something told me he took time to make it look so effortlessly disheveled. His arms had elaborate tattoos to the wrists, and his blue eyes were bright in the sun. This was the guy your mama would warn you about—if your mama wasn’t too high to function. He stood at least a foot taller than my own five foot three. I guessed he was near my age of twenty-three, or maybe a couple of years older.
“Not fast enough.” I rolled my eyes and took another drag. He laughed as he ran his fingers over his hair from back to front and nodded, then turned to walk to the front door of the diner. He stopped for a moment, his back to me as if he had something to say, but didn’t. He opened the door and disappeared inside instead without a backward glance.
At least my shitty life was entertainment for someone else. I held my cigarette sideways, glaring down at it before flicking it off into the dirt of the parking lot. I stood and straightened my apron, wiping the now-drying tears from my face, and went back to work.
Mr. Dark and Dangerous was sitting in a booth in my section and I cursed under my breath. I was a magnet for bad boys; only in my world, it meant beatings and heartbreak.
“Welcome to Aggie’s Diner. My name is Cass and I’ll be your waitress. Can I start you off with something to drink?” I slapped a menu down in front of him. I did my best to smile, but it didn’t reach my eyes. It never did. I raked my eyes over the tattoos that crawled out from under his T-shirt sleeves in intricate, swirling patterns.
“Tucker White.” He grinned. That smile must get him whatever he wanted.
My eyes snapped back to his. “Do you want something to drink, Tucker White?” I tried not to sound impatient. I didn’t want to exchange witty banter with some hot guy fresh off the highway. I wanted to go home and take a hot shower, if we even had hot water. This job barely paid the bills, and with my mom’s mouth to feed, we could hardly afford luxuries such as water, let alone solid meals or cable.
“I’ll have a beer, sweetheart. Whatever you recommend.” His smile didn’t waver.
I glanced around the diner and back to him. I was sure he could read the Are you fucking kidding me? look on my face. This wasn’t the place for exotic delicacies or fancy beers. “I’m not your sweetheart.”
“Challenge accepted.” He laughed.
These guys were all the same. I sighed. “I’ll grab you a Bud.” I turned on my heel and made my way into the back to grab him a beer out of the fridge.
“Cass, what are you doing with my beer?” Larry called from behind the cook line.
“It’s for a customer,” I called over my shoulder. “I’ll pay you back when he settles the check.” I pushed through the kitchen doors and got away from Larry before he could start screaming again.
I set the bottle down in front of Tucker and wiped the condensation on my hand onto my apron.
“Thanks.” He winked and twisted the top off the bottle. He tipped it up to his lips and began to drink, his eyes still locked on me.
I grabbed my pen and order pad from my apron pocket and waited for him to finish his drink. “Have you decided on what you want?” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I had been on them for seven hours now and they ached.
“Oh, yeah.” His eyes slowly trailed down my body as his tongue flicked out over his lips, wetting them. “Burger and fries.” He set his bottle down on the table and spun it in his fingers. His cell phone rang and he rolled his eyes, picking it up to answer the call. “Tucker speaking.”
“I’ll get that right out to ya.” I smiled politely and went to place the order. Larry was fuming. He was seconds from ripping into me when the bell above the door chimed. I turned around and caught sight of Jackson.
“Hey, Jax.” I smiled and walked toward him to meet halfway across the room. He ran his hands through his dirty long, brown hair. His skin was flushed and his emerald eyes were glazed over. Drugs had really done a number on him. He was slim but not muscular, tall but always hunched over.
“I need some money.” His jaw was clenched and his voice barely a whisper. He wiped his hands over his stained white T-shirt.
“Jax, I don’t have any money.”
Jackson grabbed my arm just above the elbow, pulling me closer. His breath reeked of liquor.
“It’s fucking important, Cass. I need it now.”
I knew he had no patience. He was impossible to reason with when he was using. I took a step back.
“Can I get a refill, sweetheart?” Tucker called from his table, holding up the bottle.
“Who the fuck is that?” Jackson’s eyes blazed with anger.
“Just a customer,” I whispered. “Just a minute!” I called back to Tucker, who was watching Jackson and me.
“I won’t have any money until the end of my shift, Jax. You know that.” I placed my fingertips on his chest and he knocked them away.
Tucker had moved next to me. His fingertips grazed my back, startling me. “I have to run, so won’t be able to eat, but here is what I owe you, and more than enough to make up for the trouble.” His eyes darted to Jackson, sizing him up.
I was speechless. I’ve never known anyone to give something without wanting something in return. The simple touch from his fingertips sent my body into a frenzy, and I struggled to slow my heart rate back to normal, worried Jax could feel it thudding in my arm.
“See you later, sweetheart.” Tucker shot me a wink before popping a toothpick in his mouth and smiling at Jax, sliding in between us to get to the front door.
Jackson didn’t care about this guy. All he saw was the stack of bills in my hand.
“Thanks. Have a good day,” I called after Tucker as he ran a hand through his hair and left through the front door. I didn’t know if he did it out of pity or kindness, but my faith in humanity was momentarily restored, even if the guy was a cocky asshole. The bell signaling the order was ready dinged, and my eyes drifted back to Jackson.
“Perfect timing.” Jax smiled and grabbed the twenty from the top of the small stack of bills in my hand.
“Jax, wait,” I called after him, but he had already turned to leave as quickly as possible.
I counted the money I had left. Just enough to cover the meal. Fucking perfect. A motorcycle revved angrily outside the door and took off, growing quieter as it drove away.
“Order up, Cass,” Larry hissed from the kitchen. Fuck. I grabbed the burger and fries and set it on the farthest table in my section. At least I would get to eat some real food today. I picked up a hot fry and popped it in my mouth, my eyes roaming over the dingy blue curtains that didn’t match anything else in the place. I wanted to be selfish and eat every last bite, but my mind wandered to my mother. I grabbed a to-go box and slipped the food inside. As soon as I could take another break, I would take her the food. She was hungry, I was sure, and didn’t do much of anything for herself, let alone cook.
Another hour slipped by. I was busy, but never enough to make this job worth it financially. Not that there were any other options.
“I’m takin’ a break!” I slipped off my apron and made eye contact with Marla, the other waitress at Aggie’s. She nodded and I grabbed the box of food I had saved and went out the back. I made my way across the dusty parking lot and through the fence to the trailer park.
“Mom,” I called as I opened the trailer door. “Mom?” I made my way down the narrow hall, avoiding the bucket that sat on the floor to catch water when it rained. I leaned against the wood paneling as I slipped by it. I pushed open the door to the master bedroom. I stopped short. Jax and my mother sat in a cloud of cigarette smoke, dazed and disoriented. A thin rubber tube was tied around her arm and a needle jutted out of her vein.
“I told you not to bring that shit around here again, Jax,” I screamed. Jax’s green eyes were bright and glazed against the bloodshot white surrounding the irises.
Disgusted, I threw the food on the floor in front of me, then rushed to my mother’s side, carefully pulling the needle from her arm.
“She fucking likes it. It shuts her the fuck up.” Jax motioned to my mother, who was practically catatonic.
I was the spitting image of her, only with a thinner body, fewer years on my face, and more self-respect.
Was this what my future looked like?
My mother used to be a good person before her mind went. When Daddy left us, he took her sanity with him. She soon lost the sparkle in her eyes, and next went any reason or logic. She didn’t bathe or feed herself. She sat in her own filth until I did something about it.
“You promised me you wouldn’t do that anymore. You promised.” Tears formed in my eyes, but I struggled to keep them from falling.
Jax ignored me and tightened the belt around his arm. I balled my hands into tight fists and stormed out of the trailer, slamming the flimsy door behind me. My mind flashed to all the other girls my age who were just graduating from college, stepping into a bright future full of possibility.
I wouldn’t allow myself to look over my shoulder at the trailer again. I didn’t need a reminder of what I was.