Two years later and a thousand miles away, I sat in an insignificant office, looking out through the one-way mirror. My paperwork was complete, and I’d been stalling for over fifteen minutes. I wasn’t ready to go home yet.
I rose and double checked the padlocks on the safe and switched out the light. My office was two feet wide and four feet deep and had sufficient room for one person at a time. I closed the steel door with a crash and padlocked it.
I glanced around the back room. Prep sinks were clean, everything tidy. Storage room locked. I put a plastic loop through the bolt of the back door and secured it. The staff couldn’t open it without splitting the loop.
Out front, customers occupied three booths and several seats at the high counter. The restaurant would be slow all night. My eyes scanned the room. For a thirty-year-old restaurant which never closed, the place was clean.
I’d never imagined I’d end up doing this for a living, but landing a job as an IT executive with no college degree and a felony conviction can be… a challenge.
When I’d given up hope, my oldest friend Jeremiah hooked me up with Waffle House—a job I’d sneered at when he took it long ago. During the years I’d worked for a flashy technology company, he’d been working his way up. While I ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, he’d paced himself, paid off his house and student loans and became wealthy. And then he reached out and rescued me.
And here I stood, inspecting the dining with a critical eye. I hated it when the restaurant was dirty.
Linda Poole, the cook, stood at the grill humming to herself as she prepared an omelet. She had a strong accent from somewhere far up north, and I couldn’t tell if that helped or hurt in her dealings with the folks around here—some customers thought her accent was charming. Others were hostile to anybody originating north of the Confederacy.
Dakota said, “You getting out of here, boss? It’s late.” At seventeen she ought to have been in school, but she had a one-year-old daughter to feed.
I nodded. “Yeah, I think so. I’ll see you guys in the morning.”
Linda replied, “Is that a threat?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, Linda. Do me a favor, make sure we’ve got at least five pots of grits for morning? Going to be busy tomorrow.”
“Will do,” she replied. She flipped the omelet a foot in the air above the pan and caught it neatly. She made up with her bare hands to lift two slices of toast out of the toaster, and I raised my eyebrows. “Gloves, Linda. Gloves. Please.”
She flushed. “Sorry, Cole. Trying to remember. And… Cole? Can I ask you a question?”
I stopped and raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”
She looked down at the floor, then said, “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier, I’d misplaced my appointment slip. My daughter’s got a doctor’s appointment in the morning, do you mind if I take off an hour early?”
I sighed. Linda leaving an hour early meant I had to come back in an hour early, which meant losing an hour of already short sleep.
Still. “Yeah, that’s fine. Just let me know a little further in advance next time, okay?”
She brightened. “Thanks, Cole.”
Mary Anne, the other waitress, yelled in an order and Linda started cooking. I walked out into the customer area, took one last look around, then said, “All right, I’ll see you guys in the morning.”
Outside the restaurant, the sweltering air draped over me. Sticky heat washed up from the asphalt, the smell of tar thick in my nose. I heard traffic and the buzzing of insects. I stooped to pick up cigarette butts from near the front door, then carried them around the side of the building to the dumpster. In back, I unlocked and sat down in my tiny 2003 Hyundai Accent, distinguished only by the fact it was the cheapest car on the lot after I took in my almost-new BMW 535i and returned it to the dealership. BMW was still chasing me for payments on a car I no longer owned, but Erin’s Mercedes minivan was paid for, so we’d managed to hold on to that. It still hurt to be driving a vehicle that cost less than my laptop.
I didn’t start the car right away, instead breathing, trying to calm the tightness in my chest. I always felt a tight pinch of anxiety when getting ready to go home. Sam would be doing God knows what, locked in his room on his computer, and Erin… I had no idea what she would be doing. I never knew anymore.
No point in sitting here feeling sorry for myself. I started the car, backed out of the parking space and turned out of the parking lot. I didn’t, however, turn left out of the parking lot to go home. Instead, I turned on the radio and drove north, into Anniston.
I drove without destination, eyes scanning the traffic, music turned up loud enough to make it difficult to think. My route took me north, past Fort McClellan; a wide circle that brought me back toward Oxford after thirty minutes. As I approached Oxford, I pulled over.
I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and pictured my daughter. In my vision, her braided hair hung down over the blue sundress my mother had sewn for her. Her eighth birthday, and the smile on her face as she ran with a mob of little girls was innocent and heartbreaking. Erin had organized a party for her at the neighborhood pool, a full production with games, gift bags for the twenty kids who attended, a clown and other entertainment. She was a popular kid, full of smiles and always ready with a kind word for other children.
Why did we have to lose her?
Time to go home. I had to be back at the restaurant at six in the morning and wasn’t getting any sleep sitting here in my car beside the road.
I put the car back in gear and drove into the dark.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.