Sleep came less easily for Maggie. She cleaned up the take-out in a giddy haze, and found herself humming as she changed into her PJs and brushed her teeth. She flung herself onto her bed with a happy sigh. When she closed her eyes, she could see his face, backlit by the light from her open door, but she could make out his smile – the biggest she’d seen from him yet. Remembering it made her heart beat faster.
‘And that kiss!’ The first had been as awkward as she’d expected, but nice nonetheless. The second one though. She hadn’t been prepared for the intensity. She put a hand to her cheek – she had felt his hands tremble as he’d held her face. Had that been from fear or passion? Both maybe. She rolled over, hugging her body pillow close. She hadn’t been kissed like that in…She’d never been kissed like that. She smiled to herself. The morning couldn’t come soon enough.
* * *
‘C’mon…time to cook.’
Jesse woke with a choked scream, gripping the blankets so tight he could feel his nails digging into his palms. Panting, he clutched at his head, willing the gruesome faces behind his eyelids to vanish. With a groan, he sat up, rubbing at his eyes. Without sheer exhaustion to knock him out, would he ever have a good night’s sleep? Maybe finding a job in manual labor was the answer. If he worked himself ragged, he could just pass out at night, and then the demons of his past would be smothered.
He looked at the clock on the nightstand. 5:28 AM. He didn’t want to go back to sleep, so he showered, dressed and headed out to Josie’s on his own.
The diner was full this time, and the atmosphere was not unlike the bar had been his first night. The crowd, mostly men ranging from teens to seniors, filled the booths and the barstools, and the room was filled with the din of conversation. From behind the counter, Josie looked up from refilling coffee and waved at him. He nodded at her, and hung back by the entrance.
The older man who was the recipient of the refill turned around, spotted him, and smacked the young man seated next to him on the arm. “Get up, Jr. Let the newcomer have a seat.” The younger man frowned, rubbing his arm, but rose from his seat. “Come on, son, have a seat.”
“Ah, n-no, that’s ok!” Jesse stammered. “I can wait, really.”
“Don’t be silly. Sit!” The white-haired man patted the seat. “We’ve been wanting to officially meet you.”
Resignedly, he crossed over to the bar. “Um, thanks I guess.”
“Name’s Jack Wallace Sr.” He stuck out his hand.
Jesse wondered if he’d ever run out of hands to shake in this town. ‘There’s only 550-some total…gotta get through ‘em all eventually.’ “Josh Carpenter,” he said. It was getting easier, this new name, the more he said it.
“This here’s Jack Jr.” The older man jerked a thumb at the younger, who also offered his hand. Once it had been said, Jesse could see the resemblance. Both men had the same square jaw, and light green eyes.
Jack Jr. held the handshake a bit longer than Jesse felt comfortable with, and said, “Was that you we spotted sneaking out the back way of the bar with Maggie last night? Alan wouldn’t tell me nothin’ when I asked.”
He was saved from having to answer as a new hand came in and smacked Jack Jr. upside the head. It belonged to a large man with red sideburns growing down out of his John Deere cap. “Lord, boy, what’d I tell you ‘bout manners? You’ll have to excuse him, son, some people just ain’t got no decorum, I tell you what. You can call me Big John.”
Jesse shook the man’s hand. ‘I oughta just start a receiving line.’ “Nice to meet you, sir.”
“See?” Big John glared at Jack Jr. “Calls me ‘sir’ and everything.” The young man rolled his eyes and strolled off down the bar. “I gotta tell you, son. Every boy that’s come through this town in the last five years has made a run at Maggie, but ain’t none of ‘em had the luck that you’ve got.”
Jesse felt his face grow hot. “No way, huh? Well, luck’s gotta be it, but I figured I’d run outta that years ago.” Josie put a full mug of coffee in front of him and he snatched it up. “She’s, uh…she’s really something though.”
“That she is,” Big John said. Beside him, Jack Sr. nodded. “Go on then, eat. We gotta shove off soon.”
“You all fish, huh?” Jesse asked.
Big John chucked. “On good days, we do.”
“Any of you guys, like, hiring?”
The two older men exchanged a look. Big John patted his shoulder, smiling. “Put a little meat on those bones, son. Then come see me.” With that, he lumbered off back to his booth.
Jesse frowned, climbing up on his barstool at last. Josie set a plate of pancakes down in front of him. He looked up at her, confused.
“I took a guess,” she said, giving him a small smile.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, and picked up a fork.
“How come you’re looking for work so soon?” Jack Sr. asked. “Word on the street is you’ve got more than enough money to last you a good long while.”
‘That’s what you get for flashin’ your cash around, idiot.’ He stuck a forkful of pancakes in his mouth and mulled over his answer while he chewed. “I like to work,” he said at last. “I don’t do so good with nothin’ to do all day.”
“Sounds like my son,” the older man chuckled. “But work out on a fishing boat can be back breaking, and not always rewarding. Take the time you’ve got, with the money you’ve got left, and look around. There’s quite a few businesses in town that could use an extra set of hands. If you’ve got the option, don’t settle for the first thing, is all I’m saying.”
Jesse swallowed another mouthful and nodded. “Yeah, sure, uh, sir.”
Jack Sr. patted him on the back. “You’ll be fine.” He finished his coffee and set it down. “See y’round, son. At the bar tonight, most likely!”
“Not really any other nightlife, huh?” Jesse asked with a smirk.
“Nope,” Jack said. “But it’s Wednesday! That means Open Mic tonight! Wouldn’t wanna miss that, even if there was someplace else to go.” He stood, as, Jesse noted, were most of the other patrons. They pulled jackets down from hooks on the walls and filed out. Big John gave him another pat on the shoulder and Jack Jr. waggled his eyebrows in a way Jesse didn’t really like. And just like that, it was just him and one elderly couple left. He turned back to his pancakes, which he was able to finish without interruption. Josie gathered up tray after tray of dirty dishes around him, and then vanished into the kitchen. When he’d finished his coffee, he set a twenty dollar bill under the mug and got up to leave.
As he did, he heard the sound of dishes clinking behind the swinging double doors and paused. Then, with a decisive nod, he hopped up and over the bar. “Hey Josie? Need any help with those?”
* * *
“So Alan was pretty tight lipped about it, but I thought I saw you duck outta here last night with that newcomer in tow.”
Maggie looked up from the glasses she’d been washing to see the owner of the establishment leaning over the bar, eyebrows raised. “Yeah, Wy, you did,” she said, trying to look put-upon. She couldn’t help but smile though, and the gray-haired man slapped a hand down on the bar, as if he were proud of his deductive skills.
“I knew it!” he said, grinning, his teeth bright white against his weather-worn skin. “Now, I know it’s not my place.” He straightened his bolo tie. “But don’t you think that’s a, uh, a bit, er hurried?”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist,” she said, one hand on her hip. “And no, it’s not your place. And also no, I don’t think I am rushing things. I wanted to have dinner with an interesting guy – away from all the yahoos. Is that too much to ask?”
“You’re right, you’re right.” Wyatt raised his hands defensively. “Sorry to step on any toes there.”
She pursed her lips, eyeing him. Didn’t hurt to make him sweat a little. “You’re forgiven. Honestly, I know Alan and Wendy can be gossip hounds, but I expect better for you, Wy.”
He turned his gaze away, abashed. “Call me old fashioned if you want to, but I can’t help but worry about you,” he said.
“You’re not my daddy and even if you were, I’m twenty-six years old,” she reminded him, “I’ll worry about myself thank you. And he’s a nice guy. You should talk to him.”
“I plan on it.”
“And don’t go trying to scare him off.”
“I wouldn’t think of it,” he said, flashing her his best innocent smile. Then he turned on his heel and returned to his office.
Maggie shook her head. She knew generations of sexism, even in the well-meaning over-protective type, was hard to fight, but that didn’t mean she had to like it. She leaned back against the shelves of liquor, arms folded across her chest. She also didn’t have to like the implication that her judgment wasn’t reliable. It might have been true when she was younger, but only Wendy knew that. And she wasn’t a dumb kid anymore. ‘Still…he is a recovering addict…’ The admission had been a huge gamble on his part, she knew, and she respected that. Especially doing so right off the bat.
Her phone beeped and she pulled it from her apron pocket. A text from Wendy read, ‘I’ll be over for lunch. Be ready to spill!’ Maggie stuffed the phone back in her pocket. This was the main problem with a small town. It was nearly impossible to keep your business to yourself, which made it tricky when you were still figuring out your business yourself. At least Wendy would have a better attitude than the men.
Wanting to think of something else for a bit, she pulled her phone back out and shot a text to Alan. ‘Planning to do ‘I Wonder’ at Open Mike tonight – can I count on an assist?’
Her answer came back almost immediately. ‘You got it!’
Grinning, she pocketed her phone and set about rearranging the tables to clear a space in the corner for the evening’s performers.