“You could have at least pretended that it would be a piece of cake to tell the cops a bunch of glowing things about me,” I complain, pushing away from Emma Jo’s car and slowly making my way to the door of the restaurant.
“But then I’d be lying, and what kind of precedence would that set for me when I have to testify on your behalf on the witness stand?”
Bettie ends the call by promising to give me a full report about the voice mail as soon as the morning rush at Liquid Crack dies down, and I walk into The Hungry Bear for the first time in twelve years, stupidly assuming no one would notice or care that I’m back home.
* * *
This was a bad idea, a really bad idea.
“Everyone is looking at me,” I mumble under my breath, trying to hide behind the sticky plastic menu of The Hungry Bear that hasn’t been cleaned or updated since before I was born.
“They’re all looking at you because you haven’t been home to see your parents in twelve years. They think they’re witnessing a miracle right in front of their eyes,” my mother deadpans with a glare at me over the top of her own sticky, plastic menu.
“Leave the girl alone, Ruby. They’re all staring because they can’t believe how pretty you are.” My father gives me a wink and a smile, pushing his own menu to the side since he always orders the exact same thing for breakfast, no matter what the specials are.
“Ruby, Dwight, you folks having the usual this morning?” Andrea Maynard asks when she comes up to our table and collects the menus, tucking them under one arm as she pulls a pad and pen out of the front pocket of her dress.
Andrea has been a waitress at The Hungry Bear all of her fifty-seven years and looks like she stepped right off the set of a 1950’s movie about a haggard waitress. Her salt-and-pepper hair is pulled back into a low, messy bun with a white paper hat on her head and her pink-and-white-plaid apron-style waitressing uniform is already stained with coffee, bacon grease, and ketchup.
“Sausage and cheese omelets, home fries extra crispy, and orange juice, Andrea, thank you,” my mother tells her with a smile, giving her the order for both her and my father.
“Excuse me! I’d like to order something too, Andrea,” I speak up when she moves to walk away from the table without looking at me.
“We don’t have none of that snobby, fancy coffee here,” she informs me with a huge, inconvenienced sigh, chomping the gum in her mouth with extra enthusiasm.
“I’ll just have what my parents are having, that’s fine,” I say with a wider smile, pretending as if I don’t feel like a bug under the microscope with everyone in this place turned around in their chairs, blatantly staring right at me and ignoring the food in front of them.
“Don’t worry, Andrea, Payton won’t kill anyone if she doesn’t have her coffee, she’s too tired for that this morning,” my mother laughs in a lame attempt at a joke, which of course makes everyone in the room gasp at the same time like a choir of judgmental, gossiping hens.
“Nice work, mom. Way to keep the gossip down,” I mutter out of the corner of my mouth, wishing I could slide right out from under our booth and hide under the table.
The phone lines must have been on fire all through the night in Bald Knob. So much for Leo trying to keep a lid on what happened for a little while longer. At least he sent me a text this morning to warn me and Emma Jo that news traveled fast. And to remind me to stop by the station first thing. Ignoring his text and meeting my parents for breakfast instead is probably karma coming back to punch me in the face.
“Mayor Jackson was a fine man. Some people around these parts think it’s a little strange that he goes off and gets himself killed right after you show up back in town after all these years,” Andrea says, finally looking up from her pad of paper to meet my eyes.
“Andrea, you know better than to listen to gossip around town,” my mother scolds with a tsk of her tongue.
“So, it’s not true that Payton here got into an altercation with Starla’s Bo Jangles the other night?” Andrea asks.
“He pissed on my leg!” I argue, immediately wishing I would have kept my mouth shut when everyone in the room starts whispering even louder and pointing in my direction.
“I heard Mayor Jackson had a black eye when they found his body. Did you have an altercation with him too?” Andrea questions, smacking her hands down on our table and leaning over it like she’s playing bad cop. All she needs is a rickety light hanging down from the ceiling, swinging back and forth over my head and blinding me every time it hits my eyes.
Just then, the bell above the door dings, and when I literally think I’ve been saved by the bell, Leo walks in. The mood in the room suddenly changes from angry mob with pitch forks to family members welcoming their hero home from the war. People shout greetings, two men get up and shake his hand, and Andrea finally leaves our table, rushes over to the pick-up window to grab a Styrofoam box, and hands it to him with a huge smile on her wrinkled, judgy face. I watch as he takes his time greeting everyone in the room before he strolls over to our table.
“Mr. and Mrs. Lambert, Payton,” Leo greets us with a nod, his eyes quickly moving away from mine while I stupidly sit here gawking at him, wondering why he looks hotter in his uniform now than he did the first time I saw him in it.
“Leo, my goodness, what happened to your hand?” my mother asks, pointing to his hand holding the breakfast container.
Leo quickly shifts the container to his other hand, sliding that one into the front pocket of his uniform pants, but not before I noticed a few dried cuts and some bruising on his knuckles.