I woke up lying curled up in a ball on my mother’s grave. Wow. A gothic way to spend the night. Sleeping in a cemetery: that was a new one. I was cold and my clothes were damp from the rain and the dew and the misty morning. But the mist was beginning to lift. The sun was already low on the horizon, a golden orb that just hung there shining its glow onto everything.
It was weird how light I felt. I’d cried ten years’ worth of tears in one night and I knew it right then: I was done. Done grieving and letting the past drag me down. Alexander had broken something open in me and allowed his light begin to heal me. Now all the fear and pain had somehow leaked out that same fissure.
I needed a plan.
Seven miles of paths and roads stretched out in front of me and figured I’d come up with something by the time I got back to the train station, which was also a bus depot.
I walked past the chicken coop I used to sleep in from time to time. And the bridge I’d slept under. I knew I’d never again return to this place.
I wondered how he was.
Had he worked things through with Shawna? Had they come up with a plan about how they would raise their child? The heartache was all-encompassing, almost staggeringly so. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. So that’s what I concentrated on. Putting one foot it front of the other. I knew it was the right thing to do: give this baby a chance at a family. Just a chance. If it didn’t work out between them then so be it, but I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d stood in the way of all that. Like a roadblock to that child’s perfect world.
Had he gone back to the city to get on with his life? I guessed he would dive back into his work, to forget about the pain of our wedding day shambles. He was probably back in his office by now, making phone calls, answering emails. Maybe he and Shawna had arranged a dinner date, to discuss details.
There weren’t that many choices. As it turns out, public transportation from small towns in western Virginia don’t offer much of a departure selection on a late-October Sunday afternoon. I chose Duck, North Carolina. I’d heard of it. People I knew in high school, whose parents had money, used to summer on the Outer Banks. I always thought it sounded fabulous. And I liked the name. Duck. It sounded friendly. So I bought a ticket and boarded my Greyhound Bus.
The bus wasn’t particularly full so I got two seats to myself.
I slept, and I dreamed.
I had stepped back in time. To a time and place where she was happy. I’d never seen a picture of my father but I had a mental image of him, etched by little gifted memories she gave me over time, like tiny drips of paint creating a portrait throughout the years. He was blond, I knew. Tall and lanky. Irresponsible but fun. Carefree. Wild and loose.
They were dancing to soft music. Laughing. They had their arms around each other and when he pulled back to twirl her I could see it. Her belly was hugely round as though she was due any minute.
His smile faded when she cried out in pain. His laughter was replaced by dark concern. Fear. Not just fear for me but fear of me. The fear of being trapped: I knew that look.
My mother screamed and reached down, holding a bloody child. The child grew before my eyes, still covered in blood and it was pulling her hand. My father grabbed her other hand and they were pulling her from either side. Pulling her apart.
She shattered into a million pieces which melted into a puddle on the floor. A puddle of Southern Comfort. I could see the tipped bottle.
My father walked away, slamming the door behind him, leaving only the crying bloody child, lying on the floor, her fingers painting designs in the dark, pooled liquid.
I woke with a start.
Shit. That familiar balled ache of doom sat heavily in my gut.
God, how I hated that feeling.
The scenery floated by. Autumn towns gave way to azure seascapes. The sides of the road were dusted with sand. Something about that sand lightened my mood infinitesimally. Grand seaside houses on stilts lined the roads for a while and the bus slowed as we pulled into a small, pastel-colored town. Tourist season was coming to an end but people still milled around. Families. Children eating ice cream cones. Older couples holding hands.
I disembarked, heading towards the beach. I kicked off my shoes and walked down to the water, letting the waves wet my toes. The water was cold, too cold for swimming. But the icy freshness felt good. I walked along a ways, noticing a small restaurant perched on its stilts on a small peninsula of beach. As I grew closer I saw a sign in the window. HELP WANTED: WAITRESS.
Inside, it was warm and inviting. Someone had gone to town with the seaside-themed decorating scheme. There were fake seagulls and draped fishing nets, lobster pots, ship’s steering wheels, fish tanks, oars, you name it.
I walked up to the bar and sat on one of the stools.
The bartender was young, probably close to my age or a few years older. He was tall and all-American-looking with brown, shiny hair, squared shoulders and a clean-cut vibe. One of those guys that was a lacrosse star in high school. He had that grounded, happy-go-lucky aura to him, the one you can only get by growing up in a big, character-laden house with basements and turrets and gardens, surrounded by a mother who cooks and a father who brings home the bacon and lots of siblings: maybe a bookish one and a quirky one and a brooding older sister whose friends all have the hots for Joe Lacrosse over here. He was the type of guy you could write a hometown novel about. Or maybe not; it was just a feeling.
He was staring at me, as though shell-shocked by something. Maybe I reminded him of someone. He visibly shook off his stupor, and walked over to me. “What can I get you?”
“I’m Lila. I need a job.”
“Hey, Lila-I-need-a-job. I’m Caleb. Nice to meet you.” He held out his hand for a handshake and smiled a smile so open and baggage-free I almost sighed.
I shook his hand. “There’s a sign in your window.”
“Yeah. You got any experience? Ever waitressed before?”
“No.” Jesus. I was hardly coming across as a desirable job candidate. I needed to snap out of my … whatever it was. Funk didn’t quite sum things up. “I just graduated from Princeton a few months ago. I’m new in town. Just arrived today. I’m looking for something temporary.” Was I? News to me.
“Princeton, huh? I went to Tulane. Graduated last year.”
“Cool.” What else to say? My conversational skills were suffering. Maybe it was the effects of the roller coaster ride that was my life. “I’m a quick learner.” I looked around at two occupied tables and it tumbled out before I could stop myself: “You don’t exactly look packed.” My sense of tact was off.
Caleb smiled, unruffled, quick to reply. “You’d be surprised,” he said. “People come out of the woodwork on Friday and Saturday nights. But we could get you some practice before then.”
“Really? You’ll hire me?”
“Well, no one else has applied. Most of our staff are seasonal and they’ve all gone back to school.” He smiled again. “When do you want to start?”
“I could start now.”
Caleb studied me for a few seconds, his eyes taking in the slightly-disheveled state of me, which didn’t seem to bother him. He reached behind the bar and handed me a small black apron. “Put this on,” he said. “And you might need to pull back your hair.”
A very light heat rose to his cheeks at this comment, which made me smile; it was cute, his embarrassment at something so tame. My hair hung loose and slightly wild from my trip. Come to think of it, I hadn’t even looked in the mirror lately. A somewhat different technique than my last job interview. Just the thought of it made my stomach do a little dive; I had to put it out of my mind, which I did, or I’d be a quivering mess of despair.
“I mean, personally, I like it,” he said. “It’s just a policy.”
I smoothed my hair back, holding it with my hand. “I don’t even have a hair tie, can you believe it?”
My days of everything-on-hand superluxury were over.
Caleb searched around behind the bar and found a rubber band. “Here.”
As he handed it to me, his fingers grazed mine. This caused another open, barely-bashful smile to light up his face. He was handsome, I realized. It was a fresh, youthful handsomeness. I was just so used to the seasoned all-out masculinity of Alexander that at first impression Caleb had seemed ridiculously boyish. But he must have been twenty-two or twenty-three if he’d graduated last year. As I considered him more carefully, I could see it, that jock’s physique, that super-upright build, that sunny demeanor. I’m sure he’d broken a few hearts at Tulane.
I tied my hair back and put the apron on. “What do you want me to do first? I’m at your service.”
This, again, caused him to smile. “Wow.”
“Sorry. It’s just … your eyes are very green.”
“Yeah. A lot of people comment on them.”
“And your hair …” He had that shell-shocked look again.
“Oh. Sorry. Yeah?”
“What should I do first?”
“Oh. Right.” He looked around. “You could stack these glasses. The clean ones need to go into this overhead rack.”
“We close in an hour,” he said. “I usually stay and have dinner here after my shift. Put in an early order. Would you like to have dinner with me?”
I realized I hadn’t eaten since the breakfast I’d had with Eva in the limo, yesterday. On the way to the spa. To get ready for the wedding. “All right.”
Maybe a meal would help shake off this unhinged madness that felt like it was walking alongside me, like a shadow. Was I losing my mind?
Everything about me felt completely, unfathomably empty.