F O U R T E E N
I knew, before even walking into the doors of the cafe, that things were going to be awkward today. After everything that happened yesterday, I would be more shocked if Claire did decide to talk to me.
We shouldn’t have left things off the way we did.
All night I was left tossing and turning, running through our whole conversation wondering where her sudden hate for Alex came from? One minute she was super supportive of us going out, even helping me pick out a dress, and like a bulb flicking off, she changed almost as soon as the next day.
Sighing, I look around the parking lot. Do I really want to check into work today?
Drumming my hands upon Ken’s steering wheel I make a list and compare the pros and cons.
Pros: I’ll make good money in tips.
Cons: Not only will I go home without any tips but this day will also come out of my paycheck.
Well looks like that answers that.
Good thing I parked on the side of the building today. If I parked in the front, like I usually did, Claire would’ve seen me pull in, if she was here, and that would’ve made things awkward before we even interacted.
Grabbing all the courage I have inside of me, which isn’t a lot, I step out of Ken and into the dark chilly summer morning. Autumn must be on its way, it’s never this cold.
Walking into the restaurant the bell chimes from above, making me cringe as it announces my presence.
“Danielle, is that you?” Ms. Belle yells from the kitchen.
I let out a long sigh and close my eyes. Way to blow my cover.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I say, pulling off my beige overcoat jacket and walking further into the cafe.
The brown-haired woman pokes her head out from the kitchen window, her eyes lighting up upon seeing me. “I’m so glad you came in early pumpkin. Quickly, put your stuff away and come in the back, I need you to help Claire move these crates outside.”
My eyes slightly widen. “Claire’s already here?” I squeak. I mean I shouldn’t be surprised, whenever Claire is angry she turns to baking to alleviate all her pent-up stress. Should’ve guessed she would’ve shown up early to do just that.
“Well why wouldn’t she be?” Belle’s brows scrunch together. “She does work here after all.” Stating this as it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“You’re right, I just didn’t think she’d be here so early,” I say, trying to save myself from further questioning. “Let me put my jacket away and I’ll be right back.” Without waiting for her to reply, I flee towards the back room.
I knew sooner or later I would have to speak to Claire. I was hoping it would be later in the day when we were both too tired to give in to our emotions, not bright in early when the tension was still high and we’d end up snapping at each other.
I mean, maybe it won’t be so bad.
Slowly, I make my way to the kitchen, not wanting to keep Ms. Belle waiting.
Pushing throwing the double doors I catch the attention of the two females bustling about. Nice job Dani, way to be subtle.
“Great, you made it. I thought you got lost,” Ms. Belle cackles at her own joke as her fingers continue to knead at the dough before her.
Rolling my eyes I grab an apron from a nearby hook and tie it around my waist. “You’re so funny, Belle. Honestly, you should become a stand-up comedian, they need more people like you in the industry.”
She snorts. “They’d have to arrest me, I’m that good. People will laugh so hard at my jokes that they’d all suffer from a heart attack and die. I’ll make sure to state all payments are non-refundable before the act, just in case.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “You’re a terrible person.”
“I know you are, but what am I?” This earns a quiet chuckle from Claire beside her.
This is the first time she even acknowledged my existence since I’ve walked in here. Her eyes not once straying from the batter she’s pouring into the cupcake pan.
Not wanting to make things awkward I ask Belle what she needs from us.
“Oh, yes,” looking up she points to a few wooden crates on the other side of the room near the exit. “Can you girls place those outside for me? Someone is coming by in a few hours to pick em up and I’d rather them not wander into the kitchen with their dirtiness.”
Claire stops what she’s doing and glances in my direction, not a speck of emotion on her face. I look away from her intense gaze, not liking being on the receiving end of it.
“Sure, no problem,” I hear her state, still feeling the heat from her burning stare on my face.
She walks to the crates, not caring if she leaves me behind. Ouch.
Catching up to her we walk silently the rest of the way. Not finding it in me to bring up conversation, I keep my mouth sealed and pick up one side of the wooden object as she picks up the other.
Neither of us says a word and we continue this process for the next few boxes.
When the last one is placed outside I decide this is the perfect time to talk to her about what happened. There’s no one out here so we won’t be interrupted.
I open my mouth to speak.
“Save it,” she hisses and walks past me, her shoulder harshly hitting against mine.
I sigh, why did I even bother trying to get her attention. She’s obviously still pissed at me but how can I apologize if she won’t tell me what I did wrong? All I wanted in life was to be happy and make my own decisions but at every turn it feels like there are more reasons why my choices are wrong and other people’s choices are right.
This is going to be a long day.
Ever since Claire mentioned the killings happening in nearby towns it seems that’s all my brain can pick up on today.
Every table I stopped it was the same conversation about the missing girls and their dead bodies reappearing. All it did was cause my stress to triple.
Just finish your shift so you can go home and binge on some ice cream.
With a forced smile, I walk up to a table that seats a person I’ve never seen before. His inky black hair is neatly gelled back which harshly contrasts against his pale skin and icy blue gaze hidden behind thick square glasses. Don’t even get me started on his clothes. He looks like he belongs in front of a whiteboard at NASA not in a cramped diner in the middle of now where.
I study him while I can, unease settling in my stomach. If the word immaculate had a definition he would be it. His posture is firm and straight, I can’t even find a slight hunch in his shoulders. His interlaced fingers rest upon the table and he looks straight ahead, not giving anything else a single glance.
He must feel my stare because his head whips in my direction and suddenly I’m the victim of his frosty gaze. Promptly looking away I cough, feeling uncomfortable. I can feel that he’s still looking at me.
With as much control I can force I place a menu in front of him and untuck my notepad from my apron, finally introducing myself. “Hi, my name is Dani, I’ll be your waitress today. Would you like me to start you off with something to drink?”
I keep my pen poised, ready to write, but when he says nothing I glance up and almost jump in shock to see he’s still staring at me.
My eyes widen. “Sir?” I ask skeptically.
He blinks and a small smile pulls on his thin lips. “Sorry, today has been quite a tumultuous day for me and I must’ve zoned out without knowing it.” Sheepishly, he rubs the back of his neck, seeming very out of character for the person I assumed he was. “Can you repeat what you said earlier? I promise I’ll pay attention this time,” he continues with a blinding white smile that gives me the creeps.
Chills erupt over my arms. “Yea, uh, I-I’m Dani and I’ll be your waiter today. Can I s-start you off with anything to drink?” I stutter.
His grin never falters. “Afternoon Dani, my name is Andrew. May I have a glass of water, no ice, with a lemon slice on the side? Hey, did you know that in Europe most restaurants eliminate the usage of ice in drinks due to the fact that it takes up about eighty percent capacity in the cup, making people feel cheated that they paid so much for a drink but get so little?”
I just blink.
Not knowing how to reply I awkwardly laugh out of habit. “Wow, I never knew that.”
“I know right? Very interesting the things we learn.”
“Yes, very.” Not wanting to be in his presence much longer I begin to back up. “Let me go get your water. I’ll be right back.”
Swiftly giving the man my back, I rush behind the bar and start pouring water into a glass.
I don’t know how to feel about Andrew. He looked the part of a normal guy, but his words and tone insinuated something else, something darker.
With everything going on I feel like everyone is rubbing me the wrong way. My paranoia is through the roof and now I’m taking it out on customers. I need to get myself together and calm down.
Placing a chilled lemon slice onto the side of the glass, I grab a few straws, throwing them in my apron pouch, and walk back to his table, halting immediately when I realize the booth is empty.
Where did he go?
Claire walks by me, making her way to the double doors. Maybe she saw something.
“Hey Claire,” I stop her, pointing to the now barren table, “did you see what happened to the man sitting there? I was getting his water but-”
“Sorry, can’t help you, I was in the restroom. Now I have to get back to work, so excuse me,” she says sliding by, leaving me by myself.
“Thanks for the help,” I mumble.
“Dani!” I jump, whipping around to see Ms. Belle. “My office. Come on.” She walks back through the double doors she came from and I follow.
What did I do now?
We head down a corridor that leads to a steel door. Opening it, she wastes little time before bombarding me with questions.
“What’s going on between you and Claire?” She asks softly. I try and hide my shocked face but nothing can be hidden from Belle.
“Is it that obvious?” I sigh, rubbing my hand over my face.
“About as obvious as a hooker in church.”
I thought I was hiding it so well. “I’m sorry Ms. Belle,” I look up at her with pleading eyes, “I promise I won’t let my personal life interfere with work any more than it already has. I’ll-” her walking towards me throws me off, “I-I’ll not give what happened to us a second thought.”
The Southern woman towers over me but when I’m pulled into a hug all I can think about is how this familiar moment reminded me of when she came to my rescue a few years back.
She caresses the back of my head and I sag into her warmth.
“At this moment I’m not your boss, I’m not your superior, I’m just Belle, you’re old cranky auntie whose only concern is your well-being.”
I let out a small laugh. “You’re not cranky.”
She holds me by my shoulders and gives me a fake stern look. “You callin’ me old little girl?”
“Never Ms. Belle, the last thing I need is you ‘accidentally’ burning my eyebrows off,” I say bashfully.
She rolls her eyes and scoffs. “It’s not my fault Jeffrey doesn’t know how to use a stove. And, you know it’s Auntie Belle when we’re behind closed doors, drop the whole Ms. Belle act honey, we’re family.” She gives my cheek a small pat and walks to her desk, leaning against the front of it. “Now tell me what’s going on.”
Suddenly I’m nervous. Looking off to the side I start picking at my fingers. “Well, Claire and I haven’t been on the best of terms lately. These past two days have been rough and even after we apologized to each other we ended up having another argument later the same day. It was super unnecessary and I just,” pausing, I sigh, “I just want to understand what’s making her act this way.”
“Mmmmm,” is her only response.
I narrow my eyes. “Is that all you have to say Auntie Belle because if that’s your advice I might as well go back to work?” I say, pointing my thumb behind me. Silence surrounds us as she doesn’t say a word so I turn around and walk to the office door.
I know I’m coming off as rude but what kind of half-ass reply was that?
Suddenly, she speaks out. “You better get your little behind over here and sit down in this chair before I paint your back porch red, and believe me, no one would stop me if I did.” Her tone commands her word are final and I’d be a fool not to listen to them.
Peeking over my shoulder I take a glimpse at her face and instantly regret it. She’s using the exact same face my mother would make whenever I tried to act more grown than I actually was.
This shouldn’t surprise me. They’re sisters after all.
Trying to shield myself behind my hair, I walk to the chair in front of her and sit down, not once making eye contact with her intimidating glare.
“Sorry,” I whisper out an apology.
“It’s okay honey, I know you’re stressed,” she pats my hand in my lap, “but do that again and I’m getting the wooden spoon, understand?”
I cough, trying to hide my chuckle. Keeping my composure I nod and reply, “yes ma’am.”
“Mhm,” she crosses her arms and relaxes against the wood behind her, “now, as I was saying before I was interrupted, can I assume this little spat was over Alexander?”
My head snaps up. “How’d you know?
She shrugs. “Claire and Alexander have never been close so it makes sense that he would be the topic of discussion.”
“But she was so supportive of us when we started hanging out, I never would’ve thought there was bad blood between them.”
“I wouldn’t call it bad blood dear. People in this town just don’t like others who are different, and that’s exactly what Alexander is. Different,” she says casually, her words not holding any enmity behind them. “They’ve known each other since a young age, but her parents, like every other parent in this town, instilled it into her brain that people like Alexander were not to be associated with. She can’t help how she was raised.”
I sneer at this statement. “So that makes it okay for Claire to tell me how to handle my relationship with him? Because she doesn’t like that he’s different? That’s messed up Auntie Belle.”
If anything, after hearing this, I’m even madder at the situation because obviously, Claire has no reason to hate on Alex, nor did the whole town. He’s been labeled his entire life and instead of people trying to understand him they shut him out as an outcast instead.
“Don’t come after me I’m just relaying information.” Belle raises her hands and chuckles. My face doesn’t change and her laughter slowly fades away. “Look, I don’t know why she’s acting this way. Has she ever tried to sway your guy’s friendship before?
I shake my head and all she can do is nod.
“Hmm, that is a bit odd.” She hums in thought. “Well, my advice is to let things chill between you two and then talk when you’re both calm and collected. I’m assuming y’all said things you both didn’t mean in the heat of the moment but there’s no point in talking when you’re still angry with each other.”
Sagging into my seat I try and allow my muscles to relax but, instead, it makes them coil up. “Thank you, Auntie Belle. I’m sorry for not coming around sooner, everything has been so hectic lately and I’m trying to get my life settled down before I come over for our usual Sunday dinners.”
I couldn’t bring her into my mess. Not again. When I first left my parent’s house she didn’t hesitate to open her house for me. Growing up, my father barely let me see her as she wasn’t up to the same social status as us. This hurt my mother to the core. They were so close as Auntie Belle was her older sister, she basically raised my mother growing up; parting like that was traumatic for her.
When I ended up leaving, she was the first person I called and I have no idea where I would be without her. She gave me a job at her restaurant, she let me stay at her house until I was financially stable on my feet, and she introduced me to Claire, who helped me get out of my shell. I owed everything to this woman, she was my rock in this stormy weather.
However, we had to keep things on the down-low so we wouldn’t raise suspicion.
Since everyone in this town is a nosy busy-body, if they found out Belle had a niece they would begin to ask questions and dig into my background which we both agreed would not be a good thing. I only call her Ms. Belle in public, only to keep up the ruse, but once we’re alone she turns into my lovable, caring, aunt.
Her face softens and she learns forward, cupping my pale cheeks. “Honey, don’t you worry ’bout that now. You know where I live, whenever you decide to unload that weight off your chest, I’ll be waiting for ya.”
This is why she’s my favorite auntie out of all of my aunties. She understands me and doesn’t try to force me to be someone I’m not.
I stand, which causes her hands to fall from my cheeks, but I immediately wrap my arms around her waist, wanting to get lost in her familiar scent of fresh flowers.
“Oh my sweet girl,” she mumbles and pulls me closer, “why don’t you take the rest of the day off? You have a lot going on mentally and we have enough staff on duty today someone can certainly take over your spot.”
My eyes widen. No, she can’t do that for me. That wouldn’t be fair to the others. Shaking my head I reply, “It’s okay Auntie Belle, I can finish my shift. Thank you for the offer though.”
I hear her chuckle. “You thought I was askin’ ya?” She doesn’t wait for me to respond. “You’re going home. I can’t even remember the last time you had a day off.”
“Um, my last day off was yesterday Auntie Be-”
“Get out of here before I change my mind,” she cuts me off and holds me at arm’s length.
I chuckle and untangle myself from her. “Okay, I’m leaving. I’ll make sure to call you later today, alright?”
She waves me off. “Yes dear now off with ya, I got a business to run here.”
“Love you Belle,” I say as I walk to the door and open it.
“Love too kid. Get home safe.”
“Will do.” And I close the door behind me, beginning my walk to the back room to get my belongings.
With my purse and keys in hand, I place my apron in my locker and exit through the back door, trying not to face Claire on my way out.
Entering Ken, I strap up and zoom out of the parking lot.
Driving home is a blur. I could’ve driven right into a tree and I don’t think I would’ve noticed.
Mentally, I feel brain dead.
The sun beams down on me from above, not a glimpse of a cloud in sight.
Sluggishly I climb up the stairs and reach into my bag, grabbing my keys. What I need is a nap. A long, restful, calming nap, where I don’t have to worry about pleasing people and I don’t have to think. Period.
Entering my apartment I softly shut the door behind me and drop my bag and keys on the side table next to me.
Home sweet home.
Everything’s fine now. I’m home and I can brush all the things that don’t matter in this very moment off my skin and just relax.
You know what sounds good right now? Mozerella sticks. I’m going to heat up some mozzarella sticks and spend the rest of my evening on the couch, probably how Belle envisioned I would.
Now somewhat at ease, I walk to my refrigerator but I’m easily caught off guard by a piece of paper laying on my kitchen island.
Is this from my stalker? No, it can’t be, this isn’t his style. I can’t smell its unusual cologne nor does the handwriting look the same.
Is it too much to ask for one day of peace?
Grabbing the letter I read its words.
Sorry for rushing out so quickly earlier today. I should’ve given you a proper goodbye before leaving but I really had to get home. I’ll be back three weeks from today and I was hoping you’d go on a date with me? Meet me on Ponder Bridge at 10 p.m.
P.S. where something warm, it’s going to be chilly
Somehow, this letter was able to flip my crappy day all the way around.
My heart pitter-patters with glee. How did I miss this when I was leaving for work this morning? That doesn’t matter right now, all that matters is that Alex is coming back to see me in three weeks!
Claire’s words from yesterday trickle slowly into my brain. There’s nothing odd about him wanting to hang out with me all of a sudden. She’s programmed to think the worst about him, just like everyone else in this town, but I won’t let that affect me.
If I want to see Alex then that’s my choice and I’ll gladly wait out these weeks for him because I know the end reward is worth it.
He’s worth it.
I giggle to myself like a schoolgirl and finally open up the freezer.
“Now, how many of you mozzarella sticks want to take a journey trip with me to my oven. Eight, twelve, or fifteen of you?
Over 4,000 words later and we’re here at the end of chapter 14.
I know I was supposed to have this out by Friday but I had the worst case of writer’s block and I felt like you guys deserved to have a well, thought-out, chapter that was delayed by two days than a rushed, trashy one, that came out on time.
Also, I changed the cover!!!! I think it looks so much better than what it used to be and I’m super proud of it. Really captures how I imagine the book to be.
Now onto the good stuff, how many of y’alls minds were blown about Dani and Ms. Belle being related?
And what do you think about Andrew? He’s kind of an odd one, isn’t he?
Make sure to leave a vote and comment and I’ll catch you guys on the next chapter!
Hopefully you enjoyed your stay in Joker’s Basement