The following is the fifth and final excerpt from the small-town, second-chance romance What Comes After Dessert, Copyright © 2015 by Ren Benton, available November 3, 2015.
She had always been a lousy liar, but Ben knew from experience that calling her out wouldn’t get him any closer to the truth. When challenged, she withdrew somewhere deep inside with no bars and no Wi-Fi, where the only message that would get through to her and reactivate her good graces was a promise to never mention the subject again.
He wanted to know why she shied away from him like he was a chainsaw killer slightly less than he wanted to not walk home in the dark from the middle of nowhere, so he skipped right to the changing of the subject. He knew the correct words to say about one topic, at least. “I’m sorry about your mom.”
The open window produced a steady roar that distorted those muttered words so he misheard. “Sorry, I missed that.”
Her fists tightened on the steering wheel. “She was a drunk and a bully and almost killed my father. If not mourning her makes me a worse person, I’ll take all the condemnation you’ve got and eat it like candy.”
Those two venomous sentences were the most he’d heard her say about her mother at one time. The story he’d made up to fill in the blanks had to be rewritten in a rush. “Your mother was the one driving that night.”
She might have been made of stone except for the flare of her nostrils.
He was going to end up on the side of the road, and he’d be lucky if she slowed down to shove him out, but he wanted to know this enough to risk it. “Your mother was the one who hit you.”
“You knew that.”
Not for the first time, he wondered if he knew anything about her. “How would I know? You blamed every bruise on dance practice.”
She backed away so swiftly from what she’d revealed, he felt the draft. “So how did you arrive at the conclusion someone was hitting me?”
Because you lie like you’re daring me to call you a liar and give you an excuse to leave. Her terms were to accept whatever she told him or lose his place in her life. Because it was easier for her if he remained at a safe distance, she didn’t bother to lie convincingly.
He always knew when she was lying. He never called her a liar because he wanted to be close to her, and acceptance was a price he was willing to pay. She couldn’t expect him to believe the ridiculous stories she offered in place of the truth, though.
“If dance class banged up my kid like that, I’d put her in something less hazardous, like the NFL.” He’d played football from pee-wee through college, and not even when the other team was trying to dismember him to settle a grudge did he go home as black and blue as Tally. “No one would let somebody else do that to their kid. You had to be getting it at home.”
“And you thought it was my dad?” Judging by her inflection, he’d ascended to heretofore unexplored heights of absurdity.
Wayne Castle was a six-and-a-half-foot slab of muscle. He’d played football, too — as the guy who sent the other team home happy to lose the game and escape with their lives. Neighborly disputes magically resolved when he stepped into them because no one in Westard wanted to be on the wrong side of him. The prison paid him to keep convicts in line.
Or used to, before he lost a leg.
None of which proved he beat his daughter, but the alternative never crossed Ben’s mind. Bonnie Castle had been diminutive even in comparison to Tally after about the seventh grade, and she’d given every appearance of being devoted to her daughter and her dance career. Nothing about her screamed child abuser.
Maybe he was biased because the thing he remembered most about his father was him knocking his mom around before he did them both a favor and took off for the last time.
But how was he supposed to come up with the right answer when all he had to work with was bullshit? “You could stop me from jumping to the wrong conclusions by telling me the truth.”
One moment, the air between them throbbed with tension; the next, it was gone. She removed herself from the discussion like a turtle retreating into its shell when the threats outside proved too tough to scare away with a glare. Her fists unclenched. Her expression neutralized. She willed the conversation out of existence. “Ancient history. Doesn’t matter.”
It mattered she had never trusted him enough to confide. It mattered he hadn’t had truth to act on, to protect her, to make her life better. It mattered he’d thought of her old man as a villain for no reason.
Dammit, fifteen minutes ago, he’d wanted to punch an amputee.
He massaged the tight cord on the back of his neck, wishing he had her talent for ignoring feelings she didn’t want to face. “How’s he doing?”
“Some days are harder than others.”
She didn’t elaborate, but he hadn’t expected her to be even that forthcoming. “Is there anything you are willing to talk about?”
“If you can’t handle the quiet, turn on the radio.”
He supposed the assortment of knobs on the dashboard passed for a radio thirty years ago. He doubted speakers of that bygone era had the might to defeat the road noise.
He’d come back to Westard to collect his mother, but since stepping into the bakery, every thought had gone to Tally like she was their home. They mutinied against the idea of staying away from her the instant that traitor tried to establish command.
His memories were good. Not even the frustrating, painful ones took the joy out of seeing her again after years of believing he never would.
She had been there to make all those good memories, so why was she acting like he was history she’d rather forget?
She broke his heart, not the other way around.
Tally parked the truck in the grocery store lot and left Ben to unbind the can and find his way to the gas station across the street.
The lone cashier on duty scowled when she walked through the door. “We’re closing in three minutes.”
Tally didn’t hold the surliness against her, since she had the same reaction when customers came into the bakery. “That’s all I need.”
She grabbed the smallest bottle of generic ibuprofen tablets. As long as she was in the neighborhood, she moved down the aisle and picked up a replacement for the flattened tube of toothpaste on the edge of the bathroom sink. She swung by the dairy case and made it to the checkout lane with a minute to spare.
A guy in a managerial tie waited by the door, keys in hand.
The cashier had been rooting against her. Her expression should have curdled the milk. “That’ll be eleven thirty-seven.”
Tally swiped her debit card and tucked it back in her pocket while the transaction processed.
The cash register booped.
The cashier’s face brightened. “I’m so sorry,” she said with more glee than sympathy. “Your card has been rejected for insufficient funds.”
Tally stared at the SELECT FORM OF PAYMENT command on the screen. She obsessed about not overdrawing the account because they couldn’t afford a thirty-five-dollar bank fee if she made a mistake, but sometimes between deposits, the balance dipped dangerously low. She’d thought there was plenty to cover twelve dollars and change. Had her dad used the debit card instead of the gas card again? What was gas going for this week? How many gallons had he put in? Worst-case scenario, a full tank would leave how much in the bank, eleven dollars? Ten?
The heat leached from her extremities and surged up to her face. If she put the toothpaste back, the total would be under ten dollars. She dug numb fingers into the pocket of her jeans, past her license and the useless debit card, and touched one crumpled bill. Please, let it be a ten.
She held it by her hip, shielded from the cashier’s sight, and smoothed it out with her thumb.
Abraham Lincoln looked almost apologetic.
Her white-trash toes curled under, hiding in shame.
A year ago, when the last of their savings dried up and there was no denying the money coming into the house wouldn’t stretch far enough to cover the money going out, her dad choked down his pride to sit in a government office for six hours, in pain the whole time, only to be told that between her income from the bakery and his disability check, the household was “too wealthy” to qualify for food assistance.
So wealthy, she had to choose between milk, medicine, and oral hygiene.
She exhaled slowly, inaudibly, so as not to fan the flames of the spectators’ judgment. Her dad had the prescription drugs, whether he liked them or not, and they could brush with baking soda if they couldn’t scrape enough paste out of the tube to get them through the week. They would make do. They always did.
She extended the bill toward the cashier without meeting her gaze. “Just the milk.”
The cashier sighed as if burdened with a task of biblically unreasonable proportions. “Hey, Jimmy! Come put this stuff back on the shelf. She only wants the milk.”
A teenager in a store apron shuffled over to join the fun. “Why’d she get it if she didn’t want it?”
Just to make more work for you, buckaroo.
The cashier voided the toothpaste and pills, named the new total, and took the proffered money, holding it up to the light before tucking it into the cash drawer. With saccharine sweetness, she singsonged, “Don’t forget your change.”
Tally stuffed the coins in her pocket, snatched the milk off the counter, and scurried out of the store as if the three pairs of eyes jabbing at her back were the spears of angry merchants driving a beggar from their bazaar.
She could never return to this store. Even if she had to drive an hour to shop in Marion, she could never set foot in this store again.
Don’t blink, and you won’t cry.
It wasn’t like she lived extravagantly. She hadn’t been smart with every dollar when she had a few more than she needed, but she’d been on full austerity measures for two years. No more department-store moisturizer. No restaurants. No movies. She gave up her Diet Pepsi habit. The eating disorder enforced by her mother throughout her childhood made it easy to go back to eating next to nothing. She bought the cheapest shampoo and conditioner on the shelf, only when it was on sale, and learned how to braid the straw it turned her hair into. Unless shopping in her dad’s closet counted, she hadn’t bought one piece of clothing since her return to Westard. There was nothing left to cut.
A hand on her arm apprehended her a step before she walked blindly into the street. “Tally.”
She curled her shoulders forward, wishing she could fold herself smaller and smaller until she disappeared. Why this, of all nights, did he have to come back?
Ben turned her like a rusty wheel. His hands stroked up to her shoulders, then down to her wrists. “Hey, now. What happened?”
She blinked. The haze blinding her cleared and poured down her cheeks. “I’m going to be a toothless, wrinkled, frizzy-haired, flannel-wearing hag.”
His thumbs pressed into her palms. His chest hitched. Then the laugh burst through his restraint.
Being sneered at by strangers was humiliating, but she’d developed calluses to deflect deep cuts from those assaults. Being laughed at by the boy she used to love stabbed right through them, traumatizing every nerve. A hard, noisy sob exploded from her mouth.
His arms wrapped around her and drew her against his chest. He made hushing sounds into her frizzy hair. “Your skin is beautiful, your hair is beautiful, and flannel is our cultural heritage. Wear it with pride.”
He couldn’t have picked a worse omission. “What about my teeth?”
“Toothless is the new sexy. Ask the Wilkins twins.”
She sniffle-laughed against his shoulder. No matter how bleak she felt, he had always been able to drag a smile out of her, to make whatever pain she was in go away, at least for a few seconds.
He smeared a wet streak across her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “What happened, Tal?”
His voice, his touch, everything about him was gentle, the question an invitation, not a demand. If she wanted to stay put and quietly absorb his warmth, he wouldn’t insist on payment in answers.
She would feel like she owed him, though, and she lived in dread of debt of all kinds. Creditors came to collect at the damnedest times, and she had no more to give.
She stepped back, and his arms fell away from her. The numbing cold returned to her limbs, and the milk she’d forgotten dragged on her arm like a hundred-pound dumbbell. “The latest in a series of humiliations.”
There. A little restitution for the little kindness she’d stolen from him.
“Want to talk about it?”
She hadn’t stolen that much. “The best part of my day is that you didn’t witness that. Let’s not spoil it.”
“Is the worst part that I witnessed this?” His thumb rubbed a residual tear from her other cheek.
“Second place, but don’t feel bad. The competition was ferocious.” She’d gotten mauled in the battle for supremacy. “Did you get your gas?”
“Strapped in the truck.”
“Then let’s get out of here.” She headed back to the truck she’d walked past in her haze.
“Want me to drive?”
A couple of minutes ago, that would have been the safe call, but the hysterics had abated. She felt battered down to her bones, but her head had cleared. “I have to be doing something.”
Something other than sitting in the passenger seat with time to think about what had been and what would never be, making it even harder to get out of bed in the morning to deal with what was.
Her hands stalled in the act of tucking the milk into the cooler. Had her mother thought she was clear-headed before crashing into a bridge abutment at eighty miles an hour? She’d fought her passenger for the keys and almost thrown his life away along with hers.
The keys clinked together in the trembling hand she thrust toward Ben. “If you would feel better behind the wheel, take them.”
He folded her fingers closed around the keys, his hand warm and steady around hers. “I’m worried about you, not your driving. If you would feel better behind the wheel, keep them and be doing something.”
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