Almost two decades spent locked away in a dark, dank cell, Gray Bennet isn't used to the sun, the sounds, the scents.
Each year Robin Bishop returns, and while everyone around her is solemn, she lifts her face to the sun and celebrates her freedom.
He sees her.
She stands out in the grieving crowd—her head thrown back, her face bright with contentment—like a beacon offering to guide him into the light.
Release date: June 2, 2020
Print pages: 258
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Victim Of Circumstance
“This is too much.”
I look at the stack of bills stuffed in the envelope Jimmy shoves in my hand, which was just supposed to hold my earnings for the past two weeks.
Jimmy Olson was still in Beaverton when I arrived last month. We’d been best friends since elementary school and he’d even visited me in jail twice, until I finally refused to see him. My head had been fucked up—hell, it likely still is—and watching Jimmy walk out of there twice had almost done me in. I was sad, I was scared, and I struggled finding my equilibrium inside. As much as seeing him gave me a brief moment of reprieve, seeing that door close behind him would leave me raw.
Hope becomes a hot searing pain that scars your soul when it has nowhere to go.
It was easier to live without, move through my days in a tedious repetition of the last. No highs, no particular lows, just a narrow existence within the walls of my prison.
But hope flared when he was the first person I saw, getting off the bus in Beaverton last month. Jimmy fucking Olson, coming out of a diner with a coffee in his hand and walking up to a red tow truck, Olson’s Automotive printed on the side.
I might’ve avoided him, but he saw me. How he recognized me I don’t know. I’ve gotten old. My former dark hair has gone completely gray inside. I used to be bigger than I am now, after discovering the prison gym is not a place you want to be without a posse at your back. I never had one. My body is much leaner now; the only exercise what I managed to do in my own cell.
Still he took one look at me and that boyish grin I remember so well spread wide over his face. He hadn’t changed much at all and apparently had no hard feelings about me blowing him off, because he came tearing across the street, wrapping me in a bone-crushing hug.
I almost fucking cried right there in front of the bus station.
An hour later I was moved into the small apartment over his business. It used to be Old Man Stephenson’s garage when both Jimmy and I worked there, but apparently he’s dead and Jimmy bought the place. I was floored when Jimmy said he’d known I was released—had been keeping track—and was hoping I’d be smart enough to come home.
He gave me a week to settle in; a week I mostly spent in isolation in the small apartment he had stocked with food so I didn’t have to go out. After that week, he barged in at seven in the morning, ordering me to get my ass downstairs, and give him a hand. I’ve been doing long days in the shop since.
“Fuck no, it’s not. You had me sell off your shit, remember? I’ve had it sitting in a savings account all this time, gathering dust.”
“You’re shitting me? This is at least ten grand, my stuff wouldn’t have made more than a couple of hundred.”
“Seventeen thousand three hundred and twenty-five dollars to be exact,” he says and my jaw hits the floor. “Most of it for your old Mustang.”
“That was a pile of rust. I hadn’t even started working on it,” I point out, remembering the 1965 Mustang I hauled out of a field near Coleman for the measly two hundred bucks the farmer wanted for it. That was supposed to be my next project before everything went to shit.
“I know. It got done,” Jimmy says with a shrug, and I feel my throat close. “Anyway, you may wanna open up a bank account, unless you’re gonna walk around with that kinda cash.”
Opening up an account would require going into the bank, a public building, something I’m not sure I’m ready to do. Even these past few weeks working in the shop, I would duck out of sight whenever a customer walked in. Jimmy seemed to understand, at least he hadn’t commented on it. Not yet.
“I know. I will eventually. And Jimmy…thanks, man.”
He shrugs again and dives under the pickup truck we have up on the car lift.
“Just don’t go spending it all at once,” he mumbles from under there.
“Only spending I’ll be doing is buying a ticket to New York,” I tell him offhand, as I shove the envelope in my pocket and duck under the hood of the Charger brought in this morning.
“You’re going?” Jimmy asks.
“I need to. Never got to say goodbye to Reagan.”
“Who’s Reagan?” Kyle, the apprentice working with us this morning wants to know.
I can’t even bring myself to explain, but Jimmy answers for me.
“His sister, dipstick. She died.”
I glance over at the young kid, who looks miserable.
“Long time ago, kid,” I assure him. He nods, looking only moderately better as he turns to focus on the tires he’s checking for leaks. He doesn’t need to know I haven’t even begun to deal with that loss.
It’s almost six thirty when Jimmy calls it a day.
“Wanna go grab a bite to eat?”
I know he’s trying to get me outside of this place, but just like the bank, the diner seems like too public a place. Chances are big I’d bump into people who remember me, and I’m not ready to face them yet. Besides, I’ve gotten used to my own company and it’s enough for now.
“I think I’ll just stay here. Got a book to finish,” I tell him.
It’s a lame excuse and I know it, but the thought of walking into a crowded diner fills me with anxiety.
“How are you gonna go to New York if you can’t even manage to cross the street?”
I guess it’s a valid question, but there’s a simple and clear answer.
“Nobody knows me there.”
I like my nights to myself.
The first year after Paige left for college, I was desperate to fill any alone time with activity to cover the hole she left behind, but these days I’m perfectly content with just a book, or a good show on TV, and my own company.
We call a couple of times a week just to touch base, and see each other on half a dozen or so occasions throughout the year. Since my daughter left home, our relationship has gone through a transition and I have to say I really enjoy the connection we share now. We’re equals. I don’t carry the heavy, sole responsibility over someone else’s life and welfare anymore; she does that herself, and does it well.
Paige is twenty-three and just graduated this May with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her late father’s alma mater, except he studied accounting. It was also mine, but that was years later. I met him by chance when I volunteered at an alumni event and less than a year later dropped out when I got pregnant with her. New Jersey is where she was born and where we lived until I moved us back to Michigan when she was still young.
She’d had her sights set on Rutgers, and when my daughter wants something, she’ll move heaven and earth to get it. Despite my mixed bag of emotions on it, I supported her decision. Ironically she loves it so much there, she decided to stick around and look for work this summer. Ended up with a fabulous job at a medical clinic. She loves it and though I don’t love her living halfway across the country, I’m glad she’s happy there.
I’m happy here, where I’m not too far from my mother, who needs me more now than my daughter does. Mom has struggled a bit since Dad died three years ago at only sixty-six, quite unexpectedly. They’ve always lived in Lansing where Dad worked for GM, at the assembly plant, for almost forty years before he retired at sixty-five. Less than two years later he passed in his sleep from a massive heart attack. They’d just finished planning what was supposed to have been their bucket list trip.
Life sucks sometimes.
Almost by rote I grab my phone and dial my mother.
“Sweetie, how are you?”
“Good. Just thinking about you.”
“No particular reason. I talked to Paige earlier today and we made plans for me to head down there for a week next month, and I was just thinking, maybe you want to come?”
I’ve asked Mom to join me before when I go to visit my daughter but she always declined, which is why I’m surprised when she suddenly seems to consider it.
“I might. It depends.”
“That would be amazing. Paige would be tickled. Let me know when you make up your mind, Mom. I can book you a flight.”
The rest of the conversation we chat about her latest checkup, my aunt, Ditty, who apparently has a new beau—again—and the dirt on a cousin going through a nasty divorce. Half an hour later, I’m more up-to-date with family than I care to be.
I’ve always been the listener, never the talker, which is why my family knows little of my years in New Jersey. Something I’m grateful for since it wouldn’t have served any purpose. Fortunately Paige remembers little of that time, so the only one with bad memories is me, and I’ve got ways to deal with those.
I feel better having talked to the two most important people in my life and settle into my evening with a book and a glass of wine. I’ve become good at counting my blessings and ignoring the small pangs of longing for things out of my reach.
“Shirley called in sick.”
I’m donning my apron when Kim sticks her head into the small office where we leave our personal stuff when on shift.
I’ve been working at Over Easy for well over ten years now. When I started out I was just doing Kim’s books part time, along with several other bookkeeping clients, but with Paige getting older and being home less, I craved some human interaction. One of Kim’s waitresses left on maternity leave and she was in a bind, so I offered to help. That turned into a full-time job, while still doing the diner’s books on the side. I’ve since dropped my other clients so I work at Over Easy exclusively.
My parents as well as Paige had a hard time understanding why I would take on a menial job that didn’t pay all that well. Despite what they think they know, the truth is I don’t need much. I own my small home outright and the cost of living here is relatively low.
There was a time I had it all—the big house, fancy car, designer threads, platinum credit cards—but nothing about that made me happy. My life now does, and that includes working at the diner.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She says the flu.” I see the skepticism on Kim’s face.
“But I’m not buying it. I could hear Mike yelling in the background.”
Shirley’s marriage is not a happy one. At least not anymore.
Two years ago, her husband Mike was laid off from the same GM plant where my father worked most of his life, and he hadn’t been able to find anything new. At fifty-two, that’s a hard pill to swallow—I get it—but Mike’s idea of coping is hitting the bottle hard and taking his frustration out on Shirley, mostly.
Kim and I have talked about our concern for her, especially these past few months. She’s called in sick a few times and looks like she’s aged a decade. Drawn and pale, her normal exuberant smile now only a shadow. One of their boys is in college and the other works in the oilfields up in Canada, so it’s just Shirley and Mike at home.
“I’ll try and give her a call later,” I volunteer.
Shirley and I aren’t besties necessarily—I think we both have too much to hide for that—but I consider us friends and we’ve worked this shift together for years.
“Okay. I called Debra and she’ll come in a few hours, and Jason has the kitchen so I can run the counter and cash register.”
“Sounds good. We’ve got this.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve had just three of us here, but rarely on a Saturday morning.
From the moment I unlock the door at seven o’clock, the place is busy. I’ve had to warm up my own coffee twice already, and never manage more than a quick sip, hoping it’ll tide me over until I can shove something in my face.
It was even a struggle to be patient with poor Mrs. Chapman who, as usual, took her sweet time with the menu, despite it showing the same things as last week. The widow comes in like clockwork on Saturday mornings. Her one weekly indulgence, she once told me. She turns it into this big production, pretends she’s at a fancy restaurant, even dresses up for it, and we usually play along.
“Thank you, Robin,” she says, smiling when I put the wineglass with tap water and a slice of lime by her plate. It’s little things like that—the linen placemat and napkin Kim keeps just for her, the cup and saucer for her coffee instead of our normal mugs, the fancy plating of her simple food—which make this weekly visit of hers special.
“My pleasure. Will there be anything else?”
“No, thank you. This is perfect.”
With a nod I head for the counter, where I grab a coffeepot to offer refills to some of the tables. In the far corner, by the window, I spot one of our regular patrons with a few of his buddies. Tank occasionally comes in by himself during the week—he owns a business in town—but on weekends during the summer he often shows up with some of his biker friends to grab a bite before they ride. I glance out the window where their gleaming bikes are lined up in the parking lot.
It always gives me a secret little thrill to imagine being on the back of one of those. I’ve never actually been on a bike, but have fantasized plenty.
“Morning. What can I get you today?” After flipping over their mugs and filling them, I set down the coffeepot, and slip my pad and pen from my apron.
I take down their orders and am about to drop them off at the kitchen, when a hand grabs me by the wrist.
“Is today the day I can convince you to hop on for a ride?”
I grin down in the rugged but friendly face.
“Sorry, Tank. I value my life too much,” I joke, and the other guys chuckle. “Besides, we’re shorthanded today.”
He slaps his hand to his chest dramatically.
“You wound me, Robin. I swear I’d keep you safe.”
“I’m sure you’ll live,” I tease.
I dismiss the tingle of excitement I feel every time he asks me, wondering briefly if I’ll ever work up the courage to say yes. Instead I wink, grab my coffeepot, and head to the kitchen.
I’m pretty sure a ride on the back of Tank’s bike comes with some consequences and—nice enough guy as he is—I don’t think that would be wise.
It’s safer to stick with my fantasies.
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