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Excerpt for Pipe Dream by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Pipe Dream

by

KL Collins

Published by WordCrafts Press for Smashwords

Copyright © 2017 KL Collins

Cover Design by David Warren

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite online retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Chapter 86

Chapter 87

Chapter 88

Chapter 89

Chapter 90

Chapter 91

Chapter 92

Chapter 93

Chapter 94

Chapter 95

Chapter 96

Chapter 97

Chapter 98

Epilogue

About the Author

For My Mom

You not only inspired me to write, but without your idea this book would never exist.

1995

Chapter 1

My mother was very young when I was born. She was even younger when my sister was conceived. At seventeen, my sister, Laura, was born to Sara and Paul Blackwell. My mother loved Little House on the Prairie and easily decided on a name for her newborn baby girl. A year later, she once again loved a part of entertainment history, and perfectly timed, another baby girl was born.

The reason behind my name is easily explained as well. I am Annie for the simple fact that Sara loved the musical with the same title.

For many years I envied my sister. Her namesake had cute pigtails and wore fun clothes. Annie was an orphan, had curly red hair and one nice dress. I guess I should just be glad I wasn’t a boy or I’d have been Sandy, or worse, Daddy Warbucks.

My parents had a whirlwind relationship. They fell in love and were married in high school and had babies before they were out of their teens. They were in love and had the beginnings of a perfect recipe for a long marriage. It was missing one important ingredient though – dedication.

At twenty, my dad decided the small-town life wasn’t good enough for him and left his young family behind in Virginia. He said he wanted to go into politics, the military or maybe it was acting. I’m not sure now, and it didn’t matter then. He chose to leave us and that is all I remember.

When I was twelve I received devastating news. My mom, sister, and I were going to live with my grandma and grandpa in Pennsylvania. Even more devastating was when I overheard my grandma talking with my mother about the aggressive form of cancer that she was diagnosed with and the few months she had left. It hurt nonetheless when my mom finally sat us down to tell us the news. That same year we buried her. We also heard our father was living near Houston. He never came to the funeral.

Laura was the cheerleading captain, and just like fairy tales read, followed the path to happiness and fell in love with the prince, the star quarterback of the high school. Upon graduation he was recruited by the Navy and married my sister. The perfect life for the perfect couple. I, on the other hand, didn’t have a knight in shining armor waiting in the wings to sweep me off my feet after receiving my diploma.

My grades were simply average, and I didn’t even have a penny saved to help send me to school. So instead of college I proudly poured hard work into each paycheck. I enjoyed living in my own apartment, even if it’s located directly above Joey’s – the only watering hole in town. It is here that I also work.

Having just turned twenty-one the last place you’d want to find yourself working is in a bar. But that was exactly where I was, and as I filled the dishes with pretzels I sighed, thinking that with all the reminiscing I’d rather be drinking at the bar than working behind it.

Joey Cantrell is my boss and landlord. I watched him curiously as he now talked on the phone. He seemed excited but nervous. Clicking the pen is a bad habit he has when nerves got the better of him. He wrote frantically and agreed repeatedly with the caller. “They will be ready. Yes, four of them...they are all vacant”, he replied through the phone to an unheard question. He then hung up.

“Am I getting new neighbors?” I asked.

Without looking up from his notepad he quickly replied, “Yes, but only for a few weeks, couple months at most.”

I wiped the crumbs from the counter and set out the clean ash trays trying to understand the response I just heard. I turned around, but before I could ask questions I realized Joey was gone. The clock offered a glaring reminder. I had less than ten minutes before we opened for business, and the mystery at hand would need to wait until later.

Mickey’s our best customer, or at least that is a self-proclaimed title he liked to shout each night when he walks in. Tonight was no exception. “Your number one customer has just arrived!” he bellowed as he slid into ‘his seat’ at the far left side of the bar.

Mickey’s also the town gossip. He would probably talk about himself if he could, but it is rumored he is worse than Shirley Johnson, the beauty salon owner out on Vine street. A customer waiting in Shirley’s salon would find herself very limited in the variety of magazines to choose from. She only subscribed to those that featured celebrity gossip.

So it’s no exception that when Mickey entered he came armed with fresh news off the street. “Guess what’s coming to town?”

I took a deep breath, furrowed my eyebrows, and slowly blew out my breath. After a dramatic ten-second wait I answered, “The circus... carnival...Santa…no, wait, it must be the President of the United States. I’m right, aren’t I?”

He chuckled his deep, sincere laugh while he shook his head. “Nah... Nothin’ that exciting. Pipeline’s coming through town though... Sure they’ll be tearing up the fields along the highway and causin’ traffic jams. Good thing it’s only for a few weeks.”

As soon as he said a few weeks the brief conversation with Joey came back. It made sense now. He was offering the vacant apartments to the pipeline company.

For the next two hours Mickey expanded on the news he shared. He talked about the conversations he overheard at the gas station and the article in the paper detailing the timeline of the work that was to be completed. With two separate crews the entire job would be done within two to three months. The first crew was to arrive within a few days. I understood now why Joey was so nervous about getting everything in order.

This thought gave me an idea. It was Friday, and besides working Saturday night I was scheduled off that weekend. I picked up the phone and called Joey’s house. I left a message explaining that with my free time that weekend I would like to help him get ready for the workers. I knew there were last minute repairs and cleaning that needed to be done.

I watched Mickey as he continued to talk, and as the evening progressed each unsuspecting customer who sat near him got roped into a deep conversation on a controversy regarding the possible closure of the local pharmacy and how the loss of business would have the domino effect on the other locally owned establishments.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the latest gentleman who sat beside him now carefully eyed the room for the closest exit to escape. I wandered over in their direction to offer such relief as Mickey got distracted with my attention.

Every stool was full and the place was packed. It was standing room only and another busy Friday was flying by. Drinks were made and bottles were opened as fast my fingers would work. Around eleven the crowd thinned and I found myself able to finally take a break. I sat down on the stool Mickey vacated two hours before and took the list of items Joey said needed to be done in the apartments. Not bad, especially since the apartments were just sitting vacant. The extra two hundred dollars he offered for my help would be nice as well. My savings account would thank me.

Chapter 2

Monday morning the town began to change. The pipeline company had arrived. Trucks and equipment rumbled down Main Street, and like a parade, the people milling in the area stopped mid-stride and turned to watch the procession make its way across town. I stood on my balcony overlooking the west side of the street and took a long sip on my coffee. I was engrossed just like everyone else. This was indeed big news for the community.

Someone frantically knocked on my door, and my coffee splashed down the front of my track suit. I dabbed myself with a towel and answered to find Joey out of breath and sweating.

“They’re here,” he said, breathlessly.

“Calm down, everything you needed done has been taken care of. I finished your list and then some, and the keys for the apartments are in an envelope by the register. Now, breathe… you want some coffee?”

He panted, nodding his head.

I poured a cup and added cream and sugar as I know he liked. “If there are at least twenty loads of trucks coming through town where is everyone staying?”

He moved to the table. “From what I understand, most of those staying here are supervisors and senior apprentices; the rest of the crew will be in the extend-a-stay motel out by Finley.”

“And for how long is that?” I hated change, and especially when the unknown came with it. I didn’t know these guys, didn’t trust them, and certainly didn’t know what to expect. It was apparent in my question.

He laughed through a swallow, almost choking on his coffee. “Don’t worry, I told your grandpa I’d watch out for you… but just to be safe you’d better lock your door… wouldn’t want anyone to walk in your apartment by mistake after a night in the bar.”

I threw my towel at him. “Not funny.” Joey and my grandfather worked in the same factory many years ago. They shared lockers and stood beside each other on the assembly line. When the plant shut down they remained friends even after they moved in different directions. My grandfather became a shift supervisor for another factory in the next town over, and Joey opened the bar.

Growing up he has been the dad I never had. He has protected me, guided me, and been there with a shoulder to cry on when I was upset. He even offered an apartment for a very reduced price for me when I graduated high school. I know I wouldn’t have to worry about the pipeline workers, or even the boogie man if he was around, and this was another reason I still worked for him today.

Chapter 3

From the first day the workers were in town every business in town miraculously grew. The barbershop took in new clients for haircuts, the diner was full for each meal, and the stores’ registers collected more money than any Christmas holiday season’s ever seen. The bar was no exception this Monday night. Usually during the week the regulars would show on their favorite days, but the stools along the bar were never full. Tonight they were.

Rugged, dirty men laughed jovially with each other and shared stories of the road and families back home. Their rough beards were covered in foam from the beer, and in cases where some men showered their “good” shirts resembled something I’d just cleaned their rooms with that past weekend.

“Only for a few weeks,” I mumbled under my breath.

During the week Joey’s closed at midnight. It’s very rare though that any customers are left after eleven o’clock. As I finally got the opportunity to start cleaning the bar I glanced at the wall clock behind me. It was ten till midnight. No wonder I was exhausted. There were two men that remained at the far right side of the bar. One stood up throwing a few dollars on the bar, turned, and left. The other one, younger of the two, took the last long drag of his beer and set the bottle loudly down, the thud echoed around the empty room.

“I’m sorry but we’re closing in ten minutes.” I nodded in his direction. “I’ll have to cash you out now.”

He pulled out his wallet, “How much do I owe you?”

I glanced at the receipt, “twelve dollars and fifty cents.”

Without saying a word he threw down a twenty dollar bill and stood up to leave. He grabbed his worn yellow baseball cap and jammed it down over his red curls.

The motion seemed to have been done in anger. I wasn’t sure why, and it honestly didn’t matter. I just wanted desperately to leave. My feet were tired. My mind was even more exhausted.

“Hey!” he yelled with one hand on the door.

I turned to see why he was yelling and saw him staring at me.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

I stood there debating whether I should throw out a fake one but thought better of it since he was sure to come back and hear otherwise. “Annie,” I yelled back.

Without acknowledging that he even heard me he was gone, but not before I distinctly saw him repeat my name under his breath.

Chapter 4

That next afternoon I was more prepared for the new crowd. I set out extra bowls of snacks and made sure the cooler was well stocked with the most popular longnecks from the night before.

Laughter vibrated around the room again, and I began to make small talk with some of the new guests. I learned where each of them stayed in the apartments, and even began to remember names. Josh and Phil were cousins, and Billy was their uncle by marriage. They were all rooming together. Scotty was a widower, and AJ just graduated high school. I learned that Vince was a father of four boys and shared the apartment beside me with Will, the hopeful songwriter from Nashville. They promised to keep a watch over my place when possible.

I laughed wondering where they’ve been for the last three years that I’ve lived on my own. Pete was the oldest and had been with the pipeline the longest. He was a divorced man married to his work now.

From talking with newest customers, those with the pipeline, I learned that some stories were interesting, sad, and funny to say the least; but I most wanted to know about the redhead sitting with an older man with leathered dark skin, an obvious pipe worker aged by the constant sunshine and who I assumed was Paul. Once in a while I would catch the redhead glance my way. Eventually his partner left for the night, and he moved to his same seat at the far side of the bar.

I made my way toward him. “Hey there.”

He nodded. “Annie, how are you this fine evening?” He was relatively pleasant sounding, but sarcasm dripped off the question.

I took away the empty glass in front of him. “Tired.” I forced a smile. “How about yourself?”

He sighed. “Good, considering all this.” He waved a wide arch around him.

I didn’t want to ask what the gesture meant. He didn’t seem much into small talk tonight, and remembering last night’s quick exit, possible ever. I slowly moved away and continued to clean. The evening had turned to night, and even though most customers had cashed out there was still a tremendous mess left behind.

I was loading dishes into the sink at the other end of the bar. Mickey was in his usual spot telling a tale of the latest affair he heard about while pumping gas in town. “The sun will come tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow…” someone sang, and I quickly turned around. The red headed gentleman diverted his eyes to his drink, but couldn’t help look up at my reaction.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“That is who you were named after, right? Although, she didn’t have blonde straight hair. I can’t image it was after Annie Oakley either, so I’m guessin’ your mom just loved the musical. Am I right?” It was the most I’d heard him say to me since he was there.

“Yeah, you’re right, Mister…?”

I was getting his name one way or another.

“James, just James… no Mr.”

Well that was better than nothing. “So, James, why the interest in my name, and it seems to me like you’ve had a bad day today.”

He grumbled. “Nah, not a bad day, just not exactly where I want to be.”

I now stood right in front of him and really looked at him. He was young, but not young like Will, the songwriter, or AJ, the recent high school graduate, and he wasn’t old like Billy, or the man I noticed him sitting with earlier. He was handsome in a rugged way but his eyes also showed something else. They were sad.

“Miss!” Another local at the bar shouted. He waved a ten-dollar bill in the air with one hand and had his arm around his laughing girlfriend with the other. “Can I get change before we leave?”

I jerked back from my trance realizing I was staring longer than the few seconds than I thought. I turned around and could feel my face grow warm with embarrassment. I quickly made the change and looked back at James. He was tossing back peanuts, but clearly there was a smile plastered on his face. He caught me.

Chapter 5

Wednesday morning I woke up by seven. I couldn’t sleep. I put on coffee and opened the balcony door. There was a small group of pipeline workers gathered outside the bakery next door. “Mornin’,” Vince bellowed, holding up his coffee giving cheers. “We didn’t wake you, did we?”

“Good morning, gentlemen, and no, I just couldn’t sleep,” I laughed. “And I’ll be even better when my coffee is done.”

He walked up to the balcony and tossed a pastry bag skyward. “Here, this chocolate chip muffin will make that coffee even more perfect.”

Reaching out, I caught the bag. “Yes it will, thank you!”

It smelled fresh and still felt warm. As I was telling them to have a good day I noticed the familiar yellow baseball cap walk out the door. James took a long sip off his coffee and glanced my way. He nodded once in acknowledgement and walked to the driver’s side of the truck.

My phone rang making me leave my vantage point. I threw my muffin onto the counter before answering. “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s Laura,” my sister said, out of breath. “Sorry it’s so early. I can never get the time difference right. So how is everything back home? I haven’t talked to you in a while.”

I filled her in on my new neighbors and how busy I was at work. She told me of the new puppy she was hoping to get soon, and how her husband’s new papers were being processed, and that they might be coming back stateside very soon. For the next ten minutes we caught up with each other since the last call a week before.

I spent the rest of the morning cleaning house and doing laundry. By lunchtime I was in the mood to get away from the apartment and bar.

I debated shopping and what I needed for the apartment from the grocery store, but before I attempted the trip to the super center I needed to grab a bite to eat. The muffin from this morning had long been worked off.

As I sat in the sub shop eating lunch I began to feel sorry for myself.

“Where the heck did that come from?”

I have long been an introvert, a loner of sorts and actually loved this quality about myself. I could shop for hours by myself or curl up and read a 500-page novel in a weekend. It has been satisfying to me, but just talking to my sister this morning gave me this tremendous sense of loneliness. She had Matt and traveled all around the world with him. And their friends numbered more than the citizens of this town. I realize my two best friends were my landlord-slash-boss and Sassy, my overweight free-spirited tabby cat.

My grandma and grandpa are still well and alive. They lived about half a mile outside of town in a picture-perfect country house, complete with a white picket fence and a bird feeder hanging from each tree. Their house and landscaping also represents my life growing up—picture perfect, yet I am not as close to them as even the man who hands me a paycheck.

I look around at the other familiar faces in the restaurant. This town is very small, and everybody eventually learns everything about everyone. Neighbors say hi when you pass them in the street, and as I quietly watch a couple of residents eat and talk, I can easily run down their life histories. I know their kids, and where they work, and the street they live on.

At twenty-one most of my friends are still in college or have found new lives outside the state. A small tear creeps down my face. Sadly, I envy both groups.

“Annie?” Sylvia, an elderly friend of my grandma had walked up behind me. “Are you ok, sweetie?”

I quickly wiped my face and snapped out of my daydream forcing a smile, “Oh yes ma’am, just finishing up my lunch.”

She patted my shoulder as she walked by. “Keep your chin up, and tell your grandma hello from me when you talk to her.”

Nodding, I grabbed my empty cup and tray and headed to the trash can. I no longer felt like shopping, and I certainly didn’t want to run into anyone else while feeling sorry for myself, so I headed back to the bar. It would be quiet there, and I could easily find something to do.

After deep cleaning the bathrooms and reorganizing the supply closet I quickly realized the irritating sound of silence. As much as I wanted to be alone I still need company, even the nonhuman kind. I turned on the jukebox and switched the setting to continuous play and then turned the volume up. Sneezing after reaching behind the jukebox I remembered another chore, dusting. That was a definite must. I grabbed the rag and spray and danced around to an upbeat country song. Just as I began shouting the lyrics into the can I heard laughter from the doorway.

Watching me with a grin on his face was James No-Last-Name. “No, don’t stop. You are a great singer.” He applauded me.

I threw down the cleaning supplies and quickly pulled the jukebox plug bringing the silence back to the room. I was completely embarrassed. “What are you doing here? It’s only four o’clock.” It was then that I noticed rain was pounding the windows.

“Early end to the day.” He continued to smile and nodded to where I was looking. “Is Mr. Cantrell around? I need to let him know the ceiling in our bathroom is leaking. “

I couldn’t look him in the eye, and my face was as hot as fire. “No, he won’t be here until five o’clock. I was just cleaning.”

“I know. I saw.” He chuckled.

I ignored him and used the cordless phone on the table nearby to call Joey. He quickly answered and said, “Let him know I’ll meet them in the apartment in fifteen minutes.”

James turned to leave and smiling he said, “I’ll see you later Annie. Maybe we can do a duet when I come back.” He quickly shut the door behind him as he left. Lucky for him, because the can of cleaner ricocheted off the doorframe as I kicked it across the room.

Chapter 6

The shower was good, so good, in fact, that the thought of leaving dampened my mood, and I remembered having to get ready to face James again at the bar.

But oddly enough, instead of throwing on my old clothes and forgoing makeup I found myself trying on outfits and checking my reflection in the mirror. I dried my hair and ran a curling iron through the strands to give it lift instead of piling the wet mound onto the top of my head and clipping it down. I actually wanted to look good.

But why did I care? I haven’t tried to impress anyone since my prom date during my senior year. And looking back I actually wanted to catch the eye of Monica’s date, Jeremy, who even if I stood in front of him naked with a blinking neon arrow pointing to my goods would still find a way to ignore me.

That was my life in high school, invisible Annie. Mostly, I wanted it that way, but I guess after graduating and watching everyone move on you can quickly realize that certain untaken opportunities might have actually made a social life a lot easier if handled differently.

I loved theater but refused to try out for the senior play for fear of what the ‘cool’ kids who I sat with at lunch would think. And then I also sat out cheerleading tryouts because my friends in the French club despised the dumb blondes bouncing around the field. So, I pleased everyone, but me… and Jeremy.

I laughed thinking about him. I may work at a bar and have a cat for a roommate, but my situation was far more promising than his. He had married Monica right after high school, and they had twin baby girls the following year. He never went to college with the football scholarship he was offered and now works on the second shift at the shirt factory in town. They live with Monica’s parents. To make the situation more comical, he gained at least forty pounds and began to already lose his hair. I don’t envy that nor do I look to impress him anymore when he wanders into Joey’s. And even at my worst, he sits on the stool and tries to flirt with me. I now imagine smashing that neon arrow over his head, and that is why it was so funny to me.

As I walked out the bathroom door I stopped and opened the medicine cabinet searching for the pink bottle with the purple cube top. I sprayed myself with perfume, made a final check in the mirror, and headed downstairs to the bar. I felt a smile creep onto my lips. It had been a while since I felt so good about myself.

The rain was still pounding outside. I slammed the door behind me as I entered the bar. If it rained during the week even the regulars stayed home, so I expected the workers might be the only ones to show that evening. By six thirty there was still nobody there.

“Quiet night,” Joey commented. “I think I’ll head into the office for a while, but let me know if a crowd surges in here and you need help.”

“Ok, will do. Everyone must be scared of the rain,” I answered, grabbing the newspaper and climbing on a barstool. I was disappointed. Where was everyone?

Like an answer to my question the bell above the door jingled to life a few minutes later. A coat fashioned into a tarp covered a figure that ducked quickly inside.

“Cats and dogs don’t have anything on that. It’s more like cows and horses coming down out there,” James said as he shook off the rain from the coat and draped it over the back of the stool. He looked around. “Are you even open?” he asked. “It’s dead in here.”

“I was just going to ask you where all the guys were? I began to think everyone left town.” I felt the disappointment start to leave.

“Well, Billy, Josh, and Phil never miss church on Wednesday night, and everyone else is playing poker. It’s been tradition to hold poker night Wednesday night to help everyone get through the rest of the week,” he explained.

“What about you? Why aren’t you there?”

“I’m no good at poker. Plus, I can think of better things to do.”

I smiled, blushing and walked around the bar. I poured him his favorite beer into a tall mug.

He winked and drank a long swallow ending with a loud sigh of approval.

“Looks like it’s just us, Little Orphan Annie.”

I pretended to not hear his nickname for me but decided it would be a long night if I ignored him completely. I grabbed a glass of ice water and bowl of mixed nuts, and slid into the stool diagonally from him. That is when I noticed how ruggedly handsome his face was. His eyes were a soft blue and his cologne reminded me of a sample from a recent ad in a sports magazine I was forced to read in the dentist’s waiting room last week.

He watched me scrutinize his face. “Well, looks like you want to talk so go ahead… ask what’s on your mind.”

I threw a handful of nuts into my mouth and slowly chewed making him wait while gathering my thoughts. I took a drink of water adding to the suspense. “I am just curious about who you are, James Doe. Tell me about yourself.”

“First, my last name isn’t Doe, it’s Murphy.” Lifting his hat he continued, “As you can tell I’m Irish, and I come from a devout Catholic family. My mom is Caroline and my dad is Michael…well stepdad, but he’s all I’ve ever known as a dad. I have a younger brother named Eric. We had a pretty uneventful childhood growing up in Texas. My mom stays at home, my dad owns a bar outside Houston, and my brother manages a catering business.

“When I was right out of high school I learned of the pipeline, and found out that they made a lot of money. I signed up as soon as they’d take me. Then, on break one winter I got married on a whim and when she found out my job would continue to take me out of town she left me.” He paused to take a drink, and I did the same, waiting for him to continue.

If he was waiting for me to be shocked I didn’t let on that I was. He looked down at the glass.

“I didn’t want to work the pipeline all my life, but I wasn’t a talented chef like Eric. In fact, I wasn’t talented in anything, so physical work was all I knew. Honestly, what I want to do the most is work with my dad or Eric, and learn to do what they do so well. One day I want to be there with my brother carrying on our father’s legacy. Seems like nothing more than a pipe dream I know, but it’s something I work every day toward which is more than most people do. But instead of slowing down they keep working me harder and in turn promoted me to supervisor. It’s hard to want to quit that… even if it’s something I really don’t like to do.” He suddenly stopped and looked up. “Sorry, I don’t get to talk much, and when I do most people don’t want to take the time to listen. Rambling on can be a bad habit. It’s your turn. Talk to me.”

I started from the beginning tell of my loving mom and her early marriage to my father. How my sister and I not only faced the changes of the move to Pennsylvania but also my mom’s sudden diagnosis and death. He sat and listened in silence.

“I know what you mean about not wanting to waste your time working in a job that’s not ideal. I want to go to college more than anything. I’ve been saving everything I can, and will continue to save until I get there, no matter how long I have to wait.” I was embarrassed for telling my secret.

Instead of stopping, I found myself going on. “And I want to own something, more than one something I guess… a house, a car, a boat. I want it all. More than my parents ever had.” I paused, thinking my mom never even had a house. We moved from an apartment to my grandparents’ house. Then she was gone. How sad to just realize that fact. It took a minute to rewind to where I left off. “And I want even more, like children, and a better future for them than what I had.”

James stopped me to ask a question. “Sorry, but do you know what you want to go to school for?”

“Yeah, but not as specific as I’d like,” I said. “I want to be in charge.”

“In charge? That’s it?” He laughed.

I smiled. “Yeah, in charge--like a teacher to a classroom, or a lawyer to a courtroom, or even a business owner. Like I said before. I want more than I had growing up, more than my mom had.”

“Well even though I had an ideal childhood with the picture-perfect family, I still ended up doing something that I wasn’t meant to do. Don’t get me wrong, I want a family, too, but it’s too hard for me to start over as far as school goes. It’s harder for me at thirty-two years old to go back than for you to start now.” He drank the last of his beer and I stood up to get him a refill. While behind the counter I opened a jar of pickles and quietly offered one to James willing him to continue.

Instead he changed the subject. “What do you do besides dream of college?”

I realized the depth the conversation took and was glad to make the switch. “Well, as you witnessed today it’s singing and dancing. My namesake would be proud.”

The easy conversation continued until ten o’clock. Joey had joined in about an hour before, and the three of us laughed and learned about each other while sharing our stories. I felt that it was a good evening and fought to hide my disappointment since it was unfortunately quickly coming to a close. James said his goodbyes ten minutes later, and I had changed into pajamas and was in bed by ten thirty.

The television was on, but I didn’t even know what was on the screen. I was thinking back through the evening and replaying the conversation with James from the beginning. Of course I remembered what he had said, but it wasn’t the words I was thinking about, it was his mouth as he laughed, his eyes as they thought back to his past, and the way he motioned with his hands as he talked. These traits are what I didn’t want to forget about tonight. They were also the last thing I thought about before falling asleep.

Chapter 7

Thursdays were usually a day off for me. Joey would have his nephew work the bar on those evenings, and this was the day I usually spent visiting my grandparents. I would help Gram in the garden or Pap in the garage. Whatever they needed I was there to help. When I woke up that morning I called them to get a grocery list. Today it was a small one: spaghetti, coffee, and a small bag of oranges. Even though Joey would let me borrow his car each Thursday I usually decided to take my bike. Today was no exception; especially considering the three items she needed would fit perfectly into a backpack. Gram and Pap were only three miles from where I lived, and the store was about halfway to their house. The rain yesterday had moved out and brought cooler air. It was a beautiful day for a ride.

My grandma was kneeling at the flowerbed when I rode up behind her. She was looking closely between the rose bushes and concentrating on something against the house. I knelt beside her and tilted my head to see what she was looking at. There was a baby rabbit scared and hovering in the corner. “If it wasn’t so darn cute I’d be mad it. Look at what her family did to my lettuce patch.” She pointed to the left. What looked like a line of bare dirt must have been where the lettuce once stood.

“Gram, get up here and give me a hug.” I held out my hand to help her as I stood and took off my backpack.

She slowly got up. “So, girly, tell me what you’ve been up to this past week. Have the pipeline workers kept you busy at work?”

“Yes.” It’s all I could say. I stared off to where the bunny still hid and thought about James.

“That’s it? That’s the only answer to how was your week?” She asked.

“It’s been good. I have been talking with someone, a new friend.”

She looked at me with squinting eyes. I knew that look. She was trying to figure out what I meant. “You met a man?” she finally asked.

“Yeah, I met a lot of men this week, more than this town’s seen in years. That’s all that’s here working on the pipeline. But I have only really talked to one,” I answered.

She wrapped her arm around my waist and led me up the back steps. “Let’s get some lemonade, and you can tell me all about this fellow.”

As I sat at the table waiting for my lemonade I realized how much I looked forward to my Thursdays. Gram and Pap are the only family left around me. I know Laura is still my sister, but she is halfway across the world, and not available at the drop of a hat. I see Gram rub her knuckles and know her arthritis is bothering her, even though she won’t say it is.

As young as my mom was when she had my sister and me, was as old as Gram was when my mom was born. Pap met Gram when he was thirty-six. She was one year younger and a nurse who just moved into town. When she was fresh out of college she married her longtime friend, and four years later he died in a mining accident. They never had children, and to get over the loss she absorbed herself in work. The hospital she worked for had closed, and she went where the next job opportunity was.

She had filled in for the factory nurse where he worked for a few weeks, and when her assignment ended Pap asked her to go to dinner. After three years of dating they finally got married. They tried to have a baby right away but weren’t successful. After almost four years and giving up hope Sara was born two days before her forty second birthday.

Gram and I talked for the next three hours, and the lemonade pitcher slowly became empty. We ate lunch, snapped beans, and cleaned the kitchen together without skipping a beat. She giggled with me as I talked about James, but she warned me to not get too attached because he would be leaving soon. She didn’t want to be picking pieces of my broken heart up off the floor. I laughed at the mental picture she created in my head.

And as I said my goodbyes I hugged her tight. I knew that with each hug it might be our last. I took in the smell of her shirt – lavender and arthritis cream, and then I walked up to Pap sitting in the living room watching golf on the television. I put my hand on his noting how cold it felt and knelt down to give him a hug as well. He whispered his love for me into my hair and told me his usual, ‘Be careful riding that bike home’ words of caution. I recited his speech along with him knowing every word that he’d say next. He was nothing if not predictable. That much was certain.

By four o’clock I was home, curled up on the couch with a tall glass of milk and cookies and just opening a crisp new romance novel when there was a soft knock on the front door. I removed a sleeping Sassy from my lap and opened the door. There stood James with a nervous smile on his face.

Chapter 8

Surprised. That is the only thing I felt. I was speechless. After what felt like an hour I finally asked what he needed.

“I need a favor. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind going somewhere with me,” he said, not showing any emotion. He carried such a quiet and reserved attitude that it made him seem almost unfriendly.

“Oh, you want me to go somewhere? Right now?” I smoothed my hands down my shirt trying to get the wrinkles out. Then I quickly ran my fingers through my hair.

“Well I need to hurry. They will be closing soon.” He checked his watch. “I think I’ll make it if we go now.”

I glanced back at my milk and cookies, and Sassy looked up from where she was taking her nap and yawned. There certainly wasn’t much I was walking away from. So, I grabbed my wallet and keys and followed him out the door not even answering his request.

At the bottom of the stairs James turned and waited for me to join him.

“I hear Carmen’s is the only flower shop in town, is that right?”

“Yes. Is that where we’re going?”

“Uh huh. It’s down on the left, isn’t it?

I had no idea what to think, but I followed his line of questioning. “That’s right.”

Within five minutes we opened the door to Carmen’s. The owner herself was rearranging the window display.

“Hey girl! How have you been?” She gave me a hug. She curiously eyed James. “What can I get you guys?”

“That’s a good question,” I replied, also looking in his direction.

“Can you please give us a minute?” James quietly asked Carmen.

She moved back to the window. “Definitely! I’ll be right over here when you’re ready.”

He walked to the cooler and looked back and forth over each arrangement taking in each type of flower, the colors, and the sizes. I looked at each one as well and after five long minutes couldn’t take the suspense any longer. “Why are we here anyway?”

“I need to find a good one. It’s my mom’s birthday tomorrow, and I want to call something in to be delivered to her. I just don’t know which one to get. I want something she’ll like to look at and something that smells good too. This just isn’t my thing and I thought a woman’s opinion would make it easier.” He never took his eyes off the flowers as he talked.

I scanned the selection again and finally pointed to one of medium size with purples, pinks and yellows. There were daises, carnations, a few roses, and beautiful large lilies. “That’s the one right there. Any woman would like that. Lilies are not only beautiful and exotic, they smell fantastic too.”

I stepped outside while he placed the order allowing him the privacy to make arrangements. There was a bench strategically placed in front of the flower shop. I sat and thought about what just happened in the past fifteen minutes.

I was shocked to see James at my door, more surprised to learn where we were going, and confused as to what his motive was for going there. I was nervous, anxious, excited, and scared, and finally impressed and touched to learn who the flowers were actually for. I would love to have been able to give flowers to my mom on her birthday, and I knew most sons would not even think about attempting such a gesture, especially while working out of state. That was amazing to witness.

I was deep in thought when James walked up behind me and gently touched my back. I jerked back to the moment and looked over my shoulder.

“You’re right. They do smell fantastic. Thank you for your help,” he said. There laying on my shoulder was a lily.

And once again, I found myself surprised.

Chapter 9

I usually dreaded Fridays. It was the first of two long days, and they usually ended with busy and even longer nights. Today, however, I woke up in a great mood. As much as I wanted to sleep longer I couldn’t shut down my mind. I lay in bed with the covers over my head and smiled. I could barely see the sunlit trees blowing in the breeze through the shear curtains. I was in my bed cave. The temperatures were to climb in into the high ninety’s today, an oddity for late June in Pennsylvania. The window air conditioner continuously blew cool air across the bed keeping me buried deep under the covers, but I kept smiling.

After we left the floral shop last evening James quickly dropped me back off at my apartment. I was taken aback by the flower, but part of me hoped he would have asked me to dinner or to go somewhere else just to spend more time with him. The other part remembered the old cut off sweats and raggedy t-shirt I had on and was anxious to get back home.

Once inside my apartment though my heart was racing. I put my flower in water and caught myself looking at it all evening. I called and left a message for Laura telling her about what happened. When I hung up I realized how much I was overreacting and remembered my Gram’s advice. By the time I fell asleep I had talked myself down from the cloud I was floating on. Now, roughly eight hours later I was back in space again with my thoughts all clouded and confused.

It took a while, but I finally willed myself out of my blanket cocoon. I had a lot to do that day. I needed to talk with the admissions office at the community college about starting courses in the fall, and I needed to pinpoint a major. I had been saving up to attend college and had quite a bit in savings. I was mostly procrastinating because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I aspired to be better but couldn’t decide what direction that meant.

Three months ago, the college sent me a catalog the size of the Pittsburgh phonebook, and I had only started to look at it within the past few weeks. I knew time was not on my side anymore and a decision needed to be made.

Beside the catalog was an application for the scholarships and grants they offered and I needed to get it to the post office before the deadline. In order to afford a car of any kind, and the insurance, rent, tuition, and all the other bills I had, I’d need to use all the help I could find. If it meant filling out applications and following up on grant paperwork I would do it.

The issue with James would have to wait; however, knowing that I would probably see him within the next few hours did anything but ease the anxiety.

I grabbed my coffee and the catalog and sat down at the table. With a highlighter and stack of post-it notes I set out to make my decision.

Bypassing all sections telling about the school, the enrollment requirements and biographies on the professors I made it to Courses and Classes section. As I went through each letter of the alphabet I became more discouraged. Nothing stood out. There was nothing I wanted to do or felt that I would like to try.

Two cups of coffee, a bagel, and lunch later I was nearing the end of the section. Just as I was getting discouraged I stopped on one heading–Restaurant and Hotel Management. This is something I knew. I had firsthand experience with working at Joey’s, and I enjoyed it. I loved working with customers and making the bar more profitable. I practically ran the place when he wasn’t there. Why would I want to change directions now?

Knowing the mailman would arrive at one thirty I was holding the scholarship and grant package out the door when he arrived and had the admissions office on the phone at the same time. Thirty minutes later I was registered for fall classes and could only think of one thought. I had to tell James the good news.

Chapter 10

Usually, I make a casserole or large meal on Friday afternoon. It got me through the long night and then I also have leftovers for the rest of the weekend. Today I decided on baked spaghetti.

After speaking with the admissions office, I set to work on my food project. I loved being in the kitchen and even though I know I’m not the best chef I wished I could cook for more than just one. If the final creation was really big I’d take a large dish to work for Joey and anyone else brave enough to eat my cooking.

After two hours in the kitchen my eight pounds of spaghetti finally emerged from the oven. I had taken a shower and gotten ready while it was baking. I knew I only had a few minutes to spare so I ate as quickly as I could and dished out a small container for the next two days.

With potholders on each handle I carried most of the dinner out the door. One thing I’ve learned on my own is that leftovers may last for a few days, but I can quickly grow tired of any dish. There was no way I would ever finish that amount, and wouldn’t want to anyway.

As I rounded the corner by the stairs I ran straight into Vince and Will coming in from work. They apologized and took in a big whiff from the food I was carrying.

“Yummmmy… Where are you taking my dinner?” Will asked as I passed him.

I laughed. “If you hurry you might catch some left downstairs. It’s a Friday tradition I have.”

Other workers standing around turned their heads and sniffed the air. It reminded me of a pack of dogs hunting fresh meat.

At the bar I noticed Joey has already pulled out plates and the few mismatched forks he’d accumulated. I called out to let him know dinner was served, and in record time he was behind the counter scooping out a helping.

“What would you do without me?” I asked.

After swallowing his first big bite he answered, “Get remarried to someone who actually likes to cook, or eat more takeout.”

Within fifteen minutes the pipeline crew began arriving led by Will and Vince. Word got out about the free dinner, and you could tell they were starving. I now wished I would have made more. I should have accounted for the extra mouths, and being my newest neighbors, I certainly didn’t mind offering my home cooking to them.

I became server as the line formed by the spaghetti. The next to the last person was James. He was talking to the man behind him about a problem with a piece of equipment that took most of his time that day. He absently held out his hand and took the plate not paying attention to who handed it to him or even what it was. He took a bite while still talking and stopped in mid-sentence. I watched his reaction. He opened his eyes and nodded, and after seeing me behind the counter gave a thumbs-up. “That’s very good Annie. Did you make it?”

“Uh huh,” I quickly replied noting how impressed he was. I handed the last man in line a plate. There was just enough left for a final small helping. Watching everyone eat, I realized that moment might have been the quietest the bar full of customers might have ever been.

Chapter 11

“Drink, Drink, Drink!” The crowd chanted. I made the mistake of telling Billy I’d never taken a shot of liquor. He thought it was necessary to buy me one and made it whiskey. I fought hard to not have to drink it, but when Joey joined in with the chanting I knew it was a losing battle.

Before I lost my nerve, I picked up the glass and threw back my head. Immediately my throat was on fire, then my belly burned, and I gasped for air. The room busted out in laughter, and before I knew it I was able to breathe and joined them. I didn’t want to admit it was the nastiest thing I ever laid my lips on, and that was my mistake. Fifteen minutes later another one was in front of me, and the chanting began all over again.

I felt like I was on display. Everyone stared at me, and the pressure grew with every second. I shook my head and tried to divert the attention away, but the crowd wouldn’t allow it. They were now screaming and cheering, and fists thumped the bar. I announced it was my last one, and in thirty minutes it would be theirs too because it was last call. I drank the shot in a much smoother gulp but again gasped at the warmth.

Immediately my mind began to fog, and I felt relaxed, hoping my legs would hold me up. The crowd seemed satisfied with the second shot and slowly began to leave. As I finished cleaning I made my way to James who pushed the shot glass of clear liquid toward me. “Now finish with this.”

I shook my head. “No thank you. I have had enough for tonight.”

“Do you trust me?” He looked up at me.

“You haven’t given me a reason not to yet”.

“Josh thought I needed this, but I want to share it with you. You probably poured this many times and didn’t even know what it tasted like,” he said.

The lime gave it away. “That’s the best tequila we have.”

He nodded and adjusted his baseball cap.

I stared at him debating why I shouldn’t do it. We were practically closed. There was nobody left in the bar, and I didn’t have to be back until that next afternoon. What the heck. I took out another shot glass and poured another one to match the one on the bar.

“Only if you do it too,” I said.

“Fair enough.” We toasted and took our shots at the same time.

By the time my glass landed back on the bar I knew I didn’t need to take any more. The room definitely seemed to move, or maybe it was my eyes, but regardless, it wasn’t the way it should have been. I had to sit down. As I pulled up the stool James stopped me. “Don’t sit down just yet.”

He added three quarters to the jukebox and paged through the songs. Pressing his choices into the keypad he walked back and held out his hand before the song even began.

He was so handsome, but I resisted the urge to just reach out and take it.

Annie’s Song began to play. I didn’t know that song was even on the jukebox. I opened my mouth but could only whisper the words. “My mother would sing that song to me.” I finally gave in and accepted his invitation to dance.

Ironically, just as he took me in his arms and pulled me close Joey turned off the main lights. Whether it was perfect timing or he was encouraging romance was his secret.

Because the only light left was on the jukebox I could only see his face when he turned toward the light. I looked in his eyes for a brief second, but as I heard the lyrics of the chorus it brought back memories from fifteen years before, and I had to look away so he didn’t see my face. Once again, I felt lonely even standing in someone’s arms.

As the song ended James continued to hold me until I broke his hold and pulled away. I was instantly light headed. It could have been the dancing in a circle, the alcohol, the company, or all of the above. “I need to get home. I just hope I can walk there.” I laughed, stumbled to the stool, and placed my hand on the seat for support.

“Let me walk you.” James put his arm lightly around my shoulders. He steered me toward the door, and I locked up behind us. Within minutes we were at my front door.

“Thank you… for the dance, and for walking me home,” I told him.

He nodded. “You’re welcome” and backed up a step. I walked forward closing the gap once again and gave him a hug and kissed him on the cheek. His smell was intoxicating and resisting every urge a twenty-one-year-old female has I knew, I needed to get out of there immediately. I quickly said goodnight, turned and went inside my apartment. I stood with my heart pounding and back to the door knowing that if he was still on the other side he could surely hear my chest drumming against the wood.

Little did I know, he was on the other side of the door. And he was wondering the exact same thing about me.

Chapter 12

I didn’t sleep at all that night. As much as my head was spinning from the alcohol it was also tossing around memories of dancing, wishes for more time, and hopes for another meeting soon.

By the time the sun was beginning to crest the horizon I could hardly keep my eyes open. Around six o’clock am I must have fallen asleep, and by noon I was awakened by the sound of power tools.


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