With deepest thanks to Day, Betty, Carol and Mom, my intrepid band of beta readers for their skill, consistent excellence, and invaluable contributions to my stories. As you all sayeth, so shall it be written - even when we don't necessarily agreeth. <g>
If you'd like to comment, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
"What d'ya mean Cara's gone to be a nun?" I stared at my best friend, Yvonne, in disbelief. "We've got a date for this Friday."
"I suspect she's not going to keep it."
I hate it when she gets sarcastic on me. "How you do know for sure she's gone? Who told you?"
"Marlon's Aunt Jean ran into Cara's mother at Bingo last night and she told her that Cara had just gone off to some place in Montreal - a school run by nuns or something. Jean told Marlon, and he told me at work this morning."
Yvonne looked awfully smug, but she always did like to be first with the latest news bulletin. Personally, I think that's why she went into hairdressing. Marlon's shop is Ground Zero for gossip in this one - horse town.
"I don't believe it. Cara would've called me. She wouldn't just go off and not tell me."
"She would if her inheriting daddy's money was in jeopardy."
Callous, but, I had to admit, probably true. "I just know Mrs. Richardson is behind this. She's hated me from the get - go. She's been trying to break us up all along."
"What 'breaking - up'? You've had all of what...five or six dates? It's not like you even got past first base."
That hurt. The subject of my unwelcome, unplanned, unbelievably annoying celibacy was a definite sore spot. Besides, Cara was the one who asked me out in the first place, so she must've been interested, right? Who knew what might've happened with enough time.
"Anyway, Leni," my former best friend went on, "don't you start your new night shift on Friday? How were you planning to have a date with Cara?"
I waved that off. "I don't have to be in to work until eleven. Lots of time to wine 'er and dine 'er."
If you could stretch that concept to mean a couple of beers I'd smuggled out of my brother's stash and a late night pit stop at Mickey D's. I wasn't exactly flush in the money department these days, and it was putting a severe crimp in my love life. My current lack of wheels didn't help either, but I planned to use the extra pay I was to get for working nights to fix up my '93 Corolla. I'd be off those busses in no time, then - ladies of Langston Heights, watch out!
I could see Yvonne was struggling not to laugh. The worst thing about having a best friend who's known me since I was in diapers is that I can't put anything past her. Usually, Yvonne, who started dating when she was fourteen, was pretty considerate about not teasing me. After all, we'd agreed that it was way harder for me than for Von. She's had boys falling all over her since she grew boobs at eleven, and she was practiced in the art of keeping their interest.
The only time boys were of any interest to me was if they had an extra glove or stick so I could play in their games too. But I was sure getting tired of being alone - romantically speaking. Actually, being alone in my house was a statistical impossibility. My parents believed in large and extended families, and at last count there were two parents, one grandmother, a great - aunt, and five siblings living there with me. I was lucky to get to use the bathroom alone!
At the other extreme, Cara was an only child, and if Mrs. Richardson hadn't been so paranoid about leaving me alone with her daughter, there were any number of places in her father's nineteen - room Colonial where we could've found some privacy. Then it would've just been a matter of letting nature take its course...I think. Truthfully, sometimes I suspected Cara hung out with me more to piss off her mother than because of my charms.
But it sounded like it was all moot now. Morose, I tapped a cigarette out of my nearly empty pack and lit up. I didn't even have to look to know Yvonne was frowning at me.
"I thought you told me you were going to quit for sure this time."
"I am, honest, Von. I've already cut down to under a half pack a day." I carefully blew the smoke away from Yvonne. We were sitting outside Marlon's shop on a bench, but fresh air or not, she'd freak on me if the smoke got in her face.
"My break's over. I've got to get back to work." Yvonne stalked off, deliberately stepping in a wide circle around me so she didn't get in my smoke zone.
It didn't tick me off. I knew where she was coming from. Her dad had died of lung cancer five years ago when we were seventeen, and she'd been a rabid anti - smoker ever since. If I hadn't begun smoking a year before her dad kicked it, I'd never have started. As it was, I just hadn't gotten around to quitting yet. I did try not to indulge when I was around Yvonne, but I think that learning your girlfriend has left you to go be a nun is pretty good justification for a smoke.
The rumble of one of Langston's ancient busses sounded from down the street. It was my route number so I carefully butted the cigarette, put it back in the pack, and stood to catch my ride.
On the way home to the old, two - story Victorian that had housed my family ever since my folks tied the knot almost twenty - five years ago, I gloomily pondered my next move. I knew that even if I went to confront Mrs. Richardson and demanded to know Cara's whereabouts, all I'd get was a triumphant smirk and an order to get my sorry ass off her property. So I guessed me and Cara were history.
I thought about that for a bit. It wasn't like I was head over heels in love with Cara or anything, but pickings were pretty slim hereabouts. Langston Heights had more than tripled in size since I was a kid, but I seemed to lack the secret password that would allow me access into the local lesbian network - if there was such a thing. I could leave here and go into the city in search of women, but I loved this sleepy old town, and my family and friends.
On the other hand, I'd be twenty - three come my next birthday, and I was really bummed about being without a partner. Still, if I moved to the city, would it be any better? What if the city women wouldn't give me a chance? What if the only dykes they'd look twice at were career driven, college educated, big - money - making women with cool apartments and hot rides?
It wasn't like I qualified on any of those grounds, though I had graduated from high school and worked steadily ever since. It's just that money seemed to have a way of slipping through my fingers; even the paperboy would've scorned the current puny state of my bank account.
By the time I reached my stop, two blocks from home, I had depressed myself into a deep funk. Life sucked!
Friday came, and instead of making out with Cara in the alley behind Langston's new multiplex, I spent the evening playing canasta with my great - aunt Helene, for whom I'd been named. Me and her get along terrific, but playing cards with my aged relative wasn't exactly my idea of a hot Friday night.
After she beat me for the sixth straight time, I looked up at the clock. "Gotta go, Auntie H. I gotta get to work."
She chuckled. She knew as well as I did that I didn't have to be at work for another hour and a half, but she was merciful. "Run along then, Leni. You don't want to be late for your first shift." As I slid my cards across the table to her, she added, "When you go up to change, see if Ronnie is interested in taking your place. I feel like I might even be able to beat her tonight."
"Okay." It was mildly depressing that my baby sister could out - card shark me on her worst day, but twelve - year - old Ronnie, who was always at the top of her class, was regarded as the family brain. I'm not sure what I was regarded as - the family failure? The family freak?
Apparently I hadn't quite shaken the melancholy slump I'd been in all week as thoroughly as I'd thought. But damn it, even Ronnie had some pimply - faced pipsqueak mooning after her! Where was my other half? I had to have one somewhere, didn't I?
I summoned Ronnie away from the computer, much to the delight of our brother, Kevin, who'd been pestering her for his turn, and then got dressed for my new job.
One advantage - if you can call it that - of being the second oldest, was that my mother taught me to cook early on. Nothing fancy, mind you, but good, rib - sticking stuff that would feed a table full of hungry mouths. Which led to me becoming a short - order cook at a local diner before I even left high school. Which in turn led me to my new job as a baker at the Jester's Court, the busiest restaurant and bakery in the town.
The Jester's Court was pretty much the only decent place out on the highway for a hundred miles in either direction. It got a ton of business from travelers who wouldn't have given Langston Heights a second glance if they weren't dying for a pee break, a sugar high, and a caffeine fix before covering the last stretch of Route 93 into the city.
It was a change from flipping burgers and making chili to producing doughnuts and cakes and pies, but I figured I'd handle it alright. Cooking and baking are pretty elemental, and my only real concern was how to get a decent eight hours of daytime sleep in my noisy house now that I was working midnights.
I looked in the mirror, shaking my head at the image reflected back at me. I'm skinnier than a toothpick, so the brand new shirt and pants weren't exactly flattering. And the hat I had to wear... Geez, why didn't I just wear a sign reading "dork"?
Sighing, I tucked the cloth hat in my back pocket and grabbed my old trench coat out of the closet. At least it would cover up most of the uniform.
My sister, Dylan, came in just then. We'd been roommates since she was born, 18 months after me, but we wouldn't be much longer. She'd just gotten engaged to Bernie, her high school sweetheart. She had a big calendar hanging over her bed and was marking off the days until the wedding. I was watching the countdown too, because when she moved out, I'd have a room to myself for the first time in my life. It would be a great relief, if you know what I mean. The only thing that had saved me from tearing my hair out all these years was that a force five hurricane wouldn't have woken my sister once she started sawing logs.
"Wow, aren't you the height of fashion!"
I sneered half - heartedly at my sister. It wasn't like I could argue. Besides, we actually got along pretty well. There were only two real bones of contention between us: she tried to hog more than her fair share of the limited closet space, and she was way too gleeful that she was having sex and I wasn't.
Dylan flopped on her bed with her head down at the wrong end so she could see the sacred calendar. I finished buttoning my coat and was about to leave when she emerged from her pre - connubial bliss just long enough to call after me.
"Herman told me to tell you that the next time you steal any of his beer, he's going to take a crowbar to the Corolla."
Damn! Herman was the last one I wanted to piss off, since I was counting on my older brother's mechanical skills to help me get my car road - worthy again.
"Wasn't me." My denial was automatic, born of a lifetime as one of six kids.
Dylan rolled over and regarded me with amusement. "Of course it was. Mom, Dad, and Grandma don't know where he keeps it. Aunt Helene does, but she'd never take it cuz she only drinks gin. I don't need to steal it since Bernie will buy me anything I want, and Eric is too damned scared to cross Herman. Kevin and Ronnie are too young, so that just leaves you."
It was hard to argue with her logic.
"Leni, Leni, Leni, when are you going to realize that you can never get away with anything? Everyone in this family can read you like an open book. For that matter, everyone in this town can read you!"
I scowled, and left her laughing on her bed while I stomped downstairs. I was on my way out the door when I heard Mom holler from the kitchen.
"Leni, do you want to borrow my van to get to work? I won't need it until the morning."
"No thanks, Mom. I'll just take the bus."
Though it would've been nice not to have to wait for the bus, the last thing I wanted was to pull up to my place of employment on my first shift in my mother's van. She got a great deal on an old VW microbus about five years ago, and in a fit of unsurprising madness, decided to paint it herself. That would've been okay if she'd just gone with one colour, no matter what colour it was. But my mother, indulging delusions of artistic ability, painted big murals on both sides, ala the sixties. You could see my mother's van coming from ten blocks away, no word of a lie!
I lit up as soon as I got out to the sidewalk. Mom and I had reached a truce: I didn't smoke in her house or yard, and she didn't nag me about quitting. It worked for us.
Waiting at the bus stop, I shivered in spite of my coat. Fall was coming on fast, and already you could smell the change in the air. I wondered if I'd have my car running before the first snow fell. Probably not, and I knew Herman would chew my ass anyway if I tried to drive through the winter on my threadbare summer tires. Most of the time I like that he's a licenced mechanic, but sometimes when his big - brotherliness takes over, he's a pain in the neck.
By the time I got to the Jester's Court, I was still over an hour early for my graveyard shift. The night manager was pleased to see me, and he took me around on the usual familiarization tour. Elliot was good about explaining things and showing me the ropes. I'd already done a couple of afternoons of on - job training anyway, so I figured I was ready to handle even the daunting glazing racks and hot fondant filling station.
It was fun work, though I did burn my fingers a couple of times on the liquid icing. Two other cooks handled the short order stuff, and the small wait staff were kept busy running in and out of the kitchen. For the first three hours, the place was hopping - what with long distance truckers, night owl travelers, people coming in after the theatre and bars closed, and kids meeting up here because there weren't any other places to go in Langston Heights after midnight.
By three - thirty, though, things had slowed down. The only ones left in the restaurant were a young couple, mooning at each other over their tenth cup of coffee, so the staff gathered at one of the tables nearest the kitchen for their lunch break. Most of the staff, anyway.
One of the cooks sat off by herself at a nearby table, reading a book while she ate. Elliot hadn't included her when he was introducing me around to my co - workers, and no one even acted like she was there, which I thought was pretty weird. Not wanting to rock the boat, I just ate quietly while I listened to Elliot and the three waitresses - Darla Mae, Ella, and Sharon - tease the other cook, Jules, about his impending departure for a new job in the city.
Jules took it all in good spirit. When he announced that he was going for a smoke break before we went back to work, I hastened to join him. We shivered as we left the warmth of the kitchen for the chill of the night air out behind the restaurant.
"I gotta quit one of these days. It's gettin' so you can't smoke inside anywhere anymore, and I'm too damn old to be hangin' out here in the ice and snow alla time."
I nodded at Jules' statement. I was going to quit, too. Any day now. "So, you looking forward to moving to the city?"
Jules shook his head. "Nope. We're gonna lose out big time on our house. Can't sell for even half of what it'll cost us to buy in the city. But what can you do?"
"Why're you moving then?"
I was surprised to see Jules shoot a nervous look over his shoulder at the kitchen window nearest us. I could see that the other cook, her back turned to us, had returned to work.
"Aw, you know - the wife wants to try life inna city and all."
Jules' mumbled words lacked conviction.
I don't know why I didn't just leave it alone, given my preference not to rock the boat so early in a new job, but I couldn't help asking. "So what's up with the other cook?"
"Yeah. Why's she so standoffish? Does she always eat alone?"
My question clearly made Jules edgy, and for a moment I didn't think he'd answer.
"Yak's just...well, she's kinda anti - social, I guess. She doesn't hang with us much."
Before I could pursue the subject, he tossed his barely smoked butt and ground it under his boot.
"Gotta get back to work."
With that, he headed back into the kitchen, leaving me to finish my cigarette and puzzle over the odd end to the conversation. It was also my introduction to the inscrutable cook. Over the next couple of weeks, as I settled in and got comfortable with my co - workers, I couldn't help covertly watching Yak.
She never sat with us during our lunch breaks, yet she seemed to get along perfectly well with Jules in the kitchen. For that matter, though I didn't have a lot of interaction with her, she was always polite and helpful when I did talk to her. Her seemingly self - imposed isolation didn't make any sense to me, and my curiosity was driving me crazy.
I tried to bring it up again several times when Jules and I would step out for smoke breaks, but he'd shy away from any questions about Yak like he'd been tossed a hot skillet.
I didn't get any further with my amateur detective work until a couple of weeks later, when I met Yvonne downtown for lunch at the diner on my day off. I'd told her a little about Yak and asked her to see if Marlon knew anything about the cook's background. If anyone would know something, Von's boss would.
I was about to begin my interrogation when Yvonne held up her hand.
"Not until I get a cup of coffee, Leni. I've been run off my feet all morning and I haven't had a drop since breakfast."
Yvonne without her hourly coffee is not an amiable companion, so I impatiently held my tongue until her cup was filled. She took her own sweet time adding cream and sugar, and I knew she was doing it deliberately to torment me, which probably meant she had information worth waiting for. It wasn't until Yvonne had emptied her mug and beckoned for a refill that she finally took pity on me.
"Okay, Leni. What do you want to know?"
Yvonne just grinned. "So why's it so important to you? You got the hots for her or something?"
That took me aback, but my automatic denial reflex kicked in. "No, of course not. But it's just so weird, you know? She seems like she'd be an okay person, but nobody even says a word to her unless they absolutely have to. She just does her job, then disappears until the next shift. I don't even know what her real name is."
"Aislin Fergus, but no one ever calls her anything but Yak."
"Yeah, why is that, anyway? Why 'Yak'?"
Yvonne shrugged as she added sugar to her cup. "Marlon says it's because she never says a word unless you drag it out of her. Apparently she's the same way even when he cuts her hair, and you know Marlon could get Marcel Marceau to talk if he was sitting in his chair. He says that the former owner's wife started calling her Yak out of exasperation, and it just sort of stuck."
It was a good start. I knew if anyone would have answers to all my questions about the enigmatic Yak, it would be Yvonne - or more accurately, Marlon. "So what else you got?"
"Well, she's twenty - seven, moved here four years ago and has been working at the Jester's Court ever since."
"And she lives in the old Decker house on Seventh Avenue, doesn't drive, and doesn't seem to have any pets."
"That's it? What about family or friends? Did she move here from the city? What did she do before she got here? You know, any of that kind of stuff."
Yvonne traced her finger around in some spilled sugar and wouldn't meet my eyes.
"Hey, Von? What's up?"
She looked up at me and I was shocked by the concern on her face. "Leni, maybe you'd better just let this go. If everyone else thinks it best to leave Yak alone at work, they've probably got a reason for it, right? You should too."
I stared at her in astonishment. This wasn't like Yvonne at all. Usually she couldn't wait to dish on the latest gossip. "Von?"
"It doesn't... Marlon did hear some other stuff, but...just stay out of her way, okay, Leni? Just leave it alone."
In eighteen years of friendship, Yvonne had never clammed up on me like this. Over the rest of lunch I made a couple of half - hearted stabs to get her to tell me what Marlon had told her, but she refused to say anything more. Finally I gave up, but if anything, the little that I did find out only piqued my curiosity.
It wasn't until almost two weeks later that I learned something more. Jules had worked his last shift and the new guy would be starting when we returned to work the next night. Everyone on the shift except Yak went out to the King Louis for a few drinks to say goodbye to Jules.
Jules was on his fourth or fifth beer and I was still nursing my second, when I heard something that made my ears perk up.
"Guess you'll be glad to get away, eh, Jules? No worrying about hexed knives at the new place, right?"
Sharon, who probably weighed no more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, apparently did not hold her liquor well. She was leaning on Jules' arm, eyeing him blearily.
He shushed her harshly, looking around to see if anyone had heard. I kept my head down, inspecting the bottom of my glass as if my life depended on it.
"Sharon! We don't talk about that stuff, remember? We all swore to it!"
Jules probably thought he was whispering, but sitting across from Sharon, I heard him clear as a bell. I guess the rest of the staff did too, because everyone got pretty quiet. Sharon pressed her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with drunken remorse as she shook her head from side to side.
The party broke up pretty soon after that. I'd brought my mother's van, so I offered rides to anyone that needed one. Elliot and Jules had their own cars, but Sharon, Ella, and Darla Mae caught a ride with me. Getting everyone's addresses, I arranged to drop Ella and Darla Mae off first, even though I had to pretend I got lost to avoid dropping Sharon off before the others.
Finally, though, I had Sharon alone in the van, so I made a proposal. "Hey, it's early yet, and we don't have to work tonight. You wanna go get something to eat? I'm buying."
I felt bad about manipulating Sharon, but I was pretty sure she wouldn't be in any hurry to get home. We'd only worked together for four weeks, and in that short time I'd seen her come to work with a black eye, a bruised cheekbone, and a splint on two fingers. And she sure didn't seem accident prone at work.
My conscience made me ask, "Your husband won't mind, will he?"
Sharon shook her head. "No. He's gone hunting with his brothers this week, so I'm alone." She seemed to consider my offer for a moment. "Okay, but not the Jester's Court. I see enough of that place when I'm working."
When we got to the Pizza Palace, I ordered her another beer to go with our #5, thin crust, all dressed. She didn't object, and when we were halfway through our meal, I finally raised the subject in which I was most interested.
"So, what was it you were talking to Jules about - hexed knives or something?"
Sharon instantly got a deer - in - the - headlights look on her face. "I'm not supposed to talk about that stuff."
"I work there too, now, y'know. Maybe it's something I should be watching out for - to protect myself, right?"
That seemed to strike a chord with her, so I just sat back and listened as the words started to pour out of her.
"Jules didn't mean anything, you know. So he had one bad night - he's a good guy! She had no call to sic that...that...whatever it is on him!"
I nodded sympathetically, completely lost, but hopeful that Sharon's words would eventually make sense.
"I'm going to miss him." Sharon stared forlornly at her now empty plate. "He was such a nice guy, and he lasted much longer than any of the others."
She nodded. "It's just not right. She's the one who should be fired, not Jules!"
"Jules was fired?"
"No, of course not. I just meant she should have to go, since it's her fault."
I hazarded a guess, "Yak?" - and was surprised to see Sharon cross herself.
"He's afraid of her, you know."
Sharon shook her head. "No, Elliot. He was there too, that night when Susie came in. He saw it all happen, same's the rest of us. He's afraid of her, afraid of what might happen if he crosses her. I swear if it wasn't so hard to get a job in this town, we'd all be gone from that damned place."
I leaned forward, sensing that I was very close to getting the answers I craved. "What happened that night, Sharon? What did Yak do?"
Sharon's eyes darted around the nearly empty room and her voice shook. "I want to go home now, Leni."
I almost groaned out loud. I'd been so close! But Sharon was clearly scared, and I couldn't bring myself to press her any further. I paid the bill, glad that I had some money in my pocket again, and took her home.
Now I'm not the most subtle person in the world. If you ask Yvonne or Herman or Aunt Helene or...well, pretty much anyone who's known me for longer than five minutes, they'll tell you I'm the bull in the china shop, the Jack Russell in the chicken coop, the queer at the Baptist convention. No finesse, no pussy footing around, just full speed ahead and damn the consequences.
After a month of containing my curiosity and getting nowhere with my crafty inquiries, I decide to take the bull by the horns on my next shift. I stayed at the normal lunch break table long enough for Elliot to introduce the new cook, Ed, to everyone, then I quietly picked up my tray and walked over to Yak's table.
I could just about hear the collective gasp behind me, but Yak seemed oblivious to my approach. She always took off her hairnet during our lunch breaks, and let her straight, dark, shoulder length hair dangle like a curtain hiding her face. Her empty soup bowl was pushed to the side and she was reading...as always.
I sat down across from her. "Mind if I join you?"
Yak looked up with such an expression of shock, you'd have thought I'd just done a striptease in front of her. The thing that really got my attention was her eyes. I'd never really looked Yak directly in the face, even though we'd worked for over a month in the same kitchen.
It wasn't so much the colour, though they were a nice shade of brown. It was that even though her mouth wasn't saying a word, her eyes were speaking volumes. Shock, disbelief, consternation, fear... That last one really brought me up short.
She was afraid of me? Me? Nobody had ever been afraid of me. Even my baby sister walks all over me.
Yak lowered her head again, but I could see her fingers trembling where they held her page down. It made me feel oddly protective of her, and for an instant I second guessed myself. Maybe I should just leave her alone. It was pretty obvious that no one in this restaurant, aside maybe from the new guy, thought my being at Yak's table was a good idea.
But I knew my intentions were good . . . weren't they? I certainly didn't want to hurt her. I just wanted to understand what was going on - why this perfectly ordinary, if extremely quiet woman inspired such apprehension and ostracism. And if I could maybe bring her back into the fold, so to speak, where was the harm? Surely she'd be much happier if she felt free to sit with the rest of the staff, kibbitz with us through the night, go out for a beer now and then. I mean, who wouldn't, right? It can't be any fun being alone one hundred per cent of the time.
"What'cha reading?" Okay, not my smoothest opening, but apparently I was working alone here.
Wordlessly, Yak closed the cover and turned the book so I could see it. Future Science: Life energies and the physics of paranormal phenomena by White and Krippner. Damn, it looked like it was about six hundred pages long! Nothing like a little light entertainment.
When I didn't say anything, she turned the book back to herself and opened it again. I'd have been discouraged, but I saw the tiniest hint of a smile on her face and, like a drowning woman, I grabbed for that life preserver.
"Pretty heavy reading. Are you into that kind of stuff?" Well, duh, if she wasn't, she wouldn't be reading it, would she?
She raised her head and those remarkable eyes regarded me like she was trying to figure out whether I was friend or foe. Suddenly wanting very much to be the former, I gave her my most innocent smile.
It backfired. I wouldn't say she stared daggers at me, but if I'da been a fine piece of beef, she'd have turned me into stir - fry!
Without a word, Yak closed her book and stood up. I watched her retreat to the kitchen, then reluctantly took my tray back to the other table.
As soon as I sat down, Sharon hissed at me, "Leni! Are you crazy? Do not make her mad!"
Before I could defend myself, Elliot chimed in. "Please don't aggravate Yak, Leni. It'll be much better for all of us if you just leave her alone."
I looked around the table at my co - workers. Except for the new guy, they were various shades of pale; my actions had obviously upset them. "Look, I was just being friendly. I didn't mean any harm."
"Susie never really meant much harm either, but look what happened to her!" Elliot, Sharon, and Darla Mae nodded in unison at Ella's emphatic words. Ed just leaned in and casually draped an arm around Darla Mae, who was the youngest and prettiest of the waitresses.
"Who was Su - " Before I could finish my question, I heard a massive clang from the kitchen and everyone froze. A trucker who had been chowing down on chili and cornbread jumped to his feet, but before anyone could move, a voice came from the kitchen.
"It's alright. I just dropped a pot. Nothing's damaged."
It was clear that no one believed Yak, including me. It would've taken a pot the size of Great Slave Lake to make that kind of sound. But no one was willing to get up and go see what had happened either.
I sat there for another few minutes as the staff talked nervously about anything but Yak and that noise. Ed and Darla Mae drifted off first, then I got tired of the half - accusatory glances coming my way and went out for my smoke break.
When I got outside, I saw Ed sitting on the hood of a restored muscle car - a red Cobra, I think. Darla Mae was standing between his legs, giggling at something he was saying to her as he ran his hand along her hip.
I rolled my eyes and turned my back to the flirtatious couple. As I lit my cigarette, I noticed Yak watching me through the kitchen window, but as soon as she realized that I'd seen her, she moved away.
Maybe it was knowing that I had affected her in some way, or maybe it was because I'm just a stubborn, pig - headed Taurean, but the next night when it was time for our break, I didn't even hesitate. I marched right over to Yak's table, sat down with my tray, and began to eat.
She didn't look up from her book, but she didn't tell me to get lost, either, so we sat there in silence eating our meals together. When she was done, she got up and left the table. I went out for my smoke, then back to work.
Night after night, this went on. My co - workers eventually ceased to complain about my joining Yak, though I still caught them shooting me uneasy glances from time to time. I felt like telling them that Yak wasn't contagious, that all I'd gotten from eating with her was a long list of thick books with incomprehensible titles.
Their ostracism of Yak didn't extend to me. I still got along well with them, but I got a sense that they were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Damned if I could figure out what that shoe was, though. The only thing that happened was that each night Yak would read just a little longer before she would leave the table and return to the kitchen.
Die - hard optimist that I am, I took that as a good sign, so I started to talk while I ate. Don't worry. I kept my mouth closed while I chewed. My mom raised me with manners, after all, but each evening I'd figure out a topic of conversation before I came on shift. I'd scan the Net or the newspaper for "man bites dog" kind of stories - you know, the ones that make you laugh because they're absurd, yet true.
I could tell that Yak listened. I'd learned early on what a speedy reader she was, and when she didn't turn a page every thirty seconds, it was because I had her attention. The night that I actually got her to chuckle at one of my anecdotes - well, I doubt that an Olympic gold medalist standing on the podium felt one tenth as proud as I did in that moment.
It was like that chuckle opened something inside Yak. She started to look up when I joined her, and though getting two words from her was still like getting water from a stone, her eyes definitely welcomed me.
I don't know that you'd exactly have called us friends at that point, at least not the way Yvonne and I were. Von and I could talk for twelve hours straight and never run out of things to say. Yak and me - well, I used my vocal chords, she used her eyes, and we communicated. It may not have been conventional, but it worked for us.
Until the trouble started.
I've got to backtrack a little here, because the trouble didn't start until about six weeks after the night Ed joined our little staff. I didn't really like Ed from the beginning. It was clear he considered himself a player, and he had the kind of greasy good looks that would serve his aims in his twenties, make him repugnant in his thirties, and pathetic in his forties. You just knew he was the kind of man who would go to his grave convinced that he'd been God's gift to women, despite decades of solid evidence to the contrary.
He had quickly figured out that I'd never be susceptible to his dubious charms, and he lost no opportunity to jerk my chain, though he was smart enough to do it in such a fashion that there was nothing I could pin him on. The one time Elliot overheard one of Ed's snide comments and called him on it, Ed protested that he'd just been joking, and he apologized with faux sincerity if I'd taken his kidding seriously.
He was a loathsome creature, but I took him for the piss - ant he was and ignored him as best I could.
Darla Mae was a whole other matter, though. Ed had hit on her from day one, and it was plain to see how hard she fell for him. Darla Mae was a nice girl, naïve as hell at nineteen - going - on - twelve, if you know what I mean. I doubt she'd dated much, and I'd lay odds she was as much a virgin as I was.
Looking at Darla Mae, it was easy to foretell her future. She'd marry some schmuck like Ed, probably because she'd gotten knocked up, and her wedding day would be the highlight of her life. It would all be pretty much be downhill after that. A pack of screaming kids; a squalid house with a littered lawn more dirt than grass; her pretty hair dyed a coarse blonde; her out - of - date clothes too tight around her thickened waist; a layabout husband who spent more time on unemployment than working. Yes, Darla Mae's destiny was laid out for her before she was even born, but she was a sweet kid and I hated to see her fall into Ed's clutches.
One night I needed more Venetian crème for the Boston crème doughnuts I was making, so I went back into the cooler. I caught them in flag...in flagra...doing the dance of the two - humped camel on boxes of pre - formed hamburgers. And let me tell you, the sight of Ed's skinny white ass bobbing in the cold air is not something I'll ever be able to get out of my mind!
Angered, I told them in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of my freezer and go find themselves a room if they wanted to pull that shit. Darla Mae rushed by me with her face flaming red as she re - buttoned her dress, and Ed sneered as he zipped his fly and sauntered out.
I heard him mutter "fucking dyke" as he passed me. I chose to ignore him and the whole incident, but for Darla Mae's sake, not his. I didn't want her losing her job just because she'd lost her head over that sorry sonuvabitch.
Later I would realize that had been a big mistake. I should've nailed him right then and there. If Elliot had fired Ed's loser ass that night, none of the other stuff would've ever happened.
We broke for lunch that night about an hour later. I was still steaming, Ed was still obnoxious, and Darla Mae was still embarrassed. It made for an interesting atmosphere. I could tell the others were confused, but I wasn't about to enlighten them.
I could also tell that Yak, for all her isolation, was picking up on the negative vibes in the room. When I didn't have my usual anecdote for her as I glumly ate my lunch, she actually reached across the table and lightly touched my wrist.
"Are you alright, Leni?"
I swear it was the very first time she had ever initiated a conversation, and I practically fell out of my chair in shock. When I just stared at her in surprise, she tried again.
"Is it Ed? Is he bothering you, Leni?"
I didn't answer her question, I just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Do you wanna go for breakfast with me? We could go let someone else cook for us for a change."
As soon as I said the words, I knew they were dumb. No way was she going to say yes.
But she surprised me. It wouldn't be the last time, either.
She didn't even hesitate. "Alright. As long as you promise not to smoke in the car."
I beamed. "No problem. I've got my mom's van anyway, and she'd have my head if I smoked in there."
Seven a.m. could not come soon enough. I forgot all about the incident in the cooler and pretty much smiled and whistled my way through the rest of the shift.
It damn near drove Ed crazy. He kept looking over at me like a bamboozled baboon - hmm, I like that. Bamboozled baboon - it suits him to a "T". Anyway, I don't doubt he figured I was up to something, and it wasn't going to be something he'd like, but in truth I didn't spare him a moment's thought. All I had on my mind was that Yak was going out to breakfast with me.
I never once stopped to analyze why I was so excited, but there was no denying that when seven a.m. finally arrived, I ripped off my apron and grabbed my coat like a kid hearing the school fire alarm during a geometry quiz.
Yak was considerably more restrained - she wasn't grinning like an idiot - but she seemed keen to get out of there too. She even helped me clear frost off the van windows, though I told her to go ahead and get in so she wouldn't get cold. She just smiled at me and continued to scrape the windows with the edge of a credit card. When it was finally clear enough to see through the windshield, we jumped in.
"So, where would you like to go for breakfast? Halloway's Diner?" That was where I used to work, and aside from the Jester's Court and Mickey D's, it was one of the few places open this early.
Yak shook her head. "I know a nicer place. Head toward Seventh Avenue."
I knew she lived on Seventh, so I figured she wanted to get changed before we went for breakfast. I wondered if she wanted to go into the city, and made quick plans to stop by my place to change first, too, desperately hoping that Mom would let me borrow her van for a few more hours.
When I pulled into the driveway of the old Decker place, I was surprised at how good the yard looked, even in the early morning dreariness of mid November. I hadn't had occasion to be by this way for a few years, but the last time I'd driven past, I didn't recall the lovely brick column and wrought iron fencing around the place, nor the neatly landscaped flower gardens that ran along the front of the house.
I wasn't sure if I was to wait in the van for Yak, so I hesitated, but she got out and started walking to the house, then looked back expectantly. Immediately I shut off the van and followed.
The inside of the house turned out to be even more of a surprise than the outside. Even at this early hour, it was filled with light from the multitude of windows and skylights. Though it was a small house, it gave the impression of size because of the minimum of furniture and abundant use of light colours. Overall, it was feminine without being flowery, and I instantly liked it.
"Wow, Yak, this is a great - "
She stopped me. "No, Leni. Not Yak. Not in here . . . not in my home . . . not to..."
I looked at her curiously. "Okay. Um, what should I call you then?"
"My name is Aislin." She smiled at me. "Though I'll answer to 'hey, you', too."
I loved her smile. I wasn't sure that I'd ever seen it before. "Hey, you, eh? That's better than Yak?"
Aislin's smile faded and I felt like a heel.
"Anything's better than Yak." She turned away. "Please make yourself comfortable. I'll only be a few moments." Aislin walked down a short hall and turned into a room, shutting the door behind her.
Left to my own devices, I just stood and looked around, looking for clues to the enigma that was Ya...Aislin. The most unsurprising thing about the living room was the overloaded bookcases and stacks of books next to what was obviously her favourite reading chair tucked in a corner directly under one of the skylights.
There were a number of framed photographs on top of the bookshelves. I was tempted to go look at them, but I still wasn't clear on our plans and I didn't want to take off my coat and shoes until I'd been specifically invited.
I didn't have long to wait. Aislin was back in five minutes, dressed in jeans, an old sweater, and comfortable looking slippers. She looked surprised to see me still standing where she'd left me.
"Aren't you staying for breakfast, Leni?"
Hastily I shucked my coat and kicked out of my heavy shoes. "I'm sorry. I didn't know we were eating here. I would've bought you breakfast, you know."
Her smile was back. "I know, but I thought it might be fun to make you breakfast today. How do waffles sound?"
"Great!" I followed her into the kitchen. "Can I help?"
Aislin shook her head. "No, my treat. You can make us breakfast some other time. Just have a seat and I'll put the coffee on."
So I took one of the two chairs at the small table and watched Aislin. It occurred to me that of all the times I'd imagined a woman making breakfast for me, it had always been under far different circumstances. Yet I was perfectly content, with no expectations other than that I'd go home with a full belly.
Then my brain clicked on what Aislin had just said. You can make us breakfast some other time. My eyes opened wide and my libido instantly kicked into overdrive. I was glad that her back was turned to me because I'm sure I turned three shades of red.
Then good sense set in, and I realized she was just being polite. I was mildly disappointed, but also relieved. If my nerves were anything to go by, I clearly wasn't ready. Still, part of my insubordinate brain wouldn't let go of my mistaken first impression. I found myself looking at Aislin in a whole new light as she moved about the kitchen whipping up breakfast.
My gaydar was an underdeveloped amoeba. I didn't have a clue as to whether Aislin was gay or not. As far as I could see, she didn't pay any attention to men or women, and there was certainly nothing apparent in what I'd seen of her house so far to indicate a significant other of either sex in her life.
Hmm, I wonder if she has rainbow coloured towels in her bathroom...
Lost in analytical thought, I missed her question.
"Um, sorry, what?"
She gave me an amused smile, like she could read me as easily as one of her books. "I asked if you preferred blueberries or cherries on your waffles. I've seen you inhale both in the Jester, but I don't know which one is your preference."
As she turned back to the fridge, I grinned triumphantly. The only way she could know of my habit of noshing on cans of blueberry and cherries when I made muffins was if she'd been watching me at work. Maybe I shouldn't have second - guessed myself after all.
Not that I was going to do anything about it. Aislin was way out of my league. She read books; I read the TV Guide. She had an undeniably exciting air of mystery and intrigue; I was a walking small town billboard, everything about my life and character right out in the open for anyone to see. She had the most beautiful eyes I'd ever seen and a slim, graceful figure that I couldn't wrench my gaze from; I was a gawk, sticking out everywhere I shouldn't and nowhere I should. It was a match made in Bizarro World.
Yet once the door had been opened, I couldn't stop myself from thinking of Aislin "that way." As she whipped up the batter with her usual deftness, I imagined those hands touching me with the same expertise.
It didn't take much imagining before I realized my mouth was astoundingly dry. Clearing my throat, I asked if the coffee was ready yet, even though I could hear it still perking.
"Not quite. Would you like some juice to tide you over?"
"Please." She made to set her bowl down, but I stood up. "I can get it. In the fridge?"
"Mmm hmm, and the glasses are in the cupboard to the left."
I followed her directions, taking down two small glasses and filling them with peach - mango juice. I set one beside her as she began to pour the batter onto the heated waffle iron, and was rewarded with another smile.
"Would you like me to set the table, Aislin?" Though she had her head tilted down and her hair swinging forward, I saw her face glow with pleasure as she heard me use her name.
"That would be great." She directed me in the finding of things, and I greedily absorbed the mundane details of her life as I went through her cupboards and drawers taking out what we needed.
She was neat - no surprise there. Everything had to be in order in the Jester's kitchen, too, and I'd heard her chastise Ed several times for his slovenly ways.
She was either sentimental or thrifty, judging by the age of her dishes and utensils, though none were in bad shape. Plus she mentioned that the waffle iron was originally her grandmother's.
She lived alone. I came to that conclusion partly based on wishful thinking and partly because she didn't even have enough dishes to fill her cupboards. At my parents' house, there were so many dishes that finding a place to put things after they came out of the dishwasher was always a struggle.
By the time I had the table set, I felt like a distaff and dyke Sherlock Holmes. If I ever worked up the nerve to ask her out on a date, I was almost a hundred per cent certain that I wouldn't be stepping on anyone's toes.
It wasn't long before Aislin set breakfast in front of me - a cup of coffee and a plate of golden waffles covered with warm blueberries, syrup, and whipped cream dusted with cinnamon. I waited for her to return with the same for herself before digging in.
When I finally stopped eating long enough to take a swallow of my coffee, I wasn't even surprised that she had made it exactly the way I liked it - triple sugar, triple cream. I was torn between wanting to thank her for her thoughtfulness and not wanting to embarrass her by noting that the only way she could've known how I took it was through surreptitious observation. So I contented myself with a grateful smile as I drained most of the cup on the first gulp.
I was finished before Aislin was even halfway through her breakfast, and without asking, I retrieved the coffee pot and filled our cups again. We chatted over our breakfast - about local politics, the pothole on Greenway Avenue that had almost swallowed a city bus last week, about every thing and anything except Jester's Court and our colleagues there.
Perhaps it was because I felt so increasingly comfortable with her. Maybe it was the way we both pushed our empty plates out of the way and lingered over our coffee as if we'd done this a thousand times before. Or it could just be because I'm an idiot, but eventually I couldn't help it. I posed the question.
"Aislin, why are they all afraid of you?"
She didn't try to pretend she didn't know what I meant. She just gave me a long, inscrutable look over the edge of her coffee cup. I'd just about given up on her answering me, when she finally spoke.
"I think the more important question to me is: why aren't you?"
I blinked in surprise. It had never even occurred to me to be afraid of Aislin. "Why would I be?"
"Why are they?
"That's what I want to know!" I know the frustration was evident in my voice, because Aislin sighed and set her coffee down.
"I'm sorry, Leni. I'm really not trying to be obtuse, or make you angry. I guess . . . I suppose I'm afraid."
"Why? I would never hurt you."
She wouldn't meet my eyes, and that stung. Did she really think I would turn on her like the others? I moved without thinking and, not quite daring to take her hand, wrapped my fingers around her wrist.
"Look, I have no idea what's going on, but I'd like to be your friend, if you're okay with that. And it would help if I had a clue what the hell was making everyone nuts at work."
Aislin seemed to consider that thoroughly before apparently coming to a decision. "Let's go into the living room."
She settled at one end of the small couch and I took the other, twisting to face her. With a deep sigh she began to talk, sometimes meeting my eyes, more of the time staring off into the distance as if she were seeing the events all over again.
"I guess it would probably be easiest if I started back a few years - thirteen years to be exact. I was fourteen and school was a nightmare because I had skipped a couple of grades and didn't fit in socially with the kids I was in class with. There was one girl in particular whose mission in life seemed to be to make me miserable. She lost no opportunity to torment me, until it got so bad that I'd break out in a cold sweat just walking into a room if she was already there. I was losing sleep, losing weight, and my grades were slipping badly. I thought I was going to break, literally, but then one day in algebra, it happened."