While sipping her coffee, Charlene Billows straightened the stainless-steel napkin dispenser, then lined up the salt and pepper shakers on one side of it and the plastic ketchup and honey bottles on the other side as they should be. That was the way everything should be in her mind, all in a row, all neat and tidy. OCD demanded it. And it was the reason she was sitting alone in a booth in the back of a small hotel coffee shop just off of Interstate 10 at five-thirty in the morning—to straighten something in her life. If she didn’t chicken out, and that was a big if.
Charlene had reached the small West Texas town of Valhorne between El Paso and Pecos in desperate need of a ladies’ room and a strong cup of coffee. It had been a long stretch of highway since her last stop, with few options along the way for any bathroom break. The early morning hour and the long line of eighteen-wheelers parked at the nearest state-run rest stop had kept her from making that detour.
Once she had the table arranged to her liking, she scanned the dining room. Only three tables were occupied, but she had no doubt the place would get much busier soon with the morning breakfast run.
Four senior men sat together at one table. Local gentlemen, most likely, who met every morning for coffee, in the habit of waking before the roosters crowed, and nothing better to do with their time. Most locals, she knew from her personal experience in small Texas towns, generally met at the local Dairy Queen or McDonald’s. She had avoided the McDonalds on the other side of the interstate, choosing the hotel coffee shop instead for that exact reason.
A young couple, travelers who had stayed overnight one would assume, occupied the second table. The occupants of the third table — a family of four, including two teenage boys—
Her thoughts on them were interrupted when the waitress wiping off the adjacent booth asked, “Just passing through?”
“I’m not sure,” Charlene replied.
“Well, most people are. Not much reason to stay. So, where’d you come from?” The waitress suddenly blushed, then quickly added, “If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”
Charlene studied the waitress who seemed to be working the early-morning shift alone, seeing similarities between herself many years ago. The young woman, probably no more than seventeen or eighteen, was tall and quite thin, but not anorexic-thin. She was pretty, though modestly, in need of a touch of blush and pink lipstick to add color to her pale complexion. A more stylish haircut wouldn’t hurt, at least a good trim of the long mane and some highlights to brighten the mousy blond color.
“I don’t mind,” she finally replied. “From here.”
A look of confusion flashed across the young woman’s face. “Here? You certainly don’t look like anyone from around here. Is that your fancy sports car out there?” she asked, pointing out into the parking area in front of the coffee shop.
“That’s a really cool car. You must be rich. It looks brand new.”
“Somewhat,” Charlene replied, which answered both questions.
“You don’t talk much, do you, ma’am? I talk too much. Everyone tells me I do. I just try to be friendly, that’s all. My boyfriend says I’m too friendly, especially with strangers. He works at the Chevron station just down the street.”
The waitress had continued to wipe tables as she spoke but suddenly stopped. She frowned, bowed her head, and clasped her hands together in front of her. “Oh, dear,” she whispered.
“What’s wrong?” Charlene asked.
The waitress raised her head, though she kept her hands clasped. “That’s what I do wrong, according to Bobby, tell strangers too much about myself. Bobby says they don’t care, and those who do, are narvarious. Or something like that, some big word. He always likes to use big words, says it impresses people.”
“Nefarious,” Charlene corrected her while smiling.
She blushed. “Yeah, that’s it. Bobby’s really smart. He’s interested in politics and plans to run for mayor someday.”
“Good for him. And good luck to him. Um—could I get some more coffee?” Charlene held up her empty cup.
“Oh, yes, of course! I’m sorry.”
“Sally, leave the customer alone and get back to the kitchen. You have orders up.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sally replied to the second waitress, who had just come on duty. “But I need to get this nice lady more coffee first.”
“You just go pick up your orders, and I’ll tend to the coffee. Go.”
The new waitress, probably in her late forties, turned toward Charlene after watching Sally disappear into the kitchen. “Sorry, ma’am. She’ll talk your ears off if you let her. I’ll get that coffee for you.”
She barely glanced at Charlene before following behind Sally, but Charlene recognized the woman’s harsh, raspy voice immediately. She was tempted to leave a large bill on the table to cover her coffee and tip and go before Raylene Garrett recognized her but stayed seated instead.
Raylene returned minutes later with a full coffee pot in hand. She began pouring as she spoke. “Sally says that Mercedes out there belongs to you. Nice car.”
“Thanks, Raylene, glad you like it.”
Raylene stopped pouring as she focused on Charlene for the first time. Only seconds passed before her puzzled expression turned to recognition.
“Well, I’ll be damned. Charlene White. Is it you?”
“Well, it’s Billows now, has been for years, but yes.”
“Oh, that’s right. How could I forget that? What the hell are you doing here? Does Roy know?”
“Doubtful, since I just arrived less than an hour ago, but then, news always did travel fast in this town.”
“Yeah, especially bad news. Please tell me you’re just passing through.”
“I hadn’t decided that for sure. Until just now.”
“What business could you possibly have here?”
“Nothing that concerns you,” she replied, though she knew that was a lie. Her business there did concern Raylene, and Charlene hated that it did. Raylene was not her favorite person, never had been. And Raylene despised her.
Raylene had aged over the years, and not well. The lines on her face and neck were profound, as were the crow’s feet around her eyes. Her upper lip had shriveled, overpowered by deep vertical lines above it. The dry west Texas air and sun had taken their toll on her, it seemed, as well as years of a nasty cigarette habit.
“Everything about you, Charlene Billows, concerns me. Especially when it involves my baby brother. I hope, for his sake, you’re just here to pay your respects to your folks, and that you’ll move along down the highway once you have. Or turn around, and head back where you came from.”
“Certainly I’ll visit my parents while I’m here, but I won’t be leaving right afterward. I think I’ll hang around for a couple of days. Maybe attend the high school football game tonight. I see by the flyers on the windows that it’s a home game. And I’m suddenly ravenous. Could I please see a breakfast menu? A clean one, preferably.”
She hadn’t ordered anything but coffee when she first sat in the booth, not ready for food at the time. But she was suddenly feeling a bit strange in her stomach, though not sure if the feeling was a case of nerves settling in, or hunger pains. Aware of the possibility that he would make an appearance soon, she decided she might as well order breakfast while she waited to see.
Raylene slapped a menu down in front of her and stood with her hands on her ample hips, waiting for her to order, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as she did. Charlene already knew what she wanted, but she still took her time, pretending to study the menu. She chose to make the woman stand there waiting, knowing that she was probably dying to get back in the kitchen to call and warn her brother that she was in town.
Once Raylene disappeared with her order of scrambled eggs and toast, the coffee pot, and the menu, Charlene opened her oversized handbag, pulled out her compact, and checked herself in the mirror. She pinched her cheeks to add color to them and dabbed red lip gloss from her bag to her colorless lips, blotting them with a tissue. She ran her fingers through her hair, frowning. It was a disaster, but nothing short of a shampoo, a blow-dryer, and a styling iron would improve it.
After returning the objects to her bag, she pulled out her cell phone and checked to make sure no one in Dallas was trying to reach her. Seeing no new notifications, she placed the phone back in its place in her bag and scanned the room. As she had expected, the coffee shop had begun to fill. A third waitress stood at one table close to the front door, taking the order of two men who seemed to be flirting with her. Charlene guessed her to be in her early thirties. She was attractive, with curves in all the right places, her large breasts bulging over the top of the too-tight pink uniform. The waitress didn’t seem to mind their flirting or one of the gentleman’s hands on her ass.
It brought back memories of Charlene’s days of waiting tables. The memories were far from fond. She’d hated those days. She hated the men who, just like that one, believed it okay to put their hands on her rear as long as they left a big tip. She needed the large tips back then, but she couldn’t stand anyone to have their hands on her, especially dirty old men. She’d always slap their hands away, even if it cost her a tip. She’d almost lost her job once for dumping a man’s dinner in his lap. But her boss had let it pass once she told her what the man had said to her. She could still recall his filthy words as if he’d just said them.
“The whole town knows you fuck the quarterback, sweetheart. How about fucking a real man? I hear the quarterback’s pecker is as small as his brain. Bet you don’t even know it’s there.”
She had never repeated the man’s vulgar words to anyone other than her boss. Especially not to the quarterback, who she loved with all her heart. He was the first and only one she had ever been intimate with at the time, and she couldn’t imagine anyone pleasing her more than he did. The idea of having anyone else touch her disgusted her.
When the front door of the coffee shop opened, and a large man wearing a black cowboy hat and black boots entered, Charlene’s heart skipped a beat.
“Well, good morning, Sheriff.”
The waitress had turned her attention away from the two men at the table the moment he walked in. It was now all on him.
“Are you here for business or pleasure?” Her eyes seemed to dance with delight at the sight of him.
“Morning, Denise,” he said, nodding his head to her as his eyes scanned the room, finally settling on Charlene. “Excuse me.”
He dismissed her as he made his way past the tables, never taking his eyes off Charlene. The closer he got, the more Charlene’s stomach fluttered, the butterflies multiplying with each step he took.
“Well, I’ll be damned. Raylene said you were here,” Roy said, removing his hat and tossing it in the bench seat across the table from her. He slid into the booth, pushing the hat on over out of his way. “I thought for sure she’d taken up smoking weed these days in place of those damned Marlboros she’s been sucking on for years.”
“Hello to you, too, Sheriff Slater. So, what took you so long?” Charlene replied, looking at her wristwatch. “I expected you here five minutes ago.”
“What can I say? I was on the can when she called.”
“Sorry to interrupt your morning business.”
“I got it tended to. So, what are you doing here?” His blue eyes were intense, burning into her own.
“Good to see you, too, Roy.”
“Sorry to not give you the welcome you seem to expect. You’ve been gone a long time, Charlie.”
She felt an added flutter in her stomach. No one had called her Charlie in years, not since she’d left this town twenty years ago.
“I have. Missed me?”
“Right up there with the poison ivy I had a few months ago.”
That hurt, coming from him, more than she wanted to admit, and certainly more than she wanted him to know.
“Doing it in the bushes these days, huh?”
“Ha-ha. Very funny. So, what brings you way out here in the middle of nowhere? Get bored with the big city? Missing everyone you left behind? Or just passing through?”
His hateful tone saddened her. But what did she expect? And why was she so hard on him, why the personal attack? He was the injured party here, she knew, not her. He had every right to question her motives cruelly.
She cared nothing about this dried up old town, or anyone in it, and she certainly hadn’t missed any of them. Except for Roy. And he still looked so good. The years had been cruel to Raylene, but not to him. He was as handsome as ever, if not more so. His light brown hair was still thick, with just a touch of gray starting to show around the temples.
“Who would I possibly miss in this godforsaken town?” she asked, her defenses still up, and her unable to tone them down.
“No one,” he replied. “Not a single soul of us worthy of you missing.” Then he added as if to change the subject, “What’s with the hair? Forget to pack your hairbrush?”
She offered a chuckle, though bothered that he had noticed her unkempt hair.
“What? You don’t like the new look? Darn. And I paid a fortune for it. I even gave the hairdresser a big tip.”
“Want me to arrest her for impersonating a licensed beautician?”
“Beautician? Really?” she laughed, her elbows on the table, her chin resting on her clasped hands.
She rolled her eyes. “They’re hairdressers these days, Roy. Stylists, not beauticians.”
Raylene appeared at that moment with Charlene’s breakfast order. She plopped the plate down in front of her, then turned her attention to Roy.
“I didn’t mean for you to rush right over here, but I’m not a bit surprised you did. You’re a fool, Roy, and always have been, when it came to her.” She tossed her eyes toward Charlene.
“Don’t you have other tables to tend to?” he snapped back at her.
“I do.” She turned to walk away, but Charlene stopped her.
“Could I have another fork, please?” She held hers in the air. “This one doesn’t seem that clean.”
Raylene grabbed it out of her hand. “Of course.”
Charlene had no doubt Raylene would stab the fork in her eyes if she thought she could get away with it. She imagined her spitting on the replacement fork before bringing it to her.
“Could I get some coffee?” Roy asked.
“And a piece of pie to go with it.”
“Sure, sugar. Whatever you want.” Raylene smiled at Roy, then looked back at Charlene before heading back to the kitchen, daggers shooting from her eyes.
“Pie, Roy? For breakfast? What? Burned out on donuts?”
Though Charlene couldn’t resist the tease, he didn’t look to her like he had eaten too many donuts. She had noticed no gut when he arrived, just nice, broad shoulders. She imagined large biceps beneath the long sleeves of his pressed, white shirt.
He ignored her potshot toward his profession. “You still haven’t said why you’re here. Or when you arrived.”
“I arrived a little over an hour ago.”
“You arrived early this morning? From where? Dallas?”
“It’s an eight-hour drive. That means you left Dallas at—”
“It’s less than eight hours. I left Dallas sometime around ten last night.”
“Here? Why here? What could cause you to drive through the night, all the way from Dallas to here? What did you come here for, Charlie? What is here?”
Making direct eye contact with him, she added, “And you.”