This is the second in a series of stories about a group of friends taking on a neighborhood drug cartel. Read the first part here.
Nadine Wilkerson could’ve kicked herself while busing Dom and Jared’s table. Thirty-eight years old and she still blushed whenever Jared came in. Jesus. You’d think she’d never talked to him before. Hell, you’d think she’d never talked to any man before.
As if her day couldn’t get any worse, her boss Carl was waiting for her in the kitchen. “How ya doin’ today, sweetie?”
She tried not to scowl at him. Carl disgusted her, from the way he tried to hide his bald spot to his constant pathetic attempts to get her to go on a date with him. If she hadn’t needed the job so bad, she would’ve told him off years ago. Instead, she smiled brightly. “Fine. You?”
“Fine, yeah. Look, Nadine, hun, maybe we should have a chat.”
Her smile never wavered, nor did her overwhelming desire to knee him in the balls. At least he wasn’t touching her. Yet. “What’s up?”
He placed his hand on her arm, just enough pressure that she couldn’t shake him off without making an issue of it. “If you were having some problems, you’d let me know, right? We’re friends like that, right?”
Nadine let Carl know as little about her as she could possibly get away with. “Yeah, sure. Of course.”
“So, are you having some problems?” He smiled at her and winked, which he probably thought was sexy but just made him seem patronizing, maybe with a speck of dirt in his eye. “You can tell Carl.”
“Order up!” yelled the cook, Antonio.
“No problems, Carl.” She backed towards the swinging door into the main restaurant. “Gotta get that. Customers first and all.”
“Sure.” He followed her, still holding onto her arm, like he was her dad giving her some talk about protecting his little girl. Or maybe like that pervy uncle who always creeped everyone out. “If you want to talk, though, maybe over dinner or something, just let me know.”
“Gotcha.” Years of practice ensured her response was noncommittal enough to not get her a date, without getting her fired. “Customers need their food.”
“Order up!” the cook yelled again.
“Right. Better get that.” Carl slowly released her arm, then headed to the tiny closet he called his office.
Nadine practically ran out of the kitchen, vowing to scrub her arm on her next break. Or maybe set it on fire, just to be on the safe side. She hurried to the window to pick up the order but the shelf was empty.
“Where’s the order, Antonio?”
“Oh, there’s no order? My bad.”Wide-eyed, straight-faced, he was the picture of innocence.
She smiled and shook her head. “I owe you one.”
She spent the rest of her shift busy with the after-work dinner rush of regulars looking for a cup of coffee and an excuse not to go home. Carl, thankfully, was equally busy in his office and didn’t bother her either. She was in the kitchen dropping off dirty plates, ten minutes away from hanging up her apron for the day, when her ex-husband Steve strolled in and plopped down at the counter.
“What’s wrong?” asked Antonio. Twice her size and half her age, he had taken on the role of her protector at the diner. Usually she found it cute; sometimes, like earlier, useful, but now wasn’t the time for it. She wasn’t sure what he’d do if he found out just how much of a scumbag Steve was.
“Sharon ain’t here yet.”
“Yeah, well, you know Sharon.” Sharon, the other full time waitress at the diner, ran on her own special schedule, mainly whenever the hell she wanted to show up. Six feet tall and what seemed like two hundred plus pounds of pure muscle, she wasn’t someone you argued with. Carl, especially, was terrified of her.
“Yeah.” Nadine checked the floor again. Steve was still there, and he happened to be the only one in the diner. She checked her watch. No way she could get away with hanging out in the kitchen until Sharon showed up. She sighed and headed over to him.
“Hey, fancy seeing you here!” Steve laughed, like he didn’t say that every time he came in to see her.
“Coffee, black. And to see my favorite wife, of course.”
“Okay, my favorite ex-wife.”
Nadine rolled her eyes as she got his coffee. Steve went through life two ways: obnoxious drunk or mean drunk. And he was more than capable of swinging between the two without notice.
She resisted the urge to slam his mug down or, better yet, splash the hot liquid in his face. “Anything else?”
“How about dinner for two?”
“You’re five years behind on child support but you want to take me out to dinner?”
“I didn’t say I was buying.” He laughed, then sobered. “But seriously. I got my paycheck today and half of it was missing.”
“I’m impressed you got a paycheck at all.”
“I want my money.”He grabbed her wrist, preventing her from walking away.
“Let go of me, Steve.” She kept her voice low and steady, masking the unease growing inside.
Her outward calm just seemed to enrage him more. His grip tightened and twisted on her wrist. “Listen, bitch, you can’t just take my money.”
“I’m gonna tell you one more time to let go of me, and then I’m gonna scream.”
Steve eyed her, as if he weren’t sure she was serious. She maintained eye contact, daring him to do something.
“Everything okay?” Antonio came out of the kitchen, arms crossed over his considerable chest.
After a few seconds, Steve threw her arm down onto the counter. She sucked in her breath as her wrist cracked against the surface.
“This ain’t over, bitch.” He picked up his coffee cup, threw it on the floor, and then sauntered out of the diner.
Nadine collapsed onto a stool and let out a few shaky breaths. This was new territory with Steve. A big part of why she’d left him was because he’d smacked her around one too many times. But he’d never done it in front of people, never at work.
“You okay, Nadine?” Antonio asked.
“I’m fine.” She rubbed her wrist and winced. “I really owe you today.”
Carl took this opportunity to stop hiding in his office. “Nadine, where’s Sharon? Why’s there coffee all over the floor? And Antonio, why are you out here? I’m not paying you to stand around.”
“Si, jefe.” Antonio made a point of only speaking Spanish around Carl, knowing full well Carl had barely mastered English.
Carl frowned at him. Antonio shrugged and strolled back into the kitchen.
“She’s not here yet.”
“I’m not paying you overtime.”
“Good, because I’m not staying.” Nadine took off her apron and shoved it into a basket under the counter. “Goodbye, Carl.”
“You can’t leave! Sharon’s not here yet. What am I going to do?”
“I’m tired and my wrist hurts. I don’t care what you do.”
“I ain’t paying you worker’s comp.”
“Goodbye, Carl.” She walked out the door, ignoring his sputtering protests.
Evening was closing in on night as she crossed the street and walked down the block to her car. Carl didn’t let employees park in the tiny lot next to the diner, claiming the spots were for customers only. He threatened to tow Nadine’s car, and although she figured it was probably an empty threat, she didn’t have the cash to deal with a towing company. Sharon and Antonio, of course, parked wherever they wanted without consequence.
As she approached her vehicle, Nadine squinted at the slip of paper under her driver’s side wiper. People papered cars in this lot all the time: calls to repent and attend a local church, coupons for Chinese restaurants, fliers for upcoming concerts by singers and bands she’d never heard of. She pulled the sheet out: a parking ticket. She’d been so busy all evening, she’d forgotten to come out and feed the lot’s meter. “Goddammit.”
“I hear ya.” Steve skulked over from the shadows. “Fortunately you got all my money to pay it.”
“I don’t got anything of yours.” She fumbled to unlock her car door. “If you have a problem, you can talk to my lawyer.”
“I think we got off to a bad start in there.” He leaned against her car so she couldn’t open the door.
“We got off to a bad start twenty years ago.”
“I agree. So just give me my money and we can forget all about everything.”
“First off, I don’t have your money. Second, if I did have anything it would be for the kids. Remember them? The two little people whose birthdays you always forget?”
Steve leaned in, and Nadine instinctively shrunk back. “I’m not asking for much. Just $500 right now.”
“I don’t have that kind of money. And even if I did, I told you, it’s for the kids.”
He sighed, as if she were the one with the issues. His words came out patronizingly slow. “Give me my money and we’re good.”
“Are you deaf tonight or just stupid? I’m not giving you anything.”
“Don’t call me stupid!” Steve slammed his palm on the roof of her car.
Images of the bruises he’d given her over the years flooded her mind and, heart racing, Nadine bit back a retort. Her ex had caused her enough pain; she didn’t need more right now.
“Of course you’re not stupid.” Flattery always worked with idiots like Steve. “But I don’t have the money to give you tonight. Maybe if you wait until tomorrow, we can-”
“I’m sick of your bullshit.” He grabbed her purse from her shoulder and dumped its contents on the ground. “You have tips, right? That’s a start.”
Nadine was sick of his bullshit too, and as he bent down to grab her wallet, she lashed out, pushing him in the ribs.
Steve fell over but wasn’t incapacitated for as long as she’d hoped. “You bitch!” he yelled as he grabbed at her foot.
She jumped out of reach, but not before he managed to slip off her shoe. Hopping and cursing, she made it to the passenger side of her car before he was back on his feet. She now had a large metal barrier between them, but she didn’t have her keys. And the passenger door was locked.
Steve feinted to his left, and so did Nadine. Growling, he circled around the trunk, a split second before she circled around the hood. Then another move to his right so that she was on the passenger side again. She imagined all the people laughing as they drove by, watching them as if they were cartoon characters or Benny Hill. Except there weren’t any people driving by, not at this time of day, and if she wasn’t careful Steve might kill her.
Another half-turn around the car, and she was next to the driver’s door. Could she unlock it and hop in before he got around? Probably; he wasn’t in the best shape. He was probably winded already. Maybe he’d do her a favor and have a heart attack. Her gaze searched the ground around her feet.
“Looking for these?” Steve grinned at her from across the car as he held up her keychain.
“Gimme my keys!”
“Gimme my money!”
“Go screw yourself.”
His grin faded as, faster than she’d imagined possible, he slid over the hood and landed next to her. She turned to run towards the diner but tripped over her abandoned shoe and sprawled into the gravel parking lot.
Steve’s breath, reeking of alcohol, was hot against her ear as he landed on top of her. “Maybe I’ll screw you instead.”
As he fumbled with their clothes, his breath growing more ragged and excited, she compartmentalized herself, a skill she’d developed during their marriage. She thought of her kids at home, how she had to do whatever necessary to get home alive to them. Saw their faces floating in front of her — Brandon, blond and freckled and obnoxious at fourteen, and Kaylee, blonde and freckled and obnoxious at twelve. Saw herself walking in the door, the kids lounging on the couch watching a blaring TV. Remnants of pizza and dirty dishes on the table. Hugging them close to her, both squealing happy displeasure as they squirmed to get away. Pretending the hands touching her now didn’t exist, not in this world in her head where her only concern was making sure homework was done.
And then, suddenly, Steve wasn’t on top of her. Shouts, scuffles, the crack of bone.
“Stay away from her!”
Nadine stayed on the ground, unsure of what was happening, unsure of whether this was real.
“I’ll kill you too!” Steve said in a mumbled, angry voice. “This ain’t over!”
But it was, apparently. Strong hands pulled Nadine up from the ground. She looked up at her hero. “Jared?”
He held her shoulders at arms’ length and studied her, concern etched across his face. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Except she wasn’t, and her suddenly shaking body betrayed her. She collapsed against him.
He awkwardly patted her back.
The sweet intention of the act brought her back to herself. Nadine laughed at how ridiculous they probably looked, at how ridiculous she looked standing in a parking lot with only one shoe, probably sounding more maniacal than she’d intended. But after what she’d just been through, she didn’t really care. “I should get home to my kids. They’re probably wondering where I am.” Except they weren’t; she knew they were watching TV and glad she wasn’t there nagging them to clean their rooms or watch their mouths.
“Okay.” He patted her shoulder again before releasing her. “Want me to drive you home?”
“Your car is here?” She looked around. “Why are you here?”
“I was gonna get a cup of coffee before going home. My truck’s across the street.”
“I think I’m okay to drive.” She held out her hand, forced it to stop shaking.
“Want me to follow you, just in case?”
“Okay.” It felt good to have a protector. And not a kid, like Antonio.
Jared helped her pick up the contents of her purse and then find her keys, which Steve had thankfully dropped before taking off, and her shoe. He opened her door and gently shut it after she was in the car. She could definitely get used to being taken care of like this.
Jared maintained a textbook two-second following distance, then pulled into her driveway behind her but stayed in his truck, window rolled down.
She walked over to his window. “Want to come in for a cup of coffee or something?”
He fidgeted, not meeting her eyes.
“Oh, shit, I meant something to eat, not sex.”
Even in the shadows cast by the streetlights, she could see him redden.
“I’ll take a raincheck for the coffee.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“And the sex. I mean, I don’t want the sex. Not that I wouldn’t sleep with you. But you’re not offering. And I don’t want to assume-” He cut off as her smile grew. “I’m going home now. Lock your doors. Call the cops if he shows up. I’ll see you around, okay?”
“Thanks for rescuing me tonight, Jared.” Nadine leaned in and kissed his cheek. “See you around.” She went in the house, leaving him sitting in his truck in the driveway.
Inside, just as she’d thought, Brandon and Kaylee hadn’t noticed she was late. She watched them sitting on the couch, watching TV and eating pizza, bickering over the last cold soda. She plopped down between them, wrapped her arms around them, and pulled their heads onto her shoulders. Surprisingly they complied, snuggling against her for a few moments until Brandon kicked Kaylee, and she kicked him back, knocking over the can of soda and ending their argument over who would drink it, but starting a new one over who would clean up the mess.
Nadine had to be up at five for her factory shift, followed by a stint at the diner. She was dead tired, physically and emotionally, and jonesing for a hit, but sitting here with her kids, she wouldn’t trade her life for anything.
Continue on to part 3, “Jared Gets Injured.”
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.