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by April McGowan

Independent…or Alone?

Macy longed for independence her whole life. Maybe marrying Arthur to escape her home hadn’t been the best plan, but it seemed good enough at the time. Now, pregnant and abandoned in a diner far from anyone she knows, Macy must start life all over again. Relying on the mercy of the diner’s owners, she begins to put things back together. Macy must make her own decisions for the first time in her adult life—but it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And with the too-alluring Toby at her side instead of her husband, she’s discovering those decisions harder to make than ever.

All too soon the illusion of freedom comes crashing down when she realizes her family back home might lose everything if she doesn’t return. She’d married Arthur to get away from those responsibilities, so how can she face ending up where she started?

With her grandmother’s lessons on faith coming to mind again for the first time in years, Macy has to learn what freedom really is…and which road will lead her to where she ought to have been all along.

Chapter 1

They say there is a time and a place for everything. I could tell by the way Arthur held his fork, this was neither. It swiveled in his hand, looking more like a stabbing device than an eating implement. The pieces of salad fell from the tines onto the booth’s laminate tabletop, splattering it with red Catalina French salad dressing. As if listening in, the restaurant seemed to go peculiarly quiet.

He leaned toward me. Steel gray eyes stared me down. “You’re what?”

“We’re going to have a baby.” I whispered, certain everyone had turned their attention on us. Then the busboy dropped a tray of dirty dishes, and a half-eaten portion of chicken-fried steak hit the big trucker at the bar, and gravy coated the wall. They no longer cared about two strangers in the back, their lives at a sudden impasse.

I curled a strand of red hair around my finger, gripping it tight. My husband’s gaze bore down on me, and everything around us went still. It reminded me of the time we stayed over in California during one of their earthquakes. The breeze stopped and the birds quieted like someone’d tossed a blanket over the whole place. Then it came on us, shaking me to my core, tossing me from my comfortable seat.

I gripped the table. Arthur shook his head at me, and disgust curled his lips into a false smile. “I’m a long-haul trucker. We live in our sleeper cab. We don’t have a house.” He listed things in a cold, detached way that told me his stress level had reached an all-time high. I also noticed he left the biggest issue off his list. He never wanted children. Until the moment I took the pregnancy test, neither had I.

“Would you like some herb tea?” My hand shook as I lifted the silver teapot toward him.

His eyes refocused on me. “Tea?”

I motioned to the basket of mixed teabags the waitress had left for us. “To calm you down.”

I waited for him to yell. Maybe take a swing at me. But he didn’t. Instead, Arthur did something that surprised me. He got up, tossed money on the table, and walked out. Stunned, I didn’t move. He must have needed time to think. After all, I’d had a week to process the idea. He’d come back in a while, and we’d figure out what to do. Arthur could be a hard man, no one knew that better than me. The baby would change all that.

A picture of a house nestled in the trees, a garden out back, and maybe a dog to keep us company while Arthur was out on the road, formed in my mind. I touched my stomach, daydreaming, until a familiar rumble startled me back to the present. I peered out the window, tipping to the side to see the parking lot, and saw diesel smoke bellow out of the chrome stacks.

He was warming up the truck. I took fast bites of my lunch, not wanting to make him wait for me any longer, but my stomach rebelled. I’d get a to-go box and take it with me. And the tea—that’d be just the thing to settle my stomach on the road. I almost got the waitress’s attention when I heard the engine shift from idling to engaged. My hand froze mid-air and I watched as if in slow motion. Our big rig pulled out of the parking lot and past the window where I sat. The brown cab, splotched with dirt and oil from thousands of miles on the road, moved across the front parking lot of the restaurant, pulled out, drove to the light, then turned the corner out of sight. My heart raced, but my legs went numb.

He’d left. He’d be back, he had to come back. I read the maps for him. He probably went to get supplies to let me finish lunch. We were overdue on an oil change—hadn’t he noticed the shop up the road? I nibbled my food, glancing out the window between bites, sure he’d come pulling in any minute. Any minute.

A full hour later, I still sat in the booth. The waitress refilled my hot water pot. “You okay, honey?”

I started to say what we all say when a stranger asks such a question. I started to tell her I was fine. Instead, when I opened my mouth, a sob came out.

“He’s gone,” I managed to get out and then swallowed hard, realizing a new point of panic. “I don’t even know where I am.” The smell of fried potatoes and eggs wafted off the waitress and traipsed over to my nose. My stomach churned.

“I’m sure he’ll be back.”

I glanced at her hopeful blue eyes. Her name tag said Donna. The lines around her smile and age spots on her hands showed her to be in her mid-fifties. “They all come back.”

“I didn’t think he’d leave.” I shivered even as others around me shed their jackets. Maybe I was going into shock.

“Come with me, sweetie.” She pulled me up from the booth and led me down the hall, past the kitchen entry—where I held my breath—to a door painted white with a seventies confetti sparkle. After pulling out a key, she unlocked it, revealing a long shadowy staircase.

“We’ve got a small apartment up there. Just a studio.” She paused, her voice softening. “It’s unoccupied. Go lay down a bit. Life always looks better after a nap.”

At the very suggestion of a nap, my body went on autopilot. I trudged up the stairwell and she closed and locked the door behind me. For a moment, I considered if I’d been voluntarily kidnapped. As I topped the stairs, I found a cozy room with a kitchenette. In the corner sat a daybed, all made up, as if waiting for me. I headed toward it, past the love seat and small coffee table, my eyes focused on the pillow. Everything was clean, dust free, hair free. I lay down and turned my face into the bedding. As the aroma of baby powder dryer sheets met my nose, I gave in and cried myself to sleep.

The smell of coffee woke me. I cracked my eyes and took in my surroundings. It hit me again that I’d been abandoned, and I buried deeper under the comforter. A bright light came in through the window sheers as the sun rose. I heard rustling in the kitchenette and saw Donna’s back.

“What time is it?” My croaky voice surprised me. I must have cried harder than I thought.

Donna turned and gave me a soft smile. Her eyes held regret. “Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you. It’s just a bit after five.”

“Five? In the morning?” I sat up too fast and the room spun.

Donna rushed over and kept me from toppling off the bed. “I peeked in on you after closing last night, and you were sleeping hard. You looked like you needed the rest.”

I’d been there all night. We’d been married for seven years and not once had I spent the night away from Arthur. He’d never even let me go home for a visit.

“I’ve got coffee in the kitchen.”

Autopilot kicked on, because otherwise I’d be sobbing. “Thanks.” I looked around and saw a door. “Is that the bathroom?”

“Sure is. You go clean up—fresh towels inside. Feel free to take your time. You come on down for breakfast when you feel up to it.” She patted my back and headed out of the room. Her heels clicked on the stairs as she tromped down. “I’m locking you in, but you can flip it from the inside. It’s just to keep wanderers out.”

“Thanks,” I called. Bracing myself against the bed, I got up and waited for the room to still again. Low blood sugar ran in my family. I remembered hearing my mama complaining about it when she was pregnant with my sisters and brother. That must be what was wrong with me. Heading into the bathroom, I found not only fresh towels, but a bottle of shampoo, soap, packaged toothbrush, and toothpaste. A shiny clean hairbrush sat on the mirror shelf. And a fresh package of underwear, amazingly just about my size, lay on the back of the toilet. Tears pooled in my eyes.

Glancing into the mirror over the tiny sink, I caught sight of matted red hair and mascara stains running down my cheeks. I hoped I hadn’t ruined Donna’s pillowcase. In the shower, I ran my soapy fingers over the tiny hump I imagined on my stomach. Realistically, the baby couldn’t be showing yet—but something felt different. Firmer. As I stepped from the shower, emotionally lighter, nausea washed through me. Before I knew it, I was over the toilet, vomiting bile.

My mother survived this four times, and toward the end of each one, resentment began to show. As it was only my third time throwing up, I didn’t feel bitter yet. Maybe that would come later?

Fully clothed and cleaned, I felt more human. My toast had gone cold. A real breakfast sounded good. I headed downstairs, thinking about how I could pay back Donna for her kindness—and for the breakfast I would eat. My hand protectively covered my stomach. I needed to figure out what to do next, but I couldn’t get my brain to engage. I didn’t have any cash on me. I needed to find my bank. Regret passed over me. I’d worked hard to save my secret money for emergencies.

Being abandoned qualified.

The restaurant murmured with early morning customers, sipping coffee from their mugs in zombie-like trances. I could almost see the light of life begin to sparkle in their eyes. The aroma of ham and eggs and all things breakfast-like cozied around me.

“There you are.” Donna gave me a bright smile and motioned me to a booth. “What sounds good this morning, sweetie?”

“An omelet, some hash browns, side of fruit?”

“Coming right up.” Donna turned to go.

I caught her arm and motioned her to come closer so I could whisper my shame. “Donna, I don’t have any money right now.”

“It’s on me.” She winked.

Again, I was taken aback. It’d been a long time since I’d met anyone who didn’t want something for, well, everything. Worries rushed through my head. All of my things, though few, were with Arthur. I had no clothes. I had no job. I had no means of getting a job. Reading road maps for the past seven years, and raising my siblings before that, didn’t qualify me for much of anything. While my schoolmates were finishing high school and working at the Fresh Freeze, I directed my husband across the country. My meager savings wouldn’t last long at all.

Donna put the plate before me. “What’s your name, honey?”

This woman fed and housed me, and I’d never even introduced myself to her. I blushed. “Macy Stone.”

“So, Macy, what are your plans?” Donna tucked her order pad into her apron pocket and sat down across from me.

Panic threatened to pop the lid covering my emotions. I had never been on my own. I thought marrying Arthur would take care of my future and give me the freedom I’d dreamed of. Bit of a mistake there. “I need a job.”

“Just so happens, I’m down a waitress. You ever waitressed before?”

I shook my head.

“I can train you, but you need to assure me you’re in for the duration. I don’t want you skipping off to the next place as soon as I get you broke in.”

I almost laughed. I’d never skipped anywhere. And I had no place to go. “What if Arthur comes back?” My question was a hollow one.

“If he comes back, then you can go with him. If you want to.”

My eyes locked on hers. If I wanted to?

Have you ever looked at a lion in a zoo habitat too small for it? You’d expect it to pace back and forth, yell and carry on to be let out. But it just sits there with all the hope squeezed out of it. The idea that there could be something else doesn’t enter its mind anymore. It was just waiting. Waiting for the next rain, for the next meal, for the next time little kids made growling noises at it.

That had been me. But for the first time in my life, I wondered if there was something more.

Chapter 2

Donna handed me a job application and a pen. As I ate my omelet, I considered what to put for my address. I didn’t have one. Arthur and I had a P.O. box service who would forward our mail around the country when we needed it, but I could hardly use that.

As if I’d spoken my worries aloud, Donna came over with a slip of paper in her hand. “This is the address of the apartment upstairs.”

“I can’t stay there,” I protested. But inside, there was nothing more I wanted to do. The idea of looking for an apartment, leaving this place, made me edgy. Besides, I trusted Donna. I hadn’t met her husband—the cook—yet, but if she’d married him, he couldn’t be that bad. It’d be comforting to live there. Safe. Besides, if Arthur came back…I wasn’t sure of my thoughts yet. Either I’d be glad to be easily found, or I’d be glad to have Donna and her large, spatula-wielding husband at my side telling him to leave me be.

“Yes you can. I’ve talked it over with Nick. You’ll pay rent from your salary.”

Rent. The word scared me. I had never lived on my own. The only practical experience I had with bill paying was Arthur fuming over the truck loan and the gas credit card receipts he sent into the contract company for reimbursement. I’d never paid for utilities.

I’d never paid for anything.

“How much is the rent?” I asked that rather than what I’d be paid.

“Say two-hundred-fifty a month, utilities included? Sound fair?”

I had no idea if it was fair. But I did remember what our truck payment was, and it had to be ten times that. “Sounds good.” I gathered my courage. “How much will I make?”

Donna smiled. “We pay minimum wage, plus tips. And you’ll get three meals the days you work.”

Having been on the road with Arthur for the past seven years, I knew restaurants, and this one was off the beaten path in small-town Oregon. I also knew waitresses and how their wages were made up in tips. Most places didn’t pay minimum wage out of the gate. I started to suspect I was a charity case. I began to say as much, but I noticed the hopeful look in Donna’s eyes. She genuinely wanted me to stay.

“Sounds more than fair.”

Donna squeezed my shoulder, her eyes twinkling. If I didn’t accomplish anything else in the next few weeks, at least I was making her happy by staying there. That was something. I filled out the form and put down the address, the first permanent one I’d had since I left home with Arthur. It gave me reason to pause. I stared at the words home address, and a warmth seeped inside me I hadn’t felt for a long time. Not since being at my grandmother’s house.

Those times were rare moments of peace when I could get away from taking care of my brother and sisters and have Grandma’s full attention. She and I would plan the day, as if I were the only grandchild she had. We’d cook, can fruits and vegetables, and talk about boys—or what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never knew. Grandma always expected great things from me.

I stared out the diner window at the dancing leaves and empty chips bag playing chase in the wind. A child and his mother passed by, and the boy dove down on the bag with both feet, crushing it under his tennis shoes.

Minutes later, I passed Nick my job application. He wiped his large hands on the food-stained rag hanging from his waist. Usually, men made me edgy. I was often surprised by what they said and did. I glanced at Nick. He gave what could only be called a loving look at his wife. She nodded to him.

“Says here you live upstairs.” He winked at me. “Guess if you’re late, we’ll know how to find you.”

I tried to laugh, but, every muscle in my body tensed.

“Donna’s going to train you. I can’t tell you how much we need dependable help around here. We’ve got Toby.” He tipped his head to the busboy, who I now noticed was more of a bus-man. “But, he’s no waitress. And besides, I need him as my assistant chef and head bottle washer.” His brown eyes, so dark I couldn’t see the pupils, glanced back at my application. “Let’s give each other two weeks. If you don’t like us, no hard feelings. And if we find things aren’t working out with you, then I hope for the same.”

As an abandoned pregnant woman with no job experience whatsoever, I couldn’t have hoped for more. I had a job and a place to live in less than twenty-four hour’s time. “Thanks. I’m grateful.”

“Don’t be grateful yet. This place gets hopping around breakfast and dinner. You and Donna will have to hoof it. We’ll wear you out.” He took my hand in his. I felt small and young and foolish in his grasp. He gave it a squeeze and turned back to making hash browns. Donna led me down a side hall from the kitchen. It opened into a smallish room with a stand of painted green lockers and a washroom. She took a piece of masking tape and put it on the door of one of the lockers, then wrote my name on it with a Sharpie. Donna gave me a warm smile and handed me a hanger with an apron and button-down white shirt, an order pad, and a ring with two keys.

“The keys are to the restaurant’s back door and to your apartment.”

The pressure of responsibility they bestowed on me, a stranger, grew heavier. I now had access to their life’s work at all hours.

“Donna.” I stared down at the keys. “Why are you doing this for me?”

“Now, now. Can’t a body be helpful? You need help, so do we. It’s a mutual arrangement as far as we see it.” She patted my shoulder. “I’ll have the locks changed by the end of the day. Use those until then.”

I could see the honesty in her eyes, but there was something else there. Something I wasn’t sure of, but not worried about. Just curious. Maybe she’d tell me one day. I was too glad for a place to stay to ponder it much more.

“You get changed in the washroom and come on out. I’ll have you setting tables and taking orders in no time.”

After I changed, Donna enlightened me on the organizing and running of the diner. She started with the subject of wiping down tables with bleach water and filling ketchup bottles, followed with table settings and coffee-mug etiquette. Having eaten in diners more times than I could count, I was nonetheless fascinated at the inner workings of the routine. After explaining the simple digital cash register to me and laughing at my nervousness (it still looked shockingly complicated), she had me sit down at the bar and study the shorthand she used to take orders. It was straightforward, but there was so much to learn.

SOS for sauce on the side. NS for no sauce. CB for cheese burger. T-b for T-bone steak. CHX for chicken. BLT for bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. PAT for patty and LNK for link sausages.

My head spun. I listened intently as she took a couple’s order, watched her scratch out the shorthand and give them a kind smile as she filled their glasses with water. Donna passed me and winked as she attached the order to the spinning silver disc over the hot counter.

“Order up.”

“Got it,” Nick called back. Without looking, he reached over, grabbed the slip and tucked it under a metal slat over the grill. He read it off and slapped frozen patties on the grill as she poured dressing into cups and served salad, reaching into the pass-through without looking up and grabbing a plate of fries he’d just placed. They mesmerized me with their fluid mind-reading actions. Glancing back down at the list, I started committing everything to memory. It reminded me of my times tables all over again. Only this time, I did it because I wanted to.

Donna passed me with an armful of dishes balanced precariously and a coffeepot in her other hand. I flexed my arm muscles, sure my tiny frame would be found lacking.

Donna caught me staring. “Don’t you worry, now, you’ll grow into the job.” She gave me a wink and moved on, shifting the tray around customers’ heads, dipping and bending as if doing a dance.

Toby came by and motioned to the notes. “Learning her chicken scrawl?” He had a deep, warm voice and light gray eyes. It’d been a long time since I chatted freely with a man closer to my own age. There was nothing intimidating about him. I flashed back to yesterday, and the tray he’d dropped. Clumsy but nice.

“Hey, I heard that.” Donna came by and gave him a gentle shove.

Toby smiled at her and leaned close to me. “I’m Toby Stinton.” He put out his hand and took mine in a friendly shake. You could tell a lot about people by their hands. His were strong but not overpowering. He wasn’t trying to overcompensate for anything by crushing the life out of my fingers. “I’m glad you’re here. We can really use the help.” There was that look in his eye, the same one Donna had. I almost asked what it might mean, but Donna called him away to clear tables.

I sighed, still overwhelmed but beginning to get the rhythm of the place—organized chaos. They were like a family. It was a good feeling. A safe feeling.

The diner door opened with a jingle. From the corner of my eye, I saw a man the size and shape of Arthur, and my breath caught. Heart pounding, I glanced in his direction. It wasn’t Arthur. Thank God, it wasn’t Arthur.

Then I was certain. If Arthur came back, I’d be thankful for big Nick and his spatula.