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I love October.
For one, it’s autumn. The leaves are turning those brilliant shades in the mountains, the air holds just enough of a nip to wake me up in the morning and give my usually-pale cheeks a splash of color, and Mamaw makes the absolute best apple cider and cushaw pie this side of the Appalachians. Plus, of course, my birthday. And Halloween. Which happen to coincide. Creepy, isn’t it?
Well, despite my birthday being on a day reserved for goblins and ghouls, I’m a typical sixteen-year-old with a wide variety of interests. I play on the lady’s basketball team at my prestigious private school, I hate geometry, want to strangle whoever came up with the idea of uniforms for school, disagree with many of my ultra-conservative vice principal slash disciplinarian’s decisions, and thrive in my eccentric English teacher’s creative writing class. I struggle with parallel parking, holding my tongue, and not decking the snooty girls that regularly attend my school. Other than an occasional pop-crazed binge, I typically listen to a variety of music: Alanis Morrisette, Gavin Degraw, Eminem, Clair de Lune, to name a few.
Right now, Roni has Maroon 5 blaring as we work on our costumes for the Full Moon Ball. My best friend sings off-key to “Moves Like Jagger” while she sews a edgy patch on black leggings.
“Remind me what’ll be again,” I say, completely aware but not seeing a correlation between her concept and her work.
“A biker vampire.” Roni pops her gum and grins impishly. “Complete with bite marks from a dark, mysterious vamp that I’ll never see again.”
I roll my eyes. “You couldn’t find something original?”
“And Little Red Riding Hood is?” she laughs, gesturing to where I am shaping a silk, blood red hood.
“My version is,” I comment.
“Can I see the sketch again?” Her amber eyes light up.
“I left it at home.”
“Liar. You’ve been carrying that idea around since July. It’s so badass, I want to sigh over it again.” She cocks her head at her poor attempt at a decent patch. “Sure you don’t want to do mine?”
I laugh. “Sorry, this one’s gonna take up the whole two weeks until Halloween to finish.” I tie off an end and examine the half-finished hood. “See? Three hours and I don’t even have the part that’s gonna cover my head, let alone the cape, dress, stockings, boots, accessories—“
“I get it, Row,” she laughs. “But once it’s done, you’re sure to win Best Costume.”
I snort. “If Sloane doesn’t import another bastardized nun outfit. U thought Mrs. Reginald would go into cardiac arrest when she saw that getup last year.”
Roni giggles. “She only won because all the guys voted for her cleavage. She’s not even that pretty. But I’m serious, you could win this year.”
“I don’t want to win—I want to enjoy my birthday with my best friends in possibly my best work ever.” I grin and glance at Roni’s Malibu clock hanging on her red wall. My lips flatten and I begin stuffing needles and thread into my bag. “Crap. I’m gonna be late and Mamaw’s gonna kill me,” I say. I quickly, but carefully, fold the red silk and slip it into a plastic container before cramming it into my backpack. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Roni.”
I recklessly park my ’73 Camaro I affectionately call the Thing behind Mamaw’s quaint little diner and rush in, work clothes in hand. I dart into the bathroom, strip out of my skinny jeans, and pull on the blue skirt and white blouse of my uniform. I stuff my clothes under the Portico sink to retrieve after my shift and frantically tug my long, curly black hair into a ponytail that swings against my back with familiarity. I impatiently brush my bangs from my eyes as I slip on the white orthopedic shoes Mamaw gave me for work.
I practically ran to the dining room to relieve Micky, glad I didn’t yet pass Mamaw.
“I’m so sorry,” I begin to the aging redhead behind the old register.
“I tried covering for you, but Blythe’s on a warpath,” Micky informs me. “Table two’s order is almost up, and table six is grumpy. Good luck.” With that, she turns to leave out the back entrance.
I nearly sigh in relief when I hear, “Rowan Louise Sinclair.”
I groan. I was in for it. “I lost track of time—“
“For the third time this month.” Mamaw slams a tray on the counter beside me, cups rattling together. “If you weren’t my grandbaby, I’d have fired you a long time ago.”
I look at my mamaw. There’s no denying our resemblance inside or out. Same dark hair that never wants to straighten (though hers is starting to grey), same smoky, intimidating eyes, same cunning, fox like features, same small builds and freckled skin. We even act alike, however much she denies it. I have her stubbornness, too, though, so I set my shin. “I wouldn’t be late if you didn’t make me do everything at home before I could hang out with Roni—“
“You’re lucky you can hang out with her during the school week. I don’t see the point, but your mother wanted me to be lenient on you.”
“This is lenient?” My voice raises and I know the customers are looking, but don’t care. “I’m tired of working my butt off at school, and home, and now here doing your dirty work.”
Color seeps into Mamaw’s pale cheeks and I know she’s getting mad. “Rowan, we’ve been over this—“
“I’m not allowed a say, am I?”
“—and this is hardly the place to discuss it.”
“Stop treating me like a child.”
“Then stop acting like one.”
I open my mouth to speak, but Archie, the cook, interrupts us by ringing the order bell. “Table two,” he announces, giving us both significant looks through the window.
“Just get to work, Rowan,” Mamaw says before heading to her back office.
I sigh and roll my eyes to the ceiling.
“Don’t stress, Little Bit, she just worries,” Archie tells me.
I look at his wide, tanned face. It seems so open and innocent. I give him a doubtful look as I hoist up the burgers for the couple that is dutifully not looking our way anymore. “Because I was late for work?” I ask.
“Because of the trouble girls like you can get into.”
He winks a brown eye and I laugh. “Girls like me?”
“Firecrackers waiting to go off. She’d know how that is.”
I laugh incredulously and head to table two.
Three hours later at nearly eleven at night, it’s nearly closing. I sit behind the counter to sort through the silverware. A few minutes of that numbing chore and I find my mind wandering. I look around the cozy diner. Mamaw’s parents opened it when Forest Hills, Tennessee, was formed. Since then, it’s thrived in our small town, and is just adorable—light blue walls, pale green booths, pastel pink floors and ceilings. Pictures of old movies and celebrities clutter the walls, and a neon guitar clock hangs above an old-fashioned juke box that no longer works for unknown reasons. They’re beside the kitchen doors, where I can hear Archie’s rich baritone seeping through with his own rendition of Keith Urban.
Ten minutes later, I put the sorted silverware away and Mamaw informs me I’m closing tonight. She then proceeds to lock her office after I nod my head, not voicing the complaints on the end of my tongue.
The diner is empty, so I get my notebook and turn to a new page. I start on an assignment Mr. Xavier had informed us about but hadn’t actually given yet. Yep, I’m that big a literature nerd. I start writing and become so engrossed in the world I’m creating that I jump when the bell rings, signaling we have a customer.
I blink up to look at the guy in front of me. In a small town, you get to know everybody pretty well, and I’m fairly certain I’ve never seen this boy before. He must have just moved here, but Lord only knows why.
It must have finally started raining because his copper-colored, shaggy hair is damp and hanging into his heart-stopping eyes. His face is sharp and smooth at the same time, and the grin that spreads across the handsome features spells trouble. He’s wearing a leather biker jacket, black jeans, and black Chuck Taylor’s. His eyes, a bright, luminous green, seem to take in everything—and give away nothing. He’s tall, and, even through the jacket, I can tell he’s all lean, hard muscle. He puts his hands in his pockets in a seemingly lazy stance that strikes me as predatory. I give myself a mental shake, realizing I was a second away from gaping like a fish.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“I’d like to get two turkey sandwiches to go, please,” he says. His voice is deep and smooth, and holds an odd teasing tone.
“Got it,” I say, scrawling the order on the pad. I hop off my stool to put the paper on the rotator between the kitchen and dining room. “Order to go, Archie,” I say. I turn back to see the guy watching me closely. There seems to be a dare in his eyes, and I want to answer it—need to answer it—but don’t know how.
“Nice skirt,” he says.
I look down, trying to concentrate around the flutter in my stomach. “Sure.”
“Do you have a name?”
He grins again. “Can you tell me?”
“Will you start stalking me? Because I just got rid of one admirer,” I joke.
He leans forward over the counter. “Sugar, I don’t need your name to be an admirer.”
My stomach flutters again. He has a Southern accent, but it’s from further South than Tennessee. Louisiana, maybe?
“Plus, I know where you work,” he drawls on. “No escaping me now.” He winks an emerald eye. “Your name?”
“Tell me yours first,” I say. Surprised my voice is so steady. Should his words frighten me?
Archie rings the bell. I jump, and turn away from his intense eyes to get the to-go box from the window. I turn back and see that Ben is writing in the margin of my notebook. Color floods my cheeks as anger fills my chest. No one even looks at my notebook. No one. “Excuse me,” I say through my teeth.
He grins when he looks up, completely unabashed. “It’s my number. Call me sometime, Rowan.”
“I have something to call you.”
He laughs as he takes the bag and leaves before I can say the rude word I’d thought.
Still pissed that the guy had touched my private notebook, I pull the Thing into the long driveway leading to Mamaw’s house.
Basketball practice starts tomorrow. I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that. I nearly quit last year, but Mamaw convinced me to stay on the team—“It looks good on college applications,” she’s said. And I have a test over Beowulf in English. And a geometry test I’d yet to study for. I have a feeling tomorrow’s gonna be full of headaches.
I park behind Mamaw’s vintage Bug and get out to find her standing on the picturesque front porch. I sling my bag onto my shoulder and go to join her. Something about her face has my stomach clenching up.
“Get in and stay in,” she says.
I groan. “Are you really grounding me? I apolo—“
“Do as I say, Rowan.”
Her face and voice warn of no nonsense tolerated. “What’s wrong?”
Her eyes soften a little. “Just get inside, sweetie.”