The first stirring of power was like the static from rubbing a balloon and sticking it against your head, the friction making hair rise up and crackle. A child’s birthday party game. A science experiment. Harmless. But the charge grew fast, and the power gathered like storm clouds flickering with lightning. His blood was electricity darting through his arteries, and every cell spilled over with energy. When his body could contain no more, the energy shot out through his hands.
He could overwhelm a person if he gave them too much, like a teacup trying to hold a gallon of supercharged electrolyte fluid. But over time, he’d learned control. Now he could unleash just enough to get the job done and definitely not enough to leave him unconscious and quivering on the floor.
Working the revival show had taught him how much juice he could spare, how to use it judiciously and still keep something back for himself. Holding back was simple common sense. He might literally die if he drained completely, and that wouldn’t do anybody any good. Still, it was hard not to give and then give more when a crowd of desperate people pushed toward the stage. So miserable, and not just from ills in their bodies, but from a general sadness that seemed to permeate so many people.
But now he couldn’t give any more. He’d left the revival show and wandered until he landed in this one-stoplight town where everybody knew everybody and a lot of them were too closely related. It might be easier to get lost in the anonymity of a city, but then he’d be surrounded by the pressure of people’s need all the time. He was on sabbatical. No helping anyone was his motto right now. It was best to steer clear of people.
But, hey, if he had a chance to spend time with the cute waitress who rarely talked but whose eyes and smile hinted at intriguing secrets, then goddamned if he wouldn’t take the opportunity. He’d earned a break.
* * * * *
“Whaddya think? That new guy is odd, right?” Frannie gave a haphazard pass over a table with her rag, sweeping crumbs onto the floor. “He’s kind of cute but socially awkward. Maybe on the autism spectrum, don’t you think? He hardly talks at all, and the other day, I accidentally touched his hand, and he jerked away. He’s definitely not right somehow.”
“I hadn’t really noticed,” Ava lied and focused all her attention on filling the row of ketchup containers on the counter. The diner was empty, the Open sign flipped, and only the twang of country guitars on the radio and Frannie’s strident voice interrupted the silence.
“Kitchen help comes and goes faster than rain on a hot sidewalk. Hardly worth taking the time to get to know these guys that pass through, a lot of ex-cons getting whatever job they can to make their parole requirement.” Frannie leaned a curvy hip against the table and snapped her rag back and forth through the air as she mentally measured and assessed the new employee. “So, do you think this Mason guy is fresh out of prison?”
“Not necessarily.” In her years spent waitressing at Cozy’s Café, Ava had met quite a few men who’d been incarcerated. Mason Reed didn’t have that formerly institutionalized vibe, but he had been through something. She could sense it from the look in his eyes the few times their gazes had met. Was haunted overstating it?
“How old do you think he is?” Frannie continued. “Midthirties I’d guess, because there’s some white in his hair.”
“Maybe he’s prematurely graying.” Ava didn’t think he seemed even thirty. Not that she’d been paying attention to him or anything.
Giving up on table wiping, Frannie inspected her nails for chips in the polish. “He’s sort of hot, but just too weird for me.” She shook her head, and her brown curls bounced. “Not an option, which is too bad, because pickings in this town are getting as lean as a straw-fed hog. I’m forced to go to Pikeville if I want to date at all.”
Ava laughed as she always did at Frannie’s homespun sayings that often made little sense, but she had to agree that Mason was different. The strange intensity underneath the surface of his dark, luminous eyes made her uneasy when she was near him.
“I don’t think he’s socially awkward, just quiet and self contained.” Ava jerked a thumb toward the rear of the building. “And you might want to keep your voice down. He’s only out back emptying trash.”
“So, you have been thinking about him some.” Fran held her finger and thumb an inch apart. “Maybe a little interested, are you? There’s sure nothing else new to talk about around here. Nothing ever changes in Waller. I’m gonna go crazy if I don’t get out soon.”
Ava screwed on the last of the ketchup bottle tops and waited for the rest of the familiar rant.
“When I get a little more money together, I’m moving to Pikeville for real—or maybe even Frankfort. One day I won’t show up for work, and you’ll know where I am.”
“Leaving me to cover your shift. Nice.” Ava obliged with her line in the script.
“No way, girl. I’m taking you with me. We’ll get an apartment in the city and good jobs. And we’ll meet guys. Tons of guys. Not the same few we’ve known all our lives. Seriously, I’m doing it soon.”
“Okay.” Ava scrubbed at a blotch of dried ketchup on the counter. If you didn’t get spills right away, they turned into enamel paint—hard to break loose.
“Damn it, Ava. You’re a sponge. You take everything in and don’t give me real feedback. Why am I the only one who talks about moving? Are you honestly content to spend your life in the same dull routine?
Frannie planted herself in front of Ava, hands on hips, demanding a response. Ava sighed and stopped chipping at the catsup.
“I guess I’m not as unhappy as you are. I like Waller. I like the people here and knowing everyone and all their family members. I like being surrounded by hills. This is beautiful country. Sure, maybe I’d prefer to do something other than waitressing, but it’s an okay job for now, and it pays the bills. As for men, if I really feel the need to meet someone, I can drive into the city for a night out.”
“Except you never do,” Frannie pointed out loudly. “You never want to go clubbing with me, or shopping. You might think you’re a temporary waitress, but one day you’re going to realize you’ve become Stella Rae, still scrubbing away fry grease twenty years from now.”
“You go ahead and do what you want to do. Nobody’s holding you back. But you can stop worrying about me.” Ava smiled despite her exasperation. Frannie knew the circumstances that made it impossible for Ava to leave Waller even if she wanted to, but it took a lot more than Frannie’s complaining to rouse her temper. “Why don’t you go on ahead? I’ll finish up here.”
Fran’s irritation evaporated as she tore off her apron. “Really? Thanks! You’re the best. Sorry about the bitching. Hey, somebody has to like living in Waller, or it’d be a ghost town.”
She leaned over the counter and muttered at Ava, “You sure you don’t want me to help you close? You might not want to be alone here with that weirdo.”
“I’m fine. And he’s not a weirdo. Go on now.” Ava shooed Frannie with a wave of her hands. “And next time you want to drive to Pikeville, I swear I’ll go with you.” The shifts they were both free were rare, so she likely wouldn’t have to keep that promise any time soon.
“How about tonight?” Fran said slyly. “Soon as you finish here and we both get cleaned up?”
“It’ll be kind of late,” Ava hedged.
“Bars don’t close till two.”
“It’s hardly worth the drive for how long we’ll be able to be there. Besides, Bryan is expecting me at home. He might need something.”
Fran shook her head. “Uh-huh. Okay. G’night, then.”
She grabbed up her pleather jacket that matched her blue cowboy boots and waved a hand at Ava before the door closed behind her.
Ava snapped off the radio and reveled in the blissful silence. A day full of clamoring customers and a night of Frannie’s ceaseless chatter sometimes left her ears ringing and her head aching. Quiet was beautiful.
She moved quickly through the closing routine. The tables were already cleaned, to Frannie’s standards anyway, and Mason would mop the floors and clean the grill after she left. All Ava still had to do was close out the register and put away a few things. Frannie was right. There would’ve been plenty of time to shower, put on a nice outfit, and sample the nightlife in Pikeville. Bryan could be on his own for a few more hours. Maybe she really was the dullest twenty-four-year-old ever. Maybe she was letting her youth slip by without taking advantage of it.
On the other hand, she had responsibilities, people depending on her. Unlike Frannie, she couldn’t afford to blow through a week’s tips for one night of fun.
Damn! The numbers weren’t adding up. She’d have to go through the receipts again. Ava reset the adding machine and started over.
“Mind if I start mopping?”
A low voice from behind her made Ava whirl around. She pressed a hand to her chest as if to still the wild thumping. “You scared the hell out of me!”
“Sorry.” The sad-eyed young man smiled, and his rather average face transformed into something completely unforgettable. Ava was so caught up for a moment in the depths of those dark eyes that she went mute. Then she shook herself from whatever trance had seized her and responded.
“That’s fine. You don’t have to ask me. Just do what you need to do.”
She returned her attention to the receipts as Mason pushed the mop pail across the room and slapped the wet mop onto the floor, but she kept losing track of the numbers. From under her lashes, she watched him; a tall, loose-limbed guy with zero extra fat on his frame. He seemed like the type who instantly burned every calorie he took in. Frannie was right about the stray white hairs shooting through the dark brown, and permanent lines furrowed between his eyebrows and around the corners of his mouth. Perhaps he was a little older than Ava had guessed.
Mason was certainly not someone she would consider classically handsome, but there was a magnetism about him that drew her attention. Those soulful eyes had a lot to do with it, but also the smile that always seemed to hover a breath away from his lips. Although Ava hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with him in the week he’d been at Cozy’s, she got the impression of…sweetness. Or maybe kindness. Good, but not too good, his almost smile hinted.
Still, something sorrowful brooded within his eyes, definitely a story there and interesting layers to explore.
Or maybe she was projecting all these crazy notions, Ava told herself as she started over on her register balancing for the third time. Anyway, she had enough complications in her life. She didn’t need to develop an interest in a man with issues. All the very real reasons she couldn’t simply pack up and start over in Pikeville with Frannie also kept her from getting too involved with anyone.
Ava could almost hear Frannie’s voice in her ear. So, don’t get involved. Just have a little fun. He’s here and he’s attractive, in an offbeat sort of way. Go for it. No one would judge you if you did—except maybe yourself.