“One very legitimate reason to never move here is the humidity,” I say, opening the door for Olivia. She’s short enough to pass beneath my arm, which is bracing the heavy library door, but her ponytail tickles my bicep. I take one last breath of cool and musty library air before stepping into what may as well be a thin sheet of moisture.
“It is very good for your skin,” she says. She stops in front of the Jeep and looks at me. “We can walk to the diner from here, or drive. It’s up to you.”
I look down Main Street toward the diner. I doubted the AC would have time to get cold enough to make driving worthwhile. “Let’s walk,” I say, shouldering my camera bag. Olivia nods in agreement and starts to sweep her backpack over her shoulders, but I swing it easily away from her before she can protest. “I’ve got this camera bag to deal with anyway.”
We walk silently side-by-side, and I do my best not to look at her too much, but it’s hard not to notice the dainty way she moves-- as though she’s skipping across lily pads or playing hopscotch rather than taking the necessary steps to move from point A to point B.
“What?” she says, but this time, it’s not defensive. She smiles.
I grin back. How many times had my mother told me that women only want to be heard? The brief but honest conversation in the Jeep had altered things between us in a blink.
Olivia was still guarded, of course, but she didn’t openly despise me, and that felt like a win. I’d also noticed that in the library she’d never gotten within a foot of me. If she were showing me old photographs or documents, she’d point them out or open to the right page, then step back so that I could take her place. I probably shouldn’t have touched her in the car, but it’d felt like the right thing to do. I could tell she regretted telling me what she had, and I’d wanted to put her at ease. What I hadn’t expected was how soft her hand had been beneath mine, how much I’d regretted letting it go.
“I was just thinking how nice it is that you don’t seem to despise me anymore.”
“Well, you didn’t have much opportunity to share your thoughts in there,” she says, gesturing back toward the library. “There’s still time.”
“Ah yes. True. I still have a full day ahead of saying the wrong things.”
She quirks her eye at me, and I wonder what she’s thinking about. She’d surprised me with the depth of knowledge and passion she’d expressed about Tomahawk Hill’s history, her enthusiasm fueling the growing sense that I also connected to this place. “Do you really plan to make me spend the entire day with you?”
“Yes, I do,” I say, with exaggerated sternness. I hold up my phone where a text is glowing. “Your grandmother invited me to dine with you two again tonight, so I think we may as well make a day and night of it. You’re stuck with me.”
Her brows scrunch together for a moment, and I think she seems worried, but then the look disappears. “Well, since we are giving each other the benefit of the doubt, I suppose we’ll have plenty to talk about today. Maybe this day won’t be totally boring after-all.”
“You know, no one has ever told me they were worried about ‘being bored’ because they’re spending time with me.”
“Who pays when you go out with people?”
I give her a look. “You’re implying that people enjoy hanging out with me because I pay for everything?”
She shrugs her shoulders but giggles. “I have wondered what that would be like. Sometimes I think I wouldn’t even mind it. At least you know people will show up when they say they will and do what they say they’ll do.”
I stop in the middle of the sidewalk, which forces her to turn toward me. “You know, for someone who fairly skips when she walks, you have a very cynical view of the world.”
She opens her mouth like she wants to say something, but she shakes her head and starts walking again, ponytail swishing behind her.
As we approach the diner, the smattering of cars we’d seen in front of the library and the barber’s increases. It’s not lost on me, the number of eyes watching our progress down the street, or the pairs of heads bent and whispering in our direction. I’m used to being watched, but I sense Olivia stiffen.
Just as we pass the market, an older, attractive woman sails out, a paper bag full of groceries cradled against her hip like a small child.
“Olivia!” she says, her eyes brightening. Grabbing her with her free arm, pasting Olivia to her side, she says, “I was hoping I’d see you before you left town.”
Olivia laughs and kisses the woman on the cheek, pulling the sack out of her arms. “Let me take that,” she says. “We’re on our way to the diner anyway.”
I notice then that the woman is wearing an apron. I’d thought I had met everyone who worked there. “Jake Hurst,” I say, offering her my hand.
“Brenda Golder. Now you just come on over here and take my other arm,” Brenda says, pulling me by my outstretched hand and inserting herself between Olivia and me. “I can’t remember the last time I had such a handsome man by my side. I know all about you, Jake Hurst,” she says, making me chuckle. “Nearly every conversation I’ve had today has started with, ‘have you met the young man from California?’”
When we reach the corner of Hoover and Main, Brenda steers us away from the front door and toward the alley behind the diner. “We’ll go in through the kitchen. Livy can say hello to Dana, that’s my granddaughter, and you and I can get better acquainted.”
Olivia catches my eye behind Brenda’s back and gives me a, “what can you do?” kind of look, but I think she is happy with this turn of events. Brenda didn’t seem like the kind of woman anyone said “no” to anyway.
The smell of greasy burgers and fried food drifts toward us, and I feel the heat from the grills before I even step inside. I have no real culinary skills to speak of, but I’d spent enough time in Cesar’s kitchen and in my father’s other restaurants to spot when things are run well and when they aren't.
Two ranges occupy the far right side of the space where someone is busy sautéing what smells like onions and garlic; refrigerators line the left wall and a prep station anchors the middle of the room. The kitchen is larger than I’d expected for such a small diner, but it looks clean and organized.
A blond girl in an apron and headscarf is handing a plate off to a waitress at the passthrough. When the door snaps shut behind us, she turns, revealing rosy cheeks and a wide but thin mouth. Her expression brightens at the sight of us and after giving me a cursory glance, approaches Olivia.
“I’ve missed you!” she says, as the girls wind their arms around each other. “I was hoping you were still in town! Everyone’s said they'd seen you but the only person who’s spoken with you is old Bud Peterson.”
“It’s…weird to be here,” Olivia says, and a look crosses between the girls which makes me curious about their relationship. Dana turns toward me with an openly flirtatious look.
“And you must be Jake.” She extends her hand, and I take it with a smile.
“And you must be the granddaughter.”
“That’s right,” she says, “and Livy’s friend since we were kids.”
I look toward Olivia, who has wandered over to the fry station and begun to dip a basket of slimly cut potatoes into sizzling oil. “And French fry supplier.” Olivia tosses over her shoulder at Dana, looking the most relaxed I’ve ever seen her. “The seasoning she puts on these is like crack to me.”
I can’t help but grin at the ridiculous image this conjures in my mind of Olivia, skipping along, snorting crack. She turns back toward the fries as Dana says, “She won’t let me in the door at Therese’s unless I come bearing a bag of fries.”
“You know the rules,” Olivia says, making us all chuckle.
Dana walks over to Oliva, gently removes her friend’s hand from the basket, then expertly tamps off the excess oil before placing the fries under a heat lamp. “You know the rules too,” she says to Olivia. “Get your cute little butt out of my kitchen. I’ll bring you and Jake something to eat.”
“I think your usual booth is free,” Brenda says, appearing from the pantry where she has finished putting supplies away.
The restaurant is nearly packed, and all eyes turn toward us as we walk out of the swinging doors separating the kitchen from the dining room. I hear a few people call out, “Hi there Olivia,” but their greetings strike me as tentative, strained. A few people call out my name as well, and I smile and nod in their direction.
“Wow. Here for two days and you’ve already got a welcoming committee. Running for mayor, are we?” Olivia says.
“I’ll be right out with your lunch,” Brenda says, as we scoot into a booth at the end of a bank of windows facing Main Street. “I leave for fifteen minutes and this,” she gestures to the hungry lunch crowd clamoring around us, “is what happens.”
I grab the menu off the table out of habit, incurring a ‘tsk” from Olivia. “Didn’t you hear Dana and Brenda? You don’t get to choose what you eat anymore. The Golder women have officially adopted you. You should put that menu down before they see.”
I grimace as though that might prove to be a problem and slide my hands off the menu, but the truth is, I am thoroughly charmed by the idea. “It’s too bad I won’t get a chance to know what ‘being adopted’ entails.”
Olivia tilts her head to the side, an affectation I’ve learned means she doesn’t have a ready response.
I raise an eyebrow. “You know…since I have no hope of changing a certain property owner’s mind about selling? I really have no reason to stay long enough to find out what it's like to be adopted by the Golder women.”
Olivia’s gaze falters, and when she looks down at the table, I feel like a jerk. “I was teasing. That came out wrong.”
When her eyes meet mine again, I’m drawn in by the intensity of her gaze, the dark, full fringe of lashes, the slight flush of emotion in her cheeks. I find myself wondering if I’d discover what those flushes meant if I spent more time with her.
“Hmm…” she says, surprising me with a smirk. “I think you just lost ten points for your lack of sensitivity.”
“Really?” I say, thinking how annoyed I’d be by a juvenile comment like this from anyone else I knew. “I told you the day was still young.”
“You sure did.”
“And how do I redeem those lost points, if, I should care to win them back?”
She draws a deep breath and then releases it, squinting her eyes at me as though she’s giving the question some serious thought. After a pause, she gestures to the backpack I’ve set beside me on the red, vinyl booth. “There’s something I want to show you.”
I lift the bag and hand it to her across the table.
“Do you think you can look at what I’m about to share with you without thinking like a hotelier or a potential buyer?”
Hope blooms sudden and hot in my chest so it’s with great effort that I keep my voice level when I respond. “Yes, I think I can.”
Olivia studies me for another second, her stare open and frank.
Gazing back at her, I know that I will sincerely do my best not to disappoint her, this girl who, up until this morning had been a challenge to be dealt with, an enemy to be charmed, a negotiation to be won.
She slips her hand into her backpack and pulls out two items, sets them carefully on the table in front of me as though she’s displaying pieces of fine art.
The first is a book the size of a legal pad that I think must be a photo album.
The second is a letter, and I know what she is offering instinctively.
“Are you sure?”
She nods grimly, and I have a sense that she’s been struggling with this decision all morning. “The letter first.”
I hesitate only for a moment before I take the letter in my hands, knowing that after I read it, I won’t see this town, or the woman in front of me in the same way, ever again.