• Kelly Collins

A sneak peek at Delivering Decker

His angry eyes stare back at me from strangers’ faces. The memory of his laughter poisons my silent moments. His threat makes me fear for my life, but I keep reminding myself he can’t hurt me anymore. He already took away everything I held dear. My courage. My hope. My ability to trust. All gone, because he didn’t like the word no.

I wanted me back. Not the me that fawned over every handsome man who blew through town, but the me that stood my ground. The girl that didn’t take shit from anyone. The woman who could enter hell and come out without a bead of sweat on her brow. What happened to her? What happened to me?

The bell above the diner door rang, and I jumped a foot into the air. When would the jitters end? When would I stop looking over my shoulder waiting for him to come after me?

Even without looking at the clock, I knew it was thirty minutes before closing, because Ana and Grace were here, dropping their dripping umbrellas by the door. They walked to the center diner booth to take their regular seats by the window. Mona shuffled behind them and slid onto the end of the cracked, red, leather bench. She was a new addition to the Hannah Banning protection squad. I silently laughed. How would an ancient blind woman help me the next time a man took his frustration out on my face?

They were looking out for me, but their concern was a bitter reminder of Cameron Longfellow’s fist to my cheek, the tear to my clothes, and the disregard for my right to choose. No hadn’t been a word in that man’s vocabulary, but I was sure he’d been screaming it when his father sent him to a rehabilitation center in Europe.

I stopped a few booths down and topped off old man Tucker’s mug. “Anything else, Bob?”

He smiled wide enough for his dentures to drop. “If I were younger Hannah, I …” I moved on before he could tell me what he would do. There were some things a girl should not have to see even in her imagination.

The pot of decaf coffee swung back and forth in one hand while three mugs hung from the fingers of the other. “Pie today?” I plopped the mugs on the table with a thud and filled them up. I reached into my apron pocket and pulled out a handful of creamers. Ana and Grace liked their coffee white and sweet. Mona took hers black like her lounge chair, or so she once told me. I had no idea what that meant.

It was the same thing each Wednesday. A cup of decaf and a piece of pie. They claimed it was girl time, but I knew it was their mothering instincts kicking in. Especially when it came to Ana. With Wren only a couple months old, her protection radar scanned everything around her, and I was a new blip.

I should’ve hated her for winning Ryker’s heart, but I couldn’t. In truth, she was perfect for him in a way I would never be. Then there was Grace. I wanted to hate her too because she had Silas. She’d swooped in and stolen one of the few remaining single men in town who was under sixty, but hating Grace was like hating chocolate. How could I hate something so sweet?

“Do you have that strawberry rhubarb pie?” Mona looked toward me, but her eyes never really focused on me. They always seem to look beyond me or through me.

“Yep, I’ve got strawberry rhubarb and cherry and apple.” With my pad in hand, I leaned against the booth and waited for them to decide.

Grace doctored her coffee with enough cream to support the dairy industry for a week. “I can’t decide between apple and cherry,” she said.

“Do you remember when I ordered both?” Ana looked at Grace, her shoulders shaking with laughter. “Choose one because combining them isn’t a good plan.”

Grace shook her head. “Chapple pie doesn’t sound good. Only a pregnant woman would mix the two together.” She glanced up at me. “I’ll take the cherry.”

“I’ll take the same,” Ana said. She looked around the almost empty diner. “Grab yourself a piece too and come sit with us.”

Minutes later, I balanced four plates of pie on one arm and the pot of decaf and a single mug in my other hand. Grace moved next to the window and made room for me.

“Why did Tim put you on the night shift?” she asked.

I forked a piece of apple pie. “Low seniority. I take what shifts he gives me.” I didn’t have much choice. I needed money. Although the night shift wasn’t ideal for a woman who jumped at her shadow, I couldn’t turn it down. Too many people depended on me. I wouldn’t let them down.

Bob rose from his seat and tossed a bill on the table. “See you soon, Hannah.” That meant he’d be back when his Social Security check came in.

“Looks like Bob is sweet on you,” Grace said. “I’m so glad he moved on from me. The man was always at my door with one thing or another, but he is a sweetheart.”

“He’s always been a good man. Those are hard to find these days.” Mona wiped the red glaze from her lips and tossed her napkin to the table. “His wife was my best friend for years. We used to go see Thunder Down Under in Denver every year they came to town.” Her silver blue eyes crinkled in the corners when she smiled. “Bob would hand Avis a pile of dollar bills. He told her to enjoy herself, but to bring her appetite home. I’m not sure who loved that one day a year more, Bob or Avis. Older men usually get a six-pack of beer and a lay on their birthdays. Bob got it on his birthday and when the strippers came to town.”

“Not a vision I want in my head, Mona.” I pushed my half-eaten piece of pie away and rose from the seat. “Speaking of dollars.” I walked to where Bob had sat, picked up the dollar bill he’d left, and shoved it into my pocket. “I better go and earn mine.” I cleared the table and walked toward the counter.

The owl clock above the kitchen window ticked loudly. Its eyes moved from side to side, keeping time with the seconds. The double doors to the kitchen flew open, making my heart thump hard in my chest. I didn’t need to wait for Cameron to come after me. I’d die of heart failure long before then.

“I’m outta here, Hannah.” The cook pulled his sweat-stained bandana from his head and walked out the front door into the rain.

“What an asshole,” Grace said loud enough for her voice to echo through the empty diner. “He should stay and help you lock up. We wouldn’t be so worried if there was someone closing the place with you.” She stabbed the last bite of her pie and shoved it into her mouth.

Once I added up their tab, I walked back and slid the bill across the table. “I don’t need you here. I’m fine.”

“I’m blind, sweetheart, and I can see you jump each time something startles you.”

I rolled my eyes, knowing only Ana and Grace would see. “I’m fine. I don’t need a damn babysitter.” With their empty plates gathered in my hands, I turned and walked away.

“You need to see a therapist,” Ana blurted out. “You can’t get assaulted like you did and not have some lasting effects.”

I looked around the diner. “The last time I looked at my benefits package, it didn’t come with a mental health plan. I’m lucky to get a free meal.”

“You need to talk to someone. You’re wound up as tight as a trick yo-yo.” Grace drained her coffee mug and slapped it back on the table. The loud noise sent my pulse racing.

“I talk to myself when I’m alone.” I swiped up the cups. The owl clock hooted nine times behind me. “We’re closed.” I appreciated their concern, but there was nothing they could do to help me.

Mona stood and stepped in front of me. “I’m not a therapist, but I want you to come by my house tomorrow. I’ve found that sometimes chatting can be therapeutic. Besides, I make the best lemonade in the county.”

Ana and Grace nodded in agreement.

“That’s a great idea. Mona is a great sounding board. Cheapest therapy I ever received,” Grace said.

Mona laughed as she walked toward the door. “I told you I was cheap, but I’m not easy.” She turned and stared right through me like she saw into my wounded soul. “You better show up, or I’ll have to send Marty looking for you, and he hates missing his daytime soaps.”

We walked to the door. As soon as they were gone, I locked the place down like it was Fort Knox. The girls were right. I was scared to death to close the diner. On several occasions, I’d considered sleeping in Tim’s cot in the back room so I didn’t have to walk into a dark desolate parking lot. God only knew what was hiding behind the dumpster or the building. If I could be attacked in broad daylight, there was no telling what could happen under the shadow of night.

I married the ketchup bottles and filled the sugar containers all the while humming some senseless tune. It helped to have background noise because it filtered out the nightmare that lived in the recesses of my mind.

Get on your knees, he’d yelled that day. His fingers had tugged at my braid until I’d been forced to collapse in front of him—in front of the bulge in his pants. You don’t walk away from me. The memory of his voice ran through my head like a chainsaw. It buzzed incessantly at my self-preservation. It chipped at my self-esteem. You’re going to like it, Hannah. You might scream the first time, but then you’ll beg for it.

“Fuck you!” I screamed. The sugar jar left my hand at a velocity I had no idea I was capable of and hit the wall with such force that it shattered into tiny shards. “Fuck you, Cameron Longfellow. You are not allowed in my head anymore.”

I pulled out my phone and dialed my sister because somehow her silly self made everything seem all right.

“What’s up, sis?” Stacey answered with a smile attached to her voice.

“Hey, Stace, how’s it going?” Already my heart rate had slowed and calmed. She had a way of putting things into perspective. She was the reason I worked this shift. She made everything worth the fear I endured. “How’s school?” I missed the days when we met at the student union for coffee and bitched about our professors.

She was a year behind me. My little sister had followed me to UC Boulder for college. She’d taken up education, while I’d studied humanities. I never pictured my sister as a teacher, but then again I’d never imagined my mother to be an addict, or my life’s ambition to be a waitress.

“It’s good. I’m gearing up for finals. I should have never taken a full load this year.” Her voice held no sign of stress. Stacey didn’t have to worry. That was my job as the big sister. Besides, it wasn’t part of her makeup. Stacey just did what she wanted and worried about the consequences later. Long ago, we both had done that, but that was before my life turned to shit. Cameron Longfellow wasn’t the beginning of my downward spiral. He was the end of my long fall into misery.

I slapped on a smile, hoping it would influence the tone of my voice. “You’ve got this.”

Being her cheerleader was the best part of being the big sister. To focus on her meant I didn’t have time to focus on me; whether it was a blessing or curse, I wasn’t sure yet. But I knew the minute she walked across the stage and snagged her diploma, it would be worth it. One of us deserved a good life.

“Maybe.” There was a moment of silence, which was unusual for Stacey because most days she was like a hyperactive kid who’d just devoured the entire inventory of a candy store. When she stopped to contemplate, it was time for me to worry.

“What aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing. Everything is great. More than great.” Her voice hit that pitch that it achieved only when she was being dishonest.

“Stace?” I kicked at the pieces of broken glass spread across the floor. “Spill it.”

There was a moment of silence. “You won’t believe who showed up last night.” The pitch of her voice hit a nervous high C. “Mark is in town.” It was so quiet I could hear the crickets beyond the closed front door chirp into the night.

“No, Stacey. You need to stay away from him. He’s trouble.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got this under control. He and I were always good together.”

“Stace, he’s bad news. Let him go,” I pleaded.

It was no use. Mark was probably already shacked up in her dorm room, and she was going to get drowned in his tsunami of bullshit. The man was a menace. He had been trouble since the first day he started seeing my sister. She was seventeen when he pulled up on a motorcycle and told her to get on. That started a tumultuous relationship between the three of us. I loved Stacey, but I hated Mark Van Hauser. The day he left Stacey with a broken heart was the worst day of her life, but the best day of mine. That was nearly two years ago, and now he was back. That couldn’t be good.

“I gotta go, sis. Mark is waiting downstairs.”

“Stacey, don’t do—” The phone went dead before I could finish my sentence. I pocketed it and went back to cleaning up my mess. Something told me I’d be cleaning up another one of Stacey’s before too long. The universe wouldn’t give me a damn break.

A loud bang came from the front door, and I ducked behind the counter. Peeking around the corner, I saw a man leaning on the diner door. His clothes were sopping wet. His right hand cradled his bloody left arm.

To continue reading click here: Delivering Decker

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