Daniel LeBoeuf is a writer of short stories and novels. He has seen his work published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Pilcrow & Dagger, and The Tampa Tribune, as well as one anthology. He’s a blogger for a magazine, edits manuscripts professionally, and has a day job. He makes his home in central Florida with his wife, Becky. His website is www.danielleboeuf.net.
by Daniel LeBoeuf
Jerome was studying his menu, trying to decide between a Reuben and a blue cheese burger. Conversations and the clink of silverware on china buzzed around him. He was so intent on his choice that he barely noticed the waitress standing next to his table. She placed a glass of water in front of him and laid a straw next to it.
“I’m Sapphire and I’ll be your server today. Are you ready, or do you want a drink first and take another minute deciding?”
He sat stock still, feeling the blood drain from his face. Sapphire? Really?
“Hon? You want a drink? Are you ready to order? Or should I come back in a few?”
He slowly raised his head, first seeing her legs, long and tanned, firm and muscular. There was a tiny, familiar scar on her left knee. His eyes traveled upward, taking in the pink uniform dress, the curve of her neck, and the blonde, almost white, hair that hung in a long pony tail.
She was not a pretty girl. She had a strong, jutting chin and a pronounced jaw. High cheekbones gave her face a flat look, like a pie plate. A good nose sat between pale blue eyes and heavy lids.
“Hello Sapphire.” A disappointing opening line after all these years, but he was caught by surprise.
Her eyes opened wide and her lips formed a little O. “Oh my god. Jerome?” Her voice came out as a squeal. Then she leaned over and threw her arms around his shoulders and neck. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
His memory awoke. Her powerful hug. Her cheek brushing his. Her scent, like wild cherry blossoms. Everything was familiar.
“You’re still using that Suave body moisturizer.”
She backed off and straightened up. “You remember that?” She looked shocked. “I can’t believe you remember that.”
“I smelled it on you every day while we were together. I think of you every time I see the bottle in the store.”
Another waitress came over, this one heavy set with iron grey hair and eyeglasses set in orange frames that clashed with her uniform. “You on a break, Sapphire? Hustle up, girl, we’re slammed.”
“Yeah. Alright Wanda,” she shrugged and grinned at Jerome. “I’m sorry, I have to get back to work. Can we meet later? I get off at nine.”
“Sure. Nine’s fine. Should I meet you here, or what?”
“Here’s best.” She turned to walk away, tucking her order pad into the black apron tied around her waist.
She turned, her hair brushing across her shoulder. “Yes, Jerome?”
“I’d like a Reuben please, with fries for my side. And a Coke.”
She smiled, the creases around her mouth deepening. “Sorry about that. It’ll be up soon.”
He watched her walk away. Her hips swayed, moving with fluidity and assurance. Her sensible shoes did not take away from his enjoyment of her legs. He was enthralled. Again.
The sounds from the kitchen were loud. Banging pans and staccato Spanish floated out to the dining room along with the smells of bacon, toasted bread, and greasy steam. The painted walls had a murky brown film. The whole place looked like it was in need of a good scrubbing. He watched Sapphire absentmindedly as she threaded her way through the tables, delivering orders here, clearing plates there.
“Order up,” someone called from the kitchen. Sapphire retrieved it and approached him carrying a somewhat skimpy sandwich with a small clot of fries next to it. In her other hand was his Coke.
“Here you go, Jerome. Hope you like it. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Do you get a break?”
She looked around, probably searching for the redoubtable Wanda. “I do, but I’m not supposed to take it out here with customers. I have to go out back.”
“Couldn’t they make an exception, for an old friend?”
“Friend? Is that how you remember it?”
He felt his face flush. “Well, you know…”
“God, you’re still so lame. Meet me here at nine, okay? We’ll catch up then.”
Grudgingly he said, “Fine.” He left a big tip when he was finished.
There was no way for him to return to work after finding her at the diner. He spent the afternoon at home, catching up on her life as much as he could. Her Facebook page was private, limiting him to her photos and some basic information. Her relationship status was “it’s complicated,” which didn’t help at all. The photos showed him a woman who liked to party, took a lot of selfies, and spent time in Key West where she apparently never wore anything other than a bikini. He downloaded all of those pics to his computer, but remembered that there was much more to Sapphire than a party girl.
The Twitter handle he had for her didn’t work anymore, and her new ID was private, so no help there. Nothing showed up on Instagram or Pinterest for her. After a string of web searches found nothing, he went back to peruse the photos he’d snagged off Facebook. There were several guys in the pictures with her, but none of them seemed to be any more important to her than the others.
He sorted through his flash drives until he found one labeled “2010” and popped it into a USB port. He scrolled down the thumbnails, enlarging and studying his pictures of Sapphire as she had been. They’d had a lot of good times and looked very happy together. Most of the pictures were just the two of them in selfies at various sites, but there were some with more distance. He looked at one of Sapphire on a hike with him on a day trip to the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel. He remembered that they’d spent far too much money for lunch at a highly recommended and utterly disappointing diner there. Others showed them at Disney doing typically Disney things, at Busch Gardens drinking beer and riding coasters, and at Lowry Park mugging with the manatees.
They’d had a lot of fun together, a lot of good times, a lot of really great sex. She was the most adventurous and uninhibited woman he’d ever dated, easily the best girlfriend he’d had. Their breakup had been his fault, and he regretted it now, looking back.
At six o’clock he was showered and shaved, ready to go, wondering what he’d do for the next three hours. At 8:30 he was waiting in his car outside the diner. A misty rain fell, causing the light from the windows to reflect and refract like a snowstorm of diamonds. He was in his best knit shirt and his cleanest pair of jeans. His sockless feet were jammed into well-worn boat shoes. He kept his aged Honda Civic running, letting the AC do its thing.
He watched as the servers finished up their chores: wiping the counter, sweeping and mopping the floors, putting the clean silver in the bins. Sapphire wiped down the tables, and then the windows. She caught sight of him, hesitated, then smiled and waved. He waved back.
Finally the lights snapped off and the front door swung open. First Wanda came blundering out, fussing with her handbag, not looking where she was going. Next came three men, brown-skinned and lean, each with a black goatee and dark hair. Then Sapphire floated through the door, followed by a hefty man with a bald head and large framed glasses. She waited while he closed and locked the door, walked with him to his car, and gave him a hug.
When he’d left, Sapphire came straight to the Honda, the rain flattening her hair against her head. He reached across the center console and opened the door for her.
“Thanks,” she said, pushing the clutter of soda cans aside with her foot, “I see some things never change.”
“Sorry, I meant to clean that out but…”
“I know, something came up. Probably some video game, or you got lost on YouTube. I know you, Jerome. We dated for 13 months.”
He felt sheepish and stupid. Earlier that night he’d gotten a phone call from Christa, his current girlfriend, who was not amused when he broke their date.
Sapphire said, “At least you had time to change. I’m still in this ugly ass uniform. Can we swing by my place before we go out? I need to get the diner funk off me.”
“What about your car?”
“Do you see a car in this parking lot?”
It was true. Wanda had left in a minivan, the three cooks had climbed into an old Cadillac Seville, and the large guy had departed in his Lexus. The lot was now empty except for his Honda.
“So how do you get to work and back?”
“Usually I walk to work and Pops drives me home.”
“He owns the place. That was him I walked out with. I worry about him.” She tapped her head. “He had a mild stroke last year, and he’s a little unsteady these days. I worry that he’s going to fall down on his way to the car.”
“Hmph. That’s nice of you. You always were concerned with the welfare of others.”
She pegged him with those pale eyes, “I used to be concerned about you. Until you dumped me.”
“I was wondering how long it would take you to bring that up. I haven’t even put the car in gear yet.”
“Well, you did. And it hurt me. It hurt me bad.”
He felt his face flush, embarrassment and shame flooding him with adrenaline that had no outlet. “I’m sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am. Let’s get you changed and find someplace nice to eat where we can talk.”
“You mean, nicer than where I work?”
“I didn’t mean that. I meant…”
Her laugh interrupted him. “It’s okay. I have no delusions about Pop’s diner. The cooks don’t give two craps about quality, and Pops tends to skimp on the portions. But it’s decent food, mostly.”
“Yeah. That pretty much describes my Reuben.”
“And that was one of our better ones. I told Carlos ‘mas carne.’”
“Hmph. Thanks, I guess.”
“Don’t mention it. So, does this car move, or do I have to walk home?”
“Sorry,” he said, shifting the transmission into drive, “you still live in the same place?”
“No. I’ve moved. Take a right here.”
She now lived in an apartment complex that had seen better days. The parking lot was full of junkers and low-end cars, six of them up on blocks. Half the streetlights were out, and only two spotlights on the five buildings were lit. There were no lights in the outdoor stairwells at all. Six men loitered in the children’s playground, silently watching them as they walked up to Sapphire’s second floor apartment.
“Ugh,” he said, “I hated living on the middle floor.”
“I know, right? It’s the worst of both worlds. I can hear my neighbors stomping around on top of me while the neighbors below me play their music too loud, but complain if they hear my toilet. You still where you used to be?”
He nodded, then surveyed the tiny living room as they walked inside. Standard apartment-issue beige carpet and white walls. She’d furnished it with a black leather love seat, a smallish flat screen TV, an arm chair covered in a flowered fabric, and a glass and chrome coffee table in the middle of it all. A four seat dining room table stood in the cramped dinette area.
“You want something to drink while I change? I’ve got some beer. Or maybe a soda?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Well, if you change your mind just make yourself at home. I’ll only be a couple of minutes.”
She walked down a short hallway that had two doors opening off to either side and a louvered door at the end. She turned right. He sat on the loveseat, heard her walk across the hall and close the other door. A couple of minutes later he heard a toilet flush and a shower turn on.
When she emerged from the bathroom 10 minutes later, he was still in the loveseat, staring at a painting of a sad clown and a happy walrus standing in a field of daisies. It was amateurish and colossally stupid, and was the only artwork on the walls, which also had a clock and some ornamental iron doodads.
She came out wearing hip hugger jeans and a light green button up shirt. She’d left her hair loose and put on a pair of simple white sandals.
“Are you ready?” He stood and pulled his car key out of his pocket.
“Yeah. I think so. Where are we going? Am I dressed okay?”
“You look fantastic.”
“Hmmm. I’ll just grab my bag. Oh, and I need to send a couple of texts real quick. But I can do that in the car.”
On their way out, he stopped by the painting. “Who did this?”
“I did. I took one of those free classes they give down at the Art Warehouse and Studios, you know? This was my project. My instructor said I have a latent talent and wanted me to take the four month course, but it cost too much. Do you like it?”
“Of course I like it. Who doesn’t like clowns and walruses?”
Her mouth turned down in a grimace. “It’s a seal.”
“Oh! Right. My bad.”
The made their way to the car. “Crispers okay?” he asked, partly because it was a step up from his lunch that was still refluxing, and partly because he could have beer with his meal.
“Yeah, sure. Whatever is good for you. I can eat anything. Except beets. I can’t stand beets. But you probably remember that, too.”
He smiled and nodded. They caught up over salads.
While he listened to Sapphire tell him about her life, he was distracted by his cell phone vibrating every few minutes against his leg. It was probably Christa, trying to change his mind about seeing her tonight. He felt badly about breaking their date, but that was nothing compared to the elation he felt about being with Sapphire again.
When she was finished with her tale of dropping out of college because of money and taking jobs at two diners to try and save up some more, he commented “We haven’t done so well since we broke up, have we?”
“You mean, since you dumped me, right?”
He sighed and rolled his eyes, figuring the best way to handle this was to force it out of the way. “That was five years ago. We were 20 and I had some personal issues going on. Can you just forgive me and let’s move on?”
“Oh, I’ve moved on, Jerome. I did some hard thinking after you left the diner. I was so excited to see you, at first. But then I got angry. Angry about the past, and angry that you showed up again. I’ve built a decent life. Nothing spectacular, sure, but I’m okay with it, and I’ve got plans for the future. But, when I saw you again, I realized that I still care about you. Even after all this time and you dumping me. And I’ve been wondering what to do about it since you left. How stupid is that?”
“I think it’s the most beautiful thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Jerome grinned. Sapphire had always loved his grin.
“You don’t think I’m stupid?” she asked.
“No. Because, as soon as I saw you, I knew I still loved you, too. And that I was the one who was stupid for dumping you.”
There was a pause as they stared at each other. Jerome let the pause grow, waiting for her to speak first, knowing there was power in the silence. She shook her head and asked, “So, what do we do now?”
“How about we go for a walk around the mall here? Talk a little bit more. See where that leads us.”
She smiled. “Are you playing me? I think you’re playing me. You’ve probably got someone right now that you’re blowing off to see me. Right?”
He felt himself blush and hoped she didn’t notice. “Look, the past is the past. I screwed up. Let’s just talk, okay? Nothing more.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Fine. We’ll talk.”
They strolled aimlessly around the mall, looking in windows, talking. His phone vibrated again and he pulled it out to check the text.
“You know what? Why don’t you just pay attention to me for right now?” Sapphire slipped her hand into his. He slid his phone back into his pocket, feeling like he was in a dream. Sapphire was coming back to him. He felt it. They’d fallen into the easy camaraderie they’d always had. It was like no time had passed at all.
“Do you think I could follow you again on Twitter?”
She stopped and turned to face him. “Whoa, slow down. Answer me this—what do you hope to accomplish tonight, Jerome?”
Her question made him pause. What did he want? There was Christa to consider. She was great and totally into him, and he liked her a lot. He didn’t want to hurt her, but Sapphire was the one that got away. He wondered if there were a way he could have them both. He decided to answer with a version of the truth.
“I don’t know. I know it’s great to be with you again, to hold your hand, to walk with you and talk with you. I missed that. I missed everything about you.”
“Do you want to talk about getting back together? Because it’s going to be hard for me to trust you again.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, Jerome. You always have a plan.”
“I really don’t know. Maybe, if things go well tonight, we’ll have a better idea of where we’re going next.”
“Hmm. Yeah, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” she smiled at him, her teeth bright in the artificial lighting. It was a strange smile, one he’d never seen before from her. “In fact, I think I want to see something now. I mean, if there’s no spark between us still, it’s kind of a moot point, don’t you think?”
She pulled him behind the movie theatre, pushed him against the wall and kissed him. It was light, just a quick meeting of the lips, then she backed away.
“How was that?” he asked.
She moved in again, mashing her lips more forcefully against his. When she darted her tongue into his mouth, his vision was filled with green and red pinpoints of light. There was definitely still a spark between them. Sapphire pushed away.
“Damn it! This is crazy after what you did to me. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but you still get me going. Do you want to go back to my place?”
Her place! “Yes. That would be good.”
He drove back to her apartment complex like he’d stolen his own car. She seemed subdued on the way, deep in thought. She even ignored the phone he could hear chirping in her pocket. He felt like something had changed. It wasn’t like her to be this quiet for this long.
“You okay, Saph?”
“Yeah. Just thinking. Remembering old times. Stuff like that.” She took a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Did you come looking for me at the diner? Did you know I was there?”
“Nope. Just happened to be hungry and was driving by. I’ve probably passed that place a hundred times, never knew you were working there.”
“Have you tried to find me in the past five years?”
He wondered where she was going with this, and decided to try honesty. “No. I guess fate just brought us together again.”
She nodded and sighed. “That’s what I thought.”
He pulled into the same parking spot as before. The same six men were still on the playground.
“What are they, neighborhood watch or something?”
“No. They’re drug dealers, part of the Los Lobos gang. This is, like, their territory.”
“What? What the hell?!”
“No. It’s cool. They watch out for us residents. I mean, yeah, they’re scary and we all know that if the cops come around we didn’t see or hear anything no matter what we saw or heard, but other than that it’s a safe place.”
He knew he was wearing his skeptical face.
“No, really. It’s probably the safest place I’ve ever lived. Outside of the gang stuff they’re pretty good guys. You want to meet them?”
“Oh, come on. Besides, it’ll be good to have them know your face, so they’ll recognize you the next time you come over. You know, reduce the hassle factor? They’re like my protectors.”
“Fine. I guess knowing one more drug dealer won’t hurt me.”
The six men stayed seated as they approached, four of them on the bench where parents could sit to watch their children play, one guy on top of the slide, and the last man perched on a yellow plastic rabbit. All wore blue jeans, black shirts, and had red bandanas wrapped around their heads. Jerome was uneasy, but Sapphire seemed calm and sure of herself.
She stopped in front of the man on the rabbit. He was huge; big arms and a big chest caught Jerome’s eyes first, followed by his big gut and the big scary gun in his belt. But when Jerome looked him in the eyes, his breath caught. They were the dead eyes of a man who’d discovered early in life that he liked killing people.
“Hi, Manny,” Sapphire said.
“Sapphire. Who’s this?” the big guy grunted.
Sapphire hesitated, looking from Manny to Jerome.
“He’s an ex.” She paused again, staring at Jerome. “He dumped me for another girl five years ago, then today he shows up at Pop’s for lunch. I think he’s been playing me all day. In fact, I’m sure of it. So, if he ever comes back here again, you have my permission to shoot him.”
“Wait! What?” Jerome turned from nervous to nonplussed in one second. His mouth went dry and his eyes bugged out.
The four men on the bench stood as a unit and moved around to encircle Jerome and Sapphire. Each of them carried a gun in his waistband. The man on the slide remained where he was, as did Manny.
Sapphire said, her voice tight. “Go home, Jerome, and don’t ever come back. Not here, not the diner, not anywhere near me. Because, if you do, I’ll ask Manny and his crew here to hunt you down.”
“But…” He was having trouble breathing.
“I’ve tried all day to get over it. Tried and tried, but you know what?” She advanced toward him, her right index finger stabbing the air until she was close enough to pop it into his chest for emphasis. “Everything has changed now. I loved you, Jerome. I really, really loved you. I still love you. But it’s not going to happen. Not again. You had your chance and you blew it. For both of us. And now you show up and think you’re in and… Damn it! I’m so pissed off at myself! I can’t believe I was thinking about taking you back! You need to leave.” She pushed him. When he didn’t move, she shouted “Now!”
He stood there, not believing what he’d just heard. A deep, guttural growl came from Manny, so menacing in tone and timbre that the words it formed weren’t necessary. “Sister here said to leave now, boy. You need some help following directions?”
Jerome didn’t. His mouth hanging open, his mind wheeling with surprise and fear, he retreated backwards to his car, seven pairs of eyes watching his every step.
Copyright 2016 by Daniel LeBoeuf