Midnight Crossroad Page 23

’’Relief!’’ said Creek.

’’Relief?’’

’’Getting out of Midnight for a little while. Well, actually, getting away from my dad for a little while.’’

’’You\'re at the age when most kids separate from their parents,’’ he agreed.

’’Okay, I won\'t call you \'Mr. Bernardo\' again, and you don\'t call me \'kid.\'’’

’’Deal. What I was going to say is, sorry you didn\'t get to leave for college like you were supposed to. Joe and Chuy told me about that.’’

She shrugged. Her dark hair swung forward to obscure her expression. ’’Yeah, I hope I can still get the scholarship. I was all set to go.’’

’’What happened?’’

She shrugged again. ’’It\'s a long, boring story. Some paperwork didn\'t make it on time. Is it true you\'re a telephone psychic?’’

Manfred started to shrug and tell her that was a long, boring story, but he thought he\'d come off as too sarcastic. ’’My grandmother was a psychic, too,’’ he said. ’’My mom . . . the talent skipped her. She became the polar opposite. She\'s become so down to earth and normal that it hurts to talk to her.’’

’’So where does she live?’’

’’In Tennessee,’’ he said. ’’I grew up in Tennessee. I lived with my grandmother a lot of the time.’’

’’I haven\'t seen my grandmother . . .’’ Creek began, and then she trailed off. ’’I don\'t ever see my grandparents.’’

Manfred was not a mind-reader, at least not consistently or casually, but he\'d been trained to be observant. Creek had not planned on ending the sentence that way. She\'d almost said something completely different, something that would have revealed a lot about Lovell family life. Manfred was wise enough not to push, though. ’’Where\'s this hair place you\'re going to?’’ he asked. Visibly relieved at the change in the conversation, Creek gave him directions. Kut N Kurl was in an add-on structure attached to a house in a humble part of Davy. Not that Davy has many grand parts, Manfred thought. Until he pulled up in front of the house, their conversation was steady but impersonal. It was a start, he figured.

’’How long do you think you\'ll be?’’ Manfred asked as Creek opened the car door.

’’Usually takes an hour,’’ she said. ’’Minnie might be running late. There are magazines to read, so don\'t worry if your own errands run longer. I\'ll be watching out the window.’’

Manfred could tell from the smile on Creek\'s face that getting her hair cut was a treat. That seemed a little sad. Maybe Creek just enjoyed the rare afternoon being in the society of other women? Maybe just getting out of Midnight and the ever-present grind of the convenience store was the real delight? ’’Okay,’’ he said. ’’Message received. I\'ll be back in an hour or a little more. You\'ve got my cell phone number, I know.’’

’’Yeah,’’ she said, embarrassed. ’’I hope you don\'t mind.’’

’’Not at all,’’ he said promptly, and in the interests of being as thorough as he could be, he walked her to the door marked KUT N KURL. As she pushed it open, a waft of the beauty parlor smell drifted out to Manfred and evoked memories he hadn\'t realized he possessed: taking his grandmother to her hair salon as she got older;smelling the salon incense of perm solution, hair dye, and wax;hearing the snick of scissors and the running water, the plastic crinkle of the protective capes . . . Suddenly, he had a mental image of Xylda so vivid that it almost brought tears to his eyes: this whole rush of past experiences, brought back by that one inhalation.

He knew he said something to Creek before he turned to walk back to the car, but he couldn\'t recall what it was a minute later.

He had to sit in the car for a while before he left to run his errands. He pulled out his list of errands from his pocket and pretended to be studying it until he was calm and composed again. He had to smile a little;Xylda would have enjoyed knowing she was the center of so much of his life.

Maybe she did know it. That was not a bad feeling.

Home Depot, Walmart, and Dairy Queen were his three ports of call. An hour and fifteen minutes later, Manfred pulled up outside Kut N Kurl again. Before he could turn off his engine, Creek was at the passenger door. ’’I was watching out the window,’’ she said, climbing in.

’’I brought you something,’’ Manfred said. ’’Here.’’ He handed her a cup with a spoon.

’’What is it?’’

’’Butterfinger Blizzard,’’ he said. ’’I just guessed.’’

’’Oh, boy,’’ she said, and started in on the ice cream right away. ’’This is great!’’

’’You\'ve had one before, right?’’

’’No, never. Connor\'s on a very restricted diet.’’

She didn\'t explain why, and Manfred thought it would be pushy to ask. Manfred felt he might\'ve undermined Shawn with the ice cream and that Shawn would not appreciate it. It felt strange to be on the parental consent side of things. ’’I hope I\'m not in trouble,’’ he said.

’’Not with me,’’ Creek assured him, and he felt better.

’’I think it\'s great that he wants Connor to eat healthy,’’ Manfred added quickly.

’’He\'s got some health issues,’’ she said, between bites of ice cream.

’’Oh?’’ Manfred asked, ’’Allergies?’’ But when the pleasure on her face vanished, he realized he\'d stepped over a boundary. ’’Sorry. Midnight people like to play things close to the chest.’’

Her smile reappeared. He felt a rush of relief. ’’That\'s one way to put it,’’ she said. ’’Yeah, my dad is pretty strict about us eating in restaurants, especially Connor. What about your dad? Was he hard on you?’’

’’I don\'t know,’’ Manfred said. ’’I never met him. I don\'t know who he was.’’

’’Oh my God, I\'m so sorry! Were you adopted?’’ She had flushed, which made her look even prettier, he thought.

’’Nope. My mom was single, and she never told me anything about my dad.’’

’’I guess you asked her a lot,’’ Creek said, obviously feeling her way.

’’Over and over, especially when I was little.’’

’’I\'m really sorry,’’ she said. ’’I\'m assuming you had to find ways to handle that. Were other kids mean about it?’’

’’I don\'t think it would be as bad now, but then, in a sort of rural area, it was pretty tough.’’

Creek obviously had a dozen things to say, but she seemed to be thinking twice about all of them. ’’Well, that sucks,’’ she said finally.

’’Yeah, it kind of did,’’ he agreed, and they rode the rest of the way to Midnight in silence, working on their Blizzards. Manfred didn\'t think the lack of conversation was uncomfortable;he characterized it as thoughtful. He pushed aside his own childhood mystery with the ease of long practice and instead focused on Creek\'s. What kind of father keeps two kids chained to a convenience store in a little town that\'s almost dead? And then has issues about them eating in restaurants? Manfred noted that was limited to out-of-town restaurants. The Lovells got takeout from Home Cookin regularly.

Manfred was beginning to wonder if there might be something sketchy about Creek\'s not getting her scholarship, too. He couldn\'t begin to imagine how he could tackle a line of questioning that would confirm or deny that suspicion, so he tucked the idea away for further examination.

He pulled into the convenience store parking lot before five o\'clock. The old truck was back, parked over at their house next door, so Shawn and Connor had returned. Manfred debated going in to hand her over to her dad, then realized that would just be weird. She wasn\'t eight years old, and this wasn\'t a date. Plus, Shawn was probably watching.

’’Thanks,’’ Creek said. ’’I appreciate the ride and the Blizzard.’’ She left the DQ cup in the cup holder, Manfred noticed.

’’Glad to do it. Ask again,’’ he said, striving to sound casual. ’’And by the way, your hair looks great. You get about an inch cut off?’’

Surprise flashed across her face. ’’Yeah,’’ she said. ’’I can\'t believe you noticed.’’

Not getting a lot of attention at home, Manfred noted. ’’My grandmother always wanted my opinion on her hair,’’ he said. ’’That\'s what she said, but she really wanted me to tell her she looked great and not a day older.’’

Creek laughed. ’’So you\'re saying I shouldn\'t believe you when you tell me I look great?’’

’’I\'m going to make a deal with you,’’ Manfred said. ’’I\'ll do my best to always tell you the truth.’’ He had no idea why he\'d said that, but he knew instantly it had been the right thing to tell her.

’’That\'s an interesting deal, Manfred Bernardo. Okay. I\'ll do my best to do the same.’’ And Creek opened her door and walked swiftly into the store.

When the door swung shut, Manfred went home, but it took him an hour to settle back to work.

26

Manfred had had a civilized idea while he shopped in Davy, one he was sure his grandmother and his mother would approve. Late the next morning, he walked down to the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon with a bottle of wine. Chuy was in the salon part of the store. He was painting a design on some acrylic nails, which were on the fingertips of Olivia Charity, back from wherever she\'d been on her trip.

After Manfred greeted both of them, he asked Olivia, ’’Can I look?’’

’’Of course,’’ she said, and he bent over to see the design. Her fingernail pattern was dark blue and light blue chevrons.

’’Really pretty,’’ he said. And it was, but he realized he didn\'t know Olivia very well at all. He would never, in a million years, have believed this was her choice.

’’Joe, Manfred is here!’’ Chuy called, and Joe emerged from behind a chest of drawers.

’’Hey, man,’’ Joe said. ’’How you doing?’’

Manfred presented the wine to Joe, since Chuy was occupied. ’’Thanks for a great evening,’’ he said. ’’Even if we did get in a fight afterward, the food gave us the strength to withstand the attack.’’

’’Thanks, and have a seat,’’ Joe invited. ’’I was just taking the old drawer pulls off the drawers and looking at the restoration hardware I could get to replace them. Nothing that can\'t be put off. I\'d rather talk than work, any day.’’

Manfred hadn\'t planned on staying, but he found he welcomed the prospect of talking to other people in a different room. He sat down in the extra plastic rolling chair on the client side of the manicure table. Joe pulled up a folding chair that had been positioned looking out the window.

’’That was quite a shock, to hear that you guys had been jumped,’’ Chuy said, taking Olivia\'s left hand in his own. ’’I\'m sorry we didn\'t hear you yell. Creek tells me she came to your defense. That Creek, she\'s a firecracker, huh?’’

’’We were glad to see her coming,’’ Manfred admitted. ’’She can swing a bat, no doubt of that. I\'m no street fighter. No big surprise there.’’ He looked down at his thin body. ’’Maybe I need some bulk,’’ he concluded.

’’Nah, just toning,’’ Joe said. ’’Or Bobo could teach you some karate.’’ The conversation drifted to Jackie Chan and went sideways to Chow Yun Fat, while tangentially brushing on the injuries action stars incurred, and from that to doping exposés. Olivia threw in a comment from time to time.

Of all the citizens of Midnight, Olivia seemed the largest question mark. Even if he imagined that she had met and fallen in love or lust with Lemuel and moved here to be with him (and that was by no means a certainty), how could she resign herself to such solitude and isolation? Olivia was so clearly a citizen of a bigger world. Maybe that was why she traveled so often.

As Manfred walked home, he thought, Every time I take a step forward in knowing these people, I end up with more questions. How about Joe and Chuy? Granted, g*y couples in a state like Texas wouldn\'t have too easy a time of it. But Manfred knew that in any large city and Texas had a few of those there were equally large g*y communities. Why hadn\'t Joe and Chuy settled in one of those? Really, how many people were going to come to a hole in the road like Midnight to buy antiques? Or to get their nails done?

Once these questions had occurred to him, he thought the oddest thing of all was that he\'d never set them side by side before.

Fiji had texted him this morning. ’’Tell Bobo about the vision,’’ was all she\'d said. He\'d glimpsed her setting off with Bobo the day before, so she could have told Bobo all about what he\'d seen;but Manfred knew it was his responsibility, as reluctant as he was to relay an emotional message.

He\'d been wrong not to do it before.

There was no point in putting it off. He turned in at the pawnshop, went up the steps, opened the big door. Bobo emerged from the gloom of the back of the shop, like the Cheshire cat;first Manfred could see his smile, then the rest of him.

After they\'d exchanged greetings, Manfred said, ’’I have something to tell you. When I went to Fiji\'s class the other night . . .’’ And he relayed what he had seen in the vision, though he didn\'t dwell on the grisly details of Aubrey\'s appearance. ’’So that\'s what she said, short and complete. She wanted you to know she really loved you,’’ he concluded.

Bobo looked as if he\'d been hit between the eyes. ’’You\'re not making this up?’’ he asked, and you could tell he was praying that Manfred was not.

’’I would never lie to you about a vision,’’ Manfred said. He liked and respected Bobo too much.

’’Thank you,’’ Bobo said, with considerable dignity. ’’Excuse me. I have to . . . I have to go do something.’’ And he vanished. Manfred scooted out of the pawnshop as fast as he could, to leave Bobo alone to grieve. And maybe to recover a little.


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