Chapter Three
Trepidation (Part 2)

It was after four when Tabitha woke up, which meant that Roberta had opted for a nap as well. Light snores drifted down the hallway, so the girl slipped out quietly to avoid waking her.

The dust hardpan was even hotter than it had been that morning. Tabitha could feel it through the soles of her sneakers, one of which still had a busted lace. She'd forgotten to look for something to fix it with.

Agitation was surging back, that unidentifiable feeling that had made last night so complicated. Tabitha brushed it off in annoyance. She was just restless, ready to move on, it was making her paranoid. Like last time. She couldn't let that sabotage her again.

Still, by the time she got to Skinny's, her nerves were all on edge. Even the bells on the door spooked her with their familiar dysphonious jangling.

Ethel was standing at the empty counter with her apron on.

"Hey there, honey. We were starting to think you got lost." Bernie's silver-haired sister grinned. "He's in back," she directed.

"Thanks," Tabitha mumbled."Sorry." She grabbed her own apron and slunk into the back with her head hung.

"Good to see you, Tabby," Bernie greeted her. "The place has been dead all day, But Margaret tells me there's a rush coming." He looked her over critically. "I guess you seem a bit livelier than last night."

"Anything for you, Bernie," she teased. "Do you have any string around here? I snapped a shoelace."

There's some butcher's twine in the pantry. Scissors, too."

"Thanks." Tabitha slipped into the closet that served as dry storage. She cut a piece of twine and set about linking it to the frayed nylon end flopping against her sneaker. Working slowly and meticulously, she thought about how to tell Bernie she wanted out. It wasn't anger she feared— rather disappointment. He had looked out for her well these last few years.

She just had to say it.

When she stood and went back to the kitchen, the man who had given her a job and found a place for her to live was rolling hamburgers. Wrist deep in a bowl of pink ground beef, he smiled. "Better?"

"Yeah. All good." Tabitha didn't want to look at him.

"Could you wash that pot in the sink, darling?"

"Sure thing." She ran steaming water into what looked like a chili pot. With a soapy sponge she swished it around, watching oil patterns swirl on the surface. Every inch of the pot got scrubbed until scratched stainless steel shone, nervous energy grinding every tomato stain into oblivion. She rinsed and dried with the same vigor, until there was no more stalling to be done.

"Hey, Bernie?"

He grunted an unintelligible response, heaving a sack of flour onto the counter.

"I'm leaving."

"I thought you might." The top of the sack opened up in one smooth motion as Bernie dragged a pocket knife through the thick paper.

"You did?" Tabitha was honestly surprised.

"This is no place for a pretty young thing," he affirmed. "I knew you were smart enough to realize that eventually." White dust plumed as an avalanche of pulverized wheat flowed into the flour bin. "Do you need money?"

"I've got some," she answered. "Enough to last as long as I'll likely need it to. When does the next bus come through?"

"Saturday next. They don't come this way as often as they used to." Bernie sighed. "We'll miss you, Tabitha Snow."

Tabitha's mind reeled. She was sure she'd never told Bernie her last name. Made a point not to, actually. "How…"

Then a cacophony of bells and heavy footsteps filled the front room.

"Show time," Bernie announced, rolling up his sleeves.

"Could use some help out here," Ethel called. Tabitha trudged out with a sheaf of menus, apron untied. An unprecedented twenty men divided up among the booths and along the counter, six women among them. Girlfriends, maybe, or truckers themselves.

"Where did they all come from?" she whispered to the older woman. The place had only been so full during occasional bus breakdowns.

"A chlorine tanker turned over a short ways down. Every soul going west got holed up in Gopher Sneeze." Ethel surveyed the "crowd." It did seem like a crowd, after living in a nowhere with a stable population of eleven for so long. Twelve, counting Napoleon.

"You go left," she decided. "I'll take the counter and the two booths nearest the door." As Tabitha nodded in affirmation, Ethel noticed the strings hanging by her side. "And for God's sake, tie your apron."

Both waitresses took a week's worth of orders in twenty minutes, loading up seldom used trays with drink glasses that needed the dust washed out before they could be filled, it had been so long since they were needed. Bernie fired up all the burners on the frill for the first time Tabitha had ever seen, slapping the burgers he'd been forming onto it with practiced speed. There weren't really that many people, but the contrast to a normal night was such that it nearly stupefied the senses.

When all the tables were finally serviced, all three locals took a deep breath, reveling in the din of small talk and forks against plates.

"This used to be every night," Bernie said. "Back in the day."

Tabitha laughed, unbelieving.. "Gopher Sneeze had a day?"

"In the sixties, when I was a kid," he affirmed. "This was a popular road, popular enough to keep a post office running in the truck stop. Near around fifty people lived here through the year, more in summers than winters. Good times, those were."

"I knew that boy Cameron's papa," Ethel chimed in. "His mama's daddy. Fine mechanic, that man. Pretty daughter, too, but no wife. Never did find out what happened to the missus."

Tabitha knew, but didn't get the chance to say. People were clamoring for more drinks or their checks, some for dessert. She ducked out of the conversation to tend the customers.

"Good to see you still here," one man commented as she passed, his face vaguely familiar. She didn't remember his name, or if she'd ever known it, but nodded in his direction anyway.

"Need a Prince Charming?" offered another. The men around him laughed.

Tabitha rounded up empty glasses and plates, ignoring the looks and comments she got while cursing herself for not changing into a more androgynous shirt. Ethel passed out checks and took up money, paper changing hands with barely a rustle.

Eventually the clanging of bells announced a mass exodus, leaving only a few stragglers behind. For the first time that night, Tabitha saw Buck. The stranger from the previous evening sat at the end of the counter, fists clenching compulsively around a wrinkled newspaper. She again did her best to tune him out, grabbing a clean rag from the front sink to wipe down empty tables she'd already cleared.

"Goodnight, honey." Ethel tapped her on the shoulder. Tabitha flinched. "Relax a little," the older woman admonished. "You're too young to be so tense."

"Something doesn't feel right, that's all. I'll be fine," she promised.

By the time the tables were wiped down, only Buck was left. Bernie had just set a fresh cup of coffee in front of him, straight black and steaming.

"I hear coffee's not the only thing around here to keep a man awake at night," Buck said, talking to his mug but obvious directing the comment at someone else entirely.

He gave her a salacious glance, the kind she'd grown used to, but of such intensity that it still sent a cliché shiver down her spine. She and Bernie also exchanged a look, the same tension welling up that had pervaded the evening before.

It said, "Watch him."

And she did, as she cleaned. Watched him sip coffee and shuffle his newspaper. Watched thick fists pulsating with the ticks of a suddenly deafening clock. Slow circles of a wet rag dragged her down the counter, towards him. Three feet away, but still he didn't look up again. She snatched her arm back, fishing for a towel in the cavernous pockets of her apron. She didn't have one.

"Damn it," she muttered, turning to lean over the counter and look behind it.

Buck's hands clenched again. Tabitha's heart stuttered.

And that would have been the end of it.

But the floor was wet.

Worn-out treads glided across slick linoleum, patched shoelace snapping. The waitress reached for support— the counter, or a stool— but instead felt a strong hand clamp around her upper arm, holding her aloft.

She screamed.

Bernie hadn't been looking, had instead been scraping the grill before charred meat bonded to cast iron. His tool of choice, a large, nicked steel spatula, clutched defensively, he darted (well, toddled swiftly) into the main dining area at the sound of Tabitha's scream.

Bernie did not see the puddle. He did not see the girl slip, foot sliding out of a now unsecured shoe to thwart her efforts toward regaining balance.

He saw only that the man who had set his young waitress on edge and made a lewd comment just minutes earlier was holding Tabitha by the arm.

The spatula flew.

It was a good throw, the spatula rotating over itself with precision which would have drawn the admiration of any recreational dagger thrower. Its target was the meaty part of Buck's shoulder, Bernie's intent being only to surprise, and possibly to injure.

But he was three inches left. A mere three inches which might have mollified Bucks impending discomfort with a rib shattering blow, had he not continued to lift the girl. Because he did not see the dimly glittering kitchen implement whirling in their direction, the situation became otherwise fatal.

Had Buck let Tabitha fall, she might have twisted an ankle. Had she not reacted so violently, Buck simply would have gotten her back on her feet, perhaps slightly violated but otherwise unharmed.

As it was, the business end of a dirty cooking utensil collided with her temple, cracking her skull.