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Rebel Preview - Chapter 2

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I nursed my beer at The Lucky Duck, now nearly empty at nine o’clock. This time of night, most moved their consumption next door to the Fodder. The jangle of guitar and bass thumped through the wall at a low din. A beer garden provided a slight buffer between the two establishments, so bands playing at the bar didn’t disturb those wanting a quieter meal.

Quiet is what I wanted tonight and almost every night, but as much as I loved home cooking, I hated cooking at home alone. So I waited in the cherry red vinyl booth for my meatloaf dinner special with roasted vegetables subbed for mashed potatoes. Ms. Watkins’s potatoes could make you weep with happiness, but I ate here way too often to consume so much butter and starch. I saved that indulgence for Sundays when she served her melt-on-your-tongue pot roast.

Discipline was how I got out of Bliss. It was why I could come back and sit in the diner with old friends, their parents, and their offspring stopping by my regular table to say hello. Some with enthusiasm and some with suspicion, but all of them with a measure of deference.

That’s what happened when you bought up half the town.

Shandra, my usual server, slid a plate in front of me. “Here you go, Mr. McKnight. I brought you extra gravy like you like.”

She winked because she always winked at her male patrons, and I laughed. She was half my age and sweet as could be, but I went to high school with her mother. They had the same wink and bright blue eyes under a riot of curly blond hair. The resemblance was off-putting and made me feel old rather than flattered.

I stretched my legs under the booth table and thanked her.

“You remind me so much of your mother. How’s she doing? Did she get her roof fixed?” I asked.

A month ago, storms sent an oak crashing through Leslie Amberton’s garage, and a run on roofing materials meant most roofing companies couldn’t schedule the repair for weeks. I called in a favor to get what she needed and sent my maintenance crew to do the work.

“Yep. Last week. Thank you so much. It’s raining again tonight. We’re super grateful,” she said with a grin.

“Shandra, honey, you gon’ wait on your other tables, or is his highness the only one who gets service these days?” Harry Ripken barked from three booths over.

That man had been sniping at people for forty years.

The young woman rolled her eyes. “It’s called polite conversation, Harry. Look into it.”

But she turned and approached his table. I dug into my meatloaf and let his pointed comment go. So what if not everyone was as excited about my return as I was? I’d stopped trying to win over the Harry Ripkens of the world.

At first, my coming back to town was a novelty. People remembered me as the hulking, quiet kid who got in trouble for hot wiring the mayor’s car when I was fourteen. Back then, I was brash and stupid. If I’d taken a few more weeks to understand the lay of the land before bringing my streets-of-Chicago training with me, I would have at least known whose Cadillac it was.

After more unfortunate run-ins, I got my head on straight and learned to put my technical aptitude to better use. The town mechanic, Willis Gardner, snatched me up and told me if I didn’t watch out, I’d spend the rest of my life in and out of jail and unemployable. He didn’t know my history then, but the rest of the sentence—“just like your father”—rattled my conscience anyway. Mom slurred them at me often enough.

His son, Colton, was one of my oldest friends and earliest investors. He put some of his NFL money into the medical technology startup I co-founded with my first-year roommate from Rice. Two years ago, Victor and I sold the company, and overnight, we had billions between us and to share with our other partners, investors, and friends who built the company.

It was my idea to reinvest in the hometown where I first found purpose and direction. Who knew what other young kid like me was lost and searching in the trailer park down the hill on the other side of the creek, looking up at the rooflines on Oak Street?

When we came back, the town more resembled the abandoned rail yard on the edge of town than it did the stately rows of freshly painted Victorians. The dairy was gone. The Bliss family had moved on, leaving behind the town that bore its name, but no longer enjoyed its fervent support. The younger Blisses built their lives in Dallas, San Antonio, and out of state. To them, the town was little more than a memory.

People loved seeing Colton. Everyone wanted to slap their local, Sports Illustrated cover-ready pro football celebrity on the back and get a selfie. What some of them didn’t want was me, the trouble-making kid from the wrong side of the creek, buying the old Bliss farm and bringing in outsiders to rejuvenate what wasn’t supposed to belong to boys like me. Ever.

The Bliss family and quarterback heroes like Colton were proper town royalty. I was “your highness” with a sneer.

Once the men got Shandra’s attention and gave her their order, Harry and his dinner companions stopped minding me and went back to jawing about other topics. I ignored them until one name made me prairie dog my head over the tops of the booths.

“You hear Aneka Powell is in town?” Harry said.

Roy Chalmers, a truck driver who used to teach shop at the high school, waved a correcting finger. “Ain’t it Shaw now? She married that TV preacher in all the mess down in Houston.”

“Uh huh,” their buddy in a trucker hat mumbled through his pie. “Elijah Shaw. Caught with his pants down and his hand in the till.”

“All them preacher types are up to no good with their shiny, colored suits and dancing the pews,” Harry spat.

“Aneka’s daddy was a good one. Knew what’s what. Kept his people in line,” Trucker Cap said, then swiveled his eyes toward me, landing and staring. “Or most of ‘em.”

“He was a respectable preacher. Too bad he retired. I went to his church more than a few times over the years,” Roy answered.

“I don’t know why. Our church on Middleton is perfectly fine,” the man I didn’t recognize said.

“Jessup, you’ve got to change with the times,” he replied and nodded at me. “Besides, they had the best choir. Keep you awake on Sunday morning.”

I avoided their gaze, but kept my ears tuned. Curiosity won over annoyance. Aneka was in Bliss?

The news about her husband was all over the TV. That dumbass probably embarrassed down to her patent leather shoes. I pressed my lips shut and huffed under my breath. There’s no way she still wore patent leather shoes with little bows on them.

God, she was cute back then and got cuter by the second until she was the hottest girl in our class by the time we graduated. I pined for her for years, only once thinking I might ask her out. I hadn’t.

I figured she never gave me a second romantic thought—until the party at the lake after graduation.

One kiss in the sultry, early summer air.

Kissing Aneka Powell was magical, and I carried a touch of that magic with me every day since. No one else compared. I searched and tried and tasted and fucked and married and divorced—twice. I chased the feeling of her soft, perfect lips on mine for years.

We came close to running into each other a few times over the years, but I always found a reason to take the first plane, train, or automobile out of town. She was married. I didn’t need the temptation.

Discipline kept my life straight.

Being around that girl made me feel very undisciplined.

Woman. Aneka Shaw was a woman now. And in town.

“I wonder what she’s doing up here. Her parents are off in some banana republic,” the man I assumed was Jessup added.

Ned Jessup? He would have died years ago. He was in his seventies when I lived here. Trucker Hat could be Ned’s son or, probably, grandson. He looked about thirty.

“I’m sure she’s visiting friends or hiding out,” Roy speculated and chuckled. “Some of both.”

“You get what you get marrying a con artist like that. A smart girl oughtta know,” Jessup replied.

Harry snorted. “If a woman can’t keep her husband happy, she’s got bigger problems than whatever he’s accused of.”

I scooted from the booth and rose. The chatter died as all eyes turned to me stalking toward them.

“Is that the best you guys can do this evening? Stick your noses in someone else’s business and make fun?” I asked, unable to stymie my cold fury. “Does insulting a woman you know, whose parents you know, make you feel better about yourselves? The Powells have been nothing but kind to you. Even when some of you didn’t deserve it.”

I glared at Harry. Everyone in town knew he’d tried to keep the Powells from buying their house on that side of the creek, but they had. Soon enough, several other black families followed, some moving from neighboring towns.

Old Harry squared his shoulders from his seat while his friends grumbled and looked away. “A man’s entitled to his opinions.”

I dropped my hands to the edge of his table and glared. “Expressing an opinion is one thing. Loud, nasty gossip in a public place about someone who isn’t here to defend herself is another. That makes you a lot of things, but a man isn’t one of them.”

His nostrils flared, and his lips pressed to a tight line. Anger poured off him, but he didn’t move. He knew better. I had pounds of muscle, six inches of height, and twenty-plus years on him.

Jessup huffed from his stool at the counter. “Seems to me true character shows under pressure. And by that measure, some fall real short.”

I turned and faced him. “Comment on Aneka again, and you’ll know pressure. Then we can find out what kind of character you have.”

With that no-so-veiled threat, I went back to my booth. I hadn’t finished my dinner.

I’d wanted quiet, and now I had it as their venomous chatter dropped off into awkward silence.

My words boomeranged back into my mind. It wasn’t true that the Powells had always been kind. I was about as big a fan of her dad as he was of me.

When I was sixteen, I stopped by her house after school to ask her out. She had smiled at me at lunch, and the welcoming shine in her eyes had me buzzing higher than the joints I used to sneak from my cousin’s stash back in Illinois. Climbing up the dark red steps of her house on Oak Street, my knees shook so bad I could have used a cane. It didn’t get any better when Mr. Powell answered the door.

I thought he was going to slam it in my face, but he invited me in, giving me hope.

It didn’t last.

He sat me down in his study, lit his pipe, and waxed on for thirty minutes about the dangers of being unequally yoked with the world before I realized he was talking about me. I was the world—dangerous and sinful, encroaching on his daughter like a crouching lion. Or was that Satan himself? My mind spun with his Biblical metaphors until he landed on a concrete declaration.

“You’re not to come to this house again. Aneka is not for you.”

He didn’t call me trash outright, but the implication was clear enough.

I never went to that house again. I never asked Aneka out. I tried my best to not to address her individually even though we had mutual friends. I didn’t want her to think I liked her. She might smile at me again, and I didn’t trust myself to resist the temptation, which would surely end in humiliation. We talked and hung out, but always with the group.

Then, in the times I’d seen her since graduation, at friends’ weddings or our twenty-year reunion, she was with Reverend Elijah Shaw.

But she wasn’t with him now. Did she plan to stay married? Was she miserable? She hadn’t been to town for years, so one thing the gossips might have right is that she was hiding.

I could stop by. Say hello.

Thinking about that house and that porch, a knot formed in my neck, but I tilted my head from side to side and relaxed. I wasn’t a sixteen-year-old who hot-wired cars anymore. I could have a civil conversation with a woman who might need a friend. We had been that at least—if from a safe distance.

Shandra swept through and checked on Harry and company, then stopped at my table with the bill.

“I’ll take care of this for you when you’re ready.”

I glanced down at her notations on the green slip. “The beer’s not on here.”

“You took care of those old coots. It’s on the house.”

Shandra winked. I laughed, threw fifty dollars on the table, and strode out, still chuckling.


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