Home > Never Smile at Strangers (Strangers Series #1)(5)

Never Smile at Strangers (Strangers Series #1)(5)
Jennifer Jaynes

Haley’s boyfriend, Mac, had just shown up. He sat at the kitchen counter, his nose buried in a fishing magazine. He was a vision of health. Tall, tanned, athletic, confident and always relaxed. Nothing seemed to ever bother him. She’d become the opposite of him over the long months: Pale, puffy, stressed, and unconfident. Certain she’d become a downer, Haley wasn’t even sure why he still wanted to be around her.

Her life had become difficult, but she knew she didn’t have the luxury of drowning in a depression. Her mother had claimed that path before anyone else had the chance. Someone had to care for her mother, Becky, and the house. There was no one else.

“You have a good fishing trip?”

“Yeah,” Mac said, not looking up. “Relaxing.”

“Get back last night?”

“Yesterday afternoon. Put in a couple of hours for Lloyd. Would’ve called, but couldn’t get a damn signal at the site. By the time I got home, it was pretty late.”

Mac worked for Lloyd’s Towing, a tow truck company in Weston. He put in odd on-call hours, working any chance he could. He also worked other part-time jobs on occasion, including cutting lawns. Something he’d done since he was fifteen.

Haley wiped beads of sweat from her temples with the heel of her hand. The wall-mounted air conditioning unit in the living room barely cooled both rooms, and lately the unit in Becky’s bedroom had been on the brink. She needed to call a repairman, but the bill would run her a couple hundred dollars. Money she didn’t want to part with.

She dropped a handful of chopped scallions into the skillet, then gently stirred them into a crackling mixture of flour and oil. Her attention fell to the refrigerator door. Along with old report cards, her high school graduation photo, and an old “To Do” list, was a note from her father, telling them he went out to buy sheet rock. It was a note he’d left on the refrigerator just hours before he died, held by one of the magnets he used to pass out at parish fairs. “Education Is Forever,” it read. How about when you’re dead, she wondered, bitterly. She’d wanted to take the note down several times over the past few months but couldn’t bring herself to. Apparently, Becky and her mother hadn’t been able to either because it was still there.

Mac set his magazine down, then pulled off his LSU ball cap and began working the bill between his thick, strong hands. His forehead and cheeks were sun burnt, and just above the collar of his t-shirt, along his neck, were three jagged, red lines.

“What happened?” Haley asked, concerned.

“Ah, nothin’.” Mac quickly pulled his cap back on, then lightly fingered the scratches. “A branch got me while I was fishing is all. Wasn’t payin’ attention.” The skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled as he flashed her a tired smile.

“They look pretty bad. You put anything on them?”

“It’s nothing, Hale. Believe me, looks worse than it is.”

Haley decided to take him at his word. Men didn’t like women who nagged, besides she had enough to worry about.

Lowering the fire on the stove, she continued to stir. She’d only eat a cup of the gumbo. As always, she had an extra five pounds around her middle that she was determined to get rid of. If she couldn’t control anything else in her life, she’d control that.

Mac got up and walked around the counter. He kissed her cheek. “I’m goin’ to go lie on the couch and have me a little nap. After that, I’ll take you for a sno’ cone. How’s that sound?”

***

HALEY WAS FOLDING towels when the phone rang half an hour later. She picked it up, expecting it to be Tiffany. But it wasn’t. It was Julia Perron, Tiffany’s mother.

“Weren’t you with her last night?” Mrs. Perron snapped when Haley told her Tiffany wasn’t there.

“Yes, Mrs. Perron, I was. We went to Provost’s.”

“And she’s not there?” the older woman asked again, skeptically, as though Haley would now say yes.

“No ma’am.”

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. “Haley, this wouldn’t have anything to do with the little argument she and I had yesterday morning, would it?”

Mac stirred from where he lay on the couch.

Haley lowered her voice, not wanting to wake him. “I. . . I don’t know.”

“Could you tell me who I should call then? She wouldn’t be with that Charles boy, would she?” She made the name Charles sound like a cuss word.

Months earlier, Mrs. Perron forbade Tiffany from dating Charles, one of only a handful of blacks in Grand Trespass and the surrounding towns. Families like the Perrons; white, working class, and sometimes narrow in their views of what and who were acceptable, didn’t look kindly on minorities. When Mrs. Perron found out that Tiffany was secretly seeing Charles, the two fought like a pair of rabid bobcats and she demanded that Tiffany not see him any longer. She hadn't told Mr. Perron for the sake of his bad heart, but she’d threatened to disown Tiffany if she found out she was seeing Charles behind her back.

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