Page 23

 Penelope Ward

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“Fancy meeting you here,” I said jokingly, since we did this almost every day. Mr. Short lived around the corner and came into the diner for breakfast, lunch and dinner most days. He was a true round the clock regular.
Mr. Short smiled and said, “Allison. You look lovely today.”
I took a bite of my grilled chicken salad. “Thanks, Mr. Short.” I started munching on the mixed greens.
“You always look great, Allison, but I have to say, I’ve been watching you today and you seem to have a certain glow about you.”
A hot flash suddenly overcame me at his perceptiveness. “You think?” I definitely had to have been blushing.
Mr. Short smiled. “Does it have anything to do with that handsome young man I saw drop you off this morning? I saw the way you looked at him. It reminded me of the way Marie used to look at me, God rest her soul.”
Okay, I was definitely blushing now. “You saw him walk me to the door?” I asked.
“Yes. In fact, he was parked right outside the window by my booth here. Let me ask you, is your boyfriend religious?”
“He is not technically my boyfriend. Why do you ask?”
“Well, like I said…what’s his name?”
“Well…Cedric…after he dropped you off…I watched him for a bit before he started the car. He took a phone call and when he hung up, he put his head on the steering wheel for a bit and then he made the sign of the cross before driving away.”
My heart nearly stopped as Mr. Short described this observation. Why would Cedric make the sign of the cross after taking a phone call? That was bizarre.
“Hmm…well, I can’t tell you what it means, Mr. Short, but thank you for telling me.”
Mr. Short reached across the table and placed his hand over mine. “Anytime, Allison. You know I am always looking out for you. You’re like the daughter I never had.”
That wasn’t the first time he referred to me like that. It was sweet and I knew he was just as lonely as I had been for a long time.
Mr. Short then made a fist-like gesture with his hands. “And you can tell Frederic that if he ever breaks your heart, I’ll kick his ass military-style.”
I belted out laughing at his facetious threat and the fact that he called Cedric, Frederic. Well, Mr. Short was a former solider, after all. “Thanks, Mr. Short.”
I excused myself from the table and my smile turned to confusion as my thoughts drifted back to the phone call he said that Cedric received, after which, according to Mr. Short, he made the sign of the cross. I impulsively decided to text Cedric, asking how he was doing, just in case, something bad had happened.
Allison: How is everything?
Cedric: Great. I miss you.
Allison: Ok, just checking in.
Cedric: Later, sweetheart
Allison: Later xo
Okay, well that didn’t give me any clue. My curiosity was killing me, so I typed again.
Allison: Can I ask you a silly question?
Cedric: No such thing as a silly question…Shoot.
Allison: Are you religious?
Cedric: I am spiritual. Why?
Allison: Someone said they saw you make the sign of the cross in your car after you got off the phone outside the diner after dropping me off.
About a minute passed and no response. My heart started to pound and then he finally responded.
Cedric: It was a work call. Sometimes I do make the sign of the cross when I am asking for, you know, assistance from above on things. Nothing bad. Don’t worry. I guess Bettina taught me some things that stuck with me, even though I don’t go to church anymore.
Allison: Okay…see I told you it was silly. Sorry for bugging you. Glad everything is okay.
It still didn’t feel right, but I was probably just being paranoid. Trying to get my mind off of my insecurities, I focused on being a waitress for the rest of the afternoon, anxiously awaiting the end of my shift.
I had just left Allison at the door of the Stardust diner and already, I couldn’t wait until it was time to pick her up.
Fantasizing about finishing later where we left off this morning, I strolled to my car, feeling on top of the world as the morning sun beamed.
As I settled in, my cell phone rang and my heart dropped as I noticed the Chicago exchange. I picked up.
“This is Cedric.”
“Cedric…hi. It’s Elaine.”
My heart dropped further. “Elaine.” I could hardly breathe. “Hi.”
“Cedric, Ed and I were just wondering if you have made any progress. We haven’t heard from you. Have you found her?”
Closing my eyes, I inhaled and let out a deep breath.
“Um…Elaine…” I hesitated.
“I…I know where she is, okay? She is doing well. But I haven’t found a way to approach the subject yet. I am hoping you and Ed understand that I need some more time. I have to handle this carefully.”
Elaine paused. “Cedric, I have some news. I am not sure how much longer you can put this off.”
As Elaine explained the new development that had happened in the weeks since I found Allison, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. This news changes everything. It will only be a matter of weeks now and if I don’t tell her the truth, someone else will.
After I hung up with Elaine, I collapsed my head onto the steering wheel. Feeling desperate for some kind of help, I did the only thing that came natural: I made the sign of the cross. “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…help me, God. Please help me.”
Then, I sped away from the diner.
The highway ride was a blur as my mind raced for a solution and before I knew it, I was only a mile from my condo.
Ideas that floated through my mind ranged from taking Allison away on a vacation to never contacting her again and moving to another city. The need to somehow get rid of the situation I had gotten myself into was enormous. Why couldn’t I have left her alone and just done what I was supposed to do? For the first time since this entire ordeal began, I felt tears forming in my eyes. A lone teardrop streamed down my left cheek and my jaw began to tremble.
It was at that moment that I truly realized all that I stood to lose. It was at that moment that I realized how desperately I was falling in love with her.
Two days had gone by since that afternoon.
I ended up telling Allison that I had fallen ill and couldn’t pick her up from the diner that day. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but I just couldn’t face her that night and needed time to think.
The walls of deceit I had built were closing in on me. I couldn’t bear the thought of her thinking that I was not interested in spending time with her because I had already had my sexual fill. The timing of that phone call was horrible.
I wanted nothing more than to be able to spend every second of every day with her, making love to her, building on this relationship and having nothing to hide. Again, I wished that things were that simple and that we had met under different circumstances.
I hoped she truly believed I was sick; I hated lying to her…yet again. That’s the funny thing about lies; you have to keep covering them up with more lies.
I made sure to text her repeatedly during those days, so she would at least know I was thinking of her. She offered to come by and check on me, but I begged her not to, based on the story that I was afraid she would catch what I had and that Callie was looking forward to seeing her next week. It was the best excuse I could come up with.
The most painful night was last night, New Years Eve. Still in my fictitious sickness bubble, I stayed home alone, too afraid to get caught in my lie. I couldn’t exactly go to my mother’s house and tell her to lie to Allison next week about having seen me and also couldn’t risk being seen or photographed out.
Allison had told me she was going to Boston’s First Night celebration with her roommate Sonia and begged me to let her come by and see me before she went. It pained me beyond belief to tell her not to when I missed her so much but I couldn’t let her see that I was obviously fine. So, I urged her to stay away, choosing my words carefully and hoping that she would listen. She hadn’t been to my condo yet, so I was fairly certain she didn’t even know exactly where I lived and wouldn’t just drop in.
As the clock struck midnight, from my couch, I watched television coverage of fireworks exploding over the Esplanade imagining how amazing it would have been to share that moment with her. Looking out the window toward the dark Boston night, it seemed Beacon Street was eerily quiet. As the Boston Symphony Orchestra played on the television and the fireworks continued to erupt, the explosion seemed to symbolize the inner turmoil I was experiencing.
As I pondered that symbolism, no closer to a decision on how to move forward, my cell phone rang.
Seeing it was Allison, I felt an immense pain in my heart and immediately picked up. “Happy New Year, beautiful,” I said in a hoarse voice.
“Happy New Year, Cedric. I really wish you were here.”
Closing my eyes at the sound of her voice, all the resolve I had to sound neutral went out the window.
The alcohol I had consumed had also done its job in preventing me from masking my emotions. I felt my mouth start to tremble and hoped that she couldn’t sense it in my voice.
“I f**king miss you so much, Allison. I want nothing more than to be with you right now.”
It was the truth. I am so fucked.
“When do you think we’ll be able to see each other? Are you feeling any better at all?” she asked.
God, she was so sweet.
I could barely hear her with the noise of horns and yelling and all of the New Year festivities in the background.
“My fever’s gone down a bit and I definitely feel better now that I’ve heard your voice. I am hoping I’ll be done with this by mid-week.”
Have I mentioned I really hated lying to this woman?
“Well, you let me know the second you can have me…I mean…not have me…you know what I mean…not like I am thinking about that right now…”
I smiled at her nervously correcting herself. She was so damn cute.
“You will be the first person I see as soon as I beat this thing…I promise.”
“Ok…well, I’ll let you rest. Happy New Year,” she said, sounding a bit down.
“Happy New Year, sweetheart,” I said as I quickly hung up the phone before I said anything I would regret. I closed my eyes and silently mouthed, I f**king love you.
And so went the worst New Years Eve of my life.
After four more nights of tormenting myself, I came to a monumental decision; well, two decisions actually.
One: I was going to come clean to my mother about everything that happened in Chicago.
Two: I was going to ask for her advice on how to handle the Allison situation.
Caleb was the only person who knew the truth, but somehow, this was too important not to have a second opinion.
My mother was the only other person on this Earth that I could trust. She would be disappointed that I wasn’t honest with her all these years, but would find out eventually anyway and I wanted it to come from me. Also, I knew she wouldn’t say anything to Allison and that I could trust her.
So, Friday night after work, I impulsively drove to my mother’s house. Traffic was busy and it felt like I’d never get there.
I knew that Allison wouldn’t be there with Callie on a Friday, which is why I chose tonight. I still hadn’t seen her since my supposed illness.
Earlier in the week, I told her that my sickness had caused me to fall behind in work having to make up lost hours. I then arranged for a client meeting later in the week in New York to get myself out of town and buy myself more time to think and had just returned last night.
It had been a full week now since I last saw her. Even though, I phoned and texted, I began to feel she was suspecting something because her responses were getting shorter and shorter. But I knew if I went to her and saw her, I wouldn’t be able to control myself and needed to give her the respect she deserved until I knew what would happen.
Arriving at Mom’s, I used my key to let myself in. The house was unusually quiet as I made my way back to the kitchen. There was no sign of my mother, but I saw a light in Callie’s room and could hear soft music playing.
I opened the door and my heart skipped a beat when I saw Allison lying on the bed with Callie.
Her face turned red when she saw me, but she immediately put her finger to her mouth signaling me to be quiet. Callie was fast asleep next to her and Allison slipped away quietly to join me in the hallway, closing the door to Callie’s room behind her.
“Cedric, what are you doing here?” she whispered in surprise.
I wished I could have made myself disappear into thin air before saying, “I could ask the same of you…is everything okay, where’s my mother?”
Allison’s face seemed to lose all of its coloring.
“She had to bring some stuff to her aunt Evelyn in the nursing home. She called me over because Callie is sick and her other therapist cancelled. I had to cancel working with Lucas, but it’s fine, they were able to fill his shift with someone else. I would rather be here for her. She has a slight fever, but she’s okay. How are you feeling?”
“My poor sister. I’m much better, actually. I just got in from New York.” I fake smiled, hoping to keep talk of my lies to a minimum.
Allison didn’t return my smile and looked down. “I am glad to hear that you’re better.”
I stared at her in awe for a few seconds, still a bit shocked to have found her here instead of my mother, then immediately lost all control and embraced her, breathing her in.