June 1992 - Geauga County, Ohio.
It was sweltering in the small, wood-paneled diner, even with the ceiling fan on high. Bella lay stretched out in the freezer, apron strings untied and buttons undone, cigarette held as far away from her as possible as she tried to cool down before the lunch time rush.
The park in the town square was totally barren, the leaves on the trees turning brown around the edges, despite it being barely July. In the garage across the street, all the doors were thrown open, overalls tied around waists and shirts discarded.
Jess threw herself down on the floor next to Bella, grabbing a handful of ice and holding it to her forehead.
“My grandma said yesterday this is the hottest she’s felt it since ’35.”
Bella nodded along to Jess’s chattering absentmindedly, dragging on her cigarette. It was a well-practiced lunch break ritual; Jess spoke and Bella smoked.
“Hey, Bells, you seen Tyler’s got a new mechanic?”
Stubbing her cigarette out with the calloused heel of her hand and exhaling, Bella nodded.
“Yeah, Mike mentioned it when he came in for dinner last night. Be nice to have some extra help I guess, those boys work too damn hard.”
The bell over the door jangled, and Bella didn’t even need to look out of the freezer door to know the raucous group piling in was the boys from across the street.
Rising from her place on the floor Bella shook out her apron and motioned to Jess to stand up as well.
“Come on, Jessie-Lou, we got a hungry town to feed.”
“Hey, Bells! What’s the pie today?”
“Peach,” she called back to Mike, turning to top up Mrs. Webber’s coffee as Jess shut the freezer door behind them. “Grab a seat and I’ll bring y’all your orders over.”
Picking up her coffee pot she turned to the booth in the window, pouring coffee in all the mugs. When she reached the fourth, a hand came out to cover and stop her.
“Don’t ‘spose y’all have somethin’ a little cooler?”
Raising her head, Bella encountered a pair of ice blue eyes set under a shaggy blonde fringe; the face far too tanned to belong to any of the three mechanics that came for lunch regularly.
“Well now, you must be Tyler’s new mechanic.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, nodding his head, “Jasper Whitlock.”
“I’m sure I can rustle you up some lemonade, Mr. Whitlock. I’ll be back in a tick.”
Placing the lemonade and sandwiches on the table, she pointed out the payphone when Jasper asked, before heading over to clear Mrs. Webber’s table. Balancing the tray on her hip as she wiped the table down, she watched out of the corner of her eye as the mechanic shove his chair back before heading over to the payphone.
“Bells, shut your mouth, you’re drooling.”
Bella’s mouth closed with a snap before she turned to glare at the mechanic leaning up against the counter.
“As if, Newton, I’m just admiring the view,” she said, gesturing vaguely out of the window behind the pay phone.
Putting the tray in the sink behind her, she moved behind the counter to ring him up, keeping her gaze on the tall man at the pay phone, seemingly engrossed in what the recipient of his call was saying to him. From the hunch of his shoulders, it didn’t seem to be the happiest conversation, and Bella itched to go and smooth the tension out of those muscles.
She spent the rest of the afternoon floating on autopilot, coffee pot in one hand, tray in the other, pad and pen hanging from her apron strings. She’d given up on the ceiling fan at about three o’clock, and instead set up the standing fans; a tray of ice underneath each one in an attempt to cool the air, rather than just move it about.
Clocking off that evening, she scraped the sweaty ponytail off the back of her neck into a top knot, throwing her apron into the laundry and rushing to her truck. Cranking the windows down and the radio up, she threw the rusty red Chevy into gear and pulled out of the parking lot.
Driving past the garage, she saw Jasper leaning up against an oilcan out front, cigarette between his teeth, boot scuffing lines into the dirt. She raised a hand as she drove past, barely catching his eye as she barreled along at 40 miles per hour.
Ducking in the shower as soon as she got home, Bella wallowed in the cool spray cascading over her body, washing away the sweat and grime of the day. She took her time lathering strawberry shampoo into her hair, combing the conditioner through and luxuriating in the sugar scrub.
Padding out of the bathroom twenty minutes later wrapped in a threadbare towel, she picked the phone of the cradle and went to sprawl on the sofa in the living area of her small one story house.
“Hey, Daddy,” she said when it connected and Phil picked up, “is Mom there?”
She waited while he yelled up the stairs for Renée, hearing the faint sound of her parents’ bedroom door opening, her mother’s footsteps getting louder as she descended the stairs.
“Hiya, honey,” her mom said when she’d plucked the phone from Phil’s hand, “I’d hoped you’d call today. I put some freesias on his grave for you, like you asked.”
“Thanks, Mom,” she whispered, stretching her legs over the end of the sofa, “I’d hoped to come up, but I couldn’t get the time off work, Mrs. Mallory wants all hands on deck at the moment.”
“I know, Bells, and I know your dad would have been so proud of you, you’re such a hard working young woman.”
Bella flicked the tears from the corners of her eyes, settling in for a night of stories about Charlie. It had been one of her favorite pastimes when she was younger, her mom telling her stories about the father she never knew, the dashing, heroic young policeman, killed in a gunfight during a crackdown on gang violence.
Now the stories just made her sad. She was old enough to understand that her father hadn’t been heroic; he’d just been unlucky. A young, small town cop who was totally unprepared when he was drafted into Seattle and died as a result.
She fell asleep to the sound of memories and her mother’s laughter.