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So he spoke without thinking when he saw her: "Hey, you're here! Great!" And was mortified by his big mouth, and relieved by her smile.
"Oh, I wouldn't miss it." Then she frowned, as if she might have said too much. He was pleasantly startled to see her hair was lighter today; the red was fading to pure blond.
They sat, chatted with the friendly waitress, ordered dumplings and soup and pot stickers and peanut noodles. And talked, of course: about people they knew, about their homes, about (of course) their jobs, and other shared interests.
"I was really hoping for an It Girl sighting."
Hailey instantly frosted: "Why? She's not real. And if she was, well . . . that would make her a glory-seeking moron."
Which was how he found out Hailey Derry had no love for heroes.
"Oh, come on," he coaxed, stupidly ignoring the warning signs. "I've lived here half my life. I know-"
"Maybe a third. We moved here when I was little, then headed up to Duluth until I finished my UMD degree. Anyway, I know people who've seen her . . . She's real."
"A real idiot." The waitress plunked down two plates of dumplings, and Hailey speared one with a single chopstick and tossed it into her mouth. "Who does things like that? Who could, and who would? She's a YouTube myth. They talk about her because they can't get her to talk. They can't prove her and it just makes them want her more. My mother-" She cut herself off and sucked down another vegetable dumpling.
Whoa. Deep water. "Yeah? Your mom? She says she saw her?"
"Ah . . . no."
"Was she from around here?"
"Briefly. Like you." Hailey smiled a little, more a quirk of her lips than a warm expression. "I was born here and then . . . we left."
"Okay." Linus felt like he was in a minefield. A minefield of pot stickers. He tried to sound noncommittal, like he didn't much care what she was saying, or wasn't listening very hard. It was strange, but sometimes that was the best way to keep someone talking. "Born, then left."
"Yes. She had to-she was infertile, see? And unmarried. And rich. Don't forget that last part; it's important later." Another small, bitter smile. "She went to a clinic. Several times, in fact. Got pregnant, stayed here through her pregnancy, my birth, all that. Then left. Promised never to return. And never did."
"Okay." He sucked down half his ginger ale. He couldn't recall being on a more stressful first date.
"The point is, she had to spend a lot of money to get me. And my mother always valued the things that were the most expensive, the things she actually had to work for. Coach bags. Louis Vuitton suitcases. Clé de Peau Beauté cream. A last-minute lunch rez at Menton. Dinner at Addison's. And me."
"Okay." Weirder and weirder. It's wrong that her intensity is turning me on, right?
"Anyway." Hailey had trailed off and was staring over his shoulder, then seemed to regain her train of thought. "She died a couple of years ago. And I didn't have anything to hold me to New York. So I came back here. Where I began. Where she first started to value me, before she ever saw me. Long, long before she knew me. Which brings me back to my point-the only reason people have any interest or liking in that person-"
"Awful, awful name-yes. My point: they can't know. So because it's not quantifiable but is assumed to be extraordinary, she's valued. If you found out she was your next-door neighbor, you wouldn't be interested anymore."
"You mean you wouldn't. Because if It Girl was my neighbor, I'd only have about a zillion questions. Savage and It Girl: a killer combo!"
"That's the other thing."
"Yeah?" The waitress had returned with more plates brimming with noodles and dumplings, which she was wolfing down in a way that both alarmed and intrigued him. The weirdest things this woman does that get me hot. Swear to God!
"You might not yet realize this, since you haven't spent a lot of time here in the last two decades, but this town is strange. The company you work for is strange. This entire area is very, very odd."
"Yeah, but in a good way, right? Ha!" His chopsticks had blocked hers just in time. "You can have the last vegetable pot sticker. I get the last chicken one." He whacked her chopstick again, eliciting a giggle. "Begone!"
"Fine, take it." She leaned back, smiling, but the smile disappeared when she again looked over his shoulder. "I don't have a problem with the notes, I don't think. But there are more direct ways to get your message across."
"Okay. I'm just gonna pretend that the thing you just said had something-anything-to do with the other things you said. Because otherwise you'll know you've lost me."
She leaned forward. He was a good boy and did not scope her cleavage, which he absolutely could have, since she was wearing a forest green tank top under a black linen jacket. Linen pants, too, and little green shoes; his ex from college had been into pretty shoes, so now he noticed women's shoes, and knew Manolos were so 2005. He didn't necessarily want to notice them, or know Manolos were so 2005, but it was just how things were now. Breakups change people.
"Linus, listen. We work in a town called Savage, which once upon a time had the slightly less awful name of Hamilton until a rich guy named Marion Savage bought a horse called Dan Patch and, when that horse won a few races, they changed the name of the city."
"Wait." He paused, slurped the forkful of peanut noodles, swallowed. "So Savage is named after a horse?"
"If only. Savage is named after the guy who bought the horse."
"Marion was a guy?"†
"Like that makes any of this better? Oh, and at least a third of us graduated from Cretin High School-yes, that's Cretin High School, and we work for a company that makes big metal animals that people can shoot at, and our mutual boss hardly ever comes in because she's determined to turn broomball into an Olympic sport. Let's see, did I miss anything?"
"I don't see why you're down on the horse. He was a terrific horse. Audrey the Receptionist told me Dan Patch broke world records for speed."
"As a harness horse," she replied, scorn heavy on harness. "My point is, get out. Get out while you still can, I pray you."
"This explains Dan Patch Drive."
"And Dan Patch Lane."
"Yes. Don't forget Dan Patch Day. It's horses or Cretins around here."
"Myth," she said. She wiped her mouth, stood, grabbed her purse, and said, "I have to go the bathroom. It was lovely talking to you."
He figured she wasn't coming back from the bathroom and . . . nope. She was not. When he asked the waitress for the check, she replied that his date had paid the entire bill and left. ("She was in a hurry to get somewhere, huh?")
Date? Is that what that was?
He hadn't walked five feet into the parking lot when he saw the small crowd gathered around a thirtyish, tearful redhead cradling a squalling (also redhead) infant. "I locked my keys in-stupid, stupid! And shut the door, and then Renee was locked in! And I didn't know what to do and I forgot my phone and then that lady fixed it! There, baby, it's okay. Mom's here."
"I don't think it was locked, ma'am," a teenage girl said doubtfully, looking at the rear passenger door. "Your door's busted, though. Good thing you didn't really lock her in. Guess you just didn't yank good enough."
Curious, Linus peeked around the teenager.
The handle of the door had been twisted, as if it were made of steel-colored bread dough instead of steel-colored steel.
(Much later, he realized: eagerness to see him might not have explained her showing so early. She'd picked a booth near the windows and took the side with her back to the wall. She had an excellent view of not only the entire restaurant but the parking lot outside.
And what was that about notes?)
Why Aren't You Doing More?
A couple of her fellow employees-and someone she didn't know-were amiably grumbling about being back at work so soon after Greenery Day. Hailey got there for the last of the conversation (shockingly early for her, which was to say, only twenty minutes late).
"Can't believe it's gonna be another whole year." The Old Coot sighed, comfortably sprawled in one of the plush chairs in the reception area. He looked up and waved. "Hey."
"It goes by so quickly," Audrey the Receptionist agreed. "But Arbor Day will be here in no time." She turned to face the new hire and held out her hand. "Hi. I'm Audrey the Receptionist. You must be Jennifer." And then, when she spotted Hailey, "Whoa."
"Now, don't make a big deal out of this," Hailey warned, digging in her purse for the last of the M&M's.
"You're shockingly early. Which is to say-"
"-only twenty minutes late," Audrey finished.
"Jennifer, this is Hailey, the head of HR. Don't do anything she does."
"That's sound advice," Hailey said to Jennifer, who was another petite, pale blue-eyed Nordic blonde from the wilds of southern Minnesota. "Welcome aboard. One of my minions passed on your new-hire packet to me, so we'll get you through this paperwork and get you set up inside." She scooped the last of the candy into her mouth, chewed, realized she was also chewing a couple of pennies and a paper clip, and in the future resolved to look before she chomped. Or at least keep the candy separate from the non-candy.
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