With a practiced bump of my hip, the door to the kitchen swings open, and I call out the order for table seven. "Two barbecue back ribs and one house — "
My mouth snaps shut at the empty galley. Or mostly empty. There's only Tom, the new hire, washing dishes in the corner.
"Larissa?" I call out, my heart rate picking up at the thought of my very pregnant sister passed out on the floor somewhere. Or maybe she's lying down in the cooler with her feet propped up on a box of ground beef again. I wouldn't blame her. I hate it when we're short-staffed.
"No, no, no."
Lurching forward, I follow the No's around the corner to the counter with all the takeout supplies. Larissa tosses one pre-opened brown bag to the floor after another.
I frown. "What's going on?"
With a smash of her fist, she crunches the last bag left on the counter, but her face fills with the same panicked expression as when her out-of-control cartwheel broke a water main in our living room. "Grandma Grace," Larissa whimpers.
Oh. I nod, somewhat understanding that. Most of our problems involve Grandma Grace, or rather her ashes. "It's a public health violation," Mom loves to snap at Dad. "We can't have your dead mother on a shelf next to the food. Do you want to get us shut down?"
To which Dad loves to shout back, "She's not next to the food. She's next to the takeout boxes. And it's her restaurant; we have to honor her."
Our parents' fights have gotten so bad, when Mom's on shift, we've taken to hiding Grandma's ashes in a —
My gaze scans the small mountain of paper bags on the floor. "Where's Grandma Grace?"
Larissa looks like she's going to cry. "I told Tom to handle the takeout order because I was busy. But the food is still under the heater, so I think he gave the customer. . ."
A rush of adrenaline floods my veins.
"That's not the worst part," Larissa cries.
My hands fall to my side in disbelief — that doesn't seem possible.
"I just reread the receipt to double-check the order, and the name for the pickup was Levi T."
The blood drains from my face, leaving me lightheaded. There's only one Levi T. in Chastin that I know. Levi Thompson — my once friend, once . . . I shake my head, sending my long hair flying. Doesn't matter what we almost were. All that matters is what remains — that I loathe him with the heat of ten thousand kitchen fires for what he did.
But it couldn't be him. He moved away.
"Levi T.," Larissa repeats slowly. "The Chastin Review food critic."
Oh, right. That guy also goes by Levi T. The scowl on my face drops until I realize this might be worse than my high school debate team nemesis showing up.
Larissa's head bobs absently. "There could be other Levi T's in town, but what are the chances? Becca, with one bad review, this man has the power to destroy everything Grandma Grace has built."
Not to mention, he could literally destroy Grandma Grace if he throws out her urn. I grasp my throat because I'm fairly certain it's caving in.
"What did he look like?" I blurt.
More tears overflow onto Larissa's cheeks. "I don't know. I wasn't — " A sob leaves her throat.
"Tom!" I shout, jogging over to the teenager sliding his phone into his back pocket. "You gave Grandma Grace's ashes to the last customer for takeout."
His brown eyes grow big, but he doesn't move.
I snap my fingers in front of his face. "Description! Give me something."
He thinks for a second. "Like, a Christian Bale Bruce Wayne, but if he drank apple juice and maybe pursued law instead."
I blink. Okay then. "We need to find him." Tom offers little resistance as I push him into the dining room and then through the front door of our little restaurant, which thankfully only has six customers inside. "You go that direction," I point to the right, then break into a jog going the opposite way. My black cocktail dress does little to keep me warm in the fall evening air, but I barely feel it as I catch sight of a man across the street. There's a brown paper bag in his hand.
After an aggressive fist pump into the air, I resume my path to him until I'm about ten feet away. "Excuse me!" I call, as the man unlocks a vehicle — a green Jeep. Something about that feels familiar, and it only takes a second to figure out why. My feet trip to a stop. Needing to be sure, I urgently examine his black hair, broad shoulders, and the tall length of his legs.
My nostrils flare with a forceful breath. Levi Thompson. So it is the boy who, four years ago, eviscerated me in front of two hundred people with nothing but a few cruel words.
You know what? I'm just going to rob him. Literally, run up and steal Grandma straight from his hands. Why shouldn't I? He doesn't deserve my civility, and it's not like he's the Levi T. from the Chastin Review. I go still.
Unless he is.
The thought lands like a punch to the gut, and there's no way around it; I have to be sure. "Are you the food critic from the Chastin Review?" I call out.
Levi's startled blue eyes find me, and it's as if the air gets sucked out of the night. He's still handsome — of course he is — with his dark waves flopping carelessly over his brow. Levi pushes a lock out of his eyes with his long fingers, a move that used to make me swoon. His breaths seem to quicken, then his gaze sweeps down me, pausing for a second too long on my dress. "Becca. H-how are you?"
A humorless laugh escapes my throat. I was great until ten minutes ago. "Are you the food critic from the Chastin Review?" I repeat.
He studies the ground a second, then looks back up at me, head tilted with a hint of a crooked smile. "I'm . . . not supposed to reveal that."
My eyes close in an extended blink. How is it possible this keeps getting worse?
"It's good to see you." He moves closer. "Megan said you didn't leave town."
I grit my teeth before speaking. "Megan, my best friend, told you my whereabouts?" If I don't end up in jail for mugging the food critic for the Chastin Review, I'll have to remember to strangle her later.
He grimaces as if reading my thoughts. "It's my fault. I asked about you."
"I can't for the life of me think of a reason why."
"Becca," he says, and annoyingly my heart jolts to life. Jolts to a time when he would say my name, and it was the sweetest sound I'd ever heard. "I can tell you're still upset, so . . . I'm really sorry about what happened at the debate."
I squint at him, my aggravation a bubbling pot about to overflow. Why wouldn't I still be upset? It's not like he ever apologized. But despite my annoyance, I can't seem to tell him to shut up. I've always wondered why he did it.
A part of me needs him to go on.
"I don't know why I said what I said," he confesses.
Silence stretches out between us, and when that's all he offers, I cross my arms. "You don't know why you humiliated me? We were supposed to debate hypothetical issues, Levi, but you chose to make it personal. I gave an example of why young women are often rejected in roles of leadership, and you said . . ."
Maybe it's not your gender, it's your personality.
But it wasn't just what he said; it was how he said it. A snide remark just loud enough for the microphone to pick up. I'm still haunted by the way the quiet ballroom erupted with laughs and titters. Even the judges couldn't hold their faces straight. It's obvious the audience thought he was talking about me.
His knuckles rub the bridge of his nose. "I know. It was stupid." He grimaces. "So stupid. I can't tell you how many nights I lost sleep remembering the look on your face before you left the stage."
I steel myself from being affected by his words, but I can't — did he really lose sleep?
"And you never spoke to me again."
I huff. "What was there to say? You got what you wanted. You won the championship and the scholarship that allowed you to do the one thing I haven't, which is" — I make air quotes with my fingers — "leave town. But thanks to you, I didn't walk away empty-handed. I got a big fat reality check. Turns out you were never my friend. Your real feelings for me were closer to hate."
Why else would he have done that to me? The reminder still hurts four years later, and I have to blink rapidly to hold back the tears.
"We were friends," he says earnestly. "And the way I felt for you" — his jaw clenches — "I promise you, it wasn't anywhere near hate." He takes another step, putting too little space between us, and reaches for my elbow.
I hold my breath, torn by the whirlwind of emotions swirling inside of me, but one rises to the top — disappointment. Disappointment that his fingers never quite make it to my skin.
"Okay, here's the truth." Levi swallows hard. "My brother and I used to turn anything into an insult. Anything and everything. If he asked me to pass the plain bagels, I'd tell him he is a plain bagel. If he joked that I was stupid, I'd tell him he's the reason the Power Rangers had to shout out their colors." He shrugs. "That's why I muttered an insult at the debate. It's not because I believed any of it. It's because thinking up insults had become as natural as breathing. But if I had known what a dumb joke would cost me, I wouldn't even have shown up that day.
Really? My guard is slipping. "So you're saying I reminded you of your brother." There's no real edge to my words anymore.
"That couldn't be further from the truth."
He's just full of answers. I sigh. "But you never came for me after."
His eyes seem to ignite with flames. "Oh, I definitely tried. I ran to find you in the parking lot, but your friends wouldn't let me near you."
What? I didn't know. I study the tight planes of his face, and my shoulders fall. I believe him. And just like that, all the hurt and anger I've held onto for years cracks like dry noodles and crumples at my feet. I sigh, feeling lighter. But there's still one matter left to discuss. "Well . . . there is something you could do to make up for it."
His face brightens. "Yeah? Anything."
I reach for the takeout bag he's holding and pull out dead Grandma Grace. "There's been a mix-up with your food. We gave you the wrong bag."
His eyes zero in on the colorful orange urn. "Wait. Is that — ?"
I slap the empty paper bag against his surprisingly hard chest. "Stay focused, Thompson. It doesn't matter what it is. All you need to understand is that you owe me, so you won't be putting any of this in the Chastin Review." I hold his gaze with a threatening stare of my own, then turn and walk away.
"But, wait!" he says, raising his voice to be heard. "I owe you more than that. Maybe I could call you sometime? Or we could grab a bite to eat?"
My heart flips at finally hearing the invitation we never had the guts to ask each other. I turn to face him from my spot in the middle of the road, a slow smile filling my face. Then I shake my head and say the words he's had coming to him for four years. "I'm sorry, Levi. It's not you; it's your personality."
His mouth falls open as his hand clutches the empty paper bag to his chest. But then he grins as if proud of me, even though sadness lingers in his eyes. He nods, conceding my win. "I really am sorry," he says in one final goodbye.
Good. He should be. Then I give Grandma Grace a quick hug and laugh. "You know, I couldn't miss a chance to say that back to you."
His face turns adorably confused. "I'm not sure what that means."
"It means I'm just kidding," I shout. I spin and continue walking across the road but look back to call over my shoulder. "You better call me; my number is on the bag."