Chapter 1 – Grey
“Come on, Phil, can’t you cut me a break here? What was I supposed to do?”
Phil shook his head while he rested his beefy hands on his hips and stared at the ground between our work boots. “Get to work on time, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
“Phil, it’s not like this happens all the time.”
Phil heaved a deep breath that made his large belly shrink in size before it bounced back and jiggled over the waist of his jeans. “I know it doesn’t, but that is twice this week, and you were late last week twice, too.”
“Those other times it was because of my truck. You know I’m trying to save enough money to get it fixed. If I lose this job, I’ll never get it fixed.” Jesus, the last year of my life had gone right down the toilet and any hope of getting ahead was quickly swirling south in the white porcelain bowl.
Phil lifted his clammy hand and gripped my left shoulder, “I get it, Grey, but this job is important, and I can’t afford to have someone slacking off.”
My jaw dropped as I heard his words. “Slacking off?”
He threw both hands up in the air in a defensive gesture, “You know what I mean.”
“No,” I burst forward, “I don’t know what you mean. I’m the best guy you have for this job.” I crossed my arms over my chest, trying to contain my frustration. I wasn’t a physical guy, but right then, I wanted to hit the man.
“I know, Grey, that’s why it’s a shame I have to let you go. I’m sorry.” He shoved one of his meaty hands into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. There was more cash in his pocket than I had seen in three months. I watched helplessly as he peeled off a few bills and held them forward. “That should cover what I owe you, and then some.”
My arms dropped to my sides like lead weights, and I shook my head. “And then some,” I repeated and took the money out of his hand. I couldn’t catch a damned break.
“Look, I’ll give you a call when I get a new job opening that might work out for you.” He started to walk away as he finished, and all I could do was stare at his back helplessly. Over his shoulder, I saw two of the guys watching from inside the storefront we had been rebuilding after a fire had destroyed it. They both looked away, and Phil shut the door behind him after he entered.
Another freaking road block! No matter which way I turned, I slammed into one after another and had to prepare myself for whiplash. A breeze swirled litter around my feet, and even though it was a warm day, I shivered.
I looked at the money in my hand and wondered how long it would last me. I shoved it into the pocket of my well-worn jeans. I reached down and snagged my tool belt and lunchbox before I turned and looked down the street to the right. I looked to the left.
I had no idea.
I shuffled forward and dropped onto a bench, not even noticing that the other end was occupied, and dropped my stuff on the ground before I hung my head into my rough palms.
What the hell was I going to do now? I was barely making rent. I had bills up the wazoo, my truck was on its last leg, well, maybe its last knee now, and I had no idea where I could find a job.
My sigh was almost a distorted moan.
“Bad day, huh?”
My back stiffened as I heard the woman’s voice. I tried to school my face before I looked at her. I wasn’t one to wear my emotions on my sleeve, and since I obviously had an audience, I needed to get my shit together.
I glanced to my left and found an older woman leaning back on the bench, gripping her purse tightly with both hands as she watched me carefully.
Great! She probably thought I was going to steal her purse. I’d just as soon give the little old lady my last penny than steal from her.
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I guess you could say that.” I turned to stare at the road in front of me, watching as two cars drove by, a minivan and then a classy-looking sedan.
I’ll never have either of those, I thought to myself.
I heard the woman sigh next to me, “I guess it is just that kind of day.”
I turned her way and saw her examining the cracks in the cement sidewalk, tension lines creased over her eyes, and her lips were in a thin stern line.
She chuckled ruefully, and her hands loosened their death grip on her purse, “Yeah, me, too.”
I rubbed my hands on the worn denim of my thighs, “I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I could do?”
She stared at me with wide eyes. “You just lost your job, and here you are sitting next to a stranger and asking if there is something you could do? Are you trying to get a job out of me, young man?” She laughed and the lines on her forehead smoothed while other lines crinkled warmly around her eyes.
I threw my hands up, “No, no. I’m—”
She reached over and patted my arm, “I was joking.”
I nodded as she continued to smile. “Oh,” was the best I could come up with, and I faced the other way, not sure what to say next.
“So did you really mean what you said?” she asked.
I felt her weight shift on the bench. I looked back at her, “I’m sorry. You don’t know me. My parents raised me to help others when they need something.” My shoulders fell forward slightly, “That’s why I was late today. I stopped to help someone with a flat tire.”
A very well-manicured eyebrow rose, “You stopped to help someone with a flat tire, and he fired you?” She designated who “he” was with a wave of disdain.
“Yeah,” I muttered.
“The prick,” she snorted.
A vertebra must have popped in my neck when I jerked my head in surprise.
She glanced at me, looked away, then met my eyes again. “I will not apologize for my language. I know ladies should not say such things, but you might have really been offended if I had said what I was actually thinking.”
I laughed. “Thanks.”
She shrugged and grinned. “It’s nice to see a young man with manners. You don’t see that very often these days.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
She eyed me carefully, “If you were serious about helping me with something, I’d like to ask for a favor.”
I discreetly scanned her classy-looking clothes and un-scuffed high heels, “I’m not sure what I might be able to do, but, please, it never hurts to ask.”
“I’m hungry,” she stated and I stared at her for a moment.
Did she want me to get her some food? “Um…” I glanced around; there was a diner on the corner. “I could go get you something. What would you like?” I moved to stand up.
She waved a hand at me, “No, silly young man. I don’t want you to go get me something. I want you to have breakfast with me. I hate to eat alone, and I didn’t get a chance to eat this morning before my appointment.”
I was at a loss, “You want me to have breakfast with you?” I was tempted to finish by asking why, but I held my tongue so as not to seem rude. Why would a classy older woman, and I mean older as I noticed the age spots on her hands, want to have breakfast with a newly-unemployed construction worker?
“Of course.” She stood. “Like I said, I hate to eat alone, and I think we could both use some friendly company right now.” She mumbled something under her breath that I couldn’t make out. “It will be my treat.”
I quickly shook my head while mentally wondering how much it would cost to buy her meal. “I could never allow you to do that.”
She swatted her hand through the air again in dismissal of my statement. “Where is your car or truck, or whatever you drive?”
“In the parking lot around the corner,” I said cautiously. Why did she want to know that?
“Fine, you go put your tools and other stuff away and then come back here. We can go over there to the diner.” She pointed across the street. “I have to make a quick phone call, but I’ll wait here for you.”
“Ma’am, you don’t have to buy my meal, I—”
She cut me off before I could finish, “Nonsense, and stop calling me ma’am. My name is Gloria, and you are?” She held out a frail hand.
“My name is Grey, Greyson Bloodstone.” I slipped my large hand into her small one and allowed her to apply the amount of pressure that she felt necessary, and I returned it. I was surprised by the strong hold she had with such a small hand.
“Grey,” she grinned, “I love that. Now, go. Go put your things away and join me for breakfast.”
I nodded and lifted my tools off the ground while she watched. I gave a tight-lipped smile and walked toward the corner. I was afraid that if I turned around, I would see her making a mad dash to disappear.
What kind of a woman asks a strange man to have breakfast with her—especially one that was probably forty years younger?
When I made the left corner, I glanced back surreptitiously and saw her standing beside the bench, her cellphone to her ear, and her lips moving. I hustled to my car, unsure what I was actually doing.
I shouldn’t be going to breakfast with some rich woman. I should be beating the pavement trying to find another job. I stowed my belt and lunchbox in my truck and closed the door, staring at a dent in the side.
When was the last time I bought a meal out? I couldn’t remember. I normally ate cheap things at home like eggs and whatever cereal had been on a hot sale. I didn’t waste money buying food at restaurants. Every penny that I made went to rent and bills.
Bills…I hung my head and rubbed the back of my tense neck with my right hand.
She had asked nicely, and my stomach took that moment to grumble loudly. I could really use a meal. Maybe she won’t even be there when I get back. She had probably gotten over her moment of senility and changed her mind already.
I looked back the way I had come and hesitated only a moment before I decided and took long strides toward the corner of the building. My stomach growled again as a reminder that I had only had a piece of bread before I had left for work that morning. My feet slowed as I approached the end of the building, and I paused before I stepped forward and turned.
She was standing right where I had left her. Her cellphone now put away as she slowly swung her cream handbag in her hands in front of her. She reminded me of my grandmother, and I smiled.
She must have heard my footsteps as she turned to smile back at me. “I thought you might have changed your mind.”
“No, ma’am.” I quickly corrected myself under her stern look: “I mean, Gloria.”
“That’s better. Now, let’s go get some breakfast. I think both our days are looking up.”
I chuckled beside her as she slipped her hand into my elbow and walked beside me.
How funny we must have looked to the people that passed us. I glanced down at her and smiled as she met my gaze. She was a very elegant and stylish-looking lady and she was walking on the arm of a man in tattered jeans, a t-shirt, and work boots as if it were the most normal thing in the world. I wished other people treated me with that kind of respect.
I held the door open for Gloria and stepped in behind her. She waved to one of the waitresses and pointed to a booth near the back. The breakfast rush was over, and only a few of the tables were occupied. I followed her to the table she’d picked out.
The smell of eggs and bacon filled my nose, and my stomach rumbled loudly again. Gloria laughed, “I heard that. Did you even get a chance to eat something this morning?”
I shook my head, “No.” I didn’t want to explain that I had eaten the last piece of bread that I had, and didn’t even have enough peanut butter to cover the surface. It would only lead to questions I didn’t want to answer.
The waitress joined us with a coffeepot and cups and slipped two menus down on the table. “Good morning, Mrs. Withers, how are you today?”
I glanced at Gloria as she replied, “I’m about as well as I can be today, Clare. How are your beautiful children?”
Obviously, Gloria came here often enough that she knew the staff and about their families.
Clare rolled her eyes and popped out her hip, propping a fist on it. “Would you believe Tommy tried to give the cat a bath in the fish bowl, and only proceeded in giving the cat a nice snack?”
Gloria laughed, “Don’t tell me, the cat ate the fish?”
Clare’s eyes widened, “Yes, then Tommy cried about it, and of course Suzie started crying, so to answer your question, they are the same as always.” She shook her head as she smiled fondly.
Clare glanced my way, and I noticed her eyes slide down my chest then back up. She smiled sweetly and may very well have batted her eyelashes at me. I looked away and picked up a menu. The last thing I needed was a woman being interested in me.
“Well, I’m glad they are doing well,” Gloria commented, before directing a question in my direction, “Grey, do you know what you would like?”
I lifted my head to face Gloria and shot a look at the waitress who was watching me closely. “Um, yeah, I’ll take two eggs over easy with whole wheat toast and bacon, please.”
Clare tilted her head to the side and smiled, “Your name is Grey? That is so sexy.”
My cheeks began to warm, “Thanks.” I stared at my hands on the table in front of me.
“Mrs. Withers, what can I get for you, your usual?”
“No, I’m going to change it up today. I want a Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream, and a side of bacon,” she grinned up at Clare, “and double the size of his order, he’s too skinny.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Gloria’s raised eyebrow stopped me. I chuckled to myself as I realized I wasn’t going to win. I barely knew this woman, but I already knew she got what she wanted.
Clare stepped away to put our orders in, and Gloria poured some cream into her beige ceramic mug. I waited till she was done and poured some myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a decent cup of coffee. It was not a luxury I allowed myself to have often.
“She seemed quite taken with you,” Gloria remarked as she lifted her mug and held it with both hands in front of her face, watching me carefully.
“Oh, you think so?” Not that I cared.
“But…you’re not interested,” she continued.
“You are observant.” I leaned back in the booth and held the cup between my hands.
The sound of her laughter flowed over the table, “Yes, I have to say I am, almost to a fault.” She sipped her coffee and set her mug down, watching me the entire time. “So tell me, what is your story?”
“My story?” I shifted uneasily on the vinyl bench seat.
She leaned on her elbows, “Yes, Grey, the man with the sexy name, what is your story?”
I cleared my throat, uncomfortable with the question. “I really don’t have one.”
She flicked her hand at me, “Everyone has a story.” She paused and studied her mug for a moment, “I’ll tell you mine if you promise to tell me yours.”
Why would this woman want to tell me her story, or even care about mine? Was it just easier to talk to a stranger? Did she want to talk to someone that she would never see again, bare her soul, let out the demons? Maybe.
I didn’t have any intention of telling her my story, but I still found myself saying, “Okay.”
She nodded brusquely, and her shoulders rose as she inhaled deeply, steeling herself to say something.
“I had a doctor’s appointment this morning.” She stared at me. “The doctor confirmed that I have cancer.”
The final word was like an explosion in my gut. I didn’t know this woman, but I sure knew that no matter what form of cancer it was, it was never good.
I swallowed twice before I could find my voice. “I’m sorry to hear that, Gloria. I assume that is why your day is going so badly.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” She leaned back in her seat.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what type of cancer do you have?”
Oh, Jesus! I knew that was a bad one.
“And before you ask, there is very little that can be done. I can try to get some radiation or chemo, but my doctor said it looks like it has already begun to spread.”
My hands began to sweat, and I rubbed them over my thighs.
“How long do you have, Gloria?” I could see the answer in her eyes before she even opened her mouth.
“He said I probably had three to four good months left, but I would be lucky to see a year if I don’t do treatment; if I do have treatment, maybe a year and a half, two.”
I watched her as she spoke. Her voice remained strong, her eyes steady on mine, and I was astounded at her courage to say such words without falling apart.
“Are you planning on having the treatment?” I had no right to ask this question, but she had been the one who wanted to talk about it.
She sipped her coffee slowly, “I’m not one hundred percent sure, but I think, no.”
“Why would you decide not to?” I was curious now. How did people make those decisions?
She leaned forward again, clasping her hands. “If I only have a few good months left to live, I want them to be on my terms. I’m seventy-two years old, I don’t need to live longer, but I refuse to go out loaded up with all those chemicals and in a haze. I’d rather enjoy what I can, and go out with dignity.”
“There is nothing wrong with having treatment. Just because you do, doesn’t mean you will lose your dignity.”
She shrugged, “I know. Grey, I have lived my life on my own terms, and I will continue to do so. I have to think on this more, but saying it out loud to you, here, now, well, it makes what I was thinking on that bench out there more realistic.”
We were quiet for a few moments, and she had small talk with Clare when she returned to the table with the food. I stared at the plate that was a double order, just how Gloria had ordered it. I hadn’t eaten this much food in months.
Gloria had just cut a piece of her waffle when she finally spoke again, “Okay, so I told you my bad day. I get that you got fired, and let’s not talk about that ass again. It’s your turn to tell me why the events of today caused you to look like you have lost everything.”
I chewed the food in my mouth slowly, savoring the taste of smoky bacon before I met her direct green-eyed gaze head-on. “No, I lost everything a year ago when my son died of leukemia.”