Truly Sweet

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From his open window, the aroma of grilled burgers and fresh apple pie made his mouth water. When he opened the truck door, he realized that getting down from the damn thing might not be as easy as getting up. He hadn’t thought of that earlier when he’d climbed inside. His thigh muscles were healing in a way that made moving in one direction easy. The opposite direction, however, was like letting Freddy Krueger use him as a scratching post.

Thankful no one was in the parking lot to see him struggle, he maneuvered down to the ground, curled his fingers over the head of the cane, and controlled his uneven gait as he headed inside.

Bud’s might be Sweet’s breeding ground for chitchat, but he hadn’t come looking for gossip, sympathy, or acknowledgment.

He’d just come for a burger and a milk shake.

Before he could reach for the door handle, the door swung outward. Holding it open from the other side was Chester Banks, Sweet’s very own playboy octogenarian. The man had more nose than face these days, and his smile often displayed a set of false teeth that didn’t always stay put, but he gave Jake a respectful nod as Jake maneuvered into the diner with as little detection as possible.

“No need to thank me,” Chester said. “Been in about the same place as you. Got my scrawny ass shot up stormin’ that damn beach in World War II. Sure puts a hitch in yer giddyup, but it coulda been worse, I guess.”

“True that.” Jake had no idea the old guy had ever served in the military, let alone one of the toughest wars ever battled. Of course, as a soldier himself, he knew there were two kinds of veterans; those who loved to tell war stories, and those who wanted to bury the memories deep. As easy as it was to poke fun at Chester’s flirtatious ways, at least the old codger was still around to make it happen.

“Thanks just the same,” he said, as Chester gave him another nod and left the diner.

While Jake made his way to a booth, he got a two-finger salute from Bill McBride, a Vietnam vet, and a chin lift from Ray Calhoun, both of whom were sitting at a table, playing a game of checkers. At the big round table in the back, the Digging Divas Garden Club looked up in surprise. Instead of their usual exuberance, most just smiled as though they realized he might need some space. The tear sliding down Arlene Potter’s crinkly cheek could have been from allergies. Or it could have been because, even at her advanced age, Arlene loved a man in uniform. Not that he was wearing one. But that really didn’t matter to Arlene. She had a vivid imagination.

Jake tried to relax. He hadn’t known exactly what he’d be walking into here, but the silent acknowledgments worked just fine for him.

With his favorite booth vacant, he eased over to the middle of the red vinyl seat and stretched his leg. As he looked out the window at the passersby on their way through their daily routines, he took a breath to ease the ache slicing down his thigh. Moments later, a menu sailed onto the table in front of him, and a cup of ice water landed without a splash.

His head instantly came up.

Blue eyes focused, Annie Morgan stood there, weight balanced on one hip while she tapped the eraser of her pencil against the order pad.

In the past couple of years, the Wilder family had expanded with three of his brothers having said the I do’s. Thanks to his brother, Jackson, and her sister, Abby, he and Annie were now related by marriage. Before that, they’d been adversaries for as long as Jake could remember. Always outspoken and not a stranger to butting in where she didn’t belong, they’d gone head-to-head on many outlandish subjects. If he said the sky was blue, she’d argue it was turquoise. If he said a steak would take seven minutes to grill, she’d say five. If he said the Rangers would win by a home run, she’d bet they’d lose with a strikeout. It seemed like the girl just liked to argue. More often than not, he’d rise to the bait. Just as he always did with his brothers. One of these days, he’d learn to just sit back and smile.

Today probably wasn’t that day.


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