Home>>read Beard Science free online

Beard Science(11)

By:Penny Reid

I narrowed my eyes, leveling her with a glare. I considered saying no. I considered it. The leash Jennifer thought she wielded chafed and inspired raw thoughts.

Instead I stood.

“Gentlemen.” I tipped my head toward Dale and Evans, though I never removed my eyes from Jennifer Sylvester. Then, in an exaggerated show of manners, I swept my hand in front of me. “After you, Miss Sylvester.”

She swallowed unsteadily, her purple eyes wide and assessing under unnaturally thick and long black lashes. The lashes were fake. But that eye color . . .

She nodded curtly, turned on her heel, and walked swiftly toward the cafeteria exit. I followed, careful to wipe my expression and keep a distance between us. No reason for folks to know we were linked in any capacity.

Jennifer’s stride was impressively quick for a short woman in high heels, and she was short. Even for a woman she was short. My gaze carefully disinterested, I scrutinized this short woman.

She wore a yellow dress, a “housedress” I believed they were called in the 1950s and ’60s. It hugged her torso to her waist then circled out over her hips. She had big hips. Or a small waist. Or both. Hard to tell when the garment she wore served to accentuate both the smallness of her middle and the thickness of her sub-middle.

The yellow dress swished over her calves as she walked. She had nice legs—what I could see of them, at any rate—but the fabric swishing had me redirecting my attention. It was an angry, violent swishing and was getting on my nerves.

A quick turn to the left had me stepping double-time to keep up and comprehension dawned. I knew where we were going, where she was leading me. We’d gone a roundabout way and I was surprised she knew that the nondescript, unlabeled door led to the backstage area at the front of the cafeteria.

No one would see us. A thick, heavy curtain separated the stage from the tables crowded with townsfolk, eating their coleslaw, fried pie, and drinking lemonade. No one would hear us. The constant buzz of chatter beyond the curtain made this a perfect spot for a clandestine assignation, so long as neither of us felt the urge to shout.

I slipped through the door, searched the large space, and found Jennifer with her back and palms pressed against the cinderblock wall a few feet away. She stood rigid and straight, and judging by the rise and fall of her chest, she was out of breath.

I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my coveralls and waited. Likely, I could see better than she could. Us Winston boys could see in the dark, more or less. Our momma had told us that we had Yuchi ancestry, a fact I’d confirmed unbeknownst to my siblings. Legend was, the Yuchi tribesmen could see just fine, even on the blackest of nights.

Even so, the lack of light cast everything in grays and shadows, including her unsettling purple eyes.

Those have to be contacts.

“Thank you,” she said, breaking the silence and surprising me.

I’d expected demands, not gratitude.

“I haven’t done anything.”

Her posture relaxed just a smidge. “You have,” she contradicted. Her eyes were wide and I could tell she was trying to see me better.

“What’ve I done?” I challenged, wanting to be irritated but instead finding myself curious.

“You’ve made this week more bearable.” She laughed lightly and it was a pleasing, musical sound. But then she swallowed her laughter and her expression grew exceedingly earnest. “You gave me hope.”

Well . . . darn.

I stared at her—at this short woman, at her pointed chin and her uncommonly pretty eyes framed by ugly fake lashes—and reviewed the facts:

One, Jennifer Sylvester was desperate.

Two, she was not a bad person.

Three, she thought she wanted a husband.

Jennifer leaned away from the wall, twisting her fingers in front of her and tilting her head to one side then the other. She laughed again, but this time it sounded nervous.

“You know, I can’t see you at all. But I get the feeling you can see me just fine.”

Four, Jennifer Sylvester was surprisingly observant.

I stepped forward into a swath of light provided by a tall window. It wasn’t yet dusk, but night was quickly approaching.

“Is that better?” I asked, my voice gentler than I’d intended.

“Yes.” She shivered and her eyes moved over my face, dawdling for a moment on my beard, then fell to the floor. “That’s better. Thank you.”

Five, Jennifer Sylvester didn’t need a husband. She might’ve wanted a husband, likely because she was equating marriage with escape and freedom, but she didn’t need one. What she needed was a backbone.

“What are we doing here?” I asked after we’d stood in silence for a full minute.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“Why’d you want to talk to me?”

She firmed her lips, then lifted her eyes to mine. “I wanted to see if you’ve made any progress yet.”


“Yes. Formulated a plan, for me, and my situation.”

“I see . . .” I examined her posture. How does one grow a backbone?

“Well?” she prompted.

“Well, what?”

Now her eyes narrowed and she pushed away from the wall, crossing her arms. “Cletus Winston, do not play games with me.”

There it is. She had a backbone, but just didn’t use it much.

I tried not to smile. Tried and failed. But she wouldn’t see it. First of all, it was too dark for her non-Yuchi eyes. And second, my beard would hide it.

Now, how does one make a backbone permanent?

“I might be crazy,” she continued, her voice edged with steel, “but this is what I want. This is what I’ve always wanted.”

“A husband?” I sought to clarify.

“Yes . . . and no.” The steel leeched from her voice as her arms fell. Once again she was twisting her fingers. “Here’s the honest truth, Cletus: I’m not a romantic. I’m not looking for someone to sweep me off my feet. Knights in shining armor do not exist. I don’t even need him to be particularly clever or handsome. I just want a good person, a . . . a gentle person. I want someone with a good heart, someone steady, reliable, and kind. Someone who would make a good father.”

I lifted an eyebrow at the depressingly pragmatic listing of her desires while arguing with myself. I wanted to help her—because I could—and I didn’t want to help her—because I’d sworn an oath to myself that I wouldn’t go off chasing windmills anymore.

She’s not your problem.

I wasn’t accustomed to arguing with myself, so I quietly stared at her. I quietly stared for longer than was proper.


I blinked and my attention refocused outward. She’d moved. She was now standing directly in front of me, her chin angled upward so she’d trapped me with her eyes.

“So . . .” Jennifer took a breath, her tongue darting out to wet her lips, then whispered, “so, you are going to help me, right?”


“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life.”

—Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte


Cletus stared at me for several minutes, but I didn’t mind. The distant quality behind his gaze meant he wasn’t really looking at me. Cletus was thinking. And if he was thinking with such abundant focus, then he hadn't made up his mind yet about helping.

I debated reminding him of the video evidence still in my possession, but quickly dismissed the idea. I’d threatened him last Sunday; if nearly a week of knowledge of said threat hadn’t decided things, it would only serve to aggravate him now.

I hadn't been lying when I told him I'd saved it in multiple places, even though all those places were thumb drives. Maybe I was being paranoid, or giving Cletus too much credit, but I didn’t think so.

Also, I couldn’t risk the video being discovered by my parents. This meant it was no longer on my phone and I’d never placed it on my laptop. My father randomly reviewed my pictures, videos, notes, documents, and search history. His years of being a high school principal had made him fussy about my habits and behavior. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. I never had anything to hide.

Until now.

The file had been deleted from the phone after I showed it to Cletus, as much as a file can be deleted in this day and age. I'd used one of the computers at the library to transfer it to five different thumb drives and they were hidden in various places around my industrial kitchen at the bakery. Neither of my parents spent any real time in my baking space, so it was the safest location for my secret.

But back to Cletus and his staring. His staring meant he was considering, and his considering meant he hadn't decided what to do about me yet.

Given the way his eyes burned with annoyance when I'd interrupted him earlier in the cafeteria, and everything I knew about Cletus as a covert conniver, I figured he didn't much appreciate being at a disadvantage. This was a man who preferred to be in complete control.

For as long as I’d been watching, Cletus controlled how the world perceived him, wearing the mask of a bumbling simpleton at times, or the affable auto mechanic, or the harmless banjo-playing hermit. And he was always in control of himself, never losing his temper, never displaying anything but premeditated emotion.

Control was his comfort zone.

I needed to adapt to his comfort zone, otherwise he wouldn't help me. Sure, he might fake it for a while, but it wouldn’t be real.