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Beard Science(2)

By:Penny Reid

“Thank you, Miss McClure.”

The older woman’s pine-bark brown eyes crinkled and her polite smile widened just a touch, letting me know she’d heard me but was too busy or disinclined to engage in small talk.

I live in a small town and everybody knows everybody. As an example, Flo—or Florence—McClure is known as the stubborn spinster sister to Carter McClure, the fire chief. People said she never married despite her string of would-be suitors because she didn’t want to give up her independence.

I suspected it wasn’t her independence she was afraid of losing. After watching her and Nancy Danvish engage in a furtive yet passionate argument at a Fourth of July parade five years ago, my money was on Flo McClure being firmly in the closet.

Anyway, everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows me. I’m the Banana Cake Queen. I make other kinds of cake, but I’m famous for my banana cake. I know this as fact because, when I’m introduced, it’s usually like this:

“This is Jennifer Sylvester. You know, the Banana Cake Queen? She’s famous for her banana cake.”

But I digress.

I turned from Flo McClure and found a seat in the corner of the small lobby of the police station, setting the wrapped zucchini walnut bread I’d brought on my lap. I crossed my legs at the ankles and waited.

I liked the sheriff. He was nice. Despite being a man of few words, he asked after my well-being. His smiles were genuine and kind. I liked that he was a good father and husband. And he cared about the folks under his jurisdiction. He was a good person, so I made him baked goods whenever I knew we’d be crossing paths.

I spent the next fifteen minutes people watching, avoiding the social media notifications on my phone. I wasn’t in charge of the accounts, but I still received all the alerts.

Hannah Townsend walked in, stormed to the desk, and argued with Flo about a speeding ticket.

A few moments later, the King brothers exited the big door leading to the main offices, whispering in hushed tones. I stiffened, bracing for an insult or an evocative proposition. It never came.

They looked ragged and maybe a little scared. Luckily, the pair didn’t even notice me as they bolted for the exit, paying no mind to Flo and Hannah either.

I wasn’t surprised to see the King brothers at the station. As low-ranking members of the Iron Wraiths—the biggest and most troublesome of the local motorcycle gangs—they were always in and out of jail. Ever since I was a teenager, when they spotted me on my own, I could count on aggressively suggestive remarks.

Not today, apparently. I exhaled my relief.

I turned my attention back to Hannah and Flo, their interaction becoming friendlier as the conversation turned to the subject of Hannah’s momma.

Hannah’s momma had been a car accident several years ago and Hannah, even though she’d been just seventeen at the time, took care of her. Hannah had been working two jobs since: as a hostess at the local steak house and at the Payton Mills. About two years ago, she’d quit her job at the mill in favor of becoming a stripper at the Pink Pony.

The desk phone rang and Flo held up her finger as she brought the receiver to her ear. “Just a second, Hannah. Let me get this. Yes?” The older woman’s eyes darted to me and away as she nodded, saying, “Yep, she’s here.”

I straightened in my seat because Hannah glanced at me. Her eyes flickered over my form and she stopped just short of rolling her eyes before looking away.

I didn’t blame Hannah. I really didn’t. We were the same age and in choir together growing up. I understood her scorn.

Outwardly, I was ridiculous: big, wavy bleached-blonde hair; acrylic nails always painted pink; high heels. My momma had me in full makeup (inclusive of false eyelashes) at sixteen, younger if you counted the pageants I’d participated in as a child. In public I was always attired in yellow or green—my signature colors since the age of four—and I always wore a knee-length dress and pearls.

I owned one pair of jeans and a pair of overalls, but had been forbidden long ago from stepping outside the house in anything other than Sunday garb. Momma said I was the face of the business, and pedestrian attire was bad for business.

I was a superficial caricature of a southern stereotype, but our customers loved it. They even hired me for parties. I’d stand behind the dessert table and serve cake with a bright smile and shaking hands. Nobody ever noticed my hands.

“Okay, I’ll send her back.” Flo nodded again, her gaze cutting to mine as she hung up the phone and flicked her wrist toward the door to the main offices. “The sheriff is ready for you.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

She didn’t respond, instead turning her attention back to Hannah. “Did you see that news crew up at the Winston house?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did,” Hannah responded on a whisper easy to overhear. “It’s on account of Jethro Winston getting married to that movie star.”

Jethro Winston and Sienna Diaz, the Hollywood actress, had met at the beginning of the summer and subsequently become engaged two months ago. He was the oldest of the seven Winston siblings. After Jethro came Billy, next was Cletus, Ashley (the only girl), the twins—Beau and Duane—then Roscoe the youngest. Roscoe was my age and, if I’d attended school, we would have been in the same grade.

“Jethro already marry that lady?”

“No, not yet.” Hannah leaned farther over the desk and lowered her voice. “But the rumor is she’s already pregnant.”

My heart twisted with envy.

It’s not that I was jealous of Ms. Diaz. Not at all. I’d had no designs on Jethro Winston. Though he’d seemed nice enough to me, my father always said Jethro was the wrong sort and that I should avoid him.

And by wrong sort, my father meant Jethro wasn’t ever going to be wealthy. A man was nothing to my father if he wasn’t rich or had the potential for notoriety.

The truth was, I was jealous of Sienna and Jethro. If the rumors were true, despite meeting just five months ago, they were starting a family. They were having a baby, a little perfect person to love and take care of and cuddle and hold.

More than anything, I wanted that. I wanted a family of my own.

I crossed to the big door, my heels clicking on the linoleum, leaving the two women to their conversation while I fought to subdue my envy. I turned the knob and stepped through to the back office, scanning the space for Sheriff James. It was a busy place today, much busier than typical, and much bigger than what people might expect from a small town station.

The state of Tennessee mandates that each county elect a sheriff to serve for four years. Sheriffs are public servants with full police authority in a particular county. But if the cities have their own police departments, Tennessee sheriffs (and their deputies) usually keep their patrol limited to unincorporated areas of their counties.

Not so with Sheriff James. He and his deputies patrolled the entire county, were responsible for three incorporated cities within the boundaries of the county, plus had shared jurisdiction with the federal warden for the national park on the Tennessee side. He had a big job and a large team.

The administrative staff were huddled around one desk, whispering anxiously. Usually, the majority of the officers were out on the road, on patrol. Not today. I spotted at least five deputies milling about impatiently. The workplace held an unmistakable air of waiting.

“Jennifer Sylvester, always a pleasure.”

I turned from the peppering of uniforms and found the sheriff walking toward me, a friendly and fatherly grin on his features.

“Sheriff James. I brought you zucchini bread.” I held it out between us, pleased when his grin grew into a beaming smile.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said, though he took the foil-wrapped offering readily enough. “Your momma said something about me recording a statement about your cakes?”

“Yes, sir. That’s right. She’d like me to record you talking about the cupcakes we sent over, if you don’t mind.”

“I see. Are you going to be in it, too?”

I shook my head, even though I knew my momma wanted me to be in the video. But I’d come up with an alternate plan. “No, sir. I’ll record an introduction later, but we’ll get your testimonial now. I won’t be in the shot with you.”

He nodded, bending closer as I spoke as though trying to hear me better. “Ah, okay. Sounds fine. But let’s go back to my office. It’ll be quieter.”


At that moment, the door behind me burst open followed by a loud whoop. I turned just as Jackson James appeared, putting his hands on my hips and squeezing past.

“Excuse me, Jenn,” the deputy said with a wink, stepping between his father and me.

Jackson James was the only son of Sheriff James and his wife, Janet. They also had a daughter named Jessica who, until just recently, had been a mathematics teacher at the high school where my father was the principal.

See? Small town. Everybody knows everybody.

Jackson waved a large manila envelope excitedly. “We got it, sir. I have it right here.”

“That was fast.” The sheriff’s eyes lit and he traded his son the zucchini bread for the envelope, hastily opening it as the other members of the sheriff’s office crowded close. I took a step back and to the side, not wanting to be in the way.