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Beard Science(7)

By:Penny Reid

When my brother left home to join the army years ago, I moved into his old room even though it was smaller than mine. My mother didn’t understand why I wanted the smaller room on the first floor that had a window overlooking the porch when I could have the larger room on the second floor with a window overlooking the mountains.

She didn’t understand I needed an escape hatch. I didn’t make a habit of sneaking out. I’d only done it twice before and I made sure I wouldn’t be caught. But just knowing I could leave, if I wanted to, made the reality of each day feel less overwhelming.

I liked that I could, at any time, pack a bag and disappear. I liked knowing I could vanish, leave onerous expectations behind. I would never do it, I could never live with myself if I hurt my parents that way—especially my momma—but I liked knowing I could.

The first time I snuck out was when I was seventeen. A pen pal of mine was in Knoxville and my father refused to let me see him. Determined, I’d climbed out the window, donned a baseball hat, and met Oliver Müller and his parents at Daisy’s Nut house for decaf coffee and day-old pie. Oliver and his family were really nice. He was just one year older than me and has since gone to the University of Berlin and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.

The second time I’d been twenty. An artist I liked had been playing a concert in Knoxville and my momma didn’t want me to go. She said it was too close to the state fair baking competition. Determined, I’d used the window again, borrowed my momma’s car, and went to the concert all on my own and had THE BEST time. I hadn’t been afraid. I’d wanted to see that concert and so I went.

Tonight I was using my escape hatch to drive over to the Winston place and confront Cletus Winston.

I was terrified.

But I was determined.

As soon as night fell, I slipped on my contraband jeans, sneakers, and baseball hat, stuffed my bed with pillows, and climbed out of the first-floor window. My car was at the end of the drive and, thank the Lord, was the new model BMW electric. It was quiet as a whisper.

I was careful not to switch on the lights until I’d turned onto the main road. The Winston place wasn’t far, just a few miles up Moth Run Road, and was set back on a large lot of several acres. No one would see my car from the main thoroughfare, but just to be safe, I pulled to the side of the house where a large pear tree was heavy with fruit.

I didn’t dawdle, because if I paused to think about the intelligence of my actions I would change my mind. My actions were about as intelligent as poking a bear with a stick.

But I was desperate.

If anyone could help me, it was Cletus Winston—even if I had to blackmail him to do it.

I shut the car door as quietly as possible and quickly maneuvered to the front porch, climbing the steps two at a time, and rushing to the door. I knocked. Loudly. Several times. And then I waited.

My heart was lodged in my throat so I tried to swallow past it. I couldn’t show weakness. I needed to be tough.

I can be tough. I nodded, shifting from one foot to the other. I can be real tough. You can’t be a sissy and make fifty loaves of bread in a day. That’s a lot of kneading. I’m tough as nails. I’m basically the Rocky Balboa of bakers. I’m unstoppable! Aint nobody gunna—

The door swung open. I jumped back a half step. My voice failed me.

It was Cletus. He stood in the doorway, a half-apron around his hips and a wooden spoon in his hand. He looked perturbed.

His eyes did a quick pass of my person and he said, “I don’t know you.”

I blinked at him, surprised by his patently false statement. We’d never spoken to each other, but we certainly did know of each other. The fact that he was looking at me and didn’t recognize me did wonders to conquer my fear.

Placing my hands on my hips, I stuck my chin out. “You most certainly do know me. Your momma used to read me stories on Tuesdays at the library and I went to Sunday school with your youngest brother.”

Cletus’s eyebrows ticked up at my claim, but no other sign of surprise was visible on his face. “The Banana Cake Queen,” he said flatly. “What do you want?”

Again, his greeting could not have been any more effective in pissing me off. For a moment, I forgot who he was. I forgot to be afraid. I forgot that I was bad at talking to people—especially men.

For a moment, my desperation and irritation superseded everything else I knew about myself.

So I demanded, “I need to speak with you.”

He scowled. “Can’t. Busy. Bye.”

Cletus moved to shut the door. I stuck my foot in its path and braced my palm against the solid wood. “Make time. What I have to say is important.”

His eyebrows lifted again, higher this time. “I seriously doubt that.”

“Do you want to go to jail?” I challenged.

“For what? Not talking to you? Now I know you think highly of yourself, but you do know you’re not a real queen, right?”

I leaned in close, whispering through gritted teeth, “If you don’t talk to me, I’m going to call the sheriff and show him a very interesting video of you from last week.”

Cletus blinked and his eyes moved between mine, searching. I clenched my jaw and met his gaze, though my resolve weakened a little because he smelled like Italian food. He smelled like lasagna and lasagna was my favorite, and I wasn’t allowed to eat lasagna. My momma never let me have it. She said it was too fattening.

My stomach growled. He didn’t appear to hear it.

“Fine,” he said suddenly, turning and dropping his spoon someplace unseen. Clearly irritated, he stepped forward and into my space, forcing me to back up as he closed the door behind him. “Let’s go.”

Cletus strolled past me, not waiting to see if I followed, and down the porch steps. I watched him walk to his car and open the driver’s side door.

Without looking up, he called, “Get a move on, your majesty. I don’t have all night.”

I hesitated just a split second, then followed in his footsteps to his car, opened the passenger door, and slid inside.

Cletus usually drove an early 1990s Geo Prizm painted primer gray. Sometimes he drove a vintage Buick, but very rarely.

He was waiting for me in the Geo, his arms crossed, his eyes staring out the windshield. The small car made him look huge and imposing. He’d turned on the dome light and the forward reading lights. I closed my door, as he had done with his. A brief silence followed, during which the reality of my present situation crashed over me.

I was alone. I was alone with Cletus Winston. I was alone with Cletus Winston and no one knew where I was.

Oh. Shit.

“Well?” he barked, breaking the silence and making me jump. “Why am I sitting here with you when I should be inside tending to my tomato sauce?”

“I saw what you did,” I announced.

“You saw what I did,” he repeated flatly, apparently bored with the conversation and me. His eyes were on the rearview mirror.

But I would not be ignored or bullied. Not this time.

“That’s right.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific. I do a lot of things.”

Gathering every ounce of courage within me, I said, “I saw what you did, last week, with the Iron Wraiths evidence. You took it. And now they can’t find it, and now they’re dropping the case against Razor.”

Finally, finally Cletus looked at me. To my astonishment, the eyes I’d assumed were green were instead a fiery blue and he snapped, “You saw no such thing.”

“I did.” I nodded at my assertion. “In fact, I have a video of you doing it.”

He blinked. His expression and his voice, usually so controlled, both cracked with surprise. “You did what?”

“I recorded it on my phone.” I swallowed three times for no reason.

His gaze sharpened in such a way that startled me, as though clouds or an illusionary mist parted and revealed a slight glimpse of the real Cletus Winston beneath. These new eyes flickered over my person.

“Prove it.” His demand was sharp and quick, like a whip, and made my heart jump then gallop in my chest.

I pulled my phone from my pocket with trembling fingers. I knew why I was shaking. I wasn’t used to confrontation. I always figured I was a natural pacifist, preferring peace to sass. But desperate times called for desperate measures.

He snatched my cell once I’d unlocked it and tapped through the series of screens until he reached my videos. He found the one dated last week, the one I’d taken of Sheriff James talking about my cupcakes and hit play. As Cletus watched, a touch of color drained from his cheeks. He was seeing what I’d spotted last week when I reviewed the recording. One half of the screen was the sheriff. The other half of the screen was Cletus in the background, pocketing the evidence, looking around, then walking away.

Cletus made a strangled noise that sounded both frustrated and enraged. I eyed the door next to me, considering and immediately dismissing an escape. Meanwhile, he watched the recording again. When it ended for a second time, silence took its place, hard and heavy between us. I inspected him, endeavoring to parse his thoughts.

Cletus’s expression was blank, which—I abruptly realized—was highly unusual. He always wore an expression. Thoughtful, concerned, patient, bored, interested, somber, perturbed. How odd, for a person to always have an expression.