Life After Perfect(10)

By: Nancy Naigle



No dish screamed Southern more than Ol’ Man Johnson’s CB&B. It included a small medallion of fresh beefalo cooked just to your liking. Yes, beefalo—a cross between a domestic cow and an American bison—grown right up the road on Criss Cross Farm, served with hand-sliced fingerling hash browns, and then married up with whatever fresh local vegetables were available that week. A picture next to the register flaunted the cafe’s Food Network episode and bragging rights.

Derek watched Angie serve supper like she had a hive of bees behind her. Her dark hair shone, and he knew she was flustered when she shoved it behind her ear. A tell. They’d been friends so long sometimes he thought he knew her better than he knew himself.

She whisked down the aisle toward the drink station, her expression transforming, her real smile appearing, as soon as she saw him.

“Good day?” he asked.

“Busy.” She set a water pitcher down on his table just long enough to push her dark hair back over her ear again, and nodded toward a booth at the front. “Cranky travelers.” She rubbed the back of her hand across her forehead. “On top of everything, I had to walk to work this morning. My car took its last breath last night. I swear I can’t catch a break.”

“Why didn’t you call? I’d have given you a lift.”

“The walk was fine. That wasn’t the point. I’m just tired of everything always being a struggle.”

“What’s wrong with your car this time?”

She seemed to deflate before his eyes. “Who knows? I only just had the oil changed and the engine all checked out.” She let out a groan. “Let me get this lady’s Arnold Palmer before she has a fit. Seriously. If you can drink an Arnold Palmer, you can drink sweet tea. What is it with people?”

She rushed off, and it was only a couple minutes later when Angie slid Derek’s dinner in front of him. “Heard you saw Kelly Jo Keefer today.”

“I did. How’d you know?”

“I was over at Naomi’s this morning,” Angie said. “Kelly Jo is married to Todd Keefer.”

“Todd? I hadn’t made the connection.” The distance Derek had been trying to force between him and her case suddenly got harder. “Man, I haven’t seen Todd since we watched him play ball in the minors. It’s been a while. So they’re back in town?”

“He’s not. They were living in Tennessee when Kelly Jo got the news that her cancer had metastasized to the liver. She came to live with Naomi so Todd wouldn’t watch her die. She thinks she’s doing him some kind of favor.” Angie folded her arms. “I’m not sure if that’s the craziest or the most unselfish thing I’ve ever heard somebody do.”

Derek remembered the day that Laney took his hand. Her words had barely been more than a whisper when she’d said, “Seeing the anguish in your eyes every time you look at me is worse than the pain of dying.” That had just about killed him. Even the memory weighed heavy on his chest.

Kelly Jo hadn’t been looking for any miracles or promises of hope today. She’d accepted what was in her future, but still, hours after she’d left, he couldn’t forget her. He knew from experience what was ahead of her. It wasn’t going to be pretty.

“She might be doing Todd a favor.” He suddenly wasn’t very hungry. “Watching Laney’s decline was the worst part of all. It gives you such a helpless feeling.”

She sat down and reached across the table and took his hand. “I know you still miss her.”

“Every day.” He held her gaze. She’d been a great friend through Laney’s illness. “There’s nothing Todd can do to change it. If it’s what Kelly Jo wants, who are we to say it’s not the right thing.”

“It just seems so unfair.”

“Cancer doesn’t fight fair, Angie. You know, when Laney turned that last corner, there was nothing else that could be done. I knew it. She did too. It was a damned death sentence, yet even with the combined experience of all of my colleagues, we had no way of knowing just how long she’d have. There’s nothing you can do but wait, and sadly no way to make the days good enough to matter.”

“Can’t you help Kelly Jo?” Emotion and hope hung on her expression. “Somehow?”

He cast his glance toward the front door. “Kelly Jo is in that stage now, Angie. She’s dying, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. All we can do is buy her calendar time, not quality time. She’s already figured that out for herself.”

“But what about Todd? It’s unfair that she’s shut him out of her life. I told her that just because she left, it doesn’t mean a switch turned off for him. He’s still suffering. Missing her.”

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