After a fifteen-minute ride that Ted found every bit as harrowing as the one on Furious Rhythm, they arrived at the parking lot for Papa Bear’s. When he’d gotten in the Jeep Ted hadn’t known Jake’s license was all of four days old. Several near misses with fellow motorists and one very lucky pedestrian had cleared Ted’s mind, and nearly his bowels. Somehow they’d gotten to their destination in one piece, and Ted leapt out of the vehicle, resisting the urge to kiss the ground like a liberated hostage.
Papa Bear’s was as much of an eyesore as the Stockbridge Planning Board would allow, and that only here, out on the crowded commercial artery leading from the highway to the downtown, tucked at the end of a strip mall alongside a Rite Aid pharmacy and an Everything for a Dollar store. The asphalt expanse between building and street was jammed as it always was on a Saturday night; only three years old, the novelty had not worn off. Ted negotiated his way past Volvos and Chevys, Jake and Meg trailing behind, to where a large neon bear beckoned patrons into the bright yellow entryway of the chain family restaurant.
The lobby of the restaurant was cluttered with standard kitsch, haphazard displays on the wall of vanilla sports memorabilia and anachronistic farm tools alongside velvet renderings of 50’s movie stars. A young woman in a red shirt and black pants intercepted them with a broad plastic smile, short and cookie-cutter peppy, with a wad of bubblegum in her cheek. She asked pointedly if they had called ahead for a table, and only then did Ted notice the dozen people sitting in the faux-wood benches, clearly waiting to be seated.
“It’s fine,” Ted glanced down at the gum-cracking hostess’ nametag, “Becky. We’re looking for someone who’s already seated.” He ignored the proffered light-up coaster designed to alert them when they’d won the table lottery and looked easily over her head into the vast and crowded dining room. Ted had been there once, with Mike and Lisa and the kids, and he remembered it as mediocre fare consumed with so much background noise that conversation was nearly impossible. Little had changed, and the cacophony of voices echoed from every direction.
“There,” Jake pointed toward a secluded booth in the back corner, where Jill’s unmistakable red hair was visible. Ted brushed past Becky’s protests and strode toward Jill and her companion. Jake and Meg followed, conscious of the ripple of gossip Ted’s appearance had caused, the buzz in the restaurant somehow growing even louder in anticipation of An Incident. It made Jake uncomfortable and he shrunk into his letter jacket, while Meg virtually skipped down the aisle, knowing she was part of the show and loving it.
Ted arrived at the cozy booth in the corner, unaware of the attention fixed in his direction. There were two people in the vinyl red benches, seated across from each other and deep in conversation. One was Jill, beautiful Jill, the face he had come to love so much, looking back at him now with her mouth a round O of shock. The other was a tall, thin man Ted had never laid eyes on before but hated on sight. Angular face, long nose, thin lips and curly brown hair turned as one to examine the intruder.
“Can I help you, buddy?” Ed asked, and as he glanced at Jill he realized who had interrupted their dinner. His eyebrows pinched together and his face flushed red.
“I’m not your buddy. And I’m here to talk to Jill.” Ted had not taken his eyes off her. The background noise had died away, replaced by an anticipatory silence, like that of the crowd at a baseball game before a meaningful pitch.
Ted never saw Ed burst out of the booth and slam into him with his shoulder, knocking Ted to the floor to the audible gasp of the other patrons. Ted quickly scrambled back to his feet and fixed Ed with a malignant stare. Now this guy had his attention.
“Damn it, Ed!” Jill moved to get on her feet, but Ed threw an arm back to block her.
“Sit down, Jill. This is that Gray dude, right? You told me he took off, that he was bad news, a real scumbag. I see what you meant.”
Ted’s ears were burning, though he knew Jill would never have said anything like that. It was just talk, and Ted had had a lifetime of talk, was sick to death of talk. And he wasn’t about to let a pencil-neck jerk like this get under his skin, let alone land another sucker blow. He looked at Jill and her eyes were pleading with him, but he couldn’t read them. Was she begging him to stay? Or begging him to go?
“Jill, I came back for you. I’m not going to DC. I was wrong to leave.” He threw all of the cards down on the table. “I belong here, we both do.”
He saw the punch coming from a mile away.
Lifting his left arm Ted easily blocked the clumsy assault and dropped a sharp jab to Ed’s temple. The other man dropped to the ground with a groan, and Ted ignored him, ignored his smarting knuckles, focusing just on Jill, who was crying now.
“Jill…” he reached out for her, and she raised a hand in response. Their fingers touched, and Ted knew he’d made the right decision, knew that everything else could be sorted out later. That was when the screaming started.
“He’s got a gun!” It was not one shriek, but several, and suddenly the back corner of Papa Bear’s was no longer such a popular place. Ted turned slowly around to see Ed Kendall, kneeling on the ground, his eyes barely focused, an angry red welt above his left ear. In his hands was a snub-nosed pistol he must have had stashed in his jacket. Time slowed as Ted moved to ensure he was between the weapon and Jill. What the hell was this maniac doing with a fucking gun? was Ted’s first thought. His second was to notice that Ed’s right index finger was moving, squeezing the trigger of the pistol.
No shot came. Instead a blur of gray and white exploded from the watching crowd and smothered Ed, knocking the weapon from his hands to skitter harmlessly across the floor. In moments, Ed was pinned beneath the tall and lanky form of Bobby Craig, who crouched with one knee jammed into the prone man’s back.
“Somebody call the cops,” he muttered, looking down and avoiding eye contact with Ted. Kid always was good in the clutch, thought Ted absurdly. Glancing toward where Bobby had come from he saw the boy’s father, and their eyes met for a silent moment. Oxygen rushed back into dozens of lungs that had held their breath, and Jill, who had thrown her arms around Ted as Kendall had taken aim, detached herself. She took a couple of steps forward.
“Careful, Miss Ward,” grunted Bobby. Jill ignored the warning, standing alone and staring down at Ed. The face on the floor was splotched red with wrath, gasping as Bobby exerted painful force on one awkwardly bent arm. She leaned low, her heart still beating fast, but she wasn’t angry any more. She felt nothing but pity for the broken man on the tiled restaurant floor.
“Goodbye, Ed,” Jill said. Straightening, she turned back to Ted Gray, who stood unmoving, his clothes filthy and his hair a mess. In two quick steps she was in his arms, feeling him against her, feeling at home. In a few moments two uniformed members of the Stockbridge Police Department arrived, and after a few questions Ed Kendall and his gun were collected and taken away.
“I love you,” Ted murmured into Jill’s hair. Looking over her shoulder he saw Bobby, hands in his pockets, finishing his interview with one of the cops. “Thanks, Bobby. I owe you one.” The words were out of his mouth before Ted had really even thought about what he was saying.
“How about helping me graduate?” Bobby asked quietly, sweeping his long hair out of his eyes. “I – there’s still a recruiter or two that have said they’ll still consider me, based on how I finish the year.” Jill looked up at Ted, pulling away slightly.
“Well?” she asked. “Are you going to be around?”
Ted looked into Jill’s bright green eyes and broke into a wide grin.
END PART ONE