“Happy Birthday, old lady,” Missy said with a grin, handing me an extra-large iced coffee.
My bestie was beautiful, inside and out; tiny with wild curls and perfect mocha-colored skin. Her fashion sense was Boho-chic slash artsy-fartsy slash I’ll wear whatever’s clean, evidenced by the gypsy skirt, combat boots and concert t-shirt she was wearing. Somehow Missy made it work and look fabulous. Her normally dark curly hair was enhanced with purple and pink braids this week.
“Chocolate syrup?” I asked, gratefully taking the cup from her and ignoring the insult. She was forty-two. She’d earned her old lady status several years ago.
“Two squirts for the birthday girl,” she replied, winking.
“Thank you, and I think I’ve failed at life,” I announced as I walked through the piles of red, yellow and orange fallen leaves. The crunch beneath my sensible shoes was wildly satisfying. Being a few minutes late for work was risky, but indulging in caffeine with my best friend was necessary.
The park had seen better days but was still lovely in a small-town way. It was full of old gnarled trees that Missy and I had climbed as children. Rows of purple blossoming mums lined the perimeter and a few hardy marigolds still clung to life, even though an early cold snap had withered everything else. The local ladies club—The Gladiolas—maintained the area. Normally the ladies did more gossiping than gardening, but a few of the old gals clearly had green thumbs.
“You’re forty, dude. You have to fail until you’re at least forty-one and a half to accomplish definitive failure,” said my dearest, if not most supportive friend while sipping her coffee. “It might also help to stop drinking an entire bottle of wine and banging an accountant.”
“Tell me about it,” I muttered with a shudder of disgust. “I’m never drinking again.”
“Until tonight at your birthday party,” Missy pointed out.
“Doubtful,” I said with a laugh. “Definitely no merlot. If I have a glass, I’m sticking to chardonnay.”
“Good plan,” she said with a smile and then turned serious. “Daisy, I’m proud of you for getting out there. I just think you can do a teeny-tiny bit better than boring Stan.”
“Hence, why I’m not drinking tonight.”
“Ahhhh, very good plan.”
“Thank you,” I said with a curtsy.
Glancing across the park at the old country church, I immediately averted my eyes.
They were over there. A line of dead people with sad eyes and garbled sounds falling from their lips, with their papery hands and dressed in Sunday clothes. Getting the hell out of town would be smart, but stupid was my new middle name.
“What are my good qualities?” I asked Missy, wanting to talk about anything to avoid blurting out that we were being observed by a pack of poltergeist.
“Is that a trick question?” she shot back with a smirk.
“Depends on your answer.”
“Your boobs,” she replied with a giggle as she drained her umpteenth coffee of the morning. “You’re going to be late for work.”
“You are too.”
“I own the bookstore, dude. I can’t be late. I’m the boss.”
“I’m serious about the qualities thing. My girls are nice according to Boring Stan of the Hairy Back, but I have to have at least one other good quality.”
“His back is hairy?” Missy cringed and choked on the last sip of her drink.
“Like a hair shirt.”
We contemplated that foul piece of information in silence. Scooping up a few colorful leaves, I stared at them. The texture reminded me of the handless woman’s papery skin. I carefully tucked them into the pocket of my coat and made a promise to myself to check a man’s back before I banged him from now on—not that I was going to bang anyone soon.
Missy bumped my shoulder and smiled. “You’re good, Daisy. You’re one of the truly good ones.”
My return smile didn’t reach my eyes. I took her hand in mine and led her to a crumbling old concrete bench. Her hand was smaller and far warmer. With a quick squeeze, I let go and sat down. Lies really weren’t kind. Even the ugly truth was sometimes less painful than hearing what others thought was the right thing to say.
Most of the past year, no one knew what to say to me. After Steve died in a car accident, people treated me like spun glass. But not Missy, which was why I loved her.
“Fine. I’ll take it. I’m a good girl with a nice set of knockers.”
“I didn’t say you were a good girl. I said you were good. Big difference. However, the knockers compliment stands.”
“Semantics. You know, I don’t think that guy from the bank committed suicide.” I lay back on the bench and shielded my eyes from the early-morning sun. “They’re all saying he was tired and he wanted out. I don’t believe that.”
Missy’s groan was audible as she pushed my legs over and seated herself next to me. “I think you think too much. He died and we’ll never know.” She blew out a long, slow breath and picked at the rim of the empty paper coffee cup. “Why is it even important?”
“I suppose it’s not,” I admitted. “I just want to know.”
“Well my dear, that’s not possible unless you have a direct line to the afterlife, whatever the hell that might be.”
Missy stood, crumpled the cup in her hands and tossed it in the trash. “I have to get to the shop. It looks kind of bad when my employees are waiting out on the curb,” she said, walking away. “And you have to quit going to funerals of people you don’t know. It’s getting seriously depressing.”
“There were only three people there. I felt bad for him,” I protested as I sat up and watched her walk away.
“Uh huh,” Missy replied without looking back.
I kept my eyes on my best friend until she disappeared around the corner and then reclined back down on the bench. Missy was correct. I needed to stop going to funerals of strangers. It was a morbid habit formed early in life. Gram used to do it. Since my husband died, I found myself doing it far too frequently. I’d always thought Gram went to show respect and pray for souls, but as an adult, I realized she was simply nosey. If I had to explain my own behavior, I’d be at a loss. I didn’t pray for souls and I wasn’t nosey.
Maybe I had a death wish.
“I’m a hot mess,” I whispered as the wind blew through the trees and a mass of orange and red leaves floated to the ground in swirling funnels. Vibrant little tornados danced through the park and I watched, captivated.
Peeking at the church steps, I sighed. My secret wish that the wind would blow the ghosts away hadn’t come true.
Sadly, Missy was incorrect with her other observation. I did indeed have a direct line to the afterlife as of a few hellacious weeks ago. It was messing with my sanity, my chi and my social skills. How in the hell did I end up the lucky gal that all the dead folks liked to hang out with?
I glanced back over at the church. There were ten of them in different stages of decomposition, waving hopefully at me. My smile to the dearly departed was forced, but I was nothing if not polite. Sometimes being Southern sucked. I gave a half-hearted wave back to the lifeless gang, stood up and scurried off in the opposite direction. I didn’t have time to hang out with the corpses this morning. If I arrived too late, I could lose my job—and my mortgage didn’t pay itself. Evidently, I’d already lost my mind. Losing my employment would be horrible.
With one last furtive glance back, I wondered exactly how many dead people were in town and wanted to be my friend. The situation was getting out of control.
Furthermore, I was sure a few of the dead who were unaware of the rules would show up for my birthday dinner tonight—a big no-no. I’d probably made a mistake saying I would host my own party, but it was just my closest girlfriends. My old farmhouse was big and comfortable. Well, except that it was loaded with dead folks.
It was really unpleasant to eat with corpses at the table. The ones who were privy to the protocol that dinner was my personal time weren’t real good at sharing the rules with the recently departed. Plus, if I found any more random body parts around the house, I was going to evict all of them. Pretending I didn’t see them was going to be my new modus operandi.
Understanding them was a serious problem. Apparently, the dead had their own way of communicating. It was a mystery to me.
I’d spent a few hours in the linguistics section at the library to see if I could find anything that remotely resembled what I was hearing and came out more confused than when I went in. It was guttural in tone and sounded more like garbled consonants than words separated by spaces. There was a frantic intent, and I knew there was also laughter. The old dude floating over Stan’s shoulder this morning was proof positive of that.
“I’m a whack job,” I mumbled.
I picked up my pace on the off chance they were following me down the street. Normal behavior would be impossible if I had to share my cubicle with decaying strangers.
My mind couldn’t leave the puzzle of my current nightmare alone. Had I cracked for real? Was I really seeing dead people or was I inventing them in my head? Had the movie The Sixth Sense Part Two started filming in my sleepy little town and someone neglected to inform me that I was staring in it?
Again, the best way to handle an un-handleable situation was to ignore it…and that’s exactly what I was going to do.
“I want to make myself perfectly clear here,” Clarissa said, annunciating to the point of ridiculous. “He’s forty-five, single and hotter than sin. He’s mine. If I catch any of you making a move, I will make your life a living hell.”
“Like you don’t do that already,” June muttered under her breath with an eye roll.
“I’m sorry,” the redheaded, overly made-up she-devil snapped at poor June. “Did you have something pertinent to add?”
“No,” June replied as the heat crawled up her neck and landed squarely on her adorable face.
I’d missed the first five minutes of the dressing down by our psychotic team leader, but it clearly had to do with a new lawyer who had joined the firm—it usually did. Every so often we got a live one, and Clarissa’s biological time clock was ticking so loudly we all needed earplugs. She’d hit on everything with male genitalia for the last several years. I was constantly surprised that the firm hadn’t been hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit by one of its own. Two of the partners feigned being gay for a few months just to escape her advances.
I glanced around the small break room and bit back my grin. It wouldn’t do for Clarissa to think I was laughing at her. The sheer amount of work she would pile on me was reason enough to pretend I was taking her seriously. I adored the gals I worked with except for our narcissistic leader. Being a paralegal could be as boring as watching paint dry, but my coworkers made the forty-plus hours a week tolerable.
Truth was, I was the only single gal in the room besides Clarissa and I would never date a lawyer—too shady. Plus, after last night, I was off men for the foreseeable future.
June, the sweet mutterer, was fifty-seven and happily married with four awesome kids. Heather, somewhere in her later thirties, was a vocal lesbian and always in a relationship. Jennifer was sixty-five and had sworn off men after her fifth divorce.
That left me, and I was sure the lecture was for my benefit. However, the viper had nothing to worry about. I was tied up dealing with an army of dead people at the moment. Dating anyone was off my to-do list for the near future or ever. Next time I got horny I was going on a date with my battery-operated boyfriend aka BOB. I’d had my fill or lack thereof with professionals, courtesy of Stan the Two-Minute Man.
Daisy,” Clarissa snapped. “I need you to run some depositions to the courthouse and stop by the Piggly Wiggly to get coffee and filters. Then you can take the rest of the week off.”
“Wait. What?” I asked, shocked. It was only Monday.
Gasps filled the small room, mine included. The firm was in the middle of an enormous amount of cases—all mind-bendingly boring. We’d all had to stay late for the past several weeks. There was no way I would leave my posse unprotected from Clarissa’s wrath and with an absurd amount of work to do.
“You heard me,” she said calmly as she admired her French manicure critically.
When the hell did she have time to get a manicure?
“Clarissa, there’s a lot of work to be done and I need to be here,” I reasoned as neutrally as I could, given the fact that just looking at her made me want to throat punch her.
“Oh, you’ll be working,” she shot back with saccharine sweetness. “Just not here.”
My stomach dropped, and I closed my eyes as I considered how to handle the situation. If I didn’t come to work, it would throw up red flags to the partners and I could lose my much-needed employment despite being ordered to do so. If I called the crazy woman out on her absurd directive, I could lose my job anyway.
Whoa. Was I getting fired right now? On my freaking birthday because Clarissa had aspirations of banging a gross lawyer and wanted all single gals out of the picture?
“Why?” Heather demanded, narrowing her eyes at Clarissa.
Heather was the only one who wasn’t afraid of Clarissa besides me, but Heather had family money to back her up while I needed my job. Actually, Heather wasn’t afraid of anyone, including all the lawyers in the firm or anyone in town. She was a genius and only days away from taking the bar herself. The irony was that she hated lawyers and only planned to practice so she could further her agenda—rights for women. Gay women to be more specific.
Gay marriage had been legalized, but our wealthy, old-money, homophobic little town hadn’t gotten the memo. Apparently, religion trumped the law here. Heather could go anywhere with her brains and drive, but she grew up here, and this place tended to keep its own no matter how much its own wanted to leave.
“Because I said so,” Clarissa replied quickly over her shoulder as she made for the door.
Even Clarissa didn’t like to tangle with Heather. We all watched in silence as she hightailed it out. I was relieved when Heather didn’t push it. As despised as Clarissa was, her job was ironclad. Her father owned the firm. Clarence Smith was as compassionate and kind as Clarissa Smith was mean and horny, but she was his daughter and there was no winning for anyone pitted against her.
“It’s fine,” I said as I put my hand on Heather’s shoulder to stop her from going after the nasty witch. “I can’t afford to lose my job. I’ll just stop in every morning and take a bunch of work home.”
“It’s all because of the new guy,” June said with a snort of disgust. “She’s afraid he’ll see you and go all gaga.”
“I think June’s right,” Jennifer agreed.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said with a shudder, remembering the Stan debacle. “I’m not in the market for a man and lawyers don’t do it for me.”
“It would make my year if women did it for you,” Heather announced with an exaggerated wink.
I laughed and pressed the bridge of my nose. “While I find that wildly flattering, and I really do, I just like penises better than vaginas.”
“Can’t blame a girl for trying,” Heather replied with a friendly shrug. “If you ever switch teams, I’m your gal.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said as I grabbed the folder intended for the courthouse and picked up my purse. “Do you guys really think she doesn’t want me here because of the new lawyer?”
It was mind-boggling. I was forty and a widow for the love of everything absurd.
“Who knows what goes on in her pea brain,” Jennifer said. “Clarissa is batshit crazy. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit. That new boy is supposed to be quite pretty and Old Redhead Ass Spray Tan doesn’t like competition.”
I groaned as I checked my wallet for money. I knew I could turn in a receipt for the coffee and filters, I just wasn’t sure I could cover the cost. Maybe getting fired wouldn’t be so bad. It would force me to get a job with better pay. Or better yet, leave town to find employment in a place where I didn’t see dead people. I’d just take Gram with me.
“If I was known as a man-hungry piranha, I would understand her ridiculous overreaction,” I said absently as I searched the bottom of my purse for a couple of nonexistent dollars. “However, I’m not.”
“Honey, all you gotta do is stand there and the boys fall all over themselves,” Jennifer told me as she handed me a twenty. “When you get reimbursed, pay me back.”
“Thank you,” I told her gratefully. “And men most certainly do not fall all over me.”
“Another reason to become a lesbian,” Heather chimed in with raised eyebrows and a silly grin.
Jennifer grunted and smacked Heather playfully on the arm. “Watch out or I’m gonna become a lesbian. After as many divorces as I’ve had, cohabitating with a woman is starting to sound good.”
“You keep me updated on that.” Heather chuckled as she topped off her coffee and picked up the pile of paperwork scattered all over the table. “I’ll take your old ass with me to the girl bars.”
The thought of Jennifer trolling for women with Heather would keep me smiling for the rest of the day. Heather was long, lean and athletic. Jennifer was a tiny, round couch potato. They would make a motley pair.
“She doesn’t have to worry about me going after a shifty new lawyer—hot or not,” I told the girls. “I do not shit where I eat.”
“Honey, with all that dark curly hair, amber eyes, long legs and those knockers, it doesn’t matter where you shit,” Jennifer informed me as the others nodded their agreement.
“Genetics,” I said dismissively. My looks were hereditary. It was a shell. What counted was what was inside. Inside, I was a disaster. “And that was a really gross analogy.”
My looks were compliments of my long-dead sweet mother—inherited along with her terrible taste in men. With the exception of Steve, I wasn’t the best judge of nice guys. After my mom died, I’d been raised by my wonderfully foul-mouthed Gram, who didn’t have much better luck with the opposite sex than her daughter or her granddaughter.
“If you wanna be invisible to the male species, you’re gonna have to gain fifty pounds and get a haircut like our friend Heather here,” Jennifer announced with an enormous grin.
“I’m going to ignore that,” Heather said. She scrubbed her hands through her very attractive pixie cut and gave Jennifer the middle finger. “I happen to like my hair and you can shove it up your ass.”
“Ladies, that’s enough,” June, the resident peacemaker, chastised with a giggle. “We need to get back to work. But honestly, Daisy, when was the last time you had a date?”
Her question was asked kindly. These women adored me as much as I adored them, but my personal life was mine—embarrassingly awful and mine. They had worried about me for months after Steve died. It had taken me almost a year to decide that my husband would want me to be a happy person and not mope around for the rest of my life.
It was actually a dream… he’d visited me in a dream. Steve had yelled at me for about an hour. It was awesome. He told me to get a haircut with some fun highlights and stop eating donuts for dinner. My best friend in the world forbade me from wearing sweatpants, t-shirts and flip-flops to the grocery and was appalled at the state of my manicure. I took him up on his bossy advice, but dating was not on the table anymore.
After Hairy CPA Stan of the Small Man-junk, I was done. Plus, I now had my deceased houseguests to deal with. Dead people and dating didn’t go well together.
“I went on a date of sorts last night,” I said. “It sucked and I’m taking a break.”
“Good luck with that,” Jennifer commented evenly as she put six sugars in her coffee. “Every time I make a statement like that, I end up with another husband sucking me dry.”
“Holy crap. Why do you have broken blood vessels around your eyes?” Heather asked with concern as she gently touched Jennifer’s face.
“Botox,” Jennifer replied with an eye roll and a laugh. “Got my alimony check from that bastard Scott and spent it on my face. When the divorce settlement from Bob comes in, I’m thinking about getting the fat sucked out of my ass and thighs.”
Jennifer certainly knew how to render a room silent. Heather just shook her head and sighed. Jennifer was on a self-improvement kick that didn’t include exercise or eating right. All she needed was money—compliments of her exes—and a plastic surgeon.
“Shit hasn’t kicked in yet,” Jennifer went on as she added another overflowing teaspoon of sugar to her coffee. “Got it done five days ago. Don’t think it worked. I’m still as wrinkly as Albert Einstein’s ass after a three-hour bath.”
“Dear God,” June said as she watched Jennifer create her caffeinated sugar rush. “You’re going to get diabetes. You need to use the fake kind.”
“Too many chemicals,” Jennifer told her. She added one more heaping teaspoon of sugar just to watch June blanch. “You can get cancer from that crap.”
“You’re disgusting,” Heather informed Jennifer as she looked on in horrified amazement.
“Thank you,” Jennifer replied with a smirk and a small curtsy. “But back to Daisy…”
Damn. I was hoping to get away without any more character assessments or advice.
“You just need to put yourself back out there and maybe date a guy with tattoos,” Jennifer suggested as she took a sip of her drink and gagged.
Pride made her drink the cup of caffeinated sugar. I laughed as I watched her power it down.
“I’ll take that under consideration,” I promised as I headed for the door.
Maybe taking a week away from my well-meaning coworkers would be a good thing.
Or maybe not.
I’d see them tonight at my birthday dinner. My birthday. My rules.
No discussing Daisy’s love life.
Good luck to me.