Perhaps denial is the mind's way of protecting the heart from a sucker punch it can't handle. Or maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe denial in the face of overwhelming evidence is a mere byproduct of stubbornness.
Whatever the reason, all I could think standing in the doorway, one hand on the latch and the other trembling on the keys, was, This can't be happening. This can't be how it ends. It's so ... quiet. A dream should make noise when it's dying. It deserves to go out in a tragic blaze of glory. There should be a dramatic death scene, a gasping for breath ... something.
Denise laid a hand on my shoulder, whispered, "Are you all right?" Her voice faded at the end, cracking into jagged pieces.
"No." A hard, bitter tone sharpened the cutting edge on the word. It wasn't aimed at Denise. She knew that. "Nothing about this is all right. Not one single thing."
"Yeah." Resting against the doorframe, she let her neck go slack until her cheek touched the wood. "I'm not sure if it's better or worse to stand here looking at it, though. For the last time, I mean."
"We've put our hearts into this place. ..." Denial reared its unreasonable head again. I would've called it hope, but if it was hope, it was the false and paper-thin kind. The kind that only teases you.
Denise's hair fell like a pale, silky curtain, dividing the two of us. We'd always been at opposite ends of the cousin spectrum — Denise strawberry blonde, pale, and freckled, me dark-haired, blue-eyed, and olive-skinned. Denise a homebody and me a wanderer.
"Whitney, we have to let it go. If we don't, we'll end up losing both places."
"I know. I know you're right." But still a part of me rebelled. All of me rebelled. I couldn't stand the thought of being bullied one more time. "I understand that you're being logical. And on top of that, you have Mattie to think about. And your grandmother. We've got to cut the losses while we can still keep the first restaurant going."
"I'm sorry," Denise choked out. With dependents, she couldn't afford any more risk. We'd already gone too far in this skirmish-by-skirmish war against crooked county commissioners, building inspectors taking backroom payoffs, deceptive construction contractors, and a fire marshal who was a notorious good ol' boy. They were all in cahoots with local business owners who didn't want any competition in this backwater town.
Denise and I should've been more careful to check out the environment before we'd fallen in love with the vintage mill building and decided it would be perfect for our second Bella Tazza location and our first really high-end eatery. Positioned along a busy thoroughfare for tourists headed north to ski or to spend summer vacations in the Upper Peninsula, Bella Tazza 2, with its high, lighted granary tower, was a beacon for passersby.
But in eleven months, we'd been closed more than we'd been open. Every time we thought we'd won the battle to get and keep our occupancy permit, some new and expensive edict came down and we were closed until we could comply. Then the local contractors did their part to slow the process and raise the bills even more.
You're not the one who needs to apologize, I wanted to say to Denise, but I didn't. Instead, I sank onto one of the benches and surveyed the murals Denise and I had painted after spending long days at Bella Tazza 1, in the next county over.
I felt sick all over again.
"The minute we have to give up the lease, they'll move in here." Denise echoed my thoughts the way only a cousin who's more like a big sister can. "Vultures."
"That's the worst part." But it wasn't, really. The worst part was that it was my fault we'd gone this far in trying to preserve Tazza 2. Denise would've surrendered to Tagg Harper and his hometown henchmen long ago. Denise would've played it safe if only I'd let her.
Yet even now, after transferring the remaining food inventory to the other restaurant and listing the equipment and fixtures we could sell at auction, I still couldn't accept what was happening. Somehow, someway, Tagg and his cronies had managed to cause another month's postponement of our case with the state code commission. We couldn't hang on that long with Tazza 2 closed but still racking up monthly bills. This was death, at least for Tazza 2, and if we weren't careful, the financial drain would swallow Tazza 1, leaving our remaining employees jobless.
"Let's just go." Denise flipped the light switch, casting our blood, sweat, and tears into shadow. "I can't look at it anymore."
The click of the latch held a finality, but my mind was churning, my heart still groping for a loophole ... wishing a white knight would ride in at the eleventh hour, brandishing sword and shield.
Instead, there was Tagg Harper's four-wheel-drive truck, sitting in the ditch down by the road. Stalker. He was probably scratching his belly while sipping a brewski and smiling at himself.
"Oh, I hate that man." Denise's teeth clenched over the words. "I'd like to ..."
I couldn't help myself — I took a step in Tagg's direction.
"Whitney, don't get into it with him. There's no telling what he's capable of."
My despair morphed into a feverish anger. I'd never hated anyone the way I hated Tagg Harper.
Denise's hand snaked out and grabbed my jacket. "Don't give him any more satisfaction. It's bad enough that he'll see our equipment on eBay as soon as we post the listings. Jerk. Honest competition with his restaurant, I can handle, but this ..."
"I'd just like to ... walk down there and nail him with a kick to that great big gut of his." The past few months' drama had driven me to think about refresher courses in Tang Soo Do karate, a pastime I'd given up after leaving the high school bullies behind, twenty years ago. I hadn't told Denise, but someone had been prowling around my cabin at night.
As usual, my cousin was focused on the practical, on achieving containment. "We need to concentrate on digging out financially and keeping the first store alive."
"I know." The problem was, I'd been adding things up in my head as we'd made our auction list in the mill building. What we'd get for the supplies and equipment wouldn't even take care of the final utility costs here, much less the legal bills we'd amassed. With the flagging economy and the need to absorb as many Tazza 2 employees as possible into the other restaurant, I wasn't even sure we could make payroll. And we had to make payroll. Our employees were counting on it. They needed to pay their bills too.
Guilt fell hard and heavy, settling stone by stone as we crossed the parking lot. If I hadn't moved back to Michigan five years ago and convinced Denise to start a restaurant with me, she would've still been in a nice, safe teaching job. But I'd been sailing off a big win after quitting an upper management job, opening my own bistro in Dallas, proving it out, and selling it for a nice chunk of change. With four hundred thousand dollars in my pocket, I'd been so sure I had the perfect formula for success. I'd told myself I was doing a good thing for my cousin, helping her escape the constant struggle to single-handedly finance a household, take care of her aging grandmother, and pay for Mattie's asthma care on a teacher's salary.
Denise, I had a feeling, had been hoping that our starting a business together would somehow defeat the wanderlust that had taken me from culinary school to the far corners of the world, opening top-of-the-line kitchens for a multinational restaurant conglomerate.
"See you in the morning, Whit." A quick shoulder-hug and she disappeared into her vehicle, cranking the engine, then crunching across the leftover ice runoff of a polar-vortex winter. Rather than disappearing down the driveway, she stopped at the curb, near Tagg's truck. Through the cold-smoke, I could feel her watching, waiting to be sure I made it to the road without spiraling into a confrontation.
It was so like Denise to look after me. Since her long-ago days as my after-school babysitter, she'd always been fiercely protective. Like the rest of Mom's family, she'd worried that I was stuffing down the aftereffects of my father's death, and that Mom was making a mistake by exposing me to my grandmother on far-away Roanoke Island. It was no secret that Ziltha Benoit held my mother responsible for the untimely loss of her son.
Denise had silently understood all the things I couldn't tell my mom, or anyone — the painful inadequacy that had haunted my childhood, the sense that I could never be good enough, the ridicule in the exclusive private school across town, where Mom's music teaching job came with free tuition for me. The awkwardness of not fitting in with the silver-spoon kids there, even though my last name was Benoit. Denise had always been my oasis of kindness and sage advice — the big sister I never had.
Passing by her car on the way out, I couldn't even look at her. I just bumped down the winter-rutted drive, turned onto the road, and headed toward home, checking once in the mirror to make sure Denise was out of the parking lot too.
Tagg Harper's taillights came on just after her vehicle pulled onto the road. My anger flared with tidal force, and I was starting a U-turn before I even knew what was happening. By the time I made it back to the restaurant, Tagg was positioning his truck in the middle of the parking lot. Our parking lot. The driver's-side door was just swinging open.
I wheeled around and pulled close enough to prevent him from wallowing out. Cold air rushed in my window, a quick, hard, bracing force.
"You even set one foot on this parking lot, Tagg Harper, I'll call the police." Not that the county sheriff wasn't in Tagg's pocket too. Tagg's dumpy pizza joint was the spot where all the local boys gathered for coffee breaks ... if they knew what was good for them.
Lowering his window, he rested a bulky arm on the frame, drawing the door inward a bit. The hinges groaned. "Public parking lot." An index finger whirled lazily in the air. "Heard a little rattle in my engine just now. Thought I'd stop and check it out."
"I'll bet." Of course he wouldn't admit that he wanted to get his meat hooks on this place. He was probably afraid I'd be recording on my cell phone, trying to secure proof of the threats, the bribes to officials and contractors, the constant harassment.
Which was why he was smiling and blinking at me like a ninny now.
"It's my parking lot, until this is all settled. We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. You're not welcome here." Don't back down. Not this time. Don't let him bully you. Gripping the steering wheel tighter, I swallowed hard.
"Heard you were moving out early to save on the rent." His breath drew smoke curls in the frosted air. I smelled beer, as usual. "Expensive to keep a building for no reason."
"Well, you heard wrong, because we've got a hearing with the state code commission in six weeks, and with that little bit of extra time to prepare, there's no way in the world we won't win our case."
His chin receded into wind-reddened rolls of neck fat before he relaxed in his seat, self-assured and smiling. He knew a bluff when he heard one. "It'd be a shame to drag yourself any deeper under ... what with your other business to think about and all."
What did that mean? Bella Tazza 1 was outside the county. There wasn't anything Tagg could do to affect it, other than posting derogatory food reviews online, which he and his peeps had already done.
But he was thinking of something right now. That was clear enough. His tongue snaked out and wet his lips, and then he had the gall to give the mill building a leisurely assessment before turning his attention to me again. "Guess I'll wait until the carcass cools a little more."
Pulling the door closed, he rolled up his window, and then he was gone.
I sat alone in the moon shadow of my dying dream, once again feeling like the little girl who would never be worthy of dreams, the Benoit name, or anything else.
No matter how far I traveled, no matter what I achieved, that girl remained just a few inches beneath the skin.
Right now, she was telling me this was exactly what I deserved.
Rounding icy curves as the headlights glinted against dirty mounds of leftover snow, I had the urge to let go of the wheel, close my eyes, and just stay wherever the car came to rest ... until the cold or carbon monoxide put an end to all of this. In some logical part of my brain, I knew that was an overreaction, but the idea of going broke and taking my cousin with me was unbearable.
There has to be a way out. There has to be something I can do. ...
Yet no miraculous possibilities came to mind during the thirty-minute drive home. Finally, the surface of Lake Michigan glinted through the trees, and I looked toward it seeking the comfort it usually provided. This time, all I could see was a vision of myself, floating cold and silent beneath the surface.
Stop. That. The words in my head were a reprimand, strong and determined like my mother's voice. You are not your father.
But occasionally over the years, I had wondered — was there, inside me, the same demon that had taken him from us before I was six years old, leaving me to remember him as a feeling, a snatch of sound, a mist of memory?
Could I, without seeing it ahead of time, come to a place where giving up seemed the best option?
How was the thought even possible for me, knowing firsthand the pain a decision like that leaves behind? Knowing what happens in the aftermath when a person you love enters the cold waters and swims out to sea with no intention of returning to shore?
Someone should tell the dead that saving the living isn't as simple as leaving a note to say, It's no one's fault. For the living, it's always someone's fault.
Turning onto the cabin road, I cleared my head and felt the tears beginning to come, seeking to cleanse. Tears seemed like the only thing I had left. They swelled and pounded in my throat as I drew closer to the little lake cabin that had been home since I'd moved back to Michigan. Fortunately, Mrs. Doyne, who lived in the house out front, kept her cabin rentals at 1950s prices. She was more interested in having responsible, long-term tenants than in making money off the property.
Dressed in her nightgown and probably ready to turn in, she waved from behind a picture window as I passed by the house. One of her ever-present crossword puzzles dangled in her hand.
I had the random realization that even Mrs. Doyne would be hurt if I lost myself beneath the lake's quiet surface. Get your act together, Whitney Monroe, she'd probably say. Life goes on. Mrs. Doyne had survived the death of her husband of fifty years, her one true love. She worked in her gardens, volunteered all over the area, and mentored a Girl Scout troop. She had the best attitude of any person I'd ever met and it went all the way through to the core. She was fearless, always up for a new adventure.
There had been a time when I'd thought that if I kept up the facade long enough on the outside, I'd become that on the inside, too. I'd opened world-class kitchens, driven others to maintain the pace, never let myself get rattled when a newbie on a hot line scorched a sauce or a waiter dropped a tray. I'd dealt with corporate higher-ups who weren't much different from Tagg Harper — bloated, self-important personalities bent on showing the world how special they were. I handled things well. I had things under control.
But what I'd never been faced with, what I'd avoided my entire adult life, was the very thing that had been squeezing me dry these past months. I'd never allowed someone else's wellbeing to depend on my own. Even during a short marriage that had both begun and ended with disaster, I'd maintained my own finances, kept my own life, and so had David. Both of us seemed to prefer it that way. I'd never been faced with the knowledge that my choices, my actions, my failure would destroy another person's life.
Turning off the car, I rested my head against the steering wheel as the cold needled through the windows and the engine's chugs settled to dull metallic pings. A sob wrenched the air and I heard it before I felt it.