Her Scream in the Silence – Denise Grover Swank

“Carly! Order up!” “You made sure to leave off the mustard and lettuce?” I asked Tiny, the ginormous cook at Max’s Tavern, smiling to soften my question. “The customer made it very clear he’d be taking it out of our tips if we get it wrong.” Tiny placed his hand on the service counter and leveled his gaze with mine. “I can read a ticket.” “I guess it’s not you I’m necessarily worried about.” I gave a slight nod to the woman struggling to flip a burger on the grill. Tiny had hired the new cook a few days after Bitty, who’d worked under his supervision for years, was shot and killed just outside of the tavern. She’d sold information about me to a man who’d intended to murder me, and he’d immediately turned around and double-crossed her. Despite the steep price she’d paid, Tiny and the rest of the staff saw her action as a bitter betrayal. Once you were accepted at Max’s, you were family. And family never turned on each other. After my own father’s betrayal, I knew that was nothing but a sweet lie. Tiny rolled his eyes. “Sugar didn’t have a thing to do with this order.” Sugar was the nickname he’d given her, and we’d all taken to using it even though I was fairly certain that her real name was Phyllis.

Tiny plopped another plate on the counter. “But she had her hands all over this one. You can give it to Jerry.” Jerry was a regular at the tavern, and he lived on a very fixed income. I’d learned on my first night that the staff always tried to feed him something extra on the sly, a habit I’d quickly embraced. We’d give him something he hadn’t ordered and claim it had been a kitchen screwup. But there had been dozens of actual screwups a day since Sugar had started, and Jerry had gained a good five pounds. “I already gave him a lunch.” “Well, see if he wants this one too.” Sighing, I picked up both plates.

“Jerry might actually put some meat on his bones if we keep this up.” Tiny shot a glare at the woman behind the grill. If Max, the owner of the place, didn’t fire her soon, I suspected Tiny would take matters into his own hands and do it himself. Rumor had it that Max had hired her as a favor to someone, but no one seemed to know whom. If Max wasn’t careful, he just might lose the best fry cook this side of the Smoky Mountains. I carried the plates to the dining room. We’d reached the end of the lunch rush, thank goodness, and the space was starting to empty out. Jerry sat at the bar, and I gave him his food first, cringing as I slid the plate in front of him. “Jerry—” “How many mistakes can that woman make?” Jerry asked in a whisper. I made a face.

“Apparently a lot of them.” “Why doesn’t Tiny fire her?” he asked, using his fork to turn over the tortilla-wrapped object on his plate. “You mean Max?” He shot me an irritated look. “Everyone knows Tiny runs the kitchen and Ruth runs the dining room. Max just sits behind the bar and looks good.” I smothered a laugh—I’d never heard Jerry say something so blunt—and Max, who had been standing behind the draft handles, popped his head up. “Somebody say something about me?” Max Drummond was one fine-looking man and he knew it. Thick blond hair, hazel eyes, and an infectious laugh. He was the good-time guy behind the bar and, rumor had it, between the sheets. Although I hadn’t seen him with a single woman since I’d shown up in town at the beginning of November, he was supposedly something of a ladies’ man.

Ruth liked to bring up all his past indiscretions and rub his nose in them, something he tolerated with good humor. He was only twenty-nine and had plenty of time before he had to worry about settling down…unless he went through the entire under-forty female demographic in the Smoky Mountain town of Drum, Tennessee, before he reached that stage. But my intuition told me that the smooth-talking charmer would still get his pick of girlfriends past. But now he’d turned his attention to Jerry. “You talkin’ about me?” Three weeks ago, Jerry would have likely hung his head and shied away. But he had recently taken a stand against a man who’d bullied him, and doing so had brought back some of his confidence. He put his fork down and stared Max in the eye. “Phyllis is terrible in the kitchen. You need to fire her.” Max and I both stared at him with dropped jaws.

“What?” we asked simultaneously. “Hey,” my cranky customer asked from across the room. “Am I gonna get my food here?” Great. Mr. Fancy Pants had noticed me dawdling with Jerry while holding his plate of food. Given my short interaction with him, I should have known to serve him first. Within thirty seconds of walking in, he’d grabbed my arm and pulled me away from a table of customers. In a condescending tone, he’d asked about the VIP dining area, as if we might have a secret back room to separate rich people from the riffraff. With a chuckle, I’d told him this was as good as it got. He’d taken a table in the middle and asked for a fresh cloth to wipe down the table and chairs as if the place were dirty instead of very wellworn.

I’d obliged, but his attitude had made me spitting mad. Truth was, I dreaded waiting on him. His expensive dress shirt and pants, silk tie, and Italian leather loafers all screamed that he wasn’t from around here, and he wore a perpetual smirk that reinforced that he thought he was too good for our tavern. He reminded me of the people who’d populated my past. I set his plate in front of him, stretching my smile as wide as possible and forcing a cheery tone. “Here you go, sir. A cheeseburger with no mustard or lettuce, with a side of fries.” His dyed black hair was slicked back, and his face was clean-shaven. There was a hint of crow’s feet around his eyes, but something about his forehead suggested he was a frequent Botox customer. “They’re cold,” he said, staring up at me with narrowed eyes.

I tried not to shudder. “You didn’t even try them yet,” I said in a forced teasing tone, pretending to be oblivious to his insults. He didn’t take his hard gaze from mine, and I realized we were in one of those staring contests my third-grade students had loved to challenge one another to back when I lived another life—the first one who blinked lost. I knew I should just take his plate back to the kitchen and get a fresh order of fries —“The customer is always right” was the first rule of waiting tables—but I also knew they were still hot enough to burn his tongue. Mr. Fancy Pants got off on scaring people with his thousand-dollar clothes and arrogant attitude. He liked to see people run off with their tails tucked between their legs, but Charlene Moore didn’t have a tail to tuck, and I was all out of patience with rich people trying to intimidate and destroy me. I let my smile fall. “Those fries are just fine. You don’t scare me with your condescension.

What are you gonna do? Walk out without paying? I’ll just give your meal to someone who’ll appreciate it.” I should have kept my mouth shut, but he reminded me of my oil baron father and the assholes in his entourage. I might not be strong enough to face Randall Blakely, but I could definitely stand up to this prick. The man continued to glare at me, but his face was starting to turn red. I cocked my head to the side to show how unimpressed I was with his temper. “I see you’ve met my son’s new waitress,” a man said from behind me. Mr. Fancy Pants broke eye contact to glance at the man who was now sliding into the seat across from him. The silver-haired man wasn’t dressed as well as his dining partner, but he made up for it in arrogance and attitude. Bart Drummond was wearing a button-down dress shirt, with his sleeves rolled up to his forearms.

It gave the impression he’d been working hard, but what he’d been doing was anyone’s guess. The Drummonds had founded Drum over two hundred years ago, but the town had fallen on hard times. Between the shuttering of their lumber yard, the legalization of moonshine, and the loss of their tourist industry after the state park system relocated the entrance to a popular trail down to Balder Mountain, Drum was hurting and hurting bad. According to the locals, Bart Drummond’s shine had begun to tarnish. This was the first time I’d seen Max’s father darken the tavern’s door. “Carly,” Bart said without bothering to look at me, “could you bother yourself to get me a glass of tea and one of Tiny’s world-famous burgers?” Then he turned to his lunch partner and said, “Good to see you, Neil. Did you have any trouble finding the place?” Anger seethed inside of me. He’d dismissed me as though I were hired help. Okay, so I was hired help, but no one enjoyed being treated like dirt. Besides, he had to know I was dating Wyatt, his older son.

They were estranged, but it was a small town. Everyone knew. As I headed to the service counter, I cast a glance at Max, who had been watching our exchange with worried eyes, although I wasn’t sure what or whom he was worried about. His father? Me? I hung up the ticket, still keeping an eye on the two men in the dining room. It looked like Bart was having a business lunch…but at Max’s Tavern? Then again, there wasn’t really anywhere nicer to eat in this one-stop-sign town. Although Watson’s Café, a block down, nearly had us beat. “The fact you’re not carrying a plate of food back must mean your cranky customer didn’t have any complaints,” Tiny called over from the grill. “He’s fine,” I lied. “But this is an order for Bart Drummond himself. Said he wants one of your world-famous burgers.

” Tiny rushed to the counter, much nimbler than I would have expected from a six-footfour, two-hundred-and-eighty-pound man. He peered through the opening, trying to get a view of the dining room. “Bart Drummond is here?” “So it is unusual?” I asked. “I ain’t seen him in here in years. Not since Max bought the place. Used to see him a lot when Wyatt was runnin’ things.” I did a double take. “What?” He shot me a look of surprise. “You didn’t know Wyatt used to run the bar?” “Yeah,” I said. “I knew that part.

I’m referring to the part about Bart comin’ in all the time when Wyatt was in charge.” “Wyatt used to be a daddy’s boy, through and through. Then the incident happened and… well, they had their falling-out.” Except I’d heard two different versions of the timeline. Wyatt had told me he’d fallen out with his father before he was arrested for a DUI and breaking and entering. In fact, he’d been caught trying to steal back a baseball his father had sold out from under him out of spite. Still, most of the townsfolk seemed to think the divide between father and son had come afterward. I had yet to learn the truth. My past made it hard for me to trust men. My first week in town had been an intense whirlwind, and Wyatt and I had gotten caught up in it, and in each other.

Maybe a bit too quickly given everything that had happened. I’d been plagued with nightmares and anxiety after Seth’s funeral. So much so that Wyatt had convinced me that we should take a week to process everything before discussing our plan to reveal our fathers’ crimes. And at the end of that first week, he’d suggested that we wait another week just to enjoy each other’s company. I’d resisted. My father had destroyed my mother and my former life, and from the sound of it, Bart Drummond wasn’t much better. Besides, Wyatt knew so much more about me than I did about him, and all the things I didn’t know felt like a barrier between us. But my bluster hadn’t come to anything. Wyatt had taken my hand and quietly told me that Hank had heard me screaming the night before, and that had been enough to make me cave. Thanksgiving had been that week too, and since it had been Hank’s first holiday without Seth, I’d wanted to make it special.

Max went to their parents for dinner, but Wyatt joined Hank and me for turkey, dressing, and all the fixings, with a few diabetic-friendly recipes sprinkled in. Wyatt and I had agreed to talk over the weekend, but then he’d found out about an auction in Virginia. A couple of tow trucks would go on the block, and the opportunity was too good to be missed, even though he’d offered to do just that. I’d encouraged him to go, even though it hurt a little to do it. We’d talked on the phone a few times, but there’d been a Wyatt-sized hole in my days. Last night, he’d called to say he’d won his bid on a tow truck and would be back in Drum by early evening. He was coming to Hank’s after I got off at midnight. My stomach fluttered in anticipation, and I felt like a high school girl with a crush—an unsettling feeling I’d be a whole lot happier with once he gave me some solid information about his past and his father. A couple sitting by the window set their napkins down, so I hurried over to deliver their bill. Just as we settled up, a group of road crew guys came in and sat near the bigscreen TV that was perpetually tuned to a sports channel.

Franklin Tate—known as Tater to most of his friends—was with them. Franklin lived with Ruth, Max’s other waitress, in a trailer a few miles up the road from where I was living, but they were secretly looking for a house to purchase. Max kept casting glances in my direction as I dealt with them. I knew he wanted me to come over, probably so he could grill me about his father, but I was the only on-duty waitress, and I was currently servicing eight tables. I wondered why he didn’t go over himself. Not long after I served Bart his food, he and his guest left—Bart’s burger barely touched—without waiting for the check. I was about to rant to Max about his father dining and dashing, but then I noticed the two twenty-dollar bills on the table, plus a note written on the back of a business card. Maybe waitressing isn’t a good fit for you. Steamed, I flipped the card over and read, Neil Carpenter, Synergy Group , with a Nashville address. Had Mr.

Fancy Pants written the note, or had Bart? And was it wrong for me to pocket the overpayment on the bill without remorse? They’d left a twenty-plus-dollar tip. My only regret was that I hadn’t had an opportunity to eavesdrop on their conversation. Max came over to bus the table just as I was about to leave to check on Franklin’s group. “What did my father want?” “He was here for a power lunch.” I started to pocket the business card, but Max snatched it out of my hand. “What’s my father up to this time?” he asked with a frown as he read the front. “You’d think he’d be lying low after his right-hand man tried to set up an illegal drug business.” His right-hand man, Carson Purdy, was the one who’d killed Bitty. He’d tried to silence me because I’d witnessed the murder of a teenage boy who’d had proof of what he and his accomplices were planning—a coup to unseat the local drug dealer, Todd Bingham. They’d been running a new drug from Atlanta to seal the deal, and Seth Chalmers, the boy they’d killed after he caught them in the act.

Todd Bingham and Bart Drummond were vying for the title of Most Important Man in Drum, Tennessee, although most people thought Bart still wore the crown, mostly because his dealings were aboveboard, while Bingham’s were all illegal. I wasn’t so sure about that, but it was common knowledge that Bart’s large donations to the sheriff’s department had likely helped clear him of any wrongdoing in the whole Carson Purdy episode. “Carly?” Max prodded gently. “You know what they say. No rest for the wicked.” Worry filled his eyes. “Carly.” I was still having nightmares about everything that had happened, from witnessing poor Seth’s murder to the final showdown with Carson, and everything in between. I’d had plenty of dealings with Bingham, owing to his personal investment in the whole mess, and he’d frightened me nearly as much as being held at gunpoint. But Max didn’t need to hear that.

He seemed to feel guilty, as if he were at fault for putting me up in his motel that first night. So I just waved him off and headed for Franklin’s table. As I walked away, I noticed frown lines on his forehead. He was reading the note disparaging my waitressing skills. If Bart Drummond wanted to insult me with twenty-dollar tips, he was free to do so every day of the week and twice on Sunday. “How’s everyone doin’?” I asked Franklin’s group when I went to check on them. Like most places, Drum was home to an assortment of people, and Franklin’s co-workers were the good kind. “Can I get y’all anything else? Refills? Should I save y’all pieces of Miss Patsy’s pie? I gotta warn you—they’re goin’ fast.” While Tiny was a great grill cook, he’d left the baking to Bitty. Without her around to make dessert, Max had gotten Miss Patsy, the Methodist preacher’s spinster sister, to start making daily pies for us, and they had been a hit.

Tinker, a man in his forties, leaned back in his chair and rubbed his belly. “I sure as Pete can’t pass up a piece of Miss Patsy’s pie.” “We’ve got pumpkin, apple crisp, and pecan today. Miss Patsy seems to be in a fall kind of mood.” Each of the men ordered a slice of pie along with a scoop of ice cream. I was about to head to the back with the ticket when the front door opened. The woman who walked in was tiny—barely five feet tall—and her platinum blonde hair was in two braids that hung a few inches past her shoulders. She had a youthful face with doe eyes, and she was wearing jeans and a bohemian-style blue shirt. A duffel bag was slung over her shoulder. Max stopped in his tracks when he saw her, his arms full of dirty dishes, a scowl crossing his face.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Tinker said, sitting up straighter. Franklin had stilled as well, casting me a worried glance. “Lula’s back.” Which meant I was out of a job. C H A P T E R T W O I’d known this job was temporary, but somehow I’d shoved that fact in the back of my mind. Max had always promised me that he’d keep me around when or if Lula returned, but the tavern wasn’t busy enough for three full-time waitresses. Lula turned her attention to me, her already large blue eyes widening. “You replaced me, Max?” The look in Max’s eyes softened just a touch. Lula’s flightiness was legendary— apparently she’d come and gone too many times to count, usually with no notice—and this last time, she’d gone off to Chattanooga with a truck driver who’d delivered food supplies for Tiny. Max had threatened to not take Lula back, saying she’d left one time too many, but the customers loved her.

They’d only warmed up to me because Max and I had both assured them I was temporary. Panic started to bloom in my chest. I was living under an alias and my father had a five-hundred-thousand-dollar bounty on my head disguised as a reward for my safe return. Wyatt—the only person in Drum who knew I’d been born Caroline Blakely—had convinced me that Drum was one of the safest places I could be…previous murder attempts notwithstanding. He had a point—it was a land lost in time with limited access to internet and even spottier cell phone coverage. It also had absolutely no CCTV cameras. Besides which, the people made me want to stay. Nevertheless, I had to earn my keep, and Drum wasn’t exactly overflowing with jobs. “He didn’t replace you,” I said with a wide smile. I stepped closer and offered her my hand.

“I’m Carly Moore. I’ve been filling in for you.” She glanced down at my hand, but instead of taking it, she wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into a tight embrace. “Well, aren’t you the sweetest thing!” Max still stood to the side, and when she released me, she turned and gave him a soft smile. “Hey, Max.” “Don’t ‘hey, Max,’ me,” he said, trying to sound gruff, but it came out forced. “You walked out on us, Lula. You left us in a bind. Again.” “I know,” she said, casting her gaze on the floor.

“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” “Just because you came back doesn’t mean you still have a job. Carly has busted her ass to take up the slack for you. It doesn’t seem fair to punish her just because you decided to drop in for another month or two before you take off again,” he said in a harsh tone, but I saw the indecision flickering on his face. He was still holding the dirty plates, so I took them from him. “Maybe you should have this conversation in the back.” I nodded to the table of road crew guys, who were openly staring in curiosity and shock. Franklin looked plain worried. “Good idea,” Max said.

His mouth turned down and he led the way, leaving Lula to follow. “Hey, Lula,” one of the guys said as she walked by, lifting a hand in greeting. “Good to have you back,” Tinker said. And that was when I knew I’d lost my job. If Max fired Lula, half the men in town would treat me like a pariah. They’d revolt and start going to Watson’s. Max shot them a frown as he kept walking, but Lula waved. “Hey, Billy. Hey, Tinker and Tater, good to see you.” Then she disappeared into the back.

I took the dirty plates to the tray Tiny liked us to dump them in and handed in the ticket for the guys’ pies. I waited on another table, then picked up the pie order and headed back to Franklin’s table. “Here you go, gentlemen,” I said in a friendly tone as I set the plates in front of them. “Would anyone like some coffee? It’ll warm you up before you head back out in the cold.” Billy looked up at me. “What’s gonna happen to you now that Lula’s back?” “Don’t you worry about me, Billy,” I said, forcing a smile. “The good news is that Lula’s back and everyone’s happy.” Franklin frowned and got up from his seat. “That coffee sounds pretty good, Carly. How about I come back and help you get the cups?” Franklin knew I was capable of bringing it all out, but I wasn’t surprised he wanted to follow me.

“Ruth will put this to rights,” he said under his breath as we walked to the back together. “Don’t you worry.” I shook my head and willed my eyes to stop stinging. “We all knew I started out as a temporary replacement.” I turned and offered him a tight smile. “I was lucky this lasted as long as it did.” He leaned closer. “This is bullshit, Carly. You work circles around that girl. She lollygags around, leaving Ruth to pick up the slack.

” He straightened back up and shook his head. “It ain’t right, and Ruth won’t get rid of you to keep her.” I placed a hand on Franklin’s arm and held his gaze. “It’s gonna be all right.” But I had to wonder what Max would do. I wasn’t sure there was a right answer here. Lula might not be a great worker, but the patrons loved her, and their loyalty mattered to the establishment. Max stomped out of his office, Lula following on his heels, and stopped in front of me. “Carly, can I speak to you in my office?” I shot a quick glance at Lula, who kept her gaze on the floor. That wasn’t a good sign.

“Sure,” I said, pressing a hand to my stomach to quell my nerves. I trailed behind him into the room I was sure used to be an oversized closet at one point. He grabbed his office chair and turned it to face the door. “Have a seat,” he said, gesturing toward it. I did as he instructed, saying, “Nothing good ever came out of those three words.” His lips were pressed into a thin line as he shut the door and sat on the edge of the desk, staring down at me. “I’m takin’ Lula back.” My head bobbed as my mind raced. What would I do for work? “I don’t want to, but I’m between a rock and a hard place, Carly,” he said in frustration. “Half of my customers love her to pieces.

” “I know, Max,” I assured him. “They were worried I might be taking her place, and we both assured them I wasn’t.” I gave him a tight smile. “I can’t be makin’ a liar out of the both of us.” “The thing is,” he said. “I doubt she’ll stick around. The girl has serious wanderlust. She’ll be here for a month or two and run off again. I don’t want to lose you in the meantime. I know it’s not fair to ask, but would you stick around anyway? I’ll have to cut your hours, but I’ll be sure to have all three of you work on Monday and Thursday nights.

And I’ll put you on Wednesday lunch shift. We both know that’s the best one.” He grimaced and leaned forward. “There’s just not enough business for three full-time waitresses.” Didn’t I know it. “What choice do I have?” I said with a chuckle. I doubted any other employment opportunities would present themselves. I was still living with Hank Chalmers, helping provide him with medical care and cooking his meals in exchange for room and board, so at least I didn’t have many bills. The only regular expenses I had were the gas it took to get to work and back—Wyatt had fixed up Hank’s car for me to use—and food that I bought for the household. I could make it work.

I stood and put my hand on Max’s arm. “Don’t look so worried. I’ll be fine.” “Maybe Wyatt can help you out.” My back stiffened. “I’ll be just fine,” I said in a tight voice as I dropped my arm. His brows lifted. “Are you and Wyatt havin’ problems? I haven’t seen him around this last week.” “No,” I said, taking a step back, a nearly impossible task given the room was about six feet wide. “But I don’t need a man to take care of me.

I can take care of myself.” Max grimaced. “I didn’t mean…” “I know what you meant,” I said. “And I appreciate you being so worried about me, but I promise I’ll be fine. We’ll find a way to make it work. When does Lula start?” “Tonight—if that’s okay. With it bein’ Thursday and all, I figured there’d be enough tips to spread round.” But we’d all end up with less money at the end of the night. “I should have just fired her ass,” Max said dejectedly. “We both know you couldn’t do that,” I said, offering him a more genuine smile than before.

“Business would likely suffer, and then all of us would be hurting.” “I’m not takin’ her back full-time. I’m makin’ her share some of her hours with you,” he said. “I’ll take whatever I can get,” I said. “I’m just grateful to still be here. I like workin’ with y’all too much to leave.” “I meant it when I told you that you’re one of us, Carly,” he said, his voice tight. “You fit right in. Lula’s a flirt, so she’s popular with the customers, but she’s never been interested in getting too close to us. She comes in and does her job and leaves.

We don’t know much about her. It’s like she’s guardin’ a lockbox full of secrets.” I ducked my head to hide my shame. I had plenty of secrets I was guarding too, but I knew what he meant. I might have only been a part of the Max’s Tavern crew for a few weeks, but Max, Ruth, Tiny, and I had been through hell together. They’d stood by me through the entire nightmare, offering me shelter, comfort, and friendship. I felt a loyalty to them that went bone-deep, yet I still couldn’t tell them the truth about my background. Like the fact that my father had planned to marry me off to my lifelong best friend turned betrayer, but only so said best friend could be his successor in an illegal enterprise. After the wedding, they’d planned to have me killed in an accident no one would question. Although I was fairly certain the freak accident was off the table now.

Having given the matter some thought, I suspected they’d use my disappearance to make me look unstable. They’d still want to kill me, but they’d probably make it look like an OD. Or suicide. “We all have our crosses to bear,” I said. “I better get back out there. I think Franklin and his crew are probably ready for their checks.” No one had gotten them that coffee, unless Tiny had given it directly to Franklin, but I suspected they’d forgotten about it in the excitement. I headed for the door and Max called out, “Carly?” Stopping with my hand on the doorknob, I glanced over my shoulder. “I meant what I said about you being family. Thanks for being so awesome about all of this.

.

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