Crocket’s cold nose nudged his master’s hand. The dog always sensed when Josiah was unhappy.
“What is it boy?” Josiah moved his hand from the gearshift of the truck to the dog’s head, scratching behind his ears.
Country music from the radio grated at his nerves, so he turned it off. Everything got on his nerves lately. Ever since Abigail told him what Nathan Bates had done, Josiah felt like he was going to jump out of his own skin. No matter how hard he tried not to think about it, it was always lurking around the edge of his mind. Only a drink or two . . . or three or four, if he was honest . . . could settle him down, but then he had to put up with his mother hounding him the next day.
His mother’s nagging was the reason he was driving to the diner for breakfast instead of eating at the farm. If he ate on his own, he could avoid her entirely until lunch, when the morning’s sweat and grime dulled the stink of alcohol oozing from his pores.
The gravel of the parking lot crunched beneath his tires as Josiah maneuvered his truck into a space between two cars. The food at the diner wasn’t anything to write home about, but they always seemed to be busy. In a town with few options, people took what they could get.
Josiah walked toward the door, Crocket close at his heels. “Go lay down, Boy,” Josiah pointed to an old church pew positioned under the plate glass window. Obediently, the dog trotted to his normal spot, and flopped down in the sunshine.
The bell on the door tinkled as Josiah walked in, but no one noticed. The diner was abuzz with conversation and the low drone of the radio that was always on in the kitchen.
“Hey, there, Josiah.” Patti Freytag, the original owner of the diner, still worked as a waitress, even after turning over the business to her son. Dressed in faded blue jeans and a man’s flannel shirt, she was as much a part of the décor as the old jukebox that quit working when Josiah was eight years old.
“Hey, Miss Patti,” Josiah returned the greeting.
Nodding toward a booth just behind her, Patti said, “Have a seat. I’ll get you some coffee and a menu.”
“Thank you,” Josiah said softly, taking a seat.
“Ezra’s here,” Patti called over her shoulder on her way to the kitchen. “You should say ‘hey.’”
Josiah scanned the room, finally spotting the man in a corner booth with three other men, all younger than him and all with Bibles laid open in front of them.
Patti came back, poured black coffee into his mug and said, “That’s his prayer group. They’ll be done in a minute. I’ll tell Ezra to come keep you company.” Before Josiah could respond, she asked, “What’ll it be?”
“Pancakes and a side of bacon.”
When Patti returned to the kitchen, Josiah turned his attention back to Ezra Shepherd—Patti’s brother and Josiah’s former Cub Scout leader and baseball coach. Other than his hair being a little bit grayer, Ezra hadn’t changed much in the years since Josiah was a kid. He still wore a full beard and his dark brown hair parted neatly on the side.
Josiah was halfway finished with his breakfast when Ezra slid into the other side of the booth. “Josiah Jackson! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you. Where’ve you been keeping yourself, Son?”
Josiah swallowed a mouthful of pancakes before responding, “It’s been a long time.” He couldn’t help but smile. “I’ve been on the farm, mostly; working for my daddy now.”
“How do you like farming?”
“It’s a living,” Josiah answered. “How are you doing? How’s Maggie?”
“I’m just fine,” Ezra smiled, crinkling the corners of his dark blue eyes. “And Maggie’s just as gorgeous as ever. That woman’s the light of my life.”
Josiah smiled. Maggie Shepherd had suffered a massive stroke in her early twenties, not long after she had married Ezra, leaving her confined to a wheelchair and unable to use the left side of her body. For a while, the people of Little River held their collective breath as they waited to see if Ezra would return his young bride to her family. Instead, they watched the young man dote on his wife, caring for her every need when he was home, and paying a private nurse to care for her in his absence. Unable to have children of his own, Ezra spent his thirties and forties as a Scout leader and Little League coach. When Maggie’s health began to decline, he had to turn over his coaching duties to someone else.
“You leading Bible studies now?” Josiah asked.
“Of a sort,” the older man replied. “I meet with those fellas once a week. We mostly talk, but we read a few Scriptures together, too.”
Josiah nodded as he forked a piece of pancake into his mouth.
“I’ve not seen you at church in a while.” Ezra’s gaze was just as piercing as when Josiah was a kid on his team. “You mad at your brother-in-law or something?”
“Nah.” Josiah shook his head. “Jonathan’s a good guy, as far as preachers go. I’m just not much for church-going.” He shrugged. “I’d rather be in the woods.”
Ezra looked thoughtful before saying, “I’m just gonna tell you, Son. You look a little rough. You doin’ alright?”
Josiah’s heart clenched in his chest. “You sound like Mama.”
“She worried about you, is she?”
Josiah shrugged and looked at his plate. “She’s always worrying about something, whether there’s any reason to or not.”
“My guess is there’s reason to,” Ezra replied. “Want to talk about it?”
“No, thanks,” Josiah declined. “I’m fine. Really.”
“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me.” Ezra started to stand, but paused and said, “I’ll be praying for you.”
Josiah nodded, and watched the older man walk away. He’d be put off by Ezra’s prayers if he didn’t know he needed them so much.
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, The Society of Classical Poets, and various other literary journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention for her short story “A Slow Burn” at the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society’s annual convention. She also received the Springs of Helicon Award for Poetry, awarded by Tennessee Wesleyan University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.