I’d been to the diner so many times it felt like a home away from home. If it hadn’t been around for so long I would have thought the name Marge’s was dumb, but who could argue with a place that was as old as my mom?
The familiar scent of fried eggs, baked bread, and pancakes filled the air as we walked in.
Marge had died six or seven years ago. I still remembered her smiling face and the fact that she’d looked like she was a hundred for at least a decade. Now her son stood at the host podium. He wore the same red top and khaki pants as the waiters, only the seam of his red shirt pulled so tight at the buttons it looked like he might burst out of it.
“Hey, kids,” he said. His eyes darted to Echo, and a knowing glance passed between them. I’d given up trying to keep the man from feeding scraps to my cat.
“Hey, Lance,” Wyatt said.
Lance jerked his head. “They’re in the corner.”
“Keeping them corralled again?” I asked.
“They’re you’re parents.”
“It’s hard to raise parents these days,” Wyatt said.
Lance laughed, even though we had almost the same interacting each time we came in, and waved us away so he could help the customers behind us.
Despite it being after noon, the place was still packed with people eating breakfast and chatting. This place made living in a crowded suburb feel like being in a small town. I smiled and waved at several tables of people as we passed. A couple of kids who weren’t regulars pointed and chattered at their parents about the kitty. Echo held his head and tail high.
“Show off,” I muttered.
He neither broke stride or blinked an eye, but glided over the floor like an ice skater in the rink.
Our parent’s table sat as far away from other people as possible. They already had their coffee, and were talking animatedly about politics. Ugh.
Wyatt moved next to me and bumped my arm with his elbow. He did this a lot. I’d noticed he did it with his football buddies too. It meant he was up to something and wanted me to share in his fun. Unfortunately, about a year ago, every touch from him sent a flock of crazed insects aflutter in my stomach.
I’d been practicing keeping a straight face and not holding my breath when he did this. Today I managed both. I deserved a chocolate milk.
“Did you read the article about the guy in New York?”
I nodded. His stupid grin threatened to make me blush, but I valiantly fought it off.
“Ready to help me freak them out?”
I managed a grin of my own—something else I’d been practicing. “Yup.”
“Great.” He patted me on the back.
Why did he do this to me? I averted my eyes and found Echo staring up at me in exasperation. I gave him a not-a-word-out-of-you glare and sat in my usual place next to my mom. Whitney sat across from me, and Wyatt took the end. Because his shoulders were so wide he needed more space. His words, not mine.
Although he wasn’t wrong.
“Sorry we’re late,” Wyatt said. “The girls were slow.”
I rolled my eyes. Whitney kicked him under the table.
This was all part of the ritual.
“How was practice?” my mom asked.
“Long,” I said.
“So long.” Whitney turned so into a three syllable word.
“Are you going to be ready for the performance on Thursday?” Whitney’s mom asked.
“It’ll come together,” I said.
The waitress—Kendra—dropped a chocolate milk in front of me, regular milk in front of Wyatt, and a diet soda in front of Whitney. “The usual?”
We all nodded.
“It’ll be right out.”
“Thanks,” we all said at once.
Kendra gave us a smile, although it looked forced, and rushed off to her next table.
I almost jumped out of my seat when Wyatt tapped my leg with his knee. I think my heart may have actually stopped.
“Here we go,” he muttered as he leaned his elbows on the table. “Hey dad, did you hear about the cannibal in New York?”
Our dads sat at the opposite end of the table, so all conversation had to stop for this one to happen.
“No,” Wyatt’s dad said with wariness in his tone.
Wyatt put on a serious face and repeated what he’d told me. I found myself watching him talk. The way his lips moved. The way his eyes glittered. The way his…
I took a breath.
This was never going to happen. Every girl in school was after Wyatt. He was like my brother. I needed to get over it.
Wyatt was looking at me. Had he caught me staring? No. He was talking about the article. I nodded. His knee hit me again.
I tried to recover. “Uh, yeah, I read about it too. This guy started eating other people, like a crazy zombie or something.”
Wyatt’s mom hated the “z” word. Her disapproving gaze fell on us like a weighted blanket.
Both dad’s pulled their phones out.
“Don’t you dare,” my mom said to my dad.
His eyes darted to me, then to mom, then he put his phone away.
Wyatt’s dad got the same treatment, but asked a question. “Do they have any idea why?”
“I would assume drugs,” my dad said.
“No drugs in his system, according to the article,” Wyatt said. “They’re not sure what happened.”
Both moms sighed.
“It’s true,” I said.
“Do you have to bring this up over brunch?” Wyatt’s mom asked.
“The food isn’t here yet.” Wyatt pointed at the table.
“New subject,” his mother said.
Whitney, who had been looking it up on her phone, frowned. She lowered her voice as our parents started into their latest Netflix obsession. “There have been two more attacks like that.”
“There have?” Wyatt leaned so he could see her phone. “In Texas?”
“Apocalypse?” Wyatt asked with entirely too much glee in his voice.
“You watch too much of that crap,” Whitney said.
“It’s called being prepared.”
Wyatt did watch a lot of apocalyptic shows. I’d never admit it, but anything he said was good I watched too.
“Oh come on, reports of unexplainable behavior all over the country? People eating other people?” Wyatt looked at me for support.
I shrugged. “This is how it starts in the movies.”
Whitney rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
There was one sure way to get Whitney back into the conversation. “If it was happening to us, you’d end up alone with Jason.”
“I would?” Whitney perked up.
“Sure,” Wyatt said. “He’d have to protect you, and you’d have to bash in a few zombie heads with your flute case.”
I wiggled my eyebrows. “Then you’d meet an even more handsome guy and the fabled love triangle would start.”
“Okay, this doesn’t sound so bad.” Whitney laughed. “What about you?”
“It would just be Echo and I. We’d somehow get separated from everyone else and have to survive on our own. Echo would have to learn to pull his weight.” My cat glanced up from my feet at the mention of his name and blinked. “Hear that?” I asked him.
Wyatt leaned back in his chair and stretched. “I’d get stuck with all the beautiful, smart girls who needed a big, tough man to save them.”
“And then die doing something stupid like going to the bathroom alone,” Whitney said.
“Mental note not to go to the bathroom alone.”
“Then the girls would save themselves.”
“Harsh,” Wyatt said.
I shifted my gaze to the rest of the diner. “Although to have a really great start to the show there would need to an attack while we’re here.”
“Right.” Wyatt pointed at me. “Good call. And one of our parents would either be a Navy Seal or work at the CDC.”
“CD-what?” Whitney asked.
“Center for Disease Control,” I said. “They’re the ones who would make a vaccine.”
“Got it.” She glanced at our parents. “They’re not going to be much help.”
We all nodded. Our parent’s occupations included an accountant, a lawyer, a writer, and a software engineer.
Just then Kendra arrived with our food. “This smells divine,” she said. “I’m going to have to take a break to eat soon.” She looked pale. Dark rings had appeared under her eyes.
I muttered my thanks as she set a waffle that reached the edges of the oversized plate in front of me. I automatically picked up the plate and offered it to Echo.
He didn’t even sniff it. Instead, he put his ears back and hissed.
“Uh-oh,” Kendra said. “There shouldn’t be corn in it.”
“That’s not what he does when there’s corn.” I put the plate back on the table and reached down to scratch Echo. “What’s wrong, boy?”
He was tense, and didn’t take his eyes off of Kendra, who was handing out the rest of the food. When she was finished she came back to me. “Do you want me to trade that out?”
“No. Give him a minute and I’ll have him sniff it again.”
“Great, I’ll be back in a few.”
Whitney looked under the table. “He looks pissed.”
“He does.” Wyatt patted Echo on the head. “What’s up, buddy?”
A growl came from his throat.
Wyatt pulled his hand away and looked at me with wide eyes.
“Maybe we need to go outside for a minute.” I grabbed Echo’s leash and stood. “We’ll be right back.”
Echo rose and followed beside me, but his ears didn’t come back up, not even after we stood in the empty handicap stall of the parking lot.
I squatted down. “What’s up, Echo?”
He let out a meow.
That wasn’t normal either.
“You feeling okay?” I swiped my phone to life and found the vet’s number. He said I could call anytime. Just before I hit the button, a man who had been headed for the front door turned and came toward me.
Echo’s fur puffed up, and he hissed.
I took a step back.
“So hungry.” The man’s arms rose out in front of him as if to embrace me.
Had Wyatt sent him out as a joke? I took another step back. “Sir?”
The man growled.
Echo did the same.
My heart raced. “Sir, step back.” I reached for the pepper spray in my purse, but the man was quick. One moment he was ten feet away, the next he grabbed my wrist with both hands, bared his teeth, and lowered them to my forearm.
What do you guys think of the title “A Girl and Her Cat?” LMK