An Oakton Short Story by Sally Crosiar
The first time Darcy saw Luke, she was looking for the girls bathroom at an away basketball game. Her dad was so focused on her brother Danny running up and down the court, he didn’t hear her when she said she had to pee. Four times. So she scooted down the bleacher seat till she got to the steps, held onto the railing like her mama told her and set off to find relief.
But the Denton middle school was bigger than where she went to kindergarten. It was confusing. Should she take this hallway or that one? Which way should she go? If she didn’t find a restroom soon, she’d be in trouble.
A boy came barreling around a corner. “Hey. You lost or something?”
Darcy nodded, suddenly feeling shy. He was a big kid. Like the big kids Danny played ball with.
He grinned. “Uh-oh. You need the girls’ room?”
She couldn’t help a giggle. “Quick! I really gotta go…”
“Right this way!” He shepherded her to the door around the corner. “Tada!”
“My hero!” It was something her mother said to her dad. And now she’d picture a boy with a crooked grin whenever Mom said it.
Cute kid, Luke thought. But there was a game in the gym, pizza and a sleepover at Whip’s, the 4-H bake-off. He had a lot going on. No time to dwell on a cute kid who had to pee.
He wasn’t the only one. Darcy had a whole world to learn about, a clubhouse to build at her best friend’s farm, bikes, ballet, playdates, spats with Danny – which she usually won even if he was older and bigger.
Scott Patterson’s funeral. Her best friend’s brother. The nice one. Poor Kat. Right before they’d start fourth grade. Danny could be a royal pain in the butt, the way he teased. But she couldn’t imagine how awful it would be if he died. The whole family went to the funeral. Because of Kat and because Danny had played football with Scott.
That’s where she saw the boy with the crooked grin again. She almost didn’t recognize him, he was so tall. A football player, she guessed since he hung around Danny’s teammates. Goons, she thought. The whole lot of them. All that shuffling of enormous feet. Huddling together like they couldn’t think for themselves. Who cared? Not her. She was there to look out for Kat. That’s what mattered.
Like it or not, Darcy’s next few months seemed all about football. Her family went to all of Danny’s games. And it seemed like somebody on the team was at their house all the blessed time. Such awful teases. Luke James was one of the worst. She might like his grin, but he was still a goon – wolfing pounds of spaghetti with the others before a game or snarfing pizza after. Some of Darcy’s school friends thought it must be glamorous, all those cute high school boys around. But the smell of sweaty socks and glamor were at two ends of a spectrum in her opinion.
No, Darcy had no time for goons when her friend was hurting. Kat’s Gram and Darcy – the two of them formed a pact – look out for Kat and keep her busy. Help her be happy again. Gram taught the friends to sew aprons and bake coffee cakes they’d enter in the 4-H Fair next summer and encouraged them to study together because Kat was better at history, Darcy at math. Gram sent them out to their clubhouse when it came time to practice boy-band lyrics and dance moves. Fun, goon-free times both girls loved.
When Danny graduated, the football team moved on to forage at somebody else’s house to Darcy’s relief. But her life didn’t slow down. Roving through Kat’s timber, camp, the fair, swim parties in summer. School, clubs, first crushes, dance class, clarinet practice, and a tougher time making the honor roll.
High school brought even more adventures as Oakton, Denton, and town kids all mixed together for the first time since kindergarten. New people, new clubs, new ways to have fun. Darcy joined the French Club and tried out for the volleyball team. Kat had too many farm chores for such things, but they rode the bus and ate lunch together every day. Darcy made sure of that.
But they could have so much more fun together if Darcy only had a car. So she got a job as soon as she was old enough, first bussing and then waiting tables two evenings a week at the Lodge. Imagine her surprise when a year later, she saw a familiar crooked grin behind the grill in the kitchen.
“Well, would you look at that! Little Darcy all grown up. Hey cutie.” Would he ever stop tugging her ponytail?
“Luke James. What are you doing here?”
“Assistant chef. Working my way up.”
“You, a cook? There go my tips.”
“Hardy har. You get these gorgeous plates out to your table and listen hard. They’ll tell you.” The teasing tone was as familiar as the grin. “I bet they’ll double your tip, my food’s so good.”
She snorted. “That’ll be the day.” She tossed her ponytail with extra sass as she grabbed the plates and headed back to the table. It was just a fortunate thing that she could walk so fast because three fingers on each hand raised burn blisters before she could set those plates down before her customers. Dang, they were hot!
But of course, she couldn’t let on, couldn’t let Luke get the upper hand. Oh no. She smiled through the pain, and if she wore bandaids the rest of the week, he just didn’t need to know. Didn’t need to hear those compliments from her customers either. Not every time. She wouldn’t want his head to get big.
She liked her job more than she expected, liked the atmosphere at the Lodge – relaxed, but attentive, liked the people, loved the wheels her tips and a loan from Dad got her. By senior year, two nights a week turned into three. Between her AP courses, the job, and a busy social calendar, she was always on the run. But that’s the way Darcy liked it. Full-throttle ahead.
Luke had a lot going on too. The head chef retired, making way for Luke to move into the role he’d worked for. With a lot to learn – more menu planning, more sourcing local vendors, more direct supervision – not just of the kitchen, but every aspect of the operation. He loved it all.
He noticed before, but it came clearer to him now it was his job to notice, that on the nights Darcy worked, the place just…hummed. Everybody – the waitstaff, the kitchen, even the dishwashers – seemed happier somehow. They did okay when she wasn’t there, but it was…better when she was. What was it about Darcy? And short of cloning her, how could he get the same magic to happen when she wasn’t on the floor? Noticing turned into study.
She was fun. That’s what it was, he decided. Her friendly sass, the bounce in her step, in her ponytail. She chatted and kidded with everyone, but she still got more done than any other waitstaff – food to tables, water in glasses, a fresh napkin before a diner even knew he needed one. What’s more, the other waitstaff snapped to when she was on the floor. She liked making people happy, he concluded – diners and co-workers alike. So they mostly were happy.
Was it just that she got the easy diners not the fussy ones or the out and out assholes? Did the tough customers show up only when she wasn’t working? No. He’d seen her take over when another waitstaff couldn’t handle a table. More than once. And somehow, without taking a bit of guff, she managed to get them fed and on their way with a minimum of fuss. She had a way about her is all he could think. A way that tamed the assholes and turned them into pussycats.
In all that study, he noticed other things too. The smile that seemed to light the whole room, the crinkle of her eyes when something struck her funny – and so much seemed funny to her. The grace as she sashayed between tables, that sweet, toned little ass. Whoa boy! Dial that back. Can’t be lusting after a teenybopper! Especially not one who worked under him. He winced. Bad choice of words. Knock it off boy, he told himself. You got a good thing going with Jenny, a hot bartender over in Valley Spring.
Well, he did. She was a good egg, Jenny. Sharp, willing. Independent. Or so he thought till the staff holiday party at the Lodge. Luke couldn’t figure what put a bur up her butt that night unless… Maybe he did sing Darcy’s praises a little too long when he introduced her to Jenny. Was that what made her so…clingy the rest of the evening? God, it was embarrassing. It was his job to circulate, to glad-hand, to help them all have fun. Shouldn’t Jenny have understood that? Instead of hanging on him the way she did?
Or haranguing him the minute they got out the door with a huge where-is-this-relationship-going tirade. He didn’t get it. “Why’s it got to go anywhere?” he asked. “I thought we said no strings…” Not, apparently what Jenny wanted to hear.
“You’re hung up on that waitress,” she accused. “Little Miss Wonderful. God. To think I wasted my precious time with a cradle-robber!”
“You’re crazy,” he replied. “Darcy’s a…a colleague. A…friend. She’s…you know….fun.” Except even as he denied it, an image of Darcy at the party, those bare shoulders, the curve of her… Heat rose up his neck and his words got stuck on the way past his lips. Was he? Hung up on Darcy? Ridiculous.
Meanwhile in the parking lot, Darcy’s date, Dylan lavished rather more interest in Darcy’s shoulders, etcetera than she found delightful. Dylan was a good guy, she thought, or she wouldn’t have been dating him the last few months. But was it really necessary to plunge his tongue halfway down her throat? Was that how he hoped to get her naked in the back seat of his car? Nope. Not working, she thought.
“Dylan, stop. I’m not in the mood. Just take me home.”
“But I am in the mood! C’mon Darcy.” Then when she still declined, he said, “It’s that guy, isn’t it? The really old one that was fawning all over you.” Dylan did not take rejection well.
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Then why won’t you…? Come on, Darcy. It’s not like you’re going to get pregnant or anything.”
That sent her eyebrows skyward, but she managed to say sweetly enough albeit through clenched teeth, “You are correct, Obi-wan.” And then her eyes narrowed in a look Dylan, had he been wiser, might have feared. “I sure wouldn’t chance pregnancy with someone so…so disrespectful to assume I’d… No, Dylan. And just in case you’re wondering, no does mean no! Take me home. Now.” Dylan got his class ring back that night.
Her next night back at work, something was off. The energy, the banter, the bright sparkle that usually lit the dining room – it was all…dimmed somehow. No give and take, no easy camaraderie, no fun.
Janelle whispered to her busser. “What’s up with Luke tonight? He snarled. Just because I was thirty seconds late picking up an order.” She shook her head. “He’s usually so laid back.”
“Beats me,” said her busser. “Maybe he’s mad because Darcy dropped that tray? Did you hear how he laid into her? Made her comp dinner for that whole table!”
“Darcy? Darcy dropped a tray? I didn’t see it… Oh my. That’s not like Darcy.” Janelle peered through a window. “It must be a full moon.”
That full moon shone over the Lodge dining room for a month and a half. Snarls and side-long glances took the place of teamwork. Dirge-like tunes replaced the classic rock and roll in the kitchen so thirty-second dance-offs didn’t happen. More than one diner asked if they’d painted the walls. “It seems darker than I remember.”
Malevolent moonbeams shone elsewhere too – enough to make a shiver might crawl up your spine despite the January thaw, to make you wonder if the earth had somehow slipped its orbit. Among other things, you’d wonder why Darcy, one of the best-liked members of the senior class did not have a date for the Sweetheart Ball. And she was up for Queen Valentine. You might think Dylan was to blame, but you’d only be part-right. He did tell a few of the guys that he broke up with her because wasn’t ‘sensitive to his needs.’ But that was only because, you know, he had to say something. Of course, he had a date with the presumably more accommodating Ashley Parker.
What you might wonder about more is that Darcy didn’t seem to care – about what Dylan said or about the Ball. Like caring was too much work. Darcy? Again, only part-right. It all seemed so… trivial, she told Kat. “I wish we’d graduated early,” she told Kat. “Then none of this high school bullshit would matter.”
But Kat knew Darcy’s mom and her grandma had both been Queen Valentine, that their dearest hope was that Darcy would be crowned too – in the very same gown they’d worn. And that it would kill Darcy to disappoint her much-adored mom and grandma. So if Darcy wasn’t up to caring, Kat would do it for her. “All the nice boys already have dates. But there’s got to be somebody great who’s available. We’ve just got to find him.”
“We ought to look first at the ones you turned down. Why, Kat? It’s our last high school dance. It’d be so much more fun if you were there too.”
“You asking me to be your date, Darce?”
“Why not? I’d have more fun with you than some dumb boy.”
“And just how would your grandma like that?”
Darcy sighed. Grandma’s views were too well known. And dead wrong in Darcy’s opinion. But since the whole point was to make Grandma happy…
“What about at work?” Kat asked. “There must be somebody you could ask?”
Darcy squeezed her eyes shut. “No. No. No.”
“Well. There’s Paul, but…”
That made Darcy’s eyes open. In horror. She was so not a fan of Kat’s brother Paul. “Okay. I’ll ask the waitstaff about their brothers.”
She didn’t harbor hopes. But she told Kat she’d ask, so… Carly the hostess was an only child, but she agreed to ask around. And so the buzz began – with more smiles and giggles than the front of the house had seen since the holiday party.
“What about your cousin, RayAnne?” Janelle asked as she swung into the kitchen.
“Eww, no. He picks his nose!” RayAnne shuddered. “Can you see the pictures, Darcy in her crown, him with his finger up his nose? What about your brother?”
“Won’t be done with boot camp in time.”
“What’s up?” Sous chef Linnie asked.
“Darcy needs a date. The Sweetheart Ball. You know anybody?”
“Huh,” said Linnie, with a glance over her shoulder. “I might. I just might.”
So it happened that when it was silverware-rolling time, everybody but Darcy got dispatched to other tasks. Which each performed with one eye on the table where she rolled and a decidedly forward tilt when they saw Luke saunter out of the kitchen and plant himself at Darcy’s table. Eyes remained peeled.
“I hear you’ve got a problem,” said Luke. (Janelle was strategically positioned so she could report what she heard.)
“Me? I’m no problem-child,” said Darcy.
“Except Queen Valentine to be needs a date for the Sweetheart Ball?”
“Oh that. Yeah. More Mom and Grandma’s problem than mine. Why? You know somebody I could ask?”
“What am I? Chopped liver?” Luke grinned. “I always wanted to say that. First chance I ever got.”
“You?” Darcy was momentarily – and uncharacteristically – lost for words.
“Why not me? And what’s wrong with those whippersnappers – another word I always wanted to trot out – in your school? They blind or something?”
“You.” Darcy picked up three forks to roll. (From her vantage point near the salad bar, RayAnne muttered. “Three! No knife, no spoon, three forks.”)
Luke leaned back in his chair. “Looks like I might be your best offer.”
That grin, thought Darcy. “You don’t want to go to a high school dance.”
“I can think of worse things.” (Nobody could quite see Luke’s eyes, but the temperature rose when Janelle reported how…steamy he made it sound.)
“What would your girlfriend say?”
“What girlfriend? Oh. You mean Jenny? Yeah. She did not like you.” He shrugged. “So much for her.” Then, “What about that jerk you were with? The one who couldn’t keep his hands off you?”
Carly was the one who saw Darcy’s lips twitch, heard her say, “He was handy all right. Till he wasn’t.”
“So what do you say? You ask. I’ll spiff. Do I have to rent a tux?”
Darcy’s grin matched his now, said Carly later – just as big if not so crooked. “Nope.”
“No.” Darcy shook her head. “You. Ask. Me.”
His grin grew. More crooked than ever, as he reached a hand toward hers. “How about it?”
She smiled, her eyes dancing. Nodded. Then, she raised her voice, “Hey, y’all…” Lower and just to Luke, “I always wanted to be the kind of girl who says y’all.” Louder again. “Y’all can stop faking whatever it is you’re pretending to do and get on over here. This silverware won’t roll itself!” She pushed her chair back, stood, still holding on to Luke’s hand. “We two are on our way out now. We’ve got some…talking to do. See y’all later.”
“Much later,” said Luke over his shoulder. “Y’all have a good night.”
Years later, neither one would say the course of true love runs true. Or maybe they would – as long as you make room for the sizzle, boom, and occasional crash of fireworks along the way. Because for Darcy and Luke, there were plenty of fireworks – the kind that sizzled with fun and excitement along with the kind that crashed and burned. But never broke.
They were married on Valentine’s Eve three years later. The decision to wait so, so long – that made for fireworks too. But when they mopped up and tended each other’s burns, they agreed marriage wasn’t their only dream. Darcy used those two years to close in on her business/hospitality degree – a goal she accomplished in two and half years because of those AP courses and a take-no-prisoner regimen of in-person and distance learning courses. Meanwhile Luke moved on their mutual aspiration – their own restaurant. A diner, they decided, after looking at all their options. Breakfast and lunch six days a week. Nights they’d reserve for themselves.
They opened The Firehouse six months after the wedding. More fireworks erupted over the name of their business. Luke, with Darcy’s mother’s support, wanted to call it The Sweetheart Diner, but since the building they bought was an actual retired firehouse, Darcy said it was only practical to call it what folks in Oakton already did. She won and The Firehouse it became.
The day the walk-in cooler was installed though – after a particularly spicy set of celebratory fireworks – Luke christened it Queen Valentine.
So if you ever stop in for Luke’s signature Firehouse breakfast on a busy morning, you might happen to hear him call for more eggs from The Queen. If you pay attention, you might also notice an extra bounce in Darcy’s ponytail and a certain contagious crooked grin behind the grill.