Charlie was the last one to arrive at the Honeybee the next morning. She’d woken up early, but she’d stopped by the hospital to check on Cyndi and her family.
The waiting room had become the Mackenzie’s second home. They’d taken up residence with quilts and pillows which were now neatly stacked in an unoccupied corner.
Different family members were taking shifts to help relieve Mrs. Mackenzie but there was no way Cyndi’s mom would leave her bedside other than to take a quick shower and grab some personal items for when Cyndi woke up.
Whenever the nurses allowed anyone to go back to sit with the still unconscious woman Mrs. Mackenzie was first in line wanting to put her eyes on her youngest daughter to make sure she was being taken care of to her satisfaction.
Charlie hadn’t been able to see her friend, but she felt good being there. If the shoe was on the other foot, she knew Cyndi would show up as well. Although she, Cyndi and Sue were the best of friends, both Cyndi and Charlie had always had a special bond especially after Sue got married. They had been the three musketeers until then.
After Sue got married. The young couple had each other as well as it should be. When they started having kids, it had pushed their world’s even further apart. Both Charlie and Cyndi understood, and naturally the lines had kind of just drawn themselves. Cyndi was her go to and Charlie knew Cyndi felt the same way about her. The single girls watching each other’s back. “Hell, someone has to do it. We all we got.” Cyndi always used to say.
So, showing up at the hospital was enough for her even if she didn’t get to see her friend. If nothing else it made her feel better.
Later when she finally arrived at the Honeybee, she wasn’t surprised to see her staff hard at work. It was business as usual as they went about serving the morning crowd. The ship was running like clockwork, and once again Charlie was reminded of how much work Cyndi had put in to getting the crew to become a team. Her employees were doing exactly how she’d trained them to do, and it had everything to do with Cyndi.
“Hey boss,” Romeo said stepping out of the freezer his hands full of boxes.
“Hey Romeo,” she smiled wanting to take the concerned look etched across the young man’s face away.
“How’s she doing,” he said. “I figured since you weren’t here you stopped by to see her.” Charlie was about to answer when she was nearly tackled from the side.
“Oh my God,” she said.
“How’s she doing?” Charlie looked down to see Sue’s thick brown head of hair pressed against her. Arms wrapped tightly around her waist. Charlie gently pulled away to get a good look at her friend.
Sue’s face was tired and drawn, making her look even more rundown than usual. The dark circles under her eyes made Charlie wonder if she’d gotten any sleep. She and Sue were in the same boat on that regard but Charlie had made sure to atleast slap on some concealer and blush that morning. That was one thing Cyndi drilled into her- always stay on brand because everyone expected the honeybee to be cute. They wanted the hair, the dress, and all the flash when they came in to the store, and Charlie made sure she delivered.
“I was just telling Romeo, I didn’t get to see her yet, but her mom is holding up as well as she can,” Charlie said. “You know how Mrs. Mackenzie is,” Sue nodded wiping tears from her eyes.
“I just don’t understand how this could have happened,” Romeo said. He smacked a fist into the palm of his hand and Charlie’s heart went out to him. She knew he considered himself their protector of sorts. Although Cyndi, Sue and she and been together long before they’d met Romeo, he had become an honorary member of their group. Having hired him at sixteen, Romeo had practically become a man before their eyes while working at the Honeybee.
Agitated, Romeo once again walked back towards the fryers where the accident had happened as if looking for an answer. Charlie followed.
“See, I drained all three of them,” Romeo said looking down into the empty fryer vessels. “There wasn’t anything off about them, at all. Nothing different about them to cause,” he said pausing, “that. I didn’t put any oil back in them yet, because I wanted you to see it first.”
“Thanks, Romeo. You did more than enough,” Charlie sighed. “Wait, how are we even open?” Charlie turned back to Sue who was sniffing into a tissue. “What product are y’all putting out,” Charlie said going to look at the holding trays of baked goods.
“We still had product from yesterday,” Sue called from behind her. “It was the best we could do. So, I made the call,” she said watching Charlie closely. “Look, I know how you are about serving only fresh stuff, but this was an exceptional situation,” Sue said her voice rising slightly as if gearing up for an argument. Charlie nodded, raising one hand.
“I know, I know,” she said. “You did the right thing. Our customers probably wouldn’t even know the difference. It’s not like other restaurants don’t serve day old stuff. It’s just a policy I made,” Charlie said. “Thank you Sue for stepping up,” Charlie said.
It was true Charlie hated serving anything that wasn’t freshly made, but even she knew they had no choice. They were lucky to even be open. Accidents to this degree weren’t common, but they could happen on any given day. Thank God the police were ruling the whole incident as a freak accident. In the police report it was deemed a result of a basic kitchen mishap that could have happened even in the safety of anyone’s own home.
Charlie just hated it had to happen at the Honeybee and to one of their own. Cyndi wasn’t just a friend; she was an integral part of the Honeybee team. Her absence was definitely felt by everyone.
“Oh, Charlie,” Frederick said when he spotted her coming from the dining area. His round brown face crumpled with each step he took closer to the older woman. He was barely eighteen but over six feet tall with a baby face that made him look all of twelve years old. Wrapping his long arms around Charlie, the woman he called Aunt T, his shoulders shook as the two held on to each other.
As much trouble Charlie gave the young man, she loved him like he really was her nephew. He’d been recommended by Romeo which made him even more like family.
Since day one she’d ridden him about his clothes, and how he carried himself. She was determined to make the teenager more aware of how he presented. She encouraged him to look like the man she knew he could be. It was a constant battle, but one she knew would only improve his chances once he went out into the world. She knew the real world wouldn’t be as forgiving of Freddy no matter how much of a baby face she thought he had.
She was his biggest advocate and critic. Her harsh words were just meant to draw the best he had to offer out of him. She knew it was in there, and the affection he showed her now proved it.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me, but when Cyndi didn’t show up,” Frederick said, “I knew it had to be true. Is she gonna be okay?” Charlie looked once again at the concerned expectant faces surrounding her.
“She’s going to be just fine guys,” she said with as much conviction as she could muster. “They put her in a medically induced coma,” she said shaking her head at their gasps. “No, no, no that’s a good thing. The doctor’s said it will give her time to heal, plus when she comes out of it, and she will, she’s going to be in a lot of pain. It’s for the best guys.” She meant for the words to calm them, but she also needed to hear them.
“The best we can do is make sure that when she does come back she has something to come back to. Right?” Their faces looked doubtful, but Charlie refused to let their minds linger on something none of them had any control over or could do anything about.
“So, where’s the camera guys,” Charlie asked. “Did they come back, or did they give up on us?” she said with a smile.
“Oh, no,” Romeo said, “those guys were here bright and early. They filmed interviews with me, Sue, Rashawna and Hannah already.”
“They didn’t get me yet,” Frederick said. “I said I wanted to wait til you got here. How I look?” the young man said spinning. Charlie couldn’t help but laugh as she swept her eyes over the lean man’s uniform. He had on his crisp white shirt and khaki pants.
“I’ll be,” Charlie said, “Is that a crease in those pants?”
“Why yes ma’am it is,” Frederick said as everyone joined in laughing.
“Nail check?” He instantly raised his hands showing well-groomed nails.
“You look great, Frederick,” Charlie said liking the wide grin of appreciation. “You are definitely ready for prime time.”
“Alright,” he said, “Ms. Oprah, here I come,” Frederick slapped his large hands together.
“Okay, Ms. Oprah,” Sue said pushing the young man back towards the dining area. “We got this Charlie,” she said before disappearing into the dining area with the young man.
“Is it alright to fill the fryers, Boss?” Romeo said.
“Yes, of course, Romeo,” she said. “Just make sure the internal thermometers are working before you light them all the way up, okay? Quadruple check them today.”
“Sure thing boss,” he said before walking to the back of the kitchen. Charlie took a moment to look around the kitchen she knew like the back of her hand. She’d always felt a sense of peace in here, but for the first time she felt an uneasy undercurrent. It was like the thing that had once felt like her second home had turned its back on her, betrayed her somehow.
She wanted someone or something to blame, but it was becoming increasingly clear that she wasn’t going to get that. In a way, the randomness of it all made her more afraid than if, what had happened to Cyndi, had been a purposeful act. If she had someone to blame then she could do something about it, but freak accidents had no rhyme or reason. It only reminded her just how little control they all had.
When she was a little girl the Boogeyman made things go bump in the night. Having a Boogeyman to blame bad things on made her feel safe. Like all children it gave her a thing to blame for her fears. Now that she was older she knew better. It was only after you stopped believing in the Boogeyman that things got really scary.
Yesterday had reminded her of that. Cyndi’s accident had exposed the truth for what it was, that life was a random number of events that none of us had any control over. At any point in time regardless of how good we were or how nice we were, our number could be pulled.
We could be hit by a bus, or fall in a manhole while we’re innocently walking down the street. Or we could be hit in the face with molten hot grease. You just never knew.
It was the not knowing what happened to Cyndi that made her so uneasy. She couldn’t help wondering: what if it happened again? She didn’t know what she’d do if it did. Her employees were more than staff to her, they were her family, and she didn’t want any of them to have ever suffer.
Although Charlie was close to her family when she was younger. They didn’t understand her. They didn’t understand adult Charlie’s drive to be the best. All they wanted was for her to meet someone, get married, have babies (in that order). Being a successful business woman meant little to them. They treated her career like it was some hobby. She loved them but they didn’t get her. It was the Honeybee that gave her purpose. It understood her. This was her home, her family.
Charlie sat in the makeshift office and did her best to pull herself together. She refreshed her makeup, plumped her hair up. When she finally walked out of the kitchen and stepped into the dining area, she was camera ready. She did as she always did when she had the time she went to greet the customers. As soon as she stepped onto the dining room floor she heard her name called from several tables.
Walking through the dining room she made sure to stop and speak to each table. Some faces she recognized, some she didn’t but they all got the full breadth of her legendary charm.
She felt so welcomed and appreciative of all the concern from the regulars not only for Cyndi but for her. They all knew how close everyone at the Honeybee was and each wanted to say they had her friend in their prayers. They weren’t even upset over the fact that the menu was lacking some of their favorites, and that the items they did have were in limited amounts.
“Lookit, you have nothing to apologize for,” Gracieann said pulling Charlie close, “even as hot as it is outside I’d just as soon take a cup of coffee if that’s all you got. I don’t need much just to see each of y’all’s smiling faces today.” Gracieann was one of their most loyal customers and one of Charlie’s personal favorites.
The woman was old school Biloxi, all the way, having grown up around the old fishing docks that used to jut along the coastline before the casinos were even a thought. Even the melodic accent she spoke in was old Coast bred from a mixture of Spanish, French, and a healthy dose of Polish thrown in. She was a real character and she kept Charlie on her toes. She came in a few days a week usually with her husband who was just as quiet as she was loud.
“And we love to see y’all’s faces,” Charlie said smiling back. As soon as she could she made a beeline to the two cameramen, Rob and Sam. The pair was sitting at a patio table eating one of the Honeybees cold sandwiches.
Since they’d arrived Charlie hadn’t believed she’d seen them without food in their hands. Their cameras sat safely out of the way at the end of the table.
Charlie was in the middle of one of her stories about the history of Biloxi she liked to entertain the tourists with when she heard a loud crash. It sounded like it was coming from the street and was followed by several more crashes then loud yelling.
“Good Lord, what now,” Charlie said as she bolted from her seat and ran towards the front of the building where the commotion was coming from. She got there just in time to see several people run off after some kids who’d ducked into the alley across the street from the Honeybees front entrance.
Charlie was still trying to figure out where the crashing noise she’d heard had come from when she heard Sam and Rob behind her.
“What the hell happened,” Sam said. Charlie turned back to her storefront.
“Oh. My. God.” There were broken shards of glass hanging from the frames where there used to be a window. Now she could see into her store with nothing separating her. Customers huddled at the far end, away from the shattered windows.
“Good lord,” she said rushing into the store. “Is anyone hurt?” There were two concrete cinder blocks on the ground surrounded by broken glass. Although it was mainly confined to the first couple of feet inside the store a few pieces made it further. The customers slowly started to make their way back to the front, but Romeo was the first to get to her.
“Boss, did you see them?” Charlie shook her head.
“I did,” a young black kid said raising his hand like he was sitting in a classroom and had the answer. His mother or aunt, Charlie supposed, pushed his hand down but let him speak.
“It was a group of kids, I saw them,” he said.
“Romeo call the police,” Charlie sat down next to the boy.
“Already did it, boss,” he said. “They gonna get sick of us after a while, ain’t they?” Charlie shook her head as she turned back to the boy.
“Can you tell me what they looked like?” the boy’s face scrunched up.
“Were they white or black?” Romeo said.
“They were both, right Mama?” the boy said frowning. His mother added. “It was a regular rainbow coalition of jerks,” she said her lips pursed.
“Were they teenagers? Younger?”
“Now, I didn’t get all that, but they were older than Tristan, here- he’s ten. Maybe high schoolers, I guess? But just a damn shame, and in broad daylight too. Some people just ain’t got no home training. Letting these kids run wild in the streets. I don’t know what gets into some people.”
“So, you saw them too,” Charlie felt hopeful for a moment since both Mom and son had seen the culprits. Maybe they might actually be able to identify the folks if they were caught. The boy seemed credible, but Charlie didn’t know how much the police would believe him, alone.
“Anyone else see anything,” Charlie was thankful but not surprised when several more hands raised as people stepped up. Her customers weren’t just good people they were loyal. Their faces still wore the look of shock over what had just happened but also a fierce determination to catch the folks who’d tried to destroy what the Honeybee stood for which was community.
The police arrived quickly and took down statements. It was strange that they’d been called to the Honeybee twice in just two days, but all the officers were customers themselves. They were here almost daily, just not for work but as customers.
They wanted to catch the culprits as much as everyone else. The problem was it was summer and there were a lot of young people out roaming the streets bored with nothing to do. Charlie didn’t like the idea of no one being punished, but she also didn’t like the idea of locking children up either. She just didn’t want them coming back again.
“We have all your information and we’ll be keeping a look out for this group of kids,” the police officer said. “Until we catch them though, I’d recommend getting some cameras up both inside and outside.” Charlie nodded in agreement as she saw the officers out. The cleaning crew was just about done and she had a crew already working on resetting new windows. It was expenses she really didn’t want to have to deal with, but she planned to file a claim as well with her insurance company.
“I guess it’s time for more security,” Sue said shaking her head. “You can’t say we haven’t had a good run.”
“No, you can’t,” Charlie said watching as the windows were being replaced. They’d closed early once again. Once in a week was bad enough, but twice? Charlie vowed this was not going to happen again. “Ten years not a single incident. Yup, it’s time for cameras. Can you set it up for me Sue?” The woman beamed in response taking away some of the weariness on her face. They were the same age but Sue’s added responsibility of a family kept her on the go 24/7. Charlie really didn’t know how she did it, but she was very thankful to have her on her team.
“Of course, boss,” she said brightly before disappearing in the back. Charlie watched the workers until the glass was in. Then they told her they’d be back tomorrow to do the stenciling of the honeybee logo.
It was already getting dark, so Charlie didn’t mind. She was just thankful for their quick response. The idea of having to stay the night to watch over her store made her head hurt. She was so tired, and all she wanted was to crawl in her bed. This way she could lock up and not worry about paying for security overnight.
After setting the alarm, Charlie dragged herself to her car. She just had one more stop. She planned to stop at the hospital and then she was going to head home. Starting the ignition, Charlie turned the wheel to roll her car out of the parking lot.
She didn’t know if something caught her eye or what. Maybe it was intuition, but she looked once again to the lamp post where she’d seen Trace the night before. The spot was empty but she caught the backside of a figure that looked familiar disappearing into the shadows.
This time her temper got the better of her, and she refused to let it go. Stepping on the gas she pointed her car in the direction of the alley where the man had disappeared into.
Charlie had never considered herself as weak, and living in fear was something she refused to do. She was sick and tired of being scared. If the Boogeyman wanted a piece of her then he’d get it, and Charlie didn’t believe in fighting fair.