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The Hoot, Night Owl Stories Newsletter

Welcome to Cross Roads, VA, a small town full of great people, stories, and romance


Anyone who is a native of the Commonwealth of Virginia - like me - probably is wondering where is Cross Roads, VA. It's just in my head. A fictional town in a very real state sprinkled with landmarks that exist in real life. Just take a drive down I-81 and you will find some of them.


I am T.S. Robinson, author of The Cross Roads Series. I'm getting ready to launch the first book in my series, Something to Hope For, on June 1. The first book in the series focuses on Tess McCabe and how she overcame tragedy to find her way back home to Cross Roads. It is a coming of age story sprinkled with a small town, high-school sweetheart romance.


As it turns out, writing the book - though that was definitely a challenge - was the easy part. Learning how to create a website, start a newsletter, market the book, publish and distribute the book was and still is the Grand Canyon-size bigger challenge. Luckily or not so luckily, there are a ton of resources to help with this... for money. An overwhelming number of resources in fact. Eventually, I learned that if I didn't tune them out, I would never get through this process and actually publish. And I would be broke.


And now, I'm finally approaching what I hope is actually just the beginning of my journey. Please read an excerpt from the first book in The Cross Roads Series, Something to Hope For, below. It will be available for pre-order soon and to buy starting on June 1, 2024.


If you like what you read, please sign up for The Hoot and get the latest updates on all the goings on in Cross Roads.

 

Date Night

“Dinner was excellent. Thanks for surprising me,” Laura said. She reached over the center console and held her husband’s hand.


Joe responded with a smile and kissed her hand. “When I couldn’t remember the last time we went on a date, I decided it was time.”


“I’m going to text the kids and let them know we’re on our way home.” Laura let go of Joe’s hand and reached for her purse to get her phone.


Deemed the “Mary Poppins bag” by her kids, that purse seemed to have anything a person could need. Illustrating that point, she pulled out a bottle of Tums and passed two to her husband while she kept digging around with her other hand for her phone. He popped them into his mouth without taking his eyes off the road. There were many small moments like this that they had shared over the years; the routine made it special.


Finally finding her phone, Laura sent a text to the kids, then sat back and stared out the window at the lights of the oncoming traffic. She hated I-81, always had, even as a kid. Busy and crowded at the best of times with tractor trailers hauling goods up and down the east coast, college kids traveling to and from the many colleges that lived off the exits, campers from the constant stream of vacationers and nature lovers, and finally the local traffic, like Joe and Laura, trying to get from one small town to another, made the highway constantly clogged.


Normally, they wouldn’t have taken 81 as their small family farm wasn’t far from town, but Joe had to go down to Broadway to get a part for their tractor before dinner. At least, that had been the plan. When they arrived, they found out the guy had just sold the part to someone else. Joe’s brother, Rob, told him about a guy in Mt. Jackson that may have one, so after dinner they got what they needed. The tractor had stopped working nearly a week ago and they’ve been searching all over for the part. Now they were finally on their way home.


Laura’s phone chimed with a new text. She grabbed her big bag and hauled it onto her lap to dig out her phone again.


“Benny says they’re watching movies and eating pizza,” she said, reading the text to Joe. “Tess is hiding behind a pillow. They’re watching The Shining.”


Joe sighed. “Are we going to have Tess sleeping between us tonight?”


“She’s 16,” Laura said.


“Yes, and that didn’t stop her during the last thunderstorm.” His tone was resigned.


Now it was Laura’s turn to sigh. But she was smiling.


Her kids were her everything. She would never turn down the chance to cuddle with them during a storm or just spend time with them. Luckily, neither of her kids seemed to mind spending time with their parents. Even though he was 19 and starting his own life, Benny was always working with Joe on the farm. Joe never made him. Benny just wanted to. He enjoyed fixing the equipment with his dad. Laura knew Joe was excited to spend Sunday putting the new part on the tractor with Benny. Tess still spent just as much time with Laura. She loved to help in the kitchen and was becoming quite the good cook. Maybe they could have Ruby over and do some baking tomorrow after church while Benny and Joe fixed the tractor.


Lost in her own happy thoughts of spending the next day with her family, Laura didn’t see the car from the other side of the interstate lose control and come across the median. It was a pretty big median and most of it had guard rails or geographic terrain that would’ve made it near impossible for a car to get across, but there were some small sections here and there that had no barriers. Joe and Laura were driving by such a section right now. Most cars on 81 average about 80 mph in speed despite the 65 mph speed limit. The car had the momentum needed to get across the median and land on the other side in oncoming traffic.


It landed right in front of Joe and Laura’s four-door F-150 truck. The last thing they saw were the car’s headlights blinding them. Joe didn’t even have time to brake before hitting the car head on. The last sounds they heard were breaking glass and crunching metal. And their last thoughts were of their kids waiting for them to come home.


Turning Point

The strong aroma that only an onion can make permeated the air around me as I chopped and diced. I brushed the tears off my face with a somewhat now grungy looking shirt sleeve. Usually, an onion didn’t make me cry like a two-year-old but a dozen onions, I was no match for.


“Tess, Cass is here.” The warning from one of the hosting staff was loud enough to be heard over the constant clatter and bang of the busy kitchen. Inwardly, I groaned. Outwardly, everyone else in the kitchen groaned.


“Why tonight?” I mumbled.


Two kitchen staff, one server, one hostess, and Vito Pagano, the head restaurant manager and owner of The Olive Tree, had been knocked down hard with the flu for nearly two weeks; me and the rest of the restaurant staff were running around like mad trying to cover for them. I joined The Tree as it came to be known when I was fresh out of college and the restaurant was just getting started. Now, I was the assistant restaurant manager under Vito. A small, yet high-end Italian restaurant, The Tree was finally starting to make a profit and hold its own in the extremely competitive Northern Virginia market.


Cassio, or Cass, provided Vito funding that he needed to get the restaurant off the ground and keep the doors open when COVID struck. But that money came with a steep price. He gets 20 percent of any revenue for the next 10 years or until the money that he invested is paid back with interest. Whichever comes first. It wouldn’t be so bad if he was a silent partner, but he had a habit of showing up, usually at the worst times, to make sure the restaurant was performing to his standards. Though, he had never worked in a restaurant in his life so some of those standards were somewhat questionable.


Cass was also Vito’s older brother.


“Luis, I’m heading out front,” I yelled to the head chef who was stirring sauce with one hand and sauteing chicken cutlets with the other. I prayed nightly that Luis did not catch the flu because we would be sunk. “Good luck with that boss,” he said with his characteristic grin.


I quickly washed my hands and went to greet Cass and see what he wanted tonight. “Please let him not be a colossal prick tonight,” I mumbled as I exited the kitchen.


“Tess, we need to talk, now,” Cass said, stomping toward me like a man on a mission as soon as I entered the busy waiting area at the front of the restaurant.


“Okay, come on back into Vito’s office. We can talk there.” I tried to quickly back out of the way so he didn’t run me over.


I went into Vito’s office with Cass on my heels. Once he was in and sitting down, I quietly took a deep breath and closed the door.


“I’ve been checking the website and there has been a wait, usually for well over 30 minutes, every night this week,” Cass said angrily. “That waiting area is full at 5pm on a Thursday night. What are you doing here Tess?! How many people went to The Olive Garden because the wait at The Olive Tree was crazy long?!” He leaned forward getting in my face and stabbing his finger down on Vito’s desk.


I put my hands up to create some space between us. I didn’t touch him, but I did try to create some physical space and get him to back off.


“Cass, we are short staffed. Half of the restaurant is out sick. Everyone has been holding down their position while also covering other positions all week.”


He glared at me. “I knew you were too young and inexperienced for this job. I told Vito he was making a mistake making you the second in command. This proves it. It’s all well and good to keep a business going during the good times, but your good people shine when the chips are down.”


He got up from the chair and opened the office door. Turning back, he pointed his finger at me. “Your shine has worn off.” Then he left, slamming the door, on his way out.


With shaking hands and fresh tears threatening to spill down my cheeks, I stood up and tried to get my emotions under control. Was I going to be fired? Cass was always an asshole to everyone, including Vito, but he had never threatened my job before. I would get through tonight; once the restaurant was closed, I would call Vito. He was the exact opposite of his brother. Passionate about cooking with a smile for everyone and an easy way about him that made you feel comfortable and at home, he was the best boss in the world and the closest thing I had to a friend in my life. Feeling marginally better, I took one last deep breath and headed out of the office and back into the hustle and bustle of the restaurant.


Four hours later, things were finally starting to slow down. Closing time was at 10pm and it couldn’t happen fast enough tonight. I was worn out from the busy, hectic week and then dealing with Cass and his tirade tonight. Taking a break, I got a glass of Diet Coke and went to go sit in Vito’s office to start adding up the night’s receipts. With any luck, I may be able to finish and get home by midnight.


Thirty minutes later, the forgotten glass of Diet Coke was dripping condensation all over Vito’s desk as I focused on going over the schedule for tomorrow to make sure we were able to cover everyone who was out.


“Hey, Vito, welcome back. Feeling better man?” I heard Luis say. I didn’t catch Vito’s reply, but it must have been brief because he was in the office seconds later.


“Hey Vito, you’re here! I didn’t expect you for at least another day or two,” I exclaimed. I stood up to move out from the back of the desk and let him have his chair, but he waived me down while he closed the door behind him.


The elation I had felt a minute ago started to seep out of me as I registered the look on his face.

He sank down into the chair in front of me. “Tess, there’s no easy way to say this...” He stopped talking, leaving the sentence unfinished, and stood up from the chair. He started pacing the office back and forth and running his fingers through his dark hair.


I could feel my heart breaking as I realized what was happening. My stomach was in knots. “Cass wants you to fire me,” I said barely above a whisper.


Vito stopped pacing and faced me.


“Damn it!” he shouted and kicked the desk. “Cass is the biggest asshole in the history of assholes. He didn’t give me money because he wanted to help me start my dream and get it off the ground. He didn’t even do it to make money. He did it so he had something he could hold over me. So, he could control me like he tries to control everyone in his life,” he shouted.


I sat there quietly and listened. I knew everything Vito was saying was true. Cass thought his money bought him the right to control everyone around him.


Unfortunately, he seemed to be right.


Vito sat back down in the chair. He hung his head, looking down at the desk. “If I don’t let you go, he’s going to invoke some clause in the contract that requires me to pay back all the money he invested, with interest, in the next 30 days. It’s some clause that he put in there if the restaurant is being mismanaged, he is allowed to collect all the funding he gave me. Apparently, he is the one who gets to judge if it is being mismanaged. I’m sorry.”


The sounds of the restaurant bled through the closed door. The kitchen staff and servers were joking around with each other. The stress of the day was starting to fade as the last of the guests finished their meals and left. I stared at my dripping glass of Diet Coke, unable to form words. I finally looked across the desk at Vito. He was sitting on the edge of the chair with his elbows on his knees and head in his hands, staring at the floor, completely dejected. His pose triggered a flash of a memory from long ago that I quickly stuffed back in the far reaches of my mind to be forgotten again.


I slowly stood up from Vito’s chair and came around the desk to put my hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay Vito. I understand. There’s nothing you can do.”


He turned his head in my direction and the complete misery he felt shown all over his face. Being forced to do this was killing a piece of his soul. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to make it any better for him except to leave.


I grabbed my purse and coat that I had thrown in the office haphazardly earlier in the day, squeezed behind the chair Vito was sitting in and quietly slipped out the office door. Afraid that I would completely fall apart if I had to talk to anyone, I slipped through the bar and out through the front. The waiting area was thankfully empty since the doors were locked to any new guests tonight. In a haze, I walked the three blocks to my metro station and waited for the next train.

Luckily, my hours allowed me to miss the worst of the Metro congestion, so there were plenty of empty seats for me to choose from when the train arrived. Despite working in a busy restaurant, I wasn’t a fan of crowds or people really. For the most part, I tried to avoid them. I guess that would be easier now that I was fired. Leaning my head against the window, I stuck my hand in my pockets and found my cellphone. I hadn’t even thought about it when I left. Thankfully, it was in my coat. I pulled it out absently and checked the screen, not expecting to see anything. Normally, I only got texts or calls about work, so I was a little surprised to see notifications of two missed calls and a waiting text message from my brother.


I heard from Benny occasionally. He tried to keep in touch with me, but I hadn’t spoken to him for a long time. I couldn’t remember the last time I talked to him. But two missed calls and a text couldn’t mean good things. With a little trepidation, I opened my brother’s text.


Hey Tess, I hope things are going okay for you. I hate to tell you this over text, but you aren’t answering your phone. Leigh passed away. The doctors are saying it was an aneurysm. She collapsed at work on Tuesday and she never woke up. Call me if you have a chance. Her family is working on funeral arrangements. I think they would love to see you there.


My grandmother used to babysit to make a living when I was a kid. Leigh was one of the kids she used to watch along with me and Benny and probably half the rest of the kids in Cross Roads, VA. Leigh and I were inseparable. She was my best friend. We liked to tell people that didn’t know better we were sisters. Though with her fire engine red, curly hair and my dark brown, straight-as-an-arrow hair, I’m pretty sure no one believed us.


I hadn’t seen her since the last time she visited me at college years ago. We were both finishing our senior year. Since then, I had reduced our contact to a couple of phone calls on birthdays and some posts on Facebook.


Everything that happened tonight faded to the background as memories of Leigh flooded my brain. Weirdly, I didn’t feel anything. It was like my whole emotional grid shut down. I watched through the window as the train pulled into my stop. I got up and waited for the doors to open and let me out into the world. On auto pilot, I walked the five blocks to my apartment. After getting inside, I locked the door behind me and dropped my purse, coat and phone on the floor where I stood.

I looked around at the bare white walls of the studio apartment. It was a nondescript place to live, in a high rise building in Arlington, VA. Calling it a home would be overselling it. It felt like living in a hotel. A bland hotel with no character. But, character cost money, especially in Arlington.


I finally moved away from the door and sat on the edge of my bed, staring at the beige carpeted floor. My thoughts were eerily absent. I should be thinking about Leigh or even the loss of my job, the only thing I really had going for me in my life, but nothing would stick.


My phone buzzed, laying on the floor, with the rest of my stuff. Reluctantly, I stood up and walked the ten feet to get it. Staring at it a second, I picked it up off the floor. It was another text from Benny.


Did you get my text?


I texted back yes. Nothing more.


Are you coming home for the funeral?


I ignored that one. Picking up my coat and purse off the floor, I dropped them on the bed and went into the kitchen. I stared into the refrigerator like something would magically appear that would make me feel like eating. Giving up on that, I moved to the small hall closet that doubled as my pantry and stared in there for a few minutes.


At some point, my gaze landed on a box of trash bags and finally my thoughts settled onto a plan of action. Grabbing the trash bags, I pulled one out and started stuffing clothes in it.


Three house later, after making endless trips to my old car in the underground garage, I had crammed my car trunk and backseat full of my belongings. Luckily, my apartment had come furnished, so I could leave all the big stuff behind.


Sitting in the front seat, I pulled up the email app on my phone and emailed the building rental office. My lease only had one more month left and any living space was always in high demand in this area. My apartment would probably be filled by the weekend. Throwing my cellphone on the passenger seat, I put the car in gear and headed out of the garage. I had already dropped my keys and garage access card in the night drop box in the building lobby on my last trip into the garage.


On some level, I knew I was acting rashly. Still, at 3:00 a.m. I pulled out of the garage and headed west on interstate 66.

 

Lets Connect

You can connect with me on my website, www.nightowlstories.com or on Facebook. I am always happy to connect and discuss books, writing, and the things that make life worth living.

Find more short stories and updates on the next book in the Cross Roads Series by signing up for The Hoot newsletter.



- T.S. Robinson

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