Calling all Dumplin’ fans! Julie Murphy is BACK this summer with another unforgettable heroine we can’t wait to meet – Ramona Blue. Seeing as Ramona is a six foot tall swimmer with bright blue hair, you might not think her and Willowdean have too much in common. But fear not, Ramona Blue delivers on the feel good, laugh out loud, sassy yet heartfelt vibes we’ve come to expect from Julie’s work.
Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family. The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Their friendship picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected. Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem.
Ramona Blue hits shelves on May 9th, but we’ve got the first three chapters below so you can start reading NOW!
This is a memory I want to keep forever: Grace standing at the stove of her parents’ rental cottage in one of her dad’s oversize T-shirts as she makes us a can of SpaghettiOs. Her mom already cleaned out the fridge and cabinets, throwing away anything with an expiration date.
“Almost ready,” says Grace as she stirs the pasta around with a wooden spoon.
“I should probably leave soon,” I tell her. I hate prolonged good-byes. They’re as bad as tearing a Band-Aid off one arm hair at a time.
“Don’t pretend like you have somewhere to be right now. Besides, you should eat before you go.” Grace is like her mom in that way. Every time we’ve left the house over the last month, her mom has tried to unload some kind of food on us, like we were taking a long journey and would need rations. “Don’t make me eat these SpaghettiOs by myself.”
“Okay,” I say. “The thought of that is actually pretty pitiful.”
She takes the pot from the stove and drops an oven mitt on the kitchen table before setting it down in front of me. Scooting in close, she winds her legs between mine and hands me a wooden spoon. We’re both white, but my legs are permanently tanned from life on the coast (though a little hairy, because shaving is the actual worst), while Grace’s normally ivory skin is splotchy and irritated from all the overexposure to the sun. And then there are her feet.
“What?” she asks, tilting her head. Her raven waves brush against her shoulders. She’s obsessed with straightening her hair, but even the mention of humidity makes her ends curl. “Don’t look at my feet.” She kicks me in the shin. “You’re looking at my feet.”
I swallow a spoonful of pasta. “I like your feet.” They’re flat and wide and much too big for her body. And for some reason I find this totally adorable. “They’re like hobbit feet.”
“My feet are not hairy,” she insists.
I almost come back at her with some dumb quip, but the clock behind her melts into focus, and I remember.
Grace is leaving me. I knew she would leave me from the first moment we met on the beach as I handed out happy-hour flyers for Boucher’s. She lay spread out on a beach chair in a black swimsuit with the sides cut out and a towel over her feet. I remember wishing I knew her well enough to know why she was hiding her feet.
This is our last meal together. In less than an hour, her mom, dad, and brother will all wake up and pack whatever else remains from their summer in Eulogy into the back of their station wagon, and they’ll head home to their normal lives, leaving a hole in mine.
“I’m gonna be miserable without you,” says Grace between bites. We’re both too realistic to make promises we can’t keep. Or maybe I’m too scared to ask her to promise me anything. She tugs at my ponytail. “And your stupid blue hair.”
“Not as much as I’m going to miss your hobbit feet.”
She smiles and slurps the pasta off her spoon.
Grace loves this shit. It’s the junk food she craves after growing up in a house where her mother fed her homemade meals like stuffed salmon and sautéed asparagus. SpaghettiOs or any other kind of prepackaged food marketed toward kids—that was the kind of stuff Hattie and I grew up on. With Dad working and Mom gone, we ate anything that could be microwaved.
I think I’m in love with Grace. But sometimes it’s hard to tell if I’m in love with her or her life. Her adorable little brother, Max, who is still sweet, because he has no idea how good-looking he will be someday, and her mom and dad, always checking in and leaving out leftovers for us. And this house. It’s only a vacation rental, but it still feels so permanent.
Grace tucks her black bob behind her ears. “Did you ever look up any of those schools I put on that list for you?”
I shrug. This is our sticking point—the one thing we can’t get past. Grace says the only thing keeping me here after high school is me. And I can concede that, in a way, she is right, but Grace is the kind of girl who never has to look at a price tag or tell the clerk at the grocery store to put a few items back.
We sit here curled into each other as the clock on the microwave melts into morning.
“I should go,” I finally say.
She nudges her forehead against mine.
If we lived in a world where only my rules applied, I would kiss her. Hard. And leave.
Instead we walk hand in hand to the porch, where my bike sits, and then we make our way down the gravel driveway to the mailbox still shrouded in darkness.
I rest my bike against the post.
“Text me when you get a chance,” I tell her.
“Olive juice,” she says. I love you, her lips read. Her mother used to mouth it to her when she was dropping Grace off at school so she didn’t embarrass her in front of all her friends.
“I love you, too,” I whisper back with my lips already pressed into hers. She tastes like SpaghettiOs and the cigar we stole from her dad’s portable humidor. Her lips are chapped and her hair dirty with salt water from our midnight swim just a few short hours ago. I feel her dissolving into a memory already.
I leave Grace’s house and ride past the trailer park, where my dad and Hattie are asleep. My days always start like this—before everyone else’s, in the moments when the only thing lighting Eulogy is the casino on the waterfront. Today, I’m a little earlier than usual, so I take the time to ride straight down to the water. Carefully, I lay my bike down on the sidewalk and kick my flip-flops off before walking down the rickety wooden steps to the beach.
My Mississippi beach is very rarely love at first sight, but an endearing, prodding kind of affection. Despite her lack of natural beauty, there are many like me who love this place more than she deserves. It’s the kind of place people on a budget choose for vacation. Thanks to the line of sandbars trimming the shore and our proximity to the Mississippi River, our water is brown and murky. Nothing like Florida’s blue-green waves. But a family like Grace’s can get a lot of vacation for their buck if they’re willing to overlook the imperfections.
Sand kicks up around my ankles until I reach the water’s edge. I press my toes deep into the sand as the cool water rinses over them briefly before pulling back. The moon hangs in the sky, chasing the horizon, as the sun whispers along the waterfront.
Water has always been my siren song. Any kind of water—oceans, lakes, pools. There’s something about being weightless that makes me think anything is possible. My whole body exhales in a way that it can’t when I’m standing on land.
The brightening horizon reminds me that I have somewhere to be. Shaking sand from my feet, I run back up to the sidewalk and slide my flip-flops back on.
A continuous stream of tears rushes down my cheeks as I direct my handlebars around the corner and down the hill to where Charlie waits in his truck. I hate crying. I mean, most everyone does. But some people, like Hattie, feel better after a good cry. When Hattie cries, it’s like watching a snake shed its skin. Tears somehow let her regenerate, whereas crying only makes me angry I cared so much to begin with.
“You’re late,” Charlie calls. He wears his usual uniform of coffee-stained undershirt and twenty-year-old jeans. With his shaggy thinning hair, he looks like an old white guy who either traps little kids in his van or grows weed in his backyard. Thankfully it’s the latter.
I squeeze the brake on my handlebars and push the tears back into my eyes with my other fist. “Overslept.”
I don’t have a history of being late, so Charlie shrugs it off. Maybe a five a.m. start time is earlier than most teenagers could commit to, but I treasure all my little jobs. My paper route, busing tables at Boucher’s, and working whatever under-the-table cash gigs I can find. I guess, growing up, most kids wonder what they will do for a living. But for me, there was never any worry over what the job would be, just how soon I could start.
Charlie loads the basket on the front of my bike with papers for the second half of my route, while I fill my messenger bag. Charlie is the kind of man who will always look like a boy, and the uneven whiskers lining his upper lip don’t do anything to help the matter.
“Going for the mustache look?” I ask.
He strokes what little facial hair he has. “Wanted a change. You like?”
“Change is good,” I tell him as I swing my leg over my bike and wave good-bye.
I weave up and down the streets on my route, letting my memory guide me until almost every house has a paper waiting in its yard. The routine of it keeps the thought of Grace at bay, at least for a little while.
At the corner of John Street and Mayfield, I pass Eulogy Baptist, a bright-white building with perfectly manicured lawns and flower boxes under each windowsill. Dim light from the back office bleeds into the street, and I wonder if Reverend Don is getting in or leaving.
I turn the corner down Clayton Avenue, pedaling as I lean back in my seat and gently tap the brake while I careen to the bottom of the hill. It’s in this moment when I always feel like I’m flying. But then the bottom of the hill brings me back to reality.
Standing in front of my last house, which was recently added to my route, is a black woman in an unzipped terry-cloth cover-up with a bright-yellow bathing suit underneath, watering her flower bed. I always love morning people. They feel solid and reliable. Not like my mom, who sleeps past noon if no one wakes her up. Grace wasn’t a morning person either. It was a small detail that always bothered me for some reason.
Grace. Grace, who I might not ever see again. I feel the tears begin to threaten.
“Mornin’,” says the woman as the paper hits her lawn.
“Mornin’,” I call back, pedaling past.
“Hey!” she shouts. Something hits me square in the shoulders, knocking the wind out of me.
“What the hell?” I mutter to myself as I loop back around to find I’ve been hit with one of my own papers.
As I reach down to pick it up, the woman’s voice says, “Ramona Blue! Get back here!”
Her voice. I know it. And that nickname. Ramona Blue is what my dad called me when I was a little girl, because he could never get me out of the water. It’s a name not many people know.
The woman walks to the edge of her yard and as she does, I see past the ten years of wrinkles. Dropping one foot to the ground, I stop my bike from rolling any farther as memories trickle back. “Agnes?”
“You get your heinie over here and gimme a hug!”
I drop my bike right there on the curb and fall into an embrace.
Agnes used to come down every summer from Baton Rouge with her husband and their grandson, Freddie, who they were raising. She was as much a part of my childhood memories as my own grandmother until the summer I turned nine and they just stopped coming. That was the first time I’d really understood that even if it feels like summer lasts forever here in Eulogy, Mississippi, it doesn’t.
I can’t think of many moments when I’ve looked in the mirror and taken an inventory of all the ways my body has changed. But here and now with Agnes squeezing me tight, her forehead barely brushing my chest, I feel like I’m some giant cradling a baby doll.
Agnes pulls away but holds my shoulders tight, examining me. She tugs on my long, wavy ponytail, and says, “Of course I’m not surprised. Your daddy always did let you get away with everything short of murder.”
My cheeks burn, and even though the ache in my chest is as heavy as an anchor, I smile. She’s referring to my hair. Ramona Blue with the blue hair.
Depending on when you catch me, my hair could be any shade ranging from royal blue to turquoise. I was thirteen the first time I dyed it with Kool-Aid mix and a little bit of water. To no one’s surprise, I was sent home from school, but my dad came to the rescue despite how much he hated what I’d done to the blond locks I’d inherited from my mother. He fought with my principal until the whole ordeal had eaten up more time than it was worth. And my hair’s been blue ever since, thanks to Hattie and her amateur understanding of cosmetology.
Today, though, I am in need of a dye job. The sun, salt water, and plain old time have left my hair a powdery shade of turquoise.
“You sprung up like a weed.” She shakes her head, and I wonder what it is she’s seeing in her memory of me. She points to my empty messenger bag. “Last house on your route then?”
I nod. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You come hungry tomorrow morning.” She pats my belly. “We’re gonna have us a big ol’ breakfast.”
“I can do that,” I say. “Okay.”
Agnes’s lips spread into a wide, knowing grin. “Freddie is going to die.”
Freddie. All my memories of him are sun bleached and loud, but I try not to let myself be fooled by the past. Growing up can change you.
Hugging Agnes may have made me feel tall, but nothing makes me feel as large as home sweet trailer. Like always, I duck my head to pass through the front door of our trailer and walk down the narrow hallway leading to Hattie’s bedroom and mine. They used to be one room, but with help from our uncle Dean, Dad blew out part of our hallway-facing wall, put a door in, and then added a plywood wall to divide our space on Hattie’s twelfth birthday. After that, he bought her a wardrobe at the Salvation Army and all of a sudden our shared bedroom had become two.
I began to outgrow this place somewhere around the summer before ninth grade. I’d always been tall, but that last growth spurt tipped me over from tall to too tall. The ceilings of our trailer stretch as high as seven feet, which means my six-foot-three frame requires that I duck through doorways and contort my body to fit beneath the showerhead in the bathroom.
Inside my room, I rest my bike against my dresser, and just as I’m about to flip on the lights, I notice a lump lying in my bed.
“Scoot over,” I whisper, tiptoeing across the floor.
Hattie, my older sister by two years, obliges, but barely. “Tyler is a furnace,” she mumbles.
I slide into bed behind her. Always the little sister, but forever the big spoon.
We used to fit so perfectly into this twin bed, because like Dad always said: the Leroux sisters were in the business of growing north to south, and never east to west. But that’s no longer the case. Hattie’s belly is growing every day. I knew she was pregnant almost as soon as she did. So did Dad. We don’t waste time with secrets in our house.
“Make him go home,” I tell her.
“Your feet are so cold,” she says as she presses her calves against my toes. “Tommy wants to know if you can come into work early.”
She turns to face me, her belly pressed to mine. It’s not big. Not yet. In fact, to anyone else it’s not even noticeable. But I know every bit of her so well that I can feel the difference there in her abdomen. Or maybe I just think I can. Wrapping an arm around me, she pulls me close to her and whispers, “I’m so sorry, Ramona.”
My lips tremble.
“Hey, now,” she says. “I know you can’t see this far ahead right now, but there will be other girls.”
I shake my head, tears staining the pillow we share. “It’s not like she died or something,” I say. “And we’re going to keep talking. Or at least she said she wanted to.”
“Grace was great, okay? I’m not saying she wasn’t.” Hattie isn’t Grace’s biggest fan—she never has trusted outsiders—but I appreciate her pretending. “But you’re gonna get out of here after graduation and meet tons of people and maybe figure out there are lots of great girls.”
Maybe a few months ago, Hattie would’ve been right. Up until recently, the two of us had plans to get out of Eulogy together after graduation. Not big college plans. But small plans to wait tables or maybe even work retail and create a new life all our own in a place like New Orleans or maybe even Texas. A place without the tiny little trailer we’ve called home for too long now.
But then Hattie went and got pregnant, and even though neither of us have said so out loud, I know those plans have changed.
Tyler is here for now, but I can’t imagine he’s anything more than temporary. My plans were never extraordinary to begin with, and now that Hattie has my niece or my nephew incubating inside of her, they’re even less important. Hattie’s my sister. She’s my sister forever.
“And I can’t kick Tyler out, by the way,” she adds.
I shake my head. “Yeah, you can. Just tell him to go home.”
“This is sort of his home now.”
I prop myself up on my elbow and open my mouth, waiting for the words to pour out. But I’m too shocked. And horrified.
She loops a loose piece of hair behind my ear, trying to act like this is no big deal. “Dad said he could move in,” she whispers.
There are so many things I want to tell her in this moment. Our house is too small. Tyler is temporary. There will be even less room when the baby comes. I don’t need another body in this house to tell me that it’s too small and we’ve all outgrown this place. And yet I feel like I’m the only one of us who sees it. I’m the only one wondering where we go from here.
But with my legs dangling off the foot of my twin bed, I can’t help but feel that the problem is me. And that, somehow, I have outstayed my welcome here.
Internally, I am screaming, but on the exterior the only sign of life is the tears beading at the corners of my eyes. “Is it dumb that I’m really upset about the Olympics being over, too?”
She laughs. “It depends. Is that why you’re crying?”
“No . . . maybe a little bit.”
Hattie wraps her arms around me and pulls me to her like Mrs. Pearlman’s old Maine coon does with her kittens when they’re done feeding. It’s a momentary reminder that I’m the actual little sister. “I bet you could’ve been good enough for the Olympics if you’d ever even tried.”
“Shut up,” I tell her, fully aware that she’s being so nice to me because I’m a mess of a human being right now. I’ve always loved the Olympics. Most kids were obsessed with SpongeBob or Transformers or One Direction, but something about Team USA and the swim team in particular always felt magical to me. It was like every person on that team was the star of their own Cinderella story and the whole country was rooting for them to get the prince—or princess. In fact, sitting on my dresser is an old Michael Phelps Wheaties box with Missy Franklin’s face taped over his; she rules and he drools, obviously.
“You’re the best swimmer I know, Ramona Blue.”
I roll my eyes, but my lids feel heavier than they did a moment ago. “You don’t even know any swimmers. You’re the best amateur hairdresser I know and I don’t see you styling the rich and famous anytime soon.”
“I’m just saying.” She yawns. “You don’t have a tiny human in your body. You can still be whatever the hell you want.”
I roll my eyes again and yawn back at her. I wish it were that simple. “I need to get some rest before our shift.”
I close my eyes, waiting for her breathing to deepen. I will always love Hattie for her undying faith in me, but even from a very young age, I knew what it meant to be the kind of person with the time and resources to be something like a swimmer or a gymnast or a freaking speed walker. (Yes, race walking is totally an Olympic sport.) My sport—the special skill I’ve developed my whole life—is surviving, and that doesn’t leave much room for following Cinderella dreams.
The oysters at Boucher’s are the best reason to come to Eulogy. The decor at Boucher’s is the second-best reason.
No, really. That’s what all the travel website reviews say. Year-round this place is dressed for Christmas, with multicolor lights dripping from the ceiling and artificial trees in every corner. Unless it’s pouring or unbearably hot, the patio doors roll up like the kind you see at an automotive shop. It’s the type of place where you can find locals and tourists coexisting, because it’s too hard to keep the food a secret.
I plop down at the bar in front of Saul, who slings his towel over his shoulder and chuckles. “Too young to serve, sweetheart.”
I groan, letting my head fall down on the counter. Hattie and I slept for a few hours before coming in a little early for second shift.
“Hey, Saul,” says Hattie as she walks in behind me. We both work here, mostly because it’s in walking distance of our house and our forms of transportation are limited to our feet, my bike, and whatever rides we’re offered from Saul or whoever Hattie is currently dating.
“What’s her problem?” he asks my sister.
She hops up onto the stool beside me. “Grace and her family went home this morning.”
“And Tyler is moving in,” I whisper. And then mouth Help me.
He rolls his eyes—not at me, but at my sister—and shakes a hand through my hair. “I told you not to fall in love, didn’t I? We’re young. We’re supposed to have sex with stupid people and get high at public parks or something.”
I pick my head up enough to see him, and his ridiculous handlebar mustache is enough to make me smile again. Unlike Charlie’s, Saul’s mustache is thick and perfectly groomed. That, combined with his cutoff jorts and his Budweiser tank top, give him this dirty seventies porn-star look that would make anyone else seem like a pedophile, but not Saul. His look may age him a bit, but Saul is nineteen and fresh out of high school. The ’stache, shorts, and tank are all a part of what he calls his beach trash aesthetic. Saul treats his clothing like it’s a costume—or armor even.
“Staff meeting in five!” Tommy, our manager and the owner’s son, calls from the kitchen.
Saul pours me a glass of Diet Coke and, after checking to make sure no one is around, adds a splash of whiskey. He slides it over before leaning on the bar. “Sugar,” he says, “you broke my rules.”
Saul is the king of summer hookups. His rules are law. And I broke all two of them. 1. Don’t date a tourist. 2. Hook up in the closet all you want; just don’t date in it.
Grace and I talked about her being in the closet a lot, but I never tried very hard to push her. It felt like a violation. And honestly I hated to imagine the contrast between her life here with me and the one she lived back home. I knew there was one boy her mom always mentioned, but Grace never brought him up except to say that she planned on breaking up with him at the end of the summer. It might seem silly now, but when I was with her, it was easy to believe that he didn’t really exist. Or at least that he wasn’t a threat.
“I bet your friends will be excited to see you,” I said a few days before she left as we sat on a bench in front of the beach, with Highway 90 at our backs. Grace was one of those rare people in high school who was friends with all the different groups—nothing like me. She actually looked forward to the first day of school.
Her cheek was hot with summer as she leaned her head against my shoulder. I hoped that there was some piece of her that belonged only to me. A laugh or a smile or a look, even—some little corner of Grace that only I knew. Sometimes when I couldn’t fall asleep, I wondered if she loved me as much as I loved her or if maybe she just loved the person she was realizing she’d been all along.
“Your parents love you,” I said, and kissed the curve of her shoulder all the way to the base of her neck before our lips collided. “You should tell them.”
She crossed her arms over her stomach. “I want to. And I will. After I graduate, maybe. But I want to have all these good memories first, because . . . what if things change? Even in the smallest way?”
“Don’t you wish you could be this person all the time?” I asked, trying not to sound pushy. “We could go on dates. Maybe even visit each other for dumb shit like homecoming and prom.”
Knowing Grace’s parents, they’d probably join some kind of club for parents of gay kids and march in pride parades. And if there weren’t any pride parades to be found in Picayune, Mississippi, they’d probably start one.
Grace turned to me. “You don’t get it.” She sounded exasperated already. “You don’t know my life back home. I can’t just show up on the first day of school and tell people I’m gay or bi. It’s not like a new haircut you get over the summer.” She pressed her lips into a thin line, and I could see she was searching for words. “I get that we’re supposed to hate high school, but I like my life. A lot. I like my friends and my classes, and I don’t want to ruin that when I only have a year left.”
I took a deep breath and concentrated on the tone of my voice. “I understand. I do. But doesn’t it somehow cheapen the whole experience if you’re hiding behind the person everyone else thinks you are?”
She looked away then, pulling her knees into her chest and picking at her chipped toenail polish. “There’s a lot I could lose,” she said. “A lot of people I could hurt.”
Or a single person, I thought bitterly. Andrew. Her boyfriend. In moments like these I couldn’t help but wonder if the temporary thing in Grace’s life was me.
I shake my head, trying to somehow get rid of all thoughts of Grace. Saul was right about dating in the closet, and this is what I get for thinking I might somehow be different.
Ruth, Saul’s younger sister, reaches over my shoulder and grabs my drink, knocking the rest of it back in a single gulp. She cringes immediately, coughing into the crook of her elbow. “Um, okay, that was way more than Coke.”
“Ruthie! That was mine,” I tell her. “I earned that little bit of whiskey.”
She sits down next to me, tying her short waitress apron around her waist. “And how do you figure that?” she asks drily.
Ruth has the kind of outlook I would kill for. To her, this life here in Eulogy is temporary. A pit stop on her way to bigger and better things. And she’s totally unapologetic about it.
“I paid for it in heartbreak,” I tell her, eyeing the now empty glass.
“Hey, she might be back next summer,” offers Ruth. “But probably not.”
Saul swats her arm with a rag. The list of things Saul and Ruth have in common is short. Other than being related, they’re both gay, Cajun, and white. That’s pretty much it.
She shrugs. “I’m trying to be realistic.”
And if Ruthie is anything, she is realistic.
I almost smile. Ruth and I have known each other almost our whole lives, because Eulogy is only so big, but we didn’t become friends until the end of freshman year. Saul had just come out to his whole family, and no one took it well. And then Ruth came out, too. I remember not seeing either of them at school for a while, like they had something the rest of us could catch. Now I know they’d been sent to Florida for a few weeks to live with their grandparents and attend their church’s revival.
It wasn’t like that for me. When I came out, it was a blip. The type of news that flashes across the bottom ticker of the screen and then is quickly forgotten. Hattie shrugged and said, “Well, that explains a lot.” And Dad thought about it for a few minutes before adding, “Nothing wrong with that.” My mom, though . . . she still thinks this is a phase.
Eulogy isn’t all potholes and trailer parks. There are chunks of this place that passersby drive through that make them think they could live here and that small-town life can be quaint and cozy. That’s the part of town Saul and Ruth come from, and since Eulogy only has one high school, there are no walls to keep kids like them from kids like me, even though their mom would love that.
When Saul and Ruth came back from Florida, Hattie sought them out. Growing up, I was never invited to birthday parties or ever really had a best friend outside of Hattie or Freddie. Most of my social interactions were a result of being the little-sister tagalong. So it only makes sense that Ruth and Saul are in my life because Hattie put them there. Sometimes when she seems so thoughtless, I remind myself of all the times she made room for me in her life.
Tommy sticks his head out the kitchen door. He’s a short black guy with a bald, shiny scalp. “Let’s move it!”
Saul winks at me, and I follow him to the back.
After our staff meeting, we all go about our business for the afternoon and on into the evening. Ruthie and Hattie tend to their sections while Saul works the bar, which isn’t entirely legal since he’s not twenty-one, but that’s never seemed to be an issue.
I bus table after table all night. I love the routine, and only wish it kept my mind busier. Between every trip to the kitchen I find myself checking my phone, hoping for a message from Grace. This morning, after falling asleep alongside Hattie, I woke to a picture from her. It was a dark, blurry photo of the NOW LEAVING EULOGY! DON’T BE A STRANGER! sign. I texted her back a frowning emoji but was unsure what else to say. I didn’t want to look too needy, even though I very much felt that way.
She lives only an hour and a half away, but that’s one and a half impossible hours for a pair of high school girls without cars.
“Ramona!” calls Tommy from the kitchen. “I need you on to-go pickup!”
I dump my tub of dirty dishes into the soaking sink and hustle to the to-go counter.
A light-skinned black boy with a near ubiquitous amount of freckles and short, curly hair sits perched on a bar stool beneath the takeout sign. I would know those freckles anywhere. “Freddie.”
He’s so intently focused on his phone that he doesn’t even hear me.
“Freddie!” I shove his shoulder a little.
Finally he spins around on his toes, and his deep brown eyes widen with recognition. Without even taking a breath, he pulls me in for a hug. “Ramona Blue!”
My chest tightens a little, and I don’t completely know why. This morning with Agnes, I felt like the giant, but now it’s the other way around. Freddie, who was always a few inches behind, is still an inch or so shorter than me, but something about him makes me feel cozy. His arms and legs are gangly, but still lined with a thin layer of sinewy muscle. He almost reminds me of one of those plastic dolls with long, stretched-out limbs you can tie into multiple knots. His jawline is rough with stubble and acne scars. His dark-brown eyes are a little sadder than I remember.
“Are you guys here for a few weeks?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “For good.”
My heart skips, and I push him a little too hard. “Seriously?”
“Grams retired, so she and Bart bought a place down here like she always wanted.”
“Bart?” I ask.
His mouth turns into a frown. “Gramps passed away a few years back. She got married to Bart last February.” He shrugs. “Good guy.”
“Damn,” I hiss. “I’m sorry to hear about your grandpa.” There’s so much more I want to say. But there’s some invisible barrier there between us created by the years we’ve spent apart.
He nods. “I think my gram called in an order?”
“Right. Let me track that down.” I run around to the other side of the counter and pack his bag full of extra hot sauce, ketchup, and plasticware. “Y’all need plates?”
“Sure. Fewer dishes for me to do after dinner.”
“Ramona!” snaps Hattie from the hostess stand. “I need table eight clear!”
I hand over the food and quickly make change for him. “Hey, I saw Agnes earlier today and she invited me over for breakfast, so I’ll see you in the morning? Maybe we can catch up more then?”
He grins, and I notice he still has the same sliver of a gap between his two front teeth. “For sure.”
We say good-bye, and I watch as he gets into a bright-white Cadillac turned orange by the setting sun.
What did you think of the first three chapters of Ramona Blue? Tell us in the comments below!
✉📥 Want more chapter samplers delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for the Epic Reads First5 newsletter and we’ll send you the first 5 chapters from a new book each week, one chapter a day!