Restaurants ran down both sides of Jefferson Street, most of them chains. Scattered among the McDonalds, Burger Kings, CVS Pharmacies, and gas stations were local businesses.
As we neared the restaurant, Haley stopped talking and asked, “What kind of restaurant was it?”
“Basically fine dining. A steak house, I think.”
Off to the right I saw the building, a long building, decorated to suggested a cabin in the woods — fake wooden logs for the walls, a big, glowing sign that said “Grand Lake Steak and Fine Dining” next to a picture of a buck.
I turned the car into the parking lot.
“Oh, this ought to be interesting,” she said.
“It’s one of ours.”
“I thought your family only did Italian food.”
“We just bought this one a month ago. They were in a lot of trouble, and the owner offered to my dad for low price, and he’s always wanted a location in this part of town, so…”
“Well, it’s not like they’ll know you then.”
She laughed. “I wish. No, Dad went here once and thought the service was horrible. He sent in people to change the kitchen’s system, and retrain the wait staff. I helped with the wait staff.”
I parked the car. We got out and began to cross the parking lot. It was about half full.
“Well, if you do end up talking to the staff, I won’t be bothered.”
She snorted. “I don’t think you have to worry about that. They hate me.”
I put my hand on the door handle and held it open for her. “Why?”
“I’m the daughter of the guy who might fire everybody, and I’m here to tell them how to do their jobs.”
We stepped inside. Instead of chairs, the waiting area had benches made out fake logs, but no one was sitting on them.
A blond girl a little taller than Haley stood behind hostess stand. I guessed she might be a little older than we were. She wore the restaurant’s uniform, a white shirt and green skirt, and looked familiar.
“Gloria!” Haley said.
They hugged briefly.
“Nick, this is my cousin Gloria. She was at the Christmas party. Her sister works at your school.”
“You mean Ms. D’Onofrio? You look a lot alike.”
“People say that a lot. I really don’t see it. Are the two of you with the other couple here for prom?”
When we said yes, she led us to the table. While we were walking, Haley said, “How are things going?”
“Slow, but it’s only five. If you’re talking about the staff — better than last week.”
It looked different in the dining area than I’d expected. The fake logs made the place look a little cheesy, but inside, the interior designer had gone for elegance — tablecloths, portraits, dark wall hangings, candles at the tables, and golden light fixtures. Classical music played in the background, and the few people in the restaurant wore suits or dresses. No one I saw wore jeans.
Gloria brought us to Keith and Courtney’s table, handed us menus, and said, “Your server will be with you in a moment.”
Haley looked up at her. “Who?”
Gloria said, “Your favorite,” and left before Haley could say anything else.
Leaning close to me, Haley said, “That doesn’t sound good.”
Keith and Courtney had a corner table, giving a view of Jefferson street on one side and the neighboring Taco Bell through the other window.
I introduced Haley to them and as I did, noticed that Courtney looked different. For one thing, she looked tanned. For another, she seemed thinner. She’d never been grossly overweight, but didn’t look overweight at all at that moment. She wasn’t wearing a dress that would hide it either.
Both Keith and Courtney laughed as I stopped to look at her.
In a low voice, Courtney said, “I can change my body at will.”
“I can’t turn into animals, but as long as I look human, I can change anything else — eyes, skin, hair…”
Her hand turned darker until it was a very dark brown and then faded back to almost her normal color.
“Wow. Can you do anything else?”
“I can make myself stronger or weaker or faster by changing shape, but not superhero strong. Despite what he thinks,” she nudged Keith, “I’m not going to run out and stop muggers. Can you imagine it?”
“You’d have a easier time with a secret identity than most. You could change into a guy.”
Haley gave me a look.
“I’m not saying she should.”
Courtney said, “I’m not tempted at all. Don’t get me wrong. I like heroes. I’ve followed Guardian and the Midwest Defenders all my life, but there’s fantasy and reality. Not everybody becomes a big name. A lot of people die.”
Keith picked up a piece of bread from the middle of the table and started to butter it. “I think she should. She could sneak into anywhere.”
Courtney said, “It’s not going to happen, hon.”
Honestly, it was like they’d been married for thirty years or something.
The waitress came up just then. She looked like she was in her mid-twenties.
“Are you ready to order?” Then in a voice that sounded like it was supposed to be friendly, but, just wasn’t quite, “Oh, hi Haley.”
“Hi Tracy.” Haley’s voice had almost exactly the same tone.
“We’re ready,” Keith said. “They just got here.”
“I know what’s on the menu,” Haley said.
I picked up my menu. “Go ahead, just ask me last.”
They ordered. Keith ordered prime rib. Courtney ordered chicken marsala. Haley ordered steak.
“I’d like it very rare.” Haley said. “Seared on the outside, but that’s all.”
I read the menu while she finished ordering and finally said, “I’ll have the New York Peppersteak. Medium rare.”
As Tracy left with our order, Haley said, “I caught her stealing desserts at one of our other restaurants and they fired her, and put her on our blacklist.”
“Why is she here then?”
“They hired her before we bought it, and she hasn’t done anything wrong.”
To Keith and Courtney, I said, “Haley’s family owns a bunch of Italian restaurants in town.”
Tracy came back with the appetizer, some kind of cheese plate, and we talked. It went well. Keith and Courtney asked Haley about her family’s restaurants. We all talked about where we planned to go to college.
On the whole it went better than I’d have expected, given that Keith was capable of talking about superheroes for hours (he didn’t), and Haley definitely wouldn’t want to.
Then Tracy came out with the tray of food, giving Haley her plate last, and leaving for the kitchen.
My steak smelled great. I had my fork and knife in my hands and had begun to cut when Haley said, “Nick, there’s something wrong.”
Her steak seemed normal to me. It had been lightly seared on the top, barely cooked, but that’s what she’d asked for.
She stuck her fork into the meat and pulled it up, away from the plate.
The bottom had been completely blackened.
“I can’t believe this.”
She stood up, taking the plate with her.
I watched her turn toward the kitchen and begin to walk. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s going to win me any friends.”