Chapter 1: Lexi CHAPTER 1 Lexi
Lexi squinted and rolled over to see her alarm clock blinking a bright and cheery twelve o’clock. Her eyes shot open as the morning sun seeped in through their small bedroom window. “Babe, what time is it?!” she shrieked, poking her fiancé Seth’s shoulder as he lay on top of their sheets in nothing but camo boxers. She sat up quickly and immediately felt the pounding headache and roiling stomach from one too many margaritas the night before. It had been her twenty-fourth birthday, and her sisters and friends had insisted that an extra round of tequila on a Thursday night was a brilliant idea.
“Life’s only going to get worse from here,” Hanna had joked, raising her glass in the middle of The Ranch Bar & Grill, a dim wood-paneled restaurant with sticky floors and the best guacamole in all ten square miles of Brady, Louisiana.
The group had clinked their salt-rimmed glasses together before downing the cheap alcohol.
But it wasn’t until this morning when she realized Hanna had unknowingly jinxed her.
“Babe, the power must’ve gone out, and our alarm didn’t go off,” she said louder, shaking her fiancé to wake up.
Seth grunted and rolled over, slowly forming words. “You didn’t hear the thunderstorm last night? You were really out.”
She shuffled out of bed and looked at her phone. Shit.
The salon had opened fifteen minutes ago.
A rush of adrenaline coursed through her body as she threw on her gray cotton pocket dress, slid into her worn-out brown strappy sandals, and tied her long blond hair into a ponytail. Her stomach curdled again. Have mercy.
As she gave herself a once-over in the full-length mirror by the window in their bedroom, Seth appeared with a cup of hot coffee.
“Made from the Keurig with love,” he said, handing it to her and flashing a sleepy smile.
“God bless you,” she said, her head pounding even harder now. “I guess I’ll keep you.” She kissed his cheek as Archie, their two-year-old hound dog, came bounding in to get in on the love. Lexi scratched Archie’s head, as Seth wrapped her in a hug. Even if the rest of the day sucked, it was moments like these that kept her going.
The two had met four years ago when Seth was interning at the veterinary clinic. Lexi had brought her ailing rescue pup Nola in for a checkup, and the sixteen-year-old Chihuahua peed right on the waiting room floor while they anxiously waited for the doctor.
A cute guy in scrubs had run over to help clean it, and Lexi had apologized profusely to the man wiping up her dog’s urine with a roll of paper towels. “She does this when she gets nervous,” she explained to him, fidgeting with embarrassment. Seth had picked up Nola and cradled her in his arms.
“Don’t worry, I do the same thing!” he whispered jokingly to the dog. Seth then looked at Lexi with a twinkle in his eye, and she fell in love right then and there.
When they first started dating, she felt like Cinderella being courted by a prince. His parents were from old money. His dad currently oversaw the highly successful trucking business that had been in the Harris family for three generations. And his mom was a Sumerford, the equivalent to a royal family if Louisiana had a monarchy. She was an heiress to a steady stream of oil money—and a lady who lunched.
Seth and his family went on vacations to places like Barcelona and Hawaii, and they ate things like prime rib for dinner, whereas Lexi’s family often ate fish her father caught from the lake and subsisted on red beans and rice in lean months. She hadn’t realized how broke her family was until she started hanging out with Seth’s.
She was always in awe of his parents’ wealth, but couldn’t help feeling out of place with them. Deep down inside, she worried they looked down on her, wishing Seth would end up with someone from a more well-to-do family.
At least she knew Seth didn’t feel that way. He seemed inexplicably irritated when his parents took them out to stuffy restaurants, and he happily moved into a run-down shotgun house with Lexi on the poorer side of town, despite his parents’ offer to help with rent for a nicer place.
“Why don’t you want their help?” Lexi had asked him one day, as they looked over his student loan contract with an insanely high interest rate written in bold numbers. If her parents were as rich as his, she would have unabashedly accepted their charity.
“You don’t know my parents,” he said. “Everything always comes with strings attached.”
Lexi could understand. His mom Nancy was rather pushy, always making a last-ditch effort to get Seth to drop out of veterinary school and join the family company, or trying to convince him and Lexi to move into a more “proper” house.
According to Seth, the final straw had been when an awkward girl from another family from the country club showed up to their house in a sparkly dress on the night of his senior prom.
As the story goes, his mom had a tux waiting for him, as Seth sat slack-jawed on the couch holding a plate of nachos. His plans for the evening had been to play video games with his friends, commiserating over the fact that his girlfriend had just dumped him. Instead, his mom manipulated him into taking another girl to the prom. He had to see his ex two-step across the dance floor with another guy all night.
Seth would never disown his mom; he was too good of a southern boy for that. But he had strict personal boundaries when it came to accepting help from his parents and Lexi had to respect that.
These days, she and Seth didn’t have a lot of money, with her hair stylist salary being their main source of income while he finished his last two years of veterinary school, but they assured his parents they were doing just fine. But were they doing just fine? Lexi couldn’t help but wonder sometimes.
Lexi grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter, where they sat next to a pile of bills and the luxury bridal magazine she had splurged on a few weeks ago right after Seth proposed. Her sisters had told her she was crazy when she bought it considering it cost twelve dollars, but she insisted it would give her the inspiration she needed, even if she had to do it on a budget.
Her parents couldn’t afford anything more than the wood-paneled church reception hall, and Seth wouldn’t let his parents help on principle, so they had decided they would pay for everything themselves. They had talked about doing an intimate outdoor ceremony at sunset. The setting would be naturally romantic, and she could save a lot of money on a venue, decorations, and even flowers. There are flowers in nature, right?
Still, she secretly felt like she needed to do everything she could to make it feel fancy enough for her in-laws’ approval. She had already gotten some great ideas from the magazine, like draping the reception chairs in tulle and using vintage teapots as vases.
On the cover, a model wearing white-framed sunglasses and a designer lace bridal gown was posed in front of a backdrop that was scattered in red rose petals and crystals. Lexi took a moment to stare at the photo. The girl staring back at her had every quality she wanted to exude on her own wedding day: beauty… style… grace.
“Babe!” Seth yelled as he walked into the living room.
She startled, accidentally spilling coffee on her magazine. “Dammit, Seth!” she cried, grabbing a handful of paper towels and trying to clean off the cover before it stained.
“Jeez, calm down,” he said, walking over. “It’s just a magazine.” He grabbed the paper towel out of her hand and patted the magazine dry.
“A really expensive magazine,” she reminded him. “This is like something you put on your coffee table.”
He pressed a kiss onto her forehead. “It’ll be okay, babe. I’ll put it in the sun to dry.”
“Thanks,” she said, silently praying this wasn’t an omen for the rest of the day.
But when she got to her beat-up used sedan, she saw that her gas tank was almost on empty.
Luckily, the salon was only a few miles away, and it was payday. She just hoped she’d make it to the gas station after work before the car gave out on her.
As she pulled into the dusty gravel parking lot of The Mane Spot, Lexi took a deep breath and wondered if her boss Rae would have sympathy for her power outage story. She hadn’t had much in the past for Lexi’s other unbelievable yet completely true excuses, including: forgetting to set her clock forward for daylight savings, getting spit up on by her newborn niece, and having to wait in the car while that ten-foot alligator sat in the middle of the one-lane road outside her housing complex for twenty minutes.
As she opened the creaky wooden door covered in one too many coats of paint, everyone in the salon looked at her simultaneously. “So sorry I’m late,” she said breathlessly.
Rae looked over and squinted, making the leathered wrinkles on her face even more prominent. “Did last night’s birthday party just end?” she asked with a throaty laugh.
Lexi ran to her station, passing her coworker Brianna who looked a little green—she had been at last night’s festivities, too. The two shot each other a sympathetic look as Lexi threw her bag on the floor. “Nah, I’m too old to stay out past midnight,” she bantered, surprised Rae wasn’t pissed. “The storm caused a power outage—my alarm didn’t go off. Sorry!”
“No worries,” Rae said. “Your client is here, though.” She pointed to Mrs. Dorothy—an eighty-year-old woman who had come in for her weekly wash—sitting on the green pleather couch reading an old issue of Southern Living magazine featuring a pot of mac ’n’ cheese on the cover. Lexi’s stomach growled, reminding her the last thing she’d eaten was those black bean tacos the night before.
“Let’s get you shampooed,” she said with a forgive-me smile, gesturing Dorothy to the sink in the back of the salon. The Mane Spot ran the gamut in terms of clientele. Three coworkers’ chairs were occupied by a middle-aged woman whose hair was covered in pieces of foil; a quiet man wearing coveralls and work boots; and a tattooed woman in her sixties who apparently just had all her hair chopped off, as evidenced by the puddle of brown fluff accumulating on the floor around her.
At the sink, Mrs. Dorothy chatted about her cat’s health and the pecan pie she had made for her grandson’s birthday while Lexi massaged her scalp with a sudsy citrus shampoo. As she half listened to her client, she stared blankly at the crack in the wall that had been there since she started working at the salon over three years ago.
Lexi took a deep breath, inhaling the clean scent of the hair product mixed with the familiar smells of the musty, old building. She wondered if she’d still be staring at that crack when she was Rae’s age. If every day would be exactly the same for the rest of her life. Then she shook off the thought and got back to work.
Seven hours later, after a string of boring customers and bad hair that needed fixing, the door opened, and Lexi’s day took a sudden turn for the worse.
“Sur-prise!” Seth’s mom Nancy towered over her in three-inch heels. She was wearing a crisp white linen button-down with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of jeans that were designed to look old and worn but probably cost more than Lexi’s entire wardrobe. Lexi suddenly felt ashamed of her gray “hangover” dress and fraying sandals. She would’ve dressed nicer if she’d known Nancy was visiting.
“Oh… hi.” As Lexi leaned in for a stiff hug, she got a whiff of Nancy’s magnolia-scented perfume. “What are you doing here? I thought you went to La Bella’s.” It was The Mane Spot’s rival salon in the nicer part of town.
“I wanted to see you.” Nancy ran her fingers through her honey-hued hair. “Thought we could catch up while I get a blowout. Pat and I are going to the Gator Ball tonight.” It was the big annual fund-raiser in town where the rich folks paid five hundred dollars a plate—supposedly to save the alligators, but really it was an excuse to put on a fancy dress and get drunk off mint juleps.
“Oh, that’s fun,” Lexi said, flustered. She always felt so awkward and nervous around Nancy, like the woman was secretly judging everything about her. “Come with me.”
Nancy sat in the chair and tilted her head back in the sink. “So, did you hear the news about Mackenzie Rogers?” she asked in a gossipy tone.
Lexi knew Mackenzie from high school. The girl was known for her straight As, football-star boyfriend, and prom-queen popularity—she had everything Lexi wanted in high school. After Mackenzie went away to Tulane for college, Lexi thought she’d never see her again, but it turned out she was Nancy’s best friend’s daughter. The way her future mother-in-law talked about her made Lexi think Mackenzie was the daughter Nancy had always wanted. Instead, she was stuck with Lexi.
“She’s engaged!” Nancy said gleefully, snapping Lexi back to reality. “So exciting, right? You’ll both be planning your weddings at the same time!” She paused for a reaction.
Lexi forced a smile. “That’s great!”
As Nancy cooed over details—the country club! the band!—Lexi couldn’t help but feel the familiar sharp edge of envy for Mackenzie’s black-tie affair.
Lexi had made her peace with her quiet and homespun wedding. But as Nancy rattled on—she’s going to Paris in February to shop for a dress with her mom—Lexi suddenly had a pit in her stomach. She realized she was embarrassed for Nancy to come to her and Seth’s wedding. She almost wished she could uninvite her. She pictured Nancy sipping punch at the budget reception with judgment oozing from every pore.
Nancy locked eyes with her, as if she was privy to her innermost thoughts. “Please let me help you with the wedding,” she begged. “I know Seth is adamant about not letting us pay for anything, but maybe you could convince him.” She blinked her long eyelashes twice and smiled. “I just want it to be special.”
It took all her restraint for Lexi not to squeeze Nancy’s head with her fingers, which were currently lathering up the woman’s hair. “It’s going to be special,” Lexi affirmed. “Anyway, Seth and I really want to pay for this ourselves,” she said. “But thank you for the offer.”
Nancy let out a deep sigh. “I don’t know why my boy is so stubborn about money,” she said, shaking her head while Lexi wrapped it in a towel. “You should have seen his brothers’ weddings.” Lexi hadn’t been dating Seth when his older two brothers got married, but she had heard stories and seen pictures. One was at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans and the other was at the Old Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge.
“I’m sorry,” Lexi said to Nancy as they walked over to the chair. She gulped, not sure who she felt sorrier for. As she thought about mansions and country clubs, Lexi burned with jealousy.
She deftly twirled the round brush and methodically dried Nancy’s warm blond locks while they continued to make small talk. Lexi noticed the physical pain from the tequila was finally gone, but there was a gnawing in her stomach now.
After Lexi applied the smoothing serum to finish off the look, Nancy shook her perfectly blown-out hair and grinned as she looked at herself in the mirror. “You did a nice job,” she said, reaching into her snakeskin bag and handing Lexi a ten-dollar bill. “Tell my son hello for me.” She kissed her on the cheek and clicked her heels through the tiny salon, stopping at the reception desk to pay on her way out.
As she watched Nancy leave, Lexi couldn’t help but cringe at the ten-dollar bill in her hand. It was given as a compliment, but something about it still felt insulting, like she was her mother-in-law’s paid help.
Well, at least she’s gone, Lexi thought as her body relaxed a little. She hadn’t realized how tense she was.
Lexi checked her phone, the lock screen lighting up with a stack of messages from the group text with her sisters. They were making plans for their monthly girls’ night the following evening. The tradition, which consisted of getting tipsy off boxed wine, eating too much take-out food, and playing the lotto, began three years ago after a big jackpot had everyone in town trying their luck.
The most recent text from Hanna read, “Lex, don’t forget the lotto tix. Your turn to grab!”
Thank god for payday, Lexi thought as she tossed her cracked phone into her old frayed bag and headed out the door, stopping by Rae’s station to pick up her check. She’d get the lottery tickets at the gas station, along with a full tank of gas.
Her boss was sweeping snippets of brown hair off the floor, looking deep in thought when Lexi approached her.
“Hi, Rae, just wanna grab my check.”
Rae leaned the broom against the wall and frowned. “Oh, hon. I’m so sorry.” She lowered her voice. “It’s not ready yet. Think you could wait a week or two? I had to move some things around in the account because of that air conditioner repair last Tuesday.”
Lexi felt as though she might cry, but she supposed there wasn’t much she could do about it. This had happened before. Rae was good for the money; but still, it wasn’t a convenient time.
“Okay,” she agreed and walked out into the humid May air.
After she got into her car, Lexi shuffled through her wallet and began counting all the dollar bills she had earned through tips that day.
That would fill up a little less than half her gas tank with a few extra bucks to buy the lotto tickets. She rummaged through the glove compartment, searching for any extra loose change. But all that was in there were a few pennies and a thick pile of old McDonald’s napkins she’d been hoarding for years.
Her sister’s words from the night before echoed in her mind again. It’ll only get worse from here. At this moment, perhaps for the first time, it felt true. She felt raw, as if life was scraping her along without her consent.
Holding the cash in her hand, Lexi closed her eyes and let out a loud scream. It felt good, like she was finally releasing the bad energy hovering over her all day. There had to be more than this. There had to be.
When she opened her eyes, Lexi saw with horror Nancy was standing only a few feet away, looking right in her direction. She must have just come out of the drugstore next to the salon—she was holding a plastic bag in her hand.
Lexi cowered in her seat, hoping Seth’s mom hadn’t actually seen her pathetic breakdown. But the look on her face—confused and concerned—told her she had indeed seen it all.
Before Nancy could have the chance to say or do anything else that would make her feel even more embarrassed, Lexi peeled out of the parking lot in her dirty car.
As her tear-filled eyes darted from the road to the gas gauge, she began to pray she’d have enough fuel to make it to the station. And since she was already talking with God, she figured she’d go ahead and ask for something else that she needed at that moment: an antidote to the poisonous feelings overtaking her body—humiliation, envy, and disappointment with how her life was turning out.