Rick poked his head around the corner. “Kevin, Chef’s called a meeting before we open; he says it’s important. Come on.” He was gone as suddenly as he’d appeared. Kevin stared after him, scrunching his eyebrows up and wondering what was going on. Whatever it was, it could wait until he finished tying his shoes.
It was absolute habit now, opening doors with his shoulder. Kevin found himself doing it to doors with knobs and wondering why they wouldn’t open. He decided that, when he was older and married and had his own house, every door would swing freely on a hinge so it wouldn’t be a problem.
The kitchen was more crowded than Kevin had ever seen; even people with the day off had packed themselves into the prep area.
“Everyone, I’ve got some things I need to tell you. We’ve got a busy day ahead of us, so I’ll be brief. My real name is not Chef,” Chef said, grinning. Kati let out a mocking gasp and delicately placed fingers on her chest. “It’s a name I took on just before I started college. I was always told to act like you already had the job you want, so I asked my friends and family to start calling me Chef. My real name is … well, maybe I shouldn’t tell you all that, I can’t have you tracking me down on Facebook.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a chef and, the last decade, working with all of you have been some of the best years of my life. Every single one of you will always have a special place in my heart.” Tears glistened in Chef’s eyes.
Kevin looked around, confused, wondering what was going on.
Chef continued, “There was a time in my life that I would have given up everything to own my own restaurant. Those were good days. I was broke and hungry … and young. This has always been my dream, but it’s time for me to move on.”
This time, Kati’s gasp was genuine. So was everyone else’s.
“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet but it is time for a change in my life. This isn’t why I called the meeting, though. No, I have decided to introduce you to the new boss around here, the new Head Chef.”
A mix of sad, excited and confused murmurs sprang up in the silence. Chef waited until they quieted, of their own accord, before continuing.
“Marcus.” All eyes turned toward him. “For the past eight years, you’ve talked about, one day, opening up your own restaurant.” Chef smiled and held his long, wooden spoon out to Marcus. “If you want it, this place is yours.”
Marcus hesitantly reached out and took the spoon. He held it in front of his face, as if he’d discovered it had magical properties. “Th-thank you, Chef.”
“No, Marcus, thank you. And thank you, all. This has been an amazing experience for me, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share it with you all. For those of you that have been with me from the beginning, and even those of you that have recently joined my family, I will always consider you my friends. Thank you.”
Chef bowed his head and left the restaurant, never to return.
* * *
Chef stared at the ground, rather the engraved slab of granite planted in the ground. He leaned heavily on a gnarled wooden cane that was supposed to look like it was straight off a tree. The stab wound in his leg, from Liam’s knife, still hadn’t fully healed. A cold breeze ruffled his hair and sent some crunchy leaves tumbling across Lily’s headstone. Tears threatened his eyes as he stared. He didn’t fight them or wipe them away when they fell.
Before he found and confronted her killer, Chef felt that he couldn’t face his daughter – he realized that Ethan Hatcher had nothing to do with that. Now that he was gone, Chef found it no easier. The man was dead, but his death brought no justice.
He wanted to apologize to her but he couldn’t bring himself to ask her forgiveness. As Miranda had so aptly put it, Chef had simply not been there and, for that, he shouldn’t be forgiven. Instead, he stood, looking down at the only thing that remained of his baby girl, a cold stone slab that, in no way, represented who she was.
“I couldn’t answer your question, Lily, about why there are bad people in the world, because I am one.” He looked away from her headstone and started watching the clouds, instead. “I guess if you have been around, you saw that for yourself. It was something I never meant for any of you to see. My misguided obsession with keeping you girls safe. My … addiction.” A sob rose in his chest but he choked it back. He didn’t deserve to pity himself.
“Your mom is probably going to leave me. I can’t say that I blame her. It can’t be easy, learning that she’s living with a … me.” He still couldn’t bring himself to say it. “I doubt your sister will ever talk to me again. She won’t even look at me.”
For the first time in his adult life, Chef didn’t feel the need to be anywhere, to accomplish anything. Using his cane, he awkwardly sat in the grass in front of Lily’s headstone. He spent the afternoon doing what he now knew he should have been doing all along. He spent the afternoon with his daughter.