Chase wasn’t especially good at many things. He made an okay mechanic, did decent body work. He didn’t run fast or throw far, but he could hold his own in a pick-up game of football. Really, the only thing he did excel at was pissing off Stacy, but he’d really outdone himself that night at Gimp’s.
She’d never stayed so mad, for so long, before. Holding onto her emotions tended to make her physically ill. Usually, no matter how pissed she was, she’d let it go just so it wouldn’t eat her up inside, but four days after their night out at Gimp’s, Stacy still wasn’t acting like herself. She didn’t share the meals she cooked for him. She didn’t reach out to touch him or caress him. She didn’t stop him for a kiss before he walked out the door. When they slept, she practically clung to the edge of the bed. She wouldn’t make casual conversation or look straight at him. She’d lapse into silence, stare off into nothing. One moment she’d look about to cry, and the next she’d touch her fingers to her lips and her cheeks would flush hot with fever.
She insisted she felt fine, but he knew it had to be the anger making her sick. Or maybe she caught the flu from one of the little germ factories she taught at the elementary school. Either way, he figured it was to his advantage to give her a wide berth, which he did, but by the middle of the week he’d had enough of tiptoeing around her. He was sick of eating alone, fed up with her silence, and tired of her cold shoulder at night. He’d had a shitty day at work and he wanted to vent. He wanted comfort. But she ignored his sighs and rolled her eyes every time he slammed a cabinet door. Without even a pretense of concern, she pulled his chicken pot pie from the oven, handed him a beer, and sat at the kitchen table overflowing with fabric scraps and her sewing machine.
“Another quilt?” he asked.
“Yep,” she answered without looking at him.
“Who’s it for?”
He ran out of questions, and she wasn’t helping him make conversation, so he took his plate into the living room and parked in front of the television. His first bite of pot pie, he burned the shit out of the roof of his mouth on boiling hot gravy and mixed vegetables. If Stacy heard his yelp of pain, she ignored him. She’d probably planned for it to happen. He imagined her sporting an evil grin as she wielded her fabric scissors, laughing at his misery.
He cooled his mouth with a swig of beer and scrolled aimlessly through the channel guide with the remote. He’d made three circuits through the channels without finding a damn thing worth watching when Deuce called.
“We’re a man short for leagues tonight. John baled on me, Kenny has to work, and I can’t get a hold of either of my subs. All I’ve got is me, Ed, Eddie and Steve. I need one more. Get your ass out to Juliette and help a brother out.”
Of course he was going to go—anything was better than sharing air with Stacy—but he made Deuce work for it first. “I’m busy.”
“You’re not fucking busy.”
“Where you playing?”
“No fucking way.” He’d changed his mind. Listening to Stacy’s silence beat hanging out at a cop bar.
“I’ll pay your dues. I’ll buy your drinks. Just don’t make me forfeit to these cocky assholes.”
“I don’t know…” Stacy’s sewing machine came to life in an angry whirr, and Chase changed his mind again. Anything beat listening to that high-pitched drone all night. “If you’re buying, it’s not going to be beer.”
“Whatever. Just get here. I’ll put you down to shoot last, but that’s not going to buy a lot of time if these guys run the table on us.”
Chase went into the kitchen to get a beer for the road. Stacy didn’t as much as look up at him. Her stony silence pissed him off. He wanted to grab her and shake her and force her to pay attention to him. Just as bad, he wanted to kneel in front of her and rest his head in her lap and feel her gentle touch through his hair.
“I’m heading out.”
She eyed the beer in his hand. “Be careful.”
He stood in the doorway, waiting for the barrage of questions she usually asked, ‘Where are you going; what are you doing; who are you going with; when will you be back…’ But she didn’t ask any of it. Obviously, she didn’t care about him anymore, so he didn’t care either and grabbed a second beer.
Chase took the back roads and drove slow, stretching out the miles to Juliette. On the south side of town, he passed by the trailer court where Jill lived, and debated stopping, but he didn’t know what he would say to her. She hadn’t texted him since the night she’d told him she was pregnant, and he hadn’t contacted her either. Maybe with Jill it would be as simple as that—the information was out there and he could do with it what he wanted. Or maybe she was waiting for him to take control. He had no clue what she wanted, what he was supposed to do. The uncertainty was killing him.
He didn’t know how to handle someone who didn’t outwardly obsess over everything. If Stacy had been the pregnant one, she would have relentlessly hounded him with her worries and fears, written twenty miles of To-Do lists, and consulted seven different doctors every time she hiccupped. With her, he didn’t have to wonder about anything. She would tell him exactly what she wanted him to do, exactly when she wanted him to do it, and if he didn’t do it fast enough, she would remind him again. He hated to be nagged, but even more he hated to make tough decisions. Stacy was much better at it, so he let her decide everything for him. It sure made his life a hell of a lot easier.
When he arrived at Kitty’s, Chase parked between a blacked out Juliette P.D. Charger Pursuit and Deuce’s rusted up Blazer with the naked Barbie doll hogtied and duct taped to the hood like a demented ornament. As he walked past, Chase ripped the doll from the truck and tossed it into the gutter. In a day or two, when he discovered it missing, Deuce would once again blame the horde of angry feminists he imagined stalked him from the shadows, their sole mission in life to harass him and keep the man down. Chase found his paranoia funny as hell. He messed with him every chance he got.
As Chase walked in, heavy dance beats poured from the bar. It was the thing he hated most about Kitty’s. The owner, George Valish, a GQ-type out of Omaha, let his friends have run of the place, and Olivia loved to play DJ. According to Jill and Deuce, who both knew Olivia from the trailer court, Olivia and George had once been lovers. Olivia had since married Cletus Wade, a police officer, and George had started dating Joel, the Speedee delivery guy. The whole thing sounded a little too ménage à trios to Chase, so he gave up trying to understand their deal. All he knew was the drinks at Kitty’s were over-priced, the music sucked, and you were more likely to find Grey’s Anatomy on the big screen on Thursday nights than a football game.
When George asked what he was drinking, Chase had to shout his order of Jack and Coke over Silentó’s “Watch Me,” the repetitive ditty that had been Olivia’s summer obsession. Once he had his drink in hand, he worked his way through a dance troupe of middle school girls doing the Nae Nae. He had a hard time keeping track of which kid was whose, but one of them was Olivia’s stepdaughter. The rest probably belonged to Kenny.
Chase found Deuce, Ed, Eddie and Steve sitting around the table in the back, cheering on one of the cops from the other team as he competed against Olivia in a lightning round of Battle Shots. Judging from the glaze to his eyes, he wasn’t winning. And judging from the furrow in Clete’s brow, the guy hadn’t taken his turn at the table yet. Maybe it was Chase’s lucky night after all.
“You’re late,” Deuce barked in greeting as Chase pulled up a chair.
“Too late?” Chase hoped.
“Naw. We decided to wait you out.”
Chase tipped his head toward the kids and muttered low, “Looks like a fucking daycare in here.”
Deuce gave a quick nod and rolled his eyes. “I know, right? Most of them are Steve’s kids though, so watch your mouth.”
Chase glanced over to Steve, a former MMA fighter who worked third shift at the packing plant, and tipped his chin. “How’s it goin’?”
Steve glared back.
Yep, he should have stayed home.
“Put Kaufman out of his misery already, Liv,” Clete grumbled. The officer was built with the same stout stature as Deuce, but he kept up his dedication to the gym, giving him the look of lean power instead of heavy bulk. “We’ve got a game to get back to.”
“Hush you.” Olivia waved him off like a pesky fly as she made a big deal of studying the hand-drawn grid on the lid of the pizza box sitting open front of her. In the base of the box, her armada of shot glass ships remained full, while Officer Kaufman’s fleet limped along with one measly shot remaining. “I’m concentrating here.”
“Well, don’t think too hard. You might hurt yourself.” Clete checked his watch then whistled across the room toward the girls. “Allie! Homework.”
“No buts. It’s eight o’clock.”
“You, too, girls,” Steve said to the rest.
“We did ours, Daddy,” the oldest replied with a smile that revealed her lie, but Steve bought her charm and allowed them to continue to play while a freckle-faced blonde broke away from the group.
Allie grumbled a bit as she shuffled over to the bar with her backpack and climbed up onto a stool. George gave the well-polished wood a quick swipe with his towel and deposited a frothy glass of chocolate milk in front of her.
She graced him with a beautiful, braces smile. “Merci beaucoup, monsieur.”
George winked. “My pleasure, Mademoiselle Allie-son.”
“I could launch into this quadrant here…” Olivia stroked her jaw, tapped a finger to her lip as she debated. “But I’ve missed there before…”
“Just shoot already!” Clete snapped.
“F! U!” Olivia snapped back.
“You need a number too, not just letters. And U’s not on the board.”
“Isn’t it?” she asked, faking innocence as the guys snickered.
The tip of Clete’s ears turned red and his eyes narrowed. “Very funny.”
“My bad.” She shrugged, and then rapid fired, “F-5.”
“Damn it!” Kaufman cursed as another officer cheered, “You sunk his battleship!”
Olivia and her guys chanted, “Kauf, Kauf, Kauf, Kauf, Kauf,” as Officer Kaufman downed a triple shot of tequila, and then George brought over a round of shots on the house for both teams. The officers chanted another cheer and tossed back together while Chase and his group half-heartedly raised their glasses to each other before drinking. After his shot, Chase chugged his Jack and Coke to try and catch up, and then he sifted through the rack to try and find a halfway decent house cue.
Olivia basked in the glory of her win for a few moments more, until Barry White came on the jukebox. She squealed in joy and started to move her hips, then her shoulders, and then her entire body. Seductively, she beckoned to Clete, who only shook his head and laughed. “Absolutely not.”
“Poo,” she pouted for the briefest of moments, before whipping around. “George!”
She turned so fast she tangled in her own feet and tripped, smacking face-first into his chest. He caught her easily. “Yes, my Liv?”
She looked up to him with adoration in her eyes. “Will you be my first? My last?”
“Your everything,” he agreed and held her hand as she gracefully spun out and back in to him again.
As they danced off to the open space in the center of the room, Clete rose to his feet. Chase braced for a jealous flare, a testosterone fueled shout, a shove or jab. But the officer only took a swig of his beer, popped his neck, and picked up his pool cue.
“Fuck,” Chase muttered under his breath. He racked, Clete broke, and then Chase leaned against the wall and watched as his good fortune disappeared into the pockets one striped ball at a time.
“Dad!” Allie hollered from across the room.
Without a hint of hitch in his stroke, Clete answered, “Yes, sweetheart?” while simultaneously banking the ten ball into the side pocket he’d called.
“What’s a coefficient?”
“Uh…” Clete looked to Chase for help, but Chase could only shrug. He had no clue.
“It’s the number multiplied with a variable,” George offered as he and Olivia danced in a slow circle, their bodies moving together effortlessly to the rhythm and sway of the music. Chase eyed Clete again, looking for even a modicum of jealousy over his wife dancing with another man, and there was nothing. Not even the tiniest hint of care in the world. Chase didn’t get it. At all. Not one bit.
“I don’t get it,” Allie echoed his thoughts.
If that had been Stacy dancing with George, the way she was dancing with George, he would have smashed in his face, knocked him out cold, and then murdered him where he lay. His blood started to boil just thinking about it.
And that’s when he heard her voice.
“I’ll help you, Allie.”
Not Stacy’s voice, but Jill’s. Chase whipped around and watched her come from the kitchen, her hair tied back in a scarf, her face flushed and glistening with sweat from the heat of the stove and fryers. Instantly, he was pissed, but he didn’t know what about.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he demanded, much louder and angrier than he intended.
“Excuse me?” she snapped back.
“Hey.” Deuce grabbed Chase’s arm and jerked him back. “Check yourself.”
Clete stood tall and hard tapped the butt of his pool cue onto the floor as he stared Chase down. “Everything okay here?”
Chase felt five pairs of cop eyes land heavy on him, and he held his hands up in an effort to calm the situation. “Everything’s fine. No problems. I was just surprised to see her, that’s all. I’m sorry, Jill. I didn’t know you worked here.”
Without taking his eyes off Chase, Clete asked, “Jill?”
“We’re fine, Clete.” She motioned for Chase and tipped her head toward the door. “Outside?”
The last thing he wanted to do was go outside and have that conversation. He shook his head. “I’m kinda busy here.”
Clete turned toward the table, pointed with his cue, “Eight ball, corner pocket,” and sunk the shot. “Now you’re not.”
Chase grunted a semblance of thanks, laid his cue upon the table, and followed Jill outside.