“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back it up!”
Up high, Dan straddled the house framing and helped to guide Jimmy as he worked the crane below, lifting the roof trusses into place. Brent adjusted from the other end and they secured each quickly before moving on to the next. Rain had set them back a week, but the forecast called for temperatures in the upper seventies and sunshine through the upcoming weekend. Jimmy had asked for the following week off, and Dan wanted to get the roof on and the house sealed before the Rogans left and the weather changed. Autumn weather in Nebraska could be unpredictable at best and Dan didn’t want to take the chance that rain, or even snow, would hold them up again.
From his vantage point, Dan could see Chase’s truck coming down the road before he turned into the driveway. As he made his way into the construction site, he honked, waking Dolly from her nap under the lilac hedge. Belatedly, she barked and struggled to rise to her feet. To save her the effort, Dan waved down and hollered for Chase to hang on. Satisfied, Dolly yawned, turned a wide circle, and settled into the dirt nest she had spent the summer slowly etching out of the earth beneath the shrubbery.
Dan hadn’t talked to Chase since the night they’d fought at Gimp’s. As he made his way down the ladder, he briefly worried Stacy had told Chase about their kiss. That kiss… Over and over, it replayed in his mind; the way he’d kissed her, where he’d touched her, how he’d used her. He felt horrible, disgusted with himself. He needed to apologize. Twice, he’d picked up the phone to call her, but he’d chickened out both times. She hadn’t called him, either. He was beginning to wonder if she ever would again.
Dan worked his way through the muddy field, over to where Chase sat in his truck. “What’s going on?”
“Do you have a minute we could talk?” Chase asked through the open window.
Dan looked around. The only other people there were Jimmy and Brent, and they were a bit preoccupied with building his house. “How much more private do you want to get?”
“Oh, yeah. Right… Well, hey, listen…” Chase stuttered and stopped, tapped his thumb against the steering wheel. “I’m in a bind.”
“What kind of bind?” Dan asked.
Chase rubbed his eye, shifted in his seat. “You remember that guy I told you about?”
“The Camaro guy. The one from Lincoln?”
Dan had no clue what he was talking about, but pretended he did. “What about him?”
“Well, you know how I did all that work on his car? And it was a lot of work, right?”
“Okay…” Dan looked up to the roof and shrugged an apology to Brent, who then pulled out his cell phone and started texting. Jimmy waited in the crane below, idly tapping the warning horn, making it chirp.
“Well, he came and got the car two weeks ago. I wasn’t there when he got it. I was at lunch.”
“And?” Dan prodded.
“Well, it wasn’t done. It wasn’t supposed to be done yet, you know? There was still a lot to do. We had weeks’ worth of work yet to do.”
“Get to the point, Chase. I’m kind of busy today.”
“I bought some stuff for the shop, thinking I was going to do this big job, right? Some new tools and other stuff that we’d been thinking of getting. But the guy backed out and I haven’t had a lot of work since,” Chase explained. “I’m kinda stuck.”
“Did he pay his bill?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah. He paid for everything when he picked up the car. That’s not the problem. It’s that I was banking on the rest of that money coming in. There was a lot of labor I didn’t get to bill out.” Chase looked out the windshield, keeping his eyes adverted from Dan’s. “I was wondering if you could spot me a little.”
And there it was. “How much?”
“One, maybe two thousand. Just for a few weeks,” Chase promised.
Dan bit the inside of his cheek. His father had always told him the fastest way to lose a friend was to loan a man money. If you can spare it, gift it to him instead. Over the years, Dan had lived by that philosophy, floating Chase a hundred here, a thousand there. He’d bailed out the auto shop when Chase got upside down and couldn’t pay employees, and he’d paid off Stacy’s hospital bills the winter she couldn’t shake pneumonia. He’d given freely, voluntarily, and never once thought to ask for it back. This time would be no different, but not because he worried about losing Chase as a friend. If not for Stacy, Dan would have told Chase where to go and been done with him forever. Because of Stacy, he wrote a check.
“Thanks,” Chase said as Dan handed it to him. He looked it over, folded it in half, and tucked it into his shirt pocket. “Let’s keep this between the two of us, okay? Stacy doesn’t need to know about it. I’ll get it back to you before you even know it’s gone.”
“Too late,” Dan muttered under his breath as he turned toward the construction site.
“Really, Dan, this means a lot!” Chase called after him.
Dan tossed a brisk wave of acknowledgement over his shoulder, and didn’t look back even when Chase spun out in the mud. As far as Dan was concerned, whatever friendship they’d had left officially ended that night at Gimp’s. The money was just the final nail in the coffin.
When Dan handed Chase the check, Chase felt such a powerful wave of guilt it made him physically nauseas. For the briefest of moments, he felt the bile rise and a cold sweat form. His hands started to visibly shake, and he had to actively concentrate on the mechanics of folding the check to keep from tearing it. He’d made up a dozen different stories on his way out to Chelsea Lake, a dozen different reasons for needing the money. The lies were all weak. They all made him look like a fool. But the truth was much worse.
In the end it didn’t matter. Dan gave him the money, regardless of the reason, just like he always had in the past. But this time, after Dan handed over the check, he didn’t make a big show of how it was no big deal, like he usually did. He just turned his back and walked away. And when Chase hollered out his appreciation, he could’ve sworn Dan flipped him off. If that was the way he wanted to be, fuck him. Chase didn’t need people like that in his life. Gunning the truck, his tires dug into the soft earth and he kicked up a spray of mud and gravel, making himself look even more the fool as he peeled out of Chelsea Lake.
His anger slowly simmered as he waited in line to cash the check at the bank, and as he fought midday grain truck traffic on the highway to Juliette. By the time he got to Jill’s, and saw Ashley’s car parked in the lane, he was ready for a six-pack. Ashley and her judgmental attitude stood in the doorway, acting as gatekeeper, as he climbed the steps to Jill’s porch.
“Is she home?”
“Maybe.” Arms crossed under her breasts, Ashley glared down her nose at him. She was a tiny and curvy little package, kind of cute, like Stacy, but her beauty was only candy coating over a ball-busting, bitch center. “What do you want?”
It was none of her business why he was there, but he played nice to be allowed inside. “I have something for her.”
“She’s busy. Leave it with me.”
“I’m not leaving it with you. Either let me in or bring her to the door.”
Ashley looked over her shoulder, into the trailer. When she turned back, her tone lost some of its hard edge. “She’s sick, Chase. I’m not letting you in.”
“Yes, for real.”
He pushed past Ashley, into the trailer, and called out for Jill.
“Hey!” Ashley hurried after him, grabbing at his arm, but he bushed her off.
He found Jill in the bathroom, sitting beside the toilet on a fluffy pink rug, with her back the bathtub and her knees pulled to her chest. She had her face buried into her folded arms. Wearing only a thin, grey t-shirt and pair of purple panties, her skinny legs were covered in goose pimples from the draft of cool air coming through the open window above her.
“Go away, Chase,” she said into her arms, her voice thick from tears.
Shutting the door to give them privacy, he reached over to close the window before pulling a thick towel from the cabinet. He wrapped it around her shoulders, and then sat beside her on the rug.
“Morning sickness?” he asked.
“More like all day sickness,” she answered, still not looking up from her knees. “As long as I don’t move, I’m fine.”
“You can’t sit here all day.”
“I think I can, actually.” Her shoulders hitched as she started a fresh round of crying. “It’s better than the alternative.”
“And this is normal?”
“For me it is. I just have to learn what I can’t eat.”
“What did you eat?”
“I don’t know! Please, stop talking.”
Feeling utterly helpless, he placed a gentle hand on the back of her head. “You want me to leave?”
“Okay.” He stroked her hair, kissed her shoulder. As he stood, he pulled the envelope of cash from his pocket and set it on the bathroom counter. It made him feel dirty, like he was paying a prostitute. He picked it up and clutched it tightly in his hand. “Feel better, okay?”
She nodded into her arms and he left her sitting on the cold floor with the towel around her shoulders. He found Ashley in the living room, with her nursing school books and laptop surrounding her, studying and watching Judge Judy. He stood and watched with her for a moment.
“What’s the case?” he asked.
Gesturing toward the television, she explained, “That guy cheated on the ugly girl with the pretty one, so the mom of the ugly girl keyed the guy’s car.”
“Why didn’t she key the girl’s car?”
Ashley looked at him like he was insane. “Why would she?”
“I don’t know.” Hell, none of it made sense to Chase. He turned the envelope over in his hands and then, reluctantly, held it out to Ashley. “Can you give this to Jill?”
“Sure.” Ashley took the cash and tucked it into Jill’s purse without snooping through it. “You want a beer?”
“No, thanks.” He didn’t only want a beer. He wanted to get completely wasted. Deuce would have something to get him there faster. He sent a quick text to find out where he was, and then watched the television for a moment longer, mesmerized by Judge Judy as she rained down a hailstorm of moral judgment upon the cheater before ruling in his favor.
At the end of the day, as the Rogans loaded their truck and as Dan finished locking up the site, he stared across the still water of the lake and tried to imagine an evening with only his rotten mood for company. It sounded torturous.
“You guys want to go for a beer?”
He surprised even himself with the invitation, but they were quick to agree and he followed them to Captain Jack’s in Allman Falls. Jack’s was everything Gimp’s was not—clean, modern, and expensive. The waitresses were all young, attractive, and they knew how to flirt for better tips. Cheryl had never flirted a day in her life.
Their waitress arrived at the table before Dan had a chance to pull out a chair. Tall and athletically slender, she wore her thick, mahogany hair tied in a loose topknot and moved with efficiency, tossing a trio of cardboard coasters around the table as though dealing a hand of blackjack.
“What’ll you have, Jimmy?” she asked, without even an acknowledgement to either Brent or Dan. Apparently, she didn’t know how to flirt either. Dan liked her immediately.
“Three beers,” Jimmy told her.
“And a tomato juice,” Brent added before heading for the restroom.
Dan turned to watch the waitress walk off and tried to get a read on her age. She looked twenty, twenty-two at the most, but she carried the tired, cynical air of someone much older. “You know her?”
“Who? Kylie? Yeah, I know her.”
“Is she always…” Unsure how to phrase it nicely, Dan left it hanging, but Jimmy caught his intention.
“Such a bitch?”
“She’s not my biggest fan.”
“What did you do to her?”
“Dated her sister.”
“Bad breakup?” Dan guessed.
“She’s still hanging around.”
Dan didn’t quite know what that meant, but he didn’t care enough to ask. He looked around the bar and caught sight of Chase sitting in the corner with three men Dan didn’t recognize. He looked trashed, giving Dan a pretty good idea where a good portion of the money he’d given Chase had gone, and it wasn’t to pay off debt.
“Who are the guys in the corner over there with Chase?”
Jimmy glanced over his shoulder and laughed in disgust. “The fat guy’s Sam something. I don’t know the other two.”
“Are they from around here?” Dan asked.
“No clue. Why?”
Leaning back in his chair, Dan folded his arms across his chest and stared Chase down. As though he could feel the weight of Dan’s glare, Chase looked up in the middle of a laugh. When his eyes met Dan’s, he looked away quickly. He quit laughing, but he didn’t look ashamed. If anything, he looked angry for the intrusion.
Dan kept his eyes on Chase as he asked Jimmy, “I thought Chase’s shop was open until six.”
“It is, but Chase has been flaking out a lot lately. Roger’s been pretty much running the place,” Jimmy said. Roger Rogan, Jimmy and Brent’s uncle, had worked for Chase for ten years, since the day he opened the business. “He’s pretty pissed about it, too.”
Kylie set her tray on the table and placed bottles in front of Dan and Jimmy. For Brent, she set out a draft beer and cracked open a small can of V8.
Jimmy asked her, “Who’s sitting with Sam and Chase over there?”
“Deuce and John, two of the biggest douche bags who ever lived. Why? You want me to hook you up with one of them?” Kylie asked sarcastically.
“Yeah, I like the greasy one,” Jimmy replied just as sarcastically.
“Prick,” Kylie said.
“Hag,” Jimmy countered.
“Play nice, kids,” Brent said as he returned to the table. He tossed a ten and two ones on Kylie’s tray, then looked at his drink and whined, “Aw, V8?”
“Sorry. We’re out of plain juice.”
He snagged back the ones from her tray, but she smacked his hand and he dropped them again. She leaned in to Jimmy and whispered, “Asshole.”
“Bitch,” he whispered back, and watched her walk away.
“Just screw her and get it over with already,” Brent said.
“Screw you.” Jimmy took his beer and left the table, wandering over to one across the bar where two younger men sat.
Brent leaned back in his chair to steal a salt shaker from the table behind them, and curiosity got the better of Dan. “What the hell’s the story with them?”
“Who? Jimmy and Kylie?” Brent asked.
“Yeah,” Dan answered.
“It’s not much of a story. Jimmy has a thing for Kylie, but he won’t admit it.”
“Really?” Dan asked in surprise. From where he sat, Jimmy wasn’t feeling any kind of love for the skinny brunette. It felt more like hate to him.
Brent pointed over to the table where Jimmy sat and said, “Watch him for a minute or so. You’ll see what I mean.”
As he watched, Dan asked, “Is everything ok with your dad?”
“He’s doing pretty good. Why?”
“Jimmy said you guys need next week off. I just assumed you were going down to Florida.”
“We’re going to Montana.”
“What’s in Montana?”
“Hunting. There’s about six of us that go every year. You want to come with?”
“Nah, maybe next year.”
“You should come. You need to get out more. You’re like a little hermit.”
In his own defense, Dan said, “I went out to Gimp’s a week or so ago.”
“I heard you punched Chase. That made me laugh,” Brent said with a grin.
“How’d you hear about that?”
Brent shrugged. “Word gets around. Small town, you know?”
“Cheryl?” Dan guessed.
“I’m sure it started there. Why do you hang out with Chase anyway? The guy’s an ass.” Before Dan could answer, Brent pointed at Jimmy and said, “He’s on the move.”
Dan looked over at Jimmy and watched as he left the table he was at and moved to another one where an older man sat by himself.
“He doesn’t even like that guy,” Brent said. “He’s only sitting there so Kylie will have to talk to him. He watches her, figures out her route, and changes tables accordingly. Keep watching, you’ll see.”
Dan watched and just as Brent predicted, Jimmy barely said two words to the man he was sitting with. Kylie brought him both a beer and talked to Jimmy across the table for a minute then went back to the bar. As soon as she left, he moved tables.
This time he sat with three middle-aged women in business attire enjoying happy hour. They made a fuss over him, one of them flirting a bit, and a few minutes later Kylie brought the table their order. Jimmy leaned back in his chair, blocking her path and said something that made her angry, which made him laugh. She pushed his chair upright and shoved past him, back to the bar.
“Is he going to change tables all night?” Dan asked.
“Naw, he’ll maybe do one or two more, until she’s good and mad, and then he’ll just park at the bar and annoy her. Some nights she ignores him, but usually she’ll argue, talk, flirt—whatever you want to call it.”
“What is it, some kind of bizarre mating ritual?” Dan asked, amused.
Brent laughed. “Yeah, he learned it in kindergarten.”
“So Kylie likes him, too?”
“Big time. What ticks me off is that since Jimmy’s not sitting here, we’re in no-man’s-land. It would take a miracle for Kylie to notice we’re out of beer.” He stood and went to the bar to get them another round.
When Brent returned, Dan asked, “So why doesn’t Jimmy just break up with the sister and ask Kylie out?”
“She still wouldn’t go out with him.”
“Because Ashley really likes Jimmy. She acts like she doesn’t, but she does, and Kylie knows that. She’d never go behind her sister’s back.”
“But it wouldn’t be behind her back. If they’re broken up, Jimmy’s fair game,” Dan said.
“It doesn’t matter. As long as Ashley likes Jimmy, Kylie won’t go out with him.” Brent paused for a drink then added, “They’re not dating anyway.”
“Who’s not dating?”
“Jimmy and Ashley.”
“They’re not dating?” Dan was confused again.
“No. They never ‘dated’ in a literal sense,” Brent said, miming quotations for emphasis. “He’s just sleeping her.”
“So he could stop, right?” Dan asked, even more confused.
“You would think so,” Brent agreed with a shrug. “But he won’t.”
“Why?” Dan asked. It seemed like a simple solution to him.
“I don’t know.” Brent sighed. “It’s pretty messed up.”
“No wonder Kylie hates him.”
Brent just nodded and they watched as Jimmy moved to the bar. Kylie immediately pounced on him, saying something quickly, and then turned away. He pulled the straw he’d been chewing on from his mouth, and as though tossing a dart, he threw the straw at her. It stuck in her hair. She pulled it out and turned back to him, an angry glower on her face. He said something else and a blush rose up her neck. She tried to fight it, but eventually she smiled, and Dan saw exactly why Jimmy was so enthralled by her.
“She hates him, but she likes him,” Brent said. “They don’t just do this little routine at the bar. They do it everywhere. One of them’s always showing up where the other one’s at, like they’ve got some freaky secret radar for each other. It’s crazy.”
“But she won’t date him?” Dan asked.
Brent shook his head.
“I don’t understand why he keeps Ashley in the mix,” Dan said. “He’s making this harder than it has to be.”
“I think it’s easier for Jimmy if he doesn’t have to deal with his feelings for Kylie, especially since he’s still messed up from Marissa.”
“High school. Long story,” Brent dismissed as he doctored his beer with V8 and salt. “She works here, too. And he’s still sleeping with her, occasionally.”
Dan snorted out a laugh of disbelief. “Of course he is.”
“I told you it was messed up. With Ashley in the way, he’s safe. He doesn’t have to commit to anyone, and no matter what she does to him, she won’t break his heart because she’s the one woman in the mix that he’s not in love with. Besides, if he broke up with Ashley, he wouldn’t get to crash all of Ashley’s family dinners at her mom’s house and harass Kylie over mashed potatoes and gravy.”
“Is Kylie dating anyone?” Dan asked, hoping that would make this whole situation make since.
“No. Kylie doesn’t date. She’s got a little boy and that whole thing’s all kinds of messed up. The kid’s dad’s an ass. He burned her pretty bad and I think she’s scared to trust anyone, especially someone like Jimmy.”
“He’s a good guy.”
“He is,” Brent agreed with a shrug. “But he’s a slut.”
“But the funny thing is, Jimmy’s been that little boy’s daddy since the day he was born. You should see those two together. Jimmy turns into a whole different person. Hell, sometimes I think he’s keeping Ashley around so he doesn’t lose access to Brayden, either,” Brent said and sighed heavily. “It’s a mess.”
“So how are things going with Aria?” Dan asked to change the subject.
Brent smiled and said, “Really good. She’s someone I could get serious with.”
“I thought so.”
As Brent looked down into his beer, his tone became more serious, almost cautious. “Can I ask you something?”
“Well, it’s kind of a stupid question… you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to… but I see my mom and everything she’s going through with my dad, taking care of him and all… and I know you went through it all with Millie, and… I don’t know… how do you… What I mean is, do you think… if you knew… was it…” He sighed in frustration and looked off across the bar. “Never mind.”
Dan didn’t quite know for sure what Brent wanted to ask, but he had a pretty good idea. He felt the emptiness in his heart open up again at the mention of Millie. It was the first time he’d thought of her all day. The realization scared him.
“It’s more than worth it, Brent. I’d do it all over again—every bit of it—even if I knew this was how it would end.”
Brent nodded. “I’d hoped so.”
They finished their beers in silence, and then Dan was ready to head home. He threw a little extra money on the table for a tip even though Kylie had never come back, and then looked over at Jimmy. Lazily chewing on another straw, he had his stool positioned so he could lean against the wall and watch Kylie as she worked. He looked as if he could sit there all night watching her, and based on what Brent said, he probably would.
“You know, someday Kylie’s going to meet someone she thinks is worth the risk and start dating again. What’s Jimmy going to do if it’s not him?” Dan asked.
“I have no idea,” Brent said. “But I hope I’m not around when it happens.”