Ashley survived her very first shift as an inpatient nursing assistant at the county hospital in Juliette, but just barely. After twelve very long, frustrating hours, her back ached, her biceps burned, and her feet hurt so bad she wanted to cry. Half the time, she’d had absolutely no clue what she was doing. The other half, she’d been in a panic, literally lost and running circles in the confusing maze of hospital hallways and corridors. Her boss was a witch-faced bitch who treated her like a moron. So did most of her co-workers, except for Oscar, a pudgy forty-something RN who helped clean the vomit off her shoes when an elderly patient reacted poorly to his medication.
The early morning sky had been peaceful and dark, sprinkled with the last of the night’s stars when she’d first arrived at the beginning of her shift. When she opened the door at the end of shift, the late afternoon sun scorched her bleary eyes, momentarily disorienting her. She stepped off the sidewalk, directly into the path of a Handi Bus. The driver honked, she jumped, and the passengers stared blindly out the window, lost in their own day’s misery. Nobody liked a hospital. She’d gone into nursing with the intention of working in pediatrics, in a bright, cheery clinic somewhere, far away from death and despair. But jobs were limited and she had zero experience. In order to earn it, she’d somehow have to summon the strength to do it all over again in the morning.
For now, she craved some snuggle time with her favorite newborn godchild. She headed across town to South Juliette and parked in front of Jill’s trailer, letting out a breath of relief when she didn’t find Chase’s truck parked in her spot. The guy was a liar, a cheat, and she hated his stupid face. She especially hated that he was mooching off Jill, eating her food and sleeping on her couch. Admittedly, he had been a big help with Nolan since he’d moved in. She had to give him credit for that. But being forced to spend time with him would have been the crap icing on her already shit day. Definitely not something she was in the mood for.
Before going inside, Ashley eased her shoes off her sore, swollen feet and dug out a pair of flip flops from the heap of fast food bags, shoes, clothing, school books and other junk piled in the backseat of her car. Someday, she’d clean out the hoard, but for now it was convenient. She technically still lived at home with her mother, but she did more couch surfing at friends’ houses than she did sleeping in her own bed. It was the best way to avoid accidentally running into her lying, cheating, backstabbing sister. Or Jimmy.
She stuffed all the dirty laundry she could reach into a worn duffel bag and slung its heavy weight onto her shoulder, hauling it and a new bottle of liquid soap up the steps of Jill’s front porch. Softly, she knocked twice on the door before letting herself in. She found Jill in the tiny kitchen off the living room, busy washing and chopping vegetables while Nolan napped in his swing.
“Hey, hot mama,” Ashley called out in greeting, pausing to give Nolan a few dozen kisses on his soft cheeks. His delicate scent was marred by the heavy remains of Chase’s cologne. She about gagged. “You stink, buddy.”
“Does he need his diaper changed?” Jill asked, turning on the faucet to give her hands a quick wash.
“No, he’s fine,” Ashley assured her. She shifted the weight of the heavy duffel on her shoulder. “You mind if I use your washer?”
“No, no, go ahead.” Eagerly, Jill asked, “How’d it go?”
“Sucked major ass.”
“But you loved it.”
“I kinda did,” Ashley admitted. On her way to the washer, she reached over and snagged a carrot stick from Jill’s chopping board. She also caught another whiff of Chase’s overpowering cologne. “You stink, too.”
“I do?” Jill grabbed her t-shirt by the neckline and brought it to her nose. “I don’t remember Nolan spitting up on me today, but maybe he did.”
“No, you both stink like Chase.”
“Oh,” Jill said on a rushed exhale, and then immediately blushed crimson from her forehead to her toes.
“Oh, my god.” Ashley groaned in dismay. “Are you serious?”
“What? No…” she tried to deny, but blushed deeper yet. “Kinda, yeah.”
“What the frick, Jill?”
“Don’t judge me.”
“I’m not,” Ashley insisted, but she was. She couldn’t help it. “He’s just such a prick.”
“I know he is, but…” Lost for any kind of explanation, she shrugged.
“Whatever.” Ashley rolled her eyes.
“Ash,” Jill protested.
“What do you want me to say, Jill?” Ashley snapped. “You want me to lie and say I’m happy you guys got back together?”
“It’s not like that, but yeah, it would be nice if you could be happy for me.”
“I’m always happy for you, but this…? How could you fall for his bullshit again?”
“I didn’t fall for anything. I’m the one that asked him.”
“Why?” Ashley spat out with more disgust than she intended, but she couldn’t stop herself. “He’s so nasty!”
“No, he’s not!”
“Yes, he is. He’s greasy and gross, and smells like a truck stop hooker!”
Jill slammed her knife on the counter. “You would know! You practically are one! You’ll screw anything that walks.”
“Screw you!” Ashley screamed.
“Screw yourself!” Jill screamed back.
Startled awake, Nolan screamed out crying, and both Jill and Ashley rushed to him. Jill scooped him up from his swing and snuggled him against her shoulder, whispering a soothing lullaby while Ashley rubbed and patted his back. Together, they swayed. Gradually, he calmed, as did the girls.
“I’m sorry,” Ashley whispered as Nolan pulled in a shaky breath.
“Me too.” Jill slipped an arm around her in apology. “And I’ll admit, he is kinda gross sometimes. But so was Deuce.”
“Hush, you,” Ashley said with a smile.
“I mean, seriously, Ash, the guy was fat and smelled like Fritos, and he had acne everywhere. How could you stand being naked against all that nasty?”
“Ah! Shut up, shut up, shut up,” Ashley rushed, grimacing from the memory. “I was really drunk.”
“And really stupid. Don’t even get me started on Jimmy—”
“Jimmy’s not gross!” Ashley interjected.
“No, but he’s a total dick. You’re so much better without him.”
“Yeah, well…” She didn’t agree, and neither did her heart, but she didn’t have the strength to argue any more. Instead, she squeezed Jill tight. “I think I’m going to go.”
Surprised, Jill stepped back from her embrace. “I thought you were going to do laundry.”
“Next time,” she rushed, and scooped up her duffel bag.
“You could stay the night.”
“Can’t. I have plans,” Ashley lied. She pressed a kiss to Nolan’s sweet head and made her escape as the anger swirled hotter and hotter in her belly. Damn Jill for making her think about him, and damn her bitch of a sister for stealing him. Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it.
She shoved the heavy bag into the backseat, cranked the engine over hard, and peeled away from the curb. Damn the freakin’ fruck to hell.
With her heart pounding and her face overheating, she drove around and through rush hour traffic, desperate to escape Juliette and her stupid memories. Once out on the open highway, with the windows down and Lzzy Hale blasting through her speakers, she allowed the hurt to pour out as anger. Screaming out the lyrics of the songs, she beat on the steering wheel and pressed her foot harder against the accelerator. Faster, louder, hotter, she tore down the highway, seventy, seventy-five, eighty. Her poor car shuddered, the countryside blurred, and the heavy beats pounded as the fire in her chest burned. Fuck. Them. All.
Eighty, eighty-three. She was the fire. Eighty-five. Eighty-seven. Screaming like a siren, she rounded the first of the Highland curves. Eighty-eighty. Ninety. She started around the second curve. Her tears, her pain, her lust, her love. Ninety-one. Faster, louder, hotter, she rounded the final bend—and screamed straight into a construction zone.
Standing on her brakes, her tires locked up and stained the highway black as the rear end of her car started to slide around, bringing her to an abrupt stop inches from the bumper of a heavily loaded cattle trailer. She scared the piss out of both herself and a steer who sprayed his dismay in a mist that coated her windshield and drifted in her open window. Bitter gorge rose in the back of her throat. As traffic started moving forward, she eased her car over to the shoulder, allowing herself a moment to catch her breath, vomit a little, and clean her windshield before continuing down the road. Damn Jimmy for being such a dick. Damn Jill for making her think about him. And damn her stupid heart for still loving his stupid, ugly face.
When she pulled back onto the highway, the cattle truck and the line of traffic before him were slowly disappearing over the horizon. She moved to catch up, but the flagman in fluorescent orange and safety yellow stepped onto the highway, spun his sign from ‘Slow’ to ‘Stop,’ and motioned for her to wait for the pilot car.
“Oh, come on!” Ashley cried out and pointed up the road. “I can still see them! They’re right there.”
She looked in her rearview, at the empty highway behind her.
“There’s no one else coming. Just let me catch up. You can stop the next guy.”
Ignoring her, he stared off to the distance.
She punched her palm against her steering wheel, blaring her horn at him.
Still without looking at her, he flipped her off.
She honked again and flipped him back.
Ten minutes later, when the pilot car returned, the flagman turned his sign from ‘Stop’ to ‘Slow’ and winked as he waved her through.
She flipped him off again.