Returning home had been harder than Ashley imagined. Not because of her mother’s inquisition, or Kylie’s self-righteous lecturing, of which she received more than her fair share of both, but because the more Ashley sought comfort in her old life, the more she discovered she had outgrown it.
She no longer found sanctity by locking herself away in her bedroom, her every act shrouded in secrecy and elaborate lies. She found no comfort in her trinkets and treasures, her childhood keepsakes and memorials. The deeper she dug through her closet and drawers, through the remnants of her past life, the more her memories colored in embarrassment and shame. Disgusted, she decided to get rid of it all.
By Sunday afternoon, she had filled two trash bags with garbage and another with clothing, books and other items for donation. She kept very little of her past, some seashells and sketches, a few poems that brought forth her best memories of her childhood in California—of the beach and her family, her old house, her best friends—and also the most difficult memories of her fifteenth birthday, of the night her boyfriend died of an overdose. Those memories had sculpted the best and the worst of her heart and her faith. Without them, she would not exist. Carefully, she packed them away, where she could reach for them whenever she needed their strength.
Most of what she trashed had been acquired during her first few years in Nebraska, remnants of the desperate, cruel Ashley she had crafted out of jealousy and bitter pain, the pretend life she had lived in attempt to ignore the gaping hole in her soul. Her high school friendships had been fake, her relationships void of emotion. She had slept around, skipped school, shoplifted and stolen thousands from her mother. She’d drank and smoked, sliced and scarred the skin of her inner thighs until her flesh resembled the shatter of her heart. Nothing in her life had been real, not the words she’d spoken, the emotions she’d felt, or the pain she’d inflicted upon herself. Nothing, until Jimmy.
Even now, months later, he was still real, the loss still raw. He was everywhere in her room, his memory lurking in every corner. Every concert ticket, every bar coaster, every pressed flower she touched, triggered a rush of heat, a wave of longing, a flash of anger and bitter regret. Of him, she tossed everything, except his Faust t-shirt, and her college degree. He’d paid for every hour, every book, every lab. He’d given her a laptop and spending money so she wouldn’t have to work. He’d even paid for her car so she could drive back and forth. He never asked about her classes, or her grades. He didn’t attend her graduation. But he had financed her entire education. A better person would have offered to pay him back. She wasn’t a better person. Not yet, anyway.
By Sunday night, she had stripped her bedroom down to the bare bones, painted over the anger and pain she had scrawled across the walls, and remade her bed with fresh sheets and a quilt from the linen closet. As she headed into Juliette for work on Monday, she felt as though she had taken a positive step forward, in the right direction. She rode that high until the end of the day. As she returned down the same highway she had traveled in the morning, this time in the direction of Allman Falls, her journey felt more like a step back.
Slowing as she approached the construction zone, Ashley looked to her rear view mirror, to the stretch of open highway and nothingness she had just traveled down. Suddenly, she longed to turn around. She wanted to go in the opposite direction from the one she was headed. She didn’t care where she ended up, as long as it wasn’t where she had been before.
Anxious to make the change, Ashley pulled up to her favorite flagman where he stood guard in the middle of the road, and rolled down her window. Motioning for him to move, she said, “I need to turn around.”
“You have to wait,” he said.
“Why?” she asked, looking past him to the empty highway. “There’s no one coming.”
“You have to wait,” he repeated.
“I have to pee,” she lied. “Bad.”
He only shrugged.
She huffed out a growl and rolled up her window. She cranked up the radio, flipped through Facebook on her phone, texted Trevor, again, and sent Jill a picture of the asshole flagman who was holding her hostage. Jill replied with a photo of her own adorable captor, Nolan, snoozing on her breast.
Bored with herself, Ashley rolled down her window again. “Hey, Flagman!”
“What, Crazy Lady?”
“Let’s run away together and never look back.”
After a heartbeat, he chuckled. “Okay. Where do you want to go?”
“So am I.”
The change of tone in his voice made her believe him. Her heart fluttered in her chest, anticipating the trouble they could find. She had a sense she was in over her head with this one, but she didn’t dare back down. “Let’s go to Tucson.”
“What’s in Tucson?”
“A face I want to punch.”
“Ex?” he guessed.
“Yeah,” she lied, not in the mood to explain her father.
“He’s not worth it.”
“How would you know?”
“If he let you go, he’s an idiot, not worth a second thought.”
She smiled. “Aw, how sweet. You love me.”
“Even so, you’re in love. With me. Admit it.”
With a grunt, he turned to watch the approaching pilot car, but not before she thought she caught a blush race across his face.
He stepped out of the way as the line of traffic slowly rumbled past. Ashley sat watching him through her windshield, silently daring him to look back in her direction. For the longest moment, she feared he wouldn’t. When he did, his ice blue eyes locked into hers with such raw intensity, such blatant intention, she literally whimpered in desire.
“Stupid,” she chastised herself in harsh whisper as she ripped her gaze away. This was how she ended up screwing jerks like Deuce, or falling in love with assholes like Jimmy. She was addicted to the thrill of temptation, allowed lust to be the catalyst of her self-destruction. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
The moment the last truck passed and the pilot car turned around, she raised a middle finger salute to the jack-off flagman and made her escape. As she sped down the final stretch of the highway, to the Allman Falls spur, she vowed the journey would be her last.
No matter how she had to do it, within the next twenty-four hours, she would make the permanent move to Juliette, to a grown-up life and a place of her own, and stop traveling down the same, stupid highway of humiliation.