Twenty-four hours passed, and Ashley did not find a place of her own. She didn’t find one in forty-eight or seventy-two hours, either. Juliette had plenty of apartments available for rent, but very few she could afford. Many of those were tied up in one subsidy program or another, or the neighborhood felt sketchy, or the neighbors were creepy, or the entire building smelled like sauerkraut and farts.
Managers of the nicer complexes treated her like she was the sketchy one. They didn’t care that she had a college education and gainful employment. Instead, they shredded her about her credit, how she had maxed out two Visas and a MasterCard, defaulted on Victoria’s Secret, had zero in savings, and habitually over-drafted her checking account. Still, they were willing to take a chance on her young, wretched soul, as long as she could find a cosigner. She could have easily asked her mother or Kylie—or even Jimmy—but she was determined to do this one thing on her own. Politely, she declined and moved on to the next listing, and the next, and the one after that.
The endless search for an apartment kept Ashley in Juliette late into the evenings. On Tuesday, the sun had set and the construction crew had already packed up by the time she headed down the highway toward Allman Falls. Wednesday, they were still working, but she avoided the flagman by skirting around him on a gravel road, taking the long way around a country section to catch up to the pilot car midstream and take the highway bridge across the river.
By Thursday, Ashley was tired, dejected, and didn’t have the gumption to play avoidance games any longer. She just wanted to go home, lick her wounds, and eat a big bowl of her mother’s goulash. Luckily, she sat last in a long line of traffic headed toward Allman Falls, safe from the temptation of the flagman’s exquisite blue eyes, buffered behind a state trooper and a burly guy on a motorcycle, a minivan, two Fords and a grain truck.
As she waited for the pilot car, she texted Trevor again, not expecting a reply, but praying for one anyway. It had been close to three weeks since their last active exchange, and she worried incessantly. She knew he was busy. She knew he had spotty service. She knew they were on different schedules, on different continents, practically living on different worlds. She knew they weren’t married, weren’t dating, weren’t committed to each other in any imaginable way. He had absolutely no obligation to return her texts, or calls, or Snaps, or messages, emails, or letters. But still, she worried.
As she worried, and waited, he replied. “Hey.”
It was all she needed. He was safe. She could stop worrying, for today.
“What’s new?” she asked.
After a slight delay as his message traveled across the Milky Way, into another galaxy and back again, he replied with a picture of a new tattoo on his upper chest, his skin still raw, still angry from fresh ink, depicting a human skull clasped in the jaws of a bear.
“Awesome!” she replied, adding a string of heart emojies.
“You?” he asked.
Another long pause before his next message, “Send me something.”
Her heart skipped and she blushed. “No.”
He sent a sad face.
She looked to her rear view, then out in front to check for oncoming traffic before she took the sexiest full cleavage shot she could manage in her scrubs and support bra, and pressed send.
He replied back with a heart, and hers skipped another beat.
“How much longer?” she asked.
“July. Can I crash at your new place?”
“Will you behave?”
“Then yes,” she replied, adding a quick XO goodbye as Juliette-bound traffic emerged from the construction zone. The line of vehicles in front of Ashley started to move forward with the pilot car, the process painfully slow.
Birds flew past her. A tumble weed tumbled slowly by. She could have walked faster than the line of traffic was moving. She blamed the lackluster speed on the state trooper who held the pace car position, but when she angled her car to take a peek around the grain truck, she could barely see the tailgate of the Ford nearly a half mile in front of him as it disappeared over the horizon.
“What the hell?” she grumbled and downshifted to pass the jackass in the slow moving semi. Just as she pulled up alongside the trailer, he started to turn left without signaling, onto a side road. She slammed on her brakes and whipped back to the right, her tires skidding on loose gravel littering the shoulder as she swerved away from collision.
Shifting hard, she gunned it, in attempt to catch up to traffic, but it was no use. The asshole flagman stepped into the middle of the lane, his high-intensity sign screaming white on red for her to stop.
“Son of a bitch.”
Surrendering, she coasted to a stop, put her car in park, and rolled down her window.
“Hey, Crazy,” he replied, distracted as he swatted at a wasp flirting close to his face.
“He’s gonna sting you,” Ashley warned.
“His buddy already did,” he said, turning his arm so she could see the swollen welt above his elbow. “Right before I squished his sorry ass.”
“Kill one and six more show up for the funeral,” she said, repeating what sweet Carol in Room 210 had said just that afternoon as she used her newspaper to swat at a fly buzzing about the lunch leftovers on her bedside tray table.
“I hope not,” Flagman said.
“I’m Ashley, by the way,” she offered.
He looked behind him, and then squinted up toward the sun, as though debating before he replied, “Mike.”
“Was that hard?” she teased with a soft laugh.
The sun and wind weathered skin around his eyes crinkled as he smiled in reply. “No.”
“Why do you do this, Mike?” she asked, gesturing to the vast nothingness surrounding his workspace. “It’s got to be the most boring job in the world.”
He shrugged. “It’s alright.”
“Wouldn’t you rather drive the big machines, do something more exciting than this?”
“This is exciting.”
“Staring at people sitting in their cars?”
Ashley looked into her rear view, to see what he saw all day. The woman in the car behind her leaned against her door, resting her cheek on her fist, staring slack-jawed out the window to the pasture ground beside them. Absent of cattle, grasses and spring weeds had flourished, the field bursting with yellow blossoms. A lone tree shaded an empty water tank as the windmill sat idle in the breeze. It was incredibly beautiful, yet felt horribly lonely, all at once.
More to herself, than to Mike, she muttered, “How depressing.”
“Beats sitting inside, staring out.”
“True,” Ashley agreed. “But the sun, and the wind, and the wasps, and the exhaust, and the grime…”
He shrugged again. “You get used to it.”
“Tell me you’re related to the guy running this show, that you feel obligated to an uncle for raising you, or to a cousin for giving you a kidney, and that’s why you do it.”
“Why do you care so much why I do what I do?”
“I don’t care,” she denied.
“Why are you so close-minded that you can’t comprehend somebody might actually find enjoyment in something you don’t?”
“You honestly enjoy this?” she challenged.
“What gives you the right to sit there and belittle me, to shit all over my job?”
“I’m not shitting on anything!” she snapped, her defensive hackles starting to rise. “Dude, I was just making conversation.”
He laughed, from deep inside. “I’m just messin’ with you.”
His eyes twinkled with delightful mischief as he admitted, “This job sucks ass. I hate it. And yeah, my granddad’s the foreman. He gave me this job because no one else would hire me when I first got outta jail.”
“Oh!” she whispered on inhale, immediately intrigued. “What’d you do?”
Instead of answering, he turned to watch the pilot car approach over the horizon. He spoke into his two-way, listened to the crackled reply, and then stepped back to allow the oncoming traffic to pass by.
“Mike!” she hollered out to him through her passenger window, but he only shrugged and pretended he couldn’t hear her. Frustrated, she slumped back against her seat. “Jerk.”
He responded with a salute of his middle finger. She crossed her arms over her chest, refusing to give him the satisfaction of a gesture in reply.
“Next time,” he shouted out as she drove away.
She intended to hold him to that promise, but the next day she found herself in a cradle of traffic that happened upon the construction zone at the perfect time to catch the pilot car right away. He waved as she passed, with all of his fingers instead of just one, and she debated turning around to try it again, but she had an appointment to see an apartment in Allman Falls. She didn’t want to miss it.
She would have preferred to live in Juliette, where there was actually something to do, places to go, people to meet, but unless she wanted to live in a room the size of a closet, or in a crack house on the south side of the tracks, it just wasn’t going to happen. Surrendering to her small town fate, she’d spent her lunch hour calling every single listing in the Allman Falls newspaper, talking to the same guy three times on three different phone numbers because apparently he was the only landlord in town and liked using aliases. Finally, in a fit of frustration, she caved and called the guy with the inside scoop—Jimmy.
He answered on the fifth ring. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Nothing,” she said, momentarily forgetting the reason for her call. She’d heard the shadow of his voice every night in her dreams, listened to his whisper every day when her mind wandered, but hearing him live knocked her back a bit. She took a moment to clear the thick rush of emotion from her throat before she could find her voice to ask, “Who owns that duplex on Third that you and Brent renovated last spring?”
“Are you looking for a place?”
“Duh,” she snapped, unintentionally.
He ignored it. “You don’t want that one. Call Marcella Freesen instead. She’s got a real nice four-plex on Cherry.”
“I can’t afford real nice, Jimmy.”
“You can afford this,” he said. “I’ll text you her number.”
He hung up before she could argue. A moment later, her phone buzzed with a text. She figured what the hell, and called. As Jimmy had promised, the rent was affordable, the deposit reasonable, and Marcella didn’t shy away when Ashley mentioned her terrible credit.
“We’re all impetuous, at times, but we learn,” Marcella easily dismissed her worry and set up a time for them to meet.
Since she’d breezed through the construction zone, Ashley arrived early, much to Marcella’s delight. A tiny woman with perfectly coiffed hair and a slight orange tint to her makeup, Marcella slipped her hand around Ashley’s and led her inside, up a quick flight to an upstairs apartment.
“All of the units are one bedroom, one bath with a balcony or patio in the back. I always say, ‘No pets,’ but as long as you take proper care and don’t let it potty up the floors, I’ll allow a small one, preferably a cat because they’re quiet.”
As Marcella continued to detail her rules and the building’s amenities, Ashley took a careful look around. Large windows lined the three outside walls, allowing tree-filtered sunlight to stream freely inside, warming the hardwood floors of the living room and eating area. The bright, lemon yellow paint in the kitchen complemented the spring green of the freshly waxed linoleum floors. White cabinets and metal knobs gleamed from a recent scrubbing. Fresh paper lined the shelves and drawers. The stove had been polished of all grease and cooking grime and could have passed for brand new, if only it were still 1978.
The bathroom was tiny, but clean, the bedroom also small, with barely enough room for a full size bed and single dresser. Initially disappointed, Ashley was pleasantly surprised to find a large closet with built-in shelves and a crawl space big enough to store a few boxes and a miniature Christmas tree.
At the thought of decorating her own place for the holidays, of baking cookies in her kitchen, of curling up in the living room with a sweet kitty, of sunbathing on the balcony with a cold beer, of July and Trevor’s boots beside her door, his jeans on her floor, Ashley interrupted Marcella mid-sentence with a squeeze of her hand.
“Where do I sign?”