Chapter 45 ~ Brave

Home of the BraveMemorial Day felt like any other Monday to Ashley. She still got up before the sun, still worked a ten-hour shift. Her feet still ached. Her head still pounded. The only difference was, at the end of the day, instead of going home to the sweet sanctity of her new apartment, she was required to make an appearance at her sister’s house for a barbecue. It was the last place on earth she wanted to spend the holiday, or any other day, and she stood in front of the wall of coolers at the gas station debating how many beers it would take to make small talk with Jimmy tolerable.

“Twelve,” she said to herself. “Most definitely twelve.”

As she pulled a second six-pack from the rack, a gruff voice whispered from behind, close enough she could feel hot breath roll across her neck, “Talking to yourself, Crazy?”

Startled, she let out a squeal as her heart jumped into her throat and her hand lost grip on the six-pack. It slipped from her fingers and the glass bottles shattered on the tile floor, showering her shoes in foaming beer. “Son of a bitch.”

Her favorite flagman started to laugh and she punched him, hard.

“Ow!” Mike cried out as he rubbed at his upper arm.

“Jackass.” She punched him again. “Aren’t you supposed to be playing in traffic somewhere?”

“It’s a holiday,” he said, giving her a gentle shove.

She shoved back, with enough force to knock him off balance. Flailing, he grabbed onto her arm, sending them both ass-planting to the floor, luckily just outside of the puddle of beer. It happened so fast, the impact such a sharp jolt to her senses, that for a single moment, she forgot to be pissed off at the world. And she started to laugh. It brought relief so welcome, so palpable, she asked without thinking, “Do you want to go to a barbecue?”

He debated for a heartbeat before agreeing with a shrug. “Okay.”

“Okay,” she repeated, her voice softening into a whisper as she sat frozen on the floor, close enough to kiss him if she so desired. Looking into the crisp blue of his eyes, at the flakes of skin peeling from his sunburned nose, at the stubble of beard covering a hint of acne scars, at his chapped lips and slightly crooked mouth, she thought she might desire to kiss him, just once, to see what he tasted like.

Before she could, he found his feet and offered a hand to help her up. She ignored it and pressed her hand to the floor to push herself up, right onto a shard of broken glass. Hissing out in pain, she pressed her thumb against her palm, the cut oozing beer and blood.

“Good god, girl, why are you so stubborn?” Mike grumbled as he hooked his hands under her arms and easily lifted her to her feet. He took her hand in his, turning it palm up to survey the damage. “You need stitches.”

She ripped her hand away, biting back a whimper of pain. “Since when are you a doctor?”

Ignoring the stinging pain and blood pooling in her hand, she tucked one six-pack under her arm, grabbed a second from the cooler with her good hand, and headed for the checkout. She paid for the beer, including the broken one, a bag of nachos, and a pack of Salem Lights.

Outside, she placed the beer and chips in the backseat of her car, peeled open the pack of cigarettes, lit one with a match, and inhaled. Leaning against her car, she closed her eyes and pulled in a second, long drag, holding in the mentholated nicotine as it rolled through her tight muscles, relaxing her from fingertips to spine, all the way down to her toes. With an exhale of infinite relief, she dropped the cigarette to the ground, crushed it out with the toe of her tennis shoe, and tossed the pack into the trashcan beside the door.

“You ready to go?” she asked Mike, who stared at her in slack-jawed confusion. “What?”

“Nothing,” he answered, as though questioning his own judgment getting into a car with her, like she was the one with the criminal record.

Remembering, she clicked the lock button of her car, preventing him from opening the passenger door. “Why were you in jail?”

He turned to face her straight on, the car between them, and answered simply, “Drugs.”

“Using or selling?”

“Both.”

“Still?”

“No.”

She held his gaze, testing him. He didn’t even blink.

“How long?” she asked.

“Clean or in jail?”

“Both.”

“Eight months.”

“That’s not very long.”

“My grandfather piss tests me every single morning when he picks me up for work. You can ask him for the results if you don’t trust me.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“That sucks.”

He shrugged. “It is what it is.”

“Why does he have to pick you up?”

“I don’t have a car, or a license.”

“For how long?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Where do you live?”

“Right now, I live there with a bunch of the other guys.” He pointed across the street, to a row motel with weekly rates. “But I’m from Wichita.”

She felt a beat of sadness, a wave of loss wash over her. “Are you going back there when the highway’s done?”

“I don’t know,” he answered with a shrug. “Maybe there, maybe South Dakota. Depends where the next job takes us.”

“When will that be?”

“A month? Maybe two.”

“Huh… Well, alright then. Let’s go.” With a click of her key fob, she unlocked the car doors and slid into the driver’s seat. As soon as he buckled his seat belt, she returned to her interrogation. “Are you married?”

“No.”

“Girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Children?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m as positive as any guy can be.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-six,” he snapped in irritation at her relentless questioning. “I’m a Gemini, atheist with a meth addiction, no kids, no dog, and my favorite movie is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What the fuck else do you want to know?”

Unfazed, she brushed off his outburst. “A Gemini, huh? With that attitude, I would’ve pegged you as a Taurus.”

He snorted out a laugh and turned his attention out the window.

“If you don’t want to do this, I can just take you home,” she said, offering an escape.

“No, I’ll go. Just stop with the questions, alright?”

“One more?”

He turned to face her. “Make it a good one.”

In a swift move, she grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him close, pressing her lips against his. He jerked in momentary surprise, but eagerly opened his mouth to her assault. He tasted slightly of mint, but mostly of nothing remarkable, one way or the other. Disappointed, she pulled away.

“Damn it,” she muttered to herself as she jabbed her key into the ignition.

“That’s it?” he asked, bringing his hand to his mouth, as though stunned.

“That’s it.” She wiped a trace of lipstick off his lower lip, placed a gentle hand to his chest where her bloody palm stained his grey shirt. “I’m sorry.”

“I…” Exhaling a confused, pent up breath, he looked down to where her hand had been, to the mark of blood she’d left behind. “I told you, you need stitches.”

“My mom can do it when we get there. She’s a nurse.”

With a quick look behind her, Ashley backed out of the parking space and whipped the car onto the highway. She zipped around slower moving traffic and headed for the open road, for once unencumbered by construction.

“Oh, and a few things you should know before we get there; the barbecue is at my sister’s house, and she’s screwing my ex, who will also be there, so I plan on drinking heavily tonight. You might have to find your own ride home.”

“Or I could just crash with you.”

“Or you could do that.” Immediately, she added, “But we’re not having sex.”

He shrugged. “That’s fine.”

She shot him a quick glance, not surprised. “You didn’t feel anything either?”

“Honestly? No. Nothing.”

“That sucks.”

“It really does,” he agreed.

“We could try again later,” she offered. “Once I’m drunk.”

Again, he shrugged. “We’ll see.”

A heavy, but not uncomfortable, silence settled between them as Ashley drove the remaining miles, across the river and down the spur to Allman Falls. American flags lined the city streets, fluttering in the gentle breeze, welcoming them into town. Candy wrappers littered the streets, remnants of the morning’s parade. Sprinklers twirled in front yards. Kids zipped by on bicycles. Peonies bloomed along driveways. The smell of charcoal, grilled steaks, and smoked meats drifted through the open car windows, the entire town leaving Ashley feeling inadequate and slightly nauseated.

Her sister, Kylie, lived in a small rental house across the alley from their mother’s home. It was quite literally the distance of a hundred feet from one backyard to the other, pretty much the same property, but Ashley would have preferred to have the barbecue at her mother’s instead of Kylie’s, on more neutral ground. As she pulled up along the curb, behind Jimmy’s truck, she felt a brief flutter of panic in her chest, and the familiar, deep burn of hate fill her lungs.

“Fuck me,” she muttered under her breath as she threw the car into park and gripped the steering wheel tight. “I don’t want to do this.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, I do. They’re going to get married.”

“When?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Burying her face in her hands, she rested her head against the steering wheel. “Eventually.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do. I’ve known it since the day he met her.” She let out a long, low groan of misery. It didn’t make her feel better. “I hate her.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I hate him.”

“That would make it easier.”

She heard his door open and felt the car shift as he climbed out. He slammed the door hard, and was around to her side fast enough to startle her when he pulled the door open.

“Let’s go,” he commanded.

Without giving her a moment to react, he grabbed her arm, pulled her from the car, and pressed his entire body into hers as he wrapped her up in a strong embrace. Still, she felt no intimacy as they kissed, but she did find remarkable strength. From his battered soul into hers, she pulled the power to place one foot in front of the other, walk into her sister’s backyard, and pretend to be invincible.

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