Chapter 52 ~ Thin Air

Thin Air“Did you get that new roof on the church yet?” James Rogan barked, his voice sharper, his mood darker than before.

“No, Dad, I haven’t.” Jimmy shouldered his way through the back door of Captain Jack’s, away from the noise of the crowd and Brent’s bachelor party, into the relative quiet of the alley behind the bar. “Like I’ve told you a thousand times before, the shingles haven’t come in yet.”

“You mean you haven’t gotten off your ass and picked ’em up yet.”

“My ass has nothing to do with it. I had to special order the ones you wanted.” He spoke slower, his teeth clinched, biting back his irritation. “They’re not in yet.”

“How long once they’re in?”

“Three days. Four tops. Brent’s got some guys lined up.”

“What the hell do you need guys for?”

“You’re the one who’s rushing it. The only way to make it happen right now is to bring in a couple’a guys. Otherwise, you’re gonna have to wait until September, same as I’ve been telling everybody else.”

“This is for the church, boy. You will do it yourself, and you will do it right,” James said, his demand punctuated by a thick coughing spell.

Jimmy waited for the fit to subside before assuring his father, “It will be done right. Roofing’s all these guys do.”

“I don’t know who ‘these guys’ are that you keep talking about, but I can guarantee you they won’t give a shit about doing a good job. From what I’ve been hearing about you lately, I doubt you will, either.”

The fine thread of control Jimmy held over his anger snapped. “Then call up Folson in Juliette and ask him to do it. I’m sure he’d jump at the chance to drop paying jobs to do your charity work—”

James interrupted with a snort of disgust. “You backing out?”

“No, I’m not fucking backing out. I said I’ll do it, I’ll do it.”

“How long, Jimmy?”

Surrendering, Jimmy promised a miracle. “Two days, Dad. It’ll take me, Brent, and Dan two days once the shingles are in. Just us. No other guys.”

“Well, if that’s the best you can do…”

Suddenly exhausted, Jimmy braced his hand against the brick wall of the bar and hung his head in defeat. “You need anything else from me tonight, or can I get back to Brent’s bachelor party?”

“Go. Don’t let me keep you.”

“Right…” Jimmy held onto the line, knowing better than to assume the conversation was over just because he wanted it to be.

“Matt Janis might be calling you about a sewer line.”

He had a feeling he knew why, but like an idiot, he asked anyway, “And why is that?”

“You remember that guitar you got for your birthday?”

“When I was, what, twelve? Seriously?”

“Time don’t matter.”

“Are you sure you even still owe this guy? Your memory’s shit these days.”

“My memory may be shit, but I don’t forget my debts.”

“That’s just it, Dad. They’re your debts, to your drinking buddies, that you should have settled yourself a long time ago.”

“They’re business debts. You inherited them same as you did the profits when I signed the company over to you.”

“Business debts, my ass. You’re asking me to snake shit out of a sewer to pay for my own birthday present!”

“Are you still using it?”

“Yeah, I’m still using it!”

“Then you pay for it! You don’t get to pick and choose your responsibilities in life, Jimmy. But that’s what you’ve always tried to do, isn’t it? You’re all up for the fun and games and the free beer, but as soon as something comes along that requires actual effort on your part, you try and push it off on someone else. Or you just abort it from your life all together, you and that whore of a girl you’ve been running around with.”

His body tensed to fight, Jimmy swore, “Fuck you, old man.”

“Don’t think I don’t know what you two—”

With a stabbing swipe of his thumb, Jimmy disconnected the call and shoved the phone deep into the front pocket of his jeans, as though he could bury it all.

“You just abort…”

A growl rose from deep inside as he knocked the ball cap from his head and scrubbed his hands through his hair, desperate to hold back the painful rush memories, the long-burning resentment and anger. Hatred for his father flavored the stream of curses he shot into the thick, night air. Hatred for himself echoed back.

That one word got him every, single, goddamn time.

Abort.

Hiding behind the cloak of righteousness, his father brandished the accusation like a weapon. It was small town bullshit spread for sport, an outright lie James had convinced himself was real, despite his full knowledge of the truth, the falsehood that gave him permission to openly condemn his son among neighbors and strangers alike. As if the harsh reality of life hadn’t already stolen Jimmy’s faith, emptied his heart, stripped his soul, James Rogan had committed himself to ensure no hope remained.

“Sadistic bastard.”

“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”

Whipping around toward the intrusion, he found Marissa Vasek, the very whore of his father’s fairy tales, leaning against the wall beside the door to Jack’s. A lit cigarette perched between her fingers, blue smoke curled into the still, night air.

“Yeah, well…” Forcing back a bitter laugh, he ran a rough hand through his sweat-dampened hair and shoved the ball cap over the mess he’d created. “You know how he is.”

“I’m sure he deserved it.”

“I shouldn’t have said it.”

Marissa lifted one shoulder in a dismissive shrug and held out her cigarette in offering.

He didn’t want it, but he accepted. His hand brushed along hers as he plucked the cigarette from between her fingers. With her eyes focused on his mouth, she inhaled in symphony with him as his lips covered the pink stain from her lipstick on the filter.

“Feel better?” she asked as he drew the rancid smoke deep into his lungs.

Propping one hand against the brick wall above her head, he pressed his body close to hers and gently exhaled, directing a slow, steady stream of smoke along the graceful curve of her neck, testing his reaction to her, her reaction to him.

“I feel nothing,” he whispered against her skin. It wasn’t a revelation.

Her smile reflected the sadness in her eyes. “It doesn’t work for me anymore, either.”

“So quit.”

“If only it were that easy.” Her touch lingered as she slipped the cigarette from his fingers. “Old habits, and all that.”

The air in the alley hung heavy, humid as the night cooled, picking up the sweet, yeasty smell of stale beer from the crates of empty bottles stacked beside the dumpster.

He lifted a lock of hair from her shoulder, stroked the golden strands, watched as it slipped through his fingers to curl against her neck. “I bought Ky a ring.”

Regarding him with a mix of disappointment and envy, she flicked the hot butt of her cigarette to the ground, crushed the glowing cherry beneath the toe of her sandal. “Is this where I’m supposed to say congratulations?”

“If you want.”

He turned to settle beside her against the wall. As his arm brushed her shoulder, he tried to remember when he had last been able to read her every thought simply by listening to her breathe. He’d stopped caring long ago, but when had he stopped understanding?

“She’s going to say no.”

“I know.”

“But she won’t mean it,” she assured him, her voice soft, proving she had never stopped understanding him, even after she’d stopped caring.

“Are you going back in?” he asked.

“I don’t have a choice.”

“How big of an asshole would I be if I ducked out of here?”

“Huge.”

“Do I care?”

With a sad smile, she said, “You do.”

“Damn.” He sighed in dejection, gestured toward the door. “After you.”

***

Hot from her argument with Kylie at Captain Jack’s, Ashley headed across the street to Gimp’s Pub, where she received zero sympathy from Cheryl. Instead, she got a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a bucket of beer. When she finished the first, Mike bought her a second and sat silently staring off over her shoulder as she railed on her sister, Jimmy, her shitty life, her shitty job, the shitty town she was stuck in, and Aria. Once she calmed a bit, she threw some darts, gave Mike a half-ass lap dance, picked a fight over politics with an old guy who smelled like Fritos and farts, and laughed so hard at her own bad joke that she peed a little, which made her laugh even harder.

Once Cheryl cut her off and kicked her out, she staggered against Mike and serenaded him in her best Dolly Parton voice as they made their way down the block to the grocery store. She wandered the aisles, ate a handful of grapes, bought a bottle of Bacardi and black nail polish. On the way out, she stuffed a candy bar into her cleavage, just to see if she could get away with it. She would have, but Mike fished it out and tossed it back on the rack.

She smacked his chest. “I wanted that!”

“No, you didn’t.”

He was right. The candy bar was just another in a long list of things she thought she wanted but really didn’t, like her purple hair, or the tattoo on her ankle. Her job as a nurse.

Jimmy.

Her legs grew tired, her feet sore, as they walked across town. She kicked of her shoes, left one on the sidewalk, threw the other into the bed of a pickup parked along the curb. The handle of the grocery sack, heavy from the weight of the liquor bottle, cut into her hand. She didn’t want to be drunk anymore. Or maybe she needed to be more drunk than she already was.

As they crossed the street to her apartment, stepping from the shadows into the glow of the streetlamp, Ashley turned to face Mike.

“I don’t want to go to Kansas.”

“Okay,” he agreed, his voice reluctant, his expression clouding even in the harsh glow of artificial light.

“I don’t want you to go to Kansas, either.”

“I have to.”

“No, you don’t. You can stay here. With me. Please?”

His expression became frustratingly unreadable as he turned his gaze toward her apartment building. She tried to imagine what he saw when he looked at her life. Did he only see the ugliness, the peeling paint, the yard of weeds? Or did he see the little things she loved, like her neighbor’s cherry tomato plant trailing along their shared balcony railing, the fruit blazing red, ripened sweet by the Nebraska sun?

She waited forever for his answer. Or maybe she gave up too soon.

“Will you at least take me to the wedding?” she begged, her throat tight, her cheeks wet, as she realized she was crying.

She swore he’d said yes, but in the morning, she woke up alone.

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