Time passed slow and lazy, as it tended to do on a Sunday afternoon, the minutes soaking up the sunshine as they rolled by. The breeze, lightly scented of creek water and hint of wild rose, played through Kylie’s hair as she rose from the blanket where she lay on the bank, studying her class notes and highlighting passages in her school books. She pulled in her legs, resting her chin on her knees, and watched her two men. One big, the other little, together they made up the love of her life.
With their backs to her, they crouched side-by-side at the water’s edge, focused on the fishing pole in Brayden’s hands. He’d lost his minnow. Jimmy threaded another on the hook, putting it on slow and exaggerated, describing and instructing as he did. Brayden watched, wide-eyed and focused, absorbing the information, retaining it for a future day, when his fingers would be nimble and adept enough to do it himself.
They had dressed similarly that morning, purely by accident, but it happened often. Jeans hugged their hips—Jimmy’s faded and worn Levis, Brayden’s newer Rustlers that sported a bulge from the Pull-Ups he was not yet confident enough to leave behind. They’d both left the house wearing Husker ball caps. Brayden had since tossed his aside. At the moment, Jimmy wore his backward, but it wouldn’t be long before he’d lift it slightly and turn it around. Throughout the course of a day, his hat would change direction a hundred times, never staying one way for long. It was a habit of his, one Kylie believed he didn’t realize he was doing. It pulled a smile from her every time.
When they had the minnow set right, Brayden straightened up and Jimmy shifted to his knees, staying at Brayden’s height to help him cast. Then he sat back on his heels and waited and watched, ready to assist if needed, keeping close enough to place a guiding hand on Brayden and keep him from wandering too close to the water’s edge.
His own pole sat propped against the truck, forgotten. He’d pick it up again eventually, but not until Brayden decided he found the pebbles in the gravel road more interesting than fishing. It might be ten minutes, it might be an hour. Until then, the only fish that mattered to Jimmy were the ones swimming around Brayden’s hook.
His patience with her son never wavered, his love for him as pure and as real as if Brayden were his own. And he was, in every way that truly mattered.
Jimmy turned to look at her over his shoulder. His crystal blue eyes pierced through her as they always did, sending a flush through her body. He gave her a wink, and as he turned back around, his hands went to his hat, lifting it slightly, turning it around, shaping the bill as he settled it back on his head, and Kylie smiled. She wished he would smile in return, a real smile, one that made her believe he had forgiven her. But he wasn’t ready, just as she wasn’t ready to say yes to his proposal.
He thought he was ready to marry her, but he wasn’t. Not yet. He’d asked her the night before, at his brother’s wedding reception. With the sun sinking into the hills as a backdrop, the fireworks decorating the night sky, Chelsea Lake had been gorgeous, the absolute perfect setting for an outdoor, summer wedding reception. And it should have been the ideal setting for a proposal. But when Jimmy asked her, he had been drunk. He had been upset. When he asked, it wasn’t his love for her proposing a life together. It had been his fear, his loneliness, his desperation begging her not to leave him. And she had said no.
All day, Jimmy had been in an exceptional mood, happier than she had ever seen him before. As his brother’s best man, he had stood tall and confident beside Brent at the altar. During his speech at dinner, he had been bursting with pride, his glass and his spirits high. It wasn’t until the dance that his eyes clouded and his mood darkened with the night.
A local band had been hired to play during the dance, but a week before the wedding Brent had asked Jimmy to sing the first song, the one he and Aria would dance to. Jimmy’s voice was untrained, deep, but naturally beautiful, capable of amazing range. His inherent musical ability was something he held close to the heart. He rarely shared it with anyone, almost as though embarrassed by how good he truly was. Though he found comfort strumming his guitar, especially when he was drunk, he refused to sing on request. But when Brent had asked him to sing at his wedding, stone-cold sober, in front of every single person they knew, Jimmy had not hesitated before saying yes.
It didn’t surprise her. What Kylie loved most about Jimmy was his love for his brother. They constantly bickered and fought, jabbing at each other like the little boys they used to be, but Jimmy’s love for Brent was pure. Unwavering and complete. There was nothing Jimmy wouldn’t do for Brent. He would step in front of a runaway train to save his brother’s life. He would give him a kidney, or a lung, or both of them and his heart as well.
He would sit solitary on a stage, ringed by candlelight and backlit by the setting sun, with only his guitar to hide behind, and bear his soul to the world in song simply because it was what Brent wanted.
When he first stepped onto the stage, waiting for Brent and Aria to take their place in the center of the dance floor, he had looked uncomfortable. And as he first started to sing the wedding song they had chosen, “You and Me” by Dave Matthews Band, Jimmy had kept his eyes down, focused on an invisible spot on the floor. Nerves, she had thought, but as the tempo of the song had increased, he had lifted his eyes to watch Brent and Aria dance to his gift to them. It was then that she could hear in the way his voice cracked on the occasional note and see in the way his eyes kept drifting out toward the lake that he was having a hard time not crying. So she had cried for him, silent tears tracking down her cheeks in a hot trail.
She had never loved him more than she did in that moment. If he had proposed to her right then, in that very instant, she would have said yes, and she never would have thought twice about her decision for as long as she lived. But that wasn’t when he had proposed.
Jimmy sang two more songs that night—the father-daughter dance, and the parents’ dance. Due to his poor heath, James and Mary Ann Rogan had been unable to attend the wedding. Only Aria’s parents danced that evening, but Jimmy still sang for them.
The Stevie Wonder song they had requested had given Jimmy fits when he’d practiced it, so when his guitar playing stuttered halfway through, Kylie didn’t think anything of it. He picked right back up again, hiding his mistake well. He didn’t make another. But his voice remained tight, forced, carrying a pained tone Kylie had never heard before. It wasn’t until her eyes followed his gaze to the video screens set up randomly around the tent that she had realized what the problem was.
No one had told Jimmy about the video.
“Uh-oh,” Brayden said in a sleepy voice as Kylie held him in her arms, her body swaying in time to the music. He was uh-oh’ing about a spilled drink at the table beside them, but it was perfectly timed to echo her sentiments exactly.
“Uh-oh, indeed, Babycakes,” she whispered in agreement.
Jimmy’s eyes remained glued to the screen while he sang, watching as a young James Rogan danced cheek-to-cheek with his beautiful bride, Mary Ann. The video was of poor quality, a home movie filmed on a cheap recorder, but even through the grain the intensity of the love between the couple had been palpable. It was the same intense love they still shared, almost thirty years later.
The weeks leading up to the wedding had been crazy with fittings and parties, cooking, decorating, work, school. Brayden had been sick with a summer cold. The guys had rushed to build a deck, set up tents, and finish the landscaping at Chelsea for the reception. In the middle of all of that confusion, a video had come in the mail, addressed to Aria, with a note from James saying, “These damn doctors aren’t going to keep me from dancing with my wife at my son’s wedding.”
James had wanted it to be a surprise for Brent, so they’d kept it a secret from him until just before the first dance started. Unfortunately, no one had thought to tell Jimmy before they pressed ‘play.’ Kylie could kick herself for her stupidity.
Watching the video, it was as though Brent had stepped back in time, into a mullet and grey tuxedo. He was an exact, cookie-cutter replica of his father, from the square of his jaw right down to the slight bow of his legs. Jimmy had inherited more of Mary Ann’s features, her straight nose, the faint cleft in her chin. He had the same hint of natural curl in his sandy-blonde hair. His incredible voice came from her. You couldn’t tell from the video, but he also had the exact shade of crystal-blue eyes that she possessed.
And those crystal-blue eyes were crying.
Jimmy turned away from the screen, past Brent and Aria where they stood in an embrace as they watched their parents dance, and sang the rest of the song to the lake. He had never looked more alone than he did in that moment.
As soon as he finished singing, he left the stage and headed straight for the bar. Kylie followed him, handing Brayden off to her mother along the way.
“Jimmy.” She placed her hand on his shoulder in comfort, but he flinched under touch.
“Leave me alone, Ky.” His voice was low, forced as he fought for control. He kept his back to her as he downed a shot of whiskey and signaled the bartender for another.
“Jimmy—” She tried again, but he cut her off.
“I said get the fuck away from me.”
“Jimmy, what’s wrong?” she asked. She could understand that he was upset, but the intensity and fierceness of his anger was out of place, even for him. “It was a beautiful video.”
His jaw clinched as his face flushed a deeper shade of red, but whatever he was going to say to her got swallowed with the second shot of whiskey. Without a word, he grabbed his beer off the bar and brushed past her out of the tent, headed for the lake. She followed after him, waiting until they were out of earshot of the wedding guests before she grabbed his arm and forced him to face her.
“Talk to me, Jimmy.”
He lurched toward her and snapped, “He’s not dead yet, Ky!”
“What?” she let out in startled gasp.
“Dad’s not dead! He’s still alive—he’s still fighting every single day to live—and Stacy played that fucking video at my brother’s wedding, like it was some sort of memorial to him, like he’s nothing more than a memory—like that’s all he is and all he will ever be again!”
Kylie flushed in horror. “Jimmy, no. That’s not—”
“He’s not dead, Ky! He’s still alive—he’s still fighting… And he wanted to come… but he couldn’t…” His voice grew tighter with every word, his jaw working back and forth as he struggled under the weight of his emotions. “He’s not dead, and Stacy made everyone feel like he was.”
“No, Jimmy. It wasn’t Stacy’s idea. Your dad sent the video—”
“My dad?” He stared at her in disbelief, and then looked away, out onto the lake, processing. “No, he wouldn’t do something like that…”
“He sent it to Aria last week and asked her to play it since—”
“You knew about it?” he interrupted. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think—”
“You never fucking think, do you?”
She flinched from the sting of his words. “Now, that’s not fair.”
“I don’t give a shit about what’s fair anymore, Ky!” He paced a few steps away from her then whipped back around. “Did Brent know what was coming, or did you guys spring it on him, too?”
“Your dad wanted it to be a surprise, but yeah, Aria told him about it.”
“Right before the dance started.”
Jimmy’s chin rose in disgust and he turned away from her.
He started walking. She silently followed, giving him space, until he reached the water’s edge. There, he stood motionless, holding his beer loose at his side, and stared out at the glass surface of the water. Kylie stood beside him, not trying to talk him out of his anger, just standing with him while he worked through it by himself, there if he needed her.
Occasionally, he took a drink from his beer, but he made no other movement. The sun had set, but the night was warm, slightly muggy, without a breath of wind in the air. As the stars brightened in the dark sky, his breathing calmed. His free hand slipped around hers, and she leaned against his arm, resting her head on his shoulder. Together, they watched the distant fireworks that sparked and bloomed along the horizon.
“I’m your puppet,” Jimmy finally said.
Kylie lifted her head from his shoulder. “You’re my what?”
“Puppet… It’s an old song… It’s what Dad sang to Mom on their wedding night. I have no idea what they danced to, but that’s what he sang. He was always singing it to her…”
She squeezed his hand, returned her head to his shoulder.
“I feel like I’m losing everything, Ky. Dad’s dying. Mom’s already said she’s going to stay in Florida once he… They’re never coming home… neither one of them… Brent’s married. Dan and Stacy will be before the end of the year—hell, they’re already having a baby. Brayden’s growing so fast you can almost see it happening. The business…” He let out a short, strangled laugh as he looked to the sky, his eyes filling with tears. “Shit, that’s not even mine anymore. Not like it was. Ever since Dan bought in it’s like… I don’t know…like it’s slipping through my fingers. It’s expanding so fucking fast we can’t keep up, even with all the temp guys we hire…”
“That’s a good thing,” she reminded him.
“Yeah, I know it is.” He ran a hand down his face, drying his eyes. “It’s what I’ve always wanted…what Dad wanted when he signed it over to us, but…I don’t know, Ky…It’s like I don’t know that I even want to do it anymore, you know? Construction, the business, any of it …but it’s all I fucking know.”
“It’ll be ok,” she assured him. “It’s always busiest in the summer. Things just got crazy this year with the wedding and buying the building, and with your dad… It’ll slow down.”
“I’m fucking tired,” he said around a heavy exhale.
“I know you are.” She tipped her face to his, pressed her lips against his jaw. He was shaved smooth for the wedding, his skin like hot satin. “It’ll be okay.”
“Nothing’s the way it used to be. It’s like the whole world sped up and moved on, and I’m the only one standing still.”
“I’m standing right here with you, Jimmy, and I’m not going anywhere.”
He turned in her arms, holding her close as he kissed her slow. “I’m sorry, Ky. I didn’t mean what I said earlier.”
“I know you didn’t. I’m sorry, too. I should’ve told you about the video.”
“Can we go home?”
“Soon,” she promised. “We have to go back to the reception first, though. We’re supposed to dance, remember?”
Neither of them moved to leave the lake. Silently, they stood where they were, watching the fireworks and the fireflies compete in the night sky, listening to the laughter and music as it drifted down the hill in gentle, rolling waves from the party behind them.
He had whispered the words, but they had hit her ears and reverberated through her chest like the heavy warning clang of a tolling bell. She drew in a sharp intake of air and pulled out of his arms. “Jimmy… I…”
Before she could formulate a thought, he read the fear in her eyes, a reflection of his own. “Shit, I’m sorry, Ky. Never mind. I didn’t mean—that’s just the whiskey talking. I don’t know what the hell I’m saying here.”
“No, just forget it. It was stupid.” He avoided her eyes as he drained the rest of his beer in one long swallow.
When he turned back toward her, a pained, forced smile marred his face. “You ready to dance?”
In that moment, Kylie still could have said yes to his proposal. She could have stopped him from brushing it off as a drunken rambling. But she hadn’t. Instead, she had remained silent, and allowed him to lead her up the hill.