While Brent and Aria honeymooned in Florida, and Dan worked on Charlene’s Diner, Jimmy spent his days snaking sewer lines, caulking windows, patching sidewalks, and trimming trees, honoring the long list of promises his father had made to friends and church members on Jimmy’s behalf. More often than not, he got paid in kolaches or beer. He would never get rich doing favors for his father, or even make a living, but at least he never went thirsty.
Not normally a day drinker, Jimmy did abide a few times, when the beer was especially cold or his thoughts wouldn’t stop running. He couldn’t get Kylie’s expression out of his mind, the look in her eyes when he’d asked her to marry him that night on Chelsea Lake. Shock, terror, irritation—he’d expected those. And he knew damn well she’d say no. What he hadn’t anticipated was pity. That one hurt.
Neither of them talked about it. They hadn’t talked much at all. They kept busy with work, with Brayden. Kylie focused on her studies and harassing her sister. Jimmy worked off his father’s favors, cleaned up Kylie’s yard, mowed her grass, pulled some weeds. He was forever finding burnt up firecrackers or smoke bombs leftover from the 4th of July on the sidewalk or in the grass, littering his parking lot and the streets. Eventually they would wash away with the rain, be consumed by the earth like everything else. Until then, Jimmy didn’t want Brayden playing with them or putting them in his mouth. He spent a lot of time with his eyes to the ground, searching.
He started staying at the shop late into the night, or he’d arrive early in the morning, before the sunrise. He caught up on taxes, paid bills, worked on bids, serviced vehicles; anything to keep his mind occupied. In the mornings, Dan stopped by to pick up supplies, and he dropped off the trailer in the afternoon, same as always, but that was all Jimmy saw of him throughout the day.
Early one morning, not long after Dan had made his morning stop, the bell on the door chimed. Assuming Dan had returned for something forgotten, Jimmy barely glanced that direction, until Marissa sashayed in as though she owned the place, set her purse and coffee mug on the reception desk, and pulled up a chair beside him.
“Where do I start?”
He checked out her toned legs, her short skirt and high heels, her false eyelashes and silky blouse, and was almost afraid to ask, “Start what?”
“Work.” She gestured around the office. “My job.”
“What job?” he asked, even more confused than before.
“The office job you offered me at Brent’s wedding.”
His mind raced as he thought back. “Not possible.”
“Oh, it’s possible. You were pretty drunk that night.”
“I would never be that drunk,” he said with dead certainty.
She sighed, glanced away. “Fine, I lied. You didn’t hire me.” She returned her gaze to him, looking at him in that way of hers. “I overheard Kylie telling Sarah about it at Jack’s the other night, and I knew if I asked, you’d be all like, ‘Hell, no,’ but I thought if I just showed up, and if you were desperate enough…”
“There is no job, Missy. There never was. I just offered it to Ky as a way to help her out. Obviously, she doesn’t want it if she told Sarah about it.”
“Oh.” Marissa’s expression slipped to disappointment. “Okay. It’s just…”
Her voice grew quiet, trailed off as she turned to reach for her purse.
“Just what?” Jimmy asked.
She shrugged, huffed out an exhausted laugh. “It’s just Mom. Same as always. The city’s after her again, and I can’t keep up with the fines. Not with what I’m making at Jack’s.”
“Stop paying them.”
“I can’t. It’s her home. Where would she go?”
He didn’t waste his breath with a reply. He’d had the same argument, given the same advice, for as long as he’d know Marissa, and she never listened. Her mother was an addict, but not of alcohol or drugs. She was an addict of stuff, a hoarder of things. Of everything. She was an artistic, wonderful woman who saw beauty in everything, especially what most would consider trash. She spent her free time collecting and rescuing. When her house overflowed onto the yard, which happened often, the city officials came down hard. She owned her house, she paid her taxes. She couldn’t be evicted easily. All they could do was bankrupt her with fines in attempt to force her off the property, which Marissa wouldn’t let happen.
“How much does she owe?” he asked.
“I don’t want your money, Jimmy.”
“How much?” he repeated.
She looked to him with such hopelessness he could feel it in his heart. “A lot.”
“Okay,” he said on a sigh as he pulled her chair closer to him, protecting her like he always promised he would. “Monday through Friday. Seven to four, or whatever works for you. We’ll figure it out.”
“Oh, my god, thank you,” she rushed. Placing her hands to his cheeks, she lifted in her chair and pressed a quick kiss on his lips. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
He grabbed both of her hands in his, held her tight to get her attention. “This isn’t a favor, or a handout. It’s a job. Okay?”
“Yeah, I know, I get it. Seriously, Jimmy. I do.”
He let go of her hands, leaned back in his chair. She smiled brighter, but he scrubbed his hair in frustration, whispered a curse. “Ky’s gonna fucking kill me.”
“I’m sorry,” she offered. It sounded sincere.
“Don’t worry about it. She’ll get over it.”
“So…” Marissa looked around the office, tapped a manicured nail on the desk. “Where do I start?”
“You’re smart enough to con me into the job, you’re smart enough to figure out how to do it.”
She looked around the office once more, scooted up to the computer and clicked though his emails, his financials, thumbed through the stack of paperwork on the desk, let out a low whistle. “You really do need me.”
Jimmy huffed. “Yeah, you keep telling yourself that.”
“Just you watch, Junior. I’m going to impress you yet.”
Her daring smile reminded him of a life he missed, a time he wished they could relive. Try again.
“You already have, Missy.”
She blushed. And he started to regret hiring her. Luckily, his phone rang, giving him an easy reason to leave.
“I don’t know what to do, Jimmy,” Kylie said, her voice heavy with worry when he answered. “She’s still not answering her phone or talking to Mom. I’ve knocked on her door. I’ve stopped by her work. She hasn’t been there either.”
“She’s fine, Ky,” Jimmy assured her again. “Ashley does this all the time.”
“Yeah, and she gets herself into trouble all the time. She disappears only to come back high, or broke, or wrapped up in another loser.”
“Like me?” he asked, half joking.
“Jimmy,” she protested.
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“Go over there. She’ll talk to you.”
As he was finding with most things in life, it was easier to agree than to argue. He left Marissa to figure herself out and crossed town take a turn meddling in Ashley’s life. He could hear the TV through the window. A dog barked once and then started to whine when he knocked on the door.
“Ash?” he called out. He tried the knob. It was locked, but he had a key. He called out for her again as he opened the door. “Ashley!”
Immediately, he was greeted by a sixty-pound, half-grown puppy that was all tongue, paws, and elated affection. In her excitement to say hello, she nearly knocked him onto his ass, and she piddled a little on the floor. Jimmy held onto her collar to keep her from jumping up again and knelt down to say hello. She licked his entire face, sat when he told her to, and shook on command.
“Good girl,” he praised and scratched her ears in reward. Then he asked her, “Where’s Ashley?”
“Not here,” a male voice replied from the kitchen doorway.
Jimmy straightened, recognized Mike. “I thought you left town?”
He shrugged. “I came back.”
He shrugged again. Jimmy took a step toward him and immediately he changed his stance, dropping the offense. “I don’t know, man. She’s out. Like, out of town, out.”
“She didn’t say.”
“When’s she coming back?”
Mike held up his hands in helplessness. “I don’t know. Soon, I hope. We’re running outta food.”
Jimmy rolled his eyes in irritation and pulled out his phone. He dialed Ashley’s number. On the fifth ring, she finally answered.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she answered.
“You need money?”
“Are you doing anything stupid?”
She laughed. “Actually, no. Not this time.”
“Mike’s living in your apartment.”
“Call your sister.”
“Sure,” she agreed, but he knew it was a lie.
He returned his phone to his pocket, asked Mike, “What’s the dog’s name?”
“Bye, Bella,” Jimmy said, and scratched her ears one last time. “Better find a job, Mike. Doesn’t sound like Ash is coming back any time soon.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, but his voice wavered, “It’s just… I don’t have a car, or a license… I’m still on probation…”
“Figure it out.”
“Yeah. Okay, but…”
Before Jimmy could make an impulsive mistake of adding a second employee to his payroll, he was saved by the ringing of his phone.
“Jimmy, honey,” his mom said as soon as he answered. “You better come down.”
Her voice was calm, but in a way that made his heart drop. He could barely whisper, “Dad?”
“Come now. Bring Kylie with you.”
“I will,” he assured her, already out the door.