Sitting on the porch steps, cloaked by the lengthening shadows of the setting sun, Jimmy Rogan held onto his silence and lifted his beer bottle to his lips. Warm and flat, the last swallow tasted like piss, but it held comfort. He wanted more. Needed it, really. Instead of going in for another, he picked at the label with his thumb and watched the palm trees sway in the humid breeze, their fronds shadow dancing in time to Isaiah’s relentless haunting.
“…So do not fear, for I am with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God…”
No matter how many times the words replayed, he could find no more meaning than when the minister had first recited the verse, hours earlier, at his father’s funeral.
“I will strengthen you and help you…”
Closing his eyes returned to life a vivid beam of afternoon sunlight, cast through the stained glass windows of the church. For thirty-seven minutes, he had watched the disjointed rainbow play across the base of the pulpit while Reverend Pearce, a man Jimmy had never met before, spoke of his father as though he had known him intimately. Every word the minister spoke had been accurate, but hearing James Rogan’s life story come from the mouth of a stranger stripped away the true meaning, turning his memorial into a farce.
“I will uphold you with my righteous right hand…”
“Bullshit,” he whispered aloud. No one was holding him.
“I asked if you want something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Stepping out onto the front porch, Kylie carefully closed the screen door behind her, the courtesy a wasted effort. Even the noise of a slamming door would be lost beneath the roar of voices and music coming from inside the house.
“You should still eat,” she said, her voice gentle as she came up behind him. “It’s been a long day.”
Running a light caress across his shoulders, she settled onto the step beside him. Her feet were bare, her high heels cast aside not long after they left the cemetery, but she still wore the black dress she had purchased specifically for the occasion. Though it looked amazing on her, he hoped he never saw it again.
“The breeze feels good. It’s getting hot in there with all those people.”
“Yeah.” His grip tightened and then relaxed around the empty bottle in his hand.
Over a hundred had been in attendance at the funeral. Other than his family and the handful of friends who had flown in from Nebraska with him, Jimmy didn’t have a clue who any of them were. Surrounded by strangers on what should have been the most private day of his life, he didn’t even know whose house they were at.
“Brayden’s asleep,” Kylie said of her son. His son as well, if she’d ever agree to marry him. “He curled up in your mom’s lap and conked out.”
“We should go.”
“In a bit.” She tucked her hand along his inner thigh and leaned against him. “They look pretty content.”
He slipped his arm around her slender waist, settled her body into the crook of his. He couldn’t remember when they had last paused life long enough to watch the stars brighten in the twilight. With longing, he wished their stolen moment could have been found under different circumstances, on a different porch, one a thousand miles away, where the wind blew through the corn and the world felt right.
“It was a nice service,” she offered.
Weary of the pretence, he didn’t answer her.
Pastor Tom should have presided over the service. Pastor Tom had united James and Mary Ann Rogan in marriage. He had baptized both Jimmy and his brother, Brent, and had performed Brent’s wedding ceremony not even a week prior. He hunted the hills with them every fall, fished the same slushy waters in the spring. Pastor Tom had been the man sitting at James’s bedside in the ICU, praying continuously after his first stroke three years earlier. He had continued praying for him long after James had recovered well enough to pack up and move to Florida, prematurely chasing down the elusive dream of retiring in the southern sun.
Close to ten years had passed since Jimmy had last attended a Sunday service in the little brick church in downtown Allman Falls, but Pastor Tom would always be family. Reverend Pearce was just a man.
Sinner or saint, James Rogan deserved better than to be put into the ground by ‘just a man.’ He deserved to have Pastor Tom standing at the pulpit. He deserved a reception at the V.F.W. Social Hall with pulled pork sandwiches and Nita Polinski’s kolaches. He deserved his real friends—the ones he had lived with and worked with, played with and prayed with for his entire life—toasting his memory with his preferred whiskey, not the pretentious red wine they were serving inside.
“For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”
Jimmy needed to believe the words had been written for him, but he’d learned long ago the promise of God’s love was intended for those with a cleaner soul. If God had ever wanted to help him, He would not have left Jimmy standing scared and alone when he had sought His guidance most. If God desired to comfort, He would have opened James Rogan’s rigidly closed heart to the truth behind the blood staining his son’s hands that night so long ago, and led them toward understanding.
If God truly wanted to silence his fears, He would explain why, in the face of death, Jimmy suddenly, desperately craved the respect of the man who, in life, had proven himself to be undeserving of his consideration.
“I’d never realized you and your dad shared a birthday.”
“Yeah.” He tried to swallow. The lump in his throat remained lodged tight.
“Is that why he named you after himself?”
“He never told me why, and I never asked.”
“We should come back here on your birthday; sit and visit with him for awhile,” Kylie suggested in a light whisper, her breath sweet with wine. “Maybe bring him a piece of that chocolate cake he loved so much.”
He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His body did both. The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile, but the breath rising from his chest constricted into a sob. “He’d like that.”
“We should go back inside,” she said.
“In a minute.”
She turned in his arms to rest her head against his shoulder, the silk of her hair cool against his neck. He trailed his fingers across the creamy skin of her wrist, comforted by the strong, familiar rhythm of her pulse.
He wished he could pretend they were anywhere but where they were, that the day had been nothing more than a dream, a false reality that would mercifully dissolve into nothingness as he gradually awakened in her arms. But when he opened his eyes, the palm trees still swayed, his father was still dead, any remaining hope of redemption buried alongside him in a honey-stained walnut casket.
The screen door opened and slammed shut, momentarily increasing the volume of Joe Walsh singing about how his “Life’s Been Good.” The song took him back in time, into an insignificant memory, one of hundreds playing through his mind since he had received the call from his mother, her voice oddly serene, “Come now, Jimmy. And hurry.”
Closing his eyes as he listened, he turned seven-years old again, sitting on an overturned bucket in a garage, watching as his father helped a guy pull the transmission out of a wrecked 1984 Ford Bronco. The scent of the memory became so strong he could almost taste it—oil, paint thinner, a rusted, dark blue Bronco, and that song playing on the radio. It had been one of his father’s favorites.
Kylie traced the line of his jaw, drawing his eyes open. “What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing.” He captured her hand, kissed her fingertips. “Everything.”
Her thick, mahogany hair lay tangled from the afternoon wind and her worried hands running through it. Her lipstick had worn off, her earlier tears had left her eyes bloodshot. She looked as tired as he felt, but she would be forever gorgeous. Her eyes, her mouth, the line of her jaw, the angle of her nose, the porcelain of her skin, the beauty mark at the corner of her eye; everything about her painted perfection.
She was too good for him. Everybody knew it.
“She deserves a hell of a lot better than a sinner like you, boy…”
“We really should go back inside, Jimmy. We don’t want to worry your mom.”
Kylie moved to stand, but Jimmy held her tighter, willing her to stay beside him.
“On the morning of my eighth birthday, my dad took me to the hardware store.”
He could feel her breath catch when he started to speak. He had barely said more than two words at a time since his father died. Everyone else done so much talking it was as though they had robbed him of his own memories, stealing the words he needed to thread together the story of his life. But they didn’t know this chapter. Not how he had lived it.
“I was big into skateboarding back then, and I’d been begging him all summer to build me a halfpipe in the backyard, but he’d never had the time. He was always gone, working late, off at the bar, or he was out doing favors for his friends…”
She remained silent, the way she studied him intense.
“It was the twenty-sixth of November, snow all over the damn place, a totally worthless day for boarding, but he had some downtime, so we went. We got the plywood and the nails, some two-by-fours… The cart was loaded full and it was heavy. I remember having to push like hell to get it through the slush in the parking lot.”
Almost twenty years had passed since that birthday morning, but he could still feel the butterflies of anticipation dancing in his stomach, the vibration in the cart from the jittery front wheel.
“I was so excited, Ky, talking a mile a minute, annoying the hell out of my dad, but he was smiling, almost like he was excited, too. As we were loading everything into the truck, some friend of his came over and they got to talking. I stood there freezing my ass off, wishing he would hurry up. Finally, he told me to get in the truck, but when we got home, instead of parking in the driveway, he pulled up along the curb and said he’d be back after he helped that guy fix his heater.”
A shadow of disappointment crept in, hovering as it had his entire childhood. He hated that he could still feel it, hated even more that he still cared.
“I think it was three or four when I finally gave up on him. I knew I wouldn’t see him again that night. Even if he did come home, it would be too dark to do anything. Or he’d be too drunk. I went up to my room and climbed out the window, onto the roof…” His gaze drifted out across the road, to the palm trees swaying in the breeze. “I used to hang out there a lot when I was a kid. It was the only place no one ever bothered me. It was quiet, you know?”
“I do,” she said, as he knew she would. She understood him like no one ever could.
“I was pissed. Mostly at him, but also at myself for believing he would come through for me—just this one time… I was sitting up there, feeling sorry for myself, picking at the ice stuck to the shingles, and as I watched a chunk slide down the roof, I got this stupid idea in my head that if I started at the peak and rode my skateboard down, I could launch off the edge like the ice was doing and catch enough air to do a three-sixty before I landed in the snow bank next to the driveway.”
Kylie smiled the little teasing smile he loved. “Oh, my.”
“Like I said, it was stupid. Half the time I couldn’t even do an ollie, but I was going to be Tony-fucking-Hawk off the roof of my house. Dream big or go home.”
“Please tell me your mom stopped you before you cracked your head open.”
“She had no clue what I was up to. If she had she would’ve whooped my ass just for being an idiot. It was a stupid, stupid idea, doomed right from the start. In the back of my mind, I must’ve known that because…” He paused as a wave of pain hit his heart, tightening his entire chest. “I made Brent go first.”
Kylie’s eyes grew wide as she pulled from his embrace.
“He was six-years old, gullible as fuck, and I lured him out onto the roof with a piece of my birthday cake.”
She could only stare at him in disbelief. Disgust.
He deserved every thought he could read in her eyes.
“I plopped him down on that board, told him to hold on tight, and gave him a little shove.”
He couldn’t remember if his brother had laughed or screamed on the way down. Maybe he had done both. But he will never forget the hollow, scraping sound of the skateboard hitting the concrete of the driveway below before it bounced into the snow.
He looked away from Kylie, down at his calloused hands, to the memory of his brother’s blood, bright red, warm and slick, coating his palms, his jeans; his mother shaking, her face deathly white, screaming at him as she cradled Brent in her arms, “What did you do? Oh, God, Jimmy—what did you do?”
“Broke his arm in two places… Gave him a concussion… Knocked out his front teeth… Split his chin open… He was a bloody mess—crying so hard he wasn’t making a sound…”
“Jimmy.” Instinctively, she reached for his hand and threaded her fingers through his.
“The morning of my eighth birthday, in the parking lot of the hardware store, was the very last time my father introduced me as James Junior, and I have done absolutely nothing to deserve the honor since.”
“No, Jimmy. You don’t believe that.”
“Marry me, Ky.”
He had intended to send the proposal up as a silent prayer. When he felt her body tense, he realized he had vocalized his desperation, and he panicked.
“Don’t say no again.” He grabbed both of her hands, clutching her tight enough to make her cry out, but he refused to let go. “Don’t say it’s the wrong time. It’s never going to be the right time, Ky, and I’m sick and tired of waiting for something that’s not going to happen. Forget about everything I just said. Forget about your sister, and Missy, and all their shit. Forget about all the ways I’ve messed us up in the past, and just say you’ll marry me. Lie to me if you have to—just please tell me you’ll marry me so I can get through this goddamn day.”
His eyes locked into hers in, refusing to allow her to look away. Every breath of their lives together flickered behind her eyes as he held her captive—all of the tears he had caused, all of the love they had made, all of their arguments, all of her smiles in spite of the pain—every moment laid bare in brutal, naked honesty. He could read it all. He felt it all. He knew he had no right to ask her to entrust him with her heart, or with her son’s. Selfishly, he prayed for her to say yes.
Finally, she nodded. “Okay.”
He closed his eyes, exhaling the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding, and released his tight grip on her. “Thank you.”
“No, Jimmy…” She turned into him and cupped his face in shaking hands, returning his gaze to hers. Through unshed tears, she looked deep into him, past the mistakes and the heartache, and said, “I’m saying, ‘Yes.’ I will marry you. For real.”
Not daring to believe, his heart slammed in his chest. “You will?”