She didn’t need to open her eyes to the darkened room to know she was alone. She hear his absence in the silence of the night air, could feel it in the chill of the sheet draped across her bare skin. Rising from her empty bed, Kylie slipped her arms through the sleeves of a lightweight cotton robe, tied the sash for modesty, and went looking for him.
She found him in the living room, slouched across the sofa, his head back, eyes closed, but he was awake. His fingers shadow danced along the strings of his guitar, the notes he played muted, yet stark as the silver light of the moon that sliced through the open blinds. Judging by the half empty whiskey bottle on the coffee table, the slow blink of his eyes when he turned toward her, he had abandoned her bed hours earlier, not long after she had fallen asleep.
“Did I wake you?” he asked, his voice a whisper, husky from exhaustion.
“I’m cold without you. Come to bed with me.”
“Soon.” He shifted the guitar and opened his arms, allowing her to slip into his embrace. Humid, whiskey breath dampened her neck as he placed the guitar on her lap. “Play with me awhile.”
“Not tonight, Jimmy. It’s late.”
“One song?” He brushed her hair from her shoulder and trailed his lips along her neck, begging her with his kiss.
“One song,” she relented.
With his head resting heavily against hers, he took her hand in his, positioned her fingers on A major, instructed, “’Three Little Birds.’”
“I’d rather hear you play it for me.”
“Aw, naw… You got this.” Gently, he maneuvered her fingers through the chord changes from A to D and E. “Easy.”
He helped her through the transitions again, reinforcing the movements before she tried them on her own. Feeling less than confident, she returned to the starting A. “Will you strum for me?”
He muted the strings with the heel of his hand as he strummed, counting instead of singing. She moved from A to D like a pro, but missed her mark switching back to A and let go in frustration.
He caught her hand, returned her fingers to A major and whispered against her neck, “Trust yourself.”
At a slower pace, he started to strum again. Eyes closed, she allowed her body to relax into the rhythm of his lips caressing her neck with every whispered beat. Together, they played a very rudimentary tribute to Bob Marley. When the song ended, he kissed the tip of her nose and smiled.
She moved her hand to his thigh and listened as he played the song again in his unique style. Haunting, yet uplifting, his fingers danced along the strings in graceful agility. She sat mesmerized by his beauty, heartbroken by his exhaustion.
Sliding her hand higher up his thigh, she whispered, “Come to bed with me, Jimmy.”
“In a minute.” He set the guitar aside and reached around her, for his bottle on the table.
She sighed his name into the darkness; a prayer, a plea, a silent whisper for help, for the ability to understand. She wished she could take his pain. Or make him talk about it. She longed to rip the bottle from his hand, shatter the glass against the wall, and force him to feel his grief. But she gave him the night.
When he settled back against her, he lifted her hand in his , kissed her fingers, her wrist, trailed his lips along her inner arm, her neck, whispered hot against her skin, “I’m sorry, Ky.”
“Shh,” she hushed, soothed the worry lines from his face with her touch, her kiss. His stubble had softened into three-day growth. She traced his jaw line with her fingertips. “You need to sleep.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, but instead of rising to take her to bed, he picked up his guitar and played a quiet, incredibly lonely ‘Scarborough Fair.’
She curled against him, rested her head on his shoulder. Only when she returned her hand to his thigh did she notice the weight of the engagement ring he had slipped onto her finger as he’d kissed her. She sat upright, “Jimmy? How did you…. When…?”
He continued to play as she sputtered on like a fool, crying silent tears of joy laden with fear. It was too beautiful, too perfect. She lifted her hand, caught the moonlight in the center diamond. A delicate trail sparkled along the band. The ring fit her finger perfectly, exquisitely, but it felt heavy, the stone too big. She worried over it, admired it, slipped it on and off her finger, testing it. Like everything he did, it was too much; much more than she needed. Much more than she deserved.
A tear slid from her cheek to his shoulder as she settled against him, her skin pale in the moonlight against his deep tan, his muscles flexing beneath her touch. “Come to bed with me, Jimmy,” she pleaded as she closed her eyes.
When she opened her eyes again, the sun had risen, and she was alone once more. Her ring finger felt stiff, almost sore from the foreign weight of the stone. She longed to remove the ring from her finger, to take a break from the heft of it. To change her mind about accepting it.
She dreaded the attention it would bring, the fake smiles and relentless questions. Jimmy had left the box on the coffee table, lying open beside his almost-empty bottle. She could tuck the ring into white satin, close the lid for safekeeping, lock it away until she felt strong enough to live the life it entailed. But she feared if she waited it would never happen.
Jimmy deserved better than her weakness. For him, she kept it on and braved the day.
“I’m so sorry about your dad,” Marissa said to Jimmy, her doe eyes heavy with mascara, tearing in pity as she watched him walk into the office of Rogan-Handley Construction. She sat perched at the reception desk, the computer on, invoices spread out, the mail sorted and stacked in front of her.
He’d forgotten he’d hired her. Exhaling a curse, he squinted through his migraine and ignored her as he passed through to the shop. Dan and Brent jumped him as soon as he pushed through the door.
“Don’t even start,” he warned, but Brent did anyway.
“Are you fucking insane? What the hell were you thinking?”
“Hey, you’re the one who wanted a receptionist. I got you one. Quit bitching.”
“But Marissa?” Brent protested. “Seriously?”
“She seems to be doing alright,” Dan offered.
“What does Ky have to say about this?”
“Nothing,” Jimmy stated. “It’s none of her business who I hire.”
Brent vehemently disagreed with that idea, but Jimmy refused to participate in the argument. As his brother railed against him, and Dan attempted to play peacemaker, Jimmy inspected and loaded his trailer. He didn’t have time for his brother’s shit. It was already later in the morning than he had intended to start, and they’d lost a week of work because of the funeral. Charlene understood, but a delay on her job pushed out all the others. He couldn’t afford to get buried in the cycle of catch-up.
“Stace sent kolaches,” Dan mentioned to Jimmy between fits of Brent’s swearing. “They’re in the kitchen.”
Jimmy wasn’t hungry. He would kill for coffee, but he didn’t need it bad enough to go back through the office and deal with Marissa’s sad eyes. Instead, he hooked the trailer to his truck and headed off for Charlene’s ahead of Brent and Dan.
All week, his phone had blown up with calls, texts and messages from people who hadn’t given two shits about him before his father died, but craved the attention grief brought. They sent empty sentiments of love and prayers, posted pictures and memories meant to comfort but that only tortured. He’d turn his phone off completely, toss it in the river and watch it sink, but he feared missing a call for work or a text from his mom. Instead, he’d shut of the ringer.
When he arrived at the diner, he checked his phone, hoping the barrage of sympathy had finally ended. It hadn’t. He deleted without reading, without listening. Almost lost in the mix came a simple text from Ashley, a sad face emoji with four little letters, “r u ok”
To that one, he replied. “Yeah.”
Almost immediately, it marked as read. He waited a moment for her to reply. When she didn’t, a sliver of weight lifted off his heart, bringing the first hint of relief to his throbbing head, and he started his day.
She’d waited two days for his reply. Finally, just past eight in the morning, seven for him, late, but not so late she read anything into it, he sent the single word she needed. A simple, “yeah,” let her know she didn’t need to go home, that he would eventually find what he needed, that he was at least looking. Two days of silence had about killed her, imaging him stuck at the bottom of the bottle, trapped at the end of a line. She knew he had Kylie, Brent, his mom. But he also had a lot of hate for himself. Sometimes, like her, he struggled to find his way past it.
Ashley tucked her phone under the strap of her bra and picked up her coffee. She sat on a plastic lawn chair on cracked pavement outside her shitty motel room in Jacksonville, already dripping sweat from the heat of the morning. It was too hot, too humid for coffee, but holding it kept her from chain smoking.
She’d taken her time driving across country, finally arriving in North Carolina the night before. It had been close to midnight, too late to look up Trevor’s friends. He’d named a few she could stay with while she was there, ones who shared a house off base. Joking, she’d asked which of them she could sleep with. A long silence followed before he answered, “None of ‘em.” She knew it meant nothing beyond his distaste for sharing, but she couldn’t stop the smile.
Though it was still early in the morning, her car was only one of two remaining in the parking lot. When she’d pulled in the night before, it had been packed with work trucks and vans Semis had filled the overflow. The place was a bit rundown, but clean enough, and offered weekly rates, catering to construction crews and salesmen. Ashley considered staying on for a week or two, more if she could make her cash hold out long enough. For the first time she could remember, she was enjoying being by herself. She found comfort in her own thoughts, a quiet kind of peace, not just the hot, screaming mess she always heard in Nebraska. She still didn’t know what the hell she was doing, or what she wanted, what she was running too or running from, but she didn’t feel any kind of desperation to figure it out.
Instead, she went to the ocean. She sat on the beach, watched the waves tumble and crash. She ate a hot dog, sifted the sand for shells. She spent the afternoon window-shopping, making small talk with shop owners and fellow tourists. Every turn, she tried on a different personality, played with accents and dialect. In the end, though not as fun, she found it easiest to be herself.
As the week wore on, Ashley returned to the beach every morning to walk, to think, to watch the surfers and gulls. She longed to rent a board, feel the liberation of riding the waves, taking risks, getting high on adrenaline. But she needed to be smart, save her money. Ten dollars here, twenty dollars there, if she blew it all on nonsense, she’d have nothing in no time. More than anything, she wanted to keep her independence, so she settled for a free swim, a suntan and a daydream in the morning and spent her afternoons exploring the coast and searching her soul.
Most nights, as she lay in bed before sleep, she talked to Trevor. Halfway around the world, he was just starting the new day as she was ending the old one. It was stupid, childish nonsense, but she found comfort in knowing for certain the next day would come because he was already living it.
Every few days, she checked in with Mike. More often would be too exhausting. He’d found a job at a gas station, but had lost it almost immediately for selling smokes without checking id’s. He’d earned enough to buy groceries, a bag of food for Bella, but it wouldn’t last long. Without a car, he was limited. The job market was slim in Allman Falls, especially for a guy with a record. Ashley didn’t want to ask anyone for help, but for Mike, she sucked it up and reached out.
She waited until she knew Kylie would be asleep before she texted Jimmy to call her. Her phone rang almost immediately.
“Hey, yourself,” he replied.
She didn’t need to ask him how he was doing, or how he was feeling. She could hear it all in his voice. He was exhausted. He was drunk. He was hurting. Cheap words and canned phrases wouldn’t cure him. Instead, she kept it simple, real. “Mike needs a job. Bad. Do you have anything he could help you out with?”
He was silent for awhile before answering with a reluctant sigh. “Maybe.”
“Thank you,” she answered sincerely.
She didn’t want to end the call, but she didn’t know what more to say. Closing her eyes, she listened to his silence. It was comfortable, familiar. She missed it sometimes, listening to him breathe beside her in the dark, both of them awake, lying in bed, alone together.
“I asked Ky to marry me.”
“Oh!” She knew it would come, but it still knocked her on her ass. A hot tear escaped from the corner of her eye, burned down her cheek. “Okay.”
She couldn’t lie to him and tell him she was happy. She couldn’t say congratulations or wish him well. Instead, she listened to his silence for a bit longer as one tear slowly followed another, collected around her neck, and spilled onto her pillow.