Ashley closed her eyes against the sweat pouring off her brow, pushed past the fire in her lungs, the burn in her legs, to finish the last forty-seven seconds of the workout Clint had programmed into the elliptical machine. All of Trevor’s friends were brutal with their training, but that little shit was more determined than the others to make her cry. It hadn’t happened, yet, but only because Ashley was slightly more stubborn than he was sadistic.
On trembling legs, she counted out the final few seconds on heavy exhales, “four… three… two… one…” The timer flashed to zero, the tension eased on the machine, and Ashley cried out in sweet relief. The high she experienced from exercise wasn’t quite as exquisite as climax, but it still made her cheeks flush and insides quiver. She inhaled clean, cool air, exhaled hot toxins and burned body fat, and did a few easy minutes on the machine to calm her heartrate closer to normal.
For the past two weeks, she’d been staying at Clint’s house, just off base in Jacksonville. At best count, seven other people frequented the house, but only four paid rent. Those who did got bedrooms. Ashley and the other freeloaders crashed whenever, wherever they could. More and more, she spent her time at the 24-hour gym around the corner from the house. It was quieter, smelled better, and afforded more privacy while she showered.
On her third day in Jacksonville, she’d found a job working at an extended care home. She’d quit almost immediately, not even making it to lunch break. Different faces, different names, but it was more of the same bullshit she’d tried to escape in Juliette. She wanted to do something more, something that mattered. Trevor had suggested becoming an Army nurse, working where they needed help most. She’d gone as far as talking with a recruiter, but had yet to make any kind of commitment.
Until she found the nerve, she cashiered and stocked shelves at a Piggly Wiggly, and counted down the days to her first paycheck. She had enough to get herself by, but she still had rent and utilities to pay back in Allman Falls. If not for Mike, she’d let it go, but she couldn’t leave him stranded.
Her heartrate increased as she bit back her pride and sent a quick text, “You with Ky?”
Jimmy responded immediately, “No.”
She pressed the call icon on her screen and paced with nervous energy as she waited for it to connect.
“What’s going on?” Jimmy asked in greeting.
She got straight to the point. “I need money.”
“How much?” he asked without hesitation.
“Just for rent. You can pay the landlord direct.”
“I’ll drop it off tomorrow.”
Silence filled the air between them. It wasn’t entirely uncomfortable.
“How long is Mike staying?” Jimmy asked.
Ashley jumped to his defense. “As long as he wants to stay. I’m not kicking him out—”
“Relax,” Jimmy interrupted. “I just wanted to know if he’d be around for awhile. I might have something for him.”
“Oh! Okay, yeah. I’m not sure, but I can ask him.”
“I’ll go talk to him.”
“What do you have going on?”
“Uh…” He paused and then let out a huff of a laugh. “I’m thinking about buying a house.”
“Yeah, but it’s a total piece of shit, complete gut job. Should probably just bulldoze it and start from scratch.”
Ashley smiled. “You’d never do that. It’d be too easy.”
He exhaled another little laugh at himself. “Yeah.”
“I think Mike could handle something like that. As long as you give him a ride.”
“I’ll give him a bike.”
Ashley laughed at the image and then fell into silence again. She paced for a moment, between the equipment and along the wall, then stepped onto a treadmill so she could pace with purpose. She always had a hard time hanging up on him.
“Are you doing okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she answered easily, then counted a few dozen steps. “Would it be dumb for me to join the—” She paused, almost choking on the question, “To still be a nurse, of course, but to do it for the Army?”
“Go for it.”
She rushed on, “Because I’ve been talking to the guys, and to a recruiter, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and the benefits, and I could advance my degree, and I would go places—wait, what?”
“It’s your life, Ash. Do what makes you happy.”
“But is it dumb?” she repeated.
“No,” he stated.
It was always so easy with him. “Don’t say anything to Ky. Not yet.”
“It’s not my business to tell.”
“Yeah, but still…”
“I’m not going to say anything. I haven’t said anything yet. But she is worried about you. You should return her calls.”
“I know,” Ashley admitted, but she wasn’t ready to let Kylie in to piss all over her joy. Not until she was sure she’d found it. “Bye, Jimmy.”
She hung up before he could say more, upped the resistance on the machine, and ran until her muscles screamed in protest. Then, she pushed even harder, determined to discover just how far she could go.