“You actually said that to her?” Brent Rogan asked in a tone that sounded too close to pity for Jimmy’s liking.
Disgusted with himself, he confirmed, “Yeah.”
Brent stood frozen for a moment, studying Jimmy in disbelief before handing him a beer. “Why would you say something like that?”
“Fuck, I don’t know.” He twisted off the cap and tossed it onto the coffee table, adding it to the pile he had already accumulated before Brent had come tripping down the stairs in the dark, welding a baseball bat. “It just popped out of my mouth.”
“That was stupid.”
Dead on his feet and dressed in only a pair of boxers, Brent’s expression made it clear he would rather still be in bed, sleeping with his wife, instead of sitting up listening to his drunken brother. Being the good guy that he was, he sat in his recliner across from where Jimmy sat on the sofa and opened a beer for himself.
“Is ‘unscrew’ even a word?” Brent asked. “I mean, I know you can unscrew a screw…”
Jimmy glared at Brent and drank half the bottle in one long swallow.
“Huh,” Brent grunted.
He should have gone home instead of letting himself into his brother’s house in the middle of the night, but the thought of drinking alone, in an empty apartment, had sounded pathetic. He had lived there for eight years, but it didn’t feel like the same place since his brother had moved out in June, a few weeks before his wedding. Anymore, it felt hollow. Lonely. Even the slightest noises echoed in the darkness.
“Did you break up with her?” Brent asked.
Jimmy had to think about his answer. “I honestly don’t know what I did.”
“Well, you better not’ve, you dumb fuck.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed. He was a dumb fuck. Always had been. He picked at the label on the bottle with his thumb. “Aria feeling better?”
Brent shrugged. “She quit puking.”
“That’ll teach her not to eat lunch at the deli counter in the grocery store.”
“You eat there every day.”
“Not the shellfish.”
Brent laughed. “True.”
As much as Jimmy hated his apartment, he almost hated Brent and Aria’s house more. It was relatively new and well-constructed, but it was nondescript, planted in the middle of a street of similarly nondescript houses, identical but for the trees in the yard, the varying shades of paint on the shutters.
Jimmy had helped his brother buy it, giving Brent and Aria the hefty down payment as a wedding gift. His intention had been to give his brother more than a house. He had wanted to give him that feeling they had both been missing since their parents had sold their house and moved to Florida, that sense of finally coming home at the end of a long, hard day. He didn’t feel it with this house. He hoped Brent did.
“You coming back to work tomorrow?” Jimmy asked.
“I don’t see why not.”
“Charlene’s gonna fry my ass for the Sunday Special if we’re not done remodeling her restaurant by next Saturday like I promised.”
“Naw, she won’t. You’re too gristly. She’d take Dan’s ass instead.” Brent’s eyes closed on a yawn. “She could make a nice roast out of his ass.”
Jimmy laughed. “You been checking out Dan’s ass again?”
With his eyes still closed, Brent flipped Jimmy off. “He said you left early today, too.”
“Just needed to.”
“It’s been a crazy summer.”
“One of the worst.”
Brent drew in a deep breath that turned into another yawn. As he exhaled, he scratched along his arm, up to his shoulder, settling deeper into his recliner. “What’d you do?”
“Took Bray fishing.” Jimmy debated leaving but leaned back against the sofa to rest his throbbing head for a minute first. His eyes traveled to the family pictures tucked into the bookcases, displayed alongside odd pieces of eclectic art and eagerly-read books.
Even with night darkening the living room, he couldn’t deny Aria had decorated the house beautifully, her eye for color and design impeccable. Painted in warmth, she had designed each room to be inviting, comfortable, but the house didn’t feel as it looked. The air felt empty, wanting of something palpable. The night was too quiet. Flat. Void of the sense of relief that can only come from the kind of silence that follows chaos and confusion.
“Couple of cats. Nothing worth keeping.”
Dan’s house on Chelsea was newer than Brent’s, still less than a year old, but it possessed what Brent’s was missing. The land under Dan’s house had been traipsed across by three generations of Handley men. The memory of those lives lived seeped up from the ground, permeating the foundation, and filled the house with a sense of family, of belonging, whispering the comfort of love made, tears dried, fears calmed. That history turned his house into a home.
Brent’s house needed toys littering the floor, a buildup of lemon-scented Pledge on the end tables. Cobwebs in the corners. Twenty years of apple pies baked and spaghetti sauce simmered scenting the walls. Brent’s house needed a life lived in it. A life like the one they’d had when they were boys, before the fear of death had stripped it away, leaving behind a wanton, empty ache for what once was.
“It needs to rain… storm… something,” Brent said.
“Something’s got to break.” Jimmy sipped his beer, wished it were something more. Something stronger. Something that could make him forget what he was missing. Forget who he was. “I’m thinking of buying a house.”
Brent’s eyes shot open. “Are you serious?”
“It’s a piece of shit.”
“Today it is. Tomorrow’s a different story.”
The Malek house had the same feeling of comfort Dan’s house possessed, that obscure sense of belonging. The house had welcomed him with it when he was six-years old. He had felt it. He had touched it. It had been real. Maybe he had felt his future.
“It’s a crap house, Jim.” Brent closed his eyes. “Don’t do it.”
Jimmy didn’t bother to defend the house. He didn’t know why he had even brought up in the first place. Brent was just like their father. Neither one of them considered anything beyond money when figuring the value in the cost of renovation.
“What does Kylie think about it?”
“I haven’t talked to her yet.”
Brent let out a weary sigh as he opened his eyes, his frustration growing by the minute. “Go apologize to her.”
“She kicked me out.”
“That’s never stopped you before.”
He knew he needed to apologize to Kylie, but he had yet to find the desire to do it. “I’m just sick and tired of the Ashley shit. And the Missy shit. We’ve been together for almost a year, but she’s still acting like it all happened yesterday.”
“So, fix it.”
“How, Brent?” Jimmy demanded. “How do I do that?”
“Hell, I don’t know… You could start by firing Marissa.”
The muscle in Jimmy’s temple twitched. “Why the fuck would I do that?”
“Forget it,” Brent easily dismissed.
Jimmy refused to let it drop. “No, I want you to explain to me how giving Marissa a job automatically means I’m sleeping with her? How are those two things connected in any way?”
“You really need me to explain that to you?”
“Yeah, I do, because obviously I’m too stupid to figure it out on my own.”
Brent said nothing. He didn’t need to. Jimmy wasn’t as dumb as he wished he was.
“I can’t fire Marissa,” Jimmy stated.
“You don’t owe her anything anymore.”
“Whatever.” Jimmy shrugged it off. Brent would never understand. Neither would Kylie. “Look, I get her problem with Missy. I do. But I can’t do anything about that. I can’t change anything that happened. What I don’t get is why she’s still holding onto all the shit with Ashley. Everybody’s moved on from that, except for Ky.”
“You used her, Jim. That’s hard to forget.”
“Why does everyone keep saying I used her? I didn’t use her for anything. She knew exactly what we were.”
“She knew nothing except you saying you weren’t ready to commit to long-term ‘yet.’ She hung her hopes on that one little word.”
“How’s that my fault? I never lied to her. I never told her I loved her. I never proposed marriage. I never said I would stop seeing other girls, and I never asked her to give anything up for me. She was free to walk away whenever she wanted to, and that’s exactly what she did. She broke up with me; not the other way around.”
“She shouldn’t have had to be the one to break up with you. You knew damn well any future you may have had with Ashley was as good as gone the night you met Kylie. You should have let her go then, instead of dragging her heart around for two more years.”
“Fine. You’re right,” Jimmy conceded. “Knowing what I know now, I should’ve broken it off sooner, but hindsight’s twenty-fucking-twenty, Brent. How was I supposed to know I’d fall in love with Ky?”
“You fell in love with Kylie the minute you laid eyes on her.”
Jimmy laughed as he shook his head. “What I was feeling that first night most definitely wasn’t love.”
“It was love, Jim. And it scared you shitless.”
Whether because of love, as Brent believed, or more simply lust, Jimmy would never forget his first glimpse of Kylie. On the hottest day of summer, at a barbeque in her mother’s backyard, Kylie had his full attention from the moment she stepped through the patio door, wearing a sundress the color of the morning sky. As he’d watched her walk barefoot across the lawn, a gentle summer breeze sent stray tendrils of her hair dancing against her slender neck and shifted her dress around her lithe frame, outlining the slight, tell-tale bulge of her pregnancy. The work of His hand, her body had been a vision of mesmerizing grace in the evening sunlight, and he had sat paralyzed, burning hot in desire.
When she felt his steady gaze upon her, she had turned toward him with nothing less than pure hatred shining like fire in her eyes. Volatile, it had hit him like ball lightning.
He had never felt more alive.
“Believe me, Jimmy, with everything that’s happened between you and Marissa, I completely understand why you were cautious to let yourself fall in love again—”
“Don’t drag Missy into this, too,” Jimmy warned. “She has nothing to do with me and Ky.”
Brent held his hand up, placating. “Relax. I’m not dragging her into anything. All I’m saying is I understand.”
“There’s nothing to understand, so just shut the hell up about her.”
“Why are you being so defensive?”
“I’m not,” Jimmy denied, but he was. He would defend Missy until the day he died. It was the very least of what he owed her.
“Have you talked to Kylie about the baby you lost?”
“She knows. Everybody fucking knows.”
“I mean really talked to her, Jimmy. About everything.”
“It has nothing to do with her,” Jimmy snapped. His knee took to bouncing and the muscle in his temple twitched as he cursed himself for coming to his brother’s house instead of going home where he could drink the night away in peace. “It has nothing to do with no one but me and Missy.”
“Jimmy, if you ever plan to marry Kylie—”
“She doesn’t need to know!” Not nearly drunk enough to erase the horror of his memories, he scrubbed at his forearm. Even after ten years, he could still feel where Missy’s fierce grip had stained his skin with deep purple bruises, leaving a lasting impression of the pain he had caused her. “I tried talking to Dad and look where that got me. He didn’t listen to a goddamn word I said.”
Like acid dreams, his memories spawned terror, ripping him apart from the inside out. Her screams, the blood, the blinding emergency room lights; he could still taste the burning bile racing up the back of his throat as the doctors rushed her into emergency surgery to stop the hemorrhaging. He’d called home, searching for strength and guidance from the only man he had ever known to never show fear. Instead of comfort, he’d been cast into perdition.
“Missy could have died that night and he accused me of aborting my own child. Like it was a fucking choice I made!”
“He didn’t understand what you were telling him. He was scared.”
“I was seventeen! How the hell do you think I felt? How do you think Missy felt?”
“You’d never even told him Marissa was pregnant.”
“Mom knew. I figured he did, too. She’d never kept anything from him before.”
“She was waiting for you to tell him yourself.”
“She was going to have a hell of a long wait because I’d planned on letting him figure it out for himself after the baby was born.”
“Jimmy, you really need to talk about this with Kylie.” Brent leaned forward, the long shadows of the night seeming to age his face, his body, making him look more like their father than he already did. “Ky’s not Dad. She would never judge you before she listened.”
The muscles in Jimmy’s jaw turned to steel as his teeth ground together. “No.”
“She deserves to know.”
“Just fucking drop it already!”
“All right, I’m sorry. I’ll shut up.” Brent sat back acting properly chastised, but his mouth never stopped moving. “I still think you should tell her, but I won’t say another word about it. What I will say is that even though I completely understand why you were afraid of getting too close, it doesn’t excuse the fact that you manipulated Ashley and abused your relationship with her in order to keep Kylie and Brayden in your life.”
Jimmy’s head spun, his knee bounced harder in frustration. “That’s bullshit.”
“Do you honestly think you would’ve been invited to Brayden’s birthday parties, or to Christmas, or to any of Martha’s Sunday dinners if not for Ashley?”
“You don’t know that I wouldn’t have. Martha’s always liked me.”
“You might’ve had her fooled, but Kylie hated your guts. You never would’ve gotten one foot through the door if Ashley hadn’t been dragging you in behind her.”
“Ky didn’t hate me.”
“She hated you.”
She had hated him. Passionately. He’d tried to tell himself he didn’t care what she thought of him, but the more he tried to push her out of his mind, the deeper she ingrained. Without even realizing what he was doing, he had made a habit of hanging out at Captain Jack’s, sitting at the bar late into the night while Kylie worked, just so he could be near her.
More often than not, she had ignored him, some nights refusing to even serve him, but occasionally, if he was lucky, her temper would cool, her defenses would lower, and she would talk to him for real. She’d lean against the bar and gift him with a smile and a few words, each one a glimpse into her true heart, the one she kept private and locked away from the world. He found himself stripping away his own defenses, sharing with her things he had never admitted to anyone, sometimes not even to himself.
But those moments had been short lived, fleeting as that deep-seated loathing she held in her heart for him continuously burned. It would flare up in a heartbeat, sparked by his stupidity and Ashley’s tears, destroying all they had built in an instant.
“I know you don’t think you did anything wrong, but you did, and Kylie’s the one suffering for it. You need to apologize to Ashley, and keep apologizing to her until she believes you mean it. If you don’t have the decency to do it for Ashley, at least do it for Kylie. She needs her sister in her life.”
“Fine,” Jimmy surrendered. “I’ll apologize to Ashley, but you’re going to have to tell me exactly what it is I’m supposed to be apologizing for. Should I apologize for taking her to parties and concerts, and out to dinner and buying drinks for her and all her friends? Should I say I’m sorry for paying her rent and her student loans?”
“Jimmy, just stop.”
“Do you want me to fall on my knees and beg forgiveness for all the times I let her in at two in the morning when she was drunk off her ass and looking for sex? Or maybe I should apologize for not giving her a hard time when she ditched me to hook up with some random asshole at the bar.”
Brent scrubbed his hands down his face and let out a long groan of frustration. “I’m trying to help you here.”
Retreating, Jimmy leaned back against the sofa. “I don’t need to listen to this shit from you. I heard enough from Dad to last me a lifetime.”
“Screw this. I’m going back to bed.”
“Good. Go. No one’s stopping you.” Even in the dark, Jimmy could see the hint of pity hiding behind the anger in his brother’s eyes. He looked away as he finished the last swallow of beer and set the empty bottle on the floor next to the others, his army of glass soldiers not yet strong enough to defend him against the night. “You taking that beer with you?”
Brent picked up his almost-full bottle and handed it to Jimmy. “Just make sure you leave me some in the fridge, ey?”
Jimmy tapped the bottle against his forehead in salute. “Not a problem.”
“Sleep here tonight. Aria would kill me if you wrapped your stupid ass around a pole.”
“Yeah… Hey?” He waited until Brent turned to face him. “Thanks for sitting up with me.”
“Anytime. You know that.”
Brent headed upstairs to the comfort of his bed, to the warmth of his wife, like a sane man, living a sane life, in a sane world. Jimmy stayed where he was and drank to forget, the flickering glow of the television his only companion as its spastic light chased shadows through the darkness.