Muffled jack-hammering broke through Jimmy’s dreams and echoed about his throbbing head. His eyes, heavy and hot, refused to focus in the darkness. Kylie stirred beside him in bed, her hand sliding up his bare chest until her palm rested over his heart. He placed his hand over hers, one foot on the floor, and waited for the room to stop spinning.
“Son of a bitch,” he cursed himself. He didn’t have time for a hangover. The sun lay below the horizon, but soon it would rise. Once it did, the day would race to end, over before he could blink. There was never enough light in the day, and the nights always lasted too damn long. Just once, he wished it could be the other way around.
He closed his eyes, and drifted. His mouth went dry, his tongue thick and jaw sore. The room spun faster. His chest constricted. Mercifully, the jack-hammering stopped. Jimmy lifted Kylie’s hand from his chest, pressed a light kiss into her palm as he slipped from under her arm.
“Jimmy,” she said in a low whisper, her voice heavy from sleep.
“Shh.” He brushed her hair from her face, off her shoulders. “Sleep, Ky.”
She reached for him, her fingertips brushing along his arm. “We can’t keep doing this.”
“I know.” He ran a light touch along her cheek, his lips following his caress until her eyes closed. He watched her shoulders rise and fall in deep, even breaths. She loved him, but he was losing her. Bit by bit, day by day, he could feel her slipping further and further away from him, and he had no idea how to bring her back. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she whispered, her eyes still closed, more asleep than awake. “It’s okay.”
Leaving the room in darkness, he hunted down his clothes from the night before, finding his jeans in a tangle beside the bed, his wallet and keys close by, his pocket change scattered. He tugged on his t-shirt and scooped his ball cap up off the floor, raking his hair back with his fingers before putting it on. His hair was getting too long, hanging over his ears and taking on the curl he hated, but it was how Kylie liked it. A skipped haircut here and there was an easy sacrifice for her happiness.
His boots in hand, he returned to Kylie to place one last, soft kiss high on her cheek, then left her to sleep and moved down the hall to check on Brayden. Deep asleep, Brayden lay flat on his back with his arms above his head, his legs bent with the soles of his feet pressed together. He never fell asleep that way, but it was how he always ended up, his body open to Heaven, where his dreams originated from.
The air conditioner kicked on, a pocket of cold air expanding from the vent on the floor, filling the room with chill. He had kicked his blanket off overnight. When Jimmy picked it up from the floor, a stuffed dog tumbled out, Boo Bear nowhere in sight. They hadn’t seen the teddy in weeks, lost somewhere in the vast wilds of Allman Falls, most likely at preschool, or grandma’s house. Brayden sometimes cried for him in the middle of the night, if he was overtired or scared, but Boo had already started to fade from Brayden’s days. It wouldn’t be long before he vanished from the nights, and then from his memories all together.
Jimmy tucked the blanket around Brayden, placed a gentle kiss on his forehead. He allowed his hand to linger on his son’s chest for a moment before he left, comforted by the strong beat of his heart. Brayden wasn’t Jimmy’s son in the biological definition, but Jimmy didn’t see himself as anything other than Brayden’s father. It was how he had defined himself since the day Brayden was born, long before he had any right to, and it was how he would define himself for the rest of his life. It was the only definition that mattered.
He left the door open a few inches so the light from the hall would guide the boy to his mom if he woke up before the dark night disappeared, and then he headed across town to his empty, lonely apartment to shower and dress for work.
Persistent ringing roused Dan from blessed sleep. With a deep growl of discontent, he snaked his arm from under the covers, in search of the snooze button on his alarm. Repeatedly, he smacked it. The ringing did not stop.
“It’s your phone, kochanie,” Stacy’s voice mumbled from under her pillow, her foot brushing along his leg. Even under a heavy blanket in the late days of summer, her toes felt like tiny popsicles against his warm skin.
He smacked at the snooze button again, but his alarm continued to cry, its ringing seeming to grow in urgency with every repetition. He cursed as he fumbled with the buttons, searching for the right one. Grunting her frustration, Stacy squirmed out from under his arm. She climbed over him, grasping for his cell phone on the nightstand. He heard it hit the floor, and she cursed as it rang again.
“I got it, I got it.” Sleep already a distant, fuzzy memory, Dan threw back the covers, and accidentally smacked Stacy in the face with his backhand.
Crying out in startled pain, she brought her hands to her nose and collapsed against the pillows. The phone rang again.
“Are you okay?” Dan kept one hand on her thigh while he stretched out to reach the phone on the floor, trying to comfort them both at once.
“I’m fine,” she said, her answer muffled from behind her hands. She sniffed, testing. “No blood this time.”
“I’m sorry.” Dan massaged her leg and barked into the phone, “What?”
“Dan? It’s Charlene. I was just looking over what you guys did yesterday—really looking at it—and I am not happy, Dan. Not! One! Bit! I don’t know what kind of poor quality your other customers are willing to accept—”
Dan removed the phone from his ear and tapped it repeatedly against his forehead in frustration, his hand involuntarily choking the electronic contraption in his desire to strangle the woman attached to the shrieking voice.
“Who is it?” Stacy asked.
“Kurwa mać!” Stacy ripped off the covers and sprung from bed. “I swear, one of these days, I’m going to ram my foot up that woman’s boney—”
The rest of Stacy’s threat got lost behind the slam of the bathroom door. Dan returned the phone to his ear and listened as Charlene griped about trim and paint, wainscoting and window sills, tile and grout lines. He threw in the appropriate, “uh-huh,” or, “I understand,” whenever she paused, but he let her do most of the talking. She had called to lecture, not converse.
He had received similar early-morning wake-up calls from her at least twice a week since they had started the renovations on her diner. On the days Charlene didn’t call Dan, she called Jimmy. They had bent over backwards trying to please her, but there was no pleasing Charlene. She enjoyed bitching too much to ever be happy.
When Charlene finally ran out of steam, Dan promised he would be in early so she could show him everything in need of fixing, and then disconnected before she could gain a second wind. A heartbeat later, his phone rang again, her number on the screen. He paused long enough to whisper a few of Stacy’s favorite Polish curses and then answered.
“Daniel Handley, you’ve got some nerve hanging up on me!”
“Sorry ‘bout that, Charlene. I think we got cut off,” Dan lied
Charlene grunted. It wasn’t a lady-like grunt, but then nothing about Charlene was lady-like. Her heart hard, her voice graveled by a steady diet of vodka and cigarettes, she was unlikable at best, but when Charlene spoke, everyone listened. For as long as Dan could remember, her opinion had been revered as Gospel. Her silver tongue held the power to annihilate their reputation, and their business, with one well-placed whisper of doubt. He had absolutely no intention of giving her reason to speak ill of his livelihood.
“I’m truly sorry, Char,” Dan said, adding a smile to his voice, hoping it helped. “What else can I do for you this fine morning?”
“Cut the crap, Dan. It’s unbecoming.”
He dropped the smile. “My apologies.”
“What you can do is stop messing around and get my dining room done! How may weeks behind schedule are we now? Eight, nine?”
“Three,” he corrected under his breath, though it was probably closer to four. A wedding, a funeral, and just plain old life had caused much of the delay. But Charlene’s indecision had set them back multiple times, and cost them thousands of dollars, as well.
“And you tell Jimmy I need the estimate for my kitchen. Sometime before I die, please. Unless he wants me to give my business to Folson’s crew in Juliette. I hear he’s charging half of what you boys are in labor, and they’re getting the job done on time. Must be because they don’t work these half-day, part-time stints you boys have been pulling lately.”
“Now, Char, that’s not fair. This summer has been—” Dan started, but she cut him off.
“I’ve been giving my hard-earned money to Rogan Construction since long before there was even a squirt of a ‘Son’ to mention on the truck, but I won’t hesitate to call Folson if Jimmy doesn’t come back with something competitive this time.” She tsked, the sound of it a hiss dripping in venom. “If James knew what Jimmy was doing to his good reputation, I guarantee you, as sure as I’m breathing, that poor man would be rolling over in his grave.”
She slammed the receiver into the cradle, the noise of it like a bomb exploding in Dan’s ear, but he didn’t even flinch. “Son of a bitch.”
He punched Jimmy’s number into his phone with his thumb. He listened to the connection ring unanswered, left a message for Jimmy to call, and then groaned when a glance at the clock revealed it was already a half past five, the day picking up speed by the minute. When he heard Stacy getting sick in the bathroom, he groaned again.
Her doctor had assured them her morning sickness would start to ease now that she was into her second trimester, and it had eased up some, but she still threw up at least once every morning. Sometimes a lot more than once. The vicious side-effect could keep her holed up in their luxurious master bathroom, the one with the heavenly, muscle-relaxing, eye-opening shower jets, all morning.
Dan grabbed some clothes and headed for the not-as-luxurious main bathroom to shower and shave, then went downstairs to start his coffee. While it brewed, he stepped over to the patio doors where Stacy’s mutt, Willie Nelson, waited to be let outside for his morning constitutional.
“You want something to read, you know, to help it along?” Dan asked the dog as he opened the door.
Willie cocked his head in a moment of consideration, then dashed outside. While he sniffed out the perfect patch of fragrant flowers to poop on, Dan turned toward the east. Stretching his stiff muscles, he watched dawn stain the night sky in shades of pinks, yellows and orange as the sun began to lift out of the hills surrounding Chelsea Lake. It was his favorite time of day, his favorite view on earth, one he would never tire of, no matter how many mornings he was to be blessed to witness it.
The ring of his cell phone shattered his peaceful moment, bringing more bad news.
“I probably won’t be in today,” Brent said when Dan answered. “Aria’s sick again.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Hell if I know. I thought she was finally over this stupid bug, but she started puking again right after breakfast. I’m taking her to the doctor. If it’s nothing serious, I’ll be in later. Or I might take the day anyway. I don’t know yet.”
“You better come in. Charlene’s on the warpath.”
“Isn’t she always?” Brent dismissed, his words punctuated by a slurp of coffee.
“Yeah, but you make a good buffer between her and Jimmy. I’m wearing my lucky shirt today. I’d hate to see it get splattered in blood.”
“Speaking of my brother, have you heard from him yet today?”
“If you do, let me know so I can tell Aria and she can relax.”
“What’s going on?”
“He and Ky got into it last night. Again. And he broke into my house. Again. And he drank all my beer. Again. And once again, I told him to sleep it off here, but he didn’t. He’s probably back at Ky’s, again, but he’s not answering his phone and Aria’s worried.”
“I’m sure he’s fine.” Dan said, but something was going on with Jimmy lately, something more than his usual, brooding moods.
“Yeah, I’m sure, but this is getting old, Dan. He shows up here at least once, sometimes twice a week.” Brent let out a frustrated sigh. “And Aria’s pissed. At me. Like I have any control over the shit he does.”
“You can’t lock him up.”
He slurped his coffee again. “I could take his keys though.”
“True,” Dan agreed. Finished with his business, Willie came bounding onto the patio. “You want me to talk to him?”
Brent snorted. “Talk all you want. Won’t do a damn bit of good.”
Saying goodbye to Brent, Dan opened the door for Willie and tagged along behind as he raced through the house, excited to get his morning pets from Stacy, who was slowly making her way to the table in the breakfast nook. As Willie danced around Stacy’s feet, Dan poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Eggs or oatmeal?”
“Toast.” Stacy slid into a chair and rested her head on her folded arms on the table. “Oh, I don’t feel good at all today, kochanie.”
Eyeing her cautiously, Dan popped two slices of bread into the toaster. “Worse than usual?”
“No… I don’t know.” She let out a shaky, queasy exhale. “Oh, this sucks.”
“Maybe you caught what Aria has.”
“No, I think she caught what I have.”
Confused, Dan asked, “What do you have?”
She rolled her eyes.
It took him a minute, but when his first sip of coffee kicked in, he figured out her cryptic hint. “You really think she’s pregnant?”
“I’d put money on it.”
“Huh… But they never said anything about trying.”
“We weren’t exactly trying either. Sometimes happy just happens.”
“That it does.” He couldn’t help but smile as he placed a kiss high on her cheek. “What are your plans for the day?”
“Teaching screaming children and puking.”
He let out a laugh as he massaged across her shoulders.
“I’m serious,” Stacy insisted. “I don’t think I’m ever going to stop.”
“Well, you have fun with that.” Dan ruffled her still-messy curls, then sat at the table and sipped his coffee. “If you get bored with the puking thing, why don’t you swing by True Value and pick out a paint color for the nursery? Something blue, maybe.”
“Something blue, huh?”
He shrugged, a teasing smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
She arched her eyebrow, but didn’t take his bait.
Dan tweaked her nose and slid his coffee cup over to her. “You want the rest of this? I need to get going.”
With a groan of discomfort, Stacy turned away from the robust aroma.
“Should I be worried about you?”
“Go to work, kochanie.”
Despite her assurance, Dan checked her forehead for fever. She shooed him away with a bit of feisty in her growl, then reeled him back in for a goodbye kiss that started with a peck and ended a few minutes later with his jeans growing tighter and Stacy’s face flushing from something a hell of a lot more fun than the flu.