Possessed by blind fury, Kylie wrenched her sister out of Gimp’s Pub and shoved her into the gravel parking lot. “What is wrong with you?”
Ashley ripped her arm away from Kylie. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be happy for me, just this once?”
“Happy?” Kylie practically shrieked. “Are you serious?”
Rushing to join them, Martha pleaded, “Kylie, calm down.” Stacy and Aria tried to follow, but Martha shooed them back inside and barred the door so their family drama could unfold in relative privacy. “We can discuss this without screaming at each other.”
“Tell me you’re lying, Ash!” Kylie demanded, her voice shrill, shredding her throat like cut glass. Her entire body trembled as she fought to restrain herself from ripping her sister apart, limb by idiotic limb. “Tell me you made this whole marriage thing up as some pathetic attempt at a joke!”
“A joke?” Ashley’s face turned crimson as her temper rose to the same temperature as Kylie’s. “You think I’m a joke?”
“Of course, we don’t, honey,” Martha placated. “But why would you say you got married today? What’s that all about?”
“Because I did!”
“No,” Kylie stated, not buying into her bullshit. “I don’t believe you.”
“What, am I not good enough to get married?” Her expression contorted to exaggerated dismay, her posture taking on a drunken swagger, as she worked herself up. “Am I so disgusting that no one in their right mind would want to marry me so it has to be a lie if I say I am?”
“You’re not disgusting,” Martha assured Ashley. “That’s not what your sister meant. We’re just… surprised, by all this.”
Hands to hips, Ashley pouted. “But not happy for me.”
The whine of her sister’s voice made Kylie cringe in disgust. “Cut the crap, Ash, and just tell me the truth. Are you married?”
“Yes, Ky! For really real. I’m really married.”
Kylie stared down her sister, searching her face, her eyes, her body language for the tale-tell signs she was lying, but she couldn’t find even a hint of a fib. She shook her head in denial. “No…”
Ashley waved her left hand up under Kylie’s nose. “Yes!”
The evening sun glinted off her ring finger, hinting of fine jewelry. Before Kylie could catch a proper look, their mother clasped Ashley’s hand in hers.
“Oh my, Ashley… That’s very…” she hesitated. “Pretty.”
“Mike let me pick it out myself,” Ashley gloated.
“And did he let you pay for it, too?”
The smile slipped from Ashley’s face as Kylie grabbed at her sister’s hand and stepped in to get a better look at the ring. Of course, just like everything else in Ashley’s life, on closer inspection, it was all a lie. The band was fake, the diamond nonexistent. The marriage, most likely, was fake as well, nothing more than a cheap costume worn to garner attention. Disgusted, she dropped her sister’s hand.
“I’m done playing these games with you.”
“All you ever do is lie.”
“Oh, come on. The ring was a joke,” Ashley admitted, her body swaying like a rag doll as she laughed at them both. “We bought them out of the vending machines in the laundromat on our way to the courthouse, where we did get married. For real.”
“Whatever,” Kylie dismissed. Suddenly, she’d stopped caring. Even if they were married, knowing Ashley, it wouldn’t last long. She’d get bored and move on, divorced within a month. “And that bullshit about the Army? Was that a joke, too?”
Ashley smirked. “Nope. Very real.”
“Oh, dear,” Martha sighed in dismay. “Ashley, honey, I don’t understand what you’re doing here. What are you trying to do?”
“I’m not trying to do anything. I’ve done it. I just…” She faltered, stuttered over her words. “I just needed to take control over my own life.”
Kylie huffed out a laugh of disbelief. “By giving it up to someone else?”
“What? No! It’s not—”
“To a drug addict?”
“To the government?”
“Mom!” Ashley begged.
“Kylie, please, let her talk.”
“I didn’t give my life to anyone!” Ashley insisted, her voice commanding, as she found her way to sober. “I made a commitment, to Mike, to continue to provide for him and to support him for however long he needs me; and to my country, to serve in exchange for a career, for an education, for life experience. I want to do something with my life, Ky. Something real, something with purpose, for people who need it, for people who appreciate it. Not for these people.” She motioned with frantic gestures around the downtown square, at Allman Falls in general. “These people suck.”
Kylie couldn’t argue that. They did suck.
“Sounds like you’ve thought this through,” Martha offered.
Kylie rolled her eyes at her mother’s blessed ignorance. For as long as she could remember, Kylie had been the one saddled with playing the role of devil’s advocate where Ashley was concerned. Martha had always been too busy appeasing her every whim.
“You really think working in a military hospital is going to be any different than working in Juliette? It’s still going to be the same bullshit, the same blood draws, the same puke, the same backstabbing, bitchy coworkers, except now you won’t have the luxury of quitting whenever you get pissed off or bored. You’re going to be stuck there, Ash, wherever they send you, for years. You couldn’t even handle six months where you’re at now!”
“It’s not going to be the same, Ky. I’m not going to be wiping asses. I plan to go into counseling—”
“Good!” Kylie interjected. “You need it!”
“I’m going back to school. I’m going to be a psychiatrist. Eventually. If everything works out the way the recruiter says it could.”
Kylie laughed, close to hysterics. “Good luck with that.”
Ashley didn’t need luck when it came to academics. The girl was smart as hell. But she was easily suckered and didn’t listen worth a damn. There was no telling what the recruiter actually said to her. But Kylie intended to find out.
“Well, now that sounds like a wonderful idea. I know you’ll be very good at it, Ashley. You’ve always had an open, genuine way of communicating with people. I think that’s what people need more of, someone who cares, who knows how to listen.”
Ashley seemed taken aback by the praise. “Thank you, Mom.”
“You were wonderful with Tomas. You cared for him so much, and I know he—”
Kylie stepped in front of her mother, shutting her down before she fully sliced open poorly healed scars. “Do you honestly think you could be a psychiatrist?”
“You think you’re capable of helping people with real problems, with serious mental illness and PTSD?”
“I know I can, yes!”
“You can’t even help yourself.”
“You know what? Screw this.” Ashley held her hands up in frustrated surrender. “You can keep treating me like a stupid, insolent child if it makes you feel better, Ky, but you and I both know the only reason you’re pissed right now is because you’re jealous.”
“Jealous?” Kylie choked out a bitter laugh that burned of bile. “Why would I ever be jealous of you?”
“Because I’m getting out of here.” Ashley smirked the snotty, little smile that Kylie hated more than anything in the world. “And you’re going to be stuck in Allman Falls with a lying, cheating, sorry ass alcoholic for the rest of your pathetic little life.”
Kylie’s hand shot out before she even realized what she was doing, smacking her sister so hard across the face she recoiled from the stinging pain.
“Girls!” Martha’s eyes widened in horror as Ashley shoved Kylie backward, pushing her hard enough to slam her into the side of the building. Kylie lunged for her sister again, but Martha forced herself in between them. “That’s enough!”
Ashley struggled against Martha’s grasp. “Admit it, Ky. You’ve always wanted everything I had—my dad, my friends, my boyfriends.”
“I did not!”
“You only joined soccer so you could play against me. You’re going to nursing school to try and prove you’re smarter than me, that you can get a better job than me.”
“No,” Kylie tried, but her denial was weak.
“You seduced Jimmy because you were so fucking desperate for someone to love you the way they always love me!”
“I did not seduce Jimmy! I never did anything with him while you two were dating.”
But even as she said it, she knew it was a lie. They may not have had even the slightest hint of sexual contact until the very end, but Kylie couldn’t deny she had desperately wanted it to happen. He had consumed her thoughts, invaded her dreams, the aching need to feel his touch damn near driving her insane.
“You’re so full of shit! You did nothing but try to break us up! ‘He’s a jerk, Ash… You can do better, Ash… He doesn’t treat you right, Ash…’ That’s all I ever heard from you—over, and over, and over again—but it was all bullshit! I had him, and you wanted him, and when you couldn’t poison my mind against him, you used your son to steal him away from me! I’ll be damned if you’re going to take anything from me again.”
“Is that why you married, Mike? Because you think I’m going to try and steal him from you?” The idea was so ridiculous, Kylie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“No, you stupid bitch!”
“Ashley!” Martha chided.
“I married Mike because I love him and I want to support him until he finds his way.”
“He’s a drug addict, Ashley! You will be supporting him for the rest of his life!”
“And you’re going to be supporting Jimmy. Unless you want Marissa to do it for you.”
Kylie didn’t justify the jab with a response.
“But, you know, the more I think about it, I can give you credit for something. You are the reason I joined the Army.”
“Oh, really? How?”
“I did it to get the hell away from you.”
“You joined the Army to get away from me?” Kylie threw her hands up in the air. “Do you realize how incredibly stupid that makes you? Well, congratulations, Ashley! You’ve succeeded! I am done with you!”
“Good!” She turned on her heel and stormed across the parking lot.
“Good!” Kylie screamed in agreement as she watched her sister’s furious stride, her ankle buckling every few steps as her stiletto heels stabbed through the uneven gravel.
Martha let out a weary sigh. “Kylie, you’re not really done with your sister, are you?”
“I wish,” Kylie muttered under her breath, then called out, “Hey, Ash!”
Ashley whipped back around. “I thought you weren’t talking to me anymore!”
Ashley flipped her off and started walking again. When Ashley reached the street, Kylie whistled out to her.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Without turning around, Ashley barked, “What?”