Brayden called out to Kylie in the night, his frightened cry quickly escalating into a piercing scream. Lightning flashed in an explosion of energy, its thunderous crack so intense it seemed to collapse the house around them, careening Kylie into a state of disoriented panic. Thrashing, she fought to escape tangled sheets, and tripped her way down the hall.
Another brilliant strobe of white lightning illuminated the night as she ran into Brayden’s room and lifted him from his bed. With the thunder crashing around them, she clutched her son to her chest and inspected him limb to limb, searching for blood, broken bones or any other sign of bodily injury. Only after she had convinced her wildly beating heart his scream had originated from fear, not from pain, did she check out the house.
Brayden buried his face against her neck, his muffled cries inaudible above the sound of hail pounding down against the roof. With his little arms and legs wrapped around her as tight as a vise, she carried him from one room to another. Luckily, the house showed no obvious signs of obvious damage. Torrential rains shrouded the windows, blocking her view of her driveway. All she could do was hope and pray her poor car had not been sandwiched beneath the weight of the aging silver maple that engulfed her front yard.
Another flash of lightning, followed by a window-rattling crack of thunder set Brayden to screaming again. She cooed calming words, rubbed comforting circles against his back, as she walked their familiar pattern around the living room. They had traveled the same journey many times, soothing colic and ear infections, bad dreams and scraped knees. Despite the continued thunder, his trembling calmed, his cries quieted, as her body swayed in gentle dance.
Relaxed, Brayden snuggled closer, sniffed his stuffy nose. “Mommy get Boo?”
“Is Boo in your room?”
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Dun know.”
“Maybe he’s hiding from the storm. Let’s go see if we can find him.”
She hoisted him higher onto her hip and returned to his bedroom. Brayden rested his head against her shoulder and clutched a handful of her tank top with one hand, sucking on the fingers of his other as she searched his bedroom top to bottom, pulling back blankets, looking under the bed, digging though the toy chest and closet. She even looked behind the dresser and into the cold-air return, but Boo Bear was nowhere to be found. They inspected her room, the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, even the washer and dryer with the same level of meticulous scrutiny, but Boo Bear appeared to be hiding good this time.
“When was the last time you saw Boo?”
Brayden’s shoulder lifted and fell in a slow, sleepy shrug. “Jimmy have Boo.”
“I don’t think so,” Kylie said, though it was likely Boo lay forgotten on the floor of his pickup. She glanced at the clock and debated whether to call him. It was late, but unless he lay passed out drunk somewhere, he’d still be up.
“Why don’t you sleep with me tonight and we’ll find Boo in the morning?”
“No.” His voice was heavy with exhaustion, lacking conviction, but he wouldn’t be easily distracted. “Jimmy get Boo.”
With her arms and shoulders starting to feel the trembling burn from holding his weight, Kylie carried Brayden into her room and set him down upon her bed. He rolled over onto his side and immediately stuck his index and middle fingers into his mouth. As she tucked a blanket around him, his eyes fluttered closed, but a bolt of lightning snapped them right back open again. His tears returned. Big as gumdrops, they slid down his ruddy cheeks and pooled on her pillow. The sight of them broke Kylie’s heart. She relented. Even if Jimmy didn’t have Boo, his voice would be a comfort as he sang Brayden to sleep.
She sat beside Brayden, rubbing his back as she dialed Jimmy’s number. When his voicemail picked up after the sixth ring, she disconnected and tried it again, knowing from experience if he was still at the bar he wouldn’t hear his phone ring until it became too annoying to ignore.
“Jimmy got Boo?” Brayden asked, his voice heavy.
“I don’t know yet.” She dialed again and listened to it ring unanswered. Just as she was about to give up, the pouring rain lightened in intensity, and she heard the unmistakable sound of a cell phone vibrating across a hard surface. Jimmy’s voicemail picked up, and the vibrating stopped. She hung up, dialed again. With the first ring, the vibration returned.
“Figures,” Kylie muttered. She eased from the bed and dropped to her knees on the hardwood floor, crawling along the edge of the bed, in the direction of the vibration. She found Jimmy’s phone not far from where he’d undressed the night before. At least now she knew why he hadn’t returned her calls all day.
“Baby, we’ll have to ask Jimmy about Boo in the morn—” She stopped when she saw Brayden had fallen sound asleep, his mouth open, his tears beginning to dry. She leaned in and placed a kiss on his cheek, tucked the blanket tighter to keep him feeling secure, then headed to the kitchen to plug Jimmy’s phone into her charger before his battery died completely.
Craving a sense of security of her own, she made herself a soul-comforting glass of chocolate milk and stood at the kitchen window as she sipped, watching the last of the rain drip from the sky in fat plops. From what she could see in the glow of the streetlights, only a few small branches had fallen from the trees in her backyard. When she moved to look out the front windows and check on the silver maple, Jimmy’s phone vibrated, dancing on her counter.
She set her glass of milk down, sneaking a glance at the clock as she did. Ten minutes after the bar closed. She could only imagine who would be calling or texting him so late at night. Someone blonde. Or brunette. Or a redhead with voluptuous breasts.
She felt her face flush hot in unwarranted jealousy. Jimmy was right. She didn’t trust him. If she trusted him, she would turn off the light and head back to bed. If she trusted him, she would not be rooted in place, staring at his cellphone, dying to pick it up and scroll through his incoming calls, read his texts. If she believed his word, she would not feel the incredible, desperate need to scour the contents of his day and see what crimes and misdemeanors she could find. He hadn’t touched his phone in twenty-four hours. He hadn’t had a chance to delete anything incriminating. His calls, his texts, his messages, everything would be there, unfiltered and true, for her eyes to see…
Lightening blazed across the sky, illuminating her hand as it snaked out to snatch his cellphone off the counter.
The phone felt cold in her hand. Hard. Impenetrable.
She scolded herself, Don’t do it…
But she did.
She swiped the screen, pausing for only a moment before guessing the obvious for his passcode. As soon as she tapped in his birthyear, the phone unlocked, giving her access to all she dared to see. She scrolled through his missed calls first. Except for the multitude of calls from Kylie herself, the only other people to call Jimmy had been his brother, his mother, Dan, people related to work. Kylie should have been satisfied. But she wasn’t.
She checked his texts next, starting with the most recent. Of course, it was from Marissa, looking for a ride. Innocent enough, yet jealousy still flamed her cheeks, cramped her chest. She looked through their history, reading innuendo into even the most mundane exchanges. Disgusted, she closed the thread.
She opened a few more texts, finding mostly requests from customers, a handful of complaints, quick conversations with friends, his brother, with his mom. He never deleted anything, including his history of texts with her sister.
Kylie chewed on her bottom lip; thinking, debating, wondering why her sister’s name would still be toward the top of his history. Why would there be recent texts, and so many phone calls? What did they even have to talk about? Was she harassing him? Did she owe him money?
Of course, Kylie didn’t have to stand there all night, staring at his phone like an idiot, wondering. If she really wanted to know, all she had to do was open the thread and start reading.
Just one little tap.
She tapped. And then she read. And she gasped in surprise.
Jimmy was right. She didn’t know her sister, at all.
She didn’t know Jimmy very well, either.
Reading backward through their text history proved difficult to comprehend, so she scrolled back, refreshing the feed to earlier in the summer, to an Ashley she recognized. Then, skimming quickly, she moved forward through time, past the boob pics and insults, to James’s death and the solemn soul searching that followed.
Joining the Army had not been a rash decision. Ashley had done thorough research. She had explored every option. Any detail she may have missed, any scenario she’d overlooked, Jimmy had questioned, and Ashley had reported back. Kylie was impressed by their endeavor, proud of her sister’s determination, but she couldn’t help but feel a little bit hurt, even betrayed—no, downright pissed—by their lack of consideration. Never once, throughout any of their conversations, had either of them thought to ask Kylie’s opinion, or their mother’s. It hadn’t even been an afterthought.
The sudden, shrill ring of her house phone shattered the silence. Kylie jerked in reflex and Jimmy’s phone flew from her hand. Still tethered to the charger, it slammed against the base cabinet before coming unplugged and falling to the floor with a skittering crash.
“Shit,” she hissed in whisper. With a trembling hand to her hammering heart, she grabbed the phone from the receiver before its ring could wake Brayden.
“Hey, Ky,” Sarah said as soon as she answered. No music came though the line, Captain Jack’s deathly quiet behind Sarah’s voice. Last call had been called, the DJ shut down, the lights probably on high, to chase off the rats.
There was only one reason Sarah would call so late.
Kylie closed her eyes and let out a slow breath to force her heart to settle as she said a silent prayer. “How bad is he?”
“I had to take his keys.”
Damn it, Jimmy. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“No, no, Ky. I can drive him once I’m done here. I just thought you’d want to know.”
“I did. Thanks,” Kylie said, grateful she wouldn’t have to drag her sleeping son out into the stormy night.
“No thanks needed. As much as I don’t want to claim him, he is family. You want me to bring him to you?”
“No.” Her distrust, her screaming, her accusations had caused him to dive into the bottle in the first place, but she couldn’t handle facing the consequences of her actions. Not again. And not around Brayden. “If he’s real bad, call Brent and see if you can drop him off there. Otherwise, take him home.”
Before Sarah could hang up, Kylie rushed to ask, “Is my sister still there?”
“No, they left a while ago.”
“All of them?” Kylie asked, meaning one redhead in particular.
“Yeah. All of them.” There was a pause before Sarah added, “Not to sound stupid, but did your sister marry the guy or the girl? Because she was really friendly with the chick on the dance floor, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, I can only imagine,” Kylie said on a weary sigh. Her sister may have grown up a bit over the summer, but she would always be Ashley. “That’s just Ash being Ash, trying to get attention the only way she knows how.”
“She got plenty of it tonight.”
“Was she bothering Jimmy?”
“Not any more than he deserved. But, hey, just be happy she’s moving far away, off into the world, to spread her evil elsewhere.”
“Does it make me some sort of a sick masochist that I wish she were staying?”
“Naw,” Sarah assured her. “Marrying Jimmy makes you one.”
Kylie huffed out a laugh that could easily turn into sob if she didn’t watch herself. She said goodnight to Sarah and picked up Jimmy’s cellphone from the floor. She brushed it off and plugged it in again, praying it hadn’t been damaged in the fall.
Drawing in a deep breath, she promised both Jimmy and herself she would no longer allow her stupid paranoia to dictate her actions. The past was the past. It was high time she stop obsessing over it. Hell, if Ashley could figure out how to let go and move on, surely Kylie could, too. Marissa was Jimmy’s past—his very involved, very naked past—but his past, just the same. Even if Marissa remained in his life, as a friend, as an employee, she was his past. His future was Kylie. Brayden. Their wedding. Sunrises and sunsets. Growing old together, faithfully.
As she passed through the living room on her way to bed, Kylie stopped in front of the coffee table and picked up the magazine photo of the wedding dress Aria had declared to be perfection. She unfolded the page and carefully smoothed the creases, running her fingertips along the graceful lines of the dress.
The darkened room helped dull the overwhelming starkness of the many layers of white shining off the glossy paper, allowing her to see the beauty of the promise stitched into the intricate seams. But when the lightning flashed, and the thunder rolled, and she imagined herself swathed in the cool, binding, suffocating silk, the fear tickling her heart still felt very, very real.