“I don’t think you should tell her,” Dan said, finally breaking the silence the two men had fallen under as they’d stepped outside of the Allman Falls police station.
“I don’t have a choice,” Jimmy answered without looking away from the hair-line crack in the corner of the windshield he had been blindly staring at as his mind relentlessly replayed the events of the night, his stomach lurching violently with every repetition.
“You don’t have to do it right this minute.”
“Yeah… I do.”
Dan slowed the truck to a crawl as he pulled up to Kylie’s house. The overnight storm had knocked loose a long-dead branch from the fifty-year-old silver maple consuming her front yard, dropping it onto the street, along the curb, where it had shattered into jagged, hollow pieces that crushed under the weight of the truck tires. If it had been a normal day, Jimmy’s truck would have been parked under the branch when it had fallen. He wished it were a normal day. He would have preferred a dent in his hood or a scratch in his paint. Body damage was easy to fix, erasing all evidence of impact. What had happened instead would irreparably alter his life, and hers, forever.
“It’s early, Jimmy. Why don’t you wait until later in the day?”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.” Dan threw the truck into park and turned to face Jimmy. “Come home with me for a while. Get some sleep, or at least something to eat, sober up a bit more, and then talk to Stace about it. See what she thinks. She might be able help you find the right words to say.”
“There are no right words, Dan,” Jimmy snapped. “I fucked up too bad. I can’t fix this. All I can do is confess and leave it up to her to decide what happens from here.”
Dan let out a low grunt of frustration and scrubbed at his face with his hands, his eyes bloodshot and weary. “You’re signing your death warrant if you do this right now. Is that what you want?”
Jimmy turned away from Dan and focused his attention on the house. A single light shined in the back, originating from the kitchen, casting a distorted square of amber light upon the side yard. His day had been going on for well over twenty-four hours, but hers had only begun. Now was the time to tell her, while her day was still fresh with the mystery of discovery, when it still held the potential to be anything she wanted it to be. He would rather destroy a day she had barely started than steal away one she had already worked hard to create.
“Thanks for the ride. I’ll walk home from here.” He opened the truck door and slid off the seat.
“Shit,” Dan cursed under his breath as Jimmy closed the door.
Putting one foot in front of the other, he made his way to the side door on auto-pilot, his boots shuffling through the shredded leaves and twigs littering the sidewalk like leftover confetti from a devilish parade. Dan’s truck sat idling at the curb, waiting for Jimmy to come to his senses and climb back in. But there was no going back. He had to do this, and he had to do it right now, before he lost his nerve to confess and they built the rest of their life together on a lie.
He found her in the kitchen where he knew she would be, sitting at the table with her back to the door, wearing only boy-cut panties and a thin, tight tank. Her lithe body fresh from sleep, she wore her thick hair twisted in a sloppy knot on the top of her head, held precariously in place by a blue Bic pen. It was a sign of her frustration over the open books and loose papers strewn about the table in a mess in front of her.
The new semester had only just begun, but he could tell by the way she held her shoulders high and tight she worried she would fail. It was needless worry. She was too smart to fail at anything. She had always been out of his league, everything he wasn’t—smart, funny, loving. Honorable.
Her name came out in a whisper, barely audible, more a thought than a vocalization, but she was intune to him and she turned.
She rose from her chair, her body fluid, instantly relaxing at the sight of him. He couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. Instead, he focused on the faint, quarter-sized coffee stain soiling her tank top an inch above her left nipple. Though slightly faded from a handful of trips through the washing machine, the stain had permanently embedded into the cotton—a memento of an insignificant event of the everyday, the kind of day he desperately wished he could disappear into.
It had happened on a Sunday morning, before her eyes were fully open, precipitated by a sudden sneeze that had overtaken her as she brought her first cup of the day to her lips. She had let out a whispered curse when the hot liquid seeped through the fabric and stung her summer-tanned skin, and then she had immediately laughed at her persistent bad luck. As she reached for a dishtowel to clean up her spill, he had pulled her into his arms and swept down the neckline of her top. He’d soothed her tender skin with his lips, tasted the sweetened, creamy coffee with his tongue.
He hadn’t stopped with one kiss. He never could. His mouth had continued to journey, savoring her naturally-sweet skin as her fingers ran through his hair and the coffee in her mug went cold.
“Ky…” he started again, but faltered. Visions of the night before filled his mind, the guilt white-hot in his gut, liquefying his entire body.
“What’s wrong?” Fear and concern filled her eyes, her pupils reacting as she tried to decipher the conflict of emotions crossing his face. “Did you get in a fight?”
Her fingertips brushed along the cut on his cheek, his bruised, tender jaw, before she wrapped him in her embrace, her lips settling into the crook of his neck. As his hands gripped onto her hips, his body screamed at him to keep quiet. For a moment, he listened and held her tighter. His hands slid up her back, his fingers kneading into her muscles through the thin cotton, her small, firm breasts pressing against his chest as he crushed her body into his, desperate to pull her into him until they were one body, one heart, one soul.
“Jimmy?” she asked again, her voice trembling in concern. He was squeezing her too hard, his muscles locked, his arms like a vise around her, unwilling to ever let her go. “What happened, baby? Please tell me.”
In a rough whisper, his words sliced across the delicate skin of her neck. “I am so sorry, Ky… I’m so fucking sorry.”
Desperately, he wanted to kiss her, to strip her of the thin tank and panties, the only barriers between his hands and her skin, and make love to her right there in the kitchen. He wanted to fall asleep naked in her arms and start anew with the day, but as the nightmare of the night replayed in his mind he knew he had no right to touch her in that way ever again. Not without her forgiveness first.
“Is somebody hurt? Is it Brent? Dan?”
“No… They’re fine… It’s me… It’s what I… shit, Ky…”
“You’re scaring me.” She cupped his face in her hands, her eyes terrified as she considered his. “What happened?”
“Ky, I…” He tried to force away the rain-soaked memory, but it only became more vivid, more telling, proving he was not the man he desperately wanted to be, the man he had foolishly convinced himself he had become.
“What did you do?”
The concern rapidly faded from her voice, replaced by dawning knowledge. He didn’t have to spell it out. She knew all too well who he was, who he would always be.
She pushed away from him. “What the hell did you do, Jimmy?”
His hands slipped away from her and his eyes fell to the floor. “I’m so sorry, Ky…”
“No!” she cried. She pushed him away from her. “No!”
“Goddamn it, Jimmy!” She shoved him again, harder this time, and he had to fight to keep his feet underneath him. “Who was she?”
Her voice shrill with pain, she demanded, “Who was she?”
He shook his head, unwilling to hurt her any further with a name.
“Marissa?” she guessed. “Or was that red-headed bitch too much temptation for you? Needed to try something new?”
He pulled his eyes away from the floor to finally meet her gaze. As soon as he did, her hand came up and smacked his face so hard his head whipped to the side. He set his jaw to the stinging pain and allowed her to hit him again.
“Why!?” Her eyes blazed in fury, but they were dry, confirming his fear. She had never trusted him. He didn’t blame her. He’d never trusted himself.
“I don’t know,” he said, struggling to force the words out of his constricted airway.
Images of the night flashed through his mind as he struggled to understand it himself. Snapshots of the emotions that had consumed him as he’d held Marissa resurfaced. His chest tightened until he felt as if his ribs would crack under the pressure.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, Ky. I wasn’t thinking anything at all. I was just…”
At a loss, he stopped. There were no words to explain what he had done. He didn’t know what he was, who he was. He’d never known. Not before Kylie. She was the only one who had ever loved him. She was the only one who had ever understood him. She was the only one who could help him understand himself.
“You were just wasted,” she finished for him. “Like always.”
He couldn’t answer her, but he didn’t need to. She was right, and she knew it.
“Fuck you.” Her entire body seemed to deflate, extinguishing the fire in her eyes as she went numb to him. “I’m done.”
“Kylie…” He reached for her, but she was gone. She stood inches from him, close enough he could still feel her breath blow hot across his cheek, but she was miles away, and she was never coming back.
Emotionless, she worked the engagement ring off her finger and held it out to him. His vision blurred as he closed his hand around hers, holding onto her instead of taking the ring. She ripped away from his grasp and the band fell to the floor, bouncing once… twice… and then one more time before settling onto the scuffed linoleum with a wobbling spin.
Neither of them moved to retrieve it.
Jimmy whipped around to the sound of the little voice behind him. When he saw his son standing in the hallway rubbing at his sleepy eyes with his tiny fists, Jimmy’s heart plummeted to the floor and shattered.
His son froze for half a heartbeat, and then immediately his face lit up like the sunrise.
Brayden ran full speed toward Jimmy and crashed into his legs. Jimmy scooped him up and held him tight to his heart, the first of the million tears he had been fighting finally breaking free and sliding down his cheeks. When Brayden wrapped his arms around Jimmy’s neck, a deep sob worked loose in his chest and threatened to escape. He began to hyperventilate. Oh fuck, what have I done?
Kylie pressed her lips tight to Jimmy’s ear. Her voice hard, struggling for control, she whispered in warning, “Don’t you dare lose it in front of him.”
Jimmy clamped his jaw and forced his eyes to dry. He had to clear his throat more than once before the lump disappeared enough to say, “Good morning, Little Man.”
“What do you want for breakfast, Bray?” Her words were everyday normal, but her voice came out too high pitched, too forced, lilting at the end of every word.
Blessedly oblivious, Brayden cried out, “Cocoa Puffs!”
He wiggled to free himself from Jimmy’s embrace. His movement slow, concentrated, feeling as though he had suddenly aged into an old man who had barely survived a hard lifetime, Jimmy bent and set Brayden on his feet. Brayden threw his arms around Kylie’s legs, giving her a squeeze. She strapped him into his booster seat, handing him the stray Hot Wheels car he reached for. Gracefully, as though a practiced dance, she bent and snatched the engagement ring up off the floor. Before Jimmy could stop her, she shoved it into the front pocket of his jeans then turned her back on him, erecting a solid barrier between them.
Brayden’s legs dangled from the chair, swinging back and forth, out of synch with each other under the table as he played with his car. Hypnotized, Jimmy stood frozen in place, watching them. The air in the room grew heavy, the edges of his vision darkening and fading from existence. His ears roared from the blood pounding through his veins, racing toward his heart, slicing it into pieces.
“Jimmy eat, too?” Brayden asked.
“Jimmy already ate,” Kylie answered when it took too long for Jimmy to find the words. “He has to get going.”
“Where you go?” Brayden asked.
Jimmy had no answer, so he said nothing. Instead, he crossed the room to Brayden’s sweet smile and kissed the top of the boy’s head, his lips hard and tight as he fought back another sob. Brayden’s baby-fine hair was still slightly damp from sweating in his sleep, bringing out a hint of the puppy-like smell little boys seemed to be born with, mixing with the watermelon scent of the shampoo Kylie used to wash his hair. Jimmy loved that combination of smells more than any other pairing in the world, and he closed his eyes to allow it to seep into his memory.
“Bye, Bray.” He may have whispered it out loud, or he may have simply thought it. All he knew was he never imagined he would ever say those words without knowing he would be following them up with a hello greeting a brief moment in life later.
Without turning to look at him as he approached, Kylie said, “Good-bye, Jimmy.”
“I love you, Ky.”
When he pressed his lips against her cheekbone, her entire body tensed, becoming as cold and unresponsive as a rod of steel. He held the kiss too long, his tears flowing freely, pooling on her shoulder as he tasted the salty tears she had almost succeeded in hiding from him. Knowing he had caused those tears hurt infinitely worse than the pain he’d felt when he’d thought she’d had none to shed.
“I am so fucking sorry,” he whispered behind a strangled sob, and then he let her go and made a break for the front door.
The awakening sun penetrated through breaks in the clouds along the eastern horizon, burning him with its brilliant light as he returned to auto-pilot. Placing one foot in front of the other, he walked without direction, seemingly moving forward, but feeling as though free-falling, straight into hell.