Still damp from his morning ride and dripping exuberance, David was high on life as he followed Kylie around Froggy’s Café, yipping like a puppy. “You should have seen it today, Kylie. Riding through the mist like that was life-changing. Even Marcos had to stop and sit on his board for a minute, just to take it in.”
“That’s great, David,” she said, hoping she sounded sincere.
“I’ve never seen the water so clear.”
“Uh-huh.” With a glance at the clock on the wall, she moved faster, pushing past him to wipe down the remaining tables. She had five minutes to finish cleaning her station before Nessa arrived to pick her up for the airport. It was never going to happen if David didn’t stop talking.
The guy could go on and on for hours whenever he was passionate about something, and he was passionate about everything—surfing, food, cars, art. Usually, Kylie loved to listen to him. Presently, she was not in the mood for him, or his passion. Not when she was already a bundle of nerves and running late.
“Are you listening to me?” David caught her hands, twirled her around. “Life. Changing.”
“I am listening.” She gave him a quick kiss, hoping to get rid of him. “It was life changing. I get it.”
“I don’t think you do.”
His muscles rippled under his deeply tanned skin as he enveloped her in his arms, crushing her against his hard frame. He stole her breath as he kissed her slow and deep, communicating his zest for life through his salty lips.
His passion intense, so solid and real, it penetrated through the barriers around Kylie’s heart, sending a light flutter dancing around her chest, taking her completely by surprise.
“Life changing,” she whispered on an exhale of disbelief. She rested her forehead against his, drew in a breath of the ocean-scented air enveloping him, savoring the sensation of life finally returning to her body. “I do get it.”
“I knew you would,” he whispered, returning his lips to hers.
As he kissed her again, the faint spark of fire she’d felt only a moment before dimmed, chilling the warmth of his breath against her skin. She shivered, extinguishing the phantom feeling completely. Damn.
“Kylie Ann!” Frog Man called from the kitchen
“Be right there!” Extracting herself from David’s arms, she gave him a gentle shove in the direction of the door, making obvious her intention for him to leave. For emphasis, she added a quick, “Bye!”
In the kitchen, she found Frog Man staring at a can of pineapple sitting upside-down on the counter. As usual, her boss, the owner of the café, was dressed in faded, black Levis and a Grateful Dead t-shirt. Frog Man was a man of many words, most of them about music. A widower and war veteran, he was in his late-sixties, rail-thin, and wore his long, grey hair fastened in a braid that ran halfway down his back. His tour in Vietnam had left him paralyzed from the waist down, but it didn’t slow him down. He ran the kitchen by himself, except on Sundays, when the after-church crowd could fill the café to capacity. On those days, his son, Bobby, and daughter-in-law, Gracie, came in to help.
“What’s wrong with the pineapple?” Kylie asked.
“Shh.” He put a finger to his lips and motioned her over. He pointed to the can and mouthed the word, “Mouse.”
Kylie wrinkled her nose and grabbed the broom. She hoisted it over her head and gave him a nod. He counted out silently with his fingers, “One, two, three,” then lifted the empty can with a flourish. Kylie poised to strike, but there was no mouse on the counter. Frog Man frowned and looked inside the can, but the mouse wasn’t there either. He shrugged, tossed the can into the trash, and rolled his chair to the grill.
It wasn’t the first phantom mouse Kylie had tried to kill for Frog Man, and it wouldn’t be the last. Frog Man saw them everywhere.
“We’ll get him next time,” Kylie promised, returning the broom to the corner. “My station’s clean so unless you need anything else, I’m going to head out.”
“Have fun in Nee-bras-kee.” Frog Man smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corners. “Bring me back one of them big corn hats as a souvenir.”
“I didn’t know you were into football.”
“Aw, I’m not. I just think they’re cool. Kinda like those big chunks of cheese those Wisconsin people wear. Hey, could you imagine how many mice we’d have running around here if I wore one of them?”
“I’d need to swing a bigger broom.”
“No lie there. Now, get outta here, girl.”
Kylie bent down and gave Frog Man a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“I asked Gracie to keep an eye on you while I’m gone.” Kylie pushed through the swinging door, Frog Man following close on her heels. “You better behave yourself or there’ll be hell to pay when I get back.”
“Don’t believe a word that comes out of that woman’s mouth. She lies.”
Kylie’s smile disappeared when she saw David was still in the dining area, deep in conversation with Nessa. Brayden hid behind Nessa, clutching onto her leg, glaring at David like only an angry toddler could glare. Brayden had met David a few weeks earlier, purely by accident, when they’d run into him at an art festival. He had taken an immediate dislike to the man, and Kylie had a pretty good idea why. He wasn’t ready to move on.
“Come, gimme a hug goodbye, Little Man,” Frog Man instructed.
At the sound of Frog Man’s voice, Brayden’s face brightened. He released his hold of Nessa’s leg and scampered to climb into Frog Man’s lap. Together, they wheeled away from the others to sneak in one last moment of man-to-man bonding time before being forced to endure a weeklong separation.
Like two little ducks of a feather, Brayden and Frog Man had flocked together, best friends from the moment they met. Frog Man did most of the talking, but Brayden was an eager, thirsty listener. He loved all of Frog Man’s tall tales, watched in wide-eyed wonder while Frog Man acted them out. In return, Brayden saved most of his words for Frog Man’s ears. But even those whispered secrets were few and far between, leaving Kylie to wonder if he would ever find his voice again.
“When will you be home?” David asked again, for the twentieth time.
“Next Saturday,” she answered quickly. “It’ll be late.”
“You want me to stop by?”
“No, but I’ll call you. We could make plans for Sunday,” Kylie suggested.
“I’m gonna to miss you, Ky.”
She cringed at the sound of her name coming from his lips. “Don’t call me Ky.”
“Why not? Nessa calls you Ky all the time.”
“Just don’t.” Her tone was too harsh, and he flinched. Feeling bad, she added a gentler, “Please, David.”
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever you want.”
His feelings were hurt, but she didn’t have the energy to soothe them. All she could manage was to place her hand against his chest as she whispered a thank you. From experience, he knew better than to try to kiss Kylie in front of Brayden. He settled for squeezing her upper arm in reply.
To Brayden, he said, “Have fun on your vacation. Tip a cow for me.”
Brayden tightened his arms around Frog Man’s neck and avoided looking in David’s direction. Frog Man let out a noise that sounded remarkably like the warning growl of a mother bear, and David slowly backed away. One cautious eye on Frog Man, he made a break for the parking lot.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Kylie scolded both Brayden and Frog Man. She lifted Brayden into her arms, and he rested his head against her shoulder, snuggling close. As she rubbed his back, she turned to Nessa. “You ready to hit the road?”
“I suppose.” Nessa sighed. “But I’m still not too sure about this whole ‘cold weather’ idea. My toes are popsicles already just thinking about it.”
Kylie looked down at Nessa’s flip-flops. “You did pack warmer shoes, right?”
“Heck, yeah. I bought some of those fuzzy socks, too. These are just my airport security shoes. I don’t want them thinking I’m hiding a bomb in my sneakers. I also took off my bra so the idiots won’t mistake my underwire for a shiv.”
“Good planning.” Kylie tickled Brayden and asked in a sing-song voice, “Who gets to ride on an airplane?”
He smiled a sleepy smile and pointed to his chest. “Me.”
Kylie shifted his weight in her arms, took a deep breath to force down the nerves, and reminded Frog Man one last time, “Behave.”
“Get. Go on, now,” Frog Man shooed. “And don’t forget my damn hat!”