Sharp bricks dug unforgiving into Jimmy’s back as he pressed against the building, crouched down in a tight, hot ball of pain. Sitting on his heels, with his elbows to his knees and the heels of his hands digging into his eyes, he tried to fight back the intense boil of anger and frustration that burned him up from inside.
He never should have come. He should have left as soon as the ceremony was over. He should have refused to dance with her. He should have stopped as soon as the first song ended, or the second, or even the third. But he couldn’t leave, and he couldn’t stay away. He’d had to see her, one more time.
His heart ripped as he remembered the weight of Brayden in his arms, Brayden’s head on his shoulder, the scent of his watermelon shampoo still clinging to his jacket…
A low, agonized wail erupted from deep in his chest as the tears poured in a burning river. Screaming out the pain, he popped up in a violent burst, turned and punched the wall, not registering as the bricks scraped open his knuckles, as his hand cracked from the force.
He needed to escape, to run, but there was nowhere for him to go. He couldn’t cut Kylie out of his head, out of his heart. No matter what he tried, no matter where he went, she was there. He’d gone to hell, and she’d hitched a ride, screaming at him while he’d burned.
He couldn’t drink her away. She refused to drown, always there when he closed his eyes, smiling at him, kissing him, stroking him, loving him—and then hating him, her face distorted, burning in anger and loathing. But her eyes, so fucking dry…
The back door swung open and Dan came through, carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, looking for him. “You alright?”
“No.” He looked down at his bloody hand and squeezed where it had started to swell.
“That was stupid,” Dan said, nodding at his busted knuckles.
“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed.
“Brent’s going to be pissed if he has to work next week by himself.”
Jimmy crossed the back lot, to the weathered picnic tables set up along the fence. He slid onto the table with his feet on the bench, the dry wood creaking beneath his weight, and turned to face the road. “Did he send you out here?”
“No.” Dan joined him, the table creaking again, swaying slightly, and set the bottle between them. “We flipped for you.”
“Did you win or lose?”
Instead of answering, he asked a question of his own. “What happened, Jim?”
“I fucked up.”
“That’s nothing new. You fuck up all the time.”
His tone was light, trying to ease the tension, but it only tightened more.
“I really fucked up. I thought I could handle being around Ky. I honestly did. I wouldn’t have come if I’d thought I would… Shit, Dan, I had her in my arms, and she was so… I don’t know… just so…” Jimmy trailed of, unable to find the right words.
“Real?” Dan asked softly.
“Yeah.” Jimmy closed his eyes. “She was real, and she was here, and she was all I could feel. In my arms, in my hands, against my skin—she was everywhere. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t control myself. I know it was wrong, but I kissed her, and she kissed me back. She kissed me like she used to, like she still loved me, and I fucking lost it. She was clinging to me, like she never wanted to let me go, and it was like everything sped up in this confusing… fuck, I don’t know. I didn’t know anything except she was holding me and saying my name, and it felt right, so fucking right, that I almost—” Jimmy buried his face in his hands as his body flamed and his insides seized violently. “Shit!”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Dan placed a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, squeezing hard. “Relax.”
“It was so right and so perfect and so how it used to be… And then she remembered. And she was gone. She’s never coming back, and it fucking hurts! I can’t do this! It hurts so bad I can’t fucking think! I can’t do this again.”
“So, fight for her this time.”
“She’s not mine to fight for!” Jimmy screamed.
“What about Brayden, then? Will you fight for him?”
“God, Dan…” Jimmy’s heart seized at the mention of his little boy. “When he called my name and jumped into my arms it was like… I don’t know… like I was centered. Like I could finally breathe again. You know what I mean? But I can’t have him without her and she’ll never take me back. Not after what I did.”
“You lied to her, Jimmy.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Dan sighed. “Yes, you did.”
“What would you have done?” Jimmy demanded. “What would you have said to Stacy?”
Dan looked at him for a long moment before admitting, “I don’t know.”
“And you’re never going to have to figure it out, because you never would’ve done what I did.”
“It was a messed up night. It wasn’t your fault,” Dan insisted
“Really?” Jimmy laughed bitterly. “Then whose fault was it? Yours?”
“Yeah, if we’re being honest, Brent should have taken you home instead of to Jack’s. And Marissa—”
“Brent’s not my fucking keeper, and Missy’s Missy. She is who she is. No one forced me to do anything. It was my own dick doing the thinking that night.”
Dan sighed in frustration. “I still think you should sit down with Kylie and talk to her, for real. Tell her everything.”
“What, so I can destroy her piece by piece as I tell her every little detail? Fuck that. I’m not putting her through it.”
“No, I mean—”
“I know what you meant, Dan, but I’m not going to do it. It’s better if she thinks I slept with Missy. I probably would’ve at some point anyway.”
Jimmy shrugged it off. “If not with her, then with someone else.”
“You wouldn’t do that to Kylie,” Dan insisted.
“But I did.”
Turning his back to Dan, Jimmy watched the slow-moving traffic. They sat in silence, Dan waiting for Jimmy to come to his senses, Jimmy wishing Dan would simply leave him alone. Finally, Dan grunted his concede, picked up the bag sitting beside him, and held it out to Jimmy.
“Happy birthday, Applehole,” Dan said, using the PG endearment Jimmy had long forgotten.
“I don’t want it.”
“Just take the fucking bag.”
“What is it?”
“Open it and find out.”
With apprehension, Jimmy took the bag and looked inside. He gave a short laugh, smiling despite himself, and pulled out the smallest bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label he had ever seen.
“Think you could’ve found a smaller bottle, ya fucking cheapskate?”
“Tried. That shit’s expensive.”
“You’re killing me, Dan,” Jimmy said with a laugh.
“Think of it as a symbolic gesture.”
“Symbolic of what?”
“You are the closest I’ll ever come to having a brother, and I wanted to say thank you for standing up with me today… I want to say thank you for being there for me after Millie…” Dan drew in a deep breath and watched traffic as he exhaled. “There’s a lot I want to thank you for, Jim, and this is the only way I know how… unless you’d prefer I kiss you instead.”
Jimmy laughed. “No.”
“Good.” Dan reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out two plastic cups. He took the bottle from Jimmy, cracked the seal, and poured. He handed the first one to Jimmy, kept the second for himself. “Cheers then.”
Jimmy took a healthy sip, holding the whiskey in his mouth for a moment to savor the flavors. He hadn’t had Blue Label in years. Not since the night James Rogan turned over ownership of Rogan and Sons Construction to Jimmy and his brother. In that bittersweet moment, his father’s hands had shaken violently, his motor skills still hindered by his most paralyzing stroke, by the multitude of medications he’d been prescribed. As he’d poured, the expensive whiskey had spilled down the sides of the glasses, onto the walnut bar, but neither Jimmy nor Brent dared to take the bottle from him. The stroke had already stripped their father of most of his pride. They’d refused to steal away the rest.
The bottle he’d poured from that night was one Rich Handley had given James at least ten years earlier, only days before he’d died of a sudden heart attack. After his funeral, James had poured a single shot from the bottle and stood silently on the deck, watching the clouds roll across the sky, seemingly for hours, before bringing the whiskey to his lips. The remainder of the bottle had sat, untouched, for a decade. The significance of James’s decision to toast his sons with that whiskey had not been lost on Jimmy.
In his memory, and the memory of Dan’s father, Jimmy raised his glass again and quoted his father’s favorite toast, “May you never go to hell, but always be on your way.”
Dan took another slow drink. “I miss your dad, Jim. He was a good man.”
“Yeah… He tried to be.”
“That’s all any of us can do.”
They sat on the picnic table, side by side, and silently watched traffic pass by until the whiskey was gone. When it was, Dan went back inside. Jimmy gave up on the night, and on himself, and headed home.
* * *
As soon as Dan stepped through the door, Brent demanded, “Well?”
“Is he okay?” Aria asked, her expression anxious.
“I don’t know,” Dan said with a heavy sigh. “He went home.”
“What did he say?” Brent asked
“Maybe I better go talk to him.” Aria started for the door, but Dan grabbed her by the arm to stop her.
“Don’t you think you’ve already done enough for one night?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded.
“This whole mess is yours.”
“Blame it all on me if it makes you feel better, but you can’t claim innocence either,” she snapped. “You made him your best man.”
“Alright guys, that’s enough,” Brent said, stepping between them.
There wasn’t anything left to say about Jimmy that they all hadn’t already discussed a thousand times before, so he turned his back on Brent and Aria and went to find his beautiful wife.
“How is he?” Stacy asked the moment Dan returned to their table.
Dan looked deep into Stacy’s eyes and said with sincerity, “Jimmy and Kylie are their own problem tonight. What do you say we sneak out and get started on our honeymoon? It’s only one day long and I want to spend every second of it making love to my beautiful wife.”
Stacy smiled as she tucked her hand into his. “I’d say I married a very smart man.”