Jimmy walked through his silent, dead house, shrugged off the heavy jacket of his tux. His entire body felt as though he had been dropped off a twenty-story building, landed headfirst. He needed a Tylenol and a beer. A bullet to the head. If he could only have one, he’d prefer the bullet, but a beer would tide him over for a while.
Standing in front of the refrigerator, his eyes landed on the greeting card he’d stuck to the door with a magnet. Overtly fancy in shades of beige and brown, trying hard to be masculine yet designed to catch the eye of a woman, it read, “On your birthday, Son…”
He rested his burning forehead against the cool metal of the door and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. When she answered, he said, “Hey, Ma.”
“Jimmy!” Mary Ann answered, her delight reaching through the line to hold him. “I didn’t expect you to call tonight. Is the reception over already?”
“Not yet. I’ve got a headache, so I left.”
“Did you take something for it?” she worried.
“You’re not catching a cold, are you?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Well, it is going around. Make sure you get plenty of rest.”
“Did you have a good time?”
“I guess, yeah.”
He could picture her clearly, sitting in her chair with her legs tucked up underneath her, a glass of iced tea on the table beside her, one finger running slowly around the rim as she talked. It was a habit of hers.
“How did your toast go?”
“Brent did it for me. He did real good, too. Everyone laughed.”
“He’s always loved being on stage.”
“Do you remember when he played Curly in Oklahoma! his senior year of high school? He had that audience at the edge of their seat the whole time.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed. He tucked the phone against his shoulder as he opened the fridge and pulled out another beer. “Except when he was singing. Then they were cringing and covering their ears.”
Mary Ann laughed softly. “He is a little tone deaf.”
“Dan sings pretty good though.” He sat at the table and drank half the bottle in one long pull. “He sang to Stacy as she walked down the aisle.”
“I bet there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
“I don’t know… Probably not.”
“Did you have a chance to talk to Kylie at all?”
“How does she like California?” Mary Ann asked.
“She likes it.” He closed his eyes and pressed the cold beer bottle to his forehead. He wished he’d never lied to his mother about why he and Kylie had broken up. He’d told her they’d decided they were better as friends, that they were still friends and keeping in touch with each other. But it was all lies.
“Is she all settled in out there?”
“Yeah,” he guessed.
“Did she have any trouble transferring her college credits?” Mary Ann asked.
“I have no idea.”
“I bet Brayden’s getting big.”
“Yeah.” He downed the rest of the bottle in attempt to push back the sob lodged in his chest.
He wanted to tell her the truth.
He wanted the freedom to cry in front of her.
He wanted her to comfort him, to lie to him and tell him it would be okay.
He wanted her to explain to him why he did what he did, tell him how to fix himself so he never did it again.
“Your dad sure did get a kick out of listening to Brayden jabber every time you guys came down to visit. He said it reminded him of you and Brent when you boys were little.”
She paused. He could hear the ice shift in her glass.
“Do you remember how he used to take you to work with him on Saturdays? You’d talk his poor ears off all day long, but he sure did love listening to you.”
“Yeah, that’s what Bray did at dinner.”
Jimmy struggled to push himself up from the table, the heavy weight of loneliness pushing against him, holding him down, but he made it to his feet and started across the room.
“He told me a bunch of stories about a frog in a stroller.”
“That boy and his imagination…” Mary Ann laughed. “Tell Kylie to call me sometime. I haven’t heard from her since she moved.”
“I went to the cemetery and sat with your dad for a little while today… Sang him ‘Happy Birthday.’” She laughed another little laugh and said, “There was a cute little elderly couple standing not too far away. Close enough to hear. They looked and looked at me, like I was crazy. Maybe I was, but I’d like to think your dad got a kick out of it.”
“I’m sure he did.”
“I wonder who they were visiting.”
“I don’t know.” This time Jimmy grabbed two beers instead of just one. He returned to the table. “I miss him, Ma.”
“I know you do, honey… It’s a hard day for you, isn’t it?”
“Not really,” he lied.
“It’s a hard day for all of us.”
They sat in a comfortable silence, their thoughts in their own places. He opened another beer and he could hear the clink of ice when she took a drink of her iced tea. He finished half a bottle before she cleared her throat and asked, “How’s your house coming along?”
“Good. Mike’s really helped out a lot.”
“It’s good you’re giving him some work, giving him a way to earn a living. It’s what your dad would’ve done.” She let out a chuckle. “I still can’t believe Ashley’s married. And in the Army!”
“Right,” he sighed, exhausted.
“You’ll have to invite me out there once the house is done so I can see what all you boys did.”
“You can come whenever you want. Hell, you ever decide to leave Florida, you can move in, live with me forever. I have plenty of room.”
“Oh, Jimmy,” she said with a dismissive laugh. “You’re a grown man with a full life. You don’t need your mother getting in your way.”
“I’ve got no life, Ma,” Jimmy confessed, his voice low, weary, ready to give up the charade.
“What’s the matter, Jimmy?” Mary Ann asked. Her concern almost broke him.
He opened his mouth to let it all pour out and confess what he had done, why Kylie broke off their engagement, how unbelievably, fucking disgusted with himself he was, but his one sober brain cell took charge and shut his mouth.
“I’m just tired. Maybe I am catching a cold.”
“You know you can always talk to me if something’s bothering you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
She paused, giving him a chance to unburden himself, if he wanted to. He remained silent, finding false comfort in another drink.
“Why don’t you go get some sleep? You’ll feel better in the morning.”
“Happy birthday, my sweet Baby James. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Ma.”
Jimmy ended the call and tossed his phone onto the table. He drank until all the beer bottles sitting in front of him were empty. When he went to the fridge to get another, only a hollow chill stared back at him.
He slammed the door and debated driving into town to get more. He wanted to go back to Gimp’s, back in time, to the dance floor when he was holding Kylie in his arms, their hips tucked together as they moved in perfect rhythm with each other, back to the alley, back to her lips and her touch.
“I need you, Jimmy.”
“I need you, Ky.”
But he couldn’t go back. She was too beautiful to look at, too beautiful to stand next to him.
She was so beautiful…
He did that to her.
He brought his hands to his face and closed his burning eyes. Shit.
“Are you okay, Jimmy?”
He dropped his hands and turned around to face his brother. “What do you want?”
“Aria sent me out here to check on you.”
“Did she send beer with you?”
Brent held out a foil-covered plate. “Cake and mints.”
“Leave it on the counter,” Jimmy said as he brushed past, headed for the back stairs.
“Where are you going?” Brent asked.
“Gotta take a leak.”
“Don’t pass out up there. You might fall through the floor.” Brent opened the fridge and peered at the empty shelves. “Damn, Jim, why do you even bother plugging this thing in?”
Jimmy ignored him and started up the back stairs. Never grand, they were steep and narrow, poorly lit. A broken neck waiting to happen. If only he could be so lucky. A bare bulb hung from the ceiling to light the way, but Jimmy didn’t turn it on. He knew which steps would support his weight, which ones were questionable, suffering wood rot from years of rain water pouring through the holes in the roof. The staircase was on his list of things to renovate, but the list was a mile long, and it resided down toward the bottom.
When he got to the landing, he froze, momentarily forgetting his destination. The staircase tipped. He leaned heavily against the cracked plaster wall while he waited for the weathered step to stop moving so he could climb aboard. Kylie’s world had always moved at a different speed than his. No matter how hard he ran, he couldn’t keep up with her. She was smart—so smart—and he was stupid. He’d even fucked up his marriage proposal. All of them. He’d asked her, and she’d said ‘no’ so many times he’d lost count.
Why the hell had she finally said yes?
She should’ve kept saying no.
“Say no, Ky,” he warned.
He climbed the last of the stairs, passed by the bathroom, continued down the hall. He was so fucking tired. He’d kill for just ten minutes of sleep—ten fucking minutes—but every time he closed his eyes Ky was there, screaming in his face, making him cry.
Brent hollered up the stairs, “You plannin’ on eating this cake, or can I have it?”
Jimmy collapsed onto his unmade bed, closed his eyes to the emptiness surrounding him, and prayed for the nightmare to end.