Mike’s crap day started when his Gator was run off the gravel road by a wild Mustang. It ended with the news his wife had been stationed five-thousand miles outside of his probation radius. In between the two, he had to deal with Jimmy. If he could do anything about the day over, he would have listened to the wishes of his pup, Bella, and stayed in bed.
When he’d swerved to avoid the sports car, he’d overcorrected and ended up ass-down in the ditch. The utility vehicle had survived abuse far worse without as much as a scratch, but it was heavy, and he got it good and stuck. Bella hopped out, shook off the adrenaline rush, and then retired to the harvested field to lay in the sun while Mike fruitlessly spun his tires in the partially frozen mud. He sent a text to Jimmy, then waited.
The road was hardly traveled. A middle-aged woman with bird-like features driving an obsidian Lexus slowed to look but did not stop to help when he waved. Three other vehicles sped past without noticing, one of them a work truck with Rogan-Handley Construction emblazoned on the side. Mike texted Jimmy again, told him to turn his ass around, and then waited some more.
Bella snored. Mike texted Ashley. She’d been short with him recently, sending one-word responses, not answering his calls. She was preparing for graduation from basic training, awaiting her first assignment, about to make another big change in her life. He could sense her stress, but she didn’t need his support, didn’t want his advice. She also didn’t want her family to attend the ceremony, or to even know it was happening.
She wanted to do it all alone, test her inner strength, prove…. Something.
He didn’t know what the hell she was trying to prove, or who she intended to prove it to. All he knew, she was kicking ass and he was damn proud of her, even if she didn’t want him to say so.
A cloud of gravel dust rose from the horizon. Mike stood at the edge of the road and waved his arms high above his head, determined to flag down the older Chevy K30 approaching from the west. Thankfully, the truck slowed to a stop. When the driver hopped out, Mike was surprised to see the same bird of a woman who had driven past in the Lexus.
“Well, that took longer than I thought,” she chirped. “Bet you’d given up hope.”
“Uh,” Mike stuttered. “No. Not at all.”
Dressed more appropriately for a church service than tow service, bathed heavily in a rose-scented perfume, she went around to the back of her truck and dropped the tailgate. Swinging up into the bed with ease, she rifled through the tool box near the cab until she found a tow strap. She tossed it down to Mike.
“Hook her up while I get the truck turned around.”
She had him out of the ditch and back on the road with only a slight rev of her engine. He offered his gratitude, Bella paid her in puppy kisses, and she was gone before he even thought to ask for her name.
“She’s an Angel,” Mike decided.
Bella danced a circle, barked in agreement, and jumped into the Gator, anxious to continue their journey.
Mike arrived for work at Jimmy’s house an hour late, but he may as well have taken the whole day. Two Rogan-Handley Construction trucks sat outside the house, and a tense shouting echoed down the drive. Something heavy crashed, followed by the sound of shattering glass. With her head low, Bella skittered off to the bushes to hide. Mike decided to work outside.
The brothers argued for the better part of an hour before Brent took off with a slam of the door. Gravel sprayed from under his tires. Another crash came from inside the house. Mike continued to busy himself cleaning up the yard. Eventually, curiosity got the better of him. He ventured inside.
Jimmy sat in the kitchen, his head in his hands. An empty bottle of whiskey lay broken on the floor.
“Hey,” Mike dared.
“Go away,” Jimmy replied, his voice flat, dead.
Mike ignored the warning.
In the next breath, he was pinned against the wall, Jimmy’s hand a vise around his neck, strangling him of air.
“Get the fuck out of my house.”
He released his grasp, punched the wall beside Mike’s head and disappeared up the stairs. Mike coughed, brought his hand to his throat. He left the house, but not the property and went back to working outside for the rest of the morning.
Around noon, Jimmy disappeared in his truck. He returned just past nightfall, falling out of the passenger side of Marissa’s car, so drunk he couldn’t figure out how to climb the stairs to his porch. Between her and Mike, they managed to get Jimmy into the house and onto the couch before he completely passed out. Tears in her eyes, Marissa glanced back at him with a volatile mix of affection and distain, then walked out the door without a word to Mike.
“I think we should stay,” Mike said to Bella.
She bumped his hand with her nose in agreement.
He heated a frozen dinner in the microwave, shared it with his dog, then flipped channels on the TV while he listened to Jimmy’s uneven breathing. He debated calling his sponsor to ask his advice, but Ashley sent a text that distracted him.
“I got Landstuhl!”
She added a happy face emoji.
It took him a full minute to type his reply.
The air was hot and thick, verging on muggy under the pile of blankets, wrapping Kylie in a protective cocoon. It was dark, quiet, almost as she imagined death would be. It was how she intended to spend the rest of her life, if only the rest of the world would leave her alone.
“Come on, Ky,” Nessa pestered. Home for barely five seconds, she had already invaded Kylie’s space. “Talk to me.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Kylie mumbled into her pillow.
“Okay, I totally didn’t hear anything you just said. It sounded like ‘wah blah wah wah.’ Maybe you should try it again without that wad of crud in your mouth.”
Kylie pulled the pillow tighter over her ears. “Go away.”
“Not gonna happen, Ky Girl. You can ignore your mom all you want, but you can’t ignore me. I don’t go away just because you tell me to.” Nessa ripped back the blankets and gasped. “Holy heck, Ky! You look like crap.”
“Bite me.” The sudden rush of cold air a shock to her body, Kylie rolled onto her side and curled into a ball to fight off the chill. She clamped the pillow over her head and closed her eyes, avoiding the sight of the sculpture she had made of Jimmy’s hand holding hers.
After a brief vacation in Pittsburg, her luggage had returned home, safe and sound, the sculpture still nestled inside. Now, it sat on her nightstand, mocking her.
“Tell me what happened, or I’m going to call Jimmy and find out from him,” Nessa threatened.
“Go ahead and call him. I don’t care.”
“What’s his number?”
“Wow, Ky, that was so funny I forgot to laugh.” Nessa pried the pillow away from Kylie and tossed it across the room. “What happened?”
Kylie covered her eyes with her hand. “We fought.”
“Fighting can be good. It gets everything out in the open.”
“It’s definitely all out in the open.” She rolled onto her back and uncovered her face. “Apparently, he never cheated on me.”
“What?” Nessa asked, her brow furrowed in confusion. “But I thought you said…”
“He said all he did was kiss her.”
Kylie sighed in frustration. “Marissa.”
“I keep forgetting who everyone is.” Nessa shifted on the bed, turning to face Kylie, as though direct eye contact would help her better understand. “Which one’s Marissa?”
“Just this stupid girl, an old high school girlfriend who never went away.”
Kylie pushed herself up and tried to run a hand through her hair, but her fingers caught in the tangled knots.
“He always claims there’s nothing between them anymore, but he can’t seem to stay away from her. Ever. He’s always finding her… He said he kissed her and he touched her, but they didn’t—” She felt like screaming but could only manage a low groan of frustration. “Whatever, I don’t believe him…”
Tears burned her eyes, and she shook her head, trying to find clarity in the mess of lies, misunderstandings and wrong assumptions cluttering her mind.
“He looked like shit when he came into my kitchen that morning, like he hadn’t slept in a year. The way he hung onto me, I thought he was sick, or that someone had died. He was scaring the crap out of me, but he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. He just apologized over and over and over again. I’m sorry, Ky, I’m so fucking sorry. It took everything I had to hold him up, and he just kept apologizing to me. We’d fought the night before and at first I thought that was what he was sorry for, but then I realized what he meant…”
She trailed off as waves of guilt and livid anger crashed against each other in her gut.
“He knew exactly what he had done that night—and what he hadn’t—but he wouldn’t tell me the truth. He didn’t tell me anything! He let me assume the worst, and then he just walked away! And he never came back. God, I was pissed, but if he would have just told me…”
Silent, Nessa chewed on her bottom lip and studied Kylie, her expression pensive.
“I can’t do this anymore.” She lifted the sculpture from her nightstand and slipped her hand around Jimmy’s. She had every detail right, but he was cold against her palm, the passionate heat of his soul nontransferable. “I can’t keep loving him and hating him at the same time.”
“Ky… You know I love you, right?”
Unsure what to make of Nessa’s cautious tone, Kylie kept her eyes adverted.
“Did you ever stop to think maybe Jimmy let you believe whatever you wanted to believe about that night because he knew you wouldn’t have believed the truth?”
“No,” Kylie immediately denied. She sat up straight, her body tense and ready to fight. “He let me believe he’d slept with Marissa because he wanted out. He wanted me to break up with him.”
“That’s a load of crap and you know it.”
“You weren’t there, Nessa!”
“No, but I’ve seen the way he looks at you. I’ve seen the way he kisses you. I heard the pain in his voice when he found out Brayden was sick. The man is in love with you, Kylie. He loves your son. He wants to spend the rest of his life with you. What more do you want from him?”
“I want him to be faithful to me!”
Nessa sent a humorless laugh to heaven in prayer. “He messed up. He’s human. It happens. At least he had the balls to come and tell you himself.”
“But he didn’t tell me. He just stood there. He gave up on us before he’d even walked into the kitchen.”
“He didn’t give up. He didn’t stop fighting for you. He quit fighting with you. There’s a big difference, Ky. Maybe once you get that through your thick skull you’ll be worth the kind of love your stubborn pride threw away.”
Nessa pushed off the bed and started to walk away, but she paused in the doorway.
“Oh, and not that you care or anything, but since my best friend abandoned me in Allman Falls, Chief drove me to the airport.”
“I’m sorry,” Kylie said, knowing it wasn’t enough.
“At security, when we kissed goodbye, he told me he’s falling in love with me.”
“He’s a very smart man.”
Nessa smiled. “Yeah, he is.”
With a light touch, Kylie ran her fingers over every inch of Jimmy’s sculpted hand. “You’re leaving me, aren’t you? You’re moving to Nebraska.”
“I don’t know. Probably.” She shrugged. “It’d be a shame to let Lil’ Blue go to waste.”
“It is a sexy coat.”
“Damn skippy, it is.” Nessa rested her head against the door frame, her expression turning serious. “This has never happened to me before.”
“Chief’s the perfect guy for it to happen with.”
Kylie met Nessa’s gaze. “I know you are.”
“But I’m even more terrified what’ll happen to me if I never try.”
“I’m going to miss you, Ness.”
“You going to be okay without me?”
Not trusting her voice, Kylie nodded. Silently, she wondered, how many more people would have to walk out of her life before the loneliness finally broke her?