It was supposed to be an easy trip home—a short visit with her mom, a quick roll in the hay with her husband—before she hopped on another airplane to fly halfway around the world, onto her next adventure. Now, thanks to her selfish bitch of a sister, she was forced to commit a teeny, tiny misdemeanor as well.
Standing on the front porch, in the dark of night, freezing her ass off as a brutal north wind sliced through the hills and cut through her jeans, Ashley hefted the largest rock she could find, and smashed it through Jimmy’s front window.
“Have you lost your mind?” Mike panicked.
Ignoring him, Ashley tucked her hand into the sleeve of her jacket and knocked out the remaining shards of glass. As she climbed through the window, Jimmy winged an empty beer bottle in her general direction. It missed by a mile, shattering against the far wall.
Mike let out a curse of defeat and used the key he had been withholding from Ashley to enter Jimmy’s house like a normal person.
“I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry,” Mike sighed in apology.
“You’re paying for that,” Jimmy grumbled as he struggled to stand. He lost the fight against gravity and collapsed back onto the couch.
“I’ll find a board,” Mike offered as he slowly wandered off, in hangdog fashion.
“What the hell, Jimmy?” Ashley muttered in disgust. She glanced around, taking assessment of the house, at the holes punched through the new drywall, at the trash and beer bottles littered about. The air felt heavy, stale with the stench of misery and despair. She’d be willing to bet Jimmy hadn’t moved far from the room all week, which was probably the last time he had showered, as well.
“When’s the last time you slept?” she asked.
“I’m not going anywhere until you get off your ass and do something—do anything—besides drink alone in the dark. I don’t care what.” Ashley crossed the room and flopped down in the armchair next to Jimmy, in close enough proximity to confirm her suspicion. She damn near gagged. “I suggest you start with a shower.”
“Get the fuck outta my house,” he slurred.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Jimmy shifted his eyes, blinking for so long she almost believed he had fallen asleep. His head rolled, and he faced the television, his bloodshot eyes narrow slits in protection from the harsh light coming from the screen.
“What are we watching?” Ashley shifted in the chair, but Jimmy turned off the television before she could see. She rolled her eyes. “What, were you watching porn or something?”
“Yeah. Leave me alone so I can jerk off in peace.”
Jimmy pulled a fresh bottle of beer from the six pack on the floor and twisted off the cap. He flicked it at her, missing again. Before he could bring the bottle to his lips, Ashley reached out and ripped it from his hand. She winged it across the room, smashing the full bottle against the wall.
As the beer foamed and poured down the drywall, she commanded, “Stand up.”
“Stand the fuck up,” she repeated. “Start living again.”
“I am living.” He took a deep breath in and blew it out through his nose. “See?”
“You’re not living, you’re hiding. You just going to sit here and wallow in self-pity until you die? Well, guess what, Baby James!? Miserable people live really long lives.”
“Fuck you,” Jimmy muttered.
“Fuck you,” Ashley parroted, exhausted as she slumped back in her chair. She studied Jimmy, his bloodshot eyes, his haggard face. She couldn’t tell how much of it was from the beer and how much was from not sleeping in a very long time. He looked to pass out at any second, so Ashley kept pushing. “Do you love my sister?”
“Do you love her?” Ashley repeated.
Jimmy turned away.
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life without her?”
He closed his eyes, refusing to answer.
He swallowed hard, fighting it, but still the tears escaped.
Softening, she went to him, held his face in her hands, forcing him to look at her.
“Get your shit together.”
He jerked away from her touch. “I can’t do this with you.”
“If not me, then who?”
“Everyone else loves you too much to tell you the truth.”
“You’re a drunk. You need help.”
“Get the fuck out of my house!”
“You’ve had a problem for a long time.”
Jimmy hissed, scrubbed his face with his hands.
“You can’t fix this by yourself.”
“There’s nothing left to fix! Everyone’s gone. Dead.”
“Nobody’s dead.” She paused. Slowed down. “Your dad’s gone, I’m sorry. And I know you’ve lost your heart before. It hurts like hell. I understand. Believe me, Jimmy. I see you. But you can’t live in the past. Everyone here and now is very much alive. Except for you. You’re the only one who refuses to live.”
“Fuck this.” He pushed off the sofa, started for the stairs. “I need to go puke, or pass out, or something. Fix my fucking window before you leave.”
Disappointed, but not defeated, Ashley watched his struggle to climb the stairs. Once she was certain he wouldn’t tumble down and break his neck, she went looking for a broom to clean the broken glass. As she passed the television, curiosity got the best of her. She picked up the remote, pressed play.
Brayden’s chubby, little, baby face filled the screen, his eyes bright, the drool fierce as he crawled across the carpet toward Kylie’s outstretched arms. She scooped him up and cheered for her baby’s new-found skill. Jimmy came into view as Kylie handed Brayden up to him. Standing proud, he held the little boy close, waving his tiny fist in victory.
* * *
A persistent, droning vibration broke into the sleep that had elude Kylie much of the night. With a groan, she fumbled around on her nightstand for her cellphone. The instant she lay hand on it, the vibration stopped. She shoved her head under her pillow, closed her eyes, and no more than thought of sleep before the vibration started up again.
Cursing under her breath, she snaked her arm out from under the blankets and swiped to reject the call. A few seconds later, it buzzed again.
“Shut up!” she growled in frustration, chucking the cellphone out into the hallway. All she wanted was five minutes of sleep—just five, blissful, uninterrupted minutes, void of Brayden crying, or Jimmy invading her dreams.
Just as she felt herself drift, just as she started to believe she might actually get her wish, she heard Nessa’s cellphone chirp from the other side of the wall, followed by the unmistakable thud of Nessa falling out of bed.
Cursing once more, Kylie lifted the pillow from her head and snuck a peek at the clock. There was only one person she knew who was stupid enough to call at an ungodly hour like three in the morning, and stubborn enough to keep calling until someone answered.
Nessa stumbled into Kylie’s room, tossed her cellphone onto the bed. “Ashley.”
Eyes closed, Nessa turned around, and smacked her face square on the doorjamb. “Ow.”
“Just sleep with me,” Kylie offered.
Mumbling her disgruntled gratitude, Nessa collapsed onto the bed. Immediately, she resumed her soft, whistling snore.
Kylie left Ashley to sit on hold for a full minute before she searched the blankets for Nessa’s phone. “What do you want, Ash?”
“I want you to get off your freakin’ high horse and get your bony ass back to Allman Falls.”
“For what?” Kylie asked, confused in the early hour.
“For Jimmy, you selfish bitch.”
“For Jimmy?” A hysterical laugh escaped before she could stifle it. “What do you care about Jimmy?”
“I care a lot about him. A hell of a lot more than you do, obviously.”
Not in the mood to argue, Kylie disconnected the call. Almost two full minutes passed before the phone rang again.
“What the hell was that?” Ashley practically shrieked. “Making me talk to myself like a freakin’ idiot!”
“What?” Kylie played dumb. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d hung up. Bad connection, I guess.”
“You really are the most self-centered, heartless piece of human garbage that ever existed.”
“What is your problem with me?” Kylie demanded.
“Gee, I don’t know, Ky. Maybe it’s that I’m sitting here, at Jimmy’s house, watching over his passed-out-drunk, practically lifeless body, making sure he doesn’t puke in his sleep and you’re—”
“Why does everyone act like Jimmy’s drinking is my fault?”
“I didn’t say it was your fault. I said you didn’t care!”
“Why should I care? He’s a grown man. If he wants to drink, let him drink.”
“Have you ever, even once in your life, thought of someone besides yourself?”
“Seriously? You’re the one asking me that?”
“Yes, Ky, I am.” Ashley huffed. “I am sick and tired of you acting like I’m the one who’s always making a mess of things. I may be impulsive, and yeah, I make a lot of really stupid mistakes, but at least I learn from them. At least I try. And at least I don’t make everyone else around me feel like shit, just so I’ll feel better about myself!”
“When have I ever—”
“It’s all you’ve ever done! My entire life, you’ve done everything in your power to make me look stupid, to make me feel like a fool, and you’ve never once let me live down a single one of my mistakes.”
The accusations weren’t true, but they still stung, leaving Kylie without a response.
“You belittle my marriage, dismiss my feelings. Do you even remember that I joined the Army? Do you even care that I got stationed in Germany? That you aren’t going to see me for years?”
“How can I care about these things, Ashley? You don’t tell me anything.”
“You never ask!” Ashley let out a long, low grunt of frustration. “You don’t care anything about my life except controlling it. You don’t care anything about Jimmy except controlling and criticizing him. Do you honestly think he drinks as much as he does because he wants to?”
“Of course not,” Kylie snapped. “We all know he has a problem.”
“And do you know why he has that problem? Do you think he’s a happy guy? Do you think he likes himself? Do you even care what he’s trying so damn hard to drown?”
Trying hard not to cry, Kylie bit the inside of her cheek. “Please, stop.”
“Why should I stop?”
“Because this has nothing to do with me! Jimmy is not my fault. I didn’t make his choices, I didn’t pour his drinks, and I sure as hell didn’t invite anyone else into his bed.”
Ashley huffed out a laugh. “See? It is all about you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“If you ever loved Jimmy as much as you swore you did, you’d forget about your stupid, butt-hurt feelings and help him.”
“It’s not hurt feelings, Ashley. He cheated on me!”
“Oh, he did not, and you know it. You’re just using your obsession with Marissa as an excuse to belittle him whenever you feel like it and abandon him when shit gets too real.”
“Good bye, Ashley.”
“But that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what this is all about.” Ashley let out a laugh of disbelief. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. You’re scared.”
“I’m not scared,” Kylie immediately denied.
“You’re freaking terrified, because you actually love him.”
“Of course, I love him!” The tears started, burning one angry track after another down her flushed cheeks. “I love him, Ashley. I love the holy living shit out of him. And I really, truly, deeply, fucking despise him. So, please, please, just stop. Okay?”
“I’m sorry, Ky.”
She honestly sounded sorry, but Kylie no longer cared about her sister’s feelings, or anyone else’s. “Goodbye, Ash.”
She disconnected the call, powered down the phone, and slipped it onto the nightstand.
“Your sister sucks the life outta me,” Nessa mumbled.
“She tends to have that effect on people,” Kylie agreed. She slipped her hand around Nessa’s, giving her a squeeze. Nessa squeezed her hand in sisterly reply.
She closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but her mind was wide awake, arguing with her heart again. And Nessa’s sweet snores had started to resemble a fog horn. She watched three turn into four in the morning, and then five, before she picked up Nessa’s cellphone, turned it on, and called her sister.
“How long are you home?” Kylie asked as greeting.
“I don’t know,” Ashley grumbled, her voice heavy from sleep. “A few days.”
“Can you meet me in Albuquerque?”
“No,” Ashley replied on a yawn. “But I’ll meet you in Tucson. Charlie moved a few years ago.”
“How did you know that?” Kylie asked in disbelief.
“Duh, Ky. Haven’t you ever heard of the internet?”