Chapter 73 ~ Semblance of Life

Semblance of LifePossessed by blind fury, Kylie wrenched her sister out of Gimp’s Pub and shoved her into the gravel parking lot. “What is wrong with you?”

Ashley ripped her arm away from Kylie. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be happy for me, just this once?”

“Happy?” Kylie practically shrieked. “Are you serious?”

Rushing to join them, Martha pleaded, “Kylie, calm down.” Stacy and Aria tried to follow, but Martha shooed them back inside and barred the door so their family drama could unfold in relative privacy. “We can discuss this without screaming at each other.”

“Tell me you’re lying, Ash!” Kylie demanded, her voice shrill, shredding her throat like cut glass. Her entire body trembled as she fought to restrain herself from ripping her sister apart, limb by idiotic limb. “Tell me you made this whole marriage thing up as some pathetic attempt at a joke!”

“A joke?” Ashley’s face turned crimson as her temper rose to the same temperature as Kylie’s. “You think I’m a joke?”

“Of course, we don’t, honey,” Martha placated. “But why would you say you got married today? What’s that all about?”

“Because I did!”

“No,” Kylie stated, not buying into her bullshit. “I don’t believe you.”

“What, am I not good enough to get married?” Her expression contorted to exaggerated dismay, her posture taking on a drunken swagger, as she worked herself up. “Am I so disgusting that no one in their right mind would want to marry me so it has to be a lie if I say I am?”

“You’re not disgusting,” Martha assured Ashley. “That’s not what your sister meant. We’re just… surprised, by all this.”

Hands to hips, Ashley pouted. “But not happy for me.”

The whine of her sister’s voice made Kylie cringe in disgust. “Cut the crap, Ash, and just tell me the truth. Are you married?”

“Yes!”

“For real?”

“Yes, Ky! For really real. I’m really married.”

Kylie stared down her sister, searching her face, her eyes, her body language for the tale-tell signs she was lying, but she couldn’t find even a hint of a fib. She shook her head in denial. “No…”

Ashley waved her left hand up under Kylie’s nose. “Yes!”

The evening sun glinted off her ring finger, hinting of fine jewelry. Before Kylie could catch a proper look, their mother clasped Ashley’s hand in hers.

“Oh my, Ashley… That’s very…” she hesitated. “Pretty.”

“Mike let me pick it out myself,” Ashley gloated.

“And did he let you pay for it, too?”

The smile slipped from Ashley’s face as Kylie grabbed at her sister’s hand and stepped in to get a better look at the ring. Of course, just like everything else in Ashley’s life, on closer inspection, it was all a lie. The band was fake, the diamond nonexistent. The marriage, most likely, was fake as well, nothing more than a cheap costume worn to garner attention. Disgusted, she dropped her sister’s hand.

“I’m done playing these games with you.”

“What games?”

“All you ever do is lie.”

“Oh, come on. The ring was a joke,” Ashley admitted, her body swaying like a rag doll as she laughed at them both. “We bought them out of the vending machines in the laundromat on our way to the courthouse, where we did get married. For real.”

“Whatever,” Kylie dismissed. Suddenly, she’d stopped caring. Even if they were married, knowing Ashley, it wouldn’t last long. She’d get bored and move on, divorced within a month. “And that bullshit about the Army? Was that a joke, too?”

Ashley smirked. “Nope. Very real.”

“Oh, dear,” Martha sighed in dismay. “Ashley, honey, I don’t understand what you’re doing here. What are you trying to do?”

“I’m not trying to do anything. I’ve done it. I just…” She faltered, stuttered over her words. “I just needed to take control over my own life.”

Kylie huffed out a laugh of disbelief. “By giving it up to someone else?”

“What? No! It’s not—”

“To a drug addict?”

“He’s not—”

“To the government?”

“Mom!” Ashley begged.

“Kylie, please, let her talk.”

“I didn’t give my life to anyone!” Ashley insisted, her voice commanding, as she found her way to sober. “I made a commitment, to Mike, to continue to provide for him and to support him for however long he needs me; and to my country, to serve in exchange for a career, for an education, for life experience. I want to do something with my life, Ky. Something real, something with purpose, for people who need it, for people who appreciate it. Not for these people.” She motioned with frantic gestures around the downtown square, at Allman Falls in general. “These people suck.”

Kylie couldn’t argue that. They did suck.

“Sounds like you’ve thought this through,” Martha offered.

Kylie rolled her eyes at her mother’s blessed ignorance. For as long as she could remember, Kylie had been the one saddled with playing the role of devil’s advocate where Ashley was concerned. Martha had always been too busy appeasing her every whim.

“You really think working in a military hospital is going to be any different than working in Juliette? It’s still going to be the same bullshit, the same blood draws, the same puke, the same backstabbing, bitchy coworkers, except now you won’t have the luxury of quitting whenever you get pissed off or bored. You’re going to be stuck there, Ash, wherever they send you, for years. You couldn’t even handle six months where you’re at now!”

“It’s not going to be the same, Ky. I’m not going to be wiping asses. I plan to go into counseling—”

“Good!” Kylie interjected. “You need it!”

“I’m going back to school. I’m going to be a psychiatrist. Eventually. If everything works out the way the recruiter says it could.”

Kylie laughed, close to hysterics. “Good luck with that.”

Ashley didn’t need luck when it came to academics. The girl was smart as hell. But she was easily suckered and didn’t listen worth a damn. There was no telling what the recruiter actually said to her. But Kylie intended to find out.

“Well, now that sounds like a wonderful idea. I know you’ll be very good at it, Ashley. You’ve always had an open, genuine way of communicating with people. I think that’s what people need more of, someone who cares, who knows how to listen.”

Ashley seemed taken aback by the praise. “Thank you, Mom.”

“You were wonderful with Tomas. You cared for him so much, and I know he—”

Kylie stepped in front of her mother, shutting her down before she fully sliced open poorly healed scars. “Do you honestly think you could be a psychiatrist?”

“Yes.”

“You think you’re capable of helping people with real problems, with serious mental illness and PTSD?”

“I know I can, yes!”

“You can’t even help yourself.”

“You know what? Screw this.” Ashley held her hands up in frustrated surrender. “You can keep treating me like a stupid, insolent child if it makes you feel better, Ky, but you and I both know the only reason you’re pissed right now is because you’re jealous.”

“Jealous?” Kylie choked out a bitter laugh that burned of bile. “Why would I ever be jealous of you?”

“Because I’m getting out of here.” Ashley smirked the snotty, little smile that Kylie hated more than anything in the world. “And you’re going to be stuck in Allman Falls with a lying, cheating, sorry ass alcoholic for the rest of your pathetic little life.”

Kylie’s hand shot out before she even realized what she was doing, smacking her sister so hard across the face she recoiled from the stinging pain.

“Girls!” Martha’s eyes widened in horror as Ashley shoved Kylie backward, pushing her hard enough to slam her into the side of the building. Kylie lunged for her sister again, but Martha forced herself in between them. “That’s enough!”

Ashley struggled against Martha’s grasp. “Admit it, Ky. You’ve always wanted everything I had—my dad, my friends, my boyfriends.”

“I did not!”

“You only joined soccer so you could play against me. You’re going to nursing school to try and prove you’re smarter than me, that you can get a better job than me.”

“No,” Kylie tried, but her denial was weak.

“You seduced Jimmy because you were so fucking desperate for someone to love you the way they always love me!”

“I did not seduce Jimmy! I never did anything with him while you two were dating.”

But even as she said it, she knew it was a lie. They may not have had even the slightest hint of sexual contact until the very end, but Kylie couldn’t deny she had desperately wanted it to happen. He had consumed her thoughts, invaded her dreams, the aching need to feel his touch damn near driving her insane.

“You’re so full of shit! You did nothing but try to break us up! ‘He’s a jerk, Ash… You can do better, Ash… He doesn’t treat you right, Ash…’ That’s all I ever heard from you—over, and over, and over again—but it was all bullshit! I had him, and you wanted him, and when you couldn’t poison my mind against him, you used your son to steal him away from me! I’ll be damned if you’re going to take anything from me again.”

“Is that why you married, Mike? Because you think I’m going to try and steal him from you?” The idea was so ridiculous, Kylie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“No, you stupid bitch!”

“Ashley!” Martha chided.

“I married Mike because I love him and I want to support him until he finds his way.”

“He’s a drug addict, Ashley! You will be supporting him for the rest of his life!”

“And you’re going to be supporting Jimmy. Unless you want Marissa to do it for you.”

Kylie didn’t justify the jab with a response.

“But, you know, the more I think about it, I can give you credit for something. You are the reason I joined the Army.”

“Oh, really? How?”

“I did it to get the hell away from you.”

“You joined the Army to get away from me?” Kylie threw her hands up in the air. “Do you realize how incredibly stupid that makes you? Well, congratulations, Ashley! You’ve succeeded! I am done with you!”

“Good!” She turned on her heel and stormed across the parking lot.

“Good!” Kylie screamed in agreement as she watched her sister’s furious stride, her ankle buckling every few steps as her stiletto heels stabbed through the uneven gravel.

Martha let out a weary sigh. “Kylie, you’re not really done with your sister, are you?”

“I wish,” Kylie muttered under her breath, then called out, “Hey, Ash!”

Ashley whipped back around. “I thought you weren’t talking to me anymore!”

“I’m not!”

Ashley flipped her off and started walking again. When Ashley reached the street, Kylie whistled out to her.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Without turning around, Ashley barked, “What?”

“Your husband!”

Chapter 72 ~ This Day Forward

This Day ForwardAshley looked down at her hands, amazed at how steady they appeared when her entire body trembled on the inside. Why, oh why, oh why, for the love of God, does she keep doing this shit to herself? Good decisions, bad decisions, wrong, right, crazy-insane, or just plain stupid, Ashley never stopped to think. She only acted, on impulse, usually to great detriment. She’d color her hair, hook up with assholes, drive across county, join the Army.

Get married.

“Shit.”

She was going to puke.

But first, she accepted the pen from the clerk, signed by the X. When she finished, she immediately wished she had taken her time, signed with more care, ended with a flourish, with a pretty curl or a fancy star, as it would be the last time she ever signed her name as ‘Ashley Rae Johansen.’ From now on, she would sign as… Shit, who would she even be? All this time, she’d never asked. She had to look at Mike’s signature to know; from now on, she would be ‘Ashley Blum.’ Ugh. Or not.

She leaned into Mike, whispered, “I’m keeping my name.”

“Okay.”

She slipped her hand into his as she stood beside him, rested her chin on his shoulder. He was so easy, so relaxed. With Mike, there were no power plays or ridiculous pride, no petty arguments or restrictions. He wasn’t into controlling her, or manipulating the situation to his own advantage. He was just… Mike. Always there, whenever she needed him to be. Maybe, someday, she would marry him again, for all the right reasons—love and loyalty and all that jazz—and not just for health insurance and a dental plan.

Impulsive decision, yes, absolutely, brainstormed and executed in just under an hour, at the low, low cost of only twenty-five dollars. But she figured this decision was a good one. She hated the thought of taking off for basic training, and whatever came next, while leaving Mike high and dry, without steady income, a car, or even his name on the lease. This way, she could guarantee his right to stay in her apartment, he could go to the doctor, or get his teeth cleaned or a cavity filled, whenever he needed to. If he woke up one morning and found himself depressed and despondent, headed down that dark, dangerous path, he could seek immediate help for himself, privately, never having to ask.

And, if anything should happen to her, he could make decisions on her behalf. He could be her person back home, the one they call in case of emergency. Or, in the event of tragedy, he could be the guy whose door they knock on, so her mom would never have to face that alone.

It was a win-win for all involved. Absolutely. No losers here. Just good things, all around. She rehearsed that argument, over and over in her mind, as they walked out of the courthouse, Mr. and Mrs. Blum.

Together, they stood on the sidewalk, blinded by the evening sun, immobilized by the reality of what they had done.

Finally, Mike asked. “You ready to do this?”

He talked big, but his voice lacked even the slightest bit of confidence.

“Absolutely not.” She laughed through the panic tightening her chest. Ky was going to flip her shit. About everything. “I need a drink.”

“We’ll get you one at Gimp’s.”

“No, no. No. I need one now. Before we go in there.”

“Ashley.”

She could feel his concern, but she brushed it off. With a pat on his chest, she popped up and kissed him light on the lips. Her husband. Shit. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine. I promise, I just need one, to calm the nerves, and then we’ll do this together.”

He held onto her arms, steadied her nervous bouncing. “Just one.”

“One,” she flat-out lied, and led him down the block toward Jack’s.

* * *

As six o’clock slowly rolled into seven and beyond, Kylie, Brayden, and Kylie’s mother, Martha Johansen, sat in a cracked vinyl booth at the back of Gimp’s Pub, watching the clock and the door, while they shared a bowl of stale peanuts. A handful of seniors sat at the bar, nursing whiskey or red beer, but the crowd had only grown smaller since Kylie had arrived. By ten o’clock, the place would be completely dead.

Across the street, Captain Jack’s would be hopping, the after-work crowd gearing up for a long Friday night of drinking, dancing, flirting, and the occasional brawl in the street. Some of them would wander over to Gimp’s throughout the night to sit and bullshit over a beer or two with Cheryl, the owner of Gimp’s, but the majority would stay at Jack’s until closing time, their hands stuck like Velcro on her ass and their wallets forgetting how to tip as the night wore on. Kylie hated Jack’s. It was clean and modern, but a cesspool of high-class low-lives and infidelity.

Bringing a fresh round of drinks, Cheryl came up to their table. “You going to keep waiting for that girl ‘a yours to show, or are you gonna go ahead and eat without her?”

Cheryl herself was a lot like Gimp’s—sturdy, no nonsense, and comfortably out of fashion. In her fifties, she was a big-boned and hearty woman who favored sweatshirts with wolves on them, even in the Hades days of summer. She worked hard, didn’t tolerate bullshit, and tended to snort when she laughed. If Cheryl ever put a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in her window, Kylie would be the first to apply, but it would snow in August before that ever happened. Cheryl didn’t need help from anyone.

“Well?” Cheryl wiped the water rings off the well-worn table.

Martha checked her watch and sighed. “We should wait a bit longer, but I’m sure Brayden’s getting hungry.”

Brayden shook his head and blew through the straw sticking out of his glass of chocolate milk, giggling as the thick liquid bubbled up.

“Do you want a cheeseburger, Bray?” Kylie asked him.

“No!” He stopped blowing and sucked down a big mouthful of bubbly milk.

“Hot dog?”

“Nuh-uh.” Brayden sucked through the straw again.

“Slow down on the milk there, buddy.” Kylie slid the glass away from him, eliciting a whine of protest. It was his third glass in forty-five minutes. Though they had been small servings, Kylie knew from experience if he didn’t get some food in his belly to soak up the liquid he’d wake up wet again in the morning. “You want some mac and cheese?”

“No,” he answered in a short quip with a thrust of his body.

“Chicken fingers?” Martha suggested.

Another thrust. Another, “No!”

Cheryl threw her hand on her hip and tipped her head, looking down at him in a studious fashion. “Well, what are ya hungry for then?”

Brayden’s bottom lip stuck out as his shoulders hopped up and down in an exaggerated, spastic shrug.

“How ‘bout you come in the kitchen and I’ll let you pick whatever suits your fancy?”

Brayden scrunched his face as he debated her offer, and then he said, “Oh-tay.”

He slid off the bench seat and tucked his little hand into Cheryl’s beefy one. Kylie sighed as she watched them disappear into the back room behind the bar.

“How much longer until he outgrows this no-eating phase?” she asked her mother.

“If he’s anything like you, then never.”

Kylie grunted a laugh. “I eat fine.” She plucked a stale peanut out of the bowl on the table and held it up. “See?”

“I see,” Martha appeased her as she lifted one of the menus from behind the ketchup and mustard bottles and flipped it open, the action more one of habit than need. Other than the daily specials and the paper they were printed on, Cheryl’s menu hadn’t changed in twenty years.

As Kylie cracked open the shell, her eyes drifted to her cellphone sitting on the table. She resisted the urge to pick it up to try calling Jimmy again. She’d left a message already, and followed it up with a few texts, all with no reply. There was no point in turning stalker and alienating him further.

As though reading her mind, Martha said, “He’s probably still at work.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” Kylie cracked open another peanut shell and fished out the nut inside, eating it even though she wasn’t hungry. The motions kept her hands busy. “I just hate when he shuts down on me like this—not answering my calls. We fought again last night, and he was really upset right before we went to bed, but he seemed fine this morning. He left for work a little earlier than usual, but…” She brushed at the shell crumbs littering the table. “I don’t know.”

“Kylie, how many times have I told you to quit picking fights with that poor man?”

“I didn’t,” Kylie denied, although, technically, she had. She was the one who had insisted they talk about Marissa, about Ashley, about his drinking. All he’d wanted to do was go to bed.

Martha lifted a knowing gaze to Kylie.

“Alright, fine, I did,” Kylie admitted.

It was pointless to argue otherwise. Her intuition astute, Martha had always been able to read every thought passing through Kylie’s mind, as though they were two sides of a mirror—identical opposites eternally connected by an invisible, unbreakable force of nature. They shared the same tall, slender frame, the same facial features, the same nervous tics. If not for the fact Martha kept her thick, mahogany hair trimmed in short layers and favored embroidered teddy bears on her clothing, they would be impossible to tell apart. But when it came to temperament, they were yen and yang.

Even in the face of adversity, Martha remained optimistic, buoyantly cheerful with a bright and sunny disposition. She tended to err on the side of trust to avoid confrontation, especially where Ashley was concerned. Kylie had been disappointed too many times to ever take anything at face value. People lied. They deceived. The more honest someone claimed to be, the more leery she became of their intentions, their hidden agendas. Those differences had caused a few flare-ups between Kylie and Martha over the years, but somehow it had also created a solid bond between them, tightly-woven with respect, admiration, and unwavering love.

Martha turned the menu over and studied the list of sandwiches on the back. “What did you two argue about this time?”

Kylie shrugged, not in the mood to rehash the night. Her gaze drifted to the door. “I don’t know why we bothered with tonight. It’s pretty obvious she’s not coming.”

“Don’t give up yet. Ashley runs on her own schedule. Always has.”

“I know.” Kylie picked up the ketchup bottle sitting on the table and turned it upside down. The thick liquid remained lodged in the base of the glass bottle, defying the pull of gravity. “I talked to Nessa a bit last night.”

“How is she?”

“Good.”

“Did you ask her to be your maid of honor yet?”

Kylie returned the ketchup bottle to the table, setting it on its cap, daring the ketchup to continue misbehaving. “Not yet.”

“You are going to ask her, aren’t you? You two have been best friends since before either of you knew how to talk.”

“Of course, I am,” Kylie said in a rush.

Martha narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “Does she even know you’re engaged?”

Kylie ignored the question and forced the focus of the conversation into a more comfortable direction. “Aria’s pregnant.”

Easily distracted, Martha cried out in delight, “Oh, how wonderful!”

“Brent’s been hinting around for a while now that he wouldn’t mind starting a family, but it sounds like it wasn’t planned.”

“You and I both know Mother Nature has her own crazy ideas.”

“That she does,” Kylie agreed. Brayden was one of Mother Nature’s little “ideas.” So was Kylie. Apparently, along with porcelain skin that burned to a crisp in the sun, stupid-in-lust was an inheritable Johansen family trait.

Somewhere in the world, there lived a man named Leonard in possession of a fuzzy, Jose Cuervo-laced memory of dancing in the moonlight on a southern California beach with a mystical woman wearing a turquoise-blue sarong. All Martha claims to remember about the night was how Leonard’s skin had smelled of the sea, and his brown eyes sparkled with threads of spun gold. Nine months later, Kylie was born with those same golden specks in her brown eyes.

Martha gave Kylie’s hand a light pat. “Beautiful ideas.”

The story of Brayden’s father wasn’t nearly as mysterious as the one of Kylie’s. It was pretty cut and dry, a nightmare she would rather forget than romanticize, but she was eternally grateful she had lived those six months of heartache. If she hadn’t been so stupid-in-lust, she never would have been blessed with her beautiful Brayden and his constant sunshine.

Kylie rested her chin on her hand as she sifted through the peanut bowl again. How many thousands of fingers, on how many thousands of hands, had touched those peanuts before hers? Just thinking about it made her queasy. She pulled her hand away, wiped her fingers on her jeans. “Mom, do you think Ashley will ever forgive me?”

“For what, dear?” Martha tipped her head back and squinted down her nose at the menu. She needed reading glasses, but she was too stubborn to admit it.

“Jimmy.”

“Oh, I don’t know that she was ever all that upset about it.”

Kylie snorted out a laugh of disbelief. “You can’t seriously believe that. It’s been almost a year, and she’s still mad that we’re together.”

Martha gave up on the menu and shifted her attention to Kylie. “Ashley was never in love with Jimmy. She was in love with the idea of being in love with him. That’s why they didn’t work out. It had nothing to do with you.”

“Yeah, right.” It had nothing to do with Kylie arguing with him one minute and laughing with him the next, or finding excuses to call him, text him. It couldn’t be all those late-night drives around the moonlit countryside with him, sharing her hopes and dreams with him, listening in rapture as he revealed his. It had nothing to do with her allowing him—no, encouraging him—to fill the role of Brayden’s father when the real one wanted absolutely nothing to do with her or their son. Nothing at all.

“You can’t keep beating yourself up about the past, Kylie. What’s done is done.”

“How can you be so c’est la vie about the whole thing?”

“Because everything worked out the way it was supposed to,” Martha said. “You and Jimmy were always the ones who were meant to be together. Even Ashley knew that. It’s the only reason she held onto him for as long as she did.”

Kylie shook her head in disagreement. Her sister had loved Jimmy. For real. She still did.

“It was the same way with you girls and Polly Pocket.”

“Polly Pocket?”

“You remember—that Christmas when you were six or seven, and you begged Santa for a Polly Pocket play set. You had a million of them already, but you wanted this one in particular, and you would just die if you didn’t get it. It took me forever to find it, but I finally did, and in my hurry to get everything wrapped on Christmas Eve, I accidentally put Ashley’s name on the package instead of yours. You cried and cried when she opened it Christmas morning, and she refused to let you play with it because she knew you wanted it so bad.” Martha shook her head in a long, slow motion and let out a heavy sigh, as though she reminisced of a tragic death and not a simple childhood disagreement. “Oh, it was awful. I can’t believe you don’t remember.”

Kylie’s eyes narrowed. Oh, she remembered. She remembered all too well. It had been a tragic time in her life, one that had already involved mourning, long before the stockings had even been hung. It was the first Christmas after Charlie left, the Christmas she had prayed to God and pleaded with Santa to bring him back to them. For Ashley. For her mother. For herself. She had prayed for Charlie, and for a Polly Pocket. And she’d thought all her prayers had been ignored. “That was my Polly Pocket all along?”

“Yes, it was.”

Kylie stared at her mother in disbelief. “And you didn’t make her give it to me?”

“How could I? You both still believed in Santa at the time. I couldn’t very well take it away from her and ruin the magic of Christmas, now could I?”

“Yes!” Kylie cried.

“Anyway, that’s neither here nor there,” Martha said with a dismissive wave. “My point is Ashley refused to let go of Jimmy for the exact same reason she refused to let go of the Polly Pocket she never played with—because she had it, and you wanted it. It gave her power over you. She adored Jimmy, but she never loved him. Not in the way you did. She knew that, and she intentionally kept him away from you for as long as she could. It was all a game to her.”

“You can’t be serious! Three years of hell is no game.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt she thought she was in love with him in the beginning, but there towards the end, when it was obvious the way you and Jimmy felt about each other, it became a game.” Martha gave Kylie’s hand a squeeze. “She’s still playing it, Kylie, and you’re letting her win.”

“How am I letting her win?”

Martha ticked off all the ways. “By listening to her lies, by clinging to the guilt, by not marrying him—just to name a few.”

Kylie waved her left hand, the diamond on the engagement ring catching the light. “What do you think this is? We’re engaged!”

“You may be wearing a ring on your finger, but you’re not wearing it in your heart.”

“Yes, I… What does that even mean?” Kylie stammered defensively. “How can I not be wearing it in my heart? If I didn’t love him I wouldn’t have said yes.”

“I didn’t say you don’t love him. I’m saying you’re not opening your heart to the excitement and the thrill and the wonderment of being in love.”

“I am excited, Mom,” Kylie insisted, though she felt closer to tears than to laughter, the anguish pouring out in a flood of rushed words. “It’s been a really long summer for both of us. His dad just died, his brother just got married. He’s worried about his mom and furious that she decided to stay in Florida, but he won’t talk to her about it because he doesn’t want to upset her. He’s killing himself working eighty-hours a week, plus all the damn favors he does for people on the side. We only see each other for maybe two hours a day—if we’re lucky—and all we do is fight. Jack’s is killing me, and the pay is shit. School’s costing me a fortune and I hate it. I feel like I don’t spend any time with Brayden. I wake him up and take him to daycare, and he’s already in bed when I get home. He refuses to eat. We’re struggling with potty training. Ash keeps running off, doing whatever the hell Ashley does—I don’t know because she won’t talk to me—and you want me to flip through bridal magazines and dream of silk and lace like some dumb girl who doesn’t have a goddamn care in the world?”

“Yes!” Martha cried out.

Kylie lost the battle with her tears. “Mom…”

“Oh, baby…” Martha lifted Kylie’s hand from table and clasped it in both of hers. “You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself. You always have, ever since you were a little girl. You need to learn how to let go of the worry and the doubt and just live in the moment, otherwise life is going to eat you alive.”

Kylie tipped her head back, shifting her gaze upward to stop the tears, but they only flowed faster. “You make it sound so easy. Like it’s a decision I can make.”

“It is that easy. If you don’t like school, then quit—”

“I can’t quit.”

“Yes. You can,” Martha stated. “If you don’t like nursing, then pick something else. Maybe try accounting—or sign up for one of those art classes you’ve been wanting to take.”

Kylie swiped an angry hand across her damp eyes. “I can’t support Brayden by doodling pictures all day long.”

“Who says you can’t?” Martha’s eyes watered along with Kylie’s but her smile remained bright with hope. “You’ll never know unless you try.”

“I can’t afford to try.”

“Yes, you can.” Martha pulled a handful of napkins from the dispenser and handed them to Kylie. “You aren’t doing this alone. You have Jimmy to help you and support you. He wants to do it. Let him.”

“I’m not asking him for money.” Kylie flushed in anger as she scrubbed the paper napkin across her cheek. Finances were another sore subject between her and Jimmy, one that hadn’t come up in a while, and she’d be damned if she’d allow it to make a repeat appearance now. It was bad enough he was still sneaking fifty-dollar bills into her tip jar at Jack’s when he thought she wasn’t looking. She knew he meant well, but every dollar he pulled from his wallet felt more like a judgment of her ability than a helpful gesture or a wrong assumption. “I don’t need his help paying my bills. I do perfectly fine supporting my son on my own.”

“I know you do, Kylie,” Martha said with a patronizing sigh.

As though deflated, Martha sat back in the booth and crossed her thin arms across her chest, her lightly sunburned skin blending with the pink fabric of her “World’s Greatest Grandma” t-shirt. Jimmy had helped Brayden select the t-shirt as a Mother’s Day gift for Martha while Kylie had wandered the home décor department, looking for a decorative set of bookends to contain her mother’s ever-growing collection of novels.

At some point during the same shopping trip, Jimmy and Brayden had also purchased a heart-shaped diamond pendant on a thin silver chain, which they had presented to Kylie later in the evening. As the three of them sat at an outside picnic table at Dairy Queen, eating cheeseburgers and Dilly Bars, Jimmy handed Brayden a gift bag and whispered a few words in his ear. Brayden blushed his little-boy blush, and batted his long eyelashes at Kylie as he offered the present with a whispered, “Happy mommies to-day.”

His expression had been serious as she opened his gift to her, his face proud and strong, looking years older than two-and-a-half as he awaited her reaction, gifting her a glimpse into the future along with the silver and diamond necklace. His smudged chocolate fingerprints still stained the white satin lining the inside of the velvet box the necklace had come in, a permanent imprint of all the flavors of the day.

“I wasn’t talking about asking Jimmy for money,” Martha said. “I was simply suggesting you allow him to support you emotionally. I can understand completely if you don’t feel as though you’re ready to marry him, but at least consider inviting him to move in. By simply being there, living there, his presence would take some of the pressure off you. You’ve had this impenetrable wall of stubborn independence built around yourself for so long it’s like you’re afraid to let anyone in.”

Kylie sat silently, staring blindly at the table as she shredded the paper napkin into damp crumbs.

“What are you afraid of, Kylie?”

Martha lifted Kylie’s hand in hers and ran her thumb across the engagement ring on her finger. A blush diamond on a platinum band, Jimmy had picked out the perfect ring for her, sensible and understated, absolutely beautiful in its simplicity, but at times it physically hurt to look at it, as though the diamond contained a Pandora’s Box of untold secrets and impending heartache.

“I don’t know,” Kylie answered honestly. She was afraid of… Everything.

“Oh, Ky.” Martha squeezed Kylie’s hand tight. “When Charlie proposed to me all those years ago, I was terrified of the massive change he would bring to our lives, but I also remember being so giddy in love that I didn’t care. I couldn’t race down that aisle toward the unknown fast enough.”

Barking out a bitter laugh, Kylie ripped her hand away. “Yeah, and look where it got you. Lied to, cheated on, and abandoned with two little girls to raise by yourself instead of just one. Maybe instead of running like a damn fool you should have inched down the aisle and taken the time to read the warning signs along the way.”

“We didn’t work out, and it broke my heart when he left. I won’t deny that,” Martha said, holding her hands up in surrender. “But even now, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. My marriage to Charlie blessed me with four wonderful years with a man who set my world on fire, and a gorgeous baby girl I never would have had otherwise.”

Kylie turned away from her mother, her head shaking as her chest burned with painful memories. Even now, more than fifteen years later, she could still see the blinding glint of the sun bouncing off the rear view mirror of Charlie’s black Monte Carlo as he pulled away from the curb, headed for Albuquerque, leaving them all behind. She had watched and waited, hoping and praying, but he never once slowed down, never once looked back.

“I want that same giddy feeling to overtake you. I want you to feel the world as I felt it. I want you to see the colors I saw, and taste the air as I tasted it. I want you to be so excited to marry the man you love that you curse time for not passing fast enough as your wedding date approaches.”

Kylie opened her mouth to demand of her mother how her memory could be so blissfully selective she had become unaffected by the pain of abandonment, but she was interrupted by the bright blast of humid air rushing into the bar as the door to Gimp’s Pub opened, bringing Aria and Brent inside. Kylie rushed to wipe the last of the tears from her face, hiding her fears from her friends.

“Kylie!” Aria called out with a wave. She appeared to float in on a cloud of pure joy, the radiance of her smile outshining the sun, competing only with the intensity of Brent’s.

“Oh, look at her! She’s glowing already,” Martha gushed.

Dan and Stacy entered a moment later, bringing more blinding heat and a flurry of activity with them. Everyone started talking at once as tables and chairs were rearranged so they could all sit together.

“Where’s Cheryl?” Dan asked, his voice a deep boom. “I need a drink.”

“Are your legs broken? Go get it yourself, kochanie,” Stacy teased.

“Hell, no. Cheryl’ll bust my knee caps if she catches me behind her bar. I’ll just wait.”

“Might be a long wait. She’s in the back trying to convince Brayden to eat,” Martha said.

“Better grab your own then, before you die of thirst.” Stacy started toward the back room to say hello to Cheryl. “And while you’re at it, mix me up a Shirley Temple.”

“Bud Light,” Brent called out.

“Water for me,” Aria chimed in.

Martha handed her empty glass to Dan. “I could use a refill—rum and Coke.”

“Ky?” Dan asked.

“I’m good. Thanks.” Her eyes were still to the door, watching for Jimmy.

“He’s coming.” Brent squeezed her shoulder with one of his strong hands.

Kylie gave him a weak smile. “Am I that obvious?”

“Naw,” Brent lied with a wink. “He stayed behind to touch-up the paint around the trim that Dan fucked up.”

“Don’t go blaming me for Jimmy staying late,” Dan said. “My walls look damn good compared to your slopped-on mess. Brayden would’ve done a better job than you today.”

“Ah, bullshit.” Brent dismissed him with a wave then turned back to Kylie. “It’ll take him ten, twenty minutes tops to fix, and then he’ll be here.”

Brent squeezed her shoulder one more time, and as soon as he let her go, she turned to Aria and smiled for real. “Come here, Mama, and let me get a look at that belly. Did you grow any since this morning?”

“Gosh, I hope not,” Aria said with a laugh. She lifted her shirt, revealing her perfectly tanned, toned stomach underneath. “I do feel fat, though.”

“It’s just the hormones making you feel bloated. You look amazing, as always,” Kylie assured her.

Aria caressed her lower abdomen with a light touch of her hand. “It still doesn’t feel real, you know? I don’t feel any different now than I did before I went to the doctor. When does it sink in that it’s really real? That there’s a life growing inside you?”

Kylie placed her hand over Aria’s. “When you feel him move. I got fat, and I saw the sonograms, and heard the heartbeat, but it wasn’t until I felt that first flutter that I realized, ‘This is my life now.’ It was the most amazing feeling in the world.”

“And then that flutter turns into a punch to the kidney and it’s not so amazing anymore,” Martha said with a wink to Kylie.

The door of the pub opened again, and Jimmy came in looking hurried and exhausted. He met Kylie’s eyes and gave her a nod of apology as he headed straight to the bar and reached over the counter to grab a beer from the cooler. Cheryl came from the back room just in time to catch him in the act. She slapped his hand, but when he tucked a twenty-dollar bill into the tip jar, all was forgiven, and she gave him a second bottle.

Brayden came running out from behind the bar, dragging Stacy by the hand. She carried his meal of a hot dog and crinkle-cut fries in a red, paper-lined, plastic basket. One tiny bite was missing from the hot dog, the fries all stood on end in a pool of ketchup. He’d done more playing than eating, but when Stacy set his meal on the table, and both she and Aria used their sweetest voices to tell him it was time to eat, he clambered up onto the chair between them and plucked the hotdog from the bun, eager to please.

“All right, now that the gang’s all here…” Cheryl’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as she looked around at the table full of drinks. “And apparently helped themselves to my inventory…”

Brent pointed to Dan, and Dan backhanded him in the chest.

Cheryl let out a grunt of displeasure, but her eyes held a twinkle. “What do you guys want to eat?”

“I’m just going to eat off Brayden’s plate,” Stacy said, her voice sweet as she teased. She pretended to steal one of Brayden’s fries, and he let out a squeal, pulling his basket away from her with a possessive, “Mine!” She tickled him until he laughed, then said, “Fine, I guess I’ll have to order my own. Bring me what he’s having, but make mine a chili dog.”

“Chili? It’s a hundred and fifty degrees outside, woman,” Dan said.

Stacy shrugged. “It sounds good.”

“I’ll have the same,” Brent said. “Two of ‘em. And waffle fries.”

Dan looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. He grabbed a paper napkin from the dispenser on the table and used it to mop up the river of sweat flowing from his brow, soaking his sideburns. “Bring me ice—a big bucket of it so I can wear it as a hat. And a cheeseburger. And onion rings. And a couple’a pickles.”

“Ooh, that sounds good,” Stacy chimed in. “Bring me some pickles, too.”

Cheryl wrote down Aria’s and Martha’s orders, and then turned to Kylie expectantly.

“Um… I don’t know…” She floundered, trying to think of something even remotely good to eat. It was nothing against Cheryl’s cooking, more her worry over Ashley, Jimmy, money—her life in general—causing her diminished appetite. “Uh…”

“I’ll come back to you.” Cheryl turned to Jimmy.

“A Reuben and fries.” Jimmy slid a chair closer to Kylie, his leg brushing against hers under the table as he sat down, the tiny hint of a touch enough to send her heart racing in desire. He set his pair of beers on the table and turned toward her, one hand on the back of her chair, the other settling high on her thigh, his hand chilled from the icy bottle. He leaned in close and whispered, “Sorry I’m late.”

“You’re here now. That’s all that matters.”

“What’ll you have, Kylie?” Cheryl asked again.

Jimmy’s hand tightened on her thigh. “You want to just share with me?”

“No…” She hated sauerkraut, but nothing sounded better and Cheryl was shifting in impatience. “Yeah, that’s fine.”

Satisfied, Cheryl disappeared into the back room.

“I’ll scrape the kraut off your half, picky girl,” Jimmy promised with a slow smile.

As his crystal-blue eyes held hers, her body flushed with heat, all thought escaping her mind except the sensation of his hand massaging its way up her thigh. Once again, she found herself completely lost in him.

She ran a hand down the soft stubble on his cheek, her thumb running along the strong line of his jaw. “You look tired.”

His gaze shifted to her lips. “A little.”

“Uncle Jimmy, huh?” She smiled.

“Yeah,” he whispered, his eyes conflicted. “That kinda came outta nowhere.”

“It always does.”

The pull to kiss him was strong, fluttering in her chest, the scent and the heat of him enveloping her in wanton need. Her draw to him remained as strong now as it had been from the very first day she had met him. The ache for him never subsided, the temperature between them never cooled. Making love to him did not quench the thirst or calm the desire. It only made her crave him even more. The intensity of her physical attraction to him terrified her in many ways, her greatest fear being he would one day lose interest and forever walk away. What would become of her if she could never feel his touch again?

“Are you working tomorrow?”

“Yeah.” He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, trailed his fingertips down her neck. “Are you?”

“No.” Heat pooled between her thighs from his caress. His thumb massaged her neck as she ran her hand up the length of his forearm and back down, feeling the rope of muscles under his tanned skin. If she lost him, it would kill her. If she never tried to hold onto his love for her, his love for Brayden, if she never pushed past her doubts, her fears, if she never braved that first step into the world he desperately wanted to create for them, she would only have herself to blame. “Aria and I have an appointment in Juliette to try on a wedding dress.”

His hand tightened around her thigh in reflex, his voice uncertain. “You do?”

She gave him a little nod, her heart thumping against her rib cage, straining to beat against his. When he smiled, a fire of life flashed in his eyes, eradicating the fog of weary burden he had been carrying for so long.

“Let’s take Bray camping when you get back.” His smile widened, his shoulders lifting as though relieved of a heavy weight. “Get the hell outta town… swim in the river… sleep under the stars…”

God, she loved him. She leaned in closer to him, brushing her lips against his ear, and whispered, “What do you say we—”

The door of the pub flew open and slammed against the wall, starting Kylie out of Jimmy’s arms. Ashley and a redheaded girl with massive breasts came charging into the pub, laughing loud, and drunk off their asses. A dozen others poured in behind.

“What the fuck?” His body tense, ready to fight, Jimmy stood to his full height. Dan and Brent did the same. A terrified Mike followed two steps behind the crowd. Looking as though he wished he could crawl into a hole in the ground, he kept his back to the wall, inched his way to the bar.

“Cherrrryl!” Ashley let go of the redhead and jumped up onto the table nearest the door. The stiletto heels of her caged sandals scraped across the laminated tabletop, gouging the surface.

“Ashley Rae! What on earth is wrong with you?” Martha scolded. “Get down from there before you hurt yourself!”

Dressed in shredded denim shorts, a tank-cut Jack Daniels tee and a flowing, floral kimono cardigan, with her eyes ringed black with thick, heavy liner and her hair dyed a ridiculous shade of neon pink, Ashley had painted herself up to be Rainbow Brite’s drunken spawn. “Cheryl!!

In a ball of fury, Cheryl came running out from behind the bar and commanded Ashley to get off her table. Kylie sat frozen, paralyzed in shock as Brent and Dan rushed to join Jimmy, Martha, and Cheryl as they circled Ashley, all five of them keeping a wary distance as one would to a rabid dog.

“Cheryl! Cheryl-Cheryl-Cheryl-Cheryl,” Ashley slurred, dancing away from Cheryl’s grabbing hands as the older woman tried to pull her off the table.

“Ashley, get down—now!

Ashley jumped off the table, and threw her arms around Cheryl in a drunken, groping hug. “Cheryl, Cheryl, Cheryl… Omigod, Cheryl…. Go pour me a drink—” She shoved off Cheryl and whipped around, laughing like a hyena as she spun. “Hell, check that—pour a round for every motherfucker in here! Cuz guess what, bitches! I got marrrrried today!”

“No!” Kylie scrambled from her chair and dove to cover her sister’s mouth, to stop her from speaking the nightmare into reality. “No, no, no, no, no, no—”

“And, and, and, that’s not all….” She stumbled, fell into her sister, patted her face and laughed. “I joined the Army.”

“Bullshit,” Kylie hissed out in disbelief.

She laughed again, spun away and sang at the top of her lungs, “I’m in the Army, in the Army, in the Army!”

Kylie’s heart screamed, “No!” as Ashley let out a whoop of drunken joy.

“Suck it, Ky.”

Chapter 71 ~ Depleted

20171006_063916One wasted minute after another passed in a frustrating test of patience as Jimmy practically crawled his way back to Allman Falls, his path impeded first by a tractor hauling hay in the hills, and then by Betty Breuer’s slow-moving Buick in the downtown square, her tightly-permed head barely rising above the top of her steering wheel as she bumped along the aging, uneven brick street. It took every bit of restraint he possessed to refrain from pushing her along faster with the brush guard mounted on the front bumper of his pickup. Still, every time she slowed to window-shop, he revved his engine and drove up close enough to kiss her back bumper, trying to scare her into driving faster, but she only tapped her brakes.

“Bitch,” he grumbled under his breath.

As though she heard him, Betty raised her right hand, arthritic middle finger extended, flipping him off through her rear view mirror.

A grunt of disbelief turned into an involuntary laugh, the surprise of it easing the tight knot of tension burning between his shoulder blades, and he backed off. He didn’t know what he was in an all-fired-up hurry for anyway. Two minutes one way or the other wouldn’t make or break his day. Not when it was already broken.

As Betty continued her sightseeing journey around the square, he relaxed back into the driver’s seat and ate one of Lois’s brownies, the sugar rush a temporary salve to his pounding head. A second brownie helped settle the acid burning his stomach. As he debated a third, Betty inched into a parking space in front of the library. He gave her a wave and rolled the final half-block to Charlene’s.

Barely one step inside the diner, Charlene pounced on him. Tall and thin, with a face as stern as death, she skipped past the pleasantries and dove straight into ripping him a new asshole over the construction trash one of his guys had thrown into her dumpster in the alley the night before. He bit back a retort about the restaurant trash her employees had been tossing into his construction dumpster all summer, apologized, and promised it would never happen again. With her eyes narrowed in distrust, she promised to forward him a bill if it did.

He turned to escape, but she grabbed his arm and pulled him bodily through the dining area, into her crammed, dated kitchen. She pointed here, there, and everywhere, dictating her demands for the next phase of the restaurant remodel in rapid-fire succession.

He struggled to keep up with the specifics of her spout, but he got the gist of her expectations. She wanted a complete overhaul, she wanted it cheap, and she wanted it right now—the same impossible thing everybody always wanted from him. He promised her nothing, except an estimate in a week or two. As soon as she released his arm, he fled the hot kitchen and ducked under the barrier tape they had installed to keep the customers out of the construction area.

“Jimmy! Where the hell you been?” Brent called down from ceiling height, his pneumatic gun continuously firing as he installed crown molding like a mad man whose ass was on fire. “I tried calling you like ten times today.”

“Out at Weise’s replacing the exhaust fan.” Jimmy checked his pocket for his cellphone, came up empty handed. Shit. It was probably still on Kylie’s bedroom floor. No wonder it had been mercifully silent all day. He could only imagine how many missed texts and voicemails he’d have waiting for him by the end of the day.

“You went to Amos’s? I was gonna do that one on my own time.”

“That’s why you put it on the board, huh? ‘Cause you were gonna do it?”

“Yeah—hey!” Brent hooked the nail gun on the ladder and started down. “Guess what?”

Jimmy ignored his brother and checked over the work that had been so far that day. He wished he could go back and re-think his decision from earlier in the morning. The cost had seemed a necessary evil at the time, but Brent’s return had put them light-years ahead of where Jimmy had anticipated they would be. Now, with Jason on payroll, they’d be lucky to break even on the day.

Frustrated with himself, Jimmy turned his hat around backwards and hollered to Dan, “You got some time this weekend to work up a quote on a deck?”

Dan marked the trim he was measuring to cut and tucked the pencil behind his ear. “How big ‘a one?”

“Big. Close to sixty-foot with a pergola and stone supports.”

“Come on! Guess!” Brent goaded Jimmy. The smile on his face was all-consuming and addictive, but Jimmy didn’t smile with him.

“Quit messing around and just tell me.”

“Yeah, I got time. Who’s it for?” Dan asked.

“Roka.”

“What does Tom need a deck that big for? Is his house even that long?”

“Hardly. He’s not the one asking for it, though. His new wife is.”

Brent grabbed onto Jimmy’s arm. “Jimmy.”

“She’s going to put him in the poor house before their first anniversary,” Dan said.

“No shit,” Jimmy agreed.

“Aria’s pregnant!” Brent shouted out.

Jimmy whipped around to face his brother. “What?”

Brent smiled, his eyes dancing with giddy pride. “Pregnant.”

“Pregnant?” Jimmy demanded. He needed Brent to confirm what he thought he’d heard but didn’t want to believe.

“Pregnant,” Dan said, his voice even, unaffected, making it apparent he had already known.

Jimmy turned from Brent to Dan, then back to Brent. “For real?”

“I know! I can’t believe it either! We weren’t even trying! Fuck, Jim.” Brent let out a whoop of a laugh and punched Jimmy on his upper chest so hard he staggered backward, almost stepping square in the middle of a tray of Robin Egg Blue paint. “Can you believe it? Cuz I can’t believe it! I swear I gotta be dreaming! Can you believe it? A baby!

Brent punched Jimmy again and then pulled him in for a bone-crushing hug before hopping back up the ladder, talking a mile a minute in monologue as he nailed trim into place. Dan stood back and watched with an amused smile, throwing the appropriate words in whenever Brent paused long enough for him to get one in. All Jimmy could do was stare. He didn’t know what to feel, so he felt it all at once. Surprise. Elation. Bitter, raging jealousy.

“Just think, nine months from now—or eight—shit, or is it seven? How long is it until March twenty-sixth? March, Jimmy! Oh, fuck, I gotta get busy! I gotta build a crib—”

Language, Brent!” Charlene scolded from across the dining room.

“Sorry, Char!” Brent called out. A handful of customers laughed.

“Aw, let ‘em cuss, Charlene!” Dan hollered. “It’s not every day a man finds out he’s going to be a father.”

An immediate, powerful wave of congratulations rolled across the dining room from all directions, coming from men and women, young and old, friends and strangers alike. The members of the Women’s Auxiliary abandoned their chef salads and key lime pies en masse, and barreled through the flimsy tape barrier into the construction zone, sweeping Jimmy out of the way in their rush to rain praise upon his brother.

Overwhelmed, Jimmy’s mind reeled in a confusing mess of emotion and old memories. Brent was twenty-five, newly-married, a full-grown man living a grownup life, but to Jimmy he would always be the chubby, little pain in the ass who had kept him awake late into the night, asking an endless string of pointless questions from the bottom bunk.

“Jimmy, do dogs cry?”

“Jimmy, can the moon see me?”

“Jimmy, sing me a story…”

Brent looked exactly like their father, but his spirit was entirely their mother’s. With a head full of dreams that kept his feet off the ground and a permanent smile on his face, Brent was the biggest goof Jimmy would ever know—a perpetual kid—and now he was about to become someone’s father. Brent. A father. Incomprehensible… but he would be a damned good one.

Jimmy was happy for his brother, and for Aria. Truly happy. Ecstatic. A baby on the way was great news on a normal day, and even better after such a devastating loss in their family.

But if it was so goddamn great, why the hell did Jimmy feel as though he had just been kicked in the gut?

Dan clamped a hand onto Jimmy’s shoulder, startling him. “So… Uncle Jimmy… That’s got a nice ring to it, huh?”

Jimmy exhaled, deflated, uncertain if any words carried on the rush of air.

“In case Brent forgets to tell you, we’re all going to Gimp’s later tonight to celebrate.”

Numb, Jimmy nodded and picked up the paint roller closest to him. He dipped it into the tray, methodically coating the merino sheepskin with thick, robin’s egg blue paint and lifted it to the wall. With solid, deliberate strokes, he meticulously transformed the plain, primer-white wall into one alive with a color reminiscent of springtime renewal.

Whenever the roller ran dry, he dipped it again and continued down the wall, desperately seeking comfort and clarity in the simple repetition.

It never came.

Chapter 70 ~ Giddy

Little SurprisesWhen Kylie opened her eyes, reluctantly lifting from a dream world she would have preferred to stay in forever, her bedroom was bathed in the brilliant rays of late morning sunshine.

“Oh, shhhh…” In a panic, she whipped back the covers and sprang from the bed. A quick glance at the bedside clock confirmed what she already knew. She was running late—really, really late.

Damn it, Jimmy.

Running in crazed circles, Kylie scooped up the first clothes she laid hands on and made a mad dash for the bathroom, stripping and re-dressing as she went. Too late to shower, she made due with a rushed ponytail, extra deodorant, and a quick spritz of body spray. She slapped a glob of toothpaste onto her toothbrush and brushed in route to Brayden’s room to wake him for the day.

Luckily, he was already awake and sitting up in bed, playing with his stuffed dog. Unfortunately, he had wet through his Pull-Up. Both his pajamas and his sheets were soaked.

He held up the dog and asked, “Where Boo?”

“Oh, Bray.” She let out a heavy sigh as she pulled the toothbrush from her mouth. “You pottied your bed.”

“I’s sorry,” he said, his blue eyes open wide in surprise over what he had done. He did look sorry, so she left it at that. It was her fault he’d had an accident. If she had heard her alarm go off—three hours earlier—he would have made it to the bathroom in time.

“Mondays are yucky, Bray.” She lifted his heavy, wet body into her arms, his soiled clothes soiling hers, the sticky-sweet smell of urine filling her nose. “Especially when they fall on Thursdays.”

“Yucky.” Sticking his tongue out for emphasis, he added, “Bleh!

“You got that right.” She laughed. “Bleh!

The few precious minutes she had saved by not showering were wasted giving Brayden a bath. After changing her own clothes again, she quickly stripped his bed and disinfected the plastic mattress cover, then bundled the soiled laundry into her arms. A quick glance at the clock and she gave up trying to save the day. Her morning ethics class at the community college had already started.

“No point in going now,” she muttered to herself as she carried the dirty laundry over to the washing machine.

“No point,” Brayden echoed, more than content to spend his day repeatedly driving two Hot Wheels cars into each other. Spittle flew from his lips as he voiced explosion sound effects with each head-on collision. “Uh-oh!”

Not going to class would make it that much harder for her to keep up with her assignments, but it would save her from suffering through a twenty-minute lecture from her ethics professor about how unethical tardiness is. He was not the kind of man to accept weak excuses, like oversleeping, and she was not in the state of mind to make up something more creative. At least all she had in the afternoon was a few hours of clinical work at the hospital. She wouldn’t have to worry about running into him on campus.

Nursing was not her life’s ambition, but since she had no idea what her life’s ambition was, it would have to do for now. She couldn’t afford to keep sitting around, waitressing at Captain Jack’s while she waited for inspiration to strike. Not when she was already twenty-five years old and had a son to support. His future was more important than her need to discover herself. Her opportunity to do so had long past. Once Brayden was all grown up and off living his own life, in twenty years or so, she planned to try it again, maybe finally sign up for some of the art classes she’d been dying to take but couldn’t afford the luxury of. Until then, she’d wear scrubs.

Once Kylie got the washer going, she started a pot of coffee and poured a glass of juice for Brayden, then dug through the cupboard. “What do you want for breakfast today, Bray?”

As he cried out his usual answer, “Cocoa Puffs!” her cell phone rang. Jimmy’s mother, Mary Ann, greeted her with a warm hello.

Kylie opened the cereal and reached for a bowl. “How’s Florida treating you today?”

“It’s trying to cook me alive,” Mary Ann said, her voice laced with a laugh.

“Nebraska’s doing the same to us.” She turned toward Brayden and asked, “Do you want milk?”

He shook his head and crashed his cars off the edge of the table, onto the floor. “Uh-oh!”

“Is Jimmy there by any chance?” Mary Ann asked.

“No, he left for work pretty early this morning.” Kylie carried the dry cereal over to the table, holding the chair steady as Brayden scampered into his booster seat, and sat next to him to ensure he ate at least a few bites of his breakfast. “They’re still swamped, trying to get Charlene’s done and keep on top of everything else coming in.”

“Maybe that’s why I can’t get a hold of him.”

“I’m sure he’ll call you as soon as he gets a chance. Maybe on his lunch break,” Kylie said, though she knew her words were nothing more than a little white lie. Since James’s funeral, Jimmy had avoided speaking directly to his mother, relying instead on Kylie or Brent to relay any information to him regarding her well-being. He deserved a good throttling for being so intentionally cruel, but Mary Ann seemed unfazed by his stubborn tendencies.

“Both of my sons seem to be avoiding me today. I can’t reach Brent either,” Mary Ann said, which Kylie found odd. Brent and his mother spoke daily.

“Aria’s been sick,” she offered as a possible explanation.

“Oh, I know, the poor dear. I talked to her a bit last night. She sounded absolutely drained. How’s your mother?”

“Good.”

“And your sister?”

“She’s doing okay,” Kylie lied again, for Mary Ann’s sake. Mary Ann had always held a soft spot in her heart for Ashley. Unfortunately, Ashley had never shared the sentiment. She considered Mary Ann nothing more than an annoying busybody flitting about her personal life, constantly butting her nose in where it didn’t belong. Kylie would be the first to agree Mary Ann did ask a lot of questions, but she only asked because she truly cared about the answers.

“I hear she’s living in North Carolina with Trevor,” Mary Ann said.

Always amazed by how fast news traveled from Allman Falls to Florida, Kylie let out a startled laugh. “You probably know more about it than I do.”

“Remind her North Carolina is close enough to Florida to require a visit.”

“I will,” Kylie promised.

“I missed her at the funeral.”

“She wanted to come,” Kylie said, piling one white lie on top of another. She sure hoped God forgave those. Her phone beeped and she checked the screen. “I’m going to have to let you go, Mary Ann. My mom’s on the other line.”

They said their goodbyes and Kylie clicked over.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Kylie, dear, you will never believe who just called me.” Without waiting for Kylie to guess, Martha Johansen rushed, “Ashley!”

“Wow! Seriously?” Kylie asked in disbelief. “What, does she need money?”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but she did say she wants to get together for dinner at Gimp’s tonight.”

“She’s in town?” Kylie asked, even more surprised, and, if she was being honest, somewhat disappointed. “When did that happen?”

“I didn’t ask her, but I’m assuming just today. Do you have to work tonight?”

“No, I actually have the night off for once.” She’d looked forward to it all week, a stress-free, blissfully quiet night of popcorn, wine, and Netflix. Like many of her dreams, it wasn’t meant to be.

The doorbell rang, and Brayden looked up in wonder. “Jimmy?”

“No, Bray.” Jimmy never rang the bell. He had a key.

Brayden didn’t believe her, and tried to squirm out of his booster seat. She tucked the phone against her shoulder so she could lift him out before he worked his way loose and landed on his head.

“Mom, I’ve got to go. Text me the time and I’ll see you then.”

By the time Kylie caught up to Brayden, he was already to the door. Using all his body weight, he tried to turn the knob. What he possessed in strength and sheer will, he still lacked in fine motor skills. The door refused to budge.

“Would you like some help?” she asked when his frustrations got the better of him, making an almost-possible task an impossible one.

Brayden grunted, but he let go and scooted out of her way. She turned the knob with the ease that would soon come to him, and opened the door to Brent’s wife, Aria.

“Ah-ree-ah!” Brayden cried out and danced into her arms.

With her face alit in matching delight, she lifted him high. “Good morning, my little Macho Man!”

As she kissed his cheeks and nibbled on his chin, his back arched and he broke out into a fit of laughter. His cheeks colored the deep, rosy pink they always blushed whenever Aria was around, the blush born from the little-boy crush he had on her.

Kylie couldn’t fault him. Grown men flushed with the same rosy blush whenever Aria gifted them with a smile. Gracefully beautiful with hair the color of creamed honey, Aria attracted attention wherever she went, but it was more than her stunning good looks that drew the eye of men and women alike. She carried an aura of peace and tranquility about her, her willowy frame moving with mesmerizing fluidity, as though her soul breathed in perfect harmony with the rhythm of the earth. It was impossible to look away from her.

“Ah-ree-ah.” Brayden brought his hands to either side of her face, and squeezed. “Why you ‘mell like candy?”

“I don’t know, Bray. Why do you smell like chocolate?”

“Ba-cuz I eat Cocoa Puffs!”

“You smell so good I just wanna gobble you up.” She peppered his cheek with more kisses, then nibbled on his neck and hummed, “Num, num, num, num, num.”

He threw his head back and laughed to the sky, his love for her absolute. As soon as Aria set him down, he ran past Kylie into the house, but abruptly stopped, returning to command, “You stay here! Oh-tay? I go get sum-fin.”

“Okay,” Aria agreed with a wink to Kylie.

Kylie smiled as her little Lothario ran off to his bedroom. “I believe he has another gift for you.”

“Aw, he’s such a little sweetie.”

Brayden loved to present Aria gifts of crayon drawings and backyard rocks, Lego creations and accidentally-crushed flowers. She adored them all, and displayed them prominently throughout her home so Brayden could see them whenever he visited. So far, he had only asked for one gift back—a dented and wheel-less Hot Wheels car he suddenly remembered was his favorite when he saw it sitting on her bookshelf. She had returned it graciously.

Kylie stepped back to welcome Aria inside. “You look like you’re feeling better today.”

“Oh, much! These past few weeks have been terrible. I can’t remember the last time I felt so bad.”

She tossed her heavy purse onto the closest armchair and slipped off her shoes, lifting up onto her pedicured toes with a sigh of relief as though she had kicked off heavy, steel-toe boots instead of breezy flip-flops. She ran a hand through her silken hair, the bracelets on her wrist jangling and her summer sundress floating around her body in a whisper of sky-colored, airy cotton as she turned to face Kylie.

“I still wasn’t feeling the best after breakfast this morning so I took the day off and went to the doctor. Just thinking about driving in the hills made me want to hurl.”

Employed as a rural mail carrier, Aria spent her days flying around the dusty, Nebraska countryside in her little, orange Jeep. Sounded like a dream job to Kylie—except when feeling queasy.

“I don’t blame you. I’d hate to be stuck in a car all day with food poisoning.”

“It’s not food poisoning.”

“Oh! Please don’t tell me it was the flu.” Kylie’s mind replayed every kiss Aria had planted on her baby’s face. “Brayden’s a magnet for sick germs. Poor kid always has strep or a runny nose.”

A giggle bubbled from Aria’s glossed lips. “Nope! Not the flu either.”

“Okay…” Kylie said with a wary smile. “Well, that’s good.”

“Exceptionally good,” Aria trilled. Her excitement level higher than usual, her entire body pulsed with the vigor of the earth just before the explosive burst of a geyser.

Kylie’s eyes narrowed as she studied Aria’s eyes for sign of fever. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nothing.” With a shrug of innocence, she bounced around the living room and fingered the knick-knacks on Kylie’s cheap and flimsy, pressed board entertainment center. She picked up one of the origami flowers Kylie had folded out of her tip money, and turned it over in amazement. “Is this a dollar bill, Ky?”

“Yeah.” Kylie blushed in embarrassment over the adolescent art. “It gets kind of boring at Jack’s sometimes.”

“This is amazing.” Aria turned it over again, inspecting the intricate folds, and then picked up a pair of bills folded into a butterfly. “Can you make other shapes?”

“Sure. Birds, elephants, dresses, stuff like that.”

“Can you make a dolphin?”

“I could try.” Kylie headed for the kitchen. “Want some coffee? I could make it Irish if you twist my arm hard enough.”

“Ooh, I’d love some, but I can’t have any for nine months. Doctor’s orders.”

“Doctor’s…?” Kylie paused in the middle of the living room, realization slowly dawning. Her jaw dropped and she whipped around. “Are you pregnant?!”

“Uh-huh!” Aria confirmed with a wide-eyed, giggly bob of her head.

They both froze, staring at each other in utter shock, and then Aria let out a piercing squeal of joy. Kylie squealed with her as they flew into each other’s arms, squeezing tight, dancing and hopping in a circle like giddy thirteen-year-old girls—the only appropriate hug for euphoric moments such as this.

“Oh, my gosh—Aria! That’s… omigod!

“I know!”

Kylie held Aria at arm’s length, keeping a tight hold of her as she took in the gorgeous glow of motherhood engulfing her beautiful friend. “Oh! Look at you!”

Aria blushed, her entire body vibrating in joy.

“I can’t believe Jimmy never told me!”

“He doesn’t know—well, he will as soon as Brent gets to work—we just found out like ten minutes ago,” Aria said in an excited, bubbling rush, her hands attempting to gesture wildly despite Kylie’s grasp. “Can you believe this? I never imagined—we weren’t even trying—we weren’t not trying either, but—oh, my gosh, Ky! A baby!

Kylie wrapped her in another hug. “I’m so happy for you!”

“I’m scared out of my freakin’ mind,” Aria said, but she was laughing. “What do I do now?”

“You don’t really have to do anything. You just keep doing what you’re doing and let that baby grow.” Kylie felt close to hyperventilating. She let go of Aria and motioned her over to the sofa. “I can’t believe this! Brent, a father.”

“Oh, I know!” Aria broke out in laughter as she rolled her eyes. “Scary, isn’t it?”

“Horrifying,” Kylie gasped in terror, but it was all for pretend.

Brent would be an amazing father, and not just because he still acted like a big, goofy kid himself. He possessed the same deep compassion, patience, and unconditional love as Jimmy did for children. It was a testament to how well they were raised.

Kylie patted her heart as she struggled to express how happy she was. Words weren’t enough to say all she felt. “Oh, Aria…”

“What a crazy year. Me and Brent. Dan and Stace. You and Jimmy. All of us together. Weddings. Babies. Life is just… It’s…” Aria laughed harder as she, too, fought against the confines of the English language. “I don’t know what it is, but it feels amazing!”

Kylie smiled so big it hurt her face, but it was a happy pain.

“Ooh! Speaking of Stace, I have to call her!” Aria jumped up from the sofa, grabbed her purse from the armchair, and started digging around for her cell phone. “She’s probably teaching right now. Think I should text her the news?” Aria didn’t wait for Kylie to answer. As soon as the phone was in her hand, she flopped back onto the sofa, her fingers dancing across the keys, typing in a flurry. “We’re doing dinner tonight. Brent wants to celebrate. Gimp’s? Seven o’clock?”

“I’ll be there for Ashley’s thing anyway.”

“What Ashley thing?” Before Kylie could answer, Aria sat up straight with a sharp snap of her fingers. “Oh! And before I forget—” She scooped up her purse and frantically searched in its depths, emerging with a ripped magazine page which she thrust into Kylie’s hand. “I found the perfect wedding dress for you! I saw this and just knew! This is your dress, Ky! I called around and they have one at the bridal shop in Juliette. They never have anything good there, but they have this one. It’s fate! You’re trying it on this weekend. I already made the appointment.”

Kylie opened her mouth to argue, but Aria cut her off.

“Don’t argue with a pregnant lady!”

“Alright, alright,” Kylie surrendered to Aria’s addictive joy. She unfolded the page and tried to look at the dress, but her eyes refused to cooperate. Her focus bounced around the picture, blurring it into a hodgepodge of white, white and more white—white dress, white flowers, white veil—blinding-white teeth on the too-pretty, white model posing as a woman in delirious, unrealistic love.

“Isn’t it perfect? You’re going to simply die when you see it in person, Ky. It’s gorgeous!

The longer Kylie looked at the face of the woman in the picture, the more her vision swarmed, the tighter her heart squeezed in panic. She folded the paper in half, then in half again, and then set it on the coffee table before she accidentally folded it into an origami noose.

“You need to hurry up and set that date so we can get this show on the road!” She accentuated each word with a sharp pat on Kylie’s thigh.

“Aria…” Kylie started to protest, but it was a waste of breath. Aria was worse than Jimmy. She practically had Kylie’s entire wedding planned out, right down to the ribbon of raspberry glaze running though the center of the three-tier, sugar-glazed lemon cake. “Now’s not a good time for a—”

“A baby, Ky!” Aria exclaimed, her excitement in the moment mercifully distracting her from harassing Kylie for too long. She pulled Kylie in for another spontaneous hug, squeezing every breath of air right out of Kylie’s lungs. “I still can’t believe it! I’m going to be a mommy!”

“Can’t… breathe…”

“Stace is due the first of January—we’re due at the end of March—Ooh!” Aria pushed Kylie, sending her off balance. “Jimmy needs to hurry up and get you pregnant so you guys can have a baby in May! Then our kids will all be in the same class at school! How awesome would that be?”

“Not going to happen,” Kylie said, dead serious.

She shrugged innocently. “I had to try.”

“You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t.”

Aria laughed. “Congrats on the house, by the way. I know Brent’s being all negative about it, but don’t listen to him. He’s just jealous what Jimmy can do with a massive overhaul like that. It’s a ton of work, sure, but it’s going to be gorgeous!”

“Overhaul like what? What house?”

Kylie’s question blew right past Aria as she bounced to her feet. “Oh! And I was thinking while we’re trying on your dress we should also pick out our bridesmaid dresses for Stacy’s wedding. I’m thinking earth tones since she’s talking about Thanksgiving now. Maybe something deep crimson or a bronzy brown—rich, lucsious colors. Like chocolates or a good wine.”

“Sounds good.” Kylie laughed as her head spun trying to keep up with the whirlwind that had possessed Aria.

“Of course, if she switches back to spring like she originally planned, we’ll want Easter colors. Something sorbet—ooh! Lemons or strawberry, maybe.”

“Okay, now you’re just making me hungry.”

“Speaking of hungry, I’m meeting my mom for lunch. Oh, she’s going to freak when I tell her the news!”

Aria flung her arms around Kylie’s neck one last time, and disappeared on a swirl of vanilla-scented energy before Kylie could even say goodbye.

Physically and mentally drained from the encounter, Kylie collapsed onto the sofa. A baby… A brand new, mini Rogan… Heaven help us all if he’s anything like his Uncle Jimmy, she thought with a laugh of surrender.

Brayden barreled full-speed into the living room, calling out in his sweet voice, “Ah-ree-ah!”

“Oh, baby, I’m sorry. Aria had to go home.”

Instantly, his shoulders slumped, his face crumpling in disappointment. “Oh.”

“Sorry, Bray.” She patted the cushion next to her. “Come sit and show me what you drew.”

His cheeks puffed up and his bottom lip stuck out as he looked down at the ragged page he had ripped from one of his coloring books. Instead of coloring with only his preferred orange, he had used a full rainbow of marker colors for Aria’s picture. His heavy, deliberate strokes bled through to the backside of the paper, his creation as bright and vibrant as the heart he had poured into it.

“Ah-ree-ah come back?”

“No, she’s not coming back.”

“Oh.” It didn’t seem possible, but his shoulders slumped further yet. If he slumped any lower, he would be nothing more than a puddle of broken-hearted little boy lying on the floor.

“She invited us to go to dinner at Gimp’s tonight. You could give her the picture then.”

He frowned at his picture with studious concentration, debating the pros and cons of delayed gratification. Finally, he gave a dejected sigh. “Oh-tay.”

Kylie bit back a smile. “Okay.”

His sigh was the exact same sigh of dejection every single man in Allman Falls had sighed the day Brent had slipped his ring on Aria’s finger and she had said, “I do.”

Silly boys.

Chapter 69 ~ Neglect

NeglectThe mid-morning sun stood high above the cottonwoods when Jimmy pulled into the drive leading up to the Weise’s farm. He drove around the yard until he found Amos, hard at work, cleaning out the feedlot. Amos stopped long enough to point Jimmy in the direction of the grain bin in need of fixing, and then climbed back into his tractor and left him alone.

Jimmy wasn’t so lucky with Amos’s wife, Lois. Every move he made, she trailed a half a step behind him, asking a string of never-ending questions about his father’s funeral, his mom, Kylie, the business, the wedding that still hadn’t happened. He tried to be as evasive as possible with his answers, but Lois was relentless. Living in a small town could be a double-edged sword sometimes. Knowing everyone in a twenty-mile radius on a first name basis came in handy at the bar, or while bartering, or when your house was burning down, but it also meant every intimate detail of your life was common knowledge, and fair game for gossip.

When he finally closed the lid to his father’s old toolbox, Lois tried to coerce him inside for a late breakfast. He declined repeatedly as he loaded his truck, insisting he wasn’t hungry. Not to be dissuaded, she ran into the house and came back with a plateful of homemade brownies, loaded heavy with walnuts. She shoved the Saran-wrapped Corelle plate into his hands, refusing his refusal. He thanked her by knocking twenty percent off his standard labor charge.

He popped another handful of Tylenol, headed west, and spent the next hour measuring, calculating and haggling over a deck estimate. He then drove even farther west and did the same with a kitchen expansion. His return trip into Allman Falls took him around the backside of Chelsea Lake, past the Malek property. He slowed to a crawl and studied the house with the brutal honesty of the morning sun shining down upon it. Brent was right. It was a piece of shit. It stood straight, and looked solid beneath the surface rot, but he knew without going inside it would have to be stripped to the studs and rebuilt from the inside out.

Renovations that extensive would be a waste of time and a colossal waste of money. He knew exactly what his father would say if he could still ask his opinion, “Buy it for the land, and then wait for a blizzard and burn the fucker down.”

James had his first stroke in a house exactly like the Malek house, a historic five-bedroom Queen Anne on Pioneer Street, just off the downtown square. One of the original houses of Allman Falls, it had been architecturally solid, gorgeous in its intricacies, and Rogan and Sons Construction had been hired to destroy it.

The house had been owned by Moses Sullivan, who, among many other professions, had been the mayor of Allman Falls for twenty-eight years, until the city voted to instill term limits and brought an end to his reign. When he died, a greasy, weasel of a man named Stu Beasley somehow managed to swindle Moses’ eighty-four-year-old widow out of the house for pennies on the dollar. Stu owned two other apartment buildings in Allman Falls, both of which were in terrible disrepair. Instead of investing his money in fixing them up, he had purchased the historic beauty and hired Rogan and Sons Construction to chop it up into four, two-bedroom, government-subsidized apartments.

Jimmy had been only twenty-four at the time, but he knew a bad decision when he saw one. He had argued with his father not to take the job, but work was scarce in winter. Money was money, and James had accepted it. There was no way in hell Jimmy would take part in destroying not only an architectural gem but also a piece of Allman Falls’ history. On the day they were supposed to start the demolition, he refused to go.

Instead of giving Jimmy something else to do, James had fired him. Stubborn and bullheaded, James had threatened to fire Jimmy a hundred different times for a hundred different reasons since Jimmy started working for him full-time when he turned sixteen, but it was the first time James had actually done it.

Furious, Jimmy had told James to go to hell. The very same day, he took a third-shift job at the meat packing plant in Juliette. They didn’t speak a word to each other for over a month, not even “pass the pepper” at Sunday dinner. Brent was stuck in the middle, living with Jimmy and working with James. After the second week of stony silence from Jimmy, he officially sided with their father. After the fifth week of silence, Mary Ann had called Jimmy, demanding he put the nonsense behind him and apologize to James. For her, and only for her, he did.

On one of those cold, rainy days in March that felt more like late-January than early spring, Jimmy had returned to work. To this day, Jimmy is convinced James would have fared better if he had never apologized. Because of Jimmy’s return to work, and the resulting tension in the air, Brent took off on a supply run to Juliette. If Jimmy hadn’t come back to work, Brent would have been ripping out plaster alongside James that day. They would have been working side-by-side, joking, laughing, bullshitting with each other. Brent would have noticed James’s change in speech, his confusion, his inability to swing the sledge.

The way it played out, Jimmy had been clear on the other side of the house from James, ignoring him, and hadn’t know anything was seriously wrong until he’d heard his father collapse. By then the damage had already been done. And there was nothing anyone could do to reverse it.

Jimmy took one last look at the Malek house, at the ravages of a lifetime of neglect, and said, “Fuck it.” With a heavy foot on the accelerator, he left stupidity, and his dreams, in the rear view mirror.

Chapter 68 ~ By the Bells

20170930_181103It was ten past seven by the time Jimmy pulled into the parking lot of Rogan-Handley Construction. Marissa had already arrived, but she remained in her parked car, talking animatedly into the phone. As he passed by, he tapped her window, indicating she was late. She nodded, gave him a half-assed wave, but remained in her car.

Annoyed by her indifference, he unlocked the office door and pushed it open. The trio of brass bells attached to the inside handle danced with a light tingle, its ring reminiscent of a Salvation Army bell-ringer on a cold December morning. The cheery hopefulness of its plea pissed him off. He ripped the bell from the door with one solid tug, and tossed it onto the reception desk. It landed with a dead, hollow clatter, the noise more in tune with his mood.

The office air felt like ice compared to the muggy, early-morning heat outside. The sudden temperature change sent a violent ripple of chill over his sweat-dampened skin, inflamed his throbbing headache. He stopped by the thermostat, adjusted the temperature higher before crossing over to the scheduling board to see if anything had changed since he’d left the day before. He wasn’t surprised to see nothing had been deleted and three new jobs had been added. No matter how hard they worked, they never seemed to get caught up. Some days, he was to the point of calling it quits. He was tired. He was done. But he could never quit. Construction was the only life he knew.

He pulled one of the new work orders off the clipboard hanging on the wall and stepped into the kitchenette to make a pot of coffee strong enough to cut through the worst of his hangover. What he really needed was a little hair of the dog, but Folgers would have to do, for now. He downed a quick cup with a handful of Tylenol, then filled his Thermos and headed for the shop. Dan was still there, loading his truck for the day.

“You’re late,” Jimmy called out.

“So are you,” Dan replied.

“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed.

“You look like shit.”

Jimmy shrugged. Like he fuckin’ cared. He held up the work order in his hand. “Since when do we do farm repairs?”

“Ask your brother. He’s the one who took the job.” Dan opened the driver’s door of the truck and reached in to push the button for the automatic overhead door opener. As it rumbled up the track, he added, “Brent promised Amos we’d be out first thing this morning.”

“That stupid kid needs to learn how to say no. Tell him to call Mahoney.”

“Mahoney’s overbooked, too. That’s why Amos called Brent. With this late heat he’s worried about mold in the bin. He’s got the exhaust fan on hand, just needs it installed.”

“Brent can go do it then.”

“Aria’s still sick. He’s taking her to the doctor this morning. Said he might be in later.”

“I thought she was better.”

“Apparently she had a relapse.”

“Fuck.” His headache pulsed in time with his heartbeat, muddling his concentration. Jimmy scrubbed at the stubble along his jaw as he fumbled through some quick, mental calculations. He hated to do it, but he saw no way around hiring the help. Not if Brent didn’t come in. “Call in Jason, and whoever else you can get. We’re already bleeding money on Charlene’s, might as well go for broke and get it done. I’m sick of that diner.”

“Already done. He’s on his way there now.”

“Right. Thanks.” He should have known Dan would already be on top of it.

“You know, maybe it’s time to reconsider hiring a guy or two on fulltime.”

“No,” Jimmy snapped without even pausing to consider it.

He’d done the numbers a hundred times before, every single time Brent had asked, and it wasn’t possible. Not yet. Not when they’d just invested in the building. Not when they needed another trailer. Not when the cost of supplies rose every single minute of every damn day. Not with winter coming. They were overbooked now, but some Januarys the phone hardly rang.

He’d be damned if he had to lay someone off at Christmastime, or any other time, because they couldn’t afford to float the guy’s salary when the work slowed down. Jimmy’s top priority was making sure Brent always had a paycheck, and Dan, and now Marissa. He had to ensure Kylie had what little support her stubborn pride allowed him to provide, and he was still obligated to Ashley, for as long as she needed him. He didn’t have the financial, or emotional, resources to take on the weight of providing for another man’s family. Not right now.

“Now’s not the time.”

“If not now, then when?” Dan asked. When Jimmy didn’t answer, he grumbled under his breath and climbed into his truck. He started his engine, but before he pulled from the garage, he leaned out the open window. “Should I wait until you’re in a better mood to remind you Charlene wants that estimate on the kitchen?”

“Shit.”

His day was getting better and better by the minute.

Jimmy locked up the shop and returned to the office to check through the mail for bids and sign any checks Marissa may have set out for him. She had finally managed to find her way inside and to her desk, but she was still on her cell phone, texting, while talking low and close to Jason. The kid had practically wrapped himself around her, his hand on her chair, his hip touching, as he bent to look at the paperwork spread out on her desk.

“What the fuck?” Jimmy snapped, unable to control himself. White hot, anger pulsated behind his eyes. His head screamed. “Get to work!”

Jason jumped to attention, his face flushed, eyes wide. “Sorry, I just—”

“Get over yourself, Jimmy,” Marissa interrupted. “He’s just helping me with something.”

“I don’t pay him to help you. Get your ass to Charlene’s.”

With a quick nod, Jason scampered toward the door. Barely twenty, he was all lanky body and big feet. He was eager, excitable, too much a pup for Marissa’s taste, but Jimmy still didn’t like him sniffing around.

Marissa cursed and hastily gathered her papers. “Thanks a lot, Jimmy.”

“What?” he demanded, defensive.

“Nothing,” she snapped back. “Forget it.”

“Fine.” He wasn’t in the mood to play games.

“It’s the fucking city again.” She huffed out a laugh, but it sounded desperate, like a sob. “They won’t leave my mom alone.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” he whispered, immediately regretting his temper. He pulled a chair close to hers and swiveled her to face him. He held onto her hands to calm her trembling, but she pulled away. “What’s going on? I thought we had them all squared away?”

“We did, but then they sent this.” She swiped at the letter, waved it at him. “They’re never going to be happy. Not until they’ve chased her out of town.”

He caught her hand, took the crumbled paper, and skimmed it over. Standard complaints of overgrowth and visible trash. Concerns of rodents, insects, contamination. More of the same cleanup demands she’d been receiving for well over a decade. No fines had been assessed, but a deadline had been established. She had less than a week to get her property cleared, or they would issue a summons.

“How bad is it this time?” Jimmy asked.

She shrugged in frustration, shook her head. Her eyes filled with tears. “It’s a hundred times worse than it was the last time we cleaned it up. I’m not doing it again. I’d rather sneak Mom out of the house, pay Jason to do it, and deal with the consequences later than spend my weekend arguing with her over the value of broken flower pots and shredded tarps.”

“Don’t pay Jason. I’ll clean it for her,” Jimmy offered, but Marissa growled her frustration.

“No. I don’t want you bailing us out anymore.”

“I don’t mind,” he assured her. And he didn’t. A couple hours and a roll off, and her yard would be clean enough for the city council. At least for a few months, until she collected it full again.

“I know you don’t, and I appreciate it, but…” She let out heavy breath, clinched her teeth as though biting back her anger. “This really, really sucks, Jimmy.”

“It’s okay.” He held her hand, pulled her closer. This time, she relaxed, allowing him to comfort her.

“It’s fucking trash. She thinks she’s going to make all these beautiful sculptures, save this stuff from some horrid death at the landfill. But she doesn’t do anything with it. It just rots away in her yard, instead of up on the hill. It’s the same thing. How can she not see that?”

“I don’t know.”

“I know I’m supposed to have patience with her, that it’s an illness like any other compulsive disorder, but she pisses me off so bad. Half the time, I don’t know who I’m more upset with, the frickin’ city council for harassing an old lady, or Mom. I mean, why the hell would anyone want to surround themselves in garbage? What’s wrong with her, Jimmy?”

“I don’t know,” Jimmy repeated. Addiction was not something he was familiar with, but he knew someone who had some experience with it. He patted Marissa’s knee as he stood, kissed her cheek, ruffled her hair, poked her and teased her until she finally smiled, and then headed out to have a little chat with Mike.

***

Ashley was up to her elbows in hot pink hair dye, the colorant running out of control as it dripped down her scalp and pooled in her ears, when she heard a knock on her door. She ignored it and tried to rein in her disaster, but the pounding became insistent.

“For cripe’s sake, hold your horses,” she grumbled. As she peeled the gloves from her hands, she spun in a desperate search for a towel. “Shit.”

Four more heavy blows landed on her door, rattling her walls.

“Alright, already,” she hollered and grabbed the first thing she could find to wipe off the worst of the drips and give herself a bit of modesty. Hopefully, Mike wouldn’t mind a little pink on his Zeppelin t-shirt. She swiped the cotton fabric across her forehead and down her cheek, then held it against her chest to conceal her morning apparel of bra and panties. With a twist of the lock, she ripped open the door. “What the fuck—”

The totally unexpected sight of Jimmy Rogan, the heat of him, the heavenly smell of him, stole the very breath from her lungs. She staggered, stammered like a fool. Luckily, Jimmy seemed just as unbalanced as she felt.

“Hey,” she finally managed to squeak out. Fuck.

“Hey,” he echoed, his voice cautious as he slowly straightened. His eyes roamed the length of her, stopped at her hair. He smiled. “You look good.”

She blushed. “Thanks.”

“I mean, like, really good. Happier.”

“I am.”

“You’ve been working out?”

She shrugged. “A bit.”

Taking her by surprise, he lifted her hand, tossed aside the t-shirt, and spun her around in an exaggerated, awkward pirouette.

“Jimmy,” she protested, blushing deeper yet, until her skin matched the pink of her hair.

He let her go. “How long you been back?”

She shrugged, debated lying but admitted, “A couple days.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “When were you planning to tell Ky?”

She shrugged again.

He smiled. “Where’s your boyfriend?”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” she replied, stepping aside so he could come in. “He’s out walking the dog. Should be back any minute.”

“You know, you’re not supposed to have a dog in this apartment.”

“What dog?” With a shrug of ignorance, she returned to the bathroom to finish what she’d started with her hair. Jimmy followed. He leaned against the door jamb, arms and ankles crossed, watching her through the mirror.

“Are you back for good?” he asked.

“No.” Carefully, she pulled on the gloves and sectioned her hair. She used the distraction of applying color to advert her eyes when she said, “I signed up.”

“Really? Wow, that’s…” He let out a quick breath, then drew in a fresh one. “Army?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s cool, Ash. I’m proud of you.”

She risked a glance at him in the mirror. “I’m an idiot.”

“You don’t believe that.”

He spoke matter-of-factly, without hesitation, and he was right. For the first time in her life, she felt confident with a decision she’d made. It wasn’t rash, it wasn’t reactive. It was well thought out, discussed, planned. She’d asked a million questions of the recruiter, of Trevor, his friends, the Internet, a random guy in uniform she’d sat next to on the bus. She knew what she was doing. She knew what she’d signed up for. And she was anxious to get started.

She was not, however, anxious to tell her sister.

As though reading her mind, Jimmy asked again, “When are you planning to tell Ky?”

“Never?” she cringed.

He laughed. “I could tell her for you.”

“God, no! I can just imagine what you’d say!”

He shrugged, the picture of innocence. And, as always, easily distracted. In the reflection, she caught his gaze slowly drift toward her ass. She wiggled her butt, just for show, but she still felt a flush of disappointment when he didn’t step forward and grab on. Two days in Allman Falls, and she was already reverting into the old Ashley, the immature, jealous little girl who’d spread her legs for anyone. She needed to stay the hell far and gone from that version of herself and discover who she truly was, all of her strengths, her passions, her talents, her quirks and inabilities.

The time she’d spent in North Carolina had given her a tremendous start in the right direction, but it wasn’t until she talked to Trevor, face to face, that she admitted she still had a long way to go. He’d come back to the States for three days. Sixteen of those seventy-two hours were hers, and they’d spent them in bed. She’d missed his body, his strength, his sex. Mostly, she’d missed his mind.

For sixteen hours, they’d discussed the typical politics and war, gossip and gripes, but they’d also explored dreams and music, biochemistry and archaeology. They’d debated evolution, religion and how to make the best grilled cheese. In those sixteen hours, Ashley discovered she was madly, truly, deeply in love with a man who was madly, truly, deeply in love with the world, and she was jealous. She wanted to feel what he felt, see what he saw, taste exotic spices, drink Italian wine, listen to the songs of a hundred different birds, sink her toes into pink sands, cross borders, heal wounds, erase scars and deliver babies. She wanted to fall in love with the world, and discover her place in it.

“I am proud of you, Ash,” Jimmy repeated. He stepped closer, not to grab her ass, but to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Kylie will be, too.”

She didn’t share his confidence.

“I can’t wait for Mike all day. Tell I’ve got a job for him.”

“Sure,” she agreed. “Or, you could tell him yourself, tonight, if you’re willing to sit through a bit of family drama. Maybe I could get Ky and Mom and everyone together for dinner and a shit ton of alcohol, and let them all know my super exciting news….”

“I’d suggest somewhere neutral.”

“Gimp’s?”

“Gimp’s,” he concurred.

Gritting her teeth, she forced on a smile, pumped her fist and let out a joyless, “Yay.”

Chapter 67 ~ Dry Toast

20170928_210419Muffled jack-hammering broke through Jimmy’s dreams and echoed about his throbbing head. His eyes, heavy and hot, refused to focus in the darkness. Kylie stirred beside him in bed, her hand sliding up his bare chest until her palm rested over his heart. He placed his hand over hers, one foot on the floor, and waited for the room to stop spinning.

“Son of a bitch,” he cursed himself. He didn’t have time for a hangover. The sun lay below the horizon, but soon it would rise. Once it did, the day would race to end, over before he could blink. There was never enough light in the day, and the nights always lasted too damn long. Just once, he wished it could be the other way around.

He closed his eyes, and drifted. His mouth went dry, his tongue thick and jaw sore. The room spun faster. His chest constricted. Mercifully, the jack-hammering stopped. Jimmy lifted Kylie’s hand from his chest, pressed a light kiss into her palm as he slipped from under her arm.

“Jimmy,” she said in a low whisper, her voice heavy from sleep.

“Shh.” He brushed her hair from her face, off her shoulders. “Sleep, Ky.”

She reached for him, her fingertips brushing along his arm. “We can’t keep doing this.”

“I know.” He ran a light touch along her cheek, his lips following his caress until her eyes closed. He watched her shoulders rise and fall in deep, even breaths. She loved him, but he was losing her. Bit by bit, day by day, he could feel her slipping further and further away from him, and he had no idea how to bring her back. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she whispered, her eyes still closed, more asleep than awake. “It’s okay.”

Leaving the room in darkness, he hunted down his clothes from the night before, finding his jeans in a tangle beside the bed, his wallet and keys close by, his pocket change scattered. He tugged on his t-shirt and scooped his ball cap up off the floor, raking his hair back with his fingers before putting it on. His hair was getting too long, hanging over his ears and taking on the curl he hated, but it was how Kylie liked it. A skipped haircut here and there was an easy sacrifice for her happiness.

His boots in hand, he returned to Kylie to place one last, soft kiss high on her cheek, then left her to sleep and moved down the hall to check on Brayden. Deep asleep, Brayden lay flat on his back with his arms above his head, his legs bent with the soles of his feet pressed together. He never fell asleep that way, but it was how he always ended up, his body open to Heaven, where his dreams originated from.

The air conditioner kicked on, a pocket of cold air expanding from the vent on the floor, filling the room with chill. He had kicked his blanket off overnight. When Jimmy picked it up from the floor, a stuffed dog tumbled out, Boo Bear nowhere in sight. They hadn’t seen the teddy in weeks, lost somewhere in the vast wilds of Allman Falls, most likely at preschool, or grandma’s house. Brayden sometimes cried for him in the middle of the night, if he was overtired or scared, but Boo had already started to fade from Brayden’s days. It wouldn’t be long before he vanished from the nights, and then from his memories all together.

Jimmy tucked the blanket around Brayden, placed a gentle kiss on his forehead. He allowed his hand to linger on his son’s chest for a moment before he left, comforted by the strong beat of his heart. Brayden wasn’t Jimmy’s son in the biological definition, but Jimmy didn’t see himself as anything other than Brayden’s father. It was how he had defined himself since the day Brayden was born, long before he had any right to, and it was how he would define himself for the rest of his life. It was the only definition that mattered.

He left the door open a few inches so the light from the hall would guide the boy to his mom if he woke up before the dark night disappeared, and then he headed across town to his empty, lonely apartment to shower and dress for work.

***

Persistent ringing roused Dan from blessed sleep. With a deep growl of discontent, he snaked his arm from under the covers, in search of the snooze button on his alarm. Repeatedly, he smacked it. The ringing did not stop.

“It’s your phone, kochanie,” Stacy’s voice mumbled from under her pillow, her foot brushing along his leg. Even under a heavy blanket in the late days of summer, her toes felt like tiny popsicles against his warm skin.

He smacked at the snooze button again, but his alarm continued to cry, its ringing seeming to grow in urgency with every repetition. He cursed as he fumbled with the buttons, searching for the right one. Grunting her frustration, Stacy squirmed out from under his arm. She climbed over him, grasping for his cell phone on the nightstand. He heard it hit the floor, and she cursed as it rang again.

“I got it, I got it.” Sleep already a distant, fuzzy memory, Dan threw back the covers, and accidentally smacked Stacy in the face with his backhand.

Crying out in startled pain, she brought her hands to her nose and collapsed against the pillows. The phone rang again.

“Are you okay?” Dan kept one hand on her thigh while he stretched out to reach the phone on the floor, trying to comfort them both at once.

“I’m fine,” she said, her answer muffled from behind her hands. She sniffed, testing. “No blood this time.”

“I’m sorry.” Dan massaged her leg and barked into the phone, “What?”

“Dan? It’s Charlene. I was just looking over what you guys did yesterday—really looking at it—and I am not happy, Dan. Not! One! Bit! I don’t know what kind of poor quality your other customers are willing to accept—”

Dan removed the phone from his ear and tapped it repeatedly against his forehead in frustration, his hand involuntarily choking the electronic contraption in his desire to strangle the woman attached to the shrieking voice.

“Who is it?” Stacy asked.

“Guess.”

Kurwa mać!” Stacy ripped off the covers and sprung from bed. “I swear, one of these days, I’m going to ram my foot up that woman’s boney—”

The rest of Stacy’s threat got lost behind the slam of the bathroom door. Dan returned the phone to his ear and listened as Charlene griped about trim and paint, wainscoting and window sills, tile and grout lines. He threw in the appropriate, “uh-huh,” or, “I understand,” whenever she paused, but he let her do most of the talking. She had called to lecture, not converse.

He had received similar early-morning wake-up calls from her at least twice a week since they had started the renovations on her diner. On the days Charlene didn’t call Dan, she called Jimmy. They had bent over backwards trying to please her, but there was no pleasing Charlene. She enjoyed bitching too much to ever be happy.

When Charlene finally ran out of steam, Dan promised he would be in early so she could show him everything in need of fixing, and then disconnected before she could gain a second wind. A heartbeat later, his phone rang again, her number on the screen. He paused long enough to whisper a few of Stacy’s favorite Polish curses and then answered.

“Daniel Handley, you’ve got some nerve hanging up on me!”

“Sorry ‘bout that, Charlene. I think we got cut off,” Dan lied

Charlene grunted. It wasn’t a lady-like grunt, but then nothing about Charlene was lady-like. Her heart hard, her voice graveled by a steady diet of vodka and cigarettes, she was unlikable at best, but when Charlene spoke, everyone listened. For as long as Dan could remember, her opinion had been revered as Gospel. Her silver tongue held the power to annihilate their reputation, and their business, with one well-placed whisper of doubt. He had absolutely no intention of giving her reason to speak ill of his livelihood.

“I’m truly sorry, Char,” Dan said, adding a smile to his voice, hoping it helped. “What else can I do for you this fine morning?”

“Cut the crap, Dan. It’s unbecoming.”

He dropped the smile. “My apologies.”

“What you can do is stop messing around and get my dining room done! How may weeks behind schedule are we now? Eight, nine?”

“Three,” he corrected under his breath, though it was probably closer to four. A wedding, a funeral, and just plain old life had caused much of the delay. But Charlene’s indecision had set them back multiple times, and cost them thousands of dollars, as well.

“And you tell Jimmy I need the estimate for my kitchen. Sometime before I die, please. Unless he wants me to give my business to Folson’s crew in Juliette. I hear he’s charging half of what you boys are in labor, and they’re getting the job done on time. Must be because they don’t work these half-day, part-time stints you boys have been pulling lately.”

“Now, Char, that’s not fair. This summer has been—” Dan started, but she cut him off.

“I’ve been giving my hard-earned money to Rogan Construction since long before there was even a squirt of a ‘Son’ to mention on the truck, but I won’t hesitate to call Folson if Jimmy doesn’t come back with something competitive this time.” She tsked, the sound of it a hiss dripping in venom. “If James knew what Jimmy was doing to his good reputation, I guarantee you, as sure as I’m breathing, that poor man would be rolling over in his grave.”

She slammed the receiver into the cradle, the noise of it like a bomb exploding in Dan’s ear, but he didn’t even flinch. “Son of a bitch.”

He punched Jimmy’s number into his phone with his thumb. He listened to the connection ring unanswered, left a message for Jimmy to call, and then groaned when a glance at the clock revealed it was already a half past five, the day picking up speed by the minute. When he heard Stacy getting sick in the bathroom, he groaned again.

Her doctor had assured them her morning sickness would start to ease now that she was into her second trimester, and it had eased up some, but she still threw up at least once every morning. Sometimes a lot more than once. The vicious side-effect could keep her holed up in their luxurious master bathroom, the one with the heavenly, muscle-relaxing, eye-opening shower jets, all morning.

Dan grabbed some clothes and headed for the not-as-luxurious main bathroom to shower and shave, then went downstairs to start his coffee. While it brewed, he stepped over to the patio doors where Stacy’s mutt, Willie Nelson, waited to be let outside for his morning constitutional.

“You want something to read, you know, to help it along?” Dan asked the dog as he opened the door.

Willie cocked his head in a moment of consideration, then dashed outside. While he sniffed out the perfect patch of fragrant flowers to poop on, Dan turned toward the east. Stretching his stiff muscles, he watched dawn stain the night sky in shades of pinks, yellows and orange as the sun began to lift out of the hills surrounding Chelsea Lake. It was his favorite time of day, his favorite view on earth, one he would never tire of, no matter how many mornings he was to be blessed to witness it.

The ring of his cell phone shattered his peaceful moment, bringing more bad news.

“I probably won’t be in today,” Brent said when Dan answered. “Aria’s sick again.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Hell if I know. I thought she was finally over this stupid bug, but she started puking again right after breakfast. I’m taking her to the doctor. If it’s nothing serious, I’ll be in later. Or I might take the day anyway. I don’t know yet.”

“You better come in. Charlene’s on the warpath.”

“Isn’t she always?” Brent dismissed, his words punctuated by a slurp of coffee.

“Yeah, but you make a good buffer between her and Jimmy. I’m wearing my lucky shirt today. I’d hate to see it get splattered in blood.”

“Speaking of my brother, have you heard from him yet today?”

“Not yet.”

“If you do, let me know so I can tell Aria and she can relax.”

“What’s going on?”

“He and Ky got into it last night. Again. And he broke into my house. Again. And he drank all my beer. Again. And once again, I told him to sleep it off here, but he didn’t. He’s probably back at Ky’s, again, but he’s not answering his phone and Aria’s worried.”

“I’m sure he’s fine.” Dan said, but something was going on with Jimmy lately, something more than his usual, brooding moods.

“Yeah, I’m sure, but this is getting old, Dan. He shows up here at least once, sometimes twice a week.” Brent let out a frustrated sigh. “And Aria’s pissed. At me. Like I have any control over the shit he does.”

“You can’t lock him up.”

He slurped his coffee again. “I could take his keys though.”

“True,” Dan agreed. Finished with his business, Willie came bounding onto the patio. “You want me to talk to him?”

Brent snorted. “Talk all you want. Won’t do a damn bit of good.”

Saying goodbye to Brent, Dan opened the door for Willie and tagged along behind as he raced through the house, excited to get his morning pets from Stacy, who was slowly making her way to the table in the breakfast nook. As Willie danced around Stacy’s feet, Dan poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Eggs or oatmeal?”

“Toast.” Stacy slid into a chair and rested her head on her folded arms on the table. “Oh, I don’t feel good at all today, kochanie.”

Eyeing her cautiously, Dan popped two slices of bread into the toaster. “Worse than usual?”

“No… I don’t know.” She let out a shaky, queasy exhale. “Oh, this sucks.”

“Maybe you caught what Aria has.”

“No, I think she caught what I have.”

Confused, Dan asked, “What do you have?”

She rolled her eyes.

It took him a minute, but when his first sip of coffee kicked in, he figured out her cryptic hint. “You really think she’s pregnant?”

“I’d put money on it.”

“Huh… But they never said anything about trying.”

“We weren’t exactly trying either. Sometimes happy just happens.”

“That it does.” He couldn’t help but smile as he placed a kiss high on her cheek. “What are your plans for the day?”

“Teaching screaming children and puking.”

He let out a laugh as he massaged across her shoulders.

“I’m serious,” Stacy insisted. “I don’t think I’m ever going to stop.”

“Well, you have fun with that.” Dan ruffled her still-messy curls, then sat at the table and sipped his coffee. “If you get bored with the puking thing, why don’t you swing by True Value and pick out a paint color for the nursery? Something blue, maybe.”

“Something blue, huh?”

He shrugged, a teasing smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

She arched her eyebrow, but didn’t take his bait.

Dan tweaked her nose and slid his coffee cup over to her. “You want the rest of this? I need to get going.”

With a groan of discomfort, Stacy turned away from the robust aroma.

“Should I be worried about you?”

“Go to work, kochanie.”

Despite her assurance, Dan checked her forehead for fever. She shooed him away with a bit of feisty in her growl, then reeled him back in for a goodbye kiss that started with a peck and ended a few minutes later with his jeans growing tighter and Stacy’s face flushing from something a hell of a lot more fun than the flu.