Chapter 127 ~ Under Review

Under ReviewHer chest felt tight, as though compressed by a heavy weight, forcing her to take shallow, rapid breaths, leaving her lightheaded and confused. Her pulse throbbed in her neck, each beat sharp, constrictive. Consciously, she drew in a slow, intentional, calming breath, closing her eyes to center her soul before she expelled the deep panic with a gentle exhale.

“Relax, dear,” Marg Sloan encouraged with a bright smile. She reached across her desk to lightly pat Marissa’s clasped hands. “This is just a performance review, not an inquisition.”

“Right,” Marissa whispered through a nervous laugh. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Sitting straighter, Marissa smoothed her skirt, tucked her hair behind her ear, and shoved her haunted memories to the back of her mind, where she’d successfully kept every pain, every vision, every memory of her own tortured cries, buried for the past ten years.

Bloodied and bruised, more exhausted than she’d ever felt in her life, she’d still considered herself the victor of that fight. Spiritually. Emotionally. Never once had she allowed herself to feel a victim or a fool.

But, obviously, she’d only been fooling herself, if only the casual mention of his name held the power to revive that night in a vivid rush of terror and rage.

Marissa drew in a breath, forced her vision to focus on the paper Marg had placed in front of her, to listen to the words the woman spoke.

“…is simply wonderful. Your efficiency and accuracy ratings are well above what we would expect from a team member who has been with us for…”

Her speech became garbled. The typed words on the paper swirled. Marg handed Marissa a pen. She signed where Marg pointed. The paper disappeared into a manila folder. Marg produced another one.

And then she sighed.

“Now, about your attendance.”

Start on a high note, gentle roll to the low.

Marissa did her best to look contrite about her missed days and long lunches. Marg worked her way back to another high, Marissa’s impeccable phone etiquette, signaling the end of the performance review.

She walked away with a three-point-two percent raise. Better than the zero percent she’d expected, but not even close to what she had made during her brief stint working for Jimmy at Rogan-Handley Construction. Not that she wanted to suffer that humiliation again.

Still, she needed something better than the Farm Bureau.

At the end of the day, Marissa logged off her computer, slipped on her coat, and picked up the only decoration she had in her cubicle, a snake plant in a square, green pot.

The morning of her first day at her new job, her mother had taken the garden shears to her jungle of houseplants and selected a hardy cutting. She’d poked it into fresh soil, drawn a cheery face on the side of the pot, attached googly eyes, scattered a few stones for good luck, and then packed Marissa a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Marissa had tossed the sandwich but kept the plant. She’d named it Glenn and had given him the place of honor on her desk, beside her monitor.

Glenn had been in her care for eighty-four days now. She hadn’t killed him, but he didn’t look exceptionally happy, either. She poked her finger into the soil. Bone dry.

“Sorry, buddy,” she whispered, and tucked him into her oversize purse. “I promise, I’ll do better at our next place, wherever we end up.”

She walked out of the office without a backward glance and braced against the wicked, winter wind as she hurried across the icy parking lot to her car. The driver’s door was frozen shut, the handle an unyielding block of ice from the afternoon’s freezing rain. As she hurried around to the other side of her car, a frigid blast of arctic air whipped across the downtown square and stole the breath clean out of her lungs. Gasping, she popped the handle. The door opened with a wrenching groan.

With all the grace of hippopotamus in snow boots, she clambered across a collected mess of CD’s and fast food trash heaped in the passenger side, over the center console, into the driver’s seat. Panting through a sudden hot flash from the exertion, she struggled to loosen her scarf, unbutton her coat, and stabbed her key into the ignition. Her poor car shuddered, died, and then choked to a semblance of life. She waited a moment longer, for the high-pitched squeal of her alternator to quiet down to a pitch less painful, then flipped on her one working headlight and rolled out of the parking lot.

She only had to drive a few blocks to the house she’d shared with Kitty for almost all her life, but she didn’t feel like going home. She wasn’t in the mood to hang out at Captain Jack’s, either, though she could probably pick up a shift if she’d wanted to. Her bank account needed her to. Maybe over the weekend, when the tips would be better, and she’d have time to sleep off a hangover.

She headed out of town, down the spur toward the highway, then turned onto a familiar country road. It had been a long time since she’d felt the need to drive this direction, to clear her mind, to breathe the air.

To focus.

Her brain felt scattered, her thoughts hyper and incomplete. The car’s heater cooked her feet, but the knob was broken and she couldn’t turn it down. Instead, she cracked the window, turned on the radio, and started flipping stations, desperate to find something that matched her mood.

“…make the entire process easy for you…”

♪ I’d take it all back, take it all back, take it all back, just to have you… ♪

“…regain control over your healthcare costs…”

♪ Are you going to kiss me, or not… ♪

The night was black, the sky a thick, heavy blanket of clouds, allowing no glow from the stars, or the moon. Patches of snow shone silver from the beam of her headlight.

♪ All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall… ♪

“…your official country station…”

♪ I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral… ♪

“…across the state with snow and ice, making the roads treacherous for travel…”

“…He had, at the end, a plan for salvation…”

Frustrated, she turned down the volume, and drove the next two miles in relative silence. Her tires kicked up frozen gravel. Individual rocks dinged along the undercarriage of her car. Wind whistled through the cracked window. Her single headlight flickered when she hit a rough patch of washboard road. She slowed for an intersection, though there was no one she had to yield to.

She was alone, on the road, in the world. It was how she’d preferred to live her life. Except for Jimmy, there was no one she had ever loved, no one who had ever loved her. She’d never been the kind of girl who needed friends. Other than her mother, she had no family. Not since her brother was killed, since her baby had died.

Halfway to the next intersection, she slowed. Then stopped, put her car into park. She turned off her headlight but didn’t get out.

A lifetime had passed since she’d last walked into the valley and sat beneath the burr oak tree where she and Jimmy had tucked the memory of their accident. Part of the reason was the land had sold and was now used to run cattle. The beasts had soiled the ground, muddied the creek, stripped the life from the earth, and trampled the roots of her tree.

What innocence she’d buried had long been destroyed. Not only by the cattle, by also by the beast of man.

For that ground was where she had been raped.

She turned away from the valley, dug through the CD’s piled on her passenger seat.

Just the mention of his name…

She found Eric Church. Slipped him into the stereo. She kept the volume low and closed her eyes.

For everything Marissa Vasek had been in high school, Cody Mueller had been the opposite. She was poor, the child of a single mother, the daughter of a hoarder. He was a child of wealth, of healthy abundance. She’d always been slow to learn, struggled to read, hated school. He’d been elected class president, valedictorian, voted most likely to succeed.

She’d hung with the wrong crowd, smoked pot, talked back, got suspended. He’d kissed ass, played the teachers, mastered the game.

He’d dated cheerleaders. She’d dated Jimmy.

Secretly, she’d watched him, crushed on him. She went to his basketball games, crashed his parties, got drunk, acted stupid, hoping he’d notice. All through high school, freshman through senior years, he’d never once looked her way. He’d never spoken her name. He’d never returned her smile.

Except, the night before their high school graduation, he did.

Three weeks earlier, a semi had crossed the center line of the highway, and Jimmy had swerved. She’d healed physically from the car accident, from her miscarriage, from the surgery. But she had yet to heal emotionally.

She’d hated herself. She’d hated Jimmy. She’d hated the way the whole town talked about her, about him, about what they’d done. She was branded a whore, Jimmy even worse. Together, they were outcast.

She was high, all the time.

The night Cody noticed her, she was so stoned she could barely walk, could hardly keep her eyes open. But when he’d beckoned, she’d felt the first glimmer of joy hit her heart since the night of the crash, and she’d followed.

She’d climbed into the passenger seat of his truck, directed him out into the country, and led him to the oak tree. She’d wanted to show him where she’d buried her heart. She’d imagined he would hold her, listen to her sorrow, comfort her, kiss away her tears, mend her heart.

But all he’d wanted to see, to kiss and to touch, was her body, naked in the grass.

She’d said no. She’d screamed, No!

But Cody always got what he wanted. Even if he had to steal it.

Until that night, despite rumors to the contrary, Jimmy was the only boy Marissa had ever let see her body, kiss her skin, lie naked alongside her and touch her intimately. Together, they had learned how to please another, how to love another, how to respect another. He’d been gentle with her, playful with her, rougher when she’d wanted it. He’d stopped immediately if she ever felt uncomfortable.

He’d learned what she liked, and he’d perfected it. For her.

Jimmy was how she imagined all men would be. She had never been more wrong, more naïve, about anything in life.

That night in the valley, Cody had done what he wanted, how he’d wanted, when he’d wanted. He’d gotten hard over her struggles for him to stop. He’d slapped her, pinched her, punched her, and bit her breast so hard she’d thought the bruise would never heal.

He’d shoved her face down into the muddy earth, and he had taken her from behind. And then he’d left her beaten and bloody, her clothing torn, her body exposed, and returned to town without her.

She’d curled up under the tree, knees to her chest, and forced her eyes to dry. As she’d felt her body passing out, she’d prayed for God to let her die in her sleep.

Hours later, she’d woken up to a cold rain, her face tender and swollen to the touch, pissed off to still be alive, and determined to never feel weak or helpless again.

Years passed. She took control of her body, of pleasure and sex. She learned how to fight and resisted the desire to love. She never mentioned that night to anyone, not even to Jimmy. And she’d never given Cody a second thought. Until now.

He was all she thought about as she drove home, as she pushed her dinner around her plate. She saw his stupid, ugly face when she stared at the TV. She could feel the ghost of his clammy hands, could smell the stench of his rotten breath as she tried to sleep.

In the morning, determined once again to regain control, she returned to work, to her cubicle, and returned Glenn to his place of honor beside her monitor on her desk. Then, she picked up the phone, and dialed the church.

When Pastor Tom answered, she stated with conviction, “We need to talk.”

Intermission ~ NaNoWriMo

NaNo-Shield-Logo-WebI was first introduced to NaNoWriMo in the late 2000’s. We owned a garden center at the time. Winter days could be dreadfully long, cold even in the sunshine, and more than a little bit lonely. I found myself reaching out across the world, through the miracle of the Internet, reconnecting with lost family and dear friends. One, in particular, changed my life.

When we found each other, my “bad seed,” my Little Lizard, my high-school drama partner/journalism buddy, was experiencing a life exploration of her own. A military wife and mom of two, she was back in college, immersing herself in her beloved world of literature and language studies, on her way to becoming a librarian.

One of her classes that semester was a course on creative writing. She sent me some work to critique. I fell in love with her writing, with her passion. I wanted to play, too.

She said, “You should NaNoWriMo!”

I said, “I should do who-what-now, huh?”

And then, she explained.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. For the past twenty years, starting on the 1st of every November, participants begin working toward the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59pm on November 30th.

That’s a lot of words. And a lot of fun… kind of.

That first year, I signed up, got all excited, put way too much pressure on myself, failed miserably, and gave up.

A year later, I admitted defeat on another dream. We sold the garden center. Disappointed in myself and uncertain where to go from there, I sat down at the computer to job search. Instead, I started to write.

Millie’s Rose was my first “NaNoWriMo.” I did it on my own, starting in the middle of January. I finished in the middle of February, revised a million times, published it, unpublished it, revised some more, and turned it into the ongoing blog series it is today – Allman Falls.

My second attempt at NaNo brought forth Olivia. I wrote her in the summertime, with the help of an amazing critique partner, and the musical inspiration of Michael Franti and Eminem. Half of it, I frantically thumbed into my Blackberry while sitting on my mother-in-law’s porch. I didn’t write that story as much as it poured. I have yet to feel that kind of inspiration again, but I’m determined to try.

This year, in the month it is intended, I’m packing up my laptop, my coffee, and my cat. I’m taking a vacation from Allman Falls and moving onto the porch with the hope of  NaNoWriMo-ing my way into a different world, full of new characters, new love, new drama, more comedy, and maybe a murder (or two).

I know nothing about what will transpire, who will do the transpiring, or where the transpiring will take place. I do, however, know what this new novel will be called. It’s had a name, and absolutely nothing else, for going on six months now:

Right on Sunshine

I’ll see you in December!

Chapter 126 ~ December Day

December DayDan awoke to the sound of silence. He stretched, reaching for Stacy, but found only cold sheets on her side of the bed. He opened his eyes to a sun-drenched bedroom and experienced instant panic, certain he had horrifically overslept and missed his consultation with Bennie and Bernice Sock to discuss pricing on a four-car garage addition to the back of their 1950’s style ranch. A moment later, his brain joined the party, and he remembered it was Sunday.

A glance at the clock confirmed he had missed church. A deep inhale while he stretched his sore muscles confirmed he had not missed Sunday dinner. He could smell the ham baking in the oven, caught a whiff of cinnamon, possibly apple pie, maybe even pear. Or, even better, sweet potatoes bubbling in a brown sugar glaze, mini marshmallows toasting on top.

His stomach growled as he reached for his t-shirt and jeans, cast aside moments before he’d crashed into bed, too exhausted to snore. He desperately needed a shower, to stand in a steady stream of scalding hot water until the ache melted away from his body, loosening his back. First, he needed strong coffee, and a soul-soothing kiss from his beautiful wife.

He found her curled up on the sofa, snuggling Emily as she nursed. Willie Nelson lay curled up, sound asleep, on the cushion beside her. A fire crackled. Michael Bublé crooned softly from the stereo in the corner. A fresh pot of coffee brewed in the kitchen.

“Good morning,” Dan said as bent to place a soft kiss on Emily’s head. He followed it with a kiss to Stacy’s lips before he settled onto the sofa beside them.

“Good afternoon,” Stacy corrected with a smile.

“I’m sorry I slept so late.”

“I wanted you to. Emily started fussing long before the alarm went off for church. I figured it was a sign to let you sleep and have a Mommy-Daughter day with my baby girl.”

“How was it?”

“Very nice. We snuggled in the rocker for a bit, then had a warm bath and some breakfast before putting on a little fashion show for Willie. We went to church early and showed off our freshly painted nails.” She lifted Emily’s little hand with her finger to show Dan the delicate pink polish they had selected.

“Very pretty,” Dan said.

“Willie wanted his done, as well.”

Dan reached over and lifted the dog’s paw. A rainbow of colors decorated his toes.

“He couldn’t decide on a color,” Stacy stated, then smiled that beautiful smile Dan loved, the one where her eyes sparkled, and her nose crinkled the slightest bit.

Dan stroked her cheek, kissed her lips. “How was church?”

“Good, but sad. Pastor Tom officially announced his retirement.”

“We knew it was going to happen.”

“Yeah, but it was always ‘someday,’ some arbitrary day, far into the future. Now, it’s the end of the month.”

“That is soon,” Dan said, surprised. “I figured he’d wait at least until after Easter.”

“At least he’s waiting until after Christmas.” She shifted Emily in her arms, removing her from her breast and lifting her to her shoulder to burp. “The elders handed out resumes on his potential replacements. That made it feel even more final.”

Dan huffed in disbelief. Other than his years in Hollings, he’d never known church without Pastor Tom. Pastor Tom had baptized him, confirmed him. He’d presided over both of his parents’ funerals, over Gram’s and Gramp’s joint ceremony. He’d blessed both of Dan’s marriages and would soon baptize his daughter. He’d been there for every birth, every death; every joy and every sorrow, guiding Dan through life and through faith. The thought of him being replaced by some stranger felt overwhelming.

“Who have the elders chosen?”

“The first, of course, is Pastor Frank from Juliette.”

“Obvious choice,” Dan nodded in agreement. Pastor Frank had filled in whenever Pastor Tom had been out of town. He was just as well-known and loved by the congregation as Pastor Tom, but he was close to retirement age himself. “Not a long-term solution, though.”

“Then there’s a woman from Illinois, Pastor Nicole Carlson. She goes by Nic.”

“Interesting.”

“Very. A female pastor would be a nice change.” Stacy shrugged. “But I heard enough grumbling from the men of the congregation to pretty much count her out.”

“We’re not all sexist pigs,” Dan countered.

“Yeah, but the only ones who are tend to show up to vote.”

He couldn’t argue that.

She sighed. “And then there’s Cody Mueller.”

“That name sounds familiar.”

“He’s from here, which means the elders love him. His parents are Jim and Marsha Mueller.”

Dan had foggy, childhood memories of a boy named Cody who was always causing trouble, picking fights, harassing the girls, throwing parties, dealing drugs. “That little shit from Sycamore Street?”

“Dan,” Stacy chastised. “Watch your language.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but there’s no other way to describe that kid. He was an entitled, spoiled little sh—” Dan corrected himself, “Brat. I thought he moved to Kansas City, got into finance, or something like that.”

“He did. Made a fortune, too, from what I understand. Now he’s back, married, with two little boys and a budding new career.”

As he stood, Dan stated, “My vote’s for Pastor Nic.”

“You know nothing about her!” Stacy laughed.

“I know she’s not Cody.”

“People change, kochanie.”

“Not that much.” Dan bent to place another kiss on Stacy’s lips. “I’m going to shower before Brent and Aria arrive.”

“Don’t you want to hear the rest of my news?”

“Later,” Dan promised.

“Jimmy’s back.”

That stopped Dan in his tracks. “How do you know that?”

“Mike came to church with Kitty Vasek. He said Jimmy texted him late last night and asked him to come to his house at sunrise Monday morning to start work again.”

“How is Jimmy?”

She shrugged. “Mike didn’t know much else. You and Brent should stop out there later today. Maybe take him a plate.”

“Yeah, we will,” Dan agreed, allowing himself to feel a hint of relief without getting too optimistic. He turned toward the stairs, but Stacy reached out and grabbed the hem of his shirt, stopping him in his tracks.

“What’s this on your shirt?”

Dan looked down. It was just an old t-shirt he used for work, the screen-printing on it cracked and faded, with so many old stains seeped into the cotton it would be impossible to identify a new one. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“It’s something.”

Stacy yanked on the fabric, pulling him closer. She scratched at the spot with her fingernail. “What is this? Glue?”

Dan looked down and saw the dried and crusty, cream-colored stain. His heart plummeted. His breath caught. The memory of Vivian’s delectable cream puffs from the morning before flashed across his taste buds, slipped down his throat in a suffocating gasp, and landed in his stomach with a sickening thud.

He’d been careless with Vivian’s sweets, and he was about to be caught. Shit.

“I don’t know what it is,” he lied, his cheeks flaming with a sudden, guilty flush. He tried to pull away from Stacy’s grasp, but she only held on tighter.

“It’s not glue. It looks like… Daniel Joseph!” Anger flashed momentarily in her eyes, but as she leaned in to sniff the fabric, her expression changed from anger to amusement. She let out a hearty laugh. “Is that vanilla pudding?”

“Probably, I don’t know… What did you think it was?” Dan asked, confused by her reaction. What could possibly be worse than eating another woman’s cream… Oh! “Seriously, Stace! What kind of husband do you think I am?”

“Sorry,” she blushed. “Overactive imagination, I guess. But why do you have pudding on your shirt?”

“I… I have no idea,” he lied, his cheeks flaming hotter yet from guilt. Frantic, he scraped at the stain with his thumb, grasped for an excuse. “A Little Debbie from the gas station, maybe—I don’t know.”

“It’ll come out in the wash, Dan. Don’t worry about it.”

“But it’s my favorite shirt,” he lied again, scrubbing harder.

“Mm hmm.” Stacy narrowed her eyes in disbelief, but she said nothing more, not teasing him or cursing him, in English or in Polish, her silence more unsettling than her accusations.

Damn you, Vivian!

 

* * *

 

Marissa Vasek slept late on Sunday morning, then wasted away most of the afternoon hiding in her drapery-darkened bedroom, binge watching cheesy sitcoms and nursing a tequila hangover. She finally emerged around suppertime, beckoned by the enticing aroma of Kitty’s spicy, pan-fried chicken and cheesy potatoes. Immediately upon stepping foot into the kitchen, she regretted the decision to abandon her solitary sanctuary and immerse herself in the land of fools.

“Hey, Mike,” she greeted her mother’s B.F.F. and quasi-permanent houseguest. She gathered the sash of her silk kimono robe and tied it loosely around her waist, a half-hearted effort to conceal her thin tank and panties. He spent so much time lurking in the shadows of her house that she was certain he had seen any goodie she may have had to offer, but she still preferred the pretense of modesty. “How’s it hangin’.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Hadn’t thought about it today.”

She filled a glass with water from the tap, eyed him over the rim as she sipped. He always carried a bit of a hangdog expression, but he seemed a little more ragged, a little more pathetic than usual. His pup, Bella, lay at his feet, chin on paws, eyes droopy, ears down, parroting her master’s emotion. “Why so glum, chum.”

He shrugged again.

“Ashley’s flight left this morning,” Kitty answered for him. “She’s on her way to Germany.”

“Well, that sucks hairy donkey dong,” Marissa said, though she truly didn’t care what Ashley did, or where she went. She stepped over to the stove, poked at the chicken with a fork. “How much longer?”

“Not long,” Kitty answered. “Toss a salad for me.”

While Marissa gathered vegetable from the refrigerator, washed, chopped, peeled, seeded and sliced, Kitty talked. And talked. And gossiped some more.

Marissa loved the recent changes in her mother; the brightness of her eyes, the joy in her voice, the pep in her step. For years, she had cowered in her dank and darkened house, barricaded by her hoard of crap. But now, Kitty explored the world freely, eager to meet new people, collect other lost souls, often bringing them home for a meal, a warm shower or bed. Kitty hoarded friends in much the same way as she had hoarded scrap wood and porcelain dolls, but Marissa figured it was a healthier addiction than the one she had before—at least until Kitty accidentally collected an arsonist or serial killer, or hoard of cats, at which time, Marissa would be forced to step in again. Until then, she enjoyed listening to her mother laugh.

She wasn’t much listening to the words her mother spoke, however, until she heard the name Cody Mueller. Startled from her reprieve, she dropped the knife. “What did you just say?”

“I said Cody Mueller is the elders’ choice,” Kitty repeated.

“Choice for what?”

“New pastor,” Mike answered, his tone defeated, a perfect match for how Marissa suddenly felt.

“Seriously?”

“Oh, yes!” Kitty nodded in excitement. “I think it’ll be nice to have someone we already know to replace Pastor Tom. It should make the transition that much easier. And I hear he’s such a nice boy. If I’m remembering right, didn’t you use to date him?”

“We went out one time…” Marissa corrected, forcing her tone to remain light while her heart raced in terror from the memory, too chickenshit to speak the truth aloud; …and he raped me.

 

Chapter 125 ~ What a Girl Wants

What a Girl Wants“Up you go, Little Man.” Jimmy swung Brayden high above his head, eliciting a squeal of joy from the little boy before he gently lowered him into his bed. He settled a light sheet around Brayden and his Boo Bear, tucking in them both. “Did you have fun today?”

“Uh huh!” Brayden exclaimed, nodding and yawning at the same time.

Jimmy leaned into place a kiss on his sweet face. He was fresh from his bath, his hair still damp, scented of watermelon from his shampoo, his breath a hint of mint and sweet bubble-gum from his toothpaste. And yet, Jimmy could still smell the sun and ocean from their afternoon spent playing on the beach. It had been one of the best days of his life, one neither he nor Brayden had wanted to end, but as he watched his son’s struggle to keep his heavy eyes open, Jimmy was forced to concede that it had.

Brayden rolled onto his side, curling his body around Jimmy as he sat on the edge of the bed. “Jimmy, you sleep wiff me tonight?”

“I can’t tonight, Buddy, but maybe next time I come you can spend the night with me. We’ll get a place right on the beach and sleep outside under the stars. How does that sound?”

“’Morrow?” Brayden asked hopefully, pleading.

“Not tomorrow, but very soon,” Jimmy promised. He rubbed his hand around Brayden’s back in a slow, soothing pattern. “I’ll call you every night, so we can count down the days together.”

“Oh tay.” Brayden let out a sigh of disappointment and Jimmy saw a shadow of the memory of all the time they had missed out on reflecting in his tired eyes.

“Do you want a story or a song tonight?”

Brayden picked at Boo Bear’s stitching as he thought it over, finally deciding, “Song.”

“Which one?”

“Your song.”

Jimmy smiled. It had been a long time since he had sung James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” but the song was as much a part of him as the color of his eyes. It was the song his mother had lulled him to sleep with every night of his childhood. After Brent had been born, she changed the lyrics to “Sweet Brent and James,” but he had always considered the song his. He would lie in the top bunk of their bunk bed, watching through heavy eyelids as the branches of the silver maple danced in the wind outside his bedroom window, and listen to her soft voice.

Like all little boys do, he had told his mother he was too old for lullabies long before he truly wanted her to stop. He had been five-years-old at the time, practically on the verge of manhood. She had agreed, but then stated that since she would still be singing to Brent, and the song wouldn’t sound right without his name in it, he would have to cover his ears, so he didn’t accidentally hear it. Jimmy never did cover his ears. He listened to her sing his song every single night until he was eight and Brent was six, grateful for those three extra years.

Jimmy stayed by Brayden’s side long after he fell asleep. He knew he needed to leave, but he stole another few precious moments with his son before he did. The blonde haired, blue-eyed ray of sunshine was his heart. His home. It was where he belonged, where he intended to live for the rest of his life—even if he could only do so a few weekends a year.

He placed another kiss on Brayden’s soft cheek, turned down the lights and left the door open a crack so the boy could find his mother if he needed her in the middle of the night.

Kylie sat in the living room, still wearing her uniform from the diner, folding a basket of laundry and silently fuming, waiting for him. Keeping her focus trained on the tiny pair of Levis in her hand, she asked, “Is he asleep?”

“Yeah.” Jimmy grabbed his jacket from the hook by the door and shrugged it on.

For the briefest of seconds, he allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy of loosening Kylie’s thick hair from the ponytail she had it trapped in, of taking her in his arms, of kissing her until she forgot her anger, all her worries and doubts, and thought only of making love to him. But he pushed the desire aside and focused on his reason for coming to California; Brayden.

“My flight leaves in an hour, but I’ll be back next weekend. We can figure out a more permanent visitation schedule then.”

She held her jaw tight as she wadded the jeans into a ball and slammed them into the laundry basket. Before she could figure out how to say whatever it was she was struggling with, Jimmy pulled a check from him pocket and tossed it onto the coffee table in front of her.

“That’s for daycare, doctors, food, clothes, toys; whatever Brayden needs for the next six months. If it’s not enough, let me know and I’ll send more.”

Her face flushed in prideful anger, but he cut off her impending lecture.

“I am not nothing to him, Ky,” he stated, throwing her hateful words back at her. “I am his father, and he is my son. And that is never going to change. I’ll be back next Saturday morning at ten. Dress him for a day on the beach.”

He walked out the door before she had a chance to say no.

* * *

The moment the door closed behind him, Kylie shoved the laundry basket off the sofa, buried her face in her hands, but the tears she had been fighting back all day long refused to fall. Too many other emotions competed for the focus of her attention; anger, lust, pride, confusion, a twisted vine of despair binding them all together in a heavy knot that choked her of clean oxygen and clear thought.

She didn’t have to pick up the check he’d left to know how heavy the zeros on it weighed. Her pride screamed for her to rip it to shreds, but the memory of her mother’s voice stopped her hands from doing so.

“He wants to help you. Let him do it…”

But what about what she wanted?

How dare he barge into her life, make his demands, and walk right back out again as though her opinion didn’t matter, as though her needs were of no consequence?

Furious, she jumped up from the sofa and ripped open the door.

“Hey!” she shouted into the night, hollering out once again when she caught sight of his retreating frame. “Jimmy!”

Leaving the door open so she could listen for Brayden, she ran, capturing his arm before he could disappear around the corner of the courtyard.

“Ky—” Jimmy started to protest, but she silenced him with a shove against his chest.

“How dare you walk back into my life, with no warning, steal away my son, dictate my time, and then walk right back out again, without my consent!? Like what I want doesn’t matter!”

“I’m not—” he tried, but she shoved him again.

“What about what I want, Jimmy?” She shoved him once more, forcing his back against the courtyard wall. “Do you even care about that?”

“Of course, I care,” he started to say, but silenced himself.

She stepped in close. He shrank away. She stepped closer yet, placing her hands on either side of him, trapping him against the wall.

Cautiously, he resigned, “Tell me what you want, Ky.”

She leaned into him, until the air she breathed no longer carried the slight hint of fragrance from the camellia-filled courtyard, but only the heady, masculine scent of leather from his jacket, barbecue and lime from his dinner, the woodsy notes of his soap. She caught a slight undertone of fear. That fear emboldened her.

“I want you,” she whispered, her lips a breath from his. “That is, if you want me, too.”

“Of course, I want you,” he quickly replied, his voice thick, husky, his body temperature rising. “I’ve always wanted you.”

“We did everything wrong last time.”

“I know,” he easily agreed easily. Too easily. He wasn’t listening.

She pushed him away. “No.”

“Ky?” Confused, he reached for her.

“I don’t want what we had before. It was forced and chaotic, like we rushed into something neither one of us was ready for. I want to slow it down this time, do it right. I want to take my time with you… I want to date you.”

She watched as silent confusion slowly brightened into a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “If that’s what you want.”

“It’s what I want,” she confirmed, stepping close to him again. She allowed her body to relax against his, in the familiar way she’d missed. “I want to lie in bed at night and think about you, anticipate when I might see you again in the daytime. I want talk for hours over the phone, and then enjoy a comfortable silence over dinner in a restaurant. I want to sit in a dark movie theater with you, not touching, but wanting to. I want to make out in the backseat of my car, or lie beside you on the beach under the stars, and whisper naughty desires. I want to take the time to figure myself out while I take the time to get to know the real James William Rogan, Jr. To truly know you.”

“You know me, Ky,” he insisted.

“But I don’t. That’s our problem.” She took a step back. “I know who I imagined you to be. I know the role I assigned to you long before I ever met you. I know I was wrong about a lot of it, and I’ve learned some of the secrets you keep, but I still don’t know you. And you don’t know me.”

He didn’t argue. She could feel his posture relax, as though in agreement. He turned away, silent for a long moment, before he looked her straight in the eye and stated, “You should know, first off, that my middle name is Wendall, not William.”

“What!?” She gasped in surprise. “Are you serious? But I thought your dad— Oh, my gosh, Jimmy, I’m so sorry, I…”

She trailed off as he started to laugh.

“I’m just giving you shit.”

“Asshole,” she chastised and smacked at his chest.

He caught her hands, holding her close to him. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

She nodded, whispered, “Me, too.”

They stood silent in the courtyard, slowing it down, their bodies close, their breath mingled, her hands over his heart as it beat solid against his chest, reminding her of the one thing she had known for certain from the moment she had first laid eyes upon him in her mother’s backyard: Their love for each other was true.

The rest, they had a lifetime to figure out. Together.

Chapter 124 ~ Case Study

Case Study“Is he going to wear that damn hat every day?” Kylie whispered to Nessa as they watched Frog Man scramble, flip and fry his way through the breakfast rush, a foam rubber Nebraska Huskers Cornhead hat perched precariously atop his head.

“I’m sure,” Nessa replied on a weary sigh. She’d picked it up on her latest whirlwind trip to Allman Falls to spend the weekend loving on her Norse god, Chief.

Frog Man hadn’t taken it off since.

“I still think he’s going to catch himself on fire.” Kylie grabbed the coffee pot and made a round through the café. When they met back at the counter, she added, “He’s going to look ridiculous with no eyebrows.”

“I think he could pull it off,” Nessa said with a hop of her shoulders as Frog Man hollered out “Table seven!” from the kitchen. Nessa hooked a glass dispenser of maple syrup onto the pocket of her apron, scooped up two plates heaping with pancakes and rushed off as the door to the diner opened again.

Quickly, Kylie bussed table twelve before seating a family of four at it.

“Would you like some coffee while you look over the—”

“We’re ready to order,” the woman interrupted. Dressed younger than her age, overly made up and highlighted, the woman plucked a series of napkins from the dispenser and briskly scrubbed the table Kylie had just cleaned. “The kids will have the FrogCakes with a side of apples, I’d like scrambled eggs, whites only, with fruit salad. My husband will have the Denver omelet with bacon and wheat toast. Bring milk for the kids, coffee and juice for us.”

She held the wad of napkins in pinched fingers for Kylie.

“Yes, ma’am,” Kylie replied with a forced smile that disappeared the moment she turned her back to the table. She tossed the napkins into the trash and slipped their ticket in line on the clip.

“Play nice,” Nessa whispered in warning to Kylie as she twirled past.

“No promises,” Kylie’s eyes twinkled in reply.

As she worked her tables, Kylie’s attention kept returning to the family. The children, a boy of around seven and a girl close to Brayden’s age, both dressed in designer brands and hundred-dollar shoes, fought over the crayons as they colored their placements. The parents did not speak to each other, or to their children. The woman’s thumbs danced across the screen of her cellphone as she texted. The man scrolled mindlessly through his phone, never pausing long enough to register more than a headline.

When Nessa passed by their table, carrying a tray heavily loaded with beverages, the husband’s eyes shifted from his phone to Nessa’s backside, following her journey through the diner, to the corner booth. Unabashedly, he watched every bend and twist of Nessa’s figure as she distributed juice and water, hot coffee and cold sodas amongst the table.

A slight turn of her body away from her husband, an increase in flurry of her thumbs across the screen of her cellphone, gave indication the wife noticed. Her silence gave indication she didn’t care.

Once again, Frog Man hollered from the kitchen. “Table twelve!”

Kylie loaded her tray and delivered it to the table.

“Here we go guys!” With a flourish, she placed the pancakes in front of the children.

The boy grabbed his fork and stabbed it repeatedly through the center of the stack, growling on whisper, “Die, die, die, demon frog!” while the little girl’s eyes sparkled in delight at the smiling frog prince and princess faces Frog Man had created out of halved grapes, kiwi and apple slices. Kylie couldn’t help but chuckle when she noticed the pineapple chunks on top looked remarkably more like Cornhats than crowns.

“Look, Mommy!” the little girl tried to get her mother’s attention.

“Cute,” the woman answered without looking up from her phone.

“Do you like my picture?” the girl asked, holding her paper placemat high for Kylie to see.

“Very pretty,” Kylie praised. “I like way you colored the frog blue.”

Her cute features scrunched in frown. “Wyatt hogged the green.”

“Did not!” he protested.

“Did so!” she countered and stuck out her tongue.

Wyatt pinched his sister.

With a squeal, she smacked him.

“Knock it off,” their father chastised.

With a weary sigh, their mother finally set down her phone and picked up her silverware. Without pause, she sliced the frog princess in half, then quarters, then into bite-sized pieces. The sudden destruction of her joy brought a tear to the little girl’s eye, but she did not cry. She didn’t eat the pancake, either.

While his wife was distracted, the man ran a light touch down Kylie’s arm. “Would you bring some cream for the coffee, Doll?”

His request was innocent, but the way he asked sent a chill creeping down Kylie’s spine. More, she despised being called ‘Doll.’ Still, she smiled and pulled a handful of creamer packets from her apron pocket. “Can I get you anything else?”

Neither adult at the table answered. She’d become invisible.

Kylie moved onto the other diners; to the pair of teenagers in the back booth, who shared a single plate and sat close enough to fuse together. To the middle-aged couple who sat in a comfortable silence, not speaking, but no cellphones in sight as they shared a meal together. To a trio of elderly gentlemen who sat shoulder to shoulder at the counter, the one in the middle talking enough for the three of them. To the single father, fully engrossed in his tween daughter’s animated reenactment of her cheer audition.

Kylie found them all fascinating, but her eyes kept drifting back to the cold and distant couple at table twelve. They could have been having an off day, Kylie told herself, but it felt too much like the norm. They ate in silence, paid by credit card, and left the diner without exchanging even a single glance with each other.

As quickly as it started, the morning rush died. Frog Man disappeared out the back door to take a smoke break. Kylie wiped down the last booth and sunk into the worn, vinyl bench. Nessa slipped in across from Kylie, her back against the wall, and sighed.

“Oh, my feet are killing me,” she moaned. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“I can’t either,” Kylie agreed, but not because of the ache in her feet. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Me, either.” Nessa closed her eyes for a moment. “But I already got a job waitressing at Charlene’s lined up for when I move.”

“I still can’t believe you’re leaving me in a few weeks.”

Nessa reached across the table for Kylie’s hand. “I still can’t believe you’re not coming with me.”

“I will. Eventually,” Kylie said. Without Nessa, Huntington Beach held no meaning. She missed her mother and her friends, the town. But she still needed more time to herself, time to think, to reflect. To figure out who the hell she was, who she wanted to be. “I still can’t believe Ashley. I almost didn’t recognize her at the airport. She looked like a whole different person, like she was all grown up.”

“She looked happy,” Nessa added.

“Fulfilled,” Kylie agreed. She laughed. “Maybe I should join the Army, too.”

“What you need to do is focus on your art.”

A week ago, Kylie would have argued a million reasons why it was foolish—selfish—to draw pictures and play with clay all day. Any more, she felt foolish denying her own talent. She was good. Every day, she was getting better. Why couldn’t she find a way to turn her passion into a livelihood. Why shouldn’t she at least try?

“I signed up for a few classes at the college for the next semester.”

“You’re staying through spring?” Nessa asked, disappointed.

“Yeah,” Kylie nodded. “I think I need to.”

Nessa didn’t argue. “What are you taking?”

“The fundamentals of illustration, and an introduction to art therapy. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Ashley said about wanting to study psychology, and I thought about how those sculpture classes helped me find my focus, and… I don’t know, it just feels right.” She shrugged, thought of the detached couple at breakfast, of her own struggle to find joy in life, peace with herself. “If I like it, I think I’m going to enroll in college full time in the fall, work toward a degree.”

“To be a psychiatrist?”

“To be a therapist,” Kylie quickly corrected. “Using art.”

“That’s really cool, Ky.” Nessa squeezed her hand. “So, four more years in California?”

“Nebraska. The only way I can afford it is to move back in with my mom.”

Nessa squeezed tighter. “That’s the best part!”

A bright flicker of reflected sunlight flashed across the far wall of the diner as a car pulled into the parking lot. Late for breakfast, early for lunch, Nessa and Kylie flipped a quarter to see who would have to get off their ass to wait on the customer. Kylie lost.

The bells attached to the handle of the door jingled in warning an instant before a wave of heat rushed inside, filling the diner with an energy so heady, so raw and sensual, Kylie didn’t have to look up to know who had walked in.

Still, she did.

The sight of him stole her breath away, silencing her disbelieving whisper, “Jimmy?”

“Hey, Ky.”

Chapter 123 ~ In the Wash

In the WashGrowing up, the Johansens had not been wanting. They’d been fortunate to never know hunger, or find themselves lacking life’s necessities; shelter, clothing, medicine, education. Still, many activities considered everyday for most families were instead moments of occasion; a Happy Meal, new shoes, a trip through the automatic car wash.

As an adult, Kylie occasionally felt a shimmering reminder of those basic, childhood joys. Sitting in the drive thru lane, the smell of greasy and French fries mingling with hot blacktop and car exhaust. Slipping her foot into a brand-new pair of running shoes, the laces brilliant white, the soles stiff and treads pristine, yet untarnished by filthy concrete.

Now, in the last moments of a $10 car wash on a chilly Tucson evening, as hot wax sprayed onto the windshield, reds and yellows mixing into the blue and greens, Kylie watched her sister sitting in the passenger seat of their rental car, her head tipped, her eyes wide and mouth slightly agape in fascinated wonder, reminiscent of those special childhood moments with their mother.

She wished she could turn back time, to the moment of Ashley’s birth, and do it all over again. Their entire childhood. Every second of Ashley’s life. This time, she would strive be her sister’s best friend and confidant, her playmate and partner in crime.

Not her second mother.

She had so much she wanted to say, a million apologies to make, but she couldn’t find the words, and her eyes were tearing up from the scented wax and humid air.

“Hey,” Ashley whispered. She squeezed Kylie’s hand. “You okay?”

“I’m good,” Kylie lied. “Just tired.”

“You can sleep on the plane.”

Staring unabashedly at her sister, Kylie marveled at the strength of Ashley’s jaw, her shoulders. Her hair, smart in pixie cut, had been dyed deep and highlighted like rich honey. She wore her makeup modest, with new-found confidence in her own natural beauty. She had conquered her lifelong battle against baby fat, her body sculpted in strength, lean with discipline.

Even the scent of the air around her had matured, no longer a nauseating musk of stale cigarette and knockoff body spray. Instead, the slightest hint of jasmine danced delicately around her.

“I’m sorry.”

Kylie said the words in her mind, in her heart. Aloud, the sentiment was inadequate.

“I still can’t believe Charlie’s bald.” Ashley’s eyes twinkled in merry smile. “Like, bald-bald. And not like he shaved it.”

“He’s shorter than I remember,” Kylie added, still amazed. In her memories, Charlie had always been larger than life, standing tall and proud with her high on his shoulders, presenting the world to her.

“Yeah, that was weird. I always pictured him bigger.”

“He was to us. We were kids.”

“True.”

The car wash complete, Kylie inched through blowers. Blindly, she stared through the windshield as water drops pushed across the glass in bursts of invisible energy.

They’d surprised Charlie, ambushing him in the parking lot of the office complex where he worked. It wasn’t intentional, to catch him off-guard or gain the upper hand. They were just short on time, impatient. And slightly worried he would be unresponsive to a request.

It had been a good visit, more than Kylie had hoped for, a confirmation she’d spent her life loving a decent man, an honest man. A father.

It was impossible to catch up in a single afternoon, over Sonoran hot dogs and three hearts trying to talk at once, but they’d done their best. In the end, she’d hugged him goodbye, heartbroken they had missed out on so many years, but confident they could still share many more. She’d promised to bring Brayden next time.

He’d stepped aside with Ashley for a long, private moment with his daughter. Instead of jealousy or envy, or embarrassment, Kylie had watched with pride as her sister spoke freely, gestured wildly, and cried openly. Charlie had done much of the same. He’d held her face in his hands, kissed her forehead. She’d wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed him tight, clinging to him like she would have as a child, if only he’d given her the opportunity then to say goodbye.

The dryers stopped, bringing a sudden silence to the inside of the car. Lifting her foot from the brake, Kylie rolled away from the dark cocoon of the car wash, into the warmth of a winter sunset. She still hadn’t said everything she’d wanted to say to her sister.

She hadn’t told Ashley she was proud of her, that she admired her commitment to her country, her devotion to her friends.

She had not admitted she was wrong about Mike, that she had been insensitive to his plight. She had not expressed how impressed she was by his journey to recovery.

She hadn’t complimented her sister’s strength. Her determination. Her bravery. Her humor. Her heart.

She had yet to apologize for lying about her feelings for Jimmy, for falling in love with him while chastising her sister for having done the same.

For a lifetime of criticizing her every decision, interrupting her every word.

For never listening to her dreams.

She’d run out of time to say in a million ways, I’m sorry.

Please, forgive me.

Instead, she parked alongside the bank of high-power vacuums, unbuckled her seat belt, and turned in the driver’s seat to face her sister directly.

“I love you, Ash.”

Amused, Ashley smiled. “I love you, too, Ky.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered in her mind, in her heart, into the jasmine scented air, and she hugged her sister tight.

Chapter 122 ~ Homemade

HomemadeDan sat on the tailgate of his truck, parked in the alley behind Charlene’s Diner, eating banana bread and watching his new employees haul out the kitchen demolition. In addition to bringing back Jason, Brent had hired two kids fresh off a Folsom job. Dan could already tell they wouldn’t last, but while they still pretended to work, he slacked off and savored the sweet, wholesome goodness his love, Vivian, had baked for him.

Brent hitched his ass onto the tailgate beside Dan and stuffed his hand into his own goodie bag from Vivian. Around a mouthful of banana bread, he grumbled, “Aria won’t let me find out if we’re having a boy or a girl. She wants to be surprised.”

“Stace was the same way.”

“I want a boy,” Brent said. “Girls look like too much stress. I mean, look at you. You’re already getting pudgy and going bald, and Emily’s only a few weeks old. What’re you going to look like when she starts to date?”

“That’s never going to happen. I’ve already decided she’s going to be a nun.”

“If I have a boy, she could date my son. He’d treat her right.”

Dan laughed at the asinine suggestion.

Brent took offense. “What would be so horrible about my boy dating your girl?”

“Emily’s not dating a Rogan,” Dan stated firmly.

“And why not?” Brent huffed. “I’ll have you know the Rogans are excellent stock. We’re strong, healthy men, with rugged, good looks.”

“No.”

“We work hard, and we love our mothers.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“We are exceptionally romantic and naturally talented lovers.”

“You’re making it worse.”

“As a matter of fact, every country song ever written was inspired by a Rogan.”

“You’re full of shit,” Dan laughed.

“I speak the truth. You’re just jealous.”

“You wish it were true.” Dan finished the last bite of his banana bread and said, “I tell you what; if you have a girl, Emily and your daughter can be the best of friends. But if you have a boy, we agree that the two of them never meet. At least not until Emily joins the sisterhood.”

“And why the hell not?”

“Because of the whole ‘talented lover’ thing. Emily’s not allowed to have one of those. At least, not until after I’m dead.”

“That’s fair,” Brent agreed. He reached into his bag, came up emptyhanded. “I think Vivian shorted us today.”

“Yeah…” Dan mused, shifting uncomfortably in guilt. He’d stolen one of Brent’s pieces while the guy was distracted pouring coffee. He hadn’t intended to. It was just Vivi’s banana bread was so warm, so cinnamony, so fresh-baked, melt-in-your-mouth delicious he couldn’t control himself.

“I bet one of Folsom’s guys stole it,” Brent decided, glaring at their new employees.

“Yeah,” Dan repeated around a guilty cough.

Brent turned toward Dan, his expression serious. For a panicked second, Dan feared he had been caught. He tensed, a breath away from confessing, when Brent said, “Jimmy’s gone. Just up and disappeared.”

“What?” Dan asked, stunned. “When?”

Brent just shrugged. “Mike says he hasn’t seen him since Tuesday.”

“He’s probably at Marissa’s.”

“Not anymore.”

“Well, he’s got to be somewhere.” Dan hoped for the obvious, “Did you call Ky?”

“If he was there, we’d know… Wouldn’t we?”

Dan shrugged. “Not necessarily.”

“I guess.” Forlorn, Brent peered into his goodie bag, one more time, as though hoping for a miracle. None were to be had. He wadded the empty sack into a tight ball. “Let’s get Charlene’s stupid kitchen started.”

Dan slid off the tailgate, as graceful as a blob of lead. He was having a hard time finding motivation lately. He figured it was just the long winter, or too much of Stacy’s good cooking over the holidays. Stress, maybe. Or lack of sex.

Oh, how he missed sex.

He had to be getting close to the end of Stacy’s post-baby hiatus, but every frustrated night seemed to stretch longer than the last. The more he thought about it, the more he wished he’d stolen two pieces of Brent’s banana bread. He needed another hit of Vivian’s sweet, scrumptious, homemade lovin’ to bury his pain.

*  * *

Jimmy slowly awoke to the robust aroma of fresh brewed coffee and pan-fried bacon, but it was the subtle undertone of ocean air that sat him upright. His head protested the sudden movement with throbs of pressure in time with the erratic beats of his heart.

“Fuck,” he cursed his head. His heart. The previous thirty-six hours.

Somehow, he’d put his own drunk ass on an airplane.

First class.

The stewardess had been blonde. Enamored by him. Or indifferent.

Either way, she’d kept his glass full.

He didn’t remember landing. Leaving the airport. Traveling across town.

He did remember knocking on her door, falling into her arms. Crying.

His eyes still hurt, he’d cried so much.

He pushed himself out of bed, stood on unsteady legs, fully dressed. Except his boots.

He’d lost those somewhere.

He found her on the lanai, her legs curled under her, reading. A gentle breeze tussled her hair. She tucked a stray lock behind her ear, felt his presence. She lifted her eyes to his.

And he shattered again.

“Ma…”