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…”

Chapter 121 ~ Consolation

ComfortWith his head heavy in his hands, Jimmy sat naked on the edge of the bed and tried to remember how the hell he had ended up where he was, the last few hours of his life nothing more than a whiskey haze. Every minute, of every day, since the very second he had watched Ky drive away, seemed to lay buried in the same thick shroud of semi-consciousness, his failed attempt to drink her from existence. No matter how much he drank, no matter how hard he fucked, she refused to die. He closed his eyes, shifted his hands to his ears, desperate to block out her voice. He could still feel her breath, hot and damp on his face, her words an eternal echo, “You are nothing to him.”

“She deserves better than you…”

“You are nothing to him.”

The two, relentless truths he could never drink away.

The bed shifted behind him as she roused from sleep. He bit back a curse. He hadn’t left fast enough, sabotaging himself once again because he feared being alone. He was so fucking tired of being lonely. But being with her only intensified his desolation.

Moving in close, she ran a gentle caress across his shoulders, down his back. His body involuntarily shuddered from her touch.

Her voice thick from the long night, she asked, “Can’t sleep?”

“No.”

The bed shifted under her weight as she rose to hold him. He tensed as the breasts he’d paid for pressed unyielding against his back. Her breath, hot from sleep, still laced with tequila, sent him into a deep chill. He brushed her away, rougher than he intended to, but he didn’t apologize, and she didn’t remove her hands from him.

Marissa held him tighter, her lips playing along his shoulder. “Come back to bed.”

With her arms around him, her hands stroking and massaging his body, her skin still wearing the musky scent of sweat and sex, she enveloped him in her body heat, but the chill inside him spread, until his every cell felt dead.

He extracted himself from her embrace. “I have to go.”

By the soft, twinkling glow of the Christmas lights strung outside her bedroom window, he hunted down his jeans and slipped them on.

She let out a heavy sigh and propped herself up against the pillows. She reached to the nightstand for her glass of lukewarm tequila, taking a sip before handing it to him. He downed the rest, numb to the burn, and watched as she lit a cigarette. She drew in a deep drag, studying him with an intense gaze, and exhaled a slow stream of smoke.

“How much longer are you planning on doing this?” she asked.

“Doing what?”

“Using me as your substitute.”

He returned to sitting on the edge of the bed to pull on his boots and shot a sideways glance at her unabashedly nude form. His eyes traveled up her long, toned legs, around the gentle curve of her hips, over her tight abs and the swell of her breasts. His journey stopped when his eyes met the blue of hers. Framed by mussed, honey-blonde hair, her beautiful face hid behind a layer of heavy make-up, painted in sorrow.

“Can you even remember the last time you were thinking about me when your hands were on my body?”

He turned away from her, but couldn’t escape her gaze, their eyes meeting in the mirror hanging over her bureau. He had never intentionally lied to her, and she demanded truth from him now.

“No.”

Her smile did not reach her eyes. “I think we were seventeen.”

“That’s not true, Miss.”

“Close enough.” She took a short drag of her cigarette, exhaling another blue stream before snubbing out the wasted length of it into a glass ashtray. She pulled her legs in and rested her chin on her knees, watching him as he stuffed one foot and then the other into his work boots. “I didn’t mind because I knew I was the only girl in your life who never changed. You and I always found each other when we needed someone. Even when you had Ash, you still came looking for me more often than you turned to her.”

He stood and fished his t-shirt out of a pile of discarded clothing on the floor, desperate to escape her voice.

“When you and Ky first got together, I figured she’d be like all the others who came before her. But she wasn’t, was she?” She laughed, the sorrowful sound of it souring the tequila in his stomach. “For the first time in my life, I was jealous. I never thought that was an emotion I would ever waste my time on, especially when it came to you, but it was.”

“Missy, don’t…”

“The funny thing though, Jimmy, it wasn’t until after Ky left for California, and you came to me totally destroyed, that I realized I wasn’t jealous of her.” She waited until he turned to look at her before she said, “I was jealous of you.”

He silently watched the flickering rainbow of Christmas colors play across her features, highlighting her pain and shadowing her fear, and she gave him a weak shrug.

“You found love.”

“Miss…” he breathed out in a pained whisper around the lump lodged in his throat.

She climbed from her bed and crossed the room, her arms coming around him just as he lost the battle, the first tear racing down his cheek, followed by a million more.

“You know I love you, baby, and I’ll never turn you away from my bed if that’s where you truly want to be,” she whispered. “But you don’t belong with me anymore.”

He buried his face in her neck, her familiar scent both a comfort and a torment as she rocked him in her arms. “I don’t know where else to go.”

“Just go home.”

 

Chapter 120 ~ Shattered

ShatteredIt was supposed to be an easy trip home—a short visit with her mom, a quick roll in the hay with her husband—before she hopped on another airplane to fly halfway around the world, onto her next adventure. Now, thanks to her selfish bitch of a sister, she was forced to commit a teeny, tiny misdemeanor as well.

Standing on the front porch, in the dark of night, freezing her ass off as a brutal north wind sliced through the hills and cut through her jeans, Ashley hefted the largest rock she could find, and smashed it through Jimmy’s front window.

“Have you lost your mind?” Mike panicked.

Ignoring him, Ashley tucked her hand into the sleeve of her jacket and knocked out the remaining shards of glass. As she climbed through the window, Jimmy winged an empty beer bottle in her general direction. It missed by a mile, shattering against the far wall.

Mike let out a curse of defeat and used the key he had been withholding from Ashley to enter Jimmy’s house like a normal person.

“I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry,” Mike sighed in apology.

“You’re paying for that,” Jimmy grumbled as he struggled to stand. He lost the fight against gravity and collapsed back onto the couch.

“I’ll find a board,” Mike offered as he slowly wandered off, in hangdog fashion.

“What the hell, Jimmy?” Ashley muttered in disgust. She glanced around, taking assessment of the house, at the holes punched through the new drywall, at the trash and beer bottles littered about. The air felt heavy, stale with the stench of misery and despair. She’d be willing to bet Jimmy hadn’t moved far from the room all week, which was probably the last time he had showered, as well.

“When’s the last time you slept?” she asked.

“Go away.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you get off your ass and do something—do anything—besides drink alone in the dark. I don’t care what.” Ashley crossed the room and flopped down in the armchair next to Jimmy, in close enough proximity to confirm her suspicion. She damn near gagged. “I suggest you start with a shower.”

“Get the fuck outta my house,” he slurred.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Jimmy shifted his eyes, blinking for so long she almost believed he had fallen asleep. His head rolled, and he faced the television, his bloodshot eyes narrow slits in protection from the harsh light coming from the screen.

“What are we watching?” Ashley shifted in the chair, but Jimmy turned off the television before she could see. She rolled her eyes. “What, were you watching porn or something?”

“Yeah. Leave me alone so I can jerk off in peace.”

Jimmy pulled a fresh bottle of beer from the six pack on the floor and twisted off the cap. He flicked it at her, missing again. Before he could bring the bottle to his lips, Ashley reached out and ripped it from his hand. She winged it across the room, smashing the full bottle against the wall.

As the beer foamed and poured down the drywall, she commanded, “Stand up.”

“No.”

“Stand the fuck up,” she repeated. “Start living again.”

“I am living.” He took a deep breath in and blew it out through his nose. “See?”

“You’re not living, you’re hiding. You just going to sit here and wallow in self-pity until you die? Well, guess what, Baby James!? Miserable people live really long lives.”

“Fuck you,” Jimmy muttered.

“Fuck you,” Ashley parroted, exhausted as she slumped back in her chair. She studied Jimmy, his bloodshot eyes, his haggard face. She couldn’t tell how much of it was from the beer and how much was from not sleeping in a very long time. He looked to pass out at any second, so Ashley kept pushing. “Do you love my sister?”

“What?”

“Do you love her?” Ashley repeated.

Jimmy turned away.

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life without her?”

He closed his eyes, refusing to answer.

“Without Brayden?”

He swallowed hard, fighting it, but still the tears escaped.

Softening, she went to him, held his face in her hands, forcing him to look at her.

“Get your shit together.”

He jerked away from her touch. “I can’t do this with you.”

“If not me, then who?”

“Go away.”

“Everyone else loves you too much to tell you the truth.”

“Go. Away.”

“You’re a drunk. You need help.”

“Get the fuck out of my house!”

“You’ve had a problem for a long time.”

Jimmy hissed, scrubbed his face with his hands.

“You can’t fix this by yourself.”

“There’s nothing left to fix! Everyone’s gone. Dead.”

“Nobody’s dead.” She paused. Slowed down. “Your dad’s gone, I’m sorry. And I know you’ve lost your heart before. It hurts like hell. I understand. Believe me, Jimmy. I see you. But you can’t live in the past. Everyone here and now is very much alive. Except for you. You’re the only one who refuses to live.”

“Fuck this.” He pushed off the sofa, started for the stairs. “I need to go puke, or pass out, or something. Fix my fucking window before you leave.”

Disappointed, but not defeated, Ashley watched his struggle to climb the stairs. Once she was certain he wouldn’t tumble down and break his neck, she went looking for a broom to clean the broken glass. As she passed the television, curiosity got the best of her. She picked up the remote, pressed play.

Brayden’s chubby, little, baby face filled the screen, his eyes bright, the drool fierce as he crawled across the carpet toward Kylie’s outstretched arms. She scooped him up and cheered for her baby’s new-found skill. Jimmy came into view as Kylie handed Brayden up to him. Standing proud, he held the little boy close, waving his tiny fist in victory.

*  *  *

A persistent, droning vibration broke into the sleep that had elude Kylie much of the night. With a groan, she fumbled around on her nightstand for her cellphone. The instant she lay hand on it, the vibration stopped. She shoved her head under her pillow, closed her eyes, and no more than thought of sleep before the vibration started up again.

Cursing under her breath, she snaked her arm out from under the blankets and swiped to reject the call. A few seconds later, it buzzed again.

“Shut up!” she growled in frustration, chucking the cellphone out into the hallway. All she wanted was five minutes of sleep—just five, blissful, uninterrupted minutes, void of Brayden crying, or Jimmy invading her dreams.

Just as she felt herself drift, just as she started to believe she might actually get her wish, she heard Nessa’s cellphone chirp from the other side of the wall, followed by the unmistakable thud of Nessa falling out of bed.

Cursing once more, Kylie lifted the pillow from her head and snuck a peek at the clock. There was only one person she knew who was stupid enough to call at an ungodly hour like three in the morning, and stubborn enough to keep calling until someone answered.

Nessa stumbled into Kylie’s room, tossed her cellphone onto the bed. “Ashley.”

Eyes closed, Nessa turned around, and smacked her face square on the doorjamb. “Ow.”

“Just sleep with me,” Kylie offered.

Mumbling her disgruntled gratitude, Nessa collapsed onto the bed. Immediately, she resumed her soft, whistling snore.

Kylie left Ashley to sit on hold for a full minute before she searched the blankets for Nessa’s phone. “What do you want, Ash?”

“I want you to get off your freakin’ high horse and get your bony ass back to Allman Falls.”

“For what?” Kylie asked, confused in the early hour.

“For Jimmy, you selfish bitch.”

“For Jimmy?” A hysterical laugh escaped before she could stifle it. “What do you care about Jimmy?”

“I care a lot about him. A hell of a lot more than you do, obviously.”

Not in the mood to argue, Kylie disconnected the call. Almost two full minutes passed before the phone rang again.

“What the hell was that?” Ashley practically shrieked. “Making me talk to myself like a freakin’ idiot!”

“What?” Kylie played dumb. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d hung up. Bad connection, I guess.”

“You really are the most self-centered, heartless piece of human garbage that ever existed.”

“What is your problem with me?” Kylie demanded.

“Gee, I don’t know, Ky. Maybe it’s that I’m sitting here, at Jimmy’s house, watching over his passed-out-drunk, practically lifeless body, making sure he doesn’t puke in his sleep and you’re—”

“Why does everyone act like Jimmy’s drinking is my fault?”

“I didn’t say it was your fault. I said you didn’t care!”

“Why should I care? He’s a grown man. If he wants to drink, let him drink.”

“Have you ever, even once in your life, thought of someone besides yourself?”

“Seriously? You’re the one asking me that?”

“Yes, Ky, I am.” Ashley huffed. “I am sick and tired of you acting like I’m the one who’s always making a mess of things. I may be impulsive, and yeah, I make a lot of really stupid mistakes, but at least I learn from them. At least I try. And at least I don’t make everyone else around me feel like shit, just so I’ll feel better about myself!”

“When have I ever—”

“It’s all you’ve ever done! My entire life, you’ve done everything in your power to make me look stupid, to make me feel like a fool, and you’ve never once let me live down a single one of my mistakes.”

The accusations weren’t true, but they still stung, leaving Kylie without a response.

“You belittle my marriage, dismiss my feelings. Do you even remember that I joined the Army? Do you even care that I got stationed in Germany? That you aren’t going to see me for years?”

“How can I care about these things, Ashley? You don’t tell me anything.”

“You never ask!” Ashley let out a long, low grunt of frustration. “You don’t care anything about my life except controlling it. You don’t care anything about Jimmy except controlling and criticizing him. Do you honestly think he drinks as much as he does because he wants to?”

“Of course not,” Kylie snapped. “We all know he has a problem.”

“And do you know why he has that problem? Do you think he’s a happy guy? Do you think he likes himself? Do you even care what he’s trying so damn hard to drown?”

Trying hard not to cry, Kylie bit the inside of her cheek. “Please, stop.”

“Why should I stop?”

“Because this has nothing to do with me! Jimmy is not my fault. I didn’t make his choices, I didn’t pour his drinks, and I sure as hell didn’t invite anyone else into his bed.”

Ashley huffed out a laugh. “See? It is all about you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If you ever loved Jimmy as much as you swore you did, you’d forget about your stupid, butt-hurt feelings and help him.”

“It’s not hurt feelings, Ashley. He cheated on me!”

“Oh, he did not, and you know it. You’re just using your obsession with Marissa as an excuse to belittle him whenever you feel like it and abandon him when shit gets too real.”

“Good bye, Ashley.”

“But that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what this is all about.” Ashley let out a laugh of disbelief. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. You’re scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Kylie immediately denied.

“You’re freaking terrified, because you actually love him.”

“Of course, I love him!” The tears started, burning one angry track after another down her flushed cheeks. “I love him, Ashley. I love the holy living shit out of him. And I really, truly, deeply, fucking despise him. So, please, please, just stop. Okay?”

“I’m sorry, Ky.”

She honestly sounded sorry, but Kylie no longer cared about her sister’s feelings, or anyone else’s. “Goodbye, Ash.”

She disconnected the call, powered down the phone, and slipped it onto the nightstand.

“Your sister sucks the life outta me,” Nessa mumbled.

“She tends to have that effect on people,” Kylie agreed. She slipped her hand around Nessa’s, giving her a squeeze. Nessa squeezed her hand in sisterly reply.

She closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but her mind was wide awake, arguing with her heart again. And Nessa’s sweet snores had started to resemble a fog horn. She watched three turn into four in the morning, and then five, before she picked up Nessa’s cellphone, turned it on, and called her sister.

“How long are you home?” Kylie asked as greeting.

“I don’t know,” Ashley grumbled, her voice heavy from sleep. “A few days.”

“Can you meet me in Albuquerque?”

“No,” Ashley replied on a yawn. “But I’ll meet you in Tucson. Charlie moved a few years ago.”

“How did you know that?” Kylie asked in disbelief.

“Duh, Ky. Haven’t you ever heard of the internet?”

 

 

 

 

 

Intermission

Good morning, Allman Falls Family!

Just wanted to drop a quick note to let you know I haven’t forgotten about you or our story. I recently started a new job and am a little brain fried from both the training and the commute. I hope to have a brand new chapter for you yet this weekend. But, just in case I zone out in a Netflix fog until Monday morning, I wanted to give you a little something.

This song by Robert Ellis is a favorite of mine. It comes up at least once a day in my playlist. Every time I hear it, I think of Kylie and Jimmy, and I’m anxious to get back to writing again. I hope you love it, too!