Chapter 82 ~ Cleaning House

Cleaning HouseOn Kitty Vasek’s thirtieth birthday, she bought herself a house. It was a modest home with light blue siding, white shutters, and a garden shed. The first year she owned it, she kept it impeccably tidy. She painted the interior eggshell white, replaced the carpets in Missy and Tommy’s rooms, and installed a dishwasher. She spent the next twenty years landscaping, fencing, and building an impenetrable fortress of collected crap all the way around it.

For Kitty’s upcoming fiftieth birthday, the city had scheduled an appointment to inspect her property for continued safety violations, structural damage, and rodent infestations. If she failed, the house would be condemned, and she would be forcibly removed from her own home, on her birthday.

Kitty was fully aware of her situation. She knew she’d run out of extensions and excuses. Either she cleaned up the monumental mess she’d made, or she would lose it all, forever. She didn’t need Mike to remind her of that. His job was to keep her moving steadily forward, do all the heavy lifting while she focused on cleaning, organizing, and healing.

Some days, she did exceptional work. She took her time, carefully selecting what she wanted to keep, what she could dispose of, donate or recycle. Other days, her anxiety controlled her emotions, swinging her violently up one way or down another. Frantic, she would dig through the piles, heaving everything she touched toward the dumpster, declaring her entire life garbage. Then she’d flip, and cling with desperation to a molded, ten-year-old phonebook or a garden rake with more missing tines than intact ones. Everything held a memory. Some were good, many bad, and when she hit a wall, those memories came crashing down, burying her in self-loathing and denial.

Having experienced similar destructive thoughts and actions on his tortured journey through addiction, Mike quickly learned some of Kitty’s triggers. He found ways to distract her before she became consumed, using her passion for art and for the birds as a motivation to keep her emotional healing moving forward, even if they took a moment of pause in the physical labor of cleansing her yard.

He set up a birding station just off the porch, with a small picnic table and supplies they’d discovered as they cleaned. On one of her bad days, she sat at the table and coated her vast collection of pine cones in peanut butter and rolled them in bird seed. Mike strung the finished feeders with scraps of ribbon and yarn. They hung a few in her yard, then loaded the rest in a wagon and walked about town, placing the pinecone treats in trees and bushes all along the park and public spaces.

Another time, when she became overwhelmed, they fixed up the table saw and cut stacks of barn wood to reuse as bird houses. They got creative with the assemblies, making all different sizes and shapes, using leftover paints and stains, leaving some of the wood bare. Bits and bobbles and twists of wire were used for perches, hangers or simply decoration.

Mike found a beam of used lumber and attached the houses in a tower of angles and peaks, creating an aviary condominium to house Kitty’s birds. Solidly anchored in the center of the yard, they cleared the area around it and mapped out a landscape of wildflowers and cover shrubs, feeders and baths.

Before sunset, the first swallow had staked his claim. His song and dance drew his mate. Kitty and Mike sat side by side on the porch steps and watched with wonder as the pair collected mud and twigs to build their nest. As the birds flew about the yard, Kitty’s posture relaxed, the tension leaving her shoulders, the fight easing from her chest. The anger that pinched her features and wrinkled the delicate skin around her eyes gave way to a lighter sense of peace, brightening her entire face.

In moments like those, Mike would catch himself staring at Kitty in wonder and amazement. He’d feel a stupid smile warm his cheeks, his breath stutter from the skipping of his heart as it danced about his chest. He was in crazy, stupid love with the crazy-adorable woman, and he felt magnificent.

He’d experienced the fluttery, carefree feeling many times before, always mistaking it as real love, true connections, but it was only false emotion, another cruel trapping of addiction. As incredible as it felt in the moment, acting on it would be incredibly dangerous to her recovery, and to his. He forced the desire back, kept it tightly contained, and focused his every ounce of energy on her healing.

At night, alone except for his dog, Bella, he’d feel the depth of his emotions consume him like the cruel weight of the vast ocean, and he would reach out to Ashley to help hold his heavy heart afloat. She’d tease him mercilessly for falling for a cougar and then regale him with dirty stories she’d heard from the guys in her unit. She’d curse the ceaseless, senseless physical training, bemoan her sore muscles and leaden legs. She sent random pictures of random things with no explanations, and he’d reply with randomness from his own world.

He missed Ashley. He wanted her home. He needed her to keep him honest and true. But she had her own demons to conquer, her own battle to fight, and she was winning. He left her to it and focused his excess energy on Kitty’s upcoming inspection.

Over the course of the summer, various members of the city council had randomly stopped by to check on Kitty’s progress. Some were empathetic to her struggles, some indifferent. Two were complete dicks about the entire situation. Mike feared no matter what Kitty accomplished, it would never be enough. They wanted her gone.

Kitty needed more than just Mike’s support to win her battle against the city. Her daughter, Marissa, would fight tooth and nail for her until the very end. That was a given. She had been fighting for her mother for as long as she could talk. Unfortunately, she also fought with her mother—constantly, bitterly, destructively. She loved Kitty fiercely. She wanted her happy and healthy. She couldn’t stand to see her imprisoned emotionally and physically by twenty years of collected crap, but she no longer possessed the patience to properly help Kitty let go.

If Marissa had her way, she would rent a backhoe and dig her mother out in one fell swoop. She’d level the property, scrub it down with bleach, everything brand new and sanitized in its proper place. It would erase Marissa’s pain, soothe her heart, finally put her at peace, but it would be the destruction of Kitty. For her protection, Mike kept Marissa as far away from the cleaning and sorting process as possible.

At first, he found it to be an extremely difficult task. Marissa had quit her job at the construction office. She was angry and antsy, and dissatisfied by daytime television. She’d sleep late into the morning, giving Kitty and Mike a bit of early peace, but once she woke the screaming and tears soon followed. Luckily, she grew bored fast and broke faster. Eight days unemployed was all she could handle before she found a job as a bank teller, coincidentally working alongside one of the more empathetic members of the city council.

Marissa pleaded Kitty’s case behind the scenes while Mike did the physical work on the front lines. Working separately, they accomplished more than they ever could together, but Mike feared it still wouldn’t be enough. He had assumed Jimmy would help with the heavy lifting and hauling, but Jimmy only came around when he needed something.

The first time, Jimmy roared in on blind fury, demanding Marissa return to work. He’d already sent Brent out twice, then Dan. When politeness failed, he tried to drag her back by force. He flew into the driveway, up onto the front porch, and pounded on the door until Marissa came out screaming for him to leave. They argued in the hot sun for twenty minutes, then inside his air conditioned truck for another hour before he left with a squeal of tires and she returned to the house teary eyed and exhausted.

He came back a month later. On a warm evening, as the late summer sun set in the west, Jimmy jumped the curb in front of Kitty’s house and stopped hard, leaving the engine running as he spilled from the cab. Beer cans rolled out with him, clattering down the street. He stumbled across the yard, up to the porch, and crashed against the door. Mike tossed aside his trimming shears and pulled off his gloves, but Kitty held him back with a firm hand. Together, they watched Marissa carefully collect Jimmy’s broken pieces and carry him inside.

“Let them be,” Kitty instructed, her voice soft as she released her hold on Mike and returned to painting the weathered picket fence along the back of her property a cheery, lemon yellow.

“Are they still…” He trailed off, decided it wasn’t his business to ask the nature of Jimmy and Marissa’s relationship. Kitty didn’t mind sharing the details.

“I wish they were, but no, and it breaks my heart,” Kitty said with a heavy sigh. “They just lost too much the first time around.”

“What did they lose?”

“Their child. They were just children themselves.” She tipped her head, as though to better see something she did not understand. “Missy miscarried late, just into her second trimester. She was in so much pain, my baby girl. I just couldn’t bear to see her like that… and she bled… Oh, Mike, I’d never seen so much blood. And then the complications, the infections. She had to have surgery. She can never have another… And poor Jimmy, he lost… I don’t know. His lost his faith, for sure, but it’s almost as though he completely lost himself, somehow. I thought he was finally finding his way back again, that Kylie was helping him remember who he is, where he came from, that maybe he could make himself a nice little family with her and her son, but now… I don’t know what happened. I just don’t know.”

It wasn’t until Mike talked to Ashley a few days later that he learned that Kylie had packed her son and their belongings, and headed west, seeking the peace and serenity of the ocean waves and setting suns she remembered from her youth.

With Kylie in California, Jimmy became untethered, reaching instinctively for Marissa to hold him steady, but she wasn’t enough for him anymore. He needed something stronger than sex and alcohol. He needed something to keep his hands busy, exhaust his body and shut up his mind. He needed hard, relentless, physical labor. He needed to work.

As summer turned to fall, Jimmy spent every daylight hour at Kitty’s house. He ripped off the back deck, rebuilt it anew. He re-shingled the roof, cut down a dying Elm tree, jack-hammered her cracked, crumbling sidewalk and driveway, hauled it out and poured new. He worked from sunup to sundown, never stopping to take a break. He didn’t seem to eat much, or sleep at all. His skin burned and peeled. His hair grew long. He dropped weight at an alarming rate. Kitty worried over him, told him to eat, asked him to slow down, but he refused to stop.

When inspection day came, Kitty passed with flying colors. As the fire marshal, city council, and chief of police commended her hard work, she stood tall, her cheeks flush with life, proud of all she had accomplished. Marissa invited everyone out to Charlene’s for prime rib dinner to celebrate a job well done, and Kitty’s very happy, fiftieth birthday. Jimmy paused for the night, enjoyed a bite of cake with his whiskey, but he couldn’t stop.

The following morning, he walked down to the courthouse, stood at the base of the steps, held his fist high at auction, and bought the biggest piece of shit house he could possibly find. And then, he hired Mike to help him tear it down and build it anew.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 81 ~ Haunted

HauntingKitty Vasek was an early riser. She took her coffee with a splash of Baileys and liked a schmear of peanut butter on her toast. Every morning, Mike knocked on her door, eager to start clearing her yard. She’d come onto the porch with her coffee and toast, and invite him to sit with a promise to begin as soon as she finished her breakfast. She’d sip her coffee slow, nibble delicate bites from her toast, and waste away the coolest part of the morning listening to the birds sing.

After breakfast, Kitty would declare it too hot to work in the sun and insist they wait for the yard to fall into afternoon shade. Sometimes, she’d invite Mike inside and they would watch court shows or listen to records. Other times, they would drive to the Goodwill and check out the latest donations, or walk through the park to collect rocks and fallen pine cones.

With each passing day, Mike fell a bit more in love with the pixie eccentric with greying hair that matched her hypnotic, grey eyes. She was flighty and nimble, with slender fingers and a delicate laugh. When she got excited, she’d talk so fast she’d lose her place and have to start all over.  She drove with two feet, played the piano well and the trombone poorly. In her teens, she’d traveled the Midwest circuit as a barrel racer. She’d come close to the championship, but gave it up when she met a rodeo clown named Wilson and became pregnant with their son, Tommy.

Wilson was a jealous man. His family owned pasture land on the county line, and he kept Kitty there while he worked the rodeos. For too many years, through the birth of two children and the loss of a third, Kitty lived a lonely life in a one-bedroom bungalow without central heat, a vehicle, or even a telephone. Her closest neighbor lived four miles down the road. Seven miles more would take her to the village of Given.

The sole business in Given was a single-pump gas station with a cramped store that sold everything from basic groceries to fishing tackle, toiletries, holiday decorations and school supplies. Any non-perishable item placed on a shelf remained there until it sold, or decayed, turning the shop into a faded, dusty time capsule of small town Nebraska. On occasion, as he headed out of town, Wilson would give Kitty a ten-dollar bill to buy herself something nice. She would slather Tommy and his baby sister, Marissa, with sunscreen, prop them up on blankets in their little red wagon, and make the daylong journey to Given.

Together, they would stroll the aisles of the gas station, searching for that perfect treasure. Kitty most loved the porcelain dolls and horse figurines, reminders of the happy days of her own childhood, before she’d severed contact with her family for Wilson. She’d hold the delicate figure in her hands, admire it in the sunlight, then return it to the shelf and spend her gift money on a game or a doll, some colors or candy for the children. Often, when Wilson returned from the road, he stepped on, ran over, or threw away whatever fun Kitty had purchased, leaving them teary-eyed and broken-hearted.

As one lonely, colorless year passed into another, Kitty grew tired of the jealously and anger, of the bitter winters and dark nights, of the perfume she’d smell on Wilson’s dirty laundry, of the deep bruises she started to find on Tommy’s skinny body, of the way her sweet Missy would avoid eye contact and shy away from her father’s touch. One morning, just after Wilson climbed in his truck and pulled out of the drive, headed for a monthlong stint in Oklahoma, Kitty loaded the kids in their wagon, walked the long road to Given, and used her ten dollars to buy three bus tickets out of town. The money got them as far as Allman Falls, where Kitty found a job, enrolled the children in school, and they started a new life of sunshine and laughter.

Almost six months passed before Wilson came looking for them. He appeared in the middle of the night, his temper so volatile it took the chief of police and two of his deputies to haul him bodily off Kitty’s porch and into the back of a cruiser. Handcuffed, he smashed his head against the window until it shattered. Marissa trembled with such fear she soiled her nightgown. Tommy, at six years old, simply spit on the ground and turned his back to his father.

Wilson never signed the divorce papers Kitty sent through the courts. He also never tried to contact them again. He simply disappeared. But, like the hauntings of a bad dream, they carried the memory of Wilson with them in every breath. Kitty purchased pretty things to decorate her house and hide the ugly in her heart. She started with the porcelain dolls and horse figurines she’d coveted, then quickly expanded to Precious Moments, jelly jars, marbles, purses, silk flower arrangements; her collections filling every dark corner, spilling off shelves, cluttering the floor.

Marissa expended her negative energy by bullying the other girls in her class until she grew old enough to discover being nice to boys was much more fun. Tommy held onto his anger, burying it deep, allowing it to brew hotter and hotter. He collected a gang of like-minded, miscreant friends who shared his love of paintball, vandalism and joyriding.

At the age of eighteen, flat broke and low on gas, headed home from a busted hunting trip in Kansas, Tommy and his buddy pulled into a secluded gas station with old pumps. They filled the truck with the intention of just driving off without paying, but they were braver together than alone, and much more stupid. They headed inside, pausing only to pull down their camouflaged ski masks to hide their faces. Tommy brandished his hunting rifle while his friend rushed the counter with a Buck knife, screaming for the elderly clerk to open the register drawer.

They ran off with the day’s earnings, a case of beer and a carton of Jack Link’s jerky. Their entire heist was caught on camera, including their fill up with gas and unmasked journey across the parking lot, into the store. Two miles outside of town, they were chased down by a state trooper and arrested.

For seven years, once a month, Kitty traveled to Kansas to visit her son, who had been convicted of armed robbery. Less than a month before his scheduled release, he got caught up in the middle of a brutal fight between four other inmates. When the chaos cleared, and the prison had been locked down, only Tommy and one other man remained in the yard. Neither survived their injuries.

Unsure how to stop, Kitty continued her monthly journey into Kansas. She’d sit in the parking lot outside the prison, imagine her son walking out into the sunshine, finally coming home to her. She’d sit alone, tears falling, until visiting hours ended, and then she’d shop her way home, stopping at all the thrift shops and antique marts littered along the highways.

Over the years, Kitty found plenty of treasures to fill up her van and the void in her heart, but her most beloved discovery was an eight-foot Bob’s Big Boy statue she’d spied in the back lot of an overlooked roadside mall. The statue’s paint had chipped, and was covered in a decade of grime, but the Big Boy still had spirit, the same sparkle to his eye as her Tommy. She’d circled around the statue, inspecting his damage, weighing his potential, and paid for him in cash. Her next trip down, she planned to rent a U-Haul and bring her boy home, where he belonged.

Mike used that revelation to finally spur Kitty into action.

“Kitty, your boy deserves a place of peace, a place to rest and feel the love and beauty in your heart.” Mike stood in the middle of her collected mess and gestured to the deepest, darkest part of her hoard. “You don’t want him to feel you suffer like this, do you?”

Her eyes sparked and her face flushed, and she started in on her usual arguments of personal property, beholder’s beauty and innate human rights, but as she tripped over her tangled, weedy mess of tomato cages, as her foot punched through a rotten piece of plywood and she sliced her ankle on the jagged wood, she lost the fight and crumpled in upon herself.

Mike rushed to her and held her tight as her thin shoulders shook, her sob coming from so deep inside it had no voice, only wrenching pain.

Chapter 80 ~ The First Step

TheFirstStepMike spent his wedding night sitting in the darkened living room, alone, waiting for Ashley to walk through the door and come home to him. He watched the clock scroll past midnight, then one a.m., two, before his eyes grew heavy and he surrendered to sleep.

When he awoke the following morning, he found his beautiful bride sprawled face down across their bed, fully dressed, her hair a mess, snoring into a puddle of drool. Her new best friend, Anna Mae, lay passed out in the bathroom, wrapped up in the rug, one shoe in her hand, the other on the kitchen floor.

While he’d slept, they’d raided the fridge, leaving the door open, the stove on. The makings of omelets sat abandoned on the counter, mid-prep. He turned off the stove, closed the fridge, cleaned up raw egg, dried cheese and spilled milk. It wasn’t how he imagined a honeymoon would begin, but until the day before he’d never imagined getting married, so he pushed back the disappointment and walked across town to the house on Franklin Street, where he was scheduled to meet Jimmy for work.

Beyond the makeshift fence, overgrown by shrubs, past the piles and aisles of rusting metal and decaying artifacts, the house sat quiet, as though abandoned. Mike had hoped to find Jimmy’s truck parked at the curb or pulled into the drive, but the street was empty. An older, sun-faded compact car sat on the dirt lane in the side yard. An overweight tomcat perched on the roof, regarding Mike with disinterest.

He stepped closer, gave the cat a scratch behind the ears as he peered into the car. The backseat was littered with wrinkled clothing, coffee-stained paper cups and crumpled fast food bags. A tangled collection of dream catchers and other bobbles hung from the rearview mirror. On the passenger seat lay an impressive library of CD’s. At quick glance, they ranged from 40’s Jazz and classic Country, to power ballads and EDM.

“Hey!” a female voice shouted from the house. The slamming of a screen door immediately followed.

Mike jerked from the car in reflexive guilt. He half expected to hear the unmistakable sound of a gun cocking next. Instead, he was greeted by a pissed off, half-dressed beauty queen with a horrible case of bedhead.

“What the hell are you doing to my car?” she raged.

“Nothing! Nothing!” Mike rushed, his hands up in defense. “I’m sorry, I was looking for Jimmy.”

“In my car?”

“What?” Mike stuttered. “No. Just here. He told me to meet him here. He said he needed help cleaning up the yard, but I don’t know what he wants done.”

Her expression changed from anger to irritation. “Do whatever, I don’t care. The city’s going to take it all, anyway.”

“I’m here to help you.”

“Oh, no. No, no, no. Not me. My mom’s the one with the problem. And she’s out, right now, cruising garage sales, buying even more worthless crap to pile up on top of the worthless crap she’s already forgotten about but will never, ever throw away because it’s all priceless, vintage, collectible antiques.” Turning back toward the house, she waved him off in indifference. “Have fun with that.”

“Hey, Melissa!” When she didn’t stop, he rushed after her across the yard. He tripped over a tricycle, waded through a pile of plastic milk jugs, straddled a stand of used lumber. “You work for Jimmy, right?”

“It’s Marissa, not Melissa, and no, I don’t. Not anymore. I’m pretty sure after what happened last night, he fired me.” She whipped back around, her silk robe flying open, her eyes blazing. “No, you know what? I fucking quit! That’s what. I quit him.”

“Okay, yeah, sure, you quit. It was your choice,” Mike easily agreed. To what, he did not know, and really didn’t care. “But do you have his phone number?”

She huffed in disgust, whipped around once more, and disappeared into the house with a solid slam of the door.

Mike cursed under his breath and surveyed the yard. Grass grew long, weeds tall, haphazard among the flowers. Trees sprouted from the gutters and grew slender and crooked from under tarps, searching for sun. There was enough firewood stacked against the leaning garage to heat the house for several winters. He didn’t have to poke around in the piled leaves and fallen branches to know a couple generations of rodents had made a comfortable home amid the decay.

As nature worked to absorb the oldest trash, new had been piled on. Glass, plastic, things of value mixed with empty cardboard and moldy cans in a ceaseless ocean of stuff. When he took a step back and observed the property as an entire canvas instead of individual strokes, he could see evidence of fleeting obsessions; collections of twisted and rusty wind chimes, river stones stacked by color, long dead nursery plants still in their containers tossed aside to make room for salvaged barn wood and antique oil cans.

If he could peel back the yard in layers, he was certain to reveal a history of abuse, neglect, and abandoned dreams mixed in with futile hopes and desperations. It was as though stretched out before him, in the mid morning sunlight, lay an abstract reflection of his own life, a physical manifestation of his own pain, his addiction, his near destruction. He stood mesmerized—horrified—by the revelation.

But he also felt relief. This was territory he knew, pain he understood, fear he could empathize with. This was addiction, in all its naked brutality, and he knew exactly where to begin; Step One.

Unfortunately, the first step did not go as easily as he expected. Kitty Vasek was a vivacious, artistic gypsy of a woman who had zero interest in recognizing she had a problem, let alone ever admit she had become powerless against it. In fact, she’d derived such joy from her morning adventure exploring the community-wide garage sales, she was still on giddy high when she pulled into the drive. As Mike attempted an awkward introduction, she interrupted him with a hearty kiss, full on the lips.

“Any friend of Jimmy’s is welcome anytime.” She patted his slack jaw, chirped at his dumbfounded expression. “Especially one as cute as you.”

Mesmerized, Mike brought a hand to his flushed cheek. Like her daughter, Kitty possessed a stunning, natural beauty that defied age. He guessed her at 50, but he could have been off by as much as a decade.

“Come, come. Come see what I found!”

She was petite woman, tiny in build, appearing hollow-boned and slightly skittish as a bird, but she hoisted a cast iron school bell from the back of her minivan with ease. Proudly, she displayed her found treasure for him to see. A smile consumed her expression, but her eyes remained dull, glazed in false joy. Same as drugs had for him, scavenging provided her that numbing hit of ecstasy, the artificial thrill a momentary reprieve from her depression, her desperation.

Though she had yet to recant the tale of her discovery, her high started to fade as she looked beyond it, to the other treasures nestled in the back of her van. She cast the heavy bell into the side yard, where it knocked over a birdbath and crushed the odd assortment of weathered and faded Boy Scout popcorn tins it landed upon. It teetered for a precarious moment before rolling off the pile with a clamor, coming to rest against the cracked, clay flowerpot that housed a dead Boston fern. For one, brief, moment in time, it had been Kitty’s prized jewel. Its joy spent, she left it to the mercy of the elements, with all her other forgotten gems.

Mike stayed for a few hours, talking with Kitty, negotiating, cajoling. He worked up a hell of a sweat, though it was more from the heat of the afternoon sun and frustration than from any actual work. He left Kitty’s house in the same overgrown, hoarded out condition he’d found it, and walked home, defeated.

Bella met him at the door with an enthusiastic butt wiggle and wet kisses, then tagged along as he searched the apartment for his hungover bride. He found her standing in the middle of the bedroom, her bags packed, plane ticket in hand, her eyes bloodshot and tired.

“I can’t do this,” she said, fear raising her voice an octave. “Ky was right. I don’t have what it takes to join the Army. I can’t make that kind of commitment. I can’t be a psychiatrist, or a counselor or, like, try to tell other people how to fix their lives. I can’t even control myself! We got married yesterday, Mike! Married, like for real. We are married! You and me. Like forever. Forever-forever. That’s a really long time.”

Determined to make a difference to at least one person that day, Mike ripped the ticket from Ashley’s hand, pushed her back a step. “So quit. Divorce me. Stay here. Keep doing what you’re doing now.”

She sighed, heavy with exhaustion. “Stop.”

“Make me.”

He pushed her back another step, two, three, until he had her trapped against the far wall, her hands pinned high above her head.

“Mike,” she protested.

“Listen to your sister. Give up on your dreams. Play it safe. Never try for anything, because not trying is easier than failing.”

“No.”

“Quit,” he taunted, hovering close enough to feel her quickening breath against his skin, but far enough away that she would have to fight for it if she wanted it.

“No,” she repeated, stronger.

All she needed was that push, that nudge toward the edge to remind her of her power, her strength, her resilience.

“Quit!” he shouted.

“Never!”

Bodily, she shoved back, screaming out as she knocked him to the floor. As they wrestled against each other, out of their clothes, he counted aloud two hundred and forty-seven reasons why she could do anything she set her mind to. He would have counted a million more, but he didn’t want her to get too cocky. Besides, she had a plane to catch.

Chapter 79 ~ Irreparable Damage

irreparable“I don’t think you should tell her,” Dan said, finally breaking the silence the two men had fallen under as they’d stepped outside of the Allman Falls police station.

“I don’t have a choice,” Jimmy answered without looking away from the hair-line crack in the corner of the windshield he had been blindly staring at as his mind relentlessly replayed the events of the night, his stomach lurching violently with every repetition.

“You don’t have to do it right this minute.”

“Yeah… I do.”

Dan slowed the truck to a crawl as he pulled up to Kylie’s house. The overnight storm had knocked loose a long-dead branch from the fifty-year-old silver maple consuming her tiny front yard, dropping it onto the street next to the curb where it had shattered into jagged, hollow pieces that crushed under the weight of the truck tires. If it had been a normal day, Jimmy’s truck would have been parked under the branch when it had fallen. He wished it were a normal day. He would have preferred a dent in his hood or a scratch in his paint. Body damage was easy to fix, erasing all evidence of impact. What had happened instead would irreparably alter his life, and hers, forever.

“It’s early, Jimmy. Why don’t you wait until later in the day?”

“She’s up.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.” Dan threw the truck into park and turned to face Jimmy. “Come home with me for a while. Get some sleep, or at least something to eat, sober up a bit more, and then talk to Stace about it. See what she thinks. She might be able help you find the right words to say.”

“There are no right words, Dan,” Jimmy snapped. “I fucked up too bad. I can’t fix this. All I can do is confess and leave it up to her to decide what happens from here.”

Dan let out a low grunt of frustration and scrubbed at his face with his hands, his eyes bloodshot and weary. “You’re signing your death warrant if you do this right now. Is that what you want?”

Jimmy turned away from Dan and focused his attention on the house. A single light shined in the back, originating from the kitchen, casting a distorted square of amber light upon the side yard. His day had been going on for well over twenty-four hours, but hers had only begun. Now was the time to tell her, while her day was still fresh with the mystery of discovery, when it still held the potential to be anything she wanted it to be. He would rather destroy a day she had barely started than steal away one she’d already worked hard to create.

“Thanks for the ride. I’ll walk home from here.” He opened the truck door and slid off the seat.

“Shit,” Dan cursed under his breath as Jimmy closed the door.

Putting one foot in front of the other, he made his way to the side door on auto-pilot, his boots shuffling through the shredded leaves and twigs littering the sidewalk like leftover confetti from a devilish parade. Dan’s truck sat idling at the curb, waiting for Jimmy to come to his senses and climb back in. But there was no going back. He had to do this, and he had to do it right now, before he lost his nerve to confess and they built the rest of their life together on a lie.

He found her in the kitchen where he knew she would be, sitting at the table with her back to the door, wearing only boy-cut panties and a thin, tight tank. Her lithe body fresh from sleep, she wore her thick hair twisted in a sloppy knot on the top of her head, held precariously in place by a blue Bic pen. It was a sign of her frustration over the open books and loose papers strewn about the table in a mess in front of her.

The new semester had only just begun, but he could tell by the way she held her shoulders high and tight she worried she would fail. It was needless worry. She was too smart to fail at anything. She had always been out of his league, everything he wasn’t—smart, funny, loving. Honorable.

“Ky?”

Her name came out in a whisper, barely audible, more a thought than a vocalization, but she was in tune to him and she turned.

“Jimmy?”

She rose from her chair, her body fluid, instantly relaxing at the sight of him. He couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. Instead, he focused on the faint, quarter-sized coffee stain soiling her tank top an inch above her left nipple. Though slightly faded from a handful of trips through the washing machine, the stain had permanently embedded into the cotton—a memento of an insignificant event of the everyday, the kind of day he desperately wished he could disappear into.

It had happened on a Sunday morning, before her eyes were fully open, precipitated by a sudden sneeze that had overtaken her as she brought her first cup of the day to her lips. She had let out a whispered curse when the hot liquid seeped through the fabric and stung her summer-tanned skin, and then she had immediately laughed at her persistent bad luck. As she reached for a dishtowel to clean up her spill, he had pulled her into his arms and swept down the neckline of her top. He’d soothed her tender skin with his lips, tasted the sweetened, creamy coffee with his tongue.

He hadn’t stopped with one kiss. He never could. His mouth had continued to journey, savoring her naturally-sweet skin as her fingers ran through his hair and the coffee in her mug went cold.

“Ky…” he started again, but faltered. Visions of the night before filled his mind, the guilt white-hot in his gut, liquefying his entire body.

“What’s wrong?” Fear and concern filled her eyes, her pupils reacting as she tried to decipher the conflict of emotions crossing his face. “Did you get in a fight?”

Her fingertips brushed along the cut on his cheek, his bruised, tender jaw, before she wrapped him in her embrace, her lips settling into the crook of his neck. As his hands gripped onto her hips, his body screamed at him to keep quiet. For a moment, he listened and held her tighter. His hands slid up her back, his fingers kneading into her muscles through the thin cotton, her small, firm breasts pressing against his chest as he crushed her body into his, desperate to pull her into him until they were one body, one heart, one soul.

“Jimmy?” she asked again, her voice trembling in concern. He was squeezing her too hard, his muscles locked, his arms like a vise around her, unwilling to ever let her go. “What happened, baby? Please tell me.”

In a rough whisper, his words sliced across the delicate skin of her neck. “I am so sorry, Ky… I’m so fucking sorry.”

Desperately, he wanted to kiss her, to strip her of the thin tank and panties, the only barriers between his hands and her skin, and make love to her right there in the kitchen. He wanted to fall asleep naked in her arms and start anew with the day, but as the nightmare of the night replayed in his mind he knew he had no right to touch her in that way ever again. Not without her forgiveness first.

“Is somebody hurt? Is it Brent? Dan?”

“No… They’re fine… It’s me… It’s what I… shit, Ky…”

“You’re scaring me.” She cupped his face in her hands, her eyes terrified as she considered his. “What happened?”

“Ky, I…” He tried to force away the rain-soaked memory, but it only became more vivid, more telling, proving he was not the man he desperately wanted to be, the man he had foolishly convinced himself he had become.

“What did you do?”

“I…”

“Jimmy…”

The concern rapidly faded from her voice, replaced by dawning knowledge. He didn’t have to spell it out. She knew all too well who he was, who he would always be.

She pushed away from him. “What the hell did you do, Jimmy?”

His hands slipped away from her and his eyes fell to the floor. “I’m so sorry, Ky…”

“No!” she cried. She pushed him away from her. “No!

“Ky…”

“Goddamn it, Jimmy!” She shoved him again, harder this time, and he had to fight to keep his feet underneath him. “Who was she?”

“Nobody.”

Her voice shrill with pain, she demanded, “Who was she?”

He shook his head, unwilling to hurt her any further with a name.

“Marissa?” she guessed. “Or was that red-headed bitch too much temptation for you? Needed to try something new?”

He pulled his eyes away from the floor to finally meet her gaze. As soon as he did, her hand came up and smacked his face so hard his head whipped to the side. He set his jaw to the stinging pain and allowed her to hit him again.

“Why!?” Her eyes blazed in fury, but they were dry, confirming his fear. She had never trusted him. He didn’t blame her. He’d never trusted himself.

“I don’t know,” he said, struggling to force the words out of his constricted airway.

Images of the night flashed through his mind as he struggled to understand it himself. Snapshots of the emotions that had consumed him as he’d held Marissa resurfaced. His chest tightened until he felt as if his ribs would crack under the pressure.

“I don’t know what I was thinking, Ky. I wasn’t thinking anything at all. I was just…”

At a loss, he stopped. There were no words to explain what he had done. He didn’t know what he was, who he was. He’d never known. Not before Kylie. She was the only one who had ever loved him. She was the only one who had ever understood him. She was the only one who could help him understand himself.

“You were just wasted,” she finished for him. “Like always.”

He couldn’t answer her, but he didn’t need to. She was right, and she knew it.

Fuck you.” Her entire body seemed to deflate, extinguishing the fire in her eyes as she went numb to him. “I’m done.”

“Kylie…” He reached for her, but she was gone. She stood inches from him, close enough he could still feel her breath blow hot across his cheek, but she was miles away, and she was never coming back.

Emotionless, she worked the engagement ring off her finger and held it out to him. His vision blurred as he closed his hand around hers, holding onto her instead of taking the ring. She ripped away from his grasp and the band fell to the floor, bouncing once… twice… and then one more time before settling onto the scuffed linoleum with a wobbling spin.

Neither of them moved to retrieve it.

“Kylie… please…”

“Mommy?”

Jimmy whipped around to the sound of the little voice behind him. When he saw his son standing in the hallway rubbing at his sleepy eyes with his tiny fists, Jimmy’s heart plummeted to the floor and shattered.

“Bray.”

His son froze for half a heartbeat, and then immediately his face lit up like the sunrise.

“Jimmy home!”

Brayden ran full speed toward Jimmy and crashed into his legs. Jimmy scooped him up and held him tight to his heart, the first of the million tears he had been fighting finally breaking free and sliding down his cheeks. When Brayden wrapped his arms around Jimmy’s neck, a deep sob worked loose in his chest and threatened to escape. He began to hyperventilate. Oh fuck, what have I done?

Kylie pressed her lips tight to Jimmy’s ear. Her voice hard, struggling for control, she whispered in warning, “Don’t you dare lose it in front of him.”

Jimmy clamped his jaw and forced his eyes to dry. He had to clear his throat more than once before the lump disappeared enough to say, “Good morning, Little Man.”

“What do you want for breakfast, Bray?” Her words were everyday normal, but her voice came out too high pitched, too forced, lilting at the end of every word.

Blessedly oblivious, Brayden cried out, “Cocoa Puffs!”

He wiggled to free himself from Jimmy’s embrace. His movement slow, concentrated, feeling as though he had suddenly aged into an old man who had barely survived a hard lifetime, Jimmy bent and set Brayden on his feet. Brayden threw his arms around Kylie’s legs, giving her a squeeze. She strapped him into his booster seat, handing him the stray Hot Wheels car he reached for. Gracefully, as though a practiced dance, she bent and snatched the engagement ring up off the floor. Before Jimmy could stop her, she shoved it into the front pocket of his jeans then turned her back on him, erecting a solid barrier between them.

Brayden’s legs dangled from the chair, swinging back and forth, out of synch with each other under the table as he played with his car. Hypnotized, Jimmy stood frozen in place, watching them. The air in the room grew heavy, the edges of his vision darkening and fading from existence. His ears roared from the blood pounding through his veins, racing toward his heart, slicing it into pieces.

“Jimmy eat, too?” Brayden asked.

“Jimmy already ate,” Kylie answered when it took too long for Jimmy to find the words. “He has to get going.”

“Where you go?” Brayden asked.

Jimmy had no answer, so he said nothing. Instead, he crossed the room to Brayden’s sweet smile and kissed the top of the boy’s head, his lips hard and tight as he fought back another sob. Brayden’s baby-fine hair was still slightly damp from sweating in his sleep, bringing out a hint of the puppy-like smell little boys seemed to be born with, mixing with the watermelon scent of the shampoo Kylie used to wash his hair. Jimmy loved that combination of smells more than any other pairing in the world, and he closed his eyes to allow it to seep into his memory.

“Bye, Bray.” He may have whispered it out loud, or he may have simply thought it. All he knew was he never imagined he would ever say those words without knowing he would be following them up with a hello greeting a few brief moments in life later.

Without turning to look at him as he approached, Kylie said, “Good-bye, Jimmy.”

“I love you, Ky.”

When he pressed his lips against her cheekbone, her entire body tensed, becoming as cold and unresponsive as a rod of steel. He held the kiss too long, his tears flowing freely, pooling on her shoulder as he tasted the salty tears she had almost succeeded in hiding from him. Knowing he had caused those tears hurt infinitely worse than the pain he’d felt when he’d thought she’d had none to shed.

“I am so fucking sorry,” he whispered behind a strangled sob, and then he let her go and made a break for the front door.

The awakening sun penetrated through breaks in the clouds along the eastern horizon, burning him with its brilliant light as he returned to auto-pilot. Placing one foot in front of the other, he walked without direction, seemingly moving forward, but feeling as though free-falling, straight into hell.

Chapter 78 ~ Wake Up Call

20171103_075314Like a bad dream on repeat, persistent ringing broke into Dan’s sleep. He pulled his pillow over his head to muffle the screaming annoyance. Tiny, frozen toes scraped down his calf under the warm blankets.

“Your phone,” Stacy grumbled.

“Ignore her.” Dan wrapped an arm around Stacy, settling her into the crook of his body, and ran his hand around her belly bump, cuddling both mom and baby.

His cell phone mercifully stopped ringing.

The house phone came to life.

Dan ripped his pillow off his head and threw it at the phone. “I’m gonna kill her.”

Stacy pushed herself up, her hair a wild tangle of curls. She leaned toward the nightstand, squinting at the soft glow of the digital clock. “What time is it?”

He rolled over, rubbing his eyes. “Three?”

“Is she insane?”

“Certifiably.”

He moved to answer the phone, but Stacy knocked him back down with an impatient lunge of her body. She tore the chord from the base of the phone, silencing it mid-ring, the violence of her anger oddly arousing.

“How are you feeling?” he asked as she returned to his embrace. “Any morning sickness?”

“Nope, I’m good.” She snuggled in closer. “I think Cheryl’s chili dogs are magic.”

He allowed the insane comment to lie uncontested for the time being and nuzzled her warm neck. “How good are you feeling?”

As though she could read his mind, or perhaps his growing erection, Stacy warned, “Don’t even think about it.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” he lied, stroking her inner thigh with a light touch.

Before he could make his next move, his cell phone rang again.

“That’s it!” Stacy wrenched from his arms and pounced on the phone. She answered with a fluid rush of Polish words Dan was certain even Stacy’s Gram had never dared use in mixed company. He didn’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for Charlene, but his amusement shattered when Stacy’s tirade ended with an abrupt gasp.

She reached for Dan’s arm, clutching to him in reflex. “Is he okay, Chief?”

His mind flooding with a million tragedies at once, Dan tried to take the phone, but she held it away from him as she listened to the chief of police. The fear evaporated from her voice, replaced by a heavy cloud of disappointment.

“We’ll be right there. Does he need to post bail?”

“Who?” Dan asked, but he already knew the answer.

Jimmy.

Chapter 77 ~ Fleeting Shadow

FleetingShadowJimmy stepped out of Captain Jack’s, into the storm-cooled night, the temperature a stark contrast to what it had been a few hours earlier. He hadn’t heard the thunder. He hadn’t seen the lightning. He hadn’t felt the shift of pressure in the air when the energy had rolled through. All he felt was the aftermath of the violence, the chill raising bumps on his skin.

Sarah swung open the door, called out to him. “I told you I’d give you a ride!”

He waved her off and headed up the block, searching his pocket for keys. His hand came out empty. As he shoved a hand into his other pocket, he struggled to keep his balance, stumbling off the curb. His foot landed directly in the center of a deep puddle. Cold rain water rushed through the worn seams of his boot, soaking his foot.

Son of a bitch.

“Jimmy, get back here!”

With considerable effort, he stepped up onto the sidewalk. Continuing down the block, he dug around the change in his pocket, searching.

“Fine! Walk then! Like I care.”

The sound of the bar door slamming echoed up the empty street. He walked a half a block before he remembered; Sarah had his keys. Shit.

He debated returning to Jack’s to demand them back, but it would be a wasted trip. She had taken his keys, pointed at a stool, and told him to sit. Stay. Like a fucking dog. She’d take him home. He’d told her to take him to Kylie’s.

“Kylie doesn’t want you.”

He’d forgotten. But now he remembered.

Kylie doesn’t want you.

No shit, Sherlock. She never had.

His eyes darted, his vision swam out of focus, as he looked up and down the street, trying to remember which direction he was supposed to go. The streetlights reflected in the puddles on the bricks of the downtown square. Raindrops glistened on glass, sending out sharp rays of color. He reached out, but couldn’t touch them. They disappeared from his grasp, nothing more than an illusion of what could be.

But his truck was real. It didn’t disappear when he focused his eyes. It sat parked where he’d left it, in front of Charlene’s, tangibly real.

One foot wet, one dry, the wet foot pulled him into the buildings as he passed by. His hip slammed into the handrail of the steps leading up to the floral shop. He pitched forward, barely catching himself before he fell. While he waited for the street to stop spinning, he held onto the handrail and stared at the roses on display in the window.

He’d buy Kylie some roses, a great, big bouquet of them—red, pink, white, yellow. He’d buy ten or twenty of every color and deliver her a rainbow. But she hated store-bought roses.

What kind of woman hated roses? A difficult one. One who was impossible to please and even more impossible to understand. One who was too stubborn to see he was trying so goddamn hard to give her everything she secretly wished for, but she was too damn independent to ever accept.

He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down…

His life, his love, for naught. Beauty Kylie refused to see.

But, God, he loved her anyway.

He leaned against the railing and stared the roses down, daring them to reveal their flaws and confess why Kylie hated them so. Why she didn’t trust them to be exactly what they claimed to be. Why she assumed they had dirty secrets tucked between their velvet petals, born of sin and full of trouble. Why she couldn’t accept their beauty for exactly what it was, God’s most beautiful gift… Love.

He waited, but the roses had no answers. They were as dumbfounded by her distrust as he was.

Ky was difficult, and confusing, and infuriating, and sexy as fucking hell, and she hated roses. But she loved wildflowers. If he were smart, he’d drive into the hills and pick her a bouquet of every color in nature. He’d pick them while the rain still filled their warm petals, while they smelled of wet sunshine, sex in the summertime.

Kylie doesn’t want you…

He wished he didn’t know she hated roses. He didn’t want to know anything about her. It had been easier when she had been a mystery, when he had desired her for her body and the fire in her eyes, for what few hints she had accidentally revealed about her mind. Life had been simpler when he hadn’t known the tiny scar on her inner hip felt like a thin rope of silk under his fingertip, or that she sprinkled salt on her watermelon. It had hurt less when he hadn’t known her middle name was Ann.

He wanted to undo time and forget what she tasted like, what she smelled like, how her chest flushed pink right before her orgasm crested. He wanted to remember what it had felt like to not care. Not love. Not dream of the future. He wanted to go back to the day before he’d met Ashley, before Kylie had entered his world, and be that guy again. The guy who had worked, and played, and fucked, and hadn’t cared about a goddamn thing. His life had been empty, hollow, his heart scarred and numb. He felt nothing, wanted nothing. Craved nothing.

Now, he wanted it all, the need hurt so goddamn bad he couldn’t breathe.

“Asshole!”

He ignored the cry of the roses and let go of the handrail to cross the street to his truck, the last vehicle parked on an otherwise empty block. Allman Falls had long ago rolled up the streets, its residents tucked safe into their beds, sleeping or making love, by themselves or with someone else. He didn’t want to make love. He just wanted to sleep. That was all he wanted. One fucking night of deep, heavy sleep, and then to wake up holding Ky in his arms.

“Goddamn it, Deuce! Get your ass back here!”

Jimmy turned, watching as a car tore out of Gimp’s parking lot. Frozen where he stood in the middle of the road, Jimmy dared the black Mustang with rain diamonds on its hood to drive right through him and put him out of his misery. It didn’t. Instead, brakes squealed, a horn honked. The Mustang fishtailed to a stop, blocking his path. Its sleek form sparkled in the streetlights, blinding him.

“Get out of the road, jackass!”

The horn honked again, the wail long and drawn out. Jimmy squinted through the windshield. He knew the guy driving. Probably. He knew every asshole in this godforsaken town. The engine revved and the car hopped forward, taunting him. Jimmy raised his middle finger to the car and the driver.

“Deuce!”

The screaming girl caught up to the car and tried to open the passenger door. When it didn’t open, she smacked the window and screamed a wicked string of profanities. She hadn’t looked Jimmy’s way, but he didn’t have to be sober to recognize Marissa. If her stupid, fake breasts hadn’t given her away, her temper would have.

“Open the door, you stupid prick!”

Jimmy stepped around the Mustang and continued his journey. If he could get in his truck before Marissa caught sight of him, he would be home free, but his truck sat a block away and the street suddenly had a fucked-up incline. It slowed his feet down, especially the wet one.

The Mustang engine revved, and Marissa kicked the door.

“Stop kicking my car, bitch!”

Jimmy turned and watched as Marissa kicked the glistening metal hard enough to leave a dent. The driver’s door flew open and Deuce lunged out, his face belying his desire to put the same dent into Marissa’s ass. Defiant, she kicked his car again.

“Fuck,” Jimmy muttered and reversed course. He grabbed Marissa by the wrist and yanked her out of the line of fire, using his body to shield her. Fueled by adrenaline and bolstered by the river of whiskey sloshing through his veins, Jimmy landed the first punch, but Deuce got in the second and third.

“Stop it!” Marissa screamed.

Jimmy managed to land one more solid punch before Marissa wedged herself between them and shoved Jimmy away. With her hands gesturing wildly and her voice high enough to shatter glass, Marissa screamed at Deuce. He responded by spitting in her face. Seconds later, the car door slammed. Tires squealed on wet bricks as Deuce tore out of the sleeping downtown square in a rush of pissed off testosterone.

Marissa picked up a rock from the road and threw it in the direction of the disappearing Mustang, missing completely. Jimmy rubbed his jaw as he started for his truck again. Thanks to Deuce’s fist and Marissa’s goddamn temper tantrums, his very expensive, cheap whiskey was already wearing off. His hand throbbed in time with the pounding of his head, the hangover kicking in as he sobered.

“Jimmy!” Her heels clicked along the brick road as she chased after him.

He ignored her and knelt beside his truck, feeling along the inside of the driver side wheel well with numb fingers for his spare key.

Marissa muttered to herself as she leaned against his truck and dug through her purse until she found a piece of gum. He didn’t fucking care about the who, the what, or the why of her night, but it didn’t stop her from detailing it in a cinnamon-scented, ranting soliloquy. Her words buzzed around his head, bored into his skull, causing his jaw to ache. It was always the same story with her, the only difference being the name of the guy she had screwed, only to be screwed over in return. He was sick and tired of saving her from herself.

As soon as he located his key, he ripped off the dirty duct tape holding it in place and tried to brush past her to open his door, but she blocked his path.

“Take me with you.”

“No.”

She stuck out her lip in a playful pout. “Come on, Jimmy. Let’s go back to your place. You can pour me a drink, or seven, and help me forget about tonight.”

From the way her hand played along his arm, she had already forgotten all about her date, and had moved on to better plans. He jerked away from her touch. “I’m not in the mood for your shit tonight.”

She smiled, her breasts rising as her hands found his body again, drifting down his chest, heading for his belt and what lay below. “You know I can get you in the mood.”

Jimmy grabbed her wrists and pinned her against the side of his truck, scaring her enough to erase the smirk from her face. “What do you want from me?”

She twisted against his grasp. “Just a ride.”

“Bullshit.” He jerked her away from his truck and let go of her wrists.

Her skirt was too short, too tight. Her blouse was cut too low, eagerly revealing what she should be carefully guarding. The beauty of her face had been erased by heavy make-up, teased and over-processed hair. He wondered what she saw when she looked in the mirror. Did she see what he saw—her once-gorgeous innocence painted over in ugly desperation? Or was she blind to the truth of what she had become?

“Why do all you girls dress like whores?”

Marissa shoved him. “I’m not a whore.”

“Then quit acting like one.” He ripped open his truck door to make his escape, but she slammed it shut.

“Apologize to me. Right now!”

“You act like a whore, I’m calling you one.”

“I’m not.” She crossed her arms under her chest, the motion lifting her plastic breasts onto her folded arms as though placing them on a serving platter for his enjoyment.

“What’s this then?” he asked, pointing to her fake breasts, the ones she had financed at an insanely-high interest rate and he’d paid off to bail her out. Long ago, she’d had beautiful breasts, breasts he had loved touching, caressing, tasting, teasing; breasts he had spent many teenaged nights dreaming about, waking up twisted in wet sheets. Now they were twin train wrecks he couldn’t stand to look at but couldn’t pull his eyes away from. The way she dressed them in push-up bras and silk blouses when she came to work, the cross she wore dipping in and out of her cleavage with every twist or bend. “Are you offering those to me?”

“I’m not offering you shit,” Marissa snapped.

“Sure could’ve fooled me.”

She ran a hand through her long, blonde hair and narrowed her eyes at him. “We used to have fun, Jimmy. You used to be fun. What the hell happened to you?”

“I grew up.”

“Yeah, well, you look like shit in your old age.”

“Fuck you.”

He grabbed her arm to pull her away from his door, and she yelped out in pain. He immediately loosened his grasp, but he didn’t let go of her arm.

“I’m sorry, Missy.”

She pried at his fingers. “Let me go.”

“Not until you tell me what you want from me.”

“I don’t want shit from you.”

“What do you want from me?” he demanded.

Her body relaxed as she stopped fighting against him. She said, “I don’t know,” but when her gaze met his, he could read the truth.

“God, Miss, why do you do this to yourself?” He let go of her arm and lifted his ball cap, scrubbing his hair in frustration. In a heartbeat, he’d gone from pissed off at her to feeling sorry for her, the sudden change of emotion nauseating. Sobering. “It’s been over a year.”

“I miss you.”

“You need to stop.”

“I can’t.”

He didn’t have to look at her to know she was crying. She acted tough, dressed tough, talked tough, but she wasn’t tough. Not when she was drunk.

“I have to go,” he said.

“So go.”

Fat sprinkles started to fall from the sky. Marissa tipped her face toward heaven, welcoming the rain to mix with the tears on her cheeks.

“Do you love her?” she asked.

“You know I do.”

She nodded, the tears falling faster with the rain.

“Shit, Miss.” He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her out of habit, but he didn’t dare. He didn’t trust himself to stop with simply holding her. He knew her body too well to ever touch her again.

“I’m sorry.”

Thunder rumbled in the distance, the sprinkles turned into a shower. Time slowed as they stood in the street, life on pause. Waiting. For what, he didn’t know, but the faster the rain fell, the slower the earth spun.

“I have to go,” he repeated. But he didn’t move to leave.

He didn’t love Marissa. He couldn’t love her. He had known her forever. She had filled more of his lonely nights than he dared to remember. He had made love to her. He had said he’d loved her. A time or two, when his heart was young, and he was still wet with her heat, he had convinced himself he did love her. He had created life with her, proposed marriage to her. And then, in an instant, they’d lost their beautiful light. In the all-consuming darkness that followed, he realized he had never loved her in the way she needed him to. She had never loved him in the right way, either.

Yet, they were both still standing there.

“What do you love about her?”

“Everything.”

The rain soaked through her blouse, matted her hair to her face. Her makeup slid off in colored rivers. With the armor washed away, she looked fifteen again, and his body reacted, filling him with a hot rush of longing. Not for her. For the life he’d had when his body had known only hers. He craved the simplicity of filling a carnal need, without true emotion, without caring beyond the night, without indulging in any sensation other than pleasure, the way it had been for so long before his heart had joined in the game and fucked it all up.

He reached for her. For that painless, loveless past.

She took a step back, moving away from the embrace she had previously wanted.

“Does she love you?”

“Yes.”

She knew him well enough to hear the hesitation in his voice, and she called him on it. “Does she love you, Jimmy?”

“Yes.”

“Jimmy?” she insisted.

“What?” he snapped. “What do you want me to say, Miss? Yes, she loves me. But does she trust me? I have no fucking idea! She says she does, but she never looks me in the eye when she says it. And why should she trust me? I’m standing here, in the rain, with you, instead of going home to her…” He grabbed her hip and jerked her closer. “I’m holding you…” He stabbed a hand through her tangled, dripping hair, rough at first, but softening as he stroked his thumb along the side of her neck. “I’m touching you…” His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “I’m thinking about you… about what we used to do…” As he said the words, his erection came to life, straining against his rain-soaked jeans. “About what I want to do to you…”

“No.” She shook her head, her blue eyes a storm of fear and lust, her chin quivering. “No.”

“I want to…”

“Don’t,” she pleaded. Her hands slid up his arms to his shoulders. Her breathing grew sharp as she pulled him closer, her body betraying her words.

“Don’t what?” He didn’t know what possessed him to do what he was doing, but he didn’t fucking care anymore. He wanted his old life back. He wanted to stop feeling, stop loving. He wanted to stop hurting. He hurt so fucking bad he wanted to hurt someone in return. He didn’t care who. “Don’t what?”

Her fingers slid into his hair at the back of his neck, twisting into the curls he hated. “Don’t—”

Before she could answer him, he covered her mouth with his, tasting the rain as it mixed with her familiar, cinnamon flavor. The whimper she let out was one of long-suffering want, and he swallowed it as he forced her mouth open and plunged into her with fierce desperation.

She wanted him, but he wanted the impossible. He wanted to be that fifteen-year-old boy who played baseball and cheated on tests. The boy who thought the most incredible memory of his life would forever be of the night he had sat beside Marissa in the back row of the dark movie theater, when his hand had traveled up her thigh, under the hem of her skirt, his finger slipping inside her damp panties, not stopping. He wanted to be the boy who never planned, who never cried. He wanted Rich Handley to pull into the driveway in a dirty, white Rogan Construction truck at exactly five o’clock every morning and honk for James to come out the side door of the house with a Thermos of coffee and a greasy sausage patty sandwiched in a toasted English muffin. He wanted Rich to forever stay alive so he could forever be that horny, guideless, dreamless boy whose muscles ached from conditioning drills and Friday night games under the stadium lights instead of from wheel-barrowing concrete in ninety-degree, blinding heat for ten-hours straight without a break.

He shoved Marissa against the side of his truck and lifted her onto his thighs, spreading her legs as she clung to him, encouraging him with the desperate urgency of her kiss. He slipped his hand under her skirt and pushed aside her panties to slip his fingers into that glorious, musky heat he used to know so well. His erection pulsed in eager anticipation, but she didn’t feel the way his memories wanted her to. Her hips moved with experience. Her body moaned with knowledge. His fingers knew what they were doing, what they were looking for, finding it too easy. The mystery was gone. The innocence lost.

The dreamless boy had grown into a man with dreams so unbelievably incredible they would never release his heart, no matter how hard he tried to fuck them away.

And in trying to erase those dreams, he had just ruined any hope of ever achieving them. As surely as Rich Handley’s death had stolen Jimmy’s childhood, as certain as their carelessness had destroyed Marissa’s innocence, Jimmy’s desperation had just annihilated any hope he had of a future.

He tore away from Marissa, the violence of his guilt throwing her onto the brick street.

“Jimmy!” she screamed after him, her voice more anguished, more violated, more humiliated than he had ever made her sound before.

He was in his truck before she found her footing, to the end of the block before she had her clothes readjusted, and he was halfway down the Allman Falls spur, racing to outrun his shadow, before his stomach caught wind of how utterly and completely he had just fucked up, and revolted against him in a violent heave.

He threw open the door of the truck as he slammed on the brakes, fishtailing on the rain-slickened highway. The truck careened toward the ditch and he had no choice but to let it go. By the time his stomach had emptied onto the shoulder of the road, red and blue flashing lights filled the thunderous night sky.

 

Chapter 76 ~ Illuminate

IMG_1447Brayden called out to Kylie in the night, his frightened cry quickly escalating into a piercing scream. Lightning flashed in an explosion of energy, its thunderous crack so intense it seemed to collapse the house around them, careening Kylie into a state of disoriented panic. Thrashing, she fought to escape tangled sheets, and tripped her way down the hall.

Another brilliant strobe of white lightning illuminated the night as she ran into Brayden’s room and lifted him from his bed. With the thunder crashing around them, she clutched her son to her chest and inspected him limb to limb, searching for blood, broken bones or any other sign of bodily injury. Only after she had convinced her wildly beating heart his scream had originated from fear, not from pain, did she check out the house.

Brayden buried his face against her neck, his muffled cries inaudible above the sound of hail pounding down against the roof. With his little arms and legs wrapped around her as tight as a vise, she carried him from one room to another. Luckily, the house showed no obvious signs of obvious damage. Torrential rains shrouded the windows, blocking her view of her driveway. All she could do was hope and pray her poor car had not been sandwiched beneath the weight of the aging silver maple that engulfed her front yard.

Another flash of lightning, followed by a window-rattling crack of thunder set Brayden to screaming again. She cooed calming words, rubbed comforting circles against his back, as she walked their familiar pattern around the living room. They had traveled the same journey many times, soothing colic and ear infections, bad dreams and scraped knees. Despite the continued thunder, his trembling calmed, his cries quieted, as her body swayed in gentle dance.

Relaxed, Brayden snuggled closer, sniffed his stuffy nose. “Mommy get Boo?”

“Is Boo in your room?”

He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Dun know.”

“Maybe he’s hiding from the storm. Let’s go see if we can find him.”

She hoisted him higher onto her hip and returned to his bedroom. Brayden rested his head against her shoulder and clutched a handful of her tank top with one hand, sucking on the fingers of the other as she searched his bedroom top to bottom, pulling back blankets, looking under the bed, digging though the toy chest and closet. She even looked behind the dresser and into the cold-air return, but Boo Bear was nowhere to be found. They inspected her room, the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, even the washer and dryer with the same level of meticulous scrutiny, but Boo Bear appeared to be hiding good this time.

“When was the last time you saw Boo?”

Brayden’s shoulder lifted and fell in a slow, sleepy shrug. “Jimmy have Boo.”

“I don’t think so,” Kylie said, though it was likely Boo lay forgotten on the floor of his pickup. She glanced at the clock and debated whether to call him. It was late, but unless he lay passed out drunk somewhere, he’d still be up.

“Why don’t you sleep with me tonight and we’ll find Boo in the morning?”

“No.” His voice was heavy with exhaustion, lacking conviction, but he wouldn’t be easily distracted. “Jimmy get Boo.”

With her arms and shoulders starting to feel the trembling burn from holding his weight, Kylie carried Brayden into her room and set him down upon her bed. He rolled over onto his side and immediately stuck his index and middle fingers into his mouth. As she tucked a blanket around him, his eyes fluttered closed, but a bolt of lightning snapped them right back open again. His tears returned. Big as gumdrops, they slid down his ruddy cheeks and pooled on her pillow. The sight of them broke Kylie’s heart and she relented. Even if Jimmy didn’t have Boo, his voice would be a comfort as he sang Brayden to sleep.

She sat beside Brayden, rubbing his back as she dialed Jimmy’s number. When his voicemail picked up after the sixth ring, she disconnected and tried it again, knowing from experience if he was still at the bar he wouldn’t hear his phone ring until it became too annoying to ignore.

“Jimmy got Boo?” Brayden asked, his voice heavy.

“I don’t know yet.” She dialed again and listened to it ring unanswered. Just as she was about to give up, the pouring rain lightened in intensity, and she heard the unmistakable sound of a cell phone vibrating across a hard surface. Jimmy’s voicemail picked up, and the vibrating stopped. She hung up, dialed again. With the first ring, the vibration returned.

“Figures,” Kylie muttered. She eased from the bed and dropped to her knees on the hardwood floor, crawling along the edge of the bed, in the direction of the vibration. She found Jimmy’s phone not far from where he’d undressed the night before. At least now she knew why he hadn’t returned her calls all day.

“Baby, we’ll have to ask Jimmy about Boo in the morn—” She stopped when she saw Brayden had fallen sound asleep, his mouth open, his tears beginning to dry. She leaned in and placed a kiss on his cheek, tucked the blanket tighter to keep him feeling secure, then headed to the kitchen to plug Jimmy’s phone into her charger before his battery died completely.

Craving a sense of security of her own, she made herself a soul-comforting glass of chocolate milk and stood at the kitchen window as she sipped, watching the last of the rain drip from the sky in fat plops. From what she could see in the glow of the streetlights, only a few small branches had fallen from the trees in her backyard. When she moved to look out the front windows and check on the silver maple, Jimmy’s phone vibrated, dancing on her counter.

She set her glass of milk down, sneaking a glance at the clock as she did. Ten minutes after the bar closed. She could only imagine who would be calling or texting him so late at night. Someone blonde. Or brunette. Or a redhead with voluptuous breasts.

Or Marissa.

She felt her face flush hot in unwarranted jealousy. Jimmy was right. She didn’t trust him. If she trusted him, she would turn off the light and head back to bed. If she trusted him, she would not be rooted in place, staring at his cellphone, dying to pick it up and scroll through his incoming calls, read his texts. If she believed his word, she would not feel the incredible, desperate need to scour the contents of his day and see what crimes and misdemeanors she could find. He hadn’t touched his phone in twenty-four hours. He hadn’t had a chance to delete anything incriminating. His calls, his texts, his messages, everything would be there, unfiltered and true, for her eyes to see…

Lightening blazed across the sky, illuminating her hand as it snaked out to snatch his cellphone off the counter.

The phone felt cold in her hand. Hard. Impenetrable.

She scolded herself, Don’t do it…

But she did.

She swiped the screen, pausing for only a moment before guessing the obvious for his passcode. As soon as she tapped in his birthyear, the phone unlocked, giving her access to all she dared to see. She scrolled through his missed calls first. Except for the multitude of calls from Kylie herself, the only other people to call Jimmy had been his brother, his mother, Dan, people related to work. Kylie should have been satisfied. But she wasn’t.

She checked his texts next, starting with the most recent. Of course, it was from Marissa, looking for a ride. Innocent enough, yet jealousy still flamed her cheeks, cramped her chest. She looked through their history, reading innuendo into even the most mundane exchanges. Disgusted, she closed the thread.

She opened a few more texts, finding mostly requests from customers, a handful of complaints, quick conversations with friends, his brother, with his mom. He never deleted anything, including his history of texts with her sister.

Kylie chewed on her bottom lip; thinking, debating, wondering why her sister’s name would still be toward the top of his history. Why would there be recent texts, and so many phone calls? What did they even have to talk about? Was she harassing him? Did she owe him money?

Of course, Kylie didn’t have to stand there all night, staring at his phone like an idiot, wondering. If she really wanted to know, all she had to do was open the thread and start reading.

Just one little tap.

Just one.

She tapped. And then she read. And she gasped in surprise.

Jimmy was right. She didn’t know her sister, at all.

She didn’t know Jimmy very well, either.

Reading backward through their text history proved difficult to comprehend, so she scrolled back, refreshing the feed to earlier in the summer, to an Ashley she recognized. Then, skimming quickly, she moved forward through time, past the boob pics and insults, to James’s death and the solemn soul searching that followed.

Joining the Army had not been a rash decision. Ashley had done thorough research. She had explored every option. Any detail she may have missed, any scenario she’d overlooked, Jimmy had questioned, and Ashley had reported back. Kylie was impressed by their endeavor, proud of her sister’s determination, but she couldn’t help but feel a little bit hurt, even betrayed—no, downright pissed—by their lack of consideration. Never once, throughout any of their conversations, had either of them thought to ask Kylie’s opinion, or their mother’s. It hadn’t even been an afterthought.

The sudden, shrill ring of her house phone shattered the silence. Kylie jerked in reflex and Jimmy’s phone flew from her hand. Still tethered to the charger, it slammed against the base cabinet before coming unplugged and falling to the floor with a skittering crash.

“Shit,” she hissed in whisper. With a trembling hand to her hammering heart, she grabbed the phone from the receiver before its ring could wake Brayden.

“Hey, Ky,” Sarah said as soon as she answered. No music came though the line, Captain Jack’s deathly quiet behind Sarah’s voice. Last call had been called, the DJ shut down, the lights probably on high, to chase off the rats.

There was only one reason Sarah would call so late.

Kylie closed her eyes and let out a slow breath to force her heart to settle as she said a silent prayer. “How bad is he?”

“I had to take his keys.”

Damn it, Jimmy. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“No, no, Ky. I can drive him once I’m done here. I just thought you’d want to know.”

“I did. Thanks,” Kylie said, grateful she wouldn’t have to drag her sleeping son out into the stormy night.

“No thanks needed. As much as I don’t want to claim him, he is family. You want me to bring him to you?”

“No.” Her distrust, her screaming, her accusations had caused him to dive into the bottle in the first place, but she couldn’t handle facing the consequences of her actions. Not two nights in a row. And not around Brayden. “If he’s real bad, call Brent and see if you can drop him off there. Otherwise, take him home.”

“Will do.”

Before Sarah could hang up, Kylie rushed to ask, “Is my sister still there?”

“No, they left a while ago.”

“All of them?” Kylie asked, meaning one redhead in particular.

“Yeah. All of them.” There was a pause before Sarah added, “Not to sound stupid, but did your sister marry the guy or the girl? Because she was really friendly with the chick on the dance floor, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, I can only imagine,” Kylie said on a weary sigh. Her sister may have grown up a bit over the summer, but she would always be Ashley. “That’s just Ash being Ash, trying to get attention the only way she knows how.”

“She got plenty of it tonight.”

“Was she bothering Jimmy?”

“Not any more than he deserved. But, hey, just be happy she’s moving far away, off into the world, to spread her evil elsewhere.”

“Does it make me some sort of a sick masochist that I wish she were staying?”

“Naw,” Sarah assured her. “Marrying Jimmy makes you one.”

Kylie huffed out a laugh that could easily turn into sob if she didn’t watch herself. She said goodnight to Sarah and picked up Jimmy’s cellphone from the floor. She brushed it off and plugged it in again, praying it hadn’t been damaged in the fall.

Drawing in a deep breath, she promised both Jimmy and herself she would no longer allow her stupid paranoia to dictate her actions. The past was the past. It was high time she stop obsessing over it. Hell, if Ashley could figure out how to let go and move on, surely Kylie could, too. Marissa was Jimmy’s past—his very involved, very naked past—but his past, just the same. Even if Marissa remained in his life, as a friend, as an employee, she was his past. His future was Kylie. Brayden. Their wedding. Sunrises and sunsets. Growing old together, faithfully.

As she passed through the living room on her way to bed, Kylie stopped in front of the coffee table and picked up the magazine photo of the wedding dress Aria had declared to be perfection. She unfolded the page and carefully smoothed the creases, running her fingertips along the graceful lines of the dress.

The darkened room helped dull the overwhelming starkness of the many layers of white shining off the glossy paper, allowing her to see the beauty of the promise stitched into the intricate seams. But when the lightning flashed, and the thunder rolled, and she imagined herself swathed in the cool, binding, suffocating silk, the fear tickling her heart still felt very, very real.