Chapter 62 ~ Hello, Walls

Hello, WallsLong after Jimmy’s taillights disappeared down the driveway, Dan remained on the patio, nursing his beer for liquid courage. It wasn’t that he feared Stacy, per se. He just didn’t know if it was safe to be in the same room with her yet. She was tiny, but she was feisty; and she owned a lot of knives.

Dan had known Stacy since they were both two-years old, sporting diapers and drinking out of sippy-cups. Even then, her temperament had tended toward explosive. It came from the volatile mixture of Polish and Czech heritage coursing through her blood—one side inherited from her Gram, the other from her Gramps—her red and white cells hopelessly in love but habitually feuding, just as the couple had done every single day of their lives. Minor disagreements over stupid things, like which road to take through town, had exploded into battles rivaling the seven-day war for control of Cieszyn Silesia.

That spunk, that spark, that fire in her soul, was what Dan loved so much about Stacy. It didn’t scare him. The recent influx of hormones streaming through her tiny body, distorting her already warped sense of logic, on the other hand, terrified the hell out of him. Ever since she’d become pregnant he felt like an overly cautious, war-battered, world weary soldier traversing a minefield. One wrong step and—kaboom!—no more Dan.

On the flip-side, one right step, like coming home with a quart of Chunky Monkey ice cream, and she’d be apt to wrap her sexy, little legs around him and whisk him away to the glorious land of multiple orgasms. The problem was the line between the right step and the wrong one was so fine Dan was beginning to think it didn’t exist at all. What was once exquisitely right could easily become horrifically wrong. The quart of Chunky Monkey she spoon-fed him in a bubble bath one night might be a frozen projectile aimed at his head the next. She kept him on his toes, that was for sure.

“Well, mutt, should we go see which one of us is sleeping with Stacy tonight?” Dan asked Willie, who had curled up on Jimmy’s chair as soon as he’d left.

At the sound of Stacy’s name, Willie’s ears perked up like sails on a schooner. He cocked his head to the side and whined.

Dan drew a breath for courage. “Do or die time.”

Blissfully ignorant of imminent danger, Willie hopped from the chair and started for the door. The dog was getting too big to be carried, but Dan scooped him up and tucked him against his chest, for protection. His, not Willie’s. Stacy wouldn’t go for Dan’s throat with her precious baby in the way. She might still bust his kneecaps, but his jugular would be safe.

When he stepped inside, the first thing Dan noticed was the thick, heavy silence enveloping the house. No late show on the television, no George Strait on the stereo. The air conditioner wasn’t even running. Darkness intensified the quiet. Every light on the main floor off, deep shadows filled the corners, chilling him to the bone.

He walked faster through the house, peeking into the kitchen as he passed, looking for Stacy, but also double-checking all the knives were still safely tucked into their slots in the block beside the stove. They were, but the kitchen had been freshly scrubbed, polished to a high shine, gleaming in the moonlight.

“Rut-row,” Dan whispered to Willie. He whined in agreement. Rut-row, indeed. A clean house was never a good sign. Stacy only cleaned was when she was pissed.

Feeling like the chicken-shit Jimmy said he was, Dan climbed the stairs and walked the plank, cautiously traveling the long hallway to the master bedroom. The door closed tight, a stack of neatly-folded blankets and his pillow sat beside it on the floor. Too stupid to take the hint, Dan knocked on the door.

“Stace?”

“Go away, dupek.”

“I thought you said you were going to quit cursing now that you’re pregnant,” Dan reminded her. “It’s still cursing if you call someone an asshole in Polish.”

Pieprzsię.”

“Oh, now that one really wasn’t nice. I can’t believe you talk like that in front of Willie.”

“Willie’s not in here,” Stacy said in the melodic, snotty-little-girl voice she always used whenever she punctuated a sentence with sticking out her tongue. For some reason, it made him horny whenever he heard it.

“I know… He’s out here with me.”

The door flew open and Willie was snatched from his arms. Before he could react, the door slammed in his face and he heard the lock click solidly back into place. Damn, she was fast.

Dan knocked softly. “Come on, Stace. Let me in.”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No. I don’t want to see your face right now. Go away.”

Dan rested his forehead against the door. “I didn’t look, Stace.”

“Yes, you did!”

“I swear I didn’t. I was too damn busy wiping the stupid tears out of my eyes to see anything at all.”

After a long pause, he could hear her press against the door. “You really cried?”

“Yeah, Stace, I really did. But for the sake of all honesty, I really, really wanted to look.”

“But we agreed no looking! You said you wanted to be surprised.”

“I know I did, but I lied. I don’t want to be surprised. I want to know right now whether we’re having a boy or a girl. We have to have a boy, Stace.”

“Why do we have to have a boy? What’s so bad about having a little girl?”

“Nothing.” Truth be told, having a daughter sounded like absolute perfection. If he closed his eyes he could clearly picture a wild-haired, pixie-faced miniature Stacy running around, giggling and laughing, raising holy hell, singing to her baby dolls, wrapping him around her little finger. Just the thought of it brought a fresh tear to his eye. “It’s not that I don’t want a girl. I’d love to have a dozen of them, but I know how the boy mind works—”

“Girls can fish and hunt and play football and swing a hammer, just like boys can, and they can do it better! If Gram were still alive and heard you talking like that she’d kick your ass into next Tuesday, you big, fat, stupid dupek!

Dan let out a grunt of frustration. “Stace, you don’t understand. Me wanting a boy has nothing to do with playing football or fishing.”

“Then what does it have to do with?”

“Jimmy.”

“Jimmy?” Stacy asked, her confusion evident. “What does Jimmy have to do with anything? I’m not having his baby.”

“Think back and picture Jimmy when he was sixteen years old, and then picture me sixteen years from now, standing on the front porch, watching as my precious baby girl climbs into sixteen-year-old Jimmy’s pickup truck…” Dan flushed hot in anger just thinking about the scenario. “I own too many guns and am too good a shot to ever be the father of a little girl. Not when there are Jimmys in the world who’d want to date her.”

The door cracked open and Stacy peeked out at him.

“Do whatever you’ve got to do, Stace—look, don’t look, I don’t care—but if you love me even the slightest bit you’ll channel Gram up in heaven, whip up a great, big batch of her Polish magic, and make absolute certain our baby has a wee-wee and not a who-ha when it comes out of your belly. I’m too damn pretty to go to prison.”

Her eyebrow arched in skepticism, Stacy opened the door all the way. “You’re too pretty, huh?”

“I am,” Dan confirmed. And then he smiled.

She rolled her eyes, but she must have agreed he was pretty gosh darn good looking. With a surprisingly strong and fiercely determined hand, she grabbed a fistful of his t-shirt and yanked him into the bedroom.

A heartbeat later, Willie got the boot.

 

Chapter 61 ~ Guiding Light

FireflyAt the end of the day, Brayden’s wish came true. He got to play with Willie Nelson.

After they left the Malek property, Jimmy and Brayden fished Chelsea Lake from the mouth of the creek for a while, but the mosquitoes were so thick in the tall grasses they moved over to the dock. Fishing wasn’t better there. Too hot for much of anything to bite in the shallow water, Brayden lost interest faster than usual. After only an hour, his voice started to take on the high-pitched whine of boredom at the end of every word, signaling it was time to call it a day.

If he had given up ten minutes earlier, Jimmy would have avoided Dan and Stacy altogether, but the timing was such they came down long driveway as he loaded the last pole into his truck. Jimmy did his best to decline, but Stacy insisted he and Brayden stay for supper. She stuffed him full of fried chicken, corn on the cob, baked beans and potato salad, until he was too heavy to move. All he could manage was to sit on the patio and watch as Brayden chased Willie, Stacy’s hyperactive terrier mix, in dizzying circles around the backyard.

Stacy sipped on a glass of iced sweet tea, contentment bright in her eyes as she ran a light hand around her pregnant stomach. “Are you sure you don’t want a piece of pie?”

“Positive, Stace.” A glass of the same sweet tea chilled Jimmy’s hand. It was good, but no matter how hard he wished it could, the tea didn’t turn into the beer Dan was drinking. Whiskey would have been even better, but wholly out of the question with Brayden around.

“It’s apple.” The setting sun illuminated Stacy’s chestnut curls in a brassy halo as they bounced around her face. “Your favorite.”

He smiled at her sweet tenacity. “Thanks, but no.”

“I have whipped cream,” she said, giving one last try. “Homemade.”

Jimmy laughed. “Seriously, Stace, I’m stuffed.”

“I’ll take a piece,” Dan said.

Instantly, Stacy shut down the charm and glared at him. “Get it yourself, dupek.”

“Oh, come on, Stace! I swear, I didn’t look!” Dan insisted for what had to be the twentieth time that evening. Jimmy bit back a laugh, hiding it in a cough.

Stacy snapped a retort entirely in Polish as she pushed up out of her chair and stormed into the house, slamming the door so hard the entire house shook. Jimmy got lost in the literal translation of what she had said, but not in the intention. She was pissed.

Dan cursed under his breath and took a swig of his beer.

Jimmy turned to make sure Stacy was out of earshot before he asked, “What did she say?”

“No clue. I’ve never heard that one before.”

“Uh oh,” Jimmy said, mimicking one of Brayden’s favorite sayings.

“I have a feeling my ass is sleeping in the cabin tonight.”

Jimmy nodded in agreement. “Tomorrow night, too.”

Dan was a big guy, only slightly taller than Jimmy at six-foot-three, but he was broad in the shoulders, solid in build, strong as hell, same as his father, Rich Handley, had been. He dwarfed Stacy’s tiny frame. But if Jimmy had to bet on who would win in a fight, he’d put his money on Stacy, every time. She had him whipped.

“Did you look?” Jimmy asked.

“No, I didn’t look,” Dan said. “And even if I had looked, I wouldn’t have known what the hell I was looking at.”

“Well, Dan, boys have a penis and girls have a—”

“I know that, you shit.” Dan laughed. “I mean I wouldn’t have known if I was looking at a penis or a placenta. I had no clue what I was looking at the entire time we were getting the ultrasound done. The tech lady pointed it all out, and Stace ooh-ed and ahh-ed like crazy, but it was all blurry, mumbo jumbo to me. All I know is he’s healthy, and that’s all I care about.”

“Or she,” Jimmy said.

“He,” Dan insisted.

“So, you did look.”

Dan turned in his chair and scanned the house, double-checking the coast was clear before he leaned into Jimmy and whispered, “Okay, so maybe I saw something, but like I say, I don’t know for sure if it was what I think it was, or if it wasn’t… but I’m going with was.”

“Sure,” Jimmy agreed with a shrug. “Or maybe she got your nose.”

“You’re an ass.”

Jimmy laughed. “So, I’ve been told.”

“Dad used to call you one all the time.”

“No, your dad called me ‘that scrawny, punk-ass kid.’ Get it right,” Jimmy said, smiling at the bittersweet memory.

It had been over ten years since Dan’s father had died of a sudden heart attack while on the job, but Rich Handley was the kind of man you never forgot. Big as a bear with a laugh that shook the rafters, Rich could pull a twenty-pound catfish out of muddy waters with a bare hook on a Barbie pole. Dan could do the same.

“He always did like you better than me,” Dan said.

“Can you blame him?”

James Rogan and Rich Handley had been the original Rogan-Handley construction team, working side-by-side for over twenty years, best friends and closer than brothers. They had shared the same passions, the same values, the same hope for the future. When Rich died, the dream had died with him. James lost his passion for the business. Construction became just a job to him—a job he desperately wanted to quit.

Jimmy had been sixteen-years old at the time, still in high school, but he had put in forty hours a week, sometimes more, trying to help fill at least part of the gaping hole Rich’s absence had left in James’s life. It hadn’t worked. Rich wasn’t a man who could be replaced. Not even by blood.

“When’s the baby due?” Jimmy asked.

“January, just after the New Year, but the doctor thinks she’ll go early.”

“How’s she feeling?”

“Better. The morning sickness still sucks, but at least it’s limited to just the mornings now. She finally has her appetite back.”

“She still planning a spring wedding?”

“Who knows? Some days she’s thinking spring, sometimes November.”

“November? She’s already starting to show and it’s only August. She’s going to be huge by Thanksgiving.”

“I know, but if she doesn’t care, why should I? I told Cheryl if Stace gets too big to walk she can just roll her down the aisle and I’ll try and catch her.”

“I played shortstop in high school. You can borrow my glove.”

“Hope it’s a big-ass glove.” Dan chuckled, and then immediately checked over his shoulder for movement from inside the house.

“I’m telling her you said that.” Jimmy took a drink of his tea. With every sip, the sugar content became more concentrated, sickeningly sweet as it settled in his stomach. “What’s so special about November?”

“None of your damn business. Why you asking all this anyway?”

“Ky won’t set a date for ours.” Jimmy shifted in his chair, watched in envy as Dan drank the last swallow of his beer. “She won’t even talk about it.”

“Give her time, Jim. It’s only been a week or two—”

“Three weeks,” Jimmy corrected.

“And they haven’t exactly been easy. She’s wearing your ring. Let that be enough for now.” Dan set his empty bottle under his chair and pulled a fresh one from the cooler beside him. “If you keep pushing her, you’re going to push her away.”

“I know,” Jimmy agreed, but when fate could steal your heart in the space of a single breath, it was a waste to put life on hold, waiting for the perfect moment.

His gaze drifted out in to the yard, his attention constantly focused on the little boy he loved as his own. As he watched Brayden dance and weave through the flowers in the garden, he couldn’t stop from torturing himself with the vision he had painted of the child he’d lost. The doctors had never said one way or the other, but he knew she would have been his daughter.

The night she died, she had been no bigger than a blip on the screen of the ultrasound machine in the emergency room, but he always pictured her as three-years old, giggling a sweet song, spitfire shining bright in eyes as blue as her mother’s. He had been as helpless to stop Missy’s tears that night in the hospital as he had been the day she whispered the words no teenage boy ever wanted to hear, “I’m pregnant…” His first reaction had been to put his fist through the wall. And then he’d cried right along with her. If he’d thought his heart had broken in that moment, it was nothing compared to how completely he had shattered when they lost her.

He would never survive another of the same blow. Losing Brayden would be his death.

“I can’t lose them, Dan. I need for us to be a real family, living under the same roof, building a future together.”

“You’ll get there,” Dan said in the easy way of a man who had everything he wanted.

Looking at him now, it was hard to remember him as the grey, haggard man who had returned to Chelsea Lake so buried in grief he had looked almost dead himself, but like anyone who had ever dared to love, Dan had lost.

“No one ever promised life was easy, Jim.”

The vibrant blend of yellow and orange hues gracing the petals of the roses in the garden embodied a living tribute to Dan’s first wife, Stacy’s best friend, Millie Handley. Jimmy hadn’t known Millie well, but she had been a beautiful woman. Graceful. Generous in spirit. Losing her to cancer had nearly destroyed Dan and Stacy both, but they had found the strength to survive in each other.

“I don’t need easy. I just want to marry her.”

“I know you do, and you will. Have a little faith.”

“Faith’s hard to come by these days.”

“It’s worth looking for.”

The roses Dan and Stacy had planted, the intense love they share, the new life they were bringing into the world, all of it was living proof beauty could emerge in the wake of great loss, but Jimmy was having a hell of a time finding any kind of hope for himself since his father’s funeral. Losing the man he’d convinced himself he could do without had sent him careening into the dark, grappling with regrets of the past, leaving him unsure about his future.

Kylie and her son were his only chance at salvation.

“Jimmy! Jimmy!” Brayden called out as he ran full-speed across the yard. “Look!”

Brayden didn’t stop running until he collided into Jimmy’s legs, practically bouncing up onto his lap. His chest huffing and puffing, his face alight in delight, he opened his balled-up fist to show Jimmy his treasure. A lightning bug rested in the center of his little palm, its incandescent green glow faint yet in the not-quite night sky.

“He light up!”

“Yeah, he does.” Jimmy smiled. “Pretty neat, huh?”

Brayden nodded vigorously. As he did, the lightning bug took flight. Brayden’s eyes grew wide and he tipped his head back, tracking the bug’s escape. “Uh-oh!”

“Uh-oh,” Jimmy repeated. The purity of innocence on Brayden’s face as he looked to the sky took Jimmy’s breath away. If he could only capture this moment, the euphoric feeling of his heart lifting in his chest, and carry it around with him like a talisman, he just might be okay.

“I catch more!” Brayden turned to chase after more lightning bugs, but Jimmy reached out to stop him.

“Hey, Bray, you want to see something really cool?”

“Oh-tay!”

Jimmy lifted Brayden onto his lap and pointed out across the yard, toward the creek, where the late-season lightning bugs emerged for their nightly dance. “You see all the bugs along the grass and bushes?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Close your eyes tight and listen real careful… Do you hear the frogs singing?”

Brayden was silent for a moment as he listened with his eyes closed, and then he nodded.

Jimmy whispered, “Keep listening to the frogs… and open your eyes real slow…”

After a moment’s pause, Brayden’s eyes fluttered open. Jimmy kept watch of Brayden’s expression to see if he noticed what Jimmy hoped he would. When Brayden’s eyes lit up, Jimmy smiled.

“They sing toget-her,” Brayden whispered in wonder.

“That’s right, Bray.” Jimmy placed a kiss on the top of his head. “They sing together.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Dan said with a grunt of surprise. “How’d you figure that out?”

“Dad played that trick on me and Brent once when we were camping—except it was with katydids instead of frogs.”

“So, it’s a trick?” Dan asked, unable to mask his disappointment.

“I don’t know… I kinda think it’s a mind game more than anything, but it’s still pretty cool,” Jimmy said. Brayden squirmed out of his lap, but before he could run off, Jimmy scooped him back up. “Time to get headed home, Little Man.”

Brayden let out a whine of disappointment and Dan asked, “So soon?”

“It’s way past this guy’s bedtime.” Jimmy stood and lifted Brayden up onto his shoulders. Brayden pulled off Jimmy’s ball cap and tossed it to the ground with a laugh. “Besides, I’ve got a couple’a jobs to work up so Marissa can start ordering.”

“She seems to be doing alright,” Dan said, sounding more impressed than he probably wanted to be.

“She’s doing fine.”

Dan picked up Jimmy’s hat and handed it to him. “Has she billed out any of Charlene’s job yet?”

“I told Missy to wait until next week, after we’re all done. I don’t want to argue with her twice.”

“That’ll be a nice paycheck.”

“More like a big headache. She’ll fight every charge, probably demand I itemize down to the number of nails we used. I’m sure she’s got a tally sheet somewhere.”

“Yeah, but when she finally writes the check it won’t bounce.”

“True,” Jimmy agreed. That was more than could be said about quite a few of their customers.

Yawning big, Brayden rested his cheek against the top of Jimmy’s head. His little hands came around to hold Jimmy under the chin. “When we go home?”

“Right now, Bray.”

“Take me with you,” Dan pleaded, his eyes shooting back to the house in mock-terror. “I’ll be so quiet you won’t even know I’m there.”

Jimmy laughed and then whispered to Dan, barely audible so little ears couldn’t overhear, “Chicken-shit.”

“Brock, brock,” Dan agreed.

 

Chapter 60 ~ Discarded

DiscardedEvery time Jimmy opened the bright red door of Tiny Hearts Daycare and Preschool, he found himself overwhelmed by the scent of poster paint. Screaming kids, mass confusion, and a blinding rainbow of primary colors attacked his senses all at once, but it was the smell that momentarily halted his step, freezing him in the entryway. Pungent in its intensity, it carried a heavy-handed smack of déjà vu, taking him back in time to his own childhood. He had yet to decide whether he liked the feeling.

“Well, hello, Jimmy,” Teresa Carter, the daycare’s administrator, called out in greeting. “I was expecting Martha to come for Brayden today.”

“Change of plans,” Jimmy said.

Kylie had called in a panic, apologizing before she even asked for his help. A patient at the nursing home had suddenly passed, leaving behind a shattered husband whose adult children were still in transit. Kylie’s mother, Martha, had been her nurse for many years. She knew the family well, and wanted to stay on until they arrived, which would be long past the time daycare closed.

When Kylie couldn’t get ahold of Ashley, she apologetically called Jimmy. “I hate asking when you’re so busy, but Sarah can’t come in until seven, and we still haven’t replaced Marissa yet. I’m here by myself. I can’t just take off, and I really don’t want to bring him here.”

He assured her there was nothing to apologize for. It was his fault they were shorthanded at Jack’s. He’s the one who gave Marissa the job working in the office at Rogan-Handley. Kylie had found out about it before he could tell her; through Brent, he was sure. She asked Jimmy if it was true, he said it was. She clinched her jaw so tight he feared she’d shatter a tooth, but she never said a single word about it again. Somehow, that felt worse than her screaming at him.

“Remind Kylie she needs to call and notify us whenever her pick-up plans change.” Teresa removed her glasses and waved them with an air of authority. “We can’t have just anyone walking in off the street.”

“Right,” Jimmy said, wondering when he had been downgraded to ‘just anyone.’

“I have half a mind to ask you to wait outside until I can get in contact with her and ensure you’re even supposed to be here.”

Pushing back a hot flush of anger, he reminded her, “I’m on Ky’s list.”

She gave him a curt nod and replaced her glasses to their perch on her nose. “I suppose we can let it go, this one time.”

Generally, a warm and gracious woman, Teresa had always been a horrible stickler for the rules, which Jimmy had learned the hard way. When she had been his Sunday school teacher, her restrictions had stirred up a mischievous rebellion he couldn’t resist. As punishment for every infraction he’d committed, she’d had him stay after class and read aloud from the Bible. He could still recite a few passages word for word because of her, especially Psalm 1, the one she’d requested he recite most often, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take…”

The way she scrutinized him, he half expected her to demand he recite it again, for old times’ sake.

“I apologize if you feel I’m being harsh, but you haven’t been in to pick up Brayden for quite some time. We can’t be too careful.”

“It has been awhile,” he conceded. His father’s funeral and multiple setbacks at Charlene’s had pushed them weeks behind schedule. Some nights, they didn’t quit work until ten or eleven, and then started right back up at four the next morning. He barely had time to take a leak, let alone do the things he wanted to do, like waste away a sunny afternoon fishing with Brayden.

But today, that was exactly what he planned to do. He was going to toss in a line and wait for a bite, sit in the cool shade of a gnarled cottonwood and listen to Brayden’s sweet chatter. And later, once he had Brayden tucked into bed and Kylie came home from work, he planned to kiss along her stomach, taste the skin of her thighs, and listen to the rapid beating of her heart as they danced skin-on-skin in the moonlight. Tonight, he planned to forget everything, except how to breathe.

He looked in Brayden’s cubbyhole for his backpack. “Is he in his classroom?”

“No, no. They’re out on the playground.” She waved over one of the assistants to collect Brayden. While they waited, her demeanor softened and she stepped closer to him. “Tell me, dear, how have you been holding up since your father’s passing?”

A heavy shadow crept into his peripheral and he felt his body sway. “Fine.”

She laid her hand on his forearm, trapping him. “Pastor Tom had that prayer chain going strong, right up to the very end, but sometimes the Lord has other plans.”

He looked down at her hand on his arm, and wished she would remove it.

“Were you and Brent able to be with him when he went?”

“We were.” He shifted away from her, but she continued to hold onto him. The shadow darkened, deepened, filling his vision.

She squeezed his arm in reassurance, causing a phantom band to tighten around his chest, restricting his lungs. “I’m sure it meant the world to him you boys were there.”

Jimmy gave her a tight nod of agreement, but he knew better.

His father had not wanted them there.

The one thing James Rogan had hated more than anything was to appear weak, especially in front of his sons. Six strokes in three years and James had insisted he was fine—healthy as a raging bull, goddamn it! —right up until the very end. He’d known he was dying. They all had. But they’d sat in his hospital room for two long days and three even longer nights pretending he wasn’t.

Rogan men didn’t get sick. They didn’t get tired. They didn’t whine or complain about anything. Ever. Rogan men shut the hell up, squared their shoulders, and turned to face head-on whatever shit life threw at them. They pushed through the pain, drank away their anger, fucked away their loneliness, and when all was said and done, they thanked God for the experience, and asked Him for more. It was a bullshit way to live, but it was how they were raised. They didn’t know any other way.

“Has your mother given any thought to moving back to Nebraska?”

He shifted his gaze toward the windows overlooking the playground and prayed for the assistant to hurry up with Brayden. “Not that I know of.”

“It would be nice to have her home.”

He agreed. It would be nice. It would ease some of his worry over her. If she would come back home, where she belonged, he would be able to check on her every day. If he could see her face, look her in the eyes, hold her hand, he would know if she spoke the truth when she said, I’m fine, Jimmy. It was too easy for her to lie to him over the phone. She’d been doing it for years.

“Be sure to let her know we’re all praying for her,” Teresa said.

“Sure.” He lifted his arm to scratch at an imaginary itch on his neck, forcing her to release her hold on him.

“I don’t suppose we’ll see you in church one of these Sundays?” she hinted.

Jimmy let her question hang in the air. He hadn’t been to church in so long he wouldn’t know how to go back—or if they even wanted him there. He sent money in his place. So far, no one had called to complain he wasn’t sitting in a pew on Sunday morning. It seemed to be the best arrangement for all involved.

After a moment of silence, she asked, “Maybe after things settle down?”

He looked to the floor, to the scuffed and dirty work boots on his feet, the leather stained with paint and crusted in drywall mud, splattered with grout.

Maybe he’d go back. Someday.

“Jimmy!”

A blonde-haired, blue-eyed, two-year-old ray of sunshine ran full-speed across the playroom and jumped into the air, flying on blind faith. Jimmy caught him with ease, his heart and mood lightened the instant Brayden landed in his arms. The little boy wrapped his arms around Jimmy’s neck, hanging on with everything he had as Jimmy kissed his sweet, applesauce-flavored cheeks. Brayden’s baby-fine hair was scented with the same smell of poster paint that lived in the air. Another, stronger, wave of déjà vu washed over him.

“Were you good for Miss Teresa today?”

Brayden nodded vigorously, but snuck a glance to Teresa, as though to double check.

“He’s always a good boy,” she assured Brayden with a pat on his back. “You could learn a thing or two from him, Jimmy.”

Jimmy laughed, despite himself. “I probably could.”

Brayden was three months shy of his third birthday. In that short amount of life, he had already grown into an amazing person. He was funny and curious, compassionate, courageous. He was still selfish in the way children are, from the inborn instinct for self-preservation, but as he became more independent and aware of the world around him, that selfishness was slowly disappearing, empathy sneaking in to take its place. If Jimmy could take credit for Brayden’s character he would, but that was all Kylie’s doing, her moral compass gently guiding him, influencing him to always do right.

“You ready to go?” Jimmy asked him.

Brayden wiggled to free himself from Jimmy’s arms, and then slipped on the backpack Jimmy held out for him. “We go fishin’?”

“Absolutely,” Jimmy agreed and took his hand.

“Bye, Miss Teesa,” Brayden said with a wave.

“Bye for now, Brayden. We’ll see you tomorrow.” Another look of sympathy crossed Teresa’s face, but Jimmy closed the red door between them before she had a chance to offer more prayers. He was sick and tired of listening to condolences.

Brayden galloped across the church parking lot toward Jimmy’s truck. “Where we gonna fish?”

“I was thinking maybe Chelsea today.” Jimmy opened the back door of the crew cab and lifted Brayden up into his booster seat.

“We play with Will-Wee, too?” he asked of Stacy’s pup, Willie Nelson.

“We can if he’s out, but no pulling on his ears this time, okay? It hurts him when you pull on his ears,” Jimmy reminded Brayden as he buckled the seat belt.

“I’s sorry.” His brow furrowed and his bottom lip slid out in a pout, emphasizing his remorse for pulling on the little dog’s ears.

“I know you are. It’s okay.”

“Oh!” Brayden suddenly cried out and struggled against the straps, trying to get out of his seat. “Get Boo?”

“I got Boo.” Jimmy unzipped Brayden’s backpack and pulled out a well-loved and worn, stuffed teddy bear. “He’s right here, safe and sound.”

Boo Bear was missing an ear and its fur had been rubbed off in places, but Brayden didn’t care. He carried it with him everywhere he went. Jimmy had brought the teddy bear to the hospital the day Brayden was born, and Brayden had slept with it every single night since. He had a hard time falling asleep without its soft fur pressed to his cheek.

Jimmy made sure both Brayden and Boo were buckled in secure before shutting the door tight and going around to the driver’s side. The cab of the truck had turned into a Dutch oven in the few minutes it had taken to collect Brayden, and he cranked the air conditioner on high to try and cut through the worst of the summer afternoon heat.

“You know what, Jimmy?” Brayden asked from the backseat.

“Nope, I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I has gwill ch-weese for lunch.”

“Grilled cheese?” Jimmy pulled out of the parking lot and headed out of town. “That sounds good.”

“And I has applesauce, an milk, an a cake.”

“You ate all that, huh?” Jimmy asked, not fully believing him. The boy ate like a bird, pecking and pulling apart everything on his plate, but never really putting anything in his mouth. How Brayden managed to grow at all, let alone so incredibly fast, amazed him.

“Uh huh.” His little legs swinging back and forth, Brayden tipped his head back and looked up at the ceiling of the truck cab. “And I’s swing! I’s swing, an I’s swing, an I’s swing.”

“That sounds like fun.” He wasn’t quite sure if Brayden meant swing or sing. It could have been either. He loved to do both. “What else did you do today?”

As they drove out of town and down the gravel roads slicing through the flats and hills of the Nebraska countryside, Brayden kept up a steady stream of chatter from the backseat, telling Jimmy even the smallest details of his day. With every word the boy said, and every mile of gravel dust they kicked up, the tension in his body eased and the fear in his mind silenced.

Allman Falls was a small town of less than three thousand people, not much more than a mile or two wide in any direction. But some days it was too much for him—too many people, too much gossip, too many questions, too many memories.

Sometimes, the tree-lined streets seemed to come to life, surrounding him, swallowing him, consuming his breath. His vision blurred. His chest tightened. The muscles in his shoulders and neck tensed, knotting tighter and tighter, constricting him in on himself, suffocating him until he felt like ripping away the houses, and the cars, and the people, the noise and the confusion, with his bare hands. Once he was out of the city limits, with nothing but open air and Mother Nature’s clutter between him and the horizon, he could breathe again.

He had lived in Allman Falls for his entire life, yet he still had a hard time remembering which street the florist was on, where the laundromat was. He didn’t pay enough attention to lock those details into his memory. But the countryside was a different story. He knew every tree, every thicket of wild plum, every patch of switch grass, every creek, every lake—hell, every puddle of water with the possibility of a fish swimming in it—for twenty miles in any direction. He knew every inch of gravel road that led out of Allman Falls better than the back of his own hand, especially the one leading to Chelsea Lake.

Dan had long ago given Jimmy free access to Chelsea. He never needed to call ahead for permission to hunt or fish, no matter when he came out, and he came out often. That day, instead of pulling into the driveway, he passed by the house and drove the gravel road around to the backside of the section, where the creek fed into the lake.

Fishing with Brayden would have been easier on the dock side of the lake, but he didn’t want to be seen from the house. If Stacy caught sight of him, she would drag him inside for one of her never-ending, seven course suppers. He wasn’t in the mood to socialize, and she didn’t know how to take no for an answer.

As he approached the access gate leading to the lake, something in the opposite ditch caught his eye, causing him to slam on his brakes and fishtail to a dead stop in the middle of the road.

“Whoa!” Brayden called out from the backseat, his chatter stopped mid-stream.

“Sorry about that, Little Man.” Jimmy whipped around in his seat and looked back over his shoulder toward the ditch. The sun danced off a flash of metal buried in the overgrown weeds and tangle of windblown grasses.

“We go boom?” Brayden asked.

“No, we don’t go boom. We’re okay.” He reversed down the gravel, keeping his eye to the ditch. Barely visible, a rusted, green and white Ross Realty and Auction sign peeked through the grass. But it had to be a mistake. The Malek property would never go on the market. He wanted it too bad for there to ever be a possibility it could be his.

“Why we stop?” Brayden asked.

“I don’t know yet.” Jimmy turned the wheel and slowly pulled into the narrow, washed-out driveway. Feral cats skittered out from the underbrush as the truck tires bumped over deep ruts and crushed long-fallen, decayed tree branches. Twenty yards in, he came to a stop.

Brayden strained against the straps of his booster seat, his neck craning in his effort to look out the windows. “Why we here?”

“I don’t know yet…”

Jimmy threw the truck into park and leaned into the steering wheel, taking a good look around through the windshield. His mind reeled in disbelief, but the longer he sat there, the more it felt right.

“Hang tight, Little Man. I’m going to go look at something.”

“I go, too?”

“No, you wait here.”

Brayden let out a whine of disappointment, but he didn’t argue.

Jimmy left the engine on, the air conditioner running, the door open so he could listen for Brayden, and walked deeper into the property. If he had to guess, he’d say the land was twenty acres, but it was so thick with mulberry and Siberian elm trees it was hard to see the boundaries of the farmland surrounding it. Rusting cars and farm implements littered the woods, decades of discarded trash filling the low lands. Eastern red cedars of varying sizes sprouted in odd places throughout the tangled landscaping, planted haphazardly by the birds, the seeds allowed to sprout and grow wherever they landed for at least the past ten years.

An abandoned, five-bedroom, Queen Anne Victorian with a steeply-peaked roof and intricate trim that had seen better days sat solid and prominent in the center of the property. At one time, a curved, wraparound porch had hugged the south and west-facing sides of the house, but it had collapsed in on itself, detached from the main structure in a rotting mess along the foundation. Massive cottonwoods, spruce and silver maples ringed the house, planted by man to provide shade and protection, but through years of free-will they had engulfed the structure, consuming it with their heavy branches.

He had dreamed of living in the Malek house for over twenty years, since the day his father had brought him along to do an estimate on porch repairs for Old Lady Malek. Her lazy eye and raspy voice had scared the crap out of him, as had the rotten porch that swayed in the wind and cracked under his feet, but the house itself had left him feeling something entirely different.

To his six-year-old mind, it had been pure magic.

James had given Jimmy strict instructions to stay beside the truck and out of trouble, but the more Jimmy had stared at the house, the more it had called to him. As he stood in the driveway studying her lines and intricacies, the yellowed, lace curtains in the attic windows shifted in the breeze, beckoning him to step inside. Keeping one eye on his father, he feigned interest in the rocks in the gravel drive, cautiously inching his way closer and closer to the house. Once James became fully engaged in price haggling with the old woman, Jimmy made a break for it, diving through a gap in the honeysuckle hedge into the backyard.

The heavy, wooden door on the backside of the house had creaked on its hinges as he pushed his way into the thick, stagnant air of the ancient Victorian. Jimmy had never been one to consider consequences, but two steps in he thought better about what he was doing. The fear of retribution for disobeying his father, combined with the pungent, ammonia fog of cat urine, loosened his bowels so fast he about lost his Happy Meal lunch right there on the landing. He clutched his stomach and turned to run, but as he did, his foot stepped on a loose board. The weary moan the house let out sounded like a whisper of welcome relief, spoken just for him. Plugging his nose to the worst of the stench, he forgot everything except exploring every inch of mystery the old house promised.

In every room, the leaded glass windows had been papered over and draped in thick fabrics, darkening every corner of the house in deep, bottomless shadows. Occasionally, a ray of sunlight broke through a tear or a seam. Wherever it had, the sun illuminated the heavy dust hanging in the stagnant air, the bands of light seeming to shimmer like diamonds. In the dining room, a single ray played through the crystal teardrops on the chandelier, casting broken rainbows of color on the opposite wall.

There were secret doors between the bedrooms, alcoves in the attic, a dumbwaiter in the kitchen, and two separate staircases. The one in the back of the kitchen was steep and narrow, minimally lit by a bare bulb high in the ceiling, but the one off the entryway was curving and grand, with a rail made for sliding down. Without hesitation, he tried it out, and immediately ran back up the stairs to do it again.

When the crazy lady caught him snooping around, she had dragged him outside by his ear, and shoved him off the porch into the dirt yard where his father steamed in fury waiting for him. James’s face had turned a terrifying shade of crimson as words flew from his mouth in sharp bursts of curses, all of them words Jimmy had heard James say a million times, but never directed at him.

Jimmy’s excitement over what he had discovered overpowered his primal fear of the punishment he knew he would receive when they returned home. As they flew down the gravel back to town, Jimmy had begged his father to ask the crazy lady if they could live in the house, but James had only glared stone-faced at Jimmy through the rearview mirror.

For the rest of the day, and the months that had followed, Jimmy couldn’t get the smell of cat piss out of his nose or the image of the house out of his mind. Recreating it became his obsession. He drew it repeatedly in his sketchbook, trying again and again until he had even the smallest detail down to perfection. Then he filled the rest of the book with sketches of its restoration. His mother had held onto his sketchbook for years before eventually tossing it away, the fate of all saved childhood mementos that lost significance over time, but he didn’t need it. He had that house memorized.

“Jimm-eee!” Brayden called out in sing-song boredom. “When we go fishin’?”

Jimmy returned to the truck and climbed inside. “Right now, Bray.”

He took one last look at the house through the windshield, mentally calculating time and cost as he threw the truck into reverse. It would be un-godly expensive, and it would rape him of every free minute he had for at least a year, but it was definitely doable.

The only question remaining was whether or not he still wanted it.

 

 

 

Chapter 59 ~ Dancing with Shadows

Shadow DancingShe didn’t need to open her eyes to the darkened room to know she was alone. She hear his absence in the silence of the night air, could feel it in the chill of the sheet draped across her bare skin. Rising from her empty bed, Kylie slipped her arms through the sleeves of a lightweight cotton robe, tied the sash for modesty, and went looking for him.

She found him in the living room, slouched across the sofa, his head back, eyes closed, but he was awake. His fingers shadow danced along the strings of his guitar, the notes he played muted, yet stark as the silver light of the moon that sliced through the open blinds. Judging by the half empty whiskey bottle on the coffee table, the slow blink of his eyes when he turned toward her, he had abandoned her bed hours earlier, not long after she had fallen asleep.

“Did I wake you?” he asked, his voice a whisper, husky from exhaustion.

“I’m cold without you. Come to bed with me.”

“Soon.” He shifted the guitar and opened his arms, allowing her to slip into his embrace. Humid, whiskey breath dampened her neck as he placed the guitar on her lap. “Play with me awhile.”

“Not tonight, Jimmy. It’s late.”

“One song?” He brushed her hair from her shoulder and trailed his lips along her neck, begging her with his kiss.

“One song,” she relented.

With his head resting heavily against hers, he took her hand in his, positioned her fingers on A major, instructed, “’Three Little Birds.’”

“I’d rather hear you play it for me.”

“Aw, naw… You got this.” Gently, he maneuvered her fingers through the chord changes from A to D and E. “Easy.”

He helped her through the transitions again, reinforcing the movements before she tried them on her own. Feeling less than confident, she returned to the starting A. “Will you strum for me?”

He muted the strings with the heel of his hand as he strummed, counting instead of singing. She moved from A to D like a pro, but missed her mark switching back to A and let go in frustration.

He caught her hand, returned her fingers to A major and whispered against her neck, “Trust yourself.”

At a slower pace, he started to strum again. Eyes closed, she allowed her body to relax into the rhythm of his lips caressing her neck with every whispered beat. Together, they played a very rudimentary tribute to Bob Marley. When the song ended, he kissed the tip of her nose and smiled.

“Beautiful, Ky.”

She moved her hand to his thigh and listened as he played the song again in his unique style. Haunting, yet uplifting, his fingers danced along the strings in graceful agility. She sat mesmerized by his beauty, heartbroken by his exhaustion.

Sliding her hand higher up his thigh, she whispered, “Come to bed with me, Jimmy.”

“In a minute.” He set the guitar aside and reached around her, for his bottle on the table.

She sighed his name into the darkness; a prayer, a plea, a silent whisper for help, for the ability to understand. She wished she could take his pain. Or make him talk about it. She longed to rip the bottle from his hand, shatter the glass against the wall, and force him to feel his grief. But she gave him the night.

When he settled back against her, he lifted her hand in his , kissed her fingers, her wrist, trailed his lips along her inner arm, her neck, whispered hot against her skin, “I’m sorry, Ky.”

“Shh,” she hushed, soothed the worry lines from his face with her touch, her kiss. His stubble had softened into three-day growth. She traced his jaw line with her fingertips. “You need to sleep.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, but instead of rising to take her to bed, he picked up his guitar and played a quiet, incredibly lonely ‘Scarborough Fair.’

She curled against him, rested her head on his shoulder. Only when she returned her hand to his thigh did she notice the weight of the engagement ring he had slipped onto her finger as he’d kissed her. She sat upright, “Jimmy? How did you…. When…?”

He continued to play as she sputtered on like a fool, crying silent tears of joy laden with fear. It was too beautiful, too perfect. She lifted her hand, caught the moonlight in the center diamond. A delicate trail sparkled along the band. The ring fit her finger perfectly, exquisitely, but it felt heavy, the stone too big. She worried over it, admired it, slipped it on and off her finger, testing it.  Like everything he did, it was too much; much more than she needed. Much more than she deserved.

A tear slid from her cheek to his shoulder as she settled against him, her skin pale in the moonlight against his deep tan, his muscles flexing beneath her touch. “Come to bed with me, Jimmy,” she pleaded as she closed her eyes.

When she opened her eyes again, the sun had risen, and she was alone once more. Her ring finger felt stiff, almost sore from the foreign weight of the stone. She longed to remove the ring from her finger, to take a break from the heft of it. To change her mind about accepting it.

She dreaded the attention it would bring, the fake smiles and relentless questions. Jimmy had left the box on the coffee table, lying open beside his almost-empty bottle. She could tuck the ring into white satin, close the lid for safekeeping, lock it away until she felt strong enough to live the life it entailed. But she feared if she waited it would never happen.

Jimmy deserved better than her weakness. For him, she kept it on and braved the day.

***

“I’m so sorry about your dad,” Marissa said to Jimmy, her doe eyes heavy with mascara, tearing in pity as she watched him walk into the office of Rogan-Handley Construction. She sat perched at the reception desk, the computer on, invoices spread out, the mail sorted and stacked in front of her.

He’d forgotten he’d hired her. Exhaling a curse, he squinted through his migraine and ignored her as he passed through to the shop. Dan and Brent jumped him as soon as he pushed through the door.

“Don’t even start,” he warned, but Brent did anyway.

“Are you fucking insane? What the hell were you thinking?”

“Hey, you’re the one who wanted a receptionist. I got you one. Quit bitching.”

“But Marissa?” Brent protested. “Seriously?”

“She seems to be doing alright,” Dan offered.

“What does Ky have to say about this?”

“Nothing,” Jimmy stated. “It’s none of her business who I hire.”

Brent vehemently disagreed with that idea, but Jimmy refused to participate in the argument. As his brother railed against him, and Dan attempted to play peacemaker, Jimmy inspected and loaded his trailer. He didn’t have time for his brother’s shit. It was already later in the morning than he had intended to start, and they’d lost a week of work because of the funeral. Charlene understood, but a delay on her job pushed out all the others. He couldn’t afford to get buried in the cycle of catch-up.

“Stace sent kolaches,” Dan mentioned to Jimmy between fits of Brent’s swearing. “They’re in the kitchen.”

Jimmy wasn’t hungry. He would kill for coffee, but he didn’t need it bad enough to go back through the office and deal with Marissa’s sad eyes. Instead, he hooked the trailer to his truck and headed off for Charlene’s ahead of Brent and Dan.

All week, his phone had blown up with calls, texts and messages from people who hadn’t given two shits about him before his father died, but craved the attention grief brought. They sent empty sentiments of love and prayers, posted pictures and memories meant to comfort but that only tortured. He’d turn his phone off completely, toss it in the river and watch it sink, but he feared missing a call for work or a text from his mom. Instead, he’d shut of the ringer.

When he arrived at the diner, he checked his phone, hoping the barrage of sympathy had finally ended. It hadn’t. He deleted without reading, without listening. Almost lost in the mix came a simple text from Ashley, a sad face emoji with four little letters, “r u ok”

To that one, he replied. “Yeah.”

Almost immediately, it marked as read. He waited a moment for her to reply. When she didn’t, a sliver of weight lifted off his heart, bringing the first hint of relief to his throbbing head, and he started his day.

***

She’d waited two days for his reply. Finally, just past eight in the morning, seven for him, late, but not so late she read anything into it, he sent the single word she needed. A simple, “yeah,” let her know she didn’t need to go home, that he would eventually find what he needed, that he was at least looking. Two days of silence had about killed her, imaging him stuck at the bottom of the bottle, trapped at the end of a line. She knew he had Kylie, Brent, his mom. But he also had a lot of hate for himself. Sometimes, like her, he struggled to find his way past it.

Ashley tucked her phone under the strap of her bra and picked up her coffee. She sat on a plastic lawn chair on cracked pavement outside her shitty motel room in Jacksonville, already dripping sweat from the heat of the morning. It was too hot, too humid for coffee, but holding it kept her from chain smoking.

She’d taken her time driving across country, finally arriving in North Carolina the night before. It had been close to midnight, too late to look up Trevor’s friends. He’d named a few she could stay with while she was there, ones who shared a house off base. Joking, she’d asked which of them she could sleep with. A long silence followed before he answered, “None of ‘em.” She knew it meant nothing beyond his distaste for sharing, but she couldn’t stop the smile.

Though it was still early in the morning, her car was only one of two remaining in the parking lot. When she’d pulled in the night before, it had been packed with work trucks and vans Semis had filled the overflow. The place was a bit rundown, but clean enough, and offered weekly rates, catering to construction crews and salesmen. Ashley considered staying on for a week or two, more if she could make her cash hold out long enough. For the first time she could remember, she was enjoying being by herself. She found comfort in her own thoughts, a quiet kind of peace, not just the hot, screaming mess she always heard in Nebraska. She still didn’t know what the hell she was doing, or what she wanted, what she was running too or running from, but she didn’t feel any kind of desperation to figure it out.

Instead, she went to the ocean. She sat on the beach, watched the waves tumble and crash. She ate a hot dog, sifted the sand for shells. She spent the afternoon window-shopping, making small talk with shop owners and fellow tourists. Every turn, she tried on a different personality, played with accents and dialect. In the end, though not as fun, she found it easiest to be herself.

As the week wore on, Ashley returned to the beach every morning to walk, to think, to watch the surfers and gulls. She longed to rent a board, feel the liberation of riding the waves, taking risks, getting high on adrenaline. But she needed to be smart, save her money. Ten dollars here, twenty dollars there, if she blew it all on nonsense, she’d have nothing in no time. More than anything, she wanted to keep her independence, so she settled for a free swim, a suntan and a daydream in the morning and spent her afternoons exploring the coast and searching her soul.

Most nights, as she lay in bed before sleep, she talked to Trevor. Halfway around the world, he was just starting the new day as she was ending the old one. It was stupid, childish nonsense, but she found comfort in knowing for certain the next day would come because he was already living it.

Every few days, she checked in with Mike. More often would be too exhausting. He’d found a job at a gas station, but had lost it almost immediately for selling smokes without checking id’s. He’d earned enough to buy groceries, a bag of food for Bella, but it wouldn’t last long. Without a car, he was limited. The job market was slim in Allman Falls, especially for a guy with a record. Ashley didn’t want to ask anyone for help, but for Mike, she sucked it up and reached out.

She waited until she knew Kylie would be asleep before she texted Jimmy to call her. Her phone rang almost immediately.

“Hey.”

“Hey, yourself,” he replied.

She didn’t need to ask him how he was doing, or how he was feeling. She could hear it all in his voice. He was exhausted. He was drunk. He was hurting. Cheap words and canned phrases wouldn’t cure him. Instead, she kept it simple, real. “Mike needs a job. Bad. Do you have anything he could help you out with?”

He was silent for awhile before answering with a reluctant sigh. “Maybe.”

“Thank you,” she answered sincerely.

“Yeah.”

She didn’t want to end the call, but she didn’t know what more to say. Closing her eyes, she listened to his silence. It was comfortable, familiar. She missed it sometimes, listening to him breathe beside her in the dark, both of them awake, lying in bed, alone together.

“Ash?”

“Hmm?”

“I asked Ky to marry me.”

“Oh!” She knew it would come, but it still knocked her on her ass. A hot tear escaped from the corner of her eye, burned down her cheek. “Okay.”

She couldn’t lie to him and tell him she was happy. She couldn’t say congratulations or wish him well. Instead, she listened to his silence for a bit longer as one tear slowly followed another, collected around her neck, and spilled onto her pillow.

 

Chapter 58 ~ Servant

Servant“Jimmy?”

Sitting on the porch steps, cloaked by the lengthening shadows of the setting sun, Jimmy Rogan held onto his silence and lifted his beer bottle to his lips. Warm and flat, the last swallow tasted like piss, but it held comfort. He wanted more. Needed it, really. Instead of going in for another, he picked at the label with his thumb and watched the palm trees sway in the humid breeze, their fronds shadow dancing in time to Isaiah’s relentless haunting.

“…So do not fear, for I am with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God…”

No matter how many times the words replayed, he could find no more meaning than when the minister had first recited the verse, hours earlier, at his father’s funeral.

“I will strengthen you and help you…”

Closing his eyes returned to life a vivid beam of afternoon sunlight, cast through the stained glass windows of the church. For thirty-seven minutes, he had watched the disjointed rainbow play across the base of the pulpit while Reverend Pearce, a man Jimmy had never met before, spoke of his father as though he had known him intimately. Every word the minister spoke had been accurate, but hearing James Rogan’s life story come from the mouth of a stranger stripped away the true meaning, turning his memorial into a farce.

“I will uphold you with my righteous right hand…”

“Bullshit,” he whispered aloud. No one was holding him.

“Jimmy?”

“Yeah?”

“I asked if you want something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Stepping out onto the front porch, Kylie carefully closed the screen door behind her, the courtesy a wasted effort. Even the noise of a slamming door would be lost beneath the roar of voices and music coming from inside the house.

“You should still eat,” she said, her voice gentle as she came up behind him. “It’s been a long day.”

“Maybe later.”

Running a light caress across his shoulders, she settled onto the step beside him. Her feet were bare, her high heels cast aside not long after they left the cemetery, but she still wore the black dress she had purchased specifically for the occasion. Though it looked amazing on her, he hoped he never saw it again.

“The breeze feels good. It’s getting hot in there with all those people.”

“Yeah.” His grip tightened and then relaxed around the empty bottle in his hand.

Over a hundred had been in attendance at the funeral. Other than his family and the handful of friends who had flown in from Nebraska with him, Jimmy didn’t have a clue who any of them were. Surrounded by strangers on what should have been the most private day of his life, he didn’t even know whose house they were at.

“Brayden’s asleep,” Kylie said of her son. His son as well, if she’d ever agree to marry him. “He curled up in your mom’s lap and conked out.”

“We should go.”

“In a bit.” She tucked her hand along his inner thigh and leaned against him. “They look pretty content.”

He slipped his arm around her slender waist, settled her body into the crook of his. He couldn’t remember when they had last paused life long enough to watch the stars brighten in the twilight. With longing, he wished their stolen moment could have been found under different circumstances, on a different porch, one a thousand miles away, where the wind blew through the corn and the world felt right.

“It was a nice service,” she offered.

Weary of the pretence, he didn’t answer her.

Pastor Tom should have presided over the service. Pastor Tom had united James and Mary Ann Rogan in marriage. He had baptized both Jimmy and his brother, Brent, and had performed Brent’s wedding ceremony not even a week prior. He hunted the hills with them every fall, fished the same slushy waters in the spring. Pastor Tom had been the man sitting at James’s bedside in the ICU, praying continuously after his first stroke three years earlier. He had continued praying for him long after James had recovered well enough to pack up and move to Florida, prematurely chasing down the elusive dream of retiring in the southern sun.

Close to ten years had passed since Jimmy had last attended a Sunday service in the little brick church in downtown Allman Falls, but Pastor Tom would always be family. Reverend Pearce was just a man.

Sinner or saint, James Rogan deserved better than to be put into the ground by ‘just a man.’ He deserved to have Pastor Tom standing at the pulpit. He deserved a reception at the V.F.W. Social Hall with pulled pork sandwiches and Nita Polinski’s kolaches. He deserved his real friends—the ones he had lived with and worked with, played with and prayed with for his entire life—toasting his memory with his preferred whiskey, not the pretentious red wine they were serving inside.

“For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”

Jimmy needed to believe the words had been written for him, but he’d learned long ago the promise of God’s love was intended for those with a cleaner soul. If God had ever wanted to help him, He would not have left Jimmy standing scared and alone when he had sought His guidance most. If God desired to comfort, He would have opened James Rogan’s rigidly closed heart to the truth behind the blood staining his son’s hands that night so long ago, and led them toward understanding.

If God truly wanted to silence his fears, He would explain why, in the face of death, Jimmy suddenly, desperately craved the respect of the man who, in life, had proven himself to be undeserving of his consideration.

“I’d never realized you and your dad shared a birthday.”

“Yeah.” He tried to swallow. The lump in his throat remained lodged tight.

“Is that why he named you after himself?”

“He never told me why, and I never asked.”

“We should come back here on your birthday; sit and visit with him for awhile,” Kylie suggested in a light whisper, her breath sweet with wine. “Maybe bring him a piece of that chocolate cake he loved so much.”

He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His body did both. The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile, but the breath rising from his chest constricted into a sob. “He’d like that.”

“We should go back inside,” she said.

“In a minute.”

She turned in his arms to rest her head against his shoulder, the silk of her hair cool against his neck. He trailed his fingers across the creamy skin of her wrist, comforted by the strong, familiar rhythm of her pulse.

He wished he could pretend they were anywhere but where they were, that the day had been nothing more than a dream, a false reality that would mercifully dissolve into nothingness as he gradually awakened in her arms. But when he opened his eyes, the palm trees still swayed, his father was still dead, any remaining hope of redemption buried alongside him in a honey-stained walnut casket.

The screen door opened and slammed shut, momentarily increasing the volume of Joe Walsh singing about how his “Life’s Been Good.” The song took him back in time, into an insignificant memory, one of hundreds playing through his mind since he had received the call from his mother, her voice oddly serene, “Come now, Jimmy. And hurry.”

Closing his eyes as he listened, he turned seven-years old again, sitting on an overturned bucket in a garage, watching as his father helped a guy pull the transmission out of a wrecked 1984 Ford Bronco. The scent of the memory became so strong he could almost taste it—oil, paint thinner, a rusted, dark blue Bronco, and that song playing on the radio. It had been one of his father’s favorites.

Kylie traced the line of his jaw, drawing his eyes open. “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing.” He captured her hand, kissed her fingertips. “Everything.”

Her thick, mahogany hair lay tangled from the afternoon wind and her worried hands running through it. Her lipstick had worn off, her earlier tears had left her eyes bloodshot. She looked as tired as he felt, but she would be forever gorgeous. Her eyes, her mouth, the line of her jaw, the angle of her nose, the porcelain of her skin, the beauty mark at the corner of her eye; everything about her painted perfection.

She was too good for him. Everybody knew it.

“She deserves a hell of a lot better than a sinner like you, boy…”

“We really should go back inside, Jimmy. We don’t want to worry your mom.”

Kylie moved to stand, but Jimmy held her tighter, willing her to stay beside him.

“On the morning of my eighth birthday, my dad took me to the hardware store.”

He could feel her breath catch when he started to speak. He had barely said more than two words at a time since his father died. Everyone else done so much talking it was as though they had robbed him of his own memories, stealing the words he needed to thread together the story of his life. But they didn’t know this chapter. Not how he had lived it.

“I was big into skateboarding back then, and I’d been begging him all summer to build me a halfpipe in the backyard, but he’d never had the time. He was always gone, working late, off at the bar, or he was out doing favors for his friends…”

She remained silent, the way she studied him intense.

“It was the twenty-sixth of November, snow all over the damn place, a totally worthless day for boarding, but he had some downtime, so we went. We got the plywood and the nails, some two-by-fours… The cart was loaded full and it was heavy. I remember having to push like hell to get it through the slush in the parking lot.”

Almost twenty years had passed since that birthday morning, but he could still feel the butterflies of anticipation dancing in his stomach, the vibration in the cart from the jittery front wheel.

“I was so excited, Ky, talking a mile a minute, annoying the hell out of my dad, but he was smiling, almost like he was excited, too. As we were loading everything into the truck, some friend of his came over and they got to talking. I stood there freezing my ass off, wishing he would hurry up. Finally, he told me to get in the truck, but when we got home, instead of parking in the driveway, he pulled up along the curb and said he’d be back after he helped that guy fix his heater.”

A shadow of disappointment crept in, hovering as it had his entire childhood. He hated that he could still feel it, hated even more that he still cared.

“I think it was three or four when I finally gave up on him. I knew I wouldn’t see him again that night. Even if he did come home, it would be too dark to do anything. Or he’d be too drunk. I went up to my room and climbed out the window, onto the roof…” His gaze drifted out across the road, to the palm trees swaying in the breeze. “I used to hang out there a lot when I was a kid. It was the only place no one ever bothered me. It was quiet, you know?”

“I do,” she said, as he knew she would. She understood him like no one ever could.

“I was pissed. Mostly at him, but also at myself for believing he would come through for me—just this one time… I was sitting up there, feeling sorry for myself, picking at the ice stuck to the shingles, and as I watched a chunk slide down the roof, I got this stupid idea in my head that if I started at the peak and rode my skateboard down, I could launch off the edge like the ice was doing and catch enough air to do a three-sixty before I landed in the snow bank next to the driveway.”

Kylie smiled the little teasing smile he loved. “Oh, my.”

“Like I said, it was stupid. Half the time I couldn’t even do an ollie, but I was going to be Tony-fucking-Hawk off the roof of my house. Dream big or go home.”

“Please tell me your mom stopped you before you cracked your head open.”

“She had no clue what I was up to. If she had she would’ve whooped my ass just for being an idiot. It was a stupid, stupid idea, doomed right from the start. In the back of my mind, I must’ve known that because…” He paused as a wave of pain hit his heart, tightening his entire chest. “I made Brent go first.”

Kylie’s eyes grew wide as she pulled from his embrace.

“He was six-years old, gullible as fuck, and I lured him out onto the roof with a piece of my birthday cake.”

She could only stare at him in disbelief. Disgust.

He deserved every thought he could read in her eyes.

“I plopped him down on that board, told him to hold on tight, and gave him a little shove.”

He couldn’t remember if his brother had laughed or screamed on the way down. Maybe he had done both. But he will never forget the hollow, scraping sound of the skateboard hitting the concrete of the driveway below before it bounced into the snow.

He looked away from Kylie, down at his calloused hands, to the memory of his brother’s blood, bright red, warm and slick, coating his palms, his jeans; his mother shaking, her face deathly white, screaming at him as she cradled Brent in her arms, “What did you do? Oh, God, Jimmy—what did you do?”

“Broke his arm in two places… Gave him a concussion… Knocked out his front teeth… Split his chin open… He was a bloody mess—crying so hard he wasn’t making a sound…”

“Jimmy.” Instinctively, she reached for his hand and threaded her fingers through his.

“The morning of my eighth birthday, in the parking lot of the hardware store, was the very last time my father introduced me as James Junior, and I have done absolutely nothing to deserve the honor since.”

“No, Jimmy. You don’t believe that.”

“Marry me, Ky.”

He had intended to send the proposal up as a silent prayer. When he felt her body tense, he realized he had vocalized his desperation, and he panicked.

“Don’t say no again.” He grabbed both of her hands, clutching her tight enough to make her cry out, but he refused to let go. “Don’t say it’s the wrong time. It’s never going to be the right time, Ky, and I’m sick and tired of waiting for something that’s not going to happen. Forget about everything I just said. Forget about your sister, and Missy, and all their shit. Forget about all the ways I’ve messed us up in the past, and just say you’ll marry me. Lie to me if you have to—just please tell me you’ll marry me so I can get through this goddamn day.”

His eyes locked into hers in, refusing to allow her to look away. Every breath of their lives together flickered behind her eyes as he held her captive—all of the tears he had caused, all of the love they had made, all of their arguments, all of her smiles in spite of the pain—every moment laid bare in brutal, naked honesty. He could read it all. He felt it all. He knew he had no right to ask her to entrust him with her heart, or with her son’s. Selfishly, he prayed for her to say yes.

Finally, she nodded. “Okay.”

He closed his eyes, exhaling the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding, and released his tight grip on her. “Thank you.”

“No, Jimmy…” She turned into him and cupped his face in shaking hands, returning his gaze to hers. Through unshed tears, she looked deep into him, past the mistakes and the heartache, and said, “I’m saying, ‘Yes.’ I will marry you. For real.”

Not daring to believe, his heart slammed in his chest. “You will?”

“Yes.”

Chapter 57 ~ Spent

spentWhile Brent and Aria honeymooned in Florida, and Dan worked on Charlene’s Diner, Jimmy spent his days snaking sewer lines, caulking windows, patching sidewalks, and trimming trees, honoring the long list of promises his father had made to friends and church members on Jimmy’s behalf.   More often than not, he got paid in kolaches or beer. He would never get rich doing favors for his father, or even make a living, but at least he never went thirsty.

Not normally a day drinker, Jimmy did abide a few times, when the beer was especially cold or his thoughts wouldn’t stop running. He couldn’t get Kylie’s expression out of his mind, the look in her eyes when he’d asked her to marry him that night on Chelsea Lake. Shock, terror, irritation—he’d expected those. And he knew damn well she’d say no. What he hadn’t anticipated was pity. That one hurt.

Neither of them talked about it. They hadn’t talked much at all. They kept busy with work, with Brayden. Kylie focused on her studies and harassing her sister. Jimmy worked off his father’s favors, cleaned up Kylie’s yard, mowed her grass, pulled some weeds. He was forever finding burnt up firecrackers or smoke bombs leftover from the 4th of July on the sidewalk or in the grass, littering his parking lot and the streets. Eventually they would wash away with the rain, be consumed by the earth like everything else. Until then, Jimmy didn’t want Brayden playing with them or putting them in his mouth, so he spent a lot of time with his eyes to the ground, searching.

He started staying at the shop late into the night, or he’d arrive early in the morning, before the sunrise. He caught up on taxes, paid bills, worked on bids, serviced vehicles; anything to keep his mind occupied. In the mornings, Dan stopped by to pick up supplies, and he dropped off the trailer in the afternoon, same as always, but that was all Jimmy saw of him throughout the day.

Early one morning, not long after Dan had made his morning stop, the bell on the door chimed. Assuming Dan had returned for something forgotten, Jimmy barely glanced that direction, until Marissa sashayed in as though she owned the place, set her purse and coffee mug on the reception desk, and pulled up a chair beside him.

“Where do I start?”

He checked out her toned legs, her short skirt and high heels, her false eyelashes and silky blouse, and was almost afraid to ask, “Start what?”

“Work.” She gestured around the office. “My job.”

“What job?” he asked, even more confused than before.

“The office job you offered me at Brent’s wedding.”

His mind raced as he thought back. “Not possible.”

“Oh, it’s possible. You were pretty drunk that night.”

“I would never be that drunk,” he said with dead certainty.

She sighed, glanced away. “Fine, I lied. You didn’t hire me.” She returned her gaze to him, looking at him in that way of hers. “I overheard Kylie telling Sarah about it at Jack’s the other night, and I knew if I asked, you’d be all like, ‘Hell, no,’ but I thought if I just showed up, and if you were desperate enough…”

“There is no job, Missy. There never was. I just offered it to Ky as a way to help her out. Obviously, she doesn’t want it if she told Sarah about it.”

“Oh.” Marissa’s expression slipped to disappointment. “Okay. It’s just…”

Her voice grew quiet, trailed off as she turned to reach for her purse.

“Just what?” Jimmy asked.

She shrugged, huffed out an exhausted laugh. “It’s just Mom. Same as always. The city’s after her again, and I can’t keep up with the fines. Not with what I’m making at Jack’s.”

“Stop paying them.”

“I can’t. It’s her home. Where would she go?”

He didn’t waste his breath with a reply. He’d had the same argument, given the same advice, for as long as he’d know Marissa, and she never listened. Her mother was an addict, but not of alcohol or drugs. She was an addict of stuff, a hoarder of things. Of everything. She was an artistic, wonderful woman who saw beauty in everything, especially what most would consider trash. She spent her free time collecting and rescuing. When her house overflowed onto the yard, which happened often, the city officials came down hard. She owned her house, she paid her taxes. She couldn’t be evicted easily. All they could do was bankrupt her with fines in attempt to force her off the property, which Marissa wouldn’t let happen.

“How much does she owe?” he asked.

“I don’t want your money, Jimmy.”

“How much?” he repeated.

She looked to him with such hopelessness he could feel it in his heart. “A lot.”

“Okay,” he said on a sigh as he pulled her chair closer to him, protecting her like he always promised he would. “Monday through Friday. Seven to four, or whatever works for you. We’ll figure it out.”

“Oh, my god, thank you,” she rushed. Placing her hands to his cheeks, she lifted in her chair and pressed a quick kiss on his lips. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

He grabbed both of her hands in his, held her tight to get her attention. “This isn’t a favor, or a handout. It’s a job. Okay?”

“Yeah, I know, I get it. Seriously, Jimmy. I do.”

He let go of her hands, leaned back in his chair. She smiled brighter, but he scrubbed his hair in frustration, whispered a curse. “Ky’s gonna fucking kill me.”

“I’m sorry,” she offered. It sounded sincere.

“Don’t worry about it. She’ll get over it.”

“So…” Marissa looked around the office, tapped a manicured nail on the desk. “Where do I start?”

“You’re smart enough to con me into the job, you’re smart enough to figure out how to do it.”

She looked around the office once more, scooted up to the computer and clicked though his emails, his financials, thumbed through the stack of paperwork on the desk, let out a low whistle. “You really do need me.”

Jimmy huffed. “Yeah, you keep telling yourself that.”

“Just you watch, Junior. I’m going to impress you yet.”

Her daring smile reminded him of a life he missed, a time he wished they could relive. Try again.

“You already have, Missy.”

She blushed. And he started to regret hiring her. Luckily, his phone rang, giving him an easy reason to leave.

“I don’t know what to do, Jimmy,” Kylie said, her voice heavy with worry when he answered. “She’s still not answering her phone or talking to Mom. I’ve knocked on her door. I’ve stopped by her work. She hasn’t been there either.”

“She’s fine, Ky,” Jimmy assured her again. “Ashley does this all the time.”

“Yeah, and she gets herself into trouble all the time. She disappears only to come back high, or broke, or wrapped up in another loser.”

“Like me?” he asked, half joking.

“Jimmy,” she protested.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Go over there. She’ll talk to you.”

As he was finding with most things in life, it was easier to agree than to argue. He left Marissa to figure herself out and crossed town take a turn meddling in Ashley’s life. He could hear the TV through the window. A dog barked once and then started to whine when he knocked on the door.

“Ash?” he called out. He tried the knob. It was locked, but he had a key. He called out for her again as he opened the door. “Ashley!”

Immediately, he was greeted by a sixty-pound, half-grown puppy that was all tongue, paws, and elated affection. In her excitement to say hello, she nearly knocked him onto his ass, and she piddled a little on the floor. Jimmy held onto her collar to keep her from jumping up again and knelt down to say hello. She licked his entire face, sat when he told her to, and shook on command.

“Good girl,” he praised and scratched her ears in reward. Then he asked her, “Where’s Ashley?”

“Not here,” a male voice replied from the kitchen doorway.

Jimmy straightened, recognized Mike. “I thought you left town?”

He shrugged. “I came back.”

“Where’s Ashley?”

He shrugged again. Jimmy took a step toward him and immediately he changed his stance, dropping the offense. “I don’t know, man. She’s out. Like, out of town, out.”

“Where?”

“She didn’t say.”

“When’s she coming back?”

Mike held up his hands in helplessness. “I don’t know. Soon, I hope. We’re running outta food.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes in irritation and pulled out his phone. He dialed Ashley’s number. On the fifth ring, she finally answered.

“What?”

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she answered.

“You need money?”

“No.”

“Are you doing anything stupid?”

She laughed. “Actually, no. Not this time.”

“Mike’s living in your apartment.”

“I know.”

“Call your sister.”

“Sure,” she agreed, but he knew it was a lie.

He returned his phone to his pocket, asked Mike, “What’s the dog’s name?”

“Bella.”

“Bye, Bella,” Jimmy said, and scratched her ears one last time. “Better find a job, Mike. Doesn’t sound like Ash is coming back any time soon.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, but his voice wavered, “It’s just… I don’t have a car, or a license… I’m still on probation…”

“Figure it out.”

“Yeah. Okay, but…”

Before Jimmy could make an impulsive mistake of adding a second employee to his payroll, he was saved by the ringing of his phone.

“Jimmy, honey,” his mom said as soon as he answered. “You better come down.”

Her voice was calm, but in a way that made his heart drop. He could barely whisper, “Dad?”

“Come now. Bring Kylie with you.”

“I will,” he assured her, already out the door.

“And, Jimmy?”

“Yeah?”

“Hurry.”

Chapter 56 ~ Liberty

bootWith Brent’s wedding behind her, and Mike out of her life, Ashley’s days became a cruelty of monotony, the nights a sleepless torture of stagnant air and twisted sheets. Not an hour went by without a harassing text from her sister, a plaintive voice mail from her mother, both on a mission to control her life, protect her from Mike, and save her from herself. She ignored it all, drowned a stack of microwave pancakes in syrup, and binge watched Dexter until the sun came up in the morning.

The long nights caught up to her during her drive into work. Her eyes hot, her arms heavy, she’d catch herself drifting. She’d smack her cheeks, crank the air, blast the radio, and still she’d slip, only to startle awake when her tires coasted over the rumble bars. The highway between Allman Falls and Juliette was too smooth, too quiet, too new. She needed the old highway, the one ridged and cracked, riddled with potholes and patches, to help keep her awake. Damn Mike and his grandfather and the whole stupid road crew for fixing it too good. And damn Mike even more for making her miss him.

She missed talking to him, teasing him, torturing him with her stupid stories and endless questions. She missed having someone else in the car or the kitchen, a body taking up space and breathing her air, making noise. She missed having someone she could be herself around, someone who didn’t nag or criticize or try to fix her because he’d been too broken to ever pass judgement on another. She missed sex. Mostly, she missed not being alone.

The new tattoo on her wrist was still a little red, a bit tender to the touch as she shifted her grip on the steering wheel and traced the letters with her fingertip – no màs. She whispered it aloud, a verbal kick in the ass to stop longing for what she didn’t have, what would never be. No more.

At the edge of Juliette, she pulled into a gas station for coffee with an extra boost of caffeine. A snack cake delivery van had stopped to unload right in the middle of the busy parking lot, blocking two of the pumps. Morning commuters in skirts and ties tangoed with construction trucks pulling heavy trailers. Kids on summer vacation, dressed in swim trunks and flip flops, darted in and out of the store, grabbing snacks to sneak into the community pool down the street. A dog yipped at the boys from the passenger seat of a dented minivan, while a jackass in a Nova stopped at a red light revved his engine in impatience for green.

It was more than Ashley could handle on zero sleep. She turned up the radio to drown out the world and sat in her car, waiting for the rush to clear. Struggling to keep her eyes open, she checked her phone. Kylie had started early that morning, sending her first text just past 5 am. “Call me.” Ten minutes later she added, “Please.”  Ignoring those and the string of others that followed, Ashley tossed her phone into her purse and looked out the window.

The weedy field alongside the gas station had been recently mowed. Shredded trash shifted in the breeze. The sun reflected off foil wrappers and tattered aluminum cans. A mangled tennis ball and chipped bits of small branches had been thrown onto the sidewalk. Chopped blades of grass stuck to the side of the building and air conditioning unit, their deep green hue quickly fading to brown. A few feet out into the yard, a ring of weeds stood untouched by the mower. In the center lay a worn leather work boot, misshapen and scarred, bleached by the hot summer sun, abandoned and forgotten, but left to lie in peace, enshrined by nature, spared by the laziness of man.

“It’s seen more action than me,” Ashley muttered to herself, then huffed out a laugh as she felt a flush of jealousy. Over a boot. A beat up, worn out, tattered boot that probably spent its entire existence around the sweaty foot of a truck driver, or ankle deep in the muck of a feed lot. Jimmy’s boots had seen a thing or two; rain and mud, sun and snow, drywall, paint, concrete and sawdust, rivers and lakes, a few dozen campfires. They’d seen a few dozen bedroom floors, as well. His boots had miles on them. Ashley had barely even been out of Nebraska the past seven years.

Frustrated and exhausted, she decided to skip the coffee and just grab a Mountain Dew from the vending machines at work.  She pulled out of the parking lot, onto the highway, and rolled down her windows to catch some fresh air. Her hair fluttered about her face, tickled her neck, as the Black Crows sang about angels. Ashley sang along, throwing every bit of her passion and pain, her anger and frustration into the lyrics.

She rocked with the Crows, jammed with Alanis Morissette, and let it all hang out with the Alabama Shakes. When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers started singing about wildflowers, Ashley realized she’d missed her turn five miles back. With a curse, she flashed her blinker and merged left to flip a u-turn.

But Tom was telling her she belonged out at sea, that she deserved to be free. And she agreed. Letting her heart be her guide, she merged back to the right, set the cruise at sixty-five, and headed west.

***

She got as far as Broken Bow. Her eyes were gritty, her stomach acidic. Her head throbbed with her heartbeat, and her mouth tasted like death. She found a cheap motel, slept until nightfall. When she woke, she check her phone, and found it blown up with texts from her sister, voicemail from her mother, and a message from her boss telling her she was on probation. Nothing from Trevor, or Jill, or Mike, or any of her other so-called friends. The only people who ever reached out Ashley were the ones who wanted to control her. It was the story of her life.

She needed a shower, and a toothbrush. Instead, she washed her face, ran a hand through her tangled hair, and headed out in search of sustenance. She found a bar where she blended in with her wrinkled scrubs and sallow complexion, ordered a burger with fries and a beer, and sat mesmerized by a sun-weathered man, ‘Edward’ stitched on his work shirt, who slowly peeled the label off his empty bottle.

Ten hours of following her heart, not even one full day of freedom, and she was bored out of her goddamn mind. West had apparently been the wrong direction. North sounded even less appealing. South was a possibility. East would take her to Trevor, or at least to his friends until his tour ended. She slipped her phone from her purse and checked her bank account. If she slept in her car, she had enough to get to North Carolina. Once she was there, she’d have to be creative. She’d done it before, found herself excited to try it again. For the first time in what felt like years, she smiled. And then, from deep inside her soul, she laughed.

Edward glanced over in her direction. She tipped her bottle toward him, debated taking him back to her motel, but it felt like too much work. From now on, she was all about free and easy. No more worries, no more obsessions, no more making herself feel inadequate by constantly comparing herself to others. No more negativity, no more toxic people, no more social media and its trappings. She deleted her accounts from her phone, cleaned out her contacts, erased half of her photos, most of her videos. She changed her wallpaper to the picture of the boot she’d snapped from the parking lot earlier that day, and downloaded some fresh music to kick off the soundtrack of her new life.

As she finished the last of her beer and pushed her plate aside, her phone chimed in text. Expecting her sister, she was surprised to see Mike’s, “Where you at?”

She replied with a picture of the remains of her dinner.

He texted back a picture of himself rattling her front door, backpack on his shoulder, his clothes wrinkled, his eyes ringed in dark circles and his hair a greasy mess. At his feet sat a beautiful black lab, all teeth and tongue, panting from the heat and long day. He had gone to Kansas, after all, but only to steal back his heart, Bella.

She smiled at his bravery, his stupidity. The dumb dog was most likely chipped, already reported stolen. But, at least he was willing to fight for what was his, even if it could get him arrested.

“Pretty girl,” she typed, then added, “Key’s in the light.”

When he asked when she’d be home, she didn’t know how to answer, so she didn’t, which was fine with him. Once he had what he needed, he left her to do as she pleased; gifting to her what she wanted most in life – respect.