With her stomach twisted in nervous knots, Kylie followed Jimmy’s truck down the gravel drive and around the country section. It was stupid to follow him anywhere, she didn’t have to remind herself, especially to a place where they would be alone. She wasn’t afraid of Jimmy. She was afraid of herself. Watching him hold a newborn baby in his arms had pulled hard on her most precious memories and had left her wanting him even more.
Jimmy pulled into a long, deeply rutted driveway. She followed his exact path, inching carefully around the worst of the craters time and nature had carved into the partially-frozen ground. Once safely parked beside his truck, she allowed herself the luxury of looking around through the windshield.
The one other time she had been to the property, a few years prior, had been in the middle of the night. With only moonlight to brighten their path, they had explored the grounds with careful steps through overgrown landscaping, half-buried trash and junked cars. Still, she remembered every detail as clearly as though it had been her childhood home. She’d even dreamt about it, once upon a time.
Though the house had been abandoned for years, and abused long before that, the quality of the craftsmanship still shone through. The house itself was huge, two and a half stories with five bedrooms and three bathrooms, built right around the turn of the century, Victorian in design with a massive, wraparound porch on the front and a second, screened-in summer porch off the kitchen. Her last visit, the porch roof had been partially collapsed, hanging precariously by a few stalwart nails, the wooden floor rotted through and caved into the crumbling block foundation. It was all just a memory now, the decay ripped off and hauled away, a solid foundation poured in its place.
The worst of the siding had been patched in places, but the exterior still needed a lot of work. The windows were the original, heavy leaded glass, clouded with age. The roof had so many layers of shingles on it she imagined the foundation would rise a few inches from relief of the excess weight when Jimmy got around to scraping them off. The cellar was original and dirt, but the house stood straight and strong.
Over a hundred years old and horribly abused, the house was beaten, but not broken. Now that someone who loved it had become its caretaker, it had another good century of life to look forward to.
“You want a tour?” Jimmy asked, pulling her from her respite. He lifted his ballcap in nervous habit, repositioned it with the bill to the back.
“Maybe in a minute.” Hesitantly, she climbed from the car, dropped her keys on the driver’s seat. “What was it you wanted to show me?”
“This.” He tipped his head toward the house, squinted into the winter sun. “I wanted to show you the house.”
“Oh,” she answered on a breath of surprise and confusion.
“I just wanted you to see what I’ve done to it… where I’m going with it… What it could be like…”
The need to flee twittered in her stomach like nervous butterflies, but curiosity emboldened her. “Show me then.”
“It’s still pretty rough,” he wavered.
“Have a little faith in me, Jimmy. I’ll be able to see what you see.”
“You always could.”
Jimmy kept his hands in his pockets, his shoulders tight as he led her through the tangle of dormant landscaping, to the makeshift front porch. He had built temporary steps and laid out plywood for a landing. In the rough draft, Kylie could easily envision the porch as it would be, with thick columns and rafter scrolls, the floorboards stained redwood. She imagined the front door anchored by planters overflowing with ivy geraniums or vibrant calibrachoa. Heavy, potted ferns, along with a wind-chime, would hang from hooks in the ceiling. Matching rockers would sit side-by-side, angled for the best view of the setting sun.
“This is nice,” Kylie commented. She could even imagine a gentle, lazy dog napping on a colorful rag rug, snoring in the shade—a Bassett hound with sinus problems, maybe, or a Mastiff. “You should get a dog.”
“I’ve thought about it.” He pushed open the front door. “Just remember, it’s a work in progress.”
He stepped aside so Kylie could enter. When she did, it took her breath away. The history in the air was so thick it was palpable, begging her to reach out and feel its story, to listen to its secrets. Despite the years it had housed a bitter spinster, the house had always been, and always would be, a family home.
The house held dear the memories of those who had lived there before; those who had worked hard and loved passionately, who had cried tears of joy, and those of sorrow. Within her first few steps, she felt the house surround her in warm welcome, as though she an old friend who had been greatly missed.
“Wow… Jimmy.” She exhaled a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “This is gorgeous.”
“Not yet, but some day.”
“No.” She shook her head as she slowly walked the room. “Already…”
The front room was rough and the furniture temporary, but it held great potential. The ceilings were high, the room open and bright. The crumbling plaster had been removed and replaced with drywall that had been taped and mudded, but not yet painted. The trim was missing, and the floors were freshly-laid, bare oak waiting to be stained. It would be beautiful when he finished, especially with the stone fireplace that stood prominently against one wall.
She crossed the room and ran her hand along the heavy mantle. “Have you tried this out yet?”
“Not yet. I have to re-sleeve the chimney first.”
There were still hooks in the wood where a previous family had hung Christmas stockings. She ran a light touch along the aging wood, traced along a jagged “K + J” that had been carved into the side.
She gasped in surprise. “Did you—”
“No,” he answered before she could ask. “It was already there.”
She retraced the initials, trying to imagine the person who had carved them, what had made them do so. Was it no more than a child, a foolish girl with a crush? Newlyweds in a new home? An older man, remembering a younger self? “Who do you think K and J were?”
“I don’t know. There were a lot of Maleks.”
“You should look into it,” Kylie suggested.
“Yeah, sure,” Jimmy agreed, but she knew he wouldn’t. He possessed a passion for structural restoration, but the thrill of unraveling the history behind the paint was all hers. He pushed through the plastic sheeting hanging in the archway. “This is the dining room…”
He paused, allowing the room to speak to her first. It stood quiet, a blank slate of unfinished drywall and subfloor, void of any furnishings, cold even with the sun shining in. But Kylie could easily visualize it draped in deep, harvest colors, a long oak table sitting prominent in the center of the room, laden heavy with Thanksgiving dinner, the room warmed by the glow of candlelight, the joy of dear friends and family gathered around.
“It wasn’t too bad in here,” Jimmy said, talking as though to help fill the room. “Mike and I are almost done fixing the floors and I only have a little bit of trim to replace, but the china hutch was destroyed. I’ve been looking through salvage yards for a replacement, but I’ll probably have to make something myself.”
She looked to the opening in the wall, imagined a built-in, quarter sawn buffet with leaded glass doors and a beveled mirror backing nestled in the vacant space.
“There’s enough of it that wasn’t rotted out that I can duplicate it pretty close, but I might have to ask the Schmidts down the road if I can look at theirs as reference for some of the detail work—if they even still have their original. Most people took them out.”
“People are stupid.”
“I did find the original chandelier down in the cellar. I don’t know why the hell anybody would’ve taken it out in the first place. They had some awful kitchen bar light stuck up there instead.”
“At least they saved it.” Kylie stepped over to the bay window that overlooked the yard. Typical of older houses, the window went almost to the floor, letting in as much light and air as possible. “Oh, wow, you can see Dan and Stacy’s house from here.”
Framed in the window, Dan’s land was incredible. Spotted with groves of red cedars and thickets of wild plums, the gentle hills were covered in tall grasses that had turned rich, honey brown in their dormancy. A creek cut through Jimmy’s property a hundred yards or so from the window, and wound through the hills, feeding into Chelsea Lake on the other side.
“The trees’ll block the view when they’re leafed out, but, yeah, you can see them.”
The creek carved out the hill, creating a natural path that connected the two houses, perfect for Dan’s children and Jimmy’s children to run back and forth from one property to the other on hot summer days. In a few years’ time, she imagined horses and four-wheelers would beat that path so many times the earth would become hard-packed, the trail permanent, blazed by childhood memories cherished for a lifetime.
“It’s nice to have them so close,” Kylie said.
If she closed her eyes, she could easily imagine Brayden taking that path to play with Emily. But she knew he never would. Only Jimmy’s children will leave their footprints in that soil. Her children will make their memories on a different plot of land, in a different part of the country.
“Close is good,” he agreed.
She turned and gave him a weak smile, and they moved on with the tour.
“Kitchen’s over here,” he said, and pushed hard on the stiff, swinging door. It opened with a splintered creak.
“Oh,” Kylie gasped as strong wave of déjà vu took her by surprise. The room was stripped to the studs, standing naked and exposed, almost unrecognizable as a kitchen at all, but she felt instantly transformed to her six-year-old self, stepping into her grandmother’s kitchen. The feeling was so vivid she could almost smell the chicken frying in a cast iron skillet on the stove.
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” he said, misunderstanding her surprise. “Aria’s got some sort of plan for it though.”
Once she looked beyond memories already seen, she saw the room as it stood, with a secondhand refrigerator in one corner, a folding card table with a single chair set up in another. A makeshift, plywood countertop held only a microwave and coffee maker. The original farmhouse sink remained in place, but it was cracked and heavily rusted, probably slated for removal soon. There were no cabinets to store dishes, no pantry for food. From what she could see, he had to be living on takeout and frozen dinners.
“Do you at least have a grill?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t cook.”
“Yeah, you kinda suck at that, don’t you?”
“I do make a damn good s’more, though.”
“Brayden always thought so.” She let out a laugh, remembering. “Five o’clock in the morning, still in his pajamas, crushing a big bag of marshmallows against his belly, begging, ‘Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy! Make some ore!’ And you’d do it every time.”
“Your neighbor thought I was insane.”
“He thought you were high,” Kylie countered, and Jimmy laughed in surprise.
“I probably was.”
She smiled in the moment, but as his amusement died, an uncomfortable silence filled the kitchen. They stood awkwardly, uncertain where to go or what to say next. She stepped away from him, feigning interest in the cracked and rusted sink.
“How’s California treating you?” Jimmy asked.
“It’s good…” She searched for something else to add. “The weather’s nice.”
“How’s the fishing?”
Kylie laughed. “I have no idea.”
“You should go sometime.”
“I’ll get right on that,” Kylie lied.
She could easily picture Jimmy on a boat, out in the middle of the ocean, kicked back and drinking a beer, the sun baking his shoulders and bleaching his hair while he waited for his line to take off. Fishing was the only time he ever felt comfortable sitting still. When he worked, he pushed himself hard from morning until night, hardly ever stopping to take a break. But when he fished, he took his time. He could sit and wait for the perfect bite for hours.
“Some of Nessa’s friends have a boat. We went out with them a few times. Didn’t fish, but we did do a little water skiing.”
“That would’ve been something to see.” Jimmy laughed, knowing her all too well. She was a terrible swimmer, barely able to keep her head above water. He’d had to save her on more than one occasion because she refused to admit it.
“We had life jackets, so I did okay. Nessa only had to rescue me once.”
“Nessa seems nice.”
“She is,” Kylie agreed. “I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her. She gave me a place to stay, got me the job at Froggy’s, and she just adores Brayden. He gets a kick out of her, too, so that’s been a lifesaver…”
Jimmy nodded. He ran his hand across the rough surface of plywood counter, swiping at the dust, and avoiding her eyes. “What’s Froggy’s?”
“Do you like it?”
“I do, actually… The pay sucks, but the tips are surprisingly good. Better than I ever got at Jack’s. The guy who owns it, Frog Man—”
“Frog Man.” Kylie smiled with him as she thought of Frog Man. “I don’t know how he got the name, but that’s what everyone calls him. He’s something else. Super sweet and funny as hell. Loves his music.” She pulled in a deep breath of air before admitting, “He’s the type of guy I always wished I’d had for a dad.”
“Sounds like everything’s working out for you.” Jimmy’s words sounded encouraging, but his tone belied the sadness in his heart.
“Yep,” Kylie agreed but turned away before he could see the truth in her eyes.
Huntington Beach was wonderful—almost perfect—but it wasn’t home. Home was wherever Jimmy was, and her heart longed to be there. But her mind knew better, and her mouth started to ramble as it tried to sell it to her heart, and to Jimmy.
“I love it there, and Brayden’s doing great now. He’s starting to make friends in daycare and he loves the beach. Frog Man went all out on his birthday—hundreds of balloons and this huge cake. He even named a sandwich after him. It’s called the Bray-Nini. Ham and cheese on Panini bread topped with apple slices and a sweet mustard sauce. Of course, Brayden gets his without the mustard.”
Jimmy turned away from her as she talked. She felt bad lying to him, but she didn’t know how else to protect herself. She couldn’t tell him the truth—that Brayden was miserable, that she was miserable, that two months later they still had nights when they cried themselves to sleep.
“You want to see the rest, or should we call it a day?” Jimmy asked. By his tone, Kylie knew he was ready to call it a day.
“Whatever you want to do.”
“I should probably get to work. With Dan being gone, who knows what kind of trouble Brent’s getting himself into.”
“Yeah… okay. I should go check on Brayden anyway.”
They stood on opposite ends of the kitchen, silent again, neither of them moving to leave, mixed emotions filling the air between them.
“Ky… before you go, I have to tell you something…”
He took a step toward her. When he moved, her eyes landed on the refrigerator behind him, at the birthday card stuck to it with a magnet.
“Oh, shit…” she whispered to herself, a fluttery feeling of guilt and panic filling her heart.
“What?” Jimmy asked in confusion.
She rushed across the room, past him, and pulled the card from the fridge.
It was from his mom, covered in nature scenes and poetic verse, exactly the kind of card she knew Jimmy would have hated but loved at the same time.
“I can’t believe I forgot. I knew, I remembered the day, but I forgot… shit, Jimmy. I’m so sorry.”
His confusion evaporated as his eyes clouded over. “Don’t worry about it.”
“We were going to go to Florida…”
“… to the cemetery…”
“… and eat birthday cake with your dad.”
“Just forget about it. It doesn’t matter.” Jimmy turned away from her and pulled his hat from his head, running a hand through his hair in frustrated emotion.
The card slipped from her hands and fell to the floor as she reached for him, automatically pulling him into her embrace.
Her lips settled into the cave of his neck, resting on his rapid pulse. She whispered against his skin, “I knew, and I forgot… I am so sorry.”
She took a step back, brought her hands to his face, his stubble two days old and soft to the touch.
“Why didn’t you go?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.
“Because I would’ve missed seeing you, Ky.”
The way he said her name sent a ripple of need deep through her heart. It wasn’t born in lust but in memories of the life they had lived together, the life they had lost. The life she still saw every time she looked into his eyes, still felt whenever his hand held hers.
“I’m sorry…” She lifted onto her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his.
The muscles in his jaw tightened and his eyes closed tight, a visible struggle against his own desire, but the battle was short-lived. With a hot curse, he kissed her hard, gripped her tight, as his body hardened into steel.
Without preamble, or even a thought, his hands skimmed up her sides, peeling away her shirt, her bra disappearing along with it. She made to protest, but her hands had already betrayed common sense, stripping him of his shirt, tugging at his belt.
At the sound of his name, his eyes darkened, and he lifted her up. She barely registered the narrow stairwell, the hallway walls they stumbled against on the way to his bedroom. She clung to him, rising in his arms, pressing her breasts into his solid chest, exploring his mouth with such fervor their teeth clicked together and she tasted blood.
He walked her backward until she fell unceremoniously onto the rumpled, unmade bed. He ripped off her shoes, kicked his own aside. “The room’s a mess.”
“I don’t care.” She hadn’t even looked at it. All she could see was him.
She reached for him, pulling him closer by the waistband of his jeans, until her mouth claimed his again. His hands were everywhere, digging into her skin, sliding roughly up her back and around to her breast then down to her hips and pulling her closer and tighter to him and then moving on again. Her hands had only one mission, and she worked frantically at buttons and zippers, denim and cotton until she had them both free of restrictions.
He was solid perfection on top of her, his body lean and defined. His taste, his smell, the touch of his lips against hers, the silk of his skin, the rumble in his voice, his heat, the fit of his hips cradled into hers, the scrape of his teeth on her delicate skin as he sucked and nipped at her neck, everything about him was everything she had been missing, everything she had been needing, and she longed for the final connection. She felt hollow with wanting and tipped her hips, begging him to fill her. He held her tight as he entered her hard, and she cried out at the intensity of the pleasure the pain brought.
Jimmy stopped breathing and closed his eyes, his body rigid with emotion. “Oh fuck, Ky.”
“Don’t move,” she begged, pulling his hips tighter into hers, locking him in so they could stay exactly as they were, frozen, forever, in that moment. He was her heaven and she never wanted to let him go again.
He pulled out slightly and pushed back into her, burying himself fully. Her heat spread around him and he bit hard on her shoulder as he tried to fight it.
She stroked his hair and whispered, “I love you, baby. Just let it go.”
He rasped a deliciously low groan and pushed into her again and again, driving deeper and faster with every stroke. There was nothing gentle about the way he made love to her, about the way her body responded to his. It was as though it was their first time again, the fire at it hottest, their passion finally unleashed, allowed to spin dangerously out of control. She loved him when he was tender with her, but when he was selfish, she was at her best.
With no one to hear them, she held nothing back. Heat and friction built up the pressure, taking her higher and higher, and she begged for even more. She needed it all, everything he had ever given her, everything he had stolen away.
What they had never said with words they expressed with their bodies—the anger, the fear and frustration, painful deep burning love, the lust, the guilt, humiliation and regret—every emotion boiled to the surface as they battled against each other for their own relief. Heaven turned into hell then back into heaven as she fought him and her heart, the emotion of it overwhelming her.
Her orgasm hit like an explosion. She dug into him, tears burning her eyes as her back arched and she cried his name. He came as suddenly and violently as she had, swelling and pulsing and driving deeper yet as he filled her. She held him tight to her heart as his body flexed, every inch of him solidly shuddering.
As his muscles relaxed, she loosened her grasp and shifted under his weight, moving in to kiss him, but he turned away. His breathing ragged, he avoided her eyes, withdrawing from her quickly and pushing off the bed. He grabbed his jeans off the floor and pulled them on, the door slamming behind him before she fully registered he was gone.