Chapter 84 ~ Withdrawal

Withdrawal“Just come, Kylie. Stacy needs you there,” Aria pleaded through the phone. “You haven’t been home since you moved to California in September. Don’t you want to see everyone?”

Kylie closed her eyes, her jaw clinched in frustration. She had already had this exact conversation with Aria on multiple occasions, and her answer was always the same, “You know I want to, but I can’t.”

“I’ll pay for your tickets,” Aria offered, as though money was the issue. They both knew damn well it wasn’t.

“I can’t. Please, stop asking me.”

“Yes, you can. It won’t cost you anything but a few vacation days at work. Come for the wedding, and then you could stay for Christmas. You know Martha would love to spend the holidays with her grandson. She hasn’t seen him in so long, and she misses him so much. All she talks about is how much she wishes you would come home.”

Aria was talking fast, throwing every punch, and Kylie felt her resolve weaken. Moving to California had been a spur of the moment decision, one Kylie wished she hadn’t been forced to make, but living her old life in Allman Falls as though nothing had changed had not been an option.

From the moment Jimmy walked out of her kitchen, Brayden had spent every waking minute searching for him. Whenever they left the house, he strained against the straps of his car seat and pressed his face against the car window, his eyes whipping around as he desperately scanned the streets for Jimmy’s truck. He ran off in stores and away from the playground. He picked fights at daycare. He stopped talking. He cried every night when she put him to bed and he was still crying silent tears when he woke up in the morning.

It hadn’t helped that they’d always found each other. Jimmy was a solitary guy, but Allman Falls was a very small town. It was impossible to lose anyone there. Every time they bumped into him, Brayden flew into his arms and clung to him for dear life, his little arms wrapped so tight around Jimmy’s neck she wouldn’t have been able to pry him away if she’d wanted to. And she hadn’t wanted to. It would have destroyed Brayden if she had. She always allowed them a few moments together, but it had physically ripped her in two watching them interact.

As soon as Jimmy had Brayden in his arms, he would carry her son away, giving Kylie the space he thought she wanted. While he listened to every story her son wanted to tell him, Kylie stood on the sidelines, forced to pretend she didn’t still love him, didn’t still crave the smell of his skin, didn’t long for the taste of his breath mingling with hers as they slept. She’d stood distant, making believe she no longer lived in her memories of when they had been a family.

As much as she’d hated watching Jimmy carry Brayden away, the hardest part had always been Brayden’s pain when Jimmy inevitably returned to her. Brayden would scream in horror of never seeing Jimmy again, practically strangling Jimmy in his refusal to let go. By the time she and Jimmy finally managed to get her son transferred from his arms into hers, all three of them were in tears, and Kylie was left feeling hopeless she would ever be able to help her son heal.

They could go days without seeing Jimmy, each hour inching along and blurring into the next, her body growing increasingly numb with every passing minute. Her mind would go blank, her heart cold as her anger burned itself into ashen shades of grey. Just as she began to foolishly believe they’d recovered from the worst of the pain and were finally healing, finally moving on, there he’d be, pumping gas at the station on the corner or walking around the endcap display at the grocery store, and their worlds would shatter anew.

She’d be damned if she was going to sit around and watch Brayden’s little heart continually break over losing the man who had been his father. Brayden needed the freedom to forget what he had lost while he was still young, before the hurt could leave a scar too deep to heal. He would never get that in Allman Falls. In desperation, she’d sold their entire life in Nebraska and drove without direction until they ended up in the sunniest place she could think of, the state where she had been raised, California.

With twelve-thousand miles separating them from Jimmy, it was easier to pretend they were okay, but their hearts were far from healed. They still needed more time.

“Please, Ky,” Aria begged. “Come home for a little while… How about just until Dan and Stacy have their baby? She looks ready to pop at any minute. I honestly don’t know if she’ll even make it until the wedding. She’s huge, Kylie. And I mean huge. But don’t tell her I said that… Don’t you want to see the baby?”

“Why in the world are Dan and Stacy getting married now anyway? Shouldn’t they wait until after the baby’s born?” The question come out a little more irritably and a lot more self-righteously than she’d ever imagined she could sound, and she immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean that… I thought they were talking about a spring wedding.”

“You know how Stace is. Once she has an idea in her head she can’t shake it. She wants to be married before the baby’s born, and all Dan wants is to make her happy, so he’s game. He has the sweetest surprise planned for her wedding march—Omigod, Ky! You have to come just for that! She’s going to start balling, I’m going to be balling—Ky, you have to be here! I guarantee you will cry. But it’ll be a good cry, the best kind of crying—happy tears! I just hope her dress still fits when the day comes. We ordered it big, but at the rate she’s growing… Man, I hope my dress fits. I’m no Skinny Minnie anymore either. So, are you coming?”

Her heart and her head in turmoil, Kylie prayed for guidance. “Let me think about.”

“There’s nothing to think about. Just say yes. Please, please, please. Pretty please.”

“Fine, I’ll come.” Kylie sighed in defeat. She could never say no to Aria. “But there’s no way I can stay until Christmas. It’s a month away. I’ll come for the wedding, but that’s it. One day.”

“How about a week? Friday to Friday.”

“No… I don’t know…” The more she thought about it, the more a week with her mom sounded like the perfect medicine to heal her moody blues. She and Brayden could spend a week wrapped in the warm cocoon of her mother’s love, baked into decedent cookies and simmered in winter stews. There would be no reason to ever leave the house. Other than for a few, torturous hours at the wedding, they would never see him.

“If it makes you feel better, Jimmy’s been talking about going to Florida to spend the holidays with his mom. I don’t know if he’ll even be here for the wedding.”

Kylie picked at a loose thread on the sofa, distracting herself as an unexpected wave of sorrow washed over her. “How’s Mary Ann doing?”

“Really good. She’s excited for her first grandbaby.”

“I bet.” She had lost not just her fiancé, but an entire family in the breakup. The loss still wore her raw. “He finally broke down and called her then?”

“Brent didn’t exactly give him much of a choice. He can be pretty stubborn when he wants to be.”

“However it happened, I’m happy to hear they’re talking again.”

“So am I. He should have gone to see her a long time ago.”

Aria’s tone had turned somber, causing Kylie immediate concern. She couldn’t allow herself to love him, but she would never stop worrying about him. “How is Jimmy?”

“Fine,” Aria answered dismissively and too quickly.


“I don’t know what to tell you, Ky. You know how he is. I guess he’s doing okay, considering. Working way too hard, as usual. All the boys are.”

“Drinking too hard?”

“So, are you coming home?” Aria asked, ignoring her question, which gave Kylie the answer she’d expected. Yes.

“I can probably swing a week off work.”

“Yay!” Aria cheered, but her voice carried more exhausted relief than glee. “You’re going to love the dress I picked out for you. It’s gorgeous. Perfect for your figure.”

“You bought me a dress?” Kylie asked, not bothering to mask her irritation this time.

“Well, of course, silly girl. These things must be ordered. You can’t wear something off the rack. You are Stacy’s maid of honor, after all.”

“Oh, hell no! I agreed to come to the wedding, not be in it.”

“Too late. The programs are already printed. Oh, and Brayden’s ring bearer. He’s going to look so cute in his tux! Love you, sweetie. See you on Friday.”

“Goddamn it, Aria—”

Aria disconnected before Kylie could get another word in.

Letting out a string of whispered curses, Kylie winged her cellphone in the general direction of the coffee table. Like a stone across the surface of calm water, it skipped over the polished wood and skittered onto the floor. She felt like kicking and screaming and banging her head against the wall, but she didn’t have the luxury of a tantrum. Not with Brayden within hearing-distance in the next room. Instead, she bit back the frustration, bottling it up as she did every time, certain it would kill her before she finally had a private moment to let it all go.

Life would be so much easier, at least in the moment, if she smoked or drank to excess, if she had the kind of appetite that allowed her to scarf ice cream by the bucket-load until she collapsed into a sugar-laced coma. She’d kill for a vice of any kind that allowed her to blissfully self-medicate the pain away, but her vice was Jimmy. He always had been. A person couldn’t substitute one bad habit for another and expect to feel the same kind of euphoric high they were addicted to. Something would always be missing, making them crave the original that much more.

And, oh, did she ever crave him.

Late at night, when her defenses were at their lowest, when her bed felt colder than any Nebraska winter, she longed to put an end to her misery with a phone call. If she could hear his voice again, feel it wrap around her like a sultry, summer night…

But giving in to her desires would put her son at risk, sentencing him of a lifetime of disappointment. Alcoholics don’t set the glass down after one sip; a cheater’s eye doesn’t stop roaming after one stolen kiss. A tiny taste of the forbidden only amplifies the need. Soon, Brayden would be old enough to be influenced by Jimmy’s lack of self-control. It would shape him and mold him, distorting his definition of what it means for a man to respect himself, to love a woman, to be committed to a family. She refused to allow Jimmy to have that kind of permanent, negative impact on her son. She refused to allow Brayden to depend on a man who would one day up and leave them behind.

Kylie despised herself for carelessly entrusting Brayden’s precious heart with Jimmy in the first place. She had believed in his love for her son, just as she had believed in her step-father, Charlie’s, love for her every single time he had called her his little girl. But Charlie had loved himself more than he had ever loved her. Family life had bored him. He had grown weary of the responsibility, tired of the tedium, and he had walked away. All these years later, the pain in Kylie’s heart was still tender, still real, and like an idiot, she had exposed her son to the exact same pain.

Please, God, tell me how I could have been so incredibly stupid?

The front door of the condo flew open, sparing her from answering her own question.

“Oh, my good gracious, Ky! What a day!” Kylie’s roommate, and dearest friend, Vanessa Martinez, blew in on her typical whirlwind of chatter. She dropped two greasy bags from Froggy’s Café onto the coffee table and collapsed onto the sofa next to Kylie. “I need a drink!”

“Make mine a double.”

“Uh, oh. That doesn’t sound good. Do I need to beat someone up for you?”

“I don’t know yet.”

The complete opposite of Kylie in both body and temperament, Nessa was Kylie’s saving grace. If not for her childhood best friend, Kylie never would have made it through the past three months. She had arrived in California with no money, no plan, and no hope for the future. But one quick phone call to Nessa had changed it all—or at least the ‘plan’ part anyway. With her tips from Froggy’s, she had made good progress on the money part. Hope would only come with time.

“Just say the word, and I’ll go all assassin on their sorry ass.” Nessa’s face scrunched into a snarl and she punched at the air, adding the appropriate sounds for effect. “Nobody messes with my Ky Girl and lives to tell the tale.”

Kylie couldn’t help but laugh. “Put those killer fists away before you hurt yourself.”

Nessa hauled herself upright and started unpacking their dinner. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or is it another of your moody-butt secrets you love to keep from me?”

“I got suckered into being in a wedding this weekend.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun.”

“It’s not,” Kylie agreed. Even though she loved both Dan and Stacy dearly and wished them only the best, the last thing in the world Kylie wanted to do was be in a wedding that wasn’t hers. It was bad enough just to attend. “You want to be my date?”

“Ooh, I’d love to! Especially if we get to make out on the dance floor.” Nessa wiggled her eyebrows, forcing a smile from Kylie. “Whose wedding is it?”

“Dan and Stacy’s.”

“Dan and Stacy from Nebraska, Dan and Stacy?”

“Do you know of any other Dan-and-Stacies getting married?”

“Well, no, but… Are you sure you want to go?”

“No,” Kylie answered honestly.

“Is the devil incarnate going to be there?”

Kylie cringed. “Please stop calling him that.”

“Why? He sure ain’t no saint.”

“I know, but just stop.” No matter how many times she said it, Nessa’s nickname for Jimmy didn’t make Kylie smile as Nessa intended. Instead, it hurt her heart to hear.

Needing a moment of space, Kylie left Nessa to her grumbling and went down the hall to collect Brayden for dinner. She found him in his room, officiating over an elaborate, multi-car Hot Wheels race. The track spanned the lowlands of his floor, up the steep incline of his dresser, across the rough terrain of his unmade bed, before returning to the valley to do it all over again. Amazed by his ingenuity, she leaned against the door jamb to watch a few laps.

Every so often, if she caught Brayden in just the right light, she saw a hint of the man he would grow into. She could see the strength in his jaw and the intensity in his gaze, the studious way he approached a problem, weighing every possibility before making his decision. Since their move to California, he had started eating better, sleeping better. He had fully graduated to big-boy underwear, even overnight. The southern sun had colored his face with a healthy glow and bleached his sandy blonde hair, making him look even more like Jimmy than he already had. Some days it was hard to look at him without tearing up.

“Time for dinner, Bray.”

Startled from his play, he whipped around.

“Who’s winning?”

He held up his favorite car, a circa 1965 Fastback Jimmy’s mother had given him during one of their Florida trips. One pushing, one shoving, Jimmy and Brent had both claimed it had once been theirs. Brayden nipped their argument in the bud by declaring the car, “Mine!”

“Cool car. What kind is it?”

He shrugged.

“Is it a Mustang?” she prompted.

He turned the car over in his hands, one shoulder lifting as he traced his finger along the faded “Rogan” printed in a child’s block letters on the undercarriage.

Their move had been good for him in many ways, except one. Somewhere between Nebraska and California, he had lost his desire to tell jokes, to sing, to laugh at his own crazy stories. Some days he chose not to speak at all. Kylie’s worry intensified as the days passed absent of his sweet chatter, but the doctors, his teachers, even her mother, all assured her he would be fine, it was only a phase, the same thing they’d said back when he’d preferred pecking at his food instead of putting it in his mouth. Every night, she prayed for their expertise to be right. It would kill her if she had unintentionally caused him more harm in her attempt to keep him safe.

“One more lap, and then come eat, okay?”

She waited, praying for even a whispered word in answer, but he only returned to his game.


Chapter 82 ~ Cleaning House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did they lose?”

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

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

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

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

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

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





Chapter 81 ~ Haunted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike used that revelation to finally spur Kitty into action.

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

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

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

Chapter 80 ~ The First Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In my car?”

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

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

“I’m here to help you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come, come. Come see what I found!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sighed, heavy with exhaustion. “Stop.”

“Make me.”

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

“Mike,” she protested.

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


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

“No,” she repeated, stronger.

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

“Quit!” he shouted.


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

Chapter 79 ~ Irreparable Damage

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

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

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

“Yeah… I do.”

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

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

“She’s up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is somebody hurt? Is it Brent? Dan?”

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

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

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

“What did you do?”



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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither of them moved to retrieve it.

“Kylie… please…”


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


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

“Jimmy home!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jimmy eat, too?” Brayden asked.

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

“Where you go?” Brayden asked.

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

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

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

“I love you, Ky.”

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

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

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

Chapter 78 ~ Wake Up Call

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

“Your phone,” Stacy grumbled.

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

His cell phone mercifully stopped ringing.

The house phone came to life.

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

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

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

“Is she insane?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 76 ~ Illuminate

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Boo in your room?”

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

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

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

“When was the last time you saw Boo?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or Marissa.

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

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

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

She scolded herself, Don’t do it…

But she did.

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

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

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

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

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

Just one little tap.

Just one.

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

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

She didn’t know Jimmy very well, either.

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

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

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

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

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

There was only one reason Sarah would call so late.

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

“I had to take his keys.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Will do.”

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

“No, they left a while ago.”

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

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

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

“She got plenty of it tonight.”

“Was she bothering Jimmy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 75 ~ Losing Game

Losing GameBrent was good for two beers, then he headed home. More than once, he suggested Jimmy do the same, but like the dumbass he was, Jimmy stayed and switched to whiskey. He also switched to a table in the back of the bar, in a corner darkened by deep shadows, where people would leave him alone. The clamor of the crowd and the pounding of the music drowned out the echo of Kylie’s voice. Jack Daniel’s numbed the pain. His entire body hummed, the beat of his heart reverberating from one side of his head to the other. When he closed his eyes, the sound bounced behind his lids in vivid red and yellow waves.

Mike had also taken an early exit, leaving his new wife and her redheaded stripper to party on without him. Jimmy had tried to talk to Ashley earlier in the evening, but she’d been too far gone for coherent thought. He’d have better luck in the morning, when her hangover extinguished her anger and regret pounded behind her eyes. He left her alone, but watched over her as she and the redhead danced.

He didn’t have much choice. Dancing in the corner of the floor, directly in his line of sight, they twined together, and pulled apart, rising and falling, pulsing and pausing in their own private, erotic timing. He could have looked away, but the show they put on was solely for him, so he watched. He considered it his wedding gift to her. He sure the hell wasn’t going to buy the bitch a blender.

He drained the last of the watered-down whiskey in his glass and whistled to his cousin, Sarah, for another. She headed in the opposite direction, intentionally making him wait. It could have been worse. Marissa could have been the one making the rounds, holding his drinks hostage. He’d rather suffer through Sarah’s childish antics than Marissa’s sexual innuendos every time his glass ran dry. He’d seen Missy fly through earlier in the evening, an asshole on her arm and too much makeup on her face, but she didn’t stick around for long.

As Sarah passed once more, Jimmy raised his empty glass. She kept walking, torturing him longer. He hated her. Always had. He didn’t know why. Her perfection, maybe. Sarah looked like a Rogan. She had the thick brown hair, the warm chocolate eyes. She had the slight, Rogan bow to her legs, same as both his father and his brother had. She was strong, capable, smart as hell. She had been a straight-A student. Valedictorian. He had barely passed high school, studying only hard enough to make the grades he’d needed to qualify to play baseball in the spring, football in the fall, to wrestle in the winter. Once Rich Handley died and Jimmy started working for his father full-time, there had been no point in trying to keep up even a mediocre grade-point average. Playtime had ended.

Sarah’s first marriage had failed; not through any fault of hers, other than she’d placed her faith on the wrong man. She had two beautiful children, one a boy, one a girl, both with strong Rogan features, both as smart and capable as their mother. She’d found a better man, one who loved her, who adored her children, who’d had to ask for her hand only one time before she’d cried out, “Yes!” Sarah Rogan would be Sarah Bennett before her next birthday rolled around. Jimmy had no clue when Kylie would get around to saying, “I do.” Or if she ever would.

In a sermon, Pastor Tom had once said life was an intricate puzzle packaged in a plain cardboard box, some pieces light, some dark, the solution obscure, but through faith, the picture revealed. Like Brent, Sarah had solved her puzzle with ease, the darkness shifting seamlessly into bright clarity. All the pieces of Jimmy’s puzzle were laid out before him—Kylie, Brayden, the business, a house, Brent and Aria, Dan and Stacy, Sunday dinners at Chelsea Lake, fishing after sunset, making love in the summer rain—but they lay strewn about on a vast table, acres of pecan-stained cherry wood between each one. The harder he tried to fit his life together, the more the pieces resisted, as though his hands had already aged into uselessness, gnarled by arthritis, trembling from abuse and drowned regrets.

Sarah snuck up on him from behind and kicked the leg of his chair, jerking him to attention.

“About goddamn time.”

“I was going to make you wait longer, but I was afraid you’d park your ugly ass up at the bar.” She stood with her hand on the back of his chair, watching Ashley and the stripper grind seductively against each other from his vantage point. “You’re encouraging her.”

“She doesn’t need encouragement.”

“She really got married, huh?”

“So she says.”

“You don’t believe her?”

“I haven’t believed a word that’s come out of her mouth since the day I met her.” He held his empty glass up for Sarah, his eyes never leaving the ass of the redhead. She put on a good show. As long as she was offering it for free, he was going to get his money’s worth. “But, yeah, I believe this.”

“Ky pissed?”


“At you?”


“Good.” She smacked him upside the back of his head and disappeared with his glass.

The song changed, the crowd shifted. Ashley and her whore fused together as they danced, and Sarah returned with a fresh Jack and Coke.

She slammed the glass onto the table. “Eight-fifty.”

“Bullshit.” He made a grab for the glass.

She slid it away from him. “Inflation.”

He pulled a ten from his wallet, ripped it in two, and tossed one half onto her tray. She let go of the glass. Ten minutes later, she brought him another round and he gave her the other half of the ten.

Her eyebrow arched in irritation. “No tip?”

“Don’t eat yellow snow.”

“Hardy har,” she said with a roll of her eyes before a sad smile overtook her expression. “I miss your dad.”

“So do I.” He lifted the glass and contemplated the dark amber liquid inside. It never held the answers he searched for, but for some reason he couldn’t stop asking it questions, praying for an epiphany.

“What was the one he used to say all the time?”

You shine like a pitchfork in manure.”

She tugged down the bill of his cap. “That’s the one.”

“Go away, Sarah. Please.”

“Go home, Baby James, before you get yourself in trouble.”

He fixed his ballcap, using the motion to mask the painful rush of emotion the long-unheard endearment had welled up in his chest. “Seriously, go away.”

“And I’m serious, Jimmy.” She shot a glance at Ashley and the redhead, and then narrowed her eyes as she glared at Jimmy. “Go home.”

Jimmy ran a hand down his face in irritation, drying tears he hadn’t known had fallen.

“Fuck,” he hissed in a whisper, cursing Sarah. Kylie. The whole fucking world. Cursing that damn song his mother used to sing to him when she tucked him in at night, kissing the cheeks and closing the eyes of her “Sweet Baby James.” There was nothing sweet about him anymore. Far from it. But he needed to hear her sing it again.

His mother’s piece of his puzzle still sat on the table, but she had moved to the very edge, refusing to return to the center where she belonged. He’d begged her to come home with him after the funeral, practically falling on his knees in desperation, but she had only smiled, her will stubbornly immovable.

“I can’t, Jimmy. This is where I need to be right now.”

She hadn’t said what he’d wanted to hear. He had turned away from her, trying to shut out her words, but her voice had followed him.

“Please try to understand.” She placed her hand on his forearm, her touch gentle, pleading, but he refused to look at her. “For my entire married life, I have shared my time with your father with someone else. With you, and with Brent. With our family and friends, with the church, the entire town—and, my god, how many hours of my time with him did I have to hand over to the business?”

She paused as though expecting him to answer, but he didn’t know what she wanted him to say. They had all sacrificed for the business. They’d all lost time. Money. Their youth. But the business was their livelihood. They did what they’d had to do.

“Too many, Jimmy.”

She trailed her hand down his arm, but she did not let go. She walked around him, inserting herself into his field of vision, refusing to allow him to avoid her gaze.

“Even after we moved here, I was forced to give my time with your father to his new friends, to a new church, to the doctors and nurses, his ailing body. And, in all that time, I never once complained. He was a big man, bigger than life itself, and I forced myself to be content receiving what little bit of him was left over after everyone else took their piece. But not anymore. Now that he’s gone, it is unacceptable to me to allow my heart, and my pain, to be second-best to everyone else’s. I need all of him right now. I need to indulge in my memories of your father, in memories of our life together and our love for each other. I need to walk along the beach and taste the salt on my lips, watch the sun rise from the depths of the ocean while I grieve over the loss of the only man I have ever loved. And I need to do it by myself. If I go home now, the solitude I crave will be the one thing I will be denied. I hope you can understand.”

He had understood, but she hadn’t. He didn’t want her to come home for him, to comfort him, to help him grieve. He wanted her to come home so he could do those things for her. He wanted to return to her all the selfless, loving support she had generously bestowed upon him for his entire life. But she didn’t need or want anything from him, except for him to leave her alone. It hurt to hear those words, to understand their meaning, but he had begrudgingly given her what she asked for. With the salty, summer wind whipping her long skirt around her too-thin body and tousling her graying hair, he had turned his back on his mother and headed for home without as much as a goodbye.

Dan kept telling him to give her time, to allow her to grieve in her own way, but the longer she remained in Florida, the longer she stayed away from home, the more he wished he had dragged her off that goddamn beach, and onto the plane.

He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table, and buried his face in his hands. The song blasting through the speakers changed. The bass thumping, the red and yellow sound waves behind his eyes pulsed in time with the sadistic cadence. He should go home. He should wrap Ky in his arms and tell her not to worry about their wedding. They would slow down. They would wait.

God damn, he didn’t want to fucking wait. He wanted to marry her. He wanted to wake up every day for the rest of his life with her breath warming his cheek. He wanted babies and soccer games and barbeques. He wanted loud Christmases. Most of all, he wanted to come home at the end of the day, kick off his boots, scoop Brayden into his arms, and know with certainty his little boy would be his son for the rest of his life. He needed more than a hope and a prayer. He needed a binding contract, witnessed and approved by God, stating without a shred of doubt, We are family.

“Jimmy, right?”

He uncovered his eyes to find the redhead standing where Sarah had been. She smiled, her teeth orthodontic perfection in pearly white.

He readjusted his hat with the bill to the back, and leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed, studying her. “Don’t play dumb. You know who I am.”

“Can I ask you something, Jimmy?” she asked in a seductive, southern drawl as fake as beauty mark penciled high on her cheek.


“I’ve been watching you watch me all night.” She slipped onto the chair across from him, positioning her body to give him the best view of her freckled cleavage. A diamond teardrop dangled from a thin gold chain around her neck, dipped into the valley of her breasts. His eyes followed. “Why you haven’t asked me to dance.”

“Why would I?”

With every intention of leaving, Jimmy wrapped his hand around the sweating, still-full glass of Jack and Coke, but something in the way she drew a breath kept him pinned to his chair. As though hypnotized, he watched her breasts rise and fall through another breath before he shifted his gaze to the emerald green of her irises.

“You don’t like the way I dance?” she asked, her lips puckering into a pout.

“I didn’t say that.”

He held her gaze as he lifted his glass. Her lips parted as he took a drink. Her breathing deepened, her eyes darkened, her body responding as though he was drinking her instead of the whiskey. When she moistened her lips, his disobedient body responded, forcing him to shift to a more comfortable position in his chair.


“So, you do like it.” She smiled again.

“I didn’t say that either.”

He set the glass down, wiped his hand on his jeans, tugging at the denim to relieve the growing pressure against his zipper.

“Well, which is it?” Her fingertips brushed along his arm, her skin virginal white against the deep tan of his. “Do you like how my body moves for you?”

He watched the rhythmic way her hand danced as she teased him with a practiced touch. He ignored her question and asked one of his own. “What’s your name?”

“Anna Mae.” Her eyes deepened in color, her body purring, as though the sound of her own name aroused her.

“Anna Mae?” he repeated as he leaned into her across the narrow table.

She met him halfway, eagerly erasing the distance between them. He pressed his lips to the shell of her ear, breathed in the light, coconut scent of her shampoo. She inhaled a trembling breath, turned into him in anticipation.

The moment he had her, he whispered, “Go to hell, Anna Mae.”

She smacked his hand, gasping in false horror. “Shame on you.”

Exhausted by the never-ending games, he pushed away from the table and moved over to the stool at the end of the bar where there was a little more light, and less chance he would be ambushed by another southern seductress.

“Making new friends, I see,” Sarah said.

He huffed his disgust and shook his glass, rattling the ice cubes. “Skip the Coke this time.”

She ripped the glass from his hand and replaced it with a lowball glass of straight Tennessee whiskey. “Sixteen-fifty.”

He turned his hat around and slipped his wallet from his back pocket. “I’ll make you a deal…”

Eagerly, she watched as he pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. When he ripped it in two, she smacked him hard.

“What the hell is your problem, Jimmy? Stop doing that!”

“It’s just paper.”

“You’re an idiot!”

“You want it?” He tossed half on the bar, pinched the other half between his index and middle finger, holding it away from her. “You keep your mouth shut and keep ‘em coming for the rest of the night, I’ll give you this, plus one more as a tip.”

She narrowed her eyes, chewed on her bottom lip in consideration.

“Easiest two hundred bucks you’ll ever make.”

She nodded at his wallet. “Let me see the other one first.”

He showed it to her.

“Deal.” She made a grab for it, but he was faster.

“Uh, uh, uh.” He wagged his finger. “Not until the end of the night.”

“Last call’s in an hour.”

“And if you want my money, you’ll make sure I don’t see the bottom of my glass before then.”

She pulled a full bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the rack and slammed it onto the bar beside him. “Done.”


Chapter 74 ~ Gone

GoneIt had long past Brayden’s bedtime and he was out like a light, a heavy weight against Jimmy’s chest. He slept with his face to Jimmy’s neck, his breath warm and sweet, laced with vanilla from the ice cream Cheryl had fed him while she’d had him sequestered in the kitchen, avoiding the wrath of Kylie.

Jimmy hadn’t been so lucky. The instant Ashley’s wedding announcement spewed from her mouth, Kylie had turned to him, her condemnation so sharp he could feel it penetrate his chest like a searing hot knife.  The accusation was unjust. He’d take blame for a lot about Ashley, the good along with the bad, but this one wasn’t his to own.

“Want a beer?” Dan offered as he joined Jimmy at the table.

“I’m done for the night,” he declined.

He already had a hell of a buzz going, partly from the whiskey he’d downed after Kylie had stormed out, but mostly from exhaustion. He could sleep for a year and still wake completely drained, and even more behind schedule.

Dan cracked open the beer, but barely sipped it before he set it on the table. “Want to do some four-wheelin’ around Chelsea tomorrow? Celebrate a shit job finally done.”

“Not done yet.”

They had an hour’s worth of work to finish, maybe two, depending on what Charlene found to complain about when they did the final inspection in the morning. And he still had to deal with Marissa’s situation with the city. Knowing Kitty Vasek and her indiscriminate collecting habits, and her penchant for the dramatic, he could blow the rest of his weekend trying to clean up the property and accomplish nothing.

Brayden sighed, shifted in his sleep. Jimmy slouched a little lower in his chair to help him get comfortable. His little boy grew heavier as every day passed. Taller. Stronger. More independent. He wanted to do everything by “I’s self.” He made up ridiculous stories and told them again and again, embellishing with every repetition. He could blow bubbles and had learned how to lie for his own benefit. It wouldn’t be long before he would refuse to be held, even while he slept.

Until Jimmy held Brayden for the first time, he had never understood why some people had so many kids. Now, he knew. The inevitability of empty arms was a terrifying prospect.

He needed to slow time. Forget the work, experience the moments. But he’d made commitments. Striking a balance seemed impossible. His father had never figured out how. Maybe he’d never tried. James Rogan had missed birthdays and Christmases, school concerts and football games. His chair at the table had sat empty for almost every meal, his voice absent from the family chatter. For most of Jimmy’s life, his father had been a brutal boss, a harsh critic, or a midnight shadow on the wall. Work came first. Church second. Family, not even a distant third.

Until his stroke, he’d never prioritized his life any other way. By then, it was too late. Jimmy had to learn how to do better, before he missed it all.

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” he promised Dan. “I’ve got to look at something for Missy quick, but then we’ll swing out. Ky wanted to go camping anyway. Might as well do it at the lake.”

“Should we invite your brother?” Dan asked with a nod to Brent.

Jimmy glanced to the jukebox, where he and Aria swayed in slow dance, lost together in a private world. Both with their eyes closed, their feet barely moving, Aria held her hand to Brent’s cheek as he leaned in to the kiss she whispered along his neck. Content, they looked to dance forever.

“Probably should,” Jimmy said. “He’d be mad if we didn’t.”

Dan hooked a thumb toward Mike. “What about your other brother?”

The kid sat at the bar, his face in his hands as though in prayer to disappear, a full shot of tequila in front of him, his back to the crowd he came in with. Jimmy had never seen a more miserable soul.

“Hey, Mike!”

Though Dan had been the one to call to him, Mike looked directly at Jimmy when he turned. He sat frozen, unblinking, momentarily trapped by indecision, before he started a solemn walk across the bar. He brought the shot of tequila with him.

Jimmy kicked a chair toward him. “Take a load off.”

Mike slid the chair further away from Jimmy before sitting down.

“Congratulations?” Dan asked as a question, lifting his bottle in cheers.

Mike set the shot glass on the table, muttered a feeble, “Thank you.”

They sat in awkward silence.

Dan lifted his bottle again, taking a slow pull of beer. He looked to Jimmy, then around the room as though searching for inspiration. He settled on the obvious.

“Who’s the redhead?”

Mike lifted a shoulder in shrug. “I don’t know. She signed as a witness. I think she works at the courthouse.”

“She looks like a stripper.”

He shrugged once more, said nothing.

He sat with his shoulders hunched, his eyes averted. He fidgeted with the shot glass, occasionally lifting it to spin it around, testing the weight of it before he set it down. He’d drum his fingers on the table, clutch his hand in a fist, before lifting the glass to spin it again, his struggle so vivid Jimmy felt it strangle his own throat.

He offered a distraction. “I need you to work off some of your rent tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sure. Okay.” Mike pulled his hand away from the shot glass, his posture relaxed. “Whatever you need.”

“You know that house on Second and Franklin, across from the old service station?”

“The one with the trash?” Mike asked with uncertainty.

“The one with the trash,” Jimmy confirmed. “Meet me there at nine. We’re going to clean it up.”

“Oh!” His face crumpled in dismay, his expression reminiscent of Brayden’s whenever Kylie set broccoli in front of him. “All of it?”

“That’ll take a year,” Dan said.

“Not if you come help,” Jimmy suggested.

“Or you could just light a match and watch it burn.”

“Can we?” Mike asked, his eyes bright, eager.

“No,” Jimmy laughed.

The flash of humor died in an instant as the door to the pub flew open, slamming into the wall for the second time that night. Brayden startled in reflex, but did not wake. Kylie stormed through, headed for the Women’s restroom. Jimmy moved to follow her, but Stacy waved for him to stay put as she followed Kylie down the short hall.

Ashley came in a moment later, her eyes puffy from crying, her mascara streaked in black rivers down her cheeks. She went straight to her new best friend, the redhead sitting at the bar. Ashley gestured wildly as she recounted her argument, finished the girl’s beer, then impatiently snapped her fingers at Mike as they headed out.

“Let’s go!”

Mike jumped to his feet, knocking hard into the table and upending his chair. Dan shot a hand out, saving the tequila as it teetered toward the floor. Oblivious to the chaos he created, Mike stumbled his way across the room, tripping over chairs in his rush to join Ashley.

Jimmy strangled back a laugh as he watched the kid scamper, but when the redhead paused to slip off her heels, his attention shifted entirely to her. She was young, maybe twenty, twenty-four at most, a natural redhead with creamy-white skin. Freckles peppered across her face, spilling onto her shoulders. She could be called cute, maybe even pretty, but her body more than made up for her average features. Especially her legs.

As though she could feel Jimmy’s eyes upon her, she turned, her expression practiced coy. He didn’t return the smile, but he didn’t look away from her, either. As all girls tended to do when they knew they had an audience, the redhead threw a little more hip-action into her stride. Her gestures became animated. She laughed too hard at something Ashley said. Every few steps, she casually checked to see if she still held his attention.

She hid it better than most, but the intention behind every action was obvious. He’d played the game so many times he had the script memorized. She didn’t care if he was single, married, widowed, divorced, gay or straight. She was throwing the invitation out, just in case he didn’t care either. To accept, all he had to do was follow her out of the bar. It was too fucking easy to get laid.

“Why don’t you go see if she needs a ‘safe’ ride home, Jimmy,” Kylie snapped, ripping his attention away from the girl. “That line always worked real good for you at Jack’s.”

Jimmy bit his tongue. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but he wasn’t in the mood to defend himself. He was tired of fighting with her, and she looked as though she’d gone ten rounds already. He just wanted to take her home and help her forget. “Are you okay?”

“Do I look okay?” she snapped.

“No.” She looked as though she would burst into tears at any moment.

She lifted her sleeping son from his arms. “I’m going home.”

“I’ll drive you,” Jimmy offered.

“Don’t bother.”

He had to lengthen his stride to keep up with her hurried pace as she left the pub and crossed the parking lot. He opened her car door so she could set Brayden in his car seat, and then he stepped in and buckled his son secure. Brayden slept on like a rock through all the man-handling, a sweet snore escaping his lips. Jimmy kissed his cheek and his forehead, and then carefully closed the door.

He followed Kylie around to the driver’s side. As she grabbed the door handle to make her escape, he braced his hand against the frame, preventing her from opening it. Gently, but forcefully, he moved her aside, then used her keys to start the engine. Once he had the air conditioner cranked to keep Brayden cool, he turned to Kylie, watching as she paced in angry strides.

“Ky,” Jimmy reached out in comfort, but she pulled away.

“Don’t even start. I can’t think right now. I just want to go home.”


“I knew she was up to something. I knew it, and I didn’t stop her.”

“You can’t put this on yourself. She made her own decisions.”

“This isn’t a decision! This is a tantrum she’s throwing for attention. Or to piss me off.”

“Or she’s doing what she wants to do,” Jimmy countered.

“You think she wants any of this?” A bitter laugh laced her doubt. “Maybe she thinks she’s in love with Mike, or that she can save him, somehow. But there’s no way she wants to be married. She can’t handle that kind of commitment! She’ll be divorced in a week. And the Army?” She laughed again, a hint of hysterics creeping in. “Are you serious?”

“She’s done her research, Ky. She knows what she’s getting into.”

“She hasn’t researched anything,” Kylie easily dismissed. “She probably thinks it’s like going to summer camp, only with hot guys in uniform.”

He shook his head in disbelief. “You don’t know your sister at all, do you?”

“After everything I’ve done for her?” she huffed. “I think I know her pretty damn well.”

“Maybe you used to, but when’s the last time you actually talked to her?”

“She won’t talk to me!”

“She used to. Were you ever listening to what she said, or taking notice of all the changes she’s made in her life?”

“I was listening to her tonight! Every drunken word. She sounded like a damn fool.”

“Yeah, she was drunk, but I have a feeling she was a little nervous over how you’d react.”

“So, this is my fault now?”

Jimmy grunted in frustration. “I didn’t say that.”

“No, you’re right. It is my fault. And it’s yours, too.”

“Fine.” He didn’t deserve the blame, but Kylie wanted to lay it on him, so he accepted it. “Blame it all on me, Ky. I don’t care. Just cut Ash a little slack.”

Kylie continued her argument, oblivious to his surrender. “You messed around on her so much she’ll never be able to trust anyone ever again. She can’t even trust me!”

“Apparently, she trusts Mike,” Jimmy countered. “Enough to marry the guy.”

“Oh, you would just love that, wouldn’t you?”

Confused, Jimmy asked, “Love what?”

“For her to be fine! For her to be okay, with everything! To be normal!” With a bitter laugh, Kylie struggled to open her car door, but she was too distracted by her anger. “You get to use her and screw her and treat her like crap, for three years, and suffer no consequences? That’s bullshit!”

The thin rope of control he held over his temper severed, and he exploded. “What do you want to happen to me, Ky? You want to send me to jail? You wanna cut off my dick? Would that make you feel better?”

“This isn’t about me!” she screamed.

“It’s always about you! You don’t trust me! You’ve never trusted me! All these arguments about my fucked up relationship with your sister all boil down to the fact that you will never trust me!”


“You don’t trust anyone. You never have.”

Her jaw tightened in defiance, trembling slightly as her eyes filled with tears.

“I’m not Charlie, or your father, or that goddamn asshole that got you pregnant. I didn’t abandon you! Quit treating me like I already have!”

She said nothing as the tears trailed down. No denial. No profession of faith in him. Just cold, pained silence, broken only by the low rumble of thunder rolling through the thick, humid air.

“That’s what I thought.”

He ripped his ball cap from his head, scrubbing his hand through his hair in frustration. He was so sick and tired of having the same fucking argument with her, he felt like screaming. Or crying right along with her. Instead, he shoved the cap back on and choked down his emotion as he returned to her.

“What do you want me to do here, Ky? You want me to go talk to Ashley? You want me to apologize to her? Force her to divorce Mike, or renege on her commitment to the Army? Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

“No.” She wiped at her tears with the back of her hand, her expression pained as she adverted her gaze from him. “I don’t want you to do anything. Let’s just leave it alone for tonight, okay? I’m tired, and I’m frustrated. I’m pissed off at my sister, and at myself, and if we keep arguing like we always do, I’ll keep saying things I don’t mean. I just want to go home and put my son to bed, and forget this messed up day ever happened… Can we do that?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed on a ragged breath. “You want me to come with you?”

“Not tonight.”

He stood helplessly watching as she slid into the driver’s seat. At the last second, he put his hand out and stopped her from closing the door. “What time are you going dress shopping tomorrow? I could watch Brayden for you—”

“A stupid wedding dress is the least of my concerns right now, Jimmy.”

The distaste in her voice hit him with such force he lost his hold of the door. “Right.”

“I’m sorry.” Her gaze drifted away from him. “I’ll call you, okay?”

He stood in the middle of the parking lot long after she left, unsure what he was supposed to do, where he was supposed to go. He didn’t want to go to his apartment. He didn’t want to go back inside. He wanted to get in his truck, and follow her home. But he wasn’t welcome there.

A comforting hand came down on his shoulder. “You okay, Jim?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy said with a shake of his head to clear it.

“Ky leave?” Brent asked.

“She’s gone.” She’d been gone for a long time now. He was beginning to wonder if she had ever been there at all.

“Let’s go get you a beer.”

Jimmy took one last look up the road, in the direction his life had disappeared, and then followed his brother across the street to Jack’s.

Chapter 73 ~ Semblance of Life

Semblance of LifePossessed by blind fury, Kylie wrenched her sister out of Gimp’s Pub and shoved her into the gravel parking lot. “What is wrong with you?”

Ashley ripped her arm away from Kylie. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be happy for me, just this once?”

“Happy?” Kylie practically shrieked. “Are you serious?”

Rushing to join them, Martha pleaded, “Kylie, calm down.” Stacy and Aria tried to follow, but Martha shooed them back inside and barred the door so their family drama could unfold in relative privacy. “We can discuss this without screaming at each other.”

“Tell me you’re lying, Ash!” Kylie demanded, her voice shrill, shredding her throat like cut glass. Her entire body trembled as she fought to restrain herself from ripping her sister apart, limb by idiotic limb. “Tell me you made this whole marriage thing up as some pathetic attempt at a joke!”

“A joke?” Ashley’s face turned crimson as her temper rose to the same temperature as Kylie’s. “You think I’m a joke?”

“Of course, we don’t, honey,” Martha placated. “But why would you say you got married today? What’s that all about?”

“Because I did!”

“No,” Kylie stated, not buying into her bullshit. “I don’t believe you.”

“What, am I not good enough to get married?” Her expression contorted to exaggerated dismay, her posture taking on a drunken swagger, as she worked herself up. “Am I so disgusting that no one in their right mind would want to marry me so it has to be a lie if I say I am?”

“You’re not disgusting,” Martha assured Ashley. “That’s not what your sister meant. We’re just… surprised, by all this.”

Hands to hips, Ashley pouted. “But not happy for me.”

The whine of her sister’s voice made Kylie cringe in disgust. “Cut the crap, Ash, and just tell me the truth. Are you married?”


“For real?”

“Yes, Ky! For really real. I’m really married.”

Kylie stared down her sister, searching her face, her eyes, her body language for the tale-tell signs she was lying, but she couldn’t find even a hint of a fib. She shook her head in denial. “No…”

Ashley waved her left hand up under Kylie’s nose. “Yes!”

The evening sun glinted off her ring finger, hinting of fine jewelry. Before Kylie could catch a proper look, their mother clasped Ashley’s hand in hers.

“Oh my, Ashley… That’s very…” she hesitated. “Pretty.”

“Mike let me pick it out myself,” Ashley gloated.

“And did he let you pay for it, too?”

The smile slipped from Ashley’s face as Kylie grabbed at her sister’s hand and stepped in to get a better look at the ring. Of course, just like everything else in Ashley’s life, on closer inspection, it was all a lie. The band was fake, the diamond nonexistent. The marriage, most likely, was fake as well, nothing more than a cheap costume worn to garner attention. Disgusted, she dropped her sister’s hand.

“I’m done playing these games with you.”

“What games?”

“All you ever do is lie.”

“Oh, come on. The ring was a joke,” Ashley admitted, her body swaying like a rag doll as she laughed at them both. “We bought them out of the vending machines in the laundromat on our way to the courthouse, where we did get married. For real.”

“Whatever,” Kylie dismissed. Suddenly, she’d stopped caring. Even if they were married, knowing Ashley, it wouldn’t last long. She’d get bored and move on, divorced within a month. “And that bullshit about the Army? Was that a joke, too?”

Ashley smirked. “Nope. Very real.”

“Oh, dear,” Martha sighed in dismay. “Ashley, honey, I don’t understand what you’re doing here. What are you trying to do?”

“I’m not trying to do anything. I’ve done it. I just…” She faltered, stuttered over her words. “I just needed to take control over my own life.”

Kylie huffed out a laugh of disbelief. “By giving it up to someone else?”

“What? No! It’s not—”

“To a drug addict?”

“He’s not—”

“To the government?”

“Mom!” Ashley begged.

“Kylie, please, let her talk.”

“I didn’t give my life to anyone!” Ashley insisted, her voice commanding, as she found her way to sober. “I made a commitment, to Mike, to continue to provide for him and to support him for however long he needs me; and to my country, to serve in exchange for a career, for an education, for life experience. I want to do something with my life, Ky. Something real, something with purpose, for people who need it, for people who appreciate it. Not for these people.” She motioned with frantic gestures around the downtown square, at Allman Falls in general. “These people suck.”

Kylie couldn’t argue that. They did suck.

“Sounds like you’ve thought this through,” Martha offered.

Kylie rolled her eyes at her mother’s blessed ignorance. For as long as she could remember, Kylie had been the one saddled with playing the role of devil’s advocate where Ashley was concerned. Martha had always been too busy appeasing her every whim.

“You really think working in a military hospital is going to be any different than working in Juliette? It’s still going to be the same bullshit, the same blood draws, the same puke, the same backstabbing, bitchy coworkers, except now you won’t have the luxury of quitting whenever you get pissed off or bored. You’re going to be stuck there, Ash, wherever they send you, for years. You couldn’t even handle six months where you’re at now!”

“It’s not going to be the same, Ky. I’m not going to be wiping asses. I plan to go into counseling—”

“Good!” Kylie interjected. “You need it!”

“I’m going back to school. I’m going to be a psychiatrist. Eventually. If everything works out the way the recruiter says it could.”

Kylie laughed, close to hysterics. “Good luck with that.”

Ashley didn’t need luck when it came to academics. The girl was smart as hell. But she was easily suckered and didn’t listen worth a damn. There was no telling what the recruiter actually said to her. But Kylie intended to find out.

“Well, now that sounds like a wonderful idea. I know you’ll be very good at it, Ashley. You’ve always had an open, genuine way of communicating with people. I think that’s what people need more of, someone who cares, who knows how to listen.”

Ashley seemed taken aback by the praise. “Thank you, Mom.”

“You were wonderful with Tomas. You cared for him so much, and I know he—”

Kylie stepped in front of her mother, shutting her down before she fully sliced open poorly healed scars. “Do you honestly think you could be a psychiatrist?”


“You think you’re capable of helping people with real problems, with serious mental illness and PTSD?”

“I know I can, yes!”

“You can’t even help yourself.”

“You know what? Screw this.” Ashley held her hands up in frustrated surrender. “You can keep treating me like a stupid, insolent child if it makes you feel better, Ky, but you and I both know the only reason you’re pissed right now is because you’re jealous.”

“Jealous?” Kylie choked out a bitter laugh that burned of bile. “Why would I ever be jealous of you?”

“Because I’m getting out of here.” Ashley smirked the snotty, little smile that Kylie hated more than anything in the world. “And you’re going to be stuck in Allman Falls with a lying, cheating, sorry ass alcoholic for the rest of your pathetic little life.”

Kylie’s hand shot out before she even realized what she was doing, smacking her sister so hard across the face she recoiled from the stinging pain.

“Girls!” Martha’s eyes widened in horror as Ashley shoved Kylie backward, pushing her hard enough to slam her into the side of the building. Kylie lunged for her sister again, but Martha forced herself in between them. “That’s enough!”

Ashley struggled against Martha’s grasp. “Admit it, Ky. You’ve always wanted everything I had—my dad, my friends, my boyfriends.”

“I did not!”

“You only joined soccer so you could play against me. You’re going to nursing school to try and prove you’re smarter than me, that you can get a better job than me.”

“No,” Kylie tried, but her denial was weak.

“You seduced Jimmy because you were so fucking desperate for someone to love you the way they always love me!”

“I did not seduce Jimmy! I never did anything with him while you two were dating.”

But even as she said it, she knew it was a lie. They may not have had even the slightest hint of sexual contact until the very end, but Kylie couldn’t deny she had desperately wanted it to happen. He had consumed her thoughts, invaded her dreams, the aching need to feel his touch damn near driving her insane.

“You’re so full of shit! You did nothing but try to break us up! ‘He’s a jerk, Ash… You can do better, Ash… He doesn’t treat you right, Ash…’ That’s all I ever heard from you—over, and over, and over again—but it was all bullshit! I had him, and you wanted him, and when you couldn’t poison my mind against him, you used your son to steal him away from me! I’ll be damned if you’re going to take anything from me again.”

“Is that why you married, Mike? Because you think I’m going to try and steal him from you?” The idea was so ridiculous, Kylie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“No, you stupid bitch!”

“Ashley!” Martha chided.

“I married Mike because I love him and I want to support him until he finds his way.”

“He’s a drug addict, Ashley! You will be supporting him for the rest of his life!”

“And you’re going to be supporting Jimmy. Unless you want Marissa to do it for you.”

Kylie didn’t justify the jab with a response.

“But, you know, the more I think about it, I can give you credit for something. You are the reason I joined the Army.”

“Oh, really? How?”

“I did it to get the hell away from you.”

“You joined the Army to get away from me?” Kylie threw her hands up in the air. “Do you realize how incredibly stupid that makes you? Well, congratulations, Ashley! You’ve succeeded! I am done with you!”

“Good!” She turned on her heel and stormed across the parking lot.

“Good!” Kylie screamed in agreement as she watched her sister’s furious stride, her ankle buckling every few steps as her stiletto heels stabbed through the uneven gravel.

Martha let out a weary sigh. “Kylie, you’re not really done with your sister, are you?”

“I wish,” Kylie muttered under her breath, then called out, “Hey, Ash!”

Ashley whipped back around. “I thought you weren’t talking to me anymore!”

“I’m not!”

Ashley flipped her off and started walking again. When Ashley reached the street, Kylie whistled out to her.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Without turning around, Ashley barked, “What?”

“Your husband!”