Authors: Molly O'Keefe
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Humor, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Contemporary Fiction, #Humor & Satire, #American, #General Humor, #Sagas
“Well, tell your father to make him stop.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll handle it.” She curved an arm over her mother’s shoulders and tenderly led her into the hallway. “You go on back to bed.”
But in the hours since Shelby had kissed her mother good night, Mom had been busy. Evie’s room was a mess; it was as if the clothes from her double closet had been belched onto the bed and across the floor. “What …” All of Mom’s shoes, the years-out-of-date heels and boots and summer sandals, were tucked, toe first, under the bed skirt. They formed a moat of shoes around her bed.
“Mom,” she breathed. “What are you doing?”
“I was going to sleep, but then I remembered that I need my coat with the trim?” Mom started back into the closet. “I could swear it was back here. Do you know where it is?”
“I don’t know where your coat is. But you can’t even get into your bed.” She lifted her mother’s old church dresses and the rare business suit off the bed, but Evie grabbed the hangers from her hands.
“Don’t. Shelby. Don’t touch it.”
“You need to sleep.”
“I’ll sleep after I finish this.”
But she wouldn’t. The whole house was filled with
projects Evie started and never finished. Messes created and never cleaned up. A thousand thoughts and plans unfinished. There were times, like right now, it took every single bit of power and energy and strength Shelby had not to scream. Not to tear her hair out and fall on the floor and yell what do I do? How can I help her?
was something she could do. Take apart her neighbor!
She turned, her robe sailing out behind her as she raced down the stairs and out the front door. Not even the cold night air of January cooled her off. The silvery moonlight cast white light across the grass; it turned the shadows of the house and the garage into long dragons that she stomped across. Steam billowed out of her mouth. Her feet, in her old moccasin slippers, didn’t feel the cold or the gravel of the road that separated her from her neighbor.
She was furious. And righteous. And she felt no pain.
The new motorcycle-loving jackass had moved into the old O’Halloran farm. The door to his garage was open, throwing out a wide square of yellow light accompanied by the faint bass line of a rock song.
On one side of the garage there was an older-model red pickup, and what looked like a repair shop filled the other half. She tilted her head, considering the man currently destroying her sleep. He was much older than she’d thought. For some reason she’d expected a kid. Because kids were often insensitive and didn’t think about their neighbors. Full-grown adults knew better.
He had blond hair pulled back into a short, stubby ponytail at his neck. As he stood up from his crouch beside the offending motorcycle (which was surprisingly small considering the amount of noise it made),
she slowed to a stop beside a big crack that bisected the driveway.
Not a boy. At all.
He was a man. Tall. Wide. Really … very wide. He wore a black short-sleeved tee shirt over a white waffle Henley. The tight sleeves of his shirt revealed arms thick with muscles that bunched and shifted as he put his hands on his waist, staring down at that bike as though it had disappointed him for the very last time. Dark leather cuffs circled both wrists.
A man in jewelry of any kind was exotic in Bishop, Arkansas. But those bands … there was something overtly—flagrantly—erotic about them.
, she thought, tearing her eyes from his bracelets.
His black tee shirt had some faded, worn lettering on the back that she couldn’t read, but she could imagine it once said
, or some other self-fetishizing nonsense.
What a cliché
He leaned over the tall red toolbox and set down the wrench in his hand only to select a new one. Then he crouched again, his worn jeans pulling taut across his legs and …
“Excuse me,” she spoke up, making sure the belt to her robe was good and tight.
He spun toward her, the wrench lifted like a weapon. Gasping, she took a step back, even though she was a good fifteen feet away from the threat of that wrench. Immediately he dropped his arm and smiled, sheepishly. It was a disarming smile on a man so big. Gave his fearsome size a softness.
“Sorry.” His voice was low and deep. Gravelly, like
he’d just woken up or hadn’t been speaking for a while. It was an intimate voice. Private. “You scared me.”
He was over six feet tall, packed with muscles and power, wearing a tee shirt that probably said
I’ve done five years for assault
Scaring him seemed ludicrous.
“Yes, well, you’ve been scaring
for the last three nights.”
“I live across the street.” He glanced over her shoulder at her big white farmhouse as if it had just magically appeared for the first time.
“Hey, we’re neighbors. Nice to meet you,” he said. He put the wrench in his pocket and stepped out of the garage, across the driveway toward her with his hand out. “My name is Ty. Short for Wyatt. Wyatt Svenson. People just always call me Ty.”
“I’m … Shelby. Shelby Monroe.” She shook his hand, looking into his face for any reaction from him. Any recognition of her name or what had happened to her on national television six months ago. But his expression was blank, genial. As if it were noon instead of midnight, and neighborly small talk at this hour made sense.
“Can I get you something?” He jerked his thumb back at the garage. “A beer? Never had a house with a garage before, much less a garage with a beer fridge, and I had no idea what I was missing.”
“It’s midnight, Wyatt,” she said. She wouldn’t use his nickname. Ty. And even his full name felt too familiar, but this man with the grease stains on his hands was hardly a Mr. Svenson. “I don’t want a beer.”
“It’s midnight?” A furrow appeared between his wide blue eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding. I thought it was ten.”
“Maybe you should put a clock over your beer fridge.”
“I suppose you can hear the bike, huh?” He rubbed his hand across the back of his neck and smiled at her, looking at her through his eyelashes. Like every high school sophomore who didn’t do his art assignment and came looking for a pass.
“Yes. I can hear the bike. I have heard the bike. Last night until three in the morning. And it’s a weeknight. Some of us have to work.”
“I’m sorry.” His wide mouth kicked up in a crooked, boyish grin. At some point someone must have told him he was charming, because he was waving that grin around like it was a get-out-of-jail-free card. “I am. I lost track of time. I found this old Velocette and the carburetor—”
“I don’t particularly care. Please.” She gave him a raking look. From his blond hair to the frayed cuffs of his jeans, just so he knew she wasn’t scared of him or charmed or impressed by his muscles and frankly … she just wanted to be awful. It went against everything she was taught, all the things she believed, but at the moment, she was flat out of grace. The pressure valve on her life hadn’t been loosened in a very long time. And being awful to this guy … for very little reason, it let off some of that steam. She wasn’t proud of it, but for the moment it felt good. Like eating cheap chocolate.
She crossed her arms over her chest and backed out of the light into the shadows toward her house. “Just keep it down.”
Blank-faced, he nodded, and she turned, walking home.
She was nearly at the road, acutely aware that her baby toe had gone numb in her slipper, when he spoke again.
“Pleasure meeting you, neighbor.” He wasn’t so charming now, and the next word was not a surprise.
She’d heard it more times than she could count, from older students she wouldn’t let charm her into a better grade. From strangers who didn’t see past her prickly and cold surface.
From her father, once he gave up the ruse of loving her.
She’d heard it so much, with far more venom than this man could muster, that it didn’t come close to piercing that cold and prickly surface.
It wasn’t until lunch on Thursday that Shelby had a chance to look at the identity projects the fifth-grade class had made. Sitting in the Bishop Elementary teachers’ lounge with another cup of coffee and a terribly unsatisfying salad that she’d given up on, she pulled the packets from her bag.
Jeremy had drawn a very, very good stegosaurus. His detail, particularly with the colored pencils, was really improving. Jessica had drawn a picture of herself praying and what she hoped was Jesus standing over her shoulder.
“Oh, hey, it’s Art day.”
Oh God, it’s Joe
Sixth-grade teacher Joe Phillips stepped into the small lounge and it got even smaller. It seemed to shrink to the head of a pin, and she didn’t know what to do with her arms and legs. It felt like she had extra, as if she’d turned into an octopus upon his arrival. She sat up, crossed her legs, and then uncrossed them and when he wasn’t looking, made sure all her hair was back in its ponytail and she didn’t have any food on the front of her sweater.
She was worse than a teenage girl. And utterly powerless to help herself.
Other women knew how to do this. How to like a man, how to know if he liked her. And then, in some kind of magical alchemy, take all that interest and turn it into something. A date. A passionate make-out session in a broom closet. Anything.
But somehow, she had missed those lessons. When other girls were pulled aside and taught how to put on mascara, or figured out how to flirt, or how to be confident around a man she wanted to like her, she’d been busy praying.
Busy begging forgiveness for sins she didn’t even know how to commit.
There’d been a man at her Teachers of Arts and Sciences Conference last summer—an Ag teacher from the other side of the state whom she thought she’d been flirting with at the conference for two years. For two years she’d been drinking white wine spritzers in the hotel bar with other teachers, waiting, hoping for him to make a move. Any kind of move.
But he never did.
So last summer she’d worked up the courage to take matters into her own hands and when the moment arose, she planned to ask him up to her room—she’d even brought a thong! A
He brought pictures of his new wife. Their wedding in the Ozarks.
Oh, how foolish she’d felt in that thong. How stupid. And how furious.
As a child, in the face of her father’s violent disapproval, she’d created this identity, this cold distance between herself and other people’s opinions, in an act of defiant self-protection. Dad couldn’t hurt her if she pretended not to care. Pretended she didn’t need affection or approval.
And then no one could hurt her if she pretended she was above the messy needs and wants of the human
heart if she just buried what she wanted so deep they couldn’t see it—so deep that she even forgot it.
It had been an abused and scared kid’s way of coping.
And as a woman, she didn’t know how to change it.
She’d smiled at the conference bar, toasted the newlyweds, all while tucking away those things she wanted, cramming them into an already full box buried deep inside of her.
Driving home from that conference in an uncomfortable thong, she’d stopped to help a man on the side of the highway whose car had broken down. And that man, in the five-minute encounter, had said something sleazy, something about how good she looked bent over a car, and that overfull box of thwarted desires cracked right open. So she kissed him, let him put his hand up her skirt.
That man ended up being Dean Jennings, the CEO of the Maybream Cracker Company, who was coming to town for a contest being run by the
morning show, and when she saw him again a few days later Shelby lost her mind. That was all she could attribute it to; she flat out had a mental breakdown, because she jeopardized everything so she could engage in one of the worst affairs in human history.
And when he left after three weeks of strange unsatisfying, increasingly mean sex, she said good riddance.
But Dean must have been engaged in his own mental breakdown, because he wanted more from her and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So much so that on the morning of
’s live taping he’d ambushed her, telling the world about their affair. The things she let him do to her.
Why don’t you tell them all what you said while I was fucking you like an animal. While you were sucking my dick
The memory of the words while sitting in the teachers’
lounge, Joe behind her at the fridge, made her skin quake. Bile rise in her throat.
“How was Christmas?” Joe asked.
She pushed it all away—the shame, the longing, the strange secret wish that Joe Phillips would believe what Dean had said about her and look at her, really look at her as a woman, as a possibility.
“Good,” she said after clearing her throat. Mom’s mind had been pretty clear on Christmas and they’d lain around watching kids’ movies on TV. Eating pizza. No salads. “Yours?”
“My brother had the whole family at his house in Little Rock. My parents, brother, and sister. Ten kids.”
“That’s a lot of kids.”
“Made me happy I don’t live in Little Rock.” He shot her a smile over his shoulder and her stomach fluttered.
“You’re in my class this afternoon?”
“I am,” she said. “We’re working on some identity projects.”
“You’re a masochist,” he said, walking back toward the door with his lunch in a plastic bag and his bottle of Coke. “It’s a crisis of identity in the sixth grade every day. Half the girls will probably start crying. See you later.”
She laughed and with a wave he was out the door, taking all the air in the room with him.
After a long moment feeling like the world’s worst coward, she bent back down over her students’ work.
Joe was half in, half out the door. He was so handsome, not in any outrageous way, but in a regular guy way. A man who would probably lose his hair at some point and get a paunch, but his kindness and sense of humor made all of that unimportant. His hands were wide, his fingers long. Handsome hands. And he wore
glasses, sometimes cockeyed. Which was silly but endearing.