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
the kind of man she’d pictured herself with. Exactly.
He held his Coke bottle between his fingers and pressed it against the doorjamb.
“Yeah?” Her heart kicked in her throat.
“I … I ah …” He blew out a breath and laughed awkwardly. “I’ve always wanted to say that what that guy said last summer? The cookie guy?”
The winter she was ten there’d been one of those freakish Arkansas storms that shrouded the world in ice. Trees, blades of grass, and toys left in yards were totally encased in ice. Daddy made her walk out to the church with him, a mile down the highway, and she’d been mad and spiteful and wouldn’t put on her boots or mittens like Mom told her to. She’d gotten frostbite on her fingers and ankles, and when the blood returned to that white, numb skin it caused an icy-hot pain, tingly and cold and swollen and awful.
This moment felt like that.
“What about him?” She stared at the blue-green foot of Jeremy’s stegosaurus, unable to look at Joe’s handsome face, those well-meaning eyes.
“No one … no one believed him. I just want you to know that. Everyone knows he was lying.”
Her reputation was exactly like that ice storm, keeping her precisely as the town saw her. Encapsulated. Untouchable. Unfeeling. Undesirable.
This was it, a moment when she could open up that box where she had all those things she desired and pull out something she wanted. She could say,
Joe, I sucked his dick. I let him fuck me like an animal. I did those things. And I like those things. Perhaps not so much with Dean Jennings the horrible cookie guy. But in general, in theory, those are things I like
. And should she be so brave, she could look right into his lovely, kind brown eyes and say,
I’d like to do those things with you. Now, what do you say?
But instead, she said, “Thank you, Joe.”
He nodded, his lips pursed in that way that said,
It sucks, but I’m on your side insofar as your side does not require any more from me than this
And then he was gone. She waited a few more moments in case he decided to come back and further grind her second day back after the break into dust, but the doorway stayed empty.
In the heavy, dark silence he left behind, she stacked and put away those small desires to be someone else, to want more than she had, and she got back to the business of being Shelby Monroe, Art Teacher. It was enough. And if sometimes she wanted to scream, or cry, or find some stranger to prove to her that she wasn’t totally dead inside or invisible to the world, it was an urge she could easily overcome.
She had overcome worse.
Shelby stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankle, and spread out the student assignments until they covered the whole table again.
Scott had drawn himself with wings, flying over what looked like the school. Interesting.
One picture, without a name, probably John’s … she tilted the page, trying to make sense of the dark charcoal line drawing. It was very detailed. Very creepy. It looked like it was from inside a fence … but the fence posts were far apart and vertical, not horizontal, and on the other side of the fence there were a man and a woman with terrifying round eyes and their mouths were open, revealing sharp teeth.
That wasn’t John’s usual thing.
At the bottom of the drawing, clutching one of the metal rungs of the vertical fence, were hands. And at the top of the drawing there was hair and …
oh dear God
. She sat up. That wasn’t a fence.
It was a cage.
Ty put his cell phone back in his pocket and climbed down off the ladder. He was installing a retractable awning over what—if the permits ever came in—was going to be the front patio area of Sean Baxter’s bar and barbecue joint, The Pour House. And Ty had installed the unit into the brick building, but the thing wasn’t working. The tracks guided by carriers kept jamming and the awning wouldn’t unroll out of the metal box.
Ty was pretty sure he could fix it once he took the mechanism apart, but he had to go.
God, it was just past noon. He’d had this job for less than a month and already he had to bail early. It was a good thing Brody Baxter, despite his serious badass vibe, was a cool guy.
“Hey, boss,” Ty approached Brody where he was measuring the paved area for a fence. The sun hit the asphalt so hard the two of them had taken off their coats, working in long-sleeved tee shirts and old leather gloves. Brody’s shirt said USMC, which wasn’t a shocker. The guy seemed pretty Marine Corps to Ty.
“Didn’t I tell you not to call me that?”
“You did.” Ty smiled and Brody shook his head.
“How is it going on the awning?”
“It’s up, but the mechanism isn’t working. I know we’ve got to be back at Cora’s the rest of this week to work on the patio, so I figured I could come back this weekend.”
“You don’t have to work on the weekends,” Brody
said. “You’re already working overtime during the week.”
“I like to work.”
“And I like that attitude. But still, a day off won’t kill you.”
“Hey!” It was Sean coming out of the bar. Ty liked Brody a lot. They worked well together. Brody didn’t ask questions, he paid on time, and the work was steady. Sean, on the other hand, was a nosy pain in the butt and rubbed Ty the wrong way in every way. “How is the awning coming?”
“The mechanism doesn’t work,” Brody said.
“Bummer.” And the guy said “bummer” without any irony. He meant it. That the awning wasn’t done simply bummed Sean out.
Ty never asked, but obviously one of the brothers had been adopted. Brody was tall, dark, and powerful. Sean was shorter, wiry, and had pale freckled skin and red hair. Brody matched his USMC tee shirt. Sean wore one of the shirts from the café that his girlfriend, Cora, ran that said “Real Men Eat Pie.”
It was as if a Maori warrior were brothers with a leprechaun.
But there was no time to stand around wondering about the blood ties between the Baxter brothers. He had his own family problems to deal with.
“Actually, I could use some time right now. I … I need to go grab my son from school. The principal wants to meet with me.”
Sean’s blue eyes went wide and Brody pushed his glasses up onto his forehead.
“You have a kid?” Sean asked.
Ty nodded, but he didn’t brag or pull out his phone to show him pictures. He didn’t have any. Well, that wasn’t true; he had a few from last weekend when they’d gone fishing at the river. Casey had caught a fish the size of a
whale, but then he’d dropped it on the bank and it flopped back into the river. Casey had looked so heartbroken, so totally destroyed, Ty had waded into the river to grab the fish with his hands, but he’d slipped in the silty mud and nearly fallen on his face in the cold water.
Casey had laughed so hard he’d had to sit down.
The picture on his phone was of Casey eating the fish fry they’d gotten from a roadside stand outside Marietta. The first really good memory the two of them had and Ty wasn’t ready to share it.
Truthfully, he didn’t know how to share it. The words “my kid” still got hung up on his tongue.
“Holy shit, man, you’ve been in Bishop for how long?”
“And you never told anyone you have a family?”
“It’s just me and Casey. And I figure it’s no one’s business.” That was as pointed as he could get, but Sean still didn’t take the hint to back off.
“How old is he?” Sean asked.
“Eleven. Well, twelve in a few weeks.”
“Is he in trouble?”
Ty sighed. “It’s what he seems to do best.”
“Go ahead, take whatever time you need,” Brody said. “And no working this weekend to make up for it.”
But Sean elbowed his brother as if suddenly realizing something. “Unless … I guess unless you need money. I mean, we could float you some if—”
“I don’t need money.” Ty didn’t like it, but he understood why Sean had asked. Why else would a single dad work on the weekend instead of spending time with his kid?
Ty didn’t need the money.
He just didn’t know what the hell to do with his kid.
Ty locked up his tools and grabbed his helmet. In front of the bar his 1947 Indian Chief gleamed in the
sunlight. He’d put a good year in on that bike, finding the original parts, including the skirted fenders and fringed saddle. He’d rebuilt the 1200cc V-twin engine practically from scratch, nearly tearing out his hair at least twice in the process.
But it was worth it. She crouched at the curb, all tarted up in her cherry-red paint with the gold trim, the silver chrome. Flashy, but elegant.
, he thought with fondness.
“That’s quite a bike,” a man said as he walked by, holding a toddler’s hand. He grabbed a cell phone out of his back pocket. “You mind if I …?”
“No. Go right ahead.” Ty stepped away and let the man take a few pictures.
“Thanks. No, buddy, don’t touch.” The man grabbed his toddler’s hands just before he made contact with the fresh paint job.
“It’s okay,” Ty said. “He can touch it.”
The man let his son run his fingers through the fringe and Ty thought of his grandfather. Pop, the big, gruff biker who always let Ty touch the fringe.
Ty blinked and glanced away.
“My dad used to have a bike like that—he’ll love the pictures,” the man said, picking up his son. “Is it for sale?”
“Not … ah … not yet.” Ty smiled. He wasn’t quite ready to let her go. Largely because the Velocette was being more difficult than it needed to be.
The guy took off with his kid and his phone, and Ty slipped on his helmet, even though the law didn’t require it. An unintentional part of Pop’s legacy.
The Chief started with a roar and flattened out to a nice loud purr as he pulled away from the curb and headed to school to bail his son out of the principal’s office.
* * *
Bishop Elementary was like a school in a movie, with all the artwork and gym shoes lining the hallways. He liked places where kids were taken care of, where the sunlight created no shadowy corners. It even smelled the way a school should—like tomato soup and industrial-strength cleaner. In the front foyer a big banner welcomed visitors to the home of the Bishop Bulldogs, and in the glass cabinet there were trophies and pictures kids had drawn of bulldogs.
He smiled, happy that he’d brought his kid here. Whatever happened, this was a good place. Miles better than the school in Memphis that Casey had been attending.
At least I’ve done one thing right
There was commotion down the hallway and a woman came walking around the corner with a long line of very young kids behind her. She stopped and turned, her finger to her lips, but half the kids weren’t paying attention. They were twirling and poking their friends. One boy was practicing his ninja kicks.
Just the sound of those voices created a ball—a spiky, painful ball—in his throat. The awareness of every single moment with Casey—ten years of them—that he’d missed made physical in the base of his throat, across his chest.
The ninja kicks, he’d like to have seen those.
“Excuse me?” A woman stood in the doorway to the office. Colleen, he remembered from their brief meeting when he’d enrolled Casey in the school. She was terrifying. “Mr. Svenson?”
“Call me Ty.” He had it on good authority that his smile was charming. Women of all ages—even women who hated his guts—agreed he had a good smile.
She didn’t respond in any way to his smile. Not unlike Shelby the Ice Queen last night.
What’s with the women in this town?
“Follow me—Principal Root and our art teacher are waiting for you.”
They walked through a small, crowded office, and outside a closed door sat Casey. Ty’s heart kicked into his chest at the utter surprise of him. The sight of the boy with Vanessa’s hair and sneer, but his own eyes and height, was still a shock to the system.
“Casey,” he said, coming to stand in front of the kid, who didn’t look up. Instead, Casey crossed his arms over his thin, bony chest and sneered a little harder at his shoes. “Is this meeting going to be what I think it is?”
Casey looked up through the stupid flop of hair he liked to have in his eyes all the time but he got one look at Ty’s pissed-off face and had the good sense to swallow his grin.
“It’s just a picture,” he said.
It was never just anything with this kid. It was always something surrounded by a bunch of drama or attitude or outright lies—like a bullshit candy coating he had to dig through to get to the kid underneath.
“The principal is waiting,” Colleen said, giving Ty and Casey a stern up-and-down.
The way the woman looked at them made him bristle. Her eyes were narrowed with the same disdain Shelby Monroe had had in her eyes last night. He’d called her a bitch—not the kindest thing he’d ever done and he didn’t do it because she’d come over and asked him in a prissy, unfriendly way to stop working on the bike. She had every right to do that. In fact, he was glad she did. Nana would have killed him for being so insensitive.
Ty called Shelby a bitch because she took one look at him and decided she knew everything about him.
And all of it—all of
—was beneath her.
Colleen was doing the same thing, and he wanted to grab his kid and tell her to fuck off. The principal and art teacher on the other side of that door, too.
The urge to grab his kid, get on a bike, and get gone
was powerful, like a rolling blast of heat up from his feet. It made his skin tight and his head hurt. Because leaving was something he was real good at. And he needed to figure out how to stay, for Casey’s sake.
“Let’s go, then,” he said, and Colleen opened the door.
Inside there was a thin man behind a desk wearing glasses and a red polo shirt, and when Ty walked in he stood up. “Mr. Svenson,” he said, but there was no smile, no good to see you again.
Oh, man. Casey must have really screwed up
“Principal Root, good to see you.” He shook the guy’s hand.