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
If that was true, maybe the kid was screwed. Vanessa’s influence was just too imprinted.
But then he remembered Casey in the garage four months ago. Dirty. Skinny. Scared and angry.
“I think you’re my dad.”
kid wasn’t too far gone. That kid was brave and tough and smart. Ty would bet his life on that kid if only he could find him again.
“Jesus Christ, Casey. Isn’t this hard enough for us without you pulling this shit?”
Casey looked at him for a long time and Ty held his breath, wondering if maybe they were really going to talk. And if they were, what would he say? He wasn’t too proud to admit that he was terrified of the prospect.
“Can I go to my room?” Casey asked.
“Yeah,” Ty answered, embarrassed to be so relieved.
It was dark and cold when Ty crossed the street to Shelby’s house. Every light was on in the white farmhouse, but he passed it as she’d instructed, and was surprised to see behind it a series of dark buildings. A big barn and two smaller outbuildings.
It reminded him of Nana and Pop’s place in the country outside of Ellicott City. And how, when he was thirteen and forced to live there, it had seemed like the worst place on the planet.
Why did so many of the great things—the best things—disguise themselves at first, he wondered. Or why was he always so blind to their goodness?
His breath steamed in the cold air, and the grass covered in frost crunched under his boots. There was a musical bass line thudding through the crystalline night, coming from the largest of the buildings. He grabbed the big iron handle and pulled open the heavy door. It was like opening the door to some kind of kid wonderland. Wires crisscrossed the ceiling with dozens of pictures clipped to them. Christmas lights surrounded bulletin boards covered in more pictures. Giant tissue-paper flowers blanketed one whole wall; next to that wall were two couches and a lamp. There were some of those pottery wheels in the corner and a bunch of easels facing a table with a wilting bouquet of flowers on it.
On one of the three low circular tables was a chandelier in pieces.
Art Barn indeed.
Jack White was playing not so quietly in the background. And the heavy, dirty guitar riffs were a total surprise.
I want love to change my friends to enemies
He’d had that kind of love and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to recommend it.
“Hello!” he yelled over the music.
“Hey!” Her voice came from down the hallway to the left. “Just a second.”
The music was turned down and Shelby walked out of the shadows into the glitter-and-construction-paper palace she’d created.
“I’m sorry,” he said, right away, because it needed to be said. “I’m sorry for calling you names the other night. It was crappy of me.”
She stopped next to the table with the chandelier and put down a small stack of folders.
“Thank you.” Her pink lips curved into a smile. She still wore her green sweater and the pink shirt underneath it, but instead of khaki pants she had on a pair of
stretchy sweatpants and running shoes. Those pants showed off the long lines of her body. The strength in her legs. The muscle and meat of her.
He sucked in a quick breath, stunned and embarrassed by his thoughts.
“I’m sorry, too,” she said. “I was ruder than I needed to be.”
“Sometimes rude is all I understand.” He tried to joke, not expecting her in any way to respond. She’d proven herself pretty impervious to his charms, which made her smile in response to his joke all the sweeter.
“Isn’t Casey ever bothered by the noise?”
“Once he’s asleep, nothing wakes him up. I’ve never seen someone sleep so hard.”
“Well, I hope we can put all of that behind us in an effort to help Casey.”
“Absolutely,” he said and clapped his hands together. “Happy to.” If only it were always so easy to put the worst of his actions behind him. He’d spent a good part of the last ten years running from his mistakes.
“Have a seat.” She pointed to one of the low tables without the chandelier. “And we can talk.”
“Are you an art teacher
an electrician?” he asked, looking down at the chandelier guts.
“Sadly, no. I can’t figure it out.”
He almost offered to look at it while they talked, because it would be great to have something to do with his hands, but he didn’t want to give her the impression that he wasn’t totally involved in the conversation.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked and he shook his head.
They both settled into the hilariously small chairs. His knees came up nearly to his chin, and she smiled.
“Sorry,” she said. “I think you get used to it.”
“It’s fine,” he lied, hoping that in time it would be,
because right now he felt stupid. “Hey, before we get started I’ve got to tell you, this place is awesome.”
She glanced around, her face giving away none of her feelings. “You know, I’ve kind of stopped seeing it.”
“I lived in St. Louis for a while,” he said. “And at first I couldn’t believe that arch—it was like every time I looked up it smacked me in the face with how freaking amazing it was. As wide as it was tall and all that. But then, after a while, you get used to it.”
“Well, the Art Barn is no St. Louis arch.”
“Don’t sell it short,” he said, looking at that flower wall. “It’s beautiful.”
Her gaze touched his face, left, and came back and after a long moment, as if she wasn’t sure if he was lying or about to trick her, she smiled. “Thank you.”
He nodded and tried to shift on the miniature chair, but his butt was going numb.
“I don’t have access to Casey’s school file,” she said. “So, perhaps you’d like to fill me in on some of the more pertinent issues he’s faced.”
“Ahhh …” It wasn’t that he drew a blank; it was that he didn’t know where to start.
“You’ve had some counseling?” she asked, giving him a toehold in the story.
“A few months ago,” he said. “It was part of my getting custody.”
“You are divorced?”
“Is this relevant?”
She blinked, her eyes suddenly wide. “You don’t think it is?”
He hung his head. Christ, those eyes—they were like a judge and jury all in one. “Sorry, let me try again.” He shrugged off his coat and pulled the elastic from the ponytail at his neck. He gathered his hair back up and put the rubber band back in, pulling it tighter.
“Okay. The story is, I didn’t know about Casey until
four months ago, when he showed up on my doorstep in West Memphis and told me he thought I was his dad.”
Her mouth fell open. “You didn’t know …”
“About Casey?” He shook his head. “Nope. His mom, Vanessa, and I dated twelve years ago, back when I was pretty young and stupid. We broke up and I didn’t hear from her again. But about six months ago, Casey’d been put into the foster system because Vanessa had been convicted of possession with intent and sent to jail.”
“Meth. She … she ran with a pretty bad crowd.”
“Bad crowd” was putting it mildly. The Outlaws were the kind of motorcycle club the uninitiated thought about when they thought of motorcycle clubs. The kind of club that gave them all a bad name.
Not every club was like
Sons of Anarchy
. Most of them, actually, weren’t.
But Outlaws was. Meth. Guns. Prostitutes. They had dirty thumbs in all of it.
“When she was sent to jail she still didn’t try to contact you?”
He’d gotten over his anger at Vanessa, or at least he thought he had. But every once in a while, he found a vine of it that he hadn’t chopped down, or poisoned with forgiveness. That she would have her kid dragged into the foster system rather than contact him and ask for help was a pretty shitty thing for a mom to do to her kid.
But when he was truthful with himself, he knew he hadn’t given Vanessa much to recommend him as a father.
“She had her reasons for not wanting me around Casey; it’s not like we brought out the best in each other.”
“So, she was arrested. Casey was put into a foster home.”
“Two. Two different foster homes. The first one was too crowded.”
“They moved him to a second one and he ran away and found you?”
It was like one of those stories about dogs that got moved to the other side of the country, but ran back thousands of miles and found their old home—except Casey’s story was way more sad and terrifying. He’d crossed state lines, from Memphis to West Memphis; he’d crossed the damn river, walking for hours with nothing but an address in his pocket. The thought of it could still wake him up out of a deep sleep with nightmares.
“She’d told Casey enough about me that he found my grandfather’s repair shop and then found me.” She stared at him slack-jawed and he laughed. “Sounds unbelievable, I know.”
unbelievable! It is amazing. Casey—”
“Bravest kid I know. Bravest person.” It felt good to say it out loud, as it reminded him that there were other sides to Casey than what he was seeing on a day-to-day basis.
“You were able to just take custody?”
He shook his head, trying to get comfortable in the tiny chair. “There was no ‘just’ about it. I took him back to the foster home; we called his case worker and started the process.”
“Blood tests, court dates, counseling …”
“All of it.”
“And then you moved to Bishop?”
“Fresh start. For both of us.” He didn’t want to talk about all the trouble Vanessa had gotten into, or the things Casey had seen. That was all shit he wanted whitewashed. He wanted it painted over with good memories. Safe memories. Normal childhood stuff. “I thought it was a good idea. We both needed a clean slate.”
“And this was all four months ago?”
Ty wasn’t sure why he remembered, but when Casey had walked into Pop’s old shop the boy’s shoes had been untied.
Tall and gangly, he’d walked in the first bay and had stood in the shadows until Ty noticed him. And the second Ty got a look at Casey, with his chin up like he was daring the whole world to take a swing, something cold pierced his snake brain. Something knowing.
“Do you know Vanessa Ponchet?” the boy had asked.
“I did. Long time ago.” Ty wiped his hands off on a rag, fixing his feet to the ground to absorb the hit he’d somehow known was coming.
“I’m her kid,” Casey said. “And I think you’re my dad.”
He’d stepped back, putting his weight against the red tool cart behind him, because his knees had buckled.
“What makes you think that?”
“She told me. Like a million times.”
“A million times,” he’d said, because his mind was blown blank. Funny. She hadn’t told Ty, once.
“Hey, you got a bathroom around here I can use?” Casey had asked, and Ty, on legs that did not feel the ground, walked the boy through the shop to the can in the back.
Casey had gone in and shut the door, and Ty stood outside listening to the kid vomit his guts out and felt his life irrevocably change.
That day seemed like it was both yesterday and a hundred years ago.
“Yep,” he told Shelby. “Four months.” He stretched his arms out wide because he felt the need to move. It was a current under his skin that he didn’t know what to do with. The current came and went, part stress, part anxiety, part guilt, and the knife’s edge of failure he felt
against his neck. Part wanting to get the hell away from the constant, grinding fear that he was screwing things up for Casey. The current made him want to drink until he forgot everything. Or find a soft, willing woman to make him feel good.
It made him want to leave.
“So, as you can see, we’ve got some issues.”
He tried to make it a joke, but Shelby wasn’t laughing.
“That’s a lot of change in a short time. It must be so difficult,” she said.
He didn’t like pity. There was nothing about his life that was pitiful. Pops taught him that;
as long as you were trying, as long as you were fighting, no one should pity you
But it wasn’t pity on her face and fuck if he didn’t wish it was, because compassion just wrecked him.
He folded his hands together, turning his knuckles white. When he’d moved in with Nana and Pop after his parents’ accident, Nana had made him hot chocolate. The real kind, on the stove with milk and melted chocolate—he’d only ever had the powdered stuff. And that only once or twice. Nana put in a whole bunch of marshmallows and she hummed while she did it. Didn’t make conversation, didn’t try to pretend that everything was great. She just let everything suck, because she knew nothing she said could change it.
But she put that mug in front of him, looked him right in the eye, and cupped the back of his head in her hand and he’d fallen apart. Bawled like a baby.
Shelby’s level eyes had the same effect.
So he looked down at his blistered and callused hands. At the grease stains caught in the ridges of his thumb that never came out. Would never come out.
“It hasn’t been easy,” was all he said. “I had just moved back to West Memphis, too. Like a year and a half
before he came and found me, and some nights I can’t sleep thinking—what if Vanessa had been busted earlier, and I missed him? What if he walked all that way and I wasn’t even there?”
“But you were,” she said, emphatically. Still, nightmares were nightmares and not so easily banished.
“Mrs. Jordal says Casey is a good kid,” she told him as if she knew he still didn’t have any clue what kind of kid he was.
He pressed the pad of his grease-stained thumb against the edge of the table, hard enough that his finger went white. “That’s great.”
Again, he was bitten by this terrible loneliness and it seemed she was the perfect antidote for it. Before in his life, moving around so much, when he was lonely, he went to a bar. Met a girl. Met a group of guys watching whatever game was on TV. Ty had taken his easy way with people for granted. The way he made friends everywhere he went. Until moving to Bishop, where he didn’t know anyone and he was so deeply off balance, so terribly raw and irritated, he couldn’t seem to remember how to talk to people.
But somehow this woman, the contained universe of her with her stern eyebrows and deep, unruffled quiet—she seemed like the kind of friend he needed right now. Or if not a friend, a surprising ally. An intriguing confidante.