still chuckling over Mal’s reaction to the Zombie prank the merry men had
pulled when we slid into a booth at the back of Shorty’s that evening. I’d been
so worried that the men had lost all their happiness and spark for life in my
absence that it was a relief to see that they still knew how to joke. It was
especially refreshing to see Lester laughing it up with a couple of others. Of
course, the fact that he was only sullen and surly in my presence had been
cemented in my braid when he glanced over and immediately lost his joyful glow
when he spotted me peaking around the cubicle wall to spy on him. It made my chest
ache to even think about the look he’d given me.
“Hey,” Bobby said, sounding worried as he laid his hands flat on the table between us. “What’s with the sad eyes?”
“Nothing,” I told him, giving myself a mental shake to get rid of the sombre mood that had fallen over me.
Cal shook his head. “It’s not nothing,” he said firmly. “Your rain cloud is showing. Fess up.”
I gave a shrug to buy myself some time to think of an excuse. “I guess I’m just nervous about meeting Ashley,” I finally managed.
After finding out that Bobby had been attached for years before I’d don my disappearing act and neglected to tell me, I’d spent the read of the day surreptitiously pestering him to let me meet her. Finally, around mid afternoon, he’d caved and agreed to call and have her meet us at Shorty’s. She was due to arrive any minute now, and I admit I was a little nervous about meeting the woman who helped keep Bobby the man he was through all the less than stellar situations he endures in this line of business. But as you already know, that was not the reason for the ‘sad eyes,’ as Bobby put it.
“I know you’re lying, Steph,” he informed me with an air of authority. “and I will get to the bottom of whatever made your mood shift so swiftly. But in the meantime, we have questions.”
“We?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at him. “Don’t you mean Cal? I answered all your questions the other night.”
“I thought of more,” Bobby shrugged. “Besides, you never did tell me your reasons for leaving in the first place.”
“And I’m not going to tell you now,” I assured him firmly, swallowing down the knot that never failed to form in my throat whenever I thought of it.
“Aww, come on!” Cal complained, leaning his elbows on the table. “That was first on my list!”
“Well pick something else,” I suggested, the familiar feeling that I shouldn’t have come back starting to creep up my spine. I didn’t want to block these guys out and cut myself off from them – again – but I definitely was not ready to talk about the specific why’s that lead to my decision to leave. Hell, in the last six years I’d only spoken of it once, ever.
I had been in Mexico for six months, consistently avoiding thinking about the events back in Trenton. I was still followed by the shadow of its pain every minute of the day, but I’d found that by keeping busy I was able to push to the furthest corner of my mind.
After lunch, this particular day, I had been doing just that, working with a fellow volunteer to ensure all the surfaces in the mess hall we’d set up were wiped down. We’d just reached the end of the first row of long tables when Seraphina – another volunteer, whom I’d become good friends with in the short time since she’d joined our crusade – entered, a huge grin on her face.
“Mark your calender, Steph,” she instructed, merrily skipping down the aisle toward me. “Next weekend we are going to town and getting slosh-blob drunk.”
“Slosh-blob?” I questioned, smiling. Sera was just a little over nineteen and constantly coming up with her own unique phrases. It’s part of the reason she wasn’t suited to the English teaching sector like I was, she’d confuse the kids too much with her bizarre turns of phrase. “What’s the occasion?”
Sliding up onto the freshly wiped table, she informed me, “My favourite cousin is coming down to visit. And it has been too long since you last let your hair down.”
“I don’t want to drink,” I told her, plopping down on the bench seat next to her feet, damp cloth and spray cleanser still in hand. In a way, drinking was how I’d ended up here in the first place. I was in no hurry to repeat my mistakes.
Sera shrugged, tapping her heels together in that way she had of broadcasting her boundless energy. “Put it in anyway,” she said. “I’ve still got four days to change your mind. And besides, even if you don’t change your mind about the drinking, you can still come along. It’ll do you some good. You work too hard. And my cousin would love to meet you, I’m sure.”
Sighing, I pulled out my phone to add her even to the calendar so it would remind me. When I opened it and saw the day’s date clearly displayed on the screen, however, all the breath whooshed out of my body. It was several minutes before I could breathe properly again, and by that time tears were running steadily down my face as everything I’d run away from came crashing into my mind. All my efforts to not think about it were useless and I found myself sprinting from the mess hall.
Sera found me twenty minutes later, curled in a ball on my bed. The torrent of tears had given way to dry, sobbing cough and as she sat me up and pulled me into her for a hug, I could do nothing to resist. For all the mourning I had done in secret back in Trenton, this was the first time I’d allowed myself to cry over it. I’d been holding it in for too long.
When Sera gently asked if I wanted to talk about what had upset me, my mouth started moving before I could stop it. Between the continuing sobs, I wove the sad tale of how I ended up down here in Mexico, finishing with simply, “And every day I wake up expecting to see Ranger standing over my bed, demanding I come back with him.”
“Would you go with him if he did appear one day?” Sera asked, an odd expression on her face.
“Yes,” I responded immediately, but as thoughts of the past crowded my head once more, I collapsed backwards on the bed, heaving out a confused moan. “No... Maybe... I don’t know. Things have always been so complicated between us.”
“Ahh, hell,” Cal’s voice broke the spell that had cast me back six years to the misery that was the root of all my current problems. “What did I say? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Please stop.”
Hastily removing my fake glasses and wiping my face with the napkin Bobby silently held toward me, I realised that I had, in fact, been crying. Way to show the guys how much you’ve grown mentally and emotionally, Steph, I chastised myself as I blew my nose.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” A woman’s voice reached my ears just before her body arrived at the end of the table. “Did Bobby open his trap and offend you?” she asked, sliding into the booth beside me without even a hint of hesitation. “He has an excellent bedside manner, but he’s still a man. And like all men, he’s prone to sticking his foot in his mouth.” She wrapped an arm around me in a quick – slightly awkward on my end – but comforting hug. “Just ignore him. It’s what I do.”
A shocked laugh escaped me as she released my shoulders. “You must be Ashley,” I said as we both straightened. I couldn’t help but smile when she beamed at me, showing a row of perfect pearly whites practically lighting up the room they were so bright.
“In the flesh,” she confirmed. “Now quickly, tell me everything Bobby’s told you about me so I can set the record straight.”
“He hasn’t told me anything,” I said, taking in her brightly coloured blouse and complimentary maxi skirt before glancing over at her husband, a stark contrast with his dark skin and black on black uniform. This woman is certainly not what I’d expect, but I could see how they would fit together nicely.
“Blasphemy!” she exclaimed, startling me. “Don’t you know you’re supposed to rave about me?” she admonished Bobby. Her eyes dashed sideways a moment as though she’d only just noticed Cal. “Oh, hi Callum. I didn’t realise you’d be joining us.”
“Callum?” I questioned, louder than I perhaps should have. “Is that your actual name?” When a slight blush rose on Cal’s cheeks I knew it was correct. “How did I not know that?”
Bobby grinned, clearly relieved that A) I’d distracted his wife from the fact that he hadn’t been singing her praises, and B) I was no longer crying. “He thinks it’s less intimidating,” Bobby explained.
I rolled my eyes at Cal. “You can grow your hair to cover the most bad ass tattoo I’ve ever seen, but you can’t handle being called a name that, by all accounts, only you think sounds wussier?” He opened his mouth, probably to defend his decisions, but I cut him off. “Speaking of which,” I said, holding up a single finger to ensure no one interrupted me. “Now that you know I’m me, are you going to tell me the real reason for the shaggy dog style hair?”
“I’ll tell you about mine if you tell me about yours,” Cal countered, gesturing to my hair.
Confused, I put a hand to my head, as if that was going to help me work out what Cal meant. I didn’t feel anything amiss, so I asked, “What’s wrong with my hair?”
“It’s short. It’s red. Then there’s your eyes, the glasses, the tan... We need details.”
“Oh,” I uttered while Ashley shook her head at the men. “Okay,” I agreed.
Cal gave a slight nod. “You know about Hal’s kids?” he asked, rather than delve into the story of his hair. I nodded, rather than give vocal confirmation and encourage him to go further off topic. “Well, I first met Richie when he was about a year old,” he started to explain.
“Wait, what?” I interrupted, confused on two levels. First, how this was relevant to his hair. And second, how it could have been that Cal was so late in meeting Hal’s kid. They’d been partners for ages before I left, and I’d thought they were good friends. Surely Cal would have met the kid within a few weeks of him being born.
“What’s confused you?” Bobby asked gently.
“Everything,” I admitted, resisting the urge to tear my hair out. “What does this have to do with Cal’s hair? And why did it take so long for him to meet Richie?”
“Cal was transferred to Miami for about two years not long after you left,” Ashley explained patiently. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she knew about that kind of thing. Bobby probably shared everything that went on at Rangeman with her to make up for the fact that there was a large portion of his life that he was legally not able to share with her. It made sense. “He came back for Hal’s wedding, but couldn’t manage any time off after that; things were really hectic down there apparently.”
“Right,” Cal agreed. “So while I knew that Eloise – that’s Hal’s wife – was pregnant, and I saw pictures of Richie when he was born, the first time I met him was when I returned to Trenton a couple months after his first birthday.”
“I still don’t see the connection to the fact that you have hair,” I said bluntly, crossing my arms over my chest and leaning back against the padded bench seat I was sharing with Ashley.
“Richie freaked out when he saw the tattoo,” Bobby announced, his grin returning. “Wouldn’t stop crying. Then the same thing happened the next time. And the next. It was pretty funny.”
From the way Cal was glaring at him, I would guess that he didn’t agree with that statement. “Anyway,” he took over. “Eventually, we figured that maybe it was the tattoo, so I wore a beanie the next time I went over and he was fine.”
“So you grew your hair to cover it so that Richie wouldn’t be scared,” I deduced, a smaller version of the lump in my throat from earlier forming. “That’s really sweet,” I told him.
Cal shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “He’s my best friend’s son,” he explained awkwardly. “I didn’t want to traumatise the kid.”
Ashley smiled and patted his hand. “Callum is just a big softie at heart, aren’t you?”
He glared at her for the comment, but we all knew she was right. How many times had he offered me his hankie to wipe away some of the excess garbage and grime after one of my bombshell run ins with a skip?
“I’m sure he’d do the same for you if you ever had a baby,” Ashley added, clearly wanting me to see the teddy bear side of the man across from us. All her comment did, though, was make me think of the possibilities.
What would my life be like if I’d made different decisions? At any point in my life. If I’d married Joe? If I’d followed my mother’s numerous suggestions and taken a job at the button factory? If I’d convinced Ranger that he could do relationships if he tried? If I hadn’t drunk in excess that night...
Before I could work myself into a renewed state of misery, looking at all the failures in my life, Ashley’s arm shot into the air, waving energetically. She was half turned around in her seat grinning at someone across the room. I mimicked her position, attempting to find who she might be beckoning over, when Cal called out, announcing who it was.
It took me only another second to notice him, at which point I quickly spun back around to face Bobby, panic seizing my chest. I’d just been settling back into my own skin, comfortable with being able to be myself with the few people that knew who I really was, and now I had to snap back into my assumed identity. “Am I still Kit?” I asked Bobby, pulling a lock of hair forward to check that it was still red and shoving my glasses back on.
“You’re still Kit,” Bobby confirmed quietly as a beaming Hank approached the table. “Just relax and be yourself.”