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As she rolled herself over to avoid the morning sun that had found her window, Sloan groaned at the sound of papers crunching beneath her arms. She had fallen asleep with them for the third night in a row. Instead of pulling them free to avoid further crumpling, she pushed them to the carpeted floor. Hopefully they were numbered, but she would figure it out if they weren't. She wasn't even sure if she would ever bring herself to fill them out anyways.
The bed felt so empty. It hadn't been easy to adjust to the open space beside her, but she was trying. Pillows always seemed to find themselves in his place, and her arm was always wrapped around them in the morning. Hallie had tried convincing her to buy a smaller bed, offering the valid point that the queen-size bed was too large for the small room that she was now occupying, but that was easier said than done. Sloan countered the argument with the fact that she had no money to pay for a new bed—which was very true. Really, she just didn't want to give up her bed. Their bed. Just buying new sheets practically killed her. His scent was long gone along with him and his things.
Sloan had only been living with Hallie for three months. The duplex was small, with only two bedrooms, one bathroom, a living area, and a kitchen that was far too small to hold all the items she had been hoarding since her and Steve rented their first apartment. Since baking wasn't exactly her forte, she decided that the baking supplies could be hidden away in her closet, for now. Everything else had since been unboxed and put in their new places, allowing the small space to feel as homely as it could. She never stayed in one place long; so, this seemed typical. As much as she wanted to say she wouldn't be in Hallie's place long, she couldn't. Money had become beyond tight.
Sloan rolled again, this time feeling the pen that had been sitting on top of the papers last night. "Shit," she muttered without opening her eyes.
Her voice was still raspy from crying herself to sleep. She reached beneath herself to pull out the pen from under her breast and decided to keep it in her grasp. She was going to need it to form a grocery list.
Forcing her eyes to pry open, the well-lit room was nothing but a blurry mess—another complication of a night spent crying. With the tip of her pointer finger, Sloan removed the crud from the corners of her eyes and gave a few more rapid blinks, allowing the small bedroom to come into focus. A month's worth of clothes were scattered on the floor alongside the paperwork that she was already regretting throwing. She decided that laundry would also be added to her to-do list for today.
"I'm leaving!" Hallie's voice carried down the hallway. "Try and get out of the bed today!"
Sloan's eyes rolled after the sound of the front door slammed. She loved her best friend dearly, but Sloan needed to move at her own pace. Hallie was having a hard time coping with Sloan's lack of coping. Baby steps, she was trying her hardest. Every day Sloan focused on one thing, attempting to bring back some sense of normal. Yesterday, she told herself she was going to get her car washed. It didn't happen. Instead, she went to McDonalds, bought herself a small fry, and then cried for a good hour, because she knew she was going to fail her task. She did, however, have to pick up a dollar's worth of change from the floor of her orange Cobalt in order to pay for the fries. So, in the end, the car had somewhat been cleaned.
Grocery shopping and laundry was probably pressing her luck, but Sloan was now out of food and clean clothes. She grabbed an old receipt from the floor and began writing on the back of it, trying to think of the cheapest, healthiest ingredients she could. Luckily for her, she knew that just because an ingredient was expensive, didn't always mean it was the most delicious. She also had a knack for substituting ingredients when money was really short, like it was today.
It took some time to locate clothing that was suitable to wear in public from the floor of the small room. She had to physically get on her hands and knees to use her arm to scoop out more clothing from beneath the bed. Socks took the longest, but after she found one white and one black to make a "pair", she ultimately tossed them back to the floor and dug out some tacky tan sandals of which she rarely wore. They did not match the black skinny jeans or the gray tee she she was wearing, but again, small victories. For the second day in a row, she was dressed.
Sloan hated doing it, but she forced herself to look in the mirror of the bathroom vanity before showing herself in public. This could have been viewed as a good thing or a terrible mistake. She looked downright terrible. Her ash-brown hair was disheveled and sticking out in every direction it possibly could, making the functionless rubber band in her hair nothing more than an accessory. Raccoon-like circles had formed around her forrest-green eyes, which made it look as if she had forgotten to remove makeup, but she didn't even own any; so, that was not the case. She knew that as much as she wished it was just the light of the bathroom, her skin had become damn near translucent. Her cheekbones were clearly defined—hell, all her bones were. She had never been so thin. She felt disgusting as she tried to swipe away the circles beneath her eyes and pinch her cheeks for color. After only a few minutes of no results, Sloan gave up and slapped the light switch of the bathroom to off.
If I substitute applesauce for oil, I could buy the cheapest container and use whatever is left of the oil at home. Half applesauce, half fat, Sloan reminded herself. Dessert's fate rested upon her Googled knowledge of cake ingredient substitutes. She hated baking with a passion.
Sighing heavily, she selected the container of applesauce from the shelf, making sure to take the smallest, generic, store-brand container of the mashed fruit. It was tossed into a cart filled with other generic ingredients.
Her list had dwindled down to a few items quickly, but her money was disappearing even faster. No way was she going to be able to swing this entire list. As she scanned the cart, Sloan decided that conditioner was overrated, and that she could always steal a small pump from Hallie, if desperate. Hating being one of those people, she tucked the conditioner between two different brands of applesauce and began pushing her cart to the next aisle. A bitch move, but her stress level wasn't going to handle a second trip to the health and beauty section. Too many people there actually cared what they looked like, and she felt her appearance was being judged.
After adding celery, carrots, onion, chicken breasts, brown sugar, and mustard to her cart, Sloan had finally made it to the last item. Tugging her lip between her teeth, she scoured the shelf for her favorite ingredient before finally spotting it right in front of her face. Just as she reached for the last bottle, another hand reached out at the same time, and suddenly there were two grips upon it. Awkwardly, without removing her hold, Sloan peered up to the tall stranger and offered her best impression of a smile with the hopes he would telepathically understand how badly she needed this last bottle. Making this even more awkward...he didn't let go.
Unsure of how to react to the situation, Sloan didn't. Her eyes widened with surprise that he was seriously not going to give up and let her have it. Instead, she just stared at the man whose tall, muscular, build made Sloan feel the like the size of the toothpick that was currently between his lips. She watched a pair of vivid, sapphire blue eyes widen and glance between her and the item in their grasp.
"I saw it first?" his voice held a deep, raspy tone, and as soon as Sloan heard it, she felt color return to her cheeks.
"No," she exhaled. "I believe I did."
"My hand is under yours," the stranger flashed a bright grin towards her, allowing dimples to burrow into his cheeks. His toothpick rolled to the opposite side of his mouth.
Oh, he's good, she mentally told herself. He thinks he can get what he wants because he's good looking. Doesn't work when the girl has zero interest.
"You have longer arms," Sloan huffed, becoming slightly annoyed that he was trying to charm his way into getting an ingredient.
Instead of letting go, the man turned his attention to the items in Sloan's cart. The thought of being judged by what she was buying made her even more annoyed. This was supposed to be a quick trip, and this guy was about to see her ugly cry over a goddamn condiment. He was seriously underestimating her state of mind right now.
"Why are you marinating your chicken for soup?"
"Excuse me?" Sloan looked at her ingredients and back to the jackass who wouldn't release his hold.
"You heard me." He shook his head at her cart and had the audacity to reach into it. With one finger, he began to shift the items so he could see if there was anything beneath them. "There's already enough sodium in your soup. You don't need this. It will be too salty if you marinade the poultry."
How the hell could he just look in her cart and know she was marinating chicken for soup?
"I like it!" Sloan gave the bottle a little tug and in return he gripped it tighter. "It gives it a unique flavor."
"Where are your noodles?"
"I make them!"
The stranger let out a breath through his nostrils, sending a side glance back to Sloan and then returning it to her cart. She took this moment to stifle a laugh at a random chunk of his short, dark hair that didn't seem to want to go flat. It was sticking straight out—just as hers had done this morning. As hard as she was trying not to laugh, she also wanted to see if she still had the ability to do so.
Not the time, she decided. I will win this food war.
"Tell you what," he began without looking back at her. It was ad if he was eye-fucking her groceries—her groceries were being violated. "I will let go if you can pronounce it correctly."
"Say it," he pointed to the brown bottle.
Sloan's eyes narrowed at him as he, once again, flashed a condescending smile towards her.
"Worst-e-shire," Sloan's shoulders straightened proudly, feeling confident with her answer.
Within seconds, the bottle was yanked right from her fingers and tucked under the man's arm—as if for safekeeping from crazy women who don't match their clothes and marinate chicken for chicken noodle soup.
"Soy sauce," his toothpick again shifted between his dark pink lips as he bit at it to speak. His hands moved to the pockets of his denim jeans, and he turned his heel to her. "It's a game changer, but I still think you're making a mistake. No one likes food that is too salty."
"Fine," she stomped like a child and tossed her arms up in defeat, but he couldn't see her do it as he walked away. She was staring at the muscular back of the man in blue and white plaid. "How do you say it then?"
"Fuck if I know!" he called out. "No one knows how to say it." He saluted Sloan without ever turning around and disappeared from the aisle.
Sloan sulked as she turned back to shelves. Worcestershire was her favorite ingredient, and for a moment, she contemplated driving across town and getting it somewhere else. No way was she going to be able to handle two grocery stores and her laundry. So, no. Instead, she walked her ass to the ethnic food aisle and tossed the cheapest bottle of soy sauce she could find into her cart.
He better be right.
With a cheaper ingredient, she now had the ability to purchase her conditioner. Of course, because she has no luck at all, when she returned to the applesauce, it was already gone. Her chin dropped to her chest as one lone tear slid its way down her cheek. Quickly recovering, she swiped it away and made her way back to the beauty department for another.
"Smells great!" Hallie lifted the strap of her purse over her head, giving it a few extra tugs when it became caught in her long blonde hair. Her green scrubs looked rough—saturated in who knows what. It must have been a rough night at the nursing home.
Sloan spooned out a small piece of chicken from her soup mixture and blew on it before dropping it onto her tongue. Immediately, her eyes rolled, and she reached for the salt shaker.
"Needs salt," she muttered, cursing the man who she wanted to stab with his own toothpick.
Worcestershire would have been better, but she couldn't help but like the hint of Asian-influence in the flavor. Next time, she decided, she would use half Worcestershire and half soy sauce to see what would happen. Perhaps adding some Asian-inspired vegetables would kick it up a notch.
Ohhh, water chestnuts, she quickly thought and searched for a pen to write it down.
"You would not believe this guy at the store today," her head shook with displeasure. "Such an ass."
Sloan was trying to make conversation, knowing that her best friend was leaning against the wall and waiting for Sloan to finally say that she filled out her paperwork. This was the discussion every day, and honestly, it had become exhausting.
"No, I did not," Sloan answered without looking up from the paper. She tossed down the pen and returned to the soup, giving it a good stir before lowering the heat and replacing the lid of the pot.
"I know you didn't. That's why I did for you."
"What?" Sloan spun herself around and held up her hand, willing herself not to burst into angry tears. Her stomach was already in her throat. "Hallie, you did not!"
When Hallie shrugged, Sloan made a hurried dash up the stairs and to her bedroom, falling to her knees to search for the papers she had tossed there this morning. Gone—Every. Single. One.
Covering her eyes, tears flooded her face before she could even attempt to halt them. She knew Hallie was standing in her doorway, watching her lose it for the millionth time in the last few months, but she didn't know what to say. Sloan was angry, hurt, and maybe slightly relieved that they were gone, but mostly she wanted to vomit between her sobs. Hallie moved herself into the room slowly, cautiously taking her place on Sloan's bed and taking a pillow to hold.
"Why?" Sloan hiccuped.
"Because you need something to take up your time. To take your mind off things," Hallie sighed. "I'm so worried about you, and I know you needed time, but it has been months. This was your dream before Steve. You needed a push, and I'm pushing you. Please don't hate me."
Sloan gave a chuckle as she sat back on her ass with a thump, lifting her shirt to remove her tears from her face. She could never hate Hallie. They had been through way too much together to ever feel hate. Disappointed, a little.
"It's not like you have to go if you do get accepted. You can turn them down, but you should find out if it's an option or not."
"I can't afford it," Sloan sniffled and shook her head. "I need a job. Even if I was accepted and wanted to attend, there's no way..."
"I'll co-sign your loan. Do not even try and fight me on it. You won't win. I will forge your name if I have to," Hallie smiled wickedly, "...again."
Sloan exhaled a massive breath and licked her tear-dampened lips. She was on the brink of another laugh. Two in a day—a new record.
"What recipe did you submit?"
Hallie practically bounced with excitement, gripping her stomach. "Your white truffle lobster mac and cheese!" she fell backwards to the bed behind her and happily kicked her feet into the air. "It's so good!"
This time, Sloan really did laugh at her friend. Thankfully, Hallie had chosen a recipe that Sloan was somewhat confident about. Maybe she did have a shot at culinary school. Maybe it could take her mind off of a doomed relationship. And just like that, Sloan's smile vanquished at the thought of Steve. Hallie noticed the change and slid herself to the floor beside her friend to wrap one arm around her for comfort. This happened most nights, and in all honesty, Sloan needed it.
"It'll be okay. Life threw you a curve and we will get you back on track." Hallie kissed Sloan's messy hair as Sloan once again began to cry.
How could she get back on track when her life was never on the track to begin with?