Salty

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10

S L O A N

Once upon a time, there was a girl who absolutely despised going to school. Dreaded it. As she got older, she realized that it was necessary and wanted to go, ultimately being unable to, but middle school was cruel. Most kids get hand-me-downs from older siblings, but this girl’s hand-me-downs were tattered, stained, most times didn’t fit right. Her shoes had holes the size of quarters because her toes were so jammed into the front of them that they rubbed the leather thin until they’d finally snap free. Honestly, the toe missing gave her relief.

The stares were terrible, the whispers were hurtful, and nothing—absolutely NOTHING—compared to the cruel girls who blatantly called her out on her appearance just to gain a laugh from their obnoxious friends. She didn’t want to impress them, she didn’t want to be friends with them, she just wanted to make it through the day and someday end up with a diploma. It didn’t happen and she went through absolute hell for years for nothing.

Culinary school was supposed to be different. She honestly believed that every single day she was going to wake up, be inspired enough that she would want to go to class.

That was not the case.

Dread had once again rooted itself deep into her belly, and she felt like a child again—throwing a tantrum in her head that was screaming I don’t want to go!

Sloan sunk her body further beneath the water of the tub and scooped what was left of her bubbles closer to her chin. Class was due to start in exactly two hours and she couldn’t bring herself to leave the comfort of her bath, the one place where she could calm herself down. Using her big toe, she bounced the giant, limp dildo that hung from the shower wall, honestly debating not going to class and giving the Hulk a whirl. She needed something to take her mind off the impending doom of her day. It happened everyday and there was no getting used to it.

This time, it was not classmates poking fun of her clothes that was the problem. In fact, Sloan had come to really enjoy her classes with Ava and the stupid coat was no longer a problem because she had spent every cent she could find to buy it. And Steve, he was the last of her problems right now, although he wasn’t helping. The problem was with Ollie.

Chef Oliver, she rolled her eyes at his stupid fucking name as though he was here to witness it. Didn’t matter, he had caught several of her eye rolls over the last few weeks and they didn’t seem to help or hurt the situation. Coat is a problem? Fine, she got the coat. He thinks she cheats on tests? Sloan started working extra hard on every test, getting damn near perfect marks on every single one. Every single little move she made, Ollie had an issue with. If she came into the classroom solely to take a breath, he would find a problem with it. He was a miserable fuck for his age, being a complete asshole to everyone in his path, but especially to Sloan.

She regretted their night together, as fun as it had been. She didn’t want to regret it for this reason, she wanted to regret it because she wasn’t over Steve when they had shared their night together. Sloan felt like a really shitty human being ninety percent of the time and now the one thing that was supposed to make her feel even slightly better was the one thing that was dragging her back into her hole of depression.

Sloan was sinking fast.

She used to cry when she was sad. She couldn’t even do that anymore, there were no tears left in her. It had been weeks. Now she was beginning the next phase; the one where she just felt numb all of the time. Avoiding people was becoming easier and that included avoiding TJ and Hallie. The only time of day where she felt anything was mornings like this where she just wanted to be alone and be anywhere but her first class.

Her stomach ached again at the very thought of leaving this house.

Sloan gave Hulk another little bounce with her bubble coated toe just before a knock at the bathroom door interrupted her sulking.

“Sloan?”

Hallie’s voice was careful, calm, and a bit hopeful that Sloan was going to answer her this time. This wasn’t the first knock; it was more like the fifth.

Her foot dropped back into the water, splashing a good little wave of it to the floor outside the tub.

“Honey, we gotta talk, even if you don’t want to. Can I please come in?”

No.

Because she didn’t actually speak her thought, the bathroom door handle began to slowly turn and Sloan was so numb at the moment that she didn’t even have the will to tell Hallie to go away.

“I’m coming in.”

Obviously.

A blurry Hallie appeared in the corner of her eye as she continued to focus on Hulk. Noting the color of the pink blob, Hallie appeared to be dressed in her scrubs and ready for her workday at the nursing home. Her friend kept her distance, knowing she wasn’t actually welcome in the room but needed to be here anyways.

“I know you are going through a hard time with Steve...”

“This isn’t about Steve,” the huff she let out sent a flurry of bubbles into the air.

“Okay?” Hallie took one step forward and stopped herself again. “Is it about the stack of bills that are sitting in the kitchen? Because that’s why I’m here. Sloan, they are getting out of hand. What are you going to do?”

That was a very good question. That stack could not be avoided forever and yes, she was slowly working her way through it, but it seemed like just when she thought she had caught up, another one would come out of nowhere and be twice the payment. Maybe if the cops came and hauled her off to jail for not paying her bills then she would feel better about life. She could work in the kitchen, not have any late payments, not have to go to the knife skills class and ignore her sexy teacher that fucked her and then kicked her right back into the worst bout of depression she’d experienced yet. Ollie was stomping on her dream and the thought of being a chef didn’t even seem worth it anymore.

“Sloan? The bills? I can’t help you with them...”

“I didn’t ask you to, Hal!” Sloan splashed more water to the floor as she sat up. “I’m trying! Every moment I’m not in school, I’m working. I have to work, to pay for school. I’m stuck with my husband’s debt right now and honestly debating skipping class to fuck the shower. That is where I am in my life. If the cops come and haul me off, you’ll find me thanking Steve for fucking my credit score and ending my misery.”

“Well, at least that means you’ll talk to him and get it off your chest. It will help if you do.”

The imaginary daggers that stemmed from Sloan’s glare at her best friend were enough that Hallie retreated back her one step. If she brought that up one more time, Sloan was going to completely go off on her. Steve—for once—was not the problem right now. In fact, her mind was so lost elsewhere that unless Hallie brought him up, she was okay for the most part.

“You know, Sloan,” Hallie mumbled, hurt by her friend’s outburst. “You say that you stand behind this decision that you and him made together, but what I don’t find fair is that I’m literally paying for it as much as you are and I’m not drowning myself in my own pity.”

She was so right, but if she didn’t want to help then she should have stopped offering up her money a long time ago. Sloan was literally tapped now. Every piece of bakeware she had been hoarding in her closet, every piece of clothing she didn’t use and some that she did, all was currently sitting at TJ’s shop just waiting to be priced. She had about three outfits to her name right now and her school supplies. That’s it. Hallie didn’t understand what all Sloan had already given up...like Steve’s sweatshirt.

“I will pay you back first.” Sloan yanked the plug of the tub to allow the water to begin draining. “I consigned all my shit at TJ’s. The money is yours. I owe you exactly three-hundred dollars and you will have it by next paycheck.”

“I’m not complaining about that!” Hallie argued back. “Do you see me sulking like this and avoiding life? No! You’re supposed to be getting better, not worse.”

“You didn’t marry him, Hallie! I did! If you could have handled it better, maybe you should have!” Sloan’s tone ended this discussion. She had every right to avoid life right now and she would fight Hallie on this and win ten times over again.

The room went dead silent. Maybe Sloan could no longer cry, but Hallie could and she knew without even looking at her bestie that her face was already covered in tears. It was a low blow, especially knowing how close the group of four once was.

“Hal...”

“I’ll be home late tonight. I’m working a double shift.” And with that, the door slammed behind Hallie.

***

“He’s glaring at you again.”

Without even bothering to look up, she knew Ava was referring to Chef Oliver. Who knows what the hell she had done to set him off again, but he was on a warpath today and the entire class was paying for something Sloan had done. She could feel the heat of his icy glare from all the way across the room as she kept her eyes down on her book. They were learning how to julienne vegetables and there was no way that somehow she had fucked this up; so, obviously he was pissy about something else and he was just silently planning on how to make her life miserable today. It was likely just her existence that had him peeved.

Beside the textbook, in front of Sloan sat a cutting board, her block of knives, and a green pepper. Ava had unfortunately been stuck with an onion and cut it incorrectly, causing her eyes to sting with useless tears. Ollie had even warned her not to cut the root off, but Ava seemed to not listen. She was too busy panicking that their cruel chef had even bothered to speak to her.

Sloan had practically bolted for the green pepper when she saw it because they were her absolute favorite to eat. Maybe Ollie has an aversion to them for some reason. In that case, Sloan wondered if she could get the essence of green pepper bottled to wear as a perfume.

“You all have until I get to you to perfect your practicing,” Ollie stood from his seat, demanding the attention of his classroom. Sloan bit the bait, feeling her cheeks heat when she found him staring directly at her with no intent to shift to anyone else. “Cut your vegetable in half, one half to be used for practice and one for me to watch closer. Begin.”

“My eyes,” Ava rubbed them once more. “I’m dying. Rest in peace me. This is how I’m going, I just know it.”

Sloan giggled at her poor friend, knowing that nothing was going to help at this point. The only thing that was going to work in Ava’s favor today was that she was standing beside Sloan, and that meant all of Ollie’s attention would be on her and whatever she had done wrong. In fact, the whole class was likely safe because he was skipping the first and the second row to start with her.

“Ass,” she muttered beneath her breath, withdrawing her chef’s knife as she did.

He wasn’t going to give her any time to practice. Whatever. She julienned vegetables all the time to make fajitas. It was no different here.

Ollie strode her way slowly, his hands held behind his back and clutched together. He pretended like he looked around the room, but he wasn’t really. He was dead-set on breaking any will that Sloan had left to return to this class.

Not today, she told herself. Do not let him win today. You’ve got this. You’ve done this a million times. There is nothing that can go wrong for him to call you out on.

Holding the knife properly with three fingers on one side, thumb on the other and then curling them around the handle, Sloan positioned her pepper and first sliced it in half. The seeds didn’t matter today, they wouldn’t be eating it. So, she continued to position the halved pepper so that she was holding it down with her knuckles facing out in a claw grip. Using her knife in a rocking motion, she began to cut her julienned pieces, instantly realizing that she had a problem.

The knives she had bought secondhand from TJ’s—beyond dull.

The chef knife was refusing to cut through the skin of her pepper and she began to saw at it to get it to finally break. With Ollie walking straight towards her, she knew she was fucked. This had literally become the equivalent of being back in middle school with everyone else in brand new clothes while Sloan’s were literally falling apart as she wore them. He hadn’t even spoken to her yet and she was already mad and embarrassed that she came into this classroom with these.

“Miss Smith,” her chef approached, hovering over her work station. “Proceed as you were.”

Her chest rose high with a deep inset of air and fell in defeat.

He had won and she hadn’t even started.

Still holding her pepper in a claw grip, she rocked the knife once, feeling the same toughness of the skin once more. She repeated the motion three times before the skin finally gave her some slack and split apart.

She couldn’t bring herself to look up at him. She stared at a green vegetable that she never wanted to eat again as long as she lived while she felt her dream slipping between her fingers.

“Those knives aren’t acceptable for this class,” he scolded while continuing to walk. “You will bring in different ones if you plan to pass this course.”

That’s it. Done.

“The knives aren’t the damn problem,” Sloan tossed it onto her work station and yelled at his back. Ollie turned wide eyed at her outburst, along with the rest of the class. “They are part of the problem. Apparently, it’s me who is not acceptable for this class. You can shove those dull knives right up your ass, Ollie.”

She left them on her work station, not even caring that she could probably sell them to get more money for her bills. She did pick up her backpack and her text book, striding right past her one-night-stand for the door.

“Sloan!” he followed her out into the hall.

Sloan ignored him, walking straight out the doors to a fall Chicago day. She felt damn good, better than she had in weeks since she first walked into that stupid classroom.

She just wondered how long that feeling was going to last.

***

Five weeks of putting up with Oliver Mulligan deserved a special treat. Even though bills were eating their way through every penny Sloan could scrounge up, she splurged a little after class and hit up the local grocery store for some needed ingredients. Vegetables had left a sour taste in her mouth this afternoon and now fruit pizza was all she could think about.

Thinking about anything else at the moment was just asking for trouble. She knew she was on the brink of one of her episodes and she hadn’t had one since the day after she and Ollie had mind-blowing sex.

Screw him.

She was going to eat her weight in carbs smothered in fruit and then she was going to have better orgasms with her friend Hulk than Ollie had given her—just to show him up. That’s right, her damn shower was going to be a better lay.

Opting to not use a frozen pizza crust, Sloan made one from scratch. Baking wasn’t really her forte, but she could fake her way through it. The kitchen table was littered with ingredients, from sugar and flour to strawberries and blueberries. All of the ingredients for her dough were put into a bowl and formed into a ball, feeling warm in her hands from the warm water used to activate the yeast. Then as she let it rest, she began slicing the fruit, knowing that when this pizza was finished it was going to have a big ol’ smiley face on it. If she couldn’t bring one to her own face, her damn pizza was going to be happy enough for everyone.

Hallie’s arrival through their front door didn’t stop Sloan as she pulled the risen dough out of its oiled bowl. When the tired girl in pink scrubs walked into the kitchen, Hallie looked like she was going to burst at the sight of the mess that Sloan had made. Her TJ-induced cleaning kick hadn’t quite ended.

“I promise I will clean it,” Sloan said as she rolled the dough into a large circle. “I need fruit pizza.”

Hallie bobbed her head, dropping her purse to an open chair beside the table. She clutched her elbow as she looked at all of the fruit that was currently cut up. Her friend wasn’t stupid, when Sloan made fruit pizza it was usually covered in vanilla ice cream by the end of the night and it was solely used as a feel-good food.

“Did you start your period?”

Sloan laughed, placing the dough onto pizza pizzazz Pete and shaking her head no.

“I’m celebrating.”

“Celebrating?” Hallie questioned, looking around the room again before stopping on Sloan. “Celebrating what exactly?

Sloan hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with the information that her one-night-stand was now her teacher and he was being a complete asshole. This news wasn’t going to go over well.

“So, funny story...” Sloan began, not wanting to even look at Hallie as she began the tale of how she was going to drop out of school.

Hallie pushed her purse off the chair and sat, dropping her face into her hands. “Why do I think that this story is not going to be funny at all?”

“Toothpick guy is one of my teachers and he’s making my life a living hell. These last five weeks that I’ve been miserable have completely been about him. He thinks that I slept with him to get good grades, crazy I know...” Sloan could barely get a breath in, let alone allow Hallie to react. The blonde’s interest was piqued and she kept sitting up straighter and attempting to speak, but her friend wasn’t allowing it at the moment. “I can’t stand him! He is such a prick! Like, he’s really fucking hot, but a total douche! And he’s a smoker! Gross!”

“Okay...” Hallie managed a word.

Sloan turned the dial on the pizza pizzazz to fifteen minutes and began using a pinch of sugar with cinnamon to dust across the top as it began to spin.

“Anyways, he’s been terrible and I just couldn’t take it anymore! The knives were the last straw; so, I told him to stick ’em where the sun doesn’t shine and I walked!”

“Walked where?” Hallie stood from her seat.

“Out! Out of the school! I’m done! Over it! He wins!”

Hallie stepped worriedly in front of her, taking both of Sloan’s shoulders into her hands and giving them a slight shake.

“You what?”

“Dropped out!”

“Sloan,” she whispered. “You’re going to regret it. Don’t.”

“I can get most of the money back since I didn’t go the whole semester...” she continued to ramble, feeling the panic setting in.

“I don’t care about the money. Forget that for now.”

“I’m fine, Hallie.”

“Are you?” she countered. “Are you really fine, Sloan? You’re going to walk out on a dream because he’s a jerk and he smokes? I don’t think this is even about him, maybe some of it but not all of it. You are not okay.”

Just as Sloan was about to lie once more, sparks began to fly past both of the girls, causing them to jump and scream at the sound of loud popping, almost like fireworks were going off. The lights flickered and her pizza tray began to loudly groan from not being able to make a full turn.

“Shit!” Hallie squealed, running for the sprayer of the sink.

Sloan quickly grabbed the cord of the pizza pizzazz and yanked it from the wall before it could start a fire. It didn’t stop the black smoke from clouding the small kitchen as both girls coughed and stared at a completely fried Pete.

Sloan’s breaths became short and rapid. Her throat tightened, feeling as though she had swallowed one of her strawberries whole.

“Sloan?”

Pete is dead.

Sloan hit the ground faster than Hallie could get to her, with her panicked breaths barely allowing her time to think let alone realize that her friend was holding her face between her palms.

“Sloan!” Hallie continued to yell. “Look at me! You’re okay! I’ve got you...”

“Pete is dead!” Sloan began to sob, linking her eyes to Hallie. “He’s dead! He was the only one left! He’s gone!”

“He’s an appliance, Sloan. We will replace him.”

Sloan’s head shook wildly but Hallie didn’t drop her hands. She forced Sloan to continue to look at her as she wailed.

It’s not the same. You can’t replace something like Pete.

Giving up, Sloan dropped herself into her best friend, sobbing into her pink scrubs. The weight of the day had finally caught up to her. If she was honest, it was more than just today that had been weighing on her shoulders. Her world just crashed. Pete was the last thread holding her together and he failed her.

“I’m not okay,” she finally confessed as Pete continued to smoke on the counter above them. “He’s dead!”

“I know,” Hallie petted her hair and held her tighter, beginning to rock her back and forth like a toddler who won’t sleep. “I promise, we will get another.”

“I’m not okay,” she repeated.

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