Salty

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11

O L L I E

It was the change in volume of the kitchen timer that awoke Ollie from his afternoon nap. His Google Home lit up, displaying a rainbow of colors circling on its top while it only continued to chime louder.

“Okay, Google,” he groggily rubbed at his eyes. “Stop my timer.”

It didn’t stop.

It never worked.

He hated technology.

“Okay, Google!” he yelled this time, causing the noise to only pause. “Stop my timer!”

The colors circled once more and his apartment once again fell quiet.

Ollie didn’t want to remove himself from the comfort of the couch. The room was nice and dark even though it was early afternoon. Storm clouds and booming thunder that rattled the old windows had sent him right off to a sleep that he desperately needed. He had dreamt of splintered barn beams, a tire swing, and lofts of bailed hay again. He could practically smell the pig shit even though the farm was over a hundred miles away. That one hadn’t been a nightmare, but the timer for his chicken lasagna had likely woken him just in time. Yet, somehow, it was manure that plagued his senses and not the casserole in his oven.

“Get up,” he told himself, gruffly. “You have shit to do.”

He slid himself down to the wooden floors, his knees hitting first, causing him to groan and curse at his aging bones. He used the coffee table in addition to the cushions of the couch for the support to bring himself to his feet and hobble his stiffened body back to the kitchen where his lunch was waiting.

Prior to falling asleep, Ollie had already prepared a fork, plate and empty glass, which sat on the stainless island. This is where he sat for every meal. The room didn’t need a dining table or chairs because he was the sole inhabitant of this place. He’d be lying to himself if he said he didn’t want someone on the stool beside him. It was Shelby’s, and there was not a chance in hell that she was coming back to him. She had moved on before Ollie could even grasp that she was gone.

Being a chef, there was nothing lonelier than preparing a meal for one. He never was the type to reheat leftovers or repeat the same recipe two nights in a row. The lasagna that was pulled from the warm oven was made in the smallest casserole dish he owned and he still knew he’d be throwing whatever was left directly into the trash when he was done. And even though no one was here to see it, Ollie took his time to plate his food on his stark white plate and make it look more like art than something he was about to devour in a few bites. The cheese was still bubbling as he topped the layers with some freshly-grated parmesan and some fresh sprigs of parsley from the small plant on the sill of his window.

Even though meals were the loneliest times of his day, Ollie always forced himself to sit beside an empty seat, eating that meal he prepared for one. It was a reminder that he chose this life. He wanted to go to school. He wanted to be the best. He worked his ass off, night and day, to accomplish that and it took years. Shelby only wanted him and he couldn’t give her that when his attention was solely on his work. So, now he sat here, a chef, without the girl he’d done all this for by his side. Ollie had long ago come to terms with the fact that he deserved it, but that didn’t make seeing Shelby hurt less. He just wished that he could find the power to move on after she had made it look so easy.

Life was a bitch like that.

Ollie shoved a forkful of lasagna into his mouth, extending his other arm out to slide his schoolwork towards him. The taste of gooey cheeses, homemade noodles with spinach and chicken was exquisite compared to the filmy taste of tobacco from the cigarette he had given into right before falling asleep. He had about fifteen minutes before he was due down in the restaurant and had about thirty assignments left to grade on knife cleaning. Using the red pen that still laid on top of the stack from this morning, he continued to grade as he finished his lunch.

He made it through his first period’s assignments in time and marked their scores down the sheet, stopping when he came to SMITH, SLOAN. His fork dropped to his plate and he leaned is back into the stool. Her first zero. She had not received a mark less than a hundred percent until now and now he was writing a zero beside her name. His chest tightened as he wrote it, not sure if he was more disappointed in her or himself.

Sloan was not the first to give up on his class. In fact, Ollie had broken quite a few students over the years. Knife skills wasn’t exactly his first subject choice, but after a few students had meltdowns in the kitchen, the institute thought bookwork was more suited for his teaching style. He taught the way he was taught. His mentor was worse in attitude than he was, but it made him a diligent chef. At the time, he hated it, despised the man. Now it was different and he was thankful to have someone like that lead the way for him. Sloan cracking though, that was probably the last student he thought would break.

The whole situation kept playing out in his head and he couldn’t figure out why it bothered him so much.

She quit over a green pepper.

Her knives were too dull and he could see the way the blade had rocked the opposite direction from its wood handle. It was only a matter of time before it came completely loose and hurt her. It’s a knife skills and safety course for fuck’s sake. Was he supposed to ignore it? All the times he was a complete ass, she chose to walk out on him the one time he was being helpful.

Okay, maybe he had said it harshly.

It was the way she snapped that he wasn’t prepared for. It was like she wanted him to challenge her that day and like she wanted to walk out and not come back. If she had really been trying to use him to improve her grades, that instance would have never happened. She has the highest grade in the class and it wasn’t because she was a good fuck.

She was an amazing fuck, he reminded himself, thinking about how he devoured her on this very countertop.

That was beside the point.

The point was that something with Sloan, just didn’t add up. From the first time he met her when she looked like a literal disaster had hit her, to them laughing so hard they couldn’t breathe, their sex being as hot as it was, her shyness the next day, then she is my hard-assed student that flakes? The girl was all over the place and he felt like he had met every single one of her personalities. Maybe at first, he was joking when he thought of her as crazy, but now he was thinking he was right.

It didn’t even matter now. She couldn’t hack it and she’s gone. So why did it bother him so much to write a red zero beside her name?

His phone vibrating on the counter cut off his trail of thought. He pushed the papers out of sight and mind and dropped his empty plate and fork into the sink before retrieving the phone. It was ringing but silenced for the very reason that he saw flash across its screen.

He sighed and looked to the ceiling as he answered.

“Mikah...” he growled, rolling his head to look at the clock. “I have five minutes before I need to be in that kitchen. What do you want?”

“You have a visitor down here.”

“Who?” Ollie barked. “It better be the goddamn pope for me to come down there early. I have papers to grade. And if it is the pope, I’m still not sure I’d come down.”

“Definitely more important than the pope. You better get down here.”

Ollie ended the call and ran to the door to slide on his sneakers. They weren’t his first choice for work, but he had a terrible feeling that the state inspector was downstairs. Mulligan’s was due for a visit and even though Ollie ran a tight and clean kitchen, your nerves told you that everything was wrong and they were going to find something.

Leaving his door hanging ajar, he took the iron staircase two steps at a time until he had two feet on the main floor. The bar was already buzzing with the noon crowd when he opened the door to the restaurant. He nodded his head, greeting the regulars with a plastered-on smile while silently panicking on his way to Mikah at the bar. He found his brother, nonchalantly making a mixed drink for a customer, appearing completely calm and collected as he used a shaker over his shoulder. Mikah was grinning ear to ear at something the man in front of him had said. Ollie would like to think that Mikah was bright enough to panic when an inspector was here, but he didn’t exactly make the best life choices so maybe not.

“Mikah?” he held both palms up to the ceiling, panting from his run. Ollie already felt the vein in his forehead protruding, ready to burst with how fucking livid he was about to become with his brother. “What the fuck? Who is here?”

“It’s me!” he heard a familiar voice and the sound of two hands clapping together once.

Ollie froze.

Fuck, his eyes pressed shut, hoping he was imagining it. He opened his eyes to a smiling Mikah and he wanted to lay him out for not warning him before running down here.

He shook his head at his grinning brother, knowing they were having words later, before turning to the petite woman behind him. Her sapphire blue eyes looked heavier than normal...drained of their usual sparkle. Her hair wasn’t as done up as she had always worn it, hanging just beneath her ears, shorter than normal and definitely grayer than when he last saw her. It didn’t help that it was raining and she was soaked. He couldn’t help but think the older he got, the more he looked like her.

“Ma,” his eyes looked around the restaurant for any more surprises. “You’re...here...”

Penelope Mulligan hadn’t been seen in the restaurant that held her name, for years. He began running the numbers in his head while his eyes grew wider. He was a teenager the last time...twenty years? Maybe more? Now that Ollie had a clear view of his usual patrons, they too knew this was unheard of. They bowed their heads in hushed whispers and gave surprised glances his way.

“Yes,” she clutched her hands together, holding her purse at the crease of her elbow. “I figured it was the only way to speak to you. You know, since you seem to be avoiding my calls...”

“I’m not,” he lied, shaking his head with a frown. “I’ve just been busy with work. I was going to call you back tomorrow.”

She was too smart for that. They both knew he was lying and the chuckle from Mikah behind him was an announcement that he too knew it was a lie. He just, didn’t know how to talk to her anymore. Texts were easy. Those texts turned into calls and one avoided call turned into another and suddenly he was snowballing his way into a bad cycle of not speaking to his own mom.

“You!” Kit’s voice escalated above the noise of the restaurant.

“Christ,” his eyes rolled hard. This was about to become a day from hell.

Kit ran to her brother, throwing her arms around him from behind and kissing his cheek...her way of embarrassing him. His hard-ass image was quickly diminishing with his entire family in the room.

“Make me a Caesar salad? Please, please, pretty please?”

“No,” he attempted avoiding Kit’s hold while continuing to stare at his uncomfortable mother. She shifted her feet and looked around the bar, pretending to take in the newer décor. The last time she was here, it still had mirrored walls and a disco ball over the dance floor. This wasn’t the same bar as it was even five years ago.

“I want blackened chicken on top. Thanks.” Kit released him from the “hug” before moving her way to the bar to bug Mikah. “And you!” she yelled again. “I want a Cosmo! A pretty one, like the ones on Sex and the City!”

“We don’t make those here,” Mikah grunted.

“You do now! Google it!”

“Damnit, Kit... don’t come back here.”

“I’m going to show you!”

Ollie glanced back to the two fighting siblings, seeing Mikah swat at Kit’s hands. You’d think the two of them were ten the way they acted when together. You’d never think they were in their thirties.

“Kit!”

"MIKAH!” Ollie growled, causing both of his siblings to stop what they were doing and look up. “Let her make her goddamn drink. She owns this place too.”

“Fine!” he grabbed the bottle of Absolut and slammed it down to the bar. “Then you can make her a goddamn Caesar salad!”

“With blackened chicken,” she held her finger up to remind him. “And feta! Do we have feta here?”

Ollie inhaled a sharp breath, attempting to keep his cool. The combination was an abomination, but he nodded his head yes at his baby sister as she twirled her long brown hair around her finger, beaming because she got her way. A spoiled brat who knew it and used it to her advantage.

“Where is your kid?”

“Daycare,” she answered and pointed at her drink without looking up to Ollie. “Mikah, you need more vodka than that! I’ll do it! Move!”

“Oh boy,” Ollie heard his mother giggle awkwardly. “I almost forgot what it was like to have you three all in the same room.”

That just made him feel worse. He remembered exactly when the last time they were all in the same room was and it didn’t go well.

“Ma, can I make you something to eat? Want a Caesar salad with blackened chicken and feta?”

“Oh,” her hand waved off that idea. “No. I’m not here long. I just wanted to know your schedule for the holidays.”

Yeah, he had a terrible feeling twisting in his gut that just knew that was why his mother was here. It was the subject of every ignored text and voicemail and now he was being put on the spot in person, where she could read his facial expression for his lie.

Easy answer? He had no holiday schedule. Both the bar and the school were closed on holidays. Those options were out the window. He stammered, running his hand through his hair and muttering a lot of ”Uhhs“.

His mother’s pink-tinted lips pursed as she bobbed her head. “You haven’t come home in over a year. How long are you going to avoid me?”

His shoulders dropped, feeling even worse than he had before. “I’m just busy, Ma. I’ll try and move my schedule around. I’m not avoiding you.”

“Mikah is coming home for Christmas,” she said proudly. “And Kit and Olivia.”

“I said I’ll try,” he reiterated with a frown, knowing that he wasn’t going to. His mouth began to ache for a nicotine fix. Stress only made his addiction worse.

There was no way he was going home for the holidays or any other day. He just hadn’t found a way to tell his mother that yet. The fact that she was willing to walk into this bar proved that his lack of strength didn’t come from his mother’s side of the family. His priorities were to keep this bar afloat without killing his brother. Ollie had no issues with meeting his mother in the city to take her shopping or out for a meal.

“YOU!”

This time it was an unfamiliar voice that hollered across the bar, causing damn near everyone within it to stop eating and drinking to watch a crazy blonde storm towards Ollie. He’d seen her before and it took only a few moments to recall her threatening to stab his dick with one of his toothpicks. His eyes widened, remembering Sloan’s crazy-ass friend.

“Who’s that?” Kit giggled behind him. “You banging another crazy?”

Mikah, finally finding something to agree with his sister on, began to laugh. “He sure did...” he confirmed, obviously remembering the same confrontation that Ollie did.

They had no idea what they were even talking about and talking about who he has screwed and who he hasn’t wasn’t exactly a discussion he wanted to have in front of his mother. The woman marched right up to him, crossing her arms and waiting for him to pay her any sort of attention. She didn’t have to mention why she was here; he had a pretty good idea. Sloan said something about him that rubbed her the wrong way and now his teacher-student relationship was freshly back in his mind.

“Really, Ollie? Another blonde?” Kit groaned, making a dig at his type.

“Gross! I’ve never slept with him!” the blonde’s face scrunched in disgust before turning to Ollie. “We need to talk. NOW.”

Ollie did not want to talk to this chick in the least but was about to seize any opportunity he was given to get out of his current conversation.

“Ma, I’ve got to...”

“Go,” she motioned with her hand, eying the girl and not hiding her disgust in manners. “I will call you about Christmas again next week. You know, when you’ve figured out your schedule.”

She was calling his bluff. Ollie exhaled deeply before placing a kiss on his mother’s cheek. “It was good seeing you, mom. Kit too.”

She faked a smile but said nothing more, just eyed the stranger beside him. Even his mother believed he’d slept with this woman. He wanted to throw in all of their faces that Sloan, her friend, happened to be a brunette, but that would just piss this chick off even more and he was already about to suffer a wrath for something he’d done.

Ollie placed his hand on the small of her back, ushering Sloan’s friend towards the private hall that housed nothing other than the stairs which took you up to his apartment and an old office that had been dormant for some time. It would give them a place to chat while he waited for his family to leave the premises. He fumbled with the light switch, smacking the wall numerous times before finally catching it and flipping it to on. The fluorescent light above flickered a few times and finally brightened the small space. He tried not to look at anything in it and only at the--clearly irate--woman in front of him.

“You need to dust this place,” she scanned the room, dropping a finger to the desk and dragging to collect a fresh layer of dust on the tip. “This is gross.”

“We don’t use it,” Ollie clarified, pushing down the finger that was being held up about an inch from his nose. “What may I do for you, miss...?”

“Reynolds,” she finished his sentence. “I am Hallie Reynolds and I’m about to become your worst fucking nightmare.”

“I highly doubt that,” he muttered and pressed his thumb and his finger to his eyes. It didn’t help with the headache that was fast approaching. This day had gone to complete shit.

“You are destroying her!”

“Come again?” his hand dropped away from his face, now very interested in how he had destroyed Sloan Smith when she walked out of that classroom all by herself.

Her eyes narrowed before a lone tear fell from her hazel eyes. Ollie gulped, unsure of what the hell he was supposed to do. She was just as crazy as her friend...yelling one minute and crying the next. Manning up, he did a quick onceover of the office, trying to zone everything out but the box of tissues sitting atop an old green filing cabinet in the corner. His arm was long enough to reach out and grab them, holding them up to her.

“No-thank-you,” she bit and took a deep breath.

Ollie tossed the box down to the old metal desk before sitting on the edge of it and crossing his arms over his broad chest.

“I can’t read minds, Miss Reynolds. And I’m supposed to be running a kitchen. I’m not destroying anyone.”

“Yes you are,” she huffed and looked towards the ceiling. “You just don’t realize it.”

“She is a student,” he felt defensive. “I am a teacher!”

“Just shut up!” she yelled, burying her face into her hands. Her long blonde hair fell forward, shielding his view of her. “You need to listen for like five damn minutes.”

“Then talk,” Ollie shrugged. “She walked out over a green pepper.”

“That’s not why she walked out.” Hallie removed her hands and tucked her hair behind her ears before taking one of the two open chairs in front of Ollie. “Sloan is not out to get you because you’re her teacher. She had no clue you worked there. I signed her up for her classes and it was my idea to come here to celebrate her getting into culinary school. School for someone like her is a huge accomplishment and she worked her ass off to get there. You need to stop punishing her for that.”

He wasn’t punishing her. Ollie was making sure it didn’t ruin his career. If she had told just one student that they had slept together, his life would become a bigger mess than it already is. That is the one place he could go to clear his head and get away from rooms like this. It didn’t help that Sloan had become a royal pain in his ass, defying any instruction he gave her. It already looked like he was giving her special treatment.

“Your night with her, which may have been just another hookup for you, was much different for her,” Hallie continued, clearly trying to remain calm.

“She knew what she was getting into. Neither of us wanted a relationship...”

“No,” her hands waved. “That’s not what I mean at all. Just getting her to go out that night was a feat in itself. Seeing her laugh again, was the cherry on top. I never imagined she would go upstairs with you.”

Obviously. Her astonishment was noted when she tried busting the door of the restaurant down the next morning. Something about the part where she mentioned Sloan laughing hung him up though. That night, Sloan’s laughter was infectious. Even he hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time. In class, she barely smiles. But then, neither does he. That didn’t exactly mean he was destroying someone by expecting them to follow the rules of class.

“You’re making her feel bad for sleeping with you and you don’t know how much strength it took for her to do that. Sloan hadn’t been with anyone in over a year and you were a big step in her moving on. You’ve got to stop making her feel like shit for something that was a big deal for her, even if it wasn’t for you.”

She was putting words in his mouth that he never said, making him frustrated all over again.

“I never told her it wasn’t a big deal for me.”

“Did you or did you not tell her that the night never happened?” she glares, her irises darkening. When Ollie didn’t respond, she had her answer. He had said that. Hallie stood from her seat, clutching her elbow. There wasn’t much room in the small office, but she began to pace it, walking from one end to the other repeatedly while Ollie remained quiet. “She is a broken girl and you’re dragging her down so far into her depression that this time, I don’t know if I’ll be able to help her. I need your help. You need to fix this.”

His thoughts raced back to the first day that he had met the girl in the supermarket that looked like a catastrophe. She has depression and that made a little more sense towards her attitude. That didn’t excuse her not giving a fuck about the rules of his class, telling him to shove knives up his ass, or destroying his cigarettes. She’s a pain in his ass. How the hell was he supposed to help fix someone that he didn’t even know?

“Broken?” his brow lifted with his question, needing her to clarify and continue her little rant so he could get back to his business.

Hallie stopped her steps and looked up to him. Her shoulders straightened as she closed her eyes and took a very deep breath. Hazel eyes reappeared, but every feature on her face was trying to stop an oncoming frown.

“We need to talk about Steve.”

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