Salty

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16

S L O A N

Thanksgiving-eve at Mulligan’s proved to be a completely useless shift. In the last four hours, two customers had shared an appetizer while every other patron sat at the bar. The Mulligan family likely paid more to keep the lights on for the evening than they made the entire day. It was understandable; those that were in the building looked to be the loner type, and Sloan found herself among her people.

The menu for the night was limited. A turkey stew and a light house salad with cranberry vinaigrette. One batch had lasted the day, and it wasn’t because it was not delicious. Sloan had a bowl for lunch and one for dinner. After her shift had ended, the remainder of the day was spent from a booth with a textbook open. The table was filled with empty water glasses that Mikah had kept supplying her with. He had left early for the day, leaving a pitcher behind instead. Mikah seemed nice enough, other than the incident on her first day when he tried to turn her away.

All the ice in the glass pitcher had melted and the water was warm. It wasn’t something that bothered Sloan though. Her finger twirled around the circle of condensation left by her glass as she studied.

“Oof,” a deep voice from above had her clutching her chest. “Baking, eh?”

Sloan looked back to Ollie, wanting to smack him for scaring the life out of her. There was no one here and he managed to sneak up on her quite stealthily. His smirk was cheesy, playful, a little too cute for her liking. He seemed pretty proud as he rounded the booth to drop himself across from her. The book was snatched away, glanced over by a pair of crazy-blue eyes, and then smacked shut.

“Baking blows.”

Sloan totally agreed with a bob of her head. Words were failing her due to casual Ollie sitting across from her—she wasn’t used to seeing him without the chef jacket anymore. Jeans and a plaid shirt with various shades of blue—to match his eyes—had taken the place of the uniform. It laid open to reveal a white tee that was clinging to his wide chest.

He looked...good.

Really good.

Okay, so maybe the day in the supermarket she had misjudged the plaid.

Since when did hick become hot?

“What?” The toothpick between his lips rolled, coinciding with a chuckle.

“Nothing,” she felt her face flush. She reached for the warm water like that would help stop it. “I thought you were sick? That’s what Mikah said.”

“I...” he paused for a moment while the glass was pressed to her lips, a flash of a frown was gone before she even swallowed. Ollie’s head shook no. “I’m not good at it either. The family shit, I mean.”

He was referring to their talk yesterday outside—the one where he managed to talk her down before she had one of her debilitating panic attacks. They talked. Opening up about Steve to a stranger might have been the best or worst decision she had made in a long time. Ollie was probably the last person she thought that would happen with. When they had returned to work, the loss of her husband wasn’t fresh on her mind, but Ollie attempting to open up was. He was still guarded, like now, and that left her with a lot of follow-up questions.

And anyways, they definitely weren’t talking of the term ‘family shit’ in the same way. Ollie obviously had a family to speak of.

“So, you’re faking sick to get out the family holiday that Mikah already left for?”

Ollie leaned his back into the booth seat. “Correct.”

They couldn’t even share a holiday together? That seemed pretty bad. Maybe it was because Sloan didn’t have siblings or parents to go home to tomorrow, but not even a family riff would keep her from family time.

“Do you get along with your mom?”

His eyes lifted from her book to her. Her stomach swirled. She reached for the water again.

What the hell is wrong with me?

“I love my mom,” he sighed. “It’s just the whole going home and being with them that’s the problem. It’s,” he paused again and rubbed at the scruff on his chin. “It’s hard to explain. It’s better for everyone if I just stay here. Especially for myself.”

She wasn’t going to pry any further. In fact, she couldn’t figure out why she was interested at all. Maybe it was just nice to hear about someone else’s problems for once. Selfishness had become a normal for her this last year, and it wasn’t something she was proud of. Pride for her came from her own hard work. This year changed that. She broke and left Hallie to pick up all the pieces while trying to keep up with her own life. For a long time, Sloan didn’t allow that to bother her, but it was catching up. This job was a big step back in the right direction.

“Didn’t your shift end like two hours ago?” Ollie lifted his sleeve to peer at his watch. “Why are you studying baking when you should be enjoying your break?”

“I like noise,” she confessed, pulling her book back. “Hallie went home to the burbs for Thanksgiving. My house is empty, and it’s just...”

She couldn’t finish the sentence but gulped loudly instead. The word was swallowed and now her mind struggled to find it again.

Ollie frowned. “Quiet,” he answered for her, seemingly understanding.

“Yeah,” Sloan exhaled.

Thanksgiving was never really a holiday to look forward to. No family, no money for the big meal, no cable to watch football—even though she would have never watched it anyways. Last year was even worse with Steve being sick. It was around the same time that he could no longer leave the bed. They stayed curled up together and watched some movies, skipping the meal part of the day completely. He had no appetite, and even though Sloan always did, she couldn’t bring herself to leave him—not even for a second to eat when he wouldn’t. That was when she realized that every single moment with him was going to matter and that they were running out of them.

The bed was empty enough. Hallie not being in their place was going to be terrible. But knowing that she needed to do this as a step towards moving on, Sloan tucked her textbook into her backpack and zipped it shut.

Looking back to the man across the booth, she didn’t quite know what to say to him. The last two days were...odd. His own look shared the confusion. Were they friends now? Not really. Maybe? Talking to him was oddly soothing. It was the issue of finding him to be a complete prick and annoyingly attractive that threw her off. His mood changed by the hour.

Ollie’s mouth opened to speak and quickly shut. He sighed. “You should cook.”

Her brows furrowed. “Huh?”

His hands nervously spun one of her empty glasses. Nervous Ollie was new. How many sides of him could she see in less than a month?

“When I need my mind off of something...I cook. Make your comfort food. Nothing fancy. It takes your mind off of the bad shit. Then, eat yourself into a food coma and sleep the rest of the night away.”

Sloan broke into a smile, laughing a little behind it. She had planned on a bowl of cereal and maybe a movie. The Black Friday ads were on the table and she had set a little money aside for a new Pizza Pizzazz—so, those needed to be scanned for a good deal. Still, she could only hold that smile for so long. The idea of Steve never left her for long. The man she spent nearly every day with for half her life was gone. Everything—every room, every memory, every seat, every day—felt empty. She was empty. All she wanted was to be back in the bed with Steve, curled up and laughing. Only this time, she wanted a do over. She wanted time where he wasn’t sick and they were in love.

She wanted to remember what it felt like to feel.

* * *

In an attempt to stay away from an eerily quiet duplex, Sloan spent most of her evening at the grocery store. It was odd having a little money in her account, and she felt that a small splurge was necessary—especially tonight. Bags of random ingredients were now covering the kitchen table. Putting them away was always the worst part, but again, Sloan needed to keep her mind off of everything.

The TV was turned on as background noise. They had no cable, but Hallie had a Roku for a few channels. Some cheesy holiday Lifetime movie was on that Sloan really had no interest in. It likely was about some cheesy holiday love story that occurred on the very day she wanted to avoid.

It wasn’t as if Hallie hadn’t asked Sloan to go with to her parents’ house for Thanksgiving. She invited her every year and to every holiday. It was a stupid harsh truth that Sloan had no desire to be there. There was a little jealousy that those people adopted Hallie while Sloan got left behind. It wasn’t Hallie’s fault or something she even realized, but Sloan’s fostering took a toll. It did on Steve too. They had very different childhoods from the ones Hallie and TJ experienced. Sloan was happy that at least some of them got a family, but spending time with those families when they didn’t choose her was a little disheartening. Thinking that if they would have chosen Steve made her feel even worse. He’d be here.

“Captain Crunch or Cocoa Puffs?” Sloan muttered to herself, holding one of each box in her hands.

She stuffed Captain Crunch into the cabinet and allowed the door of it to slam as she turned away. Tonight called for chocolate.

While allowing her cereal to turn her milk into chocolate milk, Sloan made herself more comfortable. Loose gray sweat pants, a baggy Chicago Cubs tee, no more bra, and hair pulled back and out of her face—well, as much as her bangs would allow—started a shit night off right. The look was completed with fluffy slippers that she had found on clearance at TJ’s. They looked practically new but weren’t exactly what she’d describe as “cute”. They were an olive-green color with black faux fur across the top. The ensemble really made her look a special kind of trashy.

Meh.

Sloan used her slippered foot to kick Hallie’s collection of throw pillows off of the couch before sinking into the corner of it. This was it; she was in for the night. Not a doubt in her mind that she would be crying for all of it. The TV was muted while mindlessly flipping through the ads, searching for the cheapest replacement for Pete that she could find. She was just about through the entire Target ad when her phone buzzed from the floor. Unwilling to disconnect its charger, Sloan leaned forward to view the lit screen.

That’s when she reached, clutched, and yanked the phone free.

New Message (Ollie Mulligan Cell):
Tell me why you want to be a chef.

She stared at the screen, blinking at it, confused why it was asking her that. He—Ollie was not an it.

Crazy concept—but I like cooking. | Message Sent

New Message (Ollie Mulligan Cell):
Well, no shit, Captain obvious.

Don’t be a smart-ass. | Message Sent

New Message (Ollie Mulligan Cell):
You started it.

Sloan smiled.

New Message (Ollie Mulligan Cell): My dad taught me at Mulligan’s every Sunday. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wanted whatever I made to taste better than his. It was my goal, a game we played.

Sloan brought her phone closer to read the message again. He was opening up—not about the girl who left but about something real and personal to him. Did he know that she felt stupid yesterday for confessing about her depression? Just this small detail of his childhood made her feel a little better about it. She imagined a young Ollie with his dad, competing in the kitchen she now worked in. It wasn’t hard to imagine Ollie being competitive. He still was today. Was he always bitter like he was now? Or did his ex-girlfriend make him that way? Sloan definitely wasn’t the same person she was as a kid.

Her fingers began to tap along the keyboard of her screen.

Foster parents sucked at providing food, and I had to get creative with what was in the cabinets. I turned into some kind of mad scientist of ingredients and bam...I could cook. Never really looked back. | Message Sent.

New Message (Ollie Mulligan Cell): What’s your comfort food? Favorite thing you make that you always keep the ingredients on hand and that’s full of absolute garbage?

She eyed her mushy cereal. Definitely not Cocoa Puffs.

There was only one meal that came to mind when she needed time in the kitchen to herself, needed something fatty and delicious. It seemed stupid compared to the concoctions that Ollie could make though. Still, it was her comfort food, when needed.

Chicken and dumplings. | Message Sent

There was a long silence from her phone as she bit at her thumb nail. Too long. Was he judging her? He totally was. She should have said the damn mac that he devoured that got her hired. Oliver Mulligan is a four-star chef and she just confessed to loving a meal that you could buy at just about every family diner in the Midwest.

Stupid, right? | Message Sent

She was shaking her head at herself, wishing she could unsend the answer. There was no way to make chicken and dumplings fancy.

It was a dumb answer. Not very creative. I’m sure you’re super impressed and excited to have me in your kitchen. | Message Sent

New Message (Ollie Mulligan Cell): What? No.

New Message (Ollie Mulligan Cell): Wait.

Wait for wha....?

Her phone began ringing in her hand. She instantly sat straight, reaching to the floor to grasp one of the discarded pillows that she hated so much. She hugged it, staring at a phone that was not going to answer itself. They texted about shifts before, but he had never once called her.

She slid her thumb across the screen at the same time her stomach felt like it was launching itself into her chest.

“Umm,” she bit at her lip. “Hi?”

“How the hell do you make a dumpling? Flour obviously. Are they puffy ones or flat?”

Sloan’s smile broke into a giggle when she heard him rummaging around in what she could only assume was his cabinets.

“Flat-ish? I roll them out.”

“I know I don’t own a goddamn rolling pin and will have to steal one from downstairs. I told you—baking blows.”

“I don’t have one either,” she leaned back into the couch and curled up again. “I use a wine bottle.”

“They’re all full,” he grunted.

“Yeah, duh!” she giggled. “That’s half the fun! Finish the bottle before you finish the dumplings.”

“That’s...” he chuckled. “Okay. Yeah. That makes sense.”

“I know. That’s why my chicken and dumplings would be better than yours. You can’t be all sober and have uniform ones. You’re too OCD about your food to make uneven dumplings.”

“Am not!”

“Are too! You recut the potato if your fries aren’t the same thickness!”

“It changes the cook time!”

“It’s a FRY, Ollie!”

“What’s in the damn dumplings, Sloan?”

He was really going to make dumplings on a whim? Chefs just do that? It was not like he knew the ingredients ahead of time and had them ready for a moment’s notice.

Then, it hit her...

Duh, Sloan. She dropped her face into her hand. He has an entire restaurant beneath him to pull ingredients from.

“You’re really going to make me guess? Don’t make me ask my Google Home. It and myself don’t see eye to eye most days.”

“Baking powder, butter, and milk,” she stood from the couch, placing the phone between her shoulder and ear so that she could pick up the soggy cereal she wasn’t going to eat. “Then you’ll need chicken stock, chicken, pepper and thyme.”

She now had a hankering to make dumplings for herself. She could throw some chicken breasts into the oven and have them done in no time.

Ollie’s fridge shut in the background of the call. “Easy enough. Every has kitchen has that much.”

“Oh!” she squealed. “And salt!”

“Imagine that,” he muttered, but again she could picture his dimpled smile.

* * *

“I cannot believe he forgot the string!” Sloan slapped her hand over her eyes to stop the horror that was occurring on her television screen. Her favorite Chopped! judge was pulling butcher’s twine from her mouth in the recap of the dinner round.

“You never come back from that. Have they learned nothing from this show? Did they not prepare by binge-watching, like us? He’s a goner for sure. My guy is going to win.”

She cackled loudly, knowing Ollie was so wrong. The screen was telling Sloan that he wasn’t paying as much attention to ‘his guy’ as he should be.

“What?” he chuckled with her, unaware of what had even started her laughter.

“Your guy is running towards the ice cream machine.”

“WHAT? No! Fucking moron!” Ollie yelled out to his own television. “You never use the ice cream machine!”

This had to be the ninth or tenth episode they had watched of the marathon. Food Network was one of the few channels Sloan had a love for on the Roku. She was now wrapped up in a blanket, her phone laying on her chest with the speaker option selected. The kitchen of the duplex was an absolute disaster, covered in flour from rolling out dumplings. There was a few hours of cooking and drinking, a few more hours of Food Network, and many hours of laughs and stupid arguments—like Ollie reminding her for the millionth time that she needed new knives for class after asking what knives she was using to cut up her chicken tonight. She used her hands to shred the chicken, which practically gave him a stroke over the phone. She seriously thought that he might show up at her doorstep to stop her.

The night’s leftovers were packed away and there was an empty bowl beside her. She may have only needed one rolling pin, but there were two empty bottles of Winking Owl on the coffee table. Just like her best friend, Sloan tended to become a little chatty when she drank. That’s what led to her confession of being slightly obsessed with the show, Chopped!. She wasn’t expecting him to confess the same. That’s when Ollie’s competitive side showed up and Sloan decided he needed to be taken down a notch.

Now they were here, watching it together in the same way that they had cooked and ate together tonight. As soon as the ice cream was pulled from the machine by the contestant, Ollie groaned, knowing that he had lost again. The ice cream looked about as thick as cement and was the same disgusting gray color.

“He left it in too long,” she giggled with a sleepy grin. “The string from last round makes no difference now. You lost, sir.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “I know.”

Sloan’s eyes became hooded. They’d been doing it on and off for the last few episodes. It was when Ollie and her both yawned at the same time that she knew their call was about to end. She turned the TV off and tiredly reached for the lamp, blindly smacking the table a few times before finding the switch on its base, but realized it wasn’t even on. Sunrise was beginning to light the room again.

“Sloan?”

“Mmm?” she flipped towards the back of the couch but still clutched the phone to listen.

“Told you comfort food would do the trick. Happy Thanksgiving.”

Before she could answer him, she heard the soft click of the call ending. Her eyes widened once more to look back at the clock on the VCR.

It was five in the morning and the only dried up tears on her face were from laughing.

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