Salty

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20

O L L I E

“You’re coming to Christmas?”

“Yeah,” Ollie sat with his face in one hand, elbow placed on his bouncing knee, with his opposite hand pressing the phone to his ear.

“You’re not going to come up with some excuse?”

“No.”

“Are you lying to me?”

This was the second time they had this discussion today. Penelope Mulligan had officially had it with her oldest child’s aversion of their family farm. She had come up with a foolproof way to get him back to Galena, and he had no choice now but to go.

“No.”

“Correct. Because you’re bringing the damn ham, Ollie. You are in charge of Christmas dinner, just like you always wanted. You’re coming home.”

Maybe he wanted that years ago. Not anymore. Nightmares weren’t keeping him awake last night; it was the thought of going home that had him pacing his kitchen at three in the morning. His bag was packed and sitting beside the door. Albeit atrociously, gifts were wrapped and piled into a laundry basket that was now sitting in the backseat of his car. And last but not least, the damn ham was in the refrigerator of the restaurant, waiting to be taken on the journey.

“We could talk on the phone while you drive. Would that help?”

“I’ll be fine,” he snipped, knowing that a three-hour drive while stuck in his own head was a terrible idea. Making that drive with his brother in the car would only result in an accident, because one of them would kill the other. “I’ll see you soon.”

He ended the call. Ollie knew his mother would be repeatedly calling him until he was actually standing within the old farmhouse, and he was just going to have to deal with it. He stood from the couch and tucked his phone into the back pocket of his jeans. Picking up his bag, he tossed the strap over his shoulder and took one last look around the apartment to make sure he had everything. What he really wanted was a cigarette. He’d purchased a pack to help him get through the holiday party but tossed them right into the trash. If he didn’t leave this place right now, he feared he might never go home again, and that really would break his mother’s heart.

“Deep breaths,” he told himself, shutting the door behind him.

Ollie did as he repeated, taking deep breaths and letting it out through his nose until he was down the stairs and across the main floor of the restaurant. He thought he’d find Mikah still here to close up, but there was light only coming from the kitchen and not the bar. Mikah rarely went into there, unless he had a specific need to piss off his older brother for some reason.

Walking around the bar, Ollie pushed open the door of the kitchen. The last person he expected to see on the other side of this door was Sloan. The closing binder was sprawled out in front of her and she was tapping each line with the tip of a pen, as if checking off a list. Her eyes lifted from the paper, and Ollie’s stomach lifted to his throat.

“Hey,” she smiled, tucking her bangs back just to have them fall again. “I thought you would have left with Mikah.”

His head shook no. She definitely thought wrong on that assumption.

“Shouldn’t you be off for your own holiday. How did you get stuck closing?”

Standing straight, she closed the binder and pushed it away from her. All this time they’ve been working together and out of the classroom, he almost forgot how good Sloan looked when dressed casually. A pair of tight, ripped jeans and a loose, gray, comfy sweater were paired with some matching gray boots. She sure looked ready for a holiday vacation.

“That’s just it. I don’t celebrate the holiday, and everyone else does. I don’t mind closing.”

“You don’t even celebrate Christmas?” he questioned.

Her eyes rolled. “Especially not Christmas. I don’t have any family.”

“Hallie...”

“Goes to her parent’s house,” her head shook. “It’s not a big deal. I’m used to it.”

“You’re not spending Christmas alone?” he was dumbfounded. Thanksgiving, fine. Christmas, absolutely not.

“I am,” she confirmed. “Again, it’s fine...”

Ollie’s hand lifted to stop her right there. “I said that last statement as a question, and it’s not a question. You’re not spending Christmas alone. You’re coming home with me.”

Ollie wasn’t sure who was more surprised by that last part. Even though Sloan’s eyes were growing wider by the second, he was pretty sure it was him. It was perfect though. Sloan should not be sitting home alone on a family holiday, and Ollie should not be subjected to spending the next few days with his own with no escape route.

“Ollie,” she whispered. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m not as big of a mess as I was a few months ago; not even as bad as I was on Thanksgiving. It will suck, but I’m okay...”

“Well, I’m not,” he licked his lower lip, about to tell her more than he told most people. “You needed me that night, and now, I need you for this. Come home to Galena with me, and help me get through the next few days.”

“That’s your family time,” her head was still shaking no.

“It’s home that I can’t handle,” he continued to confess, feeling sick from the stress of even thinking about it. “Please come with me?”

Sloan’s mouth went to open and quickly shut. He was winning her over on this. Ollie smiled, and Sloan couldn’t help but to mirror it. She tried to hide it away behind her hand, but he saw it.

“This is a horrible idea,” she groaned but was now laughing along with it. “Ollie, no.”

“I haven’t slept in days,” he chuckled. “I could crash and die. It would probably be all your fault.”

“Ughhhh,” her head dropped back. “Fine! Only because I owe you for Thanksgiving, and I don’t want your blood on my hands. No crashing!”

He was used to not sleeping, but if this was going to be what got her to come with, he’d use it. If he actually did get tired, there was plenty of country music on his phone to be blared. It always got him in the mood for some winding roads that took him out to the farm.

“We need to stop by my place then,” she tossed her arms up in defeat. “And we sleep in different rooms, Chef.”

He was already backed halfway out of the kitchen, afraid that if he took his eyes off of her that she’d close the restaurant and run off. The farm was now the last thing on his mind.

“It’s on the way anyways. I just need to grab something from upstairs. Stay right here.”

Sloan may have been looking at him like he was crazy, but his car was lacking one last gift that was wrapped and currently sitting on his kitchen table.

***

While Ollie sat in the driver seat of his car, waiting for Sloan, he knew that there was a call that needed to be made. He only had however long it was going to take Sloan to pack a bag to make it, and still he was staring at his phone like it was about to bite him. When was the last time he had actually been the one to call his mother? Not only that, but he felt like a teenager again. Finally gaining the courage, he pressed his mom’s name and pressed the phone to his ear. It rang only once.

“Oliver Dean Mulligan, if this is another excuse...”

“I’m bringing someone with me!” he blurted out, quickly eying the door of the car to make sure Sloan hadn’t magically appeared in the few seconds that it took to press his mom’s number. That would have been embarrassing. More embarrassing than this call already was.

There was this odd moment of silence that he knew his mom was processing what he had just said, and there were a few more moments when he could hear her smile with no spoken words. This felt awkward. He’d never brought a girl home before. Shelby just showed up one day and never left. It was not the same situation.

“A friend,” he clarified, dropping his head back to the headrest of the seat. “I’m bringing a friend with me for Christmas.”

“A friend?”

“Yep.”

“A girl-type friend?”

“A girl who is a friend, yes. Not a girlfriend.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Have you slept with her?”

“Christ, Mom!” he groaned, using his free hand to shield his eyes.

“That’s a yes,” she giggled. Penelope was being cunning now—part of her charm. As nice as it was to hear his mom’s laugh again, this was the worst time for it. “I’m just wondering if she will be in your room or if I should make up the spare bedroom...”

“Spare,” he clarified an easy answer.

“Soooo, a friend who is a girl, whom you’ve slept with, and you aren’t sharing a bed. You must really like her.”

His chest felt tight. There was movement from the corner of his eye, and he turned his head to spot Sloan approaching with a duffle bag, looking every bit as apprehensive about this trip as he was. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her with him, because he did. It was that he was afraid of pushing her into something she wasn’t ready for. Seeing her walk down the slope of her front yard, find his stare, and change from looking terrified to giving him a small smile and a cute eye roll, solidified the decision to bring her. That smile was very different from where she was this morning when she had no holiday plans. They both needed this trip.

“Silence? That’s a yes.”

“What?” he had forgotten the question already.

“You like this girl.”

Yes, his mind answered. “Gotta go, Ma. I’ll see you in a few hours.”

***

The first two hours flew faster than either of them could have imagined. Their love of Chopped! only led them to discussion of other food shows, and that resulted in Ollie sharing every horror story of the kitchen he had tucked away in his mind. Being the teacher of Knife Safety, particularly the beginners’ course, he’d seen his fair share of finger casualties. At one point he had Sloan laughing so hard that she had the giggles and couldn’t breathe.

The entire ride, Sloan never once asked why he didn’t want to go home. He actually panicked for a while, wondering where he’d even start with that story and knowing he couldn’t explain. He wasn’t at all ready for that. Even though he knew she wanted to know, it was like she knew he couldn’t handle it right now. Or maybe he was good at hiding it. That is—until now.

When the sign for Jo Daviess County appeared, Ollie’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. Deep breaths were no longer going to cut it. He was now on a one-way road to his literal hell. Sweat was already beading at his hairline, and he nervously turned off the Jason Aldean song that they were listening to, as if it was going to help.

Sloan looked up from whatever she had been reading on her phone to see the state he was in. If ever there was a time that he needed a cigarette, it was right now. It was taking everything in him not to hang a U-turn back to Chicago. They were so close that Ollie could see the fork in the road that was about to lead him home.

Without a word, Sloan’s hand reached across the center console and tugged at his wrist. He shared a quick glance with her, and again she pulled at him. He released one hand from the wheel. In a move he wasn’t expecting, Sloan slid her hand into his and gave it a hard squeeze.

“Tell me about your mom,” she said, gazing out the window to the countryside. “Has she always lived here?”

Ollie exhaled and squeezed her hand back. This is why he needed her here. One move and he was already calmer than he was a minute ago. “She has,” he answered.

“It’s beautiful.”

Maybe he’d forgotten that. At the very least, he’d forgotten that not everyone had seen farmland up close. With Sloan being an orphan, he could only assume that her travel outside of the Chicago city limits was limited growing up. He wondered how much traveling she’d done as an adult but was afraid to ask out of fear of triggering her own panic attack. He had to be careful of conversation that could lead to Steve.

Ollie took a right at the fork, leaving highway 20 behind them. They were now only minutes from the house. He squeezed her hand again just to get her to squeeze his back. “Wait until you see it in daylight.”

As the car drove the dirt road, rocks kicked up, tapping against the paint and undercarriage of the car. Part of him wanted to take the road fast, like he did as a kid, but he opted not to with Sloan in the car. He also wasn’t certain if she’d ever been on gravel, because it could be a hell of a lot of fun and equally terrifying and dangerous if you didn’t know how to handle it. But faster than he was even ready for it, Ollie pulled into an empty driveway that led all the way up to a large two-story farmhouse with olive-green shutters and a porch that looked like it was ready to fall apart.

With an exhale, Ollie released Sloan’s hand and pointed to the house. “So, this is home.”

Sloan was smiling nervously, looking unsure of what to do next. “I already love this house.”

Ollie laughed. “It doesn’t look stable, but I swear it is.”

“You don’t have to convince me of that,” she beamed. “The house I lived in as a kid was condemned. This house is loved. I can’t wait to see it.”

Even though he knew that last part was a lie, that Sloan was now more nervous than he’d ever seen her, it really did ease his anxiety. Thankfully, tonight was the easy part. The house wasn’t the problem, and his mother was about to take over his alone time with Sloan with a million questions and a tour of that very house. She was going to love the kitchen—which was good, because they were going to spend a lot of time there the next few days.

Ollie’s eyes widened. “FUCK!”

“What?” Sloan questioned, looking stunned by his outburst. “Ollie, what’s wrong?”

His head dropped to the steering wheel with a thud. “I forgot the damn ham.”

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