Salty

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28

O L L I E

The seat beside the annoying girl—the one who couldn’t cut uniform pieces of anything to save her life—remained open. The clock on the wall matched the one on Ollie’s watch. It was three minutes until eight, and that’s when the door would shut until the semester testing was complete.

Where the hell is she?

He got her home at a decent time last night. Not only had he given Sloan the night off to study for finals, but he allowed her to study upstairs without distractions as he closed the kitchen for the night. This wasn’t like her at all. With the exception of the green pepper dilemma, Sloan was nothing if not punctual. In fact, she arrived everywhere way too early to avoid exactly this. Ollie knew he should have talked her into staying in the city last night. She’d been home for almost a week now, and her commute was absolutely unnecessary.

With an anxious knee bobbing up and down, Ollie met the eyes of the student that always sat beside Sloan in class. She too turned and looked to the open seat with necessary worry. With a quick glance to the clock, the girl opened her purse, pulled out her phone, and sent off a quick text.

Smart, Ollie thought. Although, that probably wouldn’t look good if he immediately did the same.

With every tick of the clock, Ollie watched Sloan’s available time fall away until there was nothing left. It was now eight, and he had to stand to shut the door of his classroom.

“Begin,” he muttered, hearing multiple pens click and papers being shuffled.

Before the door was completely shut, he performed a quick scan of the hallway, looking it up and down both ways and finding it completely void of students or staff. Prayers were being sent telepathically, hoping that she was simply late. This was the first class of the day, meaning she’d only missed one of her finals. Taking his seat, Ollie watched his students frantically writing, stressing, and some in absolute panic. The one student who never did those things, because she was that good when testing, was the only one missing.

Was she ill? Hurt? Was her car broken down somewhere?

Every scenario was playing out in his head. It had been weeks since he wanted a cigarette this bad. Thankfully, he kept toothpicks in the top drawer of his desk for such an emergency. He hadn’t even needed these as of late. After tossing the drawer open, Ollie was given the opportunity to view the phone that had been placed inside of it to stop any distractions for his students. A notification of a text message flashed across his screen and he couldn’t get the phone into his hands fast enough.

New Message: Mom’s Cell:
The barn door let loose again. Think you could come by this weekend and fix it? It is my birthday, after all. Bring Sloan with you. Kit won’t stop talking about her.

That was not the message he was looking for, and it unnecessarily added to his anxiety for the day. He immediately deleted it, knowing his ass wasn’t going anywhere near it, and instead, selected Sloan’s name. He sent a message asking where she was before tossing it angrily back into the drawer. That move caused every student in the room’s gaze to lift from their test to their teacher, and Ollie didn’t even care what they thought of him at the moment. For the first time since the semester started, he was being forced to write a zero beside Sloan Smith’s name. Something was wrong.

Ollie scanned the halls between every class, never catching a glimpse of the girl he was looking for. Sloan was nowhere on the premises, and when the workday finally ended, he couldn’t escape his own classroom fast enough. He’d called Sloan’s phone three times on the way to the car alone, and every single time it amounted nothing more to hearing her voice via voicemail. If she didn’t answer his texts, she sure as hell wasn’t about to answer a voicemail.

They were both set to work dinner tonight at the restaurant. That was the first place he’d checked, followed by his own apartment. She had no way of getting in there without him, and he knew she wouldn’t be there anyways. His only backup for the restaurant was Sloan herself. That left no one to run that kitchen if he were to go looking for her tonight. He’d have to leave after.

***

Ollie arrived in front of Sloan and Hallie’s duplex at nine. The guys had helped get him out of the restaurant early, and he knew it wasn’t because of anything he’d done for them. They knew, just like Ollie, that Sloan would never skip a shift without telling anyone. They actually liked her. He couldn’t blame them.

The duplex helped to ease some of his anxiety. Lights were on. Two cars were parked in the driveway, with one being Sloan’s. The count of how many times he’d attempted calling her phone today was now so substantial that it didn’t even matter. Either her phone was dead, or she turned it off completely around noon.

Ollie wasn’t even halfway up their small yard when the front door opened, causing him to halt where he now stood. A drained Hallie appeared—hair a mess on top of her head, sweatpants with a tee and some snow boots. He hadn’t met her many times before, but she did not appear to be the type who would answer her door in this state. The door closed behind her, and she took the few steps down to meet him in the yard. The closer she got, the worse she looked, with eyes so red and strained from crying that he wondered if she could even see him.

Ollie took a step, and Hallie’s hand lifted to stop him again. “It’s not a good time.”

“Not a good time?” he repeated, holding his palms up to question what the hell was going on. “Hal, she missed finals!”

“I know.”

“She missed a shift! I can forgive that, but I can’t do shit about her grades, and...”

“Ollie!” she cut him off harshly. The attitude immediately dropped, as did the corners of her lips. “It’s been a year.”

Ollie swallowed and it felt like razors down his throat.

Of all the things he had imagined were the reasoning for today, Steve had never once crossed his mind.

“How,” his throat cleared, only left imagining what today had been like. “How bad is she?”

Tears sprang from Hallie’s eyes and she used her shirt to clear them while trying to regain composure. “She’s a mess, and I can’t help. She doesn’t want my help. She won’t get out of their bed. It’s like it happened all over again. All those steps we got her to take forward are out the damn window, and I don’t know what to do, and...”

Ollie engulfed Hallie in a hug, feeling her break down into him. She was tired, and Ollie knew that feeling better than anyone. While still holding the blonde, Ollie pulled his phone out of his back pocket and finally replied to a text he’d received earlier in the day. After tucking the phone back away when finished, he held Hallie for a few good minutes until she began to shiver from a cold night.

“I’m out of ideas,” Hallie confessed into his shoulder. “She was doing so good.”

“You have to let me in there.”

Her head shook no, and she pulled away, rubbing her eyes with her fingers before crossing her arms around herself. “She won’t even let me in there. All she has left of him is that damn bed, and I can’t get her to even unlock the door. She hasn’t eaten anything all day. All I’ve done is beg her to come out while listening to her sob.”

And that was clearly too much for Hallie to handle alone. It had been a year for Hallie too; she lost a close friend that day and needed her own time to mourn.

“You have help. Come on.” Ollie removed his jacket and wrapped it around the shivering girl, before ushering her back towards the house.

Once inside, all was quiet. Ollie knew by the saddened glance Hallie sent towards the stairs that Sloan’s room must be on the second floor. Seeing her backpack still sitting beside the front door, ready to go for her day of testing was enough to make him feel like shit. Hallie had even packed her some sort of snack or lunch in a paper bag that was still sitting with it—it included a purple happy face and the words You got this! for moral support.

Ollie wasn’t good at this sort of thing, obviously, but he had to use what he was good at to help the girl he was falling for. Even if it meant taking a step back to her last relationship.

Knowing that chicken and dumplings wasn’t exactly something he could whip up quickly, he needed to rely on Hallie’s expertise of her best friend. “What’s her comfort food?”

“Her what?” Hallie sniffled, looking away from the stairs and back to him.

“Everyone has one. Something she eats when she’s a mess. We need to get her to eat.”

“Uhhh,” she racked her brain. “Fruit pizza on Pete? But he’s dead. We will have to use Pete Junior.”

Confused would be an understatement, and now Ollie was questioning the mental stability of both of these girls at present time. He really had no luck with blondes. Who the fuck were Pete and Pete Junior?

“It’s a Pizza Pizzazz,” she answered his troubled expression.

That didn’t help convince him that she was any less crazy.

“We named him after a homeless guy that loved to flash his flaccid dick through a pizza box.”

Now, he was certain she was off her rocker.

“Just,” she exhaled with an eye roll. “Follow me.”

Once in the kitchen, Ollie watched in horror as Hallie removed the ingredients of this fruit pizza that was supposedly “comforting”. A roll of refrigerator sugar cookie dough (which, let’s face it, was an obvious choice because who honestly enjoyed baking?), some Pillsbury icing from a plastic tub, frozen strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, and some chocolate syrup for the drizzle. The only thing to make this salvageable was Ollie finding some bananas on the counter and kiwis in the fridge.

With a large cookie now rotating its way to what he hoped would be completely baked and not salmonella covered in royal icing, the pair sat at the table slicing the bananas and kiwis while the other fruit was thawing. A few times he thought he’d heard Sloan crying upstairs, but the sound of Pete Junior rotating was drowning it out.

“What was he like?” Ollie asked, not sure if he really wanted to know about Steve or not.

Hallie tossed a peel into the trash from her seat, followed by a sigh that turned into one of the first smiles of the night. “He was sweet. Too sweet sometimes. One of those people that was just too good for this world. He would,” her smile grew. “He would give the shirt off his back to anyone, even when he needed it more. Out of the four friends, his foster life was the shittiest and we all knew it. Never faltered him.”

Of course, Steve sounded perfect. Somehow, Ollie knew he would. He’d bet all his money that Steve never made her cry or angry on purpose. Never thought about himself over Sloan the way Ollie had when they’d first met. He wondered why a girl would just up and marry someone, even a friend who wasn’t going to make it any further than he had, just to risk jail time, a lifetime of poor credit, and depression. But Ollie was always a selfish bastard—to the point where it literally kept him up at night. Sloan was a heart of pure gold. That’s why she did it.

“Do you love her?” Hallie whispered, selecting a kiwi to slice next.

Ollie pushed the cutting board away and joined his hands atop the table. “She’s not ready for that.”

Hallie smiled. “Your avoidance of the question just answered the question.”

“I’m not Steve, Hallie,” he couldn’t bring himself to match her facial expression. “I can’t compete with a guy I never knew.”

“She doesn’t need you to be another Steve.” Hallie stood from the table with the chiming of the Pizzazz timer. “She needs you exactly as you are.”

Hallie didn’t understand how wrong she was about that statement.

***

With the most disgusting looking dessert pizza he had ever seen and smelled in his life in his grip, Ollie took the stairs until he was standing outside of the door to Sloan’s bedroom. First door on the right, just as Hallie had instructed. In turn, he had instructed her to pack some things and wait by the front door. Silent crying was heard on the opposite side of it, and all he wanted to do was hold the girl it was coming from.

With his back pressed against the wall of the hallway, Ollie slid himself down until his ass hit the floor. The pizza was placed to his left, with the door still to his right. With a closed fist, he tapped lightly on the door and waited. No response followed, and he knew that would happen.

“It’s me,” he told the door. “And I know I’m exactly who you don’t need right now, Sloan. I know you need Steve, but Hallie is exhausted and needed some backup. So, here I am.”

There were sniffles, and more crying. She had to come out at some point. And for that reason, he knew he wouldn’t leave this spot until she did. No one needed a hug more than she did right now, and Ollie was going to be the first to give one to her.

“I’m not going to beg you to come out,” he continued, looking at his watch. “Because you only get one day like this. There is only one, one-year day, and this is Steve’s. But in fifteen minutes, when the clock turns to midnight, that day is over. Day 366 is going to be another day where he’s not here, and I’m so sorry for that. But I hope that on that day you’ll come out and eat some of this atrocious-looking fruit pizza that I just concocted on an appliance named Pete Junior.”

There was nothing but silence following this, and that was okay. For now, he’d wait.

Each minute felt like a lifetime. He’d never watched the seconds hand of his watch so closely. In that span of fifteen minutes, there was a knock on the door downstairs with the sound of Hallie’s greetings. Just as Ollie watched the time finally turn to midnight, there were two sets of footsteps on the stairs that Ollie stopped with a motion of his hand. Because with the time change, there was also a click of the lock, telling him that Sloan was out of bed and had unlocked the door. With wide eyes, Hallie turned herself back around and went back downstairs.

He stood just in time for Sloan to finally open the door. Wild hair, a pair of the puffiest brown doe-eyes he’d ever seen, pink cheeks, and pale—it wasn’t her best look, but he was just happy to get her out of there without taking down her door. She sniffled again, anxiously tugging on the hem of the gray sweatshirt she was wearing that was at least two sizes too big on her. Ollie gripped her elbow and pulled her into him, feeling her instantly collapse into his arms.

“Make it not hurt,” she sobbed into the crook of his neck, splashing hot tears onto his skin.

He wished with everything in him that he could do that for her and himself, but his head shook no. “It has to hurt to heal.”

Her arms wrapped tightly around his neck, and he wrapped himself into her, sinking them both down to the floor where he could finally hold her and let her cry it out. He pressed his lips to her crazy hair and allowed her to sob freely for at least another twenty minutes before it turned into some tired sniffles and hiccups.

“Did you really make my pizza?” she whispered into his shirt.

“Yeah,” he finally smiled, moving it so that it was now in front of them. Ollie picked up a square piece of the fruit pizza and bit into it. Pure sugar with a hint of still partially frozen fruit. “Sloan, we have to talk about you wanting to be a chef.” He had to force himself to swallow it. “This fruit pizza is trash.”

Sloan picked a piece for herself, still sniffling and using the sleeve of the sweatshirt to swipe at her nose. She bit into it, and he finally got to see the smallest smile that she could make. The second bite told her that she loved it much more than he did.

“I told you that I hate baking too,” she confessed, finishing the piece with crumbs falling down the front of her.

Ollie wasn’t sure he’d even classify whatever he did down there as baking. That was an abomination to the craft.

The sound of the footsteps on the stairs again, lifted both pair of heads. Hallie was the first to appear, looking hesitant to go anywhere near her best friend out of fear it might start the waterworks again. The second person to emerge was Penelope Mulligan, still in her own pajamas after a three-hour drive, and wearing a very sympathetic facial expression.

Sloan stood from her spot, immediately filling the outstretched arms of Ollie’s mother. She was the only person that Ollie could think of who could relate in the same way, and he also knew that his mom was the only person who would find the right words to say. He didn’t hear everything that his mom whispered to her, only parts—that the first year was the hardest; that she was strong for making it through; and that every day got easier. Those definitely weren’t things that resonated with Ollie, but Sloan drank them all in, nodding her head against his mother’s chest while being held.

Hallie had now reemerged from Sloan’s room with a duffle bag in hand. It was the only plan Ollie could think of. Just a few short weeks ago, he’d never seen Sloan as happy as she was out at the farm. The way he got her mind off her panic attacks was by making her smile, and she smiled the entire time they were there. Putting his own hesitancy on the backburner, Ollie was willing to head back for a day or two to get Sloan back on track, with the idea that Hallie could join too. He’d already messaged a friend who said he’d fill in at Mulligan’s until he could get back into the kitchen.

On the plus side, it would please his mother. On the downside, there was a to-do list that was making his stomach ache with fear.

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