Salty

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29

S L O A N

It was another three-hour drive back to the Mulligan farm. Ollie drove himself, leaving Sloan and Hallie in the car of Penelope Mulligan. Sloan honestly didn’t remember leaving the driveway, because as soon as she and Hallie piled into the backseat, she fell asleep in her best friend’s lap. As hard as she told herself not to cry anymore, she couldn’t stop. Sleeping seemed like the easy way out.

Ollie beat them there by an unknown amount of time. He liked the gas pedal, she’d learned. It didn’t surprise her that when she awoke, she was being carried bridal style into the same bedroom as a few weeks prior. What was surprising was that Ollie didn’t stay this time. Her hand reached out and found nothing but air, followed by the door clicking shut. Would it have mattered if he stayed in the bed tonight? Probably not. And she knew that he shouldn’t be subjected to her crying over another man. He’d already went beyond what he needed to do tonight.

Everything hurt. Mind, body, and soul alike. This feeling had not been missed the last few months, but it didn’t seem fair either. It hadn’t been hurting because she wasn’t thinking of Steve as much. She wanted to so badly. She wanted to hear his voice, and his laugh, or see the way he would dance horribly to make her smile. Those little things were slipping from her memory without her realizing it.

And even now, as she laid in a bed just two doors down from where his own room was, she wanted Ollie here with her. She wondered if he had fallen asleep yet. She wondered how old he was when he started smoking. How old was he when he had his first kiss? Was it with Shelby? Was it here, on this farm? What did he dream about that was so scary? But mostly, she wondered if he could wait until she was ready. Because after tonight, she knew that they both were now very aware that she wasn’t. Now she was worried of what he thought of her. This was the first time he’d really seen her lose it, and it made it seem like she was greedy and using him as a human shield from her heartache. That was never the intention with him. In fact, there was never an intention of any sort with him. Ollie came out of nowhere, and it just happened to be the best and the worst time.

She couldn’t wait one goddamn year to fall for someone else? What would Steve think of her right now? She pondered that while crying herself to sleep again.

***

The Mulligan farmhouse was eerily quiet on this particular Saturday. Where the holiday season had the home bursting with Christmas festivities at the crack of dawn, that was not the case today. The lack of morning cheer could easily be summed up by the fact no one was even awake yet. It was four in the morning on a weekend. No one in their right mind would be up this early.

Yet, here Sloan was, wide awake and listening to an abundance of whirling wind and a loud clanking outside of her window. She tried to ignore it to sleep in with the rest of the house, but it was no use. Crawling out of the bed, she stood beside the only window in the room and pushed the white sheer curtains to the side. It certainly was windy, and more snow had fallen in the night, vaguely recalling the sound of ice tapping on this very window a few hours ago. The large spruce trees that surrounded the farm were swaying so hard that they looked like they could snap in half. Though, if they hadn’t done so after all these years, with some being at least sixty-feet tall, it wasn’t going to take a windy day to break them.

This was the first time Sloan had seen the view from this window, and she regretted not doing it the last time they were here. From here, she could see the giant hill they had sleighed down, various barns, silos, chicken coops, hog sheds, and acres of white fields. One barn, in particular, had a door that appeared to be the culprit of interrupting her sleep. Of all the barns, this one appeared to be the biggest and also the oldest. It was at least two stories high and made of splintered, gray-colored wood that looked to have seen better days. Of it’s two oversized doors, one was currently hanging by nothing but its upper hinge. The clanking sound seemed to be coming from the door blowing freely. With it hanging at an angle instead of upright, the upper right corner was hitting the other door.

No matter. She was wide awake now. The first hurdle of the day was going to be conquering the shower without Ollie’s assistance. Flipping on the vanity light in the bathroom, the mirror only confirmed what she already knew. Crying for twenty-four hours straight without substance, and while using your dead husband’s sweatshirt as a reusable Kleenex...not the best look. The greasy, and horribly knotted, hair really topped it off. After ridding herself of the nasty clothing she’d been wearing for more than a day, Sloan carefully turned the faucet of the shower until it was at the perfect forty-five-degree angle, remembering what Ollie had taught her. The water sprang to life, along with the pipes behind the wall.

If anyone else in the house had managed to sleep through the barn door, they sure as hell weren’t going to last through Sloan’s shower.

***

Fragrant, fresh coffee beans carried Sloan by her nose to the kitchen. With it being only five now, she was sure she was going to find a certain Chef with a hot mug in his hand, especially after passing his bedroom that had an already made bed. Instead, she found Penelope—Penny, she reminded herself—Mulligan standing beside the coffee pot. Still in a pink robe and slippers that looked like rabbits, she moved freely around her own space, preheating the oven and pulling various ingredients from a pantry and the refrigerator.

“Did I wake you?” Sloan made her own presence known, clutching her elbow and feeling terrible that after a long night of driving, she woke this poor woman up early.

The elderly, petite woman looked up with a cheeky grin, with a carton of eggs tucked beneath her arm and a gallon of milk in her hold. “Oh. No way, honey. I rarely sleep.”

“Ahh,” Sloan brought herself to smile for the first time today. “Ollie must get that gene from you.”

Her smile faltered, but she picked it back up. “No. Mine is from worrying about my kids. That child in particular sleeps like a rock. We had to drag him out of that bed every morning for chores.”

Looking back to the bedroom, and seeing it appeared to not have been slept in, Sloan couldn’t really imagine that. “Where is he?”

Using her foot, Penelope kicked the refrigerator door shut and motioned with her head for Sloan to follow her further into the kitchen. After placing all the ingredients to the countertop, she reached over her sink to draw back the curtains from the window that sat above it. From there, Sloan could now see a snowmobile off in the distance, gliding along a fence line.

“What’s he doing on a snowmobile this early?”

“For my birthday gift to myself, I gave him a list of things that needed done around here. He’s not only checking the fence to make sure that the cows can’t get out, but he tends to use that thing to blow off steam. Or, at least he used to.”

Sloan sighed heavily, knowing that she was the cause of whatever frustrations he was letting go of out there. Yesterday was too much on him. Not only as her teacher with a student that didn’t show up for their finals, or as a boss whose employee missed a shift, but as the guy who had been determined to make her smile the last few months. And then, she broke down into him and sobbed for another guy. All the things that had kept her up last night had also been on Ollie’s mind.

“I shouldn’t have broken down like that in front of him. It wasn’t fair to him at all. I feel like now he’s avoiding me.”

His mother’s shaking head seemed to disagree. “Don’t blame yourself for him being out there. There’s a lot more than that on his mind.”

Maybe. The ache in her stomach sure wanted Sloan to think she was the prime reason he was blowing off steam. Her thoughts also gravitated to the fact his younger brother was marrying the girl who ‘fucked him up’. Ollie said it didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would, but was he lying? Was this keeping him up at night?

“Want to help me prepare brunch?” Penelope’s hand softly landed on Sloan’s arm, seeming to know that she remained stuck in her own head. “I thought we’d do a breakfast casserole and some muffins. I miss my kids helping me in here. This big old kitchen and no one but me. Kit despises cooking.”

Sloan couldn’t think of anything better than spending her morning with Ollie’s mom in the kitchen. Her head bobbed yes as she scrunched up her sleeves, ready to be put to work. It was these silly little moments with her that made Sloan feel like she had a mother figure—making a breakfast together, wearing plaid pajama pants for a family tradition, receiving the most heartfelt hug that she needed desperately. Those were already filed away as being some of the best moments of her life.

Penelope provided Sloan with a large mixing bowl, the carton of farm-fresh eggs, and some milk to begin the casserole. Thankfully, she’d taken on the baking of the muffins for her own project, because Sloan didn’t have the heart to tell her that if she wanted that birthday treat, she’d have to do them herself if she wanted them to even resemble a muffin.

It still didn’t turn off Sloan’s mind, especially with the sound of the snowmobile zipping around outside. “Penny, can I ask you something?”

“Anything,” she agreed, stealing two eggs from the carton for herself.

“How can you stand Shelby after she left Ollie for Mikah?”

She sighed, and it was absolutely understandable given the context of the conversation. “I love Oliver just as much as my other two,” she began with clarification. “I think we can both tell that he’s a bit of his own star. He’s extremely talented and extremely hard on himself with everything he does. I think for that reason, he always got more attention than Kit or Mikah, especially when he had a knack for both farming and cooking when the other two wanted no part of either. But then we have Kit, who’s my girl. I can’t deny that I bond with her more. But Mikah...”

With her hesitation, Sloan felt a little bad for her feeling the need to admit that she wasn’t as close to Mikah. “You don’t have to tell me,” Sloan offered.

“He’s just quiet. He had friends that were girls, but never a girlfriend. Never wanted to go to college. Never really showed us interest in anything,” she continued. “When Shelby moved in across the street, we knew instantly that both boys had a crush. She just took to Ollie like everyone around him did, and she loved attention as much as Ollie. Did Ollie ignore her for his career? Yes. That girl had every reason to want out. Was I upset that she took up with Mikah? Yes, because I watched my son’s heart break. I also watched another son come out of his shell, and I saw him happy for probably the first time ever. I was a bit disappointed in him though, because he knew that Ollie was having a rough time with it. But the whole family was a mess at that time too.”

As Sloan cracked the last egg into the bowl, she began to see more of everyone side to accepting that relationship. Their mom was in a difficult place, needing to keep common ground with everyone in the family to keep them together. Kit had obviously made her mind up and sided with Ollie, which Sloan couldn’t help but to do the same.

“Let’s get one thing clear though,” Penelope handed Sloan the whisk. “I’d rather shovel cow shit out of the barn on my birthday than have a single conversation with little miss thing. I wouldn’t be heartbroken if Mikah got a clue and took back that ring.”

That confession made Sloan burst into giggles.

***

By eleven, their birthday brunch spread filled the oversized table made of barn wood. After setting in the fridge for a few hours, Sloan’s breakfast casserole was now in the oven, making the room smell heavenly with a mixture of bacon, sausage, and all of her favorite vegetables. Lemon poppy seed muffins had been baked earlier, and were now placed in a cute basket for show. There was also an abundance of fresh fruit that Hallie and Kit helped cut once they had woken. Like Sloan knew, Kit and Hallie hit it off right away. They shared a very entertaining story of the first time they’d all met. Apparently, Hallie had been the first to meet the entire Mulligan crew, and was accused of being one of Ollie’s crazy blonde flings. Sloan probably would have paid to see that.

Hallie and Kit were now very centered around trying to get Kit’s baby, Olivia, to walk. They’d made it their goal for the day, holding out pieces of fruit to try and coax her into coming their way via foot. Sloan got the impression that everyone was giving her space, but staying nearby in case they were needed. Penelope seemed to be the only person by her side and keeping her mind off the meltdown she had yesterday. Ollie still hadn’t shown his face because of it, and that just made her feel lousy.

“Just waiting on Mikah and Shelby,” Penelope said, pushing the bottle of champagne towards Sloan.

The mimosa idea had been an excellent one. Everyone got on board with this. Even Kit, who decided her kid could live off of formula for a few days. The booze had perfect timing, because it was going to be needed to tolerate round two of Shelby. Her and Mikah had walked through the door just as Sloan topped off her flute with a cherry. Shelby ignored Sloan, going right for Penelope and engulfing the woman into a hug with many birthday wishes. Joke was on her. Ollie’s mom wasn’t hugging her back, unlike the hug Sloan had received last night.

“What are you doing here?” Hallie groaned, looking up to Mikah.

“Me?” he questioned, sticking his thumb to his chest. “I have a bedroom here. I think I should be asking why the hell you are here. Are we bringing home strays from the bar?”

“I came with Sloan,” she tightened her ponytail with narrowing eyes. “And I know you have a bedroom here, because I slept in it. The Batman sheets are adorable, by the way.”

For the first time, Sloan was watching Mikah turn the color of the cherry in her drink. This was fast becoming entertaining. She wished Ollie had come inside to see his brother embarrassed.

“Also, I found your little stash of trashy magazines. I never took you for an ass man.”

The grin on Hallie’s face was so proud, and Mikah’s was the complete opposite with his mouth opening and closing, unsure of what to say. Meanwhile, Kit dropped her back to the floor, laughing so hard she was already in tears with her daughter attempting to crawl all over her.

“I’m not,” he spoke through gritted teeth.

"Anymore,” Hallie clarified for him, holding up a single finger. “You’re not an ass man anymore.” When Hallie’s eyes drifted to the other blonde in the room, one who was off in her own little world with Mikah’s mother and completely unaware of the conversation being held about her lack of an ass, Sloan felt herself blushing for him. “The things we do for love, eh?”

Kit’s laughter was uncontrollable at this point, and Sloan was finding it hard not to giggle herself. Instead, she pressed her smile to the rim of her champagne flute and sipped her mimosa.

“Let’s not forget who you overshare your secrets with, Tipsy,” he glared at her. “Or do you forget that I fill you drinks while you spill those.”

Hallie cackled. “You have nothing on me!”

“No?”

“Hell no.”

Mikah smirked. “I may still have Batman sheets in my childhood bedroom, but someone still loves to play with toys.”

“Okay!” Hallie clapped, now becoming just as red as Mikah. “Can we eat now? Where’s Ollie?”

Everyone looked around, now noticing that the eldest sibling was missing from the group of laughter. His absence hadn’t been lost on Sloan all day. It was understandable for him to bring her here after the holiday they had shared together. It was the best she’d ever felt. But did he not understand that he was the reason why it was so enjoyable?

“Mom, can we get started?” Mikah interrupted whatever discussion Shelby had cornered the woman with. “Where’s Ollie?”

When Penelope did not respond, Sloan followed Mikah’s gaze towards his mother. Her expression had stiffened, and she visibly drew in a deep breath an exhaled it. “I gave him a to do list.”

“Okay?” Mikah’s confusion didn’t go unnoticed. “What kind of to do list? I’m here all the time fixing shit for you.”

“Well,” she began. She picked up a damp rag from the sink and began to clean the countertops from a mess that Sloan knew wasn’t there. “The fence...”

Mikah moved to the window, pushing the curtains out of the way to scan for his brother. “I don’t see him.”

“And the barn door.”

The room fell silent. Whatever Kit had been giggling about with Hallie, it stopped instantly. She stood, picking up her baby and plopping her to her hip with a shaking head, while Shelby moved to the next window over to look outside.

“He wasn’t ready for that,” Mikah’s eyes widened. “You’re pushing him! It’s hard enough to get him here.”

“He needed a push,” she argued, leaving Sloan wondering what the hell they were talking about. “I’m his mother, Mikah. Don’t tell me what he can or cannot handle! He needs this.”

Kit arrived by Sloan’s side; her eyes filled with tears that were just waiting to burst from her eyes. “You need to go out there,” she instructed Sloan.

Go out where? Sloan wondered.

“I’ll go,” Shelby offered, picking up the purple coat that she’d tossed to a free chair. “I doubt he went in.”

“Don’t you dare,” Kit held up a hand to stop her. The baby on her hip began to wail, but no one seemed to care that everyone’s changed tone was scaring her. “You have not helped this situation any.”

“What’s in the barn?” Sloan questioned, feeling as far out of the loop as Hallie looked right now.

When no one answered, Sloan repeated the question louder, but only focused on Mikah for the answer. His lip visibly shook, and he used his hand to cover it briefly as he took a deep breath.

“That’s where Ollie found dad,” he finally answered, clearing his throat after.

Sloan frowned, looking around the room to a lot of heavy hearts. Penelope took the screaming baby from Kit’s—who had now begun freely crying—arms and proceeded up the stairs with her, leaving the room completely. Sloan couldn’t blame her, as she seldom wanted to talk out loud about Steve. And if she did, she never wanted to talk about the day he died.

“What happened?” Sloan questioned, hating herself for doing it when she hated that question being asked of her. But Ollie had never mentioned anything about his dad’s death other than Shelby and Mikah announcing their relationship at the wake. “Something sudden? A heart attack?”

His head shook no, and Sloan instantly regretted asking when Mikah’s eyes glossed over. “He killed himself.”

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