Salty

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32

O L L I E

It had been years since he’d fallen asleep in his own car. Wrapped in nothing but his coat, Ollie made it as far as Mulligan’s alleyway before dropping the seat back and giving in. The extra footage needed to span the restaurant and walk up a flight of stairs was not manageable after the night he had. The change of scenery, unfortunately, did not stop a night terror. Watching his dad take his final step was enough to jolt him upright, with his chest colliding with the steering wheel. Just once, he just wanted one time where he could climb the rafters fast enough without his hand landing right into a wasp’s nest. Many people assured him that his father died instantly, but they weren’t there to see him struggle for air. The same noise could be heard from himself every single time he woke up from a nightmare.

Ollie left little time to ready himself for a Monday and eventually opted to skip the shower and dress for a school day as fast as he could. He was out of the car and back in within a half-hour’s time, putting him back on schedule for the day. There was little surprise to be had at the sight of various missed calls flashing from the phone on the passenger seat. Kit, his mother, and Shelby all had voicemails waiting for him, and he knew that they all revolved around Mikah and last night.

There was also a text from Sloan that resulted in a heavy intake of air and an exhale that made his lungs ache.

One swipe of his thumb, and a red delete option removed the issue of Sloan Smith. He’d stupidly broken his own rules, and this was the punishment. Never the same girl twice. Never an employee. Never a student—that one was for sure coming back to bite him in the ass today. And last but definitely not least, never, under any circumstances, fall in love with another girl again. He broke every-single-one.

With whatever Sloan had to say to him out of the way, Ollie selected the only caller he knew mattered at the moment. His thumb selected his mom’s number instead of listening to the voicemail. Kit’s message didn’t matter. It was going to be nothing more than a warning that Penelope Mulligan knew what had happened the night before. And Shelby’s messages were not his problem anymore.

“Oliver Dean,” her disappointment answered. Ollie didn’t need to see her to know that she was shaking her head with his name.

“It needed to be done.”

“He needed to learn that for himself!” she began her argument as he entered morning traffic. “His love life is not your business! Neither is hers!”

Even though there was always some sort of sibling rivalry between Mikah and Ollie over the years, Ollie always held that protective, older brother role close to him. Last night wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did. Did Mikah need to know? Yes. But Penelope was absolutely right; Mikah should have learned about Shelby’s real intentions for himself. At the same time, how long was Ollie supposed to let Mikah be led on for? Maybe Shelby did love him in some way. Maybe she didn’t.

“I don’t know if you can fix this,” she sighed heavily. “He’s so angry. I’ve never heard him like this.”

“There was no fixing it before either,” Ollie reminded her. “Or have you forgotten that we aren’t exactly the goddamn Brady Bunch? Mikah is a dick. Kit is a disaster. And I’m ...”

“You’re what?” she quickly intervened to make him finish.

Ollie swallowed hard, not wanting to complete his thought on that. His hand gravitated towards the glove box, hoping there was still a pack of cigarettes waiting to dull his nerves. His mind was screaming the words ‘not okay’. The search came up empty.

“I worry about all three of you. None of you have been the same after that year. I can’t help you fix what’s broken if you don’t talk to me. And I know, better than anyone, that you are broken, Oliver Dean Mulligan. We all did that day, but something in you shut down in that barn. I worry about you the most.”

How was he supposed to not shut down after what he had experienced that day? The Mulligan family may have broken when his dad took a single step off a beam, but it was Ollie’s fault he was up there in the first place. The irony of it being his rope from a swing he demanded be hung was not lost on him. The fact that his dad didn’t hesitate, even after looking him square in the eyes, was also not lost on him. Ollie had made himself so greedy and unapproachable that his dad couldn’t bear the thought of telling him the truth about the restaurant entering foreclosure. His dad also knew how little money Ollie had after tossing most of it at said restaurant and then having Shelby leave him, losing the dual income of their household. Shelby comforting Mikah during the funeral was just the cherry on top, solidifying that Ollie got everything that had been coming to him for years. He chose to think of himself and was left with nothing.

“You’re not going to find me hanging from a rafter,” Ollie’s voice cracked like he was a teen again, “if that’s what you are insinuating. I’m not dad.”

“You are more like him than you think. You all are—using humor as a crutch to hide how you really feel. I love your humor, Ollie. I just wish you’d show the other side too. I think you should get help.”

He did show the other side. In a moment of weakness, he tossed it all at Sloan—the one person who didn’t need anymore of that shit on her plate. He had a plan to fix all of this and stupidly put it on the backburner because he fell for a girl. And after all was said and done, she chose Steve’s bed. Apparently, he didn’t learn his lesson after watching Shelby choose Mikah. Always when he needed someone the most. That mistake wouldn’t be made again.

***

Ollie arrived at the Chicago Culinary Institute at his regular time, allowing a good half hour before classes actually started. It was going to allow him the time to finalize semester grades. It was also going to give him time to decide how to approach the situation around Sloan’s little friend who saw them at the bar last night. Up until yesterday, he didn’t even know the girl’s name off the top of his head. He rarely learned the names of his students—unless they had a certain knack for pissing him off in some special way. Ava never stood out until she witnessed him carrying Sloan out of that kitchen. Now, he had a very big problem on his hands.

The more he thought about it as he walked the halls to his classroom, Ollie decided that there really was nothing that could be done by the school. Albeit, Ava saw him holding Sloan, she did not see them kissing or fornicating in any sort of way. There was no proof that the two had any sort of relationship other than that of a student/teacher or employee/employer. The school held a zero-tolerance policy when it came to a teacher having a relationship with a student. Ollie highly doubted that anything could be done about him employing Sloan. It would still lead to him holding her accountable—actually more so than other students. There was no special treatment to be had with her. The zero beside her name for semester testing agreed with that. All other tests and assignments were rightfully given high markings. If necessary, Ollie was sure she would be able to ace them again to prove that.

The closer he got to his classroom door, the more relief he was feeling. Ava really had nothing other than seeing him carry an injured employee to his car to be taken to an emergency room.

The relief vanished the moment Ava herself walked out of the Dean’s office with her arms wrapped around her books. The girl didn’t even miss a step as she walked past him wearing a glare that told him exactly what was about to happen next.

“Oliver,” Dean Carmichael emerged from his office. Ollie was being summoned with a single finger and a stern expression.

Usually it was Ollie himself that had students and staff fearing his expression, not the other way around. He did as he was being beckoned to do though, passing his own classroom to enter an office he hadn’t seen since his interview a few short years ago. The door closing behind them was not a good sign.

“Do you know why you’re in here, Mr. Mulligan?”

Ollie cringed. His father was Mr. Mulligan. In this school, he was Chef, as were many of his coworkers. The man standing in front of him, motioning for Ollie to take a chair, was one himself. Ollie was already finding himself becoming defensive and angry over a situation that had not yet been brought to light. Needing to calm down, he took the seat offered.

“Because I employee a student?” Ollie answered gruffly, and with little enthusiasm. “There are no rules regarding such a thing. I’m sure you, yourself, have done the same at some point.”

“I have,” he agreed with a tug of his brown suit coat, taking a seat behind his wide desk.

“So,” Ollie leaned back in his seat. “Then why is this suddenly a problem?”

Doug Carmichael leaned back in his chair, not showing any hint of what he did or did not know. Sweat was beading at Ollie’s hairline, now assuming he knew more than Ollie thought. If there is no rule regarding hiring Sloan, something else was bothering him.

“Are you in a sexual relationship with this student?”

“No,” Ollie lied without skipping a breath. Sloan’s reputation at this school was depending on it.

The dean licked his lips, tossing an envelope to the top of his desk and flipping it open. Papers were being shuffled faster than Ollie could read them, but they appeared to be Sloan’s tests and assignments that were from the locked drawer of his classroom.

“She’s an employee,” Ollie continued. “I show no favoritism towards employees or students alike.”

“I beg to differ,” he smiled cockily.

Ollie’s blood began to boil. Even when sharing a bed with Sloan, which this man had no way of knowing, he never gave Sloan any sort of advantage over the other students. She was by far the best student he had since beginning his employment here. She didn’t need any help.

“You are aware that you had your students sign a waiver stating that you do not allow for the retaking of any assignments or tests without written consent verifying the definition of an emergency was met.”

“Yes,” Ollie agreed. “And you will see in the submitted grades from last week that Sloan failed her semester test with a zero. She never showed.”

With a bob of his head, the man agreed, continuing to shuffle through page after page before finally pulling one free. The document was pushed towards Ollie with the man’s pointer finger, showing that it was the grading sheet for each week’s knife lab.

“What about it?” Ollie’s brows scrunched with his nose. This was fast becoming a waste of his time.

The man’s finger jabbed one date in particular, and that’s when Ollie’s stomach crawled its way into his throat. He fucked up.

“On this date, your student left the room during this lab and quit the program. Did she not?”

Ollie leaned back in his chair and intertwined his hands together to place on his lap.

“She did.”

“Did she complete the assignment as instructed?”

Ollie couldn’t even lie, because Ava had seen Sloan storm out of the room. Ava stood right beside her as she cut that pepper, just as she did every other day. Even if she had completed the assignment, she would have received an F for the shit knives she was dealing with. If Ollie even tried to lie right now, buying Sloan her own knives was another form of favoritism that would likely be thrown in his face. He didn’t need more attention being brought onto Sloan’s academic career than it already was.

“No.”

“Yet, she has a grade for this day.”

She did receive a grade for that day. And that was because the night Ollie offered her a job, after finding out the truth about Steve, that he offered half of her grade back to her—breaking his own class rule. She cut the pepper in front of him, and only him, while at the restaurant.

“Yes.”

“You may pack your things, Chef. That’s all I needed to hear.”

***

Storming through the door of the kitchen, Ollie dropped the box of his things beside the doorway to the alley. Then he decided he didn’t need the shit anyways, and kicked it back out the door for someone to steal on their way through. That was with the exception of the pack of cigarettes he’d pulled from one of his desk drawers first. Those were coming with him.

All eyes were on him as he stormed through the room. Dinner rush would be starting in a few short hours, but he had no doubt that whoever was back there could handle it. The fucking menu never changed, so how could they not know what to do? Sloan had been scheduled to work tonight, but it seemed unlikely that she’d be showing up, because he’d fucked that up too, and was now taking sole responsibility for the fact that she was currently on crutches. It was typical. Nothing had gone right in two years, so why start now?

Blowing through the swinging door of the kitchen and into the bar, Ollie only stopped for a bottle of Yamazaki whiskey from the top shelf. Then, he selected two glasses. One was going to be used for drinking his dad’s favorite whiskey, and one was going to be used to throw at the wall for when he got angry at everyone but himself while hating himself for it.

“What are you doing?” Mikah’s brows lifted over bloodshot eyes.

Ollie was too tired to answer him. Instead, he took the bottle and glasses with him across the restaurant floor, ignoring the greetings of people that had been eating here since he was a kid. He took himself to the one room he avoided at all costs, because it was a fucking time capsule of good memories with his dad. Ollie flipped on the flickering light that instantly burned itself out with a pop, plopped himself down into a chair that sent up a cloud of dust, and smacked the bottle down to the letter that had sat on the desk for nearly two years. He’d missed it with his ignorance all those years ago. He took the long-ago expired notice of foreclosure into his hands, ripped it into the smallest pieces he could manage, and cursed the day his dad ever brought him into the Mulligan’s kitchen. His dream of seeing the place he loved more than anything thrive did nothing but hurt everyone around him.

It only took one cigarette, two glasses of whiskey, and the return of the plan he’d had before stupidly falling for its main ingredient, before the chef’s exhaustion took over, and he fell back into a familiar nightmare where he couldn’t breathe.

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