Salty

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33

S L O A N

Normally, waking up without Hallie in the house meant a fast-paced morning for Sloan. One that could be free of the distractions brought on by her well-meaning best friend. That was not the case on this particular Monday. In fact, Hallie being absent this morning was the exact opposite. The extra help would have been appreciated with being limited to one foot.

Sloan was now on an Ollie-type sleep schedule—in that she got little to no sleep last night. Between feeling like quite possibly the worst widowed wife ever, the pain radiating from her foot, and the way Ollie had left, it was a given. She would cry, and then forget which particular portion of the night she was crying about and start the process all over again. It felt like she had just drifted to sleep when the alarm began blaring. That’s when she realized she was lacking a way to her car, and even if she could get to it, she couldn’t drive. There was no way this injury was going to allow her to apply pressure to the pedal.

After checking her phone a million times to verify that Ollie had not responded to her text last night—one pleading for him to come back and sleep on the couch—Sloan used her Uber app to get a ride. The next obstacle was the shower. That’s where Hallie’s C.N.A. knowledge and assistance was needed the most. Twice she almost landed on her ass while trying to keep her foot dry. Thankfully, Hulk was there, in all his limp glory, to act as a gripping device. She hadn’t ever used the damn thing but was now thankful that he was there for her in a few moments of need. Who needed handrails when you had suction cup dildos?

Sloan dressed fast and casually, not even verifying that anything actually matched. The duplex stairs were taken one at a time, by use of her ass. The Uber had arrived before she even had time to eat anything, but Hallie was on top of that. The snacks meant for her finals were still sitting on top of her backpack and would be woofed down on the drive into Chicago. That drive would also provide time to message Ollie again.

Her stomach was in knots with a million different issues plaguing her mind during the drive to school. Maybe she should have been worried about the fact that she’d now be missing thirty-percent of her grade for every class due to missing her tests. Perhaps she should have been worried about how she was supposed to work tonight when she couldn’t even manage a shower. That was not the case. Right now, all she could focus on was the argument she’d had the night prior. Ollie hadn’t responded to the second text either. Her eyes were already feeling the pressure of impending tears. It was her own fault for not explaining the bed situation to him, but he seemed to already know about it. She knew Hallie must have been the one to tell him. Had Ollie been testing her to see how she would react? Last night, Ollie had admitted something that she really had never knew bugged him. He felt like he was competing with Steve.

The thought made her sick, and she wasn’t sure if that was because it was the truth, or because it wasn’t. She didn’t seem to know, and that made her even more nauseated.

The Uber ride had left her with only minutes to spare before Ollie was going to have to count her as late, sinking her grades even further than she already had last week. She could live with the grade. Having to pretend that the man in front of the class hadn’t basically broken up with her the night before, leaving her to cry all night, was going to be the real feat of the day. The least he could do was answer a text saying that he hadn’t nodded off and crashed somewhere in the middle of the night. They may have made jokes about that in the past, but now was not the time to be messing with her like this. Her foot hurt; her heart hurt, and now he was making her head hurt.

Maneuvering her way through a hallway of people, while trying not to land one of her crutches unknowingly onto someone’s foot, Sloan made her way to the knife safety classroom while trying to come up with a way to get Ollie to talk to her about what had happened last night. It wasn’t a conversation to be had here at school, and he worked tonight. The longer they went without speaking the worse this was becoming—and it had only been a few hours since he’d stormed out of her home. Now, she knew that it was eight. All students in the hallway were finding their rooms, and doors were closing behind them. All except for one door.

Sloan’s classmates were currently surrounding the entrance to Ollie’s classroom where a piece of paper was hanging on a closed door. One by one, students approached, read, and walked away from the door without entering. Many began walking towards a nearby seating area while Sloan awaited her turn, knowing that whatever was hanging there wasn’t going to be good.

All knife safety courses cancelled.
Final exam grades have been posted.

“Seems we no longer have an instructor,” Ava leaned her shoulder into the door.

“WHY?” Sloan demanded in a tone that caught not just Ava’s immediate widened gaze, but also that of everyone else within a fifteen-foot radius of the hallway. Her blood was immediately on fire. “Because you saw my boss carry my ass after stepping on a shard of glass? Where is he?”

“I know more than you think,” Ava countered beneath her breath, eyeing those around the two with a glare telling them to mind their own business. She stepped closer to Sloan to keep the conversation between the two of them. “I’ve had my suspicions about you two for months. Do I know that you’ve slept with him? No. But it’s not hard to come to that conclusion after watching him go from degrading you one day to handing out free grades the next. All you did was confirm it last night with the look of horror on both of your faces when seeing me.”

“What free grades?” Sloan countered, utterly confused. It was probably not the first response she should have used, and they both knew it. It would have been smart to deny the fact that she was sleeping with their teacher. “I don’t screw people for grades!”

“Then how do you have a grade for the lab you stormed out of?”

That blood that had been hot in her face just a few short seconds ago was now draining and leaving her ghost-white. Ollie gave her a grade for something he shouldn’t have. Were they sleeping together? Yes. That’s not what got her the grade though. Him being her boss sure did. Ollie was fired because of her, after he’d spent the night with her in an ER just to be denied a place to sleep. No wonder he wasn’t answering any of his texts.

“Chef Oliver is a dick, Sloan. You know he is. He only changed once your legs opened for him. I did you both a favor.”

A favor?

“You know nothing about Ollie,” Sloan swallowed down the sob that was trying to escape with her tears. It was a good thing she had crutches, because wobbly knees felt ready to give out beneath her. Those crutches and her one good foot were already taking her towards the dean’s office with her back to the girl who just solidified the end of her relationship with Oliver Mulligan. “And I don’t need favors from someone who can’t slice a goddamn onion without thinking she’s dying, twat!”

***

The kitchen table was filled with open notebooks and post-its. The pizza pizzazz was spinning, causing a slight buzzing as the only background noise throughout the duplex. It was a frozen pizza that had been long ago forgotten. It had been ready for at least an hour and was spinning without heat. There was also an open bottle of cheap wine that hadn’t even been sipped from and an open text book on a lap that hadn’t been read. One foot was propped up on a chair and was currently being iced, while the other was firmly on the floor where its owner was staring with blurred vision at her pink toenails.

Six messages to Ollie and not one had been answered. Three were texts. Three were calls that went directly to his voicemail. Taking the hint, Sloan knew she wasn’t going anywhere near Mulligan’s tonight. She called the kitchen, blaming her injury for skipping out on today’s shift. Not even pleading with the dean of the school could get his job back. That wasn’t an option. Her only option was to retake all the knife safety exams over again—which was fine; she could ace them in her sleep. The dean kept reminding her that she was lucky to not be expelled, but she didn’t feel very lucky.

A deep sigh announced the arrival home of her best friend. Sloan hadn’t even heard the front door open and close. Hallie’s keys hit the table after a toss, and the blonde took the strap of her purse from over her head to toss along with it. Arms crossed over her purple scrubs, but Sloan couldn’t bring herself to even look up.

“What happened to your foot?” she asked with little enthusiasm.

“Stepped on glass at the restaurant. It’s fine.”

“If it’s fine, then why are you crying again?” Sloan couldn’t get an answer out and Hallie already looked like she’d heard enough. “And before you tell me Steve again, you need to realize that this has got to stop. I can’t take it anymore, Sloan. I can’t. I’m tired. I don’t have it in me to baby you today. I worked two shifts, was pissed on twice, and lost one of my favorite residents last night. I’m exhausted.”

Sloan’s shoulders shook with the unleashing of tears. This was now two days in a row by her two favorite people that she’d been told that she had exhausted them to the point of being done with her. And that wasn’t even why she was crying right now.

“I’m sorry about your resident. I just...I messed up with Ollie,” her head shook, not even knowing if Hallie wanted to hear it. “He was fired, and he won’t answer my texts or calls. And that was after I practically kicked him out of here last night for wanting to sleep in my bed. I couldn’t let him, Hal. It’s...”

"Steve’s.” Hallie sighed again and dropped herself into an open chair. “This is exactly what I mean. That bed is nothing more than an object, Sloan. You’re too attached to it, and all it does is make you cry. So, why is Ollie ignoring you? Is it because of the bed, or is it because of the job? Because I have a pretty good guess. Ollie obviously thought you were worth risking the job.”

And Hallie’s guess would be right. Sloan was almost certain that the reason he wasn’t answering was because of last night. Ollie was willing to lose a job he loved for her, and she couldn’t even let him into her bed for a night. In the back of his mind, he felt threatened by Steve. Likely the same way that sometimes she felt threatened by Shelby. Sloan made that feeling for him so much worse. It didn’t change the fact that it was Steve’s bed though, and it seemed cruel to the memory of the man she lost only a year ago.

“Tell me the truth,” Hallie pushed Sloan’s notes out of the way so she could drop two elbows to the table. “Do you love Ollie?”

“That’s not a simple question...”

“Yes, it is. Do you love Ollie?”

“Steve...”

“I didn’t ask about Steve,” she countered abruptly. “Christ, I can’t get a straight answer out of either of you. You both go right back to Steve—who has absolutely nothing to do with this. There is you and there is Ollie.”

Sloan sniffled. Steve had nothing and everything to do with this.

“I am your best friend,” Hallie reminded her with lips curled downwards. “You can tell me absolutely anything, and I will never judge you. I am going to ask you a question, and I don’t want you to get mad at me. Just let me get it out. Okay?”

Sloan’s mouth joined the shape of Hallie’s. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Hallie’s head bobbed, liking that they were getting somewhere. “If Steve had never gotten sick,” she eyed Sloan carefully for a reaction. Other than her insides churning at where this question was heading, she remained blank. “And you had met Ollie while out during a night of celebrating getting into your dream school...”

There was no need to finish the question. They both knew the end of it. She wouldn’t have been dating Steve. She would have been single. They’d celebrate at a restaurant that was on everyone’s radar for the food. Sloan would insult the fries by adding a horrendous amount of salt in front of the restaurant’s chef. They’d laugh, they’d drink, they’d end up in his bed. The Sloan before Steve probably would have wanted another round the next morning instead of trying to escape for an impending panic attack. Or maybe they wouldn’t have gone to that restaurant at all and Sloan would have just met him as a teacher. There were a lot of what ifs. But Hallie’s question would just be reworded to get the answer that she already knew. If Sloan had been single, and she’d met Ollie in whatever situation and liked him, what would her answer have been right now without Steve as a factor?

Another flooding of tears erupted. She loved Steve so much, and that was never going to change. But it also didn’t change how she felt about someone else.

“I love Ollie,” she admitted, shielding her face with her hands and sobbing freely into them. “I messed up with him, and I deserve it for being a really shitty wife. I shouldn’t love Ollie this much when it’s only been a year.”

The chair squeaked across the flooring as Hallie stood. Sloan couldn’t stop hyperventilating into her open hands and was completely unaware of Hallie leaving the room. It wasn’t until she heard the sound of a drawer slamming shut upstairs and Hallie’s feet carrying her down the stairs quickly that Sloan could even bring herself to take a breath. When her best friend reappeared in the kitchen, Sloan noticed there was now an envelope in her grip.

“I think it’s time you go talk to Steve.”

Sloan’s eyes rolled hard, and she wiped her cheeks free of the mess she’d made. If Hallie told her that one more time...

“It helped me a lot when I finally had the nerve to open mine.”

“Open your what?” Sloan groaned. The thought of speaking to a rock seemed ridiculous. “I don’t want to talk to Steve. He’s gone! He’s not there! He’s not going to talk back!”

Hallie held out the envelope with a shaky hand. Sloan’s heart leapt instantly at the sight of her name scribbled in Steve’s handwriting. “Your letter was in mine and gave me very special instructions on when to give it to you. You might not be ready to talk to him, but he’s ready to talk to you. I think you should listen to what he has to say.”

***

Frozen grass crunched beneath her feet and crutches as she approached the one spot in Chicago she’d been avoiding for the past year. The last time she was here was practically a blur now. She vaguely remembered clutching a box that held the ashes of her husband for dear life until she was forced to place it in his final resting place. At that time, there was no marker to even find him again. With what little credit she had left in her name, Sloan made sure to purchase him a stone. It was the smallest one they had, just big enough for his name and two dates with a dash between them. His entire life was now defined by that one little dash. Every birthday, every day of school and work, every kiss, every time they’d made love...a dash. It practically killed her to write it on the order form; so, she knew that seeing it on a stone was going to feel more final.

She knew roughly the area where he was buried. The location wasn’t ideal, at the bottom of a steep slope. Thankfully, she didn’t end up on her ass. She had to brush the snow off a few different stones before her mittens finally dusted away the loose snowflakes to reveal her husband’s name. It was just another step in the harsh realization that he was really gone—which of course resulted her cold cheeks being covered in tears. Now, it felt silly to stand in front of a rock and speak to it. How does one even start? Was she supposed to speak out loud? Was this conversation supposed to happen in her head? Maybe Hallie found this to be therapeutic, but it was giving Sloan a serious case of anxiety.

With a deep breath, Sloan removed the letter from her coat pocket and unfolded it. First, another letter fell free from it—this one with a simple T.J. on it. Steve’s horrible handwriting made her instantly giggle. For the first time in a long time, she felt close to him. T.J.’s letter was tucked into her pocket for another time. Gazing around the empty cemetery before finally planting her ass in wet snow, she made herself more or less comfortable for the situation. Steve wanted to talk, and she needed to be ready to listen.

“Hi,” her hand landed on the rock again with a whisper, the open letter in her opposite hand. “I’m here.”

“My Dearest Sloan,

Hello, Beautiful.

It’s almost midnight, and you’re sleeping right beside me within the hold of my free arm and hogging all of our covers. You just finished cleaning up after making a spicy carbonara I knew would be incredible. I’m laughing that a little of the sauce is still caught in your hair, and sad because tonight was one of the last times I’m going to see that twinkle in your eye when you nail a recipe you’ve been working on. Even worse, this is one of the last times I’m going to hold you as you sleep.

We have run out of time, Baby. Tonight, I had Hallie call our hospice nurse as you cooked. I couldn’t bear to tell you that my appetite has ceased, and that pain has taken over not only my body but my thoughts. The time you spend in our kitchen is when I see you happy, and I couldn’t take that away from you tonight.

I want to start off by thanking you for making my last year of this short life the best one I have ever had. You were the blessing that I always knew I wanted but never felt I deserved. You were my rock from the first day we met and even through this diagnosis we never saw coming. Love was something I always had for you, but I never knew I could love you as much as I do right now. I never want you to think that I married you for the wrong reason. I married you for love. It just blossomed into more than anything I could have dreamt of. Although, I’m not going to lie; your insurance was a sweet perk.

I hope that insurance bit made you laugh, because we both know you’re crying right now. And that’s okay, because I am too.

If you’re reading this, it means the inevitable has happened. You, my angel, have fallen in love again. Perhaps it’s been weeks, months, years...but someone has made you happy again, and thank God for that.

You’re having a hard time with this—I know, because I know you better than anyone. You may not believe me, but I am so beyond ecstatic for you. My worst fear with all of this is that I somehow broke you. That you will close yourself off from others and never open up to anyone the way you did me. I know how hard you love, and how deeply you care for those around you. I don’t want my death to change you, even though I know it will. You are going to feel guilty for loving him, and you should not. You’re never going to feel that now (whenever that may be) is the right time to move on, and it is, or else you wouldn’t have this paper in your hands.

You never needed my permission, Sloan. But, if that’s what you needed out of this letter, you have it. I would never think less of you for finding joy again after me. And Hallie must believe that this is “the” guy. I gave her pretty strict instructions on how to know he’s the one. He better be encouraging you to be your best. He better be grinning from ear to ear as you nail those recipes. He better make you laugh until you cry. And on days those tears aren’t from laughing, he better be holding you as tightly as I am right now.

Thank you for allowing me a little piece of your beautiful heart. Now go show this guy how much love you really have for him when you aren’t holding back because of me. Be the person for him that I need him to be for you. Be the person you were for me.

All my love,

Steve”

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