Salty

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34

S L O A N

It had been a long time since two best friends stayed up all night discussing boys. Even though both women had been lacking sleep from the night before, there was a lot to discuss. Wine was involved, in addition to two showings of Pretty Woman on VHS. Although Sloan had all the fixings to make them the spicy carbonara that she’d forgotten all about making in the haste of Steve’s sickness, the two girls spent the night binging on literally anything they had in their cabinets that was unhealthy.

They laughed. They cried. For the first time, Sloan was opening up about Steve and the parts of him being gone that still hurt. She explained her fears when it came to her deceased husband. Ones that he knew she was going to have and still managed to ease her anxiety of loving someone else. She also explained her fears when it came to Ollie, who was uncharted territory. These were two completely different men. The way she’d fallen for them was even unique to each. With Steve, Sloan always knew what she was getting into. There were no secrets, nothing about him she didn’t know. With Ollie, she was learning as she went and falling along the way. There was still so much to know about each other. When she voiced that concern to Hallie, her best friend was more than supportive.

Their conversation was not limited to just those two men. For the first time in years, Hallie finally admitted that she was coming to terms with TJ choosing someone else. As much as she wished her life with him was going to be forever, she now understood that he was gone. It didn’t mean that she didn’t miss that friendship, just as Sloan did, and just as Steve obviously did too. TJ’s letter was still stuffed into the pocket of Sloan’s coat, and even though her and Hallie both were dying to read it, they had a pretty good guess as to what it contained. It was TJ’s letter, and after a night with her best friend where she broke down and thanked her for taking care of her this year in many ways, TJ’s store was going to be the next stop today. It helped that it was on the way to Mulligan’s, where she needed to have a serious talk with a certain chef about how she’d been a shitty person this past week.

It seemed like forever ago she’d walked into Thomas Jones Consignment and asked for a job from an old friend. She no longer needed to scrounge for pennies on the floor of her car for gas to get to work. Steve’s bills were slowly being paid down. It didn’t mean that she didn’t sort of miss the Karens and their expired coupons. Hearing Hallie admit that she missed her friendship with TJ made Sloan feel the same. He really had been good to her, given the circumstances.

Sloan crutched her way to the back of the store where the cash register was located. She could hear the beeps of the items being scanned and had followed them to their source. TJ—dressed again in a nice button-down, baby blue shirt with a matching tie that Sloan could just not get used to seeing—was already bagging the items and handing the plastic bag over the counter to the customer with a smile. He thanked them for their business and asked them to come again before lifting his attention to the gimp who was next in line.

“Oh no,” he laughed with a hint of compassion. “What happened?”

“I lost the battle with a shard of glass,” she explained for what felt like the millionth time since it happened two days ago. “Hurts like a bitch, but I’m tough.”

“You are,” he agreed. His hands fell to his pockets while still wearing the smile.

TJ knew Sloan well, knowing she was obviously here for a reason. He was waiting for her to spill it. The day she’d asked for the job here, she turned down all conversation of exactly the person she was about to bring up. Steve’s death had ruined her. Selfishly, she’d forgotten that she wasn’t the only person that loved him. Fishing through her coat pocket while trying to keep her balance, Sloan found the small envelope that had fallen from her own letter and pulled it free. Then, she extended it out to TJ.

The smile instantly fell from his face. “What is that?”

“Oh, come on, TJ. It’s two capitalized letters, but you and I both know you recognize that terrible handwriting.”

TJ licked his upper lip before his gray eyes glossed over. His head shook no. “But what is it?”

“He left one for each of us. I didn’t read yours, and I don’t know what Hallie’s said either. They are personal. There’s obviously something he wanted you to know.”

“I can’t read that.”

“You can,” Sloan quickly reminded him. “And you need to.”

TJ looked at the envelope as if it would catch fire if he touched it. His hands weren’t leaving the safety of his pockets. For once, Sloan wasn’t the first one shedding tears over Steve for the day. Of the four friends, TJ had gone the longest without speaking to Steve. Maybe it was because of the whole Hallie situation, but Sloan and Hallie both had their doubts about that now that TJ was being offered his own letter. His absence from Steve’s life the last year was justified by another reason. Just because the four friends were all orphans didn’t mean they were all given up willingly. Some of them may not even know why they were abandoned, but that was not the case for TJ.

“Can you read it out loud?” he asked with his head still shaking. He moved himself around the counter and leaned his backside into it. “Sloan, I can’t read that alone. Please?”

So much for not crying today, she thought to herself. That hand-writing was going to do her in two days in a row. Slowly, she pulled the letter free from the envelope and unfolded it. Just glancing over it, this was short, sweet and exactly what she’d been expecting from Steve.

“To my brother from another mother,” Sloan began with a teary-eyed smile that matched TJ’s. “I’m not sure when this letter will reach you. I know that you won’t read it yourself, and we both know Hallie understandably won’t be the one to give it to you. That leaves our girl Sloan, and she had to fight her own demons to get to this point.”

A hurt laugh escaped TJ, knowing his friend was more than right. Steve knew them all well.

“We are okay,” Sloan continued with a shaking voice. “We were never not okay. From the day I found out I was sick you were the last person that I wanted to tell. You, my dear friend, have lost so much to this shit disease, and I never wanted to be a part of that hurt for you. I understand why you weren’t here for my end. Never feel guilty for this. I understand, and I still love you. I’m giving those parents of yours a big hug, and I’m thanking them for giving me one of the best friends a guy could ask for. Steve.”

She barely had Steve’s name rolled off her tongue before she was allowing her crutches to collide with the floor, prepared for the hug she was engulfed in. She held TJ as they both cried for the friend, and family, they missed dearly.

***

Eying the circular, iron staircase from hell that led to Oliver Mulligan’s apartment, Sloan honestly debated attempting backing her way to the top floor. Today alone, she had sent two text messages that were ignored. One was just sent, demanding him to retreat from his damn apartment and come down here to speak to her. They had things to discuss. Like how crazily in love her stupid ass had fallen for him. She needed to make what happened this week right. He needed to understand that, of the many battles happening in his head, Steve didn’t need to be one of them. There was no need to compete.

After a lot of inner debating, the stairs weren’t going to be an option. After surviving the slope yesterday at the cemetery, those stairs were tempting the klutz fates. It was time for a different approach—one that Ollie was not going to appreciate in the least. Sloan maneuvered her crutches back through the door to the restaurant and to the bar area where Mikah was taking inventory of the bottles behind it. The place wasn’t near open yet. Sloan knew Ollie wasn’t in the kitchen.

“I need a shot of tequila for courage and you to go upstairs to get your brother please.”

Mikah continued writing down whatever numbers he needed with a head that shook with a definite no. Sloan’s impatience was not going to allow this brotherly-feud bullshit today. This round and round between them was absurd.

“You know, you better than anyone should understand that life is really short,” Sloan told the back of his head. “This rift between you two needs to stop. Both of you need to grow up.”

Mikah swung around with the tequila bottle and slammed it to the counter, followed by a shot glass. “I’m not the one who keeps it going. Or does that foot injury not recall his temper tantrum after telling the entire restaurant that my fiancée loved him more?”

“He didn’t enjoy telling you that,” she frowned.

“Funny. He seemed pretty enthused as he did it.”

Mikah slid the shot to her and turned away once more. The small glimpse of his face that she did get was enough to know the man was devastated. Things obviously weren’t going to be good for him at home right now. Without knowing what type of advance Shelby even made at Ollie, Sloan knew that Mikah wasn’t going to wait to hear it from his brother.

“He wanted to tell you after it happened. Would you have even believed him if he said he was worried about straining your relationship further?”

Mikah didn’t turn around. “No.”

“Well, he was. Didn’t matter how he told you, you’d take it exactly the same—as an attack on you. I asked him the next morning how he felt about that ring, and he said he didn’t care about it. Just that he was worried about you getting hurt.”

Mikah exhaled heavily and clicked his pen closed. “I knew as soon as she hesitated that it was because of him. I was honestly surprised that she came back into the room. She just didn’t find what she was looking for.”

This time he turned around, showing her the same puffy eyes she’d seen the other night after hearing the truth from his brother. She understood what he was referring to, taking the shot with a nod. He knew the truth, but didn’t want to accept it. Shelby did both brothers dirty to get what she wanted.

“He was with you that night.”

Sloan’s head bobbed to agree. She uncomfortably shifted the crutches beneath her. It’s not that she cared that Mikah knew her and Ollie were sleeping together. She just didn’t want to be judged by someone who knew she’d only been widowed for a year. She knew Mikah, but she didn’t know Mikah. She was a girl sleeping with her teacher, her boss, and was newly widowed. He was another one of her bosses that she rarely spoke to.

“He likes you a lot.”

Sloan smiled. “Yeah.”

“Mutual?”

“Very. So much so that I need another shot.”

Mikah sighed again and tossed the pen to the bar. This time, the entire bottle of Jose Cuervo was pushed towards her. “I’ll be right back.”

This was a major win. Mikah Mulligan was leaving his post at the bar and was actually going to ascend the stairs to retrieve the brother he rarely spoke to. For her! Sloan felt damn proud of herself, wearing a grin as she knocked back the second shot that was calming the nerves. There were so many things that she needed to say to Ollie, and she had a real knack for never saying the correct thing first. Order was important here. First thing first, they needed to talk about school. She owed him one hell of an apology for him losing his job. That needed to lead her into what Hallie said. Ollie was willing to risk his job on his relationship with Sloan, and Sloan needed to show him that this relationship was worth something important to her too.

“This was on the door,” an envelope was tossed in front of her. Her name was written on it, and this time it was Ollie’s handwriting scribbled across the front.

What’s with the letters this week? she wondered. How did he know she’d end up at his door?

“He wasn’t up there?”

“Nope. I knocked. No promises that he wasn’t ignoring me. We’ve gotten good at it over the years.”

There was no grace when it came to ripping open this envelope. Her heart was ready to beat its way right out of her chest. There was not going to be enough tequila in her veins for what she was about to read, and she knew it.

"Chef,

As promised, the kitchen is yours to run. I have all the faith in the world that you’ve got this. You’re ready. I’ll let you know when I’m settled in Seattle.

Ollie"

Seattle?

As in... WASHINGTON?

“Mikah,” Sloan stared at the paper in panic. “Was his car here?”

“I think...” but he hesitated to finish. “You know, it wasn’t. I always park beside him. His spot was empty.”

“Mikah, he’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“Gone. Left. He’s not coming back.”

Mikah grabbed the paper from her and read as Sloan reached for the tequila bottle. He was fired for the night he offered her a job and gave her a grade. Had she forgotten the whole offer already? He wanted to leave here. He wanted away from here. He was training her to take the kitchen off his hands so he could go. And he did just that.

"Kit,” Mikah’s phone was now pressed to his ear with his other hand still holding the paper. “Where is Ollie? I know you know. He wouldn’t leave the state without telling someone. He wouldn’t do that to mom.”

He peered to his watch and to Sloan. That wasn’t a good sign. Why did it feel like the tequila was already creeping its way back up her throat? He seriously left? Not even a goodbye?

“Noon at O’Hare. Got it.”

And no way she was going to make it in time with her injury.

***

Sloan had never flown anywhere. Living in Chicago, O’Hare International Airport was known for practically being its own city. She’d seen the outside of it a few times but never been within its walls. Now its size was adding to her anxiety.

All Mikah could do to help was hail the cab that got her here. Someone had to stay back with the restaurant. He’d told the cabbie to step on it, but it was a weekday in Chicago. Traffic was atrocious. Now, Sloan was standing in the middle of one of the country’s largest airports, on crutches, without any way of knowing which gate was Ollie’s. Through messages with Kit, all she had narrowed down was that he was flying American Airlines. There were televisions and signs with arrows everywhere she looked. People were rushing past her to make their own flights, luggage and children with them. This had to be the most overwhelming place she’d ever stepped foot in...and that included the inner-city school system.

She wasn’t used to answered prayers after losing her husband to cancer, but when a worker of the airport strolled towards her with an empty wheelchair, she considered that moment one.

“YOU!” she pointed at the man who looked surprised at her outburst. “I’m going to miss my flight because of my injury! Is that taken?”

“Uhhh,” he looked from her to the chair in his hands. “Where are you going?”

“American Airlines, Seattle flight at noon?”

“That’s not much time, but yeah,” he seemed to know the way. “Hop in.”

“Thank you!” she squealed as she claimed the seat.

Sloan lifted the crutches so that they didn’t drag. Even though the man walked fast, every second felt like she was closer to losing Ollie. Her head was still trying to wrap around the fact that he had it in him to leave. He was leaving his mom, his sister, a brother that he cared for more than he wanted to let on...he was even leaving Mulligan’s.

Sloan was counting every gate they passed with more prayers hoping that the next one would be his. It took almost ten minutes to get to an area that was clearly defined as American Airlines. The man who had control of her movement barely had the wheelchair to a stop before Sloan was pushing herself out of it. There was pain shooting up her foot with extra weight on it, but it was nothing to the feel of her heart breaking as she watched a line of people walking onto the boarding bridge.

“Ollie!” she began calling out into a sea of people, pushing her way through them to get a better look. She was looking for a tall, muscular man with short brown hair that had a cute little cowlick that always made it look messy. Sloan’s head was snapping back and forth, pushing strangers out of her way with her crutches. “OLLIE! OLIVER MULLIGAN!”

Nothing.

It wasn’t until she saw burgundy and white plaid approach the desk to hand a boarding pass that Sloan had any hope in stopping him. ”CHEF!”

Of course, his title is what caused the man to look back to her, sapphire eyes widening at the sight. The woman at the desk barely had the ticket in her hand and Ollie was snatching it back. Crutches had never moved so fast. By the time she was close enough to stop, she was colliding herself right into him.

Ollie grabbed her shoulders to steady her. “You shouldn’t be here.”

SHE shouldn’t be here?

"YOU shouldn’t be here!” she argued, shoving her hands into his stomach. It only caused him to take a half-step backwards. “Don’t you dare go!”

His head shook no, his lips dipping at the corners. “I have to.”

“You don’t! Don’t go!” she begged, now pulling him by the plaid shirt he was wearing. “Ollie, don’t leave your family behind. Don’t leave me.”

His eyes wouldn’t even meet hers. Ollie was looking anywhere but her, mostly over her shoulder. No doubt he was still exhausted, but he looked worse than ever. “I can’t stay, Sloan. I told you I needed away from here.”

“You said the restaurant! Not Illinois entirely!” she argued. “Don’t run from your problems, Ollie. It’s not going to fix them. Staying away from your dad’s restaurant isn’t going to help anything.”

“Neither does keeping a bed,” he sighed.

“Because the bed hurts. It needs to hurt to heal,” she reminded him over the speaker calling final boarding for his flight. “You told me that! Yet here you are, running so that you feel nothing.”

“Yes,” he agreed as she clutched his shirt harder. They were moments away from him turning away and they both knew it. “I don’t want to hurt anymore, Sloan. I don’t want to feel anything anymore. I need to go.”

Tears erupted from her eyes. Her head shaking no. “Ollie, don’t! I more than like you. I love you.” Her heart was now on her sleeve for him. “Don’t leave me. Don’t go! I love you.”

Glossy, staggered eyes finally met hers. The final boarding call was sounding off again over the sound of the busy airport. His hand lifted to push her rogue bangs behind her ear and out of her face, then to the back of her head, where he gently pushed it forward to press his lips to her forehead. Without saying anything back, Ollie released his lips from her skin and his hand from her hair, turning away from Sloan to hand off his ticket to the flight attendant. She watched his back until he faded from her line of sight as she stood there and broke down.

With no goodbye, and no returned I love you, he left her.

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