Salty

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4

S L O A N

The floor of the kitchen had become littered with carrot and potato balls that had rolled away or popped free while being shoveled from their original rooted-vegetable form. Oil splatter covered not only the stovetop but also the hood, backsplash, and a few inches of countertop. Dustings of salt and pepper along with tiny sprigs of rosemary and thyme were now trapped in a sticky cherry glaze spillage. This occurred beside a paper that should have resembled a recipe, but appeared more like a mad mathematician’s notes. The townhouse kitchen appeared to have become a culinary war zone, with multiple shots fired and a wannabe chef left as the only survivor hanging on to her sanity by a weak thread.

Sloan dropped into a wooden dining chair, shielding her eyes with messy hands from the disaster that was supposed to be dinner. Nothing ever went right for her. She should have known that spending what was left of her paycheck on this was a terrible idea. Unfortunately, when she found the courage to remove her hands, the mess was still there and dinner remained only half-cooked.

“Fuck,” her lip trembled, followed by a few rapid blinks to stop herself from tears.

The whole situation was making her stomach ache. This was supposed to be her way of apologizing to her best friend. Hallie hadn’t spoken to her in days and Sloan knew she deserved it for breaking girl-code. After years of being friends, they had been through plenty of petty arguments before and usually gave up on them after a day, chalking it up to menstrual madness. This time was different. Hallie was completely betrayed by TJ, and Sloan made the decision to go to him, of all people, for help.

She fucked up.

Typically, when Sloan screwed up dinner, it was because she had some crazy idea while watching Chopped! to use a random ingredient that no one in their right mind would put into a dish. This time she couldn’t even blame herself for the catastrophe, although she should not have banked on this going in her favor.

Her head fell back and she gazed up to the ceiling to take a deep breath. Instead, she found herself squinting at a pink blotch that was a definite contrast against the white paint. Not recalling it ever being there, she stood to get a closer look. When a drop of the pink goop fell to her cheek, she knew exactly what it was. Sloan dragged a finger across her face and then stuck it directly into her mouth, twirling her tongue around it and savoring its sweetness.

“I did not just witness you lick something that fell from the ceiling...”

Sloan spun to the direction of Hallie’s shocked tone, not even caring that she had seen her in a moment of weakness. Her best friend was actually speaking to her. Hallie stood in the doorway of the kitchen, dressed cutely in a pair of white shorts and a blue Jack’s Mannequin tee. Sloan had a matching one in red and—if she recalled correctly—Steve’s was orange. They had all been purchased at the concert a few years back. Hallie’s long blonde hair was braided perfectly to one side, falling low over her left shoulder. Multiple bags were at her feet, some retail therapy no doubt.

The fact that Hallie was smiling was more relief than Sloan could have hoped for. The terrible feeling in her gut that had been there all week was already diminishing. Their fight was hopefully coming to an end.

“It’s a cherry glaze,” Sloan giggled after popping her finger free from her mouth. “Wanna try it? I can get the ladder.”

“Nah, I think I can use my nail to get some off of the cabinet doors.”

Sure enough, when Sloan turned back to the row of white cabinets, they too were covered in pink blotches.

“Shit,” Sloan huffed. She had missed those when surveying her damage. “The appliances are not submitting to me today. The lid wouldn’t stay down on the blender. Hence,” she used a finger to circle the air, displaying the room and sticky mess on every surface. “And the fucking oven quit on me. Again! So, now I can’t finish the lamb shanks.”

Hallie’s lips pursed, stifling her laugh.

“Well, let’s start with some wine.”

Sloan pressed on her eyes with her fingers and shook her head no. “Nope, you know how this works. If I touch the fridge, it will die. The appliances hate me.”

They both knew this from experience. Sloan could kill any appliance she so much as glanced at. The oven had been on the fritz for weeks, but of course, today was the day it decided to crap out. It’s weekend, meaning their landlord wouldn’t be bothered with answering the phone unless the place had burnt down. She had no luck, none.

Instead of cracking another joke, Hallie moved swiftly to the pantry. She pulled out the pizza pizzaz and plugged it into outlet beside the stove.

“Pete can handle it.”

All Sloan could do was laugh as she watched Hallie remove the half-cooked lamb shanks from their sheet to place them onto the seasoned turntable of the pizzaz. Over their many years of friendship, the pizza pizzaz had become the only constant in their lives. The group had found that no matter how many ovens Sloan killed, pizza-pizzaz-Pete would always save the day. It just happened to be the named after a homeless man on third street who loved flashing his dick at TJ through an old pizza box. He usually followed it up with a wink and a lick-lip. The song “Dick in a Box” held a very special meaning to their group. TJ hated it, but his friends thrived on it. At least, that was until he destroyed their friendship.

As Hallie saved the day, Sloan wrapped her arms around her best friend from behind her. Hallie swiveled and gripped Sloan tightly in return. No apologies were needed, this was it. Hallie knew Sloan had to go to TJ and Sloan knew she broke the code. A hug could make everything better.

“I got you something.”

Sloan peered over her friend’s shoulder to the heap of bags on the kitchen floor and gave a distasteful shake of her head.

“You need to stop buying me stuff. I have a job now. And it better not be another sex toy!”

“It’s better,” Hallie wiggled herself free.

The blonde dropped to her knees and began digging through the bags, clearly on a mission for a particular item. Sloan decided to take the risk of losing the fridge to pull out a new box of wine.

“So, this is mine, but you’re borrowing it.”

When Sloan turned, she found Hallie holding up a plastic hanger with a little black dress hanging by two tiny straps. The front had a plunging V-neck, clearly meant to show off cleavage. Without even being asked, Hallie swung the hanger around, displaying an open back where the single straps from the front had now branched into two straps on each shoulder. The dress was so short that Sloan could not even fathom having to bend over in it.

“It’s smokin’, right? Wait until you see what I’m wearing. Oh! And you can wear my black strappy heels with it! The ones that tie up the ankle.” Hallie was beaming at the dress, having apparently thought of everything and leaving Sloan feeling utterly clueless.

The dress is definitely hot. It had been ages since Sloan had dressed up for anything and that dress was meant to have people look at you. It wasn’t trashy, it was perfect for a night out. They hadn’t done that in years though.

“What the heck would I need that for?”

“To celebrate!”

“Celebrate?” Sloan began wracking her brain, feeling like she missed something. “Did you get a promotion or something?”

Hallie bent down, selecting another bag and holding it out to Sloan. She could tell it was heavy, because the thin plastic was stretching to keep hold. Books could easily be seen through it. This just became more confusing, since Hallie had a knack for acting as if she was allergic to reading.

“I couldn’t find them all, there is one you still need. Half Price Books said they would call us if they found it.”

"Need?”

But that question was answered as soon as Sloan saw the books in her hand. Food Safety & Sanitation, Culinary Fundamentals, The Art of Modern Cookery: Year 1, and Culinary Principals and Applications...all culinary course books. Sloan’s air was gone and the tightening in her chest was beginning to hurt. This made no sense, she never received acceptance of any kind.

“Don’t cry!”

Too late. A tear was gliding down her cherry-covered cheek. Before Sloan could even question what the hell was happening, her friend tossed a letter to the top of the stacked books...a letter congratulating Sloan on being accepted into the Chicago Culinary Institute.

“I couldn’t wait for you to come home from work. I had to open it because it was thin. I even tried holding it up to the light and using the handheld steamer. If you were rejected, I was going to burn it and hex them.”

Sloan giggled, which turned into more sniffling. Nothing ever went right, how was this actually happening? Other than Steve, there was nothing in the world that she wanted more than this letter. Girls like her didn’t get wishes that came true. This was a goddamn Cinderella moment and Hallie was one hell of a fairy godmother.

After a few minutes of shock, reality began to set in and Hallie quickly took note of Sloan’s dampening mood and shaking head. No way could she afford this. Hallie already bought the textbooks and they had to have cost a small fortune, even if they were used.

“Don’t you dare turn it down! I told you that I would cosign the loan. We have an appointment at the bank on Monday. Tonight we are going to celebrate.”

"Hal,” her glossy eyes rolled as she looked back at the tiny dress. “We have no money to go out. And I’m not even sure if I’m ready...”

“Sloan, stop it.” Hallie’s tone became firm, matching her facial expression. “For one night, you are forgetting Steve. This night is not about him; it is about you. You got into culinary school. Neither of us are uttering his name tonight. Have fun with me. Let’s act our age, drink, dance with guys, never learn their names, and be hungover as fuck tomorrow.”

The ache was back in Sloan’s stomach. Even the thought of dancing made her literally want to hurl. The last time she danced was at her wedding with her husband. That was probably the last time she had been even remotely dressed up and partied. But, she was walking a fine line with Hallie, someone who was going above and beyond to help her out of her depression and keep her functioning like a real human. She was taking a lot and needed to give a little. She could try and go one night without becoming a complete recluse over Steve.

“Fine,” she huffed and grabbed the hanger from Hallie. ”Two drinks. We are going to Mulligan’s because I heard that their truffle fries are to die for.”

“You would pick a bar based on the food.”

“Well, I’m not looking for a guy and food is the next best thing. I dare you to fight me on that.”

Hallie gleefully smiled back at Sloan, not about to contradict her. “Fine but six drinks,” she turned her heel, picked up her bags, and bolted for the stairs. “And use makeup! You look like shit!”

“Two!” Sloan repeated, not even bothering to argue about the makeup because she wouldn’t win anyways.

"SEVEN!”

***

It took twenty minutes to figure out the heels Hallie had hung from the knob of Sloan’s bedroom door. They had to be at least three inches high. If not, four. There was a single thick black suede strap across her toes and then all that was meant to keep her ankles stable was a strap no thicker than a thin shoelace that you criss-crossed up the ankle until you ran out of string and had to tie it off. Then it took another ten minutes to remember how to walk in heels.

Sloan had been absolutely right in her earlier assumption of the dress. It plunged deep, displaying her breasts and barely covering nipple. There was zero chance of wearing a bra with it, since it was lacking a back. She had to admit, it was comfortable though. The straps didn’t fall on their own and it fit her like it was designed specifically for the shape of her body. It was the length, however, that was giving her anxiety. It just barely covered her ass and she knew she was going to be holding it down all night. If she dropped anything, it was gone forever, because there was no way she would be bending over.

The fog hadn’t cleared from the bathroom mirror in time for makeup, so she used a small compact mirror that she kept in her purse. It did the trick. She wasn’t going to go overboard with it tonight, borrowing a loose powder, black eyeliner, and some gray shadows for a smokey eye. She never needed mascara, her lashes were long and thick by themselves. ‘Lashes for days,’ Hallie would always say with envy.

By the time the clock struck nine, Sloan felt acceptable. She only stopped at the bathroom to turn off the light, but halted when she saw her reflection in the now fog-free mirror. She looked...normal.

Gone was the girl that had been holed up in her room crying for what was now almost seven months. The girl in front of her was Sloan. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that and even though she tried to smile, she couldn’t bring herself to go that far. Part of her was happy—happy that she had gotten into school—and part of her was still broken, more than she cared to admit. Just for herself, she did a small spin in the dress, remembering what it was like to just feel like a twenty-something girl again. This time, she smiled and then hit the light to off, feeling like complete shit for doing it.

***

Mulligan’s sat in the heart of Chicago, making driving there practically impossible. They took Hallie’s car to the brink of town, to the last place they could think of that had free parking, and then called an Uber from there.

The beat of the music could be heard from outside the three-story brick building. It appeared quite old, but newly renovated from what the girls could see from their place in line. After displaying their IDs and being ushered in, the atmosphere of the place had Sloan thankful for her choice. It was a bar, yes, but a nice one. It wasn’t some sleezy club that they had spent their younger days in (and by younger it referred to their fake-ID days and everyone’s twenty-first birthdays). It was a bar that made Sloan feel more like an adult. The walls were a charcoal gray with modern brass light fixtures that were each unique in shape. Wood floors that appeared to be original to the bar, flexed and creaked as you walked across them. The furniture was simple, with a mingling area that had black leather couches, an area for food with booths and high tops in the same leather with chunky wood tables, a massive bar that spanned the length of the place, and an area in the rear with a dance floor and stage that currently held a live indie band. Sloan loved that the only bright colors in the entire place was the wall of assorted liquors behind the bar.

Heads turned the moment Hallie walked in, per the usual. She was a blonde bombshell in the most vibrant shade of blue Sloan had ever seen. Her dress was classy, flawlessly displaying her curves with it having a squared neckline, thick straps, backless, and the smallest slit in its knee-length material. Hallie’s hair was wild with curls tonight. She always looked stunning and could make even Barbie look like trash in comparison.

Sloan’s wrist was grabbed by her friend, tugging her towards the bar. She had to admit, she was ready for a drink.

And fries. All the fries.

“Damn, didn’t have to go far to find a hot one.” Hallie’s head was tilted over her shoulder, eyeing the bartender, whilst biting at her lower lip. He was cute in an overly trendy way. Sloan just couldn’t get with the man-bun faze, but the dark haired man behind the bar seemed to be pulling it off.

Sloan wasn’t going to comment on it. If she did, Hallie would take that as her being ready to scope out guys. Sloan was here for food and two drinks.

“I gotta pee. You gotta pee?” Hallie’s eyebrows arched and she diverted her attention back to Sloan. She was already swinging her hips and while most people would think Hallie was dancing to the music, Sloan knew it as her ‘potty dance’.

“I’m good.”

“Order me a Washington apple. I’ll be back.”

Hallie disappeared into a sea of people, clutch firmly in hand, while Sloan located two spots at the bar. This seemed to be the least busy spot in the entire place, with main focus on the band. They were currently doing a cover of some Plain White T’s music, which Sloan was actually enjoying.

“What can I get you?” The hand of the bartender fell flat to the bar in front of her as he placed down a coaster.

“Am I able to eat at the bar?”

“Absolutely,” he nods and reaches for a menu.

“Oh, I don’t need it actually. I’ll take a dirty martini, three olives, a Washington apple, and an order of truffle fries.”

“You got it, honey.”

Honey? Eye roll.

Too bad Hallie wasn’t here to hear that one. She hates terms of endearment and that would have been a complete deal breaker for the hot bartender. She watched him concoct their drinks and push them forward in oddly shaped martini glasses. Sloan couldn’t even wait, she pulled the olives, bit them from their wooden skewer, and emptied her first drink as if it was water. She enjoyed the feeling of her head going a little loopy in that moment, remembering that there was a big difference between cheap boxed wine and actual liquor.

Impressively, the fries were delivered in less than ten minutes and multiple people felt the need to tell her that they were life changing before she could even look at them herself. A-plus for presentation, they were wrapped in an almost clear white paper and tucked into a brass mug so that they stood straight up. Sloan’s mouth salivated at the sight and then allowed her eyes to lap the room for any sign of Hallie. When she did spot bright blue, she knew she was on her own for the rest of the night, as Hallie’s hair was currently being twirled around the finger of a hunky blond up by the stage. Fast, but typical. Well, at least that meant she could dive into the fries.

Upon popping the first wedge into her mouth, her first thought was...they’re hot. After a few waves of her hand in front of her mouth to cool it down, the flavors began to explode. Crispy outside with a slight crunch, still tasting the soft potato in the center. The topping was delicious, and she was already listing the ingredients in her head. Truffle oil—obviously—parmesan, garlic...powder? She found that disappointing, preferring some type of salt in addition to the salty cheese. Knowing that this change would make these the bomb-dot-com, Sloan reached for the shaker to fix their mistake.

“Christ, what is it with you and sodium?” a strong hand gripped her wrist, stopping her from salting her treat. “I cannot imagine what your blood pressure is like.”

She knew that voice—a male’s voice—and when her barstool swiveled without her permission, it didn’t even surprise her. He seemed to be rude no matter where he was.

"You,” she rolled her eyes at the toothpick guy. The last time she had seen him, he was waving her off and stealing her Worcestershire.

“Me,” he grinned playfully and took the shaker from her hand, hitting it back down on the bar with a thud. “How was your soup? Did you use the soy sauce?”

“Yes,” Sloan huffed and reached again for the shaker. “Needed salt, like these fries!”

Swiftly, he moved the salt further from her reach. “I doubt that. Those fries are perfect as they are.”

“No, they should have used garlic salt.”

“It has parmesan.”

“So?”

“That’s a salty cheese...”

“I’m aware,” Sloan watched the man as he took the stool that she was reserving for Hallie. His plaid shirt was gone—thankfully—and was now replaced with slightly dressy all black attire. The sleeves of his black dress shirt were rolled to his elbows with an unbuttoned collar, making the look more causal. The stranger grinned when he caught her looking, making Sloan redden. She cleared her throat and reached for Hallie’s drink since hers was empty. “But they don’t need more cheese flavor, they need more salt. Thus, I would appreciate you forking over the shaker.”

“You don’t like me much, do you?”

“I don’t even know you!” Sloan held out her hand and waved with her fingers to bring the sodium forward. “I’d like you more if you allowed me to add salt to my fries that are getting cold!”

With a smirk, the glass shaker was picked up and placed into her hand.

“I’m not sure if I can sit here and watch this train wreck occur,” his head shook at the potatoes.

She wanted to remind him that he was never invited to sit with her in the first place, but instead she bit her tongue. Out of spite, she salted the fries a few extra times, enjoying the way he cringed with disgust, before popping one into her mouth. She over exaggerated the delightful moan, but they really did taste better.

“Try it,” she moved the brass cup to her right, placing it directly in front of her food critic. “Now they’re good.”

“How good?” He asked apprehensively before selecting a small one.

“Orgasmic.” The word left her mouth before she could stop it and she immediately regretted it.

Piercing blue eyes lifted to hers before his lips curled into another cocky smile, one that made her stomach twirl. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

As he bit into his fry, Sloan sipped Hallie’s cocktail, mentally asking herself why she was allowing this guy to get a rise out of her again. Her one night out and somehow she had already lost her best friend and ended up with toothpick guy, the asshole from the supermarket that she cursed for a week.

“Salty,” he proclaimed and clapped is hands together to prove his point. Salt fell from his fingertips and onto the bar-top. “No O-face for you.”

Sloan knocked back the rest of the drink and giggled, finding that more funny than she probably should. Maybe the wine from her dinner hadn’t completely worn off yet, but the small buzz really was feeling good.

This time, when she looked back to him, his attention was blatantly focused on her dress. The one she had forgotten was displaying much more skin than she was used to. Sloan tugged at the hem as if it would somehow make the dress longer and gave up when he began to chuckle.

“This is a different look for you.”

Well, obviously, the last time he had seen her she looked homeless. Cringeworthy, actually. There was messy hair, mismatched clothing and a terrible choice of shoes.

“I was having a rough day.” Understatement. “Are you a stalker or something? This is Chicago. Very rarely do you run into the same stranger twice and remember them.”

He seemed to find humor in this, allowing his broad shoulders to shake with laughter. Sloan couldn’t help but to enjoy the way he laughed deeply and allowed boyish dimples to appear.

“If I was going to stalk someone, I don’t think the crazy chick from the supermarket would be my first choice...”

“Ouch!” Sloan giggled. “You don’t know my level of crazy, sir. That would take at least three run-ins to gauge.”

“You marinate chicken for soup, crazy.”

Sloan shrugged, he had her there. It definitely was not the popular opinion for soup, but it was hers. If only he knew how crazy she truly was. Tonight, she only appeared slightly okay.

“Anyways, I didn’t actually know it was you until I got closer. Usually, when a girl is alone at a bar, she’s not eating. Typically, she’s taking shots and hitting the dance floor. You know,” he grinned, “on the prowl.”

“Oof,” Sloan peered over to Hallie, watching her do just that. “You have no idea how much I am not on the prowl. I’m not here to get a boyfriend.”

“No?”

The man waved the bartender and motioned between the two of them. Hipster-bartender nodded in return, appearing to know exactly what this guy typically orders. How often did he come here that he had a regular drink?

“Then why are you here all fancied up and by yourself?”

The thought of telling this guy that she was here to celebrate being accepted to culinary school suddenly felt laughable. He judged her on her grocery choice, what the heck would he think of her being a chef?

“Why are you?” she countered, accepting the fresh martini that was placed in front of her. “On the prowl for a girlfriend? Leaving the plaid behind to do shots and dance with some pretty girls?”

A White Russian appeared before the stranger beside her and he sipped from it and then set it down to twirl. Obviously shots where not his preference. “Nah, I don’t do relationships. And don’t criticize my plaid. I’m a country boy—I live in it.”

Sloan suddenly became very aware of an ache in her face as she laughed again, thinking there is no way this guy is country. How many times had that been tonight? The band was only a few songs in and her fries were likely now cold. Even her abs could feel the change. She pulled the olives, setting them on her napkin, and clutched her drink. She needed to not feel like shit for smiling; so, she knocked it back and emptied it. Hallie would be proud, that was number three.

“Hey!” The devil in blue herself appeared and clumsily wrapped her arms around Sloan’s shoulders. She smelled like apples. So, no doubt Hallie had begun her night as well. “I’m sorry I abandoned you when we are celebrating, but there’s this guy....”

Sloan didn’t even need to see Hallie’s face to know she was beaming. She had a terrible feeling that she had put her best friend in a rut this week by bringing TJ back into their lives. She knew Hallie needed her mind off of her ex and the guy standing by the door clearly was going to distract her for the night.

“He has a car and said he would drop you off at home first.”

Sloan peered to her empty glasses on the bar top and back to the man beside her who had already started his second drink. Somehow, she missed the bartender bringing them each another round. It felt like they had just gotten here and the night had only begun. The glance the guy gave her back mirrored her own little bit of disappointment. Buzzed, laughing and not wanting to leave—who was she right now?

“I uh,” Sloan pulled an olive free and popped it into her mouth, sucking on it before finally biting into it with a pop of its rubbery skin. “I think I’m going to hang out for a bit, before calling an Uber. Their martinis are good. You were right. I needed this.”

“Are you sure?”

Hallie now stood straight, eying the man beside Sloan. Her best friend was becoming protective for nothing, but she knew Hallie was about to make a scene of this.

“This is toothpick guy.” Sloan motioned to him with an eye roll.

“The asshole from the market?”

“Yep.”

“Wow. I’m right here,” he motioned to himself.

“Are you stalking her?” Hallie’s sass began as she tossed her long hair over her shoulder. “Are you going to murder her tonight? Because I will hunt your ass down, pal. I will make you wish I had murdered you.”

Sloan again was finding this hilarious, sinking into her stool while plucking another olive free.

“No need to hunt me down,” he chuckled, obviously enjoying the blonde’s feistiness and holding up his hands in surrender. “I live upstairs and typically I don’t take girls up there to murder them. Just to rapture them.”

Sloan’s eyes widened as she pulled her drink closer. No way was she going to look back at Hallie after that comment. It would just give her ideas.

“Oh? Do you intend to rapture my my best friend tonight?” Hallie giggled, waiting for Sloan to show any sign of weakness. Hallie and her both knew it wasn’t happening, but she loved to toy with Sloan.

He lifted his drink to his lips, slightly hiding his dimples, but Sloan could see a smile and this had her stomach flipping. His attractiveness combined with her buzz was not a good combination. Why did this make her feel like that answer was a yes? It’s not happening, but dirty thoughts were now popping into her head. Very dirty.

“Only if she begs for it.”

Oof.

His laugh remained playful while Sloan pulled her dress down once more. Thankfully, it was clear that he could see just how funny Hallie thought she was when drunk. Sloan couldn’t help but notice how his blue eyes sparked as he glanced back at her and then proceeded to finish his drink.

“May the odds be in your favor, toothpick guy.” Hallie opened her clutch and removed Sloan’s phone, ID and debit card to offer back. “I wouldn’t hold my breath with her.”

This made Sloan come undone, giggling to the point where tears were pooling in her eyes at that comment. Why was this so funny? Hallie really did know her well, no way did he have a chance. Right?

“See you at home!” Hallie kissed Sloan’s cheek before disappearing into the crowded bar.

“She’s...” he watched the blonde disappear.

"Something,” Sloan nodded and agreed. She tucked her items safely into the pocket of her dress.

And with that, it was Sloan who motioned to the bartender for the next round of drinks.

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