Salty

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8

S L O A N

The Chicago Culinary Institute first became a dream for Sloan when she had been out on a walk with Steve. They both had frozen yogurt in their hands as they strolled by—still friends at the time—and they stole spoonfuls of each other’s flavor before finally giving up and deciding to switch. Steve had pointed up to the massive building and recommended she apply simply for the fact that he absolutely loved her lemon cod picatta. That was back when Sloan still had some money saved and the idea seemed almost doable. Then so much happened and the dream seemed lost.

Her stomach was in knots as soon as she woke, uncertain if it was nerves or just being anxious to start the next chapter of her life. Moving on seemed too soon, but how long are you supposed to cage yourself into a room for before that step needs to happen? Months? Years? Would feeling whole again ever really be an option? Her heart was still broken and quite literally missing pieces that she knew were never going to be found again. Whole wasn’t even possible.

The alarm blared for the third time and this time, Sloan sent it flying to the floor. A breeze swept through the room, causing the curtains to fly upwards with a gust of wind, and the smell of maple syrup was distinctly coming from the hall. Hallie was cooking the one meal she knew how to make...waffles. Sloan knew she needed to force herself out of the bed and get the day started. Today was another step of moving on and she would conquer it...with the help of carbs.

She dressed casually, selecting her favorite pair of jeans and a vintage Cubs tee that had the bear logo on it. She had found it at TJ’s store for three dollars and couldn’t pass up the chance to buy some Chicago nostalgia. Not wanting to fuss about the day too much, Sloan twisted her hair back before securing it with a plastic clip, minus a few stray strands that always fell into her face. Her nerves finally began to settle after she applied some loose powder and some mascara. She looked human again and that was always half the battle with her depression. If she could dress herself that usually meant her day would go okay.

“The food is getting cold and you need to leave soon!” Hallie’s hand slapped the bathroom door as she whizzed by it.

Sloan heard the vacuum erupt to life in the room beside her. For the third time this week, Hallie was vacuuming. Sloan sighed, frowning and staring at the moving cord draped down their hallway. Hallie had been this way since TJ announced his engagement over a month ago. She doesn’t want to talk about it, so it’s like she has to clean everything she owns repeatedly to get it out of her head. Sloan just wished she could help her friend the way she’d been there for her.

The stack of waffles which sat on a plate in the center of the table looked like it could feed six people. There was also a plate of sausages and a glass of orange juice sitting beside it. The kitchen was absolutely spotless, no dishes were left in the sink, to remnants of ingredients were left behind. Sloan found herself poking at the waffle just to be sure that she hadn’t imagined her best friend out here cooking this morning.

“What are you doing?”

Sloan swung her body around to find Hallie standing with her hands on her hips, her brows heightened in question. She now had a feather duster in her grip. She used it to motion at the waffle Sloan and just poked when she didn’t get an immediate answer.

“Making sure you didn’t cheat and make Eggos. Where are all the dishes?”

“They are done and put away already.”

Hallie dragged a chair from the table and placed it beside the wall. Then she proceeded to use it as a step stool to run the feather dust across the top of the fridge. Sloan dropped to her own seat, pulling one of the many waffles to her plate to begin smothering it in butter and syrup. Every time she thought she was going to attempt to talk to Hallie about her quarter-life crisis, she thought better of it and stuffed her mouth with a piece of waffle to stop herself.

“You have to eat more than one!” Hallie didn’t even look at Sloan’s plate as she hopped down from the chair and moved it across the room. “First day! You need your energy.”

Sloan was already full and wanting to unbutton her jeans. These weren’t exactly the smallest waffles she had ever consumed. They were thick and fluffy. But, not wanting to argue with her friend, she stabbed another and put it on her plate. That left about seven more for them to eat for dinner tonight.

“Do you have laundry? I’m taking mine today.”

This was becoming too much. Sloan dropped her fork with a clank against the glass plate and took a long sip of orange juice. She wished she had spiked it first.

“You took laundry two days ago. We going to talk about this, Hal?”

“Talk about what?” Hallie shrugged her shoulders and crossed her arms, clearly becoming agitated at the mere mention of the change in her domestic demeanor.

“What’s with the cleaning? You hate cleaning. Even Pete is clean...” Sloan pointed at the pizza pizzaz that no longer had burnt cheese on its edges. “Is this really because TJ is engaged?”

Hallie’s gaze became intense before falling away from Sloan completely. She tossed the duster to the counter and leaned against it, biting at her lip. Sloan immediately regretted asking. She figured Hallie would get mad, but now she looked to be on the verge of tears again.

“She looks like a fucking soccer mom. They’re going to have a minivan and go to PTA meetings. She will probably be on the damn booster club!”

Sloan said nothing as Hallie’s head shook. She had only seen TJ’s girlfriend—fiancée—once and that was the night she caught him with her. She wasn’t sure how Hallie had now seen her, but she had a pretty good guess that she had created a Facebook or instagram account purely for stalking purposes.

“All because he couldn’t,” Hallie lifts her fingers to create air quotes, ”handle me”.

Sloan offered Hallie a sympathetic frown. Those were his parting words to Hallie when she confronted him with his cheating. Yes, Hallie could be a handful at times...okay, most of the time. She voiced her opinion regularly, enjoyed nights out partying, couldn’t hold a secret to save her life, and lacked a lot of domestic skills. But, she had an absolute heart of gold and TJ had already learned every quirk the girl had. When he told Hallie he couldn’t “handle her”, Sloan had a pretty good idea of why, but he shouldn’t have made her feel like a shitty person and blamed her for his infidelity.

“You can do better. TJ is a prick and this was his loss. You know he knows it too. You don’t need him and you don’t need to turn into something you’re not.”

Hallie smiled briefly, but it was so fake that even Sloan felt the pain behind it.

“I put extra purple highlighters in your bag with a copy of your schedule just in case you lose yours. Oh, and a snack. It’s sitting by the front door.” Hallie kissed Sloan’s hair before walking away from the spotless kitchen. “Have a good first day.”

Sloan took another waffle with her hand and bit right into it before standing from the table. Her book bag was exactly where Hallie said it would be, with a brown paper bag sitting on top of it that had a smiley face drawn on it.

An absolute heart of gold, Sloan thought again.

***

The halls of the Chicago Culinary Institute were a clean shade of white, paired with black and gray accent walls that had various black and white photos of foods and famous chefs. It was much more modern than Sloan had envisioned when peering in from the outside on so many occasions. There were seating areas with black leather chairs and couches, a high-tech library and learning lab, and lots of hidden nooks for studying.

This was such a different world than she was used to, but Sloan already had a surge of confidence just by stepping through the front door. She had made it this far and she was going to handle whatever they could throw at her. Compared to the year she was having, school was going to be cake.

With one hand, she adjusted her bag on her shoulder, using the opposite hand to hold the schedule she was given. Her first class was Knife Basics 101. She flipped over the schedule to view the map of the building, seeing that she was only a few doors away from the specified room number of L-106.

The halls were filled with students and many were piling around the very door she needed to go through. It appeared that many students were in their first year right along with her. Although, Sloan doubted that many of them were her age. She would have started this a few years ago if it hadn’t been for Steve.

Sloan joined the line that was slowly filtering into the room, already noting that she was lacking the same attire as everyone else. She was in a t-shirt and jeans, while everyone else was in a crisp, white chef jacket.

Fuck, she dropped her head back and groaned. This wasn’t exactly a good start.

Standing beside her was a girl who looked at least a smidge older than a fresh-out-of-high school student. She was clutching almost every single book they had been supplied with in her arms and was lacking a bag completely. Not even a purse? Sloan wanted to ask where the hell she hid her tampons and decided against it before tugging on the girl’s white jacket.

“May I ask where you got this?”

“The bookstore sells them,” the brunette motioned with her head down the hall. “I think they have them for like a hundred dollars, but I got mine off amazon for about sixty shipped.”

Sloan groaned again. ”Awesome.”

There was no way she could afford that at the moment. She had just purchased a train pass and that took a huge chunk of her budget. Plus, Hallie and she had to have internet installed so that she’d be able to turn in assignments. Sixty dollars was a lot of money right now.

“Maybe he won’t notice,” the girl offered with some sympathy. “I’ve heard he’s kind of a douche though. I’ve been dreading this class all week.”

This girl was not helping Sloan’s anxiety any. It’s the first day of class...would the instructor really get angry over not having a damn jacket? It’s the rest of the next two weeks that were going to be a problem. Sloan currently had three dollars in her checking account and was praying it didn’t bounce before she got paid in two weeks. Maybe she should have researched her teachers a little more before thinking today would be a breeze.

“Like, now douchey are we talking here?” Sloan waited a moment before asking. “What makes him so bad?”

“He makes people cry. Girls, guys...doesn’t matter. He’s set in his ways and if you don’t do something right, he’s an ass. Most people don’t make it to second semester.”

Both Sloan and the stranger gave each other a hesitant look before they entered the open classroom. So far, the bodies inside appeared to be all students. There was a large, high-tech kitchen in the front of the room, along with a cart that held an angled mirror. This seemed to hover above the instructor so students could view what they were doing with their hands. There were various stainless steel benches with matching stools where people were already flocking to the very back, attempting to get out of the instructors line of sight.

“We should get as far back as we can!”

The girl rushed to a table in the third of the four rows and dropped her books in claim of the bench. Then she looked up to Sloan over her horn-rimmed glasses and placed her hand on the other side the table to wait. Was she saving her a seat?

Jesus Christ, this does feel like high school, she laughed to herself.

Apparently, she had a new friend. Sloan hiked her bag up again before casually walking to her stool. The girl already had a pad of paper and a pen out for notes and Sloan hadn’t even dropped her bag yet.

“I’m Ava.”

“Sloan.” She took the hand that was held out to her and gave it a small shake.

She was in the process of asking Ava where she had attended school before this, but stopped when Ava’s eyes widened and the room fell silent around them.

“Holy shit,” Ava whispered, her cheeks tinting to pink. “No one mentioned how hot he was.”

“Who?” Sloan turned in her seat to the front of the room.

She gasped loudly, her entire body instinctively ached at the sight before her...a tall, muscular male with a husky voice and permanently messy short hair. No plaid today. He now wore the white jacket that Sloan was supposed to be wearing, one that she knew was hiding a lot of black tattoos beneath it. She sunk herself down in her seat immediately and shielded her eyes.

No-fucking-way was her luck this bad. Was it?

“I’m Chef Oliver,” the familiar voice boomed over the room with the sound of his bag hitting his desk.

Ollie.

Her luck was definitely that bad.

“This is Knife Skills 101. You will be here every day. You will arrive on time. I don’t allow for late homework and I don’t allow for make-up tests. You aren’t here for the test, you fail it. Questions?”

No one made a sound, which left Sloan imagining that there were a lot of people shaking their heads no. Ava may have turned an adorably shy-shade of pink, but Sloan was quite certain she was the color of a tomato.

He continued to speak as Sloan tried to keep out of his sight, keeping herself directly behind the person in front of her. Of course that girl had to be the shortest person ever. Sloan was short, but taller than her, and was now bending her back in the oddest way just to drop down an inch or so more. When that didn’t work she went back to leaning her elbows on the table and keeping her head down.

“Are you okay?” Ava whispered. “You look sick.”

There was a very strong possibility of being sick. Sloan’s one-night-stand was currently talking about how to turn in homework. She was absolutely panicked that she wasn’t going to make it out of this classroom without being seen. Maybe he doesn’t remember her? They were so drunk....

...and very sober when he remembered her at her bar. And the next morning...

“Is there another instructor for this course?” One I haven’t slept with...? she silently prayed.

“No. Everyone would be switching out if there were.”

“Right,” Sloan agreed, continuing to panic.

Everyone else did their goddamn homework when they got their class list. Sloan rummaged through her paperwork before pulling out just that. Chef Oliver Mulligan’s name appeared beside the course title. Her stomach sunk. Mulligan...as in Mulligan’s bar. The bar where he found her, cursed her for adding salt to his fries, and then went upstairs to his freakishly nice apartment—the one with the best kitchen she had ever seen—to be raptured. Oh, and then she stole his Worcestershire sauce.

Her face buried into her hands. Vomit was definitely about to happen.

“Am I boring you, miss?”

Sloan’s body froze at the harshness of his voice.

Please don’t be talking to me, please don’t be talking to me, please don’t be...

“You in the Cubs shirt?” he cut off her unneeded thoughts. He was definitely talking to her. “Need I remind you that paying attention in this class is necessary, as is proper attire? This is a considered a lab and you will wear a jacket in my class from now on.”

Sloan dropped her hands, straightening her arms across the table, before finally looking up. Wide sapphire blue eyes met hers and his mouth instantly parted, as if he was going to speak and couldn’t find words. His mouth snapped shut again. His throat cleared. Sloan could have sworn she was watching him break into an uncomfortable sweat that had him tugging at the collar of his jacket. He was definitely breathing fast, that’s for sure.

“I uh,” Ollie’s throat cleared again and he did a quick scan of the class. Was he looking for other girls he had taken up to his apartment? Or maybe he was just trying to gauge if anyone had caught that he and Sloan knew each other. “I uh,” he repeated awkwardly. “I wanted to talk to you all about your knives. I expect you to bring in a set by next Monday. I suggest that you buy a set that you plan to utilize throughout your career. Don’t skimp on this. I use the Michel Bras collection in my restaurant and highly recommend them.”

This day was getting worse by the minute. There was no chance she was going to be able to afford knives and the class uniform. She felt like her dream was slipping through her fingers and it was all happening in front of the guy she’d hoped to never seen again (much to her body’s dismay).

Chef Oliver continued to speak about the knives and what they would be covering for the next few months while Sloan refused to look up again. He didn’t seem to mind this time. She was pretty sure he didn’t want to look at her either. He discussed how they were to answer with strictly ‘Yes, chef’ or ‘No, chef’ when asked a question and how he is strict for their safety (which caused a lot of side glances between her classmates and a sigh from Ava). He seemed completely different than he did the night at the bar. This did not feel like the same guy who had her laughing until she cried. Now she just wanted to plain cry.

“I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

Sloan quickly looked around the room, seeing everyone already with their bags packed and scurrying off to their next class. She snatched her blank notes and pen, not bothering to pack them. She just wanted to get out of this room as fast as she possibly could. Ava, thankfully, had waited for her at the doorway. However, before she could get there, a strong hand snuck around her upper arm and held her back.

“She will join you in hospitality mathematics,” Ollie assured Ava as Sloan died a little inside. “Miss Smith, a word? I want to discuss the code of this class with you, since you ignored it.”

Sloan sighed and gave Ava a nod that told her she could go on without her. So much for sneaking out of this classroom. When Ava was out of sight, Ollie was dragging Sloan by the arm across the room to another door. He only stopped to grab his jacket off the back of his chair before they were standing outside in what appeared to be an alleyway behind the school. Sloan, not appreciating his rough hold, yanked her arm away from him.

Ollie began to pace, at first holding his hand to his mouth and making small glances in her direction. She thought about walking back inside and ignoring whatever he wanted to say, but she also didn’t want to piss him off anymore than she already had by just existing in his class today.

“So, you thought this would be funny?” his voice was even colder than it was before. He began sifting through the pockets of his jacket before he finally pulled out a small white box. “You saw my name on the class list, researched me, and then thought you would show up at my restaurant and sleep with your teacher?”

“Excuse me?” Sloan scoffed at his accusation. “I didn’t know your name was Oliver Mulligan until forty minutes ago! Need I remind you that YOU approached me?”

He inhaled a sharp breath, his eyebrows dropping in a sulk. He began tapping the box against his palm harshly before pulling a cigarette from it and lighting it with a zippo. He took a long drag of it and pushed a cloud of smoke out his mouth, instantly infuriating Sloan.

“A chef? You want to be a chef?”

Ouch.

Sloan’s eyes burned, partially from the smoke he was blowing around them but mostly from the insult she had just received. Ava was right about him being an asshole. She didn’t ask to be in his class and she sure as shit didn’t sign up to be judged by him before he had even seen her in a kitchen.

“This is just fucking great,” his eyes rolled heavily and he slapped his hands down to his legs. The cigarette stayed in the corner of his mouth. “Always the fucking crazy ones. I never learn.”

She wanted to hit him right across the face, but she opted for taking the cigarette from his lips and tossing it over his shoulder. It landed directly into a dirty, muddy, puddle from last night’s rain. His eyes widened, astonished at how blatantly she had just done that. He’s lucky she allowed him one puff of the fucking thing.

“Don’t worry. There’s no way in hell I would admit to sleeping with you. Your secret is safe. Your reputation proceeds you perfectly.”

Sloan stomped back to the door, swinging it open so hard that it hit the brick behind it.

“You will fail this entire program if I hear anything from someone else. I will deny it. That night never fucking happened, Sloan!”

Angry tears hit her lips before the door even shut behind her.

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