“What happened at the marina?” my dad annoyingly probes.
I cross my arms and restlessly shift my legs. “How many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”
Frustrated, I sigh and turn my head to look out the window. “Nothing happened. I got bored and left. The end.”
“You seemed upset.” I hate that he’s perceptive, or a lucky guesser. Not sure which one, but I hope it’s the latter.
With a testy laugh, I scoff, “Yeah. Upset I wasted my time there with Calder.”
“Because you have so many other pressing engagements to attend?” I’ve been awake for approximately thirteen minutes, and my dad is already on my fucking nerves. He must be seriously trailing behind in meeting his weekly nagging quota.
“If you absolutely need to know, I do have other things going on.” Sadly, I don’t. Every night we eat in uncomfortable silence, or even worse, endure his small talk. Jesus. If I have to hear any more about this week’s weather fronts, storm patterns, and record lows, I won’t be held responsible for blocking all his local stations, especially The Weather Channel. I’m bound to throw his remote controls onto the expressway during rush hour.
Of course, he continues, “I wasn’t the only one who wondered where you went last night. Dashiell wondered what happened to you.”
I frown at the window. “Maybe Dashiell needs to find a hobby or new friends.”
Dad chuckles as he turns onto Brenda’s street. “I don’t think he’d know what to do without you. You’ve been friends for so long.” He pulls alongside the curb, behind Lange’s blue pickup.
“Too long,” I grumble, getting out of the truck. Shutting the door and stepping back, I spot a certain black Subaru parked further up the street. Fuck. I was hoping he wouldn’t show up, instead choosing to sweep up sequins from a stage.
“Hey, Jericho! Mr. Beckett! Long time no see!” Speak of the Devil’s never-aging assistant. I turn to see him jogging to us from the side of the house.
“Not long enough,” I gripe.
My dad gives me a sharp look before heading up the walkway. “Good morning, Dashiell.” He squeezes Dash’s upper arm as they pass each other.
As I go to follow, Dash grabs my arm. “Hey. Will you please tell me what happened last night? We need to talk. It’s way past due.”
Moving my arm from his grasp, I sneer, “No, your onset of puberty is what’s long overdue.”
His smile disappears, and his forehead wrinkles. “Fuck, Jared. I’m not kidding,” he snaps, taking me aback somewhat. What the hell?
“Drop it,” I warn, forcing him momentarily to look away from me. I go to start walking, but he again grabs my arm, again with a shocking grip.
More determined, he says, “There’s so much shit you’re not telling me.”
“I’ve told you everything. Let go of my arm before I break all your fingers.” Damn. I doubt I could. He releases me, and I make my way to the build, knowing he’ll follow me.
“Stop fucking walking away!” I keep walking, which pisses him off. “There you go! When life gets too hard, Jared Beckett ditches.”
That strikes a major nerve. I’m not a victim, and I’m not as crazy as people think. I’ve dealt with my problems, but they’re never resolved—coming back to me like a boomerang, as is proven with Kat’s return.
I stop and turn around, glaring at him. “And what the fuck, pray tell, can you do? Get me a coupon for a private lap dance? No, thanks.”
He smiles through my hard stare, his blue eyes sparkling with unspoken threats of trouble. “I had dinner with Kat last night. I learned a lot.”
I endeavor to not show Dash he’s getting to me. He’ll only run with it. Executing a well-timed smile, I joke. “Great. I hope you learned how to stop wearing a diaper.”
Dash crosses his arms and heavily sighs, sadly shaking his head. “Deflection. Another great feature of Jared Beckett.”
Putting a hand on my hip and scrubbing the other under my hat, into my hair, I glance around for visible witnesses, contemplating if I should kill him here or bait him and do it elsewhere.
Deciding to deal with him later, I impart, “Fuck off,” as I turn to leave.
“We talked about you.”
With my back to him, I swallow hard but pledge that if I can’t hold down my breakfast, I’ll be giving it to Dash’s shirt.
“Don’t you want to know what she said?”
Reluctantly, I face him, careful to maintain eye contact to emphasize my point since looking away will only implicate me, making him instantly suspicious. “Nope.” That’s actually true. I don’t want to hear how much of a jerk she thinks I am. She’s one of the people who made me the jerk I am today.
“Well, would it interest you to know she’s a Gemini?”
I irritably roll my eyes. “Even less.”
Throwing his arms out to his sides, he gawks at me like I’m two cans short of a case. “Soulmate compatibility for an Aries!”
Pushing up on the bill of my ball cap, I affectedly widen my eyes. “Hot damn! I’m all over that shit!”
Dash grumbles something under his breath before looking back at me. “Can’t you take this seriously and believe some of what I tell you?”
“I do believe some of it because clearly, I have a charming knack for inviting obnoxious Libras into my life.”
“I’m a Pisces.”
He scratches his hairless face while glancing over at the construction and then to me. “Why didn’t you tell me about Kat?”
Crossing my arms, I divert my attention to cars driving past. I monstrously fail at sounding indifferent. “Why didn’t you?”
“We became friends in college. I had heard of her in high school, but I didn’t know her like you apparently did. I didn’t even know she had been your driver’s ed. partner.”
I shrug as I intently look at anything but him. “She was just a girl in my class.”
“What about Rio? Did you tell him?” Before I can answer with a fuck no, he says, “I remember how different you used to be. For a while in high school, you were almost content, like you had something to look forward to. Then the next thing I knew, you crawled inside yourself and never came out.” I refuse to talk about that, especially here.
I flatly reply, “And this is why I don’t tell Duquesne anything, either. You both try to psychoanalyze me.” Pulling my cap back down and making another attempt at getting to work, I start walking to the site, and as expected, Dash trails behind me.
“I think I need to call him.”
Stopping, I pivot to see him pulling out his phone from his pocket. Glaring at him, I clench my teeth. “I told you. There’s nothing to tell.”
Cocking his head, he asks, “Really?” but the disbelieving tone in his voice borders on getting him a knuckle sandwich express-delivered to his face. Dash shrugs and looks around us, oddly conceding, “Okay.”
I let out a slow breath and turn to walk up the ramp to the front entry, dreading this day and mentally counting how many beers I’ll drink tonight before passing out.
As I take a step onto the plywood, Dash says, “By the way, her lips tasted better than dessert.”
Lightning fast and before I register what I’m doing, I spin around and grab him by his white T-shirt, jerking him to me. “I will fucking throttle you.”
He laughs and points at my chest. “Ha! I knew it! She was the one you were so fucked-up over in high school!”
“Shut your fucking mouth, Calder. You don’t know shit.” I give him a light shove and release his shirt. Saying nothing further, I twist my hat around before walking away, yet again.
“Jesus Christ, Jericho. That’s it, isn’t it? Why didn’t you tell me? I’m your best friend, and you never said a word about her.”
“Like I’m not now.”
Undeterred, he follows me into the foyer. “Rio’s right. You’re like a damn robot. You compartmentalize all your emotions away, so you don’t have to feel anything. We know you’ve been hurt and don’t trust people. We want to help.” Trying to seem uninterested, I peer down the hallway and then into the living room area. “You’re absolutely clueless. I know how you really felt about her.”
Stomping up the stairs to escape him and to find Lange or Tony, I reply, “Yeah. It’s the same feeling of contempt I have for you.”
He mercilessly follows, reminding me of the gray mouse that followed his uncle Jerry around in the cartoons. “Nope. I know. I’ll keep it to myself for now, but I plan on playing that card soon if you force me.”
When I reach the landing, I stop and incredulously regard him. “Is that a threat?”
“Not a threat. It’s a straight-up promise.” Dash’s determination would be honorable if he weren’t fucking with my life.
Gripping the temporary railing, I argue, “Sticks, stones, and idle threats, Calder. I already know what you’ll say, and it’s totally false.” Roy passes us on the stairs, giving us cordial smiles, which Dash customarily overdoes his.
From three steps below me, Dash seamlessly resumes, “Oh, yeah. Because you think you’re above it.”
“It’s all bullshit. That ship sunk before it even left the harbor.”
“Because you loaded it with gunpowder.”
“Is everything okay?” my dad asks, coming down the stairs.
“Dash thinks he’s a know-it-all.”
“I just know you.”
“I doubt that.” I take a step down, but my dad meets us in the middle, sticking his arm out, blocking me from getting closer.
Dash grumbles, “Typical Aries.”
“What now?” I snap.
“You didn’t even pay attention to her feelings then. Even now, you’re not!”
“I didn’t know it was her!” As I raise my voice, Dad’s hand pushes my chest, holding me back as I try to lean toward Dash. “She looks different!”
Dash swiftly shakes his head. “Not that different.”
“Leave it alone, Calder! It’s none of your business!”
He ignores me, as everyone else regularly does. “You have another chance! Don’t lose her a second time!”
My dad’s mouth becomes a gaping hole before he eagerly asks, “Lose who?”
Glaring at Dash, I cuttingly answer, “Nobody.” If Dash blabs to my dad, I’ll never speak to him again. And to be honest, I’d miss the motherfucker, but he would forever break my trust.
Dash bitingly laughs. “Go ahead, Jericho. You’re halfway there to losing her all over again.”
“I guess that would be equal to you losing your virginity yesterday. What’s that in Dash years? Fifteen?”
My dad steps in between us. “Okay, guys. Jared, get to work. Dashiell, you’re with me.”
“Unbelievable,” I say as Dad puts his arm around Dash, dragging him down the stairs and out the front door.
First Rio. Now Dash. What the fuck did I do to deserve this shit?
With the threat of Dash briefly contained, I go downstairs and head back outside. When I find Lange, I’m all work, glad to be buried in the remainder of our siding installation. I just want to forget everything around me and finish this job so I can enjoy the rest of my vacation—alone. If there will be any vacation left. Why didn’t I just move into a hotel room? Even living with my grandparents most likely would’ve been a better option.
Breaking for lunch, I need to go somewhere to avoid Dash and Kat. Walking around the house, I see my dad talking to Mark, and he tells me, “Hey, bud. Dash and Kat just left for lunch.”
Mark asks, “They didn’t ask you to go?”
I uncaringly answer, “No.”
Dad says, “Well, maybe you both should cool off.”
“Dash started it.”
As my dad dubiously frowns at me, Mark says, “Your dad and I are heading out to lunch. Want to join us?”
“No, thanks.” I turn to my dad. “You taking your truck?”
Mark answers, “I’m driving.”
Holding out my hand, I ask Dad, “Can I have your truck keys?”
He narrows his eyes like he’s trying to figure out my motive. “You’re not stealing it, are you?”
“Yeah, because you’d never find me,” I deadpan. He continues to ogle me, and I roll my eyes. “I just want to listen to the radio, but if I move it so I can sit in the shade, don’t call the cops.”
He reaches into his pocket. “Ok. Just remember, I know where you live.”
“Ha. Got it.” Kill me now.
I take the keys, and before he asks any more questions or makes stupid comments, I head to the street. As I pull away from the curb, mentally negotiating whether I really could leave and not come back today, I round Brenda’s corner lot and park underneath a tree.
Why is Dash hanging around Kat? Suddenly, they’re joined at the hip? As I blankly stare at a white brick house across the street, thinking about all the positions they could be joined that way, I twist the gray leather steering wheel grip, causing it to squeak in screeching, intermittent bursts.
Why should it even bother me if they date? It shouldn’t bother me in the least.
Yet, it does.
Hearing a familiar purr approaching from behind, I look over my shoulder to see Dash’s car pull up along the curb in front of the house. Kat gets out and waits for him before they go up the walkway. Kat giggles and says something to him as they move out of view. Were they laughing at me like they probably did their entire lunch?
For the rest of the day, I miraculously avoid Dash and Kat, but that nowhere near settles me.
On the way home, Dad asks, “What really happened between you and Dashiell today?”
I edgily sigh and lean my head against the headrest, closing my eyes. “This again?” I really need to drive my car every morning. I don’t care if I have to park the next street over.
“You’re not very convincing, trying to convince me something didn’t happen. There’s a huge chunk of the story I’m missing.”
“Then maybe you should get a refund.”
I try another smartass answer. “Dash said he was a human being. I disputed that.”
Dad heaves a sharp sigh, and frustration oozes in his gruff voice. “Does this have anything to do with last night at the marina?”
I open my eyes and pull my head away from the seat. “What did Dash tell you?” It better be zilch.
“Not much. He said you won’t talk to Rio or him about it.”
As we coast to a stop at a red light, I remove my hat and offhandedly comb my hand through my hair while I observe four dogs walking a man. “Nothing is wrong. Should I hire a plane to write it in the sky? You work for Boeing. Make it happen.”
We’re quiet for about ten seconds until he can’t help saying, “You can talk to me.”
I grip the rubberlike door handle, making my knuckles throb. “Why does everyone say that? I just don’t talk about my feelings like you all say I should. Everyone is watching way too many soap operas.”
He continues as if I didn’t say a goddamn word. “Jared, I know you carry a lot of baggage over your mother.”
I whip my head to glare at him. “My mother? What does she have to do with anything? I don’t credit a damn thing to her, and I have no need to bring her up in my daily life. She left. End of story. She’s moved on, and so have I.” When he looks at me, I automatically look the other way.
“Have you? You don’t trust anyone. Even your friends are having a tough time getting you to open up.”
“My friends? If they were my friends, they wouldn’t be talking shit about me.”
“That’s not the case. Dashiell is worried about you.”
“Yeah, because I’m the one who has all the baggage. The son of an ex-stripper-turned-floral-lesbian and a strip club owner/poster boy for Gamblers’ Anonymous really has only my problems to focus on?”
“He thinks of you as his brother.”
“Don’t give me that sentimental bullshit. I have a sister, and she doesn’t even think of me as a brother.”
“That’s not true.” Turning my head, I roll my eyes at the window and perfectly mouth his words I know are coming next, “Hadley loves you.”
“Why don’t you ask her about her mommy issues?”
“We’ve talked about them. She doesn’t hide things like you do.” Golden Sis strikes again. Can’t wait for tomorrow. “She’ll be here tomorrow evening, so—”
Bouncing my head side to side to this all-too-familiar tune of his, I finish his sermon, “I know. Play nice.” A sudden, inspiring idea comes to me, and I abruptly laugh. “Maybe I’ll take her out and get her plastered. Some real brother/sister bonding time.”
“Sounds great,” he replies to the car ahead of us. “She’ll have Finn with her, so I don’t know what they’ll want to do.”
“Well, I’m sure she can loosen his leash long enough for him to have a beer or three with me.”
“She won’t have a problem with her boyfriend hanging out with her brother.”
I lazily shrug. “I guess we’ll find out.”
“If you do need a ride home, call me.”
“Hadley could probably snag us a taxi if she wears a short enough skirt.”
“My daughter will not be resorting to doing that to get a ride. Just call me.”
“I doubt Finn would let anyone else ride her anyway unless he’s into that sort of thing.” I bite my impending smile.
“Jared Adam,” Dad admonishes, and I widely grin at the windshield with prevailed satisfaction.
Friday morning, I found Tony before Dash had the opportunity to ruin my day. Knowing Tony’s working on shingles, I had grabbed a spare tank top and sprayed my arms with sunscreen, so I’m not at my dad’s mercy for an aloe rubdown tonight. That’s enough to scar me for the rest of my life.
Being high above everything and everyone, even in the extreme heat, is absurdly refreshing. Up here, I’m not always looking over my shoulder or bracing myself for some kind of intervention. I almost expect cameras to appear for one of those TV episodes, on top of the roof’s pitch, with my dad and Dash heading up the pointless confrontation. Fuckers.
Against my better judgment, I do look to the ground below for the whereabouts of Dash and Kat, but don’t see them. Dash’s car is parked at the curb, so I know that dickwad is around somewhere.
By lunch, I’m soaked from the morning humidity. Sweat drips from my hair, my eyelashes, the tip of my nose, and has drenched my gray tank top. Yet, I don’t want to stop but know I have to take a break, or Tony won’t let me back up here.
Upon climbing down the ladder, I go right to my dad’s black truck, roughly running my hands through my damp hair on the way there. Finding a towel in the back seat, I somewhat dry off my face and hair before flinging the towel back into the truck. I then peel off my wet shirt. As I twist to toss it into the back seat, something catches my eye, and I look to see Kat turning away, speed walking into the construction. How long was she watching me? And why? After Wednesday night at the races, I’ve been keeping my distance and have done nothing to encourage her.
Mechanically grabbing my white, spare tank top, I tug it on, still guardedly watching the front entryway for any more incidents of her watching me.
I shut the truck door and head to the water cooler, reflexively nodding at Brenda as she walks by. As I take a drink while continuing to watch movements around me, I regret I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. “Hey, Santa. How’d you like it up on the housetop?”
I garbled into my cup, “It’s far away from you. Day made.”
Dash laughs. “You want to do lunch with me?”
Swallowing, I shake my head and have yet to turn around. “No, thanks.”
“Come on, Jared. I’m sorry about yesterday. I won’t make you mad.”
I set my cup down and check my watch. “Not hungry.”
“You have to eat. You’ve been up there in this heat for hours.”
“I’ll eat. I brought my lunch.” Still not hungry.
He sighs. “Do you have plans tomorrow?”
Facing him and crossing my arms, I say, “I thought about taking my sister out for drinks.” I wait for his enthusiastic reaction, knowing he won’t turn down a chance to hang out with Hadley, but purposely leaving out that her boyfriend will be with us.
While holding his red sucker in midair, his face lights up like a Times Square billboard.
“You in or what?”
“Is that a joke? What about Rio?”
I shrug. “If he’s not handcuffed to a bedpost and his governess is busy, why not? We going to Shooters?”
Shoving the sucker into his mouth and yanking his phone from his back pocket, he shakes his head at it and says a jumbled, “No. There’s a new place near South Gate I want to try.”
I’m instantly suspicious. “It’s not a kooky place that worships the zodiac, is it? And take that fucking thing out of your mouth before answering me.”
Pausing, Dash pulls the stick out of his mouth as he lifts his gaze. “I wouldn’t take you to a place like that.” He looks back down to his phone and shrugs. “I guess that leaves out the fortune-telling bar?”
“Your loss.” He grins at his phone, knowing he’s annoying me.
I roll my eyes. “I’ll even stay sober the whole night, so you can drink all you want.” I cannot be drunk around my sister. In that weak state, she could get me to say something I wouldn’t normally tell her.
Dash resumes tapping on his phone with one hand. “I’ll talk to Rio to see what he’s doing. Can you swing by and pick me up? I’ll just knock out on your couch.”
“Okay. Though, do me a favor and leave your astrological chart hanging on your wall.”
Glancing up at me, Dash bounces his blond hair as he scoffs, “Jericho, that’s old school. It’s an app on my phone.” He smiles as he returns the sucker to his mouth.
Christ. On second thought, I just might need to get drunk.
Dad and I left the site early because he was in a fucking hurry to get home, not wanting to be late for Hadley’s grand entrance.
We were definitely on opposite ends of the enthusiasm scale. In the time it took me to yank my shoes off, he had already taken a two-minute shower, and then immediately started making Hadley’s favorite lasagna for dinner. It’s kind of funny that she gets her favorite dinner just for staying a couple of days. I’m staying here for two goddamn months, and I get jack shit.
Avoiding the kitchen and his barf-worthy zeal, I go to my room, grab a change of clothes, and head to the bathroom across the hall. As I let the hot water spray against my back, I lean against the white tile and rest my head on my arm, thinking about the fucking predicament that is reverting me into becoming a victim of an injudicious female once more.
Why can I not stop thinking about Kat? No matter how much I needed Kat to tell me I was the one for her. But it never happened. In the end, she showed me just how much she didn’t want me. Now, here I am, years later, she’s back to finish demolishing me.
But I won’t fucking let her.
As her face fills my head, the familiar ache inevitably beckons me to respond. Reaching down, I seize it and desperately try to expel her from my mind as I’ve done since high school. Yet, no amount of insistent tugging can erase the pain, the sorrow, the emptiness, and the loneliness will always loom. As everyone else has moved on, I’m stuck in my own past, reliving every excruciating detail I want to forget.
Through my low grunting and final, quiet gasp, I achieve a minor wave of relief as I spurt the same, relentless desolation onto the shower wall, which negates any reprieve I just experienced.
It’s a fucking vicious cycle.