Breath of Fresh Air

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Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten -

My mother eyes me from her place at the table. The shabby mirror on the wall helps me dust off the lint from my jacket. I can feel her stare on my skin. It begins to slowly unnerve me. I’m already itching for a cigarette. Yet, I promised myself the moment I got home last night after dropping off Brooke, that I wouldn’t smoke during our date. If I needed a smoke bad enough, I’d have to leave the table and the thought of leaving her alone on a date made my anger rise.

“Can I help you?” I ask her as I turn around, giving her a pointed stare.

I notice the slight blush in her cheeks as she picks up the burning cigarette in the ashtray. “Got a hot date or something?”

I roll my eyes, returning to the mirror. “Though I’ve never quite seen you this anxious before. You were dating that, Ali girl for a while. You were never like this on a date with her.”

I sigh, stepping away from the mirror. I might be able to fool a lot of other people, but I can never fool my mother. After talking with Brooke last night, I began to remember all those times that I saw her passed out on the floor. Her addiction to pills has made me worry about her. Brooke’s mother chose to die but if my mother takes too many pills at once, she could die without even choosing it. I know, though, if that were to happen everyone would think it was a suicide as well.

“This girl is different,” I murmur as I sit backward in the chair across from her.

“Is this girl from high school? The one that got hurt with that video thing?” Mom asks, eyebrows rising.

I stare at her in disbelief. “You know about that?”

She makes a sarcastic chuckle in the back of her throat before rolling her eyes. “When you left, I knew there was a reason.” She sighs, pausing to shake off the ashes from her cigarette. “For a while there I thought you had finally gotten sick of taken care of me. Then, I started hearing the rumors from the high school when the new year started. Found out you were one of the kids that made this video prank against a freshman. Made her a laughing stock and it continued into the next year. People talk around this Poe dunk town, even you wish they’d keep their traps shut.”

I look down at my hands before nodding. “Her name is Brooke.” I look up at her, biting my bottom lip. “I think I had feelings for her back then, but it was complicated.”

“I bet,” she says, pausing once more but this time to cough. It’s not really a cough, more of a hack. She continues hacking, beating on her chest before collapsing against her chair. “Just as long as you’re happy. That’s all that’s ever mattered to me.”

“I told her about dad,” I confess, tracing the awkward gray pattern over the tiny table. “She told me about her mom’s suicide.”

“Oh,” mom’s voice is surprised. When I look up, her eyes are wide as she stares at me. “You mean, Jeff Baker’s daughter, Brooke. That’s the girl?”

I nod, my face flushing. Of course mom knows who he is. Jeff was on the police force when dad was arrested. She probably met him once and with my continued presence with law enforcement, it’s practically a given.

“Wow,” her lips curve into a smirk as she puts out the cigarette. “That’s a nice girl. Finally, you find a girl that I can accept. Never liked that Ali girl to begin with.”

The tiny smirk on her lips reminds me of better times. Those times before she got hurt, before the three jobs she had to have to take care of us. I barely remember those moments, but they return just barely at the sight of her smirk.

“I know I wasn’t fair to you when I left.” I huff staring into her eyes. “I’m sorry about that, mom. Hope you know I love you.”

She rolls her eyes, reaching over to pat my hand. “I’ve always known that. You left for yourself, I understood that. You had to get away, to be a better person. At times I see a trace of your old self, but since you’ve been back, I like this version better. Stronger head on your shoulders, you know what you want out of life. Before you left, you were wandering from place to place, never finding yourself. Seems you might have found yourself on your journey away.”

Too bad it took getting arrested and running from bad people to find myself. Guess that’s what happens. I give her a tight smile, suddenly worried. Being here as long as I have, it’s a miracle they haven’t caught me yet. Guess I’m just biding my time. I wonder what Brooke would think if she knew that I was spending, potentially, my last days of freedom, or even my lfie, to spend with her. From the moment I met her, it was like my future was scrawled in her eyes.

“Guess, I ought to get going.” I push up from the table, walking around to press a kiss to mom’s cheek.

“Don’t stay out too long, young man.” I look at her to see the gleam in her eyes. I roll her eyes, sharing in the laugh she makes. Even just talking about Brooke seems to repair the damage of my relationship with my mother. “Oh, before you go, still no idea about the hang ups. There was another one today while you went to the store. You’ve been in such a hurry most of the day, I didn’t get to say anything.”

I pause, dread trying to creep in. Just a bit of worry seizes my chest. Could they have found my mother’s home number? If it were the police, they’d show and most certainly wouldn’t call just to hang up.

“I’m sure it’s nothing. Probably a prank caller. Shouldn’t be a big deal.” Even as the words come out of my mouth, I don’t believe them.

“Okay. Though I’m telling you, if they continue, I’ll have to unplug the phone or call the cops one. Everyone knows how much I hate prank callers.”

“Sure thing, ma. Gotta go. I’ll see you, if not tonight, in the morning.” She grabs the side of my face, staring into my eyes. She doesn’t say a word, just presses a kiss to my cheek. Thankfully mom isn’t the kind to wear much makeup or sometimes none at all so there isn’t a stain on my cheek. After one last fleeting look, I leave the house.

~*~

On the drive to Brooke’s, the hang up calls follow me. I check the rearview more times than I’d like to count, along with the side mirrors. There’s a tinkling up the back of my neck that I’m followed. I shake it off. One car, that I think is following me, turns off at the next light. Another car after that does the same. I’m becoming paranoid the longer this takes. I never expected Brooke to go out on a date, but she’s giving me a chance. I can’t have my old employers suddenly showing up when she’s with me. That was never my plan, to get her involved. I can only hope that she never sees that side of my life. Never has to deal with living on the run from these people.

Just the idea makes me squeeze the steering wheel. My heart slams against my chest during the rest of the ride. It isn’t until I pull into the driveway. I put the truck in park and notice the dim light shining in a window. The curtain shakes for a moment and I know Brooke has seen me pull up. One look in the rearview, I pick at my teeth before taking a deep breath.

Man up, repeats in my hand over and over again.

Stepping out of the truck, the entire neighborhood is quiet except for the barking dogs at the end of the street. I even hear a couple cars come down the street as my legs carry me to the front door. My hands begin to shake as I ring the doorbell twice. Rocking back on my heels, I try to steady my racing heart. I can hear movement inside the house as lights go out through the windows. The last thing I want Brooke to know is the effect she has on me. I can only imagine how she’ll use it against me.

The moment the front door opens, I’m in no way prepared for the sight before me. Brooke stands in front of me with a bashful smile but her chosen outfit has me swallowing a wave of desire. She’s in a black shirt that shows off her shoulders. A cami as I remember something similar on a girl I slept with a bar. She told me what the shirt was between kisses in the back bathroom. The khaki skirt is short, resting above her knees. The sandals on her feet make her legs appear longer as she stands a bit taller on the wedge.

“Wow,” I breathe as our eyes meet. She must hear the word on my lips because her face is on fire as she looks down. Her fingers tug at the bottom of the skirt a bit. “You look beautiful,” I continue, hoping she won’t be as self conscious. I can tell these aren’t her usual comfortable clothes.

“Th-Thanks.” The stutter on her lips makes me fall for her even more. “Tameka helped me pick out my clothes. Probably want to thank her.”

“She’s not the one standing in front of me. You are. Tameka already knows I owe her a lot, she just wants to add to it.”

Brooke laughs as she steps out, pulling the door close behind her. “That’s Tameka alright. She never forgets her dues. Plus, she’ll never let you live it down.”

“Oh, great,” I mutter sarcastically. Brooke looks at me once the door is locked and I hold my hands. A grin on my lips. “Just kidding. Tameka and I had a long talk. I assume you already know.”

Her lips twist as she nods. “Tameka told me last you guys talked, but she’s pretty mum about the whole thing. Considering how much of a gossip queen she’s become, that’s a real miracle.”

I chuckle, offer my hand. Brooke stares at it for a moment. She seems to take a breath before gently placing her hand in mine. Holding her hand, I lead her to the passenger of the truck. Since I know she isn’t a fan of heels, Tameka’s advice, I help her into the truck. When she reaches for the seat belt, I can see a bit of hesitance in her movements. My lips curve up as I reach around her, noticing her tiny smile before hooking her in.

“Nice and tight,” I whisper to her. She licks her lips tentatively staring into my eyes. My hand gets a mind its own, lifting toward her face. “I’m not playing you, Brooke. You really are beautiful.” There it is, what Tameka told me. She still doesn’t believe me about her beauty. It amazes me. Brooke is the quiet kind of beauty that isn’t flashy that just sneaks up on you. The kind that if she were to let her hair down and dress up, like she is now, she’d cause a traffic jam.

She flushes, adverting her gaze. I laugh a little bit, dropping my hand. Stepping back, I close the door making sure it’s tight since that door likes to come loose occasionally. Once I climb inside, I start the truck and pull on my own seat belt while Brooke changes the dials on the radio.

“I love that you feel comfortable enough to change the radio.” The smirk is wide on my face as she freezes. She looks at me, eyes wide as she pulls her hand back.

“I’m so sorry,” she says quiet, resting her hands in her lap. “Don’t know what came over me.”

I reach over to her hands instead of leaving the driveway. “Brooke, I said I was glad. You’re comfortable here. I can understand after last night, the things we said to each other in this truck. Only you get permission to mess with my truck. Considering it an honor, not many people can say the same.” I give her a genuine smile this time instead of a smirk.

She squeezes my hand back. “I actually liked the channel you were listening to last night. The classic rock.”

I bring her hands back to the dial. “Find it for yourself.”

She bites her lip before grinning. I think she’s surprised to find herself here, next to me in my truck. Yet, I’ve imagined her with me here more than once. It’s a dream come true for me. All those days I had off or the days when I was driving for another town, I’d imagine her in the passenger seat, feet hanging out the window and seeing to the music from the radio. All the times I imagined it in my head, not once did I actually believe it would happen.

Suddenly “Sister Christian” begins to play through the speakers. Brooke immediately turns up the volume grinning over at me. It amazes how she doesn’t even have to say a word for my heart to go into overdrive. She begins to sing the first verse as I shake my head, change gears, and leave her house.

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