The phone took a minute to power on. I had only been using it once a week on my night off and only to check that there wasn’t anything pressing or an emergency hadn’t happened at home. At most, the only emergency that had happened so far was that my mother’s roses were not going to survive the winter and she was devastated. But I had waited however and continued my ‘write-in’ once every two weeks, commenting on how I was okay, everything was fine, I’ll see you in April.
The screen lit up, the battery showing down to 20%. Not too bad for two months. I shifted my weight on Linda’s plush couch, listening to her in the bathroom doing her ‘finishing touches’ before we left the apartment for the night out, and watched the screen as messages from Jenny came through, fast and flurried.
You got A LOT of texts this week from the ex. Here are the highlights. I think the jig may be up in Foxwood.
I frowned at Jenny’s message. Shit. Rob? He wasn’t supposed to be back on his Ranch for another month. His attorney had been the best but his sentence had included that he do community service exclusively in the city, where he would be most needed. I opened the message with hesitation like I was about to open Pandora’s box. Simply looking at this was probably not good, but Jenny had sent it for a reason.
Magness! I finished up my stint early (good behavior, if you can believe it), and they gave me back my cells. Ready to party and get this shit out of our systems? (I mean fuck it out).
Babe, what the fuck? Your dad says you’re not home, like have left-the-state not home. Where r u?
Carter, this isn’t fucking funny. I need help, serious help. Pick up your goddamn phone or else.
I took a deep exhale. That wasn’t too bad, I knew Rob could have a temper on him when things didn’t go his way but as long as he didn’t know where I was, I was okay. I turned off the phone and threw it in my duffel I had brought off the boat earlier. Bundling my hair in my hands, I gripped it tight. What a week. One week of acting ‘normal’.
Walking about with a fake smile plastered onto my face, greeting new guests, acting like Jackson meant nothing to me, wasn’t as hard as I thought it was. I had been doing a lot of acting in the months prior, so I strode into it like a pro. It was the anxiety that was new. The looking over my shoulder every time we made port to pick up new guests. Going into town for lunch, not meeting Hot-Cop Joe’s eyes when I saw him on the break. It was wearing on me.
I wasn’t even safe in the sea. When we pulled into a cove, I tried to recognize every other boat, any new ones were studiously watched for anything strange. People had gone missing, so it made sense that people would come searching.
Linda came out of the bathroom in her one-bedroom apartment, looking like she was ready for a night out on the town, and my eyebrows raised in surprise. She had said ‘out for dinner’, but this was far more than that in an LBD but with a chic gold belt and gold sandals. She had even had done her hairspray.
“Uh, I take it we are not going to Bob’s diner tonight?” I asked and looked down at the one dress I had bought with me, a sweet little white Calvin Kline mid-thigh floral dress. It didn't say ‘night-out’ but with a fitted bodice, eyelet hems, and wide shoulder straps it was nice enough for dinner with a friend. I stood up and circled her as she arranged her purse.
“Should I scavenge your closet for something else? I mean...wow.” I exclaimed and gestured to the dress which screamed sex.
She gave me a chastising look at first, “Carter, with this on me and that on you, we are about even now. You could literally wear a mumu and still be just as sexy, let’s not even talk about how you’re only wearing lipgloss.” She then smiled and gave a little hip wiggle, “Plus, we may be seeing Joe later, and you will probably have the apartment to yourself, now that his sister went back home.”
I gave her a knowing look and smile despite my heart jumping at the idea of being in the same room with a cop. I knew this one fact about myself for sure, I was a terrible liar. Every time I had spotted Linda’s new guy, my pulse started to race, and sweat beaded on my neck. After a tempered smile at her mention of Joe, I looked around the apartment, signaling if she was ready to go.
She took the hint and shouldered her purse. “Ready to G.O., Malibu,” she nodded, and together we left her apartment and made our way onto the tourists-filled strip.
The glow of sunset had started to make its way across the sky and the beach came into view. I took a deep breath, trying to fill my body with the unique scent as if it could wash the last week away. It didn’t. Linda’s phone pinged in her purse as we continued down the street and she took it out to briefly smile at it, tucking it away again.
“So, boyfriend Joe, huh? Still tongue-tying?” I asked with a wide grin at the phone as she returned and with an added laugh.
“Well, he certainly has a way with tongues.”
“Ewwww, but also, tell me more, I live vicariously through you now, the ‘land’ people.” I laughed, weaving myself around a pair of oncoming tourists. Instead of joining in my joke, she pursed her lips and squinted her eyes in thought at me.
I turned to look at her as we walked. “What does that mean?”
Her lips tilted up at the sides like she had a secret and wanted to hold onto it. “Nothing, just, the last week or so, I’ve noticed a difference between you and our boss. Maybe not… you know. But certainly not angry daggers every time he looks at you.”
I sighed, adjusting my purse as I looked over to the sea, a dark purple now on the horizon, the stars starting to make an appearance above. She was right, something had changed between Jackson and me in the last week. We had killed a pair of men, then covered it up, delivered their drugs, taken money for it, then acted like nothing happened.
Jackson had lost the antagonism but I sensed it was because, like myself, he was too preoccupied looking on the horizon for a boat to finally show up and arrest us. But even without the usual friction, my eyes still wandered down his body of their own volition and I was 100% sure he was doing the same. I couldn’t even look in Cabin 2 anymore without blushing and my breath start to get heavy.
We might be trying to act naive and innocent and as a result, didn’t have time to be angry at each other anymore, but I still had time to think about what those fingers could do. What that tongue felt like licking my skin. How that green-eyed stare curled my insides up til they clenched tight. No, some things were still the same.
Linda, still glancing aside at me as we walked, started to widen that grin, guessing that she had the right of it. I shook my head at her, “No, we just dealt with some difficult passengers together this week, that’s all. Comradery through shared hatred of guests. That’s all.”
Linda kept the smirk as we walked further into the tourist section, a lull in conversation as we listened to the sounds of the small town nightlife start to surround us. After a minute, there was a break in the crowd, and Linda casually commented,
“So, it’s your birthday today, huh?”
I stopped in my tracks, and Linda circled on me with a mischievous smile, her hands on her hips in reproach.
“Really?” she asked. “You were just going to let it slide past?” She came next to me, intertwining her arm into mine. I gave her a grim look as she pulled us forward, still walking towards the restaurants.
“Yes, actually I was doing my best to forget about it. Thank you, kindly.” I curtly replied, acting annoyed and Linda snorted as she pulled us into a less-than-busy restaurant with a Jamaican theme. The greeter at the front desk nodded knowingly to Linda as she walked us past him and through the tables, to a little closed booth hidden from the rest of the restaurant at the end. We rounded a corner to find decorations covering the booth,
“SURPRISE!” came out of the booth and my eyes widened at the sight of the only four people I knew in Airlie Beach sitting in the booth with party hats on. Riley, the office’s second part-time assistant, and Joe sat on the far end of the circular table with wide smiles. Jackson, a 6’2 smorgasbord of sex and masculinity sat on the end of the seat with a ridiculous pink cone hat strapped to his head and tilted to the side.
He shot me a sly grin once I eyed the hat and Linda whispered in my ear, “You really should have told me it was your birthday,” before pushing me into the booth next to Riley, while Jackson stepped out for her to sit alongside Joe.
Unconsciously, my gaze went to Joe. This was the first time I had been in the same space with him, and just like before, my heart started to race and I had an uncontrollable urge to confess everything to him. Had the police found anything, had anyone even been reported missing? The ocean was a big place, but eventually the hull of a boat might wash ashore if the currents were right.
Across the table, Jackson caught my stare and leaned across the table, sliding a tall glass of what looked like Margarita into my hand. He knew I was afraid of Joe, about what we did, about what he did for me. I gratefully accepted the drink, and although it had been 7 months since I let loose and didn’t count my drinks, after the tense week I had on the boat with Jackson, I had nearly reached my mental limit.
“Happy Birthday.” he calmly said, without any of the frivolity of the others. Remembering we were in company who had no idea of what happened approximately seven days ago, I turned to them with a grimace.
“Okay. I’m guessing it was Riley who ratted me out. When I asked you about the new payroll system, right? I knew it was too close to December to ask you to check it out. Shame on you for snooping in my file.”
Riley, a petite black haired girl, just out of high school and still with the look of innocence about her, raised her hands up in surrender.
“What! I would never, how dare you!” and she pointed her finger across the table, “There is your culprit,” and Jackson smirked, leaning back in his seat and took a sip of beer.
“Really? Keeping tabs on employees, huh?” I mused across the table as a waiter came over to the table for our order. Joe and Linda started to ask questions about the menu and he took the opportunity to lean across, speaking low, and only to me with his green eyes focused.
“Is it really a shock? I notice and remember everything about you, Carter. Never forget that.” The small smile I had been holding on my face quickly vanished as did his. It didn’t escape my attention that he had dropped the ridiculous misnomer, and his tone didn’t sound like a threat but a promise.
The waiter now turned to me for my order of burger and fries, and Jackson leaned back with some humor in his eyes at my shocked expression. Riley stole my attention the next second with making a toast and Jackson’s promise left my mind.
The table had ordered a few pitchers of margaritas, and after two, my mind and body began to let go of the week. Joe and Linda, subtly clasping arms around each others’ thighs, made for good conversation and jokes. Hot-Cop and Jackson turned out to be in the same year at school, and although it didn’t seem that they weren’t close friends, they could each recount the same stories from high school about one another.
Riley, still living with her parents, was closer to my age than the others but somehow was more difficult to make conversation. She was still at the stage in her life where she was hitting clubs every night, enjoying the fact she lived in a town where every night was a Saturday night and the amount of hookups were limitless as tourists came and went.
Jackson sat quietly on the end of his seat, his party hat now on the table, occasionally grinning to himself through Joe’s stories and watching the other’s try to eat and laugh simultaneously. Eventually, he glanced up and around the restaurant, spying the outdoor smoking area and escaping for his reprieve. I watched him walk out,
“He seems different,” Riley commented out to the table. Linda grinned and ‘mmmhmm’ed in agreement.
“Different?” I asked. We had been trying to seem ‘normal’, it was not a good thing if others were noticing a change in Jackson’s behavior.
Riley tilted her head to the side, watching Jackson through the window of the far side of the restaurant as he pulled out a cigarette. He had on a loose black linen shirt with jeans and boots. His usually unruly dark hair, now well down to his ears, had been combed back for tonight and sheened black in the outdoor lighting. He looked relaxed.
“I don’t know. Not on edge?” Riley replied, unsure. “Like, he is usually a ball of tension, can’t hold him still, ya know?”
The remaining pair at the table nodded in agreement before switching the conversation to Christmas, now only a week away. I listened in, vaguely, trying to forget that this would be my first Christmas away from Cameron and Carol Magness and ‘alone’. Jackson had leaned his long back against the window, keeping his face out of sight.
Resolved, I stood and crossed the now-busy restaurant, until I was in the same outdoor space, empty except for Jackson. He straightened up slightly with my approach, doing his usual scan of my length, and giving me a small grin as I sat down on a bench opposite from him.
“I’ve never seen you in a dress.”
I looked down at the white strap on my shoulder and fingered the eyelet hem. It was a cute dress that had stayed in my closet while I went away to college and seemed ‘Australi-ish’ when I had been frantically packing. I shrugged noncommittally at him,
“I only brought one here.”
“You look nice,” he mused, taking another drag from his cigarette and I couldn’t help but smile.
“As opposed to my employee shirt, or the black bikini and denim cut-offs? Yes, I guess this is ‘nice’.”
He blew out a cloud of smoke up to the sky, “No, I definitely would not call those shorts ‘nice’,” he replied, a knowing look stealing across his face. I felt my cheeks turn hot with the memory of how his fingers easily gained entry through those shorts, how the thin strip of crotch was easily pushed aside.
My own fingers found the hem of my dress and started to play with the lining and he watched me, probably remembering the same thin crotch. The memory seemed like an age ago, though I knew the reality was it was only 9 or ten days past. We had been so formal with each other since then, after the ‘event’. Trying to pretend to be normal so much that we wouldn’t even look at each other the way we used to.
“What are we doing?” The question popped out of my mouth before I even realized I might not want to know the answer. I didn’t want us to go back to acting like we were in a Spanish bull fight, where I was the matador and he was the bull, just waiting for him to gore me while I stood there trying to duck and dodge.
But I knew I would never forget those fingers, that stare, the way water ran down his torso, how his raven hair matched his dark tan and fell across his eyes, how he breathed into my skin. How he kissed. I couldn’t go back.
Jackson exhaled and stood up out of his lean against the window. “I did something, a week after you came, it took a lot longer than I was quoted.” He pulled a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket and held it in his hand, just looking at it while he thought. Finally, he looked up to me, still sitting patiently on the stone bench.
“It was before I knew you, and I’m sorry, but you aren’t like her. Not even close. She was conniving and a liar.”
Ruby, he was still stuck on her. I knew I had been a punching bag with her face taped on it for a while, but I guess I was still in the dark when it came to just how much. Had he been thinking of her when I was pinned up against the wall in Cabin 2?
He took two wide strides across the space between us and handed me the paper, before retreating back to his lean against the window, lighting up another cigarette. I slowly opened the paper, the title telling me what to find.
Summary of U.S. 46 State Criminal Background Check Report- Carter Lee Brunner.
My face steeled at the heading and looked to the rest of the page as it unfolded. It was empty. The rest of the bordered page was white space, a single line under heading reading.
No criminal history found.
My eyes welled slightly reading over the single sentence that seemed to purge me of a night I would never forget. I blinked away the tear, attempting to look like I was everything the paper said. Innocent.
“I guess my lawyer is the best in the business, huh?” I jokingly commented, a rueful expression on my lips. It wasn’t a joke, the Denver based lawyer had done a stellar job, getting my case down to a misdemeanor and making so many non-disclosure clauses that if anyone even breathed my name and Kelsey’s name together fifty years from now, they would most likely be bankrupt shortly after. Of course, it helped that Kelsey had actually been a minor and her anonymity, dead or alive, was still important.
He grinned at my joke, and took another drag. Why bring this out now? After all that we had been through? I wasn’t clean as this paper said now, we both had something to hold over each other. Both of our hands were stained.
“Why are you showing me this?”
He dropped the cigarette on the ground and stubbed it out, exhaling his last lungful before closing the space between us and sitting on the stone bench, leaving a good foot between us. He leaned over his knees, studying his feet.
“Because I want you to know that I trust you. Whatever happens, after… last week. I know I was difficult at first, but that wasn’t on you. That was me and all my baggage. I want to try and be friends, if you’ll let me.” He glanced up and looked across to me, and an involuntary breath escaped at the dreaded word ‘friends’.
I was being friend-zoned.
I let the exhale go, and looked down at my own clasped hands in my lap, holding the useless piece of paper that failed to find my past. Still, he trusted me. He wanted to be in this together. I had convinced myself a week ago that leaving this shitshow and taking off back home wouldn’t look good for the company, wouldn’t be good for me to run from the ‘clusterfuck’ I had made.
But really, I had been thinking of Jackson. To leave him in the middle to take care of it by himself. The man had turned me into a masochist a long time ago, and now I was going to go full-on martyr. To leave those green eyes and dark features, so contrasted against my blonde, in case someone with another gun wanted vengeance.
I couldn’t go back.
“...Friends.” I said with a pause and a small smile that didn’t even reach my cheeks. His eyes came back to mine and he erected himself off of his knees, and ran his hands through his long hair, looking like he was now even regretting that.