Saturday, September 10, 2011

Chapter 16

Goin' down the wrong road and
Livin' by the wrong code and
Chasin' after dreams that don't come true

Lookin' for the right signs and
Ridin' on the white lines
Just tryin' to find my way to you

Well, there's been high times, and there's been hard times
And there's been times I couldn't tell
If I'm livin' a good life or livin' a bad life
'Cause I'm always livin' fast as hell

(lyrics from ‘My Way to You’ by Jamey Johnson)

The summer sun streamed through the curtains. Mike stared at the patterns that the sun and the curtains made on the blank wall. Some mornings those patterns made him smile. This wasn’t one of those mornings. 

Morning had taken forever to arrive. He hadn’t slept. He hadn’t tried to. The lack of sleep and the way his head was pounding now wasn’t punishment enough for what he’d done but it was something. Mike eyed the bottle in his hand, holding it up to gauge how much of the amber liquid that he’d been using to dull the pain remained. Not enough, he thought as he upended the bottle and let the remaining couple of ounces drain down his throat, leaving a warm burn behind. 

This was why he didn’t get too close, he reasoned as he stumbled to his feet and careened out of his room to look for more liquid pain relief. Physical pain was one thing. He’d learned to play through that, put up with it, treat it. But this, this feeling of being pierced through, of having his guts ripped out his nostrils...,this was the reason that he didn’t get close, because it wasn’t fun.  

Sex was fun, or it had been before it had gotten him into this mess and now that he knew what other guys were talking about when they said he’d know...well now, he thought miserably as he sorted through his liquor cabinet looking for stronger anaesthetic, now it might never be fun again. 

Chelsea wasn’t going to forgive him. Hell, Mike thought as he settled on a bottle of Polar Vodka and headed for the couch, he wasn’t sure he could forgive himself. He’d given into peer pressure like some kind of fifteen year old kid and probably ruined the one good thing besides his contract with the Caps that he had in his life.

“You’re a fuck up Greener,” he toasted himself, raising the bottle in salute to no one before tipping it towards his mouth and taking a long swallow that left him wincing as the clear liquid burned a trail down his oesophagus.

“And a fucking pussy, don’t forget that.” Mike spun his head around, which set the room spinning, to see Brooks coming out of the kitchen with a box of special K, a bowl and a carton of milk carefully balanced in his hands. 

“This is your fault,” Mike pointed at his teammate and thought, for a moment, about getting up and pummelling him but he decided to wait until the room stopped swaying like a row boat on storm tossed seas.

“That you’ve got an innie where your dick should be? I don’t fucking think so,” Brooksy laughed, setting the bowl and box down on the coffee table before sliding to the floor behind it. Picking up the remote he aimed it at Mike’s big screen. “Actually man, I’m kind of disappointed in you,” his teammate continued as he flipped through the channels until he found the cartoon network and then settled down to eat his cereal. “I thought you’d try a little harder not to give in to temptation.” 

Mike stared at his teammate replaying his last statement over and over in his head until it started to make sense and then the bottle dropped out of his hand. His teammate’s quick reflexes were the only thing that stopped it from hitting the ground. 

“A fucking test? What kind of sick fuck...what the fuck did you do?” Mike stared at Brooks’ inert profile as his friend calmly put the bottle down in the middle of the table and then went back to eating cereal. “Brooks,” he repeated more calmly, though his jaw was clenched and so where his hands, “what the fucking fuck have you fucking done, you fucking psychotic fuck!?” Without ceasing to chew, Brooks shrugged and turned towards Mike wearing a ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ smile.

“I wanted to see if you were serious or not,” Brooks replied wryly and then went back to his cereal as if they weren’t talking about something that felt very life or death to Mike at that moment. 

“Dude…,” Mike stared at Brooks, at the way his jaw moved as he chewed, and seriously considered finding a rusty pair of pliers to pull out each and every last one of his friends’ teeth. 

“Greener, if you loved the girl you wouldn’t have done it,” Brooks told him without taking his eyes from the antics of Wile E Coyote on the screen. Mike opened his mouth to object but found that he couldn’t. That had been the very conundrum that had kept him up all night. If he loved Chelsea, and he thought that he did, then how could he have done it? 

“Lots of guys cheat. Guys on the team, other teams, Football players....” It was an excuse, he knew it was an excuse and it tasted like dog shit on his tongue as he said it, but this very same tape had been playing on a loop in his mind all night. There were lots of guys he knew that had girls in other cities, one night stands as well as long term mistress arrangements, but when they came home they were the perfect family man. 

“Right under her nose man?” Brooks replied, glancing back at Mike long enough for him to see the disbelief in his friend’s eyes. “Dude, you were looking for an excuse to back out and all I did was give you a little shove and you dove right in head fucking first. Face it. You didn’t want to be serious. Get over it. Fuck some other chick and you’ll be fine.” 

Mike didn’t think he’d be fine. In fact, the way his gut was churning he didn’t think he’d be fine ever again. He’d made a huge fucking mistake. He’d known that the instant he’d seen the expression on Chelsea’s face change from disbelief to fury.

“I have to see her...,” he said, mostly to himself. Brooks reached for the remote, turned down the sound and put down the bowl. 

“Wait. Did I just hear you say that you seriously want to go see her? And say what? Sorry I boned that chick right in front of you? Fuck, if that works let me know,” he chuckled, reaching for the half empty bowl again.  Mike got to see his feet, felt the world sway around him and put his hands out to steady himself. 

“I have to...have to explain that it was a fucking mistake and you,” he added, aiming at kick at Brooks’ shoulder, “are gonna fucking drive me.” Brooks looked back at him, incredulous, and then shrugged. 

“Fine, we’ll go, after I’m finished eating and after you have a cup of joe and then we’ll go so she can throw dishes at you. Should be a fucking blast.”

She woke to the aroma of freshly turned hay and the warm comforting musk of horseflesh. Oh, and man, or, more specifically Irish Spring. Chelsea squinted against the intrusion of the bright golden glow of the morning sun and up into a pair of familiar blue eyes. 

“So you’re awake then, finally,” Jimmy said, rubbing a towel through his damp, blonde hair. The early morning light kissed his suntanned skin and made it and him glow as if he was the second coming of the god Apollo himself. “I thought I was going to have to bring one of the water buckets in here,” he continued, that easy half grin of his that she hadn’t seen in so long further served to brighten the room, making her shade her eyes as she looked up at him. “You missed breakfast, and early morning chores,” he continued with a wink that made it clear he’d taken care of those duties himself, “but your Gran sent you down some scones and fresh honey,” he added, cocking his head to indicate a plate covered by a tea towel on top of the dresser. “You’ll probably have to eat those in the truck though,” he added, draping the towel over the brass railing at the end of the bed and reaching for a freshly starched and pressed white shirt that was hanging from the doorknob. Chelsea watched him drape it over his wide shoulders and wondered if he’d ironed it himself or if her grandmother had had a hand in that too. “You gettin’ up or am I gonna have to wrap you in that sheet and carry you out?” He looked like he’d enjoy doing it she thought as she struggled to sit up, rubbing at her eyes.

“Do I have time for a shower?” she asked, holding the sheet up to her chest, feeling suddenly shy. 

“Sure, if you’re quick,” he grinned, leaning in to press a kiss to the corner of her mouth as he did up the mother of pearl buttons on his shirt. The shirt and the man in it smelled like warm summer sunshine. “Your Gran brought down a pair of jeans and one of your mom’s barrel racing shirts,” he called over his shoulder as he reached into the small bathroom and pulled out a fresh, white towel. He threw it at her, but didn’t turn to give her a chance for modesty. He leaned on the wall and watched, wearing that same lop sided cheerful grin as she tried to slide the towel up under the sheet. 

“Do you mind?” she asked, feeling a furious heat rising into her face. Jimmy laughed, rolled his eyes then made a show of shutting them. 

“You weren’t so reserved last night. Shucked it all and climbed into bed,” he reminded her. Chelsea shot an incensed glower his direction but it was wasted with his eyes shut. She pulled the towel around her and held it closed as she sidled towards the bathroom door. “You’re lucky I’m a gentleman,” he laughed as he reached out and grabbed her, his eyes no longer closed, “and that I’m not too proud to sleep in the barn,” he added in a less playful, brusquer tone. 

“I’m sorry if I put you out,” she whispered, holding herself very still in his arms. 

“Just as long as the next time you come to my bed,” he whispered, brushing his be-whiskered cheek against her smooth one as he whispered in her ear, “you mean for me to join you.” He pulled back then just enough so that he could press his lips to the tip of her nose and then he turned and was gone. Chelsea listened to the sound of his boots on the old wooden floor until she heard his footsteps on the rickety stairs down from the little room above the stable. Only then did she carefully fold the towel and put it on the back of the toilet and climb into the old claw foot tub, pull the shower curtain around her, and turn on the water.

“She’s not here.” 

The old woman in the check shirt and the jeans with the elastic waistband politely smiled at both of them but Mike could see something in her eyes that made his stomach clench. 

“She didn’t come back last night?” he asked, hoping that maybe she’d stayed at her friend Shannon’s house and had stayed up all night drinking like he had. 

“Oh she got back alright,” Chelsea’s grandmother’s smile suddenly brightened as she peeled off the heavy looking leather gloves she was wearing and draped them over the wooden rail of the corral. “Didn’t make it up to the house mind you,” she added in a tone that made it abundantly clear just what she meant without her having to say it. Mike’s hands curled into fists. He was going to kill that fucking cowpoke if it was the last thing he ever did on this earth. 

“Where is she now?” Brooks asked, leaning against the railing as he eyed the young woman on the back of the horse loping around the ring. 

“Left about an hour ago,” the woman said with a glance towards the sky, as if the only timepiece she required was the bright summer sun. “Jimmy’s competing at Stampede today. She went with him,” she added levelling her gaze at Mike, a satisfied smile creeping across her face, “to cheer him on.” 

Mike’s heart squeezed painfully in his chest. She’d come back and slept with Jimmy and she was with him now. He wanted to kill them, both of them. 

“Thanks for your time ma’am,” Brooks grabbed Mike’s arm and turned him back towards the car. Mike stumbled as his teammate drove him forward, the red veil was down over his eyes and he couldn’t see.

“We have to...have to go,” he mumbled as Brooks opened up the passenger side door. 

“We’re going,” Brook hissed into his ear before guiding his head and pushing him into the seat, “now wave to the nice lady who hates your guts,” he added before slamming the car door shut. Mike did as he was told and watched as the old witch grinned triumphantly back at him. He growled as he stared back at her. “Watch it bruiser. If you want this girl of yours back you’ll have to win the old dame over eventually,” his friend admonished him as he got in behind the wheel and slid the key into the ignition. The words somehow cut through the sound of his own blood pumping furiously in his veins and Mike tentatively raised a hand and waved as Brooks backed the car down the drive.

“Cee Cee!” Chelsea felt a pair of strong arms wrap tightly around her waist and then her feet were off of the ground. She squeaked as she was lifted high in the air and then put down again. She turned to see roping champ Tuf Cooper wearing a big goofy grin, his blue eyes alight with mischief. “You competin’ girl? I didn’t see your name on the list.” 

“Nah, not this year,” she smiled back at him. His boyish smile faded at the edges. They all knew about her mom, of course, it was a small community. She didn't correct him she let him think that it was still too soon. 

“Well there’s always next year, if your man here doesn’t get his way eh and have you knocked up before then, eh Jimmy?” Chelsea watched as the two men shook and did that half hug half shoulder bump that she supposed was the manly way of hugging. “When is the big day?” Tuf asked, his gaze traveling quickly from Jimmy’s tight smile to Chelsea’s and back. She caught Jimmy’s sidelong glance and kept her mouth shut. There was no need to air their dirty laundry here.

“I ain’t asked her yet,” Jimmy’s smile softened as he gave her a grateful look. Chelsea found that she couldn’t stop herself from returning his smile. 

“Are you kidding me?” Tuf punched Jimmy’s shoulder and then reached for Chelsea’s hand, dragging her towards him. “I guess if she’s still single I might just use my rope to tie her to my gun rack and take her home with me.” Chelsea laughed as Tuf reached for the thin white rope that hung at his belt. Her laughter faded quickly as she saw the dark, threatening expression on Jimmy’s face out of the corner of her eye. “I’m just kidding man, everyone knows not to mess with your little woman,” Tuf added, letting her go and taking a step back. Jimmy’s square jaw eased and he nodded, the thin line of his mouth easing. 

“He’s in the ring soon,” Chelsea said, taking a step towards the tall blonde in the straw hat and sliding her arm through his. “You know how he gets before he goes out there and drags some poor baby cow through the dirt.” Tuf nodded, his playful grin reappearing. 

“All that testosterone flowing and I bet he takes it all out on you afterwards am I right?” Tuf winked and Chelsea felt her face heat. She could imagine it even though it had never happened; Jimmy’s long lean body damp with sweat, dusty with dirt, pressing he down into a bed of hay, wearing the same fierce look she knew he’d have on his face in a few minutes out in the ring. Her entire body felt like it was being licked by flames. “Well I’ll see you two love birds later, Cowboys?” the roping champ tipped his black felt cowboy hat down and then, with a wink, turned to find someone else to bug, no doubt. She watched him go, shaking her head.

“Thanks.” She looked up into those steely blue eyes and saw real gratitude and tenderness too.

“You’re welcome,” she whispered, not letting go of his arm. Jimmy’s gaze searched hers and she knew what he was looking for and for the first time in a long time she knew, as his eyes got a little wider, that he was seeing it. 

“CeeCee,” he said quietly, his other hand reaching to cup her cheek. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him no, that nothing had changed, but the words died on her tongue as she looked into those sky blue eyes and saw something she hadn’t thought she’d ever truly seen before. He needed her. 

“Hey, get a room will ya?” Jimmy’s big red headed friend and competitor wrapped his arms around the both of them and squeezed them into a giant bear hug. Chelsea giggled but Jimmy struggled to get loose. “Or maybe I should let you keep mushin’ up this boy,” Curtis added, grabbing Jimmy’s hat, pulling him into a headlock and digging his big, scarred knuckles into the top of his head. 

“Keep doin’ that and I’ll make sure they give you the biggest, steer with biggest horns,” Chelsea chided their friend who was struggling to keep Jimmy wrapped up. 

“Bring it on, this guy doesn’t stand a chance,” Curtis laughed as he let the tall blonde go. Jimmy grabbed for his hat and looked it over carefully for new dents. 

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Chelsea smiled at them both, “I wouldn’t bet against him just yet.” 

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