To say my nerves had gotten the better of me was an understatement. Four o'clock had come and gone, Becca arriving in her cute little sweater and skinny jeans with a box of decorated cupcakes and a whole wheat baguette. Five sailed on passed, and soon it was six. Mom hadn't come home. She hadn't called to say she'd be late. The small kitchen sat dark and cold on the back side of the house, a constant reminder for my already unsettled stomach.
At seven I called her office. "Maybe she had to work late," Becca supplied, but the line only rang and rang. I called her boss's number, just in case. Nothing. The only voice I heard on the cell phone was voicemail, telling me to leave a message and she'd get back to me as soon as she could.
I began to pace the living room. Becca watched out the windows for slowing headlights.
"Hey, Mom. It's me," I said, trying my best not to sound frightened like a little boy. "Becca and I are waiting at home. Did you get caught behind an accident or something? Call me back."
Becca's face paled. "What if she was in an accident?" She seemed more a small child than woman against the dark windows, seated cross-legged on the plush cushion.
God, don't even put that thought into my head. The last thing I needed was to envision her lying unconscious in a hospital bed somewhere. "Please don't say that, Bec. Seriously."
At nine I gave up all hope and called the police. It was silly of me. Having seen plenty of TV throughout my sixteen years I should have known they cannot do anything until the person has been missing forty-eight hours. They suggested I call the hospital, and retry her phone and friends. No one had heard anything, and with a heavy heart I dialed the hospital.
It was loud. Voices came and went over the intercom in the background, and a time or two an angry visitor demanded answers about their loved one spewing curse after curse of the idiocy of the staff. I, however, continued to wait on hold. The woman's fingers clicked softly on her keys, humming to herself. I was sure that only upset the man further. I swear I could almost hear the steam fizzling from his ears.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said at last, sunnier than should be allowed considering the circumstances. "No Aimee Cutler has been admitted, nor have any unidentified females of that description." She wished me luck and hung up. I sank into the couch, defeated.
Where the hell was she? One does not simply disappear off the face of the planet without someone noticing. Surely someone had seen her obnoxious orange SUV driving around, had seen her walk into a store or the bank, or something. My mother was a friendly woman. She talked to people, to anyone really, and she couldn't possibly have just... vanished.
Becca snuggled into my shoulder. "She'll turn up somewhere, Drake. Try to keep positive."
Yes, she could turn up. I could visit her in a heavy duty black bag on a cold steel table tomorrow if the fates were cruel. And sometimes they were, weren't they? They were life's middle finger.
Yeah? Well fuck you too, I thought bitterly. Give me my mother.
Returning to his house had been awkward. It looked much the same with the beat up floral couch against the windows and formica end tables on either side with their water rings and minor scuffs, and across the room the small television set remained nestled on a worn shelf of the wall-to-wall built-in cabinets. Only the photographs in the mismatched frames had changed, displaying an aged Dirk and the young red haired granddaughter that he had no part of raising, Aimee would learn. She belonged to the troublemaker Pleasant girl, though it seemed life had straightened her out and dealt a hillbilly white trash card for once good-girl twin, Angela. Funny how it worked out that way.
In time Aimee had relaxed somewhat. Darren kept a watchful eye out the window where a dark midsize sedan parked on the curb across the street, fooling no one. He talked for hours about his son's frequent mistakes that took him through rehab centers and abortion clinics at least once a year, and his own climb back up the business career ladder several years following their breakup. He was doing well, it seemed, all things considered. Aimee was surprised to find no women in his life, however.
"Would you like some wine?" he inquired from the kitchen, softly closing the door of the dishwasher. He'd thrown together a quick dinner and insisted on cleaning up himself, leaving her to quietly survey the family room as he made small talk. She eyed the old vinyl records, gently flipping through the sleeves and smiling at some of the unexpected new additions to his collection. "You seem rather tense."
A strange man who she had failed to get a look at was following her. For all she knew it could be Kennedy looking to cause trouble, and to make matters worse, she was in the house of a former lover whose heart she had crushed with a refused proposal. Of course she was a little on edge. What did he expect her to do, kick off her shoes and sling herself across his couch like the little seductress she never was? In normal circumstances she wouldn't even be there.
"Yes, that would be lovely," she replied.
She took the sparkling red and glanced through the window on the way to the couch. The car remained dark and seemingly void of life behind the tinted glass, perched nearby the mailbox of the neighboring Queen Anne. Darren smiled kindly at her and settled into the arm chair opposite.
"I've been seeing a lot on the news about the upcoming trial," he said. The chair groaned as he leaned back. Aimee nodded, wrinkling her nose. It wasn't something she wanted to deal with, but it was time for Ben to be officially charged and continue his slow decay behind bars. Admittedly she was looking forward to throwing Sloane in his face, if nothing else.
"It was strange to see the old footage of you pleading for his return." He shook his head sadly, not looking at her. "You were so young. The whole town worried for you, and prayed for you." Offering a weak smile he took a small mouthful of wine. "The chances of you crashing into that very car that night... how very lucky."
Dumb luck, she thought. Thank goodness for a teenager's need to rebel.
"And then you found your lost daughter, as well!" he marveled. "It seems for all the years you suffered God granted you a reprieve, returning both to you in one year."
Had she grimaced just then, she wondered? Where had God been when her mother snatched her child away? For the murder of Aidan and Drake’s kidnapping? Where in the great wide world was his love while she lay in the hospital bed as the life they'd created bled from her?
No. Any god she may had believed in back then had died along with her husband and child. She walked alone.
"I was very lucky, yes," was all she could conjure. The wine was a bitter musk on her breath. She realized how much she hated it, suddenly. It marked her naivety, her foolishness. How it melted her reserve.
"Not so lucky where we were concerned," she finished, thoughtfully. He peered at her over his glass, unflinching. "You must think me a tease. Maybe I was." A sigh hovered on her lips and she lowered her eyes. The room began to buzz with the whirring of the dishwasher, the humming of the fridge. Even the clock ticked mercilessly on the wall, chronicling the painful silence.
"It's in the past," he said finally, setting down his glass. "I knew what I was getting into when I asked you out. You were a widower, but so different than any other—I shouldn't have rushed you. For that I am sorry."
How silly that he was the one apologizing! She'd run out of the gardens like a frightened child and avoided him at all costs for the longest time.
"The blame rests on me, I'm afraid. I'm sorry, Darren," she whispered.
For a long time she hadn't so much as thought about him. As though she had erased him from memory, Aimee had gone on with her life however lonely it was, throwing herself into her work and reading every novel she could get her hands on. Who needed romance when you could live vicariously through the characters, after all. She didn't need to belong to someone, she didn't need to change her name and assume the role as someone's sweet little wife. It was easier to remain a Cutler, going on nightly adventures with Vin and Kelsier, or some fantastical place she could imagine free of any real danger.
Because her life was pretty messy, wasn't it? Darren or any other man would run screaming before too long, in all honesty. It was better off.
The snow Jesse had talked about was not quite as exciting as I had imagined. Sure it was beautiful blanketing the trees and twinkling Christmas lights that seemed to line every window and roof along the streets, but I could do without the cold. I could do without the frost clinging to my windshield in the morning, the black ice hiding beneath a fresh dusting of snow that threatened to dump me on my ass with every step. Driving in the slush was no picnic either, and nearly everyone behind the wheel drove five miles an hour at the first sight of flurries, fearing an insurance spike after a fender bender. As if the holidays weren't expensive enough, the economy was going down the can and no one needed that shit on top of everything else.
I suppose if nothing else I could finally see for myself what a white Christmas was like rather than watching it on the boob tube. The verdict so far? Meh. Perhaps I was cynical. Perhaps I just couldn't see the magic in it because I hadn't grown up building giant snowmen wearing my father's old hats and scarves, or spending a surprise day off school pelting the obnoxious neighbor kid with ice balls. Not going to lie, that last bit sounded pretty badass. But maybe it was something my kid would love, and maybe I could learn to love it too. Right now, however, no fucking way.
The bell announced my arrival before I got through the door. A cold wind whipped at my back and sent tendrils of snow sweeping across the wooden floor, melting quickly in the toasty heat. Across the room Lilith looked up from the pool table with stick in hand, shaking her head. There would be hell, I knew. At least I had a brief moment while she made her shot -which was horrible, by the way, and to shed my coat of melting snow.
"You walked again, didn't you?" she chided, casting the stick aside to Desmond. Behind him a pair of unfamiliar dark eyes watched curiously, his tanned skin smooth and clean and perfect like a baby. Jerk.
"It's a block away. It makes no sense to take the car."
Lilith groaned and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing me towards the table surrounded by our darling strange friends. "Good grief, Sloane, it's cold out there. And icy!" she scolded. "You're going to fall and crack that pretty little noggin of yours. We can't have that!"
I rolled my eyes and hugged Desmond. He was a mountain of a man, a towering wall of hard muscle and glowing chocolate skin. One could easily go missing in the hills that were his pecs, and I'd like to think he could pop off the head of anyone he wanted with a simple hug. But one look in his coal black eyes would tell you he's the biggest softie there ever was. A walking teddy bear, as every bit sweet and harmless. "Good to see you, girl," he said, squeezing as gently as his body would allow. "It's about time you get out from behind those boxes to have some fun."
"I did it for the hugs," I confessed with a laugh. He hummed with a throaty chuckle, lightly patting my back before he pulled away. Lilith had disappeared. It was a wonder I hadn't heard her mouth as she went.
"This is Arlo, Lil' and Dominic's brother," Desmond motioned to the quiet guy standing at the back. Dominic was lost in his own little world per the usual, but his assumed older brother nodded kindly against the windows, quirking his lips weakly in greeting. "Go easy on him, he's had a rough couple of years. Don't bite!"
"Des, are you implying I'm a beast?" I teased.
He returned an exaggerated nod, "Hell yeah I am. You're as crazy as they come, girl. Everyone knows that."
Arlo looked nothing like I had imagined. Where I had seen clean sandy hair and the gleaming blue eyes of a snob (which I admit makes no sense at all given his parentage), Arlo was anything but. His dark chestnut locks were long and sleek, a decidedly organized mess of layers that hung to a sharp jaw line, lessened only by a thin set of mutton chops. His lips and nose were fairly nondescript; to simply say they were there ought to suffice. But the eyes. The eyes were something else.
Have you ever stumbled upon a person with such blue eyes that it almost seems like they're made entirely of the sky? Like they're just so goddamn beautiful that all you can do is stare and wonder how such a thing is possible. And it moves you. You feel something stir in your chest; you're tethered. A tremor rolls through you, even.
This was Arlo.
Except that they weren't blue. It wasn't even that they were particularly pretty; if anything, they were a little muddy. But there was an arresting intensity there, all storm and misery, a puzzle begging to be solved. And at once, I wanted to. Who was this guy? What was his deal? I wanted to know everything.
I know it sounds stupid. Knew it as I stood before him like a mannequin with dead eyes, trying to find the answers below his bushy eyebrows. After an eternity,
I clenched my jaw and forced a smile. I was making such a great first impression!
"Ah, the famous Arlo," I offered an awkward greeting. "I've heard a lot about you."
To my surprise he cracked a smile to reveal a line of perfect teeth but for a canine that sat forward slightly, overlaying its right neighbor. Why had I noticed that? No idea. "Should I be worried?" he asked.
The laugh that erupted from my mouth was an octave higher than intended. "If there's anything to worry about, it's that one over there," I teased, nodding at Dominic. He stood on the other side of the table waving a pool stick in the air at Desmond, light saber noises abound.
Arlo's thick brows knitted together as he watched. "You should've seen him growing up. It was... an experience." That I didn't doubt. Surely he'd been one of those kids that should've gone through life wearing a helmet and swaddled in bubble wrap.
Desmond sighed and rested his ogre hands on the pool table. "Alright, let's get the show on the road before I murder your brother. You're up, Arlo, and Sloane can fill in for Lilith as she's...," he trailed off, scanning the bar for the lively redhead. He found her hovering opposite the older bartender, Erik, flirting mercilessly as she often did. Tonight's method was leaning suggestively on the bar and talking in hushed tones as she rimmed the open Guinness between them with a black-nailed finger. Always the gentleman, Erik gently reminded her of his twenty-three year long marriage to a woman we all knew only as Sweet One.
Arlo eyed the green felt with a fiercely intent smirk ignoring all movement and poor attempts to disrupt his next move, the remaining three balls gleaming though lightly scratched beneath the lone hanging light. He leaned on the stick and dipped low, double checking the intended path. Across the table Desmond impatiently crossed his arms.
"If you spent this much time planning your move with women you might have a little more luck," Dominic snorted at his older brother with a crooked smile, garnering an icy glare from his kin. Desmond, his best friend from damn near birth stifled a laugh with a tightly clenched fist to his lips.
"Too bad they walk out when they find you've got a two-incher," Dominic continued, watching the scruffy brunette.
"Talking from experience, Dom?" I shot with a shallow laugh. "Maybe it runs in the family." Desmond chuckled and slapped his friend on the back, seeming even larger in the dim corner of the room.
"I don't know," Arlo replied coolly, eyes focused on the arrangement on the table. "Two inches is pretty wide. Not my fault you're carrying around a needle."
"BAM!" Desmond boomed above the new burst of laughter, catching the attention of the others scattered throughout the bar. Turning from the curious eyes on him, Dominic swallowed the lump in his throat with a tight grimace, wrapping his arms around himself.
"Nice, guys," he sighed, glaring at each one in turn. "Nice."
A dull clack of the cue ball meeting eleven closed all mouths and drew eyes back to the table in time to see it roll just shy of the pocket, countering in the opposite direction. Arlo cursed loudly, bushy eyebrows drawn in a tight line, and hastily shoved the cue stick into the hands of his brother. A toothy grin greeted him, not that he took the time to notice.
"You're up, Meyers. Knock 'em dead." Desmond stepped back from the table to make room for me, offering an encouraging wink.
Lowering myself to the table I peered through one eye at our remaining solid. If I was lucky -and I wasn't feeling terribly so- I could bank it off the center between the far two end pockets without hitting Dominic and Arlo's inconveniently placed eleven. With the right force behind it, it might fall directly into the center right pocket. It was a big if.
I leaned on the table and positioned myself for the hit. I could do this. I could. No, I had to. We had one hundred and eighty-six dollars riding on it, apparently.
Three... two... one. One quick movement forward and the stick glided smoothly over my finger approaching the bright white cue. Out of nowhere Lilith appeared with drinks in hand. "Penis!" she cried shrilly beside my ear, collapsing into a fit of tipsy giggles as she handed Desmond his Heineken. Startled, the stick missed it's connection point and the ball spun awkwardly to the side. With a wince I dropped my face onto the felt. What a fuck up that was.
"Noooo!" Desmond's groan pulled me back to the game like the boom of a shotgun. Dominic and Arlo cheered in unison, slapping hands together over my head as I recovered looking sheepishly at my partner. "Girl, what's wrong with you?! You call that knocking 'em dead? You hardly touched it. Shit."
Without a word I passed the stick over and joined Arlo against the window, Dominic moving in for his turn. Forever attention starved, he gloated as he moved around the table. Like the rest of us, Desmond pretended not to notice.
"I think I figured out where I've seen you," I told him, shooting a quick glance. He seemed unnaturally tall all of a sudden though he obviously had not grown. I couldn't even blame it on the liquor. Let's call it a trick of the lighting, or my sudden awareness of ridiculous details. What the hell was that about?
"You're the guy across the hall. Apartment two, the factory conversion on main street." I went on when he failed to reply, "I've seen you carrying a gigantic plastic tote and orange bucket with framing and canvas sticking out of it. You must be that reclusive artist." I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. "Or sneakier than you look."
He offered an exaggerated frown and hung his head. "Shit. You're on to me," he sighed, rubbing his face regrettably. His silken hair hung loosely to his fingers. "I thought no one would suspect my plan to melt the landlord in a tub of acid." He smiled when I failed to stop myself.
"Now, see, I would have cut him up limb by limb and fed him to the garbage disposal," I explained, matter-of-factly. I held up my hand and pressed a finger to the matching one opposite. "One, that bitch can cut a fucker up! Two, it takes care of most of the mess on its own. No need to haul him away at all." I could appreciate the Breaking Bad reference all the same.
Eleven fell into the pocket with a resounding thud.
He fought the urge to laugh and nodded, lips pursed awkwardly. "But you know," I continued thoughtfully, "I can't have my baby in prison, so..."
"Fair enough," he said, eyes glittering, "all good points, surely. However, I must tell you, Sloane, that you are severely unhinged."
"Thank you," I snickered touching my chest, feigning flattery. "However, you started it. So clearly you're more fucked up than I am."
His eyes drifted back to the pool table. "Only when I'm with you, apparently. Such a bad influence." A smile broke the stoic air about him and I punched his arm playfully, to which he grinned.
"Alright, guys," Dominic raised his voice above the noise around the table, puffing up his chest. "This is how it's done: eight ball, bottom left pocket."
Needless to say Desmond and I were slaughtered. I was sent to retrieve a round while they all returned to the table in the front, Arlo and Dominic considerably richer. I on the other hand was laying down the last of my cash at the bar.
At my arrival, Erik swept up from the far side with the familiar sunny smile. "Those boys are always cheating beautiful women out of their money," he said with a subtle shake of the head. The lamplight glinted off the frames of his glasses.
"Big pretty boys, too, apparently," I replied, resting against the cool surface of the counter. "I think you know the order by now."
He nodded and bent to retrieve two shot glasses and a bottle of tequila, eyes settling onto my swollen middle. "Any day now, right? Do you know the gender?"
I shook my head, absently rubbing the massive gut protruding beneath my sweater. "I wanted to be surprised, much to everyone's chagrin, of course." He laughed and turned to collect Desmond's fifth beer of the night, setting it beside the shots on the tray. "But we'll find out soon enough. March isn't too far off, thank god."
"Oh it'll be over before you know it," he smiled warmly. "Soon they'll come out screaming and you'll spend the next eighteen years wishing you could put them right back in." He chuckled softly to himself and grabbed a tumbler. "God love them, they're a handful and you wonder how your own parents let you survive. But they're a joy at the very same time and nothing is more rewarding."
He poured the gin over ice and smiled, throwing a glance to my party of rejects. "Unless of course you raise Dominic over there and it quickly becomes your own personal hell." I swallowed the laugh and took the tray as he pushed it forward. He waved my money away as soon as I produced it.
"You keep that," he said, nodding at the puny wad of green. "Tonight it's on the house." I smiled my thanks and carried the array of booze back to the table. Dominic was gloating once again; Desmond threatened to wring his skinny neck.
It took time for the ruckus to settle down, namely because Dom enjoyed taunting everyone and Desmond floated in his alcohol fueled sing-song; Lilith giggled incessantly.
As the hours passed I came to learn that Arlo worked at a little cafe off the highway in the big mall I had yet to scour obsessively for unnecessary shoes, though his real passion was painting. These days he mostly did it for himself, but occasionally commissions came in where he did unfulfilling portraits of rich families or bored housewives looking to rekindle a little spark in the marriage bed. I couldn't imagine posing nude, I said, and while he initially found it a little awkward—especially when the wives were clearly aroused and all together distracting, he just got used to it.
"I bet some came on to you though, right?"
"More than a few. I think having a stranger look at them in such a state of undress makes them feel beautiful, and more than a little randy." He laughed and shook his head. "But then they remember why they're there, back off, and just enjoy the boost of confidence."
Outside, the buzzing streetlights watched indifferently from atop their steel poles casting strange shadows beneath our feet. The wind howled and bit at our faces, the snow crunching and ice splintering with each step. The apartment felt a world away, safe and warm from the brisk December morning. Somehow Arlo didn't seem all that bothered. Hands shoved in his pockets, he walked on with his head down, talking away.
"And you, the perfect gentleman, never batted an eye at all that flesh? You never wanted to jump any of them?"
He laughed, surprised. "I'm a man, of course I was interested from time to time. Doesn't mean I should over step the line and toy with someone's marriage." He cleared his throat and shook his head, coat rustling. "There was one girl, Miriam, who was this tiny little thing. Not even five feet tall. Gorgeous; big brown eyes. She was the sister of one of my bored housewives and needed something done up for a novel she had coming out."
We turned and he lead us up the walk, passing through the wide arch that would take us to the large open lobby of sorts. He hovered at the steps to his door.
"You dated?" I asked simply. "Whirlwind romance kind of thing?"
"Nah," he replied, shifting his weight. "We messed around a few times while the painting was in progress, but when it was over she disappeared." He shrugged and scrunched his nose. "She was a little lively for me anyway, plus she was about to become this big thing. Read her book a year later; was decent."
I frowned. "That's too bad. Between the two of you, you could've made some really beautiful things." I paused, thoughtful. "Not that I know how good you are."
A shit-eating grin slowly spread across his lips, brows arching like wild cats ready to pounce. "Painting," I supplied quickly, blushing ten shades of red. "I meant painting. Shut up."
He laughed, shaking his head. "I really have no idea why I told you all of that," he admitted, stepping up to his door. He fit a key in place and pulled back a latch, creaking on the hinge.
I shrugged lazily, unseen. "I'm just that fabulous."
The heavy door slid smoothly on the track of old metal wheels with a slow whoosh. The monstrous window within poured moonlight onto the staircase and floor below.
Arlo offered a warm smile. "Maybe you are."
Maaan, I know it took forever to come out and I'm sorry. I realize that after a four month time jump there's a bunch of little things to cover, and introducing new characters feels more like filler than anything. Was it worth waiting eight years for? Probably not, especially without pictures. But hey, what are you gonna do?
And I know, guys... MOAR VAN! It's coming, I promise!