“Icing the Kicker,” Chapter Six

The interview is unofficially over.

The group breaks up as Danté and Lance hotfoot it to the main school building in hopes of making it to their first class of the day before the bell rings.

Scott, meanwhile, lingers behind with Coach Thomas.

It ran longer than I initially expected, but DAYUM if this isn’t going to be one HELL of a story!

I already have the green light from the four of them to use everything, right down to Danté seeing Scott kissing another male at the Bluegrass Drive-In a year ago, although that person’s identity will not be disclosed to anyone. Including me. Scott made that abundantly clear right after our interview.

I can live with that, and good on Scott for respecting the unidentified party’s right to his privacy. While Scott really seems to be embracing his sexuality now that he isn’t keeping it a secret anymore, not everyone is ready to be dragged out of the closet before they’re comfortable doing so of their own accord. If ever.

“Um, Miss Granger?” Scott says nervously, quickly shifting from foot to foot like I used to as a kid doing the pee pee dance whenever I had to wait my turn because the nearest bathroom was occupied. “I meant to tell you earlier, but, uh, my moms want to talk to you before you write the story. They’re going to meet you here. They’re on their way right now and should be here shortly.”

There’s a saying about the bottom of your stomach dropping out, or something to that effect. That’s the way I feel this very moment. Y’know, the feeling you get when you’re in an elevator and it’s as if part of your body is plummeting while the other half freezes in place whenever it moves up or down? Yeah, THAT. At least, in my experience.

The last thing I need in the entire fucking world is a confrontation with two mama bears who are totally against the Daily Herald doing Scott’s story when I should be on my way back to the office right this second so I can help the others get the sports section done for deadline later on this morning. Scott’s mothers are not just opposed to my involvement, personally, but to that of anyone who is affiliated with the paper in ANY way. THAT is exactly how vehement they are about protecting Scott. And as I mentioned earlier this morning, who in their right mind can blame them for wanting to keep him safe?

“I’m really sorry, Miss Granger, but they insisted,” he adds. “You know how moms can be.”

Yes, I certainly do, having grown up under the watchful eyes of the formidable Meggy Granger. My dad might be a retired Navy SEAL, but Mom is the boss and all of us know it.

“It’ll have to be quick,” I concede, but only because I’m too hot, tired and fungry to argue my way out of meeting with his moms. “I really need to get to the office, but I’ll give my, um, boss a call and let him know I’m going to be a little later with this, uh, bonus interview.”

I dig around my purse until I find my cellular in its usual resting place at the bottom of it and proceed to clumsily text Richard, something I rarely do because I find that dialing a telephone requires far less effort. Knowing Richard as well as I do, he’ll be prowling and growling around the newsroom right about now instead of sitting at the desk in his office as he impatiently awaits my arrival. As it is, I’m taking the coward’s way out by texting him when I’d rather hear his voice, but I’d much prefer to hear it when he’s not ranting and raving about me not being there for deadline even though the others on our four-person sports staff can handle themselves just fine. It’s a matter of principle to him, and there’s just no budging him from his rather, um, vocal stance on it, either.

My phone, which is set on “vibrate,” shows that I have yet to miss any texts from my husband. Today, anyway. That will change drastically in the near future, but I decide to do what I always do before getting inundated with his messages by putting the phone back into my purse and unintentionally — with the exception of this one time — forgetting about it.

“I’ll stay with you for the interview, of course,” Coach Thomas reassures me more than I care to let him know. “No guests are supposed to be in any of the school buildings without permission and supervision, but I’m sure you’re already aware of that, Piccolo.”

Whatever.

I’m just glad I don’t have to face Joyce and Jill Ericsson alone because this is one interview I’m dreading. I was hoping to take the chickenshit way out by talking to them over the phone later on instead of having to deal with them in person.

I know they’re going to try to dissuade me from writing Scott’s story, but that’s not going to happen. I’ll simply reiterate to them his desire to share his tale with others who might be enduring the same struggles as him. If that doesn’t deter them, I don’t know what will, short of me requesting Coach Thomas to pull Scott from class to confront them, himself. I don’t like having to resort to those kinds of tactics, but I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure his story makes it into print. And online, of course. Can’t forget about the fucking Internet.

“Thanks, Coach, I appreciate the moral support,” I reply tartly, as Scott hastily exits the office, which now has a MUCH less claustrophobic feel to it

“It’s the least I can do,” he says, ignoring my sarcasm. “You’re going to have your hands full with those two.”

As it is, they’re standing in the doorway, causing a panic within me that’s so great, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep my shit together a second time. And judging by the apparent displeasure on both of their faces, there’s no mistaking that they overheard Coach Thomas’ remark.

The claustrophobic feeling that just left me also is back in full force merely by their presence in this room.

We both get up from our chairs simultaneously, him to offer them seats as all Southern gentlemen are apt to do and me to shake their hands — gestures more out of habit as a result of our respective upbringings than anything else. Once we get through all the social niceties and are once more sandwiched in our seats after Coach Thomas manages to snag a third chair, I address the reason for their visit in hopes of keeping this impromptu meeting as short as possible because I can already hear the phone vibrating from within my purse on the desk.

I ignore it, determined to get the fuck out of here, and soon! I have enough on my plate without having to worry about my husband’s short fuse when I get back to the paper — IF I ever DO make it in this morning, what with all of these spontaneous visits to Coach Thomas’s office and all — but you better damn believe I give as good as I get. IN SPADES. I’m just not in the mood for one of our legendary knock-down, drag-outs in the newsroom because he doesn’t like having me out of his sight AT ALL after I nearly got killed in my own office a year ago. If he had his way, I’d be permanently chained to my desk with him holding the only key to the lock.

As for the fiercely protective Joyce and Jill Ericsson, both are in their early 50s but can easily pass for 30-year-olds. They’re in excellent shape due to their jobs as rural carriers for the Ruffian County Post Office, walking almost as much as they drive on a daily basis. They also play in an adult soccer league in Bluegrass, so it’s no surprise they look as good as they do.

There’s no doubt whose blood Scott shares, either, as Joyce’s azure eyes measure mine. She’s as tall as her son and has a similar athletic build. She also sports the same sun-bleached hair, although hers falls all the way to her waist. Jill, on the other hand, is a few inches shorter with dark, shoulder-length hair and striking tiger eyes reminiscent of Sophia Loren, but those physical differences don’t make her any less Scott’s mom than Joyce.

They did an exceptional job of raising him to be the outstanding young man he is today.

“Look, I know the two of you don’t want me to do the story on Scott — you’ve made that crystal clear more than once — but please understand that I didn’t pressure him into doing anything he didn’t want to do,” I tell them, mentally crossing my fingers, toes, arms, legs and eyes that I’ll finally get through to them this time. “Remember, Scott is the one who approached me, not the other way around. And he did it because he trusts me to tell his story. I just wish you would, too, because I’d never do anything to hurt your son. Please believe that. Go ahead, ask Coach Thomas. He’ll vouch for me. I have no agenda whatsoever. I only have Scott’s best interests at heart, and I truly believe his story can reach so many people who might be going through the same thing as him but just don’t have the outpouring of support that he does.

“I’m not doing this to make a name for myself; I’m doing this because I KNOW in my heart that it WILL make a difference for the better in somebody else’s life. Who knows? It might even save someone’s life, and that’s why I think it’s so important to share his story with everyone. Don’t you think so?”

There. See if you can argue your way out of that one.

I fumble around in my purse for effect until I make contact with my trusty tape recorder, making a big production of pulling it out and putting it on the table to let them know loud and clear that I’m ready to share their responses with everyone. Not that I think it will ever come to that since I know they don’t want to come across as a couple of assholes hellbent on holding their son back, but they DO need to know that I refuse to be cowed by them.

My only hope is that they don’t see my very real fear of them because, as I keep pointing out, everyone knows I make the best poker opponent because of my famous ability to remain stoic in all situations … at all times.

And yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is sarcasm at its finest.

Fine,” Joyce seethes.

Shew! That was easier than I expected. If you consider easy facing two moms who look as though they hate your guts simply for doing your job.

OK, so maybe, just MAYBE hate is too strong a word.

“If anything bad happens to our son because of this story, we’re holding YOU responsible, Miss Granger,” Jill leans in menacingly close to warn me, “so you better hope for your sake that it doesn’t.”

I swallow. HARD.

OK, OK, so perhaps hate isn’t too strong a word, after all.

“Duly noted,” I quip, unsuccessfully attempting to lighten the atmosphere

Instead, the two women give me even chillier glares than the ones they’ve been giving me nonstop since their unanticipated arrival before rising from their chairs and walking out of the office single file without uttering another word.

Fuck me running! Talk about intense mama bear syndrome!

I hope I never run into those two in a dead-end alley, not that I’ll ever be stupid enough to give them another chance to corner me like that again.

Guess I won’t have to worry about getting any quotes from them for Scott’s story, either.

You know what, though? I think I can live with that.

I can most assuredly work around it.

“Icing the Kicker,” Chapter Five

I shift gears once again, formulating my next question in what is easily becoming the most compelling interview I’ve ever had the pleasure of conducting.

I’m not thinking in terms of potential awards down the line — although I’m sure Richard definitely will be as soon as he reads Scott’s compelling story — but enlightenment. My own as much as everyone else’s as Scott literally takes me step by step through his difficult journey to be who he really is, to be true to himself for the first time in his young life.

I can only hope the words I write do him the justice he deserves, that everyone struggling with their sexuality deserves.

“When did you know?” I ask Scott point-blank.

Scott gets my meaning. He’d have to have a rock for a brain not to, and, as I’ve said before, he’s no dummy.

Far from it.

“It’s not so much when as it is how,” he absentmindedly corrects me, deep in thought. “I can’t really pinpoint the when of it, to be truthful, because there’s not really a time I can actually remember NOT feeling the way I do. I used to ask my moms why I couldn’t be like ‘normal’ boys and like girls in that way, but they’d always tell me in that matter-of-fact way of theirs that I was a normal male who happened to be attracted to other males instead of females just like they were normal females who happened to be attracted to each other instead of males. After a while, they finally got through to me. I couldn’t argue with their logic because it made complete sense to me, y’know? They’d always tell me that we can’t help who we love. We just … we just … DO.

“But it scared me — not knowing if any of my friends felt like me, not knowing if any of my friends would understand, not knowing if any of my friends would continue to be my friends if they knew the truth about me. The real honest-to-God truth. So I kept it to myself and continued living the lie until I just couldn’t do it anymore, friends or no friends, and consequences be damned.

“In the end, I had to do what was best for me because the deceit — the lies — were killing me from the inside out.”

Just then, as if perfectly on cue in a Broadway play, two of Scott’s teammates quietly stroll into Coach Thomas’ sardine can of an office.

I eye the door nervously, ready to bolt from the incredible shrinking room (pun very much intended) but wanting — no, needing — to see for myself whether his teammates really do care about him and support his decision to come out to the whole world.

I’ve never been a fan of small spaces, nor am I fond of being surrounded by people in said small spaces. But I stifle the urgent need to hoof it the fuck up on out of here, determined to see this interview through, sardine can and all.

I’ll be able to gauge for myself whether there is absolute truth to Scott’s and Coach Thomas’ staunch claims of complete solidarity across the board because I plan on blitzing the newcomers with a string of frank questions designed to throw them off of their game just in case they were up all night rehearsing exactly what they were going to say to me this mighty hot mess of a morning.

I certainly wouldn’t put it past them — or anyone else in their shoes, for that matter — to do just that, although they have not given me any reason thus far to make me think they’re being even the teensiest bit untruthful. Call me a cynic all you want, but no one wants to say or do the wrong damn thing when they’re being interviewed because in this unforgiving age of technology, every single misstep is instantaneously out there for the whole fucking world to see, to criticize, to mock and so on and so forth. Forever and ever and ever. And believe me when I say that they’ll never, EVER let you forget it, either. Even — make that especially — the people nearest and dearest to you.

I narrow my eyes then, watching the quartet squirm under my calculating scrutiny.

Bingo!

I knew it! I just knew it!

Gawd-fucking-dammit!

If you know ANYTHING at all about journalists — other than the glaringly obvious fact that we will ALWAYS gravitate toward free food and booze like a wake of vultures, the key word here being FREE — then you know we LOATHE that recited shit! There’s nothing worse than a perfectly memorized politically correct vanilla-filled spoon-fed quote that covers just about any pertinent question we can possibly ask on a particular subject without offending anyone. It’s like citing a news release verbatim — B-O-R-I-N-G as all fucking get-out and insulting not only to my intelligence, but to that of our readership, as well.

So game on, grasshoppers! The master is only too happy to school you all in the ways of interviewing.

“You all right, Piccolo?” Coach Thomas, ever the Southern gentleman, asks, frowning at the myriad of emotions that I’m without a damn doubt broadcasting across my telltale face.

Everything is just fucking peachy, pal.

“Of course,” I respond with a snarl, instantly indignant. “Why wouldn’t I be?!”

He holds his hands palms out — I suspect he’d be waving a white flag, too, if he had one handy — as he lowers his head in preparation of a tirade that never comes to fruition simply because my husband will take one look at my face when I get back to the office and know I misbehaved. Badly.

That’s one war I am most decidedly UNWILLING to start, mainly because it’s downright petty and I pride myself on being the consummate professional whenever I’m representing the Daily Herald. The newspaper’s stalwart reputation for its consistent, unbiased reporting — plus its long-standing relationship with the readership as a trustworthy source for news in the far-reaching community — are vital for us to continue thriving as a brick-and-mortar business. Particularly when so many of our print journalism counterparts across the country have downsized so drastically in favor of going almost exclusively online in recent years, you practically can count their pitifully miniscule staffs on one hand. I thank my lucky stars every single day that it hasn’t happened here.

Yet.

I forcefully focus my attention back on Coach Thomas, who’s still looking at me as if I’m going to shoot up the place postal style. Or pounce like a ravenous lioness stalking a zebra herd. Or, quite literally, try to bite his head off as a female praying mantis is apt to do to any male in her vicinity.

Dang. Give me a little credit here, buddy. I do possess SOME self-control, despite the fact that I am absolutely, positively seething on the inside and most likely — OK, OK, most definitely — not hiding it well on the outside. You have my husband to thank for my restraint. And me, to a much lesser degree.

As it is, all four are eyeing me with trepidation.

I don’t like being played, even when people have the best intentions at heart. And the odds of the two newcomers just happening to show up while I’m right in the middle of interviewing Scott being purely by coincidence are slim to none. Nothing that well timed ever is accidental.

“Sorry,” I say slowly, trying to maintain a calm demeanor even though I just as suddenly really want to bolt from a room that seems to be closing in on me like the Death Star garbage compactor scene from Star Wars — arguably one of the greatest movies of all time — in which the main characters are in imminent danger of getting crushed to, well, death. “I have this … this thing about small spaces. So if I seem a little on edge, that’s why.”

Not to mention the whole pregnancy thing, but I’m not sharing that information with them unless they ask me outright. They’ll certainly be tip-toeing around me once it does become glaringly obvious, IF they ever do figure it out before I give birth.

It also doesn’t help matters that I’m in a room with a handful of males who probably have no clue about the intricate workings of the female psyche. Three are way too young to know any better — well, perhaps Scott has a fairly good idea since he does have two moms, but I’m not going to waste my time waiting for Godot on that one — and the fourth may be an adult, but he’s still single and therefore not yet learned in the ways of the labyrinth that is the ever-changing female mind.

But I’ll save that topic for another day, so I’ll have to do my damnedest to push my pissy mood aside and get back to business as usual.

Senior quarterback-strong safety Lance Ripley and junior tailback-linebacker Danté Powell stand quietly behind the seated Coach Thomas and Scott, waiting to share their well-practiced thoughts with me, I’m sure.

“What brings you two here this morning?” I ask the duo with barely concealed sarcasm, already knowing the answer but deciding to play it as dumb as they’re willing to buy into without giving myself away … too terribly much … for now.

“We just, you know, had a new play we wanted to run by Coach,” Lance offers on the fly.

“Yeah,” agrees Danté, hands down the quietest person on the team and the worst quote ever … unless you’re not interviewing him.

“Is that so?” I inquire, getting ready to spring my trap. “What’s the play?”

Lance and Danté shuffle their feet nervously, unable or unwilling to meet my eyes.

“Oh, I get it!” I add, clapping my hands like a fucking trained seal on display at SeaWorld to feign my excitement as I force a smile I don’t feel and continue to go along with their not-so-clever ruse. “It must be one of those fancy surprise plays!”

They nod their heads vigorously, relieved to (hopefully) think that I seem to be falling for a story with more holes in it than a single slice of Swiss cheese.

Damn. A few slices of Swiss cheese and ham piled sky high with romaine lettuce hearts on whole wheat bread slathered with mayonnaise sounds fucking GREAT right about now.

The more I think about it, the yummier it gets … and the hungrier it makes me.

Hmmm. Perhaps I can sweet-talk Richard into going for a quick grocery store run with me soon. As in TODAY soon. It’s worth a shot, anyway. Especially since he knows firsthand that sending me shopping for food all by myself while fungry is a really, really, REALLY bad idea.

I’d put one hell of a dent in our weekly grocery budget, that’s for sure. Not that we’re in dire straits or anything. Not even close. Still, that’d be a scary-ass grocery bill by the time I pulled up to the checkout with my overflowing cart full of junk food. Enough to give someone a coronary, certainly. Financially as well as physically.

I clap my hands again, more to snap myself out of my food-driven fantasy than to further convince Danté and Lance of my gullibility concerning their sudden, well-timed appearance in Coach Thomas’ office.

The four of them already are looking at me as if I’ve gone crazy right before their very eyes — I can’t say I blame them, given my off-the-wall hormonal behavior of the past few minutes — so I look down at the seemingly jumbled scribbling in my reporter’s notebook that is decipherable only to me, lest my expressive hazel eyes unequivocally give away the fact that I’m wise to their deceptive little ploy. That is, if I haven’t already blown it. I have the world’s worst poker face, which most assuredly is the REAL reason for their shared nervousness.

Good. Serves ’em right for fucking with a hot, hungry pregnant woman.

Not hot as in sexy. Hot as in sweaty.

“Are you going to use this top-secret play in your season-opener at Man o’ War County next Friday?” I try and just as quickly fail to ask as innocently as possible, referring to their first football game of the year on Aug. 25.

I try with all of my might to appear unaware as the moment draws nearer for me to call all of them out on their bullshit, but I don’t think they’re buying it anymore. If they ever did at all.

Their collective silence is response enough.

Not surprising.

I’m through playing this game anyway.

Even I can hear the bite I keep trying to contain in my own voice. And if I can, they sure as hell most certainly can. Which means it’s past time to drop the pretense and move in for the kill.

So to speak.

I look up then, piercing each of them with my best go-to-hell look before letting them have it.

In a civilized manner, of course.

Still, I’m not about to let them off the hook without enjoying watching them squirm a little bit more first.

“Is it an end-around?” I press, spouting off the first of several well-known trick plays. “A double reverse? A hook and ladder? Or — oh, oh I know — a flea flicker?! It’s a flea flicker, isn’t it?! I knew it!

The four of them gape at one another, shrugging their shoulders in a valiant concerted effort to keep their stories straight so they don’t contradict themselves.

Not so fast, boys.

“Well, which one is it, then, if it’s not a flea flicker?” I continue in a tone as smooth as satin.

“All right, you got us, Piccolo,” Coach Thomas folds first, unwilling to continue the deception game.

Damn right, I do.

“No offense,” I sigh, my irritation waning, “because I know you guys mean well, but Scott’s story deserves so much better than robotic news release answers that you’ve been rehearsing like you’re trying out for the school play or studying for a test. You’ve been open and honest with me up until this point, so let’s not ruin that vibe, OK?

“If you’re not down with that, then this interview is over.”

Take it or leave it, guys.

“You play to win, don’t you?” Coach Thomas murmurs, eyeing me with renewed respect.

“Is there any other way?” I counter.

He doesn’t answer. But then, there’s really no need.

“So,” I resume the interview before our time runs out and the school day begins, “Lance, can you tell me what went through your mind when Scott came out to the team? What was the very first thought that popped into your head? And just keep in mind that I’ll know if it’s a rehearsed answer, so no pressure, m’kay?”

None, indeed.

 Lance looks to the others for reassurance before nervously glancing my way.

“It’s all right,” Scott encourages him. “Just be honest. The truth won’t hurt me. You know that.”

It’s just the gentle nudge Lance needs.

“I was like, ‘Cool, it’s about fu … frickin’ time he told us,'” confesses Lance, who can pass for Vanilla Ice’s clone right down to his annoying voice — only with a Southern drawl, his douchey take on the pompadour hairstyle that never moves from using a gallon of hairspray (or whatever the fuck it is he puts on it) every day in the same manner my darling husband enjoys caking on his precious damn hair gel, I’m certain, and his atrocious retro wardrobe choices like harem pants or anything with shoulder pads. “I guessed that he was gay a long time ago because we’ve known each other our whole lives and he’s my brotha from another mutha — my bad, two muthas — but I was afraid to say anything before he was ready to tell us. IF he ever DID decide to tell us. You know how dudes are — we don’t go around talking about our feelings and shi … crap like chi … girls are always doing, you feel me?

“Excuse my language, Mizz Granger, but there ain’t a damn thing wrong with being gay. As long as Scott’s happy, that’s all that matters to me and the rest of the team. He’s family, and we’ve got his back. Telling his story to you like this to write up in the paper takes a lot of bal … guts because there ain’t too many people out there who have the kind of love and support he does, you know what I’m sayin’?”

A lone tear escapes Scott’s eye quicker than he can wipe it away without any of us noticing.

“Cryin’ ain’t nothing to be ashamed of, man,” Lance tells him. “You’re my hero, and I ain’t just blowin’ smoke up your aaa … butt, either.”

Scott begins crying in earnest as the quiet Danté voluntarily speaks up for the first time in, like, EVER in my presence without me having to prod him for half and hour just to get a short, crappy, barely usable one-sentence quote out of him.

“Well, you know, uh, Scott telling us he’s, you know, uh, gay just brought us all closer together as a family,” stammers the ever-so-chatty Danté, who looks like a young Denzel Washington and — no lie — causes every female to do a double take every single time they see him because the resemblance is so great to his just-as-strikingly-handsome-but-far-more-famous doppelganger.

I groan inwardly at the terrible quote.

Some things never change.

“Did his admission catch you by surprise, or not, and how did it make you feel personally when he told the team?” I ask, pressing him for something a little more interesting than the “uhs” and “you knows” that constantly come out of his reluctant mouth. “Did it make you or anyone else uncomfortable knowing and if so, in what way? If not, why not? Did it change the way you feel about Scott or how you view him as a person?”

“You ask too many questions,” he observes not for the first time in our association, causing me to wonder if he truly is the shy kid he makes himself out to be or if he’s just been toying with me for shits and giggles.

“Kinda comes with the territory,” I wryly note, arching my brows as I give him my best mom (to-be) stare.

“I wasn’t surprised because I saw Scott kissing another dude when I went to see Suicide Squad at the Bluegrass Drive-In last year,” Danté hesitantly divulges, shocking the rest of us with his bombshell confession. “I was surprised when I saw them making out in his VW bug, sure, because I wasn’t expecting to see THAT kind of show, if you know what I mean. I was heading over to his car after I recognized it to see what was up with him because I asked him earlier that day if he wanted to catch the flick with me, but he told me he had other plans that night. So I was pretty pissed when I saw his car there and thought he blew me off because he didn’t want to hang out with me or whatever. Man, was I ever wrong! But I didn’t say anything about what I saw to anyone because it wasn’t my place or my right to share his business with everybody else. I figured he’d tell us when and if he was ready.

“It took you long enough, man, but I’m glad you finally did. I was personally relieved when you told us because knowing what I did and keeping it to myself all this time was like having a monkey on my back that I just couldn’t shake off no matter how hard I tried. I can’t speak for anyone else, and I won’t, but knowing about you before everyone else didn’t change my opinion of you because you’re still the same old Scott I’ve known forever and you didn’t all of sudden morph into a monster the next day.”

Scott swiftly overcomes his momentary astonishment to react to his usually closed-mouth teammate’s whopper of a secret.

“How did you know for certain it was me and not someone else?” blurts Scott, clearly still rattled.

“Come on, now, only one person I know drives a VW bug with the license plate, RUFFKIX, Scott,” Danté nips that argument in the bud. “I didn’t know what to think at first, I’m not gonna lie to you, because I’d never seen two guys kiss like that before. But once I got over the shock of what I saw that night, it all began to make sense to me. Everything kind of started to click. It wasn’t any one thing you said or did in all the years I’ve known you; it was more what you DIDN’T say or do. While the rest of us were always talking about girls and, uh, showing off in the locker room, you never joined in, now that I think about it. All that time, it was US making YOU uncomfortable instead of the other way around.”

“I’m sorry for springing all of this on you instead of talking to you about it first, man, but I’m glad you trusted us enough to tell us so you don’t have to suffer in silence anymore. We’re brothers, and that’s never going to change. I’m proud of you, and I’m honored to stand by you. I can only hope to be as courageous as you someday.”

Mine isn’t the only mouth hanging wide open right now.

“Dam … dang, I didn’t think you had that many words in your vocabulary, Danté,” Lance ribs his teammate.

“Some people are worth the effort,” Danté says, glancing meaningfully at Scott.

Can’t refute that logic.

***

Here are the links to the first four chapters of Icing the Kicker in case you missed them and are interested in reading them:

https://suthurncuzun2.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/icing-the-kicker-chapter-one/

https://suthurncuzun2.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/icing-the-kicker-chapter-two/

https://suthurncuzun2.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/icing-the-kicker-chapter-three/

https://suthurncuzun2.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/icing-the-kicker-chapter-four/

“Blindsided,” Chapter One

“For fuck’s sake!”

I wake up with drool all over my pillow. Again.

“Must have been some dream,” I mutter to myself as I turn over to sit up, careful not to squish my yawning calico cat, Stinky, as she peers up at me with her sleepy green eyes. “But damn if I can remember any of it.”

Figures.

My cat comes by her name honestly. She can pass some rank gas.

Stinky usually sleeps on my legs under the covers every night, unless I end up facedown in the pillow like this morning after doing a lot of tossing and turning. I sleep in my birthday suit, so I learned the hard way to start trimming her claws on a regular basis. That definitely is a mistake I won’t ever make again. I had scratches for weeks when I rolled over on her.

Good thing it was my legs instead of my breasts, though. I wouldn’t have been able to wear a bra, which means I wouldn’t have been able to leave my apartment. I don’t do the boobs hanging out in public thing — EVER. I do pride myself on having SOME standards.

But, getting back to the subject at hand, Stinky thankfully doesn’t miss her super long claws, nor does she require much need for them. She seems quite content being a house cat, and my little “Queen of the Domain” will go right back to sleep after I leave for the day.

“Prrrowww,” Stinky sounds off at me, making her first demand of the morning.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I say, giving her head a scratch to her purring delight. “Breakfast. Just give Mommy a few minutes, Stinky-dink.”

I sigh loudly as I take the damp sage pillowcase off and swing my legs over the side of my pitiful looking double bed, mentally trying to prepare myself for the day ahead of me.

Work. I dread it. Well, not my job, itself. More like my boss. Let’s just call him Dickhead. I do. Not to his face, mind you, but everyone else at work knows exactly who I’m talking about when I say it. I wouldn’t have a problem with him if he didn’t take such great joy in making the rest of us so miserable, me more than anyone else because of my big, sarcastic mouth.

He could benefit from a lesson or two in people skills and compassion. He has neither.

My name is Piccolo Leighton Granger. I’m a sports writer for the Bluegrass Daily Herald in Bluegrass, Kentucky. I’ve been there for five years now and was quite content with the quiet routine of my life until Dickhead came along and ruined everything a year ago. Now, it feels like all I ever do is hide from him half the time and quarrel with him the other. At least when I’m at the office and he’s there, too. It’s a different story when he isn’t around. The atmosphere almost has a sedate, relieved feel to it when he isn’t there, but that’s generally only on weekends and at night during the week.

I’m frankly astonished I haven’t been fired for, uh, sassing him as much as I do, although I sometimes grow weary of our ongoing feud.

And yes, my parents thought it would be cute to name me after former Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo.

Like me, Mom and Dad are huge sports fans and all three of us love football with an almost frightening passion. After watching the made-for-television movie Brian’s Song about Brian Piccolo’s battle with cancer and his friendship with fellow Bears running back Gale Sayers, my parents were relentlessly determined to name their firstborn, and only child, Piccolo whether I was a girl or a boy. You obviously can guess what they had.

I gave up long ago trying to get everyone to call me Leigh simply because my first name, well, lacks femininity. But I sure as hell don’t allow anyone to call me “Pick,” which was Brian Piccolo’s nickname. The last person who called me that got a black eye courtesy of yours truly.

I was quite the tomboy growing up. Still am.

I shake myself out of my reverie and finally unwillingly slide off the bed onto the filthy, crappy tan shag carpet that covers my entire one-bedroom apartment, with the exception of my kitchen and its hideous circa 1970s plaid-like linoleum floor. I don’t know who did the decor in this place, but it sucks balls.

I moved here almost a month ago and ended up not having to pay the security deposit because the place was so fucking filthy. I spent a couple of days scrubbing down the apartment and eventually gave up trying to clean the carpet. I can’t tell you how many times I emptied the carpet-cleaning machine I rented, but I threw in the towel after hours and hours of changing out dark brown, dirt-filled water. The filth on the carpet still turns my socks brown, but at least it’s not the black from when I first moved in here.

I make my way to the small bathroom adjoining my bedroom, Stinky right on my heels. I glance at my bedside clock in passing. 6:35 a.m. Yep, I have enough time for a quick shower. Just.

I have to be at work at 7 on the nose. I’m always on time, but I push it on occasion. Today, I think, is going to be one of those close calls.

I can’t stand not having my morning shower, though. It helps to wake me up. I run the water as hot as I can stand it. I don’t have to worry about that bill anyway. My utilities, water and all that other crap are part of my $350-a-month rent. Not bad at all, especially since I have central air and heating. I’m all about comfort.

I push aside the shower curtain and turn the water on, tossing the dirty pillowcase into the laundry hamper beside the sink, grab a towel and washcloth from the cabinet above the toilet and step into the tub. As usual, Stinky follows suit, jumping up on the ledge as she always does in hopes of swiping another one of my razors while I’m trying to shave. My razors, for whatever reason, always end up underneath the stove. I’ve found 12 under there so far, along with one dead mouse. Whatever makes her happy, I guess.

Five minutes later, and a few failed swipes by Stinky, I wrap my towel around me and stroll out of the bathroom to my walk-in closet to find something comfortable to wear on this already hellaciously hot August day. July just ended, but August and September by far are the hottest months of the year here in the western part of the state. The humidity is so thick, it’s hard to breathe sometimes. No joke. Nothing can penetrate this horrific hot stretch. And, what’s worse, I sweat like a woman in the throes of menopause year-round.

I eventually settle on a sleeveless yellow sundress that doesn’t stick to all of my curves, and do I ever have MANY, although covering them up never deters men from staring. But the dress is nice and light and I don’t have to wear pantyhose, which is a bonus. I’ll do just about anything not to have to wear pantyhose. They were made to torture a woman, just like bras and high heels.

After dressing — including the daily struggle to get my over the shoulder boulder holder on over my watermelon-like chest, which is even more challenging when I’m already drenched in sweat from the hot shower — I quickly brush my teeth and run a brush through my wavy, shoulder-length carrot-orange hair. I don’t bother drying it. Never do. The humidity will take care of that within five seconds flat of stepping outdoors, if that, not to mention the frizzy mess it no doubt is going to make of my poor hair.

I look once more at the clock. 6:50. Just enough time. It takes me five minutes, sometimes less depending on traffic, to get to the office downtown.

Before I can get into that ghastly kitchen of mine to grab some canned food for Stinky, the phone rings, making me jump about a foot in the air and damn near landing on the poor, unsuspecting cat circling my ankles. The ringer has one setting: Scare the shit right out of you. The same evil people who invented bras, high heels and pantyhose probably are behind that contraption, too.

“Hello,” I say with a guarded half-snarl.

Anyone who knows me at all has enough sense not to call me this early. I am not what you’d call a morning person, and anyone who has even the smallest hint of a smile on their face before noon knows to steer their chirpy, cheerful little selves clear of me until such time. Which means it can only be one person.

Dickhead.

“Go to Bluegrass High School immediately!”

I hate it when I’m right.

His is the last voice I want to hear first thing in the morning. Actually, EVER. I hate everything about his snobbishly snotty English accent. Makes me want to punch him right in his Limey balls, but I can’t because, well, I have a reputation to uphold as a Southern belle. And because I can’t afford to lose my job.

“Why?” I ask.

“There’s been a murder.”

I take a deep breath. I’m at a rare loss for words, trying to digest this information.

“Shouldn’t you be calling James?” I ask after a few seconds of silence.

James Reliant covers what I like to refer to as the cops and courts beat.

“No,” Dickhead says impatiently. “This isn’t the time for daft questions. Just get over there. You know those people.”

I take another deep breath, trying to stifle my irritation, even though my curiosity is piqued and my composure shaken at such an unusual request. I don’t do dead. At all. Ever. My skin isn’t thick enough. I’m way too emotional, too empathetic. I don’t have the stomach for it. I cover sports, not death. I go to games, not autopsies. I talk to coaches and athletes, not grieving people and criminals.

“I only know the coaches and athletes over there,” I say, making one last attempt to get him to send someone — anyone else — but me.

“Which is precisely why I want you there,” he says. “The victim was a coach.”

Was. A. Coach.

My brain keeps regurgitating those ominous words, dissecting them. And I still am unable to fully register them. Not yet. I just can’t fathom murder entering my little sports world here in Bluegrass, or the whole of Derby County.

“No,” I reply, “No, no, no, it can’t be!”

Who would kill a coach?!

That someone would do so seems preposterous. But then, I keep hoping I’m back in my bed simply dreaming about all of this … this … this horror! But it’s true, and I sure as hell ain’t dreaming! Besides, any dream with Dickhead in it constitutes a nightmare. In this case, it’s a horror movie come to life.

I force myself to snap out of my daze, to face this unseemly reality.

I can hear the police scanner in Dickhead’s office going bonkers in the background. I know all of the coaches at Bluegrass High. My mind is scrambling. Who? Who? Who could it be?

“Listen, Piccolo,” Dickhead yells so loud that I have to hold the phone away from my ear, “snap out of it and get your arse over there!”

All of that deep breathing isn’t working. I’m going to hyperventilate! I’m going to freak! I’m going to pass out! And then he’d have to get someone else. Now there’s a thought, I frantically reason with myself.

“All right,” I say unevenly. “Will you at least tell me who it was?”

His scanner is going haywire again. Lots of static. Lots of unintelligible talking. At least from my end.

“Lester Smith.”

The varsity football coach. The school’s all-time winningest coach. A living legend (in his own mind, I always joke, or used to, I should amend). A winner. And an asshole to the nth degree. Coach Smith and Dickhead would have been perfect for each other. A match made in hell.

And now Coach Smith is dead?!

Damn.

It’s unfathomable! It’s unthinkable! It’s unbelievable!

Coach Smith did whatever it took to win. No matter who he hurt. No matter what the cost

No one ever got in his way. No one ever said no to him.

The man always did as he pleased without consequence.

Until now.

“Blindsided,” Chapter Two

I hang up on Dickhead without uttering another word. He’d have done the same to me, not that I give a shit. Besides, I have more pressing matters haunting my wary mind.

“Coach Smith must have really pissed someone off this time,” I babble to my uncaring, still-hungry cat. “I’d hate to cross that person.”

Perhaps developing thicker skin isn’t that hard.

“Sorry Stinky,” I say regretfully, hurrying into the kitchen, “it’s going to be dry food today because Mommy probably isn’t going to be home until late, if at all tonight.”

I grab a huge plastic container from one of the cabinets and heap dry cat food into it. Stinky drinks out of the toilet, so I never have to worry about water. I just leave the seat up.

“Mommy loves you,” I croon, giving her head one last scratch before grabbing my purse and keys from the dining room table and rushing out the door.

The humidity never ceases to amaze me. It’s like ramming a car full speed into a brick wall. Today is no different.

I half walk, half jump down the cobweb-blanketed stairs of the two-story building like the everyday obstacle course they are to me. I have an irrational fear of spiders, so I always zig-zag up and down the stairs to avoid walking into the webs or, worse, spiders. The mere thought makes me shudder despite the heat of the morning.

I open the door to my two-tone, piece-of-shit 1994 Ford Tempo, turn the key in the ignition, flip the air-conditioning on full blast and drive slowly out of the trailer park/apartment complex. If you can call only two buildings with two apartments on the second floor of each a complex. It’s like the apartments randomly were placed smack-dab in the middle of a trailer park.

The garbage dump for the entire place is right where my apartment is, and then there are train tracks just beyond the wrought-iron fence behind my building that allow me the pleasure of listening to trains blaring their horns all night.

Funny thing is, I’m starting to get used to the trains. They’re almost comforting in the quiet of a lonely night. Especially when you’re a big scaredy-cat like me. I must admit that I check my closet and under my bed every night because I’m afraid of the bogeyman. Or something along those lines. Not that I will publicly admit it to anyone, but there it is.

I know Dickhead wants me to hurry, but he’s never had to drive through this place. There is no such thing as driving fast through here because the seemingly endless speed bumps are mountainous and quite easily will destroy a car’s undercarriage. Plus, there are lots and lots and lots of kids. And then, of course, there also are all kinds of criminals running around here.

I have to laugh every time I read the paper’s daily police blotter or I’d go mad. The address to this trailer park shows up more than any other in the police news, which really is sad. In addition to all of the kids, it’s infested with drug addicts and small-time shoplifters, among all of the other various and sundry crooks. And don’t let me get started on all of the, shall we say, suspected meth labs.

“Probably why my rent is so damn cheap,” I mumble as I reach Lexington Road.

Luckily, no one ever bothers me. My car and apartment always are left alone. Who knows? Maybe they cased both and figured I have nothing worth stealing. The only possessions I have of value to me are my cat (she really owns me, not the other way around), my rather extensive book collection and my nutcrackers, which I keep in a small climate-controlled storage unit with the rest of my Christmas stuff since there’s just not enough room to fit it all in my apartment.

But I digress …

I turn left on Lexington like I’m heading to work, but a quarter-mile down, I jump onto Interstate-65 South. Bluegrass High is three miles away, literally just off the interstate.

A smoke sure would be nice right about now. But I quit when I first moved into my apartment, and I’m determined that it will be for keeps this time. I know I’ve said it all of the other times I tried quitting before that lasted for all of one day; however, I mean business this time. Seriously.

But damn, there still is nothing quite like having a nice smoke when you’re under a lot of stress. And this is one of those rare times since quitting a few weeks back that I find myself craving my beloved Doral Menthol Full Flavor 100s.

I happily smoked for nearly 10 years, but after turning 33 in May, I seriously began toying with the idea of quitting … for good. Especially when I found myself thinking that I’d maybe like to have children of my own someday. I’m not involved with anyone, not for a while now, but children definitely are a welcome possibility in the future.

Of course, there must be love and a significant other involved in the making of a baby, in my humble opinion. I refuse to do any of that artificial insemination crap. It’s just not for me. It’s too cold and impersonal. My best friend, Kayla Brand, did it, and her son is fine. But he doesn’t know his father, and never will. I don’t know how I’d feel about that, my child not knowing his or her father. And I’m sure Colt, Kayla’s son, is going to have lots of questions Kayla won’t be able to answer when he’s older. I just hope Kayla is honest and forthcoming with him when that time comes.

I’m thankful for my parents. They never lie to me, nor I to them. I just can’t fathom the not knowing. I don’t fault Kayla for her decisions. She’s a fantastic mother to her 3-year-old son. I guess I really just don’t understand. But that’s me. And who, indeed, am I to judge her or anyone else?

Yeah, my mind tends to wander. A lot. It’s almost like I’m mindlessly babbling inside my own head -– oh, the irony –- just so I won’t have to think about Coach Smith. As intense as my dislike for him while he was alive, I could never wish this on him. My heart aches for his family. I can’t begin to imagine their pain. I hope I never do, selfish though that may seem.

As I near the exit for Bluegrass High, I turn on my blinker. The high school is the first right off the exit ramp.

There’s an endless array of flashing lights from every imaginable emergency vehicle and law enforcement agency. It’s surreal, like something out of a Mary Higgins Clark mystery novel. She’s by no means graphic to the point of disturbing or disgusting in her writing style, because I just can’t handle every single little gory detail, but I love the strong female protagonists featured in the majority of her books. I identify with them, with their strengths, even their weaknesses.

Perhaps I should start reading books by the likes of Edna Buchanan and Patricia Cornwell. My friends from my book club keep telling me I should, but other than Clark, I tend to gravitate toward sports and romance novels. I like biographies and autobiographies, too. But Buchanan and Cornwell sure would come in handy right now. Their strong female characters in their respective book series –- a crime reporter and a medical examiner, from what my friends keep telling me –- already would have assessed the situation and been asking questions while I continue to act like a greenhorn who’s never interviewed anyone or written a story.

But I just don’t do real-life whodunits, murder, crime, whatever. Reading is one thing. Living it is another.

I’m at a loss. I feel lost. I don’t even know where to begin.

What’s the protocol? Who should I talk to first? Who do I NOT talk to? How do you even talk to a person in mourning?

Reading Clark did me absolutely no good, at least as far as how to prepare myself for this very sobering situation. My usually sharp, quick mind is drawing a blank from all of those books I stayed up so late night after night reading from start to finish. I apparently learned fuck all. Either that, or my mind is so scrambled that I just can’t grasp anything. That has to be it.

I know how to deal with tearful coaches, athletes, family members and fans, but only after losing or winning a big game. Not death, and certainly not murder.

This doesn’t even come close to comparing to my everyday job. This is real, and I’m about to get a crash course in how to become a cops and courts reporter.

I’m not looking forward to this at all. I just want to crawl back into bed and go back in time, but I know I cannot. Like it or not, for better or worse, I have a job to do.

I turn into the school’s driveway and park to the side of it because the entire lot is cordoned off with unmistakable yellow police tape that clearly states, “Police line. Do not cross.”

This is Arabian country. The Arabians. That’s the nickname of Bluegrass High School’s sports teams.

“The rubberneckers sure are out early,” I note to myself in amazement, estimating about 100 or so onlookers already milling about on my side of the police tape, gossiping and craning their necks trying to see what no one ever should have to see, “and so, un-damn-fortunately, are the vultures.”

I always refer to TV and radio personalities as “vultures,” especially the ones here in Bluegrass. Many of them seem to have a “whose-life-can-I-ruin-today” mentality, and they all revel in it. I never can understand why those people relish another person’s misery. I can’t stand them. Now you can understand why I hate Dickhead so much. He’s just like them, except he treats the people who work for him like shit and probably gets off on it, too.

But more about that later.

I have bigger bass to hook on my fishing line than to stand here and think about TV and radio assholes. And Dickhead, of course. Can’t forget his sorry ass. No siree.

I grab a small handheld reporter’s notebook and a couple of pens out of the glove compartment before exiting the car. I keep a shitload of them in my Tempo because, well, you just never know when you’re going to need them. They sure are handy to have around when you’re in a hurry.

Like today.

“Deep breaths,” I remind myself. “Deep breaths. You’ll get through this. You’re a reporter. Just be confident, and if you don’t know something, hunt down someone who CAN give you the answer. You’re great at being relentless. You’re a bulldog. Treat it like a game. You’ll be fine. Just treat it like a game and don’t make it personal. You can do this. You’re strong.”

And perhaps I’ve listened in on way too many coaches’ pregame speeches designed to motivate their teams. Why, now, do they seem paltry in comparison as I prepare to face what will be the biggest event in my life to date?

I’m anything BUT pumped up for this.

Here goes nothing.

“Blindsided,” Chapter Three

I sure as hell need a smoke right now.

I can’t even chew the gum I keep in my glove compartment because who’s going to take a person smacking on that stuff seriously? I wouldn’t. Plus, it’s just plain rude to chomp on a piece of gum and blow bubbles when I’m out on assignment. There’s just something so … so juvenile about it.

Ironically enough, I feel like I’m a freshman in high school again as I force myself to start walking toward the police tape and all of those gawkers. I look hard for a familiar face, any familiar face, and my eyes finally settle on Josh Isley, our head photographer at the Daily Herald.

It’s a running joke at the office that Josh was born with a police scanner in his brain, cameras in each of his eyes, a notepad in one hand and a pen in the other.

He’s been at the paper 15 years now, which makes him 37. I think.

Josh definitely must have been a Boy Scout growing up because he always is prepared for anything. His minivan has everything you possibly can think of stored in it, and then some. If World War III ever starts — not that I hope it does — he’ll be ready for it. No kidding. He is the epitome of what every Boy Scout should be, and that’s what makes him the best at what he does. We know it and he knows it, and the paper is damn lucky to have him.

The shit of it is, Josh looks nothing like a Boy Scout. He reminds me more of a hippy. He’s a tall, husky guy with nondescript features who wears his long, brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. The most noticeable thing about him is his loud Hawaiian shirts. They’re his calling card. You can pick him out of a crowd almost immediately like I just did. Shirts like that tend to stick out like a sore thumb in Kentucky. This IS the South, y’know, and we just don’t do Hawaiian shirts.

Josh is sporting a red and white one today, reminding me –- sort of –- of my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide.

He takes one look at me with those eagle eyes of his and lets loose a loud laugh that makes his whole body jiggle.

I love that laugh, but I’ll never tell him why.  It reminds me of my grandmother, may she rest in peace. She had this wonderful laugh that could make my most foul mood disappear within seconds, it was so heartfelt and joyful. I miss her, and my eyes mist a little at the memories Josh evokes with his uninhibited laughter.

“You look like you could use a good puking” is his greeting.

See what I mean? He misses nothing.

Subtlety isn’t one of his strong points, which is why we get along so well, although you might think differently if you ever listen in on our conversations. We’re a lot alike in that aspect — what you see is what you get, and neither of us hides it.

“Fuck off,” I say nervously for his ears only, trying unsuccessfully to brush his comment aside with my blatantly false bravado.

“Makes you wish you hadn’t quit smoking, huh?” he asks.

The smartass is a mind-reader, too.

“Ya think?” I snark at him.

I’m feeling more churlish and sarcastic than normal, but with good reason. I give Josh one of my famous go-to-hell looks and leave it at that.

“So, would you mind getting me up to speed?” I ask, all sober-faced and businesslike now. “I have no clue who to talk to, or even where I should begin. I feel so damn green. I really wish James was here. I’m just a sports writer, for crying out loud! James would already be driving back to the office right now, dictating the story into his tape recorder, or something. Where the hell is he?!

Josh smiles.

“Guess you forgot, huh?”

I’m drawing a blank.

“Enlighten me, please.”

Josh shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

“Do you ever get tired of living in your own little world?” he asks.

I do tend to get so embroiled with work that I’m usually the last person to know all the latest office gossip, but I don’t have time for that shit. Unless, of course, it’s a bitch session involving Dickhead’s latest ruthless rampage. I always have time to bitch about him. No one despises him more than me.

Before I can reply –- or slug him –- he holds his hands up in mock retreat and refreshes my obviously blank memory.

“He took a leave of absence to write the book he’s been researching for the past two years,” Josh re-enlightens me

Oh, yeah. Duh me.

Nothing like a brain fart to make me feel like a Grade-A dumbass.

“Geesh, I forgot all about his book,” I say, recovering from my stupor of stupidity.

His leave of absence is effective today, which is a Friday. Only the fifth day of an already hellishly hot August.

Double duh on me!

James is writing a book about Kentucky’s politicians, but with his very own special spin on them. James is a highly intelligent guy. Same age as me. Glasses, skinny, thinning blond hair, shrewd eyes that never miss anything while always measuring everyone.

He’s a cross between Bill Maher, Dennis Miller and Richard Belzer, all of whom are, or have been, sharp-witted stand-up comedians and actors who know their politics frontward and backward. He has the same biting, sarcastic sense of humor and outlook on life as them and, really, the only way for James to go is up. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins a Pulitzer Prize sometime in the near future. He’s already been nominated for a handful for his reporting, which is second to none.

Honestly, I’ll be surprised if he comes back to the Daily Herald at all.

And since we lost our sports editor two months ago when he -– Bob Gallant –- just up and walked out one day after getting bawled out by Dickhead one time too many, there only are two of us left to keep the department going. I don’t know about Jackson MacKinnon, the other half of our “dynamic” sports-writing duo, but I sure as hell am getting burned out doing it all AND putting up with Dickhead’s bullshit every day.

Something has got to give before we both work ourselves into the ground. I know Jackson already is at the office paginating — newspaper speak for putting together the sports pages — for today’s section in the paper.

“Hello? Anyone in there?”

Josh is waving his hands in front of my hazel eyes.

“Sorry,” I say, the heat in my embarrassed face covering my many freckles with a telltale shade of bright red.

I’m spacing out WWWAAAYYY too much today.

“Who’s in charge?” I ask him, switching back into my best reporter mode whether I want to or not.

Josh smiles and then points to a youngish-looking plainclothes guy yapping with that what’s-her-face bitch from WBIT-TV who thinks she’s all that and then some, and that antiquated son of a bitch from WSOB-AM talk radio who thinks all women should be barefoot and pregnant, hence my nicknames for them: Bitch Face and Antique Man.

Great, just great. This day can’t possibly get any worse.

“Thanks, buddy,” I say with a hint of sarcasm as I start to walk away from him, trudging slowly to the people I’m going to start referring to as the “Three Musketeers.”

I’m beginning to feel more and more like I’m awaiting my turn at the guillotine in the midst of the French Revolution.

I really, really, REALLY do not want to be here.

“This really is going to be a fucking long day,” I bitch to myself.

“And, no,” Josh calls after me, “they haven’t released any details whatsoever. Just in case you were wondering.”

He always has to have the last word.

Of course, I meant to ask. I just forgot. Again.

I give him the middle-finger salute behind my back.

Everyone surely can hear his ensuing guffaws for miles.

Oh well. I never claimed to be perfect. But it’s not normal for me to be so … so completely out of it, so slow on the uptake. What the hell is going on with me?! I really must be out of sorts having to step out of my comfort zone, but then again, who wouldn’t be?

I keep going until I reach the plainclothes guy. He’s still talking to Bitch Face and Antique Man, but I apologetically — sort of — interrupt them long enough to introduce myself to Plainclothes.

“Aren’t you a sports person?” Bitch Face asks, a bored expression on her face.

Antique Man just stares at my breasts with blatant interest. Figures. What a pig!

I ignore them both because I know myself too well. Under normal circumstances, I’d say something sarcastic. But today isn’t normal, and I don’t have time for their petty crap. Well, let me amend that I’m trying to block them out. It’s working. Kinda-sorta.

Plainclothes holds out his hand.

“Piccolo, it’s nice to finally meet you,” he says, shaking my hand firmly. “My name is Jason Stuart. I’m the media liaison for the Bluegrass Police Department. I read your stories all the time.”

Great. He’s a sports fan. Yippee.

You can tell a lot about people just by shaking their hands. His are very strong, very dry. Good. That goes a long way with me. There’s nothing I hate more — unless we’re talking about Dickhead — than limp, sweaty handshakes. They’re just CREEPY.

Maybe we’ll get along famously. Still, I cross my fingers in case I’m wrong.

Sometimes, you just can’t read a person by their handshake. Cases in point: Coach Smith and Dickhead. Both have, uh, had strong, commanding handshakes. The rest, or at least the bare bones of each relationship, you know. But more on those later.

“Nice to meet you, as well,” I reply.

Jason doesn’t seem to miss James at all. It’s almost as if he’s been expecting me. That can be a good thing. Maybe.

“So,” I continue, “do you have any details involving Coach Smith’s death? Has it officially been ruled a homicide? Anything at all you can tell me would be great.”

My voice is on an even keel, leveling out, concealing my attack of nerves. Perhaps I’m starting to get the hang of this, I hope.

I perch my pen on the first page of the brand new reporter’s notebook, ready to start scrawling all over it — illegibly to everyone but me — as soon as Jason gives me some useful information.

“Yes, it is definitely a homicide,” he says.

No kidding. Really?! I kind of figured as much.

Still, I wait.

“But we’re not disclosing any further details right now, other than to say that the police department’s crime-scene technicians are gathering evidence to help with the investigation,” he continues.

Back to Square One. Thanks for the helpful info, asshole. Now, how about giving me something USEFUL.

“Sorry,” he tacks on meaninglessly.

OK, so maybe I’m wrong about the getting along part. He does have a nice handshake, though. I’ll give him that.

“No problem,” I say through clenched teeth, struggling with all of my might to keep my sarcasm at bay, although I’m sure my facial expression is giving me away since I’m the world’s worst liar. “Thanks anyway.”

It’s impossible to fake sincerity when all you really want to do is smack someone upside the head, so why bother trying?

“Do you have a cell number so I can contact you when we do have more information to release to the media?” he asks, almost as if it’s an afterthought as he turns back to Bitch Face and Antique Man.

“No, I don’t.”

I leave it at that. What else is there to say? He’s no good to me, regardless. But the look on his face is comical, as if he can’t believe that there still is someone on this planet who does not own a cell phone. I don’t believe in them, never have. I don’t want one. I don’t need one. If you want to reach me, call me on a landline phone. Otherwise, fuck off.

He recovers enough to hand me his business card. That’s something, at least, for all the good it will do me. Useless, but better than nothing, I suppose.

I just give him a half-ass smile and shrug as I go about my business. Now that I know his job is nothing more than to be a useless piece of shit wasting precious taxpayer dollars, I’m going to have to get my story the hard way.

With some trepidation, I expel a sigh as I steal a glance at the group of rubberneckers.

It’s as good a place to start as any. Someone around here has got to know SOMETHING.

I head toward them, not sure what to expect.

I need answers. Fast.

I’m running out of time, a luxury not afforded to the newspaper business when you’re on a tight deadline and everybody is breathing down your neck, awaiting the final story to go in that day’s edition so we can put it to bed, or, in layman’s terms, so it can go to press.

I can just feel Dickhead’s dragon breath on the back of my neck as I race to write Coach Smith’s story. IF I ever DO get something worth writing. Otherwise, the story is going to be a bunch of platitudes from his assistants and the school administration. In other words, a useless pile of shit.

And with those final foreboding thoughts, I really CAN use a good puking, after all.

And a smoke.

I hate it when Josh is right.

“Blindsided,” Chapter Four

“Hello,” I greet no one in particular, hopelessly hoping for a response, any response.

I plod onward, unsure how I manage to keep my voice from quivering.

“My name is Piccolo Granger, and I’m a reporter with the Daily Herald. Did any of you by chance see or hear anything unusual? Did you notice any unknown vehicles or visitors in the parking lot? Did any of you have any contact with Coach Smith? Anything, anything at all will be helpful.”

Nothing.

Everyone just looks at me, silent, shrugging, murmuring amongst themselves.

I really should tell Dickhead to stick it where the sun don’t shine and go back home. I don’t need this shit. But, unfortunately, I DO need my job. And he knows it, the merciless bastard.

And so, ever the consummate professional while in the public eye, I continue to chip away at the throng of gawkers.

The result is the same.

Nada.

From the looks of them, not many — if any — of them actually work at Bluegrass High School. That much, I do know, being a frequent visitor of the school and all. I recognize a few of the sports parents, but they’re not talking. I’m relatively sure at least one person in this crowd is the proud, albeit nosy, owner of a police scanner and hot-footed it to the school as soon as he or she heard whatever the code is for homicide.

The only code I DO know is 10-46, which stands for personal-injury accident. We have lots of car accidents here, unfortunately. Kentucky’s Drive Safe campaign is a joke. The state motto should be “drive reckless,” instead of “united we stand, divided we fall.” But that’s a debate for another day.

My frustrating helplessness, on the other hand, is chewing away at my confidence and threatening to swallow it in one humongous gulp, but I can’t force these people to cooperate.

I’m starting to get frantic. I cannot go back to the office empty-handed. That’s not even an option.

The bile rises in my throat as I struggle to tamp down a wave of hysteria.

I need something for Coach Smith’s story, or I might as well just go home and call it a career at the Daily Herald. I’m sure Dickhead will be lying in wait for me, expecting me to fail, the rat bastard.

Contrary to popular belief and my constant sardonic running commentary, I DO care about everything I write, down to the most minute detail. Maybe a little too much, according to my colleagues.

More important, I care about the people gracious enough to tell me their stories regardless of my own personal feelings. I never, ever refer to anything as my story. It’s not about me. I am merely the messenger, the storyteller. Nothing more.

I love talking to people, just not today is all. Not when it involves death. Not when it brings murder into my world. And especially not when it involves someone I know.

Even Coach Smith.

I can’t begin to imagine the scene of the crime, the horror of it all. Nor do I want to envision it. Sometimes, it’s better not to know all of the sordid details. But in this case, I HAVE to know so I can do my job right by presenting all of the facts in his story.

I shake my head as if to dispel any images that might creep into my mind like an unwanted guest sitting on my doorstep. Let me just say again: I do not do death at all.

Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I see Amber Hardy walking toward the “Three Musketeers.”

Eu-fucking-reka!

I make a beeline for Amber like a blitzing linebacker about to sack a quarterback on his blind side.

FINALLY!

Amber is an English teacher and the varsity softball coach at Bluegrass High.

No one, not even my best friend, knows of my friendship with Amber away from the softball field. And we’ve been keeping it that way for five years.

It sucks, but we just don’t want to deal with any conflict-of-interest accusations. Some of the coaches and parents around here tend to get a little touchy if they think for one second that you like someone better than their kids, or you’re showing bias if you develop a friendship like the one I share with Amber.

It’s a catch-22 all the way around. But that’s life here in good ole Derby County, and that’s the way it always will be, unfortunately for the two of us. Which really is too bad. She’s a great person.

“Hi, Coach Hardy,” I greet her breathlessly in my bid to reach her before she gets to the “Three Musketeers,” giving nothing away.

I manage to head her off before she gets to them. Barely.

The look on her face tells me I’m going to get the break I need to start telling Coach Smith’s story. But she plays it off well enough so that the others remain clueless. For now.

“Hello, Piccolo,” she says. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Funny story: You and me both.

“Long story short: The person who’s supposed to be here is on sabbatical, leave of absence, whatever you want to call it, writing a book,” I retort, “so they sent me, instead.”

I smile ruefully.

Amber doesn’t respond.

She keeps giving me this … this look, as if she is just seeing me for the first time. Or seeing me in a new light. Or sizing me up. Or knows something no one else does, like some kind of dark secret. Or a mixture of all four.

Then again, maybe my mind is just playing tricks on me for shits and giggles.

I’ll find out soon enough. We have a code that needs no words.

Her look tells me that we’ll meet up at our usual place — Thoroughbred Park — which gives us all the privacy we need to talk without anyone noticing or recognizing us.

We literally talk for hours on end there. It’s been our meeting place, if you will, since running into each other at the park by sheer chance one night not too long after I began working at the Daily Herald. Both of us were walking the gravel track, which we always refer to as our thinking time rather than part of our exercise regimen, and we struck up a conversation that lasted for hours like we were old friends catching up on the day’s events.

“Is the other Coach Hardy inside?” I ask, motioning my head toward the school’s main building.

The “other” Coach Hardy is Amber’s husband, Shane. He teaches phys ed, coaches the varsity baseball team and is — well, I suppose WAS is the case since sometime late last night or early this morning — one of Coach Smith’s varsity football assistants. Shane coaches the linebackers.

Shane and Amber, both of whom hail from Indiana, will be married seven years in September. They’re both 31. He’s the only other person who knows about our taboo friendship. He’s an all-around good guy, very deserving of Amber. Just my humble observation, for what it’s worth.

“Yes,” Amber confirms, bringing me out of my reverie and back into a reality in which I no longer wish to partake. “He’s being questioned by the police right now. It could be a while, though.”

She takes a deep breath, something I’ve been doing all damn morning, and lets loose a slow, heartbreaking sigh.

“He found Lester in the fieldhouse,” she continues, referring to the athletics building that adjoins the school’s football stadium.

HOLY SHIT!

I remain quiet and keep my expression neutral because I know her well enough to realize she needs to keep talking as a means to cope with the fact that one of her fellow co-workers, not to mention someone she knows — sorry, knew — personally, has just been murdered.

Fuck! Too late.

Bitch Face and Antique Man apparently have dog ears. So does Jason.

Antique Man is practically running to his car to get his monstrosity of a tape recorder that looks like it’s at least 100 years old. Bitch Face, meanwhile, is scrambling to get the attention of her cameraman, who is in the midst of shooting footage of the ever-growing crowd of spectators.

Jason looks at Amber and me speculatively. Nah, he can’t be that smart. Or can he?

“That’s all I know right now,” Amber says, her eyes telling me otherwise as Bitch Face and Antique Man attempt to clamor for her attention. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get out of here.”

I nod. I understand all too well.

“You OK to drive, Coach Hardy?” I ask, trying to come off as nonchalant as possible in my concern for my friend’s well-being while the “Three Musketeers” eavesdrop.

“Yes, thank you, Piccolo,” she responds. “I’ll be fine. I didn’t see anything, thank God. Shane is really taking it hard. He asked me to meet him at home and wait for him since, well, you know. I … I just can’t believe it.”

Amen to that.

I take her cue to leave as Bitch Face and Antique Man sputter questions I know she won’t answer.

Jason continues to watch us, keeping mum.

“Thanks for your time, Coach Hardy,” I say loudly, walking toward my eyesore of a teal green — yes, teal green — car with its white, yet-to-be-painted trunk.

“I’ll call you from the office in about an hour-ISH,” I say casually over my shoulder to Jason, not quite wanting to meet the eyes of a man who might not be as dumb as I think.

I don’t foresee the school or police having a news conference before the paper’s 11:30 a.m. deadline. And I doubt very seriously that the police department’s liaison will have any new information for me, although Jason may prove to be a problem if he uncovers my friendship with the Hardys.

I have all of Coach Smith’s info to do a biographical piece on him to honor his memory despite my misgivings in my personal, everyday dealings with him while he was alive, but I’ll wait and see what Amber has in store for me first.

This can be a good thing.

I crank the tunes in my hoopty — slang for a piece-of-shit car — at last settling on “Mama, I’m Coming Home” by Ozzy Osbourne from his No More Tears album. It’s my all-time favorite of his, even though I was only 8 when it came out in 1991. My musical tastes are eclectic. I have my parents to thank for that.

Or this can be a bad thing.

The day looms over me. It seems endless, unsympathetic, unyielding, taunting.

Time to find out.

I drive away from the morning’s ugliness at the school, taking a right and turning toward downtown Bluegrass via Whirlaway Road, the city’s main drag, strip, drive, whatever you want to call it.

Another few minutes, and I’ll be pulling into Thoroughbred Park. Ever since Secretariat Park was built on this side of town roughly six years ago, Thoroughbred is pretty well deserted. Which suits Amber and I just fine.

Except this time, I feel like I’m skulking about. Like the super secretive meetings between Bob Woodward and the source he referred to as “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal from the early 1970s. Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both reporters for the Washington Post, blew the socks off of the Nixon administration with their amazing investigative skills that eventually resulted in the president’s resignation in 1974.

The movie, All the President’s Men, and the book of the same name written by Woodward and Bernstein give me chills.

I shiver. The not knowing weighs heavily on my mind. This is not going to be a lighthearted chat with Amber. I just can’t shake my unease.

I turn right onto Thoroughbred Drive and park on the side of the road about a half-mile down. I briskly walk the remaining quarter-mile to the park entrance. I won’t see Amber’s gold 2016 Ford Focus for another 10 or 15 minutes because we don’t want anyone to get suspicious. She may park further down the road, which is covered by trees. You can’t see anything from Whirlaway Road, and that’s precisely why we always meet here to catch up on everything.

I veer off the road onto the gravel track to wait for Amber. It’s as good a time as any for a walk to clear my head. This is one of those times I wish I was anything but a reporter.

Whatever Amber is going to tell me may put her in a very bad position. With me. Her husband. The school. Everyone. Everything. And yet, she’s risking it all anyway. For me.

Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Whatever it is, I can handle it. So I walk as I wait, trying unsuccessfully not to overthink everything.

Still, I have a feeling my smoke-free days are about to end.

Today.

“Blindsided,” Chapter Five

I circle the track only twice when I hear Amber’s car coming slowly down the road.

My black flats definitely are not suited for gravel as I walk pigeon-toed to meet Amber near the road, stopping intermittently to remove a shoe and shake it free of the small rocks that keep making their way inside both. It is a painful process.

I hobble up to Amber, grimacing as I hug her. She begins sobbing instantly.

“Amber,” I begin, “I … “

She steps away from me, composing herself and then holds up her right hand to silence me. She knows me well, knows that I tend to babble when I’m nervous or scared.

So I wait.

“Shane knows I’m here with you,” she says. “He wants me to tell you this, and I have to agree. You deserve to know the truth.”

Huh? Say what?

I’m too dumbfound to get any words out.

What have I got to do with any of this?!

Whatever she has to tell me must be a real doozy.

“This is going to come as a shock to you,” she goes on. “God knows, we are.”

Here it comes. And I really don’t think I want to know.

“Brace yourself, Piccolo, because this is a real doozy,” she says, confirming my fears. “I already told you about Shane finding Lester in the fieldhouse.”

Please, please, please just get to the point!

Coach Smith’s office is, uh, was located in the fieldhouse, which is behind the school. Like most high schools in Kentucky, Bluegrass has its own stadium, practice field and fieldhouse, which contains the coaches’ offices, weight room, locker room and anything else you can imagine.

Football, after all, reigns supreme in the South, and the high school stadiums and facilities get even more elaborate the further down you go.

But here in Kentucky, basketball is right up there with football, as this is a state with a very rich tradition on the hardwood. Moreover, it is only one of three states that crown a single overall champion for boys and girls rather than having a classification system according to each school’s enrollment. Delaware and Rhode Island are the other two.

To be the best in this state, you literally have to beat the best.

And here I am zoning again.

“Give me a minute, OK?” Amber implores.

I acquiesce with a curt nod.

The high school football season starts the last week of August every year, so I can picture Coach Smith sitting at the desk in his office watching practice or game film or both, drawing up plays, mulling over his starters — all of it — late into the night or early in the morning long after his assistants leave or arrive. But that’s the life of a head coach. I always joke that coaches never sleep when it is, in fact, a reality, and no laughing matter at all.

It also can very easily be a reporter’s life. It IS my life, for that matter, but that’s MY choice. My parents don’t like it, and they don’t make a secret of it. It’s hard finding a happy medium with them sometimes.

I shift my focus back to Amber, wishing for all the world that I had a cigarette in my hand, enjoying every savory puff.

She is exactly what you expect the quintessential all-American girl to look like. Gently sun-kissed skin, perfect white teeth, long natural blonde hair, tip-top physical shape although a bit on the muscular side from living such an active lifestyle. A perfect match for her husband, who’s almost the male mirror image of Amber except taller. They tower over me, but I’m only 5 feet 5 inches tall.

“Lester … he was … he was … it looked to Shane like he was shot in his head from behind,” Amber finally manages, hesitating. “He … Shane saw a gun on Lester’s desk. There was blood everywhere and … and there wasn’t much left of his head. OhmyGod, ohmyGod, ohmyGod! WHY?!

Her composure crumbles like the too-long ashes of a forgotten burning cigarette.

I want to hug her, comfort her, tell her everything is going to be OK. But I can sense — no, I can tell — that she does not want to be touched, so I respect her wishes and literally take a step back.

Go ahead, Piccolo, you have to ask.

The reporter in me kicks in again.

Just say it already!

“Is it OK if I go on the record with this?”

I await her consent before I dare jot down anything she tells me. She’s my friend, and I owe her that courtesy.

“Just hear me out first, and then I’ll let you decide,” Amber says.

Hmmm.

“There was a piece of paper on Lester’s desk by the phone,” she reveals, sounding a bit calmer. “Shane could only read part of it because of all the blood. He tried. He really tried. Piccolo, I’m sorry, but you have to know this. You deserve to know this. The police are going to find out. I know they will. I know they will come looking for you, for your parents. Well, for your mom.”

Come again?!

I know my whereabouts last night and this morning: HOME! And my mom and dad have nothing whatsoever to do with guns, just like me. Actually, let me amend that Mom doesn’t ALLOW Dad to keep guns or any other weaponry in the house, even dating all the way back to his Navy days. He had to keep his service-issued weapons at a Navy buddy’s place because she’s always been so adamant about it. And as far as I know, he hasn’t touched, let alone shot, a gun since retiring from active duty nearly 30 years ago. They didn’t know Coach Smith, never even met the man in passing! They don’t even live in the same state, for fuck’s sake! Why pull my parents and me into this?! I’m an idiot for answering the phone at all this morning!

Damn Coach Smith for dying! Damn his killer! Damn Dickhead! Damn it all! I just want everything to go back to the way it was, minus Dickhead!

Amber HAS to be mistaken! Surely, this is an episode of Punk’d, and I’m going to find out that this craptastic nightmare of a day is all just one big, fat, suck-ass fucking joke with Ashton Kutcher unexpectedly jumping out of nowhere to scare the shit out of me any second now.

“It’s true,” Amber nods, forcing me out of my denial to confirm what I still cannot believe, what I don’t want to believe. “The piece of paper has your mom’s name on it, along with your home number. I don’t know what any of this means, Piccolo, but your parents, or at least your mom, may be involved somehow. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry.”

Neither do I. Know what to say.

My head is beginning to throb. I really need a cigarette. NOW.

But first …

“Her full name?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “Meggy O’Brien.”

Meggy is short for Margaret, and my mom’s maiden name is O’Brien. Meggy isn’t a common nickname, to my knowledge, and my phone number on that same piece of paper means the cops soon will be questioning both of us.

Gotta love technology and all of its invasive perks.

Which means I’m out of time I never had to give my mom a heads up. And to ask her questions she probably doesn’t want to answer.

I rub my forehead. My headache is getting progressively worse, working its way down into my eyes. I hope I’m not getting a migraine, but that’s the least of my concerns right now.

“I’ll use the first part of what you just told me and pass it on to another reporter,” I say in a matter-of-fact monotone voice that isn’t my own, “since this obviously is a conflict-of-interest issue for me. I’ll have that reporter call Shane on his cell phone to confirm what you just told me.”

Our friendship will come under scrutiny WHEN, not IF, the cops connect the dots. I won’t ask Amber and Shane to lie, nor will I be dishonest. I value my freedom too much. And I cannot tell a lie to save my own life.

“As for the note,” I continue, “he has to tell them the truth. And you know what that means. Don’t lie on my behalf. It isn’t worth losing your freedom or jobs over. I’ll come clean with Dickhead about the note, but off the record, in a manner of speaking.”

I can get around Dickhead with the paper’s open-door policy, which will force him to keep what I tell him in confidence. Doing so also will protect my job. For the time being.

“Is there anything else I should know?” I ask.

Amber shakes her head no.

As if I don’t know enough already.

“Thanks for being honest with me,” I tell her. “I know this is going to change everything. People are going to talk, but that’s a given.”

An automated female voice suddenly announces “text message” from inside her purse.

Time’s up.

I’m sure the cops will be waiting for me at the office.

She hugs me.

“I’m sorry.”

Yeah. Me, too.

“I know,” I say, trying to reassure her and myself. “It’s all right. It HAS to be. Maybe it’s all just one big misunderstanding.”

That’s it. Keep fooling yourself, Piccolo.

She lets me go and walks away. What more is there to say?

One way or another, I WILL get to the bottom of this, conflict-of-interest situation or not. And one way or another, my parents — my mom — somehow is involved.

It’s up to me to piece together the fragmenting puzzle.

One thing is for certain: My short-lived nonsmoking days have just come to an abrupt end. I’m hitting a convenience store, ANY convenience store, before heading the rest of the way downtown to the office. And Dickhead.

I’m going to have that smoke I’ve been craving all morning, and I’m damn well going to enjoy every single puff until the butt burns my lips.

Fuck it all.

“Blindsided,” Chapter Six

With the air-conditioning blowing full-throttle in my face and my window all the way down, I happily puff away on my first smoke in what seems like for-damn-ever as I drive down what remains of Whirlaway Road before it turns into Citation Street.

This is WAY better than chocolate. Maybe I’ll just take off somewhere and inhale the entire pack.

Instead, I do the responsible adult thing and reluctantly head into the heart of downtown Bluegrass.

One more turn onto Main Street and I’ll be pulling into the Daily Herald parking lot. The cheap-ass fuckers who own the paper, including the building and both lots, make us pay for parking by automatically docking our pay. The monthly rate is cheap by today’s standards, but it still blows chunks to have to pay to park at the place that employees me. I always park in the lot adjacent to the building, but I use the second across the street when this one is full.

I get out of my shit-tastic car, grimacing at the damage to the front grill. I hit a deer a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t bother getting it fixed. Hell, I only shelled out $800 two years ago for this heaping pile of garbage — $800 more than it’s worth — so I’m not about to pay a $1,000 deductible to fix the damn thing. I’ll damn well drive it until it falls apart first.

I flick the remnants of my smoke into the butt receptacle by the side doors before swiping my electronic security card to get into the building, feeling for the second time today like I’m awaiting my own execution. I feel worse now, the euphoria of having a smoke wearing off too fast as I literally walk toward the lion’s den. And by lion, I mean Dickhead. You have to see the man in action to fully understand that it’s not at all a trite analogy.

It really is a jungle in there.

I hesitate on the threshold of our busy newsroom, feeling more and more like I’m about to be standing in front of a firing squad made up of Dickhead clones.

Get a fucking grip.

My sense of right and wrong propels me into the room, all the while urging me to stay true to myself and come clean about everything. As much as I love my parents, as much as I care about the coaches Hardy and as passionate as I am about my work, I cannot lie. That’s why I didn’t look at Jason as I left the high school. I don’t make a good liar at all. One look, and the jig is up.

“Piccolo!”

Gawddammit!!!

I groan a gazillion times inwardly.

It’s Dickhead.

He doesn’t need to repeat himself. He never does, the fucking Limey bastard.

I quite literally drag my feet all the way to the doorway of his office, not wanting to do what I know needs to be done. I purposely avoid eye contact with my fellow brothers and sisters in arms.

Game, set and match.

“Get in here!” he barks like a rabid dog in that proper English accent of his that I’ve come to hate. “And close the damn door!”

They’re not requests. They never are. He doesn’t ask for anything. I don’t even think he knows HOW.

I do as he orders. I don’t feel like sitting in one of the many shitty plastic chairs we use for staff meetings in his office, so I stand. They’re not made for comfort.

The silence looms as it begins to swallow what’s left of my sanity and bravado.

“Do you have anything useful,” he demands.

It’s not a question.

It takes every ounce of strength I have remaining not to give in to my sudden burst of bitchiness to bow down at his feet like the fucking servant he thinks I am to him.

Instead, I try the diplomatic approach. In a roundabout way.

“Well, I do know, after talking to Amber Hardy, who’s married to Shane Hardy, an assistant varsity football coach, that … ” I begin.

“Cut the shite,” he says.

So much for stall tactics.

“I know everything.”

Well, fuck me running!

“Huh?” I squeak out.

I try playing the dumb card. I even attempt to appear puzzled.

He doesn’t buy into either because anyone who knows me well enough — even HIM — knows I suck at lying. He’s smart. Even I have to admit that. But it doesn’t take a genius to read me.

I’m an open book.

“You don’t have it in you to lie,” he says. “It’s one of your best qualities. And one of your worst.”

See? Told ya so! I can’t keep a poker face to save my life.

But he sounds almost compassionate. Like he cares.

Uh uh. No way. Can’t be.

I’m flabbergasted.

THIS is NOT the Dickhead I know and so vehemently love to loathe.

Surely, aliens must have abducted the real Dickhead and cloned him. That has to be it! That, or I have a gob of wax in my ears and just am not hearing him right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that’s a more likely possibility!

“Sit down.”

Again, it’s not a request. But I sit down this time, still taking in this newest, most shocking side to Dickhead. Make that Impostor Dickhead, in his case. I not-so-furtively look around his office, anywhere but AT him, trying to see if Real Dickhead’s body is stashed somewhere behind or underneath the office furnishings. I don’t see anything out of the ordinary, but that doesn’t mean I have to stop looking and hoping.

“I just got off the telephone with Amber Hardy,” he says without preamble. “She was worried that you might do something rash, so she rang me and spilled everything. Even your friendship. But I already knew about that.”

I’m openly gaping at him now. I can’t help it.

Impostor Dickhead is unnerving. He seems almost human.

Not a fucking chance, you idiot! I inwardly berate myself.

I can’t fall for it the way everyone does in the movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They duplicate people in pods while they sleep, with the ultimate goal of replacing humanity with alien beings completely devoid of emotion to ensure the survival of their species.

Focus! Quit with the conspiracy theories already! Get your head out of your ass! It’s not like you have to fess up to anything. He already knows it all.

Wait.

“How do you know about Amber and me,?” I ask. “Our friendship?”

Un-fucking-real! THAT’S the best you can do?!

Geesh. I’m beginning to sound like Dickhead. But it IS something Real Dickhead would say. I’m not so sure about Impostor Dickhead.

I give him a surreptitious once-over. He’s an attractive enough guy, I suppose.

If you like the domineering, Attila-the-Hun type. 

I’m not certain about his lineage, but I don’t give inconsequential stuff like that any thought. Not even when it comes to him. We are who we are, and that’s good enough for me.

He has short, dark hair that’s almost black. I can’t tell you if it’s curly or straight, though, because he slicks it back with a ridiculous amount of product. In fact, I’ve never seen his hair so much as move. I’ll hazard a guess he goes through two or three tubes of hair gel every week, and I’m being conservative at that.

It’s probably too afraid to fall out of place because he’ll yell at it if it does.

He has a harsh, unforgiving face permanently scrunched in irritation or anger to go with that strong aquiline nose of his.

And he’s definitely built beneath those crisp, white long-sleeved dress shirts he favors, not that I spend my precious time checking him out all day. He always rolls the sleeves up on his shirts, so it’s hard to miss the definition of muscles in his forearms and the way his entire body strains against his clothing in general. He probably stays fit by punching homemade dummies of us every morning before coming to work and each night before going to sleep to dream up new, more innovative ways to terrorize his staff. Still, even I can appreciate a fit body, strictly speaking from a purely scientific standpoint, of course.

And those eyes. They’re diabolically dark, like the rest of him. What I can see of his arms and face, I mean. Tan. I don’t know what the rest of him looks like, and I have NO intention whatsoever of finding out, either.

He’s not at all how I envision the stereotypical pale Englishman. But oddities aside, he’s a jerk — all 6 feet however many inches tall of him — and assholes like him never change.

Impostor Dickhead is only temporary. Real Dickhead will return soon enough to go all rabies-infested Cujo on me and everyone else in the newsroom, just like always.

Yeah, fine, sure, Dickhead is very easy on the eyes, notwithstanding his beak-like nose. I’ll admit it. Not publicly. Not to another living soul. But to myself. OK. Yes. What can it hurt? No one ever is going to know, that’s for damn sure.

But hell, so was serial killer Ted Bundy. Easy on the eyes, that is. Not in my opinion. But many women DID find Bundy handsome and charismatic, which unfortunately led to their untimely demises. Not that I’d go quite that far or quite to such extremes as to compare Dickhead to Bundy. I’m not a cruel person.

But Dickhead sure is an icy bastard. And charisma might as well be a foreign language to him.

I guess you never can entirely peel back all the layers of another human being because we spend too much time protecting ourselves by developing thick skin to get through this fucked up thing we call life.

In Dickhead’s case, I don’t want to know. I’m not the least bit interested in carrying on with him. Never will be.

Not happening. Uh-uh. No way. HELL NO.

He’s not married, never has been — that I’m aware. Big surprise there. Nor have I heard of him dating anyone, not around here anyway, and not that I give two shits.

Who, in their RIGHT mind, would be dumb enough to date that heartless bastard?!

Indeed, the person sitting at the desk in front of me is not what he seems. I have to beat down the temptation to ask Impostor Dickhead what he did with Real Dickhead’s body. I want to know where he dumped it so I can see for myself. Not that I get off on that kind of thing. I just want proof is all. Proof that there still is justice in the world, that all of the Dickheads of this planet truly do reap what they sow eventually.

No you don’t. You know you don’t.

Damn. I really need to shake these dark, morbid thoughts.

I don’t wish Dickhead dead. Not at all. I simply want him to be on the receiving end of how he treats people so he knows firsthand how he makes the rest of us feel 24/7.

Nothing is more powerful than words. I hate it when people wield them like weapons. He uses them to cut, to belittle, to ridicule, to humiliate.

I know I have a potty mouth. I know I come up with all of these not-so-nice nicknames for people. I know I’m not perfect. I’ll be the first to own up to my shortcomings. But I keep all of that shit to myself. OK, OK. Except for Dickhead. Everyone in the newsroom, sans Dickhead, is privy to my pet name for him.

As for Dickhead, he lives to tear people down when he should be building them up. And he always makes sure he has an audience to bear witness to our humiliation. People like that have no hearts. They’re incapable of change. They’re incapable of empathy. And they don’t care if everyone knows it.

But this — Impostor Dickhead — is unsettling. I don’t like it. Not one bit.

Which brings me back to the present.

“Daydream over?” he asks quietly.

My face turns lobster red. I can feel the heat of my embarrassment, taste the shame of it.

Busted.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

OH, HELL NO!

“No?”

What is he, a fucking mind reader?!

He’s messing with me, using me as his lab rat in a mindfuck experiment. That’s the only explanation I have for this newest tactic of his. It can’t possibly be anything else. He doesn’t know any other way to be.

Surprise, motherfucker! I’m onto your tricks!

Instead, he throws me another curveball.

“We’ll figure this out together,” he says.

Strike one.

I’m beginning to detest Impostor Dickhead more than Real Dickhead.

He was hired for one reason: To get the paper in the black again. Sure, there is a spike in profits, but that’s mainly because he pushes everyone to their limits at any cost necessary. And I’m not talking money here.

He’s like a mercenary on a mission. Ruthless. I guess some people might admire him for that, for his single-mindedness. I don’t. I won’t. I can’t.

But then, I don’t own a newspaper, either. Who knows? It might be different if I was trying like mad to keep my business afloat in an economy sinking farther and farther into a recession that seemingly knows no end.

Not that I’m excusing Dickhead’s behavior. There is none.

However, I can understand the owners’ desperation to keep their paper, a family-run business for more than 100 years, alive in a high-tech world that relies heavily on the Internet for its news.

More and more people fancy themselves reporters, writing untruths or uploading pictures and videos without taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions. We, as journalists, uphold ourselves to the highest of standards to report truthfully the news without bias while minimizing harm.

But that’s not the case anymore. Just about every paper in the free world is online now, which is fine by me. But anyone can get on the Internet, write what they want, post it with the simple click of a mouse and pass it off as the truth when, in reality, it is not. It’s THAT easy to ruin someone’s life nowadays. But I believe — I HAVE to believe — that the good still outweighs the bad.

Then again, I’ve always been an idealist, a dreamer.

And here I go on yet another tangent. No wonder everyone thinks I’m in my own little world all the time. I can’t help myself.

My mind never stops. I swear, I can almost hear the whirring within.

It seems like I’ve been in Impostor Dickhead’s office for hours as I continue to lose myself in my own thoughts when, in fact, I haven’t been sitting here five minutes. OK, maybe 10, tops.

I don’t wear a watch.

I zoom in on Impostor Dickhead again.

He’s studying me, looks as if he’s been studying me for the entirety of my mental rant against journalistic injustice.

Another day, another time, it might even be funny. But not now, not in this moment.

“Sorry,” I say, at a loss as to how to excuse this latest brain fart of mine even to Impostor Dickhead.

He smiles knowingly.

Halle-fucking-lujah! Here it comes at last!

Strike two.

Genuine. His smile is genuine. Amazing.

What the hell is wrong with me?!

I need a reality check, a slap in the face, a smack upside the head — something, anything!

I have got to stop reading so many smut books and watching chick flicks. This isn’t one of those simpering romances where the heroine gets swept off into the sunset by her dashing, rich boss to live happily ever after. I can’t even bring myself to give it Bride of Frankenstein billing. Anaconda is more like it. It’s about a giant snake that eats people. Fits Dickhead to a T.

The shit of it is that all of my friends like to joke about me secretly being in love with Dickhead because of the Diana Palmer books I read. The men are always mean to the heroines in her novels, interestingly enough, but I most assuredly am NOT in love with Dickhead. Let me be clear on that.

I follow one Golden Rule: Don’t shit where you eat. In other words, don’t fuck the people with whom you work — or for whom you work — in any way.

Besides, his lips always are cruel and unsmiling, I reprimand myself, remind myself. And this is all a fucking hallucination that’s going to end with me taking up residence at the Funny Farm.

We have a winner!

I hate that he’s throwing me off-guard. I hate feeling vulnerable with Impostor Dickhead, not knowing what he’s plotting and scheming next. This is just WRONG on so many levels.

Has he been taking people skills classes recently, or what?

“We’ll get through this together,” he reassures me.

Strike three.

This time, I can’t help but gape.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he suddenly snaps, losing patience, “close your mouth and stop looking so gobsmacked!”

That’s better.

Real Dickhead is back.

“I’m not the monster you think I am.”

And, just like that, he’s gone again.

Make up your mind, pal. Hell, make up MY mind!

“The friendship?” I ask for the second time. “How do you know?”

He doesn’t answer as he stoically gazes through the mammoth floor-to-ceiling window in his office that allows him to watch the goings-on in the newsroom.

There isn’t time.

“The bobbies, er, police are here.”

I need another smoke. NOW.

“Blindsided,” Chapter Seven

Impostor Dickhead stands up, walks to the door, opens it.

I turn around in my chair to see two men I’m guessing are plainclothes detectives wearing dress shirts like his, sleeves rolled up, sweat stains already showing under their arms and probably on their backs from the sweltering humidity of a hellacious morning I’m never going to forget.

He doesn’t wait for them to do the talking.

Typical.

“Let’s do this in our conference room so we have some privacy,” he tells them, ever the commanding Englishman I suppose he fancies himself, with hints of Real Dickhead creeping through this newest “nicey-nice” demeanor of his.

He leads the way from his office to a closed door just outside the newsroom.

I start babbling as soon as we sit down at the long, rectangular table in the conference room. I can’t help myself, can’t hold back anymore. I tell them everything — about the friendship with the coaches, the note containing my phone number and Mom’s given name, the gun on Coach Smith’s desk, the secret meeting after leaving the high school.

I feel lighter getting it all out, a sense of exhilaration to not carry the burden of guilt that goes hand in hand with the shame of telling lies and half-truths, a profound relief to no longer feel as if I’m sneaking around to meet a married lover.

Nothing quite like a good confession to soothe the soul.

My parents are Catholic, so I attended parochial school growing up. I hated everything about it — the constant whispers about the priest and his altar boys, the ironic intolerance for loving someone of the same sex, the austere nuns, having to sit through mass every single day — but I still get an occasional case of that good ole Catholic guilt.

This is one of those times.

And even though I’m not a religious person, I am quite spiritual and I believe above all else that everyone always should be who they are as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. This includes, but is not limited to, practicing whatever religion it is that they follow.

Impostor Dickhead, sitting to my left, startles me back to reality when he reaches for my hand, holds it, gives it a squeeze, lets go. They’re warm, his hands. Not cold at all. Odd. Unsettling. Nice.

He leans close to my ear, whispers, “Give me 10 Hail Marys.”

Get OUT of my head!

Totally inappropriate, and VERY un-Real-Dickhead-like, but funny all the same. I cover the snort that always prefaces my laugh by forcing a fake coughing fit, and then I give him a hard kick to the shin under the table I immediately regret as he lets loose a painful howl. Like it or not, he IS my boss, after all.

“Care to share?” asks the older of the two detectives, who reminds me of Lennie Briscoe from the TV series Law & Order.

Before I can blurt out his comment, Impostor Dickhead shakes his head.

No.

“I didn’t kill Coach Smith,” I tell them. “I’m just a sports writer.”

Yeah, like that explains everything, you blithering idiot.

“Honest,” I say, “I’ve never fired a gun in my life. I could never hurt anyone.”

All three men give me skeptical looks that say otherwise.

“Uh huh,” Briscoe’s double says. “You just kicked him under the table.”

I can’t argue with that as I start to squirm under his unfaltering scrutiny.

“But,” he adds, “you’re not a suspect at this time. You’ve been very, ah, forthcoming. About everything.”

Thank fuck!

“Alabama authorities are attempting to locate your parents for questioning,” he says, “specifically your mother.”

Great, just great.

“And since this is an active investigation, I’m going to NICELY request that you omit the information about that note and what it contains, as well as the gun on Lester Smith’s desk,” he continues, telling us how things are going to be rather than actually asking us. “So your secret friendship with the coaches is safe. For now. We don’t want to give anyone who may be of interest to us any ideas, nor do we want to tip our hand.”

I need to go home. Not home as in my apartment, but HOME. To Alabama.

My parents have some explaining to do. Well, my mom, anyway.

Like how Coach Smith knows — sorry, knew — Mom’s nickname. Hell, her maiden name, for that matter. Why my number is on that piece of paper on his desk. And, most important, if she has anything to do with his homicide. That’s a tall order of questions to answer.

But answers I WILL get, one way or another.

The detectives HAVE to know by now that I’m going to drive straight home to my parents’ house as soon as they leave. Makes me wonder if they’re going to use me as bait. I already feel like a flailing worm with a big fishing hook jammed all the way through it just before it is cast to lure the catch of the day. It’s a frustratingly helpless predicament in which I find myself.

I’m drowning in the waters I’ve been treading all morning, unable to surface to catch my breath. And I’m sinking further and further into an abyss of despair that is threatening to devour everything I hold dearest in my life. My parents. My friendship with the Hardys. My freedom. My sanity.

But I have to see this through, even if the ending is not what I want it to be — happy, like all of my romance novels. I owe it to Coach Smith, even if the truth does not benefit my family or me. Even if it means someone I love going to prison for murder. It’s disheartening, no matter the outcome.

“Are we done?” I ask, suddenly weary.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Briscoe’s twin warns me. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

How lovely. He’s quoting fucking idioms to me now. Like that’s going to stop me.

“We need to be able to do our job,” he emphasizes, “and we don’t need you getting in the way. We have no idea who or what we’re dealing with, and we can’t spend precious time baby-sitting you just to make sure you don’t go getting into any trouble. Or screw up our investigation. Got it?”

Yeah yeah yeah, yada yada yada, blah blah blah. What-fucking-ever, Lennie.

The detectives get up then, head for the door. Briscoe requests my cell number, which, of course, I don’t have. And for the second time this morning, I elicit expressions of shock when I relay that information.

So Impostor Dickhead gives Briscoe his and matter-of-factly assures him and his quiet but watchful partner that I will be available to talk to them anytime, day or night. He then has the audacity to tell them that he will make it his personal mission to ensure I adhere to the strict instructions outlined by Briscoe.

Mighty high-handed of you to say so, yourself, buster. Very Real Dickhead-esque of you.

They exit the room as I stand up, unsteady as fat tears storm down my face, angrily plop-plop-plopping one right after another. I’m in dire need of a snot rag to wipe my face, blow my nose. But I can’t get any words out. And the sobs are trapped in my throat, stuck like a mistakenly swallowed small chicken bone blocking my airway.

It’s all too much! It’s all too fucking much to absorb! I can’t fucking do this alone! I’m going to go absolutely fucking bonkers because I can’t deal with any of this shit anymore! Gawddammit, why?! Why?! WHY?!

Impostor Dickhead leaves abruptly and just as quickly returns with a roll of toilet paper that I’m pretty sure he took out of one of the bathrooms beside the conference room. I mop up my splotchy face as best I can before blowing my nose several times. I sound like a gaggle of geese, but it doesn’t seem to bother Impostor Dickhead. I go through more than half the roll of toilet paper before I feel presentable or able enough to hold a conversation with him.

He starts to reach for me, for once as openly unsure and unsteady as I’ve been feeling all morning, but aborts the foreign show of compassion as I paste on a brittle smile that I know must be as false as Impostor Dickhead himself.

“I’m giving the story to Mandy Jo,” he says. “Stay put.”

About time Real Dickhead is back from wherever it is he went.

Woof woof. Yes, master. I’ll stay, just like a good little doggy.

“Please.”

The very moment I get some semblance of normalcy — even if it is in the form of Real Dickhead — Impostor Dickhead returns to mindfuck me some more.

So I sit back down because standing suddenly is impossible as the weight of this day bears down on me.

I freely admit that Impostor Dickhead’s decision to pass Coach Smith’s story on to Mandy Jo Oliphant is for the best. She is the Bluegrass city and Derby County government reporter, but she does have a solid background in cops and courts. She’s a great reporter, and she will let his story take her wherever she needs to go with it. She works at a slower pace than everyone else in the newsroom, but she’s very thorough, very persistent and perhaps the most persuasive reporter I’ve ever known, so I’m 100 percent confident that she will do Coach Smith’s story the justice that he deserves.

Mandy Jo — my closest friend at the paper — also has the spare keys to my apartment and car, so I’ll have to ask her to look after Stinky for me before I head out. I hate doing that to my cat, but I don’t have much choice. Besides, my little furbaby adores Mandy Jo because she talks to her like I do.

I’m so lost in my own thoughts, I don’t hear Impostor Dickhead quietly slip back into the room. Those unflinching ebony eyes of his see more than I care for him to see in my current breakdown-nearing state of mind, but I’m not up for the verbal parrying that is sure to follow when I tell him of my plans to drive down to my parents’ house as soon as I leave the building. I just hope I don’t lose my job over it.

“It’s done,” he needlessly informs me.

“How do you know about my friendship with Amber?” I ask him for the third time this morning, hoping it’s the so-called charm to get him to answer me.

No such luck.

“Jackson is doing a sidebar bio on Lester Smith to go with the lead story on A1,” he says, instead, referring to the front page of the paper. “I gave Mandy Jo a rundown of what we know. As much as I’d like to tell them to fuck off and print every single detail, I will refrain from doing so in deference to Lester Smith, as well as you and your family. For now.

Well, well, well. Looks like SOMEONE doesn’t like being told what to do.

And, as simple as ABC123, Real Dickhead materializes.

I combat the desire to mention something to the effect of him not being able to take what he dishes out, but I think better of it.

Best to keep the lion tame and get out of his den. Pronto!

“Alex will look after things while we’re out of town,” he says.

Alex Downey is the assistant managing editor of the Daily Herald, and … wait, what does he mean by “WE?!”

I shake my head vigorously. He most definitely is NOT accompanying me on my mission.

“Yes, WE,” Real Dickhead imperiously confirms, again dipping into my thoughts. “I am responsible for you, so we do this together. MY way.”

It takes every bit of willpower for me not to stand at attention and salute him like a subservient soldier under his command.

Hail, Caesar!

“Fine,” I grind out through my clenching teeth.

“Shall we?” he asks, promptly turning into the suave English gentleman that he strictly reserves for social events when he is out and about glad-handing in the community.

Too bad I know differently.

He extends his hand.

I can only gape.

“Close your mouth and stop looking so bloody gobsmacked!” he snaps, losing patience. “We’re wasting time tarrying about!”

That’s better.

I have to confess that I find some sort of fucked up comfort having something — someone — familiar to cling to as I wrestle to safeguard my faculties against the madness of this gawddamn day.

I fleetingly study his outstretched hand like anyone is apt to do when facing a poisonous snake that’s coiled and ready to strike at any second, fearing I’ll get bitten if I so much as breathe or bat an eye.

“For fuck’s sake!” he bellows at me not for the first time today. “I’m not going to bite!”

I reluctantly take his hand, rise from my chair.

Large, strong AND firm, with unmistakable callouses. Hands that clearly know hard labor. And, most important, no sweat. Yes, they are nice, I reiterate my previous opinion. I have a great appreciation for hands, and I … I like his. A little too much.

As I frequently point out, there’s no worse turnoff than a limp, lifeless, perspiration-filled handshake. But we’re not shaking hands, and I am NOT turned on at all.

I jerk my hand from his a half-second too late.

The bastard senses my inner conflict, my clash with self-loathing — over a fucking hand, HIS hand, of all things — but wisely says nothing. Just smirks.

“You need a mobile phone,” he tells me for the umpteenth time as we leave the room together.

My headache is back, worse than before.

In more ways than one.

“What I NEED is an aspirin,” I counter.

And that second smoke Real Dickhead/Impostor Dickhead and the detectives cockblocked me from having since I stepped foot into the damn building.

“Blindsided,” Chapter Eight

Real Dickhead allows me to stop by Mandy Jo’s desk just long enough to ask her to look after my cat before hurriedly ushering me the rest of the way out of the Daily Herald building as if he is shielding me from a horde of reporters in the midst of a feeding frenzy.

Which, I reckon, can conceivably happen in the middle of our own newsroom. Strike that. IS going to happen the second we vacate the premises.

If you know anything at all about reporters, then you can accurately deduce that we’re a nosy, tenacious lot. And I know my co-workers VERY well. I can just hear all of their speculative murmurings, and I instantly feel sorry for Mandy Jo. I have no doubt whatsoever that they soon are going to be inundating her with questions faster than a machine gun can spit out bullets, doing every attorney in the free world proud with their, uh, cross-examination-like skills.

Good thing for me Real Dickhead is withholding all the juicy tidbits, that is, until further notice. When he gets what he wants. When he possibly brings me to my knees, begging him not to share my family’s potentially dirty laundry with the entire world. But I’m getting ahead of myself with all of these ludicrous conspiracy theories.

I light up the instant we’re outside in the blazing sun, the humidity even more oppressive as what little remains of the morning gives way to afternoon.

Real Dickhead raises a brow and gives me that aggravating, smug grin of his again, but he doesn’t look at all surprised. How can anyone be, considering the most unlikeliest of circumstances even I can’t think of conjuring in this increasingly fucked up thing I call my mind?

He lights up, too. It’s the only REAL thing we have in common, so we puff away in silence, each thinking about the journey that lies ahead of us.

I’m already dreading it. Not just the long-ass car ride in his shitty company, but having to ask my parents questions to which I’m already wildly guessing the answers.

Best not to create more drama before knowing all the facts.

“I suppose we should get going,” I needlessly say after a few minutes.

“We’ll take MY car,” he answers, giving the eyesore that is mine a disdainful once-over.

“Fine by me.”

I’m not in the mood to dissuade him. My headache won’t go away, if you’ll pardon the double entendre, and I know I will inevitably lose the argument if I insist on taking mine just to spite him.

So we dispose of our cigarettes and head toward his brand new black Honda Accord, get in, drive away.

I’m relatively sure he bought it with his bonus from the powers that be for making the Daily Herald more profitable than it’s been in years, thanks to single-handedly pushing damn near all of us to our quitting points with his impossible expectations. And we’re not what you call slouches, either. We work our asses off for him, but it seems like nothing ever is good enough to please him. We have several award-winning reporters and photographers on staff, but we never get any praise or recognition for our achievements. The only things Real Dickhead ever notices are our mistakes, and he makes sure everyone knows about them the few times we actually DO fuck something up. It happens. No one is perfect.

But there is no joy in my work when my boss rides roughshod over me every day. The only time I’m truly happy is when I’m out on assignment. I often toy with the idea of looking elsewhere for employment, but why allow him to run me off like he has so many others? I’m too stubborn to give up. I won’t let him defeat me, or my spirit. I WILL prevail.

I dig around in my purse in hopes of finding aspirin, but my efforts are futile. I rub my forehead, gasping from the pressure of the painful thump-thump-thumping of this headache as we reach I-65 and head South toward my hometown of Tideville, Alabama. I can only hope the next three or so hours — depending on traffic — pass quickly with him saying as little as possible, and that this ceaseless pounding doesn’t transform into a full-blown migraine. I won’t be at all functional if it does. Like a deer freezing in the headlights that transfix it, migraines immobilize me like nothing else can, reducing me to little more than a pathetic, helpless, crying mass.

“I’ll stop at the next exit for something to drink and get you some aspirin for that headache,” he says quietly, reverting back to Impostor Dickhead. “Put the seat back, if you like, and try to get some sleep.”

I do just that, close my eyes, drift off.

I wake with a start, disoriented by my unfamiliar surroundings, feeling as if it’s only been mere minutes since closing my eyes. The sounds of Pink Floyd fill the quiet car, the volume low. Comfortably Numb.

How very apt.

“How do you feel?” still-Impostor Dickhead inquires.

It takes a moment to collect myself, take in my surroundings. I look at the clock on the dashboard and do a double take.

Two o’clock?!

We’re not moving, instead sitting in the gridlock that is all-too-typical of Nashville, Tenne-damn-ssee. Doesn’t matter WHERE you drive in Nashville. You’re going to sit in hurry-up-and-wait traffic anywhere you go, and that’s that. Listening to your radio is a MUST when navigating your way through the city so you know where NOT to drive to avoid the backlog of traffic whenever accidents occur. So, take heed anytime you see Davidson County plates.

I love the city, come here often, but its drivers are more accident-prone than all of Kentucky’s put together, thanks to the infamous “Nashville turn.” That’s the terminology for when a driver nonchalantly glides across multiple lanes without so much as looking, thus almost always resulting in at least one collision. Think I’m kidding? Try driving in Nashville and see for yourself. It’s not pretty. The people here are some of the nicest you’ll ever meet, but all bets are off when they get behind the wheel of a car. My best advice? Drive defensively.

We’re still a good two-plus hours from Tideville IF the flow of traffic goes back to normal sometime soon.

“A little better,” I finally respond.

“I got you a bottle of water and some aspirin a while back, but I didn’t want to wake you,” Impostor Dickhead says, motioning to the two built-in cup holders between our seats.

“Thank you.”

I break the seal on the bottle of aspirin, shake out two, put them in my mouth. My gunky mouth.

Fuckity fuck fuck fuck! Funky sleep breath. Great.

I’m suddenly extremely self-conscious with this revelation, but force myself to untwist the cap on the water and take a few big gulps to help me get the aspirin down. The water refreshes me, though I avert my face so Impostor Dickhead doesn’t get a whiff of my skunkadelic breath.

He clues in on my discomfort, again opening the glove compartment to present me with a pack of Certs. I unravel the tube packaging in no time flat and toss three into my mouth. I guess they’ll have to do until I can get my hands on a toothbrush and some toothpaste. Even a swig of mouthwash will make me less — I dunno — uncomfortable about this latest quandary of mine, stupid though it may be considering the man whose undesirable company I’m keeping.

Yes, I know people wake up with bad breath every day, but I’m a bit of a fanatic about oral hygiene. There’s nothing worse than sewer breath except those nasty ass McDonald’s farts within half an hour — if that long — after eating their greasy food or forgetting to close the bathroom door following a dump so that innocent bystanders don’t gag on the stench. Gross, I know, but true all the same.

“Better?” he asks, breaking into my stomach-churning musings.

“Yes,” I say. “Much.”

Traffic is beginning to move at a slow crawl, but we’re not going to break any speed records getting out of Nashville. I guesstimate it’ll be another hour before we hit the outskirts, barring any more accidents.

“Did I snore?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

He smiles.

“Was I loud?” I persist.

His smile turns into a smirk.

I ignore it.

Meanwhile, I can already feel the beginnings of another sunburn. Which translates to more freckles and some discomfort. I’ll have to get some Aloe Vera gel so I don’t start peeling like a molting snake. I have to use at least the 60 SPF sunblock for babies — any brand will do — because anything less is completely ineffective. It’s tough being a redhead sometimes, but alas, it comes with the territory.

“You are quite possibly the most fascinating person I’ve ever met,” Impostor Dickhead reflects aloud. “Your mind never stops.”

Now THAT, I can’t ignore. He NEVER gives compliments. EVER. Not even of the backhand variety.

Astonishing. Simply astonishing.

“Am I that transparent?” I recover enough to ask.

His droll look says it all.

“I’m not very good at hiding my feelings,” I admit.

“Surely, you jest,” he quips, a matter-of-fact observation rather than a question.

“I gather you’re terrible at cards.”

Again, a statement. But he is correct.

I can’t help grinning, flashing both sets of dimples.

They’re the bane of my existence, these damn things, particularly when little old ladies think nothing of walking right up to me to pinch the hell out of my cheekbones because they think “they’re so adorable on your cute little heart-shaped face,” to quote one of my mom’s annoying-as-fuck friends who does it every damn time she sees me. All I can say is thank fuck they don’t squeeze the life out of the dimple in my chin — only, mind you, because there’s not much excess skin for them to hold onto — although plenty of them still tend to point and poke at it like it’s the Eighth Wonder of the World because, to once again quote that same pain-in-the-ass friend of Mom’s, “it makes you look alluring.”

Maybe, just maybe, this impromptu “adventure” with my boss tagging along isn’t going to be so bad, after all.

“And there you are,” he says, returning my smile.

Ask. NOW. He’s off-guard, relaxing, approachable. Do it NOW!

The smile leaves my face as the heavy traffic reaches another stalemate.

“How do you know about my friendship with the Hardys?” I pounce, inwardly crossing all of my extremities that he will come clean this time.

He expels a long-suffering breath that erases his smile.

“Lester Smith.”

This is news to me. It’s much easier thinking he’s totally oblivious to my world other than my comings and goings in the workplace. It’s staggering to realize that he may be acutely aware of many more of my personal goings-on in the real world, and I can’t help but wonder how far that knowledge expands beyond my personal friendships.

“You knew Coach Smith?”

He shrugs, noncommittal.

“Yes and no,” Impostor Dickhead says. “I like to know what my reporters are up to, how all of you interact with people while you’re in the public eye, whether you’re acting in the best interests of the newspaper, your ability to maintain the highest level of professionalism and integrity — those kinds of things and others I won’t delve into … for now. I’ve spoken to him on several occasions about Bob, Jackson and you. He thought very highly of you. As do I.”

There he goes sneaking up on my blind side again, this time knocking me for a loop with his praise. Who IS this man?!

I can’t conceal my shock. I almost feel guilty for calling him Dickhead. ALMOST.

“I do far more than sit behind a desk and give orders,” he adds. “I’m not the monster you make me out to be, and don’t bother denying it.”

He’s right, of course. The denial comment, not the monster part. Curious that he’s mentioning the monster thing again, though. It sounds to me like he’s trying to justify his bad behavior, but it’s more of a “too little, too late” scenario.

Just hear him out. Listen without judging. Give him a chance. You owe him that much.

So I grudgingly decide to listen to my guilty conscience and allow him to have his say just this once. It’s the least I can do after trashing him nonstop since becoming my boss a year ago. But I downright refuse to apologize for the way I feel about him and his fucking awful managing techniques.

“I’m not here to be anyone’s mate, er, friend,” he admits, firmly gaining momentum but not shouting — yet, “nor am I here to win any popularity contests. I push all of you to do your best because anything less is unacceptable. When you make mistakes, it is my job to see that you don’t make them again. Even if it means making an example out of you in front of everyone. I will not allow anyone to undermine the integrity of this paper, and if they do, they can seek employment elsewhere, and have, as you well know. There is NO margin for error in this business. The public trusts us to report the news truthfully and it is our duty to see that they get nothing less than our best efforts to provide it to them without bias. And if that makes me an unfeeling di … bastard, so be it. I will NEVER lower my expectations.”

DAMN. Talk about being brutally honest. But, you know, I can respect that. Hell, even admire it. He has balls, that’s for damn sure.

“But you never appreciate us,” I interject, only to be cut off as he wildly slashes his right hand through the air to quiet me.

“I don’t have the time or the inclination to go around the newsroom showering everyone with praise for a job well done every day!” he snaps, changing all the way back into Real Dickhead. “I’m not here to hold your hands, or pander to your needs! I refuse to stroke anyone’s ego, gush about their work OR pat them on the back for winning awards! I won’t allow anyone to rest on their laurels because I cannot stomach complacency! If that makes me the bad guy, then fine! But, goddammit, I am not a monster for doing what needs to be done!

Holy-fucking-moly! Talk about tense! Calgon, take HIM away so he can chillax!

“Of course not,” I try placating him, but he interrupts me once more.

“Don’t. You. Dare,” he enunciates each word softly, dangerously. “Don’t you dare try to humor me and don’t you dare try to pacify me when you know NOTHING about me.”

Touche.

But he’s right. And therein lies the chasm between us.

Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in HIS shoes.

The old proverb chides me to see the world through his eyes, to understand his everyday plights, to respect his decisions even if I don’t always agree with them OR him. And, most important, to make peace with him even if I don’t like him.

Eating crow doesn’t agree with me, but I shovel it down anyway.

I’m not proud of myself.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, shakily reaching for his hand, lacing my cold fingers through his.

I don’t know what else to say.

“I’m a simple man, Piccolo,” he says, squeezing my hand with a startling tenderness that somewhat lifts the grim atmosphere of his car, “with a difficult job I don’t expect anyone to understand. But I won’t apologize for being who I am, or doing MY job the way I see fit. Not how everyone else THINKS I should. I’m not there to be chummy with everyone, nor to be anyone’s bleeding-heart confidant. I can deal with the resentment, the nasty comments behind my back when you’re all lunching together, even the, ah, creative nicknames. I made a promise to the owners that I intend to keep when they handed over complete creative control to me as managing editor. And whether you’re in MY newsroom or out and about representing THEIR newspaper, you are a reflection of US and everything WE stand for: Integrity above all else.

He turns my hand over, still holding fast to it.

“But it smarts, sometimes, Piccolo,” he confesses, lamenting, “knowing things I wish I didn’t, wanting things I know I shouldn’t, wishing for something that can never be — all in the name of integrity.”

Deep stuff. The man has more layers than an onion.

“Then you … you KNOW … ” I trail off, unable to bring myself to finish asking what I want — no, NEED — to know, even though I already know the answer to my question.

“Yes,” he hisses, confirming it.

 Cat’s out of the bag now.

“I’m sorry,” I say again, a lame attempt to undo what cannot be undone.

“Don’t be,” he replies with self-deprecating humor. “Don’t apologize for being who you are, or for your, ah, INTERESTING choice of nicknames. Your quirkiness quite amuses me.”

His palpable loneliness bothers me, gnaws away at me, calls out to me in a way I cannot yet grasp — compelling me to make things right.

Go ahead. Ask him before you lose your nerve. C’mon! What’s the worst that can happen?!

“I can … I can be your … your sounding board,” I shyly suggest, heart in hand, offering a truce. “Away from work. Without judging. If you … if you like. Even if you just rant on the phone to me about your day. I’ll listen. I’ll always be honest with you, that is, if you want my opinion, and I won’t tell anyone. You can trust me. I never told a soul about Amber. But you knew, and you still kept my secret.

His dark eyes seek out mine, measuring me, searching for something, and then he kisses the hand holding his before letting go, satisfied with whatever it is he finds.

“I accept.”

And just that quickly, we form an improbable alliance, each uncertain of what to expect from the other, but both willing to risk the unknown.

Together.

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