The sun finally is starting to set as we begin the long drive home, but the heat hasn’t subsided even a teensy bit.
It’ll be dark by the time we get back on the William Natcher Parkway. As it is, we’re an hour from Owensboro. It’ll be roughly another hour — hopefully less — of traveling on the parkway before we get back to Bluegrass and who knows how much longer until we reach Dickhead’s home turf because I have no clue where he lives in Derby County. No one else does, either, that I’m aware.
I’m too afraid to succumb to sleep in the meantime because I know the only thing I’ll see when I close my eyes is Jane Gallant’s lifeless body.
No, thank you.
So I’ll simply force myself to stay awake, even if it means chain smoking an entire pack of Dorals since both of us just broke his unspoken rule of not lighting up in the car.
Dickhead puts on some tunes without me having to ask. I instantly know the song, Pink Floyd’s “Signs of Life” from the group’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason album. Seems appropriate enough.
I settle back into the seat, resting my head as I stare into space, seeing nothing as I fight to hold the terror in check, fight the exhaustion to keep the nightmares that are sure to come at bay, fight to make sense of the confusing feelings my companion continues to evoke within me.
When I woke up early yesterday morning, I’d have gladly taken my chances dealing with the terror and bad dreams over Dickhead. Today, not so much. Funny, how quickly things can change in a blink sometimes.
The lonely, neglected one-lane road we’re on has seen better days as the car thumps over endless cracks and Dickhead expertly navigates around potholes.
“The preliminary autopsy report on Lester Smith has been withheld by the local bobbies for the time being,” he says, not bothering to correct his British terminology now that it’s just the two of us again, even though I still find that whole “boot” bit hilarious, “so we’re at a standstill there. But we shall keep digging in the meantime. From a safe distance.“
I salute him without thinking. If it wasn’t for the car, I’d be salaaming at his feet. He knows it, too, judging by that all-knowing smirk he’s sporting.
I lay my head back again.
“What was that femme fatale act of yours all about at Jane Gallant’s front door?” he grills me out of the blue, all at once serious. “And that virginal little kiss?”
Two can play this game.
“What was with that whole ‘I want Miss Granger to see me as a man instead of her boss’ speech?” I counter. “And all of this touchy-feely ‘I care deeply’ stuff, huh?”
Ah, adversaries once more.
Neither of us is willing to give an inch to put whatever this … this thing is into words.
Do we let this moment pass us by and cop to nothing like it doesn’t even exist? Do we dare let our shared reticence kill it before it ever has an opportunity to bloom should we choose to continue living in the past for fear of opening ourselves up to the kind of pain each of us has experienced from our failed relationships? Or do we let those old wounds finally heal, giving it life by admitting to what we really and truly feel in our hearts, grabbing it with both sets of hands to take this fleeting chance?
“I … ” we both blurt out simultaneously.
“Jinx, you owe me a Coke,” I tell him, laughing, “but I’ll settle for a cup of coffee.”
He looks at me quizzically.
“It’s just something I say when someone else says the same thing as me at the same time, if that makes any sense.”
He cocks a brow, giving me an indulgent grin.
“Anyway,” I start again, tightly squeezing my eyes shut in case I’ve been viewing the situation all wrong and reading more into it than there actually is on his part, “I, uh, wasn’t exactly jealous as much as I was perturbed when you were needling me about being jealous because I know you know that I’ve been fighting this attraction I have for you, so I decided to get back at you for being so damn smug about it. Funny thing is, the joke is on me. As soon as I touched you, it stopped being a game. The contact was devastating. In a good way. And the kiss, well, it just felt right.”
There, now it’s all out in the open. He can make what he likes of it. It feels good not to have to hide it or fight it anymore. I’ve been doing plenty of both for the past year. Since the very first day he stormed into my life and put my back up. I finally recognize that, after being dead inside for so long. I certainly put up a good fight with Dickhead while it lasted, but there comes a time in our lives when we have to stop running. This is it for me.
I’m in love with him.
Even if the only person I ever admit it to is myself.
I bet that bombshell would shock the shit right out of him.
“I appreciate your honesty,” he says.
Uh oh, here it comes.
The gentle letdown.
“I saw right through your sarcasm the first day I met you,” he admits, stunning me with the admission. “We’re kindred spirits in that regard, burying the sadness and loneliness deep down so no one else can see beneath our prickly exteriors.”
This isn’t at all what I was expecting. I open my eyes just enough to see him staring stone-faced straight ahead, both of his hands clutching the steering wheel in a death grip.
“I purposely antagonized you,” he admits. “I wanted — needed — you to hate me. It was much easier for me to cope with a hostile working relationship with you than it was for me to examine too closely the reasons why I wanted it to be that way, why it HAD to be that way. The truth is, I’ve never felt more alive than I have sparring with you.”
Damn. Maybe there’s hope for an US, after all.
“My conscience and my responsibilities to the paper always won out, of course, because I’m your boss first and it has always been my own unspoken rule not to get personally involved with any of my subordinates,” he says. “There’s no such rule at the Daily Herald, itself, but it has always gone against my code of ethics to carry on with an employee.”
So much for hoping for something that’s obviously never going to be.
“But when you walked into my office yesterday morning after Amber Hardy rang me, I couldn’t bring myself to continue with the silly charade anymore. So I played my trump card and gave you no choice but to suffer my company because you were so vulnerable and because I was afraid you’d do something reckless in such a state. I thought if I could just get you alone long enough, have you all to myself for just a little while, you might begin to see me in a new light.”
No argument there.
“I do care deeply for you, Piccolo. More than you know. But I had no hope to expect anything more than perhaps the fragile beginnings of a friendship with you until I saw the look in your eyes when you touched me. The attraction has always been mutual, whether you’ve realized it or not on my part, but there’s no faking the naked emotion I saw in you today. And when you kissed me, it damn near undid me. It gave me a sliver of hope in all of this ugliness.”
It’s almost dark as we happen upon the first Owensboro exit sign advertising gas stations, restaurants and lodging.
“Hungry?” he asks, abruptly changing the subject, although I know this conversation is far from finished.
“I could eat a side of beef right now,” I answer truthfully.
Neither of us has eaten since our stop at the mall.
He pulls up to the Shoney’s on Frederica Street, the main drag in Owensboro, several minutes later. It’s a little out of our way, but the grub is well worth the extra time it will take us to get home. It’s 8 p.m. on the nose, so there’s still a possibility that we’ll make it back to Bluegrass at a reasonably decent hour. I can always pick up whatever clothes I need tomorrow and check on Stinky, unless Dickhead already has made other arrangements without telling me. It wouldn’t be the first time.
We both opt for the buffet, which is an odd mixture of supper and breakfast foods. After loading up our plates and heading back to a window booth in the practically empty restaurant, we eat in ravenous silence. Good to know we share a love for food. Plus, he doesn’t gawk at me like I’m some big, fat blob when I go back to the bar for another plate like a lot of people do because of society’s fucked up notion that women should be stick thin and eat like birds.
After we eat our fill, we order coffee to give us a jolt so we don’t have a repeat of last night’s food comas. Then, as if our previous conversation had never been put on hold, he grasps my hands and pins me with his unflinching eyes.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he warns me. “I prefer to keep my work life separate from my personal life, and I expect you to do the same. We’re always going to butt heads. We’ll probably argue every day just to be contrary and hurt each other’s feelings at times without intending to do so, but I can’t change who I am any more than you can, nor do I expect it.
“I’m set in my ways, I’m demanding, I’m impatient, I’m selfish, I have a black temper, I have to be in control and I’m used to getting my own way. It’s best you know all of my idiosyncrasies now, if you don’t already, in case you’re expecting a miracle to happen overnight. Because it won’t. So if you don’t want this to progress any further, now is the time for you to back out.”
It’s as if he’s trying to push me away with one hand while pulling me closer with the other. I know better, though. Like me, he fears rejection and shields his heart by offering an escape route. But I’m not going anywhere. I know he isn’t as atrocious as he’s making himself out to be.
“You’d never make a dime as a salesman, you know that?” I tell him in earnest. “You make it sound like I’m getting a terrible bargain by selling yourself short. All of those things are part of what makes you who you are, so stop painting yourself to be the monster I know you’re not.
“I’d be bored to tears if you let me walk all over you like a doormat. So would you. We’ve always done everything the hard way, so why take the easy way now? I can’t — won’t – fight this anymore. We can go round and round all day, every day, as long as we never go to bed mad.”
His eyes kindle at that last innocent remark.
“I mean sleep. As long as we never go to sleep mad.”
One hurdle at a time.
“I know what you meant,” he reassures me, kissing my hands. “I will never take more than you’re willing to give, physically. I’m nothing like Joe. I’m impatient, yes, but I will never force myself on you. You have my word, and my word is my bond.”
Whew. That’s a relief. I’m not quite ready to jump into bed with him just yet, but I don’t find the possibility of it eventually happening at all distasteful, either. Trusting a man enough to have any kind of a personal relationship beyond a platonic friendship is a huge step for me after what Joe did so long ago. It’s both frightening and exhilarating.
“It’s … it’s OK if you … you touch me and stuff, like you have been,” I say, not wanting to deny either one of us of the surprisingly delightful contact we’ve been sharing since yesterday. “I don’t mind. It’s nice. I like it. Very much. You don’t make me feel trapped. Like I can’t get away, I mean.”
He gives my hands a tender squeeze before reaching for his coffee cup and holding it up for a toast. I grab mine, and we clink mugs.
“To us,” he says.
It has a nice ring to it.