“Thank you,” I say, meaning it.
I steal a nervous glance at him, noticing the circles under his intense, deep-set eyes and the lines around his now-frowning mouth, though neither negate his resolve or his strength.
“I don’t trust easily,” he admits, capturing my round, doe-ish eyes (yes, dammit, they’re really shaped like that) with his hypnotic ones, “and I don’t let just anyone in because I … because I learned the hard way that most people, especially those closest to you, can — and will — turn on you and use your vulnerabilities against you.”
Sounds like SOMEONE already is having a case of buyer’s remorse before walking out of the damn store! He’s erecting invisible barriers longer and higher than the Great Wall of China before I even have a chance to prove myself, to let him lean on someone else for a change instead of going it alone the way he’s making it seem he always has gauging by his hesitant, standoffish admission. He’s a walking, talking oxymoron. And he has the nerve to call me quirky?! Fuck that shit! I am NOT in the mood!
“But I’m not most people!” I insist defiantly, my irritation with Dickhead rapidly elevating as I round on him. “If you didn’t trust me already — trust my integrity — at least on a professional level, you’d have fired me on the spot because of my friendship with Amber! I don’t know how long you’ve known, but I’ve never let our friendship affect MY integrity! You’d have been in my face if you thought otherwise, and you know it! As hard as it was for me this morning, and even though you beat me to the punch and I pussyfooted around about it at first, I would have told you, in my own way. Today. Because I suck at lying AND my conscience is a mile wide. But you also know that.“
And he fucking WONDERS why I call him Dickhead?!
His winged eyebrows lift in what appears to be admiration, but I’m too spitting mad to give two shits at this point of my passionate argument.
I’m not done with you yet, asshole!
“I get that trust comes hard for you,” I continue my rant as my exasperation soars, “that you have few — if any — friends, or whatever it is they are to you, in this world because someone did something terrible to you somewhere down the line. But you don’t let anyone in easily because you slam the fucking door on them before they can step foot inside!“
I’m still not done. He wisely opts not to impede me, but his brows furrow as he absorbs the impact of the words that FINALLY seem to be hitting their mark by the — softening, thoughtful? — expressions on his angular, oddly handsome face.
“Trust goes BOTH ways,” I say, calming down somewhat. “Life has no guarantees. People get hurt every day. Go ahead, shut yourself off from the world all you like. But it’s not fair to lump everyone together like cattle, either. Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith when you find something — someone — worthwhile. You keep telling me you’re not the monster I think you are, so let me see for myself. And, since I’m being honest with myself, part of me IS doing this out of guilt because I never gave you a chance before today. The sounding board offer, I mean. Or whatever you want to call it. But the other part of me WANTS to know YOU. You said so yourself that I know nothing about you. Well, here’s your chance to open the door and let me in, even if all I ever get to do is stand in the damn foyer.”
So much for pulling my punches. Ball’s in your court now, Dickhead.
And this time, I refuse to break eye contact. He needs to know I mean business, boss or not. I will not back down anymore.
“You’ll do,” he says, returning my stare with interest. “You’ll do just fine. We’ll make great sparring partners.”
Oh, so now we’re Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed?! Fine. I’ll derive gleeful pleasure from beating him to a pulp. He NEEDS a good beatdown, and I’m happy to oblige by opening up a can of whoop-ass on him.
“I’ll teach you how to box,” he says, chuckling. “I have a feeling you will be a star pupil.”
With that, the emotionally splintering atmosphere of a moment ago promptly undergoes a full metamorphosis. And my fighting spirit deserts me.
“Are you always going to be this difficult?” I inquire conversationally.
“That depends,” he volleys. “Are you always going to be this cheeky?”
And it’s a no-decision, ladies and gentlemen!
I give him my best death stare, but his sedate mirth turns into a full-blown laugh and I can’t stay mad at him. Witnessing those semi-thin lips crack a smile is rare enough, but I don’t recall ever hearing him laugh now that I think about it. Really laugh. It sounds rusty, but I can see the sincerity of it in his eyes. I may stink at the lying game, but I DO have a knack for spotting fake smiles and laughter. The eyes give it away every single time.
Traffic commences putt-putting anew. Perhaps we’ll actually make some progress this time around. I’m fucking starving and my stomach is grumbling loudly in protest, so everybody better get a move on or else I can’t be held responsible for my actions. I am past ready to throw down on some food — anything will do with the exception of peas, mushrooms and fish — and people need to get the hell out of our way so we can make that happen SOON. I get super bitchy when I’m hungry. Well, fungry — fucking hungry — when I get to the point that I’m ready to gnaw on just about anything. I might even take a bite out of Dickhead if he pisses me off again in the near future.
I never eat breakfast because my stomach won’t allow it, can’t even begin to process food in the morning. And if I do eat anything before noon, I get gut rot for the rest of the day. So I stick strictly to coffee until afternoon, but dire circumstances and lack of time prevented me from having my caffeine fix at work today. The coffee there certainly isn’t anything to scream home about, but it only costs 50 cents per day to drink my fill, not to mention that it makes me somewhat functional and less cranky at the crack of dawn.
My empty tummy sounds off its disapproval, but at least traffic is picking up speed.
“You know how to box?” I ask, trying to ignore the cries of protest from my belly.
Leave it to me to pick up on the sports reference.
“Yes,” he says, without elaborating. “You need something to eat.”
You don’t fucking say.
“We’ll go to a drive-thru at one of the exits as soon as we get out of Nashville,” he says absently, paying close attention to the road and vehicles weaving in and out of lanes as traffic finally gets back to normal and all the crazy Nashvillians start passing us by like we’re still motionless.
Too bad we can’t have a sit-down lunch somewhere, but we have bigger fish to fry. Although fish makes me cringe. So does the cliché. But it fits.
I don’t need to go anywhere near fast food, but all I ever seem to eat these days IS junk. In fact, I swiftly gained around 20 pounds — give or take a few — onto my already-curvy 130-pound frame after I quit smoking. What can I say? I have a lifelong love affair with food that really heated up when I gave up the mint sticks. There’s just more of me to love now. Not a damn thing wrong with that, either. That said, I’m not home enough to cook until summertime — when sports taper off a bit to give me an offseason of sorts — but it’s depressing when you’re only cooking for one. I love to cook, don’t get me wrong, but I’m willing to do way more of it if I have someone with whom to share and appreciate my efforts.
Kayla downright refuses to come to my apartment. She’s really the only person other than Amber that I ever invite over to eat one of my rare home-cooked meals or to just simply hang out and catch up on things. Kayla turns me down every time I ask because she says my place is a mess — I personally love its lived-in quality even if she doesn’t — she fears for her safety in my ‘hood AND I don’t have cable OR a television set so she can watch her shows. She’s high maintenance. Me, I’m plenty happy catching SportsCenter, the local news and the occasional TV show I can’t live without at the office. Or watching movies at Amber’s place since we can’t be seen together at the theater.
And don’t ask me about the Internet. I don’t have it, nor do I want it. I use it at work, and that’s good enough for me. What I DO have in my rustic abode is a stereo with a CD player for my listening pleasure while I read when I actually AM home for more than an afternoon catnap before a game, or late into the night and in the wee hours of the morning when everyone else is sleeping.
But that’s the life of a sports writer. I can live with it, even if most people don’t understand why I do what I do. I love it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The paychecks aren’t great, but that’s not why I do this job. I’m happier being poor doing something I enjoy than, say, Kayla, who’s an electrical engineer and hates what she does despite making good money. Everything we do — every decision we make — has consequences, good and bad. I’m OK with mine, Dickhead notwithstanding; Kayla has yet to learn to live with hers.
Dickhead’s cell phone rings, jolting me out of this latest infamous deep-thinking session of mine. He presses one of the many buttons and gadgets adorning the steering wheel to answer it hands-free, signaling for me — in his usual imperialistic Dickhead way — to be quiet.
It’s Briscoe, his voice echoing across the car.
The news isn’t good.
He relays to Dickhead that the preliminary autopsy report on Coach Smith will be available tomorrow afternoon, blabbity blah blah blah. “Official” info we already know. We also are relatively sure that he was shot in the back of the head, according to Shane’s accounts to Amber, although Briscoe doesn’t get into the how of Coach’s Smith murder with us. I’m positive he knows we know. He’s not dumb. Neither are we.
But the gun Amber says Shane saw on Coach Smith’s desk? Turns out it’s not the murder weapon, after all.
The gun, in all likelihood, does belong to Coach Smith — only his fingerprints are on it and his wife verified that he kept one just like it in a locked cabinet with various other weapons at their residence — but Kentucky state law doesn’t require individuals to register firearms. Still, Briscoe goes on to tell Dickhead that the safety catch is on and the gun shows no indication of having been fired. He tells us all of this off the record, of course, so we can’t share that detail with the public — with anyone — until the police catch the killer. Or killers.
Which means Coach Smith clearly feared for his life by taking such drastic measures to ensure his safety. He flagrantly violated at least two federal laws — the Gun-Free Schools and Gun-Free School Zones acts — by packing heat on Bluegrass High property, for all the good it did him. But if he knew someone was trying to harm him, why didn’t he go to the police for help? What was he trying to hide? He was no Mr. Congeniality by any means, but that’s still no reason to kill anyone.
We need to uncover the who and the why. Starting with Mom. She can be as forthcoming as a clam when she digs her heels in, but I WILL get the truth out of her, or I’m not my mother’s daughter. She HAS to know something. And, like it or not, it may somehow involve me.
Before Briscoe ends the call, he advises Dickhead to make sure someone is with me at all times for my safety. It’s unsettling.
“Does Miss Granger have anywhere else she can stay?” the detective asks. “Our patrol units are familiar with her, ah, neighborhood. The two buildings those slumlords try to pass off as apartments only have one way out in the front and one way out in the back. If anyone tries to break in, she won’t be able to get down either flight of stairs in time to get away.”
He does have a point there. Both sets of stairs go straight up two stories with no landing in between. It takes no effort whatsoever going down them. It’s the walking up part that’s a real humdinger. It altogether leaves me gasping for breath because of the ridiculous amount of stairs I have to navigate. The bottom halves of both buildings contain storage, and perfect hiding places for a murderer.
He’s right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
“Yes, she does,” Dickhead says decisively, “with me. I have an alarm system. Plus, it’s the last place anyone will think to look for her because I am her boss. But this goes no further than us. Do we understand each other?“
Please, you two, continue discussing me like I’m not even here. I’m just a mindless twit incapable of looking after myself. After all, “Me Jane, you Tarzan.”
I know I sound petty. I know I sound ungrateful. I know I sound bitchy. Truth is, trust comes just as hard for me as it does for Dickhead. We like to think we have complete control over every aspect our lives when — deep down — we know the opposite is true, and we don’t like handing over the reins to anyone. Ever. But it seems I’m going to have to suck it up and take that leap of faith I just got done lecturing him about since he’s opening his door to me. Figuratively and literally.
Suddenly, I’m not that hungry anymore.