“Tyler said your parents cut you off. Is that true?”
“Tyler Maddox? You’ve seen him?” A strange pang of jealousy burned in my stomach.
She shrugged. “At Turk’s. He said you gave him the shaft.”
“I didn’t give him the shaft. He had to have been hanging on to get turned loose.”
Paige giggled, her childlike smile prompting me to reach for her hand. She intertwined her long fingers with mine. “I’ve missed seeing you around.”
“Is it true? About your parents? Is that why you’re so different?”
“Good different, I hope,” I said, corralling the crumbs from our cookies into a pile. Paige didn’t answer. “Yes, it’s true.”
“Well, I’ve come to save you.” She bent down, and when she stood up, she pulled a bottle out of a brown paper sack. She rummaged through the cabinets until she found two tumblers, and sat them on the counter. My mouth began to water at the sound of the cap twisting off, and the initial splash of the amber liquid against the bottom of the glass. Paige filled both tumblers to the top.
“Whoa,” I said. “I haven’t drank a drop in over a month.”
She handed me a glass and held hers halfway between us. “To being sober.”
“I…” My throat burned, aching for the contents in the glass. It was right there. Just one drink. I’d just have one.
“You look like hell,” Tyler said, holding out my chair.
I sat down, leaving on my sunglasses. “Thanks.”
“I wasn’t,” I said, recoiling at the sound of his voice, the sunlight pouring in through the windows, and the squeaking little shit pre-K’er bouncing in the corner like he was on crack.
“A friend showed up last night with a bottle of Crown.”
He scowled at me. “After what? Five weeks on the wagon? Doesn’t sound like a very good friend.”
“I’m not riding a wagon. Those are for alcoholics.”
Tyler flagged down Chelsea, pointing his finger in the air. “Hi. Can we get some waters, please?” She nodded, and he returned his attention to me. “Can you eat?”
He shook his head. “Did you at least have good time?”
“Yeah. We talked until around midnight and crashed. She made cookies, and we talked about my parents, and Finley, and…” I trailed off, remembering the tears and blubbering about Sterling before passing out. I’d told Paige. She knew what Sterling and I had done. I covered my eyes with my hands. “Oh, no. Oh, God. Fuck.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Oatmeal. No fruit. Cinnamon.” I was determined to eat, not knowing when I would have a non-instant-noodle meal next. “Please.”
“You got it,” Tyler said, ordering for me when Chelsea returned with our waters. He didn’t talk much, and I didn’t complain. There was already too much movement and light and sound and breathing going on. Clanking of dishes, talking, some damn kids laughing, car doors slamming shut—everyone needed to die.
“You look like you hate everything,” Tyler said.
“Pretty much.” I pulled my hoodie over my head, supporting my face with my hands.
“Is this one of those things we’ll laugh about later?”
I sunk down in my seat. The sunglasses weren’t helping. It felt like the sun was piercing my brain. “Probably not. I’m so sorry.”
Chelsea slid my bowl of oatmeal in front of me, the cinnamon wafting to my nose. It actually smelled appetizing until Tyler’s stack of pancakes with blueberries, chocolate, whipped cream, and maple syrup hit my nose.
“Christ,” I said, recoiling. “Has anyone ever told you that you eat like a toddler?”
“Many, many times,” he said, digging at the stack with his fork and shoveling in a bite.
“How do you look like that,” I said, pointing at him, “if you eat like that?” I pointed to his plate.
“We have a lot of downtime at the station, as opposed to the dormitory during fire season. I don’t like sitting still, so I work out a lot.”
He had to. He was a mammoth.
I picked up a spoon and dug into the bowl, scooping up a small bite first, just to test the waters. So far, so good. Plain toast, cinnamon, bland oatmeal. I could still party like a rock star but apparently couldn’t recover like one.
I finished off my water with the pair of ibuprofen I’d brought from home, and then looked at my watch.
“I just want to make sure that I get to the office on time if your superintendent doesn’t let you talk him into this absurd plan.”
Tyler had already nearly put away half of the pancakes. I wasn’t sure when. “Photographers follow us out all the time. Not sure how you’re going to keep up in your condition, if we get called out, though. The hikes are pretty brutal.”
“You worry about your job, I’ll worry about mine.”
Tyler laughed once. “How did a billionaire’s daughter wind up taking action shots for a magazine? That’s kind of random, isn’t it?”
“I’ve told you about my parents, and I know you remember. You told Paige over drinks or whatever.”
“That you’re talking about my business? Or that you were with Paige?”
“That was personal. That’s not exactly bar talk.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I just figured she was your friend … and I was a little worried about you. I figured she’d know more than I did.”
“Paige is a sweet girl. She’s not my friend.”
I glared at him, and he held up his hands, chuckling.
“Are you finished stuffing your face? It’s making me nauseous,” I said.
He stood, put a few bills on the table, and helped me up. He held me to his side, supporting my weight with ease and looking fairly sympathetic. “You okay?”
I blew an errant long bang from my face, even more pissed at myself than I already was, and if I was honest, pissed at Paige. She didn’t know how hard I’d been working, though. She wasn’t responsible for my new path; that was all me.
Tyler guided me to his truck and helped me inside. I tried to face forward and keep my eyes on the road, because riding in the back of the Audi on the way to Winona’s an hour before was rather brutal.
Less than fifteen minutes later, we turned onto Mills Drive. His truck bounced over the uneven asphalt and ice as he parked in a lot south of the station.
“Sorry,” he said. “We’ve got a short walk.”
A vent was bleeding white mist out of the side of the brown building, and I stepped down and looked across the street, squinting my eyes to try to see if the lights were on yet at the MountainEar.
“If you need to throw up, now is the time,” Tyler said, walking around the front to stand next to me. His thick arm hooked around my shoulders, but I shrugged away.