He drove us down to the magazine so I could drop off my flash drive to Jojo. She greeted me with a smile, eager to upload the pictures to her computer.
“Daddy is loving these,” she said.
“Yeah? Does that mean I’m done?” I asked.
“Maybe. I need you to write up what you’ve learned so far, and I’ll clean it up for you. We might need some pork.”
Her finger tapped the computer mouse. “You know … material we might use later.” She scanned me from head to toe. “Go home and get some rest, Ellison. You look like hell.”
“On my way,” I said, taking back my chip and heading for the door.
Tyler’s truck was still running, the exhaust fumes billowing into the night sky. The moment he saw me walking toward him, he leaned over the console and pushed open my door. I climbed up again, and he rubbed my leg quickly.
“We need to get you home. You’re exhausted.”
“But I’m used to it. Jojo should give you a few days off. You’re going to get sick.”
“I feel better than I have in a long time, actually.”
Tyler put the gearshift into drive and pulled away from the curb, heading toward my house. He lit a cigarette and handed it to me without me asking, and then lit his own. We didn’t talk much. Instead, I left Tyler to the seemingly millions of thoughts in his head.
Tyler pulled his truck into my drive and slowed to a stop at the gate. I leaned over him to press in the code, and the gate whined, beginning its slow journey open. Tyler pulled forward and drove the mile-long path to the house.
It was dark, and I assumed Maricela and José had gone home for the night.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said, gathering my things and climbing down to the concrete below. I walked around the front of the truck, took a few more steps, and then froze.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Ellison, she knows,” Sterling said. He stepped out from the shadows, looking thin, his whiskers a few days past a five o’clock shadow. He stumbled down the steps, his tie loose and his shirt stained.
Tyler’s door opened and closed, and his footsteps crunched against the snow and rock until he stopped just behind me.
“Hey, Sterling,” Tyler said. “Good to see you.”
Sterling’s eyes were wet. I could smell the whiskey from ten feet away. “She fucking knows, Ellie. She won’t answer my calls.”
“I’ve told you, she never answers your calls when she’s on holiday.”
“Hey,” Tyler said, stepping between us. “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I bet it will make more sense in the morning. Let me take you home, Sterling. You look like you’ve had a rough day.”
“Fuck you,” Sterling said, still staring at me. “And you, too.”
“Fuck me?” I said. “Who’s the one who passed me the mystery pill?”
“She’s never going to speak to me again. What am I going to do?”
“You’re overreacting, Sterling,” I said. “You’re being paranoid. Whatever you’re on isn’t helping.”
“I know this is your fault!” he snapped, his voice carrying through the trees between our homes. “You’re not just the town whore; you’re the world’s whore. Everyone knows who to call for a fuck if Ellie’s in town,” he said.
“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Tyler said, taking a step. I grabbed his coat, holding him back.
Sterling laughed. “What are you going to do, lieutenant bad ass? Change my mind?”
Sterling held up his hands in mock terror. “Put that blue collar to work.”
Tyler took another step, but I put my hand on his chest. I turned to face him but looked down instead, ashamed. “He’s drunk. He’s upset. He lives next door. Just let him go home.”
Tyler’s jaw muscles danced beneath the skin, but he let Sterling pass, even after Sterling nudged him with his shoulder.
I trudged up the steps, using my keys to gain entrance to my parents’ home. It was quiet, every step and movement we made echoing through the halls.
Tyler closed the door behind us, and then followed me to the kitchen. “Your house looks a lot different this time.”
Maricela had left me a covered plate in the fridge with a toothpick flag on how many minutes it should cook in the microwave.
“Wanna share?” I asked. “It might be a day or two old, but at least it’s not an MRE.”
I removed the foil and pressed the three. The light turned on and the plate began to spin, slow and steady. I was glad someone else was in the house besides me, but I didn’t want to turn around, afraid of the expression on Tyler’s face.
“What happened with you and Sterling?” Tyler asked. “Weren’t you friends a few weeks ago? Why was he saying those things about you?”
“Bullshit. I don’t believe that for a second.”
“I just consider myself lucky that I happened to be here at the right time. We had fun, and we were safe. Anything beyond that is no one’s fucking business.”
I laughed once, surprised at his response.
“What do you want me to say?” he asked. “If you’re a slut, I’m a slut.”
I fought a smile just as the microwave beeped again. Tyler stood, removing my plate and setting it on the black and white marble island. “And you’re clearly trying to make some adjustments in your life. It’s just fucking wrong for him to throw your past in your face.”
“Does eight weeks ago qualify as my past?” I asked, pulling a fork out of the drawer. I sat down, swirling the silver points around in the baked potato.
“This morning is the past,” Tyler said. “We can be totally different people today if we want. Fuck Sterling if he resents that you’ve changed. People like that are usually dealing with their own shit, anyway, and what they’re pissed about really has nothing to do with you.”
I felt a hot tear fall down my cheek, and I immediately wiped it away.
“Hey,” Tyler said, reaching across the island. “You can talk to me.”
“My sister? Finley? She’s in love with Sterling. That first-love love doesn’t go away.”
Tyler pointed his thumb behind him. “That douche? Why?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s kind of a certifiable head case, but she loves him. She would be with him, but she’s holding off. She’s taking over my father’s business and doesn’t have time to be in a relationship. They want to be together. She’s fighting it, and he’s been miserable.”
“So how is that your fault?” Tyler asked, confused.
I wiped my nose with my napkin. “He had a … I don’t know … I was over there, talking about finding a new job. We were already drinking, and he had these pills. We took them … I don’t remember much after that, but we…” I nodded.