“You just told me not to sleep with someone.”
“Doesn’t mean we’re exclusive because I don’t want you fucking my boss.”
“So is it all right with you if I fuck anyone else?”
I clenched my teeth. “I don’t like this game.”
Tyler became quiet. I only felt victorious for a few seconds, and then it was gone. My pride and guilt both seemed to stem from the same hollow, but they filled nothing. I wasn’t sure where the need to keep Tyler at arm’s length came from. Part of me wanted to believe it was to focus on sobriety that was shamefully failing, the other that as individuals we were too fucked up to function. I let him just close enough to feel loved, and then threw him into the corner like dirty laundry. For someone who at most times was scared he would leave, I was trying incredibly hard to push him away.
I was getting one thing right: being undeserving. The shame sent me into another cycle of guilt and need and feelings of worthlessness. I wasn’t getting better; I was getting worse.
“Is it so fucking hard for you to admit, Ellie? Can’t we just be happy?”
I swallowed. “We aren’t a we. I’ve told you that from the beginning.”
“Then what are we doing?”
“We’re fucking and fighting, Tyler. That’s what we do.”
“Fucking and fighting.” Clearly shocked and frustrated, Tyler stumbled over his words. He finally laughed once out of frustration. “That’s it?”
“We’ll talk about it when I get home.”
I hung up, instantly feeling sick to my stomach. I couldn’t keep busy to stay sober, deal with everything going on in my life, and pile on a serious relationship, no matter how much I wanted to.
The phone rang, and I answered, mostly scheduling meetings and fielding ad questions for Wick. He left once and then came back, putting his fist on my desk as he read my report over my shoulder.
He stood up and sighed, then turned on his heels, slamming his door behind him. The frames on the walls rattled, and my shoulders shot up to my ears. I’d worked for the magazine for a little over five months and had yet to experience Wick’s wrath. Maybe it was time.
The door was yanked open, and then I heard Wick sit in his leather chair. “Ellie!” he yelled.
“You’re a good kid. We’ve pushed you too hard,” he said, staring at the bookcase behind me.
“P-pardon?” It was almost more unsettling that he wasn’t screaming at me.
“I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to facilitate your … issues. I’m not sure what to do. I’m not the type to just ignore this kind of behavior, Ellie. You could’ve gotten seriously injured, or worse. Is that cut…?”
I touched my cheek. I’d forgotten about the slap nature had delivered to my face—not that I’d felt it until hot blood dripped down my cold skin. “Yes.”
Wick shifted in his seat, and then looked at his watch. “Have you eaten? It’s almost lunchtime.”
“I’ll order pizza. Think about what I said.”
“Okay,” I said, giving him a thumbs up. “Good talk.”
He winked at me, and I closed the door, shaking my head. If that was an example of Wick’s parenting skills, it made sense that Jojo was a walking carrot-colored Barbie doll who held grudges against any man who’d told her no.
The phone rang the moment I sat down, and I held the receiver to my ear. Just as I opened my mouth to greet the person on the line, Jojo spoke.
“Oh. Have you seen my boys?”
She laughed once. “Your boys? No, I haven’t. I’ve secured a room—which wasn’t easy, by the way. Literally, every room was booked except for a guy who suffered some burns today. He’s out for a while, so they’re sending him home. I’m going to hang out in the lobby to see if I can catch the Alpines when they get in.”
“They might be out there all night. I’m not really sure what their schedule is going to be. They’ve never stayed in a hotel before—at least, not this season.”
“I’ll figure it out. The damn news stations are everywhere. We have an in, though, if you didn’t…”
“Just be careful, Jojo. Do exactly what they tell you, when they tell you, and dress warm. It gets cold up there at night.”
I hung up, wishing there was a polite way for me to ask her not to fuck my not-really-boyfriend.
I finished my report and emailed it to Jojo. I was surprised to see some shots she’d taken of the firefighters loitering around the hotel lobby. She was gifted, no doubt.
As the sun set behind the peaks, Wick rifled around in his drawers, and then his coat skidded along the sleeves of his sweater.
“Only two smoke breaks and no news from Jojo. Today was mighty fucking boring,” Wick yelled from his office.
He stepped out, straightening his scarf and pulling on his gloves. “Not all of us are spry enough to follow hotshots up mountains for a living. Are you back at your parents’?”
I cleared my throat. “No. I’m actually staying at Tyler’s apartment. I haven’t found a place yet.”
Wick frowned. “Did a story on the affordable housing here. You might find something in the spring if you time it right.”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling even more hopeless than I had ten seconds before.
“Really?” I said, more surprised that he thought I was still using José than at his offer.
Wick let me smoke in his truck as he puffed on his own cigarette and exhaled out the crack of his window.
“He’s a good kid, too. I figured you two would end up falling for each other. I could see it in his eyes.”
“I’ve never seen him look at anyone the way he looks at you. I know you’ve got other things going on, though. Probably feels like a lot on your plate.”
“It was his idea for me to stay here. And it’s just temporary.”
“I’m not using him. He insisted, and I didn’t have another choice.”
“Ouch. I hope you didn’t say that to him.”
“No,” I said, looking down. “I didn’t.”
“You know there’s an apartment above the MountainEar, right?”
“It’s vacant and new. I built it the same time I built the building, in case Linda kicked me out. I’m an old blow hard, you know. Lost my looks. She’s still as pretty as ever. Jojo would look just like her without that clown makeup on her face.”
I choked out a laugh, coughing smoke and waving my hand in front of my face.
Wick pulled into Lone Tree Village, familiar with where to go. He parked, and I stepped out, bending down. “Thanks for the ride, Wick. I’ll figure out some reliable transportation ASAP.”