“It’s fine,” I said, inexplicably scrubbing the bar with a dry cloth.
He sighed. “We’re not doing the stupid misunderstanding thing. I’m coming back. We’re going to do what we said we’d do.”
“Don’t do that,” he said, his shoulders falling.
I stopped scrubbing and painted on a smile. “If we do, great. If not, I’ll figure it out. I’m not your responsibility.”
He narrowed his eyes and zipped his backpack closed before slinging it over his shoulder. “You’re going to miss me.”
“Yeah, you are. You’re pissed because you’re going to miss me like hell.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head and continuing to not clean the counter with the cloth in quick circles. “That would be a total waste of time.”
“Stop being a hard-ass,” he quipped. “I’m going to miss you, too.”
“That’s why I’m coming back next weekend to get you. To take you home. My home. To Eakins.”
“What?” I looked up at him, my eyes instantly glossing over.
“I wanted to leave tomorrow, but Chuck said the funeral—”
“Next weekend?” Tears spilled over onto my cheeks in twin streams.
Taylor’s expression changed from smug to desperation. “We can go tomorrow. I just thought—”
“No,” I said, wiping my face. “No, next weekend is perfect. But”—I pointed at him—“don’t promise.”
He shook his head. “Fuck no, I’m not promising. I’ll promise not to if you want.”
I climbed over the counter and jumped on him, throwing my arms and legs around him. “Thank you!” I kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”
Taylor chuckled, trying to cover his surprise. His hand settled on the back of my hair, and he pressed his cheek against mine. “I’ll see you in a week.”
I relaxed my grip on him, and he lowered me to the floor. Out of pure excitement, I slid my hands between his sides and his arms, and I clasped my fingers together, squeezing him. “You make it really hard not to get my hopes up.”
“If I disappointed you, I think Phaedra would murder me—right after Chuck slit my throat.”
I glanced over to Chuck, who was holding a knife to his own throat and pretending to slice it, not at all teasing.
Taylor leaned over after I released my hold on him, and he kissed my cheek before backing away. “There’s a phone in that sack. My number’s already in it. Text me your travel info, so I can book the tickets.”
I quickly looked back at the bar. “Are you …” My breath caught. “You’re killing me.”
“Don’t call me Tay. Ever again. Or the deal’s off.”
I shook my head. “I won’t even call you an asshole behind your back.”
Reluctantly, he continued toward the door, adjusting the backpack. “Send nudes!” he called back, flashing the peace sign before pushing his way out to the sidewalk.
I looked to Chuck and Phaedra. “I don’t even understand life right now. What is going on?”
I ran around the counter and scrambled for the sack before tearing the phone from beneath the layers of tissue paper. I was fairly certain the three bare asses on the wallpaper belonged to Taylor, Dalton, and Zeke even though all three men’s faces were obscured as they were slightly bent while they mooned the camera.
“Who does that?” I asked to no one in particular. I looked to Phaedra, who had tears in her eyes, too. “I’m going. Next weekend, I’ll be in Eakins.”
“I’m happy for you, honey,” Phaedra said, holding out her arms as she walked toward me. Squeezing me tight, she patted my back. “But if he follows through on his promise, there won’t be enough of him left for Chuck to slice after I’m through with him.”
She let go of me, and the phone in my hand buzzed. The name on the screen read, TAYLORBEAST. I swiped the screen over and read the text.
I shook my head and slid the phone into my apron. I would return it the moment we were back from Eakins, but his kindness was overwhelming.
For the rest of my shift, it was impossible not to be distracted by images of rolling into town and realizing my own atonement—from a respectable distance—without anyone being the wiser. I’d dreamed about it for so long, and knowing it was just a week away was almost unbearable.
Closing up might take twice as long without Kirby there to help, but we were so slow that I started well before Phaedra flipped the sign and locked the door.
I counted my tips and separated them out for Kirby, locking her portion in the cash register, and then I headed upstairs, waving to Pete and Hector as I passed.
Falling onto my couch, I pulled my new phone from my apron and held it in front of me with both hands. Taylor had sent more texts.
Well crap. Now I miss you. Thanks for being a bad influence.
What time do you get off?
Just text me when you’re off.
With my thumbs, I typed on the touch screen.
Immediately, three dots appeared, having their own little dance party on the screen.
What the heck does that mean?
I typed again, wondering if he could tell that I was replying.
Everyone home safe and sound then?
I wasn’t sure what to say after that. It had been a long time since I communicated with someone via a phone screen. I was out of practice.
The phone clunked against the coffee table when I set it down, and I decided on venturing out to the thrift store soon to see if they had phone cases. I’d never checked before. Maybe Kirby had an old one I could use.
What is your travel info?
As good a time as any.
Are you sure?
I typed in my full name and birth date.
Imogene? That’s the worst middle name ever.
You just did.
You can thank my mother for that. What’s your middle name?
That’s what all the girls say. Will book tonight.
I put the phone on the table again and then settled back against the couch, propping my legs on the throw pillow. I was getting text messages on a cell phone, and I was going to Eakins, Illinois, in a few days. My life had felt completely different before, and even though it was scary, I’d known it was for the best, and this felt the same.
The room was quiet with muted throbs of bass coming from Cowboys down the block. I thought of Taylor Dean two-stepping, hiking, watching VHS tapes, and doing laundry. I thought about how wonderful life could be if I could add closure to it all.
Just as I began to relax, someone pounded on the door. I jumped up and yanked the door open.
Gunnar stood in the hall, his face red and blotchy, his eyes glistening in the dim light.
My mouth fell open. “Whoa. Are you all right? Where’s Kirby? How did you get in?”
“Kirby showed me where they keep the spare key. She won’t talk to me, Falyn. I really messed up this time.”