Author’s Note: Written for thefnl_laundrylist challenge #36, item #5: Luke’s backstory. That boy broke my heart in 4.02 so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create his backstory, pretty much from whole cloth.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything here and am just doing this for fun.
Luke Cafferty was chopping wood when he saw the Porsche Carrera pull up the long, dusty driveway. He’d been up since before dawn, tending to his chores and he still had several hours of chopping to get through.
( Read more... )
Author’s Note: Call it a deleted scene, I guess, or at least a scene I wanted to see.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything here and am just doing this for fun.
Devin noticed him first, stopping mid-note to give Landry a little kick. They’d been sitting in Landry’s garage, lounging on lawn chairs, just playing around with a few songs. It wasn’t an official band practice. Landry had some unexpected time on his hands after the meltdown of East Dillon football.
( Read more... )
It warmed my heart this morning to go into work after the long weekend and see that tomorrow was outlined in green highlighter on my calendar. FNL Season 4 - it's like all my birthdays and Christmases have come at once. Of course, I won't get to actually see the show til Thursday, but what's one more day after waiting six months.
I'm writing the first two chapters, then I think my co-writer, Miss Meggie, will write a couple. It was her idea and I'm thrilled that she asked me to write with her.
Description: Tim finds his way to Charming...Jax finds his way to Julie Taylor...And they all end up lost in thier own contradictions! Can they find a way out?
Chapter One: You're Only As Lost As You Wanna Be
Disclaimer: SPN and FNL are copyright of their respective copyright holders. I don't own anything here and am just doing this for fun.
By design, the first day of the road trip was a short one, only a few hundred miles of driving. As anxious as she was to get to the good parts of the trip, Julie didn’t want to get burned out on driving. At least Tim would share the driving responsibilities, a chore that Lois had flatly insisted that she wanted no part of.
( Read more... )
Notes/Warnings: These are three loosely related stories whose titles all come from AA Bondy's song "The Pines Are Dancing." Story One takes place before Season 1. The other two stories take place after Season 3. I don't think there's anything particuarly spoiler-y here.
Disclaimer: NBC, Peter Berg and all those other people own everything recognizable here. I am only doing this for fun and to pass the time until Season 4 starts.
Story One: The Pounding of a Midnight Heart
Tim half-collapsed on Tyra with a contented sigh, careful to fall to the side. He rested his head on her chest, pressing his ear close so he could hear her heart.
( Read more... )
Tim sat on the couch, watching Al, who was sitting on the floor at the coffee table, wrapping presents for Amber and TJ. He felt a surge of pride and happiness every time her engagement ring caught the light. He couldn't help smiling to himself while thinking “that woman is going to marry me.” The thought made him giddy and light-headed. He wasn't talking much because he wasn't sure he would be able to speak coherently.
George stood up from the basket where he was sleeping and walked over to Bruno. The older dog paid no attention to the puppy, so George started play-bowing and barking. When that didn't work, he escalated to gnawing on Bruno's neck.
“Your dog is being mean to my dog,” said Tim.
“Funny, I was thinking of saying the same thing to you. My dog's tired after all that running around this afternoon. He just wants to rest. He's like a middle-aged father after a day spent with a toddler.”
Tim smiled and eased himself down onto the floor, calling George over. Soon he was wrestling and rough-housing with the puppy.
“Tim, you know that dog is going to grow up to weigh 150 pounds, right? I've seen his parents – he is going to be massive.”
“Yeah?” said Tim. He was now laying on the floor with the puppy standing on his chest.
“Anything you do with him now on a regular basis, he's going to think is normal play and is going to want to do it all the time, even when he's too big.”
“Good to know, but you know what? I've waited my whole life to have a puppy. Can I just spend a couple of days enjoying him without worrying about messing him up?”
Al nodded. She hadn't meant to imply that she thought Tim was messing up, just that he needed to think a little bit about the results his actions could have in the future.
“I'm glad you like him.”
“Like him? I love this dog.” Tim started roughhousing again while George went crazy trying to lick his face.
The doorbell rang, causing Bruno to leapt to his feet and head for the door, barking all the way. George tried to tag along, but Tim held him back. Al looked a question at Tim, who shrugged.
She opened the door to find Jason. She had to pull Bruno away so Jason could get through the door. Tim stood up, holding George under his arm like a football, and greeted his friend.
“Beer?” he asked and Jason nodded. Tim headed off to the kitchen and came back with three beers. He popped the cap off the first beer, handed the bottle to Jason and tucked the cap in his pocket. The second beer was Al's and then Tim settled down on the couch with the final bottle.
“Hope you don't mind me stopping by like this – my mom is driving me nuts. She's been hovering over Noah every since we got here, like second-guessing everything I do.”
“No worries, you know you're always welcome here,” said Tim.
Jason wheeled over to a spot next to the couch. Al went back to sitting on the floor and wrapping gifts, although George was making a nuisance of himself by trying to attack the paper rolls when she unfurled them.
“So, you've been engaged what, eight or ten hours? You plan the whole wedding yet?” asked Jason in a light, teasing tone.
Al shook her head and Tim smiled. “Six, I got the easiest job in the world. Billy told me – all I gotta do is say 'yes, dear' to everything up to the day of the wedding and then say 'I do' at the wedding and I'm done.”
“Do you have a date in mind?” asked Jason, directing the question at Al.
“I'd kind of like to get married in July.”
“July?” echoed Jason in an incredulous tone.
“You don't wanna get married in July in Texas,” said Tim. He looked at Al with a grin, but then realized he was making a huge assumption. “Uh, unless you wanna get married in Minnesota.”
Al shook her head. “Texas is my home now. Anyway, we'll bring Minnesota down here, don't you worry about it.”
Tim smiled and took a drink of his beer.
“Would it be really miserable in July? I sort of have my heart set on an early evening wedding at the lake.” Al asked. She watched Tim and Jason share a look that she couldn't decipher.
“Well, with the shade and everything and if you had it close to sunset, that might actually be bearable,” said Jason.
“You really want to get married at the lake?” Tim asked Al, his voice deep but soft.
“That's settled then. Six, will you be my best man?”
Jason grinned his crooked smile and nodded, not trusting his voice to work properly. After Tim returned his grin, he was able to get a few words out. “Would love to, Timmy. Would love to.”
“Tim, I hate to interrupt your moment, but it's been a few hours since your puppy's been outside. You probably want to take him out soon.”
“Yeah, Timmy, you don't want to wait until he's crossing his legs and doing the pee-pee dance,” teased Jason.
Tim put his beer on the coffee table, kissed Al on the top of her head and then scooped up his puppy. He was feeling a little silly, so he pretended that George was flying to the back door as “Super George, the best puppy in the world.” Tim slid open the back door and left it open, so they could hear him in the backyard, encouraging the puppy to hurry up.
Al looked up at Jason, who was looking at her like she was some kind of alien: amazing, interesting and completely unknown.
“Al, you know, you are seriously the best thing that ever happened to him. I've never seen him so happy.”
Al blushed and ducked her head. “Well, I guess we're about even then, because he makes me pretty damn happy too.”
When Tim returned a few minutes later with George and another round of beers, Al stood up and gave him a hug.
“I'm exhausted, so I'll leave you two to catch up.”
“I should probably leave,” said Jason.
“Nonsense,” replied Al as she leaned in and kissed Jason on the cheek, her riot of blonde curls tickling his face.
“Oh, and before I forget, this is for Noah, from Uncle Timmy,” she said, showing Jason a brightly wrapped box before tucking it into the bag on the back of his chair.
“Thanks. You know, I've noticed that Uncle Timmy has gotten a lot better at remembering birthdays and holidays the last couple years.”
“That's because I've got a little elf to help me,” said Tim, catching Al in a bear hug. He kissed her good night and watched her walk up the stairs before he settled back down on the couch with a fresh beer.
“Tim, man, it's awesome to see you so happy. You deserve this.”
“Thanks.” He looked up and held Jason's gaze for a second, his mouth closed but one corner angled up.
“So, is Erin at home with your mother then?”
“Oh yeah, I didn't get a chance to tell you, since I didn't want to mention it in front of Noah. Timmy, we're having problems. She stayed home. She waited until the damn cab had showed up before she told me. And she didn't even volunteer the information. I asked her where her suitcase was and she just shook her head.” Jason's voice was equal parts hurt and angry. He picked up his second beer and took a long drink from the bottle.
“All your problems have to do with Texas or is there something more going on here?” Tim picked George up off the floor to give himself something else to do beside stare at his best friend.
“I don't know. I guess she's having like a quarter-life crisis or something. I suggested to her that, you know, maybe now, since Noah's going to start school soon, we might think about trying for another kid. I don't think it's great to be an only child, it's too damn lonely, you know?”
Tim nodded. He suspected that was a big part of the reason he and Jay had become such good friends.
“She said no, that she loved Noah but he was enough for her. Every time I bring up marriage, she dodges the issue. I don't think she wants to be with me anymore, but I don't think she knows how to leave either.”
“God, Six, that sucks.” Tim didn't know what else to say and part of him was starting to feel guilty for his own happiness.
“Yeah, but it won't always. You know...things always change, good or bad, nothing stays the same,” Jason sighed and took another pull from the bottle. He wiped his mouth on his arm. “So, you and Al, plans for kids at all?”
“Maybe, probably, some day.” Tim shrugged. “I don't know that I'm really ready, but Billy keeps telling me that if everybody waited until they were ready, that the human race would die out.”
“You're going to be a great father, Timmy. I hope that's not what's holding you back.” Jason's eyes were cut glass. He'd always hated what Tim's parents had done to him and was proud of how far his friend had come. Jason just worried that no matter how happy Tim was, a tiny part of him would always be that neglected little kid.
Tim shook his head. “It's not.”
Jason kept quiet, figuring that dealing with Tim was sometimes like approaching a wild animal. All you could do was be silent and hope the animal trusted you enough to get close.
Tim looked at his beer bottle for a long time, then took a long sip. The minutes seemed to stretch out as he argued with himself in his head.
“Jay, if I tell you something, will you swear to never, ever tell anyone? I've known this for two years and have never told anyone.”
Jay nodded and waited.
Tim took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Al's been married before. She had a daughter a few years, on Christmas Eve, actually....the baby died when she was five months old.”
Whatever Jason had been expecting, it certainly wasn't that. “What, was it SIDS or something.”
Tim shook his head and whispered. “No. It was...um, like heat stroke or something from getting left in a car, it was just a....there's not even a word for it. A horrible, undo-able mistake.”
Jason thought of his own son, thought of how easy it was to look away for a second and have something awful happen. He thought about how fast things can change, how you can go from having the world in your pocket to being like Humpty Dumpty surrounded by useless king's men. He didn't know what to say, so he said the only word echoing in his head.
The two friends were silent. Tim focused on George and Jason looked at his hands.
“I guess she's scared of it happening again. I told her I'm damn certain that's a mistake she'd only make once in her life, but she doesn't trust herself,” Tim said softly.
“Just don't tell anyone. She came here to get away from all the whispering and judgement and bullshit. I don't want it following her.”
“Of course not. I wouldn't.”
“And I mean everyone, Six. Even Lyla. Especially Lyla.”
“Understood,” said Jason. “You guys don't talk anymore, ever, huh?”
“Nah, today was the first time I'd seen her in two years. I know you two have always kept in touch.”
“Yeah, we probably talk on the phone once a week and email and IM a lot more than that. You know, we're both always on the computer, pretty much.”
Tim nodded and picked at the edge of the bottle's label.
“Timmy, she hasn't gone out with anybody since you two broke up.”
“What are you saying here, Six? I put her off men forever?”
“No. I just...I don't think she's ever gotten over you.”
Tim shook his head and looked across at Jason. “She spent most of our time together trying to turn me into some version of you. If she's still hung up on anybody, it's you, Six. ”
“You really think so?”
Tim smiled and nodded. You'd have to be deaf to miss the hopefulness in Jay's voice.
“Well, that's something to think about. Not that it's very practical, with the distance and my situation and everything.”
“Shit, forget practical. I hear it's totally overrated.”
Jason returned Tim's grin. “I should really get going. I stay here any longer and I'll be in no shape to drive home and my mom will have an aneurysm or something.”
Tim stood up and walked Jason out, helping him without even being aware he was doing it, an instinct as automatic as breathing.
After Tim shut the door of the truck, Jason started the engine and then rolled down the window. It was one of the rare occasions when he got to be eye-level with his best friend. He leaned out and gave him a friendly thump on the arm.
“Thanks, Six. Drive safe.” He stepped back and raised a hand in a wave before turning to go back in the house.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Al woke up extra early on Christmas morning so she could take George outside. She was surprised, and a little confused, to see that Tim was not in his usual spot next to her, crowding her to the edge and stealing all the blankets.
Then she saw him stretched out on the floor next to the puppy crate. He was on his side, a pillow bunched under his head and his hand on the door of the crate so George could curl up against his fingers. Al smiled as she watched him sleep.
Tim had argued with her about the crate, wanting the puppy to sleep in bed with them. She had insisted gently but firmly, in no uncertain terms, that a puppy in the bed was a bad idea and he would be sleeping alone if that's what he wanted.
Al crouched down next to the crate and began to pry Tim's hand off the door. His eyelids fluttered open and his look was first confused and then pleased when he saw her.
“Merry Christmas,” he mumbled, pulling her to him for a kiss.
When she was finally forced to come up for air, she looked at him quizzically.
“You don't have any idea what time it is, do you?”
He rubbed his eyes and yawned. “Really damn early.”
“Really, really damn early. You should go back to sleep.”
“Mmm, I should, but this is the only Christmas I'm ever going to be engaged to you. Why waste it sleeping?” His grin was sly as his finger traced her collarbone.
She smiled back, her eyes on his mouth. George could wait a little while longer, she thought.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Later that morning, they were getting ready to go over to Billy and Mindy's. Al watched Tim put on a blue plaid shirt and fiddle with the sleeves.
“Hey, Timmy?” asked Al, sitting down on the edge of the bed so she could put on her socks and shoes.
“I was thinking of asking Mindy to be my Maid of Honor but since you're having Jason as your Best Man, I was worried that Billy maybe could feel left out.”
He sat down next to her, smiling.
“What?” she asked, confused by his reaction.
“First, it's very sweet of you to worry about Billy like that.” He brushed her hair back so he could kiss her neck.
She shivered a little and gently pushed him away. “We'll never get to their place if you start doing that.”
He smiled and took her hand. “Second, Billy's going to have way too much on his mind to feel left out and, third, I don't think Mindy will be able to accept.”
“Why?” Al's disappointment was clear in her frown..
He hated to see her look sad, so he kissed her. When he pulled back, he was smiling as he shook his head. “Can't tell you.”
“Tim!” She punched him in the arm.
“Ow! Why do you have to be like that? I know I'm like twice your size, but damn, you're stronger than you realize.”
“If you were really sorry, you'd kiss it better.” His grin suggested, among other things, that she hadn't really hurt him.
“You're trying to distract me. Why don't you think Mindy will be my Maid of Honor?”
He was infuriating her with his I've-got-a-secret-and-I'm-not-telling smile. He watched the gears turn in her head and waited, nearly counting down until Al copped on. He was surprised she was taking so long – she was usually more on top of things.
“Oh my god. She's not!”
Tim brought up one shoulder in a half-shrug, but his face told a whole other story. Mindy was pregnant again.
“Damn if they aren't the most fertile couple I know.”
“I didn't tell you though. Just go ahead and ask her to be your bridesmaid and she'll probably tell you then. They just found out and she's not very far along at all.”
Al started counting in her head. “When's she due? August?”
Tim nodded. “Billy didn't say, but you figure it had to have happened that weekend they went to the wedding in Austin.”
“Well,” said Al standing up and taking Tim's hand to pull him up. “We better aim for early July for the wedding then.”
Tim sat on the couch, flipping through through the latest Sports Illustrated as he waited for Al to get ready for the birthday party. Mindy had decreed, in that random and authoritative way she had, that she wanted everyone to dress up for her party. Tim's concession to this demand was to wear a pair of suit trousers and tuck his shirt in. He drew the line at ties and jackets.
“Can you please come help me?” Al shouted down to him.
He dropped the magazine and went upstairs. He found her in her room, struggling with the zipper of her dress.
“I got it,” he told her, putting a hand on her hip to steady the dress while the other hand went to the zipper. He could feel the dress was soft velvet and he tried not to get distracted by her bare back. He pulled the zipper slowly and carefully until it reached the top. Then he took a few steps back and watched her her turn around.
The dress was perfect: the top was sleeveless and clingy with a deep-V of a neckline; the skirt was kicky and full. The royal blue made her eyes sparkle and he loved the way her curls fell around her bare shoulders.
Her smile was a little shy and hesitant. “Well?”
“You look good....like really good.” He couldn't take his eyes off of her. She always looked good to him, but it was a cute, sweet, wholesome sort of good. He loved that about her, but he had to admit, he was secretly thrilled to find out she could be smoking hot when she wanted to be.
She smiled and went over to her dresser and put on a pair of pearl earrings. She handed him a pearl necklace and held up her hair so he could fasten the clasp for her.
“You know, someone's going to ask and this is the one wedding thing we haven't talked about yet – where do you want to go for our honeymoon?” she asked as she turned around. He was nearly too dazed to answer.
“Anywhere you want, as long as you promise to wear that dress.”
She laughed. “Key West, then. Although, velvet and humidity are probably not a great combination.”
“Key West.... You promise to wear some cute little sundresses and we've got a deal.”
“What's with you and this sudden dress obsession? Are you trying to change me into a girly-girl?”
He put his forearms on her shoulders, clasped his hands together behind her head and leaned his forehead down to meet hers. “One, it's more of a you-obsession You just look really hot and I'm a guy – I can't help but like that. Two, I'm just trying to expand your fashion horizons.”
“That's really rich coming from a guy who thinks plaid is an actual color.”
He slid his arms down, putting his hands on her back and drawing her closer, his mouth practically on her ear and his voice a growling whisper. “If you want to know the truth, the whole point of getting you in a dress is getting you out of it anyway.”
Al laughed. “What's it matter if we end up in the same place anyway?”
Tim gave her a squeeze and then let her go, knowing that they had to leave soon and the longer he waited, the more difficult it would be to take his hands off of her. He picked up Mindy's present from the bed.
“Why bother with wrapping paper and bows if she's only going to find out what's in it anyway?” he asked with a smile
Al nodded, grabbed the keys from the dresser, and tossed them to him.
“What about Rock-Paper-Scissors?” he asked, since that's how they usually handled these things.
“Nope. I'm sick of losing and can't remember the last time you were the designated driver.”
Tim laughed and held out his arm to her. The sooner they went to this party, he figured, the sooner he could get her home and out of that dress.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Billy greeted them at the door, looking very Sopranos in a dark suit with a black shirt and black tie. The tie was slightly askew and he'd already undone the top button, which ruined the effect a little, but then, Billy had never been exactly comfortable in a suit. Tim grinned at his brother, knowing that he'd do anything for Mindy and thinking that was kind of sweet.
“Al, wow. Just. Wow.” Billy blinked, his mouth hanging open in surprise until Al slugged him in the arm.
“Shit. Timmy, your girl's got a problem with violence. You might want to get some help for that, sweetheart.” He stepped aside to let them into the party, an affair that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Riggins' parties of old, except that everyone was dressed really well. And the kegs were gone in favor of an elaborately stocked bar in the kitchen.
“The kids are at Angela's for the weekend,” explained Billy, answering Tim's unasked question. “Beer's in the fridge and Al, I got that Scotch you like, that frog stuff.”
Al smiled and thanked him, knowing that he meant Laphroaig. Tim took her hand and led her to the kitchen, where he poured the Scotch for her and then got a beer for himself.
“I'm going to go find Mindy,” she said.
He nodded and watched her walk away. He didn't know how he was going to be able to focus on anything or anyone else tonight. He moved to the edge of the kitchen. The quarterback from Billy's Panther days came over to talk to Tim, who nodded in the right places but kept his eyes on Al as she greeted Mindy. The quarterback drifted away eventually.
Tim watched Al move through the party, talking and laughing to just about anyone. She accidently crashed into Landry, which made Tim smile, until he realized that Landry's eyes were firmly fixed on Al's cleavage. Tim started to head over to set him straight when he saw Al snap her fingers up by her head and say something. From the way Landry's head snapped up and face reddened, Tim could only imagine that she'd said something along the lines of “Hey, my eyes are up here.”
“Your girl can take care of herself,” said Tyra, sliding up next to him.
Tim grinned. “Well, she's a Collette after all. I expect nothing less. You're not going to go kick Landry's ass now, are you?”
She shook her head.
Tim raised an eyebrow. “Seriously? Just going to let that one slide?”
Tyra sighed. “I don't know. It's just like this thing with Landry is starting to feel like it's run its course.”
Tim laughed. “Run its course. You make it sound like a fever or an illness or something.”
“When you guys got engaged, I kind of thought I'd feel jealous, you know, that he hadn't asked me yet, but then I realized that all I felt was relieved. I'm getting itchy, I guess, wondering what else is out there.”
Unsure of how to respond to that, Tim took a drink from his beer.
“Well, look, it's a party, you should go mingle or whatever,” said Tyra, suddenly uncomfortable that she'd talked to Tim about her relationship problems.
“Look, Tyra, I'm not Dear Abby or anything. I don't have all the answers, but I hope you figure it out.”
Tim moved over to where Al was still talking to Landry. He stood behind her and put one hand lightly on her hip, smiling when she leaned back against his chest and looked up at him.
“Why does no one in this town respect Batman?” she asked. The way she was leaning back gave Tim a great view down her dress. He smiled.
“I dunno. They're all a bunch of ignorant savages, 'specially Lando here. Right?”
“Yeah, absolutely right. I've got to go.....somewhere,” said Landry uneasily as he backed away and headed toward Tyra.
Tim lowered his head and kissed her neck lightly. “C'mon. Let's go to my old room and mess around.”
“Mmmm. Tempting. But I'm going to say no.” She stepped away from him, turned around and gave him a smoldering look. “But I'll say yes later at home.”
Before he could say anything, she'd slipped away back into the party. Fine, he could play that teasing Waiting Game too. And that's just what he did for the next few hours – whispering suggestive comments in her ear when he was standing near her, brushing his hands lightly against her shoulders when he walked past her, catching her eye from across the room. He even got back at her by catching her in the dark, empty hallway and kissng her hard, then leaving her standing there surprised and frustrated.
They couldn't be the first ones to leave, it would look bad. But as soon as a few people left, they said their goodbyes and left.
After driving home in record time, Tim unlocked their front door and pushed it open, walking in before Al. She followed him in and was barely through the doorway when he caught her in one arm while shutting the door with the other. Then he pinned her against the wall and put the last several hours of longing into his kiss.
He could hear George whimpering in his crate in the kitchen, but it was a distant hum. Except that he knew if he could hear it, Al could hear it and that she was going to want to do something about it. The knowledge took him out of the moment and made him pull back from her with a groan.
“I know...I have to let the dogs out,” he said, bending at the knee so he could lift her up, one arm under her knees, the other around her back. He kissed her as he walked, happy that the living room didn't have much furniture to trip over. He put her down on the couch.
“Don't go anywhere.”
She looked up at him in a way that nearly made him forget about the dogs. “Where could I possibly want to go?”
He left her with one lingering kiss and then walked swiftly to the kitchen, where he let George out of the crate and slid open the back door so both dogs could run around the fenced-in back yard. Returning to the living room, he sat down on the edge of the couch, looking down at Al.
They hadn't bothered to turn on any lights, but the dim streetlight filtering in through the windows was enough. He paused for a minute, enjoying both the way she looked and the way she was looking at him.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked, as she grabbed a handful of shirt, pulled him down and kissed him with an intensity that made his heart race.
The dress felt good under his hands, soft and smooth, but her skin felt even better. She was unbuttoning his shirt and he was just about to go for the zipper on her dress when the doorbell rang.
“You expecting anyone?” he whispered.
She shook her head.
“Me neither,” he said and returned to what he'd been doing.
But the doorbell was insistent and shrill. Soon, Bruno raced into the living room, barking, with George right behind him. Tim groaned and rested his forehead on Al's shoulder, then stood up reluctantly.
He turned on the porch light and then pulled open the door to find Walt standing there, blinking in the sudden light. Al whistled the dogs away from the door as she sat up, adjusting her dress and pushing her stray curls back behind her ears.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Timmy, please. Can I just come in for two minutes? I need to talk to you.” Walt looked pale and drawn. His shoulders were hunched and his hands were stuffed in his pockets.
Tim looked back at Al and sighed.
“Two minutes and then I'll leave you alone. I promise. Please?”
Tim stepped outside, pulling the door shut behind him. “Two minutes. What do you want?”
“Timmy, you know I hate asking you for anything and I know I screwed up last time, but I need help.”
Tim folded his arms and stared at his father, but didn't say anything.
“Billy was right – I can't golf like I used to and my gal, well, once the money dried up, she threw me out. I got no place to stay.”
“You're not staying here.”
“I know that, I don't expect that at all. I was hoping maybe you could talk to Billy, get me a job at the garage. I can still fix cars, you know I taught you a lot.”
Tim closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, wishing he had some kind of superpower that could make people he didn't want to see disappear.
Truth was, most of the stuff Walt had taught him had nothing to do with cars and nothing to do with the kind of person Tim wanted to be. And Billy, there was no way Billy was ever going to go for this.
Tim shook his head. “No. And you need to leave.”
He felt Walt's hand on his shoulder and he shrugged it off and stepped away. “Seriously, you need to leave. I don't wanna see you again.”
He glared at Walt, watching as the man turned slowly and walked back to his truck. He paused, about halfway there and looked back. He looked like he might say something, but instead he just shook his head and kept walking.
Tim watched until his father had driven away, then he went back into the house. Al had turned on one of the lamps and was sitting on the couch. She looked up at him anxiously, but said nothing. He sat down next to her, leaning forward to put his elbows on his knees and hide his face in his hands. He felt her hand on his back, a soft, gentle pressure on his tense muscles.
“You want to talk about it?”
He dropped his hands from his face and turned to look back at her. He shook his head.
“Nothing to talk about, really. He's gone. Again. I hope for good because I don't know what else to do to get rid of him.”
“C'mere,” she said, motioning for him to lie down and use her lap as a pillow.
He stretched out on the couch and turned on his side, his cheek pressing into the soft velvet of her dress. She ran her fingers through his hair, massaging his scalp. Exhaustion flooded through him. He thought that he should say something about going up to bed, but he couldn't seem to make his mouth form the words. He stopped trying to fight the weight of his eyelids and drifted off to sleep.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Tim wasn't sure how it was that Al had been the one drinking on Friday night but he was the one who woke up with the hangover on Saturday morning. His head was pounding and all he wanted to do was sleep. Saturday passed in a blur of aspirin, naps, and orange juice. Al looked after him, and tried to talk to him about Walt, but Tim insisted he just felt crappy in general and it had nothing to do with his father.
He felt better on Sunday morning and in the afternoon, he and Al walked the dogs up to Smitty's as they did every Sunday to share a pitcher of beer and watch sports on one of the giant televisions. Al had even sweet-talked the bartender into keeping one of the televisions tuned to hockey, just for her, so that's where they were sitting on Sunday afternoon.
Al was especially excited because it was her favorite team, the Montreal Canadiens, playing their arch-rivals the Boston Bruins. Everyone else in the place was watching a car race, but Al was all about the hockey.
Tim had been amused, but not particularly surprised, to find out that she'd played hockey on both a girls' traveling team and on her high school team. She'd been fast and tough and the leading scorer three years in a row in the girls' league. (This last bit of information he'd learned not from Al but from her brother Charlie.)
The game was a real battle, with lots of shots on goal but no scoring through the second period. During the intermission, Al jumped up, kissed Tim on the cheek and headed for the bathroom. He drank his beer while he looked around the bar. Bradley, home from college for the weekend for his mother's birthday, stopped by to talk to him.
They caught up on each other's lives and then Bradley went back to his friends. Tim looked up at the television and realized the game was already five minutes into the third period. Al wasn't back yet, which was unusual. He looked around the bar uneasily. Several more minutes ticked by in the game and the Canadiens scored. He was just about to go looking for Al when she returned.
“I was worried you'd fallen in. Was just about to send out a search party.”
“Sorry about that.” She seemed distracted and didn't look at him when she answered. “Shit, I missed a goal. Who scored?”
“Kovalev. Sweet shot on a break-away. You okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Why?” She looked him in the eye and he thought he saw a flash of guilt.
“It's just not like you to miss any of the action.”
“Oh, yeah, I ran into that realtor lady, you know, the one who talks and talks and talks?”
“Yeah, Missy. And I didn't want to be rude.”
“You ran into Missy the realtor here?”
Al looked up, cheeks flushed. “Not here, exactly. I was feeling a little light-headed, so I went outside to get some air. She was walking past. You know, doing that suburban power-walking thing that looks so funny?”
Tim nodded slowly and shifted his focus back on the game. Something wasn't quite right but he didn't know what it was. Or maybe it was him. Maybe he was seeing guilt in Al because he felt guilty for not wanting to talk about Walt.
He thought back to Friday night, as he was drifting off to sleep in her lap, she'd brushed his hair off his face and rested her hand on his cheek. Her touch was so light, he nearly thought he was dreaming but then he heard her voice: “Don't shut me out, okay?” He had tried to say something, but he'd been too tired to do anything more than nod sleepily.
On the walk home from Smitty's, Al looked up at Tim and smiled. “I'm a happy girl right now.”
“Is that so?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.
“Yep. Not only am I with my favorite person and the best dogs in the world, and my team won, but Mindy agreed to be my Maid of Honor.”
“No kidding? How'd you talk her into that?” Tim smiled. Al's enthusiasm was contagious.
“I told her she could wear whatever she wanted, that I didn't want a bridal shower or any of that crap, so her only job is to show up on the day and hold my flowers when necessary. And I told her that Landry promised he could photoshop her non-pregnant body into the pictures.”
Tim laughed. “You really think he can do that?”
“Doesn't matter if I think he can do it. Only matters that Mindy thinks he can,” said Al with a shrug and devious grin.
“I have to tell you, I'm relieved Mindy agreed. I was worried your backup would be Tyra and that would just be maybe a little weird.”
“Tyra's volunteered to be our wedding planner.”
“For real? Why would she want to do that?”
“She wants to start a party planning business – weddings, corporate events, Sweet 16s for rich brats, anything really. So she asked me if she could plan our wedding for the experience.”
Tim stopped walking and looked at Al. “It's still going to be the wedding we talked about, though, right? The laid-back party at the lake?”
“Of course. What did you think?”
“Wedding planner sounds fancy and like they'd only plan something stuffy.”
“Don't worry about it. All this means is that it's her job to worry about the details and I don't have to call 47 caterers or try to find eight million strings of Christmas lights and a generator.”
“Who would have thought a wedding would be so complicated?” said Tim with a grin.
Al rolled her eyes and poked him in the ribs with her sharp little elbow. “Anyone who wasn't a guy.”
He slipped his arm around her and pulled her close as he started walking again. He decided to forget about everything else and just focus on the happiness of the here and now, with his favorite person in the world.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Tim spent the next few weeks looking for his father in every shadow. But once again, Walt seemed gone, although Tim was much less willing to add the words “for good” to that statement.
Al was concerned about him, he knew that. But he didn't know how to talk to her about his father. He knew that she must have heard stories, from Mindy and Tyra and maybe even Billy, but he didn't want to add to those stories. He knew that Al loved him, but part of him worried that if she discovered the true nature of the tree he fell from, well, she'd toss him in the barrel with all the other rotten apples.
He knew that his usual pattern when he didn't want to talk about something was to either shut down or rely on the physical part of the relationship. It was easy to fall into the latter approach, letting his body take over and giving his mouth something to do other than talk.
At work, it was easier. He just kept busy, which meant he didn't have to talk to Billy either. If his brother was suspicious of his new-found work ethic, he didn't show it. Tim was turning all of these thoughts over in his mind as he worked on a Camaro.
“Hey, Tim,” said Al, coming up behind him.
“I've gotta go out for an hour or two. Will you help Kevin with that Firebird that needs a starter motor? Also, D'Andre should be in soon – get him to enter the invoices into the computer. Okay?”
Tim straightened up and looked at Al. He was a little dazed by how fast she was talking. Like she didn't want to give him a chance to ask any questions.
“Hold up there, where you going?”
“Doctor's appointment and I'm nearly late so I really have to go.”
“Everything okay?” He reached out and took her hand.
“Yeah, it's just you know, like a 20,000 mile service or something. I told you a few weeks ago I had to go.”
He didn't remember, but he nodded anyway. “Alright, help Kevin with a starter motor and get D'Andre to put the invoices in the computer.”
“Thanks.” She squeezed his hand and slipped away before he could kiss her goodbye. He watched her race out of the garage, walking about three times her normal speed, then shrugged and went back to work.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Al was gone three hours, arriving back just as they were closing the garage for the day. She would have just gone home except that she and Tim had gone in together that morning and she didn't want to strand him or force Billy to give him a ride home.
He was waiting out in front of the garage for her and climbed in before the truck had fully stopped. He leaned across the seat and kissed her like he hadn't seen her in days.
“What was that for?” she asked, surprised but pleased.
He shrugged. “No reason.”
“How was it?”
“Your doctor's appointment. How was it?”
She smiled. “Oh yeah, sorry, you sort of distracted me there. It was fine. I told you – no big deal. Just a check up.”
“Good. So I distracted you, huh?”
“A bit, yeah.”
He slid closer to her, put an arm around her and began to whisper into her ear the ways he planned to distract her when they got home. It was only later that night, as he watched Al sleeping next to him, that he realized she had also distracted him from asking more questions about the appointment and why she was gone longer than she said she'd be.
A few days later, Tim was having a meeting with Billy in his office. At least that's what it would have looked like to anyone who glanced in the window. Billy was talking a lot and Tim was nodding gravely while taking notes. Only Billy was complaining about how emotional and hormonal the pregnancy was making Mindy and Tim was drawing pictures of stick figures jumping off a cliff.
Al knocked on the door and came in, wearing her dark blue business suit. She stood behind Tim and put her head on his shoulder.
“Nice – I like the one who looks like he's going to belly flop,” she said as she looked down at the notebook.
“You got that meeting with Buddy now?”
“Yeah, lunch at Seven Sisters. I'll try not to be gone too long. I'd hoped to get to working on that jeep today.”
She leaned around Tim and kissed him, causing Billy to roll his eyes and mutter good-natured complaints about appropriate workplace conduct.
Al flipped him off, broke off the kiss, and then winked at Tim before walking out and closing the door behind her.
“At least the wedding planning isn't making her crazy. I swear, there were days when Mindy was planning ours that I wanted to find an exorcist to banish the devil from her,” said Billy.
“Al seems normal to you?”
Billy nodded. “Yeah. Why? Is something wrong?”
Tim sighed and tossed his pen on Billy's desk. “She's late.”
“Late? For lunch with Buddy?”
“No Billy. Late-late. Like possibly pregnant late.”
“Oh.... How late?”
“I don't know because she hasn't talked to me about this at all.” Tim's voice was strained and he raked his fingers through his hair while he stared up at the ceiling.
“Then how do you know she's late?”
“I've lived with her for almost two and a half years. I know her. I notice things. And I'm guessing she's at least a month late. Maybe more.”
“And she hasn't said a word to you?”
Tim shook his head.
“Damn. Mindy'll tell me if she thinks she's even half a day late. Why do you think she hasn't said anything?”
“Let me ask you this, Timmy,” said Billy, pausing until his brother looked at him. “Would it be happy news if you found out she was pregnant?”
Tim took a deep breath and let it out through puffed-out cheeks as he considered the question. “I'm not going to lie to you. I'd be terrified, of not being ready or of messing up or not being a good dad, but I would be ....I don't know.....amazed and sort of, excited.”
Billy nodded. He'd gotten that particular news three times already and that was pretty much how he'd felt about it every time. “And what kind of news would it be for Al?”
Tim shook his head. “I don't know. I think she still has mixed feelings about the idea and still feels guilty about Avery. There's no rush on it, so I figured we'd just get through the wedding and talk about it later.”
“You don't think she's, you know....doing something about it?”
“Doing something about what? What are you talking about?”
Billy spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. “Well, what if she's pregnant and she knows for sure and she decides she doesn't want to have a baby now? What if she's, you know, taking care of it?”
Tim's face burned as he considered his brother's question. “No, no way.”
“She might be scared and she might feel guilty, but there's no way she would ever make that kind of decision without talking to me first.”
“You remember Mary Beth?”
“That gal you were going with right after Dad left?”
“Yeah, sort of. Why?”
“She did that....didn't tell me until a couple months after the fact, when I didn't understand why she wouldn't let me touch her anymore. She burst into tears and the whole story came out.”
“Damn, Billy. What did you do?”
“I broke up with her. I'm not proud of it now, but at the time I was so confused. Angry and relieved and just plain mixed-up, I guess.”
Tim shook his head. “No, there's no way I can believe she'd do that.”
But in the back of his mind, Tim was thinking about how Al had been acting strange recently. The long bathroom break at Smitty's. The doctor's appointment. The question avoidance after the appointment. It all added up to suspicion in his mind, but suspicion of what, he wasn't sure.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Tim and Billy were having lunch in Billy's office when Tim's cell phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and checked the caller id.
“Hi, Al. What's up?”
“I'm at the hospital. Buddy had a heart attack.”
Tim was stunned. “A heart attack.... Is he going to be okay?”
“I don't know, I hope so, I think so. They're going to stabilize him now and then might have to do a surgery later this afternoon or tonight. I need you to do some things for me.”
“First, do you have a pen?”
Tim shuffled papers and burger wrappers around on Billy's desk, looking for a pen. Billy watched him with wide, concerned eyes.
“Got it. Shoot.”
“I've already called Lyla. She's on her way here and I need you to pick her up from Midland airport. She'll be on flight 5623, which is due in at 8.01 tonight.”
“5623, 8.01,” Tim repeated as he wrote the numbers on his hand and traced over them for good measure.
“Buddy's asked me to stay with him until Lyla gets here, so can you let Billy know I'm not going to be back in today?”
“Then, finally, if you''ve got nothing else pressing this afternoon, think you could take care of that jeep for me? And get Kevin to help you – he needs to learn how to diagnose problems better.”
“Sure, although he's going to be mighty disappointed that he's working with me instead of you.”
“He is not.”
“He is. He can't look down my shirt nearly as well as he can look down yours.”
He could hear the smile in her voice as she told him to knock it off and that she'd see him at the hospital.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Tim stood in the arrivals area at the airport, looking for Lyla. He saw her before she saw him, a determined figure politely stepping around people and walking with purpose toward the exit. Her face was pale and he could tell, even from a distance, that she'd been crying. She saw him and angled toward him, dragging her small wheeled suitcase behind her.
He didn't think, he just opened his arms and she fell against him. He could feel the tension draining from her as he wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. He was careful not to look down at her until he'd let her go and stepped back. He remember all too well how these physical gestures of comfort could spiral out of control when grief and worry were involved.
Tim picked up her suitcase and led her out to his truck, where George waited inside.
“Wow. He's gotten huge.”
“Yeah, not done growing yet either. He's only about six months old.”
Lyla laughed as George licked her face, then flopped down with his head in her lap.
“How're you doing?” Tim asked as he put the truck in drive.
“Oh, you know. I just want to be with my father. Then I think I'll feel better, when I can see for myself how he is.”
“Have you heard any more?”
“Yeah, he called me when I was in Houston waiting for my connecting flight. Said that they were going to do an angioplasty and not to worry, he was fine.”
“That the one with the balloon?” Tim remembered Al mentioning it as a possibility. It gave him a bizarre mental image of Buddy Garrity's arteries full of brightly colored party balloons.
Lyla nodded. “He sounded tired, but okay. He said he had Al to thank for his life. She's the one who recognized his symptoms, called the ambulance, and gave him aspirin.”
“She's a good one to have around in an emergency, all right.”
“Jason said she'd been to med school?”
Tim nodded, but didn't provide any more information. He hoped that Jay hadn't told her more than that.
“Why'd she leave?”
Tim shrugged. “Guess it just wasn't for her, you know?”
Lyla was quiet for a minute, rubbing George's soft ear with her thumb. “So, you're seriously getting married?”
“Yep. Should be sendin' out invitations soon. Tyra's acting as our planner and handling all the details. My job is just to smile and agree with everything.”
Lyla shook her head.
“What? Why is it so completely unbelievable that I'd be getting married?” Tim was equal parts annoyed and amused.
“You weren't exactly the type that seemed he'd ever settle down. That's all.”
Tim nearly said something about just needing to find the right girl, but he knew those words might be taken more personally than intended. He didn't want to hurt Lyla's feelings.
“That was a long time ago,” he said in a low voice.
“I just never thought you would.”
Tim sighed and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, debating how much to tell Lyla.
“Remember your birthday, two years ago? When I showed up at Vanderbilt?”
Lyla nodded as a guilty flush crept up her face.
“I was going to propose to you then. Had a ring and everything. It wasn't much, but I wanted to do it right.”
Lyla looked down for a moment then raised her head to look across the seat at him, searching his face for the truth. Magnified by tears, her large eyes seemed even bigger than usual. Tim looked at her and nodded.
“I'm still sorry about the way that turned out....and now....now I feel even worse.”
“Don't. I can see now it would have been a mistake. I was doing it for the wrong reason – I was afraid and wanted to keep you tied to me so I wouldn't lose you. With Al....it's just so different. She's like....oxygen – I need her and can't imagine not having her in my life. And she needs me the same way.”
A few tears escaped from Lyla's attempts at control and she tried to brush them away discretely, her elbow resting on the door and her forehead pressed against the cool glass.
“Lyla, I know you know what I'm talking about. That's how you and Jay were.”
“Were. Past tense.”
“You could be that way again. I know that you could.”
“Don't be stupid. That is so over and has been for ages. Ancient history.”
“Even a banked fire generates heat.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” Lyla's sharp tone set him on edge and he struggled to maintain his patience.
“It means as long as there's still a part of you that loves him, and a part of him that loves you, it would only take a little work to get that fire going again,” he said slowly, as though explaining something obvious to a child.
“Do you really think so?”
Tim had to grin as he heard the same hope in her voice that he'd heard from Six when they talked about Lyla at Christmas.
“You're laughing at me,” she said in a petulant tone, crossing her arms and looking out the window.
“No. No, it's not like what you think. It's just, Jay sounded exactly the same way, same words, same hope, when we had a similar conversation back when he was visiting at Christmas.”
He looked over at her and caught a faint smile on her lips. But when she spoke, her tone was rueful.
“But it's too late. His life is about Noah and Erin now.”
“Noah will always be Jay's son, his main priority, but Erin, well, they're having problem. Honestly, if you gave him a reason, he'd leave her in a heartbeat.”
Lyla considered his words. “But if you guys talked about this in December, how come he hasn't said anything to me? I haven't heard anything about troubles with Erin. And I sure don't get a sense from him that he's being – and wants to be – anything besides my friend.”
“Lyla, no guy wants to get shot down. And I don't know if Jay completely believed me. He probably talked himself out of believing me before he'd even gotten back to New Jersey.”
“Why wouldn't he believe you?”
Tim shrugged and shifted uncomfortably. “He thinks you're still hung up on me.”
An awkwardness settled over the truck and Tim waited. He knew the truth, but he'd always thought that Lyla's pride and stubbornness would keep her from admitting it to him. And he'd been okay with that, so long as she was able to admit it to herself.
“Remember that conversation we had in the garage, when I asked you for a second chance and you said that I'd always wanted a different version of you?”
“I thought about that for weeks. And eventually, I realized why I was so confused and messed up. I'd loved both of you for so long, that you'd nearly merged into one person in my mind. So you were right. I was trying to bring out the parts of Jason that I thought you should have.”
Tim took the exit for Dillon and stopped at the lights at the bottom of the off-ramp. He looked at her, watching her eyes for the truth.
“And now? How do you feel about us now?”
“I love you like an old friend, like a brother. And Jason, I love him just like always.”
Tim sighed and nodded, a smile of relief on his lips. The light changed and he put the truck into gear.
“I don't know what to do, Tim.”
“Just tell him how you feel. And then, when you're finally back together, don't try to change him.”
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Tim felt the least he could do was walk Lyla into the hospital, even though he regretted the decision as soon as the familiar smell of disinfectant hit his nose.
“You can wait outside, really,” said Lyla.
They paused in front of a sign with directions, looking for the cardiac care unit. Tim deciphered the map and led the way through the twisting corridors to the unit, which had its own waiting room. He spotted Al's curls just peeking up over the edge of a couch and headed over to her. She was still in her business suit, her shoes on the floor and her legs curled up underneath her.
“Hey, you okay?” he asked her softly as he put a hand on her shoulder.
She looked up at him and the tension eased off her face. She stood up and saw Lyla, who was standing awkwardly a few feet away.
“He's in the recovery room, they said. He should be back here in about 20 minutes or so,” Al told her.
“Thanks, you guys, you don't need to wait with me. It'll be fine.”
Al looked at Tim and he knew she wouldn't leave Lyla sitting there alone.
“Are George and Bruno in the truck?” asked Al.
“Just George. I dropped Bruno off at home so I'd have room for Lyla.” He smiled and then saw the look on Al's face. “It's okay, the windows are partly opened and it's chilly outside. Really, it's okay.”
“Still, he could start chewing or something. Maybe it'd be best if you went down and waited outside with him.”
Tim recognized the escape she was giving him and nodded gratefully. He gave Lyla a quick hug and kiss on the cheek and told Al he'd be waiting for her.
Both women watched him leave and then looked at each other, a bit of discomfort lingering in the air. Al sat back down on the couch and Lyla sat in a chair across from her.
“My father said you saved his life. Thank you for that.”
“Your father is kind, but he's also on a lot of medication right now. I just did what anybody would have done.”
“Still, it was good that he had you there, since you've been to med school and know what to do in emergencies.”
Al's eyes narrowed and Lyla wondered what she'd said wrong. But Al didn't say anything, so Lyla felt obligated to find a way through the conversation.
“Thanks, by the way, for giving me that advice on Christmas Eve. It helped me realize what I really wanted so I was able to focus on med school.”
“I'm glad to hear it. You starting to get responses yet?”
“Yeah. I've gotten into Harvard and Texas Tech so far. Still waiting to hear from Columbia and Baylor.”
“Well done – if you can get into Harvard, you can get into any place.”
“Jason said you got into Harvard, but you went to North Dakota. Do you mind if I ask why?”
Al's hands clenched into fists and she could feel her blood pressure rising. She didn't remember telling Jason about Harvard.
“North Dakota gave me a full scholarship,” she said, fighting to keep her voice neutral.
The doctor picked that moment to step out into the waiting room. “Ms. Garrity?”
Lyla raised her hand a little, like she was in elementary school and the doctor walked over to her.
“The angioplasty went well and we put in a stent, which should help keep the vessel open. The next few days will be crucial in determining the long-term prognosis, but thanks to your friend's early intervention, your father should be just fine.”
Lyla thanked both Al and the doctor. “Can I see him now?”
“Of course,” the doctor turned, motioning for Lyla to follow him.
“You coming back?”
Al shook her head. “I'm exhausted. Give my best to Buddy and tell him I'll visit him in the next few days some time.”
Lyla gave Al a tentative hug, feeling a bit awkward about the whole thing but trying to treat her like any other friend.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Al was unusually quiet in the truck on the way home, her eyes closed and her head leaned against the window, although Tim could tell she wasn't sleeping.
He heard her breathe a sigh of relief when they went into the house. She dropped her backpack on the floor and headed for the stairs.
“Where you going?” he asked, grabbing her hand and pulling her toward him.
“I need to get out of these clothes. That's all I've been thinking about for the last eight hours.”
“You know,” he said, his voice low and teasing, “I could help you out of those clothes. I think about that....a lot.”
“You could, but it would be much more helpful to me at the right now if you'd pour me a Scotch and wait for me down here.”
He dropped her hand and nodded, watching her turn and walk upstairs. He let the dogs out while he poured them each a Scotch, then settled down on the couch to wait for her. She came back down in her most comfortable, baggy plaid pajama bottoms and worn-in sweatshirt. She picked her glass up off the table and surprised Tim by sitting down in the chair and putting her feet on the coffee table.
She took a sip of Scotch and rubbed her eyes.
“Why you sitting all the way over there? You telling me I need to shower or something, because, you know-”
She cut off his suggestive remark. “I'm sitting over here because I have to talk to you about something and sometimes, I can't think clearly when I'm that close to you.”
He couldn't help the small, self-satisfied grin that slipped onto his face, but it slipped off as soon as she spoke again and he could heard her hurt and accusatory tone.
“How does Lyla know I got into Harvard?”
“I don't know. Probably Jay told her.”
“You told Jay?”
Tim sighed impatiently and rubbed his forehead before running his hand through his hair. “Yeah, I probably mentioned it to Jay at some point, him being my best friend, you being my gal and him being curious about you. I didn't realize it was a secret.”
“Have you told anyone about Avery?” Her husky voice was a whisper.
Tim was caught like an armadillo in the middle of a five-lane highway. He didn't want to lie but he didn't want to tell the truth either. His pause lasted half a heartbeat too long, giving him away.
“Dammit, Tim. Who?”
Tim looked down and waited a few beats before answering softly. “Jay.”
She looked at him, eyes burning with anger and accusation. But she didn't say anything. He felt like it would be better if she'd just yell at him and get it over with. He tried to explain what happened.
“It was when we talked at Christmas, during his visit. He was asking me about plans for kids and it just kind of came up. I'd never, ever told anyone else and Jay's my best friend. He wouldn't tell anyone. He gets it, Al. He's a father – he can imagine what you went through, even better than I can, to be honest with you.”
The seconds stretched into long, frosty minutes as Tim wished that she would say something, anything. Finally, Al nodded slowly. “First one's free, Tim. After that, I get really angry and it won't be pretty. We clear?”
“Clear,” he echoed with a nod, relieved that that was the end of it.
They sat in silence, drinking Scotch and avoiding each other's eyes until Tim couldn't stand it anymore.
“You going to come over here and keep me company now?”
Al shook her head. “Still one more thing I want to talk to you about.”
Tim felt like his heart was trying to climb out of his body through his throat.
“Yeah?” He tried to sound more casual than he felt, expecting that she was going to tell him that she was pregnant.
“It's not easy....I don't know how to tell you this.” She looked into her glass like it held all the answers.
“Whatever it is, Al, I can handle it. We can handle it.”
“It's just....ever since your father showed up, you've been....well, sort of absent, I guess, is the best way to put it. Not fully here. I feel like you're starting to shut me out.”
“I've been shutting you out?” His tone was incredulous.
She blinked, surprised by the ferocity of his response.
“Yes, you have.”
“That's kind of funny, because I'm not the one hiding something.”
Her eyes darted furtively before opening wide in an attempted expression of innocence. “I'm not hiding anything. What do you think I'm hiding?”
“You were late Al. I know you were. Were you ever going to tell me?”
She looked up at him, her face sad. “I was going to tell you when I knew for certain and knew that everything was okay.”
“So were you....are you...pregnant?”
She shook her head sadly. “I was but it was what they call a blighted ovum.”
“What is that? Like a miscarriage or something?”
“Yeah, a very early miscarriage because the embryo didn't develop.” Her voice was steady, matter-of-fact.
Tim tried to process her words. He thought he should feel relieved, that she was okay, that they weren't having a baby before they were ready. But he just felt a deep sense of loss and sadness.
“I'm sorry,” she whispered. He wasn't sure if she was apologizing for not telling him or expressing condolences on their lost child. She got up and sat down next to him, tentatively leaving a small space between them. He was looking away from her, a curtain of hair hiding his face. She reached out and brushed his hair back, tucking it behind his ear.
When he still didn't look at her, she put her hand on his cheek and gently turned his head. He kept his eyes down until he felt her starting to draw away. When he looked up, his eyes were full of hurt.
“I should have told you, as soon as I knew. I'm sorry. I was wrong to keep it from you.”
He didn't say anything, but he took her hand and squeezed it.
“First one's free?” she suggested with a small, hopeful smile.
He nodded. “First one's free.”
She leaned forward and hugged him, resting her head on his shoulder. He closed his eyes and held her tight, hoping that the news would be better next time.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
The time raced by as Tyra worked hard to organize all the details for Tim and Al's wedding. White Christmas tree lights, a generator, tents, flooring material suitable to make paths for Jason's wheelchair so Tim wouldn't have to carry him everywhere (“As fun as that was last time, Six, I think my bride might get a little jealous.”), a caterer, tables, chairs, DJ...
The details seemed endless and the only thing Tim was curious about was the one thing he couldn't know about – the dress. All he'd learned was a scrap of information that he'd picked up from Billy, who'd heard from Mindy that Tyra had to find a seamstress to alter a vintage dress that Al bought online.
Al designed the invitations herself, using a watercolor painting she'd done of the lake. They selected July 2nd, which was the Saturday of the long Fourth of July weekend. It was good timing – early enough in July that Mindy wouldn't have to worry about having the baby during the wedding and the long weekend made it easier for Al's far-flung relatives to attend.
Tim was relieved that Tyra was planning the wedding, since it took much of the day-to-day stress off of Al, who had her hands full trying to organize the intern program for the next school year. They'd decided to keep Kevin and D'Andre and expand the program to a total of five interns. She had a meeting with Billy and Tim to discuss what they were looking for in the new interns. Then she picked a Friday afternoon and scheduled short interviews with the 15 students who applied for the program.
Tim was kept busy that morning with a transmission that just didn't want to get fixed. When he'd finally wrestled the parts into submission, it was about time for lunch, so he headed into Billy's office to get his order.
“Hey Billy, what do you want for lunch today?”
Billy looked up from the computer and Tim could tell by the annoyed look on his face that he must be paying invoices online.
“I dunno. I'm so sick of the Alamo Freeze....Hey, there's that new Chinese place, just opened up in the strip mall, you know the one, near the pool?”
“What, the one that's got the lawyer's office and the dog grooming place?” Tim was trying to picture it in his head.
“Yeah, that's the one. I got a menu here somewhere.” Billy dug through his desk drawers until he located the menu, then looked through it quickly.
“Get me fried rice and spare ribs,” he said finally, handing Tim a ten dollar bill.
“All right. Hey, where's Al?”
“Oh, she's got those intern interviews today, remember?”
Tim pursed his lips. “Yeah, but I thought those were later this afternoon. I was nearly positive she'd be around for lunch.”
Billy shrugged. “I don't know – maybe she needs to meet with Principal Taylor first or something. All I know is she got dressed up and headed out about 45 minutes ago maybe. You must have been test driving that car or something when she left.”
Tim hadn't test driven the car yet, but he didn't say anything. It was unusual for Al to leave without saying good-bye, but maybe she'd been in a hurry. He headed out to the strip mall to get lunch.
When he arrived, the parking lot was jammed and he had to drive around a few times before he found a place. The Chinese place must be doing good business, he thought. He walked up to the sidewalk and headed for the restaurant, going past a dollar store and the dog grooming place before he neared the lawyer's office. Two people had just come out and were having what looked like a heated conversation. The guy grabbed the woman's arm and she wheeled around, blonde curls flying, which reminded him of Al.
He squinted and looked again. Shit. It was Al. And if he wasn't mistaken, that was his father with her. He shook his head, trying to assemble a series of facts that could explain why his father and his fiancé were walking out of a lawyer's office together, but it was like trying to put together a puzzle when all of the edge pieces were missing.
“Al? What the hell?”
She looked up at Tim with a sick, caught-looking expression on her face.
“Well, darlin', it was a pleasure doing business with you,” said Walt, patting the thick envelope that stuck out of his shirt pocket.
Tim looked from Al to Walt.
“Oh, you don't know, do you? I'll let your little lady fill you in,” Walt chuckled as he began to walk away.
But Walt was never one to leave well enough alone. He always wanted more than the last word. He wanted the last dig. It wasn't enough for him to just leave you, he seemed to want to leave you hurting. He was about to step down off the curb to the parking lot when he turned around.
“You know, you want to think you're so much better 'n me. That you've somehow gone and made something of yourself. But the truth is, at the end of the day, underneath it all, Timmy, you're just the same as me.”
For the second time in his life, Tim refused to look at his father as the man walked away. He kept his eyes on the ground and waited several minutes before looking up at Al.
“What's he talking about? That envelope? Did you give him money?”
Al nodded and was about to explain when she saw Tim's face shut down, the light flickering out of his eyes and his mouth taking on a hard, almost mean set. She had a sense that an earthquake was cracking open a fault line, leaving them on opposite sides of a chasm.
“Tim, I can explain,” Al said, putting her hand on his arm, but he shrugged it off. She flinched at the rejection, and then watched him walk away, his head down and shoulders hunched.
He was hurt and angry and didn't trust himself to be near her, didn't know what he would say or how he would lash out. He stopped at the grocery store on the way back to the garage and picked up two cases of beer, two bottles of Jack Daniels, and a microwavable Chinese dinner for Billy's lunch. He left the alcohol in his truck and went into the garage.
“Sorry, Billy, the Chinese place was closed.”
Billy looked up, confused. “Why?”
Tim shrugged. “I don't know. But I got you this.” He dropped the cardboard container onto the desk.
“Are you okay, Timmy? You don't seem too good.”
Tim shook his head, relieved that he wouldn't have to lie to his brother to answer this question. “No, Billy, I don't feel good at all. Would it be okay if I took the dogs and went home for the afternoon?”
“Yeah, of course, Tim. Whatever you need. You going to be able to drive yourself home okay?” The concern in Billy's face made Tim feel guilty, so he hunched his shoulders and nodded without making eye contact.
“See you Monday, then,” Billy called as Tim walked out, but he only raised a hand in acknowledgement.
Tim drove home and left George in the truck. He stuffed as many clothes as his could into two large duffle bags. He grabbed his toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and electric razor from the bathroom and dropped them into his backpack. He found his phone charger, his Ipod and his Ipod charger and put those into his backpack as well.
He felt like he was running away from home, like he had once when he was ten, just before his mother left. That time, he took a sleeping bag, his clothes, and his football and went to Jason's. He'd tried to just sleep in their backyard, but Mrs. Street had found him when she let their dog outside before she went to bed. She had him come in the house to sleep on the other twin bed in Jason's room, then she'd returned him to his parents the next day. His father wasn't home and his mother hadn't even realized he'd left.
Then there was that whole thing with Jackie and Billy, when he left after that. But for some reason, that didn't feel like running away. It just felt like leaving. Like his parents had. Just walking out the door and not looking back. He wondered what the was between just plain leaving and running away.
He loaded his bags, George's crate, and a giant bag of puppy food into the back of his truck. He returned to the house and thought about leaving a note for Al, but he didn't know what to say. He got a dog treat and gave it to Bruno, rubbing his ears and whispering an apology for leaving. Then he got into his truck and drove away.
His only thought was to put as much space as possible between him and Al. Because maybe his dad was right, maybe there was no difference between them. And if that was the case, then he probably shouldn't be with anyone since he'd only end up hurting them. Better to end things now, make a clean break before their lives became too entangled.
Then there was the way their relationship had just sort of drifted into this weird twilight state, where they were together but keeping things from each other. He had forgiven her for not telling him that she was late, but only the first one was free. Whatever conversations she must have had with Walt to set up that meeting, and then whatever they were doing in the lawyer's office that resulted in his father leaving with a pocketful of money, well, he didn't know how or if he could forgive her keeping those secrets.
Tim thought about pointing the truck in the direction of New Jersey, to be with Jay. But then he realized that Six would probably just talk him into going back to Al.
He thought about what he wanted, about what would make him feel better. But he knew he wasn't going to be able to feel better. The best he could hope for was to feel nothing. He decided that all he wanted to do was drive fast on the highway and get to somewhere on the coast. South Padre Island, he decided, would work, even if he wouldn't get there until well after dark.
He plugged his Ipod into the stereo, trying not think about how Al installed both the stereo and a hands-free cell phone setup for his last birthday present. He scrolled through his playlist to the one he favored for both driving and working out – a lot of loud, fast heavy metal songs that always made him want to push himself harder.
He got to South Padre Island about three hours after sunset. He drove around until he found a squat motel, right on the beach, run-down enough to look like something he could comfortably afford. He spent the first night sprawled on the lumpy bed in his motel room, one hand holding a bottle of Jack Daniels, the other petting George, who must have thought it was his lucky day to get to sleep in the bed for a change.
Tim watched crappy movies on an ancient, flickering television set as he drank the whiskey straight from the bottle. The liquor tasted slightly off, since it lacked the tastes he'd gotten used to in the Scotches Al liked. The absent flavors reminded him of Al and he missed her in a way he didn't think was possible...like missing a limb. He felt a tightness in his chest whenever he thought of her and the only thing for it was to drink faster.
He stayed up all night drinking, then slept all day, leaving his motel room only to take George on quick walks and to pick up something to eat. He repeated this pattern for the entire weekend. Monday morning, he was so completely shit-faced, he nearly felt okay. Or at least, he finally felt nothing.
Al wasn't sure how she made it through the interviews, but she managed. She was somehow able to disconnect the part of her brain that was worried about Tim and their relationship and just go through her list of questions and take notes. It became a routine and she followed it letter-perfect, even while a background process in her brain was wishing she could find Tim and explain everything to him.
Her interviews lasted until five o'clock, at which point she figured the garage would be closed and Tim would be at home. She gathered up her papers and headed to their house, surprised to find Bruno waiting there for her, even though there was no sign of Tim or George. She walked through the house, nervously taking an inventory. Two duffle bags, most of his clothes, his toothbrush and razor, the dog's crate and food. It looked like Tim had planned on an extended stay away from home.
Billy and Mindy's was the obvious choice, so Al grabbed her backpack, got in her truck, and headed over there. She didn't call because she thought Tim would simply dodge her call and leave before she arrived. Her heart sank when she arrived at Billy's house to find only his Trans-Am in the driveway.
She knocked on the door and opened it when Billy hollered out a distracted “Yeah? Come in.” She stepped into the living room hesitantly. Billy was laying on the couch with a beer in his hand, watching ESPN.
“Al. Didn't expect to see you tonight. How did those interview things go? Please don't tell me you came over here to talk about them now.”
Al shook her head. “No, they were fine. I'm looking for Tim.”
Billy frowned. “What you mean you're looking for Tim? He went home with the dogs at lunch – said he was feeling sick or something.”
Al wanted to ask if Billy was serious, but she couldn't get her voice to work. Instead, she walked over to the kitchen counter, set her backpack down, and sat a stool, facing into the kitchen so she could put her head down on the counter. Then, she just held on and tried not to cry.
Billy jumped off the couch and walked over, his eyes growing more concerned. He went to the fridge, got out a beer, and handed it to Al. Then he sat down at the other stool, facing into the living room as he leaned back and rested his elbows on the counter. It felt both incredibly weird and perfectly natural to be sitting this way with his future sister-in-law, since this was how he and Timmy sat whenever they had something important and personal to discuss.
“I screwed up, Billy. Big time. And now Timmy's gone.”
“I did something without talking to him about it and he found out. He didn't give me a chance to explain – he just left.”
Billy shook his head sadly. “You got an abortion.”
Al's head snapped up, a look of shock on her face. “No! I'd never do something like that to Tim. Jesus, it would be his kid too – he'd get a say in that.”
Billy breathed a sigh of relief and struggled to switch gears to stay with Al.
“So if it's not that, what did you do?”
Al reached into her backpack and pulled out a stack of papers. “This isn't how I wanted to do this.”
She shuffled through the papers and handed several pages over to Billy. He flipped through them, his eyes trying to comprehend all of the cramped lines of legalese in tiny print. He caught a phrase here and there, things like “hereby relinquish all claim”, “property located at”, “forego further contact”, “in consideration for $50,000”, their father's name and signature.
“What is all this?” Billy looked up at her, his mouth hanging open in disbelief.
She sighed. “I know I probably should have discussed this with both of you, but I was trying to protect Timmy. Your dad started calling the garage, I guess he figured I was a way to get to Tim and that Tim would be more receptive to him, eventually. I don't know. Anyway, he started making threats about taking you to court to get this house back. That his name was on the deed.”
“I've made about 10 years of mortgage payments on this place. And the last one will be next year. No way this is still his house.”
“Stephen, my ex-husband, was a lawyer and I helped him study in law school, so I know a thing or two about legal matters involving property disputes. I explained to Walt why he wouldn't have a claim and gave him an alternate offer.”
Billy shook the papers. “This alternate offer here?”
“Yeah. Basically, Walt promised to give up all claim on this house and to not contact any of you again, in exchange for $50,000. 5k in cash, the rest wired into a bank account, if you want the details.”
“You're kidding? You paid our father to go away?”
Al nodded. “I'm sorry, I probably should have talked to you both first. I wanted to get it done as painlessly as possible and then I was just going to leave the quit claim deed in your mailbox. Make it look like Walt had decided to do the right thing.”
“Al, this is a lot of money. It's too much. Mindy and I'll pay you back somehow.” His voice cracked.
“No way. I didn't even want you to know I did this.”
“But how? Where did you get the money?”
Al's lips twisted into a small, regretful smile. “I worked in Iraq for three years and made a truckload of money without much tax and with pretty much nothing to spend it on because all my expenses were taken care of. That lets a person build up quite a nest egg, especially, if the person is so depressed that she doesn't care about anything.”
“Don't worry about Timmy. He'll call or come around and I'll talk some sense into him. He's probably just at some dive bar or hitting beer cans off the dunes. He'll come crawling either here or home, probably as soon as tomorrow.”
Al slid her half-full bottle of beer over to Billy. “No, I don't think so. He took almost all his clothes. And he also took George, the crate, and at least a month's supply of dog food.”
Billy stood up and put his arm around Al's shoulders. “It'll be okay, Al. One way or another, we'll find him and talk some sense into him. I promise,” he said, trying to sound more convincing than he felt.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Al woke up early on Monday morning. In truth, she hadn't slept much since Friday. Tim hadn't called or texted either her or Billy all weekend. On Sunday evening, she called Jason, but he also hadn't heard from Tim.
She forced herself to feel hopeful. Tim might be angry and he might be hurt, but he had never been irresponsible about work. In the last two and a half years, he'd only missed three days when he got the flu last year. However Tim might feel about Al right now, he would never let Billy down.
At work, she was grateful when the first customer dropped off his car, a Toyota that just needed a general service. She got straight to work, relieved to have something to do that required only a little focus and not much thought. She worked and kept half an eye on the door, hoping that Tim would arrive soon.
Around 7.30, the door swung open and Bruno jumped to his feet and raced toward the door. Al looked up, but from her vantage point, all she could see was Bruno. She knew from the way the dog's tail swept back and forth, that it wasn't Tim. If it had been Tim, the dog's tail would have swung in great, happy loops – Helicopter Tail. She sighed and stood up, expecting to see another customer.
“D'Andre? What are you doing here?”
“Tim called me on Friday night. Said he had to go away for a bit and asked if I would cover this week for him.”
“The whole week?”
He nodded. “Yeah, he didn't know how long he'd be gone. Where is he, anyway?”
“Well, thank you for filling in for him. Can you pick up here for me – I'm just letting the oil drain now.” Al gave him a tight smile and went into Billy's office before D'Andre had a chance to answer.
She sat at Billy's desk and went through the interview notes from last week, narrowing down the applicants to seven. She'd have second interviews with them this week and then Billy could do the final approval interviews. He was happy to mostly leave the hiring decisions to her, as long as he could veto if he didn't agree with her.
She thought about calling Principal Taylor but realized it would be better if she went in. She knew D'Andre was skipping school to cover for Tim and she wanted to talk to Tami about that. Tim had been trying to be responsible, but he didn't see how asking interns to skip school could endanger the internship program.
She put her head down on Billy's desk and tried to keep it together. She'd floated through the weekend in a daze of worry and regret, but she really had expected Tim to at least come to work. That he'd found a temporary replacement seemed to indicate that he planned to stay gone for a while.
The sounds of someone clearing his throat caused her to look up. Billy was standing awkwardly in the doorway.
“You okay, Al?”
She shook her head.
“He's not here?”
Al stood up and headed for the door. “No – he sent D'Andre in to cover for him. I have to go up to the school to talk to Principal Taylor. Be back in about an hour, I'd guess.”
Billy stepped out of the doorway to let Al pass, putting a hand lightly on her shoulder but saying nothing. She looked up and tried to smile, but had to look away before she cried. She decided her only goal was to get through this day without falling apart. She could fall apart when she got home.
She got in her truck and headed over to the high school, where classes had just started. A few stragglers remained in the hallway. Al walked briskly to the main office and asked to talk to the principal. The secretary disappeared into the back hallway and then came back minutes later, motioning for Al to come in.
Al greeted Tami as she took a seat across the narrow desk from her.
“Al, nice to see you. Isn't this a pleasant surprise? What can I do for you today?” Tami smiled and Al tried to relax.
“Couple of things, first, here's a list of the students we want to have second interviews with,” Al said as she handed over a sheet of paper. “I'll contact them and set up interviews for Wednesday, if we could do them like last time, here at the school during school hours. Say about a half hour each?”
Tami nodded. “Of course, no problem. Thanks for letting me know.”
“Final interviews then will be Friday, with Billy at the garage after school.”
“Sounds good.” Tami's tone was level but her face was questioning. She knew Al wouldn't come all the way over to the school just to discuss routine administrative matters.
“Second thing, D'Andre isn't in school today because he's working at the garage to cover for Tim. I realize this is completely unacceptable and inappropriate. Won't happen again but we really kind of need him today. I'll reschedule the rest of our appointments for this week so he won't need to skip school to help Tim out.”
Tami's mouth seemed to be wanting to ask different questions than her brain. She stumbled over her words a little as she tried to nod reassuringly. “Well, thanks for letting me know.”
“And last, I guess, if you could pass a message onto Coach. Tim might call him, but then again, he might not think of it, so if you could just tell Coach not to expect Tim for golf on Saturday...” Al's voice grew softer and more strained until her sentenced just trailed off.
“Al, honey, is everything, well clearly, everything is not okay....anything you want to talk about?”
Al shook her head sadly. “I did something with the best intentions, but I didn't discuss it with Tim first. Now....now he's just gone. Been gone since Friday and I don't know where he is and when....or even if....he's coming back.”
“Oh hon. Let me tell you something. Over the years I've gotten to watch him grow up. Tim Riggins, he might be a lot of things but one of the things I know for sure is that he's loyal to the ones he loves. And he loves you.”
Al looked up, fearing that she wasn't going to get through this conversation without crying.
“You have faith in that man, he'll be back. And he will give you a chance to work things out.”
Al nodded and stood up. “Thank you.”
She stood there uncertainly for a few beats, wanting to say more but not knowing what to say. Finally she gave Tami a small wave and left to return to the garage to wait for Tim.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Starting Monday afternoon, Tim dialed the drinking down a bit. He didn't want to make himself totally sick, but he wanted to stay within the zone where his life was a distant memory. His plan was working great – drinking, hanging out with George, watching movies on the cable, taking only brief forays into the outside world – until Wednesday evening when he landed on a Nicholas Cage film: Leaving Las Vegas. Given the actor and the title, Tim was hoping for some sort of action movie involving casinos.
What he got was a guy trying to drink himself to death in a motel room. Struck a little close to home and shook him up enough that he decided it was time to check his voicemail. He'd left his cell phone on the nightstand plugged into its charger, with the ringer turned off. Every so often, he'd catch a flash on the display and know that someone was trying to get in touch with him. But he'd refused to look at it or listen to his messages until that damn film came onto his television.
Six had called a few times on Sunday, and then once a day since then. His messages swung between angry and concerned. Billy's messages were a lot like Six's, only Billy's started with “Hey, Dumbass”, had a lot more swearing, and ended with “Timmy, please. Call me. Or Al. Soon, Timmy, soon.”
The two biggest surprises were a single message each from Tyra and Coach Taylor. Tyra's message started with a big, exasperated sigh and then she just said “Tim, you're not this kind of douchebag anymore, so quit acting like one and get your ass home. That girl loves you, Tim. For real.”
Coach Taylor's message mentioned that Tami had told him that Tim was unexpectedly out of town and Coach wanted Tim to know that he wouldn't expect him for golf that weekend, but hoped he'd be back soon. Then there was a pause during which Tim could picture Coach's jaw muscles working overtime while he decided whether or not to continue In the end, he did, giving Tim a bit of unsolicited advice: “I don't know what's going on, but I'll tell you what I do know. Son, sometimes how you handle a problem is more important than the problem itself. And once you've found the right woman, there's no problem you can't handle together.”
Then there were the twice daily messages from Al. From the time stamps, he reckoned it was the first thing she did when she woke up and the last thing she did at night. Her message was always the same: “Tim, this is Al. Call me please.”
The fact that she identified herself by name every time nearly made him smile. Like he wouldn't recognize that husky voice. He listened to each message multiple times, scrutinizing her voice and tone for clues. It was like sifting through the wreckage of a train crash and made him indescribably sad.
He heard fear, concern and worry in the first few messages. Then anger steeled her voice in the next two. The subsequent few just sounded hurt and confused.
But today's message....today's message scared him. She sounded resigned, like whatever was going to happen would happen. Like it was out of her hands He didn't feel like she'd given up on him, exactly. It was more like she'd given up on her own ability to bring him back.
He nearly called her back. He found the number in his phone and was ready to press the green call button, but he just couldn't do it.
He looked at George, who seemed to be growing before his eyes, and remembered what Al said to him on Christmas Eve. How she told him that George was going to be massive. That she knew because she'd seen his parents. He didn't know why the memory came back to him in that motel room, except that now that Al had his father, she likely had figured out that Tim's chances of ending up like Walt were pretty damn high. Particularly when his first instinct when faced with trouble was to leave on a bender.
The walls of the motel room felt like they were closing in on him and he had the overwhelming need for fresh air and a change of scenery.
“C'mon, George, time for a walk,” he said as he clipped a leash on the puppy's collar. The sun was setting and the beach was nearly deserted. Tim walked for about a half hour, enjoying watching George trying to figure out how he felt about the water as the waves came in gently around their feet. The waves made Tim feel more at peace than he had in a long time, like the water could just wash away all of his troubling thoughts.
One of the hotels a short distance from his motel had a beach-side bar, a typical tourist trap with tiki torches and wooden huts. He decided to stop in there for a Scotch before returning to his room. At the bar, he grinned ruefully when he saw that his only choices were Dewars or Cutty Sark, both of which would have made Al roll her eyes and ask for a beer instead.
He changed his mind on the Scotch and ordered a lemon drop, then sat down at a table near the edge of the bar, so he could look out at the water. George curled up on the ground and rested his head on Tim's feet.
Tim was only dimly aware of the other people in the bar. He could hear some giggling from a table somewhere behind him, then the sound of footsteps on the wooden planked floor.
Tim looked up and found a smiling face looking down at him. The woman was probably in her mid-twenties and his first thought was that she had on way too much make up. Like she'd put it on with a paint roller or something.
Tim mumbled a greeting and the woman leaned forward, lightly touching his arm with one hand.
“My girlfriends and I think it's a damn shame that you're sitting all alone on this beautiful night. Would you like to join us?”
Tim looked up to where she was pointing, to a table full of women who looked just like her. He dropped his eyes to his hands, which were turning his glass in small circles.
“That's kind of you, but I'm fine here.”
“Oh come on, you'll have a good time. Better time with us than you would just sittin' here alone.”
Tim looked up at her and was surprised by the way she was looking at him. It reminded him of high school, of rally girls and parties and easy, meaningless sex. And it was tempting, for sure, but he shook his head.
“Sorry. Just having a quick drink here before I head back to my room.”
“Oh right, well, sorry to bother you.” The girl might have been blushing under all that make up, but Tim wasn't sure. He was relieved when she went away. He finished his drink quickly and returned to his room.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Late Thursday afternoon at the garage, Billy and D'Andre were at the hydraulic lift, replacing the brakes on a minivan. Kevin was entering invoices on the computer at the front desk while trying to have a bantering conversation with Al, who was replacing the starter motor on a Suburban. She wasn't talking much though, hadn't been ever since Tim disappeared.
The door of the garage swung open and Walt walked in, heading straight for the front desk and asking for Al. When she heard her name, her head snapped up and she walked over toward, a bitter little smile settling onto her lips.
“You're not supposed to be here,” she said.
“What are you going to do? Sue me? There's a problem with the wire transfer.”
“Bullshit, I checked it myself. It's all set up.” Even from two feet away, Al could smell stale beer.
“It's set up, but it hasn't gone through,” said Walt, his eyes scanning the garage. Billy and D'Andre were watching the conversation from their spot at the lift.
“Yeah, you get five grand every six months, provided you don't contact Tim or Billy or anyone close to them. That's the deal. That's what you signed. Didn't you read the contract?”
Walt's face flushed red and he took a step toward Al. “You little....”
“Honestly, you've got about thirty seconds to get of here before you lose your next payment.”
“I didn't know what I was signing.” He was spitting-mad now and Al could see his fists clenching.
“Not my problem. You should have gotten a lawyer to look at it.”
Walt drew himself up to his full height and advanced on Al quickly. He got right up into her personal space, but she didn't back down.
“You need to walk on out of here before I call the cops and you get arrested and don't get your next payment.”
Walt shook his head and took aim with his words. “Hey where's Timmy? You two able to patch things up? I sure hope so.”
He put his hand on Al's shoulder in a fake gesture comfort. Kevin would later say that Al actually smiled and mouthed the words “Thank you,” but no one would ever be sure if he was telling the truth or embellishing.
What was certain was that before Walt could say anything else, Al gave him a solid left to the gut that caused him to double over in pain and shock. She followed it up with a hard right hook into his mouth that split his lip, cut her knuckles, and knocked out at least one bottom tooth and cracked several others.
Billy had no intention of breaking up the fight so long as Al wasn't getting hurt. Kevin was frozen in place, watching the whole spectacle with a look of fascinated horror. That left D'Andre to lumber over and try to put a stop to things.
Walt swung out blindly but Al just stepped to the side and unleashed a flurry of punches into Walt's side. D'Andre had finally gotten over to her and it took nearly all his considerable weight and strength to pull her away. He had to lift her up and carry her half-way across the garage.
Walt pressed a hand up to his bleeding lip, then pointed at Kevin. “I want you to call the police. Now.”
Billy walked over, his arms swinging casually at his side, a wrench in one hand.
“You want to tell the cops a little girl beat you up? Fine. But they're going to laugh at you.”
Walt blinked, hesitation replacing the anger on his face.
“You know what though? They ain't going to be laughing when they got three witnesses that say you threw the first punch and it just happened that you picked the wrong woman to hit this time.”
Walt's mouth moved a few times but no words came out. He took a couple of steps backwards, then turned and walked out the door.
“You two,” said Billy, pointing at the interns. “Back to work. Al, come with me.”
He waited until she passed him then walked along with her, steering her into the break room.
“Sit down,” he said as he pulled out a chair. Then he went to the cupboards and came back with a first aid kit.
“Sorry, Billy, that wasn't very professional.” Her head was down and she looked a bit dazed.
“Screw professional. He more than had it coming.”
She flinched as Billy took her hand and cleaned out the cuts with hydrogen peroxide and a cotton ball.
“Al, when you told me about your deal, you didn't mention the time thing.”
She looked up and shrugged. “You know, all those details. It's hard to keep 'em straight, don't you think?”
Billy clapped her on the shoulder as he got up to get some ice from the freezer. “Al, you're a smart girl. Smarter than me, that's for sure. Was this all part of your plan?”
“What? You mean mislead your father so he comes back here all angry and then beat the crap out of him?” Her ponytail had come loose, but she couldn't tighten it with just one hand so she pulled the rubber band out, blonde curls falling onto her shoulders.
“Yeah. That's what I mean,” said Billy, handing her a plastic bag filled with ice.
“No. I wouldn't have touched him except for what he said about Tim. That just plain pissed me off because A.) he didn't mean it – he doesn't care and B.) even if he did mean it, he doesn't get the right to care anymore. I'd do anything for Tim, Billy. Anything.” Her voice was soft but her face had hardened into a determined stare, like she was daring the world to mess with her.
“I don't doubt that, Al. I don't doubt that at all,” said Billy, wishing that he could drag Tim back to Dillon so that he and Al could work things out. Timmy wasn't ever going to find a better woman for him than Al. Of that, Billy was certain.
On Wednesday night, Tim drank several glasses of water and went to bed before sunrise for the first time since he arrived at South Padre. As a result, he woke up before noon on Thursday, feeling more clear-headed than he had in days. He was even able to get some breakfast in the motel's diner, which was his first hot meal in a week.
Energized by a hearty breakfast of pancakes and the good weather, he took George for a long walk on the beach. The waves were working their magic on his mind and he was able to just be for a while, without thinking about anything much at all.
Tim was looking out across the water when George suddenly leaped forward and grabbed a bright blue Frisbee off the sand. A small tan and white dog danced in front of them, yipping and yapping, clearly upset that his Frisbee had been stolen. Tim had to smile – the Frisbee was nearly bigger than the other dog after all.
He could hear a voice calling for the dog and a woman scrambled over a sand dune and slid down the other side.
“Boomer! Come here, Boomer.”
The dog snarled one last time and then trotted over to the woman, who was rapidly making her way toward Tim. She had short, spiky red hair and was wearing a loose, flowing dress thing. Sort of like a hippie, Tim thought. She walked up to him and smiled, her hand held out in greeting.
“Hi, I'm Megan.”
“Tim.” He shook her hand, nearly squeezing too hard out of habit, but he caught himself just in time.
“Why don't you let your dog off the leash so he can run around with Boomer?”
Tim hesitated. “We've just started obedience school – his recall isn't great, to be honest with you.”
“He'll be fine – he'll be so busy chasing Boomer that when I call Boomer in, he'll be right behind.”
Tim still looked skeptical.
“C'mon. I've been throwing that damn Frisbee for ages. I need a break.” Her smile was warm and inviting.
He crouched down and unclipped the leash, then watched George race off after the little dog.
Megan sat down in the sand, her knees up so she could rest her elbows on them. Tim followed suit, watching in amusement as the dogs frolicked near the water's edge.
“So, how long you been here?” asked Megan.
“Uh-oh, if you don't know what day it is, then you've been here too long.”
Tim grinned. “They all just run together.”
“This is a vacation for you then?”
He shrugged. “Something like that. I just needed some time away. How about you?”
“Been here two weeks, got a job at one of the hotels. Going to be here for the whole summer.”
“You live in the hotel then?”
“God no. I'm staying at the campground. Got an Airstream – not much space, but it's all mine.”
Tim nodded and looked away from her. He was finding that talking to her was easy. This was the longest conversation he'd had in a week. He asked her what it was like, working in the hotel, and she entertained him with a few amusing stories of unruly guests.
“Hey, if you don't have any plans, you want to come over for dinner tonight?” Her smile lit up her whole face and Tim felt his breath catch in his throat. He'd always been a sucker for beautiful, genuine smiles.
“Yeah, that sounds nice.” He turned his head and looked at her through his hair, which the strong Gulf breeze was blowing into his face.
The dogs returned, racing up the beach. George flopped down in front of Megan for belly scratches.
“He's a great dog,” said Megan. “Young Irish Wolfhound, right?”
“Yeah. How'd you know? Most people think he's some sort of fully-grown mix.”
“My brother had one years ago. This guy must be what, about a year old?”
“No, he's only about 7 months.”
She whistled. “He is going to be enormous. Where'd you get him?”
“He was a Christmas present.”
“Wow,” said Megan with a grin. “Someone must really love you.”
Tim looked down. His shoulders hunched as he realized why he was so comfortable with Megan. She had the same easy-going, joking manner as Al.
“Shit.” Megan drew the word out into two syllables. “You're taken, aren't you?”
He nodded and looked up. The way she was still leaning toward him, her gaze tracking to his mouth, made him think that his being taken probably wasn't a deal-breaker for her.
“You know, about dinner, now that I think about it....” Tim stumbled over the words, trying but failing to find a graceful way to back out. He let the sentence hang unfinished in the air.
She sighed and stood up. “Look, Isla Blanca, site C171. Blue pickup with an Airstream. Say, 7 or 8, if you change your mind. And you can bring your dog.”
Tim laid down in the sand and just stared at the sky for awhile, then returned with George to his room. He picked up his phone and tried to write a text message to Al.
“Al, Just wanted to let you know that I...”
What, though? What was he? How did he finish that statement?
...am still alive...but so drunk most of the time that I can barely feel it.
...am so sorry...for leaving because I miss you so much I can't breathe.
...haven't cheated on you....yet.
In the end, he canceled out of the message, put his phone on the table, and turned the television back on. He looked up at the clock when his stomach rumbled around eight o'clock and thought of Megan's offer. Then he opened another beer and changed the channel.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
After Billy had interviewed the intern finalists on Friday afternoon, he and Al met to discuss which of them would receive offers. They agreed on Carlos and Jake, two sophomores. They were in disagreement on the third one, but Al eventually swayed Billy into accepting Lauren, a freshman. Billy had been reluctant to let a girl into the program, but Al had pointed out that he was being a sexist pig and she was, after all, a girl herself and Billy'd never had a problem with her work.
After the decision was made, Billy stood up and stretched. “Hey, you want to go get a drink or something tonight? Mindy and Amber are in Austin with Tyra this weekend and TJ's sleeping over at Angela's, so I'm all on my own.”
“I've got a better idea,” said Al. She ushered Billy into her truck and drove them over to a miniature golf place in the next town over.
“You're kidding, right?” asked Billy, looking around in disgust.
Al ignored him and he followed her out of the truck, muttering complaints the whole way. But instead of going to the front desk, Al went around the back, bought tokens from a second desk and selected a few bats from cubbyholes in the wall. She picked up a batting helmet and then tossed one to Billy, who was looking at the batting cages skeptically. She handed him a bat and several tokens, then set off toward the batting cages.
Billy followed her, watching as she passed up the softball batting cages and got into the 45 mph baseball cage. He put his fingers through the wire fencing and watched as she went through two rounds of pitches, hitting 80% of the pitches, most of them solid, soaring hits.
She switched to the 60 mph baseball cage, pausing to ask Billy if he was going to just stand there all night.
“Not really a baseball kind of guy,” mumbled Billy, who hadn't played baseball since he was about twelve and didn't want to embarrass himself by flailing around wildly.
Al shrugged and dropped two tokens into the machine, then started hitting, again connecting with most of the pitches quite solidly.
“Damn Al....hitting fastballs, handling yourself in fist fights, fixing cars, playing football and Timmy tells me you can cook too. Is there anything you can't do?”
Al swung and hit the ball straight up the middle. “Yeah.”
“I hate golf.” She paused to hit another ball.
“I never play poker unless I want to lose all my money.” Swing and a rare miss.
“Couldn't carry a tune if it was stapled to my hands.” She laid down a perfect bunt, the ball dribbling two feet up the third baseline.
“And I can't let go of the people I love.” Another base hit. She brought the bat back quickly and waited for the next pitch.
“Even if they've already let go of me.” She put all her power into the bat, getting up under the ball and driving it past the sign marked 300 feet.
“He hasn't let go of you,” said Billy.
Al shrugged and focused on the next pitch, glad that Billy couldn't see her face.
“Seriously. If he was done with you, he woulda come back to live at our place or found another place in Dillon.”
Al swung and missed.
“I know it feels like shit right now, but his disappearing is maybe a good sign.”
Al hit another ball hard. “Why hasn't he called? Jesus, Billy, how do we know that he's not hurt or in trouble some place? You know I spent last night calling hospitals? Started in Dillon, worked my way out to Midland, then tried Austin and Galveston.”
Billy sighed. “You'll drive yourself crazy thinking that way.”
Al turned her head and smiled. “I already am crazy.”
The pitch flew past her and hit the fence near Billy's head, causing him to jump back.
Al hit the next few pitches in silence, then spoke.
“The wedding's supposed to be in five weeks. I got Tyra freaking out at me because the DJ just got arrested for having a box of E in his truck and she's having a hard time finding a replacement. I don't care. Wedding can go on without a DJ. But it can't happen without Tim.”
Billy was reminded of a Catholic confession he'd seen in a movie once. The person sat in a box behind a screen, telling his secrets and sins to a priest. It stuck with Billy because he appreciated the idea of talking to someone without the pressure of eye contact or worrying about judgemental looks.
“He'll be back soon,” said Billy, trying to be reassuring because he didn't know what else to say.
“I hope you're right. Because seriously, I don't know what I' going to do otherwise.”
Al hit the last pitch then went into the 90mph cage. Billy was relieved to see that her average dropped to about .250 against these fast balls. She hit three rounds and then came out, stretching her arms high above her head.
“Go on then,” she told Billy.
“No, I'm good.”
“Billy.” He didn't know how she did that. How she put all kinds of words into a single word and then got him to do what she wanted. Tim called it her Jedi Mind Trick. He sighed and went into the 45mph cage, hoping he wouldn't embarrass himself.
Al stood outside the fence, watching and giving quiet instructions. “Elbow up. Watch it there. Swinging too early, slow down a little.”
Billy missed the first few, then sent one straight back on a foul tip.
“OK, swung a little late on that one.”
Billy took a deep breath and concentrated, then swung hard. The bat connected with the ball and send it flying to the outfield. He looked back at Al and grinned.
“Don't get cocky. Heads up!”
Billy looked back just in time to lean away before the next pitch hit him. He refocused on hitting, getting into an easy rhythm. He spent three rounds in that cage before moving up to the 60mph. It took him a round to adjust to the increase in speed, but then he was on a roll.
“This is it, Al. I ain't going any faster than this.”
“That's fine. You're doing pretty good for a non-baseball guy.”
Billy smiled. “Hey, Al, Mindy and I've been meanin' to talk to you and Tim about something. I know this isn't great timing, but Mindy's on my ass about it because I shoulda done it weeks ago.”
“You're leaning forward, put your weight on your back foot.”
Billy did as she instructed and hit the next ball.
“It's just, well, when Tim comes back, you think you two could maybe think about agreeing to be the kids' legal guardians if...god forbid, anything happens to me and Mindy?”
He hit the next three pitches and Al still hadn't said anything. He stopped swinging and looked back to the fence, where she was standing with her head down, not even flinching as the pitches hit near her.
Billy went out of the cage and put his hands on Al's shoulders, turning her around to face him. She looked up, and Billy was ashamed to admit that he was relieved she wasn't crying. He could never handle crying girls and seeing someone like Al cry would have somehow been worse.
“That will mean so much to Tim,” Al whispered.
“He's coming back. Just keep telling yourself that.” Billy felt so damn helpless. He put an arm around Al and hugged her.
“You know, Billy, I got seven brothers and never thought I'd want another, but I think you'd make a great eighth brother,” Al said as she pulled away from him.
Billy smiled. “C'mon, let's go get a drink now.”
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Friday night and South Padre Island was getting busy. Tim had a nice buzz going but he wasn't completely blitzed. He was enjoying being out of his room, although he still wasn't feeling much like having company. So when the beach-front bar got too busy, he took George and headed out for another walk on the beach.
The sun had just set but the air was still hot and humid. Tim found a bench and sat down in the middle. George jumped up and flopped down next to him, resting his head on Tim's leg and looking up at him with hopeful amber eyes.
Tim rubbed George's ears, running his fingers over the soft fur. Like velvet. Like that blue dress Al wore to Mindy's birthday party. He sighed and shook his head. If he had to pinpoint the moment it all started to unravel, it would have been that night, after Walt had arrived at the door.
If Tim could change anything, it would be how he handled things that night. Instead of retreating inside of himself, he should have talked to Al. Maybe if he'd done that, everything would have been different.
“Cute dog,” said a woman as she sat down next to Tim.
She had Tyra's body, tall and lean with legs that seemed to go on forever, and Lyla's big brown doe eyes. Her hair, a shade darker than Lyla's, fell loose around her shoulders. Her mouth, with its full lips and playful smile, was all Al. She was wearing a bikini and cotton wrap that was translucent enough to be practically invisible.
She introduced herself, but her name, something girly that ended in an -eee sound, was instantly forgotten. Then she made small talk awhile, mostly asking questions about George.
“So he's friendly then?” she asked with a flirty smile.
She leaned across Tim and rubbed George's side lightly. When she pulled her hand back, she let it rest on Tim's upper thigh. He looked down at her hand, then up at her eyes. He could see the rest of his evening unfolding in those eyes and knew it was all there for the taking.
He felt hypnotized. His defenses had been worn down to the point where he could no longer resist temptation. It had just been getting easier and easier to say yes, especially since it had been so long since he'd had these random hook-ups. Just like falling back into drinking had been effortless, it was easy to fall into this pattern with women, returning to his old vices like they were long-lost friends.
His body seemed disconnected from his mind as he kissed her. He grabbed her shoulders, her skin still hot from being in the sun all day. She used both of her hands to push the hair off of his face and then pulled him closer, kissing him more insistently. His hands slid down her back, so much hot skin, it was even more intoxicating that beer or whiskey.
Tim broke off the kiss and stood up, a little unsteady on his feet. The girl stood up too.
“You want to go for a walk or a swim or something?” she said in a throaty voice.
Tim nodded, then looked at George. “I've just got to put the dog in my room real quick.”
“I can go with you,” she offered.
Tim shook his head. The last thing he wanted was a girl in his room. Experience had taught him it was better to be able to leave afterwards, than to have to wait for someone else to leave.
“That's okay. I'll be right back.”
The girl leaned forward and kissed him, one finger tracing the waistband of his shorts in a way that made him shiver.
“Don't leave me waiting too long,” she said.
Tim headed back to his room in long strides. He loaded George into his crate, turned on the TV to give the dog some company, and then went to the door.
He put his hand on the doorknob and open the door, then closed it. He kept his hand on the doorknob, one part of his mind willing him to open the door again while the other part told him to stay where he was. He knew what would happen if he walked out that door. He'd be taking a bad decision and making it a thousand times worse, which had always been his speciality.
Tim leaned his forehead against the door, pressing it into the rough wood. The weight of what he had done and what he was considering doing crashed down on him. He felt like he might just finally lose it, might completely break down.
He stood at the door until his legs grew tired. Finally, his decision became clear. He couldn't do it. He just couldn't walk out that door. He sighed, let George out of the crate and then sat down on the edge of the bed.
He picked up his phone and turned it over in his hands, preparing himself for the call that he knew he should have made a week ago.
Tim knew he should call Al, but he just couldn't do it. He didn't know what to say to her or how to apologize for what he'd done. Somehow, just saying “I'm sorry” didn't seem enough.
He knew he owed her an explanation. But he decided that he needed to see her face when they talked, to make sure it matched whatever words came out of her mouth. At least that's what he told himself.
But really, he was just too scared to call her. What if she was done with him? He didn't know if he could handle that. He certainly knew he couldn't handle hearing it while he was in a motel room, alone, 600 miles from the people who knew him best, cared about him most, and would kick his ass if he tried to do anything stupid.
He scrolled through his phone book, found Billy and Mindy's number and pressed the green button before he could talk himself out of it. The phone rang six times then Billy answered with a distracted “Yeah?” In the background, Tim could hear the television and Amber singing a song.
“Tim? Where the hell are you?”
Before Tim could answer, he heard Mindy in the background, saying “You tell him I'm going to kick his ass up and down both sides of the street for a month of Sundays.”
Tim sighed. “I heard her, Billy. And I don't even know what that means. A month of Sundays.”
He heard a muffled sound as Billy covered the receiver and said something to Mindy. He could picture Billy waving her off and telling her he'd handle it.
“It means...Jesus, Tim....Nevermind what it means. Where the hell are you and what in God's name have you been doing for the last week?” Billy's voice was harsh and loud, causing Tim to cringe.
“Please don't yell at me,” Tim said, his voice cracking as everything he'd tried not to feel for the last week came bubbling to the surface.
Billy felt like he'd been dragged back in time over a decade, to when he first took responsibility for his little brother. He took a deep breath and tried to get himself under control.
“Tim, firstly, are you all right?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Sort of.”
“OK, now, where are you?”
“South Padre Island.”
“What the hell are....no, that's not important....Have you called Al?”
“No, Billy. I can't. I don't know what to say to her and I'm afraid of what she's going to say to me.” Tim leaned back on the bed and covered his eyes with his hand
“Timmy, she is going out of her mind worrying about you. She spent the other night calling hospitals. And she feels horrible, like it's all her fault and she drove you away. If you'd just given her a chance to explain, you'd see what a dumbass you've been. You jumped to a totally idiotic conclusion.”
“Then tell me, Billy. Because I know what I saw.”
“Dad must of figured she'd be an easy way to get to you, God knows what he said to her, but she kept tellin' him to go away. So when the soft approach didn't work, he got threatening-”
“He threatened her?”
“No, not like that He threatened to take me to court to get his house back. She told him that it wouldn't happen and made him an offer. 50 grand for him to give up his claim on the house and promise not to contact us again.”
“She paid him to go away?”
“Yeah. And she buried some details in the fine print – like it was 5,000 cash up front, but then he gets the rest 5,000 at a time, every six months, as long as he stays away.”
Tim was silent as he thought about this. It certainly explained the weird phone calls at the garage, her disappearing act at Smitty's, meetings that took longer than they should have taken.
“Damn...But don't you think she should have talked to us first? It seems like a good idea, but then do we really want to be encouragin' him like that? Isn't it like....I don't know, negotiating with a terrorist?”
“What are you talking about?”
“He hustles and scams for a living. If he thinks she's a soft touch, then he's never going to leave us alone. He'll just keep coming back, asking for more.”
“He's a dirtbag but he ain't stupid. He tried it once already and the way it went, I don't think we're going to see him again. For real this time.”
“When the rest of the money didn't get wired into the account, he came looking for her at the garage. He tried to do that thing he does – you know, where he's figured out what's most important to you and uses it to hurt you?”
“Yeah, I know.” Tim tried not to think about all the times he'd seen that nasty little trick in action.
“He said something about you and she just let him have it. I didn't see her first punch, but her second busted open his lip and took some teeth with it. I'm guessing she probably broke a rib or two.”
“Her ribs? He didn't...”
“Timmy, I don't think he landed a single punch. You know how hard she hits when she's just playing.”
“Yeah.” Tim looked down and smiled.
“You got a good one here, Timmy. Please tell me you haven't done anything you can't undo.....you know what I'm asking you here, right?”
“Yeah, Billy, I know. And no. Came close, but no.”
“Good, because this girl loves you. And it's a white-hot, fierce kind of love. She'd do anything for you, Tim. Anything.”
“Yeah, but is she mad at me for leaving? I'm scared she won't take me back.”
“She's mad at herself and she's worried about you. She doesn't know what she'd do without you.”
“Yeah, I know how she feels.”
“Then will you just get your ass home already? First thing tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah, Billy, I'm ready to come home.”
“I'm going to call Al just to let her know you're alive. I'm not tellin' her anything else, though.”
“Why? You think I won't come home?”
“I know you, Timmy. You have a bad habit of shutting down and putting things off. Just don't wait too long because you might not be able to find your way back.”
“Yeah, Billy. I get it.”
“Oh, and Timmy, if I don't see your sorry ass at work on Monday, you're fired.”
“Yes, boss.” Tim said good-bye and disconnected the call. He turned the light off and closed his eyes, hoping he'd be able to sleep but fearing that his head might just churn things over all night.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
The next day, Tim was on the road before noon, Billy's advice ringing in his ears. He wanted to go home, more than anything, even though he wasn't sure what he would find when he finally got there. He had his Ipod on shuffle as miles of dusty landscape slipped past. George sat in the passenger seat with his head out the window, ears flapping in the breeze and a big doggy grin on his face.
Just north of San Antonio, Tim realized that he still had no idea what he was going to say to Al. He knew he needed to figure it out, to come up with some kind of a plan. Billy was never the guy you'd go to for a plan. He was strictly a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. Plus, words had always come a lot easier for him. When Billy put his mind to it, he could come over all charming and sweet-talk anyone.
Six was the man for a plan. Maybe he was always wired that way or maybe years of being a quarterback had made him that way. It didn't matter – when it came to planning, no one was better than him. Tim flipped on his hands-free phone kit and pressed the quick dial that Al had set up for Six.
The phone rang about eight times before Jay answered. Tim could hear splashing and shouting in the background.
“Timmy? You had better be telling me that you're on your way home.”
“I am, Six. Half-way there, just passed San Antonio. Where are you?"
“Noah's swimming lesson. Hold on a second, I can move to some place at least a little quieter.”
As Tim waited, he heard the pool noises receding and then a clunking sound as Six picked the phone back up.
“You wait a whole week before calling anyone? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I don't know, Six.” Tim sighed and ran his hand through his hair, then rested his elbow on the car door.
“What were you doing?”
“Is that actually nothing or is that you're-not-going-to-talk-about-it-
Tim cringed, but knew that he deserved all this anger and probably more. “It's nothing. I drank....a lot....and mostly stayed in my room, watching movies and trying not to think about anything.”
“Yeah? And how did that work out for you?”
“Shit, Six. I know you're mad but I'm calling because I need help and I can't ask for it if you're going to be like that.”
Jason took a deep breath and then sighed. “Okay, okay. What do you need?”
“I don't know what to say to Al when I get home. Sorry doesn't seem enough. And I don't even know if she's going to let me come home.”
“Why'd you leave?”
“What? I don't know.” Tim drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and tried not to become impatient.
“Well you'd best use the rest of your time on the road to figure it out. You have to explain to her what you were thinking, why you did the things you did, why you didn't call.”
“Really, Six? I need to tell her all of that?”
“Timmy, listen to me. Al called me on Sunday night to see if you'd come up here. She wasn't mad at you for leaving, she was upset at you for shutting her out.”
“So it all comes back down to talkin'?”
“Yeah, Tim, relationships usually do.”
The words were edged with sarcasm and Tim could picture Six rolling his eyes. “Six? I'm sorry I didn't call you sooner.”
“Yeah, I know you are. I'm beginning to think May is National Run-Away from Home month or something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Erin. She left. Said she couldn't do this anymore, any of this, and took off for some kind of yoga commune in Montana or something. Said she got a job there and that she needed to be on her own, to clear her mind and focus on her chakras or chi or some woo-woo bullshit like that.”
“Yeah. She's been gone two weeks already.”
Tim was quiet for a moment, considering the implications of Erin's leaving. “Well....Isn't this kind of what you wanted? For her to make up her mind what she wanted?”
“Yeah, but the problem is, she didn't just leave me. She left Noah too.”
“Shit. Is he....I don't know....okay?”
“So far. I don't think he really understands what's going on. I've gone on a few business trips, so maybe he just thinks that's where Erin is and that she'll be back soon.”
Tim nodded but didn't know what else to say. He hated talking on the phone. He didn't know if this was an awkward pause or a comfortable silence. In the end, Six changed the subject.
“I got a date for your wedding, Timmy.”
He could hear the smile in his friend's voice. “Oh yeah? Who's that?”
“Lyla. And she asked me.”
“Good. Glad to hear it.”
“You didn't have a talk with her when she was back in Dillon, did you?”
“Who, me?” Tim feigned innocence but knew it wouldn't pass Six's bullshit detector.
Jason chuckled. “I see your hand in this, Timmy. So, thanks.”
“No problem.” Tim smiled and felt something he couldn't quite describe. Relief and a lightness. Like he'd finally, after all these years, been able to do something to fix what he'd broken when he'd cheated with Lyla.
“Well, you got some thinking to do and I need to see the end of swim class. They're jumping into the deep end for the first time today.”
“OK. Thanks, Six.”
Tim ended the call and sighed. He had maybe four hours before he'd be home, trying to explain things to Al. The fear of it was nearly overwhelming and the thought of pulling off the road was tempting, but he knew he still had one more thing to fix.
*** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** **** *** ****
Tim stood at the front door, preparing to open it and see what sort of destruction his stupidity had create this time. It was late evening, but he could see lights on in the house, so he knew Al was still awake. He took a deep breath and opened the door, staggering backwards when Bruno charged out, Helicopter Tail going strong.
Tim called Al's name, but there was no response. From the loud German pop music coming from the back of the house, Tim guessed she was painting in her office. Bruno and George bounded into the house, where they wrestled and chased around the coffee table until Tim ushered them out to the backyard.
The hours in the car had given him time to think, maybe too much time. All he could do now was hope that she'd give him a chance and listen to him.
He walked back to her office and paused in the hallway, leaning against the wall. Al had the easel set up so her back was to the door. He could see her painting -- a storm rolling in over a stark, grassy plain. He couldn't see her face but knew it was wrinkled in concentration, her eyes focused intently as she tried to recreate the images in her head.
Not wanting to startle her by suddenly announcing his presence, he took out is cell phone and called her. She fumbled around with her paint brush and palette, until she was able to reach in her pocket and pull out her phone. She looked at the display and then answered while leaning over to turn down the volume on the stereo.
He kept his voice whisper-quiet. “Al.”
“Where are you?”
“Turn around,” he said as he disconnected the call and tucked the phone in his pocket.
Al spun around and approached him with such purpose, he thought she might actually punch him. Not that he didn't deserve it, he knew. She pulled up short at the doorway and stared for a long minute, then sighed
“I don't know whether to hit you or hug you,” she said, jamming her hands in her pockets, like she didn't trust herself to resist taking a swing at him.
“I think you know my preference on that one.” He expected angry words, yelling, mean names. He didn't expect this sort of flat calm and wondered what it meant.
“Actually, I don't. It wouldn't be the first time you went looking for a fight because of your father.”
“Please, Al.....I just want to make things right again.”
She took a step forward and put her hand on his chest. Tim's heart jumped and for the first time in a week, he could breath again. He looked down at her hand, frowning at the cuts on her knuckles and the yellow-green bruises.
Tim gently took her hand, holding it in both of his.
She shrugged. “I'll live.”
“Billy told me what happened.”
Al took a step back. “Come on into my office. We've got a lot to talk about.”
She turned and pulled him into the room, then let go of his hand. Tim sat down at one end of the couch and she sat on the other, facing toward him but pulling her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. Like she was bracing for some sort of impact. The middle of the couch stretched between them.
“Tim, I'm sorry. I know Billy told you what happened and maybe what you told him was right. Maybe I should have talked to you first. But I was just trying to protect you.” Her husky voice wavered as she spoke quickly, like she wanted to get all of the words out before he walked away again.
“I know you were.”
More silence followed. She wasn't one for pouring words into the empty space between them. He always appreciated her patience, the way she'd wait until he was ready to talk.
Tim leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands in front of him. He looked back at Al and took a deep breath.
“I know I hurt you....I just..... hope you can give me a chance to explain.” His voice cracked and he sat up, leaning into the corner of the couch so he could face her, his arm stretched out along the back of the couch.
“If I could change anything, it would be the night of Mindy's party. After my dad showed up here. Maybe everything would have been different if I'd just talked to you then.” Tim looked down, aware of Al's eyes on him.
“Why didn't you?” she asked quietly. Tim was relieved to have a question to answer.
“I guess I was just scared that if you knew what kind of man he was, you'd think less of me....like I might have a good chance of turning out like him.” Tim felt Al move a little closer and put her hand on top of his.
“Timmy, you know I studied genetics in graduate school and I can promise you, no one has proven that being an asshole is a genetically determined characteristic,” she said with the faint hint of a smile in her voice.
Tim took a deep breath. “I'm sorry I left. I'm sorry I stayed gone so long. I'm sorry I didn't call you. Look, I'm not good at talking, not when it's something like this, and the phone was just going to make it worse. But I should have known that you were going to worry.”
“That was the worst part of it – not knowing if you were okay. And knowing if you weren't okay, it was because of me.”
If there was one thing Tim understood, it was having good intentions and then watching everything go wrong. He shook his head. “It wouldn't have been your fault.”
“But keeping my plan from you, maybe I could have handled that better. I was just hoping by secretly dealing with him, I could make it all go away.”
“And I thought that by not ever talking about him, I could make it go away. Or at least pretend that he'd gone away.”
“So we were both kinda stupid here, then,” said Al, picking his hand up and bringing it down to her lap. She looked up at Tim and he could see the way back, but knew there was one more thing he had to talk about.
“Al, I have to tell you one more thing.” He looked down, unable to meet her eyes.
“I....well...I kinda sorta a little bit cheated on you, I guess you could say.” He felt his cheeks start to burn.
“You want to define 'kinda sorta a little bit' for me, because I'm not sure what that means.” Her words were measured, her tone neutral, but Tim could feel the tension building.
“I kissed this girl.”
“And that was all?”
“Tyra warned me about you. And she spent the last week ranting about rally girls, six packs, and fifths of Jack, but I told her that you had changed. That you'd grown up.”
Tim kept his head down, not wanting to see the hurt and disappointment he was sure was etched on Al's face. She reached over and put her hand on his cheek, turning his head to make him look at her. It was childish, but his first instinct was to keep his eyes closed so he wouldn't have to look.
What he saw surprised him. No anger, no disappointment. Just an open honesty and heart-felt concern. She was just Al, his Al, the same as she'd always been.
“You have grown up, so much. I know I didn't know you then, but you're not the guy Tyra told me about. You're not.”
He tried to look away, but the pressure of her hand was gently insistent.
“It would have been easy for you not to tell me about this. How was I ever going to find out? But you took a risk to do the right thing, which tells me everything I need to know.”
“I'm sorry.” It was all he could think to say.
“Well, you know, first one's free. Look, Timmy, we can't change what happened, we can only learn and move on from here.”
“So...you're not mad at me?”
She considered the question long enough that he started to worry.
“No,” she said finally. “I'm not mad at you. I'm still hurt, but mostly I'm just relieved that you're home. Are you mad at me?”
He shook his head. “I was the first night, but it wore off sometime in the last week.....Al, I know I don't say it enough.....I love you.”
“I know you do. And I love you too. You have such good heart – it kills me when you can't see it.”
Al climbed into Tim's lap, put her arms around him and buried her face in the crook of his neck. Tim held her close and finally understood what people meant when they said that being with someone felt like coming home.
The CD on the stereo came to the last song and automatically restarted. It was one of the few German songs Tim could recognize and understand. When he'd first heard it, something about the singer's voice, the emotion in it, was so compelling that he'd asked Al what the song was about. She told him it was sort of about surfing, about waiting your whole life for the perfect wave, nearly giving up on it, and then, when you finally get it, not thinking too much and just going along with it.
Tim turned Al around so she could lean against his chest. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the weight of her pressing into him, the way her hair tickled his neck, the way she twined her fingers into his and pulled his arms more tightly around her.
“So, you still going to marry me?” he asked.
“Damn straight I'm still going to marry you. You're stuck with me.”
“I think I can live with that.” He smiled and shifted her so she was leaning into his arm, then leaned around and kissed her.
July, at Al and Tim's Wedding
Tyra had outdone herself in planning the wedding. She'd taken drawings from Al and recreated her vision precisely, with Christmas tree lights, several white marquee tents, pathways, wildflowers, and an outdoor dance floor.
Tim sat on a white, wooden folding chair next to the dock, looking out at their friends and relatives, who were sitting in the neat rows that spread up the slight incline to the road. Tim's right leg was bouncing at a ridiculous rate and he couldn't seem to stop his hands from sweating. Jason sat next to him, the picture of calm.
“Quit fidgeting, Timmy. No need to be nervous. She's going to show up.”
“Oh, I know that. No doubt about that.” Tim shook the hair off his face and tried to sit up straighter and stay still.
“And all you have to do is repeat what the judge says and then slip the ring on her finger. No jokes or original material required.”
“Is it your father?”
Tim looked at Jason and smiled “No. I heard Al tell Tyra to take care of it. I don't even want to think about what that means.”
Jason shuddered. “No kidding. So if it's not any of that, why the hell are you so nervous?”
Tim leaned closer to Jason and whispered. “Look at her brothers. The way they're whispering among themselves and looking at me like I was....I don't know....fresh meat or something.”
“Oh yeah, I see what you mean. Which two are talking now, at the end of the first row there? Is that Charlie and Ed?”
“No, that's Eddie.”
“Ed, Eddie same difference,” said Jason, rolling his eyes.
“No, not the same difference at all, Six. Ed is Edmund. Eddie is Edward.”
“Seriously,” Tim said, holding up his hands. “Don't ask. I don't understand it myself.”
A few days before her family arrived, Al had admitted to Tim that she was worried about him meeting them. His old insecurities had whispered in his ear that she was embarrassed of him, but she was quick to assure him that it wasn't what he thought. She had said her brothers could be a bit overwhelming, there were so many of them and when they all got together, it was like some sort of critical mass of Collette craziness was reached and anything could happen.
Tim had assured her that he'd be able to handle it. Then, at the party they had at their house so the families could meet each other a few days before the wedding, he saw exactly what she meant. They were like crazed puppies – boisterous and unnecessarily rough with each other. When the brothers greeted each other, it was more likely to be with a punch in the arm than a friendly handshake. That they treated their baby sister the same way was something Tim couldn't quite get used to.
Their backyard seemed overrun with Minessota Collettes, Al's guests outnumbering his by about 3 to 1. One father, seven brothers, five wives, seven nephews, and five nieces. Tim was relieved that Al had insisted on bringing in caterers, overruling his objections and assurances that he could handle it. He was having a hard enough time learning names, fetching drinks, and making small talk.
The wives and kids went back to the hotel as it started to get dark. Al turned on the outside lights and then the arm wrestling started. Tim jumped as a hand landed on his shoulder and he looked up to see Al's dad, Jim, standing next to him.
“From here, they'll go to real wrestling until someone gets hurt, then they'll go to poker, until someone loses all his money. Depending on the circumstances, there might or might not be a fist fight. At the end of the night, they'll sing the Irish songs their grandmother taught them until they pass out in your backyard. That's usually how these things play out.”
Tim smiled and nodded, unsure if Jim was joking.
“Get the eight of them together and you could have a danged riot on your hands in less time than it takes to skin a chicken. Think you could run me back to the hotel?”
“Yes sir, of course.”
Tim waited while Jim said good-bye to his daughter, who looked comical trying to arm wrestle a guy nearly three times her size. Tim wasn't sure how she'd ended up so small when her brothers were all over six feet tall and built like brick shit-houses.
Tim drove to the hotel more carefully than he had driven during his driving test. He was so eager to make a good impression on Al's dad, who sat silently, staring out the window.
“There was a little girl, with a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good, she was very, very good. And she was bad, she was horrid,” said Al's father, pretty much out of nowhere.
“I'm sorry, sir?” said Tim, a bit confused.
“Al's mother used to say that rhyme to her all the time. Made me wonder some times if Al was like that because she was told that she was or if she was like that because she was just wired that way. Point is, with Al, it's either all or nothing. She don't really do middle ground.”
“No, not really,” agreed Tim with a small smile.
“I know this is where I'm supposed to say something protective and vaguely menacing about taking good care of my daughter.”
“Sir?” Tim wasn't sure at all where this conversation was going.
“Truth is, you've already taken good care of my daughter. Some guys, when their daughter gets married, they feel like they're losing her. I don't feel that way because you're the guy who brought her back from the dead.”
Tim felt his cheeks flush and his hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I don't know that I'd put it like that exactly.”
“I would. When she lost her daughter, well, I didn't think she'd survive it. You're the one who made her feel like she was allowed to let herself live again. I will always be grateful to you for that.”
“Thank you, sir.” Tim was relieved to pull into the parking lot. He put the truck in park and turned to Jim.
“Now, her brothers, on the other hand, they're the ones you want to watch out for. They're going to welcome you into the family by treating you like one of the boys. And you can see how they treat each other.”
Tim grinned. “I think I can handle it, but thanks for the warning.”
Now though, waiting for the wedding to start and watching the brothers whispering, gesturing and laughing in his direction, Tim wasn't so sure he could handle it. There were seven of them, after all. A sharp elbow in his ribs brought him out of his thoughts.
“You're fidgeting again like your damn pants are full of ants,” hissed Jason.
“Sorry, Six. Can't help it.” Tim smoothed his hands on his pants and adjusted the cuffs of his linen jacket. His shirt was Al's favorite shade of blue. He'd been so clueless about what to wear that he'd asked Tyra, who had taken him shopping in Austin and spent an afternoon dragging him to about 47 stores, treating him like he was her own life-size dress-up doll. She knew how much Tim hated shopping, especially for clothes, and he suspected that she took a sadistic pleasure in his discomfort. But he couldn't argue with the clothes she'd finally selected for him.
Jason looked around at the trees, the flowers, the tents. “Place looks great. Tyra's done an amazing job. Hell, Riggs, even you look good.”
Tim rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Six.”
“Did you actually blow dry your hair?” Jason reached out and touched Tim's hair, causing Tim to shove him away with a grin.
“Yeah. Tyra made me. Showed up at my door this afternoon with Mindy and told me I didn't have a choice in the matter. How am I supposed to fight off a pregnant woman?”
“That's just playing dirty.”
“Yeah, well, that's Tyra.”
He looked up and saw Tyra walking over to them, with the judge right behind her. Tim got up, trying to stand tall and keep his breathing regular.
“You good, Tim? You ready?” asked Tyra.
The judge took his place under a trellis of flowers and cleared his throat. Tyra nodded to the string quartet, who started to play. Mindy stood up and walked over to her spot on the other side of the judge. She'd made it clear to Al that there was no way she was going to waddle up the aisle, eight months pregnant. (“I didn't have to do that at my own wedding, thank God, and I sure the hell ain't doing it at someone else's.”)
A horse-drawn carriage came up the road. Jim stepped out first, then helped Al down. Tim wanted to laugh at the carriage, but the sight of Al knocked the breath right out of him. She looked beyond beautiful, her blonde curls held off her face with sparkling clips.
More details came into focus as she walked up the aisle, beaming next to her father. The dress was perfect – an ivory color that glowed against her skin, spaghetti straps that were like strings of pearls, a fitted top with delicate embroidery; a silky, swishy skirt that stopped at the knee, the jagged hemline giving the impression of movement even when she was standing still.
When they reached the dock, Al's father shook Tim's hand and winked at him. Then he took his daughter's hand and joined it with Tim's.
“Be good to each other,” he said before he kissed Al on the cheek and then took his place in the front row next to Al's brother Charlie.
The ceremony passed in a swirl of words and gestures. Tim felt like he blinked and it was over: he was kissing his bride, the clapping of the audience a distant buzz in his ears. Then they walked up the aisle together, where Tyra was waiting for them at the road, to direct them to where they should greet their guests.
Tyra was running this whole operation with a military precision that frightened Tim just a little bit. He leaned down to Al and whispered in her ear “If Tyra ever decides to use her powers for evil, we are all screwed.....oh yeah, and you're beautiful, the dress is perfect.”
Then it was a blur of handshakes and hugs as they greeted their guests and sent them over to one of the tents for a small cocktail reception before the party really started. Al wanted everyone to have a good time, so she had asked Tyra to organize a special tent for the kids, with qualified babysitters, games, a puppet show, and pony rides. Tim had a feeling that at some point in the evening, Al would sneak off to spend some time at the kid's tent. She had a soft spot for both children and ponies, after all.
Tim finally got a chance to pull Al away for a minute while the photographer was getting set up for the pictures.
He pulled her close and kissed her, then stepped back to admire the view. After complimenting her, he was able to ask a question that had been on his mind since the start of the ceremony.
“A carriage? Really? That's a bit too.....princess-y for you, don't you think?” he teased.
Al rolled her eyes. “I told Tyra that I wanted to arrive by horse. She said the carriage was the only way that was going to happen. I told her it was my wedding and she told me I had to learn how to compromise.”
Tim grinned as he imagined what that conversation must have been like. The photographer called them over to the dock. Al had promised it would be short and sweet, that most of the pictures the guy took would be in what she called the reportage style. As far as Tim could tell, that just meant the guy would wander around all night, snapping random pictures. He didn't understand why that needed a fancy name.
Al was as good as her word. Fifteen minutes later, they were joining their guests at the reception. Then it was on to the dinner, a casual barbecue affair with no assigned seating, head table, toasts, speeches or any of that nonsense that both Tim and Al hated at weddings. Al was too worried about spilling something on her dress to eat, so she spent the time drifting through the tables, talking to guests. Tim sat with Billy and Mindy, but couldn't take his eyes off of his wife, a word that made him smile every time he thought it.
Soon, Landry was setting up his DJ equipment. When he'd heard about Tyra's music problem, he had gallantly offered that Crucifictorious would be happy to play for the reception. Tyra turned him down but told him that if he could hook his Macbook up to a decent sound system, the DJ gig was his. Al burned CDs of the music she wanted played and gave Landry a list of what she absolutely, under pain of death, did not want to hear.
Landry called Tim and Al up to the dance floor.
“Now, I know y'all said no speeches, but you sure you don't want to say a little something? Last chance, speak now and all of that.”
Tim shook his head but Al reached out and took the microphone from Landry. The crowd quieted down, all eyes on the small woman in the ivory dress.
“I want to thank y'all for coming. We hope you have a great time. Now, I just have a few people to thank real quick.
“First, everything you see here tonight was organized by Tyra Collette, easily the best party planner in Texas. She's just started up an event planning business, so y'all should take one of her cards and give her a call next time you need an event planned.
“Next, I need to thank Jason, our Best Man, for, well, just for being himself really, and for being Tim's best friend.
“And finally, I'd like to thank Mindy and Billy. Mindy, thank you for talking some sense into me and putting me on the path that's brought me so much happiness.” Al squeezed Tim's hand and looked up at with him a smile before continuing.
“And Billy....I'd like to thank you for giving me a job I love and for raising the boy who grew up into the man I love even more.” She handed the microphone back to Landry, then walked over to Billy, who tried to say something, but couldn't get any words out. Al hugged him and Mindy, then returned to Tim, who took her hand and led her to the middle of the dance floor.
“I know you gave Landry a playlist, but I changed the first song, because it's everything I've ever wanted to say to you and if you'd forced me to write vows, I would have just ripped off this song.”
Tim put his hands on Al's waist and pulled her close. She put her hands on his chest and leaned back so she could look up at him. The music started and they began to dance. Tim didn't like being the center of attention, unless it was on a football field, but he found that his whole world shrunk down to just him and the girl in his arms. He smiled as her face lit up when she recognized one of her favorite songs.
“But you hate the Cure,” she said.
“That's because they're usually whiny bastards, but this time, this song, they got it exactly right.”
Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am home again
Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am whole again
Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am young again
Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am fun again
However far away I will always love you
However long I stay I will always love you
Whatever words I say I will always love you
I will always love you
“Can I tell you again that you look stunning in this dress?”
Al smiled. “Yeah, I think I don't mind you repeating yourself in this case.”
Tim pulled her closer and leaned down to whisper in Al's ear, his voice a low, throaty growl that made her shiver. “And I know for a fact that you'll look stunning out of it too.”
Al pulled back to look at him, her cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling. “Funny, I've been thinking the same thing about you and that shirt.”
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
After the first dance, Tim and Al stayed on the dance floor for a few more songs, then got beers and took a break. Tim sat down, pulling Al into lap. She put an arm around his neck and rested her head against his chest.
“Jay Six,” said Tim as his friend rolled up.
“Mr. and Mrs. Riggins,” said Jason with a smile.
“Six, I think you might be living in the Dark Ages. It's not a sure thing that she's taking my name.” Tim kept his voice light but this had been a little bit of an issue for them.
He and Al had talked about her changing her name, but she'd seemed conflicted. She changed her name when she married her first husband and had changed it back when they got divorced. She'd said a lot of things about identity and history and some other stuff that he had to admit he didn't really hear because he was just watching her mouth and thinking thoughts that would make her blush. He wouldn't take it personally if she decided to keep her own name, but he was surprised by how much he wanted her to have his name.
“It's okay. I'm taking your name, Timmy. Mrs. Riggins is fine with me. But the first person who calls me Mrs. Tim Riggins gets a left hook in the face,” said Al with a smile.
“Left, your weak side, so it would just be a warning then. Nice,” said Tim.
“So, like I was saying, Mr. And Mrs. Riggins, I just wanted to let you guys know that I'm moving back to Dillon.”
The grin on Tim's face could have lit an entire football field.
“Six, that's great news. But what about your fancy sports agent job?”
“Well, here's the thing, the fancy sports agent job was kind of sleazy sometimes and it made me realize what I'm actually good at and interested in. So I got a job now as a recruiter at Texas Tech.”
“A recruiter? I thought you were trying to get away from the sleazy,” said Tim.
Jason rolled his eyes. “I don't think recruiting has to be like that. And there's more to recruiting than just meeting with the prospects. There's the scouting, the game film, the strategizing, the helping the coaches develop the team.”
“I'm so happy for you. I hope this job is everything you want.” Al leaned forward to kiss Jason on the cheek.
“Six, I didn't think I could be happier on my wedding day, but this.....” Tim's voice trailed off as he smiled at his best friend, knowing that he was about three seconds away from crying, but not caring because he was with the two people in the world who knew him best and loved him anyway.
“So, it's going to be a fair bit of travel, I'm responsible for Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Louisana, and Oklahoma. And I know Tech is a fair drive from Dillon, but it'll be better than stuffing myself into a subway car every day.”
“Where you going to live?” asked Tim.
“Going to live with my parents to start. I didn't think I'd have to do that again, but well, it's too tough to live on my own and I love Herc, but I don't want my son growing up around him.”
They looked across the dance floor to where Herc was flirting with one of Al's sisters-in-law. Al didn't want to see what would happen if her brother saw that, although she suspected Herc could fend for himself.
Al looked at Tim, then turned to Jason.
“Come live with us,” she said.
“No, that's really sweet of you, but no way,” Jason shook his head.
“Come on, you know Tim is completely house-trained now. It's just like living with a real grown up.”
“Thanks, Al. I appreciate that vote of confidence,” said Tim.
“You know what? I appreciate the offer, let's put it on hold for now, see how things go. Who knows, I might be on your doorstep within three days of moving in with the parents.”
“Six, you can show up on our doorstep anytime and stay for as long as you want. We got two bedrooms and the bathroom downstairs, so, you know, it'll be fine,” said Tim.
“I want to give y'all some time to be newlyweds... but it's good to know I have a place to go if my mother drives me too crazy.”
“Your date looks like she's looking for you,” observed Al, watching Lyla wandering among the tables.
“How's that going?” asked Tim.
“Good, Timmy. Real good. She decided after the heart attack that she needed to be closer to Buddy, so she's going to Texas Tech's medical school.”
Tim reached out, took Jason's hand and squeezed it. “You deserve this, Six. I hope it all works out this time.”
“Me too, Timmy, me too.”
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
The sun was starting to set when Tim took Al's hand and started to drag her to the dock.
“Hold up, I need to get something from Tyra,” said Al.
“I don't know what it is, but I know she left it in the boat,” said Tim with a grin.
Al shrugged and followed Tim down to the dock. She could see a small cooler, the backpack she'd given Tyra, and some blankets in the back of the boat. Tim stepped down into the boat and then helped Al down, making sure her dress didn't catch on the dock. He settled her onto the bench set at the back, kissed her forehead, and then got behind the wheel.
Two minutes later, the boat was floating in the middle of the lake. Back on the shore, their party was a series of twinkling white lights, distant noise and faint music. Tim made his way carefully to the back of the boat and sat down next to Al, who was holding a flat, rectangular box that was tied with a bright blue ribbon.
Wordlessly, a nervous smile on her face, she slid the box into Tim's lap. He untied the bow and lifted up the top of the box to find a leather binder, which he took out and opened. The first page was an architectural sketch, showing several plots of land with squiggling lines, indistinct blobs and other marks that Tim couldn't quite make sense of. He could see that one plot was highlighted in pink, another in green, another in blue and two others in yellow.
He raised an eyebrow and looked at Al, who was biting her lip, her look a combination of love, excitement, and nervousness. Tim looked through the next several pages, which were architectural plans for a house, then a few pages of drawings of a house on the edge of the woods next to a lake. There was another drawing of a small cabin and one of a boat dock.
The last few pages looked like deeds, for each of the parcels of land. Five of them in total, the earliest one dated a couple years earlier, the latest dated a few months before the wedding.
“Al, I'm not sure I understand what all this is.”
She brushed the hair off his face and turned back to the first page.
“This is our future, out life together. See this blue part here,” she said, her finger tracing the lines. “That's where we can build our house, right on the edge of the woods next to the lake.”
She pointed to the marks that showed the woods and the jagged circle of the lake.
“And this one here, the green one. It has a falling down cabin. I figure you could fix that up and this plot and probably the one next to it can be your hunting ranch. The two together would be about 200 acres.”
He looked at her in amazement. “How did you know? I only ever talked about that ranch with Six and Lyla and that was before....everything.”
“You mentioned it once, one of those Friday evenings we spent on the porch. You always talked so freely then, probably because you thought I was too drunk to remember. But this one, this one I worked hard to remember because I could see how important it was to you.”
“So what about this pink one here, next to the blue?”
“That is what you're going to give Jason and Lyla as their wedding present,” she said.
Tim put his arm around Al and held her to his chest. He brushed her hair back and then stroked her cheek.
“I don't even know what to say. This is perfect. I can't believe the planning....you've just been buying land for the last coupla years? You bought that first one before we were engaged or anything.”
“I knew. After our first Christmas together, after I tried to push you away and you took me back, I knew then that we could get through anything.”
Al leaned away from his chest and put her hand on the back of his neck, pulling him down for a kiss. The sun had long since set and darkness was settling over the lake. The boat rocked gently and Tim nearly lost track of time, distracted by her soft, hot mouth and light hands.
The first loud boom brought him back to reality. He broke off the kiss, moved to the corner of the bench seat and dragged Al over so she was leaning against him. He wrapped his arms around her and whispered in her ear.
“You're not the only one who arranged a surprise tonight. Compared to yours, though, it's not much.”
Across the lake, blue fireworks shot up from the shore and swirled in the sky. Then came the red ones that exploded like flowers. Al's hand traced the muscles of his forearm and Tim found his thoughts wandering.
He'd waited his whole life for this and had sometimes thought he was never going to find it - a woman he loved who returned his love with the same ferocity. Loving him without question or condition, believing and trusting in him, accepting him as he was. Tim sighed contentedly and rested his chin on Al's shoulder, relaxing and enjoying the moment.
Christmas Eve, Two Years Later
Tim woke up early on Christmas Eve. Well, 9 am was early for him on a day off. He showered and put on a clean pair of jeans, a Panthers t-shirt and the blue plaid flannel shirt that was Al's favorite. He went downstairs and found her sitting at the table with the newspaper and a cup of coffee.
“You're up early,” she said, a bit surprised.
“And you're observant.”
He got a mug from the cupboard and walked over to the table, pausing in front of Al to put his free hand on her shoulder. He leaned down, kissed the top of her head and said quietly, “How are you today?”
She sighed and looked up with a small, grateful smile. “Not too bad, sad, but it's manageable.”
He nodded as he sat down and poured a cup of coffee. Al slid the sports section over to him and they read the paper in silence for a while.
“So, any plans for today?” he finally asked.
Al looked up at him and he thought he caught her impish grin. “Not so much. Unless you have something planned?”
He stood up and stretched. “I wouldn't call it a plan, exactly, but I was just thinking recently that we've known each other for more than two years and I've never once seen you play football.”
“Is that so?”
“It is. And I'm thinking that I need to verify these claims of yours. Can you really kick a field goal from 40 yards?”
“I could in high school, it's been awhile.”
“Now see, that right there sounds like you're chicken.”
“You are so wrong. Let's go then.” She whistled for Bruno and went to get her jacket and backpack.
He grinned at her indignation. It was so much fun to wind her up.
When they got outside, he opened the garage door and walked over to the workbench, where he'd left a couple of footballs.
“Nerf or regulation?”he asked, holding up both.
“Like you have to ask,” she scoffed.
He dropped the Nerf football and grabbed the little plastic holder for kicking.
“So, we need to see if you can kick footballs and if you can really tackle.”
“I can tackle. I have seven brothers, remember?”
“I know, but still, I be hundred bucks that you won't be able to tackle me.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “You still owe me a hundred bucks from the last time we bet.”
“When was this?”
She opened her backpack and unzipped an inside pocket, then came out with a small leather holder. She opened a zipper on the holder, pulled out a tattered grocery receipt and handed it to Tim.
“Oh, right. From when the kids wrecked all my shirts and I had to raid Billy's closet. I remember now.”
“What else do you have in this secret treasure chest?” He grinned and grabbed the holder from her.
“Tim, give it back.” She tried to grab it from him, but his reflexes were too fast. He held it high above his head and laughed as she tried in vain to jump up and reach it.
“Collette, you make it too damn easy, you know? How tall are you again?”
“Four feet, ten and a half inches.” She was still trying to get at the leather holder.
“Oh, that last half-inch makes all the difference, doesn't it?”
She kicked him lightly in the shin and then stepped back and crossed her arms. He pulled himself up onto the workbench and brought the holder down, giving her a chance to take it if she really didn't want him to see what was in it. He looked at her for a second, making sure he had her permission. She nodded and looked down.
The small, rectangular case unzipped and opened up like a book. He looked inside. The hospital bracelet from when Avery was born. A picture of Avery from when she was a bit older, the girl sitting next to a stuffed monkey that was nearly as big as she was. Then there was a picture of Tim at the garage. He had no memory of it being taken, but he was leaning against a truck, arms folded and a big, warm smile on his face, like the person taking the picture had just made him laugh. He was guessing that person had been Al.
He zipped up the case and gave it back to her as he slipped off the workbench.
“Hey,” he said softly so she looked up at him, giving the small bashful smile she always did after she let him a little further into her life.
He walked over and put an arm around her shoulder. “C'mon, let's go play.”
He guided her over to his truck and she looked puzzled.
“But the park's just at the end of the street.”
“Yeah, but it doesn't have goalposts. We'll go where I played pee-wee back in the day.”
She was about to get into the truck, but then she told him she'd forgotten something and raced back into the house. While she was gone, he herded Bruno into the truck and pulled out his phone.
“Streeter? Yeah, give us maybe 20 minutes.... You don't want to get there too early. It'll look suspicious. Thanks.”
He tucked the phone back in his pocket and waited for Al to return.
“What you forget?” he asked when she returned.
“You went in because you forgot something.”
“Oh, right, I forgot if I turned off the oven, so I went in to check.”
He raised an eyebrow and regarded her suspiciously, but then decided to let it slide. He put the truck in reverse and headed over to the park near Jason's house.
It was a beautiful day for December and it had been a surprisingly dry month. The field was dusty, reminding Tim of late summer practices. They walked across the field, tossing the ball between them to warm up, Bruno trotting happily beside them.
“Want to start with kick-offs? You used to set up at the 40?”
He set the ball up for her on the 40-yard line and then trotted out 20 yards. He grinned when she waved him back.
“Let's see what you got first, Mighty Mouse.”
He could hear her cursing under her breath as she took slow, measured paces back from the ball and then ran up and kicked it in one graceful motion, sending it up into a beautiful arc. He moved his head as he watched it sail over, dropping down around the 15 yard line.
“OK, so I may have underestimated you.” He shouted over his shoulder as he jogged back to collect the ball. He threw it back to her and moved to around the 20. He watched her set the ball up and then kick it, again a perfect kick, only this time he was ready.
He lined up under the ball and caught it. By force of habit, he cut across the field to get near the sideline, then ran hard up the field. He was puzzled to see that Al was running up the middle of the field and hadn't cut across to him yet.
He passed the 30, then the 25, and was about to pass the 20 yard line when Al slammed into his side, just under his ribs. Even though he had the obvious size advantage, she'd played it just right so that she was able to use his momentum against him to knock him off kilter and drive him down.
He hit the ground hard. The ball popped out of his hands and rolled a few yards up the field. Al wasted no time as she jumped up, grabbed the ball, and started to run in the other direction.
So she wants to play like that, he thought to himself as he popped up and took off after her. She was fast, but he was faster and managed to catch her near the 50 yard line. He timed his tackle perfectly, catching her just below the knees so he didn't crush or hurt her when they toppled to the ground.
Even so, he found himself holding his breath until he heard her laughter. She was tougher than he thought – he always had to remind himself of that fact. Then he heard clapping from the sidelines.
“Nice, Timmy, I see your way of wooing a woman hasn't changed since we were seven.”
“Jay Six.” Tim grinned.
He stood up and then pulled Al up off the ground. He walked over to the sideline to greet his friend.
He shook Jason's hand and then crouched down to greet Noah, who was wearing one of his father's old Panther's jerseys, the shirt nearly hanging down to his knees.
“Little Six,” he said, shaking the boy's hand.
“Good to see you again, Jason,” said Al.
“Noah,” Jason said, “I want you to meet Uncle Timmy's girlfriend, Miss Al.”
“Oh no, just call me Al.” She held out her hand to Noah.
“Al, you are going to ruin the good Southern manners I am trying to instill in my son. It's hard enough, you know, no one's got decent manners in New Jersey.”
“Noah, want to play with me for a minute, give your dad a chance to talk to Uncle Timmy?”
The boy nodded enthusiastically and ran off, shouting at her to throw the ball to him. She tossed it to him and then ran over to him and took the ball. She sent him long, in the direction of the parking lot. Then she sent a spiral pass flying high over his head.
“She had a little too much on that one. Who's she think she's throwing to?” asked Jason.
“No idea,” said Tim distractedly.
Tim watched as Al called Noah over to her and said something to him that resulted in him nodding a lot and crossing his heart once. Then he ran back to them while Al jogged toward the parking lot where the ball had landed.
Tim's attention focused back on Noah when the boy arrived back to them.
“What was all that about?” he asked.
“Nothing. And I can't tell you anyway. Sorry, Uncle Timmy, but I promised,” Noah said with a serious expression on his face that made Tim grin.
“It's a secret, huh? Well, we've got secrets of our own here, so don't you say anything to Al, got it?”
Noah nodded and crossed his heart again. Tim turned to Jason.
“You got it?”
“Yeah, in the bag back there, inside pocket.”
Tim crouched behind the wheelchair and pulled out the velvet-lined box that was small enough to hide in his fist like a magician. He flipped the box open and smiled as he looked at the round-cut sapphire in a platinum setting. Perfect. He flipped the lid closed and stood up, slipping the box into his jacket pocket.
“Who's that with Al?” asked Noah.
“That would be Miss Tyra, and you will call her Miss Tyra no matter what she says, got it?” said Jason.
“Got it,” said Noah, bumping fists with his father.
When they got closer, Tim could see that Tyra was carrying the football. Al had her jacket off and was carrying it in her hands, holding one arm in a funny way.
Tyra greeted Jason and Noah, leaving Tim and Al to talk.
“You hurt your arm or something?” he asked, concerned that he might have hurt her while they were playing.
She shook her head and gave him her biggest impish grin. “Go on and have a seat on the bleachers there for a second.”
He did as she asked and didn't realize how set up he'd been until she told him to close his eyes. He felt her place something on his lap. He waited to open his eyes until she told him so, but he couldn't stop the happy, silly grin that broke out before he even opened his eyes.
The puppy was a dark grey wriggling mass with small floppy ears and a funny, squarish snout. It had a white spot on its chest and a white-tipped tail, which was currently wagging madly. Bruno came over to investigate, his head nearly bigger than the puppy's whole body.
“Is this what I think it is?” he asked Al.
“Your very own Irish wolfhound. And he also comes with a crate, a leash, and several rounds of obedience classes.”
“I love him.”
“I'm sure he's going to love you too.”
“How did you manage to do this? I had no idea. Not a hint of it.”
Al grinned. “Remember that two-day class on transmissions that Billy sent me to in Austin last month?”
“There was no class. I went to Austin to meet with a breeder and pick out your puppy. And beg and plead with Tyra to help me with the pick up and delivery, which you can see she very graciously did.”
“Yeah, about that, I'm going to be sending you an itemized bill for two pairs of shoes and one throw rug,” said Tyra.
“What are you going to name him, Uncle Timmy?” asked Noah.
“I dunno, Noah. What would you name him?”
The boy shrugged. “Grey?”
A line from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon popped into his head. “I'll love him and I'll hug him and I'll name him George.”
“George is a good name,” said Al.
“I agree,” said Tyra.
“George,” called Jason, laughing when the puppy looked up.
“George it is then,” said Tim as he stood up. He put the puppy in Noah's lap.
“OK then, your turn. C'mere.” He reached out a hand and pulled Al over, motioning for her to sit down. She did as he asked and closed her eyes without being told.
Tim reached into his pocket and pulled out the box. He took a deep breath, glancing at Six for reassurance. His friend smiled and nodded. Tim knelt down and took Al's hand. He flipped the box open with his thumb.
“Open your eyes.”
He watched her eyes snap open and move from his face, to the ring, and back. Eyes widening first with surprise, then filling with tears.
“I've never met anyone who understands me as well as you do. I told you a long time ago that we make a great team. I still think that and now, I want to make it permanent. Al, will you marry me, please?”
Tim sat down next to her. He took the ring out of the box and slipped it on her finger, surprised that both of their hands were slightly shaking. He kissed her until Noah protested that it was yucky, which made Al giggle.
“Congratulations, guys,” said Jason. Al scrambled off the bleachers to hug Tyra and Jason.
Tim went over to hug Tyra, who looked really, genuinely happy for him.
“Mindy will tell you herself when she hears, but -”
“I know, Tyra, I know,” interrupted Tim in a tired voice. “She'll kick my ass into the middle of next week if I mess this up and hurt Al.”
Tyra smiled and shook her head. “No, well, I mean yes, that's true. But she isn't in the habit of repeating herself. That's not what I was going to say.”
“Then what is it?” Tim asked with a raised eyebrow.
“This is exactly what she hoped for when she told Al to stay.”
“That Al would find some guy?”
“No just a guy. You, Tim, you. Mindy always knew you two were made for each other.”
Tim smiled and gave Tyra another hug, whispering “Thank you” to her softly.
Al came over and put her arm around Tim's waist.
“So now it's my turn to ask. How'd you do this?”
“Well, like you, I had a trip with a plausible cover story and help from a friend.”
“Your visit to Jason this fall?”
“Yep, very good shopping in New York City. But in the end, I decided nothing was quite right and had that ring specially made, which took forever. Six kindly volunteered for pickup and delivery duty so I didn't have to worry about it getting lost when it was shipped.”
“You're good. This was a total surprise.”
“There's only one thing,” said Tim, looking down at her with a grin.
“I need to know the real name of the woman I'm marrying.”
She shook her head.
“Tim, I don't even know her real name. She was Al before I was born. She's just always been Al,” said Tyra.
“You really don't know it yet? Billy hasn't told you?”
“Nope. And I've asked your brothers whenever they called and I answered the phone, but no one would give me even the slightest hint. You know, for such a little person, you inspire real fear in people.”
Al smiled. “That's how it should be.”
“Please tell me?” asked Tim.
Al sighed and looked up at him. She took his hand and dragged him halfway across the field, far enough from their friends that she wouldn't be overheard.
“C'mere, I'm only going to whisper this in your ear and I'm only going to say it once, so you better listen. And don't you dare repeat it out loud, no matter how funny it seems to you.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Tim leaned way down and waited while Al brushed his hair back and cupped her hands around his ear like a little kid telling a secret.
He held his breath and waited. Her voice was almost lower than whisper-quiet.
She was right, he couldn't help it. The laughter exploded out of him, uncontrollable and loud. She thumped him hard in the arm, her little fist packing quite a punch.
That was a good name for a porcelain doll of a girl. Not the car-fixing, football-playing, hand-crushing, ass-kicking woman that he'd fallen in love with. The toughest woman he knew.
“It's a beautiful name,” he told her. “For someone else. You're definitely Al.”
“That's what I've been telling you.” She smiled.
He straightened up and noticed a familiar dark-haired figure approach Six and lean down to kiss his cheek. Al and Tim walked back to the bleachers.
“Uncle Timmy, this is Miss Lyla,” announced Noah proudly. He was sitting on the bleachers next to Tyra, both of them trying to keep the puppy from falling off the narrow bench, while Bruno looked on in quiet confusion.
Tim grinned. “Yeah, we've met. Good manners though, buddy.”
“Tim, Al.” Lyla nodded at them stiffly.
“Haven't seen your car in the garage in ages. Buddy find a mechanic up in Nashville that he trusts?” asked Al.
Lyla blushed. “Not exactly, but I told him my car, my problem, you know?”
“Garrity, how's Vanderbilt treating you?” Tim could see her trying to fight off her awkwardness and act naturally.
“Good, I graduate in the spring.”
“Lyla's trying to decide between med school and law school,” said Jason with a hint of pride in his voice.
Lyla ducked her head and started to mumble. “Well, I still need to get in somewhere. That might make my decision for me.”
“You're seriously considering both? Like you've taken the MCAT and the LSAT both?” asked Al.
“Let me ask you a question – if you saw someone get hit by a car in the parking lot over there, what would you do?”
“Call 911, go over and see what the situation was, give first aid if possible.”
“And while you were giving first aid, what would you be thinking.”
Lyla closed her eyes and paused, picturing the situation and considering her possible reaction and thoughts.
“I'd follow the procedures I learned in first aid class and hope to God I didn't mess it up.”
“Med school, definitely,” said Al with a grin.
“Why?” asked Lyla.
“Because that's your instinct – to help someone else without thinking. If you were going to worry about liability or blame or responsibility, then you'd be better off in law school.”
As the girls talked, Tim looked around at his friends and thought about everything they'd been through and how they'd come out on the other side. He had always loved his friends and was grateful that they still cared about him, despite how much he'd screwed up along the way.
And then there was Al, who was leaning against him slightly. He felt like she was the one thing in his life that he'd gotten exactly right.
“Miss Lyla,” said Noah, bringing Tim's puppy over to him. “This is George, Uncle Timmy's new puppy. Al just gived it to him and then he gived her a ring and now they're going to get married. Well, maybe not like right this second, but some day soon.”
“Gave, Noah, not gived.” Jason corrected his son softly while giving Tim an apologetic smile.
Lyla looked up at Tim, her eyes wide with surprise.
“For real?” she asked.
“For real,” he said.
She looked flustered but recovered well, her voice warm and sincere as she wished them both congratulations and admired Al's ring.
“You know, y'all if I'd realized this was going to be a school reunion, I woulda invited Landry along,”said Tyra.
“Yeah and he'd invite Saracen.” Jason smiled.
“Who would bring Julie,” said Lyla.
Tim shrugged and pulled out his phone, passing it to Tyra. “Why not? We got all day.”
On Monday, Tim got to the garage late. Billy and Bruno were there, but there was no sign of Al.
“Where's Al?” Tim couldn't help but feel a stab of panic.
“At Buddy's.” Billy came out from underneath the truck he was fixing and walked back to the parts storeroom. Tim trailed behind him.
“So, you told her to go ahead with her brilliant idea?”
Billy rolled his eyes. “Like there'd be any stopping her.”
“You really think Buddy's going to go for it?”
Billy reached up to grab the part he needed from a high shelf. He looked at Tim seriously, like he was pondering an important question. Then he said “No.” and started laughing.
Tim grinned. The idea of Buddy doing business with the Riggins brothers was laughable.
They heard footsteps running into the garage and Al arrived out of breath and looking very much out of place in a dark blue business suit. Her skirt stopped just above her knees and Tim's eyes were automatically drawn to her legs.
“Hey, Buddy's coming over here to check the place out, then, if he likes what he sees, he's going to sign the contract. Billy, did you get a chance to read the contract? I left it on your desk.”
Billy looked at her like she'd asked him if he'd gotten a chance to zip up to the moon to pick up some cheese.
“Get back in your office and read it. Tim, tuck your shirt in and go look busy.”
“Yes, boss.” Tim resisted the urge to slap her playfully. That was the only thing that had changed between them. He tried not to touch her because it was just too difficult to stop.
Al nodded to them both and then walked back to the front desk to wait for Buddy, who arrived a few minutes later.
“Al, I don't think I've ever seen a lady drive so fast. I was right behind you coming out of the lot and then...poof, you were gone.” Buddy was his usual sweaty, cheerful self. Bruno stood up and had a lazy stretch before heading over to check out their guest.
Buddy took a step back and eyed the dog suspiciously.
“It's okay, Buddy, this is Bruno.” She whistled the dog away from Buddy, who was clearly uncomfortable with dogs. “Come on, I'll give you a tour.”
She started with the computer, explaining how they booked appointments and the software they used to estimate times and schedule repairs.
“That's some high tech stuff there. Where'd you get it?”
Al smiled. “I came up with the idea and the parameters and then got one of my brothers to make it for us.”
“That's good. I wish we had something like that. I'm always at the mercy of my mechanics telling me how long they think something's going to take.”
“Well, I might be amenable to discussing licensing it to you someday. Not quite today though.”
Tim was loitering near the front desk, watching the way the Buddy kept leaning forward, finding any excuse to touch her. Tim wasn't jealous, exactly, since he could also see Al trying to keep her distance while still being polite.
“Hey, since I'm here, think we can reschedule the maintenance on Lyla's car?”
“Sure, Buddy, but I'm telling you, they really do have mechanics in Nashville.”
Buddy laughed. “Yeah, but I know y'all will take good car of my baby's car. I don't know anybody in Nashville and I don't trust 'em.”
“All right, then. When's good for you?”
“She'll be coming home for Christmas break, so, say the Monday before Christmas?”
Al clicked the mouse a few times and typed for a bit. The she got some contact details from Buddy and entered them into the computer as well.
“Fine, you're all set. Bring the car in that morning. Probably be able to get it done while she waits, but we'll let you know on the day.”
“I just hope she comes home.” Buddy let out a huge, wistful sigh and looked down. “She was supposed to come home for Thanksgiving, you know, but that boyfriend of hers invited her to Spain for a week.”
“Wow, Buddy, that must be tough for you,” said Al, but her eyes were on Tim.
Buddy looked up and followed Al's gaze. “Tim Riggins, I heard you were back in Dillon. Sorry to hear that San Antonio State thing didn't work out for you, but not everyone's cut out for college.”
“Buddy, we are so just fortunate that Tim was able to come back and help us out here. Our business has been growing like crazy and you know yourself how hard it is to find good mechanics.” Al smiled sweetly.
Buddy backpedaled, but he wasn't done twisting the knife as he went on to talk about how things always do work out for the best and to tie that back to Lyla, Vanderbilt, and Rafe.
“Buddy, how about I give you the rest of the tour?” Al asked when she saw a break in Buddy's monologue.
“Oh, sure, of course.”
Al turned and motioned for Buddy to follow. Then she stopped and turned to Tim. “Timmy, I was in such a rush this morning, I forgot my regular work clothes. I left them in the kitchen, I think. Can you get them for me, please?”
Tim grinned at her. “Sure thing, baby.”
“Thanks, sweets, you're the best.” Al closed the space between them in three long steps, put her hands on his chest, and stood on her tiptoes to give him a quick kiss on the lips. She kissed his cheek and then whispered in his ear, her warm breath giving him chills. “I didn't forget. But just get out of here, take Bruno for a drive. You don't need to put up with this.”
She stepped back and turned to Buddy, who was looking between them with a puzzlement that slowly slid into understanding. Al walked on, explaining how things worked in the garage.
Tim stayed away for an hour, figuring that was more than enough time for Buddy to get his grand tour, sign the damn contract and get the hell out of there. He was impressed by how Al handled the situation. In one way, he knew it didn't change anything between them, that she was putting on a little show for Buddy's benefit. But in another way, it just confirmed everything he already knew: his patience would pay off in the end.
*** **** **** *** **** **** *** **** **** *** **** **** ***
The next few weeks flew by. Buddy signed the contract and Al arranged for radio ads to play on several West Texas stations, advertising the new loaner car benefit. Tim laughed every time he heard Billy's voice coming out of his truck's speakers. The idea was as good as Al had promised and they were soon swamped with work. They were working extra long days, with Tim and Al even coming in on weekends to catch up.
Tim didn't mind though. It felt good be part of something so successful. It also felt good to have the distraction of work. To be around Al and be able to focus on something other than how much he liked her. And how much he worried about her sometimes.
The Friday before Thanksgiving, they managed to finish at six for the night. Al went home and Tim and Billy went to the Panthers' play-off game, a home semi-final against Westerby. Tim didn't know if it was a law or just coincidence, but it always seemed to pour during semi-final games.
It looked like the rain would hold off this time, but the heavens opened up during the fourth quarter. The score was tied and Westerby had the ball, threatening on the Panthers' 25 yard line. Then the cold wind kicked in and chilled him to the bone. His focus on the game slipped as he thought of Al, no doubt drinking on the back deck at home.
“Billy, I gotta go,” he shouted in his brother's ear to be heard over the noisy crowd and howling wind.
Billy grabbed his arm. “You can't go. The game's just gettin' interesting.”
“I have to.” He looked at his brother, his eyes serious enough to cut off further discussion.
“OK, then. Go. Be careful though.”
Tim nodded and took off, pushing through their row and then hustling down the steps. He ran out to his truck and had it started and moving before he even had his seat belt on. He took a deep breath to steady himself, put on his seat belt and set off through the deserted streets.
When he got to their house, he burst through the front door, calling for Al. He could hear Bruno barking and saw the sliding glass door was open. He found Al outside, the barking dog pacing circles around her.
“Al, c'mon. Get in the house.”
She either didn't hear him or ignored him.
He raised his voice. “Al, don't be an idiot. Even the damn dog knows you should be inside in this weather.”
A flash of lightening lit up the yard and Tim could see her face, pale and grimly determined. He sighed, wondering if having to deal with her self-destructive tendencies was some sort of penance or karmic payback for what he'd put Billy through the year of Six's accident.
He pulled off the wet blanket, relieved to see she was at least wearing her work clothes and a jacket instead of her usual shorts and t-shirt. He scooped her up, threw her over his shoulder and carried her into the house. She didn't fight him or even say anything, which somehow scared him even more.
He put her down gently in a kitchen chair and pulled off her shoes and jacket. He took off his own jacket and sighed.
“Al, I need you to co-operate with me.”
She didn't say anything and wouldn't look at him.
“Please.” Everything he'd ever felt about her was wrapped up in that single word.
Her head snapped up and she met his eyes. She looked sad and pathetic, her curls plastered to her face.
“I need you to come upstairs with me. We need to get you changed, okay?”
She nodded and he took her hand. Its coldness shocked him. He put an arm around her and could feel that dry clothes weren't going to be enough to warm her.
They went upstairs and he led her to her room. It was the first time he'd ever seen the inside of it but he was sure his bathroom would not be up to her exacting standards.
Her room was smaller than his, with the weird angles of the roof making the space feel even more cramped. A twin bed, long dresser and a rocking chair were the only furniture.
Her bathroom, though, was much bigger and nicer than his. He could tell that it was a recent addition, that probably she was the one who had had it put in. A large jacuzzi tub took up one end of the room, the floor built up next to it. The wide stairs up to the floor area reminded Tim of the steps into the shallow end of a pool.
A marble shower with glass doors took up the other end of the room. The toilet was next to a sink that looked like a giant marble bowl. The only mirror in the place was over the sink, a small oval placed high on the wall.
Tim didn't know where the door next to the shower went, so he opened it to reveal a heated linen closet. Its shelves were stacked with fluffy towels and bed sheets. Tim grabbed a few towels and dropped them on the counter next to the sink.
He ran the water in the tub and dumped in some of the bubble bath that was sitting there. He adjusted the water carefully, not wanting it to be too hot. When the bubbles were close to the top of the tub, he shut off the water.
Al came in, Bruno trailing behind her. The dog was pacing and nervous, so Tim told him to lie down.
“I'm going to leave you now, but you need to get out of those clothes and have a bath.”
“Don't leave.” She looked up at him with puffy, red eyes and his heart broke like a pane of glass.
“All right, look, I'll find some clothes for you to wear after your bath. You let me know when it's safe to come in.”
“Work with me here. I'm just a guy, you know.”
She gave him a small smile and nodded. He left, half-closing the door behind him.
He went over to the dresser and guessed that he should skip the first drawer. As organized as Al was, Tim would bet his next paycheck that her first drawer was the underwear drawer and he just didn't think he could deal with that right now. It seemed right that pajamas would be in the bottom drawer.
He pulled open the bottom drawer and smiled to see the tank tops and shorts, flannel pants and sweatshirts that she used as pajamas. He picked a pair of flannel pants that felt super soft, a blue tank top, and a well-worn black sweatshirt for the Eveleth Golden Bears football team.
“It's safe,” called Al.
Tim carried the clothes in with him and dropped them next to the towels. He walked up the stairs and sat down on the top step, turning to lean his back against the wall. He stretched out one leg and kept the other bent so he could rest his arm against it. Al looked tiny in the huge tub, just her head sticking out from a sea of bubbles. He sighed.
“Some day, you're going to tell me what this is all about.”
She nodded sadly. “Some day. But not today.”
“No, not today,” he agreed.
The quiet minutes stretched between them. Tim looked down at his ring, twisting it around on his finger while he twisted thoughts about Al around in his head. He understood wanting to passively destroy yourself. He knew where these bad decisions came from. He got her, he really did. He just didn't know how to explain that to her.
So, once again, it all came back to waiting. Which he knew he could do. As long as it took.
“Timmy?” Her voice was so quiet, he nearly missed it.
“Yeah.” He looked up.
She gave him a half-smile. “Thank you.”
“No worries.” He smiled back. “No worries at all.”
*** **** **** *** **** **** *** **** **** *** **** **** ***
The Monday before Thanksgiving, Billy was in his office with Tim, going over the parts they needed to order for the week. Al stuck her head in the door.
“Billy, call for you, line two.”
“Thanks, Al. You nearly done with that clutch?”
“Almost. And you know what will help me?”
“If you stop asking me about the damn thing.” She stuck her tongue out at Billy, winked at Tim, and then walked out.
“That girl. I can't decide if she's the best or worst thing ever to happen to this place.” Billy shook his head.
“The best.” Tim smiled. “Definitely the best.”
Billy picked up the phone and jabbed the button for line two.
“Billy Riggins.” He tried to use his best phone voice, but it wasn't anywhere near as good as Al's.
“Oh shit. Excuse my language, but Celia, are you kidding me?”
Tim raised an eyebrow, but Billy waved him off.
“No....yeah....I understand, but we're leaving Wednesday. No, of course. Yeah. Well, thanks for telling me.”
Billy dropped the phone down into the cradle and rubbed his hand over his face.
“What's wrong?” asked Tim.
“What's wrong is that was our babysitter. Her kid just got the chicken pox, so she can't watch Amber and TJ. Which means I gotta either find somebody else or call my wife and tell her 'Sorry, honey, know how you were lookin' forward to your first uninterrupted night's sleep in over a year, well it ain't going to happen.'”
“Shit, Billy. That sucks.”
Billy leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Tim figured he was flipping through his mental list of people he knew that he'd trust with his kids. It was apparently a very short list. Billy's eyes snapped open and zeroed in on his brother.
“What?” Tim asked.
“Uncle Timmy,” said Billy.
“Oh no, Billy. No way. That's an awful idea.”
“Tim, it'll be fine. Just find some girl to help you out. I'm sure you'll have no trouble with that. Dillon's gotta be full of girls who would love to help you babysit in an empty house for four days.”
“No way, Billy.”
“Please, Tim. I am desperate. I am so desperate. I can't even tell you. I love those kids, you know I do, but Mindy and I really need this. You have no idea.”
Tim sighed and nodded slowly. “OK, Billy. But I want a few days off afterwards to recover.”
Tim stood up and walked out into the garage. He found Al closing the hood of the Mazda Miata.
“Yep.” She tossed him the keys. “Want to take it for the test drive?”
“Sure. Come with me?”
“We really shouldn't both be gone. There's so much to do around here.”
“Come on, ten minutes won't make a difference.”
“Billy, me and Al are going to test out the clutch in the Miata,” shouted Tim.
“Fine!” hollered back Billy. Tim gave Al a huge “told you so” grin as he opened the passenger's side door for her.
Tim backed carefully out of the garage and then headed out to a deserted road on the edge of town. He sped up and slowed down, moving smoothly through the gears and listening to the engine. The clutch felt good and the engine was humming along nicely. When he turned the car around, he smiled at Al.
“You do good work.”
She smiled back. When they returned to the garage, he parked the car outside and handed her the keys.
“Hey Al, can ask you for a favor?”
“Of course you can.”
“You know how Billy and Mindy are going away this week?”
“Well, their babysitter's kid has the chicken pox and I agreed to help Billy out, but I really need a wingman on this one. TJ's wobbly neck scares the shit out of me. Please, I need your help.”
Al's eyes went wide and a strange expression settled on her face.
“You know I'll help you, but you have to make sure it's fine with both Billy and Mindy.”
Tim waved his hand dismissively. “Sure, they'll be fine with it.”
“No, Tim. You have to ask them. Specifically.” Her voice was clear and clipped.
Tim's brow wrinkled in confusion. “I don't understand what the big deal is. Billy said to find a girl to help me. You're a girl. You're related to Mindy and work with Billy, so it's not like you're some stranger off the street.”
“Tim, just ask him.”
Tim put his hands up. “OK. OK. C'mon, I'll ask him. You can watch so you know I did it.”
Tim walked into Billy's office and waited for Al to catch up with him.
“Hey Billy, is it okay if Al helps me with the babysitting?”
A look of surprise crossed Billy's face and he tried to smother it and look reassuring. “Yeah, sure. Of course.”
Al cleared her throat and looked at Tim.
“What about Mindy? Will you please ask her if it's okay?” asked Tim, still not sure what the big deal was.
“C'mere, Al, have a seat. Help me make one of those speaker phone calls and we can ask her together.”
Al walked over with the bearing of one headed for the firing squad.
“Timmy, I need you to get started on Emmet's truck, please?”
“Yeah, of course. Let me know what Mindy says.”
He walked out and then paused, straining to hear Billy and Al's hushed conversation.
“I think this will be really good for you Al, and I'm sure Mins'll be fine with it, but we'll call her anyway, just to make you comfortable.”
Tim shook his head and went into the garage. He decided he didn't care what the deal was, as long as he had Al to help him with his niece and nephew.