The following is the fourth excerpt from the small-town, second-chance romance What Comes After Dessert, Copyright © 2015 by Ren Benton, available November 3, 2015.
From the time Ben was tall enough to reach the dials on the washer and dryer, he was expected to deal with his own linens. He offered to take the sheets out of the dryer and make up his own bed so his mother could go to sleep at a reasonable hour, but she had become territorial since having the house to herself and no longer trusted him with her appliances.
His aspiration for this reunion had been not getting in a fight the first night, and he’d nearly blown it charging to Tally’s defense. He had to remind himself his mom woke at 5 a.m. even on weekends and stayed on her feet the whole day like she was allergic to sitting. Being tired made her irritable. She’d feel terrible in the morning for speaking ill about that sweet little thing down the road she’d always wished her son would use as a role model for manners, studying, hygiene, and all other aspects of refinement.
Banishing himself to the living room created a much-needed buffer. The furniture remained arranged around the ancient television, which hadn’t budged since the days Ben watched Saturday-morning cartoons on it — not because the lady of the house was in love with the layout but because the thing weighed four hundred pounds and was too ungainly for two people get a solid grip on in order to wrestle it to a new location.
Two men and two half men in fancy ties recapped the day in football on the TV. His team’s score fell off the edge of the visible portion of the banner at the bottom of the picture, but their opponent’s was tinted the color of victory. Damn. As much as he’d like to believe the success of a professional football franchise didn’t hinge on his contribution to team spirit, they always lost when he didn’t watch the game. “Are you paying full price for satellite?”
“Of course,” his mother answered from the kitchen.
“You should ask for a discount since you can only see half the picture on this old square screen.”
“That old square screen keeps me from blowing your inheritance on the home shopping channel, since I can’t see the item numbers.”
He’d prefer home-shopping addiction to an inheritance built on his mother’s self-deprivation. “You have my blessing to blow your money on anything you want, including a new TV.” The Smithsonian would probably take the old relic off her hands. “You can shop online, you know.”
“Not having the Internet keeps me from blowing your inheritance, too.”
Some information was too unthinkable to take the bearer’s word for it. He checked his phone. No Wi-Fi. No bars.
He was trapped in the first ten minutes of a horror movie. “Do you get your news on stone tablets?”
“I don’t need to see the smiling people in widescreen to hear them repeat every day that the world is in the crapper.”
The grapevine could be relied upon to keep her updated on any bad news at the local level, of which there seemed to have been more than the usual share in recent years. Tally had picked a hell of a time to come back.
Every thought was going to boomerang back to her, just like old times.
Restless feet carried him into his old bedroom. From the altitude of adulthood, the twin bed looked as short and narrow as the back seat of a car.
Through the only window, the lightning-stricken tree jutted above the surrounding woods, gleaming white like two skeletal fingers. He’d lost a lot of sleep imagining those fingers coming to life, beckoning him into the forest, grabbing him — the natural product of an active imagination, his fascination with scary movies, and consumption of too many greasy pizza rolls before bedtime.
The siren song that lured him through the woods countless times in the daylight came not from the dead tree but from that sweet little thing down the road, who dwelled just on the other side of the forest.
The top dresser drawer yielded a ring of keys left behind twelve years ago. He had no idea what most of them opened, but one ought to work in the front door.
He pocketed the keys and stuck his head in the kitchen to share his plans. “I’m going to see how far I have to walk to make a phone call.”
His mother didn’t look up from the pillowcase yielding to the heat of her iron. “Take a key. I’m not waiting up for you to hike to Marion and back.”
He jingled the keys to prove he hadn’t expected her to.
He stumbled across one sickly bar a mere quarter mile away, in the middle of the three-way intersection at Dogwood and Chestnut. More than ten feet to the east or west, he lost it. He considered himself fortunate to get that much of a signal this far from civilization and didn’t climb the fence to the north on a quest for two bars, lest he be smote with poison ivy as punishment for his greed.
The Castle house was visible from the intersection. The front window glowed with light. A truck hunkered in the driveway.
Tally wouldn’t be living there, and Ben wouldn’t be strolling over to ask her father where to find her, either. Now that the massive size discrepancy that existed during his youth had diminished, he wasn’t sure he could resist the urge to punch the bastard and show him what it felt like.
He paced the length of the phone’s leash while it rang on the other end.
Will answered with his typical distracted mumble.
“I was hoping Liz would pick up. You make it really difficult to have phone sex with your wife.”
“She said the same thing last time I called her from the road. Who would have thought I’m sexier in the flesh?”
“No one.” In the flesh, Will resembled a giant spider — all long, spindly, hairy arms and legs. The thought of him and sex in the same sentence was fifty shades of Silent Hill. “In fact, my brain is recoiling from the thought as we speak.”
“Saving it for later, when you need inspiration.”
“For nightmares and therapy.”
“My work here is done. I take it you arrived safely in the ancestral homeland.”
“What’s left of it. The place is a ghost town.” The only things sadder than the spirits who didn’t know they were dead were the ones who did, like Shane, going through the motions until he was released to the next life.
“The same. Still digging in her heels.” Another turn brought Casa Castle back into view. “This might take longer than I expected.”
“What’s her name?”
“Not your mom, dumbass. The girl making it longer than expected.”
He’d spent twenty minutes in the same room with Tally without getting an erection. That had to be some kind of record. After all these years, he’d finally earned a certificate of maturity. “She’s not a girl anymore.”
“Holy shit.” A woman’s voice chimed in the background. “Liz says hi and wants to know what you’re wearing. Is this the one you were brokenhearted about when I met you?”
For all anyone other than Ben knew, his heart was made of Teflon and women slid off without a trace when they burned. The patch job on the crack down the middle was undetectable to the naked eye. “I was dating someone when you met me.”
He couldn’t remember who, but there had definitely been someone. With the exceptions of the immediate post-Tally and post-divorce eras, there had always been someone.
“You were dating that she-demon because you were brokenhearted. Liz theorizes your entire pathetic relationship history is self-inflicted punishment for the one who got away.”
Ben kicked a pebble into the moat of weeds separating the road from the fence. How much time did they spend discussing his love life when he wasn’t around? The verdict had to be pretty damn bad if his closest friend wouldn’t mock him about it to his face.
He didn’t want Tally sentenced to hang alongside him, though. “We were kids. Kids grow up and move on.”
Certificate? He deserved a trophy — Academy Award for Best Man-Child in a Mature Role.
“Circle-of-life shit is harder to get over than losing because you fucked up. You can’t blame anybody. You can’t learn anything. You can only take the kick in the balls and limp away.” Will was an authority on the brutality of circle-of-life shit. He steered the conversation back toward Ben’s comparatively petty hurt before they trudged down that path again. “Which childhood flame is it?”
Ben caught himself staring at her house and spun on his heel. “I never told you about her.”
“Same reason you didn’t tell me about Liz.”
Liz had been The Mystery Woman for the first six months she dated Will. All his friends knew he was seeing someone, but he wouldn’t even give up her name. Some women were special, worthy of protection from prying eyes and stupid jokes — at least until their love was strong enough to withstand the reality of friends and family — and a man knew when he found one.
Even if he was a boy when he found her.
“No wonder you’re still limping. Don’t forget you’re due back in the office in a week.”
As if there was any chance of Ben staying one minute longer than necessary in Mayberry. By tomorrow, he’d have the shakes from tech withdrawal, and loss of color vision wouldn’t be far behind. “I have time to be neighborly.”
“Sure. Take her a casserole.”
“It would be rude to do otherwise.” He made a mean tuna-noodle covered with cheddar cracker crumbs. Maybe her stomach was the way to other organs.
Down, boy. He shouldn’t be interested in any of Tally Castle’s organs. He was bitter, and she hadn’t been exactly delighted to see him. No amount of soup-based potluck fare would make that combination less disastrous.
Did he want a disaster, an alternate ending where he slow-walked away from the explosion looking cool this time? That might be more satisfying than the version where he hovered over the phone for six months waiting for her to call, but even the dumbest action movies had more plausible outcomes. He had always cared more than she did. He’d be the only one hurt by the destruction the second time around, too.
If bitterness was supposed to harden his heart, he’d gotten a defective batch. He couldn’t plot revenge while worried the object of it wasn’t getting enough sleep and should put her feet up while he made her a mug of cocoa — the real stuff, not instant.
He happened to have marshmallows for it.
No. If he got anywhere near Tally Castle and her organs, he’d acquire a new wound that would never heal. Better to avoid her entirely, even in his thoughts.
He turned his back on her childhood home. “Anything urgent happen at the office?”
“Smooth change of subject. I sold the company as soon as you were out the door, so don’t worry about a thing.”
“How much did you get for it?”
“A whole handful of magic beans.”
“They were. I ate yours. Liz sent you a picture.”
“Of you eating my magic beans or farting a rainbow after?”
“Is it a dirty picture?”
“Only if you’re a pervert, and considering you went there immediately, you qualify. Maybe somebody at the telegraph office can make an etching of it for you.”
“It’s not that primitive. I’m sure somebody in this town has dial-up and AOL.”
“Maybe a neighbor has a cup of Internet you can borrow.”
In the after-dark stillness of outer Westard, the soft click of a closing door carried clearly from a hundred yards down the road. Someone had emerged from the Castle house. The porch light came on a moment later, illuminating a silhouette Ben would recognize anywhere.
Adrenaline dumped into his bloodstream, making his heart pound. “Gotta go.”
“What’s the rush?”
“I’m eager to be neighborly.”
Popping gravel alerted Tally to the approach of an intruder walking up the drive in the dark. She stopped in front of the truck, keeping a wall of solid American steel between her and the uninvited caller.
People in Westard tended to be trusting, secure in the belief bad things happened elsewhere, not in small, quiet towns.
Having grown up in a small, quiet town under the same roof as her mother, Tally had always known bad things happened where they damn well pleased, and they thrived in quiet. The only defense was to expect bad things to happen all the time and stay braced for impact.
The gait identified Ben before he stepped far enough into the light spilling from the porch to reveal any details of his appearance. Easy, relaxed, no need to posture or hurry because golden boys were immune to bad things no matter where they wandered. Someone was always looking out for them, protecting them from ruin.
The fear for her physical safety evaporated.
The urge to run back to the house and barricade the door increased exponentially.
Only her footwear had changed since their last meeting, so she blamed her bare toes for making her feel as defenseless as her first time on stage naked.
She hid one foot behind the other to present a smaller target and clutched the cooler against her stomach like a shield. “A little late for a stroll, Fielder.”
One shoulder hitched upward as he cleared the back bumper. “My internal clock is set to a different time zone.”
He’d probably be making himself prettier for a night on the town back in his natural habitat. “If you’re looking for the club scene, you took a wrong turn.”
His head swiveled in the direction of downtown. “Just one?”
“There’s a rave in the church basement on Wednesdays.”
The porch light had been biding its time, waiting for an opportunity to exact revenge for all Tally’s efforts to stifle its glow. As Ben stepped even with the driver’s door, the light cut through the windshield and singled out his smile, gilding it, making simple amusement look luxurious and decadent.
Good thing she had learned her lesson about grasping at brass rings and golden smiles and all other shiny curved things that were out of her reach. From here on out, only the most modest of aspirations for her.
“I was looking for some Internet, actually. Got any to spare?”
A huff of laughter snuck past the tight band constricting her throat. “I could maybe scrounge up an old inner tube and a can of Aquanet from the garage if you want to make a slingshot and send a message across the yard.”
“I might have to take you up on that if the carrier pigeon gets disoriented by the smoke signals.”
She’d gone through the same adjustment, coming back here after experiencing a more technologically advanced civilization. Buying stamps and paying bills through the mail still blew her mind — and periodically gave her blood pressure a workout when she miscalculated travel time, Sundays, holidays, and manual processing delays and a check she put in the box ten days before the due date posted late anyway.
Fortunately for both of them, he wouldn’t be around long enough to adapt to the primitive culture of their ancestors. “If it can wait until tomorrow, somebody at the school will probably let you jump on, as long as you’re not looking at porn.”
His eyes widened. “Is there pornography on the Internet?”
“I’ve heard.” Other than facilitation of the movement of phantom money and masturbation aids, the majority of bandwidth was devoted to treating somebody like shit — and there was no shortage of overlap amongst the three. Except for the six weeks of withdrawal symptoms and a rare late-payment fee, she hadn’t missed being deprived of unlimited access to the endless deluge of garbage. “If you want Wi-Fi, you’ll have to go to Marion.”
“Well.” He tapped a finger against the hood, only a corner of engine and a headlight away from her. “I don’t want to hold you up if you’re headed home.”
Her brows pinched together. “I am home.”
He mimicked her frown but aimed his at the house.
“I have to run to the store.” The clock was ticking. Good thing he didn’t want to hold her up any longer than he already had — not that she needed another reason to be relieved to see the last of him. Avoiding the nest wouldn’t do her any good if the damn hornet wouldn’t stay in it. “‘Run’ being the operative word.”
“Can I tag along?”
The question drove her back a step. She clutched the cooler tighter to her guts. “Why?”
“I didn’t know about the Serv-N-Go. I’m stranded here unless I get some gas.”
Dammit, why didn’t the station in Sterling put up a sign?
Absolutely, positively, under no circumstances did she want to be trapped in a rolling box the size of a coffin with Ben Fielder for any amount of time.
Absolutely, positively, under no circumstances did she want him to be trapped a quarter mile from where she slept for one second longer than necessary. That pinging radar wouldn’t give her a moment’s peace until he was back in his own time zone.
It wouldn’t be the first time she endured torture for a good cause, and no cause had ever been better than getting Ben out of Westard. “I’ll get the can.”
She set the cooler on the hood and hustled away from him to unlock the garage — or so she thought until he appeared at her side to muscle up the heavy old door, his shirt riding up to expose a wedge of skin above the low-slung waistband of his jeans.
No. It was dark. She saw nothing.
Voice parched, she warned, “It won’t stay up on its own.”
“I’ve got it.” He stood with both arms raised above his head, belly exposed to the caress of the sultry night air.
She’d caressed that belly with her tongue.
What belly? She… saw… nothing.
She turned her back on him before she gave herself eyestrain. What were the chances the gas can would be full and she could get rid of him that easily?
She grabbed the can from the corner by the lawn mower. Not so much as a drop sloshing around the bottom. Of course. When had getting her hopes up not resulted in disappointment?
On the bright side, there was no combustible fluid to explode in proximity to her flaming face. She blew out a long breath that did nothing to alleviate the heat. Not a problem. It was dark. He also saw nothing.
She edged out of the garage, scraping her back against the metal track that grabbed the door’s rollers in the process of giving him as wide a berth as possible.
He muscled the door down and snapped the padlock shut. “I’ll carry that.”
She was already walking at a brisk pace toward the truck and not about to prolong this nightmare playing pass the can. “Just get in.”
She unlocked the passenger door and left him to do as he was told while she tied the gas can and the cooler in the truck bed. She spent five extra seconds knotting the rope twice rather than risk losing the can and making her sacrifice in vain.
She got behind the wheel, slammed the door, and couldn’t draw a breath. He didn’t stink, wasn’t oozing cologne, but his presence filled the cab like quicksand, pressing on her from all sides, smothering her.
She cranked down the window. She couldn’t suffocate with a whole world of Ben-free air blasting in her face.
If she kept telling herself the problem was in the air, maybe she could trick her lungs into believing the ventilation solved her respiratory problem.
She backed out of the driveway, pointed the nose of the truck eastward, and stomped on the gas pedal.
“Why do I get the feeling you don’t want my company?”
It was probably the first time in his life a female hadn’t found some excuse to lick his belly button by this point in an encounter.
Said belly button was teardrop shaped and ticklish. If she didn’t want him to howl and squirm away, she had to bear down hard on his hip and…
And never mind. “Unaccustomed to that feeling?”
“Only with women who know me very, very well.”
Her eyes cut to the right to confirm the wry tilt of his lips matched his tone. His steady gaze accused her of being the cause.
She fixed her attention on the road, where it would remain for the rest of the journey. Safety was crucial when exceeding the speed limit as if the devil was chasing her. “Your mom kicked you out already?”
“She most certainly did not. I decided of my own free will it would be prudent to take a hike before she told me to.”
Until shortly prior to leaving Westard, Tally hadn’t understood Janine Fielder’s relationship with her son. He openly adored her and would do anything for her, but she only seemed to criticize and push him away.
She thought now that was his mother’s own secret code. Do better in school and don’t break your neck doing stupid stunts so you can live long enough to fly this nest, which isn’t good enough for you, golden boy.
When she left Westard, Tally understood that need for him to be free all too well.
“Mom and I have been butting heads for thirty years. Why do you want me to fuck off?”
Even in the dark, he still saw too damn much.
The right answer would satisfy him, leave no room for followup questions, and put an end to the conversation. If she denied her unease, he would expect some other explanation for her lack of welcome and dig and dig and dig until he unearthed truths she never wanted exposed to him. It was too late for a polite lie, but a partial truth had successfully redirected him in the past.
If that failed, blowjobs were a universally effective diversion. “I run out of charm by seven o’clock and don’t want to be around anyone. Nothing personal.”
A smile to soften it would stink of bullshit, so she didn’t bother. Besides, she had no energy left to put on that much of a performance.
His stare bored into the side of her face, threatening to drill the truth out of her. From his angle, he probably wouldn’t notice how the pressure of his gaze forced her to bow toward the door.
The odometer ticked off a mile before he said, “Okay.”
In a fluke of good fortune unprecedented in the absence of dick sucking, he actually left it at that.
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