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Authors: Jamie Canosa

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BOOK: Pieces of My Heart
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Caulder swallowed hard, dragging his gaze from me to watch the leaves blow into the river and drift away.

“Thank you.” The words were barely a whisper, carried to me on the breeze.

“I’ll be in the car.”

It was clear he needed time to himself. Time with his brother. Time to process and grieve and, God help him, maybe find some measure of peace.

***

I sat in silence, lost in my own thoughts, watching the tree line where the path emerged until well after dark. The sun sank slowly in my rearview mirror, blinding me for a while. I let it, feeling the car fill with its final rays before it disappeared below the horizon, snuffing them all out. Fall days ran the gauntlet from hot to cold, but nights were always the same. A preview of things to come.

My mind sat perched at the top of the hill in the clearing with Cal, so I barely noticed the dip in temperature until my skin began to pebble. It had been one of those warmer days when I’d left the apartment, so I hadn’t bothered with a jacket or long sleeves. A mistake I was beginning to lament when Caulder materialized in the pale moonlight.

He slid into the passenger side, rubbing his hands together and looked from the dashboard to me like I’d lost my mind. “Are you crazy? Why don’t you have the heat on? It’s freezing in here.”

I shrugged.

Caulder frowned. “Tell me the heater works.”

I couldn’t tell him that. So, I didn’t tell him anything.

“Dammit, Jade.”

“Don’t start.” It was on my to-do list. Someday. “Are you ready to go home?”

“Yes.” The frown still hadn’t left his lips as he secured his buckle.

I had every intention of dropping Caulder off and heading home. It was getting late and I was tired. Caulder had other plans. As soon as I had the car in park, he reached over and snagged the keys out of the ignition.

“I kinda need those,” I pointed out uselessly.

“Not yet, you don’t. You’re coming inside.”

“I am?” That was news to me.

“Angel, you just sat in a freezing cold car for two hours waiting on me. The least I owe you is a hot meal.”

“Cal, you don’t owe me—”

“Jade.” The look in his eye said more clearly than words ever could have that this was not an argument I was going to win.

“Fine.” Sighing, I threw open my door and I didn’t have to see Caulder to know he was grinning.

I putzed around the kitchen while he amassed what looked to be about a week’s worth of groceries on the counter.

“Is that all for one meal?”

Caulder only shook his head and handed me a grater, followed by a block of cheese. “You do that. I’m making chicken parm.”

It seemed like an awful lot of trouble to go to. “You really don’t have to—”

“I’m making. Chicken. Parm.” And that was the end of that.

I was done arguing. As ludicrous as it was, Caulder felt like he owed me something. If this was what he needed to do to feel even again . . . I could think of worse things than being forced to stuff my face with delicious food.

I grated the cheese without comment and chopped the tomato he passed my way when I was done. Most of it ended up smooshed on the cutting board, but Cal didn’t seem to mind. He scooped it all up, whipped it together and put it in a pan. Before long, the entire house smelled fantastic.

The bubbling concoction he pulled out of the oven twenty minutes later looked as good as it smelled. And it tasted even better. We ate in near silence. Caulder had been somewhere else all evening, leaving me to entertain myself in the media room, while he stared off into space. I wanted to ask him about his time in the clearing, but that was private. Between him and Kiernan. None of my business.

“This is delicious.”

He shrugged and shoved another bite in his mouth before mumbling around it, “Mom’s recipe.”

Not surprising. No one cooked like Mrs. Parks.

“How is she?” I hadn’t seen or heard from her at all since the funeral. A few times I’d thought about calling her, checking in, but I wondered if she hadn’t done the same because it was too painful for her. If
I
was too painful. Too much of a reminder. The last thing I wanted to do was cause her more pain.

Caulder looked at me and blinked like he was just now registering that I was in the room. “Good.” He shook his head, clearing away the cobwebs. “Sorry. I think I spaced on you. Mom’s good. I mean . . . she’s alright.”

I nodded my absolute understanding of the difference between those two. “It’s okay. It’s been a long day.”

“That it has. You done?”

I glanced down at my empty plate, which I had all but licked clean. “Yeah. Thank you.”

“Anytime. Why don’t you stay put while I clean this up so Mom doesn’t pitch a fit and then we can talk.”

“Sure.” I didn’t know what we had to talk about, but whatever it was, it had to be better than going home to face Mom. By now the odds of being able to hold a coherent conversation with her were slim-to-none.

He gathered the dishes, refusing my help when I offered, and disappeared into the kitchen. I tried, but I couldn’t just sit there listening to him clean up a mess I’d help make, so I got up and started to wander while I waited for him to finish.

Caulder was right, the Parks’ house felt different. Colder. Quieter. The comfort I’d always found in being there diminished somehow. Like something was missing. I found myself wandering upstairs without thinking about it. My feet leading me to the place where that vital part
should
be.

Kiernan’s bedroom door stood closed. I reached for the knob and froze, my fingers wrapped around the smooth, cool metal fixture, uncertain what I’d find on the other side. What if he was gone? What if they’d boxed up all that remained of him? What if—?

With a steadying breath, I eased the bone aching grip I had on the doorknob and twisted. I’d never know if I didn’t look.

I should have known better. Mrs. Parks and Caulder couldn’t have erased Kiernan from their lives any more than I could. His room sat exactly as it had been when he was there.
Exactly.
His sheet crumpled near the foot of the bed. His blanket half hanging on the floor. Sneakers sat discarded in the corner near his closet. A book lay open on his nightstand, facedown, marking the last page he’d ever read. All of it covered in a fine layer of dust.

Forget packing it up, I didn’t think either of them had set foot in there at all.

A black t-shirt lay in a heap on the floor beside his hamper and I bent to pick it up. I don’t know if it was weird, or gross, or disturbing, but I couldn’t stop myself from smelling it. It smelled like him. The whole room smelled like him.

An overwhelming urge to crawl under his blankets and never come out swamped me. I could lie there forever, breathing him in, surrounded by his belongings, bathed in his scent. I could
feel
his presence around me. The desire was so powerful that I might have done exactly that if I hadn’t heard a quiet gasp behind me.

Caulder stood in the hallway, staring, but not at me.
Past
me. Into Kiernan’s room. His gaze bouncing from one item to the next, the same way mine had, his pale face awash with agony.

“Cal?”

He made some kind of horrible sound deep in his throat and turned away. Before I could blink, he was across the hall, shut inside his own room.

I was right. They hadn’t set foot inside Kiernan’s room since the day he died. And I’d just opened the door to a whole world of hurt.

“Caulder?” I saw the muscles in his back strain beneath the material of his shirt as I stepped into the room.

“Go away.” His voice rumbled low from deep in his chest.

“I’m so sorry. Cal, I didn’t mean to—”

“Go away, Jade!” He punctuated his harsh words with a weak fist to the wall beside his face.

The old me would have run for the hills. I would have heard him and cursed myself for making him angry. But Kiernan had taught me better than that. He’d taught me to listen. And truly listening, I heard an entirely different story.

He wasn’t angry. He was crumbling. Falling to pieces the way that I had so many times. And while he may have claimed he wanted me to go, what he
needed
was for me to stay.

It was hard not to see Caulder as this pedestal, this stand, holding everyone else up. A slab of solid granite without feelings or emotions. But that wasn’t true. He wasn’t some hunk of rock, no matter how much he pretended to be. He was a man. A man suffering every bit as much as the rest of us. A man struggling to support everyone around him, while he received little in return. An exhausted, heartbroken, weary man who lent all of his strength to the people he cared about, saving none of it for himself. And it was killing him.

“No.” The word came out quiet and shaky, but it still made me feel stronger than I ever had in my life. “I’m not going anywhere, Cal. I’m here.” Swallowing hard, I laid a hand on his back and felt him shudder beneath my touch. “I’m right here.”

He hurled a broken curse at the wallpaper, but the sob that accompanied it tore straight through me.

“It’s okay.” Without thinking, my hand slid down his back and around his waist, followed by the other. Encircling him with as much strength as I could muster, I laid my cheek against his back. “I’m here.”

I don’t know if his legs gave out or if he simply stopped willing them to hold him up, but he twisted in my arms and drew me down with him as he collapsed to the carpet, where I somehow ended up in his lap. Hot tears dampened my shoulder where he buried his face. The material of my shirt lifted and bunched where he fisted it against my back. I didn’t speak. I didn’t cry. I simply held him. I held him together as best as I could while he fell apart in my arms. Finally pouring out what felt like years’ worth of pent up grief and frustration.

Hours passed by the time Caulder’s desperate sobs turned to occasional stuttering gasps. He still held tight to me as though he couldn’t bear to let go, but I could tell he was fighting a losing battle with exhaustion. I didn’t plan to make him choose.

Easing myself from his lap, I felt Caulder’s grasp tighten, clinging with a silent plea.

“I’m not going anywhere.” I whispered the reassuring words over him as I lowered us both to lying on the plush carpeting, too tired myself to go any farther.

Caulder didn’t seem to mind, curling into my side and pillowing his head against my shoulder. I ran my fingers through his unruly hair as a thick arm wrapped snuggly around my waist, assuring himself of my continued presence as he surrendered to sleep.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

 

 

 

Four

 

 

I woke to the feel of warm fingers tracing light patterns over the bare skin of my arm. I didn’t open my eyes, but the red glow against my lids assured me that the sun had, indeed, risen. I’d spent the night. With Caulder. In his bedroom.

“I always knew you were an angel.” His lazy fingers swirled lower, skimming over the rapid pulse in my wrist. “I just never knew you were
my
angel. And yes,” his fingers stopped moving and I felt him shift beside me, “I know you’re awake.”

Peeking open one eye, I gave him a half-hearted cheesy grin, embarrassed at having been caught playing possum. “Good morning?”

“Morning, Angel.” He smiled back, brushing a stray tangle of hair from my face. He sounded a million times better than the night before, but the emptiness in his eyes, the strain in his smile was all still there. “And, yes, it’s a good one. Thanks to you. I’m sorry about last night.”

“Don’t be.” Rolling onto my side, I propped myself up on an elbow, which may have been a mistake as it brought our faces within inches of each other. Close enough that I could feel his breath wash over my lips.

“I didn’t mean to lay all of that on you. I just . . .” His dark brows drew down in confusion and he shrugged. “I don’t know what happened.”

“I do.” Cauder’s eyes shot to me with barely concealed surprise. “It was too much. All of it. You can’t keep that much pain bottled up inside and not expect it to find a way out.” It was slowly chewing its way through him, creating its own fissures of escape. One of those fissures burst through the surface last night. More would follow. “You have to find a way to let it go or you’re going to self-destruct.”

“How?” His eyes searched mine, desperate to find the answer. “How do I do that?”

I shut my eyes and shook my head because the truth was, I didn’t have the slightest idea. “When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

They opened again at the feel of his fingers shifting hair from my face. “You hungry? I can make breakfast.”

“What time is it?” I arched my back to try and see past his bed, but it was no use.

Caulder chuckled at my contorted attempts and lifted himself to look at the clock. “Six-thirty.”

Six-thirty?
I had to be at work in half-an-hour. “I can’t. I have to go. I’m gonna be late.”

“Late?”

“For work. I have to go home and get my uniform and—”

“Alright. Alright.” Climbing to his feet with a level of grace I couldn’t hope to achieve, Caulder offered me a hand up. “Let’s get you out of here.”

At the bottom of the stairs, he headed for the kitchen while I tugged on my shoes and dug through the closet for my coat. Of all days to be running late, it had to be the one that I was working with Stew.

“Wait.” Caulder caught me frantically searching my coat pockets for the car keys that didn’t seem to be in there. “You might need these.”

Of course they weren’t in there. Because Caulder still had them. Snagging them from his grasp, I grumbled a thank you, not really sure I should be thanking him for effectively kidnapping me for the past twelve hours. Not that I was complaining. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept that soundly. On the floor of all places.

“And this.” A large muffin sat perched on the palm of his hand like a peace offering.

Stuffing the keys in my pocket—where they belonged—I snagged the treat and sniffed. Mmm, banana. My favorite.

Mornings were the worst. After sitting untouched all night, it took three tries to get my stupid car to start. When it did, I looked up long enough to see Caulder standing in the door, shaking his head at me.

***

“You’re late.” Stew was a hefty man with thinning black hair that he grew long in a failed attempt to cover up his receding hairline. 

“I know. I’m sorry. I got stuck—”

“I don’t need apologies or excuses. I need an employee who can get her butt to work on time.”

“It won’t happen again. I promise.” Ducking behind the counter, I snagged an apron from the wall and pinned my nametag to it before slipping it over my head.

I’d been in such a rush I hadn’t bothered with a coat. And I’d left my keys in the car. Crime wasn’t a big problem in that part of town and if someone wanted my car badly enough they were willing to steal it, good luck to them.

The way Stewart continued to grumble to himself, you’d think I was hours late instead of . . . I sneaked a peek at the clock on the register. Wow, a whopping four minutes.

The place was deserted, so I rinsed out the washcloth and set to wiping counters. There was no downtime when you worked with Stew. If there wasn’t something to do, you found something. Or he’d find something for you.

I’d moved on to the display case and was wiping invisible crumbs from the racks when the door chimed signaling at least a temporary reprieve from the mind-numbing boredom.

“Oh. Shit.” I looked up to find Jeff standing just inside the door, looking none too happy to see me. And behind him, surrounded by a crowd of rowdy football players was . . .
Oh. Shit.

“Well, lookie here.” Doug hushed his posse long enough to garner their attention and send it all my way. “If it isn’t Jade Carlson.”

“You’re back.” Way to state the obvious.

Doug had left town shortly after graduation and I hadn’t seen him since. I heard he was playing second string for some university that obviously had some kind of large dog for its mascot, judging by the enormous paw print stamped on the front of the hoodie he was wearing.

“Got back last night. Decided to visit for Homecoming. Not that you’d know what that is.” Several of the guys—obviously a year or two younger than us because they were still sporting high school jerseys—laughed. “When’d you get back? Oh, no, wait . . . You never left this crap-heap, did you? Still living in that same rundown, should-be-condemned apartment with your mama? But that’s you, Jade, isn’t it? Townie extraordinaire. Born here. Live here. Probably gonna die here. You ain’t goin—”

“Enough, man. Lay off her.” Jeff stepped up to the counter and I moved my attention to him.

“Can I get you something?” The boss-man was still watching this fiasco, after all.

“No, I’m good.”

“I think I’ll get something,” Doug said, demanding my undivided attention, despite that fact that what I really wanted to do was tell him where he could shove his mocha latte.

I could feel Stewart watching me as I fumbled around, trying to ignore Doug’s continuing jabs.

“You know how much that girl cost me in scholarships? I missed the entire end of my senior season because of that stunt her and her loser boyfriend pulled.”

My entire body locked up and I set the cup down too hard, sloshing the contents over the top.

“Shut up, Doug. You’re being an ass.”

I glanced at Jeff as I snapped on the plastic lid and the pity in his eyes was almost worse than Doug’s cruel words. Plastering on a smile, I took his beverage to the counter and tried to picture what his face looked like when Kiernan had gotten through with him.

“That’ll be four-seventy-five.” I held back the ‘douchebag’ on the tip of my tongue for the sake of my job.

Doug reached for the cup, but at the last moment, his wrist flicked, knocking it onto its side and dumping the scalding hot contents across the counter and down the front of my pants.

“Oops. The cup stuck.”

Bullshit. He did that on purpose. I knew it. Doug knew it. And from the scowl firmly etched on Jeff’s face, he knew it, too.

“You alright, Jade?” Jeff grabbed a few napkins from the dispenser and handed them to me.

“Yeah.” Pulling the material away from my scorched flesh, I dabbed at the sopping material. “I’m fine.”

“Well, don’t just stand there.” Stew shoved an empty cup at me. “Get the man another drink.”

Right. Sure. Because I wasn’t the one with polyester melting onto her legs.

I nearly crushed the Styrofoam in my fist, listening to Doug and his buddies snickering behind my back as I waddled around recreating his order. And I was sorely tempted to throw the entire thing in his face when Stewart told him it was on the house.

“Have a nice life.” Doug shot me a self-satisfied smirk and I took a step back just in case he decided to go for round two. “If that’s what you can call it.”

As the others headed for the door, pushing and shoving the whole way, Jeff hung back. The moment they were out of earshot, he caught my eye and leaned over the counter. “He’s just pissed because he’s failing three classes.” A conspiratorial grin curved his lips and he surprised me with a wink. “See ya around, Jade.”

I had to admit, it helped a little knowing Doug was as dumb as ever. But his IQ—or lack thereof—did nothing for the continuing burn on my thighs.

“Do you mind if I . . .?” I pointed toward the bathrooms and Stewart huffed.

“Go get cleaned up. And don’t come back without a fresh rag. If that counter had been properly cleaned, the cup wouldn’t have stuck.”

Stuck, my ass.

Securing the lock, I unbuttoned my pants and slowly peeled them off to survey the damage. It wasn’t so bad. My thighs were a bright fiery red color. Fairly close to matching my face. But otherwise, no damage to my skin. We kept a first aid kit under the sink, and I dug through it for the After Burn spray. It went on ice cold and stung like a mother, but after a couple minutes it began to numb away the pain.

My pants, luckily, were black, so as the stain began to dry it was becoming unnoticeable. I’d wash them at home before my next shift, but for the time being, I held them under the hand dryer for several minutes. By the time I was done, they looked good as new. Even my legs were starting to return to their normal coloring. With one more spritz of After Burn, I redressed and went out to face Stewart, fresh rag in hand.

The remainder of my shift was spent scrubbing counters, tables, floors, machines . . . and toilets. Definitely should have thrown the latte in his face.

***

I stood outside my door, trying really hard not to stress-out, but I was me, so . . . yeah. Tearing my fingers from my mouth, I frowned at the shredded mess. I was beginning to look like a human chew toy.

I could hear the buzz of the television and I’d seen her car parked outside, so I knew Mom was home. And it was still early, so I was guessing she’d be lucid enough to hold a conversation, though some small, cowardly part of me almost hoped she wouldn’t be. An even smaller, more naïve part of me hoped she wouldn’t have to be. That she’d gotten her act together and sent Michael packing all on her own. But not even that part had dared to believe there would be a hot lunch laid out for me when I walked through the door.

“Where have you been?” Mom was rummaging through a drawer in the kitchen, but my eyes were glued to the two plates of spaghetti sitting on the table and the array of dirty pots and pans in the sink, lending credit to the fact that she had, in fact, cooked the meal.

“At work.” For a moment, I thought she might ask where I’d spent the night. A question I wasn’t sure I had an acceptable answer to.

She didn’t. “Oh.”

“Where’s Michael?” Hope was such a fragile thing.

“Making a grocery run.” It could be crushed with just a few words. “I made lunch.”

I could see that. The question was . . . why? The closest Mom ever came to ‘cooking’ was tossing a TV dinner in the microwave. I was fairly certain I knew the answer. And I didn’t like it.

This wasn’t an apology. I could still smell the alcohol on her breath. See the beer cans lined up on the counter. This was a
bribe
. She really thought a bowl of pasta was going to make me okay with her drinking again and having Michael there. That this would make us even, somehow. Erase any trace of guilt she might harbor over the situation. Mom logic.

But if there was guilt . . . then there might still be a chance to turn this around. I couldn’t let her assuage it and move on, believing everything was alright this way. Not if I wanted anything to change. To go back to the way it was before.

“I thought Michael was only staying the night.”

“Change of plans. Are you going to eat or not?”

“Yeah. I just . . .” If I ate that pasta, I was accepting her peace offering. I was essentially telling her everything was okay when it wasn’t. It would be the end of the discussion. Inching toward the table, I refused to take a seat. The food actually smelled good and if I got any closer, I might not have been able to keep myself from devouring it. “I think maybe we should talk before—”

Her face went hard in an instant. “You’re telling me I just spent the past hour preparing a meal for you and you’re not going to eat it?”

Was that what I said? It’s not what I’d meant to say.
“No. I’m sorry. I didn’t—”

The table shook with the force of her steps as she crossed the room. “Fine. You don’t want it?” She scooped up my plate. “Don’t eat it.”

“Please, Mom. I didn’t mean—” Before I could explain, she dumped the contents of the first home-cooked meal she’d ever made me into the trash. My heart broke. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

BOOK: Pieces of My Heart
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