Tom got into Jack’s pickup, squishing Tiffi closer to Jack. She felt a spark where their legs were touching and she grinned while looking down at the floor. She cleared her throat.
“So, Tom, you like my girl?” Yeah, that didn’t sound like high school.
He looked back and forth between the two of them.
“Jeez, Tiff, don’t badger the guy. He’s only known her for a day.”
He doesn’t know what I know, though, Tiffi thought.
She kept looking at Tom who didn’t answer the question. He met her eyes and knew immediately that she knew what really happened. She just kept staring at him, not letting him get away with not answering.
“You don’t have to answer that Tom. Kat just broke up with her boyfriend two days ago. Tiff’s just trying to set her up with someone already.”
Tiffi wanted to defend herself but it was obvious that Tom didn’t want Jack to know. Maybe because Jack was so protective of his friends or maybe he saw Jack kiss her forehead and thought it meant something more.
“Well,” she said. “She’s been with Parker for so long and she got so tired of him I thought she would be ready for something… different.”
Jack sighed and shook his head.
“What? I’m just saying.”
There was an awkward silence. Tom didn’t seem like a real talkative guy. He was selective with his answers when Kat asked him those questions about his career- probably just more of a quiet type. He can’t be a bad guy; he is a firefighter.
Tiffi’s leg felt like it was burning where it touched Jack’s. She was always so aware of Jack. He was always so close. Well, they were friends, right?
She remembered when he and Kat used to date in school. They both had a crush on him their junior year; the big jock, good looking despite the freckles and red hair. There was something about him that made all the girls want him. Well, he showed an interest in Kat at some point, Kat being more out-going and fun than herself. Kat had long legs and long straight hair and she ran like a gazelle. Tiffi was short, fuzzy haired and tried to hide her curves behind baggy shirts. Not overweight in the least, but big boobs that were a little embarrassing. Back then it wasn’t unusual for her to nab her brother’s sweatshirts when he wasn’t looking. Kat and Jack only dated a few times before they realized that they had to just be friends and call it a night, so to speak. They never slept together and Kat always said there was something missing in his kiss. They only kissed twice. The first kiss was kind of awkward so they tried again. They both busted up laughing and came back that Monday to school the best of friends, next to Tiffi, of course. They became a threesome and the rest was history.
These last ten years or so have been building, though. She tried to find excuses to be with him without Kat and longed for him to touch her. It was funny. He was so affectionate with Kat, always putting his arm around her, or like tonight, kissing her forehead in a brotherly way. He was affectionate with Tiffi sometimes, but it was stiff and quickly removed, like she was on fire.
His cell phone buzzed in his pocket against her and he reached for it pushing against her hip.
“Sorry,” he said. and jerked it out only to see it was from his mama. “Oh, hell.” He sighed and opened it. “Hi, ma.” He pulled the phone away from his ear while Brenda, his mother, rambled loud enough for Tiffi to hear every word. Brenda thought you had to yell to be heard on a cell phone.
“…make sure you check on her. Do you remember what happened to your Great-Uncle Bob? He had that minor concussion that resulted into a coma.”
“Yeah, ma, Tiff and I just checked on her and he’s feeling much better. The first twenty-four hours are the most critical, but she’s feeling pretty good. And Uncle Bob didn’t have a minor concussion, he had a minor stroke. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Well, I suppose. Anyway, honey, drive safe, and tell Tiffi I said ‘hi’.”
Tiffi piped in, “Hi, ma!”
Brenda laughed. “Oh, goodness! Well, I’ll let you go. Take care of her, Jacky.
Tiffi wasn’t sure if Brenda meant her or Kat, but she wasn’t about to ask.
“Bye, ma,” he replied and hung up.
Tom spoke up, “Jack, do you mind dropping me at Maggie’s for a drink before you take Tiffi home? I’ll walk back to the firehouse.”
He swung left at the stop sign and pulled up to Maggie’s. Tom got out into the swirling wind and jogged to the door. Tiffi started to scoot over to the passenger side and immediately felt the burning spot on her leg get cold. She put her seatbelt on as Jack pulled ahead to make a u-turn in the main square. She sighed inwardly. Was she the only one who felt it? Was he awkward around her because he knew she was madly in love with him and he didn’t want her that way? Maybe he was worried of ruining their friendship. No, she wouldn’t give herself false hope. He probably didn’t want to lead her on since he didn’t have the same feelings for her.
What was this awkward silence? He mind raced to think of something to say before they got to her apartment building.
He glanced over to her. “So?”
“Erm, Tom seems nice,” she stuttered.
“Yeah. He’s okay. Seems to know his stiff on the job. Kinda quite, though.”
“Yeah, I noticed. He’s not too revealing, even when you ask him something.”
Well, she thought, if he was so comfortable with the whole situation then she would be too. Who cares if he didn’t see her that way. Isn’t it better to be friends than to be away from him? She tried to look relaxed in her seat and watched Jack from the corner of her eye. He looked very tense. He was rubbing the back of his neck.
They both started talking at the same time.
“You go ahead,” Jack said.
“No you go. It wasn’t important.” She hoped his was.
“Well,” he started. “I’ve been thinking… lately. About, well… I’ve been wondering…” He stopped. He pulled into her parking and put the truck in park.
Tiffi’s heart swelled. Was he going to ask her out? “What?” she asked.
“What are you doing on Friday?” he asked quickly?
“You know me, Jack. Nothing special,” she replied.
He rubbed the heels of his palms into his eyes and groaned.
“Why is this so hard?” he muttered. Then he stammered out, “I’ve been thinking… about… us… a lot.”
Tiffi could only nod, wide-eyed.
“Well, do wanna go dinner me?” he mumbled.
“Huh?” Really, what?
“Damn. I said, do you want to go to dinner with me? On Friday?”
She fetl such delight that she began nodding before she answered, “Sure.”
“I’ll pick you up at five? We can go to Columbus.”
“Sure.” She was still nodding like a bobble head doll. It was all she could do to kept from bursting.
He smiled at her and she smiled back and let out a breath. He seemed to relax, too.
“Great, I’ll see later,” she said and opened the door and got out.
She closed the door and she felt him watch her go up to her second floor apartment before driving away.
* * *
Tom walked into Maggie’s Grill n’ Pub to sounds of country music and people laughing. He’d only been here once when he first got to town and that had been a lunch crowd. It had been a crowd of various business people on lunch break, a large party of construction workers, and moms meeting for lunch with removable baby car seats and messy toddlers. It was a different crowd now. Not much rougher, seeing as it had to cater to everyone being the only restaurant you could sit down and eat in. The pizza place on down the street didn’t count because was pick-up or delivery only. Maggie’s was also the only bar in town.
He sat down at the far side of the bar to people-watch. You could learn a lot about people just by watching them with an indiscernible eye. He caught a flash of blonde hair out of the corner of his eye and thought… crazy things. He closed his eyes and turned to the direction of the flash. When he opened them he let out a breath of relief.
She was a young server running around taking orders at the little tables who couldn’t be more than nineteen or twenty with long blonde hair, faded jeans, and skinny t-shirt and tan skin. She was almost too skinny, but swift way she moved indicated a healthy body. He turned back toward his original destination, the bar.
The bartender was a big guy with a long dark beard spattered with grey wearing a black leather vest named ‘Ziggy’. He was busy watching the waitress and a table in the corner and filling drink orders.
He looked toward where Tom sat and said, “What can I get for you?”
“Beam and Coke?”
“Comin’ right up.” Ziggy turned to fill a glass and said, “You starting a tab?”
Tom thought for a moment then removed his card from his wallet. “Sure.” He knew it wasn’t the best idea, but he had already tried the conventional ways of getting rid of the nightmares and hallucinations. Time to try drowning them.
Ziggy finished mixing the drink, took Tom’s card and glanced over at the corner booth again. He handed the drink and card back at the same time.
“Thanks,” said Tom and followed his glance to table, too. There sat two men, one looked real young, with a messy mop of blonde hair. The other was a contrast to himself. He was wearing clean business-casual clothes, including a tie and jacket, but his hair was slicked back and oily, and his face was full of pockmarks and scars. Tom thought he saw a portion of a tattoo on his right hand.
“You the new firehouse recruit?” Ziggy asked, indicating his hat.
Tom turned his attention back to the bartender.
“Yep,” Tom replied nodding. He needed to stop wearing this hat.
“How ya like it?”
“It’s okay so far. Nice town.”
“It’s a good town; a close one. Almost everybody knows everybody else’s business.” It was clear Ziggy wasn’t just making small talk.
“Yes. I have found that out very quickly,” he replied leaning back. “Have you heard anything I should be concerned about?” He was trying to judge if Ziggy was another of Kat’s family members. He didn’t show any resemblance to the family, but looks were deceiving. He waited to see if he had a sawed off shotgun under the counter like Mr. McNicol.
Ziggy just chuckled. “Working in a bar you hear some really interesting things. Probably a little exaggerated given the alcohol, but usually true. A little thing can spread like wildfire, so just watch yourself. This town lives for gossip.”
“Good to know.”
The bartender moved to another customer and left Tom, returning only to ask if he wanted a refill. He noticed a family getting up to leave and thought he should make it back to the firehouse before it got too frigid outside.
The skinny blonde server walked up to the bar near Tom and whispered to Ziggy, “I swear, if those two over there don’t leave I’m gonna have a permanent hand print on my ass! They asked for more beer. I think you should cut them off before I cut that creepy one’s hand off!”
Ziggy and Tom both looked over at the far table again to see the two men arguing.
“We close in a half hour, Jenna, can you survive until then? Tell them it’s last call.” He looked at Tom and said, can I get you a last drink?”
“No thanks, I’m heading out after this one.”
“I’m afraid to go back over there. They better tip me good.” She took the two mugs over to the table.
Tom paid his bill, and got up to walk out and swayed a little.
“Take it easy, chief,” Ziggy said, a little concerned. “You alright?”
“Thanks, man. Just walking to the firehouse.”
He made his way through the tables to the door and over heard the two men who were also making their way out.
“… don’t see why I can’t go now. It would save so much time,” the young guy said.
“Because the snow’s drifting. It’s not safe,” the ‘creepy one’ said, as Jenna had called him. He didn’t looked too concerned about the kid’s safety, though. What wasn’t safe? The roads weren’t too bad. The sun had a chance to dry up what had melted earlier so the roads weren’t icy.
Although that had struck him as odd, Tom didn’t concentrate too much on the two men. He had to concentrate on his feet instead and it seemed like multitasking was a bad idea. He walked the direction of the firehouse and the two men went the other way. A few minutes later he noticed them drive by in a light blue sedan and then turn to go out of town toward the truck stop.
The air outside was frigid and the wind was biting his ears. He wished he had thought to wear his stocking hat instead of his WFD one. He rubbed his hands together and jammed them into his jacket pockets. He tried to think warm thoughts as he picked his way among the drifts that were blowing across the sidewalks again.
He tried to imagine he was walking through a burning, building, the baking, the waves of heat that seem to block your path, smoke billowing through windows. It didn’t help. It was such a contrast to what he was actually feeling it made it worse. His thoughts drifted to his evening at Kat’s house. It was warm there. He was tempted to turn onto her street and get warm, but he knew the alcohol was lubricating his brain.
They had agreed to be friends. That was a good start. He hadn’t had feelings like this for a long time. In fact, he hadn’t had feeling like this for nearly two years, not since that last night before…
He could not think about that now. That was what the bourbon was for; to drown the nightmares.