***Chapter Eight***
Word Count: 7,530

John scowled when he opened his apartment door and saw Chris Standish standing there. What the fuck was he doing here? He was pretty sure that unasked question was displayed clearly on his face.

"Hey John," Chris said.

"Yeah," he said cautiously. He'd been all right to him on the boat and everything, but John knew that was a façade.

"How are you?"

"Good," he said, even more cautiously than his yeah had been a moment ago. Chris had never asked him how he was. Ever. Not that they saw one another tons or anything, but there'd been a couple of times that Chris had been at their parents' house when he'd dated Claire in high school.


Silence. John had no idea what to say to him.

"What are you doing here?" John asked.

"I was looking for Shelly. She should be expecting me."

"Oh," he said. Why the fuck didn't he just say so?

"Sure," he said, opening the door further. "Come on in. She was in the bathroom a minute ago."

John hadn't realized she had plans for the night.

A date.

With Claire's brother.

The fact he was here and not in LA with Claire he was guessing meant big brother didn't have an invitation to the movie premier. Interesting. He had no idea what movie it was she was going to, just that it was set to open in a couple of weeks' time. She'd flown out to LA yesterday and he guessed she'd be back tomorrow, though she hadn't said. He hadn't asked either. Maybe he was supposed to.

They'd gone for pizza that night, gone back to her place, and he'd gone home about two o'clock in the morning with no condoms left from the three-pack he'd bought.

He hadn't talked to her since that night. She'd mentioned being busy getting ready for the weekend trip.

So, his cousin was going out on a Saturday night it seemed and John was stuck here at the apartment. He wasn't sure where the fairness was in that.

"You going out tonight?" Chris asked. It was as if he knew what John was just thinking. That was kind of spooky.

"No," he said. "Not that I know of anyway. Things could change."

"Yeah," Chris said.


Was he asking for Claire? Did he know what happened and was checking to see if John had a date tonight or something? Would he take Shelly out just to spy? John wasn't sure. Claire and her brother were pretty close, but John didn't think Chris would date someone for Claire's benefit.

"Is that your pickup out front?"

"I'm not sure which pickup you're talking about, but mine is out front, yes."

"Well, it's a business truck."

John nodded. "That would be mine, yes."

"Not working for your dad anymore then, I guess?"

"No, not for about three years."

"Someone else made you a better offer than your father?"

John scoffed at that. Maybe in Chris and Claire's worlds their father made them offers that no one else could come close to matching. John's not so much. He'd gone to his father after Kevin had approached him. Certainly his dad deserved the opportunity to counter Kevin's offer, make John a partner in the business he had.

Nope. He'd told John good luck and that was about it. The first time he and Kevin's company stole a customer away from his dad's company the old man had paid him a visit. John wasn't scared of him anymore. He was an adult, over eighteen, and had been clean so had nothing to hide or fear from the cops. If his father laid a hand on him he'd press charges in a heartbeat. His dad seemed to know that. He talked big, face all red from the angry yelling, but he'd left and John had seen it in his eyes at that moment.

His father knew John had bested him.

John realized the past year or so that there was a reason his dad didn't want him as a partner. John had always taken it personally, as some sort of slight that he'd preferred Tommy to John. Tommy wasn't as smart as John. Tommy probably to this day didn't know how his father operated or kept his books. Tommy got paid, but there wasn't going to be anything left for Tommy to inherit or anything one day. When John's dad kicked the bucket Bender Plumbing would kick the bucket with him and Tommy likely would be left having to pay bills he hadn't known about.

John hadn't figured that out right away after being in business with Kevin, but eventually he realized that his father was in pretty deep. Instead of cutting Tommy and the payroll that had gone with a third person that they really didn't need he'd kept paying people late on a rotation just to keep them off his back.

Likely his father was still running things that way, but John didn't know for sure. Maybe John leaving had eased things up a bit, but John taking away some of his business couldn't have eased things up too much.

And there was the simple fact that John's dad seemed to like Tommy and never could stand John.

"I made myself a better offer than my father."

"Oh," Chris said.

John smirked – on the inside – at Chris' realization that John owned the business the truck downstairs advertised.

"I didn't know."

John shrugged. "I wouldn't expect you to have any reason to know that."

"I guess not. My sister says you saw her the other night."

"Yeah," John said simply. What was he supposed to admit? He wondered again if he knew what happened.

"I'm glad you're away from your dad," he said then. Strange shift in topics, but then maybe it wasn't.

"Me, too," John said with an uncomfortable laugh. "I can guess what you're thinking," he said. "I'm going to say to you what you're biting your tongue to stop yourself from saying to me. My cousin is not from around here. She's about as small town as they come. She's been hurt every which way and back again. She's finally getting on her feet with this job Robbie helped her get. Don't add to that hurt."

"Claire says you wanted her to know people different than the ones you hang around with."

"I do."

"I fit that bill pretty well I'd say."

"You do. I'm just saying."

Chris narrowed his eyes slightly, regarding him.

"I don't think I've ever seen you give a shit about anyone or anything other than yourself."

"I'm not eighteen anymore. And I did give a shit about your sister."

"You had a funny way of showing it."

"I can admit that. Can you?"

Chris' lips thinned a bit at that. Chris wasn't exactly Mr. Wonderful with every girl he'd dated. Claire had told him stories when they were dating. Granted, that was a long time ago for Chris, too. He was, however, four years older than they were and showed no signs of settling down from what John could gather. At twenty-two John doubted anyone expected him to be thinking about settling down. At twenty-six, though, people started to wonder.

John's phone rang and he was a little glad for the interruption. He had no desire to get into anything with Chris. He went to answer the extension in the kitchen.

"Have a seat. She shouldn't be long," he said, gesturing to the couch. His furniture wasn't super nice. He didn't see the point in buying new stuff when the people who hung around here didn't give a shit about how they treated his stuff. He had a nice TV and stereo, though, and Chris noticed those things as John answered the phone.

"Hello," he said.



'This is Robbie.'

"Hey. You need Shelly?"

'No! I need you.'

John frowned a bit at the phone. Surely, he couldn't be calling…

"Okay," he said a little cautiously.

'Our water heater at work broke or something. The basement is flooded and we have no hot water.'


'We can't get a hold of anyone. It's Saturday night. No one's calling us back. We can't wash dishes!'

John sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. This was the last thing he wanted to do with a Saturday night where it seemed he might have the apartment to himself for a while for a change of pace. He'd been sort of looking forward to doing nothing without anyone to bother him.

"All right. I'll be there in," he glanced at his watch. "About thirty minutes."

'Thank you,' he said.

"Sure," he said with a sigh.

Fuck the other plumbers who weren't answering their calls. Of course he had nothing going on tonight to interrupt.

"I've got to head out," he said to Chris. "Sounds like Shelly got a good Saturday night off. That was Robbie, their water heater broke so they have no hot water."

"You're going there?"

John shrugged. "That's what I do," he said.

He knocked on his bedroom door.

"Shelly? You decent? I've got to change into something I can work in."

"Yeah," she called from his room.

He'd talked to his landlord this week about upgrading to a two bedroom apartment. There weren't any open currently, but he said around November there should be and he was going to bump John up to the top of the list since he'd been a loyal and dependable tenant the past few years. The first couple months he moved in here he hadn't been, but he quickly learned that there weren't many other places out there who only required one month's security deposit versus a security deposit and last month's rent up front. He'd even seen some that required the deposit plus first and last month's rent. So, about four months in he'd turned things around and was Johnny-on-the-spot with his rent payments. His friends hung out here, but he made sure they didn't get him in any trouble.

He shut the door, changing quickly while he told her what was going on. He felt his eyes on her as he drew picked out a shirt to wear.

"What?" he asked. It wasn't the first time he'd changed in front of her, or her him for that matter. They didn't have a whole lot of space and sometimes they both needed to at the same time like now. She'd never looked at him like this, though. She had a couple of scars herself he'd noticed. None that were visible when she had the typical clothes people wore on.

He'd wondered more than once how her boyfriend could see those scars and not do something to her husband to ensure she hadn't gotten any others. Everyone reacted to things differently, he supposed. Maybe he'd wanted to and she'd stopped him. John hadn't asked and she hadn't offered. He just knew that if he'd seen those types of scars on someone's body he was involved with he'd do something about it. It wouldn't matter to him how long ago the relationship had been.

She giggled softly.

"What?" he asked again with a scowl as he finished fastening his jeans. He'd done laundry earlier so he had clean work pants. Some jobs weren't messy ones, some jobs though like broken water heaters stood to be messy. He didn't want to wear his good jeans for this.

"You have a hickey."

"Shut up," he said, drawing his shirt on. He'd forgotten about it honestly.

"Two of them! I guess I know what you did the other night."

"And you've never had a hickey?"

She got a look on her face that he regretted putting there. Shit. Talk about being an asshole. Way to drudge the past up, John. Fuck.

"I'm sorry, Shelly. I was teasing. Really."

"No, I was trying to think of the last time I had one. I guess Leo gave me some at first, you know, before we got married."

"Sorry, really. I didn't mean to make you think about him or anything."

He grabbed his wallet from his dresser drawer he kept it in and leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. "You look nice. Chris will be happy. Maybe you'll have something for me to tease you about tomorrow."


"No?" he asked as he grabbed his truck keys from the same drawer he kept his wallet in. It was a habit he had because of some of the people that came here. He just felt safer with his keys and wallet out of the reach of anyone. If they were searching through his drawers. Well, that was a whole different thing than merely swiping his cash from his wallet that was sitting out there.

Maybe it'd do her good to get laid, get it over with. Someone after Leo and the guy she'd been seeing. Bobby his name was. He wasn't going to suggest it, and he certainly wasn't going to encourage she do it with Chris, but he did sort of wonder.

"I'm glad you listened to me."

"I didn't actually. I mean, it happened without my having to do anything sneaky. I thought you were a little crazy."

"I know you did, but I saw Robbie the night before with someone very much not Claire and…"

John chuckled softly. He could just imagine who she'd seen him with.

"You're fine. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

"Have fun."

He left the room then.

"See ya later, Chris," he said as he grabbed a jacket and his cigarettes.

"Yeah," Chris said, regarding John a little strangely. Fuck if he was going to explain why he changed clothes in front of Shelly. Maybe it was weird. He didn't know. It was either in front of her or in front of Chris. Now that would have been strange. It wasn't like he got completely naked in front of her. They didn't walk into the bathroom when one or the other was in it or anything.

He had a cover on the bed of his truck, which locked. He kept his tools back there for just this reason. If he got called out to an emergency job he didn't have to drive down to their place to get stuff. Of course, he didn't have a new water heater in the back of his truck. Hopefully, he could fix them up at least to get them through until Monday when they could get a new one without paying an insane amount of money.

Kevin would tell him to sell them the new water heater and charge them the insane amount of money. Well, maybe not. Kevin wasn't a dick, but he'd definitely want John to try to close the deal for their business instead of someone else's on Monday. He would, but he was hoping their prices and the fact he got there when no one else would or could would be the swaying factor. That was the biggest difference between John and Kevin. John, despite what most would think about him, liked to be fair. He remembered what it was like growing up when they'd needed something done and couldn't afford it. It had sucked. Dad could fix a lot of things, but even he had his limits. John was much the same way. Not everyone was handy and not everyone had money set aside for things like water heaters breaking down. Hopefully, a restaurant of this caliber would have a rainy day fund to afford such things.

Usually he parked in the garage the apartment offered him. Even though the cover locked, they were pickable. Nothing had happened yet, but this neighborhood wasn't getting any better. When he'd come home earlier he hadn't been certain he was in for the night so he'd parked outside. He was kind of glad he had. He liked Chris knowing he did all right for himself. Chris was definitely not part of the John Bender Fan Club. Understandable, except who the fuck was perfect at eighteen? Who the fuck would be perfect growing up as John had grown up? Claire had been willing to give him a chance, but few were like her.

He pulled up to the back door when he got there, figuring they wouldn't want him parking by the main entrance and backed his pickup as close to the door as he could get and still let anyone who had to walk in and out. He knocked on the door, hoping Robbie or someone would be expecting him.

Sure enough a couple of minutes later the door opened.

"Uh, hi, Robbie called me about your water heater."

"Oh yes, come in," the guy said. "It's a mess."

"That tends to happen," John said.

The guy led him down a short staircase to what was more like a crawl space than a basement. He could stand up in it. Barely. Water was everywhere.

"You'll be able to get us hot water again?"

"I will sure try."


The guy eyed him and John was trying to figure out what he was getting at. He was here to do a job not rob the place. "You know Robbie?" he asked and John had the very distinct feeling the guy was checking him out.

"I know his roommate so through her I do, yes."

"Oh, you know Claire!"

"Yeah," he said.

"She's a sweetheart."

A sweetheart? He'd fallen in love with her pretty fucking hard and thought she was pretty fucking incredible. Then and now. He wasn't sure he'd ever describe her as a sweetheart, though. She'd changed, sure, but she could be pretty bitchy when she wanted or needed to be.

"We went to high school together."

"Oh," he said, sounding relieved somehow. Buddy, you have absolutely nothing to be threated about from me. John had to admit Robbie seemed like a decent guy, hopefully he was all around. Claire sure seemed fond of him. Fond enough he'd moved to Chicago with her. He was still wrapping his mind around that one. Why? What was better about Chicago than out east? Who knew?

"Let us know if you need anything."

"Will do," he said, moving toward the water heater so he could assess the situation.

His pager went off about two hours into the job. He frowned with a slight scowl. It wasn't a number he recognized, but he wasn't the one on call so shouldn't have been getting unknown numbers popping up. It didn't work that way anyway. Their after hours' service paged them, so it was usually a recognizable number that showed up.

He was done with the water heater anyway. All that was left now was cleanup. Not an easy feat down here either because the floor didn't seem to be finished. He'd do what he could, though.

Robbie was at the head of the stairs when John made his way to them to go upstairs.

"Thank God," he said.

John chuckled. "I've heard that once or twice, yeah."

"I bet you have," he said, sounding a bit flirtatious to John.

"I have to get the vac from my truck. My pager went off, though. A number I don't recognize. You have a phone I can use?"

"Sure, I'll get you something to eat, too. Stephen will get you a menu. Anything you want, on the house."

It was on the tip of his tongue to protest, but he was pretty fucking starving because he hadn't eaten anything since like eleven o'clock this morning.

"Okay," he said, determined not to take advantage of the offer and order lobster or something. Free food wouldn't be bad, though. Especially something good and actually cooked not out of a box or a jar. Shelly cooked for him sometimes, but now that she was working not as often. Sometimes she'd cook something and leave it for him to reheat when he got home. He'd told her she didn't have to do it, but she said she liked cooking and since she wasn't paying him rent it was the least she could do. He couldn't argue that logic.

Robbie led him to a small office where there was a phone. John sat at the desk, taking out the small clipboard he had to write up invoices on as he dialed the number that had come through on his pager.

'Shermer PD. Officer Penn speaking.'

"Uh hi. I was paged from this number. My name's John Bender."

Had something happened to Shelly? She wouldn't have known how long it would take him, except she knew he was going to the restaurant here. Wouldn't she have called here rather than wait for him to respond to a random page?

'Oh yeah, one second,' Officer Penn said and put John on hold.

John was working on writing up his invoice for tonight's service when another voice came on the line.

'This is Officer Hardy.'

"Uh, yeah. I got paged from this number. John Bender."

'Bender. Right. We have a Duane and Edie Bender in lockup.'

"Okay," John said with a slight frown, pausing from what he'd been writing down. Lockup. That meant jail not the morgue. They weren't dead.

'I think they were hoping you'd come bail them out.'

"For what?"


"Both of them?"

'Possession. Open container. You name it.'

"Ah." That sounded a lot more plausible.

This was a first. He was quiet, staring at the paper he'd been writing on. His pen still as he thought on the officer's words.

'Hello?' Officer Hardy asked.

"I'm here. No," he said simply.

'It's not that…'

"No," John said with a shake of his head. If it had been him who'd gotten a DWI his old man would have left him in the slammer to rot.

'But it's your parents'.'

"I'm sure to someone that means something. Not to me." The guy sounded young, like younger than John. So was probably new, and probably not familiar with John's family situation or he wouldn't be puzzled by the response.

"Sorry they wasted their one phone call on me. I hope you have blankets for them."

'You're serious?'

"Sure am. I have other things to do tonight. I can't make it to Shermer."

'Yeah, but…'

"Officer Hardy?"


"I've given you my answer. Maybe you have parents you'd bail out of jail. Good for you. I do not have those kind of parents. I have to get back to work now."

'All right,' he said, sounding disbelieving that John was seriously going to hang up.

"Good night," John said then, hanging up with a sigh.

The guy who'd answered the door brought him a menu just then. Stephen John presumed.


"No, thank you. No one would even call us back."

"You need to find better plumbers."

"I think we have."

John chuckled at that.

"All right then. I still have some cleanup to do downstairs."

"Sure, look over the menu and just let me know what you want. When you're close to being done I can have Robbie get started."

"Sure," John said, glancing at the menu. Steak sounded delicious. There were things on the menu that would probably be pretty cool to eat at no cost, but John was a pretty basic meat and potatoes guy when it got down to it. So, that's what he'd go with.

"Sure," Stephen said. "We'll have it for you. Just let me know."

"Thanks," he said, handing the menu back to him so he could stand and head outside to get the ShopVac he carried in his truck for just such things.

He found Stephen when he was just about done. All he had left really was getting the ShopVac into his truck and setting the air movers up. He'd pick both of them up on Monday because judging by the ground he was going to guess they'd want them both running that long. They had extras at their shop so he wouldn't be without until then if he needed one.

He was expecting them to give him a doggy bag, but they gave him an actual plate of food that he ate where he'd made the phone call. He finished up his invoice then, attaching a copy of his business card with it.

The steak was perfect. Better than perfect actually. It was one of the best steaks he'd ever eaten. He could afford cuts of meat like this, but he couldn't ever justify spending the money on something he'd fry up in a pan or broil. This, though, practically melted in his mouth it was so good.

"You're Shelly's cousin?" Stephen asked when he came to take the plate away.

"I am."

"You don't look at all alike."

"I don't know what to tell you there. Our dads are brothers. I think she gets her looks from her mom where I get mine from my dad. I look like her dad." Well, he thought he did. It'd been years since he'd seen his aunt and uncle so he couldn't say for sure if he still did. His dad and her dad looked alike growing up and stuff though so John assumed that was still the case.

"Huh. She's such a nice girl."

"She is," John agreed. "I'm glad she's working out here."

"We weren't sure at first, it took her a few shifts. She's great, though."


"It's nice what you're doing for her."

"Thanks," he said simply.

"She's kind of quiet, you know, but a few of us she's opened up to. Me and Robbie. She said she wasn't sure where she'd have gone if you hadn't let her stay with you."

"She needed help."

John glanced at his pager and the phone on the desk. There was a huge difference between Shelly and his willingness to help her and his parents'. She wanted help. She wanted out. She wanted to get better. His parents didn't. He'd bail them out and they'd probably pop open a beer on their way home from jail. They'd never learn or get better.

"Just leave this here?" he asked, tearing the invoice off.

"Yeah. No overtime?"

"You fed me."

"Yeah, but it's Saturday night."

John shrugged. "I had nothing else going on anyway. I'm glad I could help out."

"Okay. I mean, the owners would understand because it is Saturday night."

"I'm not here to gouge you. You gave me a meal. Robbie's a friend or at least a friend of a friend. We're good."

"Okay," he said. Stephen clearly wasn't used to that. John shrugged, taking the last sip of the milk he'd had with his dinner.

"I told them on the invoice I'll be back on Monday to get my air movers. If it's not dry by then, or at least much improved, I can leave them for a few more days. Make sure no one turns them off, though."

"Do they need a new water heater?"

"I recommended it, but this one will last a while longer if they weren't of the mind."

"Handy with your hands, fair, and handsome."

"That's me," John said with a slight chuckle. He wasn't laughing at Stephen, he was laughing at Claire commenting about his hands the night they were together. He didn't get the impression Stephen was flirting with him either, just being flirtatious. There was a difference.

He glanced at the clock on the desk and realized if it was closing in on midnight here, it was only ten o'clock in California and Claire's night wasn't even close to being over. She'd mentioned a party or something after the premier screening. He knew now which movie it was because it had been on the news. She was fucking spending her Saturday night with Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, and Ridley Scott. It was Garcia who she was attending with as his agent. Admittedly, John only knew who Scott was because of Blade Runner, he'd loved Blade Runner, though. Hell, everyone he knew had.

And she wasn't nervous, or at least didn't seem so. Other than the dress. She seemed just fine with hanging out with people like that because she'd grown up with that being a common thing. He knew she'd gone to a couple of premieres like this in high school. Not as someone's date as she was tonight, but as her dad's daughter she'd been included on the guest list of invitees. Tonight, though, he could see her picture in People or something since she was going with one of the movie's stars. So weird.

"Well, thank you again."

"Sure, no problem. I'm glad Robbie knew my number to call."

"Shelly will probably be glad she missed tonight. She wasn't too thrilled with having a Saturday night off."

"Really?" he asked. She hadn't said anything to him. "I'd think that would be welcome."

"We try to rotate so that the same waiters and waitresses don't work every weekend. Great tips, but they deserve to have a weekend to themselves once in a while. She doesn't want to miss the weekends."

"Oh, right, makes sense." It did. He knew she was trying to save up whatever she could. He'd told her that he'd put in for a two bedroom apartment, but she seemed to think he didn't really want that. He couldn't convince her, and maybe she just needed to know she could afford an apartment on her own. He could understand that. When he first moved out, he'd already known how much he was earning from his old man, more or less. So he knew what he could afford. He'd gotten one of the cheapest places he could find so that he had money to spend. That was more important to him. He was finding since Shelly got here, though, that wasn't so much the case anymore. "She went out with a friend so I'm sure she's just fine."


John left then and headed home. He needed a shower to warm up after mucking around in above ankle-deep water for a couple of hours. He got in to some of his friends there. He sighed softly, knowing it would be a long night. Not that he had anything to wake up for tomorrow.

"How'd you get in?" he asked Pablo, the only sober appearing one in the group.

"Shelly," he said. John was going to have to start putting his foot down about people hanging out here when he wasn't here. He just didn't like it anymore. Like tonight, he just wanted a hot shower so he could clean up and then crash in his bed until Shelly got home. The one non-cheap thing he'd invested in about a year ago was his bed. If it was possible to be in love with an inanimate object that's what he felt about that fucking bed. He slept better on it than he could ever remember sleeping. Now he was lucky to get a couple of hours in it anymore. Weekends he'd crash on it until Shelly got home. Sometimes she'd be so exhausted she'd just crawl in with him. Sometimes she woke him and kicked him out. He wasn't sure what the difference in nights was. She'd never slept on the couch, though. She shouldn't have to. That was his job.

"I'm going to shower. You guys need to be gone by the time I'm done."

"Why, man?" Pinch said. Pinch was his nickname because his last name was Pinchisky.

"I'm tired and just want to go to bed. Shelly's going to bring her date home. You guys shouldn't be here when she does that."

Chris saw them sitting at his apartment smoking up, and doing other things, in the open he likely wouldn't come around Shelly anymore. He'd likely think John hadn't changed much at all either.

"She didn't say…"

"I'm saying and it's my apartment. Find somewhere else to go on your Saturday night once in a while."

"Yeah, sure, all right, man, chill," Pinch said as he took a hit from his homemade bong. "Want some? It'll chill you right the fuck out."

"Not tonight," he said. "Just be gone by the time I get out of the shower."

He doubted his neighbors on either side of him would mind them being gone either. They weren't crazily loud, but since they didn't live here they didn't always care if the stereo or TV could be heard through the walls.

He stepped out of his work boots, wishing he could just step out of his jeans right here, too. Removing his pretty soaking wet socks was the best he could do in front of these guys.

"Lock the door on your way out," he said to Pablo.

"Sure. Sorry," he said.

John shrugged. Pablo was the only one who hadn't wanted to hit on Shelly when she got here. He checked her out, but he hadn't done more than that. John had appreciated that. He sometimes wondered why either of them were hanging around with the rest of the clowns anymore. Pablo had a pretty good job as a mechanic. He'd started out working at a chain tire place that did oil changes and other basic car maintenance services. He was working at a small dealership in the service department now. It was dirty work, like John's job, but Pablo liked it. He'd been in a gang at his high school. He was still considered a member he told John once. There really was no leaving, but he wasn't an active participant. That didn't mean he wouldn't be called upon one day to be active in something he had no desire to be involved with, but he understood he'd made his choices and would pay for them.

Maybe that was why he and John couldn't completely cut the cord from these other guys. Inability to completely put the past behind them. John hadn't realized he wanted to until recently. He'd been pretty fine with his life until Shelly showed up. Not completely fine. He knew looking at Kevin's house and the house Kevin's brother had that John could himself do infinitely better.

John noticed the light on the answering machine was blinking.

"Some girl called, dude," Rudy said, seeming to notice John's glance at the rapidly blinking red light on the machine. Rudy wasn't as far gone as Pinch was, but he was well on his way to feeling no pain.

"Oh?" John asked.

"Yeah. She sounded pretty hot."

"Thanks," he said, pushing play on the machine.

'Hi, it's Jeannie. We, um, met at Houlihan's a couple of weeks ago. I was the one drinking the Long Beach Iced Tea. Your friend hadn't believed that was a real thing. I got your number through a friend of a friend who knows one of your friends. I just thought I'd see what you were doing tonight. Call me," she said, leaving a number.

"Is she hot?"

"I don't know," John said. He vaguely remembered the night. He'd been fairly toasted by the time they got to Houlihan's as it wasn't a bar that he normally set foot in. It was a place the preppy people went. John would bet a million dollars Claire would consider Houlihan's a respectable place to stop for drinks with a girlfriend.

He pushed delete on the machine without writing the number down.

"You're not even going to call her back."

John shook his head. "Someone desperate enough to ask friends of friends for my number? No thanks. I don't need that kind of clinginess in my life."

"I suppose. She sounded smoking hot, though."

John had to agree she had a pretty nice, sultry-sounding voice. It still screamed of desperation or craziness. Both were things John tried to avoid with women. Plus, he'd kind of been hoping the message was from Claire. She was busy out in California, but he'd hoped when Rudy said it was a woman.

"Come on, guys," he said. "Start packing it in for the night."

"You were serious?" Pinch asked.

"Do I sound like I'm joking?"

"It's Saturday night!"

"Go to your apartment and hang out."

Pinch sighed. He couldn't. The cops watched his place pretty regularly because he was an idiot and flaunted things he shouldn't. He hadn't been busted in a couple of years, but they still watched on the hope that he'd fuck up again.

They were starting to get their shit together as he headed to his bedroom, sliding his shirt up and off as he crossed the threshold to his room. The shirt didn't reek, but the jeans would from wading around in water as he had been. He'd wash them tomorrow with some towels or something so he didn't waste the quarters on one pair of jeans.

He finished in the shower, making sure everyone was gone and they'd locked up before heading back to his room. He closed the door and slid into bed, groaning softly at being able to lay in it even if it was just for a little while. He doubted Shelly and Chris would be out that late.

He woke the next morning to Shelly shifting on the bed. When she slept on the bed with him, she brought the blanket in from the couch with her most times since he was already under the covers.

"What time did you get home?" he asked.

"Mm, four or so? I can't remember."

"You didn't wake me up."

"No," she said.

"Okay," he said simply.

"You're comforting."

"I am?"

"You are. Sometimes I need that. You know? Someone who's nice to me just because not for anything else."

"I don't expect anything from you, Shelly."

"I know," she said. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "That's my point. You can just lay here with me and it's, you know, comforting."

"You don't think it's weird?"

She shrugged. "Do you?"

"Well, yeah, a little."

"Why? What are we doing wrong?"

"Well," put like that. "Nothing. I'm just not used to it."

"Me neither," she said.

Was that weird? He wasn't sure. It's not like they were laying here fooling around or thinking about fooling around. She just seemed to need closeness. John could understand that. There was something about this type of closeness that was way different than the sexual kind of closeness. He never slept well with a woman he had sex with. He wasn't comfortable with that. This, though, was all right he supposed.

"You don't work today?" he asked.

"Not until four o'clock," she said.

He glanced at his alarm.

"I have my alarm set," she said.

"Okay," he said.

"Did you have a nice time last night?"

"Yeah," she said.


"He's nice."

"He can be," John said.

"You two don't like one another."

"We have," he paused, searching for the right word. "Preconceived notions about one another. Neither of us is entirely willing to set those notions we developed and embellished over the past four years aside yet."

"I see. He told me at dinner you've changed."

John snorted. "Thanks."

"Have you called Claire?"

"She's out of town."

"Did you call her before she left town?"


"John," Shelly said with a shake of her head.


She sighed softly. "You should have at least called her."

"She's busy!"

"No woman is that busy that they wouldn't want a call from the guy they'd just had sex with."

"I suppose you're right. I wasn't expecting that to happen, though. So, I don't know," he shrugged. Fuck, had he fucked up? Jesus.

She shifted a bit on the bed. "Call her when she gets back."

"Whenever that is."

"Ask Robbie."

"I suppose."

"I'm not in love with him or anything."

"Robbie?" John asked, perplexed at the turn in conversation.

She laughed, swatting his chest lightly. "No, Chris."


"I like him, but that's all."

"Okay. You don't owe me anything…"

"I do! You're letting me live here, rent-free. You helped me find a job. You only know my side of everything that happened, but you helped me."

"I'd like to say that's what family does, but we both know that's not how our family operates. I guess I've got some of that old-fashioned junk in me after all."

"It's not junk. Women like to be treated like that. Maybe not, you know, all the time, every date, but we like doors held for us, and knowing our guy thinks about us."

"I'll store that away."

"He just," she shrugged. "He doesn't know everything. I haven't told him the whole story. He just knows Leo's dead."

"Right, sure, you don't have to tell anyone anything you don't want to, Shelly. You're here for a fresh start. I'm not going to tell anyone."

"I know, but that's how I know I don't love him."

"How?" he asked.

"If I loved him I'd want him to know because I'd want him to see all of my warts and decide on a complete picture."

"You don't have warts, Shelly. You made some bad decisions. Who hasn't?"

"My decisions…"

"Did you beat your kid?"


"Well, then, come talk to me when you've done that and we'll talk about your decisions. You didn't hurt anyone."

"Yes, but Laura was my friend."

"I don't know the whole of it, but from what you said she wasn't capable of loving anyone either. God, you guys were still in high school. Your parents allowing you to marry Leo like that blows my mind."

"They were glad to get me out of their hair."

John could understand that, sure, but Jesus. She'd been like sixteen and from what he knew they hadn't followed up any on the wellbeing of their daughter. Then, maybe they didn't care or wouldn't have thought Leo beating her would have been bad. He doubted his parents' would have cared. Of course he was a guy. If he was the one getting beaten his father would smack him upside the head for allowing a woman to do that to him.

"So because you don't want him to know that means you don't love him?"

"Yeah. I can't wait and tell him six months from now. He'll think I lied to him."

He nodded a little at that. Valid point.

"So, what are you doing then?"

"Enjoying someone treating me like a person and not a slave or someone who's just a fuck?"

He exhaled sharply at that.

"I get it," he said. "Just be careful."

"You don't want Claire mad at you because of me."

"No. I can handle things. I'm a big boy, so's she. Well, a big girl. I just don't want to see you get hurt. It could be potentially very easy to get sucked into that world, you know? Boats and nice houses, nice restaurants, dates that kiss you good night and don't expect anything else."

"I know," she said. "Leo I got that sort of in the beginning. It was different, though. He was manipulating me."

"And look where that got you. I say again, just be careful."

"I am."


"I could say the same to you, you know."


"Where I'm not in love with Chris, you are in love with Claire."

John shrugged.

"Don't shrug it off. You are. You had sex with her without any real conversation about anything. You didn't even ask her about Robbie you said until afterward."

"She wouldn't have fooled around with me if she was with Robbie."

"That's not the point, and you know it."

"What's she going to do?"

"I don't know, but it just seems like you should have talked."

"I put my mouth to a much better use."

"Very funny."

"She can't hurt me."

"No, but you can find out she doesn't love you back."

"I could, but it wouldn't be the end of the world."



"How many women have you had sex with that you loved, John?"

"One," he said, almost saying none but that was no longer true. "And she probably wouldn't be too happy that you know we had sex."

"You didn't get home until after I did that night."

"That doesn't mean I was having sex with Claire."

"You have hickeys!"

"Still doesn't mean I was having sex with Claire."

"Not true."

"What makes you say that?"

"You were going to go over there. You wouldn't go over there to see her with hickeys from someone else."

He nodded a bit at that. "Valid reasoning."


"Still doesn't mean I was having sex with Claire."

"I'm glad you did," she whispered.

"You just got done telling me…"

"I know. She's nice."

"She is," John agreed.

"She loves to shop."

John laughed at that. "She does."

"It is kind of addicting."

"Why do you think I want to get a two bedroom apartment? You keep hanging around with her there won't be any room left in my closet."

"Very funny."

"I'll move to the couch."

"You're fine, John," she whispered.

"Okay," he murmured in response. He wasn't going to argue with her, but he really was looking forward to sleeping a little longer. Doing it in his bed was like a bonus these days.

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