Ember x, p.19
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       Ember X, p.19

         Part #1 of Death Collectors series by Jessica Sorensen
 
Page 19

 

  It’s a strange answer, but not accepting it would be like the pot calling the kettle black. “Okay, I can wait, I guess. ”

  Letting go of my hand, he reaches for my face and runs his fingers through my hair, gently tugging at the roots and sending a shock of pleasure through my body. Dear God Almighty.

  “Thank you for trusting me,” his voice perpetuates my body with heat as his fingers slide from my hair to my cheekbone.

  We leave the sunnier part of town behind and enter the rougher side, leaving the old-fashioned shops and restaurants in exchange for old and dilapidated houses and warehouses. Rusted cars clutter yards and bars and smoke shops fill up the business sections. It’s frightening how much this side of town feels like home.

  My concentration centers on Asher. “So where’s this mysterious place you’re taking me?”

  He returns his hand to mine and then downshifts. “That’s kind of a surprise, but I thought we could get something to eat first. I mean, if that’s okay with you?”

  I crack the window and let in a cool breeze. “Yeah, that’s fine with me. ”

  “Are you sure there’s nothing bothering you?” he asks. “You seem a little… sad. Or sadder than usual. ”

  The wind gusts through my hair and I shut my eyes, breathing in the cool air. “I’m fine. I promise. ” I erase my sadness as much as possible, and open my eyes, summoning up a small smile. “I’m actually just really hungry. ”

  “Good. ” He grins and turns the car into the crowded parking lot of Phil’s Shenanigans and Fun. “Hmm…” Asher observes the sign. “I wonder what kind of fun it’s referring to. ”

  “No, you don’t,” I say. It’s the bar where my dad hung out and I know way too well the fights that go on inside.

  “You’ve been here?” Asher shuts off the engine and takes out the keys.

  “Once or twice. ” I omit some of the truth. “And I think they card here. ”

  “I heard they don’t. ” He points a finger at the front door where a young couple are walking inside with their arms wrapped around each other. “And I think we go to school with them. ”

  “Yeah, you’re probably right. ” I sigh heavily. “I think they do let in minors. ”

  My dad came here a lot and brought me with him. I’d sit in the corner booth, coloring, while he drank himself into a stupor, ranting about his philosophical ideas on life and death until he’d piss off someone enough that they’d take a swing at him. Then, Phil, the owner—who was like a second father to me—would load us up in his Chevy and drive us home.

  “Do you know if the food’s good here?” Asher opens the car door and steps out.

  “Yeah, the food, the service—it’s all great. ” Except for the memories.

  Before I can climb out of the car, Asher hurries and opens the door from me, then helps me out. The boy blows my mind with his gentleman skills and if I didn’t know better, I’d guess he came from an earlier era. He holds my hand as we walk across the parking lot, smiling at me like I’m the best thing in the world. There’s a row of motorcycles in front and a bench where people are smoking. The windows of the bar are shielded with flashing neon signs and flyers.

  At the entrance, Asher releases my hand, but only to open the door. I fan the smoke from my face as the door swings closed and then Asher returns his hand to mine. The bar is packed, the music’s loud, and there are no barstools available. Paper-mache spiders and witches hang from the ceiling and each table has a miniature pumpkin.

  “Hi, y’all. My name is Amy and I’ll be your waitress today. ” A perky girl in her early twenties appears in front of us. Her black skirt barely covers her legs and her white shirt is tight enough that it shows she’s not wearing a bra “We only got booths tonight. Is that okay?”

  “What do you think?” Asher asks, looking at me. “Is a booth good?”

  “A booth’s better,” I answer.

  “Okay. ” The waitress leads us through the smoke and people with a cheery skip in her walk. We settle in the corner booth, sitting across from each other, and she hands us our menus and sashays toward the bar. Phil’s the bartender tonight. He’s a large man with tattoos casing his arms and neck and his shaved head reflects in the low light and his goatee touches the bottom of his neck. He has a T-shirt on with the sleeves torn off, jeans, and biker boot and he’s pouring a shot as the waitress says something to him. His eyes lift to me as I slump down in the booth, holding the menu in front of my face, ducking for cover.

  “Please, don’t come over here. Please, don’t come over here,” I chant under my breath.

  Asher guides the menu away from my face. “Okay, what’s up?”

  I pretend to be very interested in the list of appetizers. “Nothing. I’m just reading the menu. ”

  He eyes me suspiciously and aims his attention to a person standing next to our table.

  “Holy biscuits and gravy, it is you. ”

  I take a deep breath. “Hey, Phil. ” I plaster a fake smile on my face and look up at him.

  He grins and opens his arms, waiting for a hug. Internally cringing, I get to my feet and wrap my arms around him. He smells like cigars and booze, both of which will be the cause of his death, something I’ve known for years.

  I pull away and drop back down in the booth. “I thought you were going to quit smoking. ”

  He tensely rubs his neck. “I did for a while, but old habits die hard. But look at you. All grown up. I haven’t seen you since the night your…” he trails off. “Well, anyway. How are you doing? And how’s your mama doing?”

  “She’s doing good. ” I pick at the peanut shells wedged in the cracks of the tabletop.

  “Is she still working down at the diner?” he asks. “Or did she finally get away from that shithole. ”

  “No, she’s still doing the waitress thing,” I say and his eyes drift to Asher. “Oh, this is Asher. Asher, this is Phil. ”

  They nod and say their “how do you do’s. ”

  I grow fidgety and fiddle with the pumpkin, spinning it on the table. Being around Phil brings back the memories of the nights at the bar with my dad. When Phil would drive me and my dad home, he’d tell me things would get better—that eventually my dad would get his life together. It’s not Phil’s fault it never happened, but it reminds me of a time when I was naïve enough to believe it would.

  He can tell I’m uncomfortable. “Alright, well if you need anything, let me know. ” I nod and he returns to his position behind the counter.

  Asher turns the page of the menu. “I thought you said you’d been here once or twice. ”

  I shrug, not ready to veer down that path. Awkward silence builds and we flip through the menus. By the time the waitress shows up to take our order, I wonder if Asher’s going to tell her we’re leaving.

  She poises her pen above the order book. “What can I get y’all?”

  Asher taps his fingers on his lips and I catch Amy licking her own as she eyes his mouth. “What exactly are Rocky Mountain oysters?” he asks her.

  I restrain a laugh as Amy’s face twists in confusion.

  “Well… I think they’re a kind of meat. I’m not sure what kind, but I like them. ” She presses the end of the pen against her chin.

  I shake my head at Asher. “You don’t want those. Trust me. ”

  Amy shoots me an aggravated look. “They’re not bad. I mean, the meat’s a little tough, but they taste good. ” I feel bad for her. Kind of. She leans over the table and her boobs practically pop out of her top. “Look, sweetie, get whatever you want, okay?” she says to Asher.

  Asher’s gaze connects with mine. “I kind of like to know what I’m eating. ”

  Grinning, I lean over the table, cup my hand around his ear, and whisper what Rocky Mountain oysters are.

  His eyes bulge as I sit back in my booth. “Yeah, I’ll have water, cheese fries, and a hamburger with extra mayo. ”

  “I’ll have the c
hicken sandwich and a coke. ” I shut my menu and Amy snatches it out of my hand. She takes Asher’s menu more delicately and saunters off to the order window.

  “Thank you,” he says with a smile.

  I rest my elbows on the table. “For what?”

  “For not letting me eat that shit. ”

  We laugh and then silence builds again. A woman in a bright red dress and cowgirl boots is belting out the lyrics to Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” from the stage as she writhes her hips against the microphone stand. The whole scene is super cheesy, but I start to relax, like I’m finally home after being gone for three years.

  “My dad and I used to come here,” I finally say over the music.

  He gives me his undivided attention, overlapping his fingers in front of him. “Really. ” He glances at the rough people, the smoky atmosphere, and the bar lined with bikers. “How old were you?”

  “I was four the first time he brought me down here, and it kept up until I was sixteen—until he died, basically,” I say. “My dad really liked his Jack Daniels. ”

  “So did my dad… Well, actually it was Jim Bean. ” He pauses and his smile brings soft invisible kisses to my skin. “See, that wasn’t so hard and we learned we have something in common. ”

  “I’m not socially impaired,” I retort, dusting some salt off the table. “I just like my space. . . for personal reasons. ”

  “Except for when we’re in the art room,” he teases.

  “Yeah, I blame it on the paint fumes,” I retort, playfully. “They fucked with my head. ”

  The corners of his lips tug upward as he crosses his arms on the table and leans in. “I know you like your personal space and I actually kind of like that about you. You’re not always giggling and trying to run your fingers through my hair. ”

  I wonder if he’s talking about Raven. “Some guys like that. ”

  “No, they don’t. ” He flicks his tongue ring against his teeth and I bite down on my lip to repress a moan. “I want you to give me a shot. I want you to let me in and let me get to know you. ”

  My chest squeezes with elation, but thankfully my voice holds a steady rhythm. “What do you want to know about me?”

  He rolls the peppershaker between his hands. “How long have you known Raven?”

  I shrug. “Since we were born. ”

  “Does she always act so…” he trails off.

  “Slutty?” I finish for him.

  He laughs and it’s the most amazing sound that’s ever graced my ears. “I was going to say guy crazy, but I thought that’d make me sound like a jerk. She’s a little intense, and that whole thing with Garrick. How did she even meet him?”

  “At the same party I met him,” I explain. “But I have no idea why she was with him that day at school. ”

  He presses his lips together and studies the cracks in the table. “When Garrick had a hold of you at school… you looked like you were going to pass out. ”