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Ruin Me, Page 4

Jessica Sorensen

  "Mom, we can't have a rooster in the apartment." I start picking up the wrappers and throwing them into the trash bin.

  "But it doesn't have a home. I feel bad for it." Her eyes remain glued to the TV screen as she stuffs her mouth with popcorn. She spends a lot of her days this way--watching reruns and soaps, and rarely leaving the apartment.

  "Where did you even find a rooster?"

  It's not like we live in farmland. We reside in a small town in North Carolina, close enough to the beach that you can usually smell salt in the air. The weather consists of humidity, humidity, and more humidity, sun, and the occasional rainstorm.

  "Mr. Garlifed had it." She aims the remote at the television and flips through the channels. "He kicked it out, though. Said the thing was watching him while he slept."

  The apartment we've lived in for the last three years isn't located in the best neighborhood. The affordable area tends to draw in unique characters, like Mr. Garlifed who likes to constantly monitor the people coming and going from this place and who apparently owned a rooster. But with my mother unable to work because of her disabilities and me being the sole provider, it's the only place I can afford. Hopefully, after I graduate with my nursing degree, I'll be able to change that. But, since I have to manage my time between school, my job, and taking care of my mother, graduating is still a long ways away.

  The rooster crows again as I'm scooping up a pile of clothes to take to the laundry room. "It can't stay here, Mom. I'm going to have to give it back to Mr. Garlifed and have him take care of it."

  "But what if he kicks it out again?"

  "Then he kicks it out."

  "I want to keep it," she whines. "I need the company."

  "You have Nelli and me as company."

  Nelli is my mother's sister and my aunt who damn near saved my life. She came around a lot after the accident, helped out whenever she could. When she retired, she offered to start sitting for my mother while I went to school and work. She doesn't charge me anything, says she's happy to do it.

  "But I want someone who's here all the time," my mother gripes. "I want a pet."

  "We'll find you something better than a rooster," I tell her then hurry down the hallway toward the laundry room.

  After dumping the clothes on top of the washing machine, I grab a broom and prepare to open the door and chase the rooster out of the house. It's times like these when I wish my older sister, Lizzy, didn't live clear across the country. I think about it every day. How much I wish she were here to help take care of our mother. How much less stressful my life would be. But my sister has her own life in Seattle with her husband and two children.

  "I just can't do it, Clara," she said the day after our father's funeral. "There's just not any room in our place, and I have Jenna and Kessington to take care of. My plate is already too full. You don't have anything except your job and school."

  "But we don't have a place to live," I told her, terrified of facing the future alone. "I can't afford the house Mom and Dad were living in."

  "Maybe you can buy your own place with the money I'm sure they left us in Dad's will." She took my hand and gave me that look, the one she always gave when she had made up her mind about something. "And if all else fails, you could always put her in a home." Then she kissed my cheek and left for her hotel.

  The next morning, she flew back home to her family. She has called me about ten times total over the last three years, because calling me is, "too painful of a reminder of everything she lost."

  And the money is my father's will? Nonexistent. Turns out, my parents hadn't owned anything. My father's store had been run off loans. Most everything went back to the bank and I was left to start over. The problem was, at the time I was only eighteen-years-old, and I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't have a job, at least not one that wasn't seasonal work. I had enrolled in college and was planning on just having a general major until I could figure out what I wanted to do. The plan was to take a year or two, try out some classes, see what piqued my interest.

  That entire plan vanished in the blink of an eye, and I had to make big decisions quickly. I found us a place to live and dropped my enrollment to part time, so I could find a better job. I was hired as a temporary secretary at the hospital and enjoyed the environment so much that I decided I wanted to work there permanently. I trained to become a CNA, which is my current job. Three months after changing careers, I switched my major to nursing.

  Even though I've managed to take care of us, I still have those moments. The ones where I want to break down and consider putting my mother into a home. Those thoughts make me feel guilty. The last thing my father asked me to do was take care of her. What kind of daughter would I be if I just bailed out? Besides, my mother can't help how she is.

  She used to be a brilliant professor at the local college I now attend part time. She taught Sociology and Psychology. She used to play this game where we'd sit in a public place, and she'd give a mental analysis of people passing by. I sometimes wonder if inside her own head, she's assessing her own brain, if she knows she's broken and is trying to figure out why.

  I jerk from my thoughts and wrap my fingers around the doorknob, preparing to enter the rooster zone. With a deep breath, I pull open the door.

  As the rooster comes racing out with its beady little eyes locked on me, I wave the broom at it, careful not to hit it, and shoo the bird toward the front door. I knock a lamp over in the process, and the rooster punctures a hole in the leather sofa that I found in a second hand store for dirt cheap.

  After a minute or two of doing circles around the room, I manage to get the damn evil bastard out the door.

  "Holy shit. Roosters are nuts." Panting, I turn to my oblivious mother who hasn't even looked up from the television through all the commotion. It makes me want to cry. Everything does these days.

  "That was so funny." My mother chuckles, munching on popcorn.

  I count backwards to ten before moving away from the door. Then I give my mother a quick kiss near the scar that runs from her temple to the back of her head, remnants of the accident. "I'm going to go get ready for class. Nelli should be here soon. Can you please, please let her in when she gets here?"

  "Sure honey." She finally looks up at me for the first time this morning. Sometimes I find it painful to look at her, because she looks the same as she used to, except for her eyes. They carry a void, as if she can't quite figure out who I am or where she is. "Don't forget to scatter your father's ashes like he wanted. At the Tetons."

  She says this to me every day, even though I don't have the time or money to drive across the country to do so. My father made the request in his will: I want my remains scattered from one of my favorite places--the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. I feel terrible that I can't, and tried to talk my sister into doing it a few times. But she always refuses, saying she doesn't have time.

  After I leave the living room, I pick out a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and then duck into the bathroom to take a shower. Afterward, I get dressed, run a comb through my lengthy dark brown hair, apply a dab of liner and lip-gloss, and tug on my favorite pair of boots.

  I exit the bathroom with a trail of steam following me. I collect my bag and books from my bed then head for the front door to go to my last class of the semester.

  My mother and Nelli are huddled together in the living room, laughing about something. They're only a few years apart, with graying hair, and similar facial features. The biggest difference between their looks is the scar on my mother's head and the fact that my mom wears a lot of bright colored clothes, one of the few traits that stuck with her after the accident. As always, my mother looks happy. She always does when Nelli's around.

  "Hey Clarabell Tellamell," Nelli says when she notices me lingering in the doorway.

  She already has tea and cookies set out on the coffee table, along with a book. Nelli spends a lot of time reading my mother's favorite novels to her.

Nelli Bellie full of Jelly." I make up a nickname to use back. It's a game we play sometimes--see who can come up with the best rhyming names. "Just a quick note. She might try to convince you it's okay, but do not, under any circumstances, let a rooster into this house."

  "Yes ma'am." Nelli salutes me. "Now stop worrying and get going before you're late to class." She focuses back on my mother. "What do you think? Tea or the book first?" Her voice is gentle and my mother warms to it.

  Nelli's gentleness makes it easy to leave the house without me feeling as though I'm abandoning my mother.

  "Clara, wait!" my mother calls out.

  I turn around. "Yeah?"

  She motions for me to come over. "I need to talk to you."

  I walk over. "What's up?"

  She gestures for me to lean closer then whispers, "Don't forget to scatter your father's ashes. We're running out of time." She presses a small piece of paper into my palm.

  I look down at what she gave me--a photo of lofty, snow-covered mountains pointing toward a crystal blue sky.

  "Who took this picture, Mom?" I smooth my thumb along the creased photo. So this is where my father wants to be laid to rest. It's pretty.

  She simply smiles at me. "It's pretty, isn't it? Your father sure loved it there. And, if you don't get his ashes there soon, it'll be too late."

  "Too late for what?"

  "For him to get his peace."

  I tuck the photo into the back pocket of my jeans then turn to Nelli. "Make sure she takes her pills this afternoon," I tell her. "She's been spitting them out a lot lately, at least when I give them to her."

  "Would you stop worrying and get going?" Nelli flicks her wrists, shooing me toward the door. "I've been taking care of your mother long enough to know the routine."

  I hitch the handle of my bag over my shoulder. "Sorry. The rooster thing must have stressed me out or something."

  I wave goodbye to the both of them, crack the front door open, and stick my head out. After I check for the rooster in the poorly lit hallway, I step out and cautiously walk past the numbered doors, heading toward the exit. When I make it outside without crossing paths with the crazy bird, I breathe in relief.

  The sun blares down on me as I start up the sidewalk and veer toward the bus stop on the corner of the street. But I slam to a halt when a Jeep Wrangler pulls up to the curb in front of the complex. I try not to grin as Jax Hensley leans over and opens the passenger door. Grinning will only make this thing between us more complicated, make our arrangement mean more than it is. And the last thing I need in my life is another side-blinding complication.

  Jax is a year and a half younger than me, although you would never guess it. Not only is he extremely responsible--one of the things that drew me to him--but he looks older too. With brown hair, hazel eyes surrounded by dark eyelashes, and full lips that I always find myself biting whenever we're making out, he drips adorable sexiness.

  "What are you doing here?" I approach the vehicle but don't get in. I haven't heard from him since the night he got a call from his mom. He'd sent me a text, telling me stuff went okay. He was pretty vague, but I didn't have time to analyze it since I worked the nightshift on Saturday. "I thought we only met up on Fridays."

  "I know, but I want to pick up some stuff from the store and knew it was your last class today, so I thought, what the hell. I might as well pick her up." He dazzles me with a charming grin, the same grin that got me into this whole mess to begin with.

  The day I met him, I was a hot mess--late for class, wearing my scrubs with no makeup on. I smelled like someone who hadn't taken a shower in four days and looked like I was riding on only three hours of sleep, which was exactly what had happened.

  As I was sprinting to make it to class on time, I'd sprinted around the corner of the building and slammed into Jax. My books flew everywhere, and I just about started to cry due to exhaustion.

  I clumsily bent over to grab my books and he crouched down to help me.

  "Hey, I know you, right?" he asked as he handed me my Chemistry book.

  I glanced up to a pair of hazel eyes studying me so intensely that I wanted to hunker down and hide.

  "I don't think so." I grabbed the book from him and hurried down the hallway to class.

  He followed me.

  "What are you doing?" I hugged the book to my chest as I rushed passed people with him striding along right beside me.

  "Going to class." He seemed amused and not at all bothered by my attire. In fact, I caught him checking me out once or twice. "That is what people generally do at college."

  I stopped in front of the door of my English class, and he halted with me.

  "But you're not in this class," I pointed out.

  "Aren't I?" he quipped. "Funny, I thought I was."

  When I gaped at him, he laughed, this full belly, crinkling-around-the-corner-of-the eyes laugh. It was probably the most beautiful sound I'd heard in a long time. Such freedom to his laughter and I envied him because of it.

  "I usually sit in the back, so you probably haven't noticed me." He stuck out his hand. "I'm Jax Hensley."

  I shook his offered hand. "Clara McKiney."

  "It's nice to meet you, Clara McKiney." He gave my outfit a once over. "Cute scrubs, by the way." His lips twitched with amusement then he swung around me and walked into class.

  It seemed like I should have been insulted--scrubs aren't cute and I looked like crap--but for some reason, I felt flattered enough to smile. After that, I started noticing Jax a lot. We quickly became friends and stayed that way for about six months.

  We were tipsy the first time we fooled around, but not enough to blame what happened on the alcohol. I told myself the next morning it was a one-time thing, but then the next weekend came. We were at a party, laughing and drinking. Then we were suddenly sneaking back to one of the bedrooms and ripping off each other's clothes. The third time happened in the backseat of his Jeep, parked out in the parking lot of my apartment. I'd realized that night that, if this thing between Jax and I was going to keep occurring, it had to be a strict friends with benefits type of arrangement because I don't have time for a relationship. Plus, my life's too complicated. He'd agreed to my terms, and thus began Friday nights filled with sweaty, hot sex.

  "Car rides to class aren't supposed to be part of the arrangement," I say, but scamper into the passenger seat when I hear a piercing crow from nearby.

  "Why? I used to give you rides all the time before," he reminds me as I close the door.

  "I know. Sorry I'm being a pain in the ass again. I just had an... interesting morning." I toss my bag into the backseat, buckle up, and discreetly check him out. Today he's wearing a fitted black shirt that shows off his lean muscles I crave to touch.

  "You know, we could make our weekend start now," he says when he notices me admiring him. "I could pick you up after class and we could go back to my place."

  I turn my head toward the window to hide the first grin that's graced my lips since Friday. "Can't. I already have a hot date today."

  "You're such a liar." His tone is playful, but also carries an edge.

  Deciding not to toy with him this morning, I meet his gaze again. "Alright, I'll play nice today, but you owe me."

  His smile conveys all kinds of naughtiness. "Oh, I plan to pay you back in full."

  My skin tingles with excitement at the things he'll do to me, things he's done to me, the way I've let him touch me.

  I've only been with one other guy before, and that was in high school, so hooking up with Jax has been a very new, interesting experience for me. One that I'm enjoying and want to keep enjoying. As long as we follow the rules, things should work out fine.

  "You're blushing, Clara," he teases, brushing his finger across my cheekbone.

  "I'm not blushing," I lie then roll down the window, letting in the humid May air. "It's just hot in here."

  "Whatever you say." His lips quirk.

  I roll my eyes, but then flinch wh
en I hear the cry of a deranged rooster.

  "Is that..." Jax peers over his shoulder out the back window. "Do I hear a rooster?"

  I sigh. "Yeah, I think our neighbor has one."

  He turns his head back to me with his brow arched. "Here?" He skims the two-story, indoor complex with zero lawn space. "Really?"

  "Yeah, remember my crazy neighbor I told you about? The one who keeps a log of the visitors that come through the apartment?"

  He nods. "What? Is he keeping chickens now?"

  "Roosters." I cup my hand around my ear. "Chickens don't make that God awful noise." I lower my hand to my lap. "And not only does he keep roosters, but he also kicks them out because they watch him sleep, and then my mother takes pity on them and brings home."

  "Your mother let a rooster into your place?" he asks.

  I instantly realize how crazy that must sound, since Jax doesn't know about my mother's condition.

  "She's one of those people who loves animals." Which is kind of true. Before the accident we had two cats, a dog, and one very obnoxious bird that repeatedly chirped, 'I'm so sexy.'