:: Travis ::
My boots made a squishing sound against the wet steps that led to my apartment. The sky had been pissing on me off and on all day between classes. I was glad. The grounds around Keaton Hall was still soaked from the deluge of water the fire hoses had poured into the building. The rain made the rest of the campus blend in with Keaton's saturated grass and sidewalks.
My keys jingled in my hand as I pulled them out to unlock the door. As soon as I touched the knob, I heard tiny scratching on the other side. I smiled and pushed the door, immediately leaning over to greet Toto.
His wiry dark fur brushed against my face as he covered me with puppy kisses. He'd already grown so much, but he squirmed, yelped, and bounced around like he did his first day in the apartment. He wouldn't settle down, so I finally picked him up, holding him against my chest while he soaked my face with dog slobber. I lifted my chin so I didn't end up with puppy tongue in my mouth.
Brazil used the spare key to pick up Toto after we'd already left for the airport, and even though he'd agreed with no notice and no questions, Abby was more than just unhappy when we'd picked Toto up. She'd given him a bath the moment we got home to wash away the stench of cigarettes and dirty socks. After she'd dried him off and made up for lost snuggle time, he'd curled up in a ball on his bed in the corner of our bedroom, and slept the rest of the night.
I picked up my phone to text Brazil, like I promised Abby I would.
Dude. I appreciate you picking up my dog, but if you didn't want to take care of him, you should have just said so.
It didn't take long for Brazil to respond. What do u mean?
He smelled like shit. You were smoking around him? I don't even smoke around him. And he was comatose for 24 hrs after we got him home.
Sorry, man. I had a party. My girl dragged me outside to argue over something stupid. When I came back in, Derek had let him out of my room and was trying to feed him beer. I made Derek leave, but the dog wasn't hurt or anything, I swear.
Remind me not to ask you for any more favors.
Won't happen again, Travis. Sorry.
I set Toto on the floor and listened to his nails click the against the linoleum in the kitchen while I opened a can of his favorite food. I scrunched my face at the rancid smell, wondering how in God's name any creature could eat something so revolting. Of course, I was talking about Toto, who enjoyed sniffing and licking his own asshole.
I poured the food into the orange ceramic bowl Abby had found online with Toto's name on it, and I added more water to his bowl before returning my attention to my phone. I scrolled through my contacts until Brandon Kyle's name appeared. My thumb hovered over the phone icon. One of my frat brothers had given me Brandon's contact information. He was the owner of Iron E, one of three off-campus gyms in Eakins. Two of those gyms were Brandon's, and Iron E was his pride and joy: a newer gym on the eastside that was significantly more popular than the others because of the high number of co-ed memberships. I'd lifted there before and had talked to Brandon every time. He was nice enough, but he had a pregnant wife and a lot of girlfriends--not someone I could stomach calling a friend.
I pressed the button and held the phone to my ear. It rang a few times, and then I heard a click followed by the screeching, banging, and intermittent yelling I'd expected if Brandon was still at the gym.
"Brandon Kyle," he answered. Pompous prick. I couldn't stand the kind of people who used their name instead of a greeting.
"Hey. It's Travis Maddox. We've met a few times at Iron E. I heard you were looking for a part-time trainer."
"Good to hear from you! Yeah, I heard you might call. Man ... we'd love to have you on the team. I've watched you here before. You know your shit. And holy God, would you bring in the ladies. Come get an application and I'll show you around. We'll discuss details and then we can decide if it's something we both still wanna do."
"Uh ..." I wasn't expecting his response. "When do you want me to come in? Today is my early day, but I have to go pick up my wife and ..."
"Wife?" Brandon laughed. "Since when?"
"Since last weekend."
"Oh!" he said, his voice muffled. He was likely holding his fist over his mouth the way I'd seen him do before when he made fun of people. "Damn. Did you knock her up?"
"What did you just say to me?" I asked, feeling my blood boil. I turned on my heels, realizing I was pacing with my free hand balled into a fist.
"Nothin' ... Nothin'. Just fuckin' with ya, man! Yeah! Come on in! I'll see you then."
"Just whenever?" I asked.
"This is a pretty slow week. All the fatties have given up on their New Year's resolutions. I'm open until Thursday."
I told him thanks through clenched teeth, and then hung up. There was no way I could work for that tweedle dick. I'd assault him on my first day.
Toto finished his lunch, and I put him in the green plaid sweater Abby had bought him. With some effort, I hooked his leash on his collar while he tried to lick my hand, and then led him outside. I crossed my arms, keeping hold of the leash, grumbling to myself about Brandon when a shiny Porsche rolled up, parking just behind my Harley. The window rolled down, revealing Parker's smug smile.
"Maddox! Heard you're in some trouble with the local authorities. And the non-local authorities."
"Lick my nuts, Hayes."
Parker's expression turned serious. "Is it also true ... about Abby and you?"
"Did she kick you to the curb for me? Twice?"
Parker frowned. "Is it true or not?"
"Of course it's true. You didn't think you really had a chance with her, did you?"
"You don't deserve her, Maddox. You have to know that."
"Maybe not. But Abby thinks I do. That's the only opinion I care about ... so you can eat shit and die, Parker, because no one here cares what you think. You were a distraction. A commercial. She was never going to end up with you. It's fucking pathetic that you tried."
"I didn't try that hard. If I had, you wouldn't be married."
I tilted my chin down, glowering. "Get out of your pussy car and come say that to my face."
Parker swallowed, and then rolled up the window halfway. "Pussy car? How about your pussy dog?! Nice sweater!"
"This dog takes shits bigger than you."
"She's going to leave you, Travis. Abby's going to realize what she's done, the new is going to wear off, and she's going to leave you. And I wish I could see that arrogant smile wiped right off your face when she does."
I took a step forward, my muscles tensed and ready like they were just before a fight in the Circle. I knew if I threw one punch I wouldn't stop, but in that moment killing Parker was the only thing that was going to make me feel better. "Get out of your fucking car. Right now."
Parker hid himself behind the dark tint of the window, and then drove away.
I stood with my hands in fists, my entire body trembling with anger. Toto nuzzled his nose against my jeans, and I looked down. Adrenaline absorbed back into my system as my gaze fell to his expectant eyes. He was was cold before he ever did his business; now he was shivering like I was. He sniffed and kicked back a few tufts of grass like he owned the place.
I smiled. "Yeah. You woulda kicked his ass, too, huh?" I scooped him up and took him inside. The second I set him down, he trotted off to my bedroom, probably curling up on his bed for his afternoon nap.
I grabbed my wallet, phone, and keys, and headed out the door and down the stairs, sliding behind the wheel of the Camry. I gripped the steering wheel, watching my knuckles turn white under the pressure. Abby's last class wasn't over for another hour, and I was itching to vent about Brandon and Parker. Something white caught my eye, and I looked down between the seats. I reached down, fishing out the envelope that contained my mom's letter to my future wife ... to Abby. I gently set it on the passenger seat, and put the gear into reverse and backed out, driving toward Dad's.
As I drove, I imagined telling him the truth about the fire. I wasn't sure if he'd want me to turn myself in or not. It didn't matter--I couldn't. I'd promised Abby. Telling Dad would only be to relieve myself of the burden--and putting it on him. He would have to decide whether to turn me in or not. I couldn't do that, either.
I gripped the steering wheel and made my way to the home where I grew up. The house where I threw my first punch and caught my first fist in the mouth. Where Thomas used to hold me down so my brothers wouldn't beat my ass because I wouldn't back down, and where Trenton would break pretty much anything between standing between him and me ... even the twins. I smiled as I turned into the drive, hearing the gravel beneath the tires.
Dad pushed open the screen door and rested his hands on his round middle, watching me approach the porch with an appreciative smile on his face. "Well, well," he said. "I didn't think I'd see you around here for a while."
"I'm three miles away," I said, climbing the steps to the wood slats that made up the porch. Dad patted me on the shoulder, and I brought him in for a hug.
"Your mom and I didn't leave the house for three weeks after we married."
"Dad," I scolded. My face twisted into disgust, and I stepped past him into the living room to the couch.
Dad chuckled, closing the door behind us. "The weather is a son-of-a-bitch," he grumbled. He took a peek outside the small glass square near the top of the front door, and then shook his head, waddling to his recliner. He sat on the edge, leaning forward with his elbow resting on his knees. "Whatcha got there?" He gestured to the white envelope in my hand.
I lifted it a few inches, surprised at how nervous I felt. Dad didn't talk about Mom a lot. Not that he tried not to, but I could still see the emptiness in his eyes--the same way I would feel if I ever lost Abby.
"It's a letter."
"The, uh ... the one Mom left you?"
I nodded. "I gave it to Abby before the wedding."
"I'd hoped you'd remember."
"Good," he said, clearing his throat. "Good."
"Do you want to read it?"
He shook his head. "It wasn't for me."
I pulled out the thin paper from the envelope, my eyes tracing Mom's delicate handwriting. "I know. It's kind of like hearing from her again. It reads just the way I remember her."
Dad thought about it for a moment, and then nodded, waving his hand toward him. "Okay, then. Bring it over."
I jumped up, handed the paper to Dad, and then returned to my seat on the couch.
Dad blinked a few times, trying to focus, and then, seeing her words on paper, his bottom lip began to tremble. He rested his chin on his hand to try to mask his emotion, but then he blinked several times, and his eyes began to gloss over. A smile touched his mouth, he shook his head, and chuckled once. Dad lowered the letter with one hand, and then wiped his eye with the other. After a full minute, he cleared his throat, and then looked up at me.
"It's been a long time. It was good to hear her voice again. Thank you, son."
I nodded. "I miss her, too. All the time."
He laughed again, wiping another escaped tear. "Me, too ... every moment of every day. For damn near seventeen years. And the way you look at Abby," he sighed, "that's the way I looked at your mother. My God, did I love that woman. I'd never felt anything like that before ... and never since."
My eyebrows pulled in. "Do you think I'm going to lose her, Dad?"
Dad touched his lips with his fingers, and then looked down at the floor. I couldn't move or breath while I waited for the answer. He finally leaned forward again, and looked me straight in the eyes.
"Travis ... I hate to break this to you son ... but your wife? She's stronger than you. You'd leave her before she'll leave you."
His words knocked the wind out of me, and I covered my face, letting the relief wash over in waves. Dad was never wrong, and I trusted him with my life. I looked up at him, knowing he was offering me the truth, but because I loved my wife, I was going keep the truth from him.