Playing With Fire

Kelli Evans


Chapter 1

SHE’D been nineteen when she’d purchased her first car, a little lemon-yellow compact with two doors and a hatchback, a 1978 AMC Gremlin. She loved her car, had been prouder than a peacock that she’d been able to purchase it on her own. But Ryleigh Lawson had moved to Chicago after college, and keeping a car in the city wasn’t practical. It turned out to be wildly expensive.

Her brother, who had grown Canadian roots thanks to his wife, Selina, had graciously kept it for her. The apartment she currently lived in came with the perk of two reserved parking spots in the garage. Having access to a car would make visiting her brother much easier.

Ryleigh liked the mindfulness of driving. It relaxed her, even in bad weather. Flying was so tedious and stressful.

“Seth is going to hate it.” Kat’s garbled voice cut in and out through the cell phone. Ryleigh had her on speaker as she drove.

“Why?” Ryleigh knew very well why her friend thought her boyfriend would hate this car.

“Yeah, let’s see here. Seth has been taking you around to Lincoln dealerships, and you decide to bring home some hideous, rotting relic from your past.”

“You love rotting relics.” Kat was a complete throwback, could play the piano, did needlepoint, loved Victorian romances, had a strange penchant for death, and dressed like a pinup girl circa World War II.

“Oh, whatever! You and I both know that this is some passive-aggressive retaliation for Seth not coming with you to your family’s Christmas.”

Ryleigh made a disgusted grunt of a noise. “I still can’t believe he didn’t come. I mean, I know work is important, but so is family…so am I. We said some nasty things to each other before I left. I don’t even really know where we stand right now. I did tell him I may never come back, and he hasn’t called me either.”

“You never tell him what you need until you’re boiling over with it. He can’t possibly understand how much Nathan means to you unless you tell him, before you get to the boiling point. Then he doesn’t take you seriously, about anything. He adores you, we both know that, but you’ve got to figure out a better way to communicate with him. I mean, if you want to. You could also kick him to the curb for good. That is an option.”

Ryleigh caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror. Her green eyes pierced through the darkening cab of the car. Her face was haloed by flat, glossy brown hair with expensive caramel highlights that framed her face and fell between her chin and shoulders. She had a heart-shaped face, pointed chin, strong jaw, high cheekbones, little nose, carefully arching eyebrows…tired eyes. Makeup and cold creams could do wonders for her face, but she hadn’t quite figured out how to make the hurt or the frustration disappear from her eyes.

Three years. Three long years she’d been with Seth McClain. Not once in those three years had he taken a holiday with her to visit her only family. Ryleigh was just tired of feeling frustrated over it.

“I know.” Ryleigh sighed. “You’re right. I don’t know exactly why I clam up with him. Maybe because, when I do finally tell him what’s bothering me, after our conversation, I’m left wondering if I know myself at all.” Ryleigh laughed. “Anyway, I’m still in Canada, should be coming up on the border soon.”

“But…you’re going to be here by tomorrow afternoon.”

Ryleigh groaned. “Absolutely. I would not miss our Lucky Girls’ Brunch for anything.” Her phone buzzed from its holder on the dash. The screen brightened with the most recent picture of her brother. It was from a week ago on Christmas, him in his pajamas holding up a stocking. His daughter, Atessa’s sweet face peered into the frame, her long dark curls falling in a cascade around her heart-shaped angelic face. “Kat, Nate’s beeping in. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye.” Ryleigh smiled thinking about their annual Lucky Girls’ Brunch. They’d been having lunch together on New Year’s Day every year since she’d moved to Chicago. One of them would cook the lucky meal each year. This year it was Kat’s turn, and Ryleigh was promised a veritable feast.

“Hello, big brother,” Ryleigh said, answering Nathan’s call.

“I’m going to keep calling you.”

“You’re so overprotective.”

“Call me what you will but I’m going to keep checking in on you. I can’t believe you couldn’t wait until the morning. What’s one more day?”

“It’s not so bad out yet. It’s just snowing. We’re all driving slowly. It’s not as if I’m unfamiliar with the snow. Growing up in Ludington and living in Chicago, I know snow. It’s fine. I’m fine. Besides, I told you Kat and I always do this thing.”

Nathan groaned. “You’re so stubborn.”

“I wonder where I get that from?” Ryleigh joked.

“Not me. Must have been Dad.” Ryleigh usually didn’t like being compared to their father. He’d been a functioning alcoholic, not abusive, not necessarily neglectful, but he’d certainly checked out on them after their mother’s death. Nathan had raised the both of them.

“Just be careful. This storm is going to get much worse.” Nathan cursed beneath his breath. “I seriously can’t believe you’re out in this.”

“Roads are terrible, Nathan,” she said just to goad him. “You better let me go.”

Nathan sighed in exasperation. Ryleigh could hear her niece singing in the background and giggling. She loved that girl so much. If it hadn’t been for tradition, Ryleigh would have happily stayed another night.

It was torture going for such long periods without seeing her family, especially Atessa. She grew bigger and more mature with every visit. Ryleigh hated seeing her grow in choppy sections. She envied aunts who lived closer to their nieces or nephews, where watching them grow up came slow and sneaky.

“I love you…ya lughead.”

Ryleigh made an obnoxious kissing sound. “That’s for Atessa.”

“Update me periodically or else I’ll have to get obsessive and call nonstop.”

“Good night, Nathan.” She hung up on his protests, grinning to herself.

* * * *

Most people had enough common sense to head home when the roads got really rough, but not these stragglers. The bar had thinned out, but the diehards still lingered. Jude Thomas had shut the sign off and started a pot of coffee. He couldn’t very well send them out into the cold Upper Peninsula, Michigan, night drunk. That would be like signing their death certificates. He didn’t think of himself as a nice guy, but he wasn’t coldhearted enough for that.

“Hey, what are you doing that for?” a large scruffy man with a long black graying beard hollered as he punched a couple buttons on the jukebox.

“Because you can’t stay here forever,” Jude hollered to him as he started pouring coffee for the last four guys hanging out. Johnny and Rick were at the pool table in the corner, old man Walter was seated at the bar, and Willie leaned against the jukebox. He’d just paid to hear Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” for the fifteenth time.

“Aw, but don’t you like us?” Willie slurred and staggered to the bar. Jude didn’t usually have any reason to serve coffee, so they got theirs black and served in a Mason jar.

“I don’t like anyone enough to get snowed in with them,” Jude said, and all the guys started talking at once. “Besides!” Jude called over the crowd. “Don’t you all think you need to be getting on home to your wives?”

The resounding answer was a firm, “Hell no!”

Any other night Jude might have laughed at that. Tonight he could hear the wind blowing hard outside, and from the radar the news kept showing, it didn’t look as if it would be letting up anytime soon. Despite Jude’s front with the guys at the bar, he was really in a foul mood and wanted to be alone. He was looking forward to having little to do for the next couple days if the snow kept this up. For that reason alone, he was hoping it would.

“Jude, the ball ain’t even dropped yet.”

Jude glanced at the Budweiser clock that hung on the wall over the door. “Well, looks like you might have enough time to drink this pot of coffee and go on home early tonight. You can watch the ball drop there.”

“What are you still doing here, Walter?” Jude turned his attention to the old man seated at the bar, at his usual stool. “Aren’t you smarter than the rest of these guys?”

Walter looked over his shoulder and chuckled. “Nah.”

Jude shook his head. “I’m sure you’ve got coffee at home.”

“Yeah, tastes better too,” Walter grumbled.

Jude laughed. He never could mix it right for everyone. He preferred his coffee to have quite a kick, so he added more grounds than he should, and then sometimes left it on the burner for too long. “You could drink a beer.”

Walter made a face. “Never did like the taste.”

“Bourbon? Vodka? Rum?” Jude lined up a couple shot glasses.

“Better not.” Walter laughed. “I get the feeling you’re trying to kick us out of here.”

“Not kicking you out per se. Just politely telling you to get the hell out.” It was mostly a joke. Walter chuckled at least. Jude filled the empty shot glass with a shot of whiskey and took it himself.

Eventually the guys headed home before the roads became impassible. Granted it took some bribing and never-ending refills of his horrible coffee before the crew relented.

The men soberly shuffled out into the blowing cold. Most of them hopped onto their sleds. After brushing a circle in the new snowfall from the windshield, Walter climbed up into his grumbly, rusty old red diesel. His tail end dogged sideways as he pulled slowly out onto the road. His large deeply grooved tires caught traction in the slush. Walter’s taillights disappeared around the bend about the same time the whine of the snowmobiles drew faraway up and over the hill.

Jude grinned widely, locking the front door as that final chord to Haggard’s song fell from the air.

Alone at last.