Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cross Country Christmas Chapter 5


When he knocked on her door the next morning, Kale had two coffees in his hand and sugar packets stuffed in his pockets. It was six-thirty and she was probably going to be mad at him. He didn’t care. He wanted out of this town.

He heard her light feet padding toward the door and, head wrapped in a towel, she peeked around the edge.

“You’re ready?” Using his hip, he nudged the door further open and stuck her coffee into the opening. “Thought this would get you moving.”

Instead of taking it, she opened the door. “Put it on the table. I have to blow my hair dry.”

A smooth blush spread across her face, and she wouldn’t look at him but he didn’t mind because that way he could look at her legs peeking out from the hot pink robe she wore. White snowflakes and green Christmas trees covered the robe, clashing horribly with her bright hair. Strands of it escaped the towel and lay against her white neck.

“So you really love Christmas, huh?” he said, mostly to cover up the fact that he’d been staring at her again. He switched his gaze to her toes and laughed. “Nice socks.”

She wiggled her fuzzy purple feet. “I don’t like to walk on motel floors barefooted. You’re early.”

“I just want to get going.”

With her back to him, she waved about the hairdryer. “Take Toby out, would you? He’s gotta pee.”

Outside, the dog did his business quickly and set about investigating a group of decorative bushes. Kale drank his coffee and waited for both Toby and Gracie. Omaha was within their sights if they could only get going this morning. Yesterday, he’d been dreading rolling into Billings. Today, though he still dreaded confronting Jessica, it was the only thing he wanted to do. Take that bull by the horns and move on. Fast.

He couldn’t help but think of what Gracie had said last night. So if he’s yours just take care of him. She couldn’t know how deep that remark struck him. She couldn’t know that he always took care of the people who mattered to him.

Twenty minutes later she came hustling down the outside stairs, copper hair flaming in the morning sun.

“I’ll drive,” she said and snatched the keys from his hand, leaving him to load their luggage. Toby hopped into the car with a happy bark and Kale climbed in after. Gracie cranked the car and the heat. She punched the radio button to off when it blared to life.

“Headache,” she said by way of explanation and eased onto the road.

They stopped at a McDonald’s for a to-go breakfast. Kale pulled apart a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit and fed it to Toby.

“What are we going to do about him?”

Kale dusted off his hands and held them up for the dog to see. “Who? Toby?”

“Yeah.” She hunched into herself, just a little. “You paid for him, so he should be yours.”

Kale looked into the dog’s doleful brown eyes, then back at Gracie’s flat ones.

“You’re used to being disappointed?”

She jerked. “No. I mean. Well. No.”

“So, that’s a yes.”

The breath she pushed out could’ve rolled a tumbleweed across Oklahoma. “Yes, O.K.? Happy?”

No, he sure wasn’t. “Toby’s yours. I bought him for you.”

Gracie took her gaze off the road long enough to shoot him a hopeful look. “Really?”

“Yup. Listen, you have to fight more, you know? If you want things, fight for them.”

“That’s not me.”

Because it was all he could think about doing, he reached across, slipped his hand under her hair, and cupped her warm neck. “You were a fighter in that parking lot when it came to Toby. You were in the airport.”

“I was mad then.” Her voice was small, tired.

“You were last night when you laid me out flat about the boy.”

Her skin retracted under his hand in a little flinch. “About that. I’m really sorry. It wasn’t my place. I don’t know you, I don’t know your life. I don’t know--”

He squeezed gently to get her to shut up. “It’s fine. I needed to hear it.”

Kale pulled his hand away and settled back into his seat. He took a deep breath. “How much do you know about me?”

He sensed more than saw her gaze.

“Amazing amounts of stuff,” she said. “You’re everywhere.”

Didn’t he know it. And wasn’t he damn tired of it. What would everyone think if he were to do the most selfish thing he could think of and just quit? He pushed the thought aside. Something to chew on later.

“You know my aunt and uncle raised me?”

She shot him a look. “Did you like them?”

That was Gracie, cutting right to the point and asking the questions no one else thought to ask.

“Sometimes,” he answered honestly. “They were good to me because they had to be and most days that was enough.”

“What about the days when it wasn’t?”

“I had music.” He smiled when he thought about it. “And my cousin Charlie.”

“Oh.” Her voice was soft in the closed confines of the car. “He died, right?”

His throat closed up but he forced out the words. “Car accident. Years and years ago now but sometimes it’s like yesterday.”

He’d met Jessica a week after Charlie died. Within two months he twined his life around hers, looking for a way to belong to someone. She’d been good for him for that brief period of time but their relationship soon turned toxic.

“That was the last time I saw my aunt and uncle, at the funeral. They didn’t have much to say to me. I was supposed to be driving that night but I stayed behind at an after party for the album launch. I don’t think they mean to blame me but sometimes you can’t control how you feel.” Because it was Gracie and he could say anything to her, he let the bitterness seep into his voice. “I was always the blister on my uncle’s heel.”

She cleared her throat. “How did you come to live with them?”

With the help of Joe, Kale worked hard to keep his childhood out of the public spotlight. It hadn’t been easy but he owed his aunt and uncle that much. They were private people and hated the cameras surrounding the church at Charlie’s funeral. He fought hard to protect them, even if they didn’t know it.

“It was Christmas,” he began in a deep James Earl Jones voice, causing her to giggle. “I was three. My parents went out shopping and, they never came back.”

The laugh stopped abruptly. “They died?”

“Nope. They were just kids themselves and decided being saddled me was too much responsibility. So off they went into the sunset.” He paused. “Or maybe they went East, no sunset. Either way, they left me with my dad’s brother. Who had more kids than he could feed. He wasn’t happy about it. And my aunt was too worn out to even care. What was one more mouth?”

The words sat heavily between them and he held his breath, wondering what she would say. He hadn’t meant to dump it all on her. The last time he told someone his sad country song story, it hadn’t turned out so well. Jessica listened patiently to his story and then started formulating ways they could use the material in a made-for-TV movie.

Her hand snuck through the space between them and she twined her fingers in his. “Charlie made it O.K. for you, though.”

The warmth of her fingers spiraled through him, pushing away the cold he’d felt since leaving her last night.

“He did. He made sure I was always taken care of. And,” he took a deep breath, “he’s the reason I would never leave Jessica’s boy to fend for himself. Charlie was fifteen years older, and even then he was the best father I could ever ask for.” Kale tugged on her fingers so she would look at him. “I won’t do to that boy what was done to me. I won’t.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kale lifted their joined hands and pressed her knuckles to his mouth. “I know.”

Somewhere along the way it had become right to touch her. He cut his eyes to the left to see if she knew it too. Her soft mouth was pressed into a little line but her eyes crinkled at the corners and then her lips quirked. He let go of her hand, satisfied, and they rode on in silence.

Every once in awhile he felt her gaze on him, but she didn’t make a move toward more conversation. She seemed to sense his need for the quiet and gave without asking. As they drove further north, the sun disappeared behind iron-grey skies and before lunch time, snow began to fall. He watched as her knuckles grew whiter and whiter as she gripped the steering wheel. Before long, traffic started to grow heavier as they reached the suburbs of St. Louis.

He didn’t miss the relief crossing her face when he suggested they stop for lunch. Gracie aimed the car for a small mom and pop diner off a quiet exit. They left a sleeping Toby in the car and ran for the diner door, the wind cutting a wicked path through the parking lot. A bell jingled over the door as they dashed inside.

The long diner, with a bar running down one side and booths on the other, was completely empty save for two old men arguing at the juke box and a waitress reading a worn paperback at the counter. Kale took Gracie’s arm and hustled her to the booth closest to the door while Willie Nelson sang about blue eyes crying in the rain.

The waitress, poufy black hair streaked liberally with gray, hopped down from a barstool and sauntered over. She pulled a pencil from the band of her ponytail and tapped it against her order pad.

“What’ll you have?”

Kale pulled his hat down tight and pointed at Gracie.

“Cheeseburger, extra cheese and potato chips. A Coke too.”

“The same,” Kale said. “And can we get it quick? We have a dog in the car.”

The waitress frowned at them both then leaned on the Formica table to peer out the window.

“Bring him in here,” she said then walked away without a backward glance.

Gracie looked at Kale. “Really?”

He shrugged and took the keys from her. “Why not, right?”

“Food regulations and stuff.”

Kale grinned at her. “Ten bucks says this place has been shut down more than once.”

With that happy thought to keep her occupied, he jogged to the car. Toby watched him coming, his paws on the steering wheel, tongue lolling. He barked once and sprinted for the diner door. His nails scratched on the floor and his paws slipped out from under him but he managed to make it under their table intact.

Kale slipped into his seat and took in Gracie’s smile.


She shrugged and sipped from her Coke the waitress dropped off. “Nothing. Can’t a girl smile?”

He lowered his eyebrows at her. Something was definitely up. “That’s not just a smile. I’ve been stuck in a car with you for almost two days. You don’t smile like that unless you’re being sneaky.”

“Two days is hardly enough time to get to know someone.”

It was true, and yet, he felt as though he’d known her for much longer than that. The bad part? He wanted to know her for much more than the four total days they’d be together. The muscles in his neck tightened up at that. No way did he need more complications. He rolled his head around and directed his attention at the two old guys still at the juke box.

“What’re they fighting about?”

Gracie twisted in her seat to look at them. “They were fighting about whether Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings sang Poncho and Lefty.”

“Willie sang it with Merle Haggard.”

She nodded. “Thought so. Now though, they’re on to something different.”

Before he could ask what, two plates slid across the table followed by a bottle of ketchup. Kale grabbed his rolled up silverware and reached for the ketchup when he noticed the waitress still standing at their table.

She was looking at him. Gracie was looking at her, that smile back on her face.

“You’re Kale Sims.”

He sighed and put down the ketchup. “Yup.”

“Will you sing for us?”

His lunch was going to get so cold. Gracie’s on the other hand, was not. She was already tucking into her cheeseburger like nobody’s business, her brown eyes set on him between bites. She swallowed then pulled a gulp of Coke.

“Mary—that’s her,” she said, pointing to their waitress, “is a huge fan. So is her husband, Duke.”

The two older men ambled toward their table.

“Duke,” one of the guys said and stuck out his meaty hand. “Nice to meet ‘cha. This here is Sammy.”

Sammy, a skinny man in coveralls nodded and blushed. “Pleasure. You’re singing for us?”

“Mary said the tab’s on her if you will,” Gracie said between bites. “I told her there’d be about a fifty-fifty chance of you saying yes.”

Kale swallowed back a laugh. He thought about facing her down in the Hertz parking lot, trying to be charming so she’d let him ride along. What had he said? That he pulled the being famous part about fifty percent of the time. Yeah, she sure remembered that. Her eyes, so flat and dreary this morning, twinkled at him over the ketchup bottle. Daring him. So, he did what he had to do. Turning to Mary, Duke, and Sammy he gave them his best camera smile.

“What do you want to hear?”

Gracie answered first, a laugh behind her voice. “I told them that you really like Blue Christmas. I couldn’t sleep last night for thinking about it.”

The look she sent him reminded him of the thin hotel walls, and he winced. That had been a moment of weakness. He’d been feeling sorry for himself and more than a little lonely. But sitting here in the diner with Gracie and Toby, he caught a little bit of a happy Christmas spirit.

“I need to get my guitar.”

“Oh no need,” Duke said, backing away from the table. “I got mine in the kitchen. Be back in a jiffy, Mr. Sims.”

A jiffy was all it took. Faster than he could blink, Duke was back with a beat up guitar, dragging two stools along with him. He sat them side by side and patted one for Kale. Leaving his cold burger behind, Kale hopped up next to Duke.

The opening cords rang out across the diner.

“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you …” Kale sang and watched Gracie.

She’d turned in the booth, food forgotten. Her face shone softly in the harsh diner light, a tiny curve to her lips as Duke picked across the strings. The second time around everyone joined in. Duke’s old voice, smoky with age and wisdom, grated across the words in a pleasing sound. Kale watched Mary’s black eyes light with laughter as she looked at her husband. He wondered what it would be like to have someone look at him like that.

Gracie’s soft voice caught his attention and she winked at him as the song came to a close. Duke’s fingers strung out the last note and the diner fell into silence. Sammy burst into applause.

“More!” he called but Kale shook his head and left the stool to join Gracie in the booth.

“Your turn,” he called out to Duke. “This girl here loves Christmas music. Play her a good one while we eat.”

Mary laid her hand on her husband’s shoulder and leaned down to whisper in his ear. Duke grinned. “Gotcha, honey,” he said and adjusted a few strings. Mary took the seat Kale vacated.

Her clear tones floated across the diner, full and rich. “I really can’t stay,” she sang, launching into Baby It’s Cold Outside.

Kale finished his cold burger while the husband and wife team ran a repertoire of love songs, holiday and otherwise. When they finished their food, Kale reached for his wallet but Mary waved him away.

“You gave my husband the biggest thrill of his life, Mr. Sims. That’s all the payment I need.”

Kale pumped Duke’s hand while Gracie collected her purse and Toby.

“I’m so glad you asked, Mary,” Gracie whispered. “You settled something between us.” She looked over at Kale, caught him listening, and fluttered her fingers at him.

Outside, he followed Gracie to the car. He opened the passenger door for her and grasped her arm when she would have slid in.

“Nice trick,” he said. “Had to prove something, huh?”

Her eyes widened innocently. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He had to grin at that one. “I give it fifty-fifty that you don’t know, Gracie.”

She gave him her imp smile. The happy one she used on him in the diner. “You told me to be a fighter.”

“I didn’t tell you to fight dirty with me.”

“Are you mad?”


“Want me to apologize?”

“Nope.” Kale said again and shook his head. “You just owe me.”

Pale pink lips parted slightly and her tongue darted out to wet them. “What do you want?”

Kale tightened his fingers and drew her closer. “Just a kiss, Gracie. Just one.”

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