Tam gave Mike two days to cool off, and by that time, the gothic horror that was his mother’s fleshless, blue-veined hands clacking knitting needles together like she was eighty-years-old had become too oppressive to tolerate. Her hair was coming back in uneven black tufts; she scratched at it occasionally through the paisley silk scarf that was wound tight around her head. She was between treatments, she was home, and the sound of her humming and the way she kept offering to make him food was a razorblade across his patience. Her presence made him itch, and that left him so guilty he couldn’t stand to look at himself in the mirror. So after Melinda’s fifth insistence that she was and would be fine, he left the apartment and it felt like his car took him to Buckhead and Mike’s townhouse without any input from him.
Mike wasn’t home from work yet, but the drive wasn’t empty; there was a red Volvo sitting in front of the one-car garage, its driver leaning back against the trunk with arms folded and long legs crossed at the ankles. She was in a long wool coat that came just to the hem of her skirt, her dark hair streaming away from her head in the wind. Delta was, he had to admit, tailor-made for the pages of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, but it wasn’t admiration that rolled his stomach over when he parked along the curb and climbed out. Mike was right: he didn’t know shit about women…at least not this kind. All their coy pretend smiles and cutting glances, the deliberate posturing and pouting – he’d never had an ounce of patience or respect for that bullshit.
He shoved his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket as he approached the sidewalk, eyes on the door, intending to ignore her, but Delta peeled away from her car.
“Wait,” she said, and when he didn’t, her heels clipped up the walk behind him. “Tam.”
He wasn’t going to wait for her, but he had to get his keys out and let himself in the townhouse, so the waiting happened, and she caught up with him.
“Tam.” When she reached out and laid a manicured hand on the sleeve of his jacket, he was stunned he didn’t turn to stone. He spared her a glance and her sculpted dark brows were pulled together, the smooth, elegant lines of her face tweaked with stress.
“What?” he asked, doing his best Jordan dead-face impersonation.
“Is Mike coming home tonight?” she sounded almost, if he believed it, upset. Sad or stressed or something.
“Supposed to be.” He fitted the key in the deadbolt and turned it, moved on to the knob.
“How soon? I need to talk to him and he won’t take any of my calls.”
“Yeah, well, usually, when you embarrass the shit out of somebody, they stop taking your calls.” The door opened and he wanted nothing more than to step inside and slam it in her face. Instead, he pegged her with a frown and asked, “why do you ‘need’ to talk to him?”
“I just do,” her tone was pleading. “Can I come in and wait for him?”
He wasn’t going to tell her ‘no’ – it was cold and she was Mike’s business, not his, and he wasn’t that big of an asshole – but he was going to make her work for it. “I dunno. Can you keep from being a bitch?”
Her eyes narrowed: almost amber in the late sunlight. “Can you?” she fired back, and Tam decided arguing with her wouldn’t be any fun.
“Whatever,” he muttered, and waved her in after him.
Delta guessed that a casual observer would say she and her best friend Regina were nothing alike in looks or personalities, but they at least complemented one another. Tam wasn’t just Mike’s opposite; he was a dreadful little shit. As she unbuttoned her coat and unwound her scarf in the living room, she watched the wannabe skateboarder dig his keys and wallet out of his pockets, drop them on the coffee table, and throw himself down on the sofa and grab for the remote. He couldn’t even bring himself to feign politeness.
“Can I have some water?” she asked as she draped her coat over the back of a chair.
He pointed to the kitchen without taking his eyes off the TV.
Dreadful little shit, she thought again and walked around the half-wall into the kitchen. She found a pack of bottled water in the fridge and took one, eyes doing a sweep of the room as she took her time unscrewing the cap.
There were a half a dozen Far Side cartoons taped to the black plastic sides of the stainless fridge, and a calendar that appeared to be marked with Mike’s workout routine: cardio, weights, cardio, plyo…etc. A neat stack of takeout menus on the counter and the barren fridge shelves told her he didn’t cook often if at all, and probably not well at that.
Struck by an idea, she found his pantry, a box of Duncan Hines brownie mix, and then launched a full-scale expedition for the rest of her ingredients. There was a casserole dish in a lower cabinet that would serve, and he had plenty of eggs. Olive oil from the pantry would have to replace the Crisco the box called for, but it would work. Smiling to herself, Delta lined everything up on the counter and pushed up the sleeves of her white poplin shirt.
She was stirring the wet ingredients into the dry with spoon and mixing bowl when Tam called, “what the hell are you doing in there?” from the other room.
“Making brownies,” she called back, and the TV was muted.
“What?” he asked.
“Brownies,” she said in a sugary sweet voice. “And the secret ingredient is bitchiness.”
Sound resumed on the TV and she kept working. When they were in the oven and she’d washed and put away the dishes she’d used, she went to sit on the loveseat across from Tam, not missing the guarded, curious look he fired her.
“Actual brownies?” he asked after a long moment, and something akin to hopefulness came alive in his face.
Inexplicably, her snarky retort died on the end of her tongue. Without his frown, other lines became visible around his eyes and mouth; a stress that was amplified in the wild, almost childlike fire moving around in his blue eyes. She didn’t know if it was fright or fury or maybe both, but it was something deep-seated and long-held, something he probably didn’t even know he projected. It left her a little bit frightened, and very curious.
“Yes,” she said carefully. “They’ll be done in about twenty minutes.”
His eyes – too bright and boiling over with unhappy energy – went to the TV and then came back to her. He shrugged and reached up to pull at the thick spikes of hair across his forehead. “Guess I’ll grab a shower, then.” When he got to his feet, the frown had returned, but Delta had seen what was beneath it and wasn’t fooled when he shot her a look that suggested she not misbehave in his absence.
She frowned back and listened to his sneakered feet go down the foyer, up the stairs, across the hall. When the water cut on, pipes groaned somewhere in the walls.
When she figured it safe, she went around the coffee table and took his seat, gaze falling on the wallet he’d left behind. She told herself she wanted to know his full name in case she ever had to give it to the police – because he had that look about him – but she was gripped with good old fashioned nosiness too, as she picked up the wallet and flipped it open.
There were a half a dozen ten dollar bills and a few ones in the cash sleeve. Two credit cards. A CVS customer card. A ticket stub from an AC/DC concert in ’08. He looked shell-shocked in his license photo, but she couldn’t read his info because the plastic sleeve was scratched and cloudy. She worked a nail beneath and managed to slide the ID out. Tameron Wales, she read before something that had been tucked behind the license went fluttering down to the floor.
She leaned forward and took a corner of it between two fingers. It was a photo, the kind you’d get at a carnival photo booth, of Tam sporting even longer hair and a girl on his lap. She was young, a dirty blonde, with a sweet little pixie face and huge eyes. Both her arms were around Tam’s neck and she smiled up at the booth’s camera as he pressed a kiss to her temple.
Delta flipped it over and read the bold, all-caps label handwritten on the back. Joey 2003. Back to the wallet, she found two more from the same photo booth session inside the license sleeve. Tam was smiling in both pictures, the kind of smile that reached off the paper and told anyone looking at this snapshot of time that he’d been deliriously happy in that booth with that girl, whoever she was.
“What the hell?”
She jerked, head snapping back on her neck in sudden panic. Tam was standing on the other side of the coffee table, Mike’s sweats and t-shirt hanging off of him and making him look even thinner than he was. His hair was wet and pushed back off his face, and all that anxious, trapped-animal fire she’d thought she’d seen in his eyes before was roaring now. He was livid.
“What the hell are you doing?” he repeated, and she dropped his wallet, license and the pictures on the coffee table like they’d burned her.
“I…I’m sorry. I just…”
He grabbed for them wildly, snatching the photos and wallet to his chest like she hadn’t already seen them. Like they were something she shouldn’t have seen. With one hand braced on the table, he shot a glare at her that sent a frightened thrill up her spine.
“You don’t say shit about this to Mike,” he hissed. “Do you understand? You didn’t see these. They don’t exist.”
Delta lifted her palms in a defenseless pose. “I won’t. I -,”
“Don’t say anything.”
“I won’t,” she repeated, too dumbfounded to even defend herself.
Hands shaking, he fumbled the pictures back in the sleeve, slid his ID over them, and stormed out of the room with one last shudder-inducing glance in her direction. When he was gone, Delta slumped back against the sofa and released a deep breath she hadn’t known she was holding.
I should go, she thought. This was a stupid idea.
But there was a click as the front door unlocked and stupid or not, she couldn’t change her mind. Mike was home.