Love It Like You Stole It
Ki Brightly © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“It’ll be a month, Bennet.”
I clutched the small silver bolt so hard it cut into my palm. The pain wasn’t enough to distract me. Rick’s bottom lip jutted out. It always did when he was on a roll. He crossed his heavy arms, eyes shadowed by his ball cap. With a sigh, I ignored my big brother, cutting my attention to the object of our current bitchfest. Vandi, his daughter, lounged nearby with tiny pots of fingernail polish out on the dusty, paperwork-covered desk.
“I’ll be good, Uncle Ben,” she chirped, her bow mouth turned up into a wide smile. She almost wasn’t a little girl anymore. It wasn’t long ago that I’d sit with her and do the painting. The sun cutting into the garage through the open bay door lit up her gold curls making them shine brightly. Her eyebrows furrowed in concentration as she dabbed a little brush covered in pink paint at her thumb. In her white summer dress, she couldn’t have looked more out of place.
I bent back over the motor of the beat-up, blue Ford Taurus and stared at it without seeing much of anything.
“It’s damned good money. They need mechanics for when the machinery goes down. If her mother hadn’t—”
“Rick,” I warned. Vandi’s head snapped up at the mention of her mom. I had no intention of mopping up tears today. He leaned a hip against the front quarter panel of the car and rested an elbow there, sending me a winning grin. It was the same bullshit one I used when trying to get my own way. “I’ve known you your whole life. That shit don’t fly.”
He chuckled, but his smile didn’t waver as he leaned in close, pushing his cap back with a thumb. I caught a whiff of the cologne I used and sighed. He’d raided my dresser again. Looking at him was like looking in a mirror—his brown eyes and long face with its blunted nose were just like mine, except mine was cocked a little to the left. He wiggled his eyebrows, and I blew out a hard breath.
“Those oil rigs are dangerous, and ask next time you steal my stuff.” I poked him on the shoulder with my ratchet as he shrugged, not at all bashful about his thievery.
“It’s a month on, three weeks off. And with the bonuses, I could be pulling in over a hundred grand next year. We can get the garage set up right, get more clients in…I won’t do it forever.”
I frowned and rubbed at my chest. He winced and scowled right back, like maybe he understood why I was upset. The idea of Rick being away for more than a few days made me nauseous. We’d always been a little too close, and it only got worse after Mom died. I sneaked a look at Vandi to see what she was thinking about all this, but she didn’t seem to be listening.
“I’m not sure it’s worth it,” I muttered. Shit. Money. We sure could use more of it.
A low humming started up from Vandi—a familiar song from the radio. “Check it out!” She flashed her pink fingernails at us. Rick turned and nodded at her.
“Real pretty, baby doll,” he said fast, not quite covering up the irritation in his tone. Her smile vanished.
I smacked his arm, but he was back to cajoling me with his half grin. I smacked him upside the head, sending his ball cap flying, but he ignored it and patted my cheek.
“I want this garage to get off the ground,” he said, “and so far, we’ve only been getting in about five or six people a week because we don’t have a lift. I had to send Mrs. Hopper to fucking Firestone because we didn’t have the right size tires.” He waved his hand toward the empty space stretching out behind us that practically begged to be filled with equipment. “We don’t have half the shit we need…”
“What if you’re out there in the middle of the ocean and there’s a hurricane or a blowout or—”
“Get back here you four-eyed fuck!” someone shrieked from outside. The low voice cracked on the swear word.
“What the hell…” I turned to look over my shoulder, and the bolt from the oil filter slipped from my fingers. With a ting, it disappeared into the abyss of hoses in the engine. “Shit.”
I slammed my ratchet down on the motor casing, and the air compressor at the rear of the work area chose that moment to kick on, filling the old cement-block garage with its chugging clatter. I strained my ears, but the voices outside were drowned out. “Turn that off, Rick.”
Nodding, he headed back to flip the switch. Vandi craned her neck forward to look out the wide door.
“He thinks he’s too good to talk to us. Mickey Mouse won’t open his mouth.” The bully’s voice dipped deeper on that last word, and an instinct for trouble sent me striding out the door into the gravel parking lot, past the few sad vehicles waiting for their turn in the repair shop.
Across the small side street, three teen boys surrounded another one on the sidewalk. He was hunched in on himself with his arms crossed protectively over his gut, his stance practically screaming, “Hammer me.” One of the boys—short, with a mean twist to his lips and a cheap buzz cut on his carrottop—smacked the glasses off his prey. Sparkling in the late afternoon sun, the lenses sailed in an arc and landed in the street.
“Should we do something?” Rick’s long shadow loomed near mine, arms crossed.
“Come on, hit ’em back,” I muttered, clenching my fists. “Protect yourself.”
Instead, the kid just rubbed at the bridge of his nose with one hand. He was coltish and stretched thin, like he’d grown too fast. But he was tall, and if he would throw a punch, he’d have reach. He didn’t move to defend himself or say a word, though, simply stared at his feet. I glanced at Rick, but when I looked back, the tall boy was shaking his head. Sunlight caught and glimmered on blue highlights in his black hair. The short asshole shoved him hard while the other guys circled, grunting out guttural encouragement that puffed up Mr. Attitude.
Outrage propelled me toward them at a fast clip.
“Ooooh, fuck,” Rick said on a chuckle.
I hadn’t planned on anything more than bitching out the bullies—until the short kid threw a hard jab. The tall one gasped and staggered back a step at the blow, but one of the kids in the circle shoved him upright so he could take more abuse. Wincing, the tall kid shook his head so hard he seemed to make himself dizzy. He staggered to the side but righted himself at the last second.
“You’re no better’n me—us.” The short kid hopped up and down imitating a wet chicken, darting his gaze around the circle. “You’re no better than us!” He screamed out a war whoop as he lunged forward to land the next punch. The tall kid took it on his left cheek and—pow!—crumpled to his knees.
“You little shits! Knock it off!” I ran toward them, hands pinwheeling, but had to slow down as a car shot by, going way too fast on the narrow street, separating me from the teenagers. Crunch. I winced and sighed as I jogged past the flattened glasses. No coming back from that.
The kids stilled as I approached—became panicked, malicious little statues. But when I stepped onto the sidewalk, fists balled up at my sides, my shadow fell across them, and the obnoxious brats scattered, helter-skelter—like I might actually chase them down and dish out a taste of their own medicine.
“You better run, you little pricks. Stay off my block!” I yelled after them. “I’m badder than you’ll ever be!”
The teen on the ground made a shuddery sound that wasn’t quite a sob, and my chest went tight with sympathy. “You okay?”
As I shifted to the left, my shadow fell beside him instead of on him. He looked up, and the sun dazzled in his hair and eyes. Heat washed through me in a pleasant way that I shut down quick. He was all of maybe fifteen, but the baby blues on this up-and-coming heartbreaker could have taken out everyone within a city block.
I cleared my throat.
As he climbed slowly to his feet, a red so bold it could teach Candy Apple a thing or two traveled up his neck into his cheeks. He brushed the hair out of his eyes with an unsteady hand. I decided right then and there that when I finished restoring my 1968 Road Runner, that was the paint I’d be slapping on the outsides. Embarrassment Red.
“Uh…are you too hurt to talk? Jaw’s not broke is it?”
He shrugged and shook his head as he rubbed at the left side of his face. I waited patiently for him to say something. About a minute ticked by. Had those jerks rattled his brain around?
I held up a finger and stepped toward the street. “I’ll…uh…grab your glasses.”
He nodded but didn’t move otherwise as I darted out to pick up the destroyed frames from a diamond spray of glass on the asphalt. A brisk wind bit into me, and I wished for something more than a T-shirt. He hadn’t moved at all. Maybe he was still too fucked up to even notice the cold.
As I walked back, he took a short step away from me. Now that the adrenaline had settled, something about him looked familiar. I extended my hand slowly toward him, and he accepted the glass-free rims. He tilted his head, and his hair fell in front of his eyes again. Something about the shy way he moved jogged a memory loose.
I laughed, and he took another startled step back. “You hang out at the Sunday car shows downtown. You were there when I bought my Road Runner off Guff Jensen.”
When he lifted his head and curled his lips in a wisp of a smile, it made me want to track down those fuckers who’d been dogging him and level every single one of them. He twirled the frames on one finger, staring at them sadly for a second before squinting around us.
“You all right?”
My worry must have leaked out because he snapped his eyes to me.
He nodded carefully, like maybe it hurt to do it, and then cleared his throat. “Thanks.” Soft, husky.
He smiled up at me for a second and then cast an unhappy look over his shoulder, as if he was expecting those assholes to come back. Fuck that. The chill that had settled into me since Rick brought up the idiotic idea of leaving was replaced with a flash of anger I didn’t want to think too much about.
“Do you want to hang out here for a while—make sure they’re gone? I’m finishing up an oil change.”
His eyes brightened, and the small smile he gave me crinkled his straight, rounded nose a little.
Fuck. Cute. I shook my head at myself. Danger. Danger. Iceberg, Captain!
“I-I would, but G-grandad is w-w-waiting for me to c-come home.” He ducked his head and smacked what was left of his glasses against his thigh, glaring at the ground.
Suddenly, the bullies made a lot more sense, but I was twice as pissed now. I’d seen this kid at the car shows, and he was always helping an old man in a wheelchair. Must have been the grandad.
“Want me to walk you to your grandpa’s house?” I sent a quick look for Rick toward the garage, but he was nowhere in sight, and I didn’t see Vandi anywhere either.
He shrugged but frowned at his glasses, reluctantly nodding.
When I finally realized I wasn’t going to get anything else out of him, I asked, “What way are we going?”
He pointed down the street, leveling a shy glance at me that left me lightheaded. With a sweet smile and nod, he turned and walked away carefully, eyes glued to the ground. As we strolled, he relaxed by increments, straightening up. After about three blocks, we turned right onto another residential street.
Glasses twirling on his finger, he said, “It’s my house too. I live with Grandad.”
He said that like the old man was all he had in the world, and that cut at me. Rick and Vandi. They were all I had. His pace picked up, and I strode along beside him, keeping up.
“I’ll get you home safe.”
His eyebrows shot for the sky, and a real grin spread across his face. My pulse kicked up. This was ridiculous. He was just a kid. I tried to not think about it.
“Can I come back tomorrow and see the Road Runner?”
He didn’t stumble over his words; his voice slid over me, low-pitched silk. Do not think about it. Nope. No.
I pushed out a breath, and a laugh escaped with it. “It’s still a heap of junk. Haven’t started at all.”
He shrugged. “I don’t mind. Sometimes long projects turn out the best. They’re worth the wait.” He blinked over at me, eyes a little too wide and unfocused as his words chased another laugh out of me.
“What the hell—why not?”
He turned onto a cracked footpath that led up to the front of a small, dilapidated house, not even as big as my garage. The wind was blowing hard, and yellow confetti curls of paint twirled from the siding. Thunder cracked and rumbled in the distance. I glanced skyward, shivering at the clouds rolling in. He was halfway to the front door, and like a moron, I stood there watching him go. Then, he stopped and turned to look at me, squinting as he rubbed his jaw. He winced at first, but it flowed into a smile.
What the blazing hell was I doing? I rolled my shoulders and stared up at the gathering storm for a long moment. If Rick was going to be gone, it might be fun to teach someone how to work on cars. It might be just what I needed to distract myself.
“Sure. I’ll be waiting. You know where to find me.” A gust of air raised the hair on my arms with goose pimples.
He smiled, a dazzling grin. Thunder cracked overhead, and he ducked to look up at it. With a little wave, he jogged to the front door and wrestled it open. The wind pushed it closed behind him with a gunshot clatter.
I turned on my heel and headed for home, grimy hands hidden in my pockets.
“What am I doing?” I shook my head and sped up as the first drops landed on my head, the chill sinking deep into my bones. “Yep. I’m a fuckin’ idiot.” I shrugged. “No problem. Except you’re talking to yourself because you know you’re doing something fuckin’ stupid. Since when is a garage a good place to house the strays of the world?”
The skies let loose, and stinging rain pelted my face as a brutal, unforgiving wind shoved me along the street. With a curse, I ripped my hands out of my pockets and ran for home.