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Instinctive Unease

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The worst part of writing a book, Kimberly decides, is the blank paper that mocks you for not having any tangible ideas to put down. The paper just sits on the desk, all blank and unmarked by the pencil she currently has balanced between her upper lip and her nose. It isn’t fair that all her amazing ideas suddenly cower in the back of her mind whenever she brings the notebook out.

It’s like Bear when I try to vacuum, she muses, looking to the picture near the cash register of a blond-haired little boy sitting on the back of a dog. It’s more a mountain of fur than anything else, but the Husky is good around Nicky and that’s all she really cares about. Too bad they’re not here to distract me from writing.

The thought has barely passed through her mind when the bell over the front door jingles, announcing a customer that clearly can’t decipher the sign that reads closed for lunch. With an annoyed sigh, she tosses her pencil onto the desk and spins around on her stool, fully prepared to tell whoever the idiot is that she will open the bookshop again at one.

“We’re closed,” she says, then narrows her eyes when she spots the person responsible. He’s tall and skinny, though not lanky, his mauve sweater tight around his biceps and his dark brown hair cut shorter than it had been the last time she’d seen him. It looks nice. He must’ve went to that barber I suggested last weekend.

“Is that any way to treat your favorite cousin,” the intruder in question asks.

“It is when they just barge inside,” she returns, though her words are cushioned by a smile. “Hey, Steve.” Her cousin comes to stand next to the glass display case, fiddling with the stack of books she still has to put away. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”

“Boredom mostly. I also thought I’d swing by and take you out to lunch since I get my paycheck today.” He pauses a moment, nodding along to something he was working out in his head. “Speaking of, can I get my paycheck an hour early? I promised Dee that I’d take her out to that Chinese place that always gives us a discount.”

“They give us a discount ‘cause the food we buy is about an hour away from expiring.” She grabs the checkbook out of her desk drawer, quickly writing out the amount and signing it before sliding it across the counter. “And because the owner liked to bargain with our dads.”

“I do the bargaining now, you know. Carrying on the family tradition of haggling over take-out.” Kimberly giggles at that, remembering the nights their fathers had come home holding the food up like it was the winning lottery ticket. The truth was that take-out had been a lot cheaper than groceries and everyone would get full that night even if the chance of food poisoning was extremely high. “I was thinking about getting the duck.”

“Oh God, I haven’t had that in years.”

“Not since Uncle Sam brought it home that one Christmas.”

“Yeah, I’ve had duck since then and whatever my dad brought home that night wasn’t it.” It’s Steve’s turn to laugh this time, white teeth glinting slightly as he throws his head back. “What were you thinking of doing for lunch?”

“Pizza place down the block.”

“And it’s your treat?” He nods, gaze roaming around to look at all the little figurines she has on the shelf above her desk. They aren’t anything overly fancy, just a handful of glass flowers her grandmother had saved from the old manor house before they sold it to make end’s meat. Back in its day, Summer’s End had been like something out of a fairy tale, set out in the countryside with sloping hills and meadows for a backdrop. Kimberly has driven past it a couple of times, wondering what it must have been like in its glory days.

“We should get going, though, ‘cause your lunch break ends in thirty minutes.” Kimberly stands and shrugs her jacket on, grabbing her purse before following Steve back outside into the warm May air. This close to summer’s arrival and the impending end of classes, a good chunk of her clientele is packing up to spend their vacation with their families or somewhere tropical as college kids are wont to do. 

The walk to the pizzeria is done in a friendly silence, their arms brushing occasionally as they go along. The silence is nothing new, they can stay like that for hours and never feel weird after living together until Steve turned eighteen and moved into the dorms at Beaumont University. Emery gets unnerved by all the quiet, but he’s never the one to break it when he notices that it doesn’t bother anyone else.

“Aw, crap,” Steve mumbles when they finally reach their destination, spotting the gaggle of police officers sitting inside. They’re gathered around their usual table beside the large window, all of them dressed in a dark blue uniform apart from one. He’s a civilian, dressed in simple jeans and a button-down, his mop of dark blond hair looking un-brushed. It’s no surprise since his son had taken up the entire morning by refusing to get dressed or eat breakfast before being dropped off at school.

“I don’t see why you have a problem with him,” Kimberly says, frowning at her cousin’s reaction. “He’s a sweet guy.”

“He’s a big baby, Kimberly. You married a grown ass man that acts about like your son does.” Kimberly rolls her eyes, opening the door and shoving Steve inside before he can back out.

“Hey, Em!” Emery and the others turn to look their way, her husband giving her a big smile when he notices her. “Steve, get my usual while I go say hi to the guys.”

“Fine, but don’t think I’m happy about it.” She gives his arm a reassuring pat before crossing the room over to the table just big enough for five men. “And I’m not ordering a side of ranch!”

“Is he in a mood,” Emery asks once she’s by his side.

“Nah, he’s just being prissy today,” Kimberly says, shrugging. It’s nothing new, Emery and Steve have never gotten along, which makes Thanksgiving an awkward affair every year. The go-to method to keep their arguments from escalating is to hand Nicky to one of them and watch them realize they’re acting like complete assholes in front of the one family member that thinks they can do no wrong. “How’s the day going for you guys?”

“Not too bad.”

“We got a new lead on that case Em’s been helping with,” Tony adds, talking around a mouthful of pepperonis. At only twenty-five, Antonio Perez is the youngest in the group, but he had graduated at the top of his class and is quickly following in his mother’s footsteps. He also compliments her cooking, so he’s in Kimberly’s good graces. “We’ll find the bastard in no time.” He claps a hand on Emery’s shoulder, not noticing the older man subtly pulling away.

“Yeah, maybe a few more days depending on my little superpower.”

“That’s great, babe,” Kimberly says, pressing a chaste kiss to his cheek. “When you boys finally do catch him, then we should have a little get-together at our place. I’ll order some tacos and ship Nicky off to his grandma’s house so he won’t have to see his parents getting shit-faced for the first time in four years.”

“Hey, Kimmy, food’s ready,” Steve calls, holding up a pizza box in much the same manner as John Cusack holding a boombox.

“Alright, I’ll let you guys get back to stuffing your faces while you can.” She wraps her arms around Emery’s neck in a hug, breathing in the comforting scent of his cologne. “And I’ll see you after work.”

“Don’t forget that Nicky’s got that parent-teacher conference with the speech therapist,” he reminds her once she pulls back. Kimberly makes a face at that, not much liking meetings of any kind. “That’s the exact same face our darling son made when I reminded him about the meeting this morning.”

“Maybe that’s why he kept throwing his socks at your head. In fact, if these flats allowed for socks, I’d take ‘em off and throw them at you, too.” She looks down at her shoes, suddenly wishing she’d gone with a different pair instead of the cute black ones she currently has on. “Alas, I cannot.”

“And you wonder where Nicky gets his dramatic streak from.” She doesn’t even miss a beat before responding.

“His grandmother, obviously.”

“Well, I can’t argue with you on that point.” Patricia Waterman is well-known for her dramatics, able to get out of speeding tickets and paying full price at grocery stores if only for people to escape her. “You better get over there and eat your pizza ‘cause Steve looks about ready to explode from impatience.” Kimberly looks over her shoulder, spotting her cousin as he begins to shake the pizza box violently.

“That’d probably be smart.” She kisses him again, laughing a little when his stubble tickles her cheek. “I love you.”

“Love you, too.” Before Steve can implode, she walks right past him and to their table set near the back where no one will bother them. Sputtering, he follows right behind her and nearly throws the box down.

“What’s your deal?”

“I only have fifteen minutes to eat before I have to cross town to get back to the college,” he says, flipping the box open and grabbing a slice of the sausage pizza. “Some of us have to work two jobs in order to get by.”

“Get married, it worked for me.” She smiles around a bite as Steve rolls his eyes. “Besides, I have two jobs and they’re both a lot harder than coaching a baseball team.” She furrows her brows, waiting until she swallowed before talking again. “And one of my jobs is your job, too, genius.”

“That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?” He lets out a huff of air, tossing his slice back into the box, only half-eaten. He looks antsy, continuously shifting in his seat as his green eyes look off into the distance. Unbidden, an image of Joyce sitting in her office crops up in her mind’s eye, blurred around the edges. “Joyce?”

“Don’t do that.”

“Then stop thinking so loudly.” Kimberly rubs at her temple, trying to massage away the coming headache. “What about our darling professor has you so worried?”

“Everything’s fine with Joyce.” But he’s looking everywhere except at her when he speaks, his tell flaring to life embarrassingly quickly. Kimberly arches a brow, letting her own slice of pizza drop next to his. “You should eat.”

“So should you.” They narrow their eyes in unison, beginning a staring match that lasts a whole fifteen seconds before Kimberly glances away. “I’ll just ask Nicky about it later.”

“Nicky doesn’t know how to write yet.”

“No, but he’s getting pretty good at sign language.”

“Well, that’s just cheating.” He leans back in his seat, idly plucking a piece of sausage from the mess of cheese and popping it in his mouth. “Joyce is… Well, she’s focusing on her study of you-know-what more than she is me. I’m not saying I feel abandoned, I’d just like to know she loves me for me and not my family history.”

“Have you told her this yet?”

“No, I haven’t had time. Like I said, she’s spending a lot of time in her office at the college and she’s bargaining with people on the phone in her free time. I just about had her bra off yesterday when she remembered she had to go see the caretaker to ensure the guys bringing the equipment could get inside.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t exactly good for my ego. A house built in the nineteen-hundreds is more interesting than—”

“Yeah, I got it,” Kimberly quickly interrupts, cheeks darkening in a blush. He sighs, carding his fingers through his hair only to come up short when he realizes it isn’t long enough for that.  

“And while we’re on the topic, you and Emery are still coming with us to the house, right? I don’t think I can handle Joyce by myself if Rose Red decides to eat us.”

“Of course we are. Despite Patricia’s grumbling, it’s money we need if we want to keep the speech therapist.”

“How’s that going?”

“Nicky still refuses to speak, but he’s a fast learner when it comes to writing and sign language.” She frowns as she thinks of her baby, already four and having to learn how to write simple words in order for people to know what he wants at school. “I’m taking him to the doctor next month for another check-up.”

“It’s not a big deal that he doesn’t want to talk.”

“I know.”

“Do you?” Kimberly glances up at her cousin, seeing him more as the older boy she used to idolize rather than the grown man that is just as tired as she is. They’re adults now, but it’s still hard to see him as anything less than perfect. She nods, picking at her lunch with disinterest. “So, about Patricia.”

“Oh no, we’re not turning this conversation around to the issues I have with my mother-in-law.”