Warmth and laughter permeated the bar, giving the place more of a familial than seedy atmosphere, but as Emily Sullivan turned away from the crowd at Bailey’s Tavern and escaped in the humid August night, a chill ran through her.
Would he even notice that she was gone?
“Hey, Em! Wait up!”
Emily stopped in her tracks on the sidewalk. She had her answer. He did notice.
Her hands found her pockets as they often did, pushing against her hips, trying to steady herself. It was futile. Always futile when Jake was involved.
Her teeth grazed her bottom lip. She should’ve been happy. This was what she’d wanted for nearly two months, for Jake to finally be home. She’d gotten her wish. She had watched as he’d shown up in Heather’s beaten up truck, how crowds of well-wishers, their friends, their neighbors, surrounded him. She had hurried into his arms, the feel both familiar and unfamiliar. In the hours between, Jake had seen his mother, been debriefed by Eric and Gray at town hall, and gone to Bailey’s for Mary’s home brew. Through it all, Emily tagged along but found herself wondering exactly where she fit into the grand scheme of things. They’d not even had five minutes alone in all the time he’d been back.
Before he left, Emily believed that Jake loved her.
She was the one he turned to when his father died.
She fought by his side, first against New Bern, and then against others who tried to impose their will on Jericho.
Then he left without a word.
Just like before.
No, not like before, she reminded herself. He wasn’t running away from me. He was…she tried to wrap her mind around exactly what he was doing…trying to save the world, or at least their little part of it.
She should have felt elated to have him back. She should have been drowning in pride that this was the man she loved, that this man was their hero. Instead, she felt weary and incredibly isolated. “I’m just heading home for the night.”
“I’m heading that way, too.”
“Jake,” she paused, the catch in her voice uncomfortably evident, “I’m going to my house. Not yours.” She started down the sidewalk toward the Pines. It would be a good fifteen minute walk at a brisk pace, but the way she felt tonight, she was certain she could make it in ten.
Trying to assimilate this information, Jake’s brows furrowed. With some effort, he caught up to her, falling into a parallel stride. “You moved out? When?”
“Oh, about two months ago.” She stared ahead as she spoke.
Realization dawned on him. “When I left.”
“Yeah.” She exhaled loudly, finally venturing a look in his direction. “It didn’t seem right to be there without you. Didn’t make much sense either.”
They fell into an uncomfortable silence. His first impulse was to ask her to return, but just as quickly, he stopped himself. In retrospect, he had not really asked her to move in to begin with. Instead, they had fallen into old habits. He opened the door, she walked through, put on frilly aprons and attempted a life of domestic bliss, and that was that. She came and never left.
Or so he’d thought.
Emily waited for a response from Jake, and realizing that he was not going to respond, filled the conversation void. “I have to hand it to you. You have a unique skills set. I’ve never known any guy who can do what you do. Fly planes. Rig explosives. Leave without a backwards glance. Takes some real talent.”
Jake spoke in a hushed voice. “You’re not being fair.”
She shrugged. “I know, but where has ‘fair’ gotten me?”
“I didn’t leave because I wanted to leave.”
Jake remembered all-too-well just how exhausted he had been following his imprisonment by Beck. The ache in his limbs, the burning of his eyes, the general weariness that would not subside—did not subside—for days. When Hawkins approached him for help, he would rather have done almost anything other than what they did. Traveling to Cheyenne, stealing back the ‘package,’ getting into the Texas embassy by the skin of their teeth… When he’d been up in the air, Cheyenne planes in pursuit, he thought that was going to be the end of it. In those moments, a million random thoughts must’ve run through his head, the least of which was how much the whole thing sucked. As a teenager, his mom used to always scold him about the need for going to bed earlier, but Jake had always quipped that he’d sleep when he was dead. For a few minutes, it looked like he was going to get the chance to get some rest, albeit in a permanent form.
“Come on. You never do anything you don’t want to do.” She stopped in her tracks, and he followed suit. Crossing her arms, she turned to face him. “You just feel some type of compulsion to save everybody and everything. But what about the rest of us, Jake?”
“What would you have me do? ‘Cause if you have all the answers, then you sure as hell could simplify my life for me.”
“ Fine. Your problem is that you think by…,” she searched for the right words, “…trying to help people who often don’t deserve it, you can make up for what happened to Chris. But nothing will ever make up for that, Jake. And call me crazy, but I’d rather you not get killed in the process of trying.”
Jake’s eyes burned. So this was what it came back to. That point in time which could never be undone, that point which had been their undoing.
Frustration etched its way into his response. “I can’t fix the past. Same as I can’t look the other way when I can help.”
“I know you can’t fix the past. And this isn’t even about placing blame. I can’t do that anymore. I don’t have energy. I just…”
“What do you want from me, Emily?”
Wasn’t that the million dollar question—if there was even any such thing anymore. She took a deep breath before responding. “For starters, I want more consideration than a scrawled note. I want to be what compels you to action, not some afterthought.”
“You’ve never been an afterthought for me.”
Emily tilted her head to the side, looking Jake squarely in the eyes. “Who was the first person you saw when you returned?”
Jake clenched his jaw. Emily was laying a trap. No matter how he responded, she would pounce. He’d seen it enough times. Hell, for that matter, he’d concocted traps of his own. He met her gaze. “You saw the truck. You know who it was.”
“It should’ve been me.”
“Is that what this is? Petty jealousy? You know why I stopped at Stanley’s. I’ve already told you.”
“But you didn’t spend the whole afternoon at Stanley’s with Stanley, did you? And even tonight…,” Emily rubbed her forehead. “I don’t want to fight with you, Jake.”
Jake shook his head slightly. “God knows we’ve done enough of that over the years.”
“Yeah. When you were gone, I had time to think. Then when I saw you, I tried to talk myself out of it and…” her voice dropped for a moment. “…it’s always been so hard for me to think when I see you.” She lifted her hand to his face and traced his brow with her fingers, in the absence of bright light imagining the crease in his forehead, the gentle lines around his eyes. “It’s unreasonable between us.” Her hand dropped. “But I won’t come first with you. Not unless I’m a problem you can solve or a victim you can rescue, and I have to tell you, I have no intention of being either. I need someone who will be loyal to me. Always there. Someone who thinks I am the most important person in the world.”
Jake nearly snorted. “You don’t want me. You want a dog.”
All the tenderness Emily felt was replaced by volatility. She flung her hand out forcefully, making contact with Jake’s chest. “You are the most infuriating…God, that is exactly what I’m talking about!” With each word, she jabbed him with her finger.
Jake grabbed her wrist, stilling her motion. “Don’t. You know, I think I’ve been a pretty good sport about this. I’ve heard you out. I get it.”
“Yes, I do. You want me to know just how pissed off you are. Well, all right, Em. You got the shaft. As usual.” Jake relaxed his grip on Emily’s wrist, and she lowered her arm, surprised by the tone of his voice. He spoke so calmly, which was not Jake-like at all. Though his words should have led to an apology, she had the distinct impression that she would have preferred the yelling that Jake-of-old would have done.
“Why are you getting mad at me?”
“Because you’ve made this all about you. What you want. What you need.” He shook his head. Wry laughter escaped from deep within his throat. “Time plays hell on the memory. I can’t believe I forgot that this is how it goes with us.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Emily didn’t like being on the defensive.
“It means you’re always right, and I’m always wrong.”
“Why? Because I want you to…oh, I don’t know…actually include me in your life? Don’t you see? I have bent over backwards for you, Jake! And I have worked hard—damn hard!—to help this town, too! And you think I’m under some expectation that it’s all about me? That I’m some selfish little girl?”
“What did you want me to do? There was no time!” Jake’s voice boomed, breaking the deceptive calm from moments earlier. “If Hawkins had gone by himself, it would’ve been a suicide mission! If we didn’t go at all…” his voice trailed off, and when he continued, he was very matter-of-fact. “So yeah, if the choice is pissing you off versus letting people die so I can coddle you, I’m gonna piss you off every time.”
Light reflected off Emily’s watery eyes. “This was a mistake. You. Me.”
Jake nodded. “We can agree on something after all.”
She cleared her throat, trying to maintain her composure and her pride. “I’m walking home. Got to cool off. I don’t want to see you, Jake. Not for awhile.”
As Jake watched Emily walk away, he marveled at the irony of their situation. She was choosing to show her anger over his being away from her by being away from him.
He turned and began to travel in the opposite direction, toward his childhood home.
As he walked, thoughts danced through his head. Was that it for them? Out like a whimper? He should’ve felt devastated or furious or … or … something substantial. Instead, he felt a vague sense of relief mingled with annoyance and frustration.
This time was different. He was different.
Moments later, coming upon Bailey’s again, he saw Heather, who was exiting the establishment. He found himself slowing to fall into step with her.
“Hey! Didn’t expect to see you again so soon.” Heather’s voice was incredibly cheerful, such a contrast to how Jake felt in that moment.
“Didn’t expect to be back this way tonight,” Jake admitted.
“Did you catch up with Emily?” Heather looked around them, as though to spot her friend.
“Yeah. We took a walk.”
“Oh? You weren’t gone very long.”
Jake ran his tongue along the inside of his mouth before he responded, “We went nowhere.”