“You think I enjoy this?”
“Yeah,” she shot back. “I think you want to stay in here forever, because it means you don’t have to try again.” Working a loose-hipped swagger out of the room, she called back over her shoulder. “I think you’re a wussy man. I think you’ve been sitting in here crying to your highlight reels, wondering where it all went wrong. What a sad cliché. I’m going to talk to my brother about finding a cooler friend.”
“Hold the fuck on,” Travis thundered, following her out of the bedroom, just your average, everyday, gorgeously pissed-off athlete who was once a contender for Rookie of the Year. “You’re acting like I got laid off from just any job. I was a professional baseball player, Georgie. That was all my life was ever building to. There’s nowhere to go from there but down. So here I am.”
Surprise knocked her back a step. Travis Ford was insecure enough to write himself off as a failure? She’d never known him to be anything but wildly confident—to a fault even. Her hesitation had caused him to back slowly toward the bedroom, though, so she shook off her sympathy and pressed on. “Stay down, then. Become a pathetic has-been who tells the same bummer injury story every time he has more than two beers.” She gestured to the apartment. “You’re halfway there. Don’t quit now.”
“It’s been a month,” Travis seethed.
“A month you could have used to make a new plan, if you weren’t a wussy man.” She raised an eyebrow. “Like I said.”
“You’re a kid. You don’t understand.”
Oh, that was almost her knockout punch, those oh-so-familiar words hitting Georgie’s most sensitive target. If she hadn’t grown up with Travis, she might have left and gone to lick her wounds. But this man had sat across from her at the kitchen table a thousand times. Ruffled her hair, grabbed from the same bowl of popcorn during movies, and defended her from meanies. After all, Travis and Stephen could torture her, but when it came to other people doing it? Not a chance. If she hadn’t spent her life in love with Travis Ford, she would consider him a brother. So she knew a strong, self-assured man was under this bearded freak’s surface. And he needed someone to jab and punch until he was free.
“I just bought a house. My own house. I’m not a kid anymore, but even if I was? I’d have my shit together more than you do. And I’m a children’s birthday party clown—let that sink in.” Georgie paused for a breath. “Right now, everyone in town feels bad for you. They understand the loss.” She poked him in the chest, right over his red-and-black baseball diamond tattoo. “But in six months? A year? People will shake their heads and laugh when you walk down the street. Look at him now. He never recovered. What a waste.”
By the time Georgie finished, his chest shuddered up and down, muscles jumping on both sides of his jaw. “Why did you come here? What do you care?”
“I don’t,” she lied. “I just came to see you for myself, because I couldn’t believe it. The guy we all looked up to is a drunk slob. Now I know.”
“Get out,” Travis snarled, taking a step closer. “I’m not going to say it again.”
“Fine. I probably need to schedule a tetanus shot anyway.” Georgie turned on a heel and sidestepped a pizza box on her way to the door. “See you around, Travis. Probably on the last barstool in Grumpy Tom’s muttering about your glory days.”
“It was . . .”
His new, choppier tone stopped Georgie midstride. She looked back over her shoulder just in time to catch him swigging from a half-empty whiskey bottle.
“Going pro was my only way to be better than him, all right? I have no way to be better than him now. I’m nothing. I’m him.”
“That is garbage, Travis Ford,” she breathed, unable to speak above a whisper. “You did it. You achieved what you set out to do. Circumstances screw everyone once in a while—and they screwed you worst. But you’re only him if you lie down and play the victim.” She turned away before he could see the tears in her eyes. “You’re better than this.”
Georgie left Travis standing in the filth, looking like he’d been struck by lightning.
And he hadn’t seen the last of her, either.
Travis squinted through his front windshield into the sunlight and wished it were raining. Maybe if the sun weren’t beating down on him like a cheerful asshole, he could have given himself an excuse to stay inside one more day. Instead of his usual routine of waking up, ordering breakfast delivery from the diner, chasing it with a six-pack, and going back to sleep, he’d found himself pulling on clean pants and walking out into the daylight. His sudden motivation had nothing to do with Georgie’s visit yesterday—nothing whatsoever. He’d simply hit his limit for staring at the same four walls and needed a change.
Was this the right change, though? A construction job?
He didn’t need the money. If he wanted to spend the next decade living like an antisocial vampire who drinks Bud instead of blood, he had the funds to do it comfortably. Frankly, that sounded pretty appealing at the moment.
I think you want to stay in here forever, because it means you don’t have to try again.
Travis pushed himself out of the truck with an annoyed growl. When did little Georgie Castle turn into such a ball-breaker? Last time he’d seen her she’d still been in middle school. She’d spoken only when necessary so she wouldn’t have to show off her mouthful of braces. Far more preferable than the whirlwind who’d blown through his apartment yesterday, engaging in a one-way food fight. Some things about Georgie hadn’t changed, like her uniform of ripped jeans and oversized sweatshirts, but she’d definitely found her voice. He wished she’d directed it elsewhere.
Travis tugged on the collar of his shirt, grimacing at the dampness. August in Port Jefferson. He’d been out of his air-conditioned truck for only five seconds and his clothes were already sticking to him. From his vantage point, he could follow the paths of residents hurrying down the gentle slope and curve of Main Street, rushing to get to their next, cooler destination. Beyond the town’s main drag, water spread out wide and blue, boats lifting and dipping with the current. Banners stretched over the road, advertising church festivals and town hall budget votes. Whether he wanted to be back home or not, time and distance had given him enough objectivity to admit Port Jeff wasn’t a terrible spot. It would just be hotter than the devil’s ass until fall hit.
Travis came to a stop on the sidewalk, looking through the giant picture window of Brick & Morty. Through the gold lettering that hadn’t changed since his youth, he could see his friend Stephen Castle on the phone, probably barking orders at some poor soul. Travis’s best friend had been groomed to take over the family house-flipping business since high school and he’d fallen right into rhythm, inheriting the institution from his father, Morty. Right after Travis’s ascent to the majors, his phone calls to Stephen had been the one thing keeping him grounded. When all the Rookie of the Year fanfare threatened to inflate his head, Stephen had no problem reminding Travis he was the same asshole who’d broken his arm at age nine attempting to ride a skateboard backward down the Castle driveway. Toward the end of his career, he hadn’t needed Stephen to deflate his ego.
Fate had handled that nicely on its own.
Would his easy friendship with Stephen be the same now that Travis’s identity had been stripped away? The death of his career seemed to cast a shadow over his every interaction now. He’d always been a baseball player. The game ran in his veins. It never failed to be the first thing people spoke to him about. How’s the shoulder? Better than ever. How’s the team looking for the upcoming season? We’re focused and ready to win games. Hit me one out of the park. I’ll hit you two. The few times he’d left the apartment since returning to Port Jefferson, the topic of baseball had been deftly avoided anywhere he went. If someone asked him about the weather or complimented his new non-haircut one more time, his fucking head was going to explode.
Was this his life now? Pretending as though the five years of his baseball career never happened? Some days, that’s what he wanted. He wanted to numb himself to the memories of his injury and subsequent decline. Being shared around the league like a bummed cigarette. And finally the phone call from his team manager that was the equivalent of shooting a lame horse. Other days, though . . . pretending his career never happened scared the shit out of him. What was the point of all that hard work when he’d ended up right back in Port Jefferson, hitting up his friend for a job, just like his father always predicted he would?
That was a reminder he could have done without today.
Knowing he needed a minute before having to converse with a real live human being, Travis sighed and backed away from the window, leaning up against the building’s concrete wall. Maybe he should put this off until tomorrow. It wasn’t a reunion, exactly, since Stephen had been at his place a week . . . or maybe two . . . ago. Hard to remember since he’d been knee-deep in a bottle of Jack at the time. Having a sober face-to-face conversation with the bluntest person he knew might not be the greatest idea in his shitty frame of mind.