A/N: This was written for the Brasslove Summer '07 Vacation Ficathon on LiveJournal. My prompt was "the world's largest ball of twine". Several places claim to have the world's largest but I went with Cawker City, Kansas. It takes place after "Playing the Hero" and "Second Chances" but it can stand on its own.
A thousand and one thanks go to Sydne for the beta help. Any mistakes you might find are all mine. I have this nasty habit of adding in more stuff after the fact. And this was no exception.
Sofia Curtis glanced at the name that popped up on her cell phone and sighed. She loved that Jim called just to see how her day was going; she didn't love that he was bored out of his mind and called to tell her the most mundane things—like how he'd cleaned out the refrigerator and discovered a container full of some sort of liquid brown goo that looked like a Grissom experiment hidden in the back. She didn't need to know that.
Flipping open the phone, she answered with her usual, "Curtis".
"Hey, I know you're busy and everything and I know I have to be driving you crazy…"
"No, you're not. Everything all right?"
"Yeah, yeah, everything's fine. I was thinking though. Can you get some time off?"
"I don't know, Jim. They brought Spencer over from Swing to cover for you but that still leaves us stretched a little thin. What kind of time off are we talking about?"
"A few days, four at most. I want to get out of here and I'd like you to come with me. And before you start having kittens, I cleared it with Dr. Kinsman. He said I could travel..."
"If you have someone with you," she finished for him.
Jim sighed into the phone. "Yes."
"So you just want me along as your token nursemaid?"
"No, no, not at all. I want you to meet Mitch."
"Mitch?" Sofia was curious. She was sure Jim told her that his brother's name was Tom. Could Mitch be his son? Somehow she doubted that. As much as Jim talked about Ellie, he'd certainly have talked about another child.
"We grew up together. He's like a brother to me."
"And where does Mitch live?" Sofia fully expected Jim to say New Jersey so his next words took her totally by surprise.
"Cawker City, Kansas."
"Kansas," he repeated. "You know, one of those mostly overlooked states in the middle. It's nice there. A lot of cows, miles of nothing but wheat fields, and the world's largest ball of twine. Want to go?"
"You make it sound so inviting."
"Hey, the twine is very impressive. On a humid day you can smell it from a mile away."
"It gets better by the minute."
"Do you want to go? I'm booking it now so I need an answer."
Sofia hated spontaneous decisions; hell, she hadn't even cleared it with Vega, but Jim wanted to go and he did need to get away from Vegas. Maybe all that wide open space would do him some good. But most importantly, he wanted her to meet one of his friends. It was the first big step in making her feel like she was really a part of his life and that was too good to pass up. "Yes, I'll go."
"You sure? I don't want to rope you into something you don't want to do."
Rolling her eyes, she sighed into the phone. "Jim, I want to go."
"OK, I just bought two tickets."
"Is that it? I need to get back to work."
She started to close the phone when she heard a loud, "hey!" on the other end. "Jim?"
"I just wanted to say I'm glad you're coming with me. I really want you to meet Mitch."
Sofia smiled against the mouthpiece. That was exactly what she wanted to hear. "I'm looking forward to it. I'll see you in a few hours." Closing the phone, she shook her head as she walked back to her desk.
She was going to Kansas with Jim Brass to meet someone named Mitch. Now she just had to figure out how to ask for the time off.
The flight from McCarran departed from the gate on time then sat on a scorching runway for nearly thirty minutes, making Jim and Sofia worry that they'd miss their connection in Denver. Fortunately, the travel gods were smiling and even though they landed a few minutes late, their connecting flight to Kansas City was only a few gates down from their arriving flight. Once they arrived in Kansas City, they spent an hour waiting for their next flight, a turboprop that would take them into Salina. After that they would have a fifty minute drive north.
"You didn't tell me getting to this place was like flying into Outer Mongolia." Sofia handed him a cold bottle of water then took the seat next to him.
"If I had, you might have said no." Jim popped two Extra Strength Tylenol into his mouth and washed them down with the water.
"How are you holding up?" He looked pale and tired and more than once she'd caught him wincing.
"I'm doing okay. You might have to make the drive though." He'd learned from physical therapy that it was all right to admit when he couldn't do any more. Pushing himself too much would only do more damage than good.
"I can do that. By the way, did I mention I hate flying on twin engine planes?"
Jim looked over at her dead serious expression. "You mean to tell me a woman who's chased down some of the worst scum Vegas has to offer is afraid of a turboprop?"
"Yup, that's what I'm telling you."
"Is this like throwing up fear or just a general hate?"
"Throwing up fear." Sofia leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs. "Now we're even."
Jim leaned back as well, his right leg bouncing nervously, as he silently wondered if it was too late to get a rental car and drive the almost two hundred and fifty miles to Cawker City.
They made the short flight without incident, vomiting or otherwise, although Jim did notice that Sofia was perspiring profusely and white as a sheet when they deplaned. However, by the time they got one of the half dozen mid-size sedans from the tiny Budget Rent-A-Car lot, she had fully recovered.
"We have to do that again on the trip home, don't we?"
Jim climbed into the passenger seat and shut the door. "We'll stop at a drug store and get you some Dramamine before we leave."
The drive from Salina was full of endless rolling wheat fields and cattle until they reached a little town called Beloit and then as if they'd reached another state altogether, the topography suddenly changed. Tall trees and thick, green grass like Sofia hadn't seen in years dotted the countryside, eventually giving way to Waconda Lake.
Turning down a dirt and gravel road line with a barbed wire fence on either side, passing a mailbox with the name, "Mitchell" painted on the side they bumped and bounced their way along until they came to a clearing where an old farmhouse sat shaded by a clump of trees.
"Is this where Mitch lives?" Sofia asked, suddenly feeling very over-dressed.
"Yeah, this is it. If you stay on the highway you'll hit Cawker City. That's where the ball of twine is. I know you'll want pictures."
She slowly shook her head. This was getting scarier by the minute.
"So I take it Mitch isn't his first name."
"No, it's Marion."
"Marion, huh? Couldn't he just go by his middle name?"
"So he's Marion Norvel Mitchell?" Sofia pulled in behind a Ford F150 truck and shut off the engine. "Mitch it is."
The two-story brick house wasn't anything like Sofia had imagined after driving through farmland. She'd thought for sure Mitch would live in one of the numerous old clapboard houses or a sprawling ranch-style that seemed to be a staple along the highway. Instead it looked like this place was built fairly recently.
Yet another thing that surprised her was the man who came out to meet them. Listening to Jim talk about Mitch on the drive up, she'd had this image of a guy resembling Jim; instead Marion Mitchell couldn't have been more different. Actually, if he'd been green and bald, he'd have been the human version of Shrek. Mitch was easily a foot taller than Jim and twice as broad in the shoulders with a smile so warm, Sofia felt like she'd known the man for years instead of minutes.
"Where's Carol?" Jim asked after the obligatory greetings and introductions.
"Still at work." Mitch looked at Sofia. "She works at an assisted living facility in Glen Elder. One of the ladies went home sick so Carol's covering her shift until they can get someone else in. She said it might be a couple of hours." Mitch's smile faded and his eyes narrowed. Earlier he'd told his wife that he was worried what to expect when he saw his friend but now he realized his concern was unwarranted. Jim looked much thinner than the last time he'd seen him and he had a lot more silver in his hair but other than that, it was the same Jimmy Brass he'd known for almost fifty years.
"You look good, Jimmy," Mitch said, giving him a gentle pat on the shoulder.
"I feel good. Well, better than I did a couple of months ago, anyway." Jim started to help Sofia with the luggage but was given her very light carry-on bag along with a questioning look.
"Jimmy?" she whispered, trying hard not to laugh.
Rolling his eyes, he followed her into the house.
Sofia spent most of the evening sitting next to Jim on the sofa and listening to both men try to one up the other with stories about growing up in Newark. Carol had joined them nearly an hour into the visit and sat quietly in one of the two La-Z-Boy recliners with her cross stitching. Obviously, she'd heard these tall tales before but Sofia enjoyed every one of them, especially since they involved Jim. He'd always talked a lot about his time spent with the Newark PD but he rarely talked about his childhood. And now she knew why: young Jimmy Brass had been a hellraiser, in and out of trouble with the law until a four-year stint in the Marines had given him the discipline he needed.
During a lull in the conversation, Jim excused himself and headed for the bathroom.
Mitch jerked his thumb in Jim's direction. "I'm afraid to ask what he told you about me."
"I doubt he said that the two of you act like a couple of idiots when you're together," Carol chimed in without looking up.
Waving his hand in his wife's direction, Mitch rolled his eyes. "Don't listen to her."
Sofia found herself shaking her head, amused by their interaction. "He just said that you two grew up together and you were like a brother to him."
"We're blood brothers. We were going to be spit brothers but we decided blood was better. So I got my dad's knife and we cut our wrists," Mitch pulled up his sleeve and showed her the tiny, barely visible scar. "Jimmy read it in some book so we rubbed our wrists together and said we'd be brothers until the day we died."
"How old were you two when you did this?"
Mitch thought for a moment. "Let's see, that was last year so I was fifty-six..."
"You were not," Sofia laughed.
"Okay, maybe we were ten. It was fifth grade so however old fifth graders are."
"That sounds about right."
Mitch looked up at the ceiling, smiling at the memory. "Jimmy's old man busted both our asses for that."
Jim came back into the room passing a suspicious glance from Mitch to Carol to Sofia and looking even more tired than he had earlier in the day. "Don't believe whatever lie he's telling you. He did it first."
"I was just telling her about us being blood brothers."
Jim leaned against the arm of the sofa. "Yeah, half an inch to the left and we would have slit our wrists. Couple of smart kids, we were." Jim stretched his back and yawned. "I'm going to bed. All this fresh air is getting to me."
"I'll go with you." Sofia got up and turned towards her hosts. "It's been a long day." She wasn't just saying that either. She had pulled a double so she could have the extra time off and that along with all the plane travel had wiped her out.
Once they were both up the stairs and out of earshot, Carol paused long enough to say, "They're cute together."
"I give it three months."
That earned him a smack on the leg.
"They won't mind if we share a room, will they?" Sofia followed Jim into the spare bedroom and closed the door. The room was big with a very comfortable queen size bed in the middle and a door leading to a bathroom off to the left.
"As I recall, Mitch and Carol lived together for a couple of years before they got married. Besides," he said, pulling his polo over his head, "we're both over 21. I think we're allowed to sleep together."
She took off her blouse and pulled a worn UNLV T-shirt out of the bottom of her case. "True but I don't want to insult the hosts." Unclasping her bra and letting it fall on top of the blouse, she started to put on the T-shirt only to have him take it from her grasp and toss it onto the bed.
"Trust me, you won't insult them." Taking her by the arm, he pulled her close, enjoying the feel of her bare breasts against his skin. Running his palms down her back, he let his hands rest on her hips while he nuzzled her neck.
"I thought you were tired?"
"I just got a shot of adrenaline. What about you?" He brought his right hand up and covered her breast, stroking the hardened nipple with his thumb.
"Keep doing that and I'll let you know."
Sofia wasn't surprised when he kissed her but she was surprised by the intensity. Mutual desire made her respond to the kiss and before they both knew it, they were on the bed, making out like a couple of deprived teen-agers. Unfortunately, that was as far as Sofia's sense of propriety would let them go. It wasn't that she didn't want more but the bed had a definite squeak and Mitch and Carol were directly below them.
Thankfully, Jim respected her wishes—even if he wasn't happy about it—and as his reward, she gave him the relief he needed and then delighted when he returned the favor.
"Next time maybe you better get undressed in the bathroom," he said, lying next to her while she stroked his hair. "Either that or we send Mitch and Carol away for about an hour."
"An hour?" She couldn't hide her skepticism. He'd only gotten his mojo, as he called it, back a couple of weeks ago and he still had a few kinks to work out.
He rethought his answer. "You're right. Better make it an hour and a half." He rolled over and kissed her quickly then pulled on his boxer-briefs and headed for the bathroom.
After her own trip to the bathroom a few minutes later, Sofia joined him in bed, turning out the light and crawling in next to him.
She thought he was asleep until she heard his whispered voice in the darkness.
"You haven't changed your mind have you—about having kids, I mean? Cause if you have, I don't want you wasting your time with me."
"I made a choice a long time ago. I picked my career over getting married and having kids. And while I never expected to meet this wonderful, older man, I still don't have any regrets over the choices I've made."
"That means you like me, right?"
Sofia ran her hand across the fuzz on his tummy and let her fingers rest his hip bone just under the waistband of his shorts. "Yes, that means I like you a whole lot."
Brass leaned over and tried to kiss her on the lips but got her forehead instead. "Like maybe you love me even?"
"Like maybe I even love you."
"Then we're even because I love you too."
At first Sofia thought she was dreaming but a thump against her side and she was groggy but awake. Jim was already off the bed and heading for the bathroom before she fully realized what had happened.
After ten minutes of silence she went to check on him. Opening the door and going in, she found him sitting on the side of the tub, his face shadowed by a small nightlight as he looked up.
"Hey, you okay?" She took a seat next to him and ran her hand over his back, feeling the dampness on his skin. She didn't have to ask what had happened. He'd been having nightmares for nearly a month now and being away from home wasn't an exception.
"The girl, she was all right, wasn't she?"
The girl in question was Jackie Sotelo, the young woman Willie Cutler had taken hostage at the Lucky Dragon. Sofia had had this conversation with him more times than she could count. He'd even met Jackie when she'd visited him at the hospital but for some reason, he just couldn't retain the memory. "Yes. She was scared but she was just fine."
"I told her it was going to be okay. There was a gunshot and she screamed. You're sure she's okay?"
"I'm positive. She's fine. Remember, she said she screamed when you were shot but Cutler didn't hurt her."
"That's right. She came to see me." He rubbed the back of his head. "Why don't I remember that?"
"You do remember it. You just had a nightmare and it confused you." She took his hand and urged him to get up. "It's over now. Let's go back to bed."
Luckily, she was dead tired, otherwise she knew she'd never go back to sleep, but she waited until she heard him snoring softly before closing her eyes and drifting into a dreamless slumber.
Sofia rolled over and felt the void on the left side of the bed. She'd gotten used to waking up and finding Jim gone but that usually happened at her place or his—not some strange house with people she barely knew.
Sitting up, she looked around the room, noticing the bathroom door was open and the clothes in his suitcase were in slight disarray: he was up and dressed and probably downstairs. Rummaging through her suitcase for something to go with the UNLV T-shirt she'd slept in, she pulled on a pair of cotton shorts then quickly pulled her blonde hair into a ponytail and wandered down to the kitchen.
"Good morning!" Carol said in a voice much too cheery for eight o'clock in the morning.
"Morning." Sofia glanced around the open kitchen. Still no sign of Jim.
Carol caught the silent search and said, "The boys headed up to the lake about an hour ago."
Boys? Sofia nearly laughed out loud at the thought of Jim being called a boy, especially after last night.
"Jimmy said you just came off working nights so he wanted to let you sleep. He also said you liked coffee and bacon and eggs. Hope you like your eggs scrambled. Please," Carol waved towards the solid oak kitchen table, "sit."
"Scrambled are fine." Taking a seat at the table, Sofia wasn't sure if she was grateful for the extra sleep, impressed that Jim made such an effort to make sure she was taken care of, or angry that he'd gone off and left her alone in the house with a woman she'd only met last night. But Carol seemed pleasant enough and as the woman set a cup of coffee and a plate of food in front of her, it was obvious Carol was all about making her guest feel welcome.
"What do the boys usually do at the lake?" Again, she almost giggled into her eggs.
"Mitch has a boat that he likes to putter around in if he can get it running. He said they might do a little fishing if it's not too crowded. Today is the Cawker City picnic cook-off and parade so a lot of people come up to the lake and camp."
"That's a big event?"
"Around here it is. The most excitement we usually get is watching paint dry. And paint doesn't dry too quickly in the humidity."
They both laughed and Sofia felt herself relax a little. "I forgot about humidity."
"Yes, we get a lot of it here, what with the lake just over there." The woman motioned towards a clump of trees with her chin as she took a seat in the chair across from Sofia. "I expect this is a lot different from Las Vegas."
"Yes, it is. It's green and not 110 in the shade."
"Well, it can get pretty hot here but not like Vegas. Are you from there?"
Sofia sipped her coffee and shook her head. "No, I was born in Massachusetts but my parents divorced when I was six. My mother and I moved to Nevada a couple of years later. I spent a lot of time being shuffled back and forth. What about you? Have you always lived here?"
Carol shook her head. "No, I was born in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma but my dad was Army so we moved around a lot. That's how I met Mitch. He was wounded in Cambodia and sent to the VA hospital in Kansas City for rehab. My dad was a doctor at the hospital so I used to volunteer. Mitch says it was love at first sight; I tell him it was the pain meds."
Sofia could relate to the haze of pain meds. Jim had had his share of crazy ramblings under the influence of morphine. During one hospital visit, he'd been convinced she was an angel, sent from the television set to watch over him. Of course he'd also thought the tiny blood clots were little bugs swimming around in his urine bag so Sofia was fairly positive Jim's truly had been the morphine. Either that or he wasn't quite the romantic that Mitch was.
"How long have you known Jim?" Sofia asked, finishing off the last piece of bacon and enjoying the conversation more than she thought she would.
"I didn't meet Jimmy until Mitch and I got married. He was Mitch's best man. After that he stayed in touch but we didn't see him again until he was on his way to Vegas. He was driving cross country and stopped here for a few days. He and Mitch built that shed out there."
Sofia leaned over to get a look at it. The shed was standing but looked as if it'd collapse at any moment.
Carol shook her head and laughed. "They were both drunk at the time."
"That explains a lot."
"Jimmy was miserable about his divorce and having to leave his daughter and New Jersey; Mitch was being the sympathetic friend. I just made sure they didn't do anything too stupid—like saw off a hand or nail their fingers to the frame." Carol quieted for a moment, studying Sofia before breaking into a smile. "I can tell you're a detective."
Sofia laughed. "Why's that?"
"Because I've done most of the talking! Lordy, you're just like Jim. When I'm around him, I feel like I'm spilling my guts."
"Well, I learned a lot of it from him." Sofia pushed the plate away and leaned her elbows on the table. "I was the newbie detective so we partnered up most of the time." Staring at the creases on the palm of her hand, she said, "The night Jim got shot, I wasn't there."
"So, Jimmy," Mitch said, pulling the hook out of the forearm-long catfish with a pair of needle-nose pliers and then stuffing the fish into a wire basket already containing two more large, flip-flopping catfish. "I gotta tell you. Sofia is hot!"
Jim shook his head and smiled.
Setting the basket into the water, Mitch continued, "How do you do it? Runt like you always scoring the babes."
Again, Jim shook his head. Ever since Mitch had topped out at 6'4 in his sophomore year of high school, Jim, a good six inches shorter, had been "runt". Mitch knew it got under his skin, even now, but Jim put up with it. However, when Jim was younger, he'd have clocked anyone else who dared to call him that.
"I guess it's just my good looks and winning personality." Jim cast his line into the water and ran his thumb and forefinger along the line, feeling for the telltale twitch.
Mitch brought his hand up to his mouth and let out fake sneeze, "Bullshit!"
"You got a better explanation?"
"It's the badge. Women are hot for a man with a badge."
Shaking his head, he said, "She's got one too. Trust me it's not my badge that's impressing her."
Mitch looked sideways at his friend as he cast his line into the water and laughed. He knew exactly what Jim was alluding too; it had been a running joke all the way back to their days in the high school locker room. "You're so full of shit."
"Just stating a fact."
"Seriously, she's what, twenty-five years younger than you?"
"Eighteen. And I'm younger than you, genius."
"Close enough. I figure she's got to be crazy about you to come out here. But I know you, Jimmy. Tell me you're really serious about her."
Keeping a hold on his fishing pole, Jim carefully took a seat in one of the lawn chairs that Mitch had brought along. "I'm really serious about her."
Mitch took the chair next to Jim's, the metal chair protesting under the man's large frame. "You gonna marry her?"
Jim watched a small fish jump a few feet away. "I don't know. I'd hate to ruin a good thing. Besides, after meeting my friends, she might decide to dump my ass."
"Heh, you're probably right."
Jim grew quiet, enjoying the warm sun on his face and the persistent buzz of cicadas. He didn't quite share Mitch's love of the country but he definitely appreciated it. Still, he knew too much of it and he'd get bored. He needed a certain amount of excitement in his life to exist and Vegas definitely provided that.
As Jim sat there contemplating Vegas, his life and the events that lead up to getting a second chance, he wanted Mitch to know something that he'd known ever since the day he'd been shot. "I never would have made it if it weren't for Sofia."
Mitch started to comment but saw the serious look on his buddy's face and decided to see where he went with it.
"Back in November there was an incident: a shoot-out with a Latino gang. There were two black and whites involved and Sofia and I were close by so we responded as well. When we arrived on the scene, bullets were flying all over the place; I mean it was like those firestorms we saw back in the rice paddies." Brass licked his lips, even though they weren't dry. "One of our guys went down. We thought it was one of the bad guys who shot him but it turns out," he licked his lips again and let out a short, disbelieving laugh, "turns out it was my bullet that killed him."
"Damn, man, why didn't you tell me all this before?" Mitch was surprised at the revelation and angry that Jim hadn't told him until now.
Jim shrugged. "Not exactly a story that bears repeating, you know?"
"Yeah, I know." Looking at his friend, noticing the guilt that had settled onto his features, Mitch let his anger go. Right now no one could possibly beat up Jim more than he was beating up himself. Mitch wasn't about to make things worse by joining the fight.
"There for a while, Sofia thought she'd done it so you know, she knew what I was going through." Jim shook his head and laughed. "Then three months ago I walked into a hostage situation and…" It was on the tip of his tongue to say did the stupidest thing in my life but he wasn't quite ready to make that admission out loud just yet. "I got shot. There are a couple of people I owe my life to—the doctors and nurses of course and a friend I trusted with my life. I mean, if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here. But Sofia..." He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "I know it sounds like one of those sappy Hallmark cards but knowing she was there and that she didn't give up on me, she gave me a reason to live."
Again, Mitch was taken by surprise. Not so much by how Sofia had helped him–Carol had been his own salvation while he was recovering from his war wound—but because he'd never really known the severity of Jim's injury. All he really knew was that Jim had been shot and that he'd been in the hospital for a few weeks. The details he'd gotten when he'd called Jim's house had been sketchy at best but Mitch knew his friend was okay and at the time that was all that mattered. Now he was curious.
"You said you walked into a hostage situation. What happened?"
Jim slowly reeled in the line. Poised to cast his line out in the water, he grinned at his friend and asked, "You catch a lot of fish around here?"
"Yeah," Mitch said, taking the hint to let it go. "I usually haul in about a dozen or more."
Jim looked skeptical. "A dozen?"
"Okay, maybe two or three."
Jim let the line fly and watched as it hit the water with a plop several feet from the bank. "You always were full of shit."
"That's why my eyes are brown."
"Is that what brought the two of you together?" Carol asked, setting two cups of coffee on the table before retaking her seat across from Sofia.
Sofia wasn't completely sure how much either Carol or Mitch knew about everything that had happened over the past year so she chose her words carefully. "Jim had a pretty rough year. He needed a friend and I was there for him. It just sort of evolved from there." She held her coffee mug with both hands, peering into the liquid. "It was really hard when he was in the hospital—to be there for him. I wanted to be with him every minute I could but at the time only a couple of people knew about us. Plus, we were now down a detective and homicides don't exactly grind to a halt when one of your own goes down. I had to pick up his caseload and try to keep it together while everyone else took turns at the hospital. Luckily, I have a couple of friends who were kind enough to keep me updated on him."
Carol looked away, guilt registering in her eyes. "We didn't even know what happened until Mitch called Jimmy around the middle of June. I think he must have spoken to you."
Sofia shook her head. "It was probably Catherine. For the first month Jim needed someone to stay with him around the clock. I couldn't always be there so a few friends took turns. Needless to say, he wasn't very happy about it."
"Mitch wanted to go to Vegas but I was sick with bronchitis so he stayed here. I told him to go and I know it was killing him not to be there for Jimmy but he wouldn't leave me."
"Jim has a lot of extended family in Vegas. We always had plenty of volunteers to help out."
Loud footsteps resounded on the back porch as Mitch came into the kitchen followed by Jim carrying a basket full of catfish that he quickly deposited in the sink.
"Guess what we're having for dinner tonight!" Mitch said, grabbing two cold bottles of water from the refrigerator and tossing one to Jim.
Sofia watched Jim as he leaned against the kitchen sink and slowly rubbed his right shoulder. Of all the surgeries he'd had it was the entrance wound near his armpit that still bothered him the most. Catching his eye, she cocked an eyebrow in question only to have him shake his head in return.
"Only if you're cleaning them." Carol turned back to Sofia and frowned. "I love eating them but I hate cleaning them."
"I think you forgot the sunscreen, Jim." Sofia pointed south, just below the hem of his shorts.
Jim looked down at his bright red, much sunburned knees. "I was more worried about my head."
"I've got some aloe you can use." Carol glanced at the clock on the wall. "Honey, you better get moving if you have to be at the VFW by eleven." Seeing the curious look on Sofia's face, she explained, "Mitch is the captain of the Cawker City Volunteer Fire Department. He and some of the boys from the station will be in the parade."
"I bet the little kids love you," Sofia said to Mitch but her attention was on Jim. There was something inexplicably sexy about the normally dapper Jim Brass wearing morning scruff, grubby cargo shorts and a stinky T-shirt that made Sofia want to say to hell with the squeaky bed. Fortunately, she'd noticed the bathtub was nice and roomy.
"Yeah, but the fire engine is the real attraction. They love it when we run the lights and sirens." Mitch finished off the water and trudged out of the kitchen. "All right guys, the wife says I have to go make myself pretty." He gave Jim a pat on the shoulder as he passed.
Jim's curious gaze was on a smiling Sofia before he slowly shifted to Carol. "What time does the parade start?"
"Not until noon but they want all the participants there an hour early." Carol picked the basket of fish out of the sink and took them to the ice chest out on the back porch. "We'll pack these in ice for now and then Mitch can clean them up later."
Looking back at Sofia with a hint of a smile, he came and sat down next to her. "Want to go to a parade?"
"I'd love to." She reached over and ran her hand over his prickly jaw. "Then I can see that big ball of twine that you used to lure me out here."
The parade came right down Wisconsin Street, past the Farmers & Merchants State bank where Jim, Sofia and Carol had a front row view from the curb. As predicted, all the small children when wild when they saw the big red fire engine come down the street and Mitch obliged by giving a short blast on the horn and running the lights and sirens for a few seconds. Following the CCVFD were hometown heroes from the war in Iraq all the way back to two old timers from WWII riding in a classic convertible Thunderbird.
The parade finally ended with a group of overweight Shriners packed into a convertible Mini Cooper.
"I guess the days of a bunch of fat guys stuffed in little cars isn't over after all," Jim said, squinting into the sun even with his sunglasses on.
Carol, standing in front of Jim, snorted into her Cherry Limeade. "You're awful!"
As the small crowd started to disperse, the trio walked along Wisconsin Street to Lake Drive. There wasn't much to see in the small town: the Cawker City Chamber of Commerce, a car dealership with about a dozen used cars and the B&B liquor store.
"I told Mitch we'd meet him at the pavilion."
No one had to tell either Jim or Sofia where the pavilion was, even if they couldn't see it. Jim had been nearly right about the world's largest ball of twine: the pungent smell of moist rot could be smelled two blocks away instead of a mile.
"Okay, you can't come all this way and not get a picture," Carol said, pulling out her camera. "Sofia, you and Jimmy stand in front of it and I'll take your picture."
Both Sofia and Jim reluctantly stood in front of the massive lump of sisal. What had once actually been a ball was now wider on the sides and flat on top, most likely because everyone adding twine to the ball couldn't reach the top.
Sofia stood on Jim's left and while he slipped his arm around her waist, she rested her hand on his butt gave his right cheek a gentle squeeze just as Carol snapped the photo.
The look on Jim's face had been priceless.
While Carol waited for Mitch, Sofia and Jim checked out the fresh air art gallery, following the twine painted along the sidewalk to see various paintings displayed in store front windows.
"This place really takes their twine seriously, don't they?" Sofia eyed one of the paintings, easily finding the piece of twine hidden in the picture.
"Hey, when you've got the world's largest ball of twine, you're sitting on a tourist gold mine." Jim looked at the diner across the street. "What do you want to bet they've got some version of twine pie over there?"
Sofia made a face but laughed anyway. "The blue plate special is probably sisal and meatballs."
"You city folks making fun of our fine twine?" Mitch's voice boomed out from behind them.
Jim and Sofia turned as one, both looking guilty, both still laughing. "Damn right!" Jim said, without hesitating. "What's next?"
"Well," Carol said, "there's a band playing and a picnic over at the park. Want to head over there?"
Jim looked at Sofia who shrugged. "Sure."
The band was the Faye and Bernie Quartet, a septuagenarian group that Jim guessed played the circuit fairly regularly as the crowd seemed to know them very well. The tunes were mostly from the 50's and early 60's and while Jim recognized all of them, it had occurred to him rather painfully that Sofia probably knew none of them.
"I do listen to the radio, you know," she scoffed when he'd mentioned it to her. And much later, when Bernie crooned out 'I Only Have Eyes for You', she'd impressed him even more by giving him the name of the group that made the song popular and the year in which they did it.
"My dad loved this music so whenever I went out to visit him, and he'd take us on long road trips, this was all we got to listen to."
"Any more secrets I should know?"
"Just one." She leaned over and whispered in his ear.
As the blush colored Jim's cheeks, he made a mental note to ask her to demonstrate that secret when they got back to Vegas.
It was close to nine o'clock when they got back to Mitch and Carol's house. They'd watched a second, younger band play for a little while and then headed over to Glen Elder and had dinner at a restaurant on Waconda Lake.
Once inside the house, Sofia wasn't surprised when Jim headed off to bed. Looking at him, it was hard to tell that almost three months ago he'd nearly bled out in a Las Vegas hotel room but long days like this one that left him completely drained were a harsh reminder. She knew he'd be out as soon as his head hit the pillow. She just hoped tonight wouldn't bear a repeat of last night's nightmare.
A half hour after Jim went upstairs and Carol said her goodnights, leaving Mitch and Sofia alone with the ten o'clock news.
Getting his first real opportunity to talk to Sofia since she arrived, Mitch leaned forward in his chair. "All right, be honest with me. How bad was it? Wasn't he wearing his Kevlar?"
Sofia took a deep breath and let it out. She knew this conversation was coming; she just hadn't expected it to happen so abruptly. "He was and that definitely saved his life. He was shot twice. The Kevlar stopped the first bullet but with the impact he turned. The second bullet caught him here," she pointed just below her right armpit, "and traveled across his chest to his heart."
Mitch leaned back in the chair and whistled softly. "Jesus Christ, it's a miracle he's alive."
Sofia nodded. "It is." She didn't want to rehash all those painful memories of those first few days but Mitch needed to know and she knew Jim wouldn't tell him. "He'd already lost a lot of blood and shortly after they got him into the ER, he flatlined."
"God, Sofia, I had no idea."
"There was a lot of internal bleeding, a lot of damage, but they managed to get him stable. There was some discussion about whether they should remove the bullet or leave it alone but the decision was made to remove it."
"What would have happened if they'd left it alone? Seems like taking it out was more of a risk."
"If they'd left the bullet alone, he wouldn't have faced the risk of surgery but there would always be the chance that the bullet could migrate to an artery and either cause a stroke or kill him. The friend who had his POA decided to go ahead with the surgery. I know he was right too. That's what Jim would have wanted."
Mitch nodded, quietly processing all the information.
"The massive blood loss led to a few recovery complications and the damaged lung caused a bout of pneumonia but after three weeks in the hospital they got everything under control and he improved enough to go home."
"How is he now?"
"You've seen him. How does he look?"
"For a guy who had a bullet lodged near his heart and died in the ER, pretty fucking good!"
Sofia laughed. "Yeah, he does. And for the most part, he is. He won't admit it but he's still sore—he had two major surgeries and has two major incisions—so he has to take things slow. He tires easily and he started having nightmares about a month ago."
"Nightmares? Like post traumatic stress disorder?" Mitch knew that all too well.
"Possibly. Jim remembers very little from the time he got shot until he woke up in the hospital but the counselor he's been talking to thinks he's starting to recall some of it."
"I tried to get him to tell me what happened before he got shot when we went fishing but…" he shrugged as his voice trailed off.
"He just smiled at you."
Mitch's head shot up. "Yeah, he gave me that goddamn annoying grin and changed the subject."
"Don't take it personally. He won't talk to me either. I know a little about what happened but he won't go into any details and I learned a while ago not to ask." Sofia still remembered that day. It had been shortly after Jim had been released and she'd asked what she thought was a simple question about the shooting. His mood shifted faster than a formula one driver. She knew part of it was a combination of pain and pain meds but she wasn't going to risk a repeat performance. If and when he was ready to talk about it, he would.
"When will they let him go back to work?"
"That hasn't been decided yet. He'll have to pass the physical fitness tests and re-qualify with his weapon before the sheriff will ever re-instate him. Right now he can't do either."
"I can imagine how frustrating it has to be for him."
"It is but I think the worst part is the boredom. He's been going stir crazy the last few weeks."
"I thought he might be. That's why I asked him to come out here. How about Ellie? Did she show up?"
Sofia frowned. "Yes she showed up. She seemed more concerned about his pension than she was about him."
"Yeah, she's a sweetheart. I don't know why Jim supports her the way he does."
"She is his daughter."
"Yeah, well…" Mitch caught himself before he said more than he should. Shaking his empty bottle, he said, "I'm getting a refill. You need another?"
She held up her nearly full bottle. "No, I'm good."
Mitch returned a minute later. "Two's my limit, just so you don't get the idea I'm some sort of lush." He sat back down in his chair, settling into the well-indented cushion. "Mind if I ask you a question?"
Sofia took a long swig of her beer, mostly as a delay tactic. Although she felt comfortable around both Mitch and Carol now, it felt a little awkward talking to Jim's friend without Jim present.
"Are you serious about him?"
Sofia didn't know what she expected him to ask but it certainly wasn't that. Without hesitating she shot back angrily, "If you're asking me if I'll break his heart at some point, I won't say no. He nearly broke mine." Sofia had never even broached the subject with Jim but she still couldn't shake the feeling that part of the reason he'd gone into that hotel room was the thought that he wouldn't come out alive. "Jim has some serious commitment issues. But the way he sees it, he got a second chance and he's really trying. As long as he's willing to try, so am I." She leaned back, still miffed. "Does that answer the question?"
Mitch put his hands up in a truce. "Sofia, I apologize. It's just that Jimmy's ex, Nancy, she burned him worse than a grease fire on a gas stove. Some of it was his fault for letting her walk all over him but that's the kind of guy he is. He's got a strong belief in how things should be and he'll hang on to that belief to the bitter end."
"Believe me, I know how he is. But I'm not Nancy and he's not Jimmy Brass any more."
Mitch felt the sting of that perfectly fired shot.
Sofia thought for a moment she'd said too much but she meant every word of it and wasn't about to apologize, even if she and Mitch never exchanged another word.
Instead a broad grin stretched across Mitch's features, lighting up his eyes. Winking at her, he said, "It's a shame he had to wait thirty years to meet someone like you."
"It's probably a good thing considering I'd have been seven at the time."
In the middle of taking a draw on his Michelob, Mitch nearly dribbled beer down the front of his shirt as he laughed into the bottle. Wiping his chin on his sleeve, he lifted himself out of the chair. "Don't know about you but I'm ready to call it a night."
On their last day in Kansas, Sofia found Jim standing alone in the back yard, staring up at the sky.
They'd spent the better part of the day out on the lake and that evening they dined on fried catfish, corn on the cob and tomatoes from the garden. They'd also had fried okra but both Sofia and Jim passed on that one. She'd never been a fan of okra and Jim had been forced to cut fried foods from his diet. He made an exception for the catfish though, especially since he'd caught most of it.
"Mind some company?"
"No." He reached out and took her hand, pulling her close enough that he could put his arm around her and kiss her cheek. "See those clouds over there?" He pointed in the direction of the lake where big, white puffy clouds were building. "Those are cumulonimbus clouds. It's probably going to storm tonight."
With no hockey or football on TV while he was recovering, Jim spent most of his time watching either Survivorman or The Weather Channel. Obviously, he was applying his newly found weather knowledge. It could have been worse: he could have been demonstrating various ways to use urine to survive.
"This is part of tornado alley, isn't it?" she asked, leaning into him.
"Have they ever had one here?"
"Mitch said they've had a few close calls but so far, no direct hits."
Sofia looked up at the clouds. "Great."
"Want to take a walk down to the lake and watch the sunset?"
He took hold of her hand and led her through the worn path lined with wild blackberry bushes, tall grasses and overgrown weeds to the edge of the water. The clouds had spread across the water, giving the western sky a golden glow while off to the south, dark gray clouds flashed with lightening.
Jim let go of her hand and reached down for the flat rock next to his foot. Running his finger over the edge of the stone, he snapped his wrist and sent the rock skimming across the water.
"Show me how you do that."
"What? Skip rocks?"
"Find a rock that's mostly flat." They both searched the ground, Jim picking up several good specimens and handed a couple to her. Demonstrating with one of his own finds, he said, "Now hold it like this and then you want to flick your wrist as you toss it." He let go of the rock and watched as it skipped across the top of the water several times before finally disappearing.
Sofia followed suit, smiling when her own rock skipped twice before sinking.
"That's it, just keep practicing." He handed over the rest of the rocks then stood back and idly rubbed his right shoulder. Watching as she skipped another one across the water, he asked, "Are you glad you came?"
She tossed another rock, watching it skim the water several times before disappearing below the surface. "Yes, I am. It's nice here."
"Yeah, it is. It's peaceful."
Sofia gave him a sideways glance. "You're not thinking of moving here, are you?"
Chuckling, he shook his head. "No. Nice place to visit and you know the rest. I like a little more excitement. Besides, something tells me you're not ready to leave Vegas."
She turned around so she could see his face. "So you'd stick around for me?"
He tilted his head slightly. "I already have."
She forgot about the rocks in her hand and instead stood impossibly still, listening as he continued to talk.
"When I was standing in that hotel room, I kept thinking how easy it would be. One shot and it would be over. But Cutler was as much a fuck up with a gun as he was at life and as much as I was wishing I was dead, cause God, let me tell you, getting shot hurts like a mother fucker, all I could think about," Jim looked up at the darkening sky, his face tight with emotion, "all I could think about was that I got it all wrong." He smiled at her, embarrassed that she was seeing him like this. "I couldn't disappoint you again."
"You never disappointed me."
He looked at the ground shook his head. Then looking at her, he said, "I did. But you know what? You never left. After all the shit I threw at you, you were always there for me and here I was, hoping one lucky nine-millimeter would solve all my problems. Like I said, I couldn't disappoint you again. So that's what I focused on: not dying and not disappointing you. And let me tell you, when you have someone to live for, it's a whole hell of a lot easier to tolerate a Foley catheter."
Letting the rest of the rocks fall from her hand, she slowly walked over to him and slid her hand over his shoulder, feeling the soft, short hairs on the nape of his neck. Pressing her mouth against his, she kissed him deeply and thoroughly and when they parted, she wondered if it was possible to love a man any more than she loved Jim Brass.
Departure day came too soon for Jim. He suspected Sofia was ready to go but he could have stayed a few more days. Still, last night's thunderstorm with fireworks provided by Mother Nature had been the perfect end note.
Wandering into the kitchen for a cup of coffee, he found Mitch already setting out the cream and sugar.
"Morning, Sunshine." Mitch handed Jim a mug and the coffee pot.
Pouring himself a cup, Jim grunted his greeting. He'd never been much of a morning person, which was why he was so suited to working nights.
"Hey, I've been meaning to tell you." Mitch sipped his coffee and inwardly cringed at the two words he was about to say. "Tommy called."
"Oh, yeah?" Jim tried to act like he cared but he truly didn't. He hadn't spoken to his older brother since the day he'd punched Tom in the face and broke his nose.
"I told him about you getting shot and he wants to call you, see how you're doing."
"You've seen me; you can tell him how I'm doing."
"You still won't talk to him? Jimmy, you have to let it go."
"He slept with my wife. Nancy and me, we didn't have the best marriage and I know she was a willing participant but she was my wife and he was my brother."
"He still is your brother. Look, I know you two were never close but he wants to make things right. The big guy upstairs gave you a second chance. Why not give Tommy one too? He's your family."
"So are you." Smiling, Jim gave Mitch a pat on the back as he headed out of the kitchen.
Sofia was talking to Carol in the living room, the suitcases sitting by the front door. They had a long travel day ahead of them and obviously, Sofia was ready to go.
"We'd better hit the road if we're going to make the flight in Salina." Jim passed his coffee over to Sofia who took a sip, scrunched up her nose and handed it back. He forgot she preferred her coffee with cream.
While Mitch loaded up the car, Jim and Sofia said their thanks and good-bye's to Carol who responded with hugs all around, much to Sofia's surprise.
Mitch was next in line, thanking Sofia for their chat the previous night but mostly conveying his gratitude for taking such good care of his friend. "Come back and see us. You're welcome any time, with or without him," he said with a wink.
Coming around to Jim, Mitch threw an arm around his shoulder and walked with him around to the passenger side of the car. "Take care of yourself—and her."
Jim glanced over at Sofia. "Hell, are you kidding? She takes care of me better than I could ever take care of her but I'll do my best."
"She's good for you, Jimmy. Don't screw this up."
"I'm not planning on it."
"Good because if you do, I'll come to Vegas and kick your ass."
"Oooh, I'm scared." Jim slid into the passenger seat and Mitch closed the door. With one final wave good-bye, Sofia started the car and circled around to the dirt and gravel road.
Watching the car carefully navigate around several puddles on its way towards the main highway, Carol said, "They're cute together."
"I give them a year."
Mitch yelped as Carol gave him a backhanded swat to the gut.
Four Weeks Later:
Jim emerged from the bathroom with his white dress shirt hanging open over a pair of neatly pressed tan trousers.
"Sofia, could you help me with his?" he asked. "I can't seem to get the buttons fastened."
Stepping up to the task, she said, "How can you possibly be ready to go back when you can't even hold your arm up long enough to button your shirt."
"I can hold my arm up; I just wanted you to button my shirt." He brushed the hair from her shoulders and kissed her neck.
Dipping her head to the side, she tried to focus on her task despite the pleasant distraction. "Isn't the idea to unbutton rather than button?"
"How about we do that later?"
She fastened the last button. "Definitely."
Tucking his shirt into his trousers, he said, "I know I'm pushing it but if I have to stay here another day, I'll go crazy." He lowered his gaze to hers, his eyes taking on an almost pleading look. "I have to go back to work."
She didn't like it but she understood. "I still think it's too soon."
"I passed my fitness test…"
"And I re-qualified. Besides," he kissed her quickly on the mouth then disappeared into the closet, still talking, "we both know I'll be riding a desk for at least a week." Emerging a few seconds later with two ties, he held up both and let her pick.
"The blue one."
He looked at her suspiciously then reluctantly tossed the yellow one onto the unmade bed. "Do I want to know why?" He'd have picked the yellow tie.
"It brings out the blue in your eyes."
He accepted her answer because he was dumb enough to ask. "I'll make sure all the bad guys notice."
"You might want to bat those long eyelashes at them too. That'll make them weak in the knees." Taking the tie from him before he asked, she slipped it around his neck and gently pulled down the ends.
Jim tried to ignore her fit of giggles, even though laughter somehow managed to make her look even more beautiful. One thing he'd noticed about her over the last couple of months was how tense and worried she'd been for so long. And he knew he was the cause of it. He loved to hear her laughter, to see the way her features brightened and her body relaxed when she was happy. The only other time he'd seen her like that was after making love. Unfortunately, love making wasn't something he could accomplish quite as often as he'd like but he could make her laugh.
"I forgot to tell you I talked to the sheriff--about us. I, uh, told him we were practically living together." He waited for her reaction to what wasn't actually the truth but close enough.
She didn't even blink as she tightened and squared the knot. "You did?"
"Yeah, he's so hung up on this hero crap I figure I can use it to my advantage. Once it all wears off, I'll never get another favor from him. He's going shift you to Rodriguez."
"Roddy's a good guy," she said, resting her hands on his chest and giving him a very rewarding kiss.
"What was that for?" Jim licked his lips, still savoring the taste of her.
"For taking on the sheriff and for saying that we are practically living together."
"You have more stuff in my closet than I do. I haven't done this in a while but I think that means you're living here."
She laughed again. "Yes, it does. Hey, before you leave, I have something to give you. It's for your office."
Jim followed her as far as the living room and then waited by the front door, glancing at his watch, anxious to get to work.
"Here." She handed him a framed picture. "Since it's not a secret any more."
Looking at the picture of the two of them standing in front of the world's largest ball of twine, his sunburned knees sticking out like Rudolph's nose, he burst out laughing.
"Everyone needs a vacation picture for the office."
Jim pressed his lips to hers and spoke as he kissed her, "Next year I'll take you to Garden City, Kansas so you can see the second largest cow hairball. Now that's something to see."
He was still laughing at the look of horror on her face as he climbed into the Charger and backed down the driveway.