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Sleeping With Ghosts

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“But writing isn’t just putting words down on paper making people feel things that aren’t even true.”

T.J.’s mouth fell open slightly as I sat back in my chair, headphones resting around my neck.

“Robin, I meant every word.”

I didn’t believe him. I still don’t. After all that’s happened, I’m not sure I’ll be able to believe anything that comes out of his mouth again. This may sound awful, but let me explain why. I try not to be jealous or spiteful, I really don’t. But when the one woman who gets everything she wants because she has money suddenly gets what she wants again , it’s pretty damn frustrating. Yes, T.J. is a ski instructor, she hired him for a day of private lessons, fine, that’s not the problem. The problem is that the last time I checked, private lessons don’t include drinks and falling into your student’s bed. Not if you’re being ethical, that is. I didn’t need to guess that that’s exactly what happened.

I rolled my eyes, sighed, and leaned toward the microphone.“Aspen’s Citizen of the Day is ski instructor T.J. Burke,” I stared at him as I said it. “So ladies, if you live in a big house and have lots of money, he’s available.” I pushed the microphone away and picked up another CD to put into the player. “Goodbye T.J., you’ll fit right in, trust me.”

He hung his head and walked out, looking thoroughly ashamed. Good. I could live with that. I made it through the rest of the day just fine, distracting myself as best I could, but when I got home, it was a different story.

When I got home I stoked the fire, letting it build up, which was nice after coming in from the cold, and went about things as I usually did. I reheated my simple dinner from the night before, although I don’t think that roast chicken, mashed potatoes and peas could ever qualify as a fancy dish. Anyway, with everything else done for the evening, I sat down to eat in front of the fireplace. Still angry, I picked up the latest copy of Powder magazine; the one that had T.J. on the cover. I sat my plate on the coffee table, got up, and tossed it into the flames.

Most other times I would have left the room and that would be that. Not this time, though. This time, I watched as it rolled up and burned to ashes. Thank God. Now I wouldn’t have to think about it. Or think about him, except for when (if, I mean if) he comes by the radio station again.

Isn’t it strange how people can change so quickly? Last season, he’d only just moved to Aspen with his best friend Dexter. They’d been so excited to try out for positions at the ski school and finding a place to live… but then Bryce noticed T.J., and what Bryce Kellogg wants, Bryce Kellogg gets. Insert snarky eye roll here. That being said, if he hadn’t moved to Aspen, I probably wouldn’t have met him, and therefore I wouldn’t be feeling this way. It’s still my own fault for breaking my one rule. At the age of sixteen, I had told myself no dating ski instructors because they always left town at the end of the season. Then T.J. came along, and I thought maybe, just maybe, he might be worth breaking the rule for. Well, more fool I.

I mentioned Dexter, didn’t I? That brings me back to something odd. It’s been over six weeks since I last saw him. The last I’d heard, he’d been suspended for two weeks from the ski school because he couldn’t control a hard-to-teach student, and then he’d all but disappeared. Wait, I did see him once when I went to the bar for a drink, but, again, that had been weeks ago. Something was very wrong. I told myself that I’d get up in the morning and drive out to Dexter’s place by the river (T.J. had lived there too, but now Bryce had him under her thumb, at least that’s what it looked like), and check up on him. No matter what, no one deserves to be left behind, even if circumstances change. And for all I know, Dexter could be in real trouble.  

The next morning, I don’t even bother knocking. I slide open the door to the caboose and almost jump back. It smells stale, as though Dexter hasn’t done laundry or dishes or any sort of cleaning for a while. There are beer bottles and garbage everywhere, and some sort of white powder on a plate. You’d think he’d be more discreet about it. I start opening cabinets and drawers, making as much noise as I can until he wakes up. He’s protesting the entire time I drag him to the shower and make him come jogging in the snow. Once he’s outside, I can see he’s much calmer, his fogged brain clearing just a little bit. What I did that morning could have been the beginning of a fresh start, but that’s up to him. Even I can see that he can’t go on like this and expect to live.

Once we go over the bridge, we stop running and sit on the same log we sat on in the summer when T.J., Dexter and I all went bike riding and fly fishing. That’s when Dexter tells me the whole thing. He’d gotten himself in trouble and in debt thanks to a drug deal gone wrong because he’d panicked. The whole reason he’d agreed to do it was because he thought he could make extra money while he’d been suspended. Most other people would have asked around at any of the chalets and coffee shops, but not Dexter apparently. He’d gotten a hard beating and been thrown naked out into the snow for his trouble, and when T.J. had found him and brought him home; well then Dexter had owed these people $10,000. T.J. had gone to Bryce and borrowed the money in order to help him. Bryce had bought T.J.’s companionship in return.

He didn’t use the word “companionship”, though. He said something like “sex for money” or “gigolo bitch”. Not the most grammatically correct sentence but I knew exactly what he meant. In essence, Bryce had bought T.J. in exchange for saving Dexter’s life. My heart broke for both of them, mostly Dexter. Even if I now understood why T.J. had done what he did, it didn’t mean I wasn’t still furious with him for not showing up that night he’d been with Bryce and I’d waited for him until three in the morning.

“I think I should go home,” Dexter spoke again. “To Michigan. It’s where I belong.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve done everything I can do here. Except the Powder Eight. T.J. and I were supposed to run it. But I don’t think that’ gonna happen now. He’s too far up Bryce’s ass.”

Ugh, now that was an image I didn’t need. I didn’t want to think of Bryce and T.J. in bed together; I’d be liable to vomit.

“It wouldn’t hurt to ask him,” I reasoned, swallowing bile. “The worst he could say is no. And if he does say no, I’ll run it with you.”

Where had that come from? I hadn’t run the Powder Eight in years, but once I’d said it, Dexter smiled for the first time since I’d dragged him out the door that morning. “Thanks Robin,” he said. “Not just for that, but, you know, breaking in and dragging my ass out here.”

“I was worried about you,” I confessed. “It’s been awhile since I’d heard anything from you and I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Well I’m not completely okay,” he confessed in return. “My best friend’s sold himself for me and now he won’t talk to me. Said he’s tired of picking up after me. And I don’t blame him. I’m a huge screw up.”

Once he’d admitted that, he suddenly looked worn out. He blinked, a though he’d just realized where he was, and reached out to hug me.

Startled, I squeezed him tightly. I felt his shoulders shake briefly, and he let out a sob against my collarbone. Then he went silent and still, holding me. He didn’t want anything more; just to be held. And that, I could do.

Even after he and I had mutually confessed that neither of us were okay (although I think that was mostly him), I didn’t hear anything more from Dexter until that wire from the Forest Service. As I read it out over the air, I felt myself choke up. Dexter had died practicing for the Powder Eight. He and T.J. had gotten caught in an avalanche, and T.J. had escaped and been treated for only minor injuries.

Shit. I knew how close T.J. and Dexter had been, and this sounded like the Powder Eight was going to be their “one last hurrah” before Dexter went back to Detroit. And now Dexter was gone. That’s just unfair.

For all I was still angry with T.J., I knew I had to go back to the caboose. He would probably need some help getting things together. Even if he didn’t actually want any help, it wouldn’t hurt to go over after work and at least over my condolences.

It turns out that it really did hurt. When I opened the door, he looked so lost and upset, packing Dexter’s things in boxes. Once he saw me, he stopped and folded his arms across his chest.

“I, uh…” he murmured as he looked at me. “I can’t find one of his gloves.”

I nodded. I wanted so badly to go across the room and hug him, but I knew I couldn’t. That would set off a chain of events and emotions that neither of us were prepared to deal with. “Well I just came by to tell you that I’m very sorry, T.J. I know you loved him a lot,” I truly meant it. He and T.J. had been best friends since the age of five. It’s not easy to forget something like that. Or to disregard it. And it would be very easy to blame yourself if they died.

“I’ll be okay, I just…” he picked up a marker and wrote what looked like an address on a label. “I’ve got to finish packing these to send them back to his mom.”

I nodded again. “It’s not your fault. Things happen, TJ, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

He sniffed and cleared his throat, as though he was trying to stop himself from crying. “It didn’t happen to me.”

Oh T.J. “Yeah it did,” I answered. From the look on his face, he wanted to be left alone to finish the job of packing everything up. I silently told myself that if he needed me, I’d certainly help, but that’s what any decent human being would do. I may still have been angry, but I still cared about him.

The next few weeks were quiet. I went to work each morning as I always did, nothing out of the ordinary happened. Except for when I checked the mail one morning, and there was an article written by T.J. in the new issue of Powder. He called it Aspen Extreme. Intrigued, I opened the magazine, and the first two words “Dexter Rutecki” caught my eye.

The entire story was beautifully written. It detailed Dexter’s life, as well as his time in Aspen. I could tell, however, that it had been immensely therapeutic for T.J. as well. I was incredibly proud of him. He’d wanted to be a writer, not just a ski instructor, and had also talked about wanting to be a “real writer” and “not just a rivet head from Detroit”, as he’d thrown at me during our argument. Well, one successful article was the result of a lot of hard work, and multiple rejections from other places. I would say he could now count himself well on his way to becoming a writer.

ooOoo      

A few days after he and Todd had won the Powder Eight, he’d driven over to her house, holding the copy of “Lady on the Radio” that he’d given her so long ago. He really did want her to keep it; he had written for her, after all, and he truly had meant every word of it. In truth, he wasn’t sure if this was meant as a further apology or something else entirely.

When she opened the door, she quickly smiled at him. Looking down at her feet, she cleared her throat and let him in. Suddenly lost for words, he thrust the pages into her hands. He’d never really be able to tell her just how sorry he was for that night, and he wanted to make it up to her, if he could.

Robin looked down and read the front page.

“Lady on the Radio?” she repeated. “Where did you find this? I thought it had gone through the shredder.”

“I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it,” T.J. answered as he took his boots odd. “I thought… if you still wanted it, you should have it. It wouldn’t be right for me to give something I wrote for you.”

“You know…” Robin quickly fanned the pages, then tapped them against the wall in the front hall to fix their alignment. “As beautiful as this piece is, I think we both deserve a fresh start, especially with everything that’s happened.” He followed her into the front room as sat down beside her on the day bed. “I was thinking, T.J., that perhaps we should tear up Lady on the Radio and burn it in the fireplace. Together.”

The thought of burning anything he’d written sent his stomach down into his feet. But really, it was a small price to pay. At least she was asking him if that would be okay. On the other hand, it hadn’t really been Lady on the Radio that had caused all these problems… it was merely a story that had gotten caught in the crossfire. He’d been the one to break her heart, blinded by what Bryce seemed to be offering. At first, it only seemed like she’d been offering to help him improve his writing technique. Well, once he’d crossed that line into needing money from her… she was more like Circe.

T.J. swallowed the lump in his throat, and nodded.

Robin handed him the stack of paper and went to feed the fire that was slowly building. He waited until she turned back to look at him, and then joined her. They split the stack in half, and slowly ripped Lady on the Radio to pieces, watching as they curled and turned to ashes.

And, truth be told, once the entire story had disappeared, T.J. felt lighter than he had in months. When Robin turned and hugged him, he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“You in there?” she whispered, still holding him close.

“Yeah,” he answered, squeezing her tight. “It’s just… I’m sorry, Robin, for all of it. I really am.”

“You said that already,” she whispered into his neck. “I know. You’re not the first one to fall for her charms. New city, bright lights, they can blind you.”

He chuckled, letting go of her. “That’s one way to look at it.” T.J. wiped suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans. “So, fresh start, huh?”

“Yeah, fresh start,” Robin turned and went over to the kitchen counter. “For me, though, fresh starts include coffee. What do you think?” she asked as she plugged the kettle in and brought out the coffee can and filters.    

“Nicest thing I’ve heard all day.”

ooOoo

Of course, while we’d agreed to try for a fresh start, I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work. As I sat down beside T.J. on my couch, I realized that, in retrospect, I really didn’t know that much about him. If we were going to try and rebuild our relationship (if there was still a relationship to be saved), it was going to take both of us fighting for it.

With that in mind, it’s safe to say that almost every young girl who grows up believing in fairy tales dreams of Prince Charming. That he’ll ride up on his horse and be the most handsome man you’ve ever seen and fall instantly in love with you and you’ll ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after, no effort required.

Pfft. I have now decided (not that I didn’t already know) that fairy tales are very dangerous things. I blame Disney.

I know very well that T.J. is not Prince Charming, and I do not expect him to be. He’s flawed, same as any human being, and frankly, that’s what makes him who he is. As strained as our relationship is right now, I still want us to be friends, same as we were with Dexter. Maybe that’s wishful thinking.

That was another thing I was curious about. T.J. had once mentioned that he and Dexter first met when they were five, and had been looking after each other ever since. From the little he’d told me, Dexter’s home life had been terrible, which meant he spent a lot of time with T.J.’s family as an escape. Now that I think about it, perhaps it wasn’t T.J. who’d come out to Aspen to be saved; maybe it had been Dexter.

But a place can’t save anyone. You have to want to save yourself. And judging from what Dexter had said to me the last time I’d spoken to him, he had wanted to save himself. But Mother Nature had been cruel, taking him before any of us were ready. At the same time, terrible as it may sound, Dexter’s death had been the catalyst T.J. needed in order to see what exactly he’d gotten himself into.

That didn’t mean that it was fair. When a person dies, they don’t get to see how the people left behind cope. But I think I understand how T.J. copes with loss: he writes. He wrote that piece to move on. To a new life.

“Penny for your thoughts?” I heard him ask as I laid my head on his shoulder.

“They aren’t worth that much,” I told him. “Not right now, anyway. Maybe after some food I might be able to formulate a complete sentence and not sound like a fool.”

“Who said you were a fool?” he seemed shocked. Whether he was having me on, I couldn’t tell. “You’re one of the most intelligent women I’ve ever met.”

“Well thanks for that, but I’m really not looking for compliments,” I insisted. This bit of superfluous conversation gave me time to organize my thoughts. And then I realized why we were having such a hard time talking to each other. We were in my living room, and that was not neutral ground. We needed to start over again, and perhaps the best way to do that would be if we were outside. “You know, maybe tomorrow, we could go for a walk?”

T.J. seemed surprised.

“Good idea,” he answered, taking another sip of coffee. “You kicking me out?”

“Not right away, you can finish your coffee,” I picked up my own mug and finished the last of it. “It’s pretty cold out, it wouldn’t be fair to make you leave.”

When he’d finished, I walked him to the door and waited until he laced up his boots.

“So, um…” our conversation seemed to be getting increasingly awkward. “I’ll come by for ten tomorrow?”

“Sounds good to me,” I reached forward and hugged him. Once he’d gone out the door I watched as he got into the van and drove away before shutting the house down for the night.

ooOoo

If I could cautiously count on one thing, he kept his word this time. T.J. Burke was at my front door right at 10 a.m., decked out in hiking gear. I could only assume he had the day off, which I found strange. Surely after winning the Powder Eight, he’d be more in demand. I’d asked someone else to cover my shift at the radio station (a very rare occurrence), and soon we were off.

Exploring the forestry turned out to be a very good idea. I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time. Climbing trees, swinging from the branches, skipping rocks over the water… I felt like I was ten years old again. By the time we’d worn ourselves out, we found ourselves sitting on that same log again, but this time, an uncomfortable silence was settling between us. If I didn’t do something soon, we’d be sitting in silence until we agreed it was time to go home.

I swallowed, my throat dry.

“T.J., can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“The last time I talked to Dexter…” I saw his shoulders tense. “He mentioned that you went to Bryce and borrowed the money he needed after whatever he was into went so completely sideways.”

He cleared his throat, as though he’d forgotten how to speak. “Yeah,” he answered as though that explained everything. There was a defensive tone in his voice.

“He told me why, that you did it to save his life, but I don’t understand why Bryce would have been your first choice.”

“She didn’t need the money, not really,” he confessed. “The only thing I could do to pay her back was to let her parade me to her friends as her pet project.” He sounded very bitter. “As though I was a refurbished car. ‘Look at what I can do: take this rough and tumble ski bum and told him into a man.'”

I might have found that funny, but not this time. “Almost like Henry Higgins.”

“I guess you could say that. Not sure she was so successful. And the last time I checked, my name isn’t Eliza Doolittle.”

I stopped. “You’ve read My Fair Lady?”

“Saw the movie, read the book a few years later,” he shrugged. “But I get the feeling you didn’t want to come out here and talk about how well read I might or might not be,” he shifted and turned to face me. “Robin, what do you really want to know? Did Bryce pay me for sex?”

I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. “It’s none of my business, but it sounds like that was part of the deal.”

He nodded. “The only reason I did it was to save a life.”

“That’s really not what I wanted to ask you about,” I insisted, my skin crawling at the thought of him in bed with Bryce. “I thought going for a walk would be good for us because I want us to get to know each other again.”

“What do you mean again?”

“I don’t know that much about you, T.J.,” I pulled my headband off and laid it on the log beside us, shaking my head. “Just that you’re from Detroit and started working at the assembly plant right out of high school.” I pulled on my coat sleeve to cover the bit of my sweater that was poking out. “But that’s what you do, not who you are.”

His eyes went wide, as though he’d just realized what I’d asked him. He got up and and dropped to his knees in front of me. As he did, he took my hand in his, and slowly pulled my glove off, one finger at a time. Once my hand was bare, he brought his lips to my fingertips and individually kissed them.

“I am the man…” he said between kisses. “Who is absolutely, completely in love with the lady on the radio.” He kissed my palm before laying it on his cheek. “I am the rivet head from Detroit who wanted a change and came to Aspen, only to meet the most beautiful woman in the world and throw it all away because he didn’t see what was right in front of him.” He inched closer and leaned in, this time kissing my cheek. “I am the idiot who doesn’t deserve a second chance,” he gently pulled me to him. “But I’ll beg you for one now if that’s what you want from me, Robin.” I felt goosebumps erupt under my sweater. T.J. was not an idiot, he knew what he was doing here as well as I did. And the funny thing was, I was not about to tell him to stop.

“I’m on the brink here, Robin,” he whispered as he reached for the buttons on my coat. “Tell me, do you want me to beg?”

“No,” I whispered back, stopping his hand. “I don’t want you to beg, T.J. Burke,” I pushed the open sides of my coat out of the way, and then, deciding that it was too burdensome, took my coat off completely, leaving me in my sweater. “I want you to show me how much you want a second chance.”

“What do you want me to do?” he looked almost punch-drunk, staring right into me.

“Take me home,” I put him out of his misery and kissed him hard. “Take me home and let me see all of you.”

I’d realized exactly how that sounded before we’d even gotten back in my front door. At that point, we were both so worked up neither of us cared.

Later, as I lay on top of him, I thought of the many other ways he could make it up to me. For now, though, I’d take this. He’d done what he’d promised: he’d let me see the part of himself no one else had probably seen. I’d just seen the man in love with the lady on the radio who had just lost his best friend. Anything else could wait until later.

I moved off of him and curled into his side. He was so deeply asleep he barely responded, but did so just enough to put his arm around my shoulder and pull me closer. Once he did, I heard him mumble something.

“Yeah,” I answered him. “Yeah, T.J., you’re home.” At least, that’s what I thought he said.

Apparently I hadn’t gotten it right. He shook his head and mumbled the same thing again, and this time I listened very closely.

Oh, that’s what he meant.

“Yeah, T.J., I’ll be here when you wake up.” The lady on the radio always was.