And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain side shut fast.
Did I say all? No; one was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say –
"It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can't forget that I'm bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me."
Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Tim stared up at the living room ceiling. He couldn't sleep. Everyone in the house had gone to bed hours ago, but the house itself was alive with noise. Tim had never noticed before what a creaky old house it really was. The pipes groaned and the air conditioner shuddered, the same second-hand unit Tim helped install the summer he turned 14.
He blinked, rubbing a hand over his tired face. It would be nice just to sleep; it had been a long day.
Tim had been paroled from prison that morning. Billy drove two hours to get him in Colorado City. Tim would have felt bad about it, but Billy had been driving there and back once a week for the last four years to visit him, so he was used to it.
"You wanna drive home?" Billy asked once they were outside, holding up the keys, Tim's old number 33 keychain jangling in his hand.
"No thanks," Tim replied, looking out at the busy, rain-dampened highway.
They drove in silence, Billy occasionally breaking it to tell Tim again how excited Stevie and Kaitlyn, his nephew and niece, were for his arrival.
"They bugged Mindy to help them make a cake and everything," Billy said, smiling. "It's just out of a box and all, but still."
"That's real sweet," Tim replied, watching the fields pass by his window. He tapped the fingers of one hand against his thigh. "Mind if I smoke?"
Billy shot him a sidelong glance. "It's your truck, do what you want. Since when do you smoke?"
"Everyone smokes," Tim replied, digging into his jacket for his cigarettes with one hand while rolling the window down with the other.
Billy cleared his throat. "So, you got rules you gotta follow, since they paroled you?"
"Yep." He lit his cigarette and inhaled, resting his arm on the window frame.
"Curfew, find a job, that kinda thing."
"You know you've always got a job at Riggins' Rigs, right?"
"I know." Tim squinted out at a field of corn. It was pretty tall already, for April.
"You gotta check in with a parole officer, anything like that?"
"Yeah, I gotta head over to the sheriff's department tomorrow and check in and get some info from them about my parole officer."
Billy nodded, but said nothing more.
Tim smiled faintly at the blue and gold WELCOME TO DILLON sign that greeted them when they passed into the town. Everything was the same: Fran's Hamburgers, the Alamo Freeze, Applebee's, Garrity Motors, the churches, the High Plains Mall where he took Becky to buy her pageant dress. Billy turned onto their street, and they passed a bungalow with a bright red and white EAST DILLON LIONS sign in the front. The quarterback lived right in their neighbourhood.
Billy pulled into the driveway and killed the engine. Tim glanced up at the house. It looked the same, too, except they'd repainted it, and Billy actually seemed to be mowing the lawn now and then. The flowerbed under the front window had been cleaned up and was filled with shrubs and flowers.
"Hey, listen," Billy said, "we told the kids you were in the army this whole time. Didn't wanna freak 'em out with the whole jail thing, you know?"
"Try to smile for them and stuff, okay? They're real excited to see you."
"I will, Billy."
The front door opened and Mindy appeared with Stevie and Kaitlyn. Stevie, at four, was tall for his age, his head already above his mother's hip. He was skinny, but solid, and had an unruly mop of dark blond hair on his head. Kaitlyn, at three, could almost have been his doppelganger except that she was shorter and chubbier, and was wearing a bright pink bikini and sunglasses. Mindy looked exactly the same as the day Tim said goodbye to them at the courthouse, except now she was pregnant with baby number three. She shaded her eyes with one hand and waved with the other.
"There's Daddy and Uncle Timmy, babies. Go say hi!"
Tim got out of the truck as Stevie and Kaitlyn came tumbling down the lawn, shouting excitedly. Skeeter, his little dog, came bounding out of the house behind them.
"Uncle Timmy!" Stevie shouted, launching himself at Tim's legs. He held Tim tightly, as though he had any real idea who he was. Kaitlyn came along more slowly behind him, looking up at Tim somewhat dubiously.
"Hey," he greeted them. Tentatively, he ruffled Stevie's hair. He bent down as Skeeter came trotting up, patting the small dog's ribs.
"Hi," Kaitlyn said softly, pushing her sunglasses up onto her dark blonde head to reveal hazel eyes like his own, like his mother's.
"Hey, honey." She smiled shyly, turning around to look up at her mother, who had come down from the house.
"Can Uncle Timmy sleep in my room?" Kaitlyn asked.
"Our room," Stevie corrected her, rolling his brown eyes at Tim.
"Uncle Timmy's sleeping on the couch," Billy said, sounding aggravated. "Just 'til we figure something out. Who wants pizza?"
"Me!" shouted Stevie, tearing off towards the house. His family followed him, and Tim turned to lift his duffle bag out of the truck bed. He saw their old neighbour, Mr. Sanders, watering his lawn and watching them from across the street. Tim raised an arm in greeting, but Mr. Sanders turned away, and went back into his house.
The rest of the afternoon and evening passed in a blur. Tim sat back, feeling a little overwhelmed by Billy's busy little family. He did his best to smile, though, when Mindy brought out the cake they had made for him. It said WELCOME HOME UNCLE TIM in pink frosting left over from Kaitlyn's birthday, and it was decorated with a small plastic toy tank which Stevie reclaimed as soon as the cake was on the table.
Tim sighed and turned over on the couch, staring into the darkness of the empty living room. The couch wasn't very comfortable, but it was a two bedroom house – there wasn't anywhere else for him to sleep. With another baby on the way, the place was packed to the rafters. He'd have to get his own place eventually, but for now, he didn't have much choice except to stay.
Anyway, the couch wasn't any worse than the thin bunk on which he'd slept for the last few years.
He sat up and rubbed his face again. He stood and walked across the room, stopping at the front door. He stared at it for a moment, then reached out a hand and unlatched the deadbolt. His hand shook, but he grabbed the knob and turned it, opening the door.
Tim stepped forward and stood on the threshold in his t-shirt and boxers, breathing the fresh air of the still evening. There was no sound but the distant drone of traffic up on the highway.
Tim exhaled a breath he didn't realise he'd been holding in.
He went back into the house, closing and locking the door behind him.
It had been nearly four years since Julie had seen, talked to, or thought about Tim Riggins.
He had never been much more than a blip on her teenage radar, their paths crossing only occasionally even in such a small a place as Dillon. She'd heard about him getting arrested for something to do with stolen cars in her senior year, but by that time she was preoccupied with Matt and college and Habitat, and was more than happy to leave Dillon gossip behind her. Tyra had mentioned him once or twice in their interstate phone conversations, but it hadn't mattered much to Julie at the time.
She graduated with honours from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in American Literature. She watched as her classmates applied to grad schools, moving on to bigger and better schools. She applied to several herself, thinking about pursuing journalism. In particular, she wanted to get into the program at Berkeley. Aside from it being an excellent program, Nate (extremely serious "He's The One!" boyfriend number two) had been accepted. They planned to get an apartment together, and a cat, and a potted fern, and some furniture from IKEA.
Julie was rejected from every grad school but one, which waitlisted her. It wasn't even UC Berkeley, but Nate suggested that she stay in town anyway and get a job, and maybe she could get in the following year.
That was the moment Julie realised that she had no desire to get a job at Starbucks and spend the year watching Nate work on his thesis. She wasn't even sure she wanted to sit through more classes, or write more papers, or deal with more school. Nate, as it turned out, was surprisingly and upsettingly okay with this.
Julie drove home to Dillon on her own, dragging four years' worth of books, papers, projects, and mementos behind her in a rented U-Haul. Her roommate made her a goodbye mix CD on which Joni Mitchell was featured heavily, and she found herself singing tearfully along as she drove through the New Mexico desert, convinced that no one on earth could ever possibly understand her heartache the way Joni did.
"Joni Mitchell?" her mother asked with some surprise, peering at the CD case she found under the driver's seat. Tami offered to help Julie clean out her car upon her homecoming, filled as it was with empty drink containers and fast food wrappers, her vegetarianism briefly abandoned in a haze of angst and self-pity.
"Schuyler was a big fan," Julie explained with a little shrug, wiping the dusty dashboard with a wet rag. She wrinkled her nose at the grime that came off. How did the insides of cars get so dirty?
"Well, Schuyler's got good taste."
When her mother mentioned casually over dinner a few nights later that she had run into Mindy Riggins at the supermarket, and that Tim had been paroled and was back in Dillon, it took Julie several beats to bring herself up to speed.
"I mean, Mindy said that Billy's real excited that he's out, but I just don't know," Tami said, shaking her head in dismay. "What on earth is that boy going to do with himself now? I hate to say it, but he didn't even have much of a shot before he was an ex-convict."
"Wait, hold on," Julie said, holding a forkful of salad in mid-air. "Tim Riggins actually went to prison?"
"Yeah, he did. Didn't Tyra ever mention it?" Tami asked.
"Maybe. I guess we didn't talk about Dillon gossip much." Julie looked over at her father, but he was staring fixedly at the table, his jaw clenched.
"Nothing you could have done, honey," Tami said softly, placing a hand over her husband's.
"Yeah," he replied simply, taking a swig of his beer.
"What's an ex-convict?" Gracie Belle asked, spearing a green bean on her fork. She looked expectantly at both of her parents, then at her big sister.
"It's someone who was in jail, but now they're out," Julie said, before her mother could say anything. Glancing up, she saw the look her mother was giving her, and shrugged.
"Jail?" Gracie repeated, sounding appalled. She looked to her mother for confirmation. "They let the bad guys out of jail?"
Tami shot Julie another dirty look, but Julie simply mouthed, you brought it up, and poked listlessly at her salad.
"No, sweetie. They keep the bad guys in jail. But sometimes people go to jail because they just made a mistake."
"Oh," Gracie said, looking down at her plate. She didn't seem terribly reassured.
"How's the job search going, sweetie?" Tami asked Julie, an edge in her voice.
"It's going all right," Julie replied. "There aren't many temp positions in Dillon, apparently."
"Well, I don't think it would hurt you to be a little less particular, and see about getting something with the county or maybe one of the schools. Your father and I could put in a good word for you."
"Yeah, I just don't want to get anything too permanent, you know? I still haven't heard back from TMU." In a moment of panic upon her return to the tiny fishbowl of her hometown, Julie had applied to a handful of grad schools in Texas, for various programs she was not sure she actually wanted to study. So far, no one was biting, and she wasn't sure how she felt about it.
Her parents didn't even try to hide the concerned look they shared across the table, and Julie didn't try to hide her resentment over it.
Nobody really said much for the rest of the meal.
Tim shifted uncomfortably, the hard plastic chair he was sitting on digging into his back. He was in the reception area of the Carr County Sheriff's office, waiting for his name to be called. Tim glanced up at the plain white clock on the wall. It was just past noon, and he was still a free man. More or less.
He shuffled his feet. After two months in the Carr County Jail and just under four years in Horace State Prison, he didn't mind a little leisurely loitering.
"Timothy Riggins?" called one of the deputies. Tim stood and walked over to the counter.
"Here," said the deputy, handing him a card. "That's your parole officer. You've got a meeting with him this afternoon, 1 PM. If you're not gonna be able to make it, you need to tell me right now so I can notify him. Otherwise, if you don't show, he can have a warrant issued for your arrest for breaching the conditions of your release. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Tim replied, peering down at the card. Robert Parkins – Parole Officer. Dillon, Texas. His office was just down the way, in the same complex as the police station.
"You can go. Don't miss that appointment, now."
"Thanks," Tim said, pocketing the card. The deputy had already turned away.
Tim left the office, walking down a long corridor until he found a building directory. He scanned it until he found the office he needed. When he arrived at the place he figured he was supposed to be, he hesitated outside the door. He was early. Was he allowed to be early?
He entered the small, dark wood-panelled office. The receptionist at the desk looked up and cradled the phone in her shoulder, gesturing at him to come over to the desk. She finished her conversation and hung up.
"What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I've got an appointment with uh, Robert Parkins at 1 PM. I'm kinda early, though."
"That's okay," the receptionist said, picking up the telephone again. "Just have a seat and Mr. Parkins will see you as soon as he can."
Tim turned and sat on one of the three chairs lined up outside the door. The cork bulletin board on the wall was covered in posters about literacy and gangs. It reminded him of Mrs. Taylor's office back at Dillon High.
He sat down with his head against one of the posters, and waited.
About twenty minutes later, the door next to him opened, and a man exited, leaving the office without a word. A second man stood in the doorway, hands on his hips.
Tim figured he was around his dad's age, with short, dirty blond hair slowly turning grey. His face was weathered, which made him seem older than perhaps he really was. He wore a plaid button down shirt, jeans, and an ugly old sports coat. Thick, black-rimmed glasses gave him an incongruous, mild-mannered appearance.
"You Timothy Riggins?" he asked, looking down at him. His voice was low and tired, and Tim had to strain to hear him.
"Yes, sir," Tim replied, standing up.
"Come on in," the man said, going back into the office and sitting down. Tim followed him. The office was tiny and cramped, the shelves of books and files which lined the walls overpowering the small room, which also contained a battered desk, and an old brown couch. "My name's Robert Parkins, which you probably got from the card, and I'm your parole officer."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Parkins, sir," Tim said, sticking out a hand.
The man raised an eyebrow at Tim. "You can just call me Rob," he said, turning back to the papers on his desk. "Have a seat."
Tim sat down on the ragged brown couch and waited.
"I see from your records here that you received some vocational training at Horace – automotive and horticultural?" Rob said, leafing through the thin manila file on his desk. Tim could see his name printed along its edge.
"Those are good programs. You realise, though, that one of the conditions of your release is that you're not permitted to be employed in any automotive field until the end of your probation period?"
Tim stared at the man. Rob stared back, and cleared his throat. "Did you read your parole contract, or did someone read it to you?" he asked.
Uncomfortably, Tim shrugged. "They just told me to sign it, so I signed it."
"Okay," Rob said, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes. "Your parole contract outlines the terms of your release, to which you are agreeing when you sign it. You have to follow everything in that contract. Failure to do so could result in a warrant being issued for your arrest, and then you'll have to return to prison to serve out the remainder of your original sentence, plus extra time for breach of probation."
"So what, I can't go near cars or they'll put me back in prison?"
"You can own and operate your own vehicle, you just can't have anything to do with the operation of a garage," Rob said. He flipped through Tim's file again. "I see your brother owned the garage out of which you ran your chop shop. He still have that place?"
"Okay, well, you can't work there or be there for any reason other than to have your vehicle serviced, and you need to let me know if that's happening."
Tim nodded, looking down at his lap. Billy wasn't going to like that; they had both planned on Tim going back to work at the shop.
"So that brings us to the subject of employment. You need to find a place to live and a means of self-support. Do you plan to continue living with your brother?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Okay. If you change your address, you need to notify me. How about work? Any thoughts on that?"
"To be honest, I was gonna go work with my brother, but I guess that's out."
"Yes, that's out," Rob said. "At least for now. I'm going to give you a list of places to try to find some work, and I want to see you back here in a few days to report on your progress. No fooling around; you need to find a job."
"Yes, sir," Tim replied. Rob pulled a photocopied package of papers from Tim's file, as well as a list of addresses.
"Try these places first and if that's a wash, we'll go back to the drawing board. That there's a copy of your parole contract, outlining all the conditions of your release. I suggest you familiarise yourself with it."
"Yes, sir," Tim said again, looking down at the papers in his hands.
Tim had dozens, but he didn't think they were the kind a parole officer could answer for you.
"No, sir," he replied.
"Okay. Hold onto my card and call me any time. You get in trouble with the law, you make sure you call me. All right? Tell whoever's waiting they can come in, and make a standing appointment with Jenny before you leave."
"Thanks," Tim said, standing up.
"No problem. Shut the door on your way out," Rob replied merely, turning back to his desk and scribbling some notes on Tim's file. Tim stood awkwardly for a moment, waiting, and then turned and let himself out of the office.
He wasn't sure what he was waiting for.
Julie didn't know when or how exactly she'd signed on to be the designated family errand runner, but until she found a job, that seemed to be her fate. It was May, so both of her parents were still working, and they were more than happy to unload the dry cleaning and groceries and trips to the post office on her.
On this particular blistering hot Tuesday, Julie found herself pulling into the parking lot of the Alamo Freeze to pick up dinner for the recently reinstituted Taylor Tuesdays, while her mom finished up at the high school and her dad picked Gracie up from daycare.
Parking her car, she climbed out into the blazing sun, trying to remember what everyone wanted. Four years away had left her a bit rusty, but she still remembered how her mom liked her spicy chicken sandwiches. It was all coming back to her.
She stopped short in the midst of her thoughts when she spotted Tim Riggins on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, his elbows on his knees, cupping a cigarette in one hand and sitting in the shade of the building.
Julie almost didn't recognize him at first. He had always been in impossibly good shape, but he used to have a softness about him which was absent now. He was still muscular, but he was wiry, his tall frame lean and his arms roped with veins. He was scruffy, too; his dark hair was as lank and unkempt as always, but he was no longer clean-shaven. His face was peppered with stubble, and his hair hung in his eyes.
She hesitated for a moment, but realised that she'd been standing there staring at him for several beats, and saying hello would be slightly less weird than saying nothing at all.
"Hey," she said, stepping forward. "Tim?"
He turned his head and blinked up at her, as though trying to place her. If he didn't remember her, she was going to be so embarrassed.
"Jules," he said, nodding.
"Yeah, long time no see."
"Yep," he replied, looking away and taking a drag from his cigarette.
Julie glanced at the familiar old black Silverado which sat a few feet in front of him, its hood up and its engine billowing steam. "What are you up to?"
"Waiting for my truck to cool down," he replied. "You?"
"Just picking up some dinner," she said, gesturing at the restaurant and taking a step closer. "I just got home from college last week."
"Yeah? Where'd you end up going?" Tim asked.
"Nice," he said. He sounded about as enthused as Julie felt these days. She had the sudden urge to sit down next to him and rib him, like she had when he'd stayed with them back in high school. Except teasing him about rally girls doing his homework seemed significantly less amusing now than it had back then.
"Yeah," she mumbled, scuffing a shoe against the pavement. "It was good, but I didn't get accepted to the graduate program there, so... Here I am."
"You workin'?" he asked, stubbing out his cigarette and standing up. He leaned against the hot grill of the truck, crossing his arms over his chest and watching her.
"Nothing so far, but I'm looking."
"Yeah, me too."
Julie nodded. She wanted to tell him she was sorry about what had happened, but it seemed strange. Were you supposed to treat a stint in prison the same way you'd treat a death?
In the end, she decided it was better to say nothing at all.
"Well," she sighed, "I'd better get going. Can't keep my dad waiting on his dinner; heads will roll."
Tim nodded. "Good luck with the job search."
"Yeah, you too. See you around?"
"See you 'round."
Julie turned to head into the Alamo Freeze, but Tim's voice stopped her.
"Could you... Would you tell Coach I said hey?"
Julie regarded him, at the weary tension in his body as he stood there with his hands on his hips, a hesitant expression on his face. "Sure," she replied softly. "Yeah, of course."
"Thanks," he mumbled, nodding once, quickly. He turned and closed the hood of his truck firmly before climbing in. The engine started with a noisy rumble and he pulled out of the parking lot, heading east.
Julie stood in the open doorway of the Alamo Freeze and watched the truck disappear, until the pimply teenage cashier in his white paper hat told her to either come in or leave, because they sure as hell weren't paying to cool the great outdoors.
Giving her head a firm shake, Julie went inside.
Tim wrote the address at Midland College from memory, printing it as neatly as he could on the back of a post card with a cartoon armadillo on its front.
I'm out. You can send me mail at Billy's, but I'm going to try to get an email address one of these days and catch up with the rest of the world. You'll be the first to know when I do.
Talk to you soon. Hope everything's good.
Tim placed the stamp carefully in the top corner and walked out of the drug store, dropping the card into the faded blue mailbox outside. It closed with a rusty creak, and he climbed into his truck, starting the engine and pulling out of the parking space.
He and Becky became dedicated correspondents after he went to prison, her mother forbidding Becky from actually visiting him. She didn't like them writing to each other much, either, but it was only a couple years before Becky graduated from high school, got a scholarship to Midland College, and moved to the dorms, anyway.
The reliability of Becky's weekly letters was a real comfort. She told him what was happening in town and how school was going, about pageants and proms and singing the anthem at every Lions game. They stirred in him a mixture of nostalgia and agonizing homesickness, but all the same they were a welcome distraction. He had needed distraction and escapism more than anything, and Becky's cheery, newsy letters were a bright spot in that dark place. Between those and Billy's visits and phone calls, Tim got by.
She would be home from college any day now, and Tim was looking forward to seeing her. It was as much a surprise to him as anyone, but Becky had become his most loyal friend. She was like the sister he never had and never knew he might want.
He had called Lyla a handful of times in the first few months, but she never answered or returned his calls. He didn't hold it against her – he wouldn't have known what to say to him, either. He heard through the grapevine that she was still in Nashville, studying law at Vanderbilt. Everyone in town spoke of Lyla with pride, and Tim was glad that he had done at least one thing right: telling her it was okay to leave him behind.
Jason's silence was worse. He sent one letter, and it was short and angry. Tim knew Jason had written it in frustration, but it hurt anyway. Maybe it was his turn to be the one left in a strange place, with a new life he didn't expect or want, and have his best friend disappear. Tim figured he had that one coming.
Tim pulled onto his street and turned up into the driveway. Tiredly, he parked and got out. He'd been spending every day since he met with his parole officer pounding the pavement, looking for a job. Turned out there weren't too many places interested in ex-cons with no real work experience.
Tim let himself into the house and enjoyed for a moment the unusual silence. The kids were at daycare, Billy was at the garage, and Mindy was at work. She'd begun working as the receptionist at Garrity Motors a couple years earlier when things got serious between her mom and Mr. Garrity. They were married now, living in a little bungalow in the south end of town.
Dropping his keys on the counter, Tim went to the fridge and grabbed a beer. As he cracked it open, he glanced up and saw the light on the cordless phone flashing, indicating that there was a message. He picked it up and dialled, punching in the password ("boobs" – Billy had chosen it) and listening. There was one new message.
"Hey, this is John from The Golden Horseshoe, for uh, Tim, was it? Just calling about the resume you dropped off the other day. How soon can you start? Is Monday okay? Call me back. 555-2104."
Tim slammed his beer down on the counter, causing a spray of foamy head to fly up and spatter against the cupboards. Frowning, he hung up on the electronic voicemail lady asking him whether he'd like to delete the message, and quickly dialled the number of the restaurant. A girl picked up, and he asked to speak to John, waiting anxiously as she fetched him.
Their conversation was brief: they had a position as a dishwasher open. It paid minimum wage and the hours were crap, but the restaurant participated in a program where they were rewarded with financial incentives by the state for hiring ex-cons, so they were interested.
Tim wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He accepted readily and said he'd start as soon as they needed him.
After hanging up the phone, he retrieved his beer and took a long, hard swig. Then he smiled, and picked up the phone again.
At least he'd have some good news to tell his parole officer. It was a start.
Dear Ms. Taylor,
Thank you for your recent application to Texas Methodist University. We received a high volume of applications this year, making the selection of new students to the graduate program a challenge. I regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you a place in the incoming class at this time.
I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours.
Director of Admissions
Texas Methodist University
Julie folded the letter neatly and returned it to the envelope in which it had come. Standing next to her desk, she opened a drawer and retrieved her small stack of rejection letters. She placed this most recent one on the top and returned them to the drawer.
She stood in the middle of her bedroom and sighed deeply, trying to remember why she hadn't wanted to attend grad school, why she hadn't wanted to stay in Berkeley with Nate, why she hadn't just waited a year and see if they'd take her then.
Right now, she couldn't recall what had drawn her away from California and back to Texas. The only thing which sprang bleakly to mind was her and Tyra's old theory that Dillon was a black hole whose pull was impossible to resist.
Sighing again, Julie left her bedroom and trudged to the kitchen. She was in the midst of rummaging through the fridge for a drink when she heard her mom come in the front door.
"Hey honey," Tami called, rounding the corner with a couple bags of groceries in hand. "Mind giving me a hand? It's so nice having you around again."
"Sure," Julie replied, taking the bags and starting to unpack them on the counter.
"Any luck on the job front today?"
"Nope. I did get a very nice rejection letter from TMU, though, so that's something."
Tami tilted her head sympathetically and frowned. "I'm sorry, sweetie."
"It's okay," Julie said softly, shrugging her shoulders. "I don't know if I even wanted to go there, to be honest. I guess it's not meant to be."
"Maybe not right now. But there's no rule saying you can't go to grad school next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. You can work for a while and see where life takes you. Nothing wrong with that, hon."
"Yeah," Julie said, turning away to shelve a box of spaghetti. She could see the reason in what her mother was saying, she just couldn't totally accept it. Not yet, anyway. Somewhat detached, she recognized that she simply wasn't done feeling sorry for herself yet.
"You wanna chop some peppers for me? Your dad wants to grill burgers tonight, but I figure we should at least try to get a salad in there," Tami said with a fond roll of her eyes. Julie knew it hadn't really been a request, so she grabbed a green and red pepper from the fridge, and began chopping. "Guess who I ran into at the supermarket?"
"Who?" Julie asked, picking the seeds and ribs out of one pepper and hoping she sounded interested.
"Yeah, I sure did. And you know what she told me?"
"She told me they're looking for a receptionist at the clinic."
Julie paused in her chopping and looked up to see the expectant, pleased look on her mother's face. "Oh?"
"She did, and she was real interested to know that you're looking for a job."
Julie looked back down, continuing to chop. Working reception at the women's clinic? She'd never pictured herself doing anything having to do with medicine. Not that any of the things she had pictured herself doing seemed like viable options at the moment.
"That's not... Being a receptionist wasn't really what I'd hoped to be doing," Julie muttered. "I want to do something that matters, mom. Something important."
"Well, you know that saying, Jules: think globally, act locally. Maybe the best place for you to start doing some good is right here at home. And there's nothing wrong with starting at the bottom of a good organization. You never know where that'll take you."
Julie chewed her lip thoughtfully, glancing back up at her mother. "What would I have to do, answer phones and stuff?"
"Sure. I'm guessing you'd have to manage the waiting room, make appointments, probably do some filing and record-keeping, maybe some light accounting, that sort of thing," Tami paused. "Mrs. Williams tells me the position has been vacant for a while, and they've been looking for someone smart and organized to come along."
Julie shifted her weight from one foot to the other, considering this. Everyone had to start somewhere, right?
"Okay," Julie replied, nodding. "I'll call her."
Tami grinned. "Great! That's just great!"
Her mother turned away to start preparing burgers for the grill. Julie reached for a tomato and methodically began chopping it into bite-size pieces.
Everyone had to start somewhere.
Tim was having a nightmare.
He knew that's what it was, even as he struggled in the midst of it. There were walls and bars and bright lights, and he couldn't see the whole sky. Worse, he was surrounded by strangers. Strangers who had their own special laws, laws Tim didn't understand. It was like they didn't even speak the same language.
The walls closed in, and he was smothered by them, by the people trapped inside like he was, and with a gasp he woke himself up.
He blinked up at the living room ceiling, slowly becoming aware of his surroundings, of his pounding heart and the sweat-soaked t-shirt clinging damply to his skin. He exhaled a shaky breath, jolting in surprise when the phone rang.
Standing and stumbling a little, he found the cordless phone on the kitchen counter and saw it was Billy calling from the garage. Glancing at the microwave to check the time, noon, he hit the "talk" button with his thumb.
"Billy," he said, his voice hoarse.
"Did I wake you up?"
"No," Tim replied, rubbing his eyes blearily. The fear was starting to melt away as the real world came into focus. "What's up?"
"Can you pick Stevie and Katie up from daycare this afternoon? Mindy has to work late."
"Sure, what time?"
"Yeah, no problem. I don't work 'til six, anyway."
"Thanks, little brother. You're a lifesaver. You'll have to go to the dealership and pick up Mindy's car, though – she has the car seats."
"Got it," Tim replied.
Billy paused, and Tim could hear the sounds of Billy's two employees laughing and working in the background. "You okay?" Billy asked softly.
"I'm fine," he lied. It wasn't the first lie he'd told for Billy's sake, and he doubted it would be the last.
Another anxious pause, and then Billy cleared his throat. "All right. Four-thirty. You'll remember, right?"
"I'll remember. When's Mindy gonna be home?"
"She said she'd be home before six."
"Okay, 'cause I gotta work at six."
"I know, Tim. It's okay. She'll be there," Billy sighed. "I gotta go, all right?"
"All right. Later, Billy."
"Later, Timmy. Thanks."
They both hung up, and Tim put the phone back on the counter. He looked around the room and scratched his head. He had a few hours before he had to go pick up the kids, and he didn't need to check to know there wasn't much on TV.
Pulling his sweaty shirt over his head, he walked back to the couch and lay down, turning his face away from the bright afternoon sunlight filtering in the front window.
Tim had made the vehicle switch with Mindy in plenty of time, but she shooed him out the doors of Garrity Motors anyway, scolding him to hurry up and get to the daycare, because if he left those kids waiting, she was going to kill him.
Tim walked up the shaded sidewalk to the front entrance of the daycare, hoping it would be obvious where he was supposed to find his niece and nephew. He stopped short at the doors as they were opened from the inside.
"Excuse us – oh, hey Tim," said a voice. Julie was standing in the doorway, holding her not-so-little sister's hand. She was dressed differently than usual, although Tim couldn't say how exactly, or even what usual was for her. In a cream-coloured skirt, strappy sandals, and a striped top that hugged her curves without revealing too much, Tim couldn't help but think that she looked more grown up, a lot like her mom.
"Hey Jules," he said, looking up to find her watching him somewhat quizzically. He cleared his throat, hoping she hadn't caught him checking her out. "Gracie Belle," he added, nodding at the little girl currently tugging fitfully at her older sister's grip.
"It's Grace," the seven-year-old stated emphatically, dropping Julie's hand and crossing her arms over her thin chest.
"Be nice, Gracie," Julie said softly. She shot Tim an apologetic look. "She's a little bit dramatic sometimes."
"That's okay," Tim replied, smiling down at the little blonde girl, who stood sulking as they discussed her.
"Any luck on the job hunt?" Julie asked.
"Yeah, actually. I got a job at that buffet up on Washington Avenue, The Golden Horseshoe? It's just washing dishes, but it's something, at least."
Julie frowned, staring at him. "Wait, I'm confused. Can't you just go work for Billy?"
"Terms of my parole – I can't have anything to do with cars or garages or anything. It kinda sucks, 'cause I got certified while I was inside. But washing dishes isn't too bad."
"Yeah," Julie replied, sounding sceptical.
"How about you?"
"Oh! I had an interview this afternoon, actually," she said, glancing ruefully down at herself. "That's why I'm dressed like this. It's my 'you can take me seriously, honest,' outfit."
"It's nice. You look real good," Tim replied, before he could think better of it. At her surprised smile, he cleared his throat. "I better go get those two. Hope you get that job, Jules."
"Thanks, Tim," she said, smiling at him again and taking Gracie's hand in hers. "See you around." The two Taylor girls turned and headed down the sidewalk, stopping at Julie's blue Aveo, which was parked on the street. Tim watched as she opened the back door, helping Gracie into the car.
Shaking himself from his reverie, he opened the door and went into the daycare.