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Best Not to Resist the Muses

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Sharon sat down at the table, nursing a beer and flipping through the pages of the newspaper. She had won a big case for the state of New York that morning and she had wanted to celebrate, but Jaye had needed her. Or so she had said. Now they were just sitting in her trailer with a pair of binoculars focused on the woods behind the trailer park.

After the fifth looking for love ad her eyes skimmed over, she dropped the paper in a huff and turned to face her younger sister, who was writing furiously in a notebook and shooting odd glances at wind-up-duck. Sharon stood up and said, "I had plans tonight, Jaye."

"Liar. You never have plans."

Sharon folded her arms, running a finger over the layer of dust forming on Jaye's makeshift furniture. She said, "You need to move. This place was barely fine when you were twenty-four, but you're older now. It's time to grow up."

"Because you're so happy."

Sharon shook her head and reached for her purse. She said, "We'll talk later."

Jaye dropped the binoculars and stepped into Sharon's space. She placed her hands on Sharon's shoulders like she was about to impart some great wisdom, except this was Jaye. Sharon rolled her eyes and said, "Are you on drugs? Is this you trying to ask for help?"

"I'm sorry and I do need your help. I'm pretty sure there's a monster living in the woods."

"Jaye..."

"Okay. Not a monster, per se, but there is something. I think it's the homeless guy I always see at the falls. Did you know he has a daughter? She came to the store looking for him.  I have it on good authority he's been camping out in the woods back there."

"Is there some sort of reward?"

Jaye scoffed and said, "I wish.  Apparently, the happy feeling in one's chest when doing nice things is all the gift one needs.  Or so I'm told."

"Well, okay then," Sharon replied.  She stood up and began going through Jaye's drawers.  She didn't know why she bothered.  Jaye's organizational skills mirrored how she lived her life - random and chaotic.  She asked, "Where are your flashlights?"

"Cabinet above the sink."

Sharon grabbed two flashlights, tossed one to Jaye and said, "Instead of playing Jaye Tyler, idiot private eye all evening, let's go look for him."

"But what if it really is a monster?"

"Then you'll toss me to it to save yourself."

"Right. I would," Jaye replied. As she stepped out of the trailer though, she wrapped her arms around Sharon and hugged her. Kind of. It was awkward, but still a weird enough display of affection to freak Sharon out. "I love you. Thank you for helping me."

She turned to look at her sister and said, "I love you too." She turned on her flashlight and shined it over Jaye. On the outside, to the casual observer, Jaye was still the same crabby girl who wasted her days in a gift shop and was so afraid of commitment of any kind that she lived in a trailer park. But Jaye wasn't the same girl. She was kinder, more aware of the plight of others, and she had become a woman Sharon wanted to get to know better.

"Have you considered going back to school for social work?"

"But people are gross, Sharon. I'd be terrible."

Sharon rolled her eyes, walking ahead of Jaye down the dirt path that ended unceremoniously at the edge of the tree line. She said, "You're always helping people now. Maybe you could get paid for it. And I think you'd be good at it."

"I don't help people. Not willingly anyway."

"Insane reasoning or not, you help people in need."

"I don't want to help people. I liked standing on the periphery and judging the world. It was less tiring."

"I don't think you do anymore. I wish you could see how much you've changed."

"You take that back, Sharon, or I will feed you to the possible monster!"

"Or more likely ask me to take care of the details in reuniting him with his daughter."

"Yeah."

"See. Changed."

"He doesn't count. His daughter was all sad and big-eyed when she came into the store. I felt bad."

"The old Jaye laughed at people's pain."

"I did not...well, not always.  Besides, there is no 'old Jaye' and 'new Jaye.' I haven't changed," Jaye replied. Off the look on Sharon's face, Jaye repeated, "I haven't changed! Shut up! I hate you!"

Sharon pointed the flashlight in her sister's face and said, "There was the nun you helped. Or your insane but sweet actions to save Yvette after she was deported. You were willing to sacrifice your happiness with Eric to let him make his own choice...these are just the ones I know about."

Jaye sighed and said, "Fine. I help people and god help me, I don't hate it. Not really. It can be inconvenient and sometimes it's hard to figure out what I'm supposed to do, but...I'm broken!"

Jaye fell to the ground in a fit of dramatics and Sharon suddenly noticed the random bags and sleeping bag. Sharon said, "I think this is where he's been sleeping."

"I think I just put my hand in hobo juice of some sort. Yuck."

Sharon cringed and said, "He'll probably be back and you can get to helping him. Like you do."

"You're a bitch."

Sharon shrugged, slowly sitting down on the ground, careful to avoid whatever Jaye considered 'Hobo Juice.' She glanced up at the night sky and if she didn't hate nature and the woods, she could almost imagine something like this would be peaceful. She shined the flashlight back on her sister, who vindictively did the same with her flashlight. Sharon squinted and said, "While we're waiting, you should tell me about some other people you've helped. It's always an amusing ordeal."

Jaye sighed like she was being put out and said, "Whatever. Fine."

**

1. Family First – Rescuing Aaron

Jaye didn’t like to make a habit of helping people. Before the animal figurines decided to make her their bitch, she had a very hands-off view of the world and people in general. Life was simpler when she could laugh at someone’s pain, drink a lot to silence her ennui and not get involved in the world around her.

She missed the simplicity of doing nothing. Helping people was a pain in the ass and it had changed her. She caught herself doing small things like holding doors open for people and actually giving tourists correct directions to places without the voices telling her to do it. They had broken her. Not only was she certifiably insane, hearing voices and doing their bidding, but her misanthropy was being whittled away bit by bit.

Every time she got involved, she changed a little more. Every time she got involved, she felt like one of those do-gooders whose sole purpose in life was about helping others and what kind of life was that? Apparently hers.

And this time it was because of the pig in a barrel chotskies she had freed from the store. She had wanted a quiet night to herself. Things had been happening so fast. Life was good and things were going well, despite her uncanny knack for breaking things. And while she had come to trust her little evil friends, she didn’t completely trust herself.

“One night,” she moaned, flipping the remote on the television to try to drown out the pigs. The pigs had been singing “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” round-robin style for the past hour straight. “I wanted one night of peace and no talking inanimate objects.”

“Help him and we’ll stop.”

“Not tonight.”

“Help him.”

She flung one of her pillows in the general vicinity of the pigs, sat up on her bed and said, “I’m going to set the damn trailer on fire and let all of you burn.”

“Aggression to cover your fears does not help anyone,” the brass monkey stated in that tone it tended to get with her like he knew all. Maybe it did, but that was no reason to rub her nose in it.

“How about aggression to deal with annoyances?”

“Rescue him,” the brass monkey said.

“Yeah, rescue him,” the pigs added in unison.

She heard someone knocking at her door. She glanced at the clock and said, “If there is a serial killer behind this door and I get murdered, I’m going to be really pissed off.”

As the knocking got louder, the brass monkey replied, “Rescue him from himself.”

“Once-in-awhile it would be nice to have more than a vague order,” she muttered. She made her way to the door and opened it to find her brother holding up a bottle of cheap wine and a bag of donuts. She eyed him suspiciously, glanced back to her room wondering if Aaron was the one she had to rescue and said, “Oh you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Hello to you too.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m extending an olive branch.”

“For what?”

“You’re still pissed off I’m dating Mahandra.”

“I am not.”

“Yeah you are. You haven’t talked to me much lately and Mahandra’s noticed it too. It’s making things difficult.”

“Oh boo-hoo.”

“Definitely pissed off,” Aaron replied. He motioned behind her and said, “Are you going to let me in?”

“Since when does anyone in our family wait for an invitation,” Jaye replied. She stepped away from the door and took a seat at the table. She watched as her brother entered, dropping the wine and food in front of her before he shrugged out of his jacket. He took a seat across from her but didn’t say anything, just kept staring at her like he expected her head to explode. She crossed her arms over her chest and said, “Don’t look to me to start this conversation. You’re the one who showed up here at one in the morning. You’re lucky Eric’s not here.”

“He and Mahandra had to do inventory at the bar tonight,” Aaron replied. He reached behind him, grabbed two plastic cups from her counter, and poured the wine. He said, “Normally, this would’ve been the kind of night when we would have hung out.”

“Don’t you spy on me enough?”

Aaron tapped the table nervously and said, “I think I might break things off with Mahandra.”

“What?”

“It might have been a mistake to try to push this from a fling into a relationship.”

“Don’t be an idiot. You care about her and she cares about you.”

“I didn’t consider the repercussions when I got involved with her. I liked her and I thought that was all that mattered, but you’ve been super weird and distant.”

“You’re sleeping with my best friend. I can’t help it that it’s weird,” Jaye replied. She shuddered because that was at the top of her list of things not to think about. She gulped down her red plastic cup of wine and said, “And you’ve been doing it for months so I don’t know why you’re so concerned about things now.”

“I didn’t mean to make things so complicated. I don’t want our relationship to suffer and I don’t want to be responsible for ruining your oldest friendship.”

Jaye sighed. She said, “It won’t ruin my friendship and we’re fine.”

“Are we? It doesn’t feel that way.”

“We’re both in new relationships and you’ve got school and I’ve got work and things.”

“The voices.”

“You make it really hard to be supportive, jackass.”

“Is that what this is?”

“You started it, showing up at my door all pitiful at one in the morning,” Jaye countered. She grabbed a donut and said, “If I’m the only reason you want to end things with Mahandra, I’m telling you not to do it. I’m fine. Yes, it’s been a bit weird. Normally, Mahandra and I talk about everything, and we mock each other's boyfriends and ask really inappropriate questions like 'does he call you mommy' but I really don't want the answers to those questions."

“Ew. I'm your brother. That's disturbing.”

“Exactly! I’ve had to make some topics off limits. I’m not mad, just trying to maintain some sanity,” Jaye replied.

She poured out another cup of wine and added, “Wanna know what I think?”

“What you think or is this what the coffee creamer thinks?” Aaron replied. Jaye glared at him and he sighed dramatically before continuing, “Sorry…tell me what great insight into my psyche you have.”

“You’re a scared little bitch who doesn’t want to get hurt so you’re trying to run away and blame it on your adorable baby sister,” Jaye replied.

“You’ve missed your calling as a motivational speaker.”

She glared at him and said, “I had planned to say it much nicer, but you’re a jerk.” She heard the pigs giggling from her bedroom and sighed. It was one thing to help strangers, but why was she being dragged into the personal lives of her family? They were overwhelming as it was and this was likely to encourage them to keep it up. She caught herself right before she reached out and patted her brother’s hand because they so didn’t do that stuff and again cursed the pigs. She said, “I get it and as excuses go, that’s a pretty good one. I’m the perfect choice for a scapegoat and that way you won’t have to see where this goes – if it blows up and leaves a wreck in its wake or if it changes you and forces you to become more.”

Aaron stared at her for a moment before downing his own cup of wine. He grimaced and said, “I don’t like it when you’re the wise one in our relationship.”

Jaye shrugged and said, “It was bound to happen eventually and this is something I understand. I constantly catch myself trying to wreck things with Eric because I care too much about him. We’re broken people, Aaron. I blame mom and dad. They were always way too happy. it's too high a standard.”

“So you’re really okay with things? You don’t mind that I’m dating Mahandra?”

“It freaked me out at first, but you could do so much worse than my friend. And when you’re not an annoying pain-in-the-ass, you’re a pretty good guy and she’s lucky to have you.”

“Thanks.”

“That doesn’t mean I want to double date or listen to you wax poetically about her hair.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you better not break her heart or I will have to break you in half.”

Aaron rolled his eyes and said, “You’ve grown up a lot this past year.”

“If you bring up the cow creamer one more time…”

Aaron shrugged and said, “Whatever the reason, I think it’s a good thing. I’ve decided to drop it…kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“You’re my little sister. It’s my job to give you shit, and your crazy serial killer collection of animal figurines is still disturbing.”

“See if I rescue you from yourself ever again.”

2. On the Road Again – Ivan the not so terrible

Jaye slid into the passenger seat of the car and said, “Forget dinner. Let’s hit the road and never look back.”

Mahandra glanced at her out of the corner of her eye as she pulled away from the store's parking lot. She asked, “Do I want to know?”

“Mouthbreather wanted to have a heart-to-heart. Seems he is in the midst of his first great love. It was nauseating. Six months ago he wouldn’t have dared to talk to me about something like this. I’ve lost my mojo.”

Mahandra nodded and said, “You are more tolerating of other people lately.”

“I hate it,” Jaye replied. She let out a long sigh as she focused her attention on the window. She said, “Except I don’t hate it all the time. What’s wrong with me? Everything used to be so clear.”

“Your brother said you had a spiritual awakening.”

“Stop talking about me with my brother. It’s creepy.”

She shrugged and said, “Personally, I think it’s just Eric’s influence on you.”

Jaye hated the way she smiled when she thought about Eric. She always swore to herself she would never be that girl who swooned over some dumb boy. “I’ve been very careful not to break him.”

“I’m impressed.”

“And he doesn’t mind that I’m insane. He calls me quirky, like it’s cute even.”

“Yeah, he’s got it bad if he’s willing to overlook your predisposition for lunacy,” Mahandra replied. She stopped the car at a light and turned to look at Jaye. She said, “So we’re good, right?”

“Not this again.”

“Again?”

“Aaron beat you to it. I’m fine, you’re fine, we’re all fine. As long as you keep details to yourself, we can continue to enjoy our wonderful friendship.”

“Good. I care about him, but I don’t want it to affect us.”

Jaye shrugged and said, “My mother would never forgive me if I ruined Aaron’s first decent relationship.”

“Right is wrong.”

Jaye groaned and turned slowly to face the stuffed frog propped against Mahandra’s back window. Its head craned to face her and repeated more urgently, “Right is wrong.”

Jaye noticed that Mahandra was about to make a right hand turn and instinctively grabbed the wheel and shouted, “No, don’t!”

“What the hell is wrong with you? Get your hands off the steering wheel,” she shouted.

Jaye shut her eyes but refused to let go and said, “No rights! Rights are bad!”

"Let go of the wheel! We're going straight!  We're going straight," Mahandra hollered.

Jaye glanced at the frog, who was suddenly very quiet, and let go. She focused her gaze on the passing greenery and kept her mouth shut. Jaye wasn’t exactly sure what the Frog was playing at and had no explanation for Mahandra beside her obvious bouts of insanity.

Mahandra continued to drive them on the main road, which took them out into the state park areas without saying a word. She would occasionally shoot worried looks at Jaye, but simply kept driving for about a half hour until Jaye wasn't even sure where they were.

After another ten minutes of nothing but trees, Jaye finally asked, “Where are you taking us?”

“I was waiting for you to tell me since you forcefully vetoed dinner back there.”

“Sorry. The traffic on Jamesway Road is awful. I hate that road.”

“So much so that you nearly get us killed?”

“Don’t be such a baby. There were hardly any other cars. And I didn’t mean for you to drive us out to Bumblefuck like you planned to bury a body,” Jaye replied. She looked at Mahandra and said, “We’re not burying a body, right? Because when I used to say ‘real friends help you move bodies’ I was being snarky, not serious. Though, for you, I might do it, but not if it’s my brother. He’s an annoying pain in the ass, but he’s family.”

“Do you hear yourself? You’ve lost your mind.”

“I lost it a long time ago. You might want to find a place to turn around. I’m not a big fan of state parks and if you hit the Canadian Border we’re in trouble – I’m not invited back there.”

"Where exactly do you want me to go?"

“Let's find a place to turn around and go get dinner like we planned."

Mahandra looked at her like there was more she wanted to say, but she obediently turned the car around and started to drive back in the opposite direction. She hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards when a young kid darted in front of the car. Both Mahandra and Jaye screamed as Mahandra swerved to missed the boy. Jaye watched the kid stand there like a deer caught in the headlights and she jumped out of the car and muttered, “One night off. Just one night off.”

Jaye was not a fan of children. Most of them smelled funny, had a penchant for crying and always had sticky fingers. She had to question any universe where she was trusted with the job of caring for a kid. She reached out to get a hold of the young boy and said, “Get out of the road, you dumb idiot.”

“Nice Jaye,” Mahandra said from the driver’s seat.

Jaye rolled her eyes and shouted, “Call the police.” Once Mahandra nodded, she turned her attention to the kid and said, “Seriously kid, this is like the plot to every bad afterschool special.”

“I want to go home,” the boy said. He looked at Jaye and said, “And I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“I bet you’re not supposed to stand in the middle of the road either. You can stop talking to me from the grass,” she said. She placed her hands on the boy’s shoulders and led him off the street. While Mahandra found a way to park the car on the side of the road, Jaye glanced around the immediate area and asked, “How did you get all the way out here?”

“I got lost.”

“And ended up in the middle of nowhere? How old are you anyway? Don’t they notice if kids skip kindergarten these days?”

“I’m seven.”

“Well, excuse me,” Jaye replied. “What’s your name?”

“Not supposed to talk to strangers,” he repeated with way too much attitude for a brat lost in the woods.

“Fine. I’m Jaye and that’s Mahandra. Now we're not strangers. Did someone bring you out here? Is there a creepy van involved?”

"Jaye," Mahandra replied.

Jaye sighed. "Fine. Sorry, kid, but we're worried about you."

“I was in the bathroom and the bus left me behind.”

"Sounds like something that would happen to me."

"It wasn't my fault," the boy responded adamantly.

Jaye knelt down so she was eye-level with the boy and patted his arm. She said, "It sounds like quite the adventure, but I think it's time we get you home."

Jaye looked to Mahandra for help since this was way out of her comfort zone. Mahandra was too busy watching Jaye with a strange look to be of much help. Jaye sighed dramatically, sending evil thoughts toward the frog, and decided it was best to ignore Mahandra’s issues for the time being. She glanced at the kid and said, “Are you cold? Hungry? I have a Snickers bar in my bag.”

She dug into her purse and tossed the candy bar to the kid. He scarfed it down in three bites and smiled at her. “I’m Ivan.”

“Nice to meet you, Ivan. In the future, you might want to make sure a friend knows where you disappear to. This gal here saved my butt from getting left behind on many a field trip back in the day.”

Mahandra nodded and said, “She’s always had a penchant for wandering off.”

Jaye noticed Ivan shiver and she wasn’t sure what overcame her, but she found herself ushering him to the car like she was her mother and she sitting him down in the back seat. She turned to Mahandra and said, “Let’s turn on the heat. The little bugger is freezing.”

Mahandra shot her a strange look, but turned the car on and took a seat. Jaye sat in the backseat next to Ivan. The frog said, “Music soothes the soul.”

“For God’s sake,” Jaye groaned. She grabbed the frog, shoved it into Ivan’s hands and said, “Mahandra, can you put on the radio.”

Mahandra asked, “Who are you and what have you done with Jaye Tyler?"

“Not this again.”

Mahandra watched her through the rearview mirror and said, “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but you are not the girl I knew a year ago.”

“I am too. I’m selfish and flakey and…” Jaye paused when she noticed Ivan curling up against her, his eyes shutting. She smiled and said, “…poor guy is worn out. Let’s be quiet and let him rest to the calming wonders of the jazz station.”

“Uh-huh.”

Jaye nearly fell asleep in the half hour it took for a patrol car to arrive. The police officer was quickly able to figure out where Ivan belonged with a few quick calls into his station. He turned to face Jaye and said, “It’s a lucky coincidence you girls were out this way and found him. A night this cold he wouldn’t have fared very well on his own.”

“Yep, Jaye always has a knack for being in the right place at the right time,” Mahandra replied.

Jaye glanced at the frog, which was snuggled against Ivan’s chest, and it winked at her. She wanted to be angry, but the heavy-lidded expression on Ivan’s face made her forget that and she caught herself hugging the kid as she herded him into the backseat of the police cruiser. She buckled him into the seat and when he went to give her the frog, she whispered, “You keep him. My friend’s too old for stuffed animals.”

“Says the girl with a trailer full of knick-knacks,” Mahandra replied.

Jaye went to step away but Ivan’s arms wrapped around her and he said, “Night, Jaye.”

She patted his back. “Night, Ivan. Remember – you need a wingman like I have for any more adventures.”

Jaye shut the door and moved to stand next to Mahandra. The police officer smiled at her and she suddenly felt confused and dirty – she was not the girl police admired for saving children. She glanced at Mahandra and said, “I’m starving.”

“Well, we’re over an hour late for dinner.”

The police officer opened the door of his driver’s seat and asked, “Are the two of you okay on your own? Need directions or anything?”

“We’re fine. You should get him home. He’s wiped out from his big adventure,” Mahandra commented before turning to walk toward her car.

Jaye followed behind, retook her place in the passenger’s seat and waited for a comment. It didn’t come until they were back in the main part of town. Mahandra pulled her car into the parking lot of the Barrel and said, “You’re going to make a good mother someday.”

“Shut up.”

“There was that kid, Peter, last year…”

“That kid stalked me. That’s what I get for going to get a donut and finding a Russian mail-order bride.”

“Yep.”

“Don’t ‘yep’ me. I hated that little brat.”

“You helped him. And tonight with Ivan…I should’ve recorded it. You were so sweet. I didn’t know you were capable of such things.”

“Stop it! I hate you!”

“And how fortunate it was that you made us miss our turn back there.”

“You’re the one who kept driving us into the middle of nowhere,” Jaye replied. She stepped out of the car and slammed the door shut behind her. She wasn’t really angry, but dammit, she used to have an evil air to her that was slowly slipping away from her grasp. She glanced at Mahandra and said, “Not one word about this to anyone or I will make parts of your diary from eighth grade available to my brother.”

“Yeah, you’re still you, just a little softer.”

“I’m gonna order a big burger and fries. I gave that brat my candy bar and now my blood sugar is low,” Jaye replied, ignoring Mahandra’s last comment and making her way into the bar. She knew her friend was judging her but she was too hungry to care at the moment. She just prayed the stupid singing bass gave her a few hours off without a demand.

3. Poor Bitch Part Deux – Another Poor Bitch in a Fancier Suit

Jaye had been enjoying a quiet day with no plastic creatures ordering her around and only a few customers to bother her. She had spent the morning mocking Mouthbreather’s latest plans to build employee morale and watching a small group of tourists take turns falling into the fountain. It was those moments, as a small Asian man lost his footing and took two others down into the cold water with him, that warmed Jaye’s heart. She liked it when people existed for her amusement and she wasn’t expected to run after them and help.

Jaye was feeling the most like herself than she had in a long time. She wasn’t feeling guilty for all the ways she loathed most people or being tormented by the needs of random entities possessing animal faces demanding things of her. It was some long overdue peace and quiet.

She was about to provide a play-by-play to amuse herself as another tourist got pulled into the fountain while trying to help the first guy out. She had a zinger all lined up and that’s when she heard it.

“Take him to lunch.”

She jinxed herself. Dammit. She replied with a whine, “I’m already working one thankless job right now. I'll pass."

“Right. Take him to lunch.”

“Isn't there someone else you can bother?”

"Just do it."

"Who am I supposed to take to lunch? Please tell me it's not the klutz in the fountain."

The wax lion’s little head turned enough for her to see that beyond the debacle at the fountain, there was a man around her age sitting on a bench, staring off at the horizon. He was dressed in a suit, completely out of place in the tourist trap part of the city, and as she watched him drop his head into his hands, she couldn't help but notice that the Rolex he was wearing cost more than her yearly salary.

"He looks depressed."

"Take him to lunch," the wax lion replied slowly.

Jaye shook her head and said, “Come on. I am not the person to cheer someone up. I’m more likely to say something to make them jump.”

“Lunch.”

“Who are you talking to?” Mouthbreather said, appearing out of nowhere. He was like a customer service ninja.

“That was my mom on the phone. Family emergency. Terrible news about my Uncle Walter,” Jaye said, grabbing her bag, shoving the wax lion in the bag and heading out the door without waiting for a reply.

“Just do it already,” the muffled voice of the lion said from her bag as she circled the benches a few times, studying the man from a far. The man seemed like he should be drowning his sorrows at her parent’s country club rather than crying at a tourist trap. Something was definitely off about the guy, he was likely more unstable than she was, so of course, she was expected to befriend him and invite him to lunch. The universe hated her.

She watched as he glanced at his phone for a moment before chucking it into the air. Jaye was about to turn around and walk away – this guy was far too melodramatic for her liking – when the wax lion repeated again, “Take him to lunch.”

“You suck. A lot,” she whispered toward her bag. She inched closer to the bench and she could hear the man’s uneven breathing and really hoped he wasn’t crying. That would be awkward.

She plopped down next to the man on the bench, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. He didn’t seem to notice her so she slid closer to him on the bench and cleared her throat. Still nothing.

Finally she stretched out and said, “Nice weather, huh?”

“What?”

“Nice weather. It’s so…nice.”

“I guess.”

“Right…so, uh, hi.”

The guy stared at her like she had a second head and asked, “What are you doing?”

“I couldn’t help but notice you nearly beaned that old lady with your cellphone in a fit of histrionics. Is everything okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? Because I bet Grandma Moses would disagree.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I’m not interested in what you’re selling.”

Jaye stared at him for a minute. She gasped and hit him in the arm. “Ew. I’m not a prostitute.”

“Lady of the night, Niagara Falls Madame...call yourself whatever you want, but I'm not interested. I've never had to pay for company and I'm not starting now."

“Double ew. I was trying to be nice, jackwad. You looked upset. And seriously, what prostitutes do you know that wear mustard yellow smocks with their names on them?” Jaye glanced down at her bag and imagined the stupid wax lion was snickering at her. She wanted to toss the stupid thing into the water and be done with it. “Forget this. I’m done being fate’s bitch. You want to throw yourself into the water, be my guest. Try not to injure any more elderly folk in your fit of pique.”

The guy began to laugh and said, “Sorry, it’s just…sorry.”

Jaye crossed her arms and glared at him, resisting the urge to punch him in the face. This being nice business was not worth the headache. She scowled and replied, “It’s not funny.”

“I’m sorry. It’s been awhile since someone was nice to me without hidden motivation.”

She shrugged and said, “Well, you're in luck as I’m not really good at being nice to people for long.”

“Take him to lunch.”

She dropped her bag on the ground harder than probably necessary and hoped the little red bastard could feel pain. She forced a smile in the guy’s direction and said, “Again, not a prostitute, but would you want to join me for a bite to eat? I hate eating lunch alone.”

His hand moved way too close to her thigh for her liking and he replied, “You’re a pretty girl and any other day I'd be all over it, but I'm not in the mood for a casual hook up today.”

“What’s with you thinking I’m propositioning you? It’s a lunch invitation. I have a boyfriend and even if I didn’t, you hardly seem mentally stable at the moment.” She took a deep breath before turning around to face the man. She took a good look at him – tall, dark hair and eyes, and nicely groomed. In the past, he was definitely the type of guy she probably would have played with for a few days before getting bored and annoyed. She would think about how happy the relationship would make her mother and run the other way screaming. It also didn’t help that guys like that always wanted to fix her, as though her whole life had been meaningless until they had come along to help her.

A year ago, she totally would’ve thrown herself into a whirlwind thing with this guy, but now there was Eric, who was firmly wedged into her heart and brain, and crazy voices making her become a better person.

The Jaye of today had no interest in using broken people and didn’t that just speak volumes to her level of crazy.

“Look, sir, you looked upset and lonely and I had an afternoon to kill. I was trying to be nice.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what you do for your fellow man, or so I'm told...repeatedly.”

He shrugged and said, “I’m not very good company right now.”

“I’m never good company. I’ll prove it by saying all the wrong things and probably making you cry over lunch,” Jaye commented, extending her hand to the man. She nodded behind her to the Barrel and said, “Great drinks, mediocre food.”

The man sat there for a minute and Jaye felt slightly ridiculous standing there like an idiot. He took her hand as he stood up and quickly let it go. He straightened his tie and ran his hands over his suit as if to remove nonexistent wrinkles. He said, “I could use a drink.”

"And lunch. You really look like you need lunch."

He shook his head and smiled. He extended his hand to her and said, "I'm Greg."

"Jaye."

"It's nice to meet you, Jaye."

Jaye shook his hand and said, "Did you want to talk about why you look like someone stole your puppy?"

"Yeah, not my finest moment," Greg replied, running a hand over his face and following behind her as she walked toward the entrance to the Barrel. "My girlfriend broke up with me last night. It felt like it came out of nowhere and the timing sucked."

"Poor bitch," she muttered. She plastered a sympathetic smile onto her face and said, "Women. We can be evil shrews."

He shrugged and said, "Allie has always been a handful. She's a free spirit and I'm not. She's all about following her heart and I like structure. It was bound to happen, but it was my grandmother's funeral yesterday."

"Damn," Jaye replied because what else was there to say? She opened the door of the Barrel and headed for a table in the corner. She dropped her bag and said, “I’m grabbing us some drinks. This will definitely require drinks.”

Greg nodded and sunk down into this seat, his faced clouded over with sadness again. She inwardly groaned as she made a beeline for the bar. She noticed both Mahandra and Eric watching her like she was a shark about to devour its prey. She glared at them and said, “What?”

“Who’s that?” Mahandra asked. She motioned to Eric and said, “Trading him in for a newer model? Normally, I would stay out of it, but I work with the man and I’ll be the one who has to listen to him wallow.”

“Thanks for your concern,” Eric replied. He glanced at Jaye and said, “Should I be worried?”

“That’s Greg. His girlfriend dumped him at his grandmother's funeral. I found him weeping on a park bench outside the store and ruining vacations for losers everywhere. I had to step in.”

“Of course you did," Mahandra replied as she loaded up a tray with drinks and made her way over to a few tables.

Jaye glared at her retreating form before turning to face Eric. She smiled and said, "Drinks. Lots of drinks."

"I'm done early tonight. Did you want to stick around after your done with your good deed and we can go out?"

She caught herself smiling that cheesy grin as she leaned across the bar and kissed Eric. His fingers skimmed the skin where her neck and shoulder met as he pulled back. He said, "Is that a yes?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Not gonna run off with the guy in the Armani Suit?"

"Don't be an idiot," Jaye replied. She tapped the bar while Eric popped the lids off two beers and slid them over to her. He smiled at her, the one that hit her directly in the gut and turned her into a quivering, inarticulate mess. She kissed him again and said, "Don't worry. Even the crazy voices won't convince me to trade you in just yet."

"You really know how to make a guy feel special."

"I know. I should write Hallmark cards," she replied, picking up the drinks and heading back over to Greg.

"Is that the boyfriend?" Greg asked, motioning over to the bar.

"Yeah," she said, trying to rein in the smile to no avail. She sat down, took a swig of beer, and said, "We need lunch."

"He's okay with this?"

"It's lunch. We're not running off to get married," Jaye replied. She dropped her menu and said, "Maybe your girlfriend just needs some time. Relationships can be hard."

"I'm pretty sure it's over."

"Then it wasn't meant to be. There are other fish in the sea and all that jazz," she said, lifting her bottle and taking another drink. Off the look on his face, she added, "I warned you I would likely make you cry."

"I appreciate the drink, but why don't you go spend some time with your boyfriend? He might say he's okay with this, but I bet it's bugging him."

"He has come to understand my insanity."

"Jaye, you stopped me from spending the whole day moping on a park bench. Let me return the favor - that guy is head-over-heels for you and if the death glares he keeps shooting me are any indication, he's not nearly as okay with this as he lead you to believe."

Jaye glanced back over her shoulder and sure enough Eric and Mahandra were watching them, heads huddled close together. Eric waved and Mahandra rolled her eyes, muttering something Jaye couldn't make out. Jaye turned back to Greg and said, "But you're in need of shoulder, albeit an inept one, to cry on."

Greg shrugged and said, "I'm fine. Buy your boyfriend lunch instead. Not many guys would be willing to watch their girlfriends buy a hot, rich guy lunch because he was having a bad day. He deserves it."

Jaye shook her head and said, "Well, at least I know your self esteem is intact." She glanced down at her bag, expecting the wax lion to speak up. She said, "Well, okay. Thanks."

Greg stood up and said, "Thanks for the inept shoulder to cry on. I'm gonna be fine."

Jaye nodded and said, "Like you said - you're hot and rich. Some girls aren't at all discerning and might not even be insulted if you call them hookers."

Greg patted her arm as he walked by her and headed out the door. She sat back down for a moment and said to her bag, "I did what you asked."

"Take him to lunch."

She momentarily considered pulling the wax lion out of her bag and drowning it in her beer, but she glanced back over at Eric and said, "You never make things easy on me, do you?"

Jaye grabbed her beer and headed back to the bar. She sat down in front of Eric and said, "I've been kicked to the curb. I was wondering if you might be able to sneak out and grab a real lunch with me?"

"But what about his broken heart?" Eric questioned.

Jaye shrugged and said, "You know I just do what the voices tell me."

"Right."

"Buy him lunch," the singing Bass said from behind Eric. She glance at it out of the corner of her eye and it repeated, "Buy him lunch."

"I'm buying?" she offered.

Eric grinned and walked around to her side of the bar. He said, "Let me see if Mahandra can hold down the fort."

"Mention 'eighth grade diary' and you'll be good to go."

Eric stepped into her personal space and kissed her. He said, "I have to admit I was a little bit jealous of that guy."

"I'll admit that I maybe like that you were a little bit jealous," she replied, wrapping her arms around his neck.

"Would the two of you get a room," Mahandra replied, slamming her drink tray onto the bar. "Your lovey-dovey-kissy-faces are making our patrons nauseous."

Jaye hopped off her stool and said, "Girls who date other girls older brothers don't get to judge."

"Mahandra, I was hoping you-"

She cut Eric off with a hand flourish. "Would the two of you get out of here already?"

Eric replied, "Are you sure?"

"I'm positive that I don't want to watch the two of you smile goofily at each other across the bar all afternoon. The lunch rush is over and Charlie will be in at five. I've got it covered until then."

Eric grinned and said, "Thanks."

"Yeah thanks. We're out of here," Jaye replied, pulling Eric out the door. He draped his arm over her shoulder and she felt that squishy, dopey-love feeling course through her again. She stopped mid-step and turned to face him. She said, "For the record, I wouldn't want anyone else. I kinda love you and stuff."

Eric laughed, his hand caressing her cheek and he said, "I love you too."

A year ago, Jaye would've scoffed at the idea of her being part of a relationship like this. A year ago, she would've broken a guy like Eric into little pieces and never been the wiser at all that she was missing. A year ago, despite her sanity fully in check, she wouldn't have felt quite as right with the universe as she did now. She used to feel lost and hopeless, untethered in a world full of jackasses. The world was still full of jackasses now, but it was a bit more bearable, and she knew that it would all work out.

She wasn't going to say any of that out loud because it was silly and she really didn't want the stupid lion to get any ideas.

**

"In fairness to that guy, I probably would've thought you were a prostitute too, a mentally disturbed one, but nonetheless," Sharon replied with a smirk.

"This is why I don't share-and-care with you.  You focus on the wrong things."

"Would you prefer I go on about how adorable you are when you talk about Eric?"

"Nuh-uh."

"I never thought I'd live to see you become a sappy romantic. Love does amazing things," Sharon commented. She smiled at her sister and said, "Eric has been a good influence on you, sure, but I think it's because you've found a calling, Jaye."

Jaye pointed her flashlight at Sharon and said, "You're a stupid meanie."

"I was complementing you, brat."

"Oh," Jaye replied.  She lowered her flashlight and said, "Well thank you, I guess, but it's not really my doing. It's best not to resist the muses. They get angry."

Sharon shrugged. She pulled her tazer out of her jacket when she heard footsteps and said, "Stay behind me if he tries anything."

"I thought we already established that I would leave you to die," Jaye replied, standing up and brushing her hands on her jeans. She extended her hand to help Sharon up and the two of them stood there, waiting for the footsteps to reveal who was coming at them.

"What are you doing? This is my spot. See," the guy replied, pointing to a tree where the words "Mine" were carved into the bark.

"Are you Douglas Renwood?" Jaye asked from behind Sharon.

"Leave me alone."

"Mr. Renwood, it's getting cold out and..."

"I said 'leave me alone.'  I don't want to be around anyone."

Sharon was willing to take the man at his word, ready to head back to where her car was parked by Jaye's trailer and make a beeline for the nearest liquor store. She started to inch backwards, never taking her eyes or tazer off the man, but Jaye was like an unmovable force.

Jaye stepped around Sharon and carefully placed her hand on the man's shoulder. He glared at her, so she pulled her hand away and said, "Dottie came in the store yesterday. She's worried about you."

"Dottie. She was so little. I could break her by accident."

"I get it. It can be scary to be around people. You worry you might hurt them or they might hurt you. Sometimes the idea of being all alone and not worrying about interacting with the world seems like all I've ever wanted, but what about the people who care about you?"

"I could break her."

"I doubt it. Dottie is an adult and quite...muscular," Jaye replied. Jaye glanced back at Sharon and whispered, "I was totally going to give you her number for a date."

Sharon rolled her eyes and said, "Focus, Jaye."

"You know Dottie?"

"Kind of. She's worried about you. It's something daughters do from time to time. Why don't you come back to my trailer with me? It's cold out here and we can get you some food?"

"I don't know.  I don't like confined spaces and I don't want to hurt you."

"My sister has a tazer and she's not afraid to use it, but I don't think she'll need it, Doug," Jaye replied. The soothing tone to her voice was something Sharon wasn't accustomed to and not for the first time in the past year, Sharon found herself in awe of her sister's abilities with people. When Jaye wasn't too lazy to get involved, she could be a force for good. Sharon watched, ready to leap as Jaye again placed her hand on Doug's arm and said, "Come on, Doug. Next month's Christmas. I bet it would make Dottie so happy if you were there to share the holidays with her. We can bring you home."

"I don't know."

"How about we start with some food and if you want to leave, you can."

"Okay, but just dinner. Then you leave me alone."

"Fair enough. My sister is really good at handling things, so if you decide you want to see Dottie, she'll be able to help."

The guy looked at Sharon skeptically, but replied, "I'll consider it."

Jaye smiled and said, "Okay. Good. Thanks. Let's get you some pizza. I love pizza. I could live on pizza if people weren't always bothering me with comments about good nutrition."

Sharon shoved her tazer back into her jacket pocket and focused her flashlight in front of her, keeping her eyes firmly affixed to Jaye and Doug, ready to jump if he so much as batted an eye wrong at her sister.

Sharon stumbled for a second over that last part. Jaye had definitely changed over the past year, helping people and letting those that mattered into her life more often. But Sharon seemed to have changed because of Jaye's transformation too. Last year, she would have sneered at someone for suggesting her sister was her best friend, that she would do anything for her little sister without a lot of prodding from her parents and general disdain.

And Sharon couldn't imagine going back to that. She liked having her sister in her life, a friend and ally when things got difficult. And maybe that was just another way Jaye had helped someone.