Flash Fiction: Ash & James

(Ash & James’s story originally appeared as a serial flash fiction on CharlieGsOutfitRatings Instagram on 4/12/21 to 4/25/21 under “Book Vibes.” It has been modified for this blog post.)

            If pressed, Ash would say the thing she hated most right now was the coffee gasoline in the teacher’s lounge coffee pot. As she mixed in enough sugar packets to make it palatable—and to pay for her dentist’s vacation home—the sound of whistling assaulted her ears. She clenched her jaw and closed her eyes, taking a bracing sip of coffee. Maybe it would somehow give her the magical ability to ignore the man who made her rewrite her resume every few weeks.

            Ash was changing her answer for what she hated most. It wasn’t the coffee. It was James. 

            She hated him even more than the parent-teacher conferences due to start in twenty minutes. 

            “Hey there, Ashley!” he sang, doing a run on the second syllable. This was precisely why she had shortened her name, to prevent this type of nonsense.

            She loved music and supported the entire art department, but this particular music teacher made her want to wear earplugs every day. He was young, overenthusiastic about everything, and never stopped bouncing. 

            She glared at him. “Ash.”

            He pretended to pout. “That’s less fun to sing.” 

            “Precisely.”

            He scooted around her and refilled his mug with coffee, then took a sip without flinching. “How was your day?”

            She drank from her own mug, trying to keep up in some undisclosed coffee-drinking-competition she’d made up in her mind.

            “Fabulous.”

            He smiled and started singing again. “I want fabulous/That is my simple request/All things fabulous—” 

            “Stop.” She held up her hand. “No.”

            He smiled as if he pitied her. “Not a High School Musical fan? Well, technically High School Musical 2.”

            She shrugged. “Never seen it.” She didn’t have cable when she was in high school, and she couldn’t afford distractions in college. Her scholarship came first. She’d never considered watching it as an adult.

            “Come over after conferences. We can watch the first one and bitch about the parents we can’t stand.”

            She frowned. “Why on earth would I do that?”

            “Because our buddy Gavin is busy with his fiancée now and everyone else is married or old?”

            She took another sip of coffee before him—ha! she was winning. “I’m old.”

            “Nah, you’re just emotionally exhausted.”

            She took a step back. “I’m what?”

            He gestured at her. “You walk around like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. You just need some fun in your life.”

            She blinked hard. She couldn’t believe she was considering something James said. “I’m fun.”

            He smirked. “Prove it.”

            She opened her mouth to acquiesce to the movie night when he fished his phone out of his pocket. When she saw a picture of him sandwiched between two girls kissing him on the cheek pop up, she just shook her head, lifted her coffee, and left the room.

            She was fine. And even if she wasn’t fine, some peppy music teacher six years younger than her wasn’t going to fix her problems. But bad coffee might. She gulped down the rest of the bitter liquid. Then again, maybe not.

***

            James didn’t mind Parent-Teacher conferences. Parents generally didn’t care as much about a C in music as they did in math. Silly really, since music helped improve math skills. Music was just a fancier version of math, with its time signatures and formulaic progressions. 

            He had finished his mediocre cup of coffee only an hour ago and already he wanted more.

            No, it wasn’t coffee he wanted. It was to see her.

            Ash. 

            The one person in this school he couldn’t crack. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him. Plenty of attractive women didn’t give him the time of day. 

            Yet he always went out of his way to try with her, even though she clearly wished he’d fall off a cliff. His therapist might have something to say about that one.

            He eyed his watch. Ten more minutes to go and then he could take off the damn tie. While he’d been joking about watching High School Musical earlier, he could use a pick me up. Especially after telling Scott Twelling his daughter needed private vocal and piano lessons if she wanted to be the next Olivia Rodrigo, and no, he was not taking new students. It was clear that Scott was the kind of parent who had been super talented when he was younger and didn’t understand that his daughter actually needed to practice and study. Didn’t help that Scott—like most of the parents—was older than James, which Scott reminded him of three times.

            With a fake smile that hurt his face, James showed his hopefully last parent out the door. The moment he stepped into the hall, the shouting started. He paused to listen, ignoring that every other teacher, and some of the parents, had done the same.

            “This is your fault! I can’t believe you’re still so hung up on me that you’re punishing my daughter!” 

            James winced. Sounded like Scott found himself a new teacher to torture.

            “Oh my god, get over yourself Scott!” Ash yelled back. “Rachel’s C- is because she doesn’t do her assignments, and when she does, she doesn’t follow directions. When was the last time you even bothered to check her homework? Too busy still writing that musical that no one will ever want?”

            “We’ve had interest—”

            “I don’t give one single fuck, Scott. If Patricia wants to call and talk to me about Rachel’s grades like a grown-ass adult, she can. But we’re done. I told you I never wanted to see you again, and I meant it. And I’m the one teaching summer school so if Rachel doesn’t want to see me all year long, you need to find her a tutor who will actually pay attention to her since clearly her parents won’t.”

            Scott scoffed. “Why can’t you admit that you’re still punishing me for the divorce?”

            There was a pause so heavy, that everyone in the hallway took a step back.

            “First of all, I would never punish a kid for the unfortunate circumstance of being your step-daughter. Second of all, I don’t care about you enough to punish you. You peaked in college buddy, and now you’re spending your entire adulthood trying to chase that dream you’ll never make happen because you’re too wrapped up in yourself and your new wife’s money. I, on the other hand, am doing exactly what I want, exactly where I want. You cheating on me was the best god damn thing you could’ve ever done and I thank god every day I don’t have to be anywhere near you. Now, kindly fuck off out that door and never set foot in my classroom again.”

            “I’ll make it so you never work in this town again!”

            Ash just laughed. A full body laugh that somehow took power away from anyone listening. The laugh echoed down the hall as she walked out of her classroom, a baseball bat in her hand.

            Everyone ran for cover, into dark classrooms and nearby restrooms. James, however, closed his door and followed Ash. He had never heard her laugh like that before and he had a feeling she was about to do something dangerous. Seeing her this passionate about something, even in anger, made his heart beat faster. He quickened his steps.

***

            Blame it on the coffee, the fifty parents before Scott who had complained about the homework load (half wanted more, half less), the father who put his hand on her knee, and then of course every parent who thought they could teach math to a bunch of fifteen-year-olds, even though they themselves couldn’t count to twenty with their shoes on. 

            Then Scott had the audacity to question her honor when he was the one who treated his stepdaughter like an accessory instead of a child. 

            All Ash saw was red. 

            All she wanted to do was smash in his taillights. 

            She kept the bat in her office for her Tuesday night softball games with the elementary school teachers. Tonight, it was going to give a warning. She pushed into the dark gym and hurried across the floor painted like a basketball court, illuminated by two emergency lights over either exit door. She made her way to the door that led to the parking lot and depressed the door latch.

            “Ash, wait!”

            She looked over her shoulder to find James rushing after her. “Go away, kid. This is a grown-up fight.”

            “They installed parking lot cameras last month, remember? We can do a drive by and slash his tires later.”

            She paused, her arm trembling with the need to push open the door and run after her bastard of an ex. She took a deep breath, then two, then released the handle. “We have to stop by my place to get my hunting knife.”

            He jerked back. “Do you hunt?”

            She smiled. “Nope. Vegetarian.” Her older sister had given her the knife as protection when she moved into her condo, scared of her baby sister living alone. She tapped her bat against her toe. “Let me grab my purse. Then we ride.”

            “I’d ask more questions, but I think I’m a little afraid.”

            “Good.” She pushed past him, excitement building low in her stomach. James was hot on her heels as they walked down the hallway. Everyone was too busy looking out the front window for her and her bat to notice them walking behind.

            After stowing the bat in her closet, she kicked off her heels and shoved her feet into her Converse. The rage in her chest settled into a comfortable buzz. Ah, she’d missed having something to focus her energy on. She’d been stuck in a never-ending cycle of work and bad first dates that she hadn’t felt anything but boredom and emptiness in months. 

            She nabbed her purse and pulled out her car keys. “Can you follow me? You even old enough to drive?”

            “Haha. I’m not that much younger than you.”

            “Hmm.” She ignored him. “Let’s go.” She walked out the door, not bothering to look behind her. She knew he’d follow. The thought made her nearly twist her ankle, but she shook her head and cleared it. She was only teaming up with James because he was convenient, and she hated Scott more. 

            It wasn’t because she trusted him or anything stupid like that. She knew his type. Charming, a dreamer, working on some project that would be his one true love and leave her in the dust. 

            Still, when she climbed into her car and the headlights of his completely adult sedan, not some too-fast sports car, pulled into her review mirror, that seething anger in her chest eased just a little. Not wanting to stop and examine the feeling, she threw her car into gear and hit the gas. It was time for their adventure.

***        

            James parked his car on the opposite side of the street, where a grouping of trees shielded them. If someone had a video doorbell or surveillance, he hoped the foliage would cover them. This subdivision wasn’t mansion big, but it was close. A few houses even had gates guarding their properties, but he was relieved to see Scott’s car sitting at the end of a driveway, filled with vehicles that cost more than his annual salary. “What’s your ex do for living?”

            She reached into the paper bag they grabbed from the 24-hour diner and pulled out a fry. “Spends his wife’s money while he uses the garage to write a musical.” She ate the fry then shrugged. 

            “Is he any good?”

            She snorted. “I used to think so. He had a lot of interest back in college, but he wouldn’t sign any contract without complete control and eventually they all walked.”

            He took a fry from his own bag, and glanced again at the porch light, waiting for it to go off. “How long were you married?”

            She ate a few more fries, pretending to study them. “Got married at twenty-one. Lasted six years. Divorced two years ago. Well, two years and three months.”

            He glanced at the time on the dash. Nearly ten. “And then he got remarried?”

            She nodded. “Two years and three months ago. Well, minus one day. Patricia thinks all his charm is genius apparently and he happily went along, married or not.”

            The pieces clicked into place. He tapped lightly on the steering wheel, trying to soften the words. “Which is why you hate me. I remind you of him.”

            She turned toward him, her profile lit only by the radio. “I don’t hate you. It’s just…yes, you remind me of him. I come with baggage, kid.” 

            He flinched, but knew she used the word kid to put space between them. It was a good reminder. They had been acting too much like friends tonight.

            He kept his eyes on the house. It was easier to talk to her that way. “Does it help if I tell you I’m not writing a musical? I have the job I want. Only have a few thousand more to pay off in student loans, and I hire a cleaning service so my toilet isn’t scary. I can cook a little and I don’t leave wet towels on the floor.”

            She threw her head back and laughed. “So basically, you’re a middle-aged man in a twenty four year old’s body?”

            “Sometimes I eat dinner at 4:30pm.”

            She laughed again and he loved the sound. It made something loosen in his chest. “So you’re a senior citizen in a twenty four year old’s body.”

            “Don’t knock it until you try it, Rambo.”

            She shook her head. “Is this your pitch or something? To try to win me over?”

            He smiled as the front porch light went off, followed by the kitchen light. “That’s not what’s going to win you over.”

            “Oh? And what will?”

            He reached around the seat, trying to ignore how his chest brushed her arm, and grabbed the emergency tool kit he kept in the back. He opened it up and held up a screwdriver and a pair of needle nose pliers. “We deflate his tires.”

            He was all for payback, but if they got caught slashing tires, they would definitely lose their jobs. This way they could get revenge at less risk. He was hoping she was now calm enough to go with it. 

            She eyed him for a long moment, mulling over the idea. “That’s a better plan.” She pulled up her hood and took the screwdriver. “You ready?”

            He nodded. “Let’s do this.”

            They slipped out of the car, crossed the street, and walked along the tree line. They crouched low and crawled to the side of Scott’s truck positioned away from the front door. In sync, they removed the tire air caps and pressed the tools into the air spouts, releasing the air in a gust. They both startled at the sound, but there was no movement inside the house. 

            They kept going until both tires were completely deflated, then they screwed the caps back on. 

            “Do we dare do the other side?” he whispered.

            She looked at him, eyes bright in the moonlight and nodded. His heart kicked him in the ribs. She’d never looked more beautiful. He would’ve done anything for her then. 

            They tiptoed around the truck and repeated the process, then took off running. They dove into his car, backed up to the intersection, and took off before both releasing a laugh so loud, his ears rang.

            His hands were shaking from the adrenaline. He jerked the wheel, pulled down a residential dirt road, and threw the car in park.

            She was turning to him before he got his seatbelt off. His hands sank into her hair, her hands gripped the front of his shirt, and their mouths collided. 

***

            Ash needed to stop kissing James immediately. He was too young, too fragile, too everything she wasn’t looking for.

            Just like Scott. 

            She tried to tell her hands to stop gripping the front of his shirt, her mouth to stop moving against his. Her heart to stop beating adrenaline through every inch of her body. How was it possible she felt so in control yet completely spiraling simultaneously? 

            Kissing him was making her head foggy. The smell of his cologne, the taste of his cinnamon gum, the faint scratch of his five o’clock shadow. It was too much. It wasn’t enough.

            “Wait,” she finally managed to whisper, her chest constricting at the loss of him as he pulled back. “We…need…to…stop.”

            He closed his eyes, then licked his bottom lip. It took every ounce of strength she possessed to not lean in again. 

            “If you don’t want me to kiss you again, I need you to let go of my shirt,” he warned.

            It took all her concentration to release him. She pulled her traitor hands to her lap and then sat on them so she wouldn’t reach back over. “I’m sorry. The adrenaline…” She eyed him, his profile illuminated by his dashboard lights.

            “I need a moment.” He opened his door and stepped out of the car, walking a few steps away with his hands behind his neck. 

            She crossed her legs and pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. What if she threw caution to the wind? What if she invited him in? What if they spent the night together? What if she tried this again?

            What if she ended up in the same mess as before? With her friend Krishna having to pick her up on the side of the road at two in the morning with the things she managed to shove into a few suitcases? If they tried this and it failed, they’d still have to see each other every day at work. It was bad enough she had to deal with Scott a few times a year.

            What happened when they had their first fight? Their last?

            The car door opened, and James fell into his seat. She pressed her nose into her shoulder to try and keep from smelling him all around her. 

            “Buckle up,” he ordered. She did. Then he turned the car around and they drove back to her house in silence. 

***

            Never had James wanted the radio on more than this moment, but if he released his white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, he would touch her again. And if he touched her, he’d lose his mind. Jesus, he’d never been kissed like that, as if nothing else in the world mattered but his lips on hers. His heart had turned into cotton candy and the rest of his body…well he spent the entire drive reciting baseball stats for players who had retired a decade ago.

            He knew the speech was coming. The “thank you, but.” He knew that’s how this night would end, and he had been okay with it. Well, he had been okay with it until fourteen minutes ago. 

            The moment her lips touched his, some invisible string from his heart tied around hers. She smelled like lavender and woodsmoke, and he wanted to wrap himself around her until she promised she was his. 

            He wanted to keep driving, to leave the unspoken words unsaid forever, but somehow his hands turned the wheel and his foot braked in front of her building. 

            She didn’t move to get out, just kept taking quick glances at him then turning to face her dark front window. She inhaled through her nose. “James—”

            “Don’t,” he pleaded, desperate to not hear the words. “I know.”

            “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

            He released the steering wheel and scrubbed his hands over his face. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

            Her breath hitched and he knew he had hurt her. But he couldn’t kiss her and then pretend to be okay with carrying another man’s sins. “I’m not him, Ash.”

            She nodded once, then opened the door. “My head knows that. But my heart doesn’t.” She climbed out, then paused. “Thanks…for tonight.”

            He smiled at her. “It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

            She pressed her lips together. “Same.”

            He leaned forward, just to be a little closer to her for one last moment. “Goodnight, Ash.”

            She closed the door and he help his breath as he watched her walking into her place. Then he let out a huge groan. He was in trouble and he only had himself to blame.

***

            One week later, Ash was staring at her coffee mug, willing the disgusting brew to be just a little more palatable. How was it possible to create such a monstrosity from hot water and coffee beans? 

            “Is it working?”

            At the sound of James’s voice, Ash lifted her head, her heart thudding hard in her chest. She hadn’t heard him coming down the hall. No song, no whistle. “Is what working?”

            “Wishing the coffee didn’t assault every sense?”

            “No. Sadly.” She watched him as he walked in an arc around her and to the coffee pot, concentrating on filling his mug as if it was the hardest thing he’d do today. He was completely still except for the required movements, as if he was in low battery mode.

            Had she done that? Her chest ached. She curled her fingers into her fist so she didn’t reach out and touch him. 

            He took a step closer to her and she held her breath. He pulled something from his pocket and slid it across the counter. “That’s my secret.”

            He stepped away and walked out of the lounge. She reached over and grabbed the pouch. Hot chocolate powder. He mixed his coffee with hot chocolate powder. 

            She let out a watery laugh, her body unsure if she wanted to actually laugh or burst into tears. The hot chocolate…it was so James. The burst of sweet and delicious to her bitter and stubborn.

            She looked up when someone walked in. “Gavin!” She quickly dabbed underneath her eyes. “How’ve you been? How’s Krishna?”

            He crossed his arms, smiled at her, then shook his head. “Well, she’s not crying at work and giving puppy dog eyes to someone she supposedly hates.”

            Ash nodded. “Good. That’d be awkward.”

            He smiled at shook his head. “Care to explain why James is talking to Pete in his office?”

            The color drained from Ash’s face. The police were here? “No.” Her voice was a squeak. She grabbed the hot chocolate packet and shoved it in her own pocket, then made a beeline for the door.

            Gavin was on her heels. “Krishna’s gonna call you later.”

            She waved him off. “Fine. Tell her she’s my call if I need bail.”

            “Should I be worried?”

            “Not about this.”

            He touched her elbow and she slowed. “Then about what?”

            Ash shot him a glance. “About my heart making the same dumb decision it did last time.”

            He frowned. “You mean James?” He shook his head. “Ash, that man thinks you hung the moon and the stars.”

            That watery laugh thing came back. “I’m just gonna break him.”

            “Not if you stop being a chicken.” He held up his cell when she reached the door. “Call if you need bail.”

            She opened the door without bothering to knock, and Pete looked between her and James.

            Pete sighed, pulled off his police hat, and leaned back in his chair. “When’d you two hook up? I lost another pool!”

            “We’re not—” I started.

            “We didn’t—” James added.

            “And I suppose neither of you know anything about two hooded figures letting the air out of Scott’s tires last Thursday?”

            “Not a clue,” Ash managed with a straight face.

            Pete eyed her, then James, then shook his head and sighed. “Well if you remember anything, call me.”

            James tapped on his chin. “Do they have any other clues? That we could help you search for?”

            “No, nothing,” Pete confirmed. “Let me know if you hear anything.”

            When he left, Ash turned to James. “Whew. We got lucky.”

James stood and nodded, but didn’t look at her. “Something like that.” He gestured to his work bag and coat on a chair. “I should…”

            “Yeah. Of course.” She swallowed hard and turned around. Why was this so hard? She turned the knob and pushed, but the door didn’t move. She tried again and looked through a portion of the window that wasn’t covered in student artwork.

            Gavin and Pete both smiled at her. “Figure your shit out and we’ll let you out!” Gavin ordered.

            “What’s going on?” James asked.

            Ash turned around and shook her head. “They locked us in.”

***

            James knocked on the window. “I’ve got a music lesson!”

            Pete shook his head. “Nate is out of town. His mom owed me a favor.”

            “This was all a plan, wasn’t it?” He sighed and leaned against the door. Small town charm, they said. Yeah right.

            “Couldn’t care less about Scott’s tires,” Pete said.

            Gavin cleared his throat. “They don’t know anything about that anyway.”

            “What exactly is the point of this?” James shot back.

            “You two need to talk. So talk,” Gavin ordered.

            James leaned his head against the wall and sighed. “She already made up her mind. I’m not going to force her.” 

            “James…” Ash started but then stopped, her mouth trying to move but no words coming out. 

            “I don’t need the speech again.” He dropped his bag and slid down to the floor. “I’m too young and too…me. I get it.”

            “No.” She fisted the hot cocoa packet in her hand. “I…” she cleared her throat. “No one has ever kissed me like you did.”

            He smiled. “It was pretty great.”

            Ash closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I messed up a simple multiplication problem today.”

            James couldn’t keep from smiling, even though his heart wasn’t in it. Or rather, it was in it too much. “I’m glad we made a good memory.” 

            “What if I don’t want it to be just a memory?” she whispered. 

            He stilled and turned to face her. “What do you mean?” His heart hammered so hard, he could hear it in his ears. Please, he thought. Please feel the same way.

            She ran her fingers through her hair and held up the cocoa packet. “This is you, all sweet and happy and full of joy.” She held up her coffee mug. “This is me, all bitter and stale. But maybe together…we can balance each other out.”

            James pushed to his feet. “Are you sure?”

            She shook her head. “I’m definitely gonna fuck up.” 

            He nodded while walking toward her. “We’ll figure it out.”

            She set her mug down on his desk and looked down at her hands, which flexed in and out of fists. “I’m scared.”

            He stopped in front of her, so close they were nearly touching. “I am, too.”

            She looked up at him and he couldn’t look away from her searching gaze. “What if it all goes wrong?” she whispered.

            “What if it all goes right?” He tilted his head. “You charged out of here with a bat a week ago, and now you’re going to let a little bit of apprehension stop you?”

            She blinked at him. Then blinked again. A little spark of that fire returned to her eyes and the space between them grew charged. “You better buckle up, James. Because loving me isn’t easy.”

            He placed his hands on her waist and leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Good thing I’m young and energetic. I can keep up.” 

            She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Well then. I guess this is happening.” She slid her fingers into his hair at the back of his neck.

            “Finally,” he breathed, and he brought his lips to hers. 

            When they finally came up for air, Ash tapped his phone in his back pocket. “Just one more thing. Please change your lock screen. I don’t really want to see other women kissing you.”

            “Please, I have much more respect for you than that. They’re my twin sisters and they’re going to love you.”

            Ash just smiled and kissed him again.

           The end.

 

[This story concludes Series 1 Flash Fiction!]

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