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Confined Spaces Chapter 1

Chapter 1

 

 

The Cave might not have been the classiest joint in Bensonville, Georgia, but bartender Andie Waters liked to think it was the friendliest. She glanced toward the kitchen where the bar’s owner, Chuck, was taking a food order. He was a good guy to work for, and she’d known him practically forever. Thanks to Chuck’s uncompromising support—and daunting size—most of the male patrons respected Andie’s declaration that she was off-limits.

Andie glanced at the spattering of customers around the pool table and bar before she turned her attention to one of her regulars.

“I’ve told you a million times. I’m a lesbian trapped in a man’s body,” Joel said.

“And I’ve told you just as many times, that is so lame.” Andie crossed her arms over her chest. She racked her brain to remember why she put up with this guy. He tossed a generous tip onto the bar, jarring her memory.

“Call it what you want,” he said, “but it hurts that you won’t accept me for who I am and go to bed with me.”

Andie rolled her eyes. “Joel, screw you.” She smiled and wiped the slick, candy-apple-red bar in front of her. Joel was one of the few guys there who could push the limits with teasing her and get away with it. He was harmless. “You want another?” she asked as she nodded at his beer bottle.

“Yep.” Joel tipped his head back and drained the last bit. “Keep it coming, darling.” He stroked his goatee. There was a sprinkling of silver in his facial hair, even though the dark hair on his head showed no signs of gray.

Andie watched as her best friend sidled up to the bar. “Hey, bartender. Who’s getting lucky?” Marla asked.

“You will,” Joel said, “if you’re real nice.”

“Not in this lifetime,” Marla retorted. She turned to Andie. “Anything interesting going on?”

“Interesting?” Five days a week in the field pulling waste samples, three nights a week bartending. The rest of the time hanging with her hound. Interesting? No. But she was content. “Just another hopeless Friday night, working at a dingy straight bar, cleaning up after slobs like Joel.”

“Hey, I resent that,” Joel said.

“You resemble that?” Marla asked. She turned to Andie. “You look cute tonight,” she told Andie. “I wish I could get away with little tank tops like that. But with these things...” She squished her large breasts up and together. “So, who’s cooking tonight?”

“Chuck,” Andie and Joel answered simultaneously. Andie was surprised Joel could get the word out, given how he was slobbering all over himself as he stared at Marla’s cleavage.

“Ah, Caveman Chuck,” Marla said. “Yummy. Let me go see my buddy.”

“Behave yourself, Marla,” Andie said.

She watched Marla sashay away. She and Marla had been close since high school. They’d met on a double date their sophomore year. Andie went to the prom with a popular senior, and Marla was that boy’s friend’s date. After the dance, when Marla saw how uncomfortable Andie was with her date’s hands all over her, she feigned being drunk and sick. Then Marla insisted that the guys drop Andie off at Marla’s house to help her sneak drunkenly past her parents. As soon as they got inside, Marla’s stumbling ceased; she stood up straight, and sober. “We should have brownies and cocoa to celebrate our independence.”

Andie smiled at the memory.

“I guess Marla’s on the prowl,” Joel said.

“According to her, she doesn’t prowl.”

Joel sipped his beer. “I get you not wanting to go out with me since you’re a dy—I mean a lesbian—but what’s Marla’s excuse?”

“Good taste?”

Joel put a hand over his heart. “That really hurt.”

Andie stared at him. Sometimes she wasn’t sure when he switched gears from playful to serious. She fumbled for something nice to say.

“Gotcha.” Joel pumped his fist.

“Ass,” Andie said.

“Why’s Joel an ass this time?” Marla asked as she plopped down on the stool next to his.

“I don’t need to sit here and take this crap.” Joel swung off his bar stool. “I’m going to go find a woman who can appreciate my considerable charm.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Marla called after him.

“You should be nicer to him.”

“I don’t have to be. He doesn’t tip me.” Marla leaned on her elbows. “Seriously, anything going on?”

Andie tilted her head closer. “Don’t look now,” she said, knowing full well Marla would do just that, “but guess who’s in the corner by the pool table.”

Marla craned her neck. “Ah, straight-but-curious Julia. She come on to you yet tonight?”

“Not so much. I think she’s gotten the hint.”

“Finally. But I have to tell you, if I were a lesbian, I’d be all over her. She’s hot.”

Andie checked out Julia and appreciated the view. Julia bent over the pool table with her cue in hand, her dark bobbed hair swaying as her ass moved left to right slightly. Before making the shot, she looked over her shoulder and winked at Andie.

“Admit it,” Marla said. “That scenery is better than at your day job.”

Andie nodded. “Yeah, and even Joel smells better than the shit I work with.”

Marla gave an exaggerated shudder. “I don’t get how you can work with sewage.”

“Let’s see: I get a steady paycheck but have very little interference from supervisors, and I get to work outside.”

“Hmm. Not much of a paycheck. And you have to work in the heat and the cold and the stench. I repeat, I don’t know how you can work there.”

“I met Xena through work. That alone makes it well worth it.”

“Speaking of Xena, how is the old girl?”

“Getting older. Bless her heart, she’s really slowing down.” Andie thought about her Walker hound. She’d been out sampling at a clay mine when she ran across the tick-covered, skin-and-bones dog. She’d been so affected by the sight of the hound that she went back to the mine the next day, vowing to bring the dog home if she saw her again. And she did.

“How long have you had Xena now?”

“Seven years.” Andie paused. “My longest relationship yet.”

“Cheers, then. I guess I’ll drink to you and Xena. A margarita, por favor.”

Andie grabbed the Cuervo Gold from the shelf. As she was mixing the drink, she noticed Chuck peeking out from the kitchen. She put the cocktail in front of Marla and excused herself.

Andie walked the length of the room-long bar down to the end where Chuck was lurking. “What are you doing?” she asked.

Chuck held out a plate of chicken wings. “Will you give these to Marla?”

“Don’t be scared. I hear she only bites when invited to.”

“Just take these to her. Please.”

“What’s up with you?” The tangy spice of the wing sauce tickled her nose. She feared the scents of beer and buffalo wings would forever conjure images of The Cave in her mind’s eye.

“Can I ask you something?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Has Marla been flirting with me?”

“You know, sweetie, if she’s coming on too strong, just tell me and I’ll handle it for you. Isn’t that what you guys always tell me about overzealous customers?”

“It’s not like that.”

“No? What’s it like then?” She grinned at the way the big man shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t totally off base.”

“No, you aren’t.” She took the plate of wings over to Marla and plopped them in front of her. “Here are your dead chicken parts.”

“Saying crap like that doesn’t faze me. I will forever be a carnivore.”

“Ugh.”

Marla waved a wing at Andie. “The West wasn’t won on salad.” She wriggled her eyebrows. “And Chuck won’t be, either.”

“Poor Chuck,” Andie said.

“Shit,” Marla said as she nodded in the direction of the door.

Andie followed her gaze. “Shit,” she echoed.

“Did you know your brother was in town?” Marla asked.

Andie swallowed hard as she watched Chuck approach Jack. The memory of her brother’s rejection stabbed into her chest. It was her first semester at college, and she’d had her heart broken by a girl. Marla was on vacation with her family, so Andie couldn’t talk to her about it. She decided to look for consolation from her brother. It didn’t quite work out that way.

“You’re a freak,” he’d yelled. “You’re disgusting and you’re going to hell.”

Jack had told her parents about Andie’s sinful behavior. They, too, had lectured her about going to hell. Not long after that, Jack married a nice Christian girl and moved to Alabama. Their parents soon followed, explaining their move as wanting to be nearer to their normal child.

Andie stared at her tall, thin brother. There was so much she wanted to say to Jack but wasn’t sure she could find her voice.

“Be back in a sec,” she said with a catch in her voice.

“I’ll be right here.”

Andie tried to keep her steps at a natural pace. Her racing heartbeat, though, she couldn’t control.

Jack stood two feet taller than Andie. She felt her throat pinch off as she looked up at him. It took several deep breaths before she could speak. “Hello, Jack.” She began sweating as her brother stared through her. “Jack,” she said slightly louder.

Freak. Disgusting. Although unspoken this time, the words assailed her all over again. She willed away the tears threatening to form. When she opened her mouth to repeat his name, nothing came out.

Jack turned toward Chuck. “Nice to see you, buddy.”

“You, too. And congratulations, Jack.” They shared a manly half-hug, and Jack patted Chuck on the back before strutting to the door without the slightest acknowledgement of Andie’s presence.

Andie followed Chuck into the kitchen. The stench of burnt grease added to the nausea she felt from Jack’s newest rejection.

“Why were you congratulating Jack?” she asked him.

“Come on girl, you know I can’t talk about Jack with you.”

“I’m his sister.”

“You know how bad I feel about the shit between you two. But it’s not my place to say anything.”

She clenched her teeth. She’d always been good about not holding Chuck’s friendship with Jack against him, and it’d been years since she’d asked him for any information about her brother. Jack came to town every year or so to see people he’d grown up with. She usually heard about him being in town, but she hadn’t seen him for herself since he moved. Seeing Jack face-to-face at The Cave and having him totally ignore her had both angered and saddened her more than she thought still possible. Then again, it wasn’t fair to take it out on her boss.

“You’re right. Sorry.”

“I’m sorry, Andie. I really am. You don’t deserve the way he treats you, but I can’t get involved in all that.”

Andie nodded. “I know. I wish you were my brother instead of that asshole.”

Chuck wrapped her in a bear hug. “I always wanted a sister to terrorize,” he said.

“Let me go. You’re crushing me.” She play-punched him in the chest. “You big oaf.”

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