Muddy bottom blues

- Jackson, March 1994 -

Mama's ghosts seem far away when she bursts into the motel that morning, sparkly, fizzy and happy. She doesn't head straight to the bathroom like she usually does, just snatches up the already packed suitcases.

"Hurry, hurry. Uncle Hal is waiting."

Mila rubs the sleep out of her eyes and Mama hustles her out even though Mila is still in her pajamas. She has barely time to grab her cap and she skips down the stairs with her shoes untied. Mila has never heard of any Uncle Hal before but the relief of seeing Mama shine up like that is enough to make Mila like him.

He's there, waiting outside the motel in his sky-blue truck, wearing a Saint's cap and a smile so warm Mila blushes. The prince. He has finally come, and he sure is something. He's young and blond hair sticks out beneath the cap. He has kind blue eyes that take her in where she stands gripping her suitcase with both hands. Mila wears a cap too, a red one with a bull on it that one of Mama's friends gave her.

"Hey there, princess... Ain't you a prettiest little thing?" He says purdiest, as if his tongue is too thick for his mouth. "Come here and give us a kiss then."

Mila knows she isn't pretty. She touches her cap to make sure it stays on as she kisses him politely on the cheek, turning quickly to check with Mama if it's what's expected of her. Mama is looking at her feet. Mila's hair has grown out in feathery wisps and clumps. It makes Mama sad so Mila wears the cap. Always.

But Uncle Hal touches a tuft by her ear.

"What's wrong with the kid's hair?"

Mila feels the blood drain from her face. Mama will tell him about her hungry ghosts now and it'll all be over. He won't want them no more.

"Lice. Cut all off," Mama says with her silky voice and gives him a blinding smile, looking sad at the same time.

Lice. It's a lie. Mila knows what a lie is. She's never had lice. She keeps herself clean, the best she can. Even those days when Mama lies on the floor beside the bed, staring at the electrical socket and won't get up, even then Mila washes herself. Good girl. Has to be good because Mama has enough trouble with her ghosts.

"So, you two beautiful ladies coming to stay with me, huh? How about that?" Uncle Hal swings the door to his truck open and helps her clamber up, smiling at her all the while. His teeth all sitting at different angles as if they couldn't decide which way to grow, but he's still beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful man Mila has ever seen. Her heart flutters in her throat while Mama throws their bags in the back. Mama's jasmine perfume spreading over the rubbery smell of the truck as she climbs in.

Uncle Hal bustles and laughs and talks non-stop. He even lets Mila tune in the radio.

"Choose a station you like, hon," Uncle Hal says. He's got arms like thick oak branches, the skin covered in yellow hair, like dust in the sun. It tickles when he accidentally brushes by her own brown twigs.

"I'll take real good care of you ladies... You'll even have your own room, princess. How's that for fancy, huh?"

He has a paper bag of pecan pralines in his glove box. Sticky, melting in her hand as she tries to eat them nicely without dropping any crumbs of chocolate on the seats. But Mila's heart is like sunshine riding there between Mama and Uncle Hal. Anyone who might catch sight of the three of them through the windscreen of Uncle Hal's sky-blue truck might think they're a real family.

Uncle Hal is a big blond sun. He'll keep Mama's ghosts away. They won't dare come with, Mila is sure of it. They'll be alright now. They will.

...

- Now -

Mila shudders at the memory of the dumb little girl she once was. The one who sat in Hal's truck and ate pecan pralines, believing in happy endings. One thing is for sure; nobody will ever get to her like that again. Nobody.

Which is why she needs Acker off her case already.

He's too intrusive, too pushy. There is no way you can let him inside without having him making a big old mess. She ought to have her head examined for letting that stinky old 'Joel - not her first' out of the bag. It had been a silly impulse, just wanting him to drop his jaw for once. She'd achieved that alright. But she knows he'll be back to digging and drilling in no time. Impossible for him not to. Not like you can be mad at a cat for chasing birds. Just the way he is.

Mila clasps the tractor's steering wheel. The plastic sticky under her fingers and probably smelling like rancid mayo too. Kelsoe used to drive it, fat belly rubbing up against the wheel, one grimy hand used for steering and the other cramming a big whooping po'-boy down that gluttonous pie-hole. A half-smoked cigar stowed behind his ear - because God forbid those chops remained empty for more than a split second.

Acker sprints ahead to lift the gate open. And she's seen him like this a million times, looking downright nasty, bed-head, soiled shirt, perspiration down his back, all wet, sweaty and cruddy. But argh. - That swaying swagger, soggy, mud-stained jeans riding low on slim hips, the wet denim hugging his backside just the right way. Those arms emerging from rolled-up sleeves glistening in the sun, a delicious shade of toffee. God knows, it's no better than brooding about Kelsoe, her stomach churning. Hungry - but not for food. Not that she'd be able to eat now anyhow. Not with that large desperate lump wedged in her throat.

Wishes she could take it all back. The morning, her weakness, her lapse in judgment. It's Survival 101. You keep Acker at arm's length unless you want him all over your business. Which she doesn't. He'll just come blundering in, blindly knocking things down, crushing you in the process. That ham-fisted eagerness of his, jumping feet first, nothing held back.

She lets her breath out as she drives past him, unaware of holding it in the first place. That damn kiss. Nothing special, didn't mean anything. Acker will get with anyone who gives him half an inch. And one dumb kiss doesn't a Prince fricking Charming make. He's still the same asshole who screws girls by the dozen, no regrets, no consideration for anybody's feelings.

Still. Jeez. The dumbass sure knows how to kiss.

Mila reverses the old Fordson, an iffy move on the muddy slope with the trailer. Kelsoe pulling that off while snacking and smoking is true proof that God watches over kids and imbeciles. She can't see a damn thing. Might have helped if Acker could have spared a second to direct her, but he's obviously busy dawdling with his lighter and pestering Monroe.

She backs down slowly. The tilt is steep and the ground wet. She knows it's about to happen an instant before it actually does. The tractor slips, trailer sliding sideways at a precarious angle. She sinks in good, the crappy old engine gnaws and gnashes but the tractor doesn't budge. The sludge enveloping the tires, making them rotate uselessly, spitting mud. Shit. Just what she needs. She was going to be in and out like a bandit, that plans shot to smithereens now.

She cuts the ignition, wrenching the lever up. Has barely gotten her butt off the seat before Acker has his nose in her face, gloating, showing off that dog-toothed grin.

"Sheesh... Smooth move, Millislick."

She is about to cuff him across the head but is distracted by the way his upper lip stretches over that crooked smirk. Fricking hell. This has to stop somehow. It's Acker for God's sake. Acker who can spot a chink in somebody's armor from a mile away and you can bet your sorry ass that he'll poke a finger in and pry it apart. She better wipe those stars from her eyes before he catches on.

"Just shut it, alright."

He twirls around to inspect her handiwork, fingers loosely wedged in his back pockets, inevitably drawing her eyes to his muddy ass. She forces herself to look higher up. And it isn't much better. His broad back with that valley down his spine, a deep dip between concave muscles making her want to touch him, run her fingers along bare skin. Chalk it up to proximity, but she can't count the hours she's spent trying not to notice the way his body moves under clothes. That body he's done absolutely nothing to deserve, painstakingly built on Betty's lemon meringue pies and goofing off. Hell, if there were any justice in the world, Acker would have a rear end like the back of a Buick.

"Alright... Well, I guess you'll have to borrow Farrow's Deere, haul it loose." He swings around just fast enough to catch her gawping. "If you're done admiring my backside, that is?"

"Yeah, don't flatter yourself, buddy." Crap. She needs that kiss purged from her mind, needs to be yanked down from this stupid rose-tinted high, the sudden yearning for his skin. "And why don't you ask Farrow yourself? Seeing as how this was all your fault."

"Ain't no way that stingy old fart will lend it to me. One accident, I tell you. Not like I frigging killed nobody. "

A few years ago, Acker ran Farrow's tractor into a swampy ditch. Kelsoe had been forced to enlist several neighbors to tow it back up onto dry land. Acker's story was that he was 'working' but Mila's money is on a drunken joyride, a drag race or some bird-brained dare between him and Joel. Possibly a combination of all three.

"Come on then, girl, let daddy drive you to your date."

He seems ludicrously happy about the prospect. She knows how he must be itching to interrogate her about the engagement crap or who nabbed her little cherry. Probably can't wait to be out of earshot from Monroe so he can barrage her with questions. And she knows he'll nag and chew until he breaks her hide, just so that he can chomp some little tasty tidbit loose.

Knows how Acker can't stand the feeling of being left out of the loop.

"Well, boohya…" she mutters rounding the trailer. The metal bed will heat up like a frying pan in the sun so she covers the gator with the oilcloth before she turns to Monroe. "Splash him some water every now and then, will you?"

He nods gravely as if she's just asked him to bury the damn thing. Acker calling over his shoulder. "Hey, milkweed. If he chews himself out, just truss him back up again, alright buddy?"

...

She winds down the side window as they back out. The truck reeks of smoke, making her woozy.

"You're a real asshole, Ack. The guy must be freaking out back there."

Acker smiles, eyes on the rearview mirror, clearly frigging delighted with himself. That's when Mila spots her. Lola, standing on the Myrtle House porch in a sleek apricot colored dress, shielding her eyes from the sun with an elegant little hand. Peering their way from the look of it.

Shit.

She knew Lola had moved in, it shouldn't come as a shock, but hell - it's Lola. And she's here, right here. Mila ducks. Throws herself down sideways, her chin hitting the stick shift and her cheek landing on Acker's thigh.

"Not that I don't appreciate the gesture, but what the hell, Mils?"

Mila gasps for air. Like having someone sit on your chest. How she can't inhale properly. Acker places a large hand over her hair as if her head is a melon that has landed on his lap. She can feel him reversing, wheeling the truck around. His jeans are damp against her skin and the smell is so heart-wrenchingly familiar - mud, tobacco and swamp, her throat constricts. Kelsoe. Hates him then. If he had just fought a little longer, tried a little harder, he'd still be here. And Lola wouldn't.

The truck swerves and holy mother of all things wrong, this - lying wedged in his crotch isn't a good position – at all. She raises her head and tries to peer up above the dashboard. "Is she gone? Can you still see her?"

"Jayz... Millikook." He squeezes her shoulder, his palm warm through her shirt, making her scramble to sit up, shoving his hand off. She twists her head to see Myrtle House disappear behind them, that lean apricot figure growing smaller. Mila's neck is cold, a clammy chill inching along her spine

"What the fuck is this about? What did she do to you? Did... Did she hurt you?" He slaps the air in front of him, as if it's not perfectly clear what he means without the gesture.

She can't think of anything to say. Did she hurt her? No. Yes. Maybe in a million ways and then some. Every little act, every word spoken, a row of small knots on the long tangled string that made Mila who she is. Made her ripe for the picking. Lola had tied those knots - every single one of them. Made her an easy prey. Did she hurt her? Mila had tried to tell Lola about Hal. What he did. Double punishment. That nail-brush and the white powder for the tile. Bad girl, bad girl. It had hurt to pee for days.

"She left," she mumbles finally and it's such an outrageous understatement, it feels like a lie.

"Yeah, I know that. So did that old dirtbag J.P. but I sure as pie wouldn't be crawling on the floor if he were to strut on in here after ten years. I'd give him a piece of my mind. Send that dipstick packing. Hell, Mils... This is your goddamn home. You gonna' fricking skedaddle every time you see her?"

He would never understand. Those nights when Lola had prowled the truck stops. 'Gotta' see a guy about a job.' Mila loitering between trucks, trying to remain in the shadows, never sure if Lola would actually come back or hitch a ride out with someone. Because that had happened too. Mila had hung around the gas station until the owner had taken mercy on her. Promising to let her wait around for a few days before he called Child Services. Lola had come back though, tail between legs, lipstick smeared and her eyes hard. No money, no explanation.

Then came Hal, the ice cream, the yellow dress, that hand. Good girl, pretty girl. Mila had told Lola and Lola had left her with him. Just up and fricking left. And even then, she'd been too stupid to hate Lola. Instead, she'd waited around and yearned, thinking that maybe she hadn't told it right. Maybe Lola hadn't heard her. The hands. Hal. Good girl. You and me. Our secret. Mila, waiting for Lola's return. A pathetic little mutt longing for the boot that kicked it to the curb. Somehow that's the most shameful part of it all. How that dumb kid she once was had still loved Lola.

"Christ, Ack... I can't deal with you too. " She draws her palm over her face. Wants to cry but there are no tears, just a white, hot confusing anger. And the shame - diffuse and overpowering at the same time, a big fat toxic cloud of it.

"Deal?" Acker drops the word as if it's manure. "When did you ever 'deal'? You just let things happen to you… You crawl into a hole, cower and hide until it passes. That's the only way I've ever seen you deal, Millisip."

Hal's hand under that frilly yellow dress. Let things happen. Not once had she said no. He got to her so easily.

"That's not true," she wheezes, turning her head away. Acker, clumsy and ignorant, just kicking up the dust, dragging out the stuff she can't bear to look at. She buried that dumb kid a long time ago and she isn't about to dig her up now. The stupid little girl who was so starved for affection she believed just about anything. Pretty. You're such a pretty girl. It's you and me.

"Oh, isn't it? Nah, I guess you're right 'cause there's also 'escape mode,' huh? Skulking off to sniffle in Max's apron, or hooking some fucktard farm job up Shitcrook Bayou. All part and parcel, ain't it?" Acker's nostrils flaring now, his face turning angular in frustration. "Ain't nobody worth fighting for, huh? Never mind the damn ranch, fuck the gators, fuck Acker, fuck everyone else too, right? 'Cause Mila's got to skadoodle."

As if she owes him anything, the way he stomps all over her brittle parts. And hell, he's got Betty and the Alligator Bite, not as if he'll starve without her or the damn ranch. But Mila can't exist alongside Lola. Did she hurt her? The question running on a loop in her mind. No. Yes. In every way thinkable. Lola made her into this. Someone who floats along like a jellyfish in the current - lets things happen.

"Get rid of her..." she says hoarsely. It's an outrageous request but she means it. Needs her gone, at any cost. "Get rid of Lola."

Acker runs those long fingers through his ratty hair, jaw muscles shifting as he clenches his teeth. Mila keeps her chin up and pretends it's a totally reasonable thing to ask.

"Jayzus, Mil, what do you suggest I do? Dissolve her in a vat of acid?" He tugs the chuff of his fringe upwards looking like a little boy who's been ordered to drown a sack of kittens.

"Make her leave and I'll... You can have anything you want."

He exhales like an exasperated parent of a particularly dull-witted child. She shuffles her feet on the floor, thumbs the soggy hem of Kelsoe's shirt and waits for it. He'll ask for something offensive for sure. Or take her television set off her hands. His own has cracked loudspeakers and a remote patched up with rubber bands and tape. If you want to switch channels, you've got to joggle the sensor into the right position.

"I don't understand why you can't just wait… Ain't no jobs around in Bernadette. Sooner or later she'll run out of money and scurry on back to wherever the hell she came from. Just wait her out, Mils…"

Something about this browbeaten, pacifying tone, doesn't jive. It's just wrong. He's supposed to be chalking up lists of her belongings, plotting how much he can take her for. Not sit here and look meek and – well, guilty.

"I can't wait," she says and eyes him, suspicious now. That's not like him, at all. The appeasing demeanor, the reasonable reasoning. It's off as hell. "Why are you like this?"

"Like what?" He plays it all innocent, tucking his bottom lip between his teeth only to release it with a plop, a flutter of eyelashes.

"Weird. You're being real weird."

"No, I'm not, I'm just... Oh, fuck it - " He cuts himself off and says nothing more, just scuffs his fingers on the steering wheel, clamming up in that surly way he's got.

She stretches her arm on the side window, rests her chin on it while they ride on in a gruff silence. Acker's ability to throw a mute fit is unrivaled. His mood visible in every brusque movement, in every muscle of his stiff neck. How he messes about with the radio every few seconds, tuning into a different channel and then back again, fidgeting and fussing. Eyebrows so low it's a wonder he can see anything at all.

He's been quiet for all of three minutes when he pipes up, and hell, that must be some all-time record for Acker Adams.

"So... You know Joey-boy is like blood to me, right?"

And here it comes. She nods and keeps staring out the window. If this is one of his 'give Joel another chance' speeches, she'll just reach over and thwack him across that meddling snout of his.

"Still... " Soft-spoken voice rumbling in his chest in a weirdly shy way, large hands gripping the steering wheel as if it might be ripped away from him otherwise. "I can't say I was all that sorry when y'all called it quits."

Huh?

His eyes drift over her fleetingly and she gets stuck staring at his hands on the wheel, his wrists flaring out into broad palms and the long, strong fingers. A fine shimmer of light fuzz making them catch the sun. Beautiful. As if made for trawling across skin. How they'd felt around her face.

"Hey, about this morning..." His eyes tacked to the road, squirming in his seat, meddling with the radio yet another time. Something defenseless about him, how he's all nerves. He rubs his neck, and she tries not notice the arm, muscles moving beneath slick skin, that tang of earthy, musky maleness he gives off. "I ain't sorry about that either. Not even a little bit."

A zap of heat to her cheeks, before she remembers that this is Acker. Something moronic is sure to come next, something that mauls down this sporadic bout of sincerity.

"What I'm trying to say is… Hell, you wanna' scratch that itch..." Hah, and sure enough, there it is - the jerkbag line. "Ain't nobody got to know."

Yeah, right. That blabbermouth would have billboards slammed up all over the parish before she'd even scratched that itch a little. 'Ain't nobody got to know' her ass - as if he doesn't get up into his armpits in the thick of every little thing she does. And to just assume that she'd want to do any scratching with him. Arrogant sonofabitch.

"That's real generous of you, Ack –" She wants to chew him out but she catches herself. He might have the finesse of a warthog but beyond that shallow horseshit she gets the feeling he's going out on a limb. "Look, I'm sorry, I'm not sure why I did it... It just happened, alright? I'd have kissed Ronald Reagan, had he been standing there instead. Didn't mean nothing..."

He gnaws on his cheek staring at the road in front of him as if he's planning to murder it, clearly not content with her answer.

"So, that it? That's the sorry-ass, gutless cop-out you got for me? 'Just happened'? 'Sides, hate to tell you – that old boy is dead."

"Who?"

"Reagan."

She lets the silence grow hot and heavy again, clicking her fingers against the window. If she thought she could find the words, she'd tell him. How she can't be what he wants. Can't be someone for a quick light-hearted roll in the sack. She just isn't right. He'd do wisely to stick with screwing his way around the bars of Fairview. He has nothing to gather with her.

"Yeah, the mute thing wasn't cute way back when, and it sure ain't cute now either," he sneers at her. She withholds a snippy retort. Doesn't want to give him the opportunity to do his thing. That knack he's got for kindling even the littlest squabble into a wildfire.

So she shuts her mouth and plucks with his glove box instead, pleased to see him twitch when she flicks it open. Hah, the boy sure doesn't like the snooping much. His hands grow white-knuckled around the steering wheel as she raffles through his belongings. She finds a few CD's, a half melted candy bar, sunglasses and a generous supply of brightly colored condom packages. The idea of him needing that kind of stockpile in his truck makes her want to disinfect the seat beneath her.

She tears open the candy bar wrapping, and she swears she can see a vein pop on Acker's neck.

"Did I say you could eat that? Well, fuck it... Give me here." He holds his palm out, fingers moving annoyingly. She has an irrepressible craving to aggravate him. Needs to cover up what happened this morning, crumple up the image of him as someone worth wanting. That kiss, it was just technique, that's all, just heaps and oodles of practice and some fancy-ass footwork. It didn't mean anything.

She peels the foil back and bites off half the bar, unable to close her mouth around it. The chocolate is so melted, a sludgy chunk of it remains in the wrapper. She scrapes it out with her front teeth, flashing a chocolate smeared grin, teeth all gummy. He responds with an incredulous look, shaking his head.

"You're a piece of work, Millicent Nguyen, a real piece of work. And you get one speck of that goopy shit on my seats, you gonna' wish you were never born."

Hah. There's no way you can make those seats look any worse than they already do. Mud and crap all over, the stuffing peeking out of them, duct tape used to cover the larger gashes. She imagines grosser stuff must have been spilt too judging from all those condoms.

"Chocolate stains. Imagine that, huh? " She makes a mock-horrified face at him. "Someone might actually spot them among all the gravy-gunk." Not that you can see any stains but crap, it bothers her beyond reason, the thought of all those girls. Him needing all those condoms in his damn pick-up.

"Hey, ain't no crime in having a healthy appetite." He gives her a little cocky shrug, as if she's just complimented him. Asshole. She proceeds to line the tiny square packages up on the dashboard. Bright cherry red, yellow, turquoise, strawberry flavored, textured, plain. Nobody can say Acker doesn't have his game covered.

"Jeez, you sure keep plenty of rubbers though," she says, mouth jam-packed with chocolate. It grates on her eyeballs, and somewhere down her belly where all her insecurities nestle like a ball of hissing rattlesnakes. Not that she wants him like that. But it pisses her off that it's so damn easy for him. That he's this big goofy dunce who hasn't spent a second of his life worrying about sex in any other terms than when he'll next get it in. And she is, well, she's all fucked up.

"Well, Betty would make a coin purse out of my nuts if I gave her grand-babies and contrary to slander, I ain't a complete slimebag. - I suit up." He says it haughtily as if he expects a frigging medal. Some schmaltzy country song comes on. It makes her want to gag in the same way the scent of jasmine or incense does. A flashback of Lola's soft lilting voice humming along to Garth Brooks. Country with a Vietnamese accent. Her hand darts out to change the channel and Acker frigging swats her fingers away.

"Oh, for Jeeper's sake. Leave it! And quit picking with my goddamn stuff!"He flicks his hair away from his face and it falls right back down again. His irritation blistering hot, staining his cheeks an angry shade of red. "So, that it? You spend the whole day eyeballing me, drooling like I'm honey-grilled prime ribs and you ain't got nothing to say about it?"

Mila shoves the remaining candy bar piece in her mouth and makes a grimace at him.

"Wow. That's real nice, Mils. Real classy."

She sweeps the condoms into her open palm and chucks them back into the glove box. Slams it shut so hard it bounces open again, the little packages scattering across the floor.

"I told you. It was an accident, alright." If he thinks she's going to pick up his goddamn condom collection, he's got another thing coming.

"Some accident, huh, Milliprig?" It comes out in an ugly growl, the tension in the sinewy muscles of his hands so taut around the wheel they look like they're about to snap. Masculine pride taking a hit, that's all. He doesn't even know what he wants himself. "So, what? You tripped? Slipped and accidentally jammed your tongue down my throat? That it, Mils?"

"Jeez, Ack. Give it a rest, already," she snarls. "Why you have to be such a goddamn girl about it?"

He shrugs and rears himself back in. She can see him pulling back, the enormous effort it takes for him to put a lid on it.

"Yeah well, don't sweat it Milliwimp." He throws her a snooty sideway glance. "Cower and hide all you want, it don't differ none to me. We're all good. Just frigging peachy."

The deliberate smugness makes her bristle. 'We're all good.' They're not. She's not. She's in freefall and he's dogging her about some bull dung that didn't mean anything in the first place. She has a pulsating headache making her eyes hurt.

"We're good? What the fuck is wrong with you? You want to' be nice, you bring a casserole or a pot roast, buddy-boy. You don't offer to scratch my frigging 'itch'!" She runs out of breath somewhere there and returns to stewing and staring at the passing landscape. The sleazy bastard. 'Scratch an itch', indeed. Yeah, that'd be the day. She's got enough on her plate to deal with without stirring the neurotics of Acker into the gumbo.

"Yeah, God forbid you should try another fucking flavor than vanilla, huh?"

Vanilla? What the hell does that make him? Grilled cheese.

"What's so fricking hard to grasp about it? I don't want this. You." It's cruel but he's like a bulldozer, needs to be cut down by the ankles or he'll just squash her.

"Yeah, you know what... You can forget about it anyways. Offer's off the damn table," he grumbles, frail ego obviously injured. "Next time you get a little frisky, you best keep your hands to yourself. This here boy's off the menu."

"Oh, bummer." She hangs her elbow on the window and tries not to look at him when he tosses back that shaggy hair and lifts his jaw up. It's no cakewalk to pull off high and mighty with a shiner the size of Texas but Acker manages pretty darn well.

"So, you gonna' pick those up or not?" He nods at the rubbers strewn by her feet.

"Nah. It'll come in handy next time you pork some poor bimbo on the floor of your truck." She puts her boots up on his dashboard, just because she knows it'll tick him off. He leans over and promptly knocks them down so that she hits her chin on her knee.

"Ouch! What the -"

He pouts and taps the wheel in tune to some fluffy pop song, plays it cool but she can see his pulse ticking away irately at that spot beneath his jaw. He notices her looking and tilts his chin towards her chest.

"You do know I can see your nipples as clear as day in that rag, right?"

"Yeah, well nobody asking you to look," she says and she sticks her nose up.

"I don't get what's so damn difficult with wearing a freaking bra once in a while."

Yeah, it sure isn't because she's so damn liberated. Something about the pressure, that tightening feeling across her chest, like a panic-attack. Besides, she hadn't exactly planned for company. Had dressed for a few days loafing around at the cabin – alone - when he barged in.

"Why don't you try it then, if it's so damn comfortable."

"Hey, don't sass me, girl. You better pray Farrow ain't wearing his eye glasses. You'll give that old boy a stroke."

He sulks like a champion, split bottom lip poking out. And thank God, they're finally in front of Farrow's dilapidated shack. He steps on the break, hurling her right up against the windscreen. She has the door handle pushed down when he nabs at her shirtsleeve.

"Yeah, not like that, you're not." He twists his torso around, poking an elbow in her side in the process, raffling through the mayhem beneath his seat. Comes up for air drawing out his Ponderosa Stomp shirt, the one he's used so much, the midnight blue has turned a pale slate grey and the print is nearly invisible. "Either you put it on or I do it for you."

She nearly keels over. Wants to protest but it's like the Pope offering you to wear his hat. Acker is so ferociously possessive about that damn shirt it's ridiculous. He's got some tall tale about how he'd gotten it autographed by Dr. John himself, only to turn around, trip over and spill beer all over the writing, rinsing it right off. And as much as that sounds like a load of crock and bull, if Acker were to kick the bucket tomorrow, he'd demand to be buried in that tattered piece of crap.

"Oh, for the - " she says but without thinking, she's brought it up to her nose. It smells like tobacco and Acker and it makes her heart do a little sappy double take. This illogical longing for something she doesn't want.

"Did you just take a big old snort of my shirt?" He startles her, making her drop it on her lap. Acker leers at her, pleased as plum pudding. "'Cause that's what it looked like from over here. Like you just sucked the fibers out of that sucker."

"Yeah, just turn around, already."

He leans his face towards his side window, lightning up a cigarette. That elaborate way he has of doing it. As if he's on a scene, everybody watching.

"Don't worry. Ain't gonna' go into a lustful frenzy over your scrawny little chest, baby-girl. Besides, you ain't my type."

Type. Hah. Tall, short, big-busted, bow-legged, hump-backed, it's all good. Acker has one criterion only and that is willing.

"What's your type again then, Ack? Boobs and a pulse?"

"Yup, and you ain't got either so chill, alright." He turns his lighter around between his fingers, smoking with a slack wrist as if he can hardly be bothered holding on to that cigarette. She hunkers down behind the dashboard, back half-turned to him.

"So you gonna' tell Joey-boy?" he asks out of the blue. She's folded over with her forehead against the glove box, trying to unbutton Kelsoe's shirt. She glances up and finds him glaring at her at her through a tangle of matted hair.

"Am I gonna' tell Joey about what?"

"If you're gonna' play dumb, at least put some damn effort in it," he snaps, dithering between looking pissed off and ill at ease. "About this morning. You getting all hot and bothered back at the cabin. You gonna' tell him?"

"Wasn't planning on it..." She's stuck in a jackknife position, doubled over, trying to wrangle his tee over her head while still keeping Kelsoe's shirt around her shoulders for decency's sake. Tell Joel? What the hell is wrong with him?

She's cocooned inside the fabric when she feels a tug at the back.

"Jayz... " He does that Mother Goose thing when he fusses over her like she's a child. Her head emerging through the neck of the shirt like a damn turtle from its shell and he's there, staring at her, cigarette wedged at the corner of his mouth. She pulls the hem down, covering her midriff and watches how he balls up Kelsoe's plaid shirt and stuffs it behind the seat.

"I'm gonna' want that back, later."

His eyes meet hers as he sits up straight again, the brown turning all butterscotch mellow. That erratic temper he's got, from sweet to pissed, to shy and back again. Mila likes stable. Safe, stable and predictable and Acker has always been too fickle for her. "So, you're not gonna' say anything to Joey?"

"No? Why would I? Are you?" He confuses her. Hell, what did he expect? That now that they've kissed they'll go steady? And even if it was just a kiss, Joel would never forgive him, it'd be the final deal-breaker. Acker is an idiot and she wants to tell him so. But then again, dangle something in front of Acker's eyes, let him take a whiff and then tell him he can't have it. He'll go after brainlessly, all cylinders on full blast. It's just who he is. He wants what he wants and he doesn't stop to consider the consequences until it's too late

But the way he looks at her, there's something genuine there. His reaches to free her hair from the collar of the tee. His fingers lingering in a backhanded caress, almost like an accident, trawling along her neck. His eye still like a swollen, purple chestnut but that mouth of his beckons. The little hollow of his bottom lip, with the deep cut. Wants to do it again. Kiss him, just kiss him and pretend like nothing. Shouldn't have to be such a big deal.

"Nope. I ain't about to break the poor guy's heart over 'nothing'." He snatches his hand back without warning, and folds his eyes away. As if her skin has burnt him and he can't stand to look at her.

She can't explain why the 'nothing' smarts somewhere in the heart region, but it does. He throws his big skull back on the headrests, letting out a frustrated sigh. Fingers rubbing a circle over his temple. She adjusts the hem over her ass and straightens out the collar. Something about wearing his shirt makes her uneasy. It's too intimate. Something lovers might do.

"Satisfied?" she asks even though he's not looking at her. Just sits there like a sack of potatoes glowering at something on the horizon, his hand with the cigarette stretched outside the window.

"Nope. Nup... Sorry, can't say that I am." A hurt gleam in caramel eyes when he twists his head around again. All sweetness banished as he kills the burning stub against the glass of his side mirror and flicks it away across the grass. "I ain't satisfied in any way whatsoever."

She doesn't know where the anger comes from. It gurgles up like swamp gas - foul and putrid. She can only imagine Acker's own definition of 'satisfied' is total and complete surrender, pulling away all curtains and letting him have free reign. And she couldn't. Could never have him steamrolling in, slamming all her doors open. It pisses her off that he can't see that. Not everyone is like him, letting it all hang out. Some people need to hide behind thick walls. And some things just belong under lock and key, hidden in pitch black darkness.

"Well, fuck you, and your mind-fuckery, Ack! Just fuck off alright!"

She gets out of his damn truck. Doesn't even bother shutting after her. Needs air. She stomps up on the stoop and thumps her palm against on Farrow's screen door, praying for the old fart to hustle. Knocks hard and rapidly, Acker's voice calling behind her, "So, anything I want, huh? If I make her leave?"

She looks down on her fist, pausing the rapping of knuckles against Farrow's door. Has a sinking feeling that she'll live to regret those words, but hey, if he can get rid of Lola, he can clean her out, take her for everything she owns. She turns her head finding him leaning his head through the open passenger side.

"You want the damn TV, take the damn TV," she says and he rolls his eyes demonstratively.

"I don't want your damn TV, Mils. I want you to stick it out. No scampering off anywhere. If I help you, you've gotta' stay here - with me. That's it."

Doesn't seem like Acker not to be greedy. She'd expected the entire inventory of her belongings, and perhaps a few crapshot requests for sexual favors. But hey, if he decides not to use this to his advantage, all the better for her.

"Alright. Deal. I'll come back to the ranch once she's left. Until then I'll be staying over at Max's," she says. She flicks a dismissive hand in his direction. Bigger chance of Farrow letting them borrow the tractor if Acker is out of sight. "You can head back now. I'll follow."

"Nope. No frigging deal..." He shakes his head making the overgrown dirt blond hair flop around his cheeks. He looks rough in the sharp sunlight, like he's had a real raw night. "There'll be no shacking up with Max. You'll be staying right here. My place, for a month. Take it or leave it, girl."

My place. That's right. He's made a little bachelor pad out of that rat-hole, the Magnolia cottage. Kelsoe really got him with that one. A sly jab from beyond the grave. The boy'll get wet every time it rains but she bets he hasn't even stopped to consider that, ecstatic to be out of Betty's overprotective clutch. Still, she can put some tarp up and tough it out. As long as Lola disappears. Can fight off his habitual half-hearted advances too, hell she's been doing that her whole frigging life, swatting away his wandering hands.

"Alright... Guess I could survive a few weeks camping out on your sofa with an umbrella." And a shotgun. Come to think of it, she has no idea if Betty let him bring any furniture down to Magnolia. "Do you even have a sofa?"

"Nope. No sofa. In my bed, four weeks, right next to me. That's the gist of it."

Yup. Right, in his narrow-ass single bed with his groping hands. It all leads back to the same thing. She knew he'd be a douchbag about it.

"Jeez, that's nice, Ack. Real nice. But I ain't sleeping with you. Not gonna ' happen. Not a fricking chance, buddy."

"I didn't offer sex, Milliprim," he hollers across the yard just as Farrow's scraggly face pops up behind the filthy screen door, the round fleshy nose red like Rudolph's. "Come to think of it, you wanna' get jiggy with me, you gonna' have to ask for it. And maybe chuck your TV into the deal to make it worth my while."

The sick sonofabitch. Farrow edges the screen open carefully, saggy chin wobbling on his chest, casting wary eyes over her shoulder at Acker, who salutes him jovially. "How you holding up, Paw-paw?"

"That boy ain't right, kid..." Farrow croaks to Mila, narrowing his eyes. "You'd be better off frolicking with them damn gators."

...

Disclaimer: title pilfered from Tab Benoit. And I don't own Garth Brooks or Milky Way or Rudolph.