Signed, sealed and delivered

- October 1994, Bernadette -

They're sitting in his daddy's Dodge Adventurer, him and Mila. Acker is annoyed to have her there. That weirdo is always around nowadays. He angles the rearview mirror so he can see himself. Likes how if he squints he looks just like his old man.

"When I've got my license, I'm gonna' drive around the whole country," he says, pleased with himself. "In this."

"I've already done that," the dumb girl says smugly. "Mama and me went everywhere. We had this map, we'd read it and pick a spot and go there."

It churns weirdly in his belly, the fact that she's been around and he's been nowhere. Alright, so his daddy once took him to Lafayette to see some boring uncle but that's about it.

"You cain't read," he says just to hurt her. He's seen her at school. She's just a bit younger than him. Ought to be able to read already.

"And you're ugly. Butt-ugly," the girl quips, scraping her trainers on the floor of the truck. Pink. Ridiculous, just like her bushy mop of hair and those humongous teeth she's got in her light brown face.

Acker has the stub of a cigarette he found in his pocket. He takes it out and tucks it in the corner of his mouth, just like he's daddy used to. Reckons he looks pretty darn cool like that.

"Oh, yeah? How come I've kissed loads of girls then? Aplenty."

The laughter escaping from her little dumb mouth is loud and snorting. She even slaps her her own tummy. Dumbass. And he realizes it's the first time he's heard her laugh properly. Weird, is what it is.

"Aplenty, huh? Who'd wanna' kiss you? You smell like trash."

He bites into the filter of the cigarette. It does taste a smidgen like trash. He spits it out on the floor of the truck, anger rushing through him.

"Well, at least my mama didn't dump me."

Her head whips around. She's about to start bawling, he knows it. But instead of blubbering she gives him the stink eye.

"My mama will be back for me after the summer. She promised."

He's about to say it's October, almost Halloween and summer's long gone and it's about time she faced the music but his insides are a mess. He hates her, he's sure of it, but he also feels a bit crummy about what he said. He's heard Mama and Ms. Rhonda talk. Like she's some poor stray kitten that they all ought to pity. And suddenly he doesn't want to be the one hurting her.

He takes a split decision. Leaps forward and grabs her by the ear, planting one on her. She shifts, just enough to make the kiss end up on her chin. She immediately jerks her head back and knuckle-punches him on his upper arm. Right on the nerve.

"Ouch! What did you do that for?" he cries, knowing he sounds like a big fat wuss. Her hand is already on the door handle and he snatches hold of her jacket sleeve before she can escape. "Hey, wait..."

She says nothing, just draws snot in, the only sign she was ever upset or anything. Her face already back to its normal robot mode, glaring at him with her strange eyes.

"I just wanted to say.. Around here we say it's summer all the way till Christmas, since it's so warm and sunny and all. So - she might still come back for you. There's still time."

"She will come," she sneers and shakes him loose. She yanks the door to the truck open and throws herself out. He watches her run across their front yard, skinny brown legs moving through the grass like a whirlwind.


- Now -

Acker remembers that afternoon in his daddy's old Dodge as he sits there in McGee's parking lot. He likes to think, failed effort as it might've been, it was probably her very first kiss. And he was the one to deliver it. Right here, in this very truck. But what's more, that's the first time he'd felt that thing for her. That unwanted affection, wanting to do something for her. That dumb lie about summer lasting until December. And damn, how she'd clung to it.

He caresses the hand break, breathing in the familiar smell of gasoline, soil and tobacco. He'll miss that old piece of junk like a limb. Not that he's sentimental about old J.P. Adams, but he's practically grown up in the truck

He checks the time on his phone. It's not even eight in the evening. The sun is licking the horizon. Chintzy oranges and pink swathes streak the sky, visible even through his closed eyelids as he leans his head against the headrest.

He's taken a shower and still, thinking of what he's got to do, it makes him feel like a crusty old turd. But he's got no choice. He promised Joel and he's got to keep his eyes on the ball. Get Mila to stick around, all that matters. If he's got to play dirty to make it happen, so be it.

He'll wait for Max to show up. He'll take him aside and tell him he knows all about hijacking Mila's cherry and unless he wants Joey-boy to find out Max will have to do two things and pronto. First he'll have to tell Mila she can't bunk with him and next, that he ain't helping her get that job in Hammond.

Acker can't imagine Max actually saying any of those things. He's a good friend and a damn good man and he wouldn't want to let Mila down for anything. There is a real and looming risk Max will simply fess up to Joel. And Max being Max, how can Joel be pissed about it? He'll come across as all earnest in his round professor glasses and his clean shaven face, like Martin Luther King and Denzel Washington all rolled into one and Joel will be forced to say it don't matter none no more, was a long time ago. Yup, that's a risk but Joel told him to set it all straight and he sees no other way.

But there's that other thing festering in his mind. The thought of Joey taking advantage of Mila that night after the service. Not that he knows for sure, he only caught a scrap of a conversation but it sure seems likely.

A loud knock on the windscreen and someone rips the door open to the cab. Charlotte, his delinquent sister jumps in, in a cloud of raspberry pink, bleached blond wisps of hair flicking across her face, the clatter of earrings and plastic bangles. Two years older than Acker but acting like she's fifteen, if a day.

"You lazy, useless little piss ant! Betty's livid with you for missing your shift at the Bite, boy!" Charlotte's jarring voice box can carry across state lines, no problem.

"I forgot, alright..." Acker checks the glove box for the umpteenth time. All the condoms and crap cleaned out. He isn't about to leave any freebies for that jerkwad Todd Pegues. It's enough he gets the truck.

"Yeah, right. Betty wants to know where you were at, since clearly you ain't been sleeping at home and you ain't been slogging it at Blue's Folly either. And I know that 'cause Betty made me check every frigging minute."

"Sorry to put you out," he mumbles, not really meaning it. He wants Charlotte out of his goddamn truck so that he can – well, heck, say goodbye or something. "Not that it's nobody's business - but I hooked up with this chick in Fairview. Stayed the night. Hell, Betty sure goes on about how I ought to meet a nice girl -"

He touches the rearview mirror, pretending to adjust it and he notices Charlotte's round, hyper excited hazelnut eyes. That little druggie, probably high already. Then again, that's Charlotte on a Friday night and normally he's not judgmental. Have a whack at everything once as is her motto. Great when it's water skiing or weird French tobacco but not so nifty when it's drugs or a two hundred pound biker with face tattoos and anger issues. Or getting bombed and driving off-road in the swamp. But she's not in a festive mood right now. A strange mixture of being off her rocket and maternal, like she's sucked up a shitload of Betty-ism and feels the need to expel it all over over him.

"Just save it, Ack. I know, alright."

Uhu, she's sure meaning business.

"Yeah, and what exactly do you reckon you know, Char?"

"I know you were at the cabin. With Mila. "

He chokes. With Mila. He's always tried to be openly discrete about his obsession with her. He's applied the same amount of ogling and flirting to all the girls he's met, indiscriminately, hoping to camouflage his infatuation in a sea of bullshit. He puts on an air of indifference for Charlotte's benefit, flicking away invisible dust off his dashboard.

"What you yapping about? I ain't got time for – " He looks up and Charlotte has her head cocked to the side, colorful in her glitzy glittery makeup, spearing him with what Acker calls her zombie parrot eyes. He sinks back in his seat, decides to lay it out there. "Alright, alright... I was there. She was upset and I kept her company, we went frogging, slept and that's it."

"Well, that ain't all you two got up to, is it?"

"What?" His mind racing with his heartbeat. "Sure it is. Filled two traps with them little suckers. Cheered her right back up, it did."

"Oh, did it now? Well, funny thing happened... I just ran into Todd and his buddy and boy did they have some outlandish tales from the old camp. Told me they found the two of you all snuggled up– real cuddly like."

"Oh, that freakin' Neanderthal! Wait until I –"

That damned Todd Pegues. Sending out a little warning, no doubt. If Acker doesn't deliver his truck he can be certain his little mishap at the cabin will all over town by nightfall.

Charlotte reaches over to deliver a fierce slap across his skull. One of those well-practiced Betty karate-chops she's adopted from their mother. "You stupid little twat! What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"Nothing. Listen, I might've accidentally smooched her but she started it and–" A torrent of ice water flushing down his back. No, no. Not another one he's got to convince to shut her mouth. He's already mentally counting the cash in his wallet. Charlotte's silence can usually be bought. If you're liquid enough. "Geez. Joey can't find out, Charlie...You got to promise me you won't tell no one. Him and Millipip had a little roll in the sack and now he's counting on patching things up with her so you better not go blabbering about this. For her sake."

Better appeal to the girl's sense of romance than wager the meager twenty dollars he figures he's got tucked in his wallet. He knows her well enough to realize that he'll have to cough up at least triple that.

"Oh, really?" Charlotte all but puts her hands on her hips, head moving sideways like some gangsta' chick. "And when is Joey supposed to have gotten close enough to screw her? Poor girl can hardly stand to be in the same room as that faithless dill hole."

"That night after the service, apparently." He needs to deflect the attention away from himself, onto Joel. "She seems pretty darn sure they hooked up."

"Really? The night after the service? Her and Joey?" Charlotte scratches her dry white blond hair, watching Acker, her mouth shaped like a donut before she lets out a sharp gasp. "No-no-no, you didn't! You little filthy deviant - you fucking screwed her, didn't you?"

"Oh, keep your hair on. I ain't done nothing." He tries to muster all the self-righteousness he can. "All I did was keep her company at the cabin. Didn't even know she'd be there..."

"I'm not talking about the cabin." Charlotte regards him as if he's a big unruly puppy, who's done his business all over her carpet. "Oh, fuck it... Did you take something from my purse? That night?"

"What night?"

"Don't play dumb with me, buddy. That night after Kelsoe's service. Did you?"

Damn. He's rather hazy on the details himself. Actually, a lot hazy. After finding Mila canoodling under the gator sign with Yuppie boy Monroe, he remembers going back into the Alligator Bite to help Betty close up. He'd continued drinking, feeling like a pile of shit for failing to do the only thing he'd set out to accomplish that night, which was to tell Mila about his little nog-headed crush on her. Charlotte had been somewhere in the back and her purse had been on it's usual spot beneath the cashbox. Well familiar with Charlotte's good habit of keeping both this and that in her purse, well yeah, that would seem like the thing to do to numb out the humiliation.

"What the hell do I know? Yeah, I might've swiped one or two pills off you." He glances sheepishly at Charlotte's neon green nails.

He'd washed them down with tequila, and that's about the last thing he remembers. Must've trundled on home to bed afterwards, because he'd woken up at home, that much is for sure. And he'd had a surprisingly mild hangover considering the amount of liquid courage he'd guzzled the previous night. His truck in the driveway, so he must've driven it home, somehow.

"Which one did you take? Blue or green?"

"Huh? Green, I reckon. The one in the aspirin bottle."

Charlotte groans and buries her face in her hands. "You idiot." Her voice muffled before she looks up, candy-pink lips frozen in a scowl. "And she was supposed to have been with Joey, like when? Last thing I saw Mila, she came into the bar to get you, and by that time Joey wasn't around no more. I reckon you must've driven her home in Kelsoe's pickup. A couple of hours later, I had your drooling slurs on my phone, begging me to come pick you up at her place.

"I... You did what, now? Nah, no way. You didn't pick me up."

"Sure did, asswipe. You left your truck keys behind the bar and you called me to come and collect you with it. And I thought nothing of it, just figured you two continued drinking at her place. But I reckon Todd ain't got no reason to lie and it sure as hell is all frigging making sense now. Little accidental schmoozing my ass! You're caught elbow deep in the cookie jar, you little runt!"

His mind stumbles, can't follow Charlotte's twisted logic. She's like a practiced interrogator, turning and tilting what he says to make it fit what she has already decided is the truth.

"Well that don't mean I hooked up with her, I wouldn't. Fuck no, she's Joey's –" Acker has to put every ounce of himself in an attempt to sound convincing.

Charlotte's looks eerily like Betty when she's pissed. She shakes her head skeptically, the cascade of earrings clattering. "Why did you believe she and Joey got it on then?"

Because she certainly seemed to think so. They way Mila had searched for that missing rubber wrapper, the panic had been real, but he's got enough wits about him not to tell Charlotte about that.

"I'm... I don't know. I guess I assumed something I shouldn't have. But hell, that stuff in your purse, what crazy shit was that?" Some mind-annihilating crap. Jayzus, not a flicker of a recollection, not a scrap of memory of that night, of being in her house – at all.

Charlotte shoves the dozen or so plastic bangles up her arm evidently itching to stuff them down Acker's throat.

"I got them from Bigtoe, you little clepto." Bigtoe, Charlotte's amateur dealer, a greasy haired biker with less than stellar reputation and knowing the stuff came from him isn't very reassuring. "Mila asked me for something to get her through the day so I did. Some sort of happy pills, like elephant strength stuff. I sure as frickens wouldn't have given them too her if I'd known she'd end up hooking up with you."

Happy pills. Shit, that explains a whole lot. Antidepressants, in his meager experience they don't go all that well with hooch. The complete blankness of the rest of that night, and Mila's claim of lacking memories altogether. Acker's conscience is a foaming, stinking mess and he wants to takes it out on Charlotte but he can't.

"We didn't hook up," he says meekly instead. She could have dreamt it all. Yeah, girl could've just had a really hot, steamy dream. God knows he's had those himself often enough. No proof she actually slept with someone.

"And you won't, you hear? You're my brother and I guess I got to love you but you're a dog and she ain't for you. Betty would have your prick in a pickle jar for even thinking of it."

Nice to know where the loyalties lie around here. Both his sister and his mother gung-ho on protecting Mila against Acker. They obviously have plenty of faith in him.

"Yeah, look, we done here? I don't appreciate the third degree and if you ask me, ain't nobody hooked up with nobody."

He gets out of his truck. Not the quiet farewell he was hoping for. He lays his palm on the hood and watches out of his eye how his sister struts towards McGee's bright green plywood doors, tucking her cigarettes in the back pocket of her short denim skirt. "In a jar, you hear!" she throws over her shoulder.

Wants to tell her that it doesn't matter anyways, seeing as how Mila is already on her way away. First chance she gets she'll be out of Bernadette, away from Blue's Folly and the gator ranch.


As dates go, Todd Pegues in his old Toyota pickup truck isn't a particularly thrilling prospect. The nifty flames he's got painted onto the hood don't exactly rock Acker's world.

Acker tosses Todd the keys to his daddy's prized Dodge Adventurer. Todd jiggles his own set of keys before hurling them towards Acker, missing him by a mile. He has to bend down to fetch them off the ground. Would spit on them too but he'd rather have his balls boiled in maple syrup than show that flabby fucknut that he cares.

"And the papers?" Todd Pegues' rotund belly protrudes like a sack of corn flour. Those Kermit-green eyes peering at him. Fricking waste is what it is, those eyes on that pig. Like decking a hog out in emeralds.

"Hah, yeah, right. Not that I don't trust you, buddy, but I reckon I'll hold onto the registration for now, just in case those yapping jowls of yours get a tad loose. You tell anybody, I'll report you for auto theft."

"All this for a little kiss, huh?" Todd Pegues' smirk makes Acker want to squeeze the lard out if him. "So... She worth it? A fire cracker in bed, huh? No, sorry, no bed for you two, keeping it on the down low, dontcha'? I imagine it'd be awkward if your buddy found out."

"It ain't like that," Acker mutters, amazed at himself. What's wrong with him? He doesn't owe that slimebag any explanations but he feels a weird need to defend her.

"If you say so," Todd says and licks his greasy, greedy lips checking the Dodge out as if she's a hot chick with her tits hanging out. He yanks open the truck's door, so roughly Acker feels like rushing forwards to protect it. That swine sticks his chunky head inside and inhales noisily, peers out again pretending to sniff the air. "Mmm. Smells like chocolate poon. But hey, I don't blame you, bro'. She sure's a sweet little thing."

"You best scram now before I crack your fat racist skull open," Acker croaks. He adjusts the key in his fist so it points out between his index and middle finger. Wants to rip that piece of shit another hole, just waiting for another excuse. One more. The height of self-control, his shoulders shivering with the urge to leap and finish this up the way it ought to be done.

"Well, hope you tanked her up."

It takes a moment or two before Acker realizes it's not some sleazy innuendo for sex. He nods because his tongue is like a dead lizard hanging out in his mouth.

"Oh goody. Well, guess we're all set then," that ham-faced sonofabitch gushes, showing off two rows of freakishly small teeth. "I'll sure enjoy riding her."

He makes a lewd forward motion with his hips to demonstrate just how much.

"You know what, I sure hope you will," Acker says, careful to keep his tone as even as possible. He turns to cross the road back to Mc Gees', demonstratively adjusting his privates. "Seeing as how that's the only thing you'll be riding in a while, lardball. As for me, I don't need no damn truck to get laid."


McGee's is on the other side of Bernadette, a garage-like building with an enormous red neon sign where the G has long since given up and the S hangs on by a wire. The walls are made from corrugated steel, the music is loud, rough and dirty, the ventilation bad and the air steamy and sweaty. But the liquor's cheap and morals are loose which suits Acker just fine tonight. He's perched on a plastic barstool, already sipping his third Budweiser when Mila and Max walk through the doors.

Holy Maloney, the girl sure scrubs up well. The humid smoky air seems to give way as she makes her entrance. Acker tries to pin his gaze on the rows of liquor behind the bar but it's impossible.

That outfit she's wearing, flip-flops, bandaged leg to boot, it must be one of Ms. Rhonda's get-ups she's borrowed. Some sleeveless stretchy gray thing clinging to her in all the right places. Or all the wrong ones – if you're working on quelling an obsession. The pointed curve of her perfect tits and the breathtaking arch from waist to butt - it's enough to make Acker sweat bullets.

She and Max take a seat all the way down at the opposite side of the long rickety bar. Mila clocks him alright but makes no sign of it and Max sits down with his back to Acker.

His eyes insist on lingering on her naked shoulders in that damned dress. She's like a lightning bug in the dark sky - irresistible. The shimmer of her butternut skin, glistering in spite of the unflattering bar lights. He considers what Charlotte said. Surely he'd remember something if it were true. But with the swirl of fantasies and erotic dreams he's had involving Mila, sometimes every frigging night, how the hell could he tell? And those happy pills with alcohol, a surefire way to wipe out the hard disk, so to say. In fact, he wishes he had some right now. Tired of feeling like a lovesick chump.

Joel shows up, taking the stool next to him. He indicates Acker's Bud with two fingers to Jason, the bartender, who sets out two fresh ones in front of them.

"That sneaky bastard..." Joel growls, narrowed eyes shooting daggers at the scene on the other side of the bar. "What the hell am I supposed to do, Ack?"

Max and Mila, huddled together. She seems relaxed, smiling so her cat eyes are two dark slits. That cute pointed chin sticking out as she nods at something Max is telling her, his arm snugly draped around her back. Heck, that boy ain't wasting time putting the moves on her. Acker's stomach is in a tight pretzel. How the frigging hell's he supposed to break that up?

"Come on, buddy… Ain't no thing. Mila don't want to be around Lola, is all. I mean, this is Max we're talking about," Acker says as much for his own benefit as to stop Joel's fussing. "He wouldn't -"

"Wouldn't what?" Joel nearly takes a chunk out of him at this. "He's got a way with her, and don't pretend you don't know it. Remember that summer when we came back from camp?"

They'd been camp leaders, sixteen, seventeen years old, crazed on hormones and boundless energy, way before he had begun agonizing about her. They'd returned to find Mila and Max as thick as thieves, a newfound, exclusive friendship confusing the heck out them. Yup, Acker remembers it well. The sense of being shut out and a groundless, senseless jealousy with no real justification.

Joel sags on his barstool looking like a beaten hero.

"I told you, I want this whole Max thing stopped. I thought we had a deal?"

Acker can't help the rush of satisfaction at the thought of Max, sweet, straight-laced Max getting it in before Joel. He sucks on that bonbon, savors it as he scans the room for his date. Larissa ought to be here any minute now.

"Why d'you reckon it'd be different this time, buddy?"

"What?" Joel moves as if he's got a crick in his neck, brows knotted above that straight nose of his. "What the hell do you mean by that?"

Acker notices Mila throw her head back and seemingly laugh out loud, joke-punching Max on the shoulder.

What the frak is he doing?

She might've been temporarily knocked down but this is Mila after all. The same little girl who told his mother to fuck off, the kid he watched warding off a big hissing gator mama wearing bobby socks and pink sneakers and who hid a broken arm for weeks to avoid seeing the doctor. Heck, she survived ten years with Kelsoe. There's a strength there she must've been born with. Something unbendable. Resilience. And she sure as parsnip doesn't need him or Joel frigging meddling in her business.

"I mean - for Christ's sake... You've been there, done that. You ought to know by now..." He pauses to inhale, holding onto his Budweiser for dear life. "Sorry, but she ain't gonna' miraculously change, buddy. Just 'cause you want it so."

"I know that and I've thought on it a whole lot. I know it wasn't her fault, nothing she could do about it. The sex and the drinking and the well, what really got to me was how I could never reach her. The lack of intimacy..."

Intimacy, Acker's ass. That nitwit, all the bleating and belly aching about her not wanting to go down on him, suddenly it's about the frigging 'intimacy'. Acker decides not to deign this bullcrap with an answer. The staggering amount of bitching and whining he's heard Joel spew about her during the last couple of years has made him numb. Or, not really, but he does what he can to refrain from punching the boy in the schnooz. The lucky, lucky bastard. At least he'd gotten his shot with her.

"Heck, I don't think she's ever slept an entire night near me. I know it makes me sound like a sap, but it was just so damn frustrating, bro' – you wouldn't believe it."

Poor you, Acker wants to say. Wants to pat Joel's perfect head of hair and brag about how she'd let Acker hold her. Well, at least for a good part of last night, back at the cabin. But then again, she hadn't exactly cuddled up and spooned.

"Well, tough freakin' luck. You're a sucker if you think you're gonna' change her. Either you accept her crap or you let it go, buddy."

Joel's eyes seem sharp enough to shave a slice off him. Yup, sure doesn't like it much, being told what to do.

"Let it go? What would you know, Ack? Your idea of a relationship is two minutes of post coital exit route plotting. How many times have you actually stayed for breakfast?"

"Just 'cause I make it a rule not to stay the night, don't mean I don't understand women, buddy-boy."

Joel rolls his eyes to the ceiling and lets out a snide snicker. Acker steals a glance at her instead. She's got her hair gathered back in a tall ponytail, the black coils falling down the nape of her neck and the shape of that head, rounded, perched on that slender neck. Wants to stalk over there and pull the rubber band out of her hair. She ought to be dancing. The music is sweaty and crude, the beat heavy and sultry, just the way she likes it. He just knows her feet are moving to the rhythm, her fingers tapping on her glass.

Christ, if she were his – he'd spoil her rotten.

He'd dance with her any opportunity given, would cut a rug, do the conga, the two-step, anything she would ask for. He sure as heck wouldn't be mooning around for a blowjob. He has no problem giving. Heck, he'd go down on her from dusk to dawn if she wanted him too. He'd pleasure her peachy pink expecting nothing in return. Nothing but her waking up beside him, heavy-lidded eyes, lips kissed poofy, hair fanning out over his chest. The thought has got Acker's eyes glaze over. Acker who never stays the night, whose default after-sex setting is tip-toeing out, boots in hand. But it'd be different with her, he knows it would.

"I… There's therapy for these things," Joel says. Acker rubs the vision of Mila away with a weary hand before he forces his attention back on the draining topic. "She could seek some help for it, see a shrink."

"Yeay, well hey, good luck with that, buddy-boy. Long as I don't have to hear you whine about how you ain't getting no head for the next forty years."

The Mila Acker knows would prefer to have a treble hook shoved up her ass to seeking medical advice. Joel is delusional if he reckons he can convince her to see a shrink.

"We were together for four years, for God's sake. We were real good together, anyone could see that."

Acker shrugs, touching the keys to Todd Pegues crappy old Toyota in his pocket. What has he done? Is this what he sacrificed his truck for?

"Hey, sorry to burst your bubble, man - but y'all weren't that good together." Another slip-up before he can check himself. But damn it, he wants to yank Joel out of Lala-land. "Hell - not a day went by when you weren't rolling your baby-blues, whining about how that girl was too inhibited, too repressed, too little of that, too much of this -"

Joel slams his beer bottle down against the bar counter so hard Acker fears it will go straight through the crappy old plywood.

"What's that supposed to mean?" His voice piercingly crisp but Acker sees that unbendable confidence wavering, limping along. Joel who always wins, always gets what he wants. He isn't used to this reversal of roles, being criticized by a slimebag like Acker.

But for once Acker feels like speaking his mind, goddammit. Joel's tireless strive to elevate her from country bumpkin to ideal girlfriend material has been eating at Acker's nerves for an eternity. How he used to dress Mila, and not in sexy underwear, perfume and shit like that. No, real clothes. Nice handbags, blouses, shoes, all proper and semi-conservative. Jayz. If she were Acker's, he'd spend every last dime on lingerie. No, at second thought, she wouldn't need no fancy-ass underwear. She'd be in the buff, in his bed, freshly pleasured. All. The. Time.

"Exactly what it sounds like," Acker says and swirls his beer in the bottle, rubbing its neck with his thumb. "Let's face it – four years of trying to beat this thing to fit and painting it to match. Well, I hate to break it to you, buddy-boy, your little fixer-upper project is a bust. You can try fluffing that mangy little mutt up all you want, but you ain't ever gonna' turn her into poodle. It just isn't who she is."

Ungrateful bastard. You don't freaking tinker with perfection. He loves how she's all tough, those jagged edges she's got and at the same time, how she's so damn sweet, you could just weep. The way she eats like she was raised by wolves, cusses like a sailor with Tourette's and that fiercely protective way she's got with the hatchlings.

"Hey, you're out of line, bro'. That's bullshit! Mila was never my project."

Out of line? All these years of holding back for Joel's sake. A guy who supposedly is his best buddy, and still he hasn't breathed a word about the ranch being up shit creek, barely hobbling by. As if Acker is nobody.

"Oh, am I?" he gasps, feigning astonishment. "Sorry, my bad, man. It's just from here, it looked like you were beating that same old dead decaying horse. But that's just from way over here. I'm sure it'll be all peaches and cream. Yup, just go for it, man."

"What the hell's going on with you? Why are you being so weird?" Joel studies him. "Max put you up to this, didn't her? Are you helping him?"

Acker peers over at Mila and Max, certain that they must've caught on to the harsh exchange. But Max has his back towards them still and Mila studiously ignores them both.

"No, you know what? Fuck you, Joel! Why ain't you told me about those books? Kelsoe's accounts?"

The contempt in Joel's eyes evident. "Geez. How dumb are you, Ack? I know you enjoy moseying around on the ranch, but you seriously reckon you can make a living out of it? Hell, Kelsoe sure couldn't. I've been propping up that wobbly leg for years, bro' and I don't know what you're getting so worked up about. It's nothing personal."

No wonder that old fart had been so fond of the guy. Joel's family is the noveau riche Trumps of Bernadette. His mother holds a fair piece of the real estate pie and his daddy is something plush out on the rigs. Not some regular rough-necked Joe with oil stains up his armpits, but a big boss honcho of something-something.

"It is to me, buddy-boy." Acker stabs his finger into his own chest, feeling like a caveman around the refinement of Joel's fricking college brain. He levers himself off the tall bar stool and smoothens his hair back. "I've been busting my chops being there for her, all the while you were living it up in Auburn. You asked me to look out for her and I've done exactly that. How the hell do you justify screwing me out of my job just to get a goddamn chick who by the looks of it don't even want you no more?"

"Screw you out of it? Are you kidding? After all I've done for you? How many times have I bailed you out, paid your debts, your fricking bar tab? How many times have I offered to ask Dad to hook you up with a cushy gig out on the rigs? Never mind taking care of that ugly business with Lindsey?"

Acker's mouth turns sour. Joel has never mentioned it before. Implied it, but never straight out like that. Never. He doesn't know this person, standing beside him with a twisted scowl on his face and that's when he knows he's had enough. Enough of Joel, enough of their friendship - if there ever was such a thing.

"Yeah, well, you know what? In the future you can keep your hand-outs, buddy I ain't your frigging charity project."

"What, you're suddenly too proud, Ack? Never bothered you before, has it?"

Acker reaches for his wallet. Puts a tenner for his tab under his empty bottle on the counter.

"Well, it does now," he spits out. Screw Joel. Acker will find a way to deal with Lola on his own.

"Aw, come on, don't be like that, man. Sit down. I'll buy you another beer."

"Well, hey that's all sicky dank and all but I'm done singing for my supper. You take care of your Mila problem yourself from here on. I'm done with it. Couldn't care less who she fucks. In fact, I hope she's getting some."

Let Joel sweat it. Let him imagine another guy panting above Mila for a change. Let him feel what it's like not to always get what he wants.

He catches sight of his date, Larissa making her way towards where they're standing. The human equivalent of a drive-through Daiquiri hut, but just what the doctor ordered. Yeah. He's done caring. Done with Joey. He'll get schwasted and enjoy the mindless, uncomplicated company of Larissa for a while. His only regret is not having this conversation before handing over his truck to Todd Pegues. But hey, maybe he can get it back tomorrow. Let Joey-boy find out about the damned kiss. Right now Acker really couldn't care less.

Then something occurs to him. He turns on his heal, heading straight back to where Joel is still nursing his beer, a puzzled expression as he notices Acker standing there beside him. again

"Did you sleep with her?" Acker nods towards Mila.

"What the fuck?" Joel stares at him vacantly. Acker grasps Joel's beer out of his hand. Takes a big old gulp of it and returns it. Even wraps Joel's hand around the bottle again. Perspiration breaking through the back of his shirt. He just needs to know.

"Just answer the damn question. Did you? That night, after old Kelsoe's service, did you frigging bone her?"

Joel's gaze skits from his beer to Acker's face, and a disgusted grimace takes form. "What the... Who do you think I am? She'd just buried her old man. Of course I didn't fucking bone her! Why would you ask something like that?"

Acker spins around, making his passage through the throngs of people with his arms stretched out, like a blind man trying to find his way. No. Those frigging pills from Charlotte's bag. No, it's impossible. He wouldn't. He didn't do it. He repeats it, wants to convince himself. He's a dog but he'd never get so crunked out he'd go to town on her while she were out for the count.

Mila made it up. Must've.

"There you are!" Suddenly Larissa throws her arms around him, rubbery boobs in some kind of strapless scratchy silver thing pressed against his chest. Sees Mila's profile, still there at the bar. She turns, just then, as if she knows exactly where he's standing and their eyes meet. Something heated in them, probably still hopping mad at him. Then Max leans in to say something in her ear and the whole girl transforms. That smile of hers, blossoming, taking up half her face. Lightning bug.

But the smile wasn't meant for Acker.

She's not for the likes of Acker or Joel or any of the other countless dirtbags milling around here. Painful as it is to admit, maybe Max with his gentle way, his morals and ethics and plain old decency, is just what she needs.

Hell, maybe it's time Acker puts his money on a different horse. Mila falling for Max might just be his best chance at keeping her in town. And if that's how it's got to be, so be it. From here on Acker will give them a wide berth, stay out of their way. He sure isn't about to go ruin whatever they got going on. In fact, he'll pray they fall head over heals. He'll play frigging cupid if he has to.


A/N – So everyone's still pretty much acting like morons. Trying not to over-think everything so I hope you can be patient with the crappy pacing.

Review? Let me know what you liked / hated. Thanks for reading. Mwah.