THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR
Hell’s Delight 2
Copyright © 2013
“Thank God you’re here.”
Katrina Abramson grabbed her coworker by the arm and jerked her behind the voter registration booth. “Here are the forms, pens, Gatorade, and bumper stickers saying ‘Vote for Skip Mesquite.’”
“I thought we weren’t supposed to endorse any one candidate,” her coworker said dully.
“You’re right—we’re not.” Katrina raced madly from the booth as though fleeing an avalanche. It was the Fourth of July. She shouldn’t be standing behind a boring booth in a ninety-degree oven trying to push the least popular agenda at the Frontier Days Fiesta. She had only agreed to it because she had just broken up with her boyfriend, Marco, and thought it might help occupy her on a holiday where traditionally she was eating corn dogs, watching fireworks, and participating in a wet T-shirt contest—all for charity, of course. She usually won the wet T-shirt contest, too.
Katrina dashed past booths selling hemp hammocks, pyramids to communicate with one’s dead cat, bonsai, and tie-dyed T-shirts. Her goal was the beer truck. Katrina didn’t even normally drink beer. But today, what with the heat, the boredom of the voting booth, and having caught sight of Marco strolling with his arm draped over a strange girl’s shoulder, Katrina suddenly wanted one. Badly.
Ah. That cup of beer sure hit the spot. Immediately Katrina got back into line to purchase another cup. She danced back and forth on her feet, antsy. She wanted to leap over the counter, tear the smiling, affable workers away, and pour a pitcher of beer for herself. What the fuck is Marco thinking? Showing up in public so soon after we split? Everyone in town knows we were a couple for five years. You could at least show me the respect of not parading your bimbo all over the fair.
Katrina was understandably bitter. Even her best friend Lacey had been disgusted by Marco the past five years. Katrina and Marco had never even double dated with Lacey and Ben because even Ben didn’t like the vodka-swilling chain-smoking Marco. But Katrina was devoted to Marco and had put up with him through endless hours, weeks, months of car racing on TV, ear hairs in her sink, unflushed toilets, and a job in the carpentry union that meant he was always “too tired” to go anywhere. None of those items had finally pushed Katrina over the edge, forcing her to utter those fateful words, “I don’t want to be with you anymore.”
No, the final straw had been smelling strange perfume on Marco. He had denied everything, and Katrina had only busted him by sneaking his cell phone bill out of his lunchbox and dialing every unusual number. She found out he liked calling 900 numbers during work hours which sort of creeped her out, but most minutes were spent on Tami, a girl Marco vehemently denied existed until today. All Katrina knew about Tami was that she’ll get back to you if you leave a message, but she sounded about twenty. Which was even grosser when one knew that Marco was forty-four.
But Katrina now saw that Tami was a thirty-ish hippie-looking sort of gal completely opposite to her. Her long brown hair flowed down her back and she wore a wide straw hat, which Katrina would never do. Marco was actually smiling as he looked down at the woman he preferred over Katrina. Katrina’s stomach churned with rage and jealousy, and more than a little shame that she’d been cuckolded so easily, and for how long? How long had Tami been getting back to Marco when he’d left a message?
Katrina had long finished her beer and was about to fling aside the customer standing in front of her when someone touched her arm. Katrina jumped. It was only Julie Gardella, assistant manager of Positive Vibrations, the Hell’s Delight sex toy shop. “Katrina!”
“No cutting,” Katrina said blandly, folding her arms in front of her stomach. She bored holes through the guy in front of her with her gaze.
Julie laughed. She was a nice girl—Katrina was just in a foul mood. “I didn’t want any beer. I’ve got wine.”
“Dude,” said her companion, Cal Zhukov. Cal was the stepbrother of Katrina’s BFF, Lacey. His father owned Delight Hardware, so that was where the gangly, friendly guy worked. Cal and Julie seemed to have hit it off as a couple lately, but neither would confirm it, both probably too embarrassed of the other one. Katrina had known Cal since the short pants days. “We just wondered if you wanted to come watch the water fight.”
Katrina perked up at that. “Another extra large, please. Hell to the yeah, Cal! Where is it going to be? In front of city hall?” Katrina worked at city hall at a job that had seemed excruciatingly boring the past month since she’d split with Marco. She knew she needed to bust loose, to do something other than voter registration drives and bowling league night—maybe something like what the daring Lacey was currently indulging in. Katrina had always loved Lacey, but lately, she was beginning to idolize her.
Cal pointed down Jack London Street. “Nah, they barricaded off Eleventh and Twelfth so they could have it in front of the Journal offices.”
And next door to the newspaper office was the yogurt shop owned by Lacey’s ex-husband, Ben, currently serving one to two years for hate crimes. Katrina said, “And wouldn’t it be cool if a jet of water knocked over that annoying giant slushy in front of Ben’s shop? Come on, let’s get a good spot.”
So Katrina hauled her extra large cup of beer down the street, where the master of ceremonies was already barking into a mike, drawing people to the event. Every year at the Frontier Days festival, opposing teams of firefighters squared off in a friendly rivalry. A beer keg, painted bright yellow by last year’s winners, was hung from a long cable. When the referee signaled, they turned on their fire hoses and blasted the keg with opposing streams of water, trying to move it toward a goal line. Now the master of ceremonies bawled, “I’ll be here for your gallon by gallon commentary, as always! I’ll be commenting from the dry second-story balcony of the Journal offices. I’m no dummy—I’ll be safe from those crowd-wetting streams! The Rough and Ready Rowdies are suiting up for their piece of the action, and last year’s winners, the Rattlesnake Bar Strikers, will have to buy everyone beer!”
“There are some handsome firemen,” said Julie, leaning in to Katrina confidentially.
Katrina knew what Julie was trying to do. She was trying to take her mind off Marco. Julie had probably seen Marco strolling with the hippie Tami, that slut who should’ve known she was messing with a man already spoken for. “Here, let’s stand in front of the giant slushy,” said Katrina. “Maybe we can get them to knock this stupid yogurt drink over and get my shirt wet all at once.”
Julie wasn’t to be deterred. She pointed at a guy wearing full turnout gear in the ninety-degree heat. In other words, Katrina could see very little of him under the helmet and hood, although he didn’t wear a face mask. Lettering on his yellow jacket marked him as a Hell’s Delight fireman. “That guy is gorgeous. I remember him from last year. He got into a standoff with Ray from Rough and Ready. They were just hosing each other to kingdom come.”
“Wish they’d hose me,” Katrina muttered, and instantly regretted it.
Julie took the ball and ran with it. “Well, why not, Katrina? I’ll find out if he’s single. You can’t keep pining over Marco forever.”
“A month is hardly ‘forever,’ Julie,” Katrina protested weakly. But she did note his name, COLDIRON, stenciled on the back of his jacket as he high-fived and joked with his coworkers. “And I’m not exactly pining. I’m getting out and about.”
“Oh, yeah? Lacey told me you spent last Saturday night in her old apartment watching an Army Wives marathon instead of coming out to the Pit o’Dummies with us to see live music.”
“I needed to find out what happened to Claudia Joy Holden!” Katrina protested. “Besides, what’s so great about the Pit? It’s the same old—Oh, shit!”
Marco chose that moment to saunter casually by, his arm still slung across Tami’s shoulders. He cast Katrina a look that could only be called superior or triumphant. He had never admitted to her face that he was involved with Tami, so Frontier Days was obviously his coming out party with her in public. He had no shadow of remorse at all in his face. Katrina had slaved for him, stood by him, and defended his nonstop drinking to many people, and this was how he repaid her.
“That douche bag,” said Julie, loud enough for Marco to hear.
“Epic asshat,” Cal agreed. “I’d like to know that sleazebag’s secret to success. He’s always completely shit-faced, according to what you’ve told us—”
“And what we’ve seen,” Julie interjected.
“—yet he manages to score a hot babe like you who stays faithful and loyal to him for no apparent reason.”
“You must have low self-esteem, Katrina,” Julie said sincerely.
Katrina couldn’t argue with something that was so obviously true. First of all, she was six feet tall. Marco didn’t have to look down to talk to her. Of course as a teen she had stood out from the crowd at a time when no one wanted to look any different from anyone else. This had led to Katrina developing an extremely self-conscious paranoia of anyone looking at her, so she slouched. Julie was right. She didn’t think she could get anyone better than Marco. And he hadn’t been so bad, had he? It wasn’t like he beat her or anything. Sure, he drank every day, and every moment he wasn’t at work, but he must have built up a tolerance for it, because he rarely ever appeared shit-faced. Just to stay upright, Marco required the amount of booze that would lay most people out flat.
But even now, Katrina didn’t feel herself any more deserving. If anything, the shock of the breakup had beaten her down farther. She knew she must be pretty undesirable if a habitual juicer who didn’t shower every night didn’t even want her. “How do you get high self-esteem if you don’t have self-esteem to begin with?” she wondered.
Julie waxed wise now. “Well, usually you just stumble into some kind of success, and you ride on that. Like I stumbled into Cal. My self-esteem has gone through the roof since we hooked up, because now I know I’m worthy of his love.”
Katrina’s jaw hung low. “You’re actually admitting you and Cal are a couple?”
“Sure. Why not?” Julie beamed up at Cal, who wasn’t such a catch. What about Cal had elevated Julie’s self-esteem? He had a nose like a chayote squash, hair like an explosion of bubble wrap, and seemed to own about a hundred Metallica and Megadeth T-shirts, with the occasional Led Zeppelin thrown in for variety. A roaming reporter for the Hell’s Delight Journal bent down slightly to squeeze off a shot of Julie admiring Cal. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Figures he wouldn’t photograph me. Katrina lifted her giant cup to gulp what little beer remained, and of course that was the moment the reporter chose to snap off a picture of her. Great. Gulping a crappy beer. I’m just as bad as Marco.
The photographer resumed snapping Julie and Cal as they kissed, and the master of ceremonies roared, “Gentlemen! Start your hoses!”
Katrina stood erect, even tossing her cup into a recycling bin. She tried not to block any little kid’s views, but it was damned exciting watching the teams of men in turnout gear spray powerful jets of water at the bouncing beer keg. Each team manned two hoses, and they had donned goggles and the bulky gloves to direct their nozzles at the bobbing keg. The keg was prevented from braining any bystanders by being tethered to an overhead cable, but if one team got the upper hand in the water fight they could force the entire opposing team to flail on their asses, hoses spraying the crowd uncontrollably.
That happened now, and Katrina laughed with girlish delight, clapping as a whole storefront jammed with people on the other side of the street was drenched, including a dog and some toddlers. It was always funny when it happened to other people. No one minded much, especially when it was hotter than a billy goat with a blowtorch outside, like now.
“Get up!” Julie was shrieking. “Get up, Coldiron!”
Julie’s little crush, Fireman Coldiron, was one of the fallen warriors. He clambered manfully to his feet and prepared to do battle with the beer keg once again.
“You’re right,” Katrina found herself admitting, “he is kind of cute. Wonder why I never noticed him before?”
Julie guffawed. “Because you were always mooning over loserly old Marco?”
Loserly old Marco, in fact, had decided to plant his spectator’s ass just ten feet away, watching the water fight by propping his chin on Tami’s shoulder. He was just determined to rub Katrina’s face in the fact that he had someone new and she didn’t. It seemed that the man who cared the least and who moved on the swiftest was the winner in today’s romance wars. Katrina breathed deeply, her jaw set. She was determined not to feel bad about herself. “Get up, Coldiron!” she shrieked. “Smash those Rough and Ready assholes!”
Coldiron couldn’t possibly have heard her above the cheers and jeers from the crowd on the sidewalks. But he did seem to have a steelier look in his eyes as he and his four-man team blasted his opponents—or the keg, rather—to kingdom come. Instantly the Rough and Ready Rowdies were pushed back toward the goal line, and the referee called, “Down!”
Katrina, genuinely excited that her team had scored, jumped up and down, clapping. Was it her imagination, or did Coldiron cast her a grateful look? Must be my imagination. That guy is cuter than a puppy. Why would he be looking at me? There’s a snowball’s chance in hell he’s single, anyway.
Just as Katrina thought this, a beautiful, wholesome, and short woman standing near Marco squealed, “There’s Daddy, Mari! See him in his fireman’s uniform? Alex! Over here!”
Alex Coldiron waved at his wife and daughter, and Katrina went silent, crushed. Couldn’t I even have some imaginary fun for two minutes? Of course his wife is squeaky clean and picture perfect. And look at that little girl. Figures. Katrina herself was thirty-two and just starting over from scratch. She was probably already too old to have children, thanks to soused old Marco.
Katrina wasn’t so enthusiastic as the two teams slammed the bouncing keg with their jets. Again, it caromed toward the team of Rowdies, the quick reflexes of the Hell’s Delight Hounds keeping the keg in the air. They controlled their jets as a unit, backing the Rowdies toward their own trucks, scoring another down. The keg was returned to the centerline, and again the whistle denoted the start of play, but Katrina had lost interest.
In fact, she turned to Julie and Cal to give her apologies. She would pretend she was going to check out the jazz band over by the wine tasting area, but the sad truth was, she was going back home to finish that Army Wives marathon. Being out in public like this with her face ground into her failures was only making matters worse. What was she thinking, even getting excited over a guy like Coldiron when he was naturally married to this homecoming queen?
“Hey, guys. I’m going to go over and check out the—”
Suddenly Katrina was knocked off her feet by the force of a jet. The crowd around her shrieked with a mixture of delight and fear as Katrina was slammed into another body. As the jet pummeled her, another one soaked her from above. She inhaled water through her nostrils. The referee howled “foul” as she clung to the person who was suffering a similar fate, gulping water while other smarter people jogged backward, away from the street.
When Katrina opened her eyes, squeezing water from them by blinking hard several times, she saw that she had backed this poor man up against that damned giant slushy. The photographer’s flashbulb did nothing to help her regain momentum, and the man didn’t seem to want to let her go, either.
She could finally see his face. He was even more spectacular than stupid old Coldiron. He was tall, with thick brushy hair that was sticking up every which way, bouncing back from the soaking it had received. Katrina could feel the power of his physique through their clinging, wet clothes. His hazel eyes twinkled with amusement. They both spit out water as they gripped each other, propped up by the giant slushy.
This time it’s real. This time my life truly will change for the better.