When the Devil Wants In(4)

By: Cate Ashwood

“Slow,” the clerk said as he swiped Chloe’s card and set it aside while the machine cleared it. “When are you gonna quit callin’ me that?”

“When you get yourself a new pair of coveralls instead of wearin’ Cletus’s old ones,” John teased. Truth be told, he couldn’t remember the guy’s real name. Cletus had been the previous owner, retired when John was just a boy.

“These are perfectly good. No need to buy new ones.”

John looked at the holes, the oil stains. Even the embroidered name tag was tattered around the edges. “They could walk around on their own, they’re so old.”

The clerk snorted a laugh and looked at Chloe. “Why’re you still puttin’ up with him?”

“Habit, I reckon.” Chloe pulled back from John and shifted until he put her down. She stood on the concrete floor with her bare feet and leaned on the counter, smiling at the clerk as she pulled her phone from her back pocket. “Listen here,” she said, her tone playful, kind. “Let’s get us a picture in those old things so we don’t forget ’em, then you can buy yourself some fresh ones.” She turned around and snapped a selfie with the old man.

The clerk smiled and rolled his eyes. “You two are my craziest customers.”

“And your favorite customers,” Chloe added.

“Maybe so,” he agreed with a soft chuckle.

His grizzled face and nicotine-stained beard probably put some people off, but not Chloe. She couldn’t help but be friendly. As the register printed out their receipt, he handed Chloe her card.

John grabbed the bag off the counter and smiled at the old man. “Have a good one, Cletus,” he said as he stooped down to let Chloe climb onto his back again.

“You’re lucky I’m so old or I’d whoop your ass.” There was no real threat in his tone. He and John had teased each other for years.

On their way to the truck, Chloe said, “If he doesn’t have himself a new pair of coveralls—with the right name on ’em—by Christmas, we oughtta get him some.”

John shrugged before opening her door and shifting her inside. “We’ll have to remember his real name first.”

Chloe laughed softly. “I bet your momma knows.”

She was probably right about that. His mother knew just about everyone, even the new folk that moved into town. In the end, John said, “What’s say we go catch us a few catfish?”

“I’d rather sit around and drink that six-pack and watch you catch catfish.”

John hopped in the truck and put on his seat belt. “You say that like it’s different from any other time we go fishing.”

FOUR BEERS in—well, one for John and three for Chloe; she had been serious about drinking the whole six-pack and watching him fish—John had only caught one. They’d managed to eat all the fried chicken, the biscuits with apple butter, the potato salad, and the two pieces of pie his mother had snuck in. John was ready for a nap, but he sat up and kept an eye on the fishing poles he’d wedged between a rock and a tree. He picked at pine straw and enjoyed the simple comfort of being with someone who he could be entirely himself around.

“Ya know,” Chloe said, sitting up with her beer in hand. “We really could get married.”

John snorted in response.

“No, think about it. We could get married and then move. I could make up a big job offer somewhere, and we could just go together. Then you could do your, ya know, thing, and I could do mine. Or, at least I could find a thing I wanted to do. Maybe.”

Sometimes John felt like that fishing pole. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, getting pulled at, stretched out. “Might could do, yeah. Though we don’t really need to get married for that.” He gave her a long look before he asked, “You really think you could do that to your momma and daddy, though? I know it’s been a few years, but after your bubba died….”

She let out a long breath, like she was weighing the question in her mind. “Maybe? It’s never gonna be the same for them—for any of us—but I can’t give up my whole life to make up for losing his, ya know?”

She was right, of course. And Billy wouldn’t have wanted her to. Her parents probably wouldn’t either if they thought about it.

“Or,” she said, looking less thoughtful and more playful again. “You could just come out to your parents and this dinky little town, and then we could run away and move somewhere big where no one knows us.”

“Is it really running away when I’m twenty-six years old?”