“America’s Sweetheart” – A Short Story Inspired by Elle King

Author’s Note: Due to the length of this story (27 typed pages), I have deiced to put a “Keep Reading” break after the first section of this story. I very much like it and hope that you will read it in it’s entirety.

America’s Sweetheart

(Lyrics from Elle King’s same titled song)

(A fiction piece adapted by Alixx Black)



Disclaimer: Let it be known that I am gaining no profit from using the lyrics from “America’s Sweetheart” as performed by Elle King and written by Tanner Schneider and Martin Johnson. The inspiration from this story stemmed from the lyrics, and as such I incorporated them into the story with a bold and italicized front with left alignment. I am not claiming credit for these lyrics in any way whatsoever.

 However, all right aligned text is an original piece of fiction



No there ain’t nothing that I gotta prove

You think your words will make me black and blue.

 

The bonfire burns brighter than the sun in this darkness. Or at least that’s what it feels like to her anyway. Everyone has a struggle, but the joy of growing up is learning how to deal with it. For Echo, well, that was just accepting everything at face value. If it had a deeper meaning, then it wasn’t any of her business.

Not even when it came to the hateful comments that some other party guests had for her; “You’re such a tramp. You drink, you fuck, and then you wake up in the bed of some guy’s pick up with no clue what happened that night!” Of course, she complains as a boy offers her another wine cooler. She’s been taking it easy tonight, moving at a much slower pace. The guy must be her boyfriend – or at least someone she likes.

None of these girls know that Echo is in therapy. These people have no idea that she was in the hospital over the summer after a suicide attempt. Of course, that only occurred while she was detoxing from her oxycodone addiction – which her parents had confronted her about after realizing that she was calling in additional prescriptions using her mother’s name. It’s all whatever now because she’s dealing with it, she supposes. Besides, these girls wouldn’t care even if they knew, and to be fair – she wouldn’t care if they tried to explain why they’re so hateful. It all washes out in the end.

Darwinism, right?

“You look so ugly in those boys’ boots and that ragged flannel. You look like a homeless farmhand, or something.” Another girl in the group laughs, or it sounds like a laugh anyway. Echo can’t really tell because she gets a chuckle out of it too. Perhaps it’s because she is tipsy, or perhaps because she’s a loud mouth with sarcasm itching beneath her skin.

Even with the therapy, keeping herself from biting back with these gals was next to impossible…

But I, I think I’m pretty with these old boots on

I think it’s funny when I drink too much, hey.

You try and change me; you can go to hell.

‘Cause I don’t want to be nobody else.

They don’t like the way she smiles at them with drooping eyes and a boy coming over – to ask the aggressors to stop. They are offended and insult the poor guy by insinuating that he has a small penis. Echo knows that the statement isn’t false, but it certainly isn’t fair of them to say it out loud.

Caring is something that Echo has to let go of, though, because if she cares too much about anyone else then she might get stressed out. She might find a pill bottle that belongs to someone else, she might get a box cutter and cut an artery, or she might just runaway with a stranger she doesn’t trust at all. Echo would most likely do anything if she began to feel helpless again.

“I don’t like the word – but I think you’re just being a bunch of bitches.” Echo remarks. Airy, light, and passive; something that she says in such a matter-of-factly tone that it doesn’t even strike her as subconsciously serious.

There are some whoops, some claps, apparently she was louder than she’d intended. Now the nasty girls are really fired up, naturally, and start handing their drinks off to other people they know, saying shit like ‘hold this’ and ‘this is real now.’ Everything is real, and if it’s not – then someone clearly needs a psychiatrist because delusions are serious mental disorder that requires immediate attention.

Echo hates that she thinks in that way, but it is sort of a side effect to receiving therapy. Everything she does now is sort of a side of effect, isn’t it? She thinks so.

“At least we’re bitches with straight teeth.” A beautiful dentist’s daughter remarks.

“And at least we haven’t ruined our bodies with piercings and tattoos.” The girl who initially started the entire exchange comments on her aesthetic choices. As if piercings and tattoos are shameful. College girls make mistakes – her nose ring and her collarbone tattoo that reads “fucked up,” those are definitely not the things she regrets the most.

Not by a long shot.

I like the chip I got in my front teeth.

And I got bad tattoos you won’t believe.

 

So kick out the jams, kick up the soul.

Pour another glass of that rock and roll.

Turn up the band, fire in the hole;

Gonna lose control tonight.

It took a few punches dodged, but Echo makes it to the drink table after the girls abandon the party for something “classier.” Nobody seems concerned that they’ve gone, though, because the people that do stay are the ones that like whisky and cheap beer. They’re the ones that like loud music from the eighties. They’re the ones who won’t care if Echo is a little off her rocker.

At the end of the day, they’re all a little off their rockers, probably because the old board beneath the left leg finally snapped in half.

For the remainder of the night, Echo dances with whatever guy makes her laugh the hardest. When the bonfire burns out, she gets a ride from whatever cute sober boy is willing to take a sad girl back to her place. Of course, they wind up at his place kissing each other sloppily between a hand-me-down couch and a dirty coffee table.

She remembers what happened that night. Echo remembers the argument with the stuck up girls, the various drinks she drank, and how she never wound up having sex with the boy she might have had a class with during her spring semester – when she failed all of her classes. Echo is proud that she still had a good time without losing sight of who she wants to be forever.

Everything is going pretty smoothly.

Until she sticks around just a moment too long, taking a swig of water before sliding back into her jean jacket hanging from a broken barstool. The sober guy slips out of the hallway with a yawn parting his lips. Echo does what she can to move away from him as he enters the kitchen, but ultimately he just follows her around until they’re both sort of leaning on the counter awkwardly.

“You’re not as bad as they say, you know.” His observation should feel groundbreaking, but Echo already knew she wasn’t some fiend straight from Hell. Her mind clear, she can see this plainly as an attempt to get her to stick around a little longer – so maybe they can connect. Boys “connect” when they want something more than a good time.

It is probably because he must think he’s a hero or something. Echo shrugs her shoulders at him; “I don’t need you to butter me up, sweetheart. I know who I am and I know what I am.”

All fragile people get a look on their faces when they’re being let down easy. As stupid as they can behave, these people can sense what is happening. Since she’s not nearly as hungover as she was expecting, She feels his hand before it touches her shoulder.

“I- I- I thought we had a good a time.” Furrowed brows, shivering lips, and red cheeks; for a second she wonders if he’s going to start crying. What would she do if he cries? Should she talk before he starts crying?

Or what if he gets mad instead? Echo doesn’t really know so instead of stressing out about it, she just sits down and tells him exactly how she feels.

What do you want from me?

I’m not America’s sweetheart.

So beat the drum with me.

I’m not America’s sweetheart.

 

A month later, Echo finds herself having her own bonfire.

Alone.

Halloween has come and gone, and Thanksgiving is only a few days away. The night is probably too cold for a bonfire, but that’s why she’s wearing leggings under her shorts, a hoodie, and a poncho. Strings of hair are blowing in the wind that threatens to kill her tiny fire.

“You have too much to say, Echo. You talk too much and listening looks like it’ll kill you. Maybe you should stay home for the holiday. At least until you’ve have a few more months of sobriety under your belt?” These are sentences repeated in undiluted mockery of her parents. As nice as they could be, and as supportive as they’ve been, they certainly did everything they could to keep her away from the rest of the “stable” family members. Everyone dances on the edge, and if one person in line falls – they may as well all fall.

So in her absence, they’ll lie. Medical issues, they’ll spit onto the feet of people they feel cannot handle the truth of a loose cannon girl. Quietly they’ll paddle through carefully planned responses. They’re so much better because they have control, probably. That’s what they want her to think, but if she’s gathered anything about herself in the last few months it’s this:

“I love who I am and I don’t care who that inconveniences.”

Well they say I’m too loud for this town.

So I lit a match and burned it down.

 

Echo skipped town when the Christmas holidays rolled around last year. She was still too much for her family. Even though her secret never came out, and her extended family never knew about the problems she had, it seemed like it would be a bad idea to stay when her true self was meant to be a secret.

So if she wanted to keep having a good time it was only right of her to go do her own thing. Echo took her small savings account and drained it to get into a six-month lease in an apartment two or three hours away from home. Nobody would know her where she was at, or at least math told her the odds were low.

It wasn’t until a month after she moved that she found her current job. It isn’t even that bad of a job, honestly. She’s a janitor at some accounting firm. Really the job is easy and the cleaning keeps her calm when bills get stressful. Echo forced herself to grow up all at once since she skipped it at eighteen. Now that she’s twenty-two, it’s time to suck it up. She isn’t a kid anymore, and she doesn’t have a family anymore, as far as she’s concerned anyway.

This means that when Friday night rolls around there’s nothing left to lose. If her bills are paid up and she has extra cash, Echo finds herself walking to the pub around the corner from her tiny apartment just for a good time. Sometimes she just gets drunk and sings karaoke until the bartender’s shift ends. He usually walks her home, just to make sure that she makes it. Sometimes he stays over.

Echo made sure to tell him the only rules are the ones that keep him from raping and murdering her. Thankfully he was pretty cool about it. So sometimes they sleep together, sometimes he makes her breakfast before he goes home too. Other times he drops her off and locks the apartment up before heading out for his own dose of hoopla.

It’s not a bad life at all. Although, admittedly she can sometimes get herself into trouble… Like this week, actually…

She walked into the bar and a guy was waiting with a girl. Their faces were vaguely familiar, but she didn’t care to try and remember. Instead she bee-lined to her usual corner where she’d check the schedule for her bartender of choice. The two followed her, though. When Echo could not longer ignore their burning hot stares, she had to turn and address them; “What can I do you for?”

“Apparently free drinks.” It’s a girlfriend. Immediately Echo knows that it’s a girlfriend. She probably had sex with this guy and it cycled back to her. She “low key” lifts her hand and brushes her bangs out of her eyes. The act is intentional and definitely planned because she uses her left hand. It was a way to flash her fancy engagement ring.

“Chances are he offered. Who am I to tell him what morals to have, right?” Echo reaches over the bar and swipes a half drank bottle. Maybe it’s not the most sanitary, but her justification is that it’s not the worst she could be doing right now. It’s not like she’s an alcoholic. She doesn’t drink during the week. She maintains her jobs. She pays her bills. Hell, she was thinking about rescuing a cat! Someone to keep her company that was also really easy to keep alive! Cats are pretty cheap animals, too.

“I don’t care what happened, but I think you owe me an apology. Now that you know he’s engaged it seems appropriate for you to at least say that if you’d have known it wouldn’t have happened. A little closure before the wedding of my dreams.” This confrontation was definitely her idea. He must love her a lot to be standing there as calmly as he is, but I’m not sure he’s ready to marry her if he willingly slept with Echo – probably during his Bachelor Party celebration.

Echo doesn’t know if she’d have turned him down if she’d known, though. People do what they want to do, don’t they? Is there really anyway to stop people from making mistakes they want to make?

My hands are dirty and my heart is cold.

The boys I’ve been with say I got no soul.

When I meet another honey at the bar,

I think its funny when I break his heart.

 

“Not gonna happen, doll. He wanted to fuck me. I wanted to fuck. We did what we felt like doing. I’m not the person who should be apologizing here.” And it’s true, she thinks. Maybe not everyone thinks that way. Maybe she’s a fool. It takes two to tango, as the saying goes, and she couldn’t have slept with him were he not willing. She feels that no apology is necessary.

The girlfriend, fiancée rather, doesn’t agree. Why would she agree? She came to the bar to make a big deal about something that pretty much always happens at Bachelor Parties. They always mess up, they always kiss someone; they always get questionable lap dances. Echo doesn’t mind being a last taste before committing to another person. In a way, it’s an honor.

“Pardon me, but he wasn’t sober. What you did was rape. He couldn’t consent so it’s rape. Do you want me to report you for rape? Rape can land you in jail. You’re just a ra-” If she says rape one – more – time – Echo is going to lose her shit. So she stands up with bottle in hand and starts point to different guys that she’s had sex with… The three guys at the pool table – two of them at the same time; a pair of girls dancing by the karaoke machine, back to back just for reference; the bartenders each have slept over at least twice, if not more; the sad businessman counting out a tip for the bartender, he fucks best in the backseat of his soccer mom car – but definitely not well in a bathroom.

With each passing notation of her sexual encounters, the woman becomes more and more offended. Echo smiles when her list starts wrapping up; “I have sex with people who want to have sex. Maybe they want to have sex with me or maybe they’ll have sex with anyone willing to have sex. It doesn’t matter because at the end of the day the people that crawl into bed with me want to be there. So if you want an apology for what happened – screw you. Literally, I’d screw you too if you thought it’d make you even with your fiancé. But I don’t give a fuck that you’re about to get married to this guy. He’s choosing you for the rest of his life – he chose me because I was just as drunk and horny as he was – and that is not something I feel I should have to apologize for! Not ever!”

It comes to no surprise to anyone that the poor chick runs out of the bar crying, her fiancé hanging his head low as he follows right behind her – probably embarrassed about the entire encounter. They’ll be divorced within a few years, Echo bets, but that’s the price of being uncomfortable with one’s self. She is insecure, and he’s submissive.

“Well that was dramatic,” remarks my favorite bartender, “You want the Tony special?”

“Fuck yes, Tony, I would love your special. At twelve-thirty on my goddamn couch, actually.” And he starts pouring his choice whisky into a series of shot glasses that literally are in a box that is reserved for Echo when she comes to the pub.

What do you want from?

I’m not America’s Sweetheart.

But you love me anyway.

 

My kind of medicine is whiskey straight.

I got a mouth to put you in your place.

And they, they said I’ll never be the poster type.

But they don’t make posters of my kind of life.

 

Life is just like this for months for Echo. Working hard all week and then drinking hard all weekend; it’s not a bad life by any stretch of the imagination. She even starts to put money back when she gets bonuses. Luckily, the accounting firm sees every employee as valuable – including their wild janitor. She doesn’t complain. Echo never complains.

The only thing that interrupts Echo’s usual schedule is when her bartender, Tony, starts staying over pretty regularly. In fact, whenever Echo doesn’t have someone else in mind, he always goes home with her. He stays the whole night, sometimes without even sleeping with her, and then he stays until his next shift. Since he’s around so much he buys his own groceries and lets himself in with her extra keys.

People have been asking when Echo is going to slow down and focus on Tony, whom has not once asked her the same question. Really the two of them just have fun together. So when the questions do get asked, Echo tells them that it’s nothing. Tony is just a good friend, that he’s a good person to help her stay straight.

Tony always agrees, too. He grabs her by the waist and pulls her close; “What we got works. We don’t care what else happens because we can rely on this – this right here.”

This weekend comes and Echo is feeling especially tired. There had been a party in the office – a celebration that the firm put on because they’re expanding out to two more offices. That means Echo worked overtime to get the office ready for a meeting that they’ll be having Monday morning. So she’s tired and decides to skip the bar. Twenty-three is harder than twenty-two, apparently. She’s only been twenty-three for a week, but it feels harder.

Echo had been asleep for maybe an hour when Tony shows up at the apartment. He’s on lunch, but he suspected that she was probably tired or sick. Just in case, he took his lunch early to grab her some take out.

“It’s just some soup and bread from a shop a few blocks over. I grabbed a liter of 7-Up, too. Nineties moms swear upon it for an upset stomach.” Just the sound of his voice is comforting. She feels more awake but she doesn’t get off of the couch. Naked limbs stretch while she remains on the cushions comfortably.

“You didn’t have to do that, tee.” It’s a formality to say it, and he knows it. His sarcastic comment back is fully expected. The man races around to get silverware and brings the meal to her coffee table. When he finally sits down next to her, she can’t help but tilt into his shoulder.

An arm lazily slides up to hold her close; “I can’t stay long. It’s a ten minute walk back and I’ve gotta be back in fifteen.”

“This is nice,” Echo observes aloud, that the whole thing is nice. Him bringing her dinner, him sitting on her couch, her knowing she can depend on him; “Don’t let it change, m’kay?”

“I’ll come back after close. Deal?” Of course it’s a deal, she affirms, but only if she can give him some cash for his own dinner. He promises that he has something at the bar – which is usually code for he’ll snack on food from the tiny kitchen. They don’t make much – a few burgers, some fries, and some bratwursts. Bar food, exactly the way anyone would ever imagine. He likes it, though. He likes bartending a lot.

And she likes that a lot.

This might not be the life that her parents imagined for her but she’s happy.

So kick out the jams, kick up the soul.

Pour another glass of that rock and roll.

Turn up the band, fire in the hole.

Gonna lose control tonight.

 

Tony invites Echo on vacation. Apparently he is sitting on real money, the kind of money that should classify people as “stupid rich.” Echo found out over Thanksgiving when he invited her to his family dinner. Apparently he rents out a banquet hall because his family is huge – like actual Italian huge – and they dance and drink all night. Tony Cabella is his full name, something Echo should have known before that night.

His mother is the one that told her has a fortune. He sold a few beer recipes to some big names, and then he won a few brewing contests – sold those recipes. After that he made reliable investments and cashed out when the “pickin’s were good.” Since then he keeps half in the bank, and just reinvests in low-risk options to keep building his wealth. Whatever he makes at the bar – that’s “play” money.

Echo never brings up that she knows, so when he invites her on vacation she says what she would have said if she hadn’t known; “I don’t have the cash, tee.”

“Let me worry about that shit. If I wanted you paying I’d asked if you could afford the trip. All I’m askin’ is if you want to come.” Tony is stocking the freezer with some “Steamables” crap that he thinks Echo needs more of – something about her needing to eat right. There are some days when Echo is positive that he’s living with her. He has a pretty nice apartment of his own, but hers is closer to the bar – he says. It’s easier to just stay at her place when he’s had a long night.

And really the only times he goes home is if he’s picked up a gal he wants to fuck, or if he has something going on the next day. Oh, and laundry day. He never does laundry at Echo’s apartment. It’s a shared facility, so to be fair – Echo doesn’t do laundry at her apartment either. Typically Tony just takes her stuff with him. Gives him an excuse to come back a second time, he says. Tony says a lot of things.

Things that Echo really likes, actually…

Maybe that’s why she agrees to go, as long as he’s sure the extra cost won’t be a problem…

Why would it have been a problem, though; “I knew you’d agree eventually so I already bought tickets for two.” Echo laughs at him until he shuts the refrigerator and throws his wallet at her. Tells her to check the dates on the tickets so she can call her boss to make sure she can get the time off. Echo brings the wallet with her to the bathroom while she takes a pee.

When she peels one ticket out of his crammed wallet – there are just so many twenties and fifties! She assumes it must have been a busy week at the pub – she sees that the leave date is literally in two days. Her jaw drops; and as if on cue Tony shows up in the doorway of the bathroom – “I’ll take you shopping for some new clothes if you want. You know, before we leave on Monday.”

And that’s how they find themselves in the streets of Vegas. Echo sports lace shorts and a white v-neck shirt. It’s not as flashy as other ladies, but she dressed to match Tony’s laid-back style. She’s not sure why she cared so much but she just wanted to look like she belonged with him. They were there together, after all. As a couple, she couldn’t be sure if it was as a couple, but their hotel room did only have one bed.

Tony tells her that he’s actually come out to Vegas for some business. There’s a bar here that sells his beer and wants him to make a “house special” for some change. Echo hears ‘change’ and the way it sounds so plain on his tongue. To a normal person, change is like fifty bucks. This trip alone is probably being paid for three times over by the time he concocts a recipe.

“I’ll be busy Wednesday and Thursday working, but I figure you can go to the casino next to the hotel. Or you could go shopping. I don’t really care what you do as long as you meet me for dinner and go back to the room with me when the night is over.” Tony keeps his hands in his pockets and his eyes to the sky that nobody can actually see through all the lights. His muscles are tense, but Echo isn’t convinced it is because of the work. She thinks that something else might be going on with him, but she doesn’t really feel as if it’s her place to ask him. Tony will tell her when he’s ready.

“Sure thing, partner. In the mean time, why don’t we find ourselves a crazy bar and have a good time? Some place around here’s gotta have my whiskey.” And as effortlessly as she calls for her drink of choice, Echo slips her hands around his forearm. It didn’t matter what it looked like, she supposes, because Las Vegas is city of sin. It would never matter what it looked like, and Echo was fine with it.

The two of them don’t drink nearly as much as they expect. A few people recognize Tony at the bar, apparently he’s a bigger big shot than even Echo expected. There’s some conversation, jokes about hundreds of thousands of dollars waiting for him if he just sets up shop in Vegas. With a hushed tone, he assures them that he’s happy on the East Coast tending bar. They ask him if there’s a reason he isn’t willing to make the move – make the leap across the country.

That’s when he says he wants to take a different kind of leap. Echo isn’t blind, and she couldn’t have missed the way he looked over his shoulder at her. Instantly she realizes that he might consider the move if she weren’t back in Maryland needing him to walk her home every weekend; needing him to do her laundry; needing him to watch movies every Wednesday morning because Hump Day is the worst day of the week. Guilt washes over her for needing him.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” A few of the guys ask. Soon all eyes are on Echo at the bar, throwing back her shots of whiskey. She pretends that she can’t see them watching her movements carefully. Most likely they are gauging her value. Would she be the right girl for him? Echo has been cleaned up, or at least presentably cleaned up, for nearly two years. If she wants to stay on top of herself, then she can’t let herself think they are judging her.

They got their opinions and that’s their problem.

Soon Tony joins her at the bar, telling her the truth about his life. He brews in his free time, but that he hadn’t done much of it since he met her. Tony goes on and on about focusing on the simpler things in life – like having a good time with a stranger, buying groceries every week on a schedule, and walking the streets of a town that feels unfamiliar during the daytime. Echo admits that she knows that he is rich, which he is unsurprised to hear; “My mother has a big mouth. And she likes you.”

It is nice to hear that someone’s family likes her. This life she’s built has been reliable, but she has to admit hearing that a mother likes her makes it seem more worthwhile somehow. Echo hasn’t heard from anyone in her family for a very long time. In a way, she feels a part of Tony’s family now, which she voices; “It is weird to feel as if I actually belong somewhere again.”

Echo throws back another shot. When she reaches for another, Tony puts a hand over hers. The other hand places a hand on her cheek; “I haven’t slept with anyone else for three months.”

That was unexpected. Echo wiggles free and takes another shot. She hollers because this one burns a little more than the others; “Congratulations?” She asks. Echo really doesn’t know what he wants her to say to him.

“I want to but then I think about you. Sleeping with other people became unappealing at some point. What about you?” Tony steals her next shot. In fact, he steals her next six shots. It seems silly to complain about it so she just claps for him each time he drops an empty glass. Before long they’re just sitting there with a slew of empty shot glasses waiting for Echo to answer his question.

It isn’t that it takes much thought. She slept with a guy from the bar a few weeks ago. Tony had to have known about it because they were in the employee bathroom. She regretted it later when Tony came to her house and they had sex in her kitchen. Echo distinctly remembers telling him that she thought maybe she was getting too comfortable having casual dalliances.

And she remembers how surprised he was that she used such an unusual word – and correctly!

“I’m not perfect. I think we both know that I don’t really limit myself when it comes to that particular topic.” Echo really hasn’t ever limited herself sexually. Her pansexuality, as she’s discovered it’s called, makes it easy for her to find partners on a constant basis. Besides that, with her sexual appetite – it really helps that she has such an open mind. The slow trend these past months could definitely be attributed to a distinct clinginess to Tony, but it certainly hadn’t completely stopped her.

Tony shrugs his shoulders; “I don’t know what to say. I guess I just want to get drunk, dance with you, and maybe ask you to marry me in the morning.”

Echo laughs. Not a nervous sort of laugh; not a scared kind of laugh; not even an amused kind of laugh. It’s just a hysterical sort of laugh, not unlike a crazy person. There’s no reason for it but it happens nonetheless.

But that’s not even the most astounding thing to happen; “Of course I’ll marry you, you fool. But I’ll get drunk and dance with you too.”

What do you want from me?

I’m not America’s Sweetheart.

So beat the drum with me.

I’m not America’s Sweetheart.

 

When Echo and Tony get back to Maryland, freshly married, it is decided that they shouldn’t move in right away. Instead of changing everything all at once, they’re okay with the change being gradual. Since they already gravitate towards Echo’s apartment anyway, that’s where they leave all of their new things = from Vegas. As far as money, they’re keeping it separate until they officially live together.

Of course, once they’re back in Maryland things return to the same routine. Tony works his nights in the bar; Echo works her nights in the accounting firm. They spend weekends drinking and having sex, sometimes eating out. One weekend, Tony is visiting his family and invites Echo to join, but a girl she knows invites her to a strip bar as a part of her Bachelorette party.

Tony doesn’t question it, lets her go, and just asks that she calls him in the morning so that he knows she made it home alright. And Echo does, she makes it home just fine.

But she makes it home with one of the strippers naked in her bed. And another person naked on her floor, apparently. It’s her phone that wakes her up. The ringtone she assigned specifically to Tony. He asks why she didn’t call, reminding her that it’s almost noon. Echo tells him that she drank a lot and can’t even remember how she got home.

That’s how he knows that she’s slept around; “So I’m not even going to bother being mad because this all happened fast. Why don’t you just get them out of your place and we can talk about it when I come back home. Sound good, sweetheart?”

Echo knows that she’s anything but a sweetheart. She sighs into the phone, apologizing through gritting teeth and tears. Tony assures her that she’s fine, that he knew whom he fell in love with and what came with that sort of person. It sounds fake but she promises that she loves him too; promises that she’s glad to say that she loves him; and that she knows something is going to have to change.

And, of course, she promises to get the guys out of her apartment before he gets back for dinner.

Well they say I’m too loud for this town.

So I lit a match and burned it down.

Tony bought a small house out of state, somewhere closer to his family in New Jersey. They decided that moving away from the alcohol business would be a good idea, since Echo was too comfortable with her lifestyle. She wasn’t even mad that he suggested that she needed to change.

That probably came from the fact that just before he bought the house she snuck out to a strip bar – because that had quickly become her new favorite place to drink – while he was working, she was nervous about closing on the house and wanted one last rendezvous. Not just with drinking, but with anyone that would fuck her in the parking lot underneath the stars. Of course, she never got that far because she got a little too rowdy. She touched the stripped just a little too much when she tucked her bills. It made one of the guards mad and it ended in a shouting match.

It certainly wasn’t her proudest moment. In fact, it actually ranked right up there with trying to commit suicide and being addicted to oxycodone. In a way, it was more shameful, though. Echo couldn’t be let out of the bar on her own because she’d drunk too much. They called Tony, because all of the bartenders in town know that Echo is Tony’s wife.

Nobody says anything, but they all judge her quietly. Maybe she somewhere along the way she started silently letting their questioning sighs get beneath her skin. Everything she’d worked so hard to defeat inside was gone. Echo didn’t even know when she lost the battle?

That night Tony quit his job – just at the drop of a hat. In all fairness, they’d known he was leaving soon. They just thought that they had a few more weeks. Echo needed him more, though. The reputation she had preceded her; it dictated her actions. He told her that she was acting the way people expected her to rather than the way she wanted to, and that hurt him more than the fact that she would rather go out and have sex with a stranger than to speak to him about her fears.

“I’m just one fucked up girl.” Echo had said. It was absolutely true, but it didn’t stop Tony from hugging her and telling her that she was worth everything. There would never come a day when he’d give up on her. “Never,” he had promised.

What do you want from me?

I’m not America’s Sweetheart.

But you love me anyway.

 

Echo never got a job after the move. In fact, she just focused on figuring out what she wanted to do with herself. She cut her hair off, kept it short in a pixie cut. Most of her day was dedicated to reading. Some of them were self-help books about sexual addiction and alcoholism. Other books are about pregnancy. She hides those from Tony, though.

She hasn’t figured out the best way to tell him. They’d never discussed children, and with her only being four months sober, it just always felt like the wrong time. Besides, they both still go out and have a good time. She can’t drink, and he never drinks in front of her, but they love dancing and listening to loud music. Partying is very much a part of their lifestyle. Having a child would throw a wrench in it all. Not that it would be a terrible thing – it would just be a really sudden change.

None of her hesitations about confronting Tony spill over to his mother, Camilla, who Echo confides in almost immediately. She says something as soon as she gets the confirmation from her family physician. Echo begs for advise on what to do, but Camilla shakes her head; “I ain’t supposed to be the one that knows this secret, sweetheart.”

Camilla does suggest, though, that Echo bring up kids before telling him. Dropping a subtle hint might make it less shocking; “I know my boy, and I know he gonna want babies. But he ain’t gonna expect it now, sugar. He ain’t gonna know what to do, so you better prepare that boy.”

So Echo squats on the pregnancy news six weeks before she finally tells him. It all starts with her offering to babysit the various nieces and nephews in the family. Since she isn’t working it seems fair to let the parents have their date nights without worry of childcare. Tony dotes upon her for being so gracious, but he doesn’t ever question why she offers to do this so frequently. He thinks she’s doing it to keep herself busy the entire time.

That is when she starts making jokes about what it would be like to have kids filling the extra rooms instead of unpacked boxes. Since Tony wants to be home with Echo while she works through her problems, he has being working from home as an investment consultant. Even though it was a very slow start, forcing them to dip into his reserve funds, once he developed a good reputation the income was much better than at the bar. It allowed him to quickly replenish what he’d used to get Echo in an outpatient sobriety program.

Echo is almost exactly three months pregnant when dropping hints no longer suffices. In no time she’ll have a belly poking out and he’ll notice. And, considering her past, he might think that she’d gone off with someone else since she waited so long to approach him. It was finally time after a particularly dull afternoon to bring expanding their family more bluntly; “Do you think it is something we could do? Do we even want to do it?”

Her husband mulls it over while enjoys a fast food burrito for dinner, he’d done a milkshake for his family this afternoon and it was just more convenient than cooking; “If you are ever ready for it, yeah, I think we could do it. I always wanted kids but I fell in love with you. If you don’t want them then I’ll be fine. Plenty of kids in the family to help raise, after all.”

“Do you think I don’t want kids?” Echo hoots, and she does it with certain pain in her tone. Was he suggesting that she wasn’t the type to have kids? Or that she couldn’t be a mother? Or that she shouldn’t be a mother?

“I don’t know. It’s never been a question until now. You’re the only one that can know if you want kids.” Tony is more of a smart ass than she anticipates at times. It’s probably why she slams her fists onto the counter of the kitchen table in frustration.

And it’s probably why she shouts at him; “Well I’m pregnant, so I guess that question is answered!”

“Temper.” Her remarks; “Temper.”

You love me anyway.

You love me anyway.

 

The problem with growing up is that it is never easy. Echo already knew that, of course, having faced all sorts of self-destructive issues in her still very young life. Addiction to drugs, self-harming, alcoholism, nymphomania; but those struggles were nothing compared to the struggles she faced the day that she birthed her daughter.

The daughter that died during birth…

Tony distanced himself from Echo for several months, not in such a way that it strained their relationship noticeably. It was something that he did reflexively. He buried himself in work. Tony even went back to making recipes for beers; consulting anyone that would pay him; even doing a side job with his cousins in the landscaping business. All the while, he maintained his investment consulting business as well. It was difficult, but in the end Echo finally got a job, too. It wasn’t right away but it did happen about six months after losing her daughter.

Everyone thought she was doing it for herself as a sign that she’s moved on from the suffering of losing a child. Only Echo knew her motivations for doing it, though, and they were far from positive in nature. Getting a job allowed her to avoid seeing Tony’s eyes – deader and darker than night. Most nights, Echo couldn’t really decide which was worse… losing her baby or losing her husband with each passing day…

Nevertheless, each of them remained composed and romantic to everyone around them. Truthfully, they quietly avoided one another whenever possible while trying to accept that Echo’s pregnancy was nothing more than a nine-month delusion. Doctors could only conclude that the baby’s lungs developed incorrectly. Echo and Tony denied the option for an autopsy to confirm suspicions. Doing so would have been salt in the wound.

And Tony didn’t want to know at all. There was no amount of money in the world that could convince him to pursue and explanation. Somewhere deep inside, Echo knew that did want that confirmation. It would allow her to know whether or not it might have been something to do with the damage she’d done to her body. Knowing wouldn’t have made it any better but the closure would have been satisfying in the very least.

Marriages fall apart because of miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths. Echo counts herself luck that Tony hasn’t left her. That’s not to say that things were perfect between them, and that she had confidence that their relationship would make it through the “for worse” part of their vows. Of course, Echo was well aware that was cheating on her off and on whenever he was out of town. She could smell it on the clothes he failed to clean. She could feel it in his body when they would have sex together.

Someone might argue with Echo, but she didn’t blame him for seeing other women. Losing a child is one of the most emotionally traumatic things one can experience, she thinks, and everyone copes in different ways. If it weren’t for all the therapy that Echo underwent, she’d have been doing exactly the same thing. In her heart, she was just glad that he came home to her.

Besides, had she not slept around on him in the early weeks of their marriage? Had he not put everything into their relationship so far? Was he not constantly bending over backwards to keep her on the straight and narrow? In her personal opinion, he was allowed to have a few off months where he made mistakes. That man worked hard enough to keep their love alive – harder than any man would probably ever work for a woman like her.

Echo was easily on the farthest things from perfect, after all.

Kick out the jams, kick up the soul.

Pour another glass of that rock and roll.

Turn up the band, fire in the hole.

Gonna lose control tonight.

 

Years seem to melt away. Echo is twenty-nine now, and it feels as though she was just twenty-three yesterday. Time flies when things seem to be falling apart all the time. At least, that’s how she feels after miscarrying three times more times. Tony was even more devastated than her.

So devastated, in fact, that after losing their fourth child the two of them divorced because of the emotional distress. It may have been a four-year marriage but it was easily the best time of her life. Somewhere around twenty-five, after their first loss, she got her own job. She was just a line cook but it helped her get through each and every miscarriage afterwards – and she was very thankful for her employer always being so understand through those very difficult times.

After the divorce was completed, though, Echo decided to take what little savings actually belonged to her and move away from New Jersey. Her employer at least understood why she needed to leave and got her set up with a decent job in Pennsylvania. It turned out to be one of the greatest things to ever happen to her because within a few months she moved from line cook to Sous Chef. Echo was impressed with herself, having previously been aware that she was talented enough to be in a leadership role in the kitchen.

Echo never really thought of herself as that good with food, but the Head Chef saw otherwise. As soon as the position opened – there were absolutely no interviews. “Echo, I need you to do this,” he told her, “because you are fresh and creative.” The restaurant believed in her so much that they sent her through culinary school simply to make her the Head Chef at another location that they were opening a few counties north just on the other side of the New York state line.

By then there was nobody to celebrate with, so Echo had stayed in her tiny apartment and slept through the night. Each year there was a celebration for the restaurant because she got amazing reviews, and business increased significantly with each quarter. Everyone would attend these parties but Echo always stayed behind, aware that if she exposed herself to the lifestyle that ruined her life before – that she would easily ignore the consequences and fall into exactly the same patterns.

Of course, that’s exactly how she ended up sitting at a bar with a glass of whiskey in front of her and her cell phone on the counter. The restaurant is closed for renovations so she was on ‘vacation’ for three weeks. After three days she was going mad with boredom. There was always the option to unpack, but…

Really, the food industry was exactly what she needed to keep her away from drinking, drugs, and depression. Now that she had been alone with her thoughts, the realization hit her that she was alone with only a good career as a chef to her name. For all the reasons one might expect, she felt as though she may have missed out on some very important parts of life.

It wasn’t that she lacked passion for her work, because Echo did love the looks on peoples’ faces when they’d call her out to pay the compliments on her work. She loved having line cooks say working under her an “honor.” Even more than that, she enjoyed having world famous chefs come to dine in what she considers a humble restaurant just to see what the hype is all about.

Echo believes that her breaking point had truly been when Tony called her after seeing an article about the Top 10 up-and-coming Chefs in America. He called to congratulate her, mentioning that he’d be in the area for a business meeting and that he’d love to stop by and see her. Stupidly, she offered to cook him dinner at her new place – a two story townhouse that she’d just bought a few months ago that still didn’t quite feel like home.

Tony was scheduled to arrive at 6:00 p.m. so that he could watch her cook. She’d decided to make a lobster risotto followed by a pan-seared salmon over butter-fried asparagus topped with grilled lemon slices. The desert was going to be a simple sponge cake with an airy crème filling and fresh fruit medley syrup. She would wake early to do the shopping and prepping; so that she could spend the rest of the day trying not to overthink what she would wear when Tony showed up. Part of her still loved him for helping her become a better woman, but the other part couldn’t stand the idea of seeing him again for fear of being reminded that they failed each other.

Echo always got an itching conflict in her gut when he reached out to her randomly. Tony had contacted her a few times since the divorce, mostly for little things like holidays and birthdays. Sometimes he’d send something to the restaurant – like flowers and cards. He once made a large donation to the restaurants in hopes that they could expand closer to New Jersey. The idea was shot down, but there are plans for another location to be opened but it will be in Maryland. The restaurant owner isn’t sure whether or not he ever plans to go into New Jersey.

Echo realizes that her thoughts have wandered and that she’s still got a full glass of whiskey just sitting in front of her… there was a time when the glass would have been gone faster than she could blink. Was she at the bar for the drink, or was she there for the danger of drinking? Really, she had absolutely no idea. Echo was just there.

“Excuse me, ma’am, is everything alright? I get a lot of sad looking ladies in here but ain’t a single one just sitting with their drink not drinking.” The bartender is a clean looking young man with short dirty blonde hair and a huskier frame. If truth were told, Echo found him very cute. Not even just cute, he was handsome – in a relaxed sort of way.

It loosens her up enough to explain that she used to have a problem, or that she thinks she had a problem. Since it’s a Wednesday night, the bar is filled with a whopping twelve people. Not to mention that it’s four in the afternoon and most people are still at work. Feeling that he doesn’t have much else to be doing, Echo opens up a little bit more; “My ex-husband is coming around for dinner tomorrow. We got divorced because I can’t have kids. I can’t have kids for reasons that we both assumed were related to my drinking – amongst other issues.”

The bartender isn’t wearing a nametag, so Echo has no idea what to call him. This is how it usually goes with bartenders. It was months before she learned Tony’s name all those years ago. Maybe she’d learn this man’s name, or maybe she’d never know. Although it is more likely that she’ll never come back to the bar again.

“Well then why don’t we get a glass of water instead, and a bowl of pretzels. Sound good?” He’s moving around without her confirmation. The whiskey is poured down the drain and replaced with water from the tap. Then a basket of pretzels gets yanked from underneath the counter and slid into her chest. He insists that she eat a few before she gives herself an upset stomach.

“You get a lot of alcoholics on the verge of relapse in here or something?” Maybe it wasn’t the best way to perpetuate the conversation, but it seems to work. Tales of men and women coming into the bar in tears, asking for the hardest liquor they’ve got – and after they’ve drank way too much, they reveal that until that night they’d been sober for years. Sometimes decades, even; but they always crumble and give in – and most of them disappear after, or at least never return to this particular bar.

He reveals that he likes to think they realize how bad being hungover in the morning feels and decides that it was a terrible decision. Echo gets the impression that he doesn’t think very highly of drinking – and therefore, his patrons.

“What kind of bartender doesn’t approve of alcohol?” Echo jokes.

“The kind that is running this bar because his brother is in jail for drunk driving.” He replies with a cold voice and a stoic face. Immediately she gasps for air, feeling awful for even saying something in the first place. Instinct is what causes her to reach across the bar and place a hand over his, knowing that it she should have asked him first. What if he didn’t like people touching him?

“Please forgive me, that was uncalled for – I shouldn’t have said anything.”

He assures her that it wasn’t a big deal. Apparently his brother bought this bar thinking that he could handle it with minimal experience in the food industry. Echo finds that listening to a bartender for a change is oddly therapeutic. It is a very welcomed change. Minutes pass slowly as the details about his brother’s own battle with alcoholism for two years simply pour out. Other patrons filter out over time, ad another pair of bartenders show up. They start tending to the rush of people coming in after work.

Meanwhile, this particular bartender joins her on the barstools, noting that he’s officially ‘off the clock.’ He throws back a glass of water and chomps on pretzels with Echo. Once he finished his story, she shares her own. During this time she learns that his name is Dylan, but that his friends like to call him Pitch. When he’s not tending to the bar, he’s a freelance marketer.

“My friends say I have the best pitches. I don’t know if I agree with them, but I gotta say that it pays the bills with enough left over to have a growing retirement fund. Whatever I do works, and I’m perfectly okay with that.” Dylan does look a bit like a marketer now that she thinks about it. His hair is crisp and presentable, his features charming; even his tone of voice is attention grabbing. How else would she have listened to a stranger’s stories for three hours?

Echo, in turn, dares to venture out about her career. Dylan – she just cannot bring herself to call him Pitch – is impressed by her reputation. He Googles her, and together they see the slew of positive articles and reviews about her restaurant and her tenure as Head Chef. Dylan grins as he puts his phone away; “Funny how two successful people end up at the same bar, huh? Two very different people from different places, somehow dealing with the same stress of facing people we don’t know anymore.”

As it turns out, Dylan’s brother has his sentencing hearing the following day and he wants Dylan to be there for it. Echo tells him that he’s done enough by keeping the bar running; going to the hearing may be more than is fairly asked of him. If he does get put in jail for a prolonged period of time, it could wind up being that Dylan must continue running the business on his own. And the odds aren’t looking too good for his brother at this point.

“I already know he’s probably going in for a few years, but that is why I have to go tomorrow. His attorney said that outlook is not good and wants me to talk to him about handing over ownership of the bar to me so that I can sell it.” Dylan looks pained to say he would sell it. Even though she knows very little about him, Echo gets the feeling that he wouldn’t even consider selling it. She thinks he would sooner hire a restaurant manager and maintain ownership at the very least.

Somehow, she just cannot see him parting with something that very well could be the last positive memory of his brother – before he fell victim to his own bad habits.

“I could help you out, you know. Maybe we could make it a little classier. Shrink the number of beverages and bring in some more substantial foods. Turn it into the kind of business you’d like to run.” She’s not sure what it is that compels her to make this suggestion. In the simplest of terms – Echo has proposed a business partnership of sorts to this man. To this man named Dylan who is sometimes called Pitch that is a renowned freelance marketer running his brother’s bar… a man who is essentially a stranger…

More surprisingly than her making that suggestion is what follows, of course. Nothing is ever just moderately dramatic. It’s all dramatics or it’s not happening; “I’ll make sure that you don’t have to quit your job as chef for Urchins.”

Everything is just words. There is nothing about it that guarantees that she’ll be working in this bar to make it less like a bar and more like a restaurant. Yet, she is still excited and she insists that they make a toast to their possible venture.

“I’m going to grab the smallest flutes and get some white wine. One drink each, though. Fair?” Of course it is more than fair, and of course Echo agrees to only drink one. Once they down the wine, Echo sees the time. It’s nearly eight in the evening, which means that it is properly time for dinner.

Dylan asks if she drove herself, but she didn’t. She’d planned on drinking herself sick. As such, he invites her to walk with him to his place. It is only a few blocks away, and he was just going to watch the season finale of some music competition. As it turns out, music competitions are his guilty pleasure and he’s totally stocked up for the two-hour event. Tortilla chips, homemade salsa, Oreos, a pack of Mountain Dew, and blankets warming in the dyer.

“You sound like such a dork right now,” Echo comments playfully, “But it is exactly the kind of thing that I can support.”

And there’s no hesitation when they get to his house. Echo had gone home with many a stranger, and housed many of them too. The level of inhibition that most people harbored was completely absent in her. This experience, however, was not like any she’d had before – and it was perfect.

Echo actually loved the show. She loved listening to Dylan tell her the names of each contestant, the songs that they sang when they were eliminated, and why the finalists were the absolute best two that they’ve ever had in the ten years the show has been on air. Hearing his passion for it is amazing, and Echo spots multiple personality traits that are indicative of his profession throughout the entire evening.

By the time the announcements are made, the winner determined by popular vote by viewers, Dylan is holding her hand in anticipation. In the awkward pause, he shares that he did go out of his way to vote for both of them from different devices because he simply couldn’t choose. Echo laughs but it certainly isn’t at him.

As soon as the name is spoken, Dylan jumps up onto his couch and starts pumping his fist in the air. Echo stands on the floor and raises her arms, unsure as to whether or not he may fall. Regardless, she smiles from ear-to-ear in joy for Dylan; and maybe just a little for herself.

“You’ve just seen the most embarrassing side of me.” Dylan reveals after the show is over and they’re cleaning of the mess of empty snack bags and bowls. She takes tabs off of the cans and leaves them in a baggie on his counter while she formulates a way to best express how she felt about her evening with Dylan.

Words seem to be failing her, though. Nothing seems just right. So she just tells him whatever comes to mind the fastest when the pause between statements grows too large; “I like embarrassing things. They make people special.”

That sounds awful, but Dylan concurs. As such, they giggle a little bit before deciding that they’re still hungry. Echo offers to make something since she’s a chef anyway. Before she knows it, he suggests that she just stay the night; “Going home might stress you out anyway.”

He is absolutely right. So Echo accepts the offer to stay – although, she maybe didn’t need to sleep in the same bed with him…

Some things never change.

Kick out the jams, kick up the soul.

Pour another glass of that rock and roll.

Turn up the band, fire in the hole.

Holler if your ready.

Gonna lose control tonight.

People always talk about how easy it is to know when you want to marry someone after you’ve been married once already. Echo never formally dated Dylan, but after he took ownership of the bar – things escalated quickly. The real catalyst wasn’t sleeping together, though. It was the business partnership they had with the bar.

Dylan invested almost all of his savings in converting the bar to a more restaurant-like setting. Once paperwork was filled out and filed, Echo also invested a good portion of her own money into getting a kitchen and proper staffing into the business. Thankfully, Urchins had been absolutely amazing about the requirements of being a partner and allowed her generous amounts of time off – in spite of the fact that she was working on another restaurant. Since one was fine dining and the other was more like a dive, they didn’t consider in true competition.

Typically, three times a week Dylan would stay at her house while they mulled over business plans, advertising options, and possible menus. He always ended up spending the night. As costs rose for the renovations in his restaurant, the financial strain to pay his bills became evident. Echo encouraged him to move in with her after only six months.

It didn’t take long before Dylan and Echo just called themselves a couple. They were sleeping together and living together, so it would be hard to suggest they were anything but a couple. Although, it was still a surprise when one day she came home from an eighteen-hour shift at Urchins and Dylan had a ring with a romantic proposal speech.

I can’t say that I expected this, but I can’t say I didn’t expect it either. I still think it’s funny how two people can end up in the same place at the same time – at the right time. Wednesday is my favorite day of the week because it is the day I met you. Somewhere in the back of my head I must have known that I needed you, and that you needed me, when you came to the bar. Since then, we’ve always been together working hard to make our business better. Even if we didn’t realize it, we were making our relationship better too.

 

Sometimes people are just in love – they don’t have a moment that defines when they fell in love. I think that we were just in love from the moment I asked why you weren’t drinking that whiskey I poured with a frown on my face and my eyes on the clock. Maybe we don’t act like it, maybe we never will, but that doesn’t make my feelings less real. I love you and I want to be with you until I stop breathing.

 

I hope that you feel the same. So, what do you say? Think you can be married to me more than you already are?

 

Echo shrugged her shoulders, trying to be nonchalant. Romance wasn’t something she did very well. In fact, the only thing that she did do well at all was cooking. Thankfully, Dylan knew her better than she knew herself. She may have shrugged, but inside she was bursting with happiness. Getting married to Dylan was the only thing left for her to want from life.

They didn’t even wait to start planning the wedding, either. Urchins gave her a bonus after doubling profits in the last quarter. They used the money to put together a very tiny wedding in which their co-workers were the only guests – except for Dylan’s brother, who got a very difficult-to-obtain pass to be in attendance for the ceremony.

It may have been less than a year that the two were together, but there was no hesitation. Echo knew that this was the right choice. The reception was the proof for her, because even though she did enjoy a few drinks – she never went overboard.

Dylan was her rock in that way. All the fun that she could need came from kissing him randomly – sometimes mid-sentence! They liked to talk business in front of people all the time, showing how compatible they were for one another. When they could get away with it, they would sneak in “quickie” sex in obscure places all over town. It kept them alive in a weird way. The two of them were always moving, always having fun, and always together.

When they finally got home from their wedding night, Echo poured a glass of whiskey. They kept one bottle in the house, which they shared once a month when they found the time between their three jobs – seeing as Dylan still did some freelance marketing. And in the arms of her second husband, she downed the bottle practically on her own. There wasn’t an ounce of regret, though, because they had the wildest night.

But the next morning probably would be even wilder – because they each had meetings to be at by nine o’clock!

What do you want from me?

I’m not America’s Sweetheart.

So beat the drum with me.

I’m not America’s sweetheart.

“What’s this?” Dylan asks. He always comes home with arms filled with mail from the restaurant. Recently Echo had been asked to write a cookbook, but she only opted in if all of the chefs from Urchins could have a section. The reasoning behind this was because she wrote her own book – an autobiography.

“What’s what?” Echo pretends that she wasn’t expecting a check from her publisher. She pretends that she hasn’t been keeping a secret, and she pretends to be confused when she sees the watermark on the envelope when he flashes it at her.

“What’s this? This isn’t your publisher, is it?” Echo insists that he open it and see what it’s all about – her master plan for letting him know that she’s going to be a proper published author in just three short months. As Dylan reads through the letter, she crosses her arms over her chest and slowly gets up out of her chair.

She can almost see him finishing sentences in the glossiness of his eyes. She’d gotten a call from her agent and knew exactly how large of a check she was receiving. Enough that Dylan would probably actual shit his pants.

“A seven thousand dollar advance?” He goes on about how large of an advance that is, and how could they possibly have numbers to justify that amount of money? However, with Urchins’ popularity – her status as an nationally acclaimed chef – the local news about their restaurant being a hidden gem after only five months of operation as a burger joint. Echo tells him that as a marketer he should know that the amount of buzz surrounding their success would sell the book easily.

Although, in addition to that there are definitely some other marketing tactics in place that further sell the book as well. An advertisement for it in the front of the cookbook; guest judging spots on a few cooking competitions; and a few interviews for some online shows – little things that will create a lasting impression.

“And what is it called?” Echo is surprised that it’s not listed anywhere in the letter.

Or maybe Dylan just wants her to say it out loud for him.

“‘America’s Sweetheart.’ It’s called ‘America’s Sweetheart.’” She confirms for him, or she thinks she confirms it.

As always, he has to make a joke; “Is it ironically titled?”

And as always, he’s absolutely right.

Well they say I’m too loud for this town.

So I lit a match and burned it down.

What do you want from me?

I’m not America’s Sweetheart.

 

But you love me anyway.

 

When the chief executive officer of Urchins passed away unexpectedly, the first person contacted about replacing him was Echo. For what reason, she never could be quite sure, but the business was to be offered to her first before it was deemed that the company be left in the hands of the Head Chef from the first Urchins location – Chef Matteo.

Initially, Dylan told her to do it. It would give steadier hours, and since she was pregnant, he thought it would better for her to take a step back from her work as a chef. When she started inquiring about the work that she’d actually be doing, Dylan realized that he didn’t like the idea of it. She’d have less to do with their restaurant, the one that they completely rebuilt together. In the end, Dylan didn’t want her to take the business.

Echo turns it down in favor of remaining a chef. The surprise for Dylan is when she actually gets fired only a few weeks later. She came home fuming, with her tiny baby belly showing more than he’s used to since she’s not in her chef jacket; “They fucking fired me!”

Dylan dares to ask what happened, already knowing that he might not actually care to know. Of course, there’s really nothing that could dampen his day considering that he took a very important phone call that morning after Echo left; “Chef Matteo has lost his damn mind! He wants to franchise the business! He wants to open five more locations, with an additional four out to franchisees! What the actual fuck? Did he not listen to Frank when he was alive? Did he not hear him say that the power of food is in the quality not the quantity?”

Echo goes on and on and on about how this should have been her business. This all could have been avoided if she’d just taken the job. Dylan comments about how much harder it would have been for her, though, because her pregnancy is classified as a high risk. They’re incredibly lucky to have made it to five months as it is, and she might not have made it that long if she’d been managing a total of five restaurants. Besides; “You love cooking too much to stop doing it.”

“Well I fucking told Matteo off. I told him what a filthy bastard he was, and what an insult he was to the entire Urchins image. And you know what he said to me? You know what he said to fucking fire me? He told me I was too fucking bossy to be trusted as a Head Chef! Said that I was already working too little as it was – too loud for such a tiny role in the company! Said he’d send my severance check out Monday morning and that he wished the best in my ventures. What a fucking ass wipe!”

The amount of swearing that she does is a little expected, considering that Echo actually swears quite frequently. Dylan suffers through the rant with no alteration in his own personal excitement. When he approaches her he places both hands around her belly rather than her face.

“I got a call today from Food Network. They want to feature the restaurant in their twenty best burgers special. We were voted the best burger of the year.” He’s not sure that any time actually passes between the enunciation of ‘year’ and the slamming of Echo’s lips to his. With arms up around his neck, he slides his hands around the sides of her belly and lets them rest on her hips while they kiss. Subconsciously, Dylan congratulates himself for following up her bad news with good news. What man wouldn’t be proud of his decision to squat on something like that?

Echo concludes when she pulls away from him that sometimes bad things happen so that better things can follow. Dylan smirks; “You mean like me, right? Your first marriage ended only so that that you could eventually marry me.”

“Of course, you pompous little fuck.” Before he can somehow squeeze in a joke about his penis – because that is exactly the kind of humor he has – Echo stuffs her tongue down his throat in the most unattractive way possible.

You love me anyway.

You love me anyway.

 

I’m not America’s Sweetheart.

 

Life happens too quickly. Problems that felt as though they would have been the ends of the world decades ago seem no bigger than a blip. With a cigarette propped in her mouth, Echo taps a steak knife on the edge of her kitchen table. It’s hard to believe that in just a few short hours her daughter will be officially graduated from high school. Dylan is out grabbing her favorite breakfast – from McDonald’s of course… because even though her mom is a renowned chef and restaurateur – that girl prefers fast food instead of quiche.

A very, very, very delicious quiche.

Echo remembers when she had her daughter, Delilah. She was just thirty-two years old. The three years before that had been a whirlwind, but the years after were something else entirely. Whirlwind may have qualified as an improvement.

Dylan and Echo may not have been the world’s most impressive parents, but they had such great fun with Delilah. From the hilarious hospital run after Echo went into labor at the grocery store, right to the first day of her senior year in high school when all of them cried more than was actually appropriate. The middle parts were filled with culinary competitions, gymnastics, all ages comedy shows, and restaurant tours in the summers off of school. Of course, there were bad things too. Broken arms, broken hearts, hard lessons – things that Echo struggled to watch in her daughter considering her own past.

But Delilah always hugged her mother tight, whispering every time; “They are my mistakes to make, momma. It is hard for you just like it was hard for your momma. I’ll never leave, though. I will never do that to myself.”

No matter what wrong had been done, somewhere in that little girl’s heart she thought it would be a punishment to be without her mother. Echo never thought she would live to fifty, and never even considered what being a mother would do to her. She hadn’t even known if she wanted to be a mom until her marriage to Tony. During those miscarried pregnancies, she’d questioned her ability to raise a child. Dylan is the only reason she didn’t panic when she was expecting Delilah.

And that is because he promised to keep her grounded.

“After all, you’re not exactly America’s Sweetheart, are you?” He always referenced her book – which after so many years is being adapted to a television movie – but it made Echo smile in the best way. It reminded her that at some point in her life she was a person of interest to people unrelated to her. At some point, in spite of the terrible things she’d done, she was an inspiration to others to be better.

There was nothing better than a surprise ending. With that in mind, Echo drew in a very final breath.

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