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One note!  Ladies’ sizes only go up to XL, but men’s sizes go up to 3X.  (I don’t know about you, but I prefer the longer sleeve of the men’s shirt.)

 

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The Road Home – Part 2

Did you miss part 1?  If so, you can find it on the Red Door Reads website!

Part 2
By Tammy Falkner

 

Home was a four-letter word, if there ever was one, Matt couldn’t help but think. Right up there with all the words he used to say that made Dan look at him in gut-clenching disapproval.

“Thanks,” he muttered. He stared down at the keys in his palm, at the keychain that had scandalized him when he was younger, and now fit his palm like it was made for it. He ran the pad of his thumb over the thigh of the naked woman, feeling the ridge of her knee, and the tiny raised bump of her pointy toe, remembering how he’d longed to hold that keychain when he was seventeen.

The old woman snickered, then she wrapped her hands around her mouth like she wanted to tell him a secret. “That’s made of metal, son,” she said. “Play with it on your own time, when I don’t have to watch.”

Heat crept up Matt’s face.

From behind her a noise arose, and a small child skidded to a stop beside the old woman, nearly knocking her from her crutches. He was wearing cowboy boots, had a red bandanna tied around his chin, hiding his mouth from view, and he had a cardboard belt tied around his waist. The belt held two small toy pistols.

The old woman winked and nodded toward the keys. “Don’t tell anyone, but I think Dan had that keychain made in my likeness.” Matt stopped fondling the key fob immediately.

The little cowboy who’d skidded into her tugged at the edge of her shirt and whispered something to her that Matt couldn’t understand. She jerked a thumb toward the back of the house. “I’ll be right there,” she said. He left as quickly as he’d arrived, slapping his imaginary horse on the rump as he went around the corner.

“Cute kid,” Matt grunted. But he wasn’t. Kids were the devil and he wanted nothing to do with them. Ever.

“No, he’s not. He’s terrible. The only time he’s cute is when he’s sleeping. And even then, he’s talking.” The woman hitched her shoulder in the doorway. “I vaguely remember you being the same way. Cat got your tongue, Matthew?”

Matt narrowed his eyes at her. “The truck,” he began. He looked toward the drive where it rested, almost like it was waiting for him.

She nodded, blinking her blue eyes at him. “Yep. It’s a truck.” She clucked her tongue. “Dan always said you were smarter than you looked.”

The pitter-patter of little feet rang down the hallway, and Matt looked beyond her for the herd of elephants that must have escaped the zoo. A little girl wearing a tiny blue ball gown and plastic glass slippers tripped over the hem of the too-long dress and landed on her face. She hopped back up like she was on springs, rubbed the tip of her nose, and kept on coming.

Behind her followed a brunette. Her hair was long and straight and it was pulled back into a messy snarl at the back of her head. It reminded him of his grandmother’s yarn the time the cat got into it. But then… then she turned and looked into his eyes.

His breath stopped. His heart quit doing its job and he coughed into his fist to get it started back up.

The old woman punched him in the shoulder. “Breathe, boy. It’s just a woman. I’m sure you’ve seen one before.”

But this wasn’t just any woman. This was Anne Bartlett. This was the only thing he’d left behind in Maine when he was seventeen that still visited him in his dreams. Anne was everything. And she was standing right there.

“Matt?” she said, and his heart burst open.

 

***

 

Oh, holy crap. Grams was right. She said the first thing Matt would do when he got to town was come to get his truck.

“Anne,” he grunted. He jammed his hands into his pockets and rocked back onto his heels. His eyes skittered around everywhere but on her.

“You’re home,” she said.

He nodded.

“When did you get here?” She wiped her hands on a sauce-stained dishcloth.

“Just a few minutes ago,” he said. “I was driving by and saw the truck.” He jerked a thumb toward the driveway, like she didn’t know where the truck was. She was the one who put it there.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind. I borrowed it.”

Finally, he looked at her and, when he did, my goodness, it was like looking back in time. She stood dumbfounded.

“You borrowed the truck?” His brow scrunched, the vee she used to smooth with her fingertips forming between his brows. Her fingers twitched, wanting to touch him. She balled her hands into fists instead.

“Yeah, Grams wanted spaghetti,” she said. “My car is in the shop and your truck was just sitting there in the garage, so I drove it to the store and left it in the driveway. I’ll put it back up.” She forced herself to stop rambling. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Mind what?” he said.

Grams snickered and Anne glared at her. She snickered some more.

“You didn’t mind me driving it, did you?” she asked.

“Why would I mind?” he asked.

“Because… it’s… not… mine?”

“Whose is it?”

“Well, it’s yours,” Anne said. She glared at Grams again. “Didn’t you tell him?”

Grams hitched herself more comfortably in the doorway. “I was about to.”

“And?” Anne prompted.

“And then you walked around the corner and he lost his breath, and I figured I would give him a moment to recover, and then I was going to tell him Dan left him the truck in his will.” Grams grinned. “And I was going to tell him those brats aren’t yours.”

“They’re not brats.” They were wonderful children that Anne watched during the day while the Turners worked.

“And that you’re not married and never have been,” Grams went on to say.

Anne groaned. “Already, Grams? Really?” She looked at Matt. “Ignore her. She’s going senile.”

“I doubt it,” Matt said, more grunt than words.

He was right. Grams was sharp as a tack. A mean little tack with a broken leg and an urge to marry Anne off. But what she didn’t know was that while Matt might be fun to look at with those blue eyes and the shadow of beard stubble on his face, nothing was going to come of their reunion. Anne’s memories were more of his backside, because that’s all she’d seen as he walked away all those years ago. She forced the elation she’d felt when she’d seen him standing there in the doorway into the closet of her brain, and pulled heartache and loneliness out of it, determined to wear them like a cloak the whole time Matt was on the island. Anything else would be stupid on her part.

Ready for part 3?  You can find it here!

Free preview of chapters 1-18

 SummerPreview.jpg

Jake

 

Get a dog, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

They. Lied.

I had no idea that getting a dog would be like adopting a child. They wanted my blood type—you know, in case the dog ever needs one of my organs—and they wanted to know how much money I make a year.

Ha-ha. I fooled them. I don’t make any money. Not anymore. Not since my life went to shit.

My new dog sits in the passenger seat with his snout out the window, his tongue lolling so hard that it occasionally smacks him in the jaw when I take a turn. Why don’t I put the window up, you ask. Well, that would mean I’d have to smell the beast. I’m not one to judge, because I’ve met some unsavory characters before, and a few of them had odors I never ever want to encounter again. Not to mention that my own smell offends me on occasion when I leave the gym… But this dog, he takes the prize for most foul smell ever. It’s like sweaty ass. Sweaty ass that has been stuffed in a gym bag for days and forgotten. Then crapped on. That’s what this dog smells like.

I pull up to the police station and grab the leash, holding tightly. When I left the pound with this thing, he pulled me all the way to the car, not stopping. He sensed freedom, and I was the portal. Or at least my truck was. He hopped up in the seat, I cracked the window, and he’s been riding happily for the past twenty minutes.

But now, now he’s not happy that I want him to get out of the truck. I tug on his leash and he looks at me, hunkering down a little in the seat like a surfer might hug his board.

Then the corner of his lip lifts.

Oh, no, you hateful bastard. You will not growl at me. I lift my lip too, and I stare at him. His eyes hold mine, not breaking away. We go on like this for about two minutes, and then he stops, shakes his head, and finally gets his big ass out of the truck. He lumbers onto the pavement, stopping to stretch his great big body.

This thing is like a horse. They called it a Great Dane mix at the pound, but if it’s a mix of anything, it’s mixed with bear. Or bull. Or elephant. Because this sucker is huge. He stands at the same height as my hip, and I’m a big guy, topping out at six foot four.

I tug on his leash and say, “Come on, killer. I need to get my job back.”

We walk into the police station and the rookie behind the counter lifts the neck of her shirt to cover her nose. “What the heck is that?” she asks through the material.

I don’t answer her. Anyone with half a brain can see that it’s a dog.

“Is the chief around?” I ask her.

She shakes her head, which is not an easy feat while she holds her shirt to her face. “He just left. You might be able to catch him at his car if you hurry. Like right now.”

I lean against the wall and pretend to scratch at a stain on my shirt. “You mean like right now? This second?”

My new dog gets up, spins around, and the smell of him fills the whole front of the station. The rookie gags a little and points to the door. “Hurry, or he’ll be gone.”

I click my tongue at my new dog and he trots out the door behind me. I see the chief by his squad car, talking on his cell phone. He puts it away and stares at me through the shiny lenses of his sunglasses. “What the hell is that?” he asks, eyeing my dog.

“That, my friend, is my therapy. Get a dog, you said. So, I got a dog.” I show him off like he’s a prize on The Price is Right. “So can I get off suspension now?”

“No.” He opens his car door.

“Why not? I got a dog just like you said.”

“Three months, Jake. Three months. Not a day sooner.” He gets in his car and pulls out of his spot without even looking at me. But when he gets ready to pull away, he puts his window down. “Take that stupid thing home and give it a bath. It smells like shit.”

I look down at the dog. “It’s not that bad,” I grumble.

“It’s terrible. Go clean him up. Then learn to at least look like you like him. That’s the first step.”

“I like him,” I insist.

“Sure you do,” he says, and he finally grins and shakes his head. “Get your head on straight, Jake. Then come back. We need you, but we need you at your best.” Over the tops of his lenses he gives me one of those fatherly looks he’s famous for. Then he pulls out of the parking area.

I stare down at my new dog, who has sprawled himself out across the sidewalk and is licking where his balls probably used to be. “I’d do that too, if I could reach mine, dude,” I tell him.

He yawns and stares up at me. Then he sneezes and slings snot across my shoe. With a dog this big, that’s a lot of snot. I’m not looking forward to when he takes a dump.

My phone rings in my pocket and I pull it out, hoping deep inside that the chief is calling me to tell me he rethought his position on my return to work, that since I got a dog, he knows I’m rehabilitated. That he wants me back at work. That they need me fiercely and the department can’t continue to prosper without me.

“Hello,” I say, when I see that it’s an unknown number.

“Hi, can I speak with Mr. Jacobson, please?”

“Speaking.”

“Mr. Jacobson, I’m very sorry to have to call you with this information, but it’s about your father.”

“What has the old bastard done now?” I ask. He’s probably chasing one too many women around the bingo hall. Or he’s finally managed to catch one of them. Usually, they just slap him and he moves on to the next one.

“Your father has had a stroke, Mr. Jacobson. I’m very sorry.”

My gut twists and the pulse in my right eye starts to pound. “Is he dead?” I ask. My father might be a mean old codger, but I don’t want him to die.

“Oh, no,” she rushes to say. “He’ll need therapy, but he’s alive. Right now he’s complaining about the lunch special. And he just threatened to stick a fork in my eye if I didn’t find some chocolate pudding.”

The clench around my heart eases a little. “What do you need from me?”

“Well,” she stops to clear her throat, “here’s the thing. Your father’s insurance won’t cover in-home care, and he doesn’t want to go to a nursing facility.”

I hear grumbling from the other end of the phone and the nurse grunts. “Jake,” I hear. It’s my dad, and his voice is gruff with sleep. In my head, I imagine him lying there attached to monitors with tubes sticking out of him.

“Pop,” I reply. “What’s up?”

“The sky,” he says, deadpan.

“That’s good,” I reply, and I smile. “Better than if it fell down.”

Pop is silent for a moment. Pop is never silent. He always has something to say, and it’s usually not anything nice. “What’s up with you?” he finally asks.

I look down at the beast lying at my feet. “I got a dog.”

“One of those yappy little things?”

“Oh, no.” I tilt my head. The dog’s tongue is lying beside him on the sidewalk where he’s panting. “Definitely not yappy. Or little.”

“Well, bring him with you when you come, will you?” He gets quiet again.

“You…want me to come there?”

“Well, who else is going to come and spring me? This is like jail, son. They won’t let me go home unless I have someone to stay with me.” He clears his throat and I can tell he doesn’t like asking. “It’s not like I need you to wipe my ass or anything. I just need you to pick me up. Stay for a few weeks.”

“Okay, Pop. I’ll pick you up. I’m on my way.”

“How long?” he asks, and I think I hear him sniffle.

Pop’s in North Carolina and I’m in New York. “I can be there tomorrow.” If I drive all night.

“I’ll see you then.” There’s a shuffling of the phone and I can hear him talking to the nurse. “He’s on the way. Now get my chocolate pudding.”

“Put down the fork, Mr. Jacobson,” she scolds. She should be glad he’s not grabbing her ass, because that’s what he usually does. The line goes dead as the call is ended.

I look down at my dog. “Want to go on a road trip?” I ask him. His tail starts to thump against the concrete, but he doesn’t lift his head. “Let’s go, dog.”

He lumbers to his feet, stretches, and then takes his spot in the front seat of my truck. I wonder if I could run him through the car wash…

Probably not.

 

 

Katie

 

My eyes are blurry when I finally get to the campground. Well, it’s not really a campground. It’s a bunch of cabins in a park near a lake. My family came here the summer I turned sixteen. It looks smaller than it did when I was a child, and a little more run-down, but to be honest, I’d take just about anything over where I’ve been.

My daughter, my copilot, is in the passenger seat. She’s the same age I was the year my parents and I came here, and I want to share this place with her more than any of the other kids.

“This is it?” she says, looking around at the thimble-sized cabins.

“Yes, this is it.” This is the best place on earth, little girl, and hopefully the safest place.

“You have to be kidding me.”

It’s a good thing God makes children cute, or parents would eat their young. “Will you sit with the kids while I get the keys?”

“Duh,” she says with all the ego of a sixteen-year-old ingrate. Normally, she would have her face stuffed in her cell phone but I didn’t let her bring it with her. I didn’t bring mine, either.

I walk to the camp office, where there’s a metal box with a combination lock on it. That’s where the instructions said I would find the keys. I pull a piece of paper from my pocket where I’ve written the lock numbers and I dial them in. The box opens and I see a set of keys. They’re small copper keys and I pick them up. The key ring has a naked centerfold on it. That’s just like Mr. Jacobson. He’ll never change.

I remember Mr. Jacobson as a surly middle-aged man. He was never very nice, but he was interesting. You wanted to ask him things just so he would bark at you and threaten to beat you over the head with a boat oar, because when you turned your back, he’d be halfway grinning and there was a chance you could catch it if you looked at just the right time.

I wonder where he is now.

I see my children getting out of the car and I lay a hand on my pregnant belly. I’m eight months along, and every move I make causes a counter move from the newbie, as Gabby likes to call him. Gabby is my oldest, and she tends to get stuck with the children when I’m busy. Then there’s Alex. He’s nine. The youngest is Trixie, who is seven. We thought we were done after Alex. Then Trixie surprised us all, who got the nickname when Alex couldn’t say Tracy. Then life went to shit, and now I’m here, trying to escape it all.

The baby that’s still at residence in my belly gives a little kick. “I know, baby,” I say to him, “you’re not shit. Life is shit. Our circumstances are shit. But you, baby boy, you are loved. My coming back here proves it.” I heave a sigh and start toward my children, who are tumbling out of the car like jack-in-the-boxes. The two youngest live like they’re on coiled springs all the time. Gabby grabs Trixie’s hand as she slips it into hers and Gabby smiles down at her. Trixie is the quiet one, the one who has been most affected by my poor decisions.

“Can we go swimming?” Alex asks.

I look down at my watch. It’s seven in the morning. “We need to unpack first. Then we can go swimming.”

He jumps up and down, pumping his fist. Trixie leans her head into Gabby’s thigh and smiles her soft smile, the one that always makes my heart melt.

I pop the trunk and we start unloading the car. We brought baskets of clothes, but not much more. We were in a bit of a hurry. We brought what was in the washer and dryer, and the kids were able to grab two toys each. Nothing more. “Did you guys bring swimsuits?” I ask.

They all look at Gabby. “Yes!” she cries. “I got swimsuits. One for each of them!” She makes grabby fingers and starts to chase the little ones around. They squeal and run in circles, yelling while she growls and chases them.

We stand outside looking at the tiny cabin where I used to spend every summer. I asked for cabin number 114, and they said it was available. It looks just the same, but smaller. Or I’m bigger. I’m not sure which.

“Let’s go inside, shall we?” I say, forcing a smile to my face.

Gabby grabs baskets of clothes and passes them to the smaller kids, and Trixie’s basket immediately tips and dumps onto the ground. Her eyes well up with tears.

“No one here is going to get mad at you, Trix,” I tell her. Then I dump my basket, too. I grin. “Oops! Look what I did!”

My kids have had enough anger to last a lifetime. I don’t want them to have one more minute. Gabby dumps the basket she’s holding too, and Trixie finally starts to giggle. We sing a song as we clean it all up, and I stick the key in the lock of the cabin, giving it a gentle turn. The door creaks and dust falls down around us like snowflakes in beams of sunlight as we step inside.

“Wow, this is a pit,” Gabby complains.

“It’s not a pit. It’s charming.” It has the same country-blue curtains it had when I was a girl, only now they’re a little worn by time. And dust. I cough and push open a window. “Let’s get these open and air the place out a little,” I say. The kids and I go around opening windows, letting in the summer lake breeze. It’s the middle of May, and the campground probably hasn’t been used yet this year. In fact, I was surprised that they let me have a cabin at this time of the year. “We can clean it up. No worries.”

The tiny cabin has two bedrooms and a pullout couch. Calling them bedrooms is actually a stretch. They’re more like glorified closets with beds in them. Gabby will have her own room, and I’ll take the couch. And the two younger kids will share, since there are bunk beds in that room. “Let’s get some beds made up, and then we can go swimming.”

The kids and I go around putting sheets and blankets on all the beds, and we dust as much as we can, but it feels like every time we move, more dust falls out of the sky on us.

Finally, I flop onto the sofa. I need a nap. I drove all night.

The light patter of butterfly wings on my temple gets my attention. I open my eyes to find Alex staring down at me, his face touching mine, his eyes so close that his long dark lashes are sweeping my skin. “Can we go swimming now?” he asks.

I nod and hold out a hand so he can heave me to my feet. He pulls me up like a champ, and then they all run off to put on swimsuits. They come back moments later. “You’re not going to swim, Mom?” Gabby asks. But her eyes hold a world full of knowledge, more than she should have ever had to deal with.

“Not today,” I say.

She nods like she understands, but what she doesn’t understand is why my bad choices got us here, how I could have been so weak. How I messed it up so bad. “Let’s go, little kids,” she cries, barking like a drill sergeant. She got that from her dad. She also says “up and at ’em” and “get a move on, knuckleheads” just like her dad. The little ones line up behind her like ducklings, and then she starts to march. They follow her, walking with their knees lifting up high, their backs straight.

It’s a short walk to the beach area, down a wide path where those with bigger cabins drive golf carts down to the water. We don’t need anything like that, not while we have feet capable of walking, my parents would say.

There’s a cool breeze coming off the lake, but the air is warm and the sun is shining. I have a feeling that the kids are going to stick one toe in the water and decide it’s too cold for swimming, but they might surprise me.

We spread our towels on the sand and I sit down, crossing my legs in front of me. The sun feels good on my legs, so I pull my hat off in hopes of feeling it on my face.

Gabby rushes forward, pushes my hat back down on my head and adjusts it. “Right,” I mutter. I almost forgot. “Thank you.”

“I’m going to take them wading,” Gabby says. Lately she looks at me like I’m going to break, and I hate it. She shouldn’t have to deal with all she’s faced the past year. My biggest fear is that she won’t trust me anymore.

But to be honest, I don’t trust myself either.

 

 

Jake

 

In the truck, Pop grumbles about the dog, about the air conditioning, and about the way I drive. “Are you trying to freeze me to death?” he asks as he turns a vent away from him.

I flip the air off and lower the window. The dog comes forward in the backseat and puts his face beside mine so he can get closer to the window. His breath smells like a decaying body, so I open the back window, he sticks his whole upper body out, and his big ears slap him in the face.

Before he left, they gave Pop a handful of prescriptions, so he sat in the truck with the dog while I had them filled. He’s been in a better mood. Maybe circa 1970. If he wasn’t grumbling about something, he wouldn’t be Pop. But today…today, he’s working hard to annoy me.

We pull up to the house and I cut the engine of my truck. I look over at Pop. “Can you get out by yourself?”

“I can manage,” he says. He ended up with no lasting effects from the stroke, except for some occasional one-sided weakness. They sent him home with a cane. It was a bad idea, because Pop will just try to hit people with it, I’d wager. “What are you going to do with that dog?”

I look back at the beast. “I have no idea.”

“You can’t bring it in the house until it has a bath,” he says on a heavy sigh. “Get some shampoo out of the bathroom and take him down to the lake.”

“You want me to get in that cold-ass water?” I jerk my thumb toward the lake. “What if he doesn’t like water?”

“He’s a dog. Who cares what he likes?” He shoots me a glare and I know I’m not going to win this one.

“I’ll give him a bath.”

“Now.”

“Yes, Pop. Now.”

“Right now.”

“Are you going to be a bundle of sunshine the whole time I’m here?” I ask as I get out and take the dog’s leash, letting him out the back door. He sticks close to my leg, glaring at Pop.

“Depends. How long are you staying?”

“As long as you need me to stay.”

“I’ll stick my bundle of sunshine straight up your ass,” he mutters. And he goes to the house and lets himself inside.

I look down at the dog and wonder how the heck I’m supposed to wash this thing. It’s bigger than me.

Dad comes back to the door and throws out a bottle of shampoo and a towel. Then he slams the door shut. “Fine, old man!” I bellow at him. “I’ll wash the damn dog!”

“You will if you want to come inside!” he bellows back after he cracks the door just long enough to let his words tumble out.

“You want to take a bath?” I ask the beast.

His tongue lolls out and he pants at me, but he doesn’t complain. Of course, that probably just means that he has no idea what I’m talking about. What with him being a dog and all. I scratch my head.

Suddenly, I hear happy screams coming from the lake and the sound of giggles. I follow the noise and come to a dead stop as I step onto the sand.

My heart starts to thump. “Katie?”

The girl turns to look at me over her shoulder. She looks just like Katie did eighteen years ago, with her long, narrow body, flat chest, and her long dark hair. How could that be?

“Mom,” the girl says, looking at a woman who’s sitting on the sand, and she points at me, her eyes wide and wary. “Who’s the strange man who’s calling your name?”

The woman who was sitting on the sand lumbers to her feet. “Katie?” I say again.

“Oh, my God… Jake? Is that really you?” She tugs the Army hat she’s wearing down lower over her forehead, and I have to bend over to look her in the eye.

“Katie?”

Then she’s moving across the sand toward me, and she’s in my arms. Immediately it’s like eighteen years disappears. Poof. Seems just like yesterday when I said goodbye to her and then never saw her again. We were sixteen years old and I thought I would die.

“Are you really here?” she asks, her voice breathy and wild.

“I can’t believe it,” I say. I still can’t catch my breath.

“I can’t either.” She motions toward the teenager who looks so much like her. “This is my daughter, Gabby.”

“God, she looks just like you,” I say. Gabby waves at me, her fingers slender and long, like a piano player. Just like Katie.

“She’s got some of her dad in her too,” Katie says, looking at her daughter, her gaze tender. Two smaller kids run up and Gabby wraps her arms around them like she needs to keep them safe. From me? Not hardly. “This is Alex, and this is Trixie.”

“When did you arrive?” I ask.

“This morning.” She scrubs at her eyes with her fists. “We drove all night.”

“I know the feeling. I had to pick Dad up and drove all night to get him.”

She grins. “Where is the old bear?”

“He’s at the house. Probably sitting there with his shotgun, waiting to blast me if I don’t wash the damn dog. I should have left his ass at the hospital.”

Her brow furrows.

“He said damn,” Alex says. He grins. “He sounds like Dad.”

I look around. “Is your husband here?”

She shakes her head. “No, he’s…not.” Her eyes avoid mine. What’s up with that? “Did you say you picked your dad up at the hospital? Is he all right?”

“He had a small stroke, but he’s going to be fine. You know him. He’s too mean to get sick.”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll have to go see him later.”

“He won’t be in a good mood,” I warn.

She snorts. “When was he ever?” Then she laughs, and it sinks into the center of me. It’s pure and clean and so unlike where I’ve been. It’s genuine. She’s genuine.

She points to my bottle of shampoo. “Are you taking a bath?”

I wince. “More like giving a bath.” I jerk my thumb toward the dog, who is sitting at attention by my hip. “He stinks.”

“He does,” she agrees with a nod of her head. “I smelled you guys coming down the path.”

Her little boy steps closer and holds up a hand as though I’m a teacher with a question and he has the answer.

“Yes, Alex,” she says gently.

“Can I help wash your dog?”

“Hell, you can do it,” I say.

The kid grins. I really should watch my mouth around the kids. I’ve just never been around many of them, at least not since I was one.

“Really?” he says. “Can I, Mom?”

“Does he bite?” she asks me.

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t know?”

“I just got him yesterday. At the pound.” He came with a bunch of paperwork, so I know he has been vaccinated, dewormed, and he was temperament tested. But that’s the extent of my knowledge.

“What’s his name?” Alex asks.

“He doesn’t have one yet.”

Alex takes the leash from me and gives it a tug. The dog sits there like a lump.

“He’s not coming,” Alex says.

“Yeah, he doesn’t do much unless he wants to.”

Trixie walks over to the dog and looks him in the eye. They’re the same height. The dog looks over his shoulder at me as though asking me if this life is the one I intended for him. “Go on,” I say. Then he sticks out that big old tongue and slurps it up the side of Trixie’s face. She giggles, takes his leash, and leads him to the water. Alex holds out his hands and I toss him the bottle of shampoo, which he catches like a football.

I don’t think he’ll bite them. Or at least I hope he doesn’t. The dog walks right into the lake and sits down. Then he waits patiently as the kids pour shampoo all over him and lather him up. He looks at me and I would swear he grins at me.

Katie points at the dog. “Did he just smile?”

I nod and cross my arms over my chest. “I think so.”

“He needs a name.”

“Do you think your kids might give him one?”

She snorts again, and it makes me grin. “Try to stop them.” She gets quiet for a moment. Then she blurts out, “Do you remember the day we met?”

This time, it’s me who snorts. “Yeah, Katie. I remember.”

 

 

Jake

 

The first time I ever saw Katie Higgins, she was standing on the dock with a Coke bottle–the glass kind–pressed to her lips. I watched her throat wobble as she swallowed, and I knew I had to meet her. I had to kiss her. I had to…

Oh, hell. I had to throw up.

That’s what happens when you steal a six-pack from your dad at the age of sixteen. You act stupid, puke your guts out, and thoroughly embarrass yourself. I was about to run for the bushes to heave up my guts when my buddy patted me on the back. “Who’s that?” he asked.

“That’s the squirrel I’m going to marry,” I said.

He laughed. “Squirrel?”

“Girl,” I corrected, but it came out on a belch. “I meant girl.”

“When did she get here?” Fred asked.

“Today, I guess. Cabin 114 got rented for the summer at the last minute.” My parents owned a bunch of cabins on a lake, and we lived in our year-round house next door to it. The people who visited the campground referred to our house as “the big house.”

From the end of May to the end of September, we catered to all sorts of people, from the rich to the poor, from those who slept in tents to those who drove in hundred thousand dollar luxury cars. Money never mattered when you were at the lake. The only thing that mattered was how much fun you could have, and I was having way too much fun.

“You need to throw up, man?” Fred asked.

I bit it back. “No, I’m good.” I shook my head, wishing like hell I hadn’t drunk that last beer. “I’m going to go talk to her.”

“You might want to wait until tomorrow,” he said, his brow furrowing. “You’re not in the best of shape.”

“I’ll be fined,” I said. “Fine,” I corrected. My tongue felt like it was too thick for my mouth.

“If you say so.” Fred took a step back so I could walk past him. He chuckled and shook his head, lifting his beer–wrapped in a coozie so his parents wouldn’t catch him–to his lips. “Have at it, man.”

I walked toward her and began to plan exactly what I’d say. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. No, that was lame. I could invite her for a walk. Or I could offer her a beer. Wait. No. I drank them all. Looking at you makes me feel happy. No, that was stupid. Do you want to take a walk with me? I scratched my head. Did I try that one already? I couldn’t remember.

As I stepped closer to her and her group of friends, I stopped to look up at the stars in the night sky. They winked at me and I did the only thing I knew to do. I winked back.

“Do you have something in your eye?” a voice said.

“What?” I looked down into the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen.

She pointed to my face. “Do you have something in your eye?” she asked again.

“I got my eye on you,” I said.

She giggled. “Have you been drinking?”

I held my finger and thumb an inch apart and stared through the opening. “Just a teeny tiny bit.”

She laughed. “I never would have known.”

“You’re really pretty.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Thank you.” She reached out to touch my arm. “Do you need to sit down?”

The dock started to tilt beneath my feet. She caught my elbow and gave me a push, kind of like the time somebody knocked the mailbox crooked and Pop shoved it with his palm until it stood up straight again.

Only that wasn’t what happened with me. There was no one to tamp the dirt around my shoes to hold me solid and straight. I didn’t stand up straight at all. I went crooked.

And right off the dock. Straight into the ice-cold water. And I took her with me.

 

 

Katie

 

I laugh so hard that I make myself snort, and then I laugh because I snorted, and it makes me laugh some more.

“Oh, my God, I’ve missed the sound of your laugh, Katie,” he says on a heavy sigh.

I’m still laughing so hard I can barely catch my breath. “You went ass-over-elbows into the lake.”

He nods, staring down at the pale white sand. Is he embarrassed? “And I took you with me.” He kicks at a stone with the tip of his shoe, a grin tugging at his lips. “It wasn’t my most shining moment.”

“It sobered you up pretty quick,” I remind him.

He shakes his head. “No, that was my dad staring down at us. That’s a boner killer if there ever was one.”

I drop my voice down so that it’ll sound like that of a man, imitating his father. “‘What the fuck are you doing in the lake, numbnuts?’” The giggles overtake me again. I wipe my eyes. “You called back, ‘I was trying to get in her pants.’”

Jake finally grins too. “And he yelled back, ‘Well, tossing her in the lake isn’t gonna make her want to spread her legs for you, son.’”

“‘That’s okay,’ you hollered back. ‘At least she knows I’m interested!’”

“‘She knows you’re a fucking idiot,’ he muttered and then he went to get the lifeguard hook so he could fish us out.”

I wipe my fingers beneath my eyes. “I had never heard so many f-bombs at one time. I was appalled.”

Jake looks into my eyes. “Then you climbed out behind me and I realized I could see through your shirt.”

Heat creeps up my cheeks. “And I wasn’t wearing a bra.”

“You didn’t need one,” he says. His eyes fall down to my boobs. “You didn’t have those back then.”

“I know, right?” I reply. “I got pregnant for the first time and suddenly there they were.” I shrug my shoulders.

“I liked them just fine back then, too,” he says. Then he grins at me.

“Oh, I remember how much you liked them.” My voice gets gruff and this is suddenly awkward.

“That was a good summer, Katie,” he says softly.

I smile at him. “Yeah, it was.”

“Where did you go after that?”

“I enlisted after I graduated.”

“In the military?

“The Army. Yes.”

“Then you got married and started popping out kids.” He points to the three that are still working on his dog.

“Well, they didn’t just pop out. There was a considerable amount of pushing, if I remember correctly.”

“After three, I’d think they’d just walk out.”

“That would be nice, actually, compared to the real thing.”

He turns to face me. “Let’s talk about your vagina, shall we?”

I laugh again. “Why not? We already talked about my boobs.”

“Well, if I had a rack like that and nobody talked about them, I’d be sad. Just trying to keep up the morale here, Katie. Doing my job as a citizen of this great country.”

“If you start singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at my boobs, I’ll deck you.”

“That was next on my to-do list.” He gets quiet for a second. “Your daughter looks just like you. I thought she was you standing there when I first walked up.”

“She’s natured like her dad, though.” Talking about him makes me smile. “Same drill sergeant personality.”

“Did you meet him in the military?”

I nod. “Yes. Love at first sight.” I take in a deep breath. “There’s no better feeling, is there?”

He says nothing, then he tosses a rock toward the still water of the lake.

I realize that I’ve been talking about myself. “What did you do with yourself, Jake? You said you don’t live in North Carolina anymore?”

“I’m a cop.”

“Wow. Really?”

He glares down his nose at me. “Why are you surprised?”

“Honestly?”

“No, lie to me,” he deadpans. “Of course I want honesty.”

“You were kind of famous for the amount of trouble you could get into.”

He laughs. “I vaguely remember you being right there with me when I got into a bunch of that trouble.”

The crunch of gravel sucks me out of my summer memories. They’re one of my favorite places to go when things go bad, which they have been for a while now. “Jake!” someone bellows.

Jake gets to his feet and shades his eyes with his hands. “That’s Pop,” he says.

The old man drives the red golf cart directly onto the sand. “I need your help with something,” he says to Jake.

“Can it wait a minute?”

“If it could wait a minute, I wouldn’t be coming to get you, would I?” the old man grumbles. He looks around Jake and his eyes fall on me. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Hi, Mr. Jacobson,” I call out.

“You grew tits,” he replies.

I look down at my boobs. “Yes, I did.”

“Good job.”

“I do aim to please.”

“Pop,” Jake complains, “don’t talk about her tits.”

“Why not?” the old man crows. “Those are some impressive tits.”

“He’s got you there,” Jake says, leaning closer to me like he’s whispering.

“Cabin 112 has a leaky roof, Jake,” Jake’s dad says. “I need you to fix it.” He points to a toolbox on the back of the golf cart.

Jake points to the same box. “You think I’m going to fix a roof?”

“I just had a stroke, son. I’m not going to fix it myself.”

Jake sighs.

His dad looks around Jake to talk to me again. “I had a stroke and I still can’t get this boy to do anything.”

“I’ll do it, Pop,” Jake replies. “Can you wait a minute?”

“Why?” Mr. Jacobson barks. “You going to kiss her goodbye, or something? I’ve seen you do that before.” He motions for Jake to continue by rolling his finger. “Get on with it. You have work to do.”

“It was good to see you, Katie,” Jake says, his eyes intently staring into mine.

“You too, Jake,” I say softly. “It has been a long time.”

“Too long.”

Suddenly, Mr. Jacobson barks out, “What time is supper, Katie?”

“What?”

“Supper. What time should I arrive?”

I point to my chest. “You want me to make you supper?”

He scratches his belly. “A man’s got to eat.”

“I haven’t exactly been to the store yet,” I admit.

“No problem,” Mr. Jacobson says. “I’ll bring steaks.”

“Oh…well…okay.”

“You don’t have to, Katie,” Jake rushes to say. “I’ll cook your damn steak, old man.”

Mr. Jacobson grins. “Good. You can do it at Katie’s cabin. We’ll use her grill.” He revs the engine on the gas-powered golf cart. “The day isn’t going to get any longer, boy,” he says to Jake. “We’ll see you at six,” Mr. Jacobson calls out to me.

“See you then,” I call back. Jake hops on the golf cart with Mr. Jacobson and they start to drive away. Then suddenly the cart screeches to a halt, with sand and gravel flying.

“My dog!” Jake yells.

The dog is still covered in soap and my youngest daughter is laughing as she makes a cone of bubbles on the dog’s head. “You can get him later,” I yell back.

“Are you sure?”

I nod. “Positive.” They start to leave again. “Hey, Jake!” I yell.

He turns back and looks at me. I cup my hands around my mouth.

“Bring a salad! And some potatoes! Wrap them in tin foil! And a loaf of bread would be nice!”

Jake looks at me without saying a word for a beat longer than I’d expect. Then they drive away.

Gabby comes to sit next to me on the sand and dusts her hands together. “Was that old man talking about your boobs?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Cool.”

“They’re joining us for supper.”

“Okay.”

“What kind of dog is that?” I ask.

“A big one.”

“No joke.”

“His name is Sally.”

“Did Trixie name him?”

“Yep.”

I grin to myself. “Jake is going to love that name.”

 

 

Jake

 

“If you shake it more than three times, you’re playing with it!” Pop yells at me from the living room.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. I worked on the roof all afternoon, then came back to Pop’s and took a shower. I had to go to the store to get the makings for dinner, and now I’m trying to be sure I look nice. For what, I have no idea.

“I can shake it as many times as I want!” I yell back. I go out of the bathroom and find Pop waiting at the kitchen counter.

“Oh, thank God,” he murmurs. “I was about to throw in some tampons and pads so you could build a life raft and survive your period.”

“I wasn’t in there that long.” I grab a box and go to the fridge and take out all the dishes I prepared earlier. I made a salad, bought some bread and wrapped it in foil, wrapped sweet potatoes, and I have salad dressing, butter, and other condiments for the food. I got some hot dogs and buns, too, since I wasn’t sure if her kids would eat steak. I grab the steaks and put them in the box. “I feel like we’re doing meals on wheels.”

“I took it upon myself to get you a date.” He pats me on the shoulder. “You can thank me later.”

I drop the fork I’m holding and it clatters loudly on the counter. “A date.”

“You would have sat there beside her all afternoon fingering your vagina if I hadn’t intervened.”

“Pop, did you see her?” I hold my hands out in front of my stomach. “She’s out to here. Pregnant.”

“Pregnant, shmegnant,” he grumbles. “Best sex I ever had was when your mom was pregnant. She was hotter than a five-dollar pistol.” He gets a faraway look in his eye. “She would ride–”

“Pop!” I yell, trying to cut him off. “Stop it. I don’t want a play by play!” I stuff my fingers in my ears and scream, “Lalalalalalalalalalalala!”

Pop walks out the door grumbling, leaving me to follow in his wake like I’m on a towrope. I heft the box onto my shoulder and follow Pop to the golf cart.

When we get to cabin 114, Pop slams on the brakes, sending the cart skidding off the path. “What the hell, Pop!”

“Just testing your reflexes.” Pop cackles and I get out of the cart.

I don’t know why I came home. He’s going to make me kill him. Then he’ll be dead and I’ll be in jail. I walk up to the cabin.

The door opens, and Katie’s oldest daughter holds a finger up to her lips. “Mom’s asleep,” she says. She steps to the side so I can look in, and I see Katie on the couch with her hand tucked under her chin. My heart clenches. She must have been really tired.

“Don’t wake her,” I say. I’d hate for her to miss a nap. Aren’t pregnant women supposed to need more sleep?

Katie’s doppelganger steps out onto the porch, closing the door behind her. “What did you bring?” She leans over to look into the box.

“A little bit of everything.”

Suddenly a boom goes off behind me and Pop walks around the corner. His eyebrows are singed and his hair is standing straight up. “I think the grill starter is broken,” he says. “I had to light it the hard way.”

I pinch the space between my eyes, at the bridge of my nose, and count to ten. Then I count to ten again.

“If you want to eat tonight, you better put the potatoes on,” Pop warns. Then he goes to sit on the porch, pulls a newspaper out of his back pocket, and flips it open. “You’re going to starve an old man to death if you don’t get moving.”

“You know what, Pop,” I start to say, pointing my finger at him. But the door opens and Katie comes out. She rubs her eyes and my breath catches.

“Am I late for dinner?” she asks. She smiles at me and all my ire at Pop floats away on the breeze.

“You’re right on time,” I say. Pop rolls his eyes behind her back. I’m going to kill him. “Where’s my dog?” I suddenly realize I haven’t seen him.

“You mean Sally?” She grins at me.

“Sally?” Is she serious?

“Sally,” she says again. “Trixie named him. The rest of the kids agreed. It’s permanent.”

“Until I change it.”

“You won’t change it.” She stares into my eyes. “You asked my daughter to name him and she did. She’s been through a lot. Let her name the damn dog, Jake.” She marches back up the steps of the porch and slams the door.

Well, that went well.

“You’re not getting lucky tonight,” Pop sings out.

“Shut up, old man,” I grumble as I walk past him. He cackles at me and I flip him the bird. “Put the potatoes on, will you?”

He sets the newspaper down and barks at Gabby. “Let me show you how to cook potatoes, girl,” he says. He lumbers to his feet, rambles in the box until he finds the potatoes, and she walks around the corner with him.

I open the front door of the small cabin and peer around the edge of it. Katie is bent over by the stove and I stop to stare at her. From the back, she doesn’t look pregnant. She looks perfectly wide in the hips and round in the rear end. God, I sound like Sandra Bullock describing a football player in The Blind Side. That’s not the case at all. She’s all woman. Then she stands up straight, turns to the side and stretches her back by pressing her belly forward. She’s all pregnant woman. I have to remind myself of that.

Just as quickly as her pregnant belly hit me, so does the smell of baked goods. “What’s that smell?”

“Apple pie,” she says.

“You made apple pie?” My heart flutters like it used to when she kissed me all those years ago. I’m thirty-four years old. It takes more to make a flutter when you’re older. Food is a good way.

“Well, made is a strong word. I just reheated.” She points toward her daughter, who is on the porch with Pop. “I sent Gabby to the store.”

“Is she old enough to drive?”

She smiles. “Just barely.” She takes in a deep breath and rubs the flat of her palm over her belly.

“You okay?” I ask.

She nods. “I’m fine. Baby boy is moving around.” She narrows her eyes at me. “Do you want to feel?”

I point to the basketball-size hump under her shirt. “Feel your belly?”

She takes two steps toward me, takes my hand and places it on the swell of her stomach. “Just wait a second,” she whispers.

I feel her breath as she inhales slowly. Then a tiny flutter bops the palm of my hand.

“Did you feel that?”

“That was the baby?” I ask softly.

She rolls her eyes. “No, I just have gas.” She grins. “Of course it was the baby.” She looks into my eyes, holding my palm against her shirt. “You don’t have any kids, do you, Jake?”

I shake my head and avoid her eyes.

“Have you ever been married?”

“You spoiled me for all other women, Katie.”

She shoves my shoulder and my hand falls from her belly. I want to put it back. “Wait,” I protest, “I was enjoying that.” She turns away from me. “Bring your uterus back. I want to touch it again.”

The front door opens and Gabby walks in. “Mom?” she says warily.

Katie looks up at her and arches her brow.

“Did he just talk about touching your uterus?” she asks her mother.

“Better my uterus than my vagina,” Katie sings out.

“Or your boobs,” Gabby adds, and then she shrugs. She jerks her thumb toward the porch. “Mr. Jacobson wants a deck of cards. He says he’s going to teach me to play blackjack.”

Katie crosses to the TV cabinet and opens it up. All the cabins are equipped with games and cards. She takes out a pack of cards and tosses it to Gabby. “Don’t bet with real money,” she says.

“Pop cheats,” I add.

Gabby clucks her tongue and acts like she’s shooting me with a pistol. “I got this under control,” she says, and she goes back outside.

“Her dad taught her to play blackjack when she was seven,” Katie says. “She’ll beat the pants off your old man.”

I grin. “Good. He deserves it.” I scratch my head. “So, about me touching your uterus again…” I hold my hand out in question. She takes it, lifts her shirt, and lays my hand upon her skin.

We suddenly go from curious and playful to warm and uncomfortable. “Um, this wasn’t what I meant.”

“Hey, Jake?”

“Yeah?” I feel that tiny little flutter under my hand again and a grin tugs at the corners of my lips.

“That day when you fell in the lake, the first day we ever met…”

“Yeah?” I wait.

“You didn’t pull me in with you.”

“Huh?”

“I jumped.”

 

 

Katie

 

I shouldn’t tell him. I know that. I’m playing with fire here, but memories are powerful things.

“You fell in the lake, and you thought you pulled me in, but you didn’t. I jumped in with you because I was afraid you would drown.”

“You’re lying.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

She grins. “Am not.” She goes to the couch and sits down, then pats the space beside her. “You were so cute. And so drunk. You fell right over the side, and I was afraid you wouldn’t come back up, so I jumped in to save you.”

“It was so cold.”

“I know. I thought I would freeze to death.”

I sit beside her on the couch. “I kissed you that night for the very first time.”

Her cheeks color. “I know. I remember. My first kiss ever.”

I jerk my eyes up to meet hers. “You told me you’d kissed lots of boys.”

She shrugs. “I lied.”

“I was just glad I didn’t throw up.”

“Me too.” She bumps me with her shoulder. “That was the best summer ever,” she says quietly.

“Yes. It really was.”

 

 

Jake

 

The first time I ever wanted to kiss Katie Higgins, she was shivering inside a threadbare towel that someone handed her when she climbed up the ladder of the dock. I remember it vividly, because it was the first time I’d ever seen the shadow of a real live nipple on a real live girl. I’d seen nude women in Pop’s magazines, or at least the ones he didn’t hide well enough, but I’d never seen an actual boob before. Or even the shadow of one.

Her breasts were barely there, no bigger than mosquito bites on her chest. But her nipples seemed impossibly awesome. I stared at her chest until Pop smacked me on the back of my head and told me to get her a fucking towel that would actually cover something.

Embarrassment swamped me as I ran to one of the bins that held spare towels and pulled one out. I ran back, careful not to trip over my own two feet this time, and I held it out to her. By the time I got back, she’d crossed her arms over her small, but still perfect, chest and she was shivering. “Thanks,” she murmured as she took the towel from me and tugged it around her shoulders. Her teeth chattered as she pulled it closed in front.

“And there goes the magic,” Pop muttered. He turned to me. “Maybe now you’ll be able to think with the head that’s on your shoulders.”

“Doubt it,” I replied, since I could still see Katie’s nipples in my mind’s eye.

“You had better go home and get changed,” Pop said to Katie. He grumbled under his breath again. She didn’t seem phased by it, though, and she just laughed.

“I can’t go home yet,” she said. “My dad and my uncle said to stay gone for a couple of hours.”

“What the hell are they doing that takes a couple of hours?” Pop asked.

Katie wasn’t repulsed by his language. She just laughed again. “Playing Scrabble, I think. Whatever they were doing included a bottle of wine.”

“Is ‘playing Scrabble’ code for something?” I asked, looking from Pop to Katie and back.

Dad thumped me on the back of the head again. “Don’t ask stupid questions,” he said.

Katie giggled.

“Why don’t you take Katie up to our house and get her something dry to wear?” Pop said. He nodded toward the house. Katie turned around and I realized her skirt was sticking to her legs. And her pink panties were shining through the white fabric.

My dad popped me on the back of my head again. “Find her something dry to wear,” he said. “But you stay out of the room while she’s changing. I’m not ready to be a grandpa.”

Katie laughed out loud.

But then Pop pointed at her. “If you get my boy pregnant, I’ll string you up by your toenails.”

She giggled again. She held out a hand to me, and I slipped mine inside hers.

And that was the first time I ever held hands with Katie Higgins.

Katie followed me into the house, and I saw goose bumps erupt on her arms when she came into the cooler air. I motioned for her to follow me to my room. She followed, her tread light and wary.

I tried not to be too light on my feet, but the thought of having a girl all alone in my room was doing funny things to my guts. I gave Katie a t-shirt and a pair of running shorts, and I pointed toward my bathroom. “I’ll just go in there.”

I stepped into the bathroom and closed the door, leaning all my weight on it. “Holy shit,” I murmured. I looked in the mirror and ran my hands through my hair. Then I gargled with some mouthwash that was strong enough to steal my breath.

Katie knocked on the door. “You can come out now.”

Her sopping-wet clothes were piled up on my floor, and I could see the pink edge of her panties which she’d tucked under her wet t-shirt. Panties she was obviously no longer wearing. The thought of Katie with her bare bottom touching my running shorts did funny things to my insides, and then those funny things shot straight to my dick.

I sat down quickly on the little futon along the wall of my room and shoved a pillow into my lap.

“Are you all right?”

“Fine,” I croaked.

“You’re not going to be sick, are you?” she asked, approaching me, her feet as soft as whispers on the carpet.

“Oh, no, I think I’m over that.”

She crossed her arms. “Then what’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” I muttered.

She nudged my knee with hers so I’d scoot over, so I did, and she gingerly sat down next to me. And my mind went back to the thought of her not wearing panties under my shorts. Shit. I’d never get rid of this boner with her here.

“You want to go back to the dock?” she asked.

“Why don’t you go ahead?” I replied. “I need to do something for Pop.”

She tilted her head at me. “What do you need to do?”

She leaned a little closer to me, and her eyes fell to my lips, then they darted back up to my eyes.

“I…I don’t remember,” I said.

 

 

Jake

 

“You put your tongue in my mouth,” Katie says.

I grin. “No finesse whatsoever. I just stabbed you with my tongue. And then I did it again.” I shrug. “I thought that’s how it went.”

Katie grimaces. “I was pretty awful too.”

“We got better at it with practice,” I remind her.

Her cheeks flush. “We got better at a lot of things.”

The air grows warm around us, and I almost need to reach for the pillow again.

“When is your husband going to be joining you?” I ask, clearing my throat.

Her face clouds. She starts to pick at a fleck of lint on the leg of her maternity pants. “He’s not coming.”

“All summer? At all?”

“No,” she says softly.

Suddenly, my dog runs around the corner, and he’s pulling Katie’s youngest child. She has a crease on her cheek and her face is rosy. She climbs up onto the couch and my dog puts a paw on her leg, like he’s making sure she’s still in place. Katie pulls her daughter into her lap.

“Trixie, this is my old friend, Jake,” she says. Trixie buries her face shyly into Katie’s neck, so I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say anything to her.

Pop bellows from the porch, “Those steaks aren’t going to cook themselves!”

“I better go get that,” I mutter.

“Sally can stay with me?” I hear Katie’s daughter say quietly.

“Of course he can.” Katie brushes her daughter’s hair back from her face, her fingers tender. “You don’t mind, do you, Jake?”

I don’t think I could pry the dog away from the girl if I tried. “No, you can keep him for now,” I say.

I go out onto the porch, and see that Gabby and Pop are using rocks from the driveway as betting chips. Pop has a stack of five. Gabby has a big pile. “She’s kicking your ass, huh?”

He grunts at me.

Gabby smiles. “I’m going to win his hat if he keeps on going.”

“I’d like to see that,” I say.

I get the steaks and put them on the grill. A few minutes later, Pop walks up to me. He’s not wearing a hat. “Something is wrong,” he says quietly.

“What do you mean?” I lay the last steak on the grill.

“With this family,” he says. “Something is wrong.”

“You’re delusional, old man,” I joke, but I suddenly realize how serious he is. He’s not kidding. His gut is telling him something is off.

“Katie jumps at her own shadow. She hasn’t taken that cap off since we got here, and her kids flinch if you look at them wrong. Something is not right.”

“Did she say anything to you?”

“Who?” Pop asks. He pretends to be interested in the steaks.

I nod toward Gabby, who is still sitting on the porch. “The oldest daughter.”

“She just said her dad can’t help them. That’s all.”

“Where is he?”

Pop glares at me. “I have no idea. But you need to find out.”

“Okay,” I say, more to myself than to Pop. “I’ll find out.”

 

 

Katie

 

Alex runs into the house and dashes to his room. He comes back with a football, which was one of the two toys he chose to bring with him. The other one was a stuffed rabbit his dad won for him at the fair when he was four. He sleeps with it, but he would never admit that. Jeff spent about eighty bucks trying to win that bear, with Alex on his shoulders the whole time, cheering him on. He could have gone to a department store and purchased a bear cheaper, but he wanted that one.

“Where are you going?” I call to Alex.

He skids to a stop in the doorway. “To throw my football.”

“Don’t go far,” I say, and then I motion for him to proceed.

He slams the door behind him so hard the windows rattle.

I take the pie out of the oven and set it on the counter to cool. The door opens and Jake walks in. “Do you have any tenderizer?” he asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t have anything,” I reply. I open a cabinet that Gabby filled earlier. “Unless you need baked crackers that look like fish or a juice pouch, you’re shit out of luck.”

He walks over close to me and appraises the juice pouches. Then he shrugs and reaches for one.

“Wait,” I say. I reach into the fridge and get him a cold one instead. He grins at me.

“You always did know the way to my heart, Katie,” he says. He pops the straw through the pouch and sucks it hard.

I snicker. “The last time I tried to find your heart, Jake, I found your dick instead.”

He chortles. “Dick…heart… It’s about the same thing when you’re a sixteen-year-old boy.” His eyes narrow. “You doing all right, Katie?” he asks, his voice soft.

I nod and avoid his eyes, which are skimming all over my face. I turn away and pretend to adjust the juice pouches in the refrigerator. “I’m fine. Happy to be here.”

“What brings you back to the lake?”

“Some much needed rest and relaxation.” I grab a stack of paper plates and get a handful of knives and forks out of the silverware drawer. “Grab those paper towels, will you?”

I turn to walk toward the front door, but Jake grabs my elbow. “Katie,” he says quietly.

I blow out a frustrated breath. “What?” He tugs a little harder on my arm until I stop completely and meet his eyes.

“Pop thinks there’s something wrong with you.” His eyes skitter around my face, and I wish my arms weren’t so full so I could pull the brim of my cap down a little. “Tell me there’s nothing wrong with you, Katie,” he says, his words as soft as a whisper.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” I reply, but even I can hear the warble in my voice.

“Would you tell me if there was?”

“Why would I, Jake?” I toss back. “I haven’t seen you in eighteen years.”

He stares at me. “Because I’m here and I’m asking, Katie.”

“There’s nothing wrong, Jake.”

“Are you certain?”

“Positive.”

He reaches out a tentative hand and lifts the corner of my ball cap. “Where’d you get that shiner?”

I laugh, trying for a whimsical sound. But it sounds more like I’m choking on my own regret. I pull the cap off and toss it onto the table. “Oh, that,” I say. “I ran into a cabinet door.” I set the plates down on the counter and fluff my hair with my fingertips. “It hurt like a mother–”

Jake reaches out and drags his thumb across the fading bruise. “Don’t lie to me, Katie.”

“I’m not lying.”

“Did your husband hit you?” he asks. “Tell me the truth, Katie, and I’ll never ask again. I just want to be sure you’re all right.”

“My husband would never hurt me,” I growl. He would never, ever lay a hand on me. “You’re barking up the wrong tree, Jake.”

“You hit your face on a door. That’s all it was?”

“Yes. I hit my face on a door.” Technically, I’m telling the truth. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to lie to him. “It was stupid.”

Mr. Jacobson bellows through the door. “Jake! Better take the steaks up!”

“I had better get the steaks,” Jake says.

“You should.”

“Katie…”

“Go get the steaks, Jake,” I say sternly, using my mom voice, the one that the kids don’t even try to argue with.

He turns and walks away. And I’m glad he does, because if he’d stayed for one more moment or asked me one more time, I might have told him the truth, and that won’t help anybody.

 

 

Jake

 

She’s lying. I’m certain of it. You know how I know? She didn’t look me in the eye once when she was telling me about how she ran into the cabinet door. With her face.

She didn’t give herself that shiner.

I walk out of the cabin, trying to contain the rage that has suddenly built up within me. I want to punch something, preferably her abusive husband. Despite her vehement opposition to my question, I know someone has hurt her. She flinched when I touched her elbow. She flinched when I moved too fast in the kitchen.

I look over to the steps, where I see my dog lying with his head on Trixie’s lap. She has his paw in her hand and she’s painting his toenails a soft pink color. “I could have sworn that dog had a penis,” I say out loud.

Trixie looks down between the dog’s legs. “He does have a penis,” she says quietly. She nods solemnly at me. She points to the appendage. “He has a penis right there. See?” She stops painting long enough to wait for my response.

I sit down beside her on the step. “Then why are you painting his toenails pink?” I scratch my head.

Her delicate brow furrows. “Boys can like pink too.” Then she grins and swipes the tiny little paint brush down the dog’s toenail again. Sally’s head falls down in Trixie’s lap and he closes his eyes. He’s either decided to give up or he enjoys the attention. I can’t figure out which.

“You got a penis too, right?” she suddenly asks.

“Um…”

Then I hear a snicker from behind me. I turn around and find Alex standing right behind me, tossing his football up in the air and catching it over and over. “You’re not supposed to be asking people about their private parts,” Alex chides.

“Oh,” Trixie breathes out. She visibly deflates and I feel like a schmuck.

“Well, I’m a boy…” I say.

Alex laughs out loud this time. “How old are you again?” Alex asks.

“The same age as your mother,” I tell him. Our birthdays are just days apart. Mine is June tenth and hers is June fifth. I used to tease her unmercifully about her being the older woman.

Trixie sets Sally’s paw down and grins. “You want some pink fingernails?” she asks me.

“I had better not.” I’d never live that down at the precinct.

“Uncle Adam lets me paint his fingernails.” She blinks her pretty blue eyes at me.

“Uncle Adam is gay,” Alex says.

I can still remember the day that I learned that Katie’s uncle and her dad weren’t really an uncle and a dad. I remember when I went home and told my dad about it, he looked at me, grinned, and said, “That’s when I know I’ve raised a good man, when he learns something new and doesn’t judge.” Then he squeezed my shoulder and walked away.

 

 

Jake

 

I walked Katie home that night after our first kiss. I felt like it was my duty. My honor. She twined her fingers with mine and led me to cabin 114. She knocked on the door softly. “Just in case they’re playing Scrabble in the living room,” she whispered.

The door opened and a man poked his head out. His eyes drifted down Katie’s body. “Why are you in someone else’s clothes?” he asked. He opened the door wider and Katie slipped beneath his outstretched arm.

“For what you are about to experience, I apologize,” she murmured at me.

The man narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”

“Dad, this is Jake,” Katie said. The man still hadn’t stepped to the side, so I didn’t know if I should wait or leave or kiss his ass.

“Jake?” he asked. “As in the horny sixteen-year-old Jake that Old Man Jacobson warned us about?” He tipped his head back a little so he could look down his very impressive nose at me.

“I’m not horny, sir,” I said, my gut roiling. I might just toss up that beer after all.

“You do have a penis, don’t you, son?” he asked. He leaned forward like he was looking for mine, which was enough to make my balls all but shrivel up inside me.

“Would you leave the boy alone?” someone called from behind them both. He caught the door and opened it, then stepped up beside Katie’s dad. “He’s trembling in his flip flops, Dan. Let him inside.”

Dan stepped back and motioned for me to proceed. I did so on shaky legs.

“I’m Eric Jacobson. Everyone calls me Jake.” I said. I held out my hand like my dad taught me to do. No cold fish handshakes allowed from a Jacobson. No sirree. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Dan Higgins,” the man said, and he squeezed my hand so hard I wanted to drop to my knees.

“Knock it off!” the other man snarled. Mr. Higgins let me go.

“Jake, this is my dad.” She set her hands on his broad shoulders and peeped at me over his shoulder. Then she jerked her thumb toward the other guy. “And this is my Uncle Adam.”

Adam extended his hand and I found his grip to at least be tolerable.

“So sorry Dan started out by looking for your dick. You can take the boy out of the junior high school, but you can’t take the junior high school out of the boy.” He shoved Dan’s shoulder.

I saw that they had a Scrabble game set up on the table, but they hadn’t even set up any tiles. “Who won?” I asked, nodding toward the game.

Dan smirked until Adam gave him a dirty look. He swiped a hand across his mouth like he was wiping away a grin.

“I totally won,” Dan said on a laugh. Adam’s cheeks turned rosy.

“I love Scrabble,” I said.

Adam snorted. Dan growled at me. “Under no circumstances will you be playing Scrabble with our daughter.”

I looked from one to the other. “Our daughter?” I asked. “Like, both of you?”

“Get the boy a chair before he faints,” Adam called as he walked toward the tiny kitchen. “Anybody want some ice cream?”

“As long as it’s cool and wet, I’ll take it,” Dan called back.

“That’s not what you said earlier,” Adam returned.

Katie laughed into her palm. “I am so sorry,” she murmured to me.

I scratched my head. “I’m so confused.”

Dan walked into the kitchen and stood behind Adam. They touched one another at times, and I suddenly got it.

“He’s not your uncle, is he?”

Katie winced. “No, he is.”

“Then Dan’s not your dad.”

She winced again. “No, he is my dad. It’s sort of complicated.”

“It’s not complicated at all,” Adam said as he started to ladle ice cream into bowls. “Doofus here had some sperm he wanted to give up. And my sister just happened to have some ovaries and a uterus for rent, not to mention an egg or two and some DNA that’s a lot like mine. So she volunteered to give us the eggs and let us lease the uterus. Then she shagged ass.”

“Your mom left?” I asked Katie.

Left isn’t really the right word.” Katie tried to explain. “She visits, and she takes me shopping, and I call her with girly questions. She’s more like a favorite aunt than a mother.”

“We have to enlist her help occasionally.” Adam motioned from him to Dan and back. “We don’t know shit about tampons and stuff, since neither one of us has ever been near a vagina.”

Katie’s cheeks flamed red again.

“You’re gay,” I suddenly blurted out.

“He’s a smart one, isn’t he?” Dan winked.

“Shut it,” Adam barked, pointing a spoon at Dan. “Yes, we are gay. Does that bother you?”

“No sir,” I said, and I sat down on a stool, accepted my bowl of ice cream, and shoveled a spoonful into my mouth.

“Good boy,” Dan said as he patted my head like I was a puppy.

Katie sat down beside me and leaned over to whisper in my ear. “Are you sure you’re okay with it? Some people aren’t.”

I shoveled the last bite of ice cream into my mouth and Dan put a new scoop in my bowl. I ate it to keep from answering.

Katie heaved a sigh. She began to nervously shake her legs, and her knee jumped so hard I was afraid she’d vibrate the stool she was sitting on right out the door. I finished my ice cream while they all chit-chatted about the cold water we fell into, and Katie explained why she was wearing my clothes. Adam and Dan ribbed one another.

“I should go,” I said. “My dad will be worried.” I took my empty bowl to the sink and rinsed it out.

“Damn, Old Mr. Jacobson raised a son with manners,” Dan said.

“You know my dad?”

They both grinned. “He caught us kissing when we were about your age,” said Adam. “We were taking a walk down by the shore. In the moonlight.”

Dan dropped his voice down to a gruff growl. “‘You boys need to get a room,’ he said to us.”

“We quickly found out that he said that to all the straight kids, too.” Adam laughed, then sobered. “I was really sorry to hear about your mom.”

I nodded. I didn’t like to talk about my mother. “Thanks.”

“I’m going to walk Jake to the door,” Katie said.

“You mean you’re going to kiss his face off,” Dan said. He glared at Katie. “No.” He pointed to the door. “Good night, Jake.”

“Good night, sir,” I said.

I walked all the way to the door without looking back. “Thank you for the ice cream,” I said as I slipped outside. Then quickly I poked my head back in again. “Can I come and visit Katie tomorrow?”

The corners of her lips tipped up.

Dan looked at me and shrugged. “That’s up to Katie.”

Katie smiled at me and nodded her head. “I’d like that.”

As I walked away from the cabin, I could hear Adam inside, taunting playfully. “Jake and Katie sittin’ in a tree…”

Then I ran all the way home to tell my dad about Katie’s oddly intriguing family. And he said I made him proud, although I couldn’t figure out why accepting someone’s sexuality was something to be proud of. It was kind of like him being proud of me if I said I liked blue eyes.

“I’m going to see her again tomorrow,” I told my dad.

He went to his room and came back with a small box of condoms. He threw the box at my face, and I caught it, juggling.

“Seriously, Dad?”

“If that girl gets you pregnant, I’m going to be really angry at you.”

“Yes sir,” I said, and I grinned all the way to my room. I took a condom out of the box and pressed it into my wallet. You know, just in case.

 

 

Jake

 

After dinner, Pop announces that I am going to do the dishes, and then he goes back to the little table on the porch and picks up the deck of cards. He motions for Katie’s oldest daughter to join him. She grins, shaking her head as she goes. “I’m going to get his wallet next,” she says.

I sincerely hope she does.

“Can I borrow your phone, Jake?” Katie asks me very quietly as we stack the dishes beside the sink.

“Sure.” I pull it out of my pocket and hold it out to her.

“Thanks.” She takes it and steps into the bedroom, closing the door gently behind her.

I fill the sink with water and bubbles, and wash the few forks and knives that we got dirty, and I clean a few glasses.

The soft sound of Katie’s voice reaches me in quiet lulls, and I think I hear her giggle. I shut off the water and tiptoe toward the bedroom door. I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t. But I can’t help it.

“Yeah, I love you too. I’ll check in with you in a few days. I promise.” My heart jerks in my chest. Despite the size of her very pregnant belly and the three children she has with her, my heart still can’t rationalize the fact that Katie has a husband somewhere. I don’t know what that says about me.

I dash back to the sink when I hear Katie’s footsteps walking toward the door.

She hands my phone back to me and wipes her nose. “Are you all right?” I ask.

“I’m fine,” she says.

“Was that your husband?” I’m nosy. I can’t help it. I’m a cop.

She snorts. “I wish.” She wipes the back of her hand beneath her nose. “That was my dad and Uncle Adam.”

“How are they doing?” I have such fond memories of them from my childhood. Nights when we played Sorry together or rainy afternoons spent shouting over a game of Monopoly are some of my best memories of all time.

“They’re fine. They’re very relieved I’m here.” She looks up at me.

“Why?”

“Why what?” she asks, as she starts to dry the glasses.

“Why are they relieved you’re here?”

“It’s safe here,” she says quietly.

“What does that mean, Katie?”

She shakes her head. “It means I’m really happy to see you, Jake,” she says. “Dad and Uncle Adam said hi.”

I smile. “Next time you talk to them, tell them I said hello, will you? I’d love to see them.”

“I asked them not to come. Not yet.”

“What’s going on with you, Katie?” I rush to ask, because she’s really starting to scare me.

She heaves a sigh. “I just needed a safe place to land, Jake. That’s all.”

“And you picked here?”

She nods. “Yeah. I did.”

Suddenly, she winces and lays a hand on her stomach.

“You okay?” I ask, reaching for her. She brushes my hand away.

“I’m okay,” she says. “Just a hard kick. This one’s going to be another football player.”

“It’s a boy?”

She nods. “It’s another boy. Two and two. The perfect crew.”

“You like being a mom, Katie?”

She laughs. “Well, until one of them pukes or throws a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store, I love it. And I can handle the temper tantrum better than the puke. My husband…” She stops and shakes her head. “My husband always handled the puke. It never bothered him. Since he’s not here, Alex is the official pukemaster.”

“There’s nothing boys like more than gross stuff.”

“His dad told Alex to take care of me before his last deployment. He took it very seriously.”

“He’s military?”

She nods. “He was.”

“Where is he now?”

She throws the drying towel into the sink. “I think I’m going to put the kids to bed early and go to bed myself. The drive wore me out.”

She might as well have told me to scram.

“I’ll get Pop and head home. Thanks for letting us come for dinner. I think it did Pop good.”

“You did all the cooking, and the cleaning, and you brought the food. I can’t think of a better evening.” She smiles at me.

Then her smile slips away. “Stop trying to figure me out, Jake,” she says. “It’s simple. I’m here, in my favorite place in the world. And you’re here too, which makes it extra special. That’s all there is to it.”

“If you say so.”

“I say so.”

Well, then. “I guess we should go.” On impulse, I lean down to kiss her on the cheek. She stiffens for a second, but then she falls against me, her arms sliding around my waist as she presses her cheek against my shoulder. I feel a little tap against my belly. “I think your uterus is kicking me,” I whisper.

She laughs, but it’s a watery sound, and my heart twists. “That would be the baby in my uterus, Jake. Get your anatomy straight.” She steps back from me. “Thank you,” she says. “I didn’t know how much I needed a hug until I got one.” She takes a deep breath.

“I’ll collect Pop.”

We walk out to the porch and find that Pop is now without a shirt, and Gabby has it hanging on the back of her chair.

“Jesus, Pop,” I say. “You’re losing your shirt out here.”

“The kid’s a shark, Jake,” he grumbles.

“Well, Katie wants to go to bed early. We had better get out of here before the shark wins your boxers.”

“That would just be gross,” Gabby mutters.

A little hand tugs on the leg of my jeans. “Can Sally spend the night?” Trixie asks.

“Umm…” I look at Katie. She gives me a subtle nod. “Sure. I guess it’s all right.”

“He can sleep with me.” Trixie looks from me to her mom. Her mom nods.

“I’ll come and get him in the morning,” I tell Katie.

“Sounds good.”

Pop lumbers to his feet and stretches, his pudgy white middle on display.

“Thanks for letting me kick your butt, Mr. Jacobson,” Gabby says, grinning from beneath the brim of Pop’s hat.

“Same time tomorrow,” he says, knocking his knuckles on the table. It’s not even a question. It’s an order.

“Pop,” I start to complain. But he’s already walking toward Katie. He kisses her on the forehead quickly and lingers to whisper close to her ear. She nods, and her eyes tear up. She blinks furiously.

“I’m glad I’m here too. Same time tomorrow.” She squeezes his arm.

I ruffle the dog’s…I mean Sally’s ears, and he sits down beside Trixie like this is where he belongs.

Pop gets in the golf cart and waits to speak until we’re almost home. “I didn’t let that kid win,” he says.

I arch a brow at him.

“She’s a shark, I tell you.”

“Maybe she’ll let you win tomorrow.” I chuckle.

“She had better not,” he grumbles. “That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time.” He claps me on the shoulder. “And I got you another date.”

“Pop, that wasn’t a date.”

“Take it slow, son. It’ll all work out. You’ll see.”

I heave a sigh and go inside. It does no good to argue with Pop.

In my head, I try to piece together all the parts of Katie, but they don’t fit. They don’t form a picture at all. Not one that I can make out, anyway.

 

 

Katie

 

I walk from room to room, checking on my kids. It’s a habit from when they were small. I still stop in each doorway long enough to watch their backs rise and fall, or to see the covers flutter with the motions of their breaths. The regular motions of breathing can ease a troubled mother’s spirit like a balm to the soul.

Alex is in the top bunk in the room he’s sharing with Trixie. He has one leg flung through the slats on the bed, and his toes wiggle in his sleep. I smile and draw the blanket down around his foot.

Trixie is in the bottom bunk, and she’s lying against the wall, with her arm lifted above her head. Stretched out alongside her is Sally. He’s on top of the covers while she’s beneath them, and I stop to be sure they’re both all right. Sally lifts his head and looks at me, blinking his big brown eyes. Then he heaves a sigh and relaxes. It’s amusing and stupefying the way he has taken up with Trixie. She needed a protector. She needed someone to have her back. And it looks like this great big goofy dog has her back, her side, and he might even have her trust.

I walk into the living room to find Gabby pulling out the couch bed. “You don’t have to do that, honey,” I say. “Go to bed.”

“I’m going to sleep out here.” She starts to make up the tiny bed. “You take the bedroom.”

This worries me more than anything. Gabby has become my protector, after all that has happened. It should be me taking care of her. But it’s not. It’s the reverse.

“Seriously, Gabby. Go to bed.” I point toward the bedroom and put on my mom face.

Gabby rolls her eyes. “Not happening, Mom,” she says quietly. “You’re eight months pregnant. You’re taking the bed.”

“Gab…” I don’t even know what to say to her anymore. I don’t know how to talk to my own daughter.

She sits down on the foam mattress and crosses her legs, then shoves the pillow down into the hole between her knees, resting her elbows on it as she looks at me. “So…” she says with a grin. “You and Jake, huh?”

A grin tugs at my own lips, even though I try to hold it back. “Me and Jake what?”

She smiles even bigger. “So you and Jake were totally a thing, weren’t you?”

“A thing?” I fluff the extra pillows and sit down next to her, leaning against the back of the couch with my legs in front of me. I lay my hand on my belly, because it makes me feel centered. “Define thing.”

“He was your boyfriend before you met Dad.”

I nod slowly and suddenly it’s hard to swallow past the lump in my throat.

“Oh, Mom,” Gabby chides softly. “Don’t cry.”

I point to my stomach. “I’m really pregnant, Gabs. I can’t help it.” I wipe my eyes and try to get myself together.

“Tell me about Jake,” she says, and she turns to lay her head in the little bit of lap I have left. My fingers immediately find their way into her hair. “Was he your first love?”

Warmth settles in my heart, replacing where pain was a second ago. “Yeah, he was.”

“How old were you?” She yawns.

“It was the summer I turned sixteen.” Memories wash through me, making the hair on my arms stand on end. “It was magical.”

She snorts and turns away from me, and I run my fingers through the back of her long dark hair. She makes a soft, happy noise, and I realize this is the most calm I have felt in quite some time.

“Was he your first kiss?” she whispers. Then she giggles.

“Yeah, Gabs. He was.” And he was my first grope, my first second base, my first boyfriend. My first loss.

“What happened between the two of you? Too much distance?”

“No,” I reply. “I met your dad when I joined the Army.” And that love…that love eclipsed everything else.

“But before that,” she prompts. “What happened with you and Jake?”

I shrug more to myself than to her. “I had to go home. He stayed here. That was all of it. We wrote letters for a little while, and then we stopped. I don’t remember why.”

“You were meant to meet Dad,” she says. Her voice gets soft and breathy, and more of her weight settles against my leg.

“Yes, I was.” That is one hundred percent true. I was meant to meet Jeff. I was meant to have three beautiful children with him. What came later…that was a tragedy.

After a long while I slide out from beneath Gabby’s sleeping form and pull the covers over her, staring down at her long enough to watch her chest rise and fall twice. That’s enough. Twice.

 

 

Jake

 

My paddle slices through the water with a dull slush, the soft whisper of the boat moving across the lake breaking the silence of the morning. The sun is barely over the horizon, but I shoved the canoe off anyway. I didn’t have much of a choice. Pop woke me up early and asked me to go and fix the mooring cleat on the floating dock that’s in the middle of the lake. I get out there, though, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Knowing Pop, he’ll probably tell me that there was a lesson in this little excursion.

The lesson is: Don’t even try to sleep late when Pop’s in the house. He will always find a way to get you up.

It is beautiful out here, though. The sun is coming up over the trees, casting shades of purple and grey on the calm lake which looks slick as glass. I have missed the calm mornings and gentle breezes. In the city, it’s all hustle and bustle of epic proportions. People rush to and fro, horns honk, and people shout, even in the early morning. Here the only shout is the fishing crane as it flies by. Or the duck that happily dunks its head over and over, bobbing like a cork, causing tiny ripples that fan out around it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone standing on the end of the dock. I shade my eyes with my hand, and realize it’s a young boy. Katie’s son, Alex? He has something in his hand and he hauls his arm back and throws it toward the center of the lake. Then he turns and runs back down the dock, back toward their cabin.

Well, that was strange.

I paddle over, just because I’m a nosy bastard, and I see an empty soda bottle floating on the water. I pull it toward me with the tip of my oar, then toss it into the bottom of the boat. I’ll have to give the kid a talk about throwing trash into the lake.

I kick the bottle with my foot, slightly annoyed that the kid just tossed it in like that. It’s like ruining all the perfection, displacing some of the magic of the lake, when you get it dirty.

But then I see a slash of white within the bottle. I pick it up and turn it over, and see the piece of paper within the empty container. I screw off the cap and pull the paper from the bottle.

 

Dear God,

Please send my dad back so he can help us.

Love,

Alex

 

Well, shit.

The sense of peace I’d enjoyed a minute ago is now gone.

 

Katie

 

“Eat your eggs,” I say to Trixie. Getting her to eat anything healthy is like pulling teeth, and pretty much just as painful. She likes peanut butter and jelly and not much else.

“I don’t like eggs.” She props her elbow on the table and rests the side of her face against the flat of her palm. While she blinks down at the food she doesn’t want, Sally slobbers a big puddle of drool right beside her chair. He licks his lips.

“Alex, do you want milk or juice? Gabby?”

“Milk,” says Alex around a mouthful of bacon.

Gabby slaps him gently on the arm. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” She pours out some milk for Alex. “Juice for me, please.”

I turn away to get some juice and turn back to find that Trixie’s plate is now completely empty. “I do like eggs after all,” she chirps. She holds out her palm, and Sally gives her his paw like he’s giving her a high five.

“That dog has to go back to Jake today,” I mutter.

“Why can’t Sally stay?” Trixie asks.

“Because he’s Jake’s dog.” I sound like a whiny brat myself. I was up all night with an unborn kid sitting on my bladder.

“But he likes me,” she says as she feeds him a bite of egg off my plate. I actually got the dog some dog food when I got up early this morning and went to the store, but the dog won’t touch it. And why should he when–

A loud knock sounds on the door. Gabby jumps up quick as a flash and gathers the children and the dog, and they go into the bedroom.

My heart thunders in my chest. “Who is it?” I call through the door.

“It’s Jake,” he calls back.

I let out the breath I was holding and force myself to relax. Then I open the door and step to the side so Jake can come in as Gabby brings the kids back into the kitchen. She’s carrying Trixie, who suddenly won’t look up from where her head is pressed beneath Gabby’s chin.

I wish my kids weren’t so fearful. Hell, I wish I wasn’t so fearful.

“Is everything okay?” Jake asks, looking closely at my kids.

“Yes. We’re fine. What’s up?”

Jake fidgets. “I wanted to talk to you really quickly.”

“Okay…” I say slowly. “About anything in particular?”

He jams his hands into his pockets. “Can you take a walk with me?”

I turn off the burners on the stove. “Can you watch the kids for a minute?” I ask Gabby. She waves a hand at me, dismissing me totally. Teenagers.

“What do you need, Jake?” I ask, as I step carefully down the porch steps. He turns and takes my hand as I waddle. “Is your dad all right?”

“He’s as mean as ever.”

Jakes fingers linger in mine well after I’m down the steps, and my heart trips a quick little beat.

 

 

Katie

 

I can remember very well the second time I ever held hands with Jake Jacobson. He kissed me that night when we fell into the lake, but it was an awful kiss. It was all tongue and slobber and it really wasn’t anything I wanted to remember. I certainly wouldn’t be writing about it in my journal.

We were at a camp cookout. Mr. Jacobson held them every Saturday night. He said it was an excuse to burn a hamburger, but really it was his attempt to bring all the people in the area together. The magic of being at the lake wasn’t in the solitude. It was in the community. It was in finding other kids your age, or getting to meet interesting adults, or the missionaries that came on Sundays to deliver the church messages. The magic was in the community.

So every Saturday night, Mr. Jacobson would cook burgers on the grill and everyone else would bring a dish to share. My dad and Uncle Adam brought key lime pie that Uncle Adam made from scratch. It was so much better than the icebox pies that my dad bought. But you had to eat it quickly or it would melt. For that reason, we left it in our tiny freezer until it was time to eat dessert.

Dad sent me back to the cabin to get it while he finished his burger. “Run and get the pie,” he said. “I think everyone is almost done.” He looked around. Uncle Adam was across the table from him, because when we were out in a crowd like this, they were my dad and my Uncle Adam, and not my two dads. It’s how it was back then. They had to be much more careful to conceal their love for one another than they are now.

I ran back to the cabin and got the pie from the freezer, only stopping briefly to let the cold air cool my face. When I ran back to the picnic area, I stopped short. Jake was sitting with my dad and Uncle Adam. He looked back over his shoulder at me and smiled. “Hey,” he said.

My belly did that fluttery thing that always happened when I was nervous. Times one hundred. Uncle Adam got up and moved to the other side of the picnic table, leaving a place next to Jake. “Hi,” I said to him. I set the pie on the table and sat down next to him.

Dad dished out some pie and passed the rest of it down the table to the others waiting. “So, you were busy today, huh, Jake?” Uncle Adam asked.

“Yes, sir,” Jake replied gruffly. “Pop had me cleaning the bath house. With a toothbrush.”

Dad snickered. Uncle Adam elbowed him in the side. He jerked a thumb toward Dad. “He’s laughing because he had to do that very same thing once or twice when he was young.” He grinned. “I vaguely remember someone borrowing Old Man Jacobson’s canoe and flipping it over. His tackle box sank to the bottom of the lake.”

“Old Man Jacobson turned ten shades of red, and then he went to my mom and told her what I did. She shoved me toward him and told him to do his worst. Five days of cleaning toilets and floors with a toothbrush. I never borrowed anything else. Ever.” Dad smiled about it though. “I learned my lesson,” he said. He leaned toward Jake like they were sharing secrets. “So, what did you do?” he whispered dramatically, wrapping his hands around his mouth.

Jake murmured out of the corner of his mouth, “I’d rather not say, sir.”

Uncle Adam laughed. “It wouldn’t happen to involve a six-pack of beer and a fall from the dock, would it?”

Jake’s cheeks turned pink and his gaze shot all over the place.

“Ha!” Dad cried. “I told you!” He held out a hand and Uncle Adam slapped a five dollar bill in it. “Thank you very much,” he crowed as he shoved the bill into his back pocket.

“That doesn’t sound very fair,” I protested.

“No, I deserve it,” Jake said.

Dad and Uncle Adam’s eyes met and I saw something pass between them. It was either an “I like this kid” kind of look or an “I’m not sure how to feel about this kid” kind of look. I couldn’t tell which. And that part made me nervous.

“When do you get off restriction?” Dad asked.

“I’m free now.” Jake smiled as he ate the last of his pie. “I was wondering if I might be able to take Katie for a walk with me?”

Dad looked up at the setting sun. “In the dark?” He pointed toward the waning sun. “Absolutely not.”

“Dan,” Uncle Adam chided, “it’s not even dark yet.”

“Fine,” Dad conceded. “Have her home by dark.” He pointed a finger at Jake and I saw him wither. “I mean it.”

“Yes, sir,” he said. He got up and held a hand out to me. “Take a walk with me, Katie?” He waited, holding his breath. I slipped my hand into his, and he gave it a squeeze, and that’s how I ended up holding hands with Jake Jacobson for the second time. And it was amazing.

He didn’t try to kiss me that night, but holding hands was better. My heart was all a-skitter, bouncing all over the place as we walked on the shoreline hand in hand.

 

 

Jake

 

My gut is all a-whirl trying to figure out how to talk to Katie. I’m a cop, for Christ’s sake. I’ve interrogated men of all sorts. I should be able to talk to a woman. But for some reason, I’m skittish as a newborn colt when it comes to her.

“I saw Alex early this morning,” I suddenly blurt out.

“Alex?” she asks, her brow furrowing. “Where?”

“Pop sent me out in the old canoe to fix the floating dock, and I was out there, on the water, when I saw Alex on the dock.”

She points with emphasis to the ground under our feet. “This morning?”

“Yes.” I stare at her. “You didn’t tell him he could go?”

She shakes her head. “No. I went to the store for food and left Gabby in charge. The little ones were still sleeping.”

“He tossed this into the lake.” I hold out the note to her. “It was inside a plastic bottle.”

“Oh,” she breathes out. She sinks down on the bottom step. “I didn’t know he was still doing this.”

I sit down next to her. “You know what it is?”

She scrubs a hand down her face. “It’s probably a plea to God to bring Jeff home.” Her gaze finds mine. “Am I right?”

“Yes.”

“I thought he was done with that.”

“What’s that all about?” I ask. I watch her face. You can tell a lot about people by watching their faces.

But with Katie, it’s like someone has drawn the shutters. You can’t see in the windows. You can’t get a hint of what’s going on inside.

“The last time his dad left for a deployment, he told Alex that he could write a note, fold it into a paper airplane, and send it over the back fence. That way whatever he wanted to say to his father would get to him.” She heaves a sigh. “He’s still doing it, apparently.”

I stay quiet. For some reason, I don’t think my words are needed here.

“I used to go and collect the notes every day, and then I would take pictures of them and send them to Jeff by email. Then the next time he got to talk to the kids, he would mention them, so Alex would know that his thoughts and ramblings actually made it to his dad.”

“So, are you going to take a picture of this one?”

She groans. “What good would that do me? Or Alex for that matter?” She lumbers to her feet, pressing her belly forward. “Thanks for letting me know he’s doing it here. I wasn’t aware.”

“He asked for help, Katie.”

“I know that, Jake.” She stares into my eyes. And her blue ones are full of something I can’t quite pinpoint.

“What can I do to help you, Katie?” I ask, my heart in my throat.

“We don’t need for you to take care of us, Jake,” she says on a heavy breath. “I just need to be here. I need to stay here and not feel like someone is trying to jerk my soul out of me every time I take a breath.” She presses her fist against her chest. “I just need to breathe, Jake. That’s all I need. If you can’t let me breathe, then get the fuck off me and stay the hell away. I’m not leaving. Please don’t make me miserable.”

Then she stomps up the steps.

I sit there, absolutely stunned. And hurt. And angry.

My gut wants me to follow her, to find out what’s really going on. But my head…my head is telling me to take it slow, to let it unravel. My heart… That bastard is telling me that this is exactly how I messed everything up back home.

“Get a dog,” I mutter to myself. Because that worked out for me.

“Get yourself together, Jake,” I mutter again.

Jake!” a voice yells from inside the cabin. The door flies open and Katie’s kids run out.

One of them screams. I step inside to find Katie standing on the center couch cushion. She has a frying pan clutched in her hand.

“What the hell?” I say. There’s no one in here but her. “What are we trying to kill?”

She points with a frantically shaking finger to the edge of the kitchen counter. “That! Get that. That.”

I look over and find a tiny little mouse nibbling on the corner of a piece of cheese. “That?”

“Yes! That!” she shrieks.

“I can get it!” Alex yells through the door.

“No!” Katie yells back. “Stay outside.”

“It’s just a mouse,” I say. I walk toward it, and take a bowl off the counter very slowly.

“It’s a rodent!” Katie shrieks, making my ears ring.

“It’s just a tiny little mouse. All he wants is a piece of cheese.”

“Get it out of here, Jake!” she screams.

“Okay, okay,” I say calmly. I slowly lower the bowl on top of the unsuspecting mouse until I have it safe within the tiny dome. The mouse doesn’t seem to care. He nibbles his piece of cheese.

“Now what are you going to do with it?” she asks. She steps warily down from the couch cushion.

Hell, I have no idea. “I’m going to…take it outside.”

Katie has a wide envelope lying on the counter. I pick it up and slide it under the edge of the bowl, slowly inching beneath the tiny little beast until I have him carefully trapped.

“He’s actually kind of cute,” I tell her.

She leans close to me, and the scent of her shampoo tickles my nose. She used to smell like Love’s Baby Soft. Now she smells like Love’s Baby Soft and comfort. She’s really, really pregnant, I have to remind myself. Because being this close is like shooting a lightning bolt straight to my middle. And lower. And that’s just wrong. Katie’s not available. Not by a long shot.

“He’s cuter now that he’s in the bowl,” she says, calmer now. She’s still leaning against me though, with her hand on my arm. “Thank you, Jake.”

“You’re welcome.” I have this irresistible urge to lean down and kiss her. “I really want to kiss you right now,” I whisper.

She looks up at me for half a second. “I really want to be kissed,” she whispers back. Then she takes her hand off my arm and rubs a tiny circle over her belly. “But I’m not quite ready for anything like that.”

“Can I kiss your forehead?” I ask, a grin tugging at my lips.

Her brow furrows. “You want to kiss my forehead?”

“Yeah, I do.” I hold out the bowl and envelope to one side. “I did catch the beast with the gnarly fangs that was out to do you great harm. Your kids too. I saved the day.” I shrug. “I think I earned it.”

She leans close and pulls her dark bangs back from her forehead. I bend down and press my lips firmly to her soft skin, lingering a bit longer than I should, but I can’t help it. It’s Katie.

“I won’t ask questions, Katie. I promise. If I don’t ask questions, can I still come and see you?”

Her eyes jerk up to mine. “Yes. I’d be mad if you didn’t.”

“Okay.” I kiss her forehead again. “I’ll stop asking questions you don’t want to answer.”

“Okay.” She breathes out and visibly relaxes. “Thank you for catching the gnarly beast who was bent on death and destruction.”

“I’m going to take it outside.”

“Don’t let it eat my kids.”

I chuckle. “I promise.”

“Do you want some eggs?” she asks. Then we look over and realize that the whole time we’ve been talking, Sally has been eating every bite from every plate, including every last egg on the serving platter. “Well, I can make some more.”

Sally gets down from where his big body was leaning across the table. Katie laughs. It’s the great big belly laugh that I remember from when we were kids. When Katie laughed, the world stopped to listen.

“He’s really a good dog,” she says, shaking her head. “I guess he just likes eggs.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I admit. I’ve seen him for all of what seems like five minutes since I got him.

“He slept in the bed with Trixie last night.”

“That’s nice of her, to share her bed.”

“She slept all night. No nightmares or crying. It’s been a long time since she’s done that.” Then she remembers I’m still holding the mouse. “You want to get that thing out of my house, Jake?” She nods toward the bowl.

“Yep.”

I go and take the mouse outside. Her kids help me by finding the perfect spot to set it free, but I don’t tell Katie that. Let her think her hero vanquished the monster. Then Katie makes more eggs, and I join them for the loudest, goofiest breakfast known to mankind.

But in the mania, there’s a sort of peace, too.

 

 

Katie

 

Jake, Mr. Jacobson, the kids and I settle into a sort of rhythm during the next two weeks. They show up for dinner, bringing all the food with them, and they cook it on our grill. Then Jake and I wash dishes after dinner and talk about nothing and everything while Gabby beats Mr. Jacobson at cards. Trixie puts bows in Sally’s fur, paints his nails, or brushes him until he gleams while all this is going on. Alex is the only one who’s left out.

He’s still throwing bottles into the lake with notes to God in them. Jake brings them to me. He doesn’t say anything. He just passes them over and I take them. They all say the same thing. They’re beseeching God to send his dad back because he thinks we’re in trouble.

And we are. The longer we’re here, the more I feel it. He’s going to come. He’s going to wreck the peace I’ve built here.

“Hey, Jake,” I ask as I dry the last glass after dinner.

“Hey, Katie,” he replies with a smile.

“Do you have Wi-Fi at the big house?”

He nods. “Sure do.”

“Do you think I could come and use it?” I have it on my phone, but of course I didn’t bring that with me.

“Sure,” he says. He stares hard at me. “Everything okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” I respond, shrugging off his concern with a breezy wave. Over the past two weeks, Jake has stopped looking at me like I’m a puzzle he has to figure out. He’s become my friend again. A friend who occasionally places lingering kisses on my forehead, or sits on the couch next to me with his hand on my belly, trying to get the baby to bop his palm. “I just want to do some Web searching.”

“You can go now, if you want,” he says, nodding his head toward the big house. “I’ll stay here with the kids.”

“Oh, Gabby can watch them.”

“Gabby is currently winning every last dollar in Pop’s wallet.”

“I’m going to make her give it all back. I promise.”

“Are you kidding?” he says on a laugh. “This is the most fun Pop has had in a long time. Don’t you dare make her give it back.”

I shake my head. “She can’t just keep it. It’s not right.”

“It’s right. She deserves it. She should get a babysitting fee just for keeping the old man entertained. Since she’s started playing cards with him, I haven’t had to go to the bingo hall and get him out of bingo jail even once.”

“Bingo jail?”

“It’s where they put old men who get grab-ass-y. Bingo jail. I’ve had to bail Pop out more than once.”

“He always was a pistol.” I place the last dish in the cabinet. “Are you sure you don’t mind if I go to use the Wi-Fi?”

“Positive,” he says. “Go ahead. The door is open and the password is on the back of the modem on the kitchen counter.”

“Thanks, Jake.” Impulsively, I step onto my tiptoes, put my hand on his shoulder, and kiss him on the cheek.

He leans in to kiss me on the cheek too, but accidentally grazes the corner of my mouth. My heart begins to beat double time. “You should go,” he whispers, his cheek lingering close to mine.

“I should go,” I say. But I don’t. I stand there next to him, breathing the same air as Jake, enjoying the moment.

Suddenly, the door opens and we spring apart. “Hey, Jake,” Alex says, tossing the football up in the air and catching it. “Want to toss the football around?”

“Hell yeah,” Jake says, and he dries his hands on a towel. Then he opens his arms and Alex tosses him the ball. “Go ahead, Katie,” he tells me. “Take the golf cart.”

“Thanks, Jake.” I get my computer from the bedroom and take Mr. Jacobson’s golf cart to their house.

It’s a big house set on a hill, with a fantastic view of the water. I set up the Wi-Fi and open my computer, then check my email.

There are hundreds of emails, mostly from him. The one person I don’t want to talk to is the only one who seems to want to communicate with me. The emails go from pleading and sweet to venom and loathing. They’re threatening, then apologetic, then loaded with curse words and swearing. He swears he will find me. He swears he will love me. He swears he will never stop looking. He swears he will be a better person. He swears he will change. He swears he will get help.

I believed that one. Once. I believed he could.

Then, the very last email, which was sent four days ago, opens up in my inbox.

 

Dearest Katie,

If you don’t come home, I will find you and kill you.

With utmost affection,

Me

 

I drop my head into my hands. Then I forward all the emails, every last one, to the agent back home who is assigned to my case.

The baby kicks, and I suddenly have to pee.

I leave the computer open, because I still haven’t done the Web searches I wanted to do. I wanted to check the newspapers back home and see if there’s anything I need to be aware of. There’s always the tiny chance that he has done something stupid and he’s in prison again. That would be a blessing. But the agent assigned to my case would have gotten a message to me by now if that had happened.

I wander down the hallway, trying to remember the way to the bathroom. I open the first door I come to and stop when I realize it’s Jake’s room. It hasn’t changed. His baseball trophies still line the shelf and he has pictures stuck to the corners of his dresser mirror. I step closer and see one of him and Fred when they were young. Fred came here every summer, from what Jake told me. They were pretty close, partners in crime. They got into more trouble than two people should be allowed to get into. The picture of Jeff with his bright red hair makes me smile. We had a lot of good times together, the three of us.

But what makes me stop, heave in a breath, and clutch my heart, is the picture in the frame on the edge of his bedside table. It’s grown-up Jake. And a woman. He has his arm around her and she’s glowing. So is he. She has golden hair that hangs past her shoulders, and her face is radiant in the sunshine. She’s also very, very pregnant.

“I was supposed to be a dad,” a voice says from behind me.

I startle, and Jake walks up behind me.

“What happened?” I ask.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” he says, his voice heavy and full of emotion. He swallows hard.

“What does that mean?”

“You first, Katie,” he says. He jerks a thumb toward the kitchen. “I saw your computer.”

“What right do you have to snoop through my computer!”

“I have every right,” he says. I open my mouth to ream him a new one, but he holds up a finger and shushes me. “I have loved you since I was a kid, Katie.” He lays a hand upon his chest. “I still love you.”

My breath hitches. He has no idea how much I needed to hear that.

“Who’s stalking you, why, and why the hell is he telling you he’s going to kill you when he finds you?”

I blow out a breath. “Jake…”

“Katie…”

I point at the picture. “Tell me about her.”

“She was my wife. And she’s not anymore.”

“And?” I roll my finger to make him keep talking.

“And nothing. That’s all there is to it.”

“Liar. There’s more.” I narrow my eyes and stare at him. “She’s why you’re here. She’s why you’re not working. Tell me everything, Jake.”

He glares at me. “You first.”

 

Preorder your copy of Feels like Summertime, which will release on 4/2/16:

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Second preview of Feels like Summertime

Young casual couple isolated on white

 

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If you missed part 1, you can find it here:  https://tammyfalkner.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/feels-like-summertime/

Part 2:

Katie

 

I shouldn’t tell him. I know that. I’m playing with fire here, but memories are powerful things.

“You fell in the lake, and you thought you pulled me in, but you didn’t. I jumped in with you because I was afraid you would drown.”

“You’re lying.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

She grins. “Am not.” She goes to the couch and sits down, then pats the space beside her. “You were so cute. And so drunk. You fell right over the side, and I was afraid you wouldn’t come back up, so I jumped in to save you.”

“It was so cold.”

“I know. I thought I would freeze to death.”

I sit beside her on the couch. “I kissed you that night for the very first time.”

Her cheeks color. “I know. I remember. My first kiss ever.”

I jerk my eyes up to meet hers. “You told me you’d kissed lots of boys.”

She shrugs. “I lied.”

“I was just glad I didn’t throw up.”

“Me too.” She bumps me with her shoulder. “That was the best summer ever,” she says quietly.

“Yes. It really was.”

 

 

Jake

 

The first time I ever kissed Katie Higgins, she was shivering inside a threadbare towel that someone handed her when she climbed up the ladder of the dock. I remember it vividly, because it was the first time I’d ever seen the shadow of a real live nipple on a real live girl. I’d seen nude women in Pop’s magazines, or at least the ones he didn’t hide well enough, but I’d never seen an actual boob before. Or even the shadow of one.

Her breasts were barely there, no bigger than mosquito bites on her chest. But her nipples seemed impossibly awesome. I stared at her chest until Pop smacked me on the back of my head and told me to get her a fucking towel that would actually cover something.

Embarrassment swamped me as I ran to one of the bins that held spare towels and pulled one out. I ran back, careful not to trip over my own two feet this time, and I held it out to her. By the time I got back, she’d crossed her arms over her small, but still perfect, chest and she was shivering. “Thanks,” she murmured as she took the towel from me and tugged it around her shoulders. Her teeth chattered as she pulled it closed in front.

“And there goes the magic,” Pop muttered. He turned to me. “Maybe now you’ll be able to think with the head that’s on your shoulders.”

“Doubt it,” I replied, since I could still see Katie’s nipples in my mind’s eye.

“You had better go home and get changed,” Pop said to Katie. He grumbled under his breath again. She didn’t seem phased by it, though, and she just laughed.

“I can’t go home yet,” she said. “My dad and my uncle said to stay gone for a couple of hours.”

“What the hell are they doing that takes a couple of hours?” Pop asked.

Katie wasn’t repulsed by his language. She just laughed again. “Playing Scrabble, I think. Whatever they were doing included a bottle of wine.”

“Is ‘playing Scrabble’ code for something?” I asked, looking from Pop to Katie and back.

Dad thumped me on the back of the head again. “Don’t ask stupid questions,” he said.

Katie sniggered.

“Why don’t you take Katie up to our house and get her something dry to wear?” Pop said. He nodded toward the house. Katie turned around and I realized her skirt was sticking to her legs. And her pink panties were shining through the white fabric.

My dad popped me on the back of my head again. “Find her something dry to wear,” he said. “But you stay out of the room while she’s changing. I’m not ready to be a grandpa.”

Katie laughed out loud.

But then Pop pointed at her. “If you get my boy pregnant, I’ll string you up by your toenails.”

She sniggered again. She held out a hand to me, and I slipped mine inside hers.

And that was the first time I ever held hands with Katie Higgins.

Katie followed me into the house, and I saw goose bumps erupt on her arms when she came into the cooler air. I motioned for her to follow me to my room. She followed, her tread light and wary.

I tried not to be too light on my feet, but the thought of having a girl all alone in my room was doing funny things to my guts. I gave Katie a t-shirt and a pair of running shorts, and I pointed toward my bathroom. “I’ll just go in there.”

I stepped into the bathroom and closed the door, leaning all my weight on it. “Holy shit,” I murmured. I looked in the mirror and ran my hands through my hair. Then I gargled with some mouthwash that was strong enough to steal my breath.

Katie knocked on the door. “You can come out now.”

Her sopping-wet clothes were piled up on my floor, and I could see the pink edge of her panties which she’d tucked under her wet t-shirt. Panties she was obviously no longer wearing. The thought of Katie with her bare bottom touching my running shorts did funny things to my insides, and then those funny things shot straight to my dick.

I sat down quickly on the little futon along the wall of my room and shoved a pillow into my lap.

“Are you all right?”

“Fine,” I croaked.

“You’re not going to be sick, are you?” she asked, approaching me, her feet as soft as whispers on the carpet.

“Oh, no, I think I’m over that.”

She crossed her arms. “Then what’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” I muttered.

She nudged my knee with hers so I’d scoot over, so I did, and she gingerly sat down next to me. And my mind went back to the thought of her not wearing panties under my shorts. Shit. I’d never get rid of this boner with her here.

“You want to go back to the dock?” she asked.

“Why don’t you go ahead?” I replied. “I need to do something for Pop.”

She tilted her head at me. “What do you need to do?”

She leaned a little closer to me, and her eyes fell to my lips, then they darted back up to my eyes.

“I…I don’t remember,” I said.

 

 

Jake

 

“You put your tongue in my mouth,” Katie says.

I grin. “No finesse whatsoever. I just stabbed you with my tongue. And then I did it again.” I shrug. “I thought that’s how it went.”

Katie grimaces. “I was pretty awful too.”

“We got better at it with practice,” I remind her.

Her cheeks flush. “We got better at a lot of things.”

The air grows warm around us, and I almost need to reach for the pillow again.

“When is your husband going to be joining you?” I ask, clearing my throat.

Her face clouds. She starts to pick at a fleck of lint on the leg of her maternity pants. “He’s not coming.”

“All summer? At all?”

“No,” she says softly.

Suddenly, my dog runs around the corner, and he’s pulling Katie’s youngest child. She has a crease on her cheek and her face is rosy. She climbs up onto the couch and my dog puts a paw on her leg, like he’s making sure she’s still in place. Katie pulls her daughter into her lap.

“Trixie, this is my old friend, Jake,” she says. Trixie buries her face shyly into Katie’s neck, so I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say anything to her.

Pop bellows from the porch, “Those steaks aren’t going to cook themselves!”

“I better go get that,” I mutter.

“Sally can stay with me?” I hear Katie’s daughter say quietly.

“Of course he can.” Katie brushes her daughter’s hair back from her face, her fingers tender. “You don’t mind, do you, Jake?”

I don’t think I could pry the dog away from the girl if I tried. “No, you can keep him for now,” I say.

I go out onto the porch, and see that Gabby and Pop are using rocks from the driveway as betting chips. Pop has a stack of five. Gabby has a big pile. “She’s kicking your ass, huh?”

He grunts at me.

Gabby smiles. “I’m going to win his hat if he keeps on going.”

“I’d like to see that,” I say.

I get the steaks and put them on the grill. A few minutes later, Pop walks up to me. He’s not wearing a hat. “Something is wrong,” he says quietly.

“What do you mean?” I lay the last steak on the grill.

“With this family,” he says. “Something is wrong.”

“You’re delusional, old man,” I joke, but I suddenly realize how serious he is. He’s not kidding. His gut is telling him something is off.

“Katie jumps at her own shadow. She hasn’t taken that cap off since we got here, and her kids flinch if you look at them wrong. Something is not right.”

“Did she say anything to you?”

“Who?” Pop asks. He pretends to be interested in the steaks.

I nod toward Gabby, who is still sitting on the porch. “The oldest daughter.”

“She just said her dad can’t help them. That’s all.”

“Where is he?”

Pop glares at me. “I have no idea. But you need to find out.”

“Okay,” I say, more to myself than to Pop. “I’ll find out.”

 

 

Katie

 

Alex runs into the house and dashes to his room. He comes back with a football, which was one of the two toys he chose to bring with him. The other one was a stuffed rabbit his dad won for him at the fair when he was four. He sleeps with it, but he would never admit that. Jeff spent about eighty bucks trying to win that bear, with Alex on his shoulders the whole time, cheering him on. He could have gone to a department store and purchased a bear cheaper, but he wanted that one.

“Where are you going?” I call to Alex.

He skids to a stop in the doorway. “To throw my football.”

“Don’t go far,” I say, and then I motion for him to proceed.

He slams the door behind him so hard the windows rattle.

I take the pie out of the oven and set it on the counter to cool. The door opens and Jake walks in. “Do you have any tenderizer?” he asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t have anything,” I reply. I open a cabinet that Gabby filled earlier. “Unless you need baked crackers that look like fish or a juice pouch, you’re shit out of luck.”

He walks over close to me and appraises the juice pouches. Then he shrugs and reaches for one.

“Wait,” I say. I reach into the fridge and get him a cold one instead. He grins at me.

“You always did know the way to my heart, Katie,” he says. He pops the straw through the pouch and sucks it hard.

I snicker. “The last time I tried to find your heart, Jake, I found your dick instead.”

He chortles. “Dick…heart… It’s about the same thing when you’re a sixteen-year-old boy.” His eyes narrow. “You doing all right, Katie?” he asks, his voice soft.

I nod and avoid his eyes, which are skimming all over my face. I turn away and pretend to adjust the juice pouches in the refrigerator. “I’m fine. Happy to be here.”

“What brings you back to the lake?”

“Some much needed rest and relaxation.” I grab a stack of paper plates and get a handful of knives and forks out of the silverware drawer. “Grab those paper towels, will you?”

I turn to walk toward the front door, but Jake grabs my elbow. “Katie,” he says quietly.

I blow out a frustrated breath. “What?” He tugs a little harder on my arm until I stop completely and meet his eyes.

“Pop thinks there’s something wrong with you.” His eyes skitter around my face, and I wish my arms weren’t so full so I could pull the brim of my cap down a little. “Tell me there’s nothing wrong with you, Katie,” he says, his words as soft as a whisper.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” I reply, but even I can hear the warble in my voice.

“Would you tell me if there was?”

“Why would I, Jake?” I toss back. “I haven’t seen you in eighteen years.”

He stares at me. “Because I’m here and I’m asking, Katie.”

“There’s nothing wrong, Jake.”

“Are you certain?”

“Positive.”

He reaches out a tentative hand and lifts the corner of my ball cap. “Where’d you get that shiner?”

I laugh, trying for a whimsical sound. But it sounds more like I’m choking on my own regret. I pull the cap off and toss it onto the table. “Oh, that,” I say. “I ran into a cabinet door.” I set the plates down on the counter and fluff my hair with my fingertips. “It hurt like a mother–”

Jake reaches out and drags his thumb across the fading bruise. “Don’t lie to me, Katie.”

“I’m not lying.”

“Did your husband hit you?” he asks. “Tell me the truth, Katie, and I’ll never ask again. I just want to be sure you’re all right.”

“My husband would never hurt me,” I growl. He would never, ever lay a hand on me. “You’re barking up the wrong tree, Jake.”

“You hit your face on a door. That’s all it was?”

“Yes. I hit my face on a door.” Technically, I’m telling the truth. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to lie to him. “It was stupid.”

Mr. Jacobson bellows through the door. “Jake! Better take the steaks up!”

“I had better get the steaks,” Jake says.

“You should.”

“Katie…”

“Go get the steaks, Jake,” I say sternly, using my mom voice, the one that the kids don’t even try to argue with.

He turns and walks away. And I’m glad he does, because if he’d stayed for one more moment or asked me one more time, I might have told him the truth, and that won’t help anybody.

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Feels like Summertime

Young casual couple isolated on white

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Jake:

Katie Higgins was the first girl I ever loved. We spent one summer together at Lake Fisher when we were sixteen and then I never saw her again. My life is shit, my job is gone, and my dad had a stroke, so I find myself back at Lake Fisher once again. And so does Katie. Her last name isn’t Higgins anymore, because Katie is married with three kids and one more on the way, but when she shows up at Lake Fisher with her kids, danger trails her all the way there. I could do a lot of things. I could leave and go home. I could stay and deal with it. But what I want most of all is just to take care of Katie. If I concentrate on her, maybe I won’t have to face my own problems. Yeah, that’s it. Fix Katie.

Katie:

I haven’t seen Jake in eighteen years, but the moment I lay eyes on him, I feel safer than I have in a very long time. Memories swamp me every time I look out over the clear, cool water. A first kiss. A first boyfriend. A first love. That old spark is still there. I just can’t act on it, and neither can Jake. Our story started eighteen years ago, and then we both made lives with other people. Jake is willing to tell me about his, but I can’t share mine with him. Ever. We can be friends and spend another summer together, right? Sure, we can.

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Jake

 

Get a dog, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

They. Lied.

I had no idea that getting a dog would be like adopting a child. They wanted my blood type—you know, in case the dog ever needs one of my organs—and they wanted to know how much money I make a year.

Ha-ha. I fooled them. I don’t make any money. Not anymore. Not since my life went to shit.

My new dog sits in the passenger seat with his snout out the window, his tongue lolling so hard that it occasionally smacks him in the jaw when I take a turn. Why don’t I put the window up, you ask. Well, that would mean I’d have to smell the beast. I’m not one to judge, because I’ve met some unsavory characters before, and a few of them had odors I never ever want to encounter again. Not to mention that my own smell offends me on occasion when I leave the gym… But this dog, he takes the prize for most foul smell ever. It’s like sweaty ass. Sweaty ass that has been stuffed in a gym bag for days and forgotten. Then crapped on. That’s what this dog smells like.

I pull up to the police station and grab the leash, holding tightly. When I left the pound with this thing, he pulled me all the way to the car, not stopping. He sensed freedom, and I was the portal. Or at least my truck was. He hopped up in the seat, I cracked the window, and he’s been riding happily for the past twenty minutes.

But now, now he’s not happy that I want him to get out of the truck. I tug on his leash and he looks at me, hunkering down a little in the seat like a surfer might hug his board.

Then the corner of his lip lifts.

Oh, no, you hateful bastard. You will not growl at me. I lift my lip too, and I stare at him. His eyes hold mine, not breaking away. We go on like this for about two minutes, and then he stops, shakes his head, and finally gets his big ass out of the truck. He lumbers onto the pavement, stopping to stretch his great big body.

This thing is like a horse. They called it a Great Dane mix at the pound, but if it’s a mix of anything, it’s mixed with bear. Or bull. Or elephant. Because this sucker is huge. He stands at the same height as my hip, and I’m a big guy, topping out at six foot four.

I tug on his leash and say, “Come on, killer. I need to get my job back.”

We walk into the police station and the rookie behind the counter lifts the neck of her shirt to cover her nose. “What the heck is that?” she asks through the material.

I don’t answer her. Anyone with half a brain can see that it’s a dog.

“Is the chief around?” I ask her.

She shakes her head, which is not an easy feat while she holds her shirt to her face. “He just left. You might be able to catch him at his car if you hurry. Like right now.”

I lean against the wall and pretend to scratch at a stain on my shirt. “You mean like right now? This second?”

My new dog gets up, spins around, and the smell of him fills the whole front of the station. The rookie gags a little and points to the door. “Hurry, or he’ll be gone.”

I click my tongue at my new dog and he trots out the door behind me. I see the chief by his squad car, talking on his cell phone. He puts it away and stares at me through the shiny lenses of his sunglasses. “What the hell is that?” he asks, eyeing my dog.

“That, my friend, is my therapy. Get a dog, you said. So, I got a dog.” I show him off like he’s a prize on The Price is Right. “So can I get off suspension now?”

“No.” He opens his car door.

“Why not? I got a dog just like you said.”

“Three months, Jake. Three months. Not a day sooner.” He gets in his car and pulls out of his spot without even looking at me. But when he gets ready to pull away, he puts his window down. “Take that stupid thing home and give it a bath. It smells like shit.”

I look down at the dog. “It’s not that bad,” I grumble.

“It’s terrible. Go clean him up. Then learn to at least look like you like him. That’s the first step.”

“I like him,” I insist.

“Sure you do,” he says, and he finally grins and shakes his head. “Get your head on straight, Jake. Then come back. We need you, but we need you at your best.” Over the tops of his lenses he gives me one of those fatherly looks he’s famous for. Then he pulls out of the parking area.

I stare down at my new dog, who has sprawled himself out across the sidewalk and is licking where his balls probably used to be. “I’d do that too, if I could reach mine, dude,” I tell him.

He yawns and stares up at me. Then he sneezes and slings snot across my shoe. With a dog this big, that’s a lot of snot. I’m not looking forward to when he takes a dump.

My phone rings in my pocket and I pull it out, hoping deep inside that the chief is calling me to tell me he rethought his position on my return to work, that since I got a dog, he knows I’m rehabilitated. That he wants me back at work. That they need me fiercely and the department can’t continue to prosper without me.

“Hello,” I say, when I see that it’s an unknown number.

“Hi, can I speak with Mr. Jacobson, please?”

“Speaking.”

“Mr. Jacobson, I’m very sorry to have to call you with this information, but it’s about your father.”

“What has the old bastard done now?” I ask. He’s probably chasing one too many women around the bingo hall. Or he’s finally managed to catch one of them. Usually, they just slap him and he moves on to the next one.

“Your father has had a stroke, Mr. Jacobson. I’m very sorry.”

My gut twists and the pulse in my right eye starts to pound. “Is he dead?” I ask. My father might be a mean old codger, but I don’t want him to die.

“Oh, no,” she rushes to say. “He’ll need therapy, but he’s alive. Right now he’s complaining about the lunch special. And he just threatened to stick a fork in my eye if I didn’t find some chocolate pudding.”

The clench around my heart eases a little. “What do you need from me?”

“Well,” she stops to clear her throat, “here’s the thing. Your father’s insurance won’t cover in-home care, and he doesn’t want to go to a nursing facility.”

I hear grumbling from the other end of the phone and the nurse grunts. “Jake,” I hear. It’s my dad, and his voice is gruff with sleep. In my head, I imagine him lying there attached to monitors with tubes sticking out of him.

“Pop,” I reply. “What’s up?”

“The sky,” he says, deadpan.

“That’s good,” I reply, and I smile. “Better than if it fell down.”

Dad is silent for a moment. Dad is never silent. He always has something to say, and it’s usually not anything nice. “What’s up with you?” he finally asks.

I look down at the beast lying at my feet. “I got a dog.”

“One of those yappy little things?”

“Oh, no.” I tilt my head. The dog’s tongue is lying beside him on the sidewalk where he’s panting. “Definitely not yappy. Or little.”

“Well, bring him with you when you come, will you?” He gets quiet again.

“You…want me to come there?”

“Well, who else is going to come and spring me? This is like jail, son. They won’t let me go home unless I have someone to stay with me.” He clears his throat and I can tell he doesn’t like asking. “It’s not like I need you to wipe my ass or anything. I just need you to pick me up. Stay for a few weeks.”

“Okay, Pop. I’ll pick you up. I’m on my way.”

“How long?” he asks, and I think I hear him sniffle.

Pop’s in North Carolina and I’m in New York. “I can be there tomorrow.” If I drive all night.

“I’ll see you then.” There’s a shuffling of the phone and I can hear him talking to the nurse. “He’s on the way. Now get my chocolate pudding.”

“Put down the fork, Mr. Jacobson,” she scolds. She should be glad he’s not grabbing her ass, because that’s what he usually does. The line goes dead as the call is ended.

I look down at my dog. “Want to go on a road trip?” I ask him. His tail starts to thump against the concrete, but he doesn’t lift his head. “Let’s go, dog.”

He lumbers to his feet, stretches, and then takes his spot in the front seat of my truck. I wonder if I could run him through the car wash…

Probably not.

 

 

Katie

 

My eyes are blurry when I finally get to the campground. Well, it’s not really a campground. It’s a bunch of cabins in a park near a lake. My family came here the summer I turned sixteen. It looks smaller than it did when I was a child, and a little more run-down, but to be honest, I’d take just about anything over where I’ve been.

My daughter, my copilot, is in the passenger seat. She’s the same age I was the year my dads and I came here, and I want to share this place with her more than any of the other kids.

“This is it?” she says, looking around at the thimble-sized cabins.

“Yes, this is it.” This is the best place on earth, little girl, and hopefully the safest place.

“You have to be kidding me.”

It’s a good thing God makes children cute, or parents would eat their young. “Will you sit with the kids while I get the keys?”

“Duh,” she says with all the ego of a sixteen-year-old ingrate. Normally, she would have her face stuffed in her cell phone but I didn’t let her bring it with her. I didn’t bring mine, either.

I walk to the camp office, where there’s a metal box with a combination lock on it. That’s where the instructions said I would find the keys. I pull a piece of paper from my pocket where I’ve written the lock numbers and I dial them in. The box opens and I see a set of keys. They’re small copper keys and I pick them up. The key ring has a naked centerfold on it. That’s just like Mr. Jacobson. He’ll never change.

I remember Mr. Jacobson as a surly middle-aged man. He was never very nice, but he was interesting. You wanted to ask him things just so he would bark at you and threaten to beat you over the head with a boat oar, because when you turned your back, he’d be halfway grinning and there was a chance you could catch it if you looked at just the right time.

I wonder where he is now.

I see my children getting out of the car and I lay a hand on my pregnant belly. I’m eight months along, and every move I make causes a counter move from the newbie, as Gabby likes to call him. Gabby is my oldest, and she tends to get stuck with the children when I’m busy. Then there’s Alex. He’s nine. The youngest is Trixie, who is seven. We thought we were done after Alex. Then Trixie surprised us all, who got the nickname when Alex couldn’t say Tracy. Then life went to shit, and now I’m here, trying to escape it all.

The baby that’s still at residence in my belly gives a little kick. “I know, baby,” I say to him, “you’re not shit. Life is shit. Our circumstances are shit. But you, baby boy, you are loved. My coming back here proves it.” I heave a sigh and start toward my children, who are tumbling out of the car like jack-in-the-boxes. The two youngest live like they’re on coiled springs all the time. Gabby grabs Trixie’s hand as she slips it into hers and Gabby smiles down at her. Trixie is the quiet one, the one who has been most affected by my poor decisions.

“Can we go swimming?” Alex asks.

I look down at my watch. It’s seven in the morning. “We need to unpack first. Then we can go swimming.”

He jumps up and down, pumping his fists. Trixie leans her head into Gabby’s thigh and smiles her soft smile, the one that always makes my heart melt.

I pop the trunk and we start unloading the car. We brought baskets of clothes, but not much more. We were in a bit of a hurry. We brought what was in the washer and dryer, and the kids were able to grab two toys each. Nothing more. “Did you guys bring swimsuits?” I ask.

They all look at Gabby. “Yes!” she cries. “I got swimsuits. One for each of them!” She makes grabby fingers and starts to chase the little ones around. They squeal and run in circles, yelling while she growls and chases them.

We stand outside looking at the tiny cabin where I used to spend every summer. I asked for cabin number 114, and they said it was available. It looks just the same, but smaller. Or I’m bigger. I’m not sure which.

“Let’s go inside, shall we?” I say, forcing a smile to my face.

Gabby grabs baskets of clothes and passes them to the smaller kids, and Trixie’s basket immediately tips and dumps onto the ground. Her eyes well up with tears.

“No one here is going to get mad at you, Trix,” I tell her. Then I dump my basket, too. I grin. “Oops! Look what I did!”

My kids have had enough anger to last a lifetime. I don’t want them to have one more minute. Gabby dumps the basket she’s holding too, and Trixie finally starts to giggle. We sing a song as we clean it all up, and I stick the key in the lock of the cabin, giving it a gentle turn. The door creaks and dust falls down around us like snowflakes in beams of sunlight as we step inside.

“Wow, this is a pit,” Gabby complains.

“It’s not a pit. It’s charming.” It has the same country-blue curtains it had when I was a girl, only now they’re a little worn by time. And dust. I cough and push open a window. “Let’s get these open and air the place out a little,” I say. The kids and I go around opening windows, letting in the summer lake breeze. It’s the middle of May, and the campground probably hasn’t been used yet this year. In fact, I was surprised that they let me have a cabin at this time of the year. “We can clean it up. No worries.”

The tiny cabin has two bedrooms and a pullout couch. Calling them bedrooms is actually a stretch. They’re more like glorified closets with beds in them. Gabby will have her own room, and I’ll take the couch. And the two younger kids will share, since there are bunk beds in that room. “Let’s get some beds made up, and then we can go swimming.”

The kids and I go around putting sheets and blankets on all the beds, and we dust as much as we can, but it feels like every time we move, more dust falls out of the sky on us.

Finally, I flop onto the sofa. I need a nap. I drove all night.

The light patter of butterfly wings on my temple gets my attention. I open my eyes to find Alex staring down at me, his face touching mine, his eyes so close that his long dark lashes are sweeping my skin. “Can we go swimming now?” he asks.

I nod and hold out a hand so he can heave me to my feet. He pulls me up like a champ, and then they all run off to put on swimsuits. They come back moments later. “You’re not going to swim, Mom?” Gabby asks. But her eyes hold a world full of knowledge, more than she should have ever had to deal with.

“Not today,” I say.

She nods like she understands, but what she doesn’t understand is why my bad choices got us here, how I could have been so weak. How I messed it up so bad. “Let’s go, little kids,” she cries, barking like a drill sergeant. She got that from her dad. She also says “up and at ’em” and “get a move on, knuckleheads” just like her dad. The little ones line up behind her like ducklings, and then she starts to march. They follow her, walking with their knees lifting up high, their backs straight.

It’s a short walk to the beach area, down a wide path where those with bigger cabins drive golf carts down to the water. We don’t need anything like that, not while we have feet capable of walking, my dads would say.

There’s a cool breeze coming off the lake, but the air is warm and the sun is shining. I have a feeling that the kids are going to stick one toe in the water and decide it’s too cold for swimming, but they might surprise me.

We spread our towels on the sand and I sit down, crossing my legs in front of me. The sun feels good on my legs, so I pull my hat off in hopes of feeling it on my face.

Gabby rushes forward, pushes my hat back down on my head and adjusts it. “Right,” I mutter. I almost forgot. “Thank you.”

“I’m going to take them wading,” Gabby says. Lately she looks at me like I’m going to break, and I hate it. She shouldn’t have to deal with all she’s faced the past year. My biggest fear is that she won’t trust me anymore.

But to be honest, I don’t trust myself either.

 

 

Jake

 

In the truck, Pop grumbles about the dog, about the air conditioning, and about the way I drive. “Are you trying to freeze me to death?” he asks as he turns a vent away from him.

I flip the air off and lower the window. The dog comes forward in the backseat and puts his face beside mine so he can get closer to the window. His breath smells like a decaying body, so I open the back window, and he sticks his whole upper body out, and his big ears slap him in the face.

Before he left, they gave Pop a handful of prescriptions, so he sat in the truck with the dog while I had them filled. He’s been in a better mood. Maybe circa 1970. If he wasn’t grumbling about something, he wouldn’t be Pop. But today…today, he’s working hard to annoy me.

We pull up to the house and I cut the engine of my truck. I look over at Pop. “Can you get out by yourself?”

“I can manage,” he says. He ended up with no lasting effects from the stroke, except for some occasional one-sided weakness. They sent him home with a cane. It was a bad idea, because Pop will just try to hit people with it, I’d wager. “What are you going to do with that dog?”

I look back at the beast. “I have no idea.”

“You can’t bring it in the house until it has a bath,” he says on a heavy sigh. “Get some shampoo out of the bathroom and take him down to the lake.”

“You want me to get in that cold-ass water?” I jerk my thumb toward the lake. “What if he doesn’t like water?”

“He’s a dog. Who cares what he likes?” He shoots me a glare and I know I’m not going to win this one.

“I’ll give him a bath.”

“Now.”

“Yes, Pop. Now.”

“Right now.”

“Are you going to be a bundle of sunshine the whole time I’m here?” I ask as I get out and take the dog’s leash, letting him out the back door. He sticks close to my leg, glaring at Pop.

“Depends. How long are you staying?”

“As long as you need me to stay.”

“I’ll stick my bundle of sunshine straight up your ass,” he mutters. And he goes to the house and lets himself inside.

I look down at the dog and wonder how the heck I’m supposed to wash this thing. It’s bigger than me.

Dad comes back to the door and throws out a bottle of shampoo and a towel. Then he slams the door shut. “Fine, old man!” I bellow at him. “I’ll wash the damn dog!”

“You will if you want to come inside!” he bellows back after he cracks the door just long enough to let his words tumble out.

“You want to take a bath?” I ask the beast.

His tongue lolls out and he pants at me, but he doesn’t complain. Of course, that probably just means that he has no idea what I’m talking about. What with him being a dog and all. I scratch my head.

Suddenly, I hear happy screams coming from the lake and the sound of giggles. I follow the noise and come to a dead stop as I step onto the sand.

My heart starts to thump. “Katie?”

The girl turns to look at me over her shoulder. She looks just like Katie did eighteen years ago, with her long, narrow body, flat chest, and her long dark hair. How could that be?

“Mom,” the girl says, looking at a woman who’s sitting on the sand, and she points at me, her eyes wide and wary. “Who’s the strange man who’s calling your name?”

The woman who was sitting on the sand lumbers to her feet. “Katie?” I say again.

“Oh, my God… Jake? Is that really you?” She tugs the Army hat she’s wearing down lower over her forehead, and I have to bend over to look her in the eye.

“Katie?”

Then she’s moving across the sand toward me, and she’s in my arms. Immediately it’s like eighteen years disappears. Poof. Seems just like yesterday when I said goodbye to her and then never saw her again. We were sixteen years old and I thought I would die.

“Are you really here?” she asks, her voice breathy and wild.

“I can’t believe it,” I say. I still can’t catch my breath.

“I can’t either.” She motions toward the teenager who looks so much like her. “This is my daughter, Gabby.”

“God, she looks just like you,” I say. Gabby waves at me, her fingers slender and long, like a piano player. Just like Katie.

“She’s got some of her dad in her too,” Katie says, looking at her daughter, her gaze tender. Two smaller kids run up and Gabby wraps her arms around them like she needs to keep them safe. From me? Not hardly. “This is Alex, and this is Trixie.”

“When did you arrive?” I ask.

“This morning.” She scrubs at her eyes with her fists. “We drove all night.”

“I know the feeling. I had to pick Dad up and drove all night to get him.”

She grins. “Where is the old bear?”

“He’s at the house. Probably sitting there with his shotgun, waiting to blast me if I don’t wash the damn dog. I should have left his ass at the hospital.”

Her brow furrows.

“He said damn,” Alex says. He grins. “He sounds like Dad.”

I look around. “Is your husband here?”

She shakes her head. “No, he’s…not.” Her eyes avoid mine. What’s up with that? “Did you say you picked your dad up at the hospital? Is he all right?”

“He had a small stroke, but he’s going to be fine. You know him. He’s too mean to get sick.”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll have to go see him later.”

“He won’t be in a good mood,” I warn.

She snorts. “When was he ever?” Then she laughs, and it sinks into the center of me. It’s pure and clean and so unlike where I’ve been. It’s genuine. She’s genuine.

She points to my bottle of shampoo. “Are you taking a bath?”

I wince. “More like giving a bath.” I jerk my thumb toward the dog, who is sitting at attention by my hip. “He stinks.”

“He does,” she agrees with a nod of her head. “I smelled you guys coming down the path.”

Her little boy steps closer and holds up a hand as though I’m a teacher with a question and he has the answer.

“Yes, Alex,” she says gently.

“Can I help wash your dog?”

“Hell, you can do it,” I say.

The kid grins. I really should watch my mouth around the kids. I’ve just never been around many of them, at least not since I was one.

“Really?” he says. “Can I, Mom?”

“Does he bite?” she asks me.

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t know?”

“I just got him yesterday. At the pound.”

“What’s his name?” Alex asks.

“He doesn’t have one yet.”

Alex takes the leash from me and gives it a tug. The dog sits there like a lump.

“He’s not coming,” Alex says.

“Yeah, he doesn’t do much unless he wants to.”

Trixie walks over to the dog and looks him in the eye. They’re the same height. The dog looks over his shoulder at me as though asking me if this life is the one I intended for him. “Go on,” I say. Then he sticks out that big old tongue and slurps it up the side of Trixie’s face. She giggles, takes his leash, and leads him to the water. Alex holds out his hands and I toss him the bottle of shampoo, which he catches like a football.

I don’t think he’ll bite them. Or at least I hope he doesn’t. The dog walks right into the lake and sits down. Then he waits patiently as the kids pour shampoo all over him and lather him up. He looks at me and I would swear he grins at me.

Katie points at the dog. “Did he just smile?”

I nod and cross my arms over my chest. “I think so.”

“He needs a name.”

“Do you think your kids might give him one?”

She snorts again, and it makes me grin. “Try to stop them.” She gets quiet for a moment. Then she blurts out, “Do you remember the day we met?”

This time, it’s me who snorts. “Yeah, Katie. I remember.”

 

 

Jake

 

The first time I ever saw Katie Higgins, she was standing on the dock with a Coke bottle–the glass kind–pressed to her lips. I watched her throat wobble as she swallowed, and I knew I had to meet her. I had to kiss her. I had to…

Oh, hell. I had to throw up.

That’s what happens when you steal a six-pack from your dad at the age of sixteen. You act stupid, puke your guts out, and thoroughly embarrass yourself. I was about to run for the bushes to heave up my guts when my buddy patted me on the back. “Who’s that?” he asked.

“That’s the squirrel I’m going to marry,” I said.

He laughed. “Squirrel?”

“Girl,” I corrected, but it came out on a belch. “I meant girl.”

“When did she get here?” Fred asked.

“Today, I guess. Cabin 114 got rented for the summer at the last minute.” My parents owned a bunch of cabins on a lake, and we lived in our year-round house next door to it. From the end of May to the end of September, we catered to all sorts of people, from the rich to the poor, from those who slept in tents to those who drove in hundred thousand dollar luxury cars. Money never mattered when you were at the lake. The only thing that mattered was how much fun you could have, and I was having way too much fun.

“You need to throw up, man?” Fred asked.

I bit it back. “No, I’m good.” I shook my head, wishing like hell I hadn’t drunk that last beer. “I’m going to go talk to her.”

“You might want to wait until tomorrow,” he said, his brow furrowing. “You’re not in the best of shape.”

“I’ll be fined,” I said. “Fine,” I corrected. My tongue felt like it was too thick for my mouth.

“If you say so.” Fred took a step back so I could walk past him. He chuckled and shook his head, lifting his beer–wrapped in a coozie so his parents wouldn’t catch him–to his lips. “Have at it, man.”

I walked toward her and began to plan exactly what I’d say. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. No, that was lame. I could invite her for a walk. Or I could offer her a beer. Wait. No. I drank them all. Looking at you makes me feel happy. No, that was stupid. Do you want to take a walk with me? I scratched my head. Did I try that one already? I couldn’t remember.

As I stepped closer to her and her group of friends, I stopped to look up at the stars in the night sky. They winked at me and I did the only thing I knew to do. I winked back.

“Do you have something in your eye?” a voice said.

“What?” I looked down into the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen.

She pointed to my face. “Do you have something in your eye?” she asked again.

“I got my eye on you,” I said.

She giggled. “Have you been drinking?”

I held my finger and thumb an inch apart and stared through the opening. “Just a teeny tiny bit.”

She laughed. “I never would have known.”

“You’re really pretty.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Thank you.” She reached out to touch my arm. “Do you need to sit down?”

The dock started to tilt beneath my feet. She caught my elbow and gave me a push, kind of like the time somebody knocked the mailbox crooked and Pop shoved it with his palm until it stood up straight again.

Only that wasn’t what happened with me. There was no one to tamp the dirt around my shoes to hold me solid and straight. I didn’t stand up straight at all. I went crooked.

And right off the dock. Straight into the ice-cold water. And I took her with me.

 

 

Katie

 

I laugh so hard that I make myself snort, and then I laugh because I snorted, and it makes me laugh some more.

“Oh, my God, I’ve missed the sound of your laugh, Katie,” he says on a heavy sigh.

I’m still laughing so hard I can barely catch my breath. “You went ass-over-elbows into the lake.”

He nods, staring down at the pale white sand. Is he embarrassed? “And I took you with me.” He kicks at a stone with the tip of his shoe, a grin tugging at his lips. “It wasn’t my most shining moment.”

“It sobered you up pretty quick,” I remind him.

He shakes his head. “No, that was my dad staring down at us. That’s a boner killer if there ever was one.”

I drop my voice down so that it’ll sound like that of a man, imitating his father. “‘What the fuck are you doing in the lake, numbnuts?’” The giggles overtake me again. I wipe my eyes. “You called back, ‘I was trying to get in her pants.’”

Jake finally grins too. “And he yelled back, ‘Well, tossing her in the lake isn’t gonna make her want to spread her legs for you, son.’”

“‘That’s okay,’ you hollered back. ‘At least she knows I’m interested!’”

“‘She knows you’re a fucking idiot,’ he muttered and then he went to get the lifeguard hook so he could fish us out.”

I wipe my fingers beneath my eyes. “I had never heard so many f-bombs at one time. I was appalled.”

Jake looks into my eyes. “Then you climbed out behind me and I realized I could see through your shirt.”

Heat creeps up my cheeks. “And I wasn’t wearing a bra.”

“You didn’t need one,” he says. His eyes fall down to my boobs. “You didn’t have those back then.”

“I know, right?” I reply. “I got pregnant for the first time and suddenly there they were.” I shrug my shoulders.

“I liked them just fine back then, too,” he says. Then he grins at me.

“Oh, I remember how much you liked them.” My voice gets gruff and this is suddenly awkward.

“That was a good summer, Katie,” he says softly.

I smile at him. “Yeah, it was.”

“Where did you go after that?”

“I enlisted after I graduated.”

“In the military?

“The Army. Yes.”

“Then you got married and started popping out kids.” He points to the three that are still working on his dog.

“Well, they didn’t just pop out. There was a considerable amount of pushing, if I remember correctly.”

“After three, I’d think they’d just walk out.”

“That would be nice, actually, compared to the real thing.”

He turns to face me. “Let’s talk about your vagina, shall we?”

I laugh again. “Why not? We already talked about my boobs.”

“Well, if I had a rack like that and nobody talked about them, I’d be sad. Just trying to keep up the morale here, Katie. Doing my job as a citizen of this great country.”

“If you start singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at my boobs, I’ll deck you.”

“That was next on my to-do list.” He gets quiet for a second. “Your daughter looks just like you. I thought she was you standing there when I first walked up.”

“She’s natured like her dad, though.” Talking about him makes me smile. “Same drill sergeant personality.”

“Did you meet him in the military?”

I nod. “Yes. Love at first sight.” I take in a deep breath. “There’s no better feeling, is there?”

He says nothing, then he tosses a rock toward the still water of the lake.

I realize that I’ve been talking about myself. “What did you do with yourself, Jake? You said you don’t live in North Carolina anymore?”

“I’m a cop.”

“Wow. Really?”

He glares down his nose at me. “Why are you surprised?”

“Honestly?”

“No, lie to me,” he deadpans. “Of course I want honesty.”

“You were kind of famous for the amount of trouble you could get into.”

He laughs. “I vaguely remember you being right there with me when I got into a bunch of that trouble.”

The crunch of gravel sucks me out of my summer memories. They’re one of my favorite places to go when things go bad–which they have been for a while now. “Jake!” someone bellows.

Jake gets to his feet and shades his eyes with his hands. “That’s Pop,” he says.

The old man drives the red golf cart directly onto the sand. “I need your help with something,” he says to Jake.

“Can it wait a minute?”

“If it could wait a minute, I wouldn’t be coming to get you, would I?” the old man grumbles. He looks around Jake and his eyes fall on me. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Hi, Mr. Jacobson,” I call out.

“You grew tits,” he replies.

I look down at my boobs. “Yes, I did.”

“Good job.”

“I do aim to please.”

“Pop,” Jake complains, “don’t talk about her tits.”

“Why not?” the old man crows. “Those are some impressive tits.”

“He’s got you there,” Jake says, leaning closer to me like he’s whispering.

“Cabin 112 has a leaky roof, Jake,” Jake’s dad says. “I need you to fix it.” He points to a toolbox on the back of the golf cart.

Jake points to the same box. “You think I’m going to fix a roof?”

“I just had a stroke, son. I’m not going to fix it myself.”

Jake sighs.

His dad looks around Jake to talk to me again. “I had a stroke and I still can’t get this boy to do anything.”

“I’ll do it, Pop,” Jake replies. “Can you wait a minute?”

“Why?” Mr. Jacobson barks. “You going to kiss her goodbye, or something? I’ve seen you do that before.” He motions for Jake to continue by rolling his finger. “Get on with it. You have work to do.”

“It was good to see you, Katie,” Jake says, his eyes intently staring into mine.

“You too, Jake,” I say softly. “It has been a long time.”

“Too long.”

Suddenly, Mr. Jacobson barks out, “What time is supper, Katie?”

“What?”

“Supper. What time should I arrive?”

I point to my chest. “You want me to make you supper?”

He scratches his belly. “A man’s got to eat.”

“I haven’t exactly been to the store yet,” I admit.

“No problem,” Mr. Jacobson says. “I’ll bring steaks.”

“Oh…well…okay.”

“You don’t have to, Katie,” Jake rushes to say. “I’ll cook your damn steak, old man.”

Mr. Jacobson grins. “Good. You can do it at Katie’s cabin. We’ll use her grill.” He revs the engine on the gas-powered golf cart. “The day isn’t going to get any longer, boy,” he says to Jake. “We’ll see you at six,” Mr. Jacobson calls out to me.

“See you then,” I call back. Jake hops on the golf cart with Mr. Jacobson and they start to drive away. Then suddenly the cart screeches to a halt, with sand and gravel flying.

“My dog!” Jake yells

The dog is still covered in soap and my youngest daughter is laughing as she makes a cone of bubbles on the dog’s head. “You can get him later,” I yell back.

“Are you sure?”

I nod. “Positive.” They start to leave again. “Hey, Jake!” I yell.

He turns back and looks at me. I cup my hands around my mouth.

“Bring a salad! And some potatoes! Wrap them in tin foil! And a loaf of bread would be nice!”

Jake looks at me without saying a word for a beat longer than I’d expect. Then they drive away.

Gabby comes to sit next to me on the sand and dusts her hands together. “Was that old man talking about your boobs?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Cool.”

“They’re joining us for supper.”

“Okay.”

“What kind of dog is that?” I ask.

“A big one.”

“No joke.”

“His name is Sally.”

“Did Trixie name him?”

“Yep.”

I grin to myself. “Jake is going to love that name.”

 

 

Jake

 

“If you shake it more than three times, you’re playing with it!” Pop yells at me from the living room.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. I worked on the roof all afternoon, then came back to Pop’s and took a shower. I had to go to the store to get the makings for dinner, and now I’m trying to be sure I look nice. For what, I have no idea.

“I can shake it as many times as I want!” I yell back. I go out of the bathroom and find Pop waiting at the kitchen counter.

“Oh, thank God,” he murmurs. “I was about to throw in some tampons and pads so you could build a life raft and survive your period.”

“I wasn’t in there that long.” I grab a box and go to the fridge and take out all the dishes I prepared earlier. I made a salad, bought some bread and wrapped it in foil, wrapped sweet potatoes, and I have salad dressing, butter, and other condiments for the food. I got some hot dogs and buns, too, since I wasn’t sure if her kids would eat steak. I grab the steaks and put them in the box. “I feel like we’re doing meals on wheels.”

“I took it upon myself to get you a date.” He pats me on the shoulder. “You can thank me later.”

I drop the fork I’m holding and it clatters loudly on the counter. “A date.”

“You would have sat there beside her all afternoon fingering your vagina if I hadn’t intervened. You can thank me later.”

“Pop, did you see her?” I hold my hands out in front of my stomach. “She’s out to here. Pregnant.”

“Pregnant, shmegnant,” he grumbles. “Best sex I ever had was when your mom was pregnant. She was hotter than a five-dollar pistol.” He gets a faraway look in his eye. “She would ride–”

“Pop!” I yell, trying to cut him off. “Stop it. I don’t want a play by play!” I stuff my fingers in my ears and scream, “Lalalalalalalalalalalala!”

Pop walks out the door grumbling, leaving me to follow in his wake like I’m on a towrope. I heft the box onto my shoulder and follow Pop to the golf cart.

When we get to cabin 114, Pop slams on the brakes, sending the cart skidding off the path. “What the hell, Pop!”

“Just testing your reflexes.” Pop cackles and I get out of the cart.

I don’t know why I came home. He’s going to make me kill him. Then he’ll be dead and I’ll be in jail. I walk up to the cabin.

The door opens, and Katie’s oldest daughter holds a finger up to her lips. “Mom’s asleep,” she says. She steps to the side so I can look in, and I see Katie on the couch with her hand tucked under her chin. My heart clenches. She must have been really tired.

“Don’t wake her,” I say. I’d hate for her to miss a nap. Aren’t pregnant women supposed to need more sleep?

Katie’s doppelganger steps out onto the porch, closing the door behind her. “What did you bring?” She leans over to look into the box.

“A little bit of everything.”

Suddenly a boom goes off behind me and Pop walks around the corner. His eyebrows are singed and his hair is standing straight up. “I think the grill starter is broken,” he says. “I had to light it the hard way.”

I pinch the space between my eyes, at the bridge of my nose, and count to ten. Then I count to ten again.

“If you want to eat tonight, you better put the potatoes on,” Pop warns. Then he goes to sit on the porch, pulls a newspaper out of his back pocket, and flips it open. “You’re going to starve an old man to death if you don’t get moving.”

“You know what, Pop,” I start to say, pointing my finger at him. But the door opens and Katie comes out. She rubs her eyes and my breath catches.

“Am I late for dinner?” she asks. She smiles at me and all my ire at Pop floats away on the breeze.

“You’re right on time,” I say. Pop rolls his eyes behind her back. I’m going to kill him. “Where’s my dog?” I suddenly realize I haven’t seen him.

“You mean Sally?” She grins at me.

“Sally?” Is she serious?

“Sally,” she says again. “Trixie named him. The rest of the kids agreed. It’s permanent.”

“Until I change it.”

“You won’t change it.” She stares into my eyes. “You asked my daughter to name him and she did. She’s been through a lot. Let her name the damn dog, Jake.” She marches back up the steps of the porch and slams the door.

Well, that went well.

“You’re not getting lucky tonight,” Pop sings out.

“Shut up, old man,” I grumble as I walk past him. He cackles at me and I flip him the bird. “Put the potatoes on, will you?”

He sets the newspaper down and barks at Gabby. “Let me show you how to cook potatoes, girl,” he says. He lumbers to his feet, rambles in the box until he finds the potatoes, and she walks around the corner with him.

I open the front door of the small cabin and peer around the edge of it. Katie is bent over by the stove and I stop to stare at her. From the back, she doesn’t look pregnant. She looks perfectly wide in the hips and round in the rear end. God, I sound like Sandra Bullock describing a football player in The Blind Side. That’s not the case at all. She’s all woman. Then she stands up straight, turns to the side and stretches her back by pressing her belly forward. She’s all pregnant woman. I have to remind myself of that.

Just as quickly as her pregnant belly hit me, so does the smell of baked goods. “What’s that smell?”

“Apple pie,” she says.

“You made apple pie?” My heart flutters like it used to when she kissed me all those years ago. I’m thirty-six years old. It takes more to make a flutter when you’re older. Food is a good way.

“Well, made is a strong word. I just reheated.” She points toward her daughter, who is on the porch with Pop. “I sent Gabby to the store.”

“Is she old enough to drive?”

She smiles. “Just barely.” She takes in a deep breath and rubs the flat of her palm over her belly.

“You okay?” I ask.

She nods. “I’m fine. Baby boy is moving around.” She narrows her eyes at me. “Do you want to feel?”

I point to the basketball-size hump under her shirt. “Feel your belly?”

She takes two steps toward me, takes my hand and places it on the swell of her stomach. “Just wait a second,” she whispers.

I feel her breath as she inhales slowly. Then a tiny flutter bops the palm of my hand.

“Did you feel that?”

“That was the baby?” I ask softly.

She rolls her eyes. “No, I just have gas.” She grins. “Of course it was the baby.” She looks into my eyes, holding my palm against her shirt. “You don’t have any kids, do you, Jake?”

I shake my head and avoid her eyes.

“Have you ever been married?”

“You spoiled me for all other women, Katie.”

She shoves my shoulder and my hand falls from her belly. I want to put it back. “Wait,” I protest, “I was enjoying that.” She turns away from me. “Bring your uterus back. I want to touch it again.”

The front door opens and Gabby walks in. “Mom?” she says warily.

Katie looks up at her and arches her brow.

“Did he just talk about touching your uterus?” she asks her mother.

“Better my uterus than my vagina,” Katie sings out.

“Or your boobs,” Gabby adds, and then she shrugs. She jerks her thumb toward the porch. “Mr. Jacobson wants a deck of cards. He says he’s going to teach me to play blackjack.”

Katie crosses to the TV cabinet and opens it up. All the cabins are equipped with games and cards. She takes out a pack of cards and tosses it to Gabby. “Don’t bet with real money,” she says.

“Pop cheats,” I add.

Gabby clucks her tongue and acts like she’s shooting me with a pistol. “I got this under control,” she says, and she goes back outside.

“Her dad taught her to play blackjack when she was seven,” Katie says. “She’ll beat the pants off your old man.”

I grin. “Good. He deserves it.” I scratch my head. “So, about me touching your uterus again…” I hold my hand out in question. She takes it, lifts her shirt, and lays my hand upon her skin.

We suddenly go from curious and playful to warm and uncomfortable. “Um, this wasn’t what I meant.”

“Hey, Jake?”

“Yeah?” I feel that tiny little flutter under my hand again and a grin tugs at the corners of my lips.

“That day when you fell in the lake, the first day we ever met…”

“Yeah?” I wait.

“You didn’t pull me in with you.”

“Huh?”

“I jumped.”

 

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Chapter One of Always, April

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The Present

I push through the doors of the tattoo shop and step inside. The air around me settles, the noises from the street stopping like someone just sealed me into a casket. I used to love this place. I used to visit Matt here. I’d stop by and surprise him with lunch. I’d drop by unexpectedly and he would smile at me. But no one is smiling at me now. I force myself to breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
Heels click as someone walks toward me. “What the fuck are you doing here?” Friday Reed asks. She’s decked out as usual in high heels, and she’s wearing a tiny black tutu and fishnet stockings. The outfit is completed with a pink tank top that has been bedazzled with the words “I’m a Reed.”
I was supposed to be a Reed once upon a time, too. Only it didn’t work out.
“Is Matt here?” I ask quietly, rubbing my hands up and down my upper arms in an effort to comfort myself. But there’s no comfort here. There’s only regret. Regret and wishes for a life unfulfilled. A life that was never meant to be.
“No, he’s not here. Why do you want him?” Friday punches her fists into her hips and glares at me.
“I was hoping maybe we could talk.”
Friday snorts. “About what?”
How about none of your fucking business, I want to scream at her. But the last time I dared to go up against Friday, she left me with a bald spot the size of my fist and a whole bunch of regret. “That’s between me and Matt.”
A waft of wind and street noises filters into the shop, and Friday looks up. I do too. My heart stops when Matthew Reed walks into the building. He stops short, the bell over the door tinkles as it shuts, and my tomb grows even tighter around me.
“April,” Matt says. He stares hard at me, but there’s none of the animosity I expected to see in his eyes. There’s only a question. He wants to know why I’m here. “Are you all right?” he asks.
Even now, Matt cares about me. His feelings for me didn’t just die, and that hurts me as much as anything I ever did to him. “I’m okay, Matt,” I say.
His brow furrows. “Why are you here?”
Friday shakes her finger at me, her voice getting louder and louder. “Because she’s the dumbest bitch that ever walked the face of the—”
Matt walks quickly to her and covers her mouth with his hand, holding it tight as she mumbles against it. “I’ll put you in a head lock if I have to,” Matt warns her quietly. He never did get loud. He has always been quiet. Quiet and powerful.
Friday stops her mumbling and he lifts his hand.
“You know I love you, Friday,” Matt says. He kisses her forehead quickly, and she mutters something under her breath that makes him laugh. “But this is between me and April, okay?” He bends down a little so he can look into her flashing eyes.
She points a finger in his face. “You call me if you need me.” She looks up and down my body. “I can take her.” She flips me the bird and goes to the back of the shop.
I rub my sweaty palms on my jeans and try to laugh.
Matt stares at me. “What can I do for you, April?”
“I was hoping maybe we could talk.” I look around the shop. “Privately.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I look at the pictures on the wall. They’re pictures of all the Reed men and their families. I see one with Matt standing with his kids, his arms wrapped around a blonde, and he’s smiling. He looks so happy. “You had another baby,” I suddenly blurt out.
He comes to stand beside me and looks at the picture. “Yes. Gracie. She’s the newest.” He grins, and happiness settles inside me, wrapping me up like sunshine on a warm summer day.
“You have five kids?”
“Six.” He starts to tick them off on his fingers. “Seth. Mellie. Joey. Hoppy. Matty. And now Gracie.”
I smile at him. “You finished yet?”
He smiles back. “I don’t know.” He shrugs. “You never know what life will give you.”
I lay my palm on his forearm and squeeze. He flinches, lifts my hand, and lets it go. Then he takes a step back from me. “Say what you came here to say, April.”
“I’m sorry, Matt,” I rush to say. My words tumble over one another. “I’m so fucking sorry.” I can’t say it fast enough or mean it more. “I really fucked everything up and I’m sorry I left you when you needed me most. If I had it to do all over again, I would have chosen differently. I’m sorry, Matt.”
He heaves a sigh. “Do you need my forgiveness, April?”
“Yes, Matt. I do.” I need it more than anything.
He points to the picture on the wall. “Do you see her?” Matt asks. His face softens and his eyes get all dreamy, and I suddenly and irrevocably know that someone else took my place in his heart. And more. She’s more to him than I ever was. “That’s my wife, Sky. She’s my everything.” He shakes his head, like he’s trying to drag himself from a drunken stupor. “I have no doubt that you and I could have been happy, April, if what happened between us had never happened, if you had never cheated. But my life with Sky…it’s all I ever wanted. It’s so much more than what we had.”
A tiny needle pokes me in the heart. “I understand why you want to hurt me, Matt—”
“That’s just it, April,” he says softly. “I don’t want to hurt you. I never did. I just wanted to love you. Then I met her and I knew what real love was. I didn’t know until then.” He stares hard at me. “Why are you here?”
“I want absolution.”
I wait, and the words hang there in the air between us like a firecracker with a lit fuse.
“I can’t absolve you. Only you can do that. But I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. Life works out the way it’s supposed to.” He bends a little so he can look into my eyes. “Are you all right?” he asks. “Has something happened?”
“Yeah.” I sigh. Then I meet his gaze and stare into his blue eyes. “I fell in love.”
He startles. “Oh. Well, that’s good.” He smiles and I see only happiness within him for me. No hatred. No animosity. Of course, this is Matt. He is goodness and light and all things wonderful.
“You used to hate me.”
He nods. “I did for a while. I won’t lie.” He scrubs a hand across his mouth like he’s wiping away a smile. Then he grows serious. “I don’t hate you anymore.”
“But you don’t love me anymore, either.” I watch his face closely.
“I love Sky with all that I am.” He stops and stares at me and I know that he’s telling the truth.
Finally, I smile. “Good.”
“Is there something else I can do for you?” he asks, the ruffle of his brow betraying his confusion.
I wince. “I was hoping to get a tattoo.”
He points to the floor beneath our feet. “Here?”
“Where else?” I grin at him.
He shakes his head. “You know I can’t do it.”
“Someone else, then?”
“I’ll do it!” Friday calls out.
I shake my head vehemently. “Not Friday, Matt.” Friday will give me a pair of balls on my forehead or a penis on my cheek.
Matt scratches his jaw. “My brothers love me, so they can’t do it.”
“Won’t do it!” Paul yells out from the other end of the room where he had seemed to be engrossed in applying a tattoo.
I sigh. “I’ll go somewhere else.” I reach for the door handle.
“Wait,” Matt calls. I turn back. “We have a woman here today who’s auditioning to be an artist on the show. Her skin cancelled. She could do you.” He looks toward a woman who is in her early fifties. Her hair is teased up high and she has about five shades of dye in it. But she’s gorgeous, with ink all over her. Matt winces. “The only thing is…all of the tattoo jobs are going to be televised. Your story would be public if you let her do it.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Okay?” he parrots.
I nod. “Okay.”
He introduces me to Karla, has me sign some release paperwork, and I follow her to the back of the shop. I turn back at the last minute. “Will you still be here when we get done?” I ask Matt.
He shrugs. “Maybe.”
“It was good to see you again, Matt,” I say. I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
“You too, April,” he says, and he smiles at me.
I follow Karla and a cameraman into a small room and she closes the door behind us. “How much of that did you hear?” I ask her. The cameraman is already filming, the camera hoisted over his shoulder as he focuses on me.
She grins. “All of it.” She jerks a thumb toward the cameraman. “He got it all too. You can say what you want him to use and what you don’t.”
“No, it’s fine. Then I won’t have to repeat it.”
“So you had a good thing with Matt, and you didn’t appreciate it, and you cheated on him, and then what happened?”
“I married the guy I cheated with because I got pregnant.”
“And then he cheated on you too,” she deadpans.
“How did you know?”
“Because that’s how it works, honey. If he’ll cheat with you, he’ll cheat on you. Law of physics. Or mathematics. Or the universe.” She grins. “Start at the beginning. Tell me about your new love.”
“It all really started in Scotland,” I tell her. “My husband and I went away to try to fix what was broken.”
“What happened in Scotland?” she prompts.
So I start to tell her my story.

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