Chapter One of While We Waited

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Tag

There are five of them. I did my homework. Five sisters.

I watched them for weeks before I ever dreamed of approaching them. I know where they go and who they see. I know what their work schedules look like. I even know when they have their periods.

Yeah, I might have looked through their trash a time or two, trying to find out as much as I can before I make my move. And it wasn’t easy, with all the security they have. It’s like walking up on the White House at times. But I did it.

Now I finally know enough to tell them I’m here.

My biological sisters are the easy ones. They call themselves Star and Wren, but when I knew them they were Jessica and Jenny. They now have the last name of Vasquez. But they will always be Taggerts, no matter how far they travel, how famous they get, or how much they change. No matter how much money they make, they will still be my sisters. My blood.

The others are more of a mystery. There’s Peck, and she’s the drummer. She just married Sam Reed, the reality TV star and retired pro football player, and they are about to have a baby. She has a really bad speech impairment, and she struggles to talk in public. Just hearing her try to talk on TV makes me cringe for her. Well, more for me than for her. But still.

Then there’s Lark. She’s the keyboard player. She’s also a self-professed germ freak and she wears long elbow-length gloves everywhere she goes. But I have a feeling the gloves are about more than just germs. And I have a bigger feeling that she doesn’t want anyone to know it. She’s not a germ freak. Something happened to her and she hides it behind fabric and color. I can relate. I hide my past too. I hide it really well. So well that I’m not even sure who I am most days.

Then there’s Finch. Fin. Finny, they call her. She’s lead guitarist in their band. She’s also famous for her one-night stands. She’s as famous for them as she is for her music. And her music is pretty darn fabulous. She’s tiny, but curvy, and watching her butt shake as she walks down the street makes me want to stick my tongue in all her wet places every time I see her. But I have to shove my wants to the side.

I have an image I’ve cultivated. A face I show to the rest of the world, and it’s the face I have to show my sisters so they’ll let me in.

I iron my button-down shirt and shake it out in front of the motel mirror. I spent my last thirty dollars on this room, just so that I could get ready to go to them. I pull my jeans on and slide my feet into some sneakers. I bought all this stupid stuff at Goodwill for less than four dollars. Then I spent eight quarters washing it at the Laundromat. I button my shirt up high and put on the blue tie, which is already threatening to choke me.

I pick up my duffle bag and glance around the room to be sure I didn’t forget anything. Nothing here is mine. I step into the bathroom and grab the free soap and shampoo samples. No idea when I’ll see a shower again, so I might need them. I can wash my hair in a rest stop bathroom, if push comes to shove. I stuff them into the front pocket of the duffle bag.

Now it’s time to go and find my sisters. I know where they live. I’ve watched them come and go for weeks, so I know their schedules as well as they do. They’re not touring right now since Peck is about to have a baby.

I wait for residents to go into their apartment building, and I slip through the door just before it closes. I pretend like I belong here, even though this swanky building with its fancy doorman isn’t anything like where I come from. I walk beside one of the building’s residents and pretend to talk to her so the doorman will think I’m with her. I don’t want him to stop me.

The woman regards me with interest. She likes me. I can tell. But I’m on a mission. I ignore her when she keeps talking. I got what I wanted from her, which was entry into the building. She’s expendable, and she’s aware of it. She flounces off the elevator at her stop and I breathe a sigh of relief.

I go up a few more levels, stop outside their door, and drop my bag to the floor. I force myself to halt and take a deep breath. The door opens and it’s like falling back in time.

“Jess,” I breathe.

She startles and stumbles into the doorframe. I reach out a hand to catch her, but she jerks herself back at the last minute.

I smile at her. “Hi,” I say.

She slams the door in my face. The cool rush of air smacks hard against me and I force myself not to throw open the door and chase her into the room.

I knock. No one comes to the door. I know she’s in there. There’s not another exit, not that I’m aware of. I knock again and lean my forehead against the cool metal. “Please,” I whisper.

The door flies open and I nearly stumble into the room. I catch myself on the doorjamb and look at Jess’s face.

“Hi,” I say again, like an idiot.

“Go away,” she says. Then she ducks under my arm and passes me in the hallway, slamming the door shut behind her.

“Wait,” I call. “Can we talk?”

She turns back to face me and points her finger at my nose. “Talk? Talk?” She shrieks the last word. “After all this time, you suddenly want to talk?

I nod. “Yes. Please.”

“No.” She turns and stalks down the corridor.

“Come on, Jess–”

She turns back and advances on me so fast that I retreat, my back striking the door. “My name is Star. And you would know that if you had returned any of the letters I sent to you over the years, you jackass.”

“What letters?” I never got any letters.

“I wrote you every day for a year, you piece of shit excuse for a brother.”

Well, at least she acknowledges that I’m family. That’s a start.

“I never got any letters,” I say. I hold up my hands like I’m surrendering to the cops.

She freezes. But then she lets out a hiss of breath and starts to shake her head. “Fuck you,” she says. She turns and walks away. I chase after her, but she leaves me standing there in the hallway. The elevator doors close behind her, and I think about racing down the stairs so I can intercept her, but I have a feeling that won’t help me.

Well. I messed that up.

I walk back to her doorway and sink down onto the floor and cross my legs. I’ll wait. I can’t give up on this. I have too much at stake. If I wait here, she’ll have to talk to me eventually, right?

It’s two hours later when the elevator dings and I hear footsteps in the corridor. I sit up. It’s not her, though. My heart clutches in my chest, because it’s Jenny. “Jen?”

I lumber to my feet, my ass sore from sitting on the floor.

Jenny freezes and stares at me. “Tag?” Then she breaks her gaze and looks at my duffle bag, her eyes skittering from place to place.

“It’s me, Jenny,” I say softly.

She sticks her key in the lock and swings the door open, then nods for me to follow her. My heart rejoices. I’m in the fucking door. So far so good.

She lays her things on the kitchen counter. “What are you doing here?” she asks. She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.

“I wanted to see how you’re both doing,” I say quietly. “Are you okay?”

She snorts. “You’re asking that now? After all this time?” Her eyes narrow. “Why do you care?”

“You’re my sister, Jenny,” I remind her. I need for her to remember that. I need them.

“My name is Wren. Wren Vasquez. My father’s name is Emilio and my mother’s name is Marta. I’m twenty-four years old and my sisters are Star, Finny, Lark, and Peck. I don’t have a brother. Not anymore.” She turns and takes a cold drink from the fridge. She doesn’t offer me one, but I’m okay with that.

“Wren,” I say. Her new name sounds foreign on my tongue. “It has been so long,” I tell her.

Looking into her face is like staring my mother in the eye. They look so much alike that it’s disturbing. “You look like Mom,” I blurt out.

Her eyes fill with tears and she blinks them back. “Tag,” she breathes. “Damn it. Why now?”

“I’m in trouble.” I didn’t mean to say it, but I did. “Lots of trouble. Back home.” I scrub my hands down my face.

“What kind of trouble?”

“The really bad kind.” I look everywhere but at her. “I was hoping I might be able to stay with you for a few days maybe.” A few days…or just long enough to get you to trust me and give me money so that I can take care of something back home.

I hold my breath and wait for a response. But none comes. “Or maybe just long enough to save up a few dollars?” I need to put the fact that I need money directly in her face.

“Star won’t like it,” she says.

I wince. “I already saw her.”

Her eyes narrow at me. “What happened?”

“She pretty much told me to fuck off.”

She laughs. “That sounds like Star.”

“So, can I stay?” I hold my breath. I need this. I really need it.

“Put your stuff in Peck’s old room,” she says, pointing to a door down the hallway. Her phone dings and she smiles down at it. “I have to go to the hospital,” she says as I come back down the hallway after dropping off my bag.

“Hospital? Are you okay?”

She waves a breezy hand in the air. “I’m fine. But Peck’s having a baby. We need to get there.” She motions for me to follow her.

“Do you just want me to wait here for you?”

“Dude, I know you’re my brother, but I’m not leaving you alone in our apartment.”

“I understand.” I nod and follow her to the door.

At the last minute, she turns back to face me. “If you hurt Star, or anyone else in my family, I will make you regret it. Do you understand?”

My heart stutters, but I nod.

They’re going to hate me when this is all over.

She’s kind of quiet in the cab on the way to the hospital. She texts a lot and makes a few calls, cursing when she doesn’t get an answer. She makes some small talk with me but she doesn’t really say much. Finally, she pays the driver and we get out. I run a hand through my hair.

She laughs. “You look fine,” she says.

“Will your adoptive parents be here?”

She nods. “Yep. You’ll like them, though. They’re awesome.”

We stop at the reception desk and they send us to maternity, where Jenny—I mean Wren—asks for Peck’s room. They show us to a waiting room, and we walk in, but it’s empty except for Jess—I mean Star—and a man in a wheelchair.

Star jumps to her feet when she sees me. “What’s he doing here?”

Wren glares at her. “Where the fuck have you been? I’ve been trying to find you everywhere.” She holds up her phone and points at Star’s.

“Why did you bring him here?” Star asks. “He doesn’t belong here.”

Wren puts her hands on her hips. “Yes, he does.”

People start filing down the hallway, and I recognize some of the girls from Fallen from Zero, the band my sisters belong to. I also recognize Star and Wren’s adoptive parents. I’ve seen them in publicity photos. Her dad glares at me but he doesn’t say anything. He knows who I am, though. That much is obvious.

Star gets up and walks down the hallway. She’s pissed.

“Well, that went well,” Wren says as she flops into a chair. She points to the guy in the wheelchair, then at me. “Oh, this is our brother, Tag. Tag, this is Josh. Josh works at the tattoo shop I was telling you about, with the Reeds.” She’d mentioned the Reeds briefly when she was prattling on about nothing in the cab.

I shake his hand. “Nice to meet you,” I say. He has ink across his knuckles and pretty much everywhere else.

“Aren’t you going to see the baby?” Josh asks.

“Is it here?” Wren cries.

Josh nods and smiles. Wren shrieks and gets to her feet, then runs down the hallway.

I sit with Josh for a minute. The silence wraps around us like a warm wool blanket. It’s heavy and oppressive. “Where are you from, man?” he finally asks.

“From the past,” I say. “And apparently I should have stayed there.” But I need this. I need my sisters in so many ways.

“What brings you to New York?”

I shrug. “I needed a change.” And a lot of money to pay off a girl so I can get a baby.

“So you thought looking up long-lost sisters was the way to go?”

I laugh, but it comes out sounding pretty insincere. “It was now or never, you know? I needed to be in the city. I just didn’t expect to walk into a mess.”

“Some call it a baby. Some call it a mess.” He holds his hands up like he’s weighing two things, lowering one and raising the other.

“Yeah, Wren filled me in on the way here. Babies are pretty special. A gift from God.” I find that people trust a God-fearing individual. So, I am one. Or at least I want him to think I am. My own faith is currently on shaky ground. But he doesn’t need to know that.

“I’m going to go and find Star,” he suddenly says. He starts to roll down the hallway and I stay in my seat. My sisters have to walk by me in order to exit, so I wait.

“See you later, man,” I say.

I wait. And wait. And wait…and when no one returns I’m worried that they left without me.

I get up and go down the hallway, peering into doorways until I see Josh in his wheelchair inside a room. I knock on the door and stick my head inside. “Can I join you?” I ask. I flinch inside, worried they’ll say no.

Star sits up and says, “No, you may not.”

“Oh, shut it, Star.” Wren motions me into the room and makes introductions. Sam Reed, who I recognize from TV, looks curious. And Peck doesn’t look like she appreciates my presence at all.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, Peck yawns. Josh says, “I’m going to go home so you guys can get some rest.” Sam takes his baby from Josh, who had been holding him.

“Where’s he going to stay?” Star asks, nodding toward me.

Wren heaves a sigh. “He’s going to stay in Peck’s old room for a few days.”

“No, he is not!” Star jumps to her feet and punches her hands into her hips. “No!

Wren closes her eyes and massages her forehead. “The room is just sitting there empty. He doesn’t have anywhere to go.”

“And this is our problem why?”

“Because he shares our DNA!” Wren yells. The baby startles and Sam growls at them both. But inside, I rejoice because it has been a long time since anyone has taken up for me.

“Knock it off,” Sam warns.

“Why can’t he get a hotel room?” Star asks, her voice growing quiet.

“Because he doesn’t have any money!” Wren whisper-hisses back.

“Money,” Star bites out. “That’s what this is about.”

Yep. She pegged me in two seconds.

“He’s going home with us. That’s all there is to it.” Wren clenches her teeth.

“Then I’m not.” Star stares her down.

Wren sighs. She glares at our sister. “If that’s how you want it.”

“Fine.” Star leans over and kisses Peck on the forehead, whispers in her ear, and then kisses Sam’s cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then Star walks out of the room.

Sam nods his head subtly at Josh, and Josh follows her out, rolling in her wake.

“That didn’t go very well,” I say. “I should go and get her.” I get to my feet.

“You better not,” Peck warns.

I jerk my thumb in the direction she went. “But she’s leaving.”

“Let her go,” Sam says. “Josh will take care of her. He’s been taking care of her all night.”

Wren grins. “Oh, do tell,” she says.

Sam starts to tell us about Star dancing on a piano, so drunk she could barely walk. My conscience prickles a little, since I know I caused that.

“Star never gets drunk like that,” Wren says quietly. She looks worried.

“Josh will take care of her,” Sam says again. He doesn’t look worried at all. In fact, he winks at his wife and she grins at him, rolling her eyes.

“I feel bad that she’s not going home. And it’s all because of me,” I say quietly.

“She’ll come home when she’s ready,” Peck says.

The question is, will she be ready in time for me take care of things back home? I need for them to love me and to trust me. Then I need for them to give me money, and I can’t get them to do any of that if they’re not around.

***

I haven’t seen Star since I got here. She refused to come back to the apartment, and she has been away the three days I’ve been here. But Wren has been here. All it took was some reminiscing. Bam. Got her.

“Do you remember the yellow house on Chestnut Street?” I ask her.

Wren blinks her eyes furiously. “Yes, I remember.”

It was the house we lived in when Mom and Dad died. “Dad taught you how to ride that old pink bike on the sidewalk out front.”

“I remember.” Her voice is thick and tight. “That was before…”

“Before they died,” I finish quietly. I force out a laugh. “You scraped your knee when you fell off the bike and you wanted to quit, but Dad wouldn’t let you.”

She chuckles. It’s a watery sound. “He made me get back on it and stay on it until I could ride it around the block.”

“Then they couldn’t get you to come inside for supper,” I remind her. My breath catches at the look of devastation on her face. But I push on. “You wanted to stay outside all night.”

“The streetlights came on and I wanted to keep riding.”

“Dad sat on the porch and counted your laps around the block.”

A tear finally falls over her lashes and my gut twists. “I miss them,” she whispers.

“You got a good family,” I remind her. Not like the one I got.

“We didn’t at first,” she blurts out. Then she looks like she wants to take it back.

I drop the fork I’m holding and it clatters to the tabletop. “What?”

“Our first foster family…” She shakes her head. “Never mind.”

“Tell me,” I say.

“You don’t want to know.”

“I do.” It can’t be as bad as the hell I went through. “Tell me.”

“He was a pedophile, and she was clueless.” She closes her eyes. “Star bore the brunt of it.”

I suddenly want to throw up. “What?

She nods. It’s a quick jerk. “Social Services took us out of there and we went to a group home. It was better.” She smiles at me. “Then we met Marta and Emilio and they adopted all of us.”

“I didn’t know,” I manage to respond. I can barely breathe, much less speak. No wonder she hates me.

“Star wrote to you all the time. She kept thinking you were going to come and rescue us.” She laughs, but there’s no humor in it. None at all. “That’s why she’s not here. She’s still a little sore over it.”

“If I had known–”

But she holds up a hand and waves it to stop me. “You were a kid.”

“I was glad you didn’t end up where I went,” I blurt out. I want to bite it back as soon as it comes out of my mouth. But it hangs there in the air between us.

She blinks her big brown eyes at me. “Why?”

“It wasn’t good.” I cough into my fist. “He wasn’t good.”

He was family,” she rushes to remind me.

“There was a reason why Dad didn’t talk to him. Think back. Do you remember Dad ever having anything nice to say about him?”

She shakes her head. “Not really. But there’s a lot I don’t remember.”

“He wasn’t nice or good or kind. And he’s no family of mine. Or yours, for that matter.” I get up and start to clear the table. “Just thinking about him makes me sick.”

“What happened?” she asks from behind me.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why not?”

I take a deep breath. “He got paid by the state to keep me.” I don’t say more, hoping she’ll draw her own awful conclusions. “I was like their servant. I took care of their younger kids and kept their house clean.” And I took the beatings for the ones who were smaller than me.

“You weren’t an only child, at least,” she prompts. She’s looking for a happy ending, but I can assure her there isn’t one. Not in my uncle’s house.

She sounds so optimistic I almost hate to shatter her illusions. “I took care of everyone. I cooked and cleaned and changed diapers and put the kids on the bus. I nursed fevers and soothed nightmares.” I shiver at the thought of it. “And then they sent me to my room, when my chores were done, while they were a family and I had no one.”

“We didn’t know…”

“No one did.” I shrug and force out a laugh I don’t feel. Just going back to those days in my head makes my skin crawl. “When I was nineteen, I met a man who worked at a church. He had a daughter, and she made everything better. She helped me. We were the same age. Julia.” Just the thought of Julia makes my heart speed up a beat. She’s why I have to go back. She’s why I’m here at all.

“That’s good,” Wren says.

I force my own memories to the back of my mind. “Do you remember the time that you and Star decided to build a tree house?” I ask. I force her to slip back into the memories, and I go with her. And I’m happy for a little while, as I bask in the glow that is my family.

Suddenly, I realize that I’ve had too much to drink. My emotions are sitting directly below the surface of my skin. They’re not hidden down deep in my soul where I usually keep them. They’re floating just below my sanity, and they’re peeking through.

“I need to go to bed,” Wren says. She presses her beer toward me. She cracked it open but never drank any of it.

I have already had a six pack or so. I’m not drunk, but I’m losing my inhibitions and I’m sober enough to know it. I push the beer back toward her.

“I can’t,” she says on a laugh. “Not possible.” She narrows her eyes at me though, and I immediately worry. Did I say something I shouldn’t have said? Did I lie? Does she know it? “I want to give you something,” she says. She digs into her purse and pulls out a blue faux-leather bank book. She slides it toward me. “I set this up for you today.”

“What is it?” I ask. But inside my heart is leaping.

She winces. “I kind of went through your wallet to get your information for the account.”

“Oh.” I immediately wonder what else she found.

“I wasn’t really snooping. Just trying to figure out how to set this up for you.”

“Okay.” My heart is pounding. She just made all my dreams come true and she doesn’t even know it. She thinks she just did a good deed.

“I want you to stay. I want you to stay long enough for Star to get to talk to you at least, once she gets over the hurt. But I understand if you can’t.” Her voice is quiet but strong. “No matter what, I want you to be taken care of. I want you to know you’re loved.”

My heart leaps into my throat. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I was supposed to trick them into loving me. They weren’t supposed to just do it. I push the bank book back toward her. “No, I can’t take it,” I say.

“It’s not much. Just a nest egg.” She comes toward me and lays her hand on the top of my head. She gives my head a shove and kisses my forehead just like our mom used to do. It was more like getting assaulted with affection when Mom did it, and we all loved it so much. So having her do it brings tears to my eyes. “I’m glad you’re here,” she whispers to me. Then she goes into her room and closes the door softly behind her.

I drop my head to the tabletop and bite back a sob. I can’t cry. I can’t. I haven’t shed a tear since I went to live with him—at least not where anyone could see me. I open up the bank book and see a blank set of checks with my name on them. And there’s a total written at the top of the register.

She put fifty thousand dollars into an account for me.

For me. Holy shit. Fifty thousand dollars…

I lay my head on the cool tabletop and roll my forehead across the surface. If I were a better man, I wouldn’t take it. But I’m not. I’m desperate.

A key jangles on the other side of the door and I lift my head, swipe beneath my eyes, and try to pretend like my emotions aren’t slapping me in the face like lightning in a summer storm. I’m probably failing at it, but I do try.

The door opens and Fin comes in. She’s wearing a pair of black jeans that hug her ass and a black leather jacket. She’s bad-ass. And beautiful. And I’m a little bit drunk.

She trips over the doormat and grabs hold of the wall. She giggles. Oh, hell. She’s tipsy too.

“Hey,” she says as she tosses her keys onto the counter with a clatter.

“Hey,” I mutter back. I roll the bank book in my hand, trying to figure out if I can take it.

“Where is everybody?”

I nod toward Wren’s room. “Wren just went to bed. Lark’s not home yet. And Star is at Josh’s apartment, still.”

She nods and shrugs out of her leather jacket. She’s wearing a thin camisole and no bra. Her nipples press hard against the sheer fabric and I have to force myself not to look. She bends over and looks into the fridge. “What happened to all the beer?”

I pick up my can and drain the last of it. “Drank it,” I murmur.

She gets a bottle of water and sits down across from me. “Bad night?”

I shake my head. “Good night. You?” I arch an eyebrow at her.

She shrugs. “Good as any other. I’m a little bit drunk.” She holds up her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.

I laugh. “Oh, good. Me too.”

She goes into her room and comes back with a guitar. I watch her as she goes to the couch and plops down on it. She settles the acoustic guitar in her lap so that it’s facing up and she starts to pluck at the strings. A melody jumps into the air and dances in front of me.

“That’s really good,” I say. I’m drawn to the music almost as much as I’m drawn to the girl. I get up and go into the living room. “Can I sit?”

She shrugs. I plop down on the other end of the couch and watch her. She plucks and hums and plucks some more and then she stops and writes something down.

“Are you writing music?” I ask.

“Something like that,” she murmurs.

“It’s really good. Does it have words?”

“Yeah,” she says, as she chews on the tip of her pen. A lock of dark hair falls into her face and she blows it to the side. I reach over and brush it back when it falls again. She startles, jerked out of her musical trance, and she stares at me. “You want to hear the words?” she asks, her voice quiet, almost fearful.

“Yes.” I can’t think of anything I’d like more.

She starts to sing. It’s tentative and wary and so fucking beautiful that she steals my breath. She sings about heartbreak and shame and lust and love and hurt, and under it all…there’s beauty. Just…sheer beauty.

When she stops playing, I realize that I haven’t even breathed, so I take in a breath and fill my aching lungs. “That was amazing.” I sigh.

“How drunk are you?”

I shake my head. “Not very.”

“You should drink another.” She nods her head toward the kitchen.

“Why?”

She stares hard at me. “Because I want to find out what makes you tick.”

I’m not even sure I do tick. I kind of just exist. Ever since I got the call from Julia that she didn’t want our baby, that she wanted out, I’ve felt like someone pushed the pause button on my life.

“What makes you tick, Finny?” I ask.

She snorts. But it’s an adorable sound and I find myself grinning. And it’s not just because I’m drunk. “Sex,” she says. “Sex makes me tick.”

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Unedited Chapter One of GGG!

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Josh

Life is full of challenges. Mine are varied and multiplied. First, there’s the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. Second is that it’s my own fault I’m in the chair. And third is a drunk girl on a piano. Dancing. Well, it’s more like wiggling with lots of hips and wavy arms. It’s hot as hell and I’ve never seen anything I want to sit and stare at more. Only thing is – she won’t come down.

“Star!” I hiss at her.

She ignores me and spins in a circle, her four-inch heels scratching the surface of the piano. Her sisters, Fin and Lark, are begging her to come down. I don’t know what I can do from my seated position. If I was… well… the way I was before, I’d grab her and carry her out of there. But I’m kind of not able to do that.

“Star!” I whisper fiercely.

The customers at Reeds’, the restaurant owned by former pro football player Sam Reed, are watching her. Some with interest. Some with lustful intent, because she’s fucking beautiful with her face flushed and her dark hair streaming down her back. Some are looking at her with disdain. Some with pity. It’s the pity that makes me look to her sisters. I need to get her down.

“You might want to go and get some help,” her sister, Fin, says.

I nod and roll myself into the kitchen. Sam, the owner of the restaurant, is bent over a plate full of food, making it perfect.

“Um, Sam…” I start.

Sam looks up.

“We have a little problem out here.” A beautiful problem. But still a problem.

“What is it?”

“Um…one of Peck’s sisters is dancing on the piano.” I scratch the end of my nose, because I don’t like the way he’s suddenly staring at me.

Peck, Sam’s wife, waddles her very pregnant self into the dining room, so I follow her, and she stops at the foot of the piano. “What’s wrong with her?” she asks.

Fin shrugs. “We don’t know. She showed up like this.”

“Where’s Wren?” Peck wants to know. I know Wren is Star’s sister. Her biological sister, not an adopted sister like the other three of the members of Fallen from Zero.

Fin shrugs again. “No one has been able to find Wren.”

Sam walks up beside Peck. “What the fuck…?”

“Get her down, Sam,” Peck begs, tugging on his sleeve.

He motions Star forward. “Hey Star,” he says gently. “I have something I need to show you.”

“If it’s your dick,” she replies, “the answer is no, thank you.”

I bite the inside of my lip to keep from laughing. Sam’s face turns red and he heaves a sigh.

Suddenly, he swipes an arm through the air and grabs her leg. She flounders and in my mind’s eye I can see her falling head first into a potted plant. But at the last minute, he adjusts her body so that she falls across his shoulder.

He hitches her fine ass higher and walks to the door. I scramble to wheel myself over to the table where I know Star’s purse is sitting and I grab it, stuff it into my lap, and follow them out the front door.

“Um, Sam…” Peck mutters. She stops and looks down toward her shoes. I seriously doubt she can even see her shoes. But still. There’s a puddle of water at her feet on the sidewalk and she’s clutching her huge belly. Seriously, she looks like she has a basketball under her shirt.

Sam struggles to put Star in a cab and hands some bills to the driver. “Do you want to go with her?” he asks Peck. Apparently he hasn’t noticed the fact that she’s about to have a baby on the sidewalk.

“I don’t think I can,” she mutters.

Sam looks down at her feet and his mouth falls open. “Oh, shit. It’s time?” he cries. He’s frantic all of a sudden, swinging his hand around and swiping his hair back from his forehead like he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

“Go get one of my sisters to go with her.” Peck shoves him toward the restaurant. “And hurry.”

Sam disappears inside.

Star stumbles out of the cab when she realizes what’s going on. The cab takes off, leaving us all on the sidewalk.

“Well, shit,” I mutter.

“I got her,” Peck says. But then she doubles over as a pain wracks her body.

“Oh, fuck!” Star cries. “You’re having a fucking baby!” She cups her hands around her mouth. “I’m going to be the best aunt ever!” she yells. The sound echoes in the nearby alley.

Star starts to jump up and down, and for a second, I just enjoy the sight of her boobs bouncing, because she’s got an amazing rack, but then her ankle gives out.

“I think I just hurt myself,” she says, and her eyes well up with tears. “I think I need to sit down.”

Then she plops that beautiful ass of hers right down in my lap. I lift her up a little so I can get her purse out from under her, since I’m still holding on to it.

“You’re a lump, aren’t you?” I mutter.

“Are you calling me fat?” Her voice rises to a decibel that probably has every dog in the area at alert.

I try to bite back my smile, but it’s really hard. “Only in the best possible way.”

Paul and Sam come outside, and Sam’s still frantic. Thank God he has Paul with him now, because I have my hands and my lap full of Star.

They argue for a minute about what they’re going to do with her.

“You guys should go ahead,” I say. “I’ll get some coffee into Star.” I seriously can’t believe I just said that. She wiggles her ass in my lap, and I wrap my arm around her waist to get her to be still.

“We should take her with us,” Peck says, looking really worried, but Sam cuts her off.

“Josh will sober her up and bring her to the hospital later, right, Josh?”

“Yep.” I am a fucking idiot. I look down and see boob. Oh, holy hell. Her top has come unbuttoned in the most delicious of places. I can see the edge of her pretty lace bra. It’s pink and so is her skin. And her nipple…

I swallow hard and adjust her shirt, buttoning it up to her throat, and I force my hands back down. Paul scowls at me as it’s going on but then he focuses all his attention on Peck and getting her into the car with Sam.

Star giggles “Are you getting a boner?” she asks me.

Apparently, I am. I pick her up and move her over so that more of her leg is on me than ass. “Be still,” I tell her.

“You are, aren’t you? I was worried all your parts didn’t work, but apparently…” She wiggles her eyebrows at me and I have to bite back a chuckle. Star is a whole lot more fun drunk than she is in real life.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t aware that my dick could get hard either. Ever since my accident, nothing has worked the way it used to. But damn if my dick isn’t proving me wrong.

“Josh, are you sure you can take care of Star?” Peck asks me.

My heart expands to about twice its size because Peck is trusting me with one of the most precious things in her life. I know that.

“You can trust me. I’ll take care of her.” There was a time when no one could trust me to do anything. But I got this. I got it. If I say that a million more times, I might convince myself.

Paul stands on the sidewalk and stuffs his hands in his pockets. “I think you might have bitten off more than you can chew.”

Star is currently kissing her way up the side of my neck. It’s kind of sloppy and I can feel her tongue lapping at my skin like a kitten with a bowl of milk. I slide my hand between her tongue and my neck and leave it there long enough for her to sit back. But she doesn’t. She lays her head on my shoulder and snuggles into me.

“You smell good,” she whispers.

So does she. Like wine and warmth and woman. I can almost taste pink cotton candy on my tongue just sniffing her.

Her sisters rush out of the building and stop short when they see her curled into my lap. She has even drawn her knees over the side of my chair. “Oh, shit,” Lark says. She motions toward Star. “Come on, honey,” she says. “Let’s get you home.”

Star grabs my shirt with both fists, holding tightly. “No. I want to stay with him.” She looks up at me and I swear her eyes cross. “What’s your name again?” she asks.

“Josh,” I grunt out.

She lays her head back on my shoulder and says, “I’m staying with Josh.”

“You can’t take her to the hospital like this,” Paul tells them.

Lark heaves a sigh. “What do we do?”

I take a deep breath. “You guys go ahead. I’ll bring her to the hospital later.”

Lark freezes. “Why?”

I shrug and Star’s head bobs on my shoulder like a dashboard dog. “I told Sam and Peck I would.”

“We’re about to be aunts!” Fin screeches. She’s the littlest of the sisters, but she’s also the loudest.

“Go ahead,” Paul says. “Josh has this.”

My gut clenches. Someone is trusting me with something precious. Lots of someones. “I’ll take care of her,” I say again. “And I’ll bring her to the hospital in a couple of hours. Just call me if something happens before we get there.”

This is a first baby. I think they’re supposed to take longer or something like that.

Paul puts the girls in a car and stares at me. Suddenly, he blurts out. “Don’t fuck her.”

I startle and every muscle in my body clenches. “Fuck you,” I bite out.

“You know what they say about guys who just got out of prison,” he says, and I realize he’s joking. Thank God, because I was about to bust his kneecaps. “Insatiable and all that shit. And you got a whole lot of really pretty woman in your lap.”

I did just get out prison, but I don’t fuck drunk chicks. I don’t fuck anybody. “I can restrain myself.”

He nods. “I trust you.” His eyes meet mine. He does. I think he really does.

I turn the chair and roll toward a diner I know is on the next corner. They have coffee. Lots of coffee. But when I look down at Star, she’s sound asleep on my chest, and I swear, this is the closest I have been to another human being in a really long time, particularly one with a vagina, and I don’t want to stop holding her. So, instead of taking her to the diner, I push her seven blocks to my apartment and into the elevator.

My arms are burning like they’re on fire by the time we get there, but it was worth it, because she keeps burrowing closer and closer to me. Her breath tickles the side of my face, and then my ear, and then she tucks her head under my chin.

I open my door and I have to adjust her body to get inside, tucking her into a tiny little space in my lap for a minute. She mumbles, but I can’t make out what she’s saying.

I could sit and hold her like this all night, but I think she’d be more comfortable if she weren’t bundled up in a ball on my lap. I roll her into my bedroom, pull my covers down, and lift her onto my bed. Her high heels are still on her feet, so I unbuckle them and take them off, and then set them gently beside the bed. Her toenails are painted pastel pink and I run my finger across her toe.

She burrows into my pillow. “I’m afraid to sleep alone,” she murmurs. “Monsters and shit.” Her blue eyes meet mine and they’re so full of something I don’t even understand that I stop breathing. She holds out a tentative hand to me, and it’s almost shaking. I give it a quick squeeze, scoot her over a little, and lift myself out of the chair onto the bed, using a special board that’s made just for me. I adjust my legs and lay on my back, so close to the edge of the bed that I’m afraid I might fall off.

She immediately curls into me and puts her head on my shoulder. She wraps her arm around my chest and tucks it under me on the other side. It’s like a hug of epic proportions and my insides start to melt a little. Honestly, I feel like something has cracked inside me and I want to pull her into my heart and let her fill up all the empty space.

I stroke a hand down the length of her hair and she murmurs at me, her lips moving against the skin of my chest.

“What did you say?” My voice is trembling. But so is my body, so that’s not surprise.

“Will you hold me?” she asks. “Do you mind?”

I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. “Shh,” I whisper.

But I remind myself that this is temporary. When she wakes up, she’ll remember where she is and who she’s with, and she probably won’t like it.

I pull the covers over her and stroke her back while her breaths go soft and even. But I don’t sleep. Because I don’t want to miss any of this moment. If I sleep, I’ll wake up and it’ll be over, and that’s the last thing I want. I have been alone for a really long time. And in this moment, I’m not.

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Chapters One and Two of ZZZ!

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Peck

 

My phone buzzes and I ignore it. It’s just one of my sisters.

The guy in the sound booth shoots me a dirty look. I’m working on a track for the new album, because I want to see how some new beats sound mixed with our new single. He hits a button. “Do you need to take a break?” he asks.

I shake my head and keep playing. I play drums for a band, and I don’t have time to stop right now. Anything my sisters have to say can wait until I’m done here.

My phone rumbles again.

“Let’s call it quits, shall we?” he says from the booth.

Sometimes it’s hell having four sisters. And sometimes it’s awesome. Right now I’m annoyed. I pick up my phone but instead of answering it I cram it into my pocket.

I go out into the sound area and sit down next to the recording engineer. “Let me hear it one time, will you?” I tap my drumsticks lightly on the table while I talk.

He mixes it all up, and music comes into the headset he gives me. I like it. I like it a lot. I smile at him and nod.

He smiles back. “It’s better,” he says. “You were right.” He shakes his head.

“Don’t look so happy about it,” I tease. I take the headphones off and lay them on the counter. I swipe a hand down my face.

My phone rings again, just as the door opens. It flies inward, slamming hard against the wall. I jump to my feet when my sister Lark comes sliding into the room.

“Oh, my God, I have been trying to call you for an hour,” she blurts out. She bends at the waist, trying to catch her breath. She stands up, pressing a hand to her side.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“I can’t breathe,” she pants. She holds up one finger. “Stairs.” She gulps air.

One of her gloves slips down her wrist, and that’s when I realize how serious this is. Lark never takes her gloves off. She never lets anyone see her hands or arms. Ever. For a long time, I thought she was just a germ freak—until I learned the truth. But the fact that she just let her glove slip tells me a lot. “Did someone die?” I ask.

She nods. But then she shakes her head. Then she nods again.

“Oh, my God!” I cover my mouth with my hand. “Who?”

“Sam Reed,” she pants out.

My heart lurches. My stomach dips and blackness crowds the corners of my vision.

“Emily just called to say he was in a really bad accident. They’re all on their way back from the beach to go to the hospital.”

I sink into a chair. “And he died?” How could he? We have unfinished business.

She waves a hand through the air. “No, no, not yet.”

I jump up. “Then why the hell did you tell me he was dead?”

“At the time, I was trying to breathe!” she yells back. “It’s not my fault you misunderstood!”

The door flies open again and another of my sisters runs into the room. Finally. Someone who can make sense of it.

“Emily just called again,” Wren says. “They just got to the hospital and Sam is in surgery.” Wren might be a mess on the outside, but she’s got it together on the inside. Thank God.

I jab my drumsticks into my back pocket and start for the door.

“Where are you going?” Wren calls to my back.

I don’t wait for her. I hail a cab and get in it, my heart beating about a mile a minute. Sam’s in the hospital. In surgery. I left things at a bad place the last time I saw him. A really bad place. I can’t stand the idea of him being injured and possibly dying without knowing how I truly feel about him.

 

***

 

The cab stops at the Emergency Room doors, and I get out. I go to the desk, and they tell me where the waiting room is for surgery, and I go in that direction. “Are you one of them?” the lady at reception asks me.

I lift my brow at her, because I can’t get my thoughts together enough to talk.

“There are a lot of them here for him.” I look blankly at her. “His family.”

Oh, yeah. There are a lot of Reeds, and all of them in one place can be a little intimidating. Lots of big, blond, tatted-up men. Like a buffet of testosterone and hotness, wrapped in pretty ink.

I stop in the doorway of the waiting area. I can hear the low murmur of male voices and stick my head into the room. The Reed brothers are all over the place, not to mention their wives. I find Emily and motion toward her. She waves me into the room.

I sit down beside her and she takes my hand. How bad is it? I ask her in sign language. Emily’s husband, Logan, is deaf, so the whole family signs. Thank God these people speak my language. Because if I opened my mouth right now, one big long stutter would come out, and nothing else.

Pretty bad, she replies.

What happened?

She shrugs and shakes her head. He left the beach right after the wedding to go home. He had to get to practice. He’d already missed way too much training time. And on the way from the airport to his house, he was in an accident.

Can I do anything?

“Pray,” Paul says from behind her.

Well, there’s that. I nod. Anything else?

She shakes her head.

Pete is sitting across the room with his elbows on his knees, his face buried in his hands. Reagan rubs his back and talks softly into his ear. He nods, albeit reluctantly, and kisses her quickly, pulling her against him for a hug. She falls into his arms, like she’s meant to be there.

Is it okay if I stay for a little while? I ask.

Emily squeezes my hand. “Of course.”

There’s a commotion in the hallway and my four sisters come into the room. They’re on their tiptoes almost, trying to be quiet. Emily gives them the story, and they sit down beside one another on the floor and lean against the wall.

The Reeds take people in like they’re family. Anyone. The only requirement is that you have a pulse. And if you don’t have a heart, they’ll give you theirs. So my sisters and I already feel a connection here, but I can’t help but think that we should leave and give them some privacy.

“Where are the kids?” Lark asks.

“With a sitter,” Friday says.

“All of them?”

There are a lot of Reed kids too. Paul and Friday have two—three if you count Jacob. And Matt and Sky have four little ones plus Seth. Emily and Logan have one.

Matt sniggers. “You say it like we have our own circus.”

“Well, if the shoe fits,” Lark says.

Pete holds up a finger. “That would be shoes—plural. Lots of circus animals.”

Do you want us to go and take care of the kids? I ask. We’d be happy to.

Sky, Matt’s wife, shakes her head. “We’re going to go home as soon as we find out what’s happening. He’s going to be fine. I’m certain.” She squeezes my hand.

Ten bucks says the wives might go home, but the brothers won’t. Or at least not all of them.

A man in green scrubs walks into the room. “Reed family?” he asks.

“Here,” they all say at once. The doctor looks around the room and shakes his head.

“Immediate family?” he asks.

“Here,” they all say at once again.

“Get on with it,” Paul barks.

“Your brother is a very lucky man,” the doctor says as he pulls his glasses from his face and brushes a finger over the bridge of his nose. “He broke his tibia—one of the bones in the lower leg—in the crash, and has a pretty bad head laceration. We stitched him up, set the leg, put him in a cast, and we’re going to need to keep him at least overnight.”

“Why?” Pete asks.

“The team physician wants us to keep an eye on him.”

So they know who he is. And what he does.

“How did the team know?”

The doctor shrugs. “I called them.” He glares at us. “He plays pro ball.” He says it like it’s the Holy Grail. “They’re sending the team physician to evaluate him in the morning.”

The door bursts open, and a couple of men and a few women walk into the room. They’re loud and noisy and they’re extremely disrespectful.

“Will he still be able to play?” one of them asks.

The doctor shakes his head. “He’s going to be on the bench for a while. It’s a damn shame, too.”

Paul swipes a hand down his face and takes a deep breath.

“Some players come back from an injury like this,” the doctor says helpfully.

Oh, hell, there’s a chance he might not play again?

“Can we see him?” Pete asks.

“One at a time,” the doctor says with a nod.

“Which way?” Pete barks. The doctor points.

Pete takes Reagan’s hand and drags her down the hallway. “Only one!” the doctor calls.

“We are only one,” Pete yells back, but he doesn’t stop.

“Matt, you should go next,” Paul says. “You have kids to get back home to.”

Matt nods, but he says, “So do you.”

“I’m going to hang out for a while anyway.”

“You know Pete’s not going to go home tonight,” Matt says.

Paul nods. “I know.”

Pete and Sam are twins. They have a bond.

The doctor shakes hands with Paul and leaves the room. The people who came in last swarm Paul, asking questions. It turns out they’re from the team. And the girls are cheerleaders.

“Only family can visit,” Paul warns.

“We know,” one of the girls says. “We heard about the accident and just wanted to come and check on him. We won’t stay long.”

I sit down beside my sisters. “Y-you should go h-home,” I say to them quietly. I talk to my sisters. I always have. My stutter isn’t as bad when I talk to them. Not as bad as it is with anyone else.

“We’ll wait,” Lark says. She leans the back of her head against the wall, and tilts it so that she can look at me. She takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “He’s going to be fine,” she says.

I take a breath.

I sit quietly as his brothers come and go. Pete and Reagan come out, and Matt and Sky go in. And the cycle continues until everyone has had a visit. Pete kisses Reagan goodbye. It looks like he’s going to spend the night after all. “This is a pretty sucky wedding night,” he tells her.

“You’ll make up for it later,” she teases him. He hugs her, and then walks her and the rest of them out to waiting cabs.

When Pete comes back, I stand up and wipe off the butt of my pants. I should go home. I can do nothing for anyone here.

Pete motions toward the hallway. “Come on,” he says. He doesn’t want the team members or the cheerleaders to see me. I sneak to the doorway and follow him down the hall. The smell of disinfectant tickles my nose.

When we get to Sam’s room, he’s sitting up, but his eyes are closed.

I don’t want to wake him, I sign.

He smiles. “You’re the only one he asked for.”

My heart thuds. He asked for me?

He nods. “He’s a little fucked up.” He grins. “Okay, a lot fucked up.”

I walk into the room and sit down in the chair beside the bed. Sam’s hand lies outside the covers, so I take it in mine. I can see the veins in his hand, stark against his too-pale skin, and I move his IV line over so I don’t bump it.

Sam’s hand suddenly squeezes mine. I look up and find him smiling at me. It’s a goofy grin, and I’m so damn happy to see it that tears fill my eyes.

“Don’t cry, cupcake,” he says softly.

His eyes are barely open, and they shaved part of his head.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I whisper. I tap my thumb on the bedrail, so I can talk without stuttering.

“It’ll take more than a semi truck with a drunk driver to take me out, cupcake.” He laughs, but then he clutches his head. “That hurt,” he murmurs.

“Can I do anything for you?” Tap. Tap.

“Just stay for a little while.”

I scoot my chair closer.

“Where’s Pete?” he asks.

“I don’t know.” Tap. Tap.

“He got married today. And I fucked his honeymoon all up.”

“He doesn’t seem to mind.” Tap. Tap.

He whispers fiercely, “He’s s’posed to be getting laid!”

I laugh. I can’t help it. “He’d rather be here.”

“If I had a choice between having newly-wed, wall-banging, awesomely good sex and hanging out with me, I wouldn’t pick me. I’d be at home fucking Reagan.” His face turns a little green. “Well, I wouldn’t fuck Reagan, because that would be gross. But Pete should be home fucking Reagan.”

His words are slurred and I can tell they’ve given him pain meds. But he still makes me laugh.

“Hey cupcake!” he says, like he just had a great idea. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” I say.

“I thought you were ready to kick me to the curb.”

I was. But when I found out he was hurt, it nearly gutted me. “Would if I could,” I say.

“Do you think you could fall in love with me, cupcake?” he blurts out.

I’m startled. I know he’s medicated, so I shouldn’t put any stock into his words, but I can’t help it. “You should get some rest,” I say. Tap. Tap.

“So, that would be a no.” He whistles. Then he scrunches up his face when it makes his head hurt. “I’m in trouble,” he whispers quietly.

“What?”

He squeezes my hand. “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you, cupcake,” he says. “I just wish you could love me back.”

“You’ve had a lot of pain meds,” I say.

Suddenly, he grabs the neck of my shirt and jerks me so that I fall over his chest. His lips are right next to mine. “Listen to me,” he says.

“Okay,” I whisper.

“I don’t have much going for me, but I know what love feels like.”

“How?”

“It just is, cupcake. You don’t get to pick who you fall in love with. And God knows, if my head could pick, it wouldn’t be you.”

I push back to get off his chest, because I’m offended. But he holds me tight.

“You’re not easy to love, because you can’t love me back. But you might one day. I’ll wait. But you got to start taking my calls.” He cups the back of my head and brings my face toward his. A cough from the doorway startles us apart. I stand up and pull my shirt down where he rucked it up.

“Visiting hours are over,” a nurse says.

“She’s not a visitor,” he says. She comes and inserts a needle into his IV, and his eyes close. He doesn’t open them when he says, “She’s going to marry me one day. She just doesn’t know it yet.” His head falls to the side and he starts to softly snore. His hand goes slack around mine.

I pull back, my heart skipping like mad.

“They say some of the most ridiculous things when they’re medicated.” The nurse shakes her head. “He probably won’t remember any of this tomorrow.”

Pete comes into the room. “Everything okay?” he asks. He looks from Sam to me and back.

“Just gave him some pain meds,” the nurse says.

I’m going to go, I sign to him. I turn back when I get to the door. Will you call if anything goes…wrong?

He nods. “I’m going to go get some coffee while he’s asleep.”

I go to the public bathroom and sink back against the wall. He was medicated. He didn’t mean any of that. Did he? He couldn’t have. I stand there until my heart stops feeling like it’s going to jump out of my chest. I need to go and tell him that I do have feelings for him. What if something goes wrong during the night and I can’t tell him tomorrow? I need for him to know.

I go back to his room and stop in the doorway. Sitting beside his bed is a girl. She’s holding his hand and talking to him. He smiles at her and says, “I’m serious. I’m going to marry you.”

My heart jolts. He may as well have stabbed me with a knife.

I turn and leave. I don’t run into Pete, and my sisters are waiting for me.

“What happened?” Lark asks when we get in the cab.

I wipe a tear from my cheek as it snakes a warm path down my face. “N-nothing.”

“Did you talk to him?”

I nod.

“And?” Wren chirps.

“A-and the ch-cheerleader is in with him now.”

“Oh,” Wren says.

“Yeah,” I say.

I’m an idiot.

 

 

 

 

Peck

 

When I was twelve, I went for months thinking I was dead. Everyone in my household ignored me. That was per my mother. “If she won’t speak, don’t speak to her,” she’d said. What she didn’t understand was that I wanted to speak. I wanted to speak with a desperation unlike any other. I wanted to unburden my mind. I wanted to talk.

I just couldn’t.

So I moved around the house, prepared my own meals, got myself on the bus and off, took care of my own laundry, and I spent most of my time in my room, since no one was going to talk to me anyway.

I thought I was dead. Because why else would they not speak to me? Why would they punish me like they did for something I couldn’t control? I must have died and someone forgot to tell me. I was a ghostly specter of myself.

My mother and her boyfriend spent more time away from home than in the small apartment my mom and I shared. He kept a place across town, and it became easier for her to stay there rather than come home. I didn’t mind. I was a ghost walking around alone anyway, right? I spent my nights alone and was grateful for the silence. Because it would still be silent even if she were here.

But then there was a problem one day at school, and I ended up in the emergency room and then had my appendix out. It took them four days to find my mother, and suddenly someone cared if I lived or died.

Her name was Mrs. Derricks, and she was the school counselor. She brought me into her office and changed my life that day, and every day since.

The door slamming behind me jerks me from my thoughts of Mrs. Derricks.

Why aren’t you dressed? I ask Lark in sign language as she drops her things on the couch and flops down.

“Dressed for what?” she asks, blowing out a breath.

For the funeral.

Her brow furrows. “What funeral?”

My hands fly wildly. Mrs. Derricks’ funeral!

“Oh, crap,” she says. She jumps up. “Totally forgot. Give me five minutes to change.”

I text Wren and Star to see where they are, but just as I hit send, they come through the door. They couldn’t be more opposite. They’re sisters, born one year apart. And while they look alike, they couldn’t be more different.

“You need to tie your shoe,” Star says to Wren.

Wren looks down. “Why?”

“Because you’ll trip over it.”

“Who cares,” Wren tosses back.

Star has her shirt tucked into a pair of nice pants, her creases all perfect and sharp. Wren, on the other hand, is wearing jeans and a T-shirt I think she stole from Emilio when we stayed over with him and Marta at their house for Christmas. It’s four sizes too big for her and hangs down almost to her knees.

Emilio Vasquez isn’t our real dad. He’s the man who “sprung us from jail” as he calls it. In reality, it was a group home, but he’s pretty accurate. He and his wife Marta couldn’t have kids, so they decided to use their millions to better the life of a child. And they ended up with five of us, all at once.

Emilio is a former rock and roll star who hung up his microphone when drugs and drinking destroyed his band. Marta is a former groupie he fell in love with, or that’s at least how he tells it. She smacks the back of his head every time he calls her a groupie. She’s a tiny little Latina fireball.

To us, they’re our parents. They’re the family we weren’t born with, but were lucky enough to grow into.

“I can’t find black gloves!” Lark calls from her room.

“Why do you need black gloves?” Wren yells back.

“For the funeral!” Lark bellows.

“Oh, shit.” Wren streaks to her room with Star right behind her. They forgot too, apparently.

Five minutes later, they all come out dressed in dark colors. Wren looks like a slouch, but a respectable slouch. Star looks like she could be walking a runway.

“Tie your shoe,” Star says to Wren.

“Why?” Wren asks.

Do we really have to do this every day? When we lived with Emilio and Marta, their solid presences kept the fighting down. But now that we’re on our own, my sisters snipe at one another like verbal fencing is their favorite pastime.

I tap my finger on the counter, because when I tap, I can speak without a stammer. “Has anyone seen Fin?” I ask.

Star shakes her head and squats down to tie Wren’s shoe.

“Can’t stand it, can you?” Wren taunts.

“Shut up,” Star grumbles. She pulls a brush from the tidy little purse she has hanging over her arm and goes toward Wren with it. Wren backs up and blocks her.

“You are not brushing my hair,” Wren says.

“Somebody needs to,” Star says. She holds the brush out and raises her brow.

Wren turns to the mirror, licks the palm of her hand, and slicks her hair down by dragging her wet hand through her pink-and-blue locks.

“That is so gross,” Star says.

Wren grins.

I shake my head and motion for everyone to go. We’ll just have to leave Fin. If I wait any longer, I’m going to be late for the funeral, and I simply can’t have that. Mrs. Derricks saved my life. She’s the reason I’m still alive. And now she’s gone. Tears burn my nose and I sniffle.

“Are you all right?” Wren asks quietly as we walk toward the car waiting out front. Our driver gets out and holds the door for us, and we all slide in.

Fine, I sign, holding my five fingers out in front of my chest. All of my sisters know sign language. It was the only way I could talk for a long time. Until Emilio put a pair of drumsticks in my hand one day and I realized I had a voice.

Suddenly, there’s a squeal of brakes as a red four-door coupe slams to a stop in the street. The car jumps the curb and lands with one wheel on the sidewalk.

“Sorry I’m late!” Fin yells as she jumps out of the car and runs toward us. She’s already dressed, so she just gets into the car. “Were you going to leave without me?” she asks with a huff, settling her black skirt around her as she scoots in the car.

Finch is her name, but we call her Fin. She’s perpetually late. Always. For everything.

“Yes,” we all say at the same time. We have learned through the years that if we wait for Fin, we’ll be waiting forever.

She grumbles something to herself. Then she reaches into her purse and pulls out a brand new pair of gloves. She tosses them to Lark and grins. “Thought you might need those,” she says.

“That’s why you were late?” Lark asks.

Fin nods, looking down her nose at all of us. “I went to get you black gloves. So sue me.”

“You suck so bad,” Lark mumbles. She turns away from everyone and pulls her gloves off, and pulls the new ones on. Lark never goes without gloves. Ever. These go all the way up to her elbows and the tips of the fingers are cut out. “Where did you get these?” she asks. “They’re comfy.”

“At that new shop on Main.”

Lark spins her hand in front of her. “Did they have more colors?”

“Only about a bazillion.”

“Nice.” Lark smiles. She looks at us. “We’ll have to forgive her for being late. She was doing a good deed.”

“If we have to,” Wren grumbles.

Fin flips her the bird.

The car stops in front of the church, and we all get out. We have a security team of two and they’ll be with us. Hopefully no one will recognize us, but you never can tell how people are going to react.

Marta and Emilio find us inside the church and come to sit with us. They kiss each of us on the forehead and ask how we’re doing. The two of them together—it’s like looking at newlyweds all the time. They’re so in love with one another that it hurts.

The service starts, and I feel tears prick my eyes and my nose starts to run. Emilio pushes a handkerchief into my hand. I wipe my eyes and try to keep it together. But Mrs. Derricks saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be if she hadn’t found out about me and made it her mission to help me. I certainly wouldn’t have four sisters and two wonderful parents, that’s for sure.

The church is bursting at the seams with people, and right before the service is over, we hear the whispers among the crowd. They know who we are, which means there’s a good chance we’ll get mobbed when we leave here. The security guards keep us close, flanking us on each end as we walk out the door. But when we get outside, there’s an even bigger crowd.

Someone inside the church must have alerted social media that Fallen from Zero was in the building, because there’s suddenly a mob of teenagers who are blocking the door.

“Oh, shit,” Emilio says.

Shit is right. This is awful. We try to speak, say hello, and sign some autographs, but suddenly someone jerks my hair.

“I got some!” I hear a female voice yell as she lifts a lock of my hair, which she just jerked from my head. I press on the offended spot. That hurts like crazy. My sisters start to run when they realize that this crowd is out for blood. I run too. Hell, I already lost a lock of hair. I don’t want to lose my clothes. Yes, that does happen.

We’re almost to the car when someone’s shoe sticks out and trips me. I hit the concrete hard, so hard that my forehead smashes into the sidewalk. Holy hell, that hurts. Someone steps on my wrist, and I scream.

But suddenly the crowd parts, and I see five really big men with tattoos holding back the offenders. “Back the fuck up!” one of them barks at the overzealous fans. I hold my wrist, because it’s throbbing like crazy, and roll over onto my back.

“I got you, cupcake,” Sam Reed says as he pulls me up off the ground. He moves me around like I’m light as a feather, getting me quickly to my feet.

“Th-thanks,” I murmur. Then I realize he just heard me stutter.

“I want to be your knight in shining armor, swoop you up, and carry you the rest of the way, but…” He looks down at the crutches he dropped.

I’d like to see you try, I think. But I don’t say it out loud.

His brother picks up his crutches and hands them back to him. Sam looks like he’s in pain. “You okay, Sam?” Matt asks. Matt is the one with the long hair and the kind smile.

“I’m okay,” Sam says. “Get her in the car, would you?” He jams his crutches under his arms and walks with us, and Matt holds my elbow.

Matt scowls at Sam. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Well, I couldn’t just let them walk all over her.”

“Um-hmm,” he hums. “I think the four of us had it covered, but whatever.”

Sam winces as he maneuvers his crutches. You okay? I ask. Since Sam can sign, talking with him has always been so easy.

“Fine.” He winces again, though, and I can tell he’s hurting. His eyes suddenly jerk up to meet mine and he says quietly, “This wasn’t how I’d planned on seeing you again, cupcake.” He reaches out and touches the side of my face. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.

I hadn’t planned on seeing him again at all. Ever. Not after the way we ended things.

“Can I call you?” he asks.

Best if you don’t, I sign.

He looks everywhere but at my face for a second. But then his blue eyes meet mine. “Why not?” he asks softly. He stares into my face.

I don’t answer. I see that the car door is open and I get in, still holding my wrist. The driver closes the door, and I fall back against the seat.

Emilio and Marta ended up in our car, and I’m glad of it. “M-melio,” I say. I try to move my wrist and gasp as pain shoots up my arm.

“What?” Emilio asks. He sits forward.

“I th-think I h-h-hurt my wr-wrist,” I finally get out.

He tells the driver to take us to the hospital.

I lay my head back and look out the back window. I can see Sam Reed standing in the street watching the car until it’s out of sight. He’s standing apart from his brothers and their wives, all by himself.

“I’m glad those boys were there,” Emilio says. “I’ll have to buy them a beer to say thank you.”

Marta clucks her tongue. “They’re going to get swamped themselves, if they don’t get out of there.” The Reeds are local celebrities, ever since their reality TV show started.

I touch the top of my head where I lost a lock of hair.

Marta leans forward and pulls my head down gently so she can look at it. “I think you’ll be okay,” she says. She pats my hair down flat. She leans close to my ear. “At least your head and your hand will. Not so sure about your heart.”

She turns to look back at Sam, but he’s a speck in the distance now, and that’s how he needs to stay.

 

 

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My short story about April and Kenneth — Hope you like it!

He’s a lying, cheating bastard, I think to myself. And I’m stuck with him for the rest of my life. I roll over and looked into Kenneth’s face. He has lipstick on his collar, and he doesn’t care if I see it. He never does. He’d dragged himself back to the hotel room at four in the morning. Here we are in Scotland for a “last effort to save our marriage” trip, and he disappeared last night. I didn’t have to ask him where he’d been.

I get up and take a shower, and wrap myself in a towel. I am in Scotland. Our daughter is with my mother for a few days, and I am not going to waste my time on Kenneth. He just isn’t worth it. I should have known this when my ex-boyfriend admitted to me at mine and Kenneth’s wedding that Kenneth had been sleeping with my maid of honor. But I had just said I do. And we had a baby on the way, so I stuck it out.

Kenneth rolls over and groans. “Come back to bed,” he says, his voice scratchy.

“No thank you.” I rummage around in my suitcase, trying to find something comfortable that I can wear for sight seeing.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, swiping a hand down his face.

“What do you think is wrong?” I take my clothes into the bathroom and put them on. I don’t want Kenneth to see me naked, not anymore. He isn’t worth my time. He isn’t worth my breath. He isn’t worth… anything.

I come out and he’s sitting on the edge of the bed. “Are you going to act like this the whole trip?” he asks.

“Where were you last night?” I bite out.

He hesitates for a second. “I met some people in the bar and, since you were tired, I hung out with them.” He doesn’t look at me when he says it, and I know he’s lying. He always is. If his mouth is open, he’s lying. “Seriously, April,” he growls. “Is this how it’s going to be?”

I heave a sigh. “Is it?” I ask.

He groans and gets up, brushes his teeth, and gets dressed. “Where are you going?” he asks.

“Sight seeing.” I pull my hair back into a ponytail and glare at him, daring him to try to join me.

He ties his sneakers. “I’ll come with you.”

I shrug. I don’t care.

We’re staying at an old bed and breakfast in Scotland. It has the old Scotch feel to it, and I stop at the front desk to see if they have any tourist brochures.

“Good morning,” I say to the man behind the counter.

He lowers his chin slightly at me, and shoots Kenneth a glare. Kenneth is oblivious to it all. “What are yer plans for the day, lass?” the old man asks.

I’m going to ditch my lying, cheating soon-to-be ex-husband and then go see the sights. “I’m going to walk around the town, I think. Can you make any suggestions about places to visit?”

He eyes Kenneth for a moment, until Kenneth walks around the corner. “Everythin’ all right, lass?” he asks.

“No,” I admit. “But it will be.”

An older woman gets up from where she was sitting at a desk behind him. “Perhaps ye should tell her about the falls, love,” she suggests, putting her arm around his waist.

The man jerks, looking surprised. “Like that, is it?” he asks. He smiles softly down at her.

She nods. “I believe so.”

The man takes out a piece of paper and draws a quick map for me. “It’s not on any of the walking trials, and it’s a wee bit of a nuisance to get ta it, but if ye’re up for it, it’ll be worth it.” He nods toward Kenneth when he comes back in the door. “Be sure ta take him with ye so he can keep ye safe.”

“Is it dangerous?” I ask.

“Only fer those who are not pure of heart,” he says, winking at me. “Legend has it that many a liar, cheater, and some general arse-holes have fallen to their deaths from the bridge.” He grins. “Perhaps ye’ll get lucky and he’ll tumble inta the rocks,” he whispers.

I laugh.

I thank them and walk toward the door. The old man calls out to me, “Go canny, lass, aye?” he says. “The lass who guards the bridge can be a wee bit fearsome.”

“The lass?” I ask.

“Aye,” he says. “Rumor has it that she killed her husband dead. Tossed his body right off the bridge, where he tumbled ta his death.”

“Oh.” The hair on my arms stands up. “Why did she do that?”

“She caught him with a hoor or five,” he says. He shrugs. “Canna let that pass without comeuppance.”

I snort. They have no idea.

I take the map, and Kenneth follows me quietly toward the exit. He doesn’t open the door for me, and he looks put out, until he sees a woman walk by with short shorts. His eyes follow her, so I just keep walking. He comes with me, but not until he’s done thoroughly disrespecting me.

I pick my way down the trail, following the map the man gave me. The trail is hidden in some spots, and I have to search to find it. Go canny, the man said. Be careful.

Kenneth grunts as I let a branch go and it hits him in the face. He swipes it back. “Would you be careful?” he snarls.

I once thought Kenneth was all I ever wanted. I gave up a sure thing, Matthew Reed, to be with Kenneth. Biggest mistake I ever made. But at least I got my daughter out of it. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

I stop when I see it. There’s a rushing river, and a large bridge. Water shoots off the rocks, and tiny rainbows fill the air from the spray of the water on the rocks. It’s beautiful. Mesmerizing.

I wait, and stare, and wonder what the heck I’m doing with the asshole who can’t keep his dick in his pants, wasting time, wondering where he is or who he’s with.

Suddenly, a woman appears on the other side of the bridge. She has long hair that has tumbled down over her shoulders, and she’s wearing a corset and a long dress. Maybe she’s part of a reenactment? She’s dressed in what I imagine could be old Scottish garb.

“Who’s that?” Kenneth asks.

I shrug, and walk to the edge of the bridge. She walks slowly toward us, her gaze on Kenneth.

“Good morning,” Kenneth says to her, and he’s using that voice I hate, the one that has an invitation in it.

She drops into a curtsy.

“How cool is that?” Kenneth says, punching my shoulder lightly.

The woman turns to face the rail, and I step up beside her. Kenneth stands between us, but he’s more interested in the woman than the scenery. He’s trying to look down her bodice.

“Rumor has it that the bridge can see into the soul. That it kens the heart of a person, good or bad,” she says quietly.

“And what does the bridge do about such individuals?” I ask.

“The good are allowed ta pass. Many a bad person has fallen to his death.”

“Kind of like trolls who guard the bridge?” Kenneth snorts.

She wraps a lock of hair around her finger and twists. “Do I look a troll ta ye, sir?” she asks?

“You’re the keeper of the bridge?” I blurt out.

“For many a year now.” She smiles at me. Her expression goes serious. “Do ye want fer me ta take him?” she asks me.

I laugh. “Oh, you definitely don’t want him,” I say, waving a breezy hand through the air.

She laughs, too. “Oh, I believe I do.”

Kenneth has the gall to look flattered.

“I’ll leave you two to it, then,” I say, and I turn to go back the way I came.

“Be certain,” she calls to me.

“I’m certain!” I yell back over the rush of the water. I’m certain that I would be happy if I never saw him again.

Suddenly, a huge rush of air pushes me back from the bridge. I turn back, and watch as the woman takes Kenneth by the arm and jerks him against her. He goes willingly, his lips touching hers.

I feel nothing. Nothing. So, I know that my marriage is over, at least. Relief hits me.

But then the woman stumbles against him, and she and Kenneth fall over the rail of the bridge wrapped in one another’s arms. I run to where they were standing and look over the edge. I watch them go end over end, and suddenly, there’s a thump as they hit the rocks below. Kenneth lies still, and I see that his arms and legs are canted at odd angles. His eyes stare blankly ahead.

The woman gets up and brushes herself off. She waves at me from below. “Ye’re welcome!” she calls. She smiles at me and walks into the forest.

I jerk awake and look around the room. Kenneth is lying beside me and he has lipstick on his collar. We’re in bed at a bed and breakfast in Scotland, where we were making a last ditch effort to save our marriage. Or at least I was. But that dream…

I get up and get dressed. I want to go home to my daughter. I want to be done with Kenneth.

I pack quietly and quickly, and he sleeps through it. I pull my suitcase to the door and give him a final glance. I’m done. So done.

I step into the hallway and close the door. I breathe in a sigh of relief. I haven’t felt this calm in a really long time.

I go to the desk and check out. The old man is behind the counter and he smiles at me. “Was yer stay all that ye expected, lass?” he asks.

“That and more,” I say.

“Will yer husband be joining ye?” he asks. “Or will he remain with us for a few days?” He smiles kindly at me.

“I have no idea what he’ll do.” And I really don’t care. I have a flight to change, and a baby to return to.

“Oh, if he stays, perhaps we can show him the falls,” the old lady says from behind the man. She walks up and puts her arm around his waist.

“The falls, ye say?” he asks her, grinning. He kisses her forehead. “I’ll be sure to send him in that direction.” He nods.

I grin as I go out the door. I know it was just a dream. But it was a dream I needed.

“Oh, lass!” the man calls to me.

I turn back. “Yes?” I say.

“Best of luck to ye,” he says. He winks at me.

I think about it a minute. “Who is the lady on the bridge, may I ask?”

He raises his brow. “Oh, ye saw old Madge, did ye?”

I nod. “We met briefly. Who is she?”

“She’s a local legend. Rumor has it that she had a lying, cheating husband, and she shoved him to his death from that very bridge.”

I nod and shrug. Makes sense to me.

“She’s been luring unsuspecting men to their deaths ever since. Only those who deserve it, mind ye.”

I laugh. Those who deserve it.

I shove out the door and walk into my brand new life.

“Go canny!” the man calls me to me.

“I will.”

Unedited chapter one of OO

Young casual couple isolated on white

Release date 8/20/14

Available for preorder on iBooks!   https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/only-one/id906542226?mt=11&uo=4&at=1l3voVk

Nick

 

Sunlight streams through my window and offends the backs of my eyelids. I look over at the blond head that’s tucked against the pillow next to mine. Who the heck is that? I brush her hair from her face and groan inwardly. How the hell did Jack get in my bed? Her name is Jackie, and I’ve known her all my life. Sometimes I wake up, and she’s found her way into my bed. I don’t even remember inviting her into it last night, but that’s not always necessary in Jack’s world. She does what she wants, when she wants.

My guess is that things weren’t great at home and her dad started swinging again, so she came here. That part doesn’t bother me. Why she’s in my bed is a whole other topic. I let her sleep and roll out of bed.

I’m just glad I wore boxers when I went to bed. Not that Jack hasn’t seen me naked. I’ve seen all of her, and she’s seen all of me, but that’s just because she gets drunk often and I have to drag her naked ass home. We never have and never will have sex. Ever.

We’re best friends, with no jealousy. Our relationship is free and easy, and we’re not territorial when it comes to relationships with other people. That’s what’s so great about us. Sometimes the loneliness overtakes me and I cave in to the need to feel someone close to me. Jackie doesn’t mind. I’m a guy and I absolutely hate to be alone. Sometimes the quiet becomes more than I can bear.

I walk into the kitchen and find my roommate Malone with his hand in the cookie jar. Literally, elbows deep in my mom’s Winnie the Pooh container. He grins at me, a lock of his dark hair falling over his eye. “Morning,” he says, and then he crams a handful of cookies in his mouth.

When he’s done chewing, he looks at me and waggles his brows. “Jack find you last night?” he asks.

“Apparently,” I mutter. “Who let her in?”

“I couldn’t leave her outside,” he says.

“Why did she pick my bed?”

He shrugs. “She was wrecked.”

She always is. “Next time, put her on the couch, will you?”

He looks at me sheepishly. “I tried that last night, but she wanted you, man.”

Yeah, but I don’t want her. At least not permanently. Not for more than what we already have. “Did Marty come home last night?” I ask. I don’t know why I feel the need to check up on our last roommate. She doesn’t even sleep here every night. She’s older than we are – 21 compared to our 19. She’s like the mother we never wanted when she’s here, making us clean up behind ourselves and put the toilet seat down. But she pays her rent, and that’s all I need. I can’t afford this place by myself, no matter how many jobs I have.

I look around. It’s not much, but it’s mine. I remember when my parents bought it. They were so proud. It’s a trailer in a lot about the size of a postage stamp, but it’s on the coast and it’s valuable to me just because of the memories.

“Haven’t seen Marty,” Malone says. He goes and knocks softly on her door and then opens it and sticks his head in. “Nope,” he says. “Not here.” He scratches his bare stomach. “I think I’m going back to bed.”

“Did you eat all the cookies?” I lift Pooh’s head and look down. He left me some Oreo dust. “Jackass,” I mutter.

He laughs and goes into his room. The door closes behind him.

I sort through the mail on the counter and get excited when I see a letter from Patty Michaels. I open it up and look at the check. Mrs. Michaels pays me to keep up her yard when she’s not here. Usually, she just sends a check each month – a generous check – and I never hear from her otherwise, unless I need to meet the exterminator or something for her. But a note falls out of the envelope.

 

Nick,

I’ll be arriving after graduation. Can you be sure the AC is serviced and tidy up the yard? We’ll see you in a week!

Best,

Patty Michaels

 

My heart drops all the way down to my toes. If the Michaels’ are coming to the beach, then that mean’s Carrie’s coming back to the beach. Carrie is their daughter. She hasn’t been here in at least three summers. Not since her parents separated.

Carrie is the one who got away. She was my first kiss. My first snuggle with a girl with boobs. My first boner in the arms of a girl. My first love. She was fourteen and I was fifteen the last time I saw her. Can you fall in love that young? My heart says you can.

Carrie was different from anyone I ever met. She could make me laugh and make me cry all in the same breath. One glance from her and I knew what I wanted for the rest of my life.

I’d seen the example of what love could be in my parents, so I felt like I knew it when I found it. Then she left and never came back. Life went on, but it hasn’t been the life I wanted. Or at least not after my parents died.

I jerk myself from my memories and look at Mrs. Michaels’s note again. Carrie’s coming back to the beach. I whistle as I go back into my room. Jack snuggles into my pillow, and I realize she’s not wearing anything but her panties. The covers are pushed down around her feet and she’s on her stomach, her arms tucked down at her sides.

I sit down on the side of the bed and brush her hair back. She mumbles something I can’t understand.

“Jack,” I whisper.

She doesn’t stir.

“Jack,” I say a little louder.

She moans into my pillow but doesn’t open her eyes.

“Jack!” I shout. She opens her eyes and looks at me, squinting against the sunlight. I trace a little circle against her back. “Hey, pretty girl,” I say. She smiles into the pillow, but she still doesn’t move. “You have to get out of here.”

“Where am I supposed to go?” she asks.

“I don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay in my bed.” I mean it. She can’t, because Carrie is coming back. I’m not sure what day, but I sure as hell don’t want her to find Jack in my bed when she does get here. “Where are your clothes?” I ask.

She shrugs.

“Did you have clothes on when you got here?”

She sits up, clutching my sheets against her chest. “I don’t remember,” she admits.

“You have to stop doing that,” I warn.

“I know.” She flops back down against my pillow.

I ruck one of my shirts up in my hands and slip it over her head. She sticks her arms in the holes and tries to close her eyes again. “Out!” I say. I pull her legs over the side of the bed and tug on the shirt she’s wearing until she sits up. “Now.” She stands up, tilting on her wobbly legs like a newborn colt. She walks toward the door. “Hey, Jack,” I say softly. She looks back at me, her eyes mere slits.

“What?” she asks.

“You have to stop doing this to yourself, okay?” I say.

“I know.” She doesn’t say more than that. She just walks out of my room in my shirt and her panties. I watch her, because I don’t want her to leave looking like this. But I have a feeling I know where she’s going. Just like I thought, she goes to Malone’s room and pushes his door open. I hear her say something to him, and then the bedsprings squeak.

I follow her and peek inside the room. She’s under the covers and his arms are wrapped around her. I don’t know why she didn’t just start out in his room. I very softly close his door. He’ll take care of her.

I have to get ready for Carrie. What if she has a boyfriend? What if she doesn’t remember me? What if she’s no longer the person I remember? Why didn’t she send a card or condolences when my parents died? Why didn’t she come back? Ever?

I have a lot to do to get ready. So I start by changing my sheets. Then I have to get the AC serviced at Carrie’s house. I still have a picture on my dresser that we took in a photo booth three years ago. It’s a strip of four photos. Carrie has her tongue out in one, her lips pursed in a kiss in another, and one with her lips pressed to my cheek. The last one is her looking into the camera lens while I stare at her. I wonder if she’s changed. And how much.

 

 

Carrie

 

I cover the mouthpiece and try not to breathe heavy enough for them to hear me. “I already made arrangements to have the beach house opened and everything. Just let me have her this summer,” my mom pleads. Her voice breaks over the line.

Please don’t let her have me this summer, I think to myself. I don’t want to go.

I haven’t seen my mother in four years. Not since she decided to leave our family. She met a man she loved more than us and one day, she just left. It was sort of like she never existed once my dad got over his temper-fit. He threw all of her things, or at least what she left in the house, onto the fire pit in the backyard and sang Living on a Prayer at the top of his lungs until nothing was left but a hangover and ashes.

Dad groans. “Where are you taking her?”

Her voice is quiet. “I thought we’d go to the beach.”

Dad heaves a sigh. “Patty,” he says on a breath. I can imagine him squeezing the spot between his eyes at the top of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

“We had a lot of good memories at the beach,” she says, her voice soft and so familiar that it makes my gut ache. But she’s not my mother any more. She’s that woman who left. She’s that woman who never came back. “You could go with us, if you’re worried,” she says. Her voice sounds… hopeful? I don’t even know how to describe it.

“You know I can’t do that,” he says.

“Would your girlfriend mind?” she asks.

Dad doesn’t have a girlfriend. He never did after she left, but I get the feeling he told her differently. “She wouldn’t approve,” he says.

“Oh,” Mom breathes. “But I could still get Carrie? For the summer? This is the last time I’ll ask. I won’t be able to darken your doorstep after this.”

What does that mean?

“You’ll never have to deal with me again. Just let me have this last season. Please?” Her voice breaks.

“Patty,” Dad breathes. And I hear his bedsprings squeak through the phone. I can almost imagine his knees going weak, because that’s what she does to him.

“John, please?” she begs.

“Okay,” he says on a heavy exhalation. “Fine. You can have her for the summer. If… things weren’t… like they are… I would never allow it. You know that, right?”

“Yes,” she says quietly. “I know that. And I understand why.”

“I have one condition,” he says.

“What is it?”

“You have to tell her about your diagnosis before you two leave. And you have to promise to send her home the minute you’re too sick to take care of her.”

What? What’s he talking about?

“I’ll tell her.”

“We’ll tell her together.”

I step into Dad’s bedroom doorway, the phone still clutched to my ear. He’s sitting exactly like I imagined, with his index finger and thumb pressed against the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed. “You’re going to tell me what?” I ask.

“Carrie!” Mom gasps.

Dad jumps to his feet. “How long have you been listening?”

I let the cordless phone drop down to my side. “Long enough,” I say.

I can hear my mother calling my name from down by my knee.

“We didn’t want you to find out this way,” Dad says, rushing toward me.

“Find out what?” I grit out, punctuating the words with clenches of my jaw.

Dad speaks to the phone and not to me. “You should come over, Patty. Now.”

He nods and mumbles, turning away from me to talk quietly with her for a minute. Then he turns back.

“She’s on her way.” He tosses the phone onto his covers.

“What’s going on, Dad?” I ask. My heart is thumping like a crazy woodpecker lives inside my chest.

“She’s on her way, and she should be the one to tell you.”

“Tell me what?” I finally yell. He stops and looks at me. His eyes are kind. They’re always kind. Dad wears glasses and has sandy blond hair. He has a bit of a potbelly that he can’t get rid of, no matter his diet, so he doesn’t worry about it. Right now, his face is bright red and he looks like he just ran a mile.

“Your mom has cancer, Carrie,” he says and he winces as the words come out of his mouth. He opens his arms and I fall into them. He catches me, just like he always does. All I can think as I sob into his shoulder is that I’m glad he told me before she gets here, because if she knew I cared if she lives or dies, she would have power over me again. Dad holds me close and lets me get it all out. When I’m done, I stand back and wipe my eyes.

“Is she dying?” I ask. I bite the inside of my cheek, calmed by the metallic taste of blood when I bite too hard.

He nods. “Yes, this will be her last summer.”

“Are you sure?” I wait. The clock on the wall ticks. One. Two. Three. Four.

He nods. “I’m sure.”

“Good,” I bite out.

“You don’t mean that,” he scolds.

“Yes, I do.”

I go into my room to compose myself. My mother is on her way over to tell me she’s dying and I have to spend her last summer with her. But my mother died in my heart three years ago when she left. I refuse to mourn her twice.

I have almost enough time to fix my hair and my makeup before she arrives. I hear the knock on the front door, but I refuse to go out until they make me. Mom and Dad talk softly in the kitchen and I can smell coffee brewing. My mom is a coffee fanatic, but my dad hates it.

A knock sounds on my door. “Hey, Carrie,” Dad calls. I don’t answer, so he cracks the door and sticks his head inside. “Your mom wants to see you,” he says. He shoots me a glare when he sees that I’m in my jammies under the covers.

“What?” I ask, throwing my hands up.

“Get up,” he says. He’s suddenly that dad. He’s one that has a sharp tone and a never-say-die attitude. When he’s that dad, I have to listen. I throw my book down and toss the covers back. I stomp past him, just because I can. “Carrie,” he says softly.

“What?” I ask when he grabs my arm to stop me.

“Never mind,” he says. He shakes his head. He motions for me to proceed. “You don’t have to make this difficult, you know?” he asks my back as he follows me down the hallway.

“I’m not the one who made it difficult,” I hiss back over my shoulder.

Then I see her.

I stop.

She’s sitting at the table with a mug of coffee cupped in her hands. She looks up at me, and there are already tears in her eyes.

“Hi, Carrie,” she says quietly. She doesn’t get up or move toward me or reach out for me in any way.

“Hi, Patty,” I toss back. I go to the fridge and get a bottle of water.

Dad winces but Mom chuckles. I didn’t expect that.

The last time I saw my mom, she was pleasantly plump. She wore Spanx and loose-fitting shirts and pants with elastic waistbands.

Now she’s not her.

She’s someone else.

She’s someone skinny with short, patchy blond hair that sticks out at odd angles. She raises her hand and absently strokes across the top of her head when she sees me staring at it. I step closer to Dad. I want him to touch me. I want him to ground me. I want him to make it all right. But he just hitches his hip on the counter.

Mom clears her throat. “So, about the summer,” she says. She swallows so loudly that I can hear it.

“About the summer,” I parrot. I don’t know what else to do or say. I lift my water bottle to my lips and take a drink.

“So, you don’t want to go with me, do you?” she asks. She looks hopefully up at me.

“No.”

“You’re eighteen. I can’t force you.” She shrugs.

“I can,” Dad murmurs. I look up at him and he glares back at me. I want to stick my tongue out at him, but he’s that dad right now.

“We can go sailing,” she sings. “We can fly kites. You always did like to fly kites.”

“When I was eight.”

“We can take long walks on the beach. You used to love to look for sea shells.”

“When I was five.”

“Some of your friends still live there.”

“Which ones?” I ask, before I remember that I’m supposed to remain aloof.

“Amber and Rose.” She looks up at me from lash-less eyelids. “And that boy you used to like.”

“When I was fourteen.”

“We could leave right after graduation. I’ll pick you up, and we can all go to dinner to celebrate, and then we can go to the beach.”

I look up at Dad. “Are you going, too?” I ask.

He shakes his head and pretends to sort through the mail. “Not this time.”

But isn’t this supposed to be the last time?

“So, it’s settled,” Mom sings again. She swipes a hand beneath her nose and sniffles. “We’re going to the beach.”

“Yay,” I say, deadpan.

“Carrie,” Dad growls.

I force the corners of my lips to turn up. “Yay,” I sing, pumping my fist in the air. “We’re going to the beach!” I look up at Dad. “Can I go back to my room now?” I ask.

He glances toward at my mother and she just shrugs. He leans over and kisses my forehead. He smells like woodchips and aftershave.

I start toward the hallway, and my mom’s voice calls to me.

“Carrie,” she says. I look back toward her. “I think I’m supposed to tell you that I’m dying and that this will be my last hurrah and that I want you to share it with me. But I’m just going to tell you that I want to spend the summer with you, even if you act like this the whole time, because I’ll take what I can get.”

Tears start to burn my eyes and I blink them back furiously. “I’ll go,” I whisper.

Dad puts his hands on my shoulders from behind and squeezes. “But she vows not to enjoy a single minute of it.”

Mom laughs. But it’s a sound with no joy in it at all. “I’ll take it.”

I nod and run toward my room. I go inside it and lean heavily against the wall. I leave my door cracked so I can hear what they’re talking about. But they’re so quiet that I can’t hear a thing. I do know, however, that my mom doesn’t leave until the early hours of the morning.