I glanced at the arm draped across my naked chest. It felt like…what was that bird from Brit Lit? An albatross, that’s it. I couldn’t see his face, but his deep breathing told me he was fast asleep. It was fun—and he was decent in bed—but now the fun was over. And there was no way I was sleeping here. I picked up his hand and gently laid it down as I slinked off the twin size mattress. The coils squeaked and I froze, hoping it wasn’t loud enough to wake him. I didn’t have time for pillow talk.
I kicked away the blue comforter that had fallen on the floor and found my clothes. Where the hell were my shoes? I dodged around the room as the sleeping body shifted around the bed. The sheet was barely covering the lower half of his body. His limp arm reached out among the empty space.
Stay asleep. Please, please, please.
He rustled some more and then lifted his head from the pillow.
“What are you doing?” he asked, his eyes barely opened.
Damn. Why did this part have to be so awkward? Getting naked in front of someone I barely knew—no problem. Engage in normal conversation afterward—not so much.
“I have to go.” I pulled my jeans on and slipped on my tank top.
His biceps bulged as he propped up on his elbows. The years he spent on the football field certainly paid off. We’d been eye-fucking for weeks all around campus. He’d been an itch that I was happy to scratch. A few times.
“Okay…” He continued to watch me search through the cluttered floor for my shoes. “Can I call you sometime?”
Oh, screw it. They were just some cheap flip-flops anyway.
“I don’t think so.”
His eyebrows lifted a little. “Seriously?” He let out an uneasy chuckle.
“Sorry, I’m supposed to be somewhere in a few hours.” I made my way to the door and stole one more look his way. “See you around.”
I closed the door behind me and paused a minute in the dark hallway. Nothing I said ever felt right. Thank you? No. It was fun? Not always the case. It was always easier just to be gone before they even realized I’d left.
I fished out the car keys still in my pocket and hoped I didn’t run into anyone else wandering the frat house at this hour. My hand slid over the wooden bannister of the staircase, the familiar smoothness reminding me of the barre exercises I’d practiced so much when I was younger. Excellent extension, my teacher used to say.
My bare feet froze to the step when the doorknob started to jiggle.
Rich walked in and shut the door behind him before noticing I was there.
His eyes lit up when he finally noticed me, like I was just the person he wanted to see.
“Sneaking out, are we?” he said with a smirk.
“You’re one to talk.” I slid the mood ring I always wore around my finger with my thumb. Black as usual. It hadn’t changed color in years. Not since the day my best friend had moved away, and I had been forced to fend for myself.
“I was out with my girlfriend, actually.”
“Good for you,” I mumbled, walking down the last step. I tried to shrug past him to leave, but he stood in my way. I crossed my arms. “Can you let me pass, please?”
“You’re still doing this?” He was so close I could smell the remnants of his cologne. The same one he used to wear when we’d been together. “At least I know it wasn’t just me.”
“You know the only bed I sleep in is my own.”
He smirked and glanced down at the keys he held in his hands. “Isn’t it getting old for you, Maeve? This whole…slutty thing you got going on.”
I shoved past him and made a break for the door.
I didn’t look back. Didn’t want to see the snicker on his face. Because I was doing just that—sneaking away.
I wouldn’t have time to sleep before I left for the dreaded potluck BBQ. It was a long drive, and I promised Aunt Meg that I would be around. And I’d never hear the end of it from Kasey if I didn’t show up. If I crashed in bed, there was no way I would wake up in time. In the car, I lit a cigarette, put my phone on the charger, and found a decent radio station.
An hour into the ride, my eyes ached. I pulled the car into a gas station to fill up and grab a few Red Bulls. Shit, I needed a pair of shoes. I told the gas attendant to fill the tank and handed him my card. He grabbed it, glancing first at my chest, and then down at my bare feet.
Not a chance in hell, buddy.
I carefully treaded inside the mini mart, my eyes combing the black asphalt for any shards of glass. I made it inside unscathed and prayed I could find something for my feet.
I said a silent prayer of thanks when I saw the little section dedicated to cheesy T-shirts and thin foam flip-flops. I ripped the tag and slid them on my blackened feet. They were a little big, but it was better than nothing. Three Red bulls and some snacks later, I approached the register to pay. The cashier looked about my age and had a sleeve of tattoos on either arm. His gaze met my cleavage before my eyes. I didn’t mind as much as I did with the guy outside.
“Anything else?” he asked.
Was there anything else?
“Nope,” I said, accentuating the P sound. “This is it.”
God, I hope this isn’t it.
He told me my total and slid my stuff into a bag.
Once I was back on the road, I felt the buzz from the Red Bulls kick in. That’s what I seemed to be living off of these last few months.
I managed to make it to Aunt Meg’s without falling asleep behind the wheel. I jostled up and down in my car as it negotiated the bumpy dirt driveway. I parked the car next to Uncle Jim’s pickup truck and found a stray hair tie in the glove box to throw my hair in a ponytail. I pinched my cheeks to give them some color and surrendered to the dark circles under my eyes.
I lit one more cigarette and got of the car to grab my bag in the trunk. Maybe Aunt Meg would still be sleeping. Fat chance. That woman never slept-in a day in her life. Jack, Uncle Jim’s sheepdog, came barreling out of the house in my direction.
“I can smell that cigarette from here,” Aunt Meg’s voice boomed.
I scratched behind Jack’s ears as he pounced on me with a wagging tongue. I turned around to face her, my bag slung over one shoulder. “Hey, Aunt Meg.”
“Don’t think you’re coming in this house with that cancer stick still on your lips.”
I threw it on the ground and smashed it with my cheap foam shoe.
“Didn’t think you’d be here this early,” she said as I walked toward her.
“I told you I would be.” I opened my free arm and gave her a hug. “Besides, Kasey’s been texting me non-stop for the last two days.”
“I’m glad you decided to come,” she said, patting my back.
I followed her inside the old farmhouse. It smelled like maple syrup in the kitchen. “Where’s Uncle Jim?”
“Checking on one of the goats. She’s about to give birth.” She poured a cup of coffee and handed it to me. “Have you eaten at all?”
“I picked something up on the way.”
“Your sister’s still asleep. She had another bad attack last night.”
“Again?” It’d seemed like her asthma had worsened these last few months.
Her pediatrician kept insisting she’d grow out of it. We weren’t convinced. But when you have subpar state-based health coverage, you’re lucky if they even listen to you long enough to get your health history.
“Doctor put her on another medication. Hopefully, it’ll help.”
“How come no one told me about it?” I said.
Aunt Meg rummaged through the cabinet with all of the prescription medications. Between her, Uncle Jim, and Kasey, they could open up their own pharmacy. I should be thankful that Kasey had health insurance; I had trouble enough affording her out-of-pocket costs.
“Here,” she said, handing me the bottle. “This is what she’s taking.”
I read over the label and recognized it as an oral steroid.
“The copay for prescriptions has gone up,” Aunt Meg said.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
She gave me a onceover. “You look like you haven’t eaten a decent meal in a month.”
“What time’s everybody coming over?” I slid into one of the wooden chairs.
“Around three.” She grabbed some eggs from out of the fridge.
I’d have to collect some before leaving. The eggs from the grocery store didn’t compare to the ones Aunt Meg and Uncle Jim’s chickens produced. Uncle Jim had handcrafted this special feed that took years to perfect. As a kid, I loved to dunk my toast into the deep yellow yolk.
“I’ll make you something to eat, and then you should go back to bed for a little while.”
“I’m fine.” I didn’t want to tell her that I’d gone a lot longer than twenty-four hours without sleep. With enough caffeine, I could run a marathon. “I came early to help you set up.”
“There’s not much to do. Everyone’s bringing a little something. Tables and chairs are already out.” She eyed me as she cracked two eggs into the hot cast iron pan. They sizzled, and the smell snaked to my nose. “Are you nervous?”
“Seeing Jacob again.”
“Why would that make me nervous?” I ran my fingernail in the small groove in the wooden table.
“I don’t know.” She reached for a spatula. “It’s been a long time since you’ve seen each other.”
Eight years to be exact. I’d thought about him a lot. Wondered what kind of person he turned out to be. “I’m sure he barely remembers me.”
“Of course he does. You two were inseparable since the first day you met.”
“That seems like a lifetime ago.”
“His mom said he was looking forward to coming back. I’m sure he’s dying to see you.”
The eggs popped in the pan as Aunt Meg peered over her shoulder to look at me. What was I supposed to say? That I was afraid I wasn’t going to measure up?
“I’m going to wake lazy up.”
“Okay. But don’t think you’re getting away without eating breakfast first.”
I inhaled breakfast, remembering how much I’d missed a homecooked meal. Aunt Meg put another load of laundry into the washing machine, and I scurried up the steps to Kasey’s room.
I knocked on the door but opened it when no one answered. She lay in the bed, a mess of dark hair covering half of her head. It was hard to believe she just celebrated her tenth birthday. It seemed like yesterday when I was putting her hair in pigtails.
I jumped up and landed on the bed with a thud.
“Hey!” I said.
She groaned and flopped over on her stomach. “Summer vacation’s not over yet.”
“Time to get up!”
It took her a minute to realize it was me, but when she did, her eyes widened.
“You’re here,” she said, sitting up. “It’s about time.”
I scooted up so that I was lying next to her. “I drove as fast as I could.”
“What time is it?” She stretched her arms over her head.
“Time for you to get up. Company will be here soon.”
“Ugh,” she groaned. “I hope Uncle Will doesn’t show up. If I have to hear about his chronic grout…”
“You mean gout.” I chuckled.
It was a favorite pastime of our family. Arguing over whose medical problems were worse.
“You know you’re looking forward to it,” I said.
“Not as much as you are.” Her round light blue eyes twinkled. They reminded me so much of our father.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Isn’t your old boyfriend coming today?” The freckles over the bridge of her nose danced when she smiled.
“He wasn’t an old boyfriend. Just a friend.”
“I don’t remember him.”
“Well you wouldn’t. You were just a baby when he moved away.”
“Aunt Meg showed me the picture of him. Do you think he still looks the same?”
I got up from the bed and tinkered with some of the things on her dresser. “Of course, not. People change.” An opened music box sat in the corner—a ballerina on pointe, her arms in fifth position.
“That’s so true. Like Aaron McGregor, Riley’s old boyfriend, when he came back from summer camp.”
I closed the box and reopened it, but the music didn’t turn on. The ballerina twirled in the middle of the box; her fading face fixated toward the sky. It had been a gift from Jacob for my thirteenth birthday. “What do you mean?”
Kasey stuck her finger in her throat and made a gagging sound.
I laughed. “Get up and get ready. I’ll meet you downstairs.”
* * * *
As soon as the rain let up, I walked to the barn to find Uncle Jim with Jack trotting beside me. I inhaled the smell of wet grass and ran my hand against the sheets waving in the breeze on the clothesline. As I got closer to the barn, the sweet dewy smell of the damp earth was soon replaced with the smell of goats and chickens. I unlatched the gate and swung the heavy door open.
“Uncle Jim?” I called.
The faint bleating of goats resonated toward the cavernous space.
“In here,” he called back.
I stepped inside, following the sound of his voice.
I walked past the empty pens until I found him hunched over a pile of hay.
“Hey, Uncle Jim.”
He smiled wide. “Look who it is.” He stood up to give me a hug. “You came just in time. Could use another hand around here. This girl’s gonna’ pop any minute now.”
I chuckled as he pet the goat’s head. “She looks like she’s about to burst. How many does she have in there?”
“Hard to say, really. One for sure. Maybe two.” The doe wobbled down on her front legs to nestle into the hay. “How’ve you been? It’s been a while since we’ve had you home.” He pulled out the handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his flush face.
“I know. I’ve just been busy with school and work.” I followed him out of the stall and watched as he locked the gate.
“That’s okay. You’re all grown up now. Hard for us old people to understand that. And by old people, I mean your Aunt Meg.”
I smiled and tucked a lock of hair behind my ear.
He ran the handkerchief over his face again.
“You feeling okay?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Has your aunt gone into crazy mode yet?”
“Sort of,” I replied. “She sent me out here to come get you. She doesn’t think it’ll be good for the party if you show up smelling like the animals.”
He chuckled as we walked. “Are you ready for this BBQ?”
I shrugged. “Every relative within a five-hundred-mile radius all together in the blazing heat? Sounds like a great time.”
“Oh, it won’t be that bad…hopefully.”
I sighed. “I know.”
Back at the house, Uncle Jim and I did a few more last-minute tasks while Kasey picked wildflowers for the tables. After everything was ready, I snuck away to take a shower and wash the sweat off. I’d spent the last two hours arranging tables and chairs under the tent in the backyard in the disgusting humidity. Not to mention, I could still smell what’s-his-name’s cologne on my skin from our romp last night.
I left my hair wet, braided it, and threw on the shorts and top I packed. The foam flip-flops were already falling apart, so I’d be barefoot for the rest of the day. Not that I cared. I’d spent plenty of time as a kid running around this place with no shoes on.
Downstairs, Aunt Meg and Uncle Jim were bickering. I stopped at the top of the steps to eavesdrop. They were talking so low, but the walls were thin in this old house.
It wasn’t the first time I’d overheard them bickering about money. The farm had been struggling for the last few years, and things were only getting worse. Earlier, when I’d been searching for the scissors, I’d come across a few past due bills tucked away in a drawer.
I crept downstairs, and they stopped when they noticed me.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
They both froze, their mouths open. They looked to each other, probably hoping the other had a better explanation.
“Nothing, dear,” Aunt Meg said.
“Come on, guys. You still think I can’t hear you arguing when I’m not in the room.”
“We’re not arguing,” Uncle Jim said. His face had grown a shade redder than before. “We’re just having a discussion.”
They were still talking low, and I knew it was because they didn’t want Kasey to overhear the conversation. I glanced out the window over the kitchen sink and saw her arranging the flowers in a vase at one of the tables outside.
“Is the farm in trouble?” I asked.
Uncle Jim and Aunt Meg glanced at each other.
Uncle Jim cleared his throat. “Things have been tough around here. Seems like every year gets a little harder.”
“We didn’t want to bring this up today,” Aunt Meg said. “But we’re thinking of putting the farm up for sale. The bank is threatening foreclosure if we can’t make up the missed payments.”
My stomach flopped. “You want to sell the farm?”
They couldn’t do that. The farm was my home. Kasey’s home. The only sense of stability we had left in this world.
“What about the money I’ve been sending?” I asked. It was every last dollar I could spare—sometimes even more. Those were the months I’d live off instant noodles and tap water. But it took care of whatever Kasey needed.
“Of course,” Aunt Meg said. “You know we appreciate all the help, really.”
“We are proud of you, Maeve,” Uncle Jim said. “You’re a good girl.” He kissed the top of my forehead. “We’ll talk about it some more later.”
The kitchen door swung open and slammed shut.
“Oh great,” Kasey said. “I guess they told you, too.”
My heart skipped a little. It didn’t seem like Aunt Meg and Uncle Jim to share this news with Kasey. They shared my mission of protecting her against as much conflict as possible. She’d already been through enough.
“What is she talking about?” I said.
“Well…” Aunt Meg looked to Uncle Jim for some help.
“Your mother called,” he said.
I rolled my eyes in disgust. The good news just kept coming. “Forget I asked.”
Aunt Meg gave a warm smile. “She wanted to know if it would be all right if she—”
“No,” I said.
“I vote yes,” Kasey said.
I squinted my eyes at her. “Traitor.”
I didn’t share her same affection for our mother. Then again, Kasey did see her a lot more often. It was easier for her. She was so young when I’d started running away from home. And she definitely didn’t remember the one time I’d brought her with me. She had been just a few months old. I carried her wrapped in blankets all the way to Aunt Meg and Uncle Jim’s from my house.
Aunt Meg opened her mouth to say more. Probably to try and convince me to change my mind. It was her sister—I got it. But it still didn’t change the fact that I couldn’t stand the sight of my own mother.
Uncle Jim took a few steps closer to me. “We already told her no.”
* * * *
The relatives started to trickle in, bringing pies and potato salads. Jack darted around the tent, his nose following the smell of food. I tried to fade into the background and keep myself busy with helping with the food or getting more ice from the freezer. Living near campus had made me soft. I was quickly reminded of the hardship of farm life every time I came here for a visit.
“Maeve,” Aunt Meg called as I refilled the cooler with ice.
I shook the bag to empty out every cube before tossing it in the nearby trashcan.
“Look who’s here.” She reached out for me with one hand as she gestured to the tall guy beside her.
He towered over the crowd. His dark, messy hair flopped over his hazel eyes. The scruff on his face definitely added to his I-just-rolled-out-of-bed look. I knew this face. Those eyes behind the glasses.
“Hi, Maeve.” He gave me a timid wave of his hand.
My heart drummed in my ears. Sweat pooled in the creases of my palms. I almost couldn’t believe he was standing in front of me. The last time I saw Jacob Young I was flat as a board. His mother and Aunt Meg were best friends, so he spent a lot of time with me here.
“Jacob’s just moved back to start veterinary school,” Aunt Meg explained to the few others who were standing nearby. “He’s going to be staying here and helping us with the animals until the semester starts.”
“Really?” someone asked.
He pushed his black-framed glasses higher on his nose. “Yeah, just got here from the airport, actually.”
“Maeve, why don’t you get Jacob something to drink? I know you two have a lot to catch up on.” She gave me a smile that told me she was up to no good before scurrying away.
I wiped my hands on my shorts. “So, what do you like to drink?” Looking him in the eyes was proving difficult.
“Um, I’ll take water if you have it.”
God, his voice was deep.
I rummaged through the cooler and picked out a cold bottle from the bottom. I twisted the top off and handed it to him. “Here you go.”
He thanked me before taking a sip, his gaze scoping out the plethora of geriatric company.
“So, graduate school, huh?” I popped open a beer for myself.
“Yeah, I took a bunch of summer classes to finish my B.S. early.”
That was no surprise.
He took a sip of water. “What are you studying?”
I smiled. “Undecided.”
We stood feet apart. The conversation dead. It’d been so long since we talked; I didn’t know what to say. I swatted a fly away from my face and crossed my arms. This was beyond awkward.
“Do you live in the dorms?” he asked.
“No. I rent an apartment close to campus.” Another incident I’d never told Aunt Meg—getting kicked out of my dorm last year for “sexiling” my roommate too much. I couldn’t help it if I needed so much privacy with my guests. She had it out for me, anyway—convinced I was after her boyfriend.
He nodded and took another swig from his water.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I was supposed to stay with a buddy of mine. But that’s not happening anymore.”
“Something about his girlfriend moving in. It’s too late for me to get room and board from the school, so I guess I’ll be staying here until I can get it figured out.”
I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. “I can show you around campus one day if you want.”
That answer wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm.
Kasey weaved through the tables and chairs and stood beside me.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” Jacob replied.
“You’re Jacob, right?”
“Yep.” Jacob looked at me for a quick second.
“I’m Kasey.” She held out her hand and Jacob shook it. “Do you know who I am?”
“Maeve’s little sister, right?”
“Is that a tattoo?” she said, reaching for his bicep. She pushed back the sleeve of his t-shirt and revealed the rest of his toned arm.
He didn’t have to answer since she was already examining the ink. My eyes glazed over his broad shoulders.
“Kasey,” I said. “Don’t be rude.”
“What?” she asked, a little annoyed. She focused back on Jacob’s arm. “How many do you have?”
“A few.” His body stiffened.
I tugged on Kasey’s shirt, and she backed off.
“I want to get a tattoo. Maeve won’t let me.”
“Because you’re too young,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “Excuses, excuses.”
“When you’re eighteen, you can do whatever you want.”
She smiled and cocked her head. “How about Maeve?”
“Excuse me?” Jacob asked.
“How does she look?” Kasey said.
I elbowed her just a little. “I think I hear Aunt Meg calling you.”
She looked behind her shoulder. “I didn’t hear anything.”
I widened my eyes at her.
“Right…I’m out of here.” She scurried off and sat next to Uncle Jim.
“Sorry,” I said. “She likes to ignore people’s personal space.”
A shrill laugh broke the conversation as another aunt I hadn’t seen in years barreled toward me. She wrapped me in a hug and pulled back to examine how much I’d grown.
“Look at you,” she said, her cheeks rosy from the heat. “You’ve got your mother’s great figure and brown eyes.” I did an internal cringe at the comparison. She looked at Jacob. “Is this your boyfriend?”
I almost laughed. Boyfriend.
“No,” I said. “This is Jacob Young.”
She gasped. “Carol’s boy?”
Jacob gave a tight-line smile and slight nod of his head.
“Is your brother here?” she asked.
“No.” He readjusted his glasses again. “He’s still back home in Florida.”
Jacob got caught in conversation with the aunt, whose name I couldn’t remember, and I slinked away. For weeks, I’d obsessed over the moment I’d see Jacob again It all seemed so anticlimactic now.
I walked back to the house to see if Aunt Meg needed any more help.
“Why don’t you just relax and enjoy yourself,” she said to me.
I twirled the sunflower I’d picked out of the vase.
“It’s nice having Jacob home, isn’t it?” She kept her focus on the fruit she was rinsing.
“He’s different,” I said.
“That’s what happens when you grow up. It’s not a bad thing.”
I laid the sunflower on the counter. “I forgot to mention that I can’t stay long. I could only get a few days off from work. I need to get back soon.”
“How’s work at the drugstore, anyhow? I hope you’re leaving yourself enough time for school.”
“Fine. Boring, but fine.”
I still hadn’t gotten around to telling her I’d been fired from the drug store months ago. I’d slept with the floor manager, and he blabbed to one of our coworkers..
I took a vow when I turned eighteen that I wouldn’t call home to ask for help. Not that it was even an option. And asking Aunt Meg or Uncle Jim was out of the question. They’d already given me so much, and now they were on the brink of losing everything.
“All right,” she said, handing me a piece of cut fruit. “But make sure you exchange numbers with Jacob before you go.