because they were happy together. I had never really seen Gunner happy before. Willa seemed to make him that way.
The crash from the kitchen jerked me out of my dreams and into reality. Something was burning and Bryony wasn’t in bed beside me. Her sweet blond curls and big blue eyes were what normally met me when I opened my eyes.
Jumping up, I ran through the already open door of my bedroom and sprinted toward the kitchen. A million things ran through my mind as I went the short distance. Bryony never got out of bed without me. Another crash happened just as I turned the corner into the kitchen.
My grandmamma was standing at the sink with a frantic look on her face. The pot on the floor had been full of uncooked oats and milk, which were now splattered on the tile floor. Smoke was coming from the toaster behind her, and I moved quickly to jerk the plug out of the wall before things got worse.
“Momma,” Bryony’s sweet voice called out from behind me.
Spinning around, needing to see her face and know she was okay, I almost slipped on the milk under my feet.
The wild curls of her hair were sticking up everywhere as she stared up at me with wide eyes and a frown. “I’m some hungwy,” she said.
I reached down to pick her up before she stepped into the mess on the floor and cradled her against me. Holding her was enough reassurance to calm me down.
“Grandmamma was trying to fix you something, I see,” I said, looking toward my grandmother, who was now looking down at the spilled breakfast at her feet.
“I don’t know,” Grandmamma said. Her voice sounded lost, like she wasn’t sure what she was saying or why she was standing there. This was normal for her. Some days were better. Others were not. Today was not going to be a good day.
“I’ll put Bryony in her high chair and get her some cereal, and then I’ll clean this up. What do you want me to fix you, Grandmamma?” I asked her.
She turned her gaze to mine, and the confusion there always made me sad. The woman who had taught me to make biscuits and sang me songs while playing the pots and pans like drums was no longer there. She was lost inside her head.
“I don’t know,” she said, which were words I heard often.
I moved over to put Bryony in her high chair before going to take my grandmamma’s arm and move her away from the slippery mess. Most mornings I woke up earlier than my grandmother. Today I had overslept. My mom normally woke me up before she left for work, but today she either had tried and failed or had forgotten.
“I’m some hungwy,” Bryony said again. That was her way of telling me she wanted food, and now. If she’d woken up and found Grandmamma in the kitchen, she would have told her the same thing. For a moment, Grandmamma had known that meant she needed to feed her. But that brief memory left and she had dropped a pot. A dish was also broken on the floor with what looked like applesauce on it. Then, of course, the burned toast.
“Okay,” I told her and reached for a box of cereal to place some on her tray. “Eat this and let Mommy clean up the mess.”
Bryony picked up a piece of the round oat cereal and put it in her mouth.
“I broke a plate.” Grandmamma’s voice was full of concern.
“It’s okay. Accidents happen. I’m going to clean this up, then I’ll make you some of your favorite steel-cut oats with brown sugar and apple slices. Okay?” I assured her with a smile.
She frowned. “That’s my favorite?”
It was like dealing with another child. We hadn’t been back in Lawton, Alabama, long, but the time we had been back hadn’t been easy. Watching someone you love so much live lost in their own head was heartbreaking. Alzheimer’s was a terrible disease.
“Gandma hungwry,” Bryony told me.
I turned my attention to my daughter and smiled. “Yes, she is. It’s breakfast time.”
“Sandra will be upset about her plate. She loved those plates. I’ll need to go into town and buy her a new one at Miller’s. Least I can do.”
To anyone else, those words might have sounded sane. Logical. But they were anything but. For starters, Sandra was my grandmamma’s sister who had passed away from cancer when I was three years old. And Miller’s hadn’t been open for business since 1985. The only reason I knew this was because Grandmamma had sent me to fetch something at Miller’s when we first moved back and I’d started out the door when Momma stopped me and explained. Grandmamma was living in the past. Roy Miller had passed away of a heart attack in ’85, and his family had closed the store and moved out of Lawton.
Instead of reminding her of all this, though, I had found just going along with it was easier. If I told her Sandra was dead or that Miller’s was closed, she’d go into a fit of hysteria. That was what she knew and remembered today. So I ignored her comment and cleaned up the floor before getting a pot of oats on the stove cooking properly, then disposed of the burned toast out the back door.
“Do you know where I put Lyla’s applesauce? She needs to eat some this morning. I made it fresh yesterday from the apples I got at Miller’s.”
Lyla was my mother. That was another thing that Grandmamma confused. She often thought Bryony was my mother when she was a baby. Again lost in the past.
“I’ll get her some applesauce. You just sit there and relax. I’ll get you some juice. Watch the pretty birds outside. They’re eating the birdseed we put out yesterday.” That got her attention, and she began watching out the large bay window for the birds.
Mom only worked until noon today at the hospital. I would be able to take Bryony out for a walk and to the park after lunch. I needed to get them fed and start the morning chores so we would have plenty of time later to go play. The sun was shining and the warm days were behind us. The cool autumn air was perfect for being outside. And Bryony loved to pick up the different-colored leaves on the ground. She called them her “cowection.”
Don’t Let Your Good-Guy Complex Make You Crack
Week two of life without Ivy, and the drama was still going strong. I had thought finally cutting her free would make both of us happier, especially me. But Ivy crying in the halls and leaving me sad texts about being lost without me wasn’t easier. I didn’t like knowing I’d hurt her. But I couldn’t help it. It was either end it or continue letting her pretend we were something we weren’t.
Truth was, if I had really loved her I wouldn’t have wanted another girl. I may not have gotten the other girl, but I’d wanted her. That right there was me not treating Ivy right. Breaking up with her had been the fair thing to do. But to watch her carry on, you’d think otherwise.
“Be strong. Don’t let your good-guy complex make you crack,” West Ashby said as he walked up beside me in the hallway. He was one of my best friends. Possibly my only best friend. Since I may have been in love with my other best friend’s girlfriend at some point. I wasn’t sure about that, really.
“She’s not taking this well,” I replied, refusing to look toward Ivy and her group of friends, who were all watching me. I could feel every eye on me like hot daggers. I wasn’t the guy who got angry glares. That was the sort of thing West or Gunner would get. Not me. I was the good guy.
“It was time. You’d suffered long enough for the sake of being nice. Sometimes you need to learn to say fuck this and move on.”
“I don’t want your reputation,” I said, cutting my eyes at him.
He chuckled as if that was amusing. “My reputation is that of a man in love. All my previous transgressions have been washed away.”
He was right. My cousin Maggie had changed him. He no longer used girls and tossed them away. Seeing him with Maggie made me want that too. A girl who I wanted to be near. A girl who made me smile just at the sight of her. A girl like Willa, who was now with Gunner, and I didn’t stand a chance. Nor would I even try
“Ivy isn’t it, you know? She deserves to be that girl for some guy. I’m just not that guy. Getting her to see that, however, seems impossible.”
“Ivy is the purest case of clingy there is,” West said, then slapped me on the back. “This is my stop. Be tough. She’ll move on eventually.”
I felt like that was my fault too. The way people looked at Ivy as a desperate girl unable to let go. I had let her hang on so long she had become just that, and it was all on me. If I had been fair months ago, this wouldn’t be an issue. But I had made the situation worse by letting her still believe there was an us.
Gunner’s laughter caught my attention, and I turned to see him with his arm around Willa’s shoulder, smiling down at her like she was his only source of sunshine. I should be happy for them. But I wasn’t. I wanted that. I had thought Willa would be that for me. Again, though, my fault. I hadn’t really made a move with Willa and had let go of Ivy. Had I expected Willa to just hang around while I figured out what to do with my girlfriend? Apparently. I was a dumbass.
Willa turned her gaze and it met mine. She smiled. Not the flirty smile I got from most girls, but a friendly one. The kind that a girl gives a guy when she sees him as a friend and wants nothing more.
I retuned the smile and nodded to Gunner before ducking into my next class and away from their lovefest. I wasn’t a bitter person before now. But seeing them together was getting to me. Daily. It was the reason I had finally cut Ivy free. At least I had them to thank for that.
Asa Griffith and Nash Lee were sitting in their seats already. Both looked amused at something on Nash’s laptop. I headed over to them and took a seat across from Nash and behind Asa.
“Hey, Brady,” a blonde I’d seen before but had no idea what her name was said as I sat down. She did a fluttery finger wave.
“Go there for me,” Asa said as he turned to see who was talking to me. “She’s got a body. Test it out and tell me all about it.”
I could tell from here she had a large chest size. That was all Asa was worried about. I looked at him and away from the girl. She wasn’t the first female to suddenly start speaking to me. I’d been getting this all week. But I just couldn’t do that to Ivy yet. She was still showing up with red, swollen eyes.
“More to a girl than her body,” I told him under my breath.
He raised his eyebrows as if he were shocked. “Really?”
He was kidding, but it was still an asshole thing to say.
“Then you won’t care about what Nash got in his e-mail this morning,” Asa said, shooting a grin toward Nash.
I was afraid to ask.
“Hey, I didn’t ask for it. She sent it on her own,” he said in defense, as if he needed to justify whatever it was.
“But you’re sure as hell gonna watch it over and over,” Asa smirked.
Nash’s dimples popped and he shrugged before closing his laptop and stowing it in his book bag. “I’m a guy and she’s naked. Hell yes, I’m gonna watch it.”
I didn’t ask who it was because now I had a mental image playing in my head of what they were watching, and I didn’t want a face to go with it.
“Y’all seen Riley around town? I saw her yesterday with some kid in a stroller. Like a little kid. She was leaving the park.” Asa was frowning like he knew this wasn’t good news, but he thought he should share it. We all didn’t want to see Riley around. She was trouble. And Gunner was finally happy.
“Yeah, I saw her with the baby a couple weeks back. Her parents must have had another kid. Think she’s getting homeschooled. Mom said her grandmother has Alzheimer’s and her parents moved back to help take care of her.” I had come home complaining about Riley being back in town, and Momma had straightened me out real quick.
“Sucks for the Lawtons. They’ve had enough shit this month. Riley showing back up ain’t helping,” Asa said.
“I ain’t so sure I feel sorry for the Lawtons. Rich-people problems don’t really compare to dealing with Alzheimer’s,” was Nash’s response.
As much as I hated it for Gunner, I had to agree with Nash. They had their problems, but obviously so did Riley’s family. Wasn’t their fault that their daughter was a liar. I could hate her and also feel bad for her parents. They’d been through a lot too. But a new baby was a good thing. That had to have come just in time to help heal the mess Riley had made with her lies.
My Little Sister?
Rain. Seriously? It had been all sunshine when I had strolled Bryony to the park. The rainstorm came out of nowhere. And my mother wasn’t answering her phone. It wasn’t like she could leave Grandmamma at home to come get us anyway.
At least there was a cover on the stroller. I was going to get drenched when I moved out from under the minimal shade of this tree, but Bryony should stay somewhat covered.
“Wain, Momma!” she squealed, reaching her hands out to feel the drops. It didn’t seem to be a bad thing for her. She liked it. This was an adventure. I tried to think of things like this as a new memory to make. Something to experience. It helped me deal with otherwise stressful moments. Before Bryony, I didn’t think that way. I got all upset over everything. Little things were a big deal. Like not being asked to prom by the guy you wanted or your best friend flirting with your boyfriend. Drama that seemed pointless to me now.
When she was placed in my arms, my world tilted. My life would never be the same, and all the pain that had led to her arrival in this world was gone. Just like that. I no longer cared about the past. I just cared that she was mine. Who her father was and what he had done meant nothing. Not now. Not ever.
I had my daughter. She was healthy. It became the only important thing in my life. Sleepless nights became a special time for us to bond. Endless crying when she didn’t feel good became a chance to learn how to make her laugh. That was what mattered. The two of us.
“Yes, it’s raining, baby girl. Let’s see how fast we can get home,” I said with a cheery tone.
She clapped in response, and I pulled my hoodie over my head to fight off the wetness for at least a few minutes before running toward the sidewalk that led to my grandmother’s. It wasn’t so bad. The fall air smelled good damp. It reminded me of my childhood. Those were good memories, ones I wanted for Bryony. Although we wouldn’t be able to stay in Lawton. As much as I missed the town that had been part of me, it no longer accepted me. For now we would make our home here. Keep to ourselves and enjoy life. But it wasn’t permanent.
A truck slowed beside me, and I kept jogging. I didn’t turn to see who it was. I had a mission.
“You need a ride?” a familiar voice called out. I still didn’t turn my head. I’d know Brady Higgens’s voice anywhere. The hateful looks and words that I remembered from him kept my gaze straight and my feet moving.
“Jesus, Riley, it’s pouring and the baby is getting all wet. At least get in for her sake. She’s gonna get sick.”
He sounded exasperated. I didn’t like the tone of his voice or him thinking he should guide me in the way I was raising my child. A little rain wasn’t going to make her sick. This wasn’t the last frontier, for crying out loud.
“You’ve got another two miles to your grandmother’s house. This storm is gonna get worse. Let me give you a ride. For the baby’s sake.”
The way he said baby infuriated me. He didn’t realize who Bryony was. He along with all the other idiots in this town thought I’d lied. Accused me of it and ran me out of town. All because it wasn’t possible that golden boy Rhett Lawton would rape me. I had to have come on to him. He had to have been the one to push me away. I was his brother’s girlfriend, after all. Why would he rape me? I must be crazy.
I stopped running and turned to look at Brady. He had always been the good guy. Taking up for people and believing the best in them. Except for me. He’d turned on me just like
the others had. I was about to open my mouth and tell him exactly where he could shove his almighty tone when the sky roared and lightning shot across the sky. Rain I wasn’t scared of, but I didn’t want Bryony out in an actual storm. My scathing words fell away and instead I said, “Okay.”
He nodded, looking relieved I’d given in, and jumped out of the truck to grab the stroller after I lifted Bryony into my arms. “Just throw it in back. It’s wet anyway. I’ll have to set it out in the sun tomorrow to dry it.”
I didn’t wait to see if he did as I said. I hurried around to the passenger side and climbed in, with Bryony smiling as the raindrops pelted her face. The heat was on in the truck, and her little shiver made me worried Brady could be right and she might get a cold from this. I would get her some orange juice and a warm bath as soon as we got home.
Brady climbed back inside, and I grudgingly glanced at him and forced the words “Thank you” out of my mouth. Not something I’d ever expected to say to him or anyone around here.
He looked at Bryony. “I doubt your parents would want you walking your little sister home in this weather. I’m just glad you agreed to get in.”
My little sister? Really? That was what they were saying in town? I frowned and turned my attention toward the window to look out. I could correct him, but what good would that do? None. He would assume I got knocked up after I left town. Never could my actual story have been true. Although if one took the time to really see her, Bryony looked like a Lawton. She had many of her father’s features. I wasn’t going to point that out, though. I never wanted her to know the Lawtons. They were monsters.