I’m already at the party.
This wasn’t home. Nothing ever would be again. And besides, I didn’t want a home—the word came with memories too painful to think about.
I knew my aunt Coralee and uncle Boone were watching me closely as they led me through the house. They wanted me to like it here—there was a certain hopefulness in their eyes. I didn’t remember what hope felt like. It had been so long since I’d hoped for anything.
“We gave you a room upstairs. I painted it a pretty cotton-candy blue,” Aunt Coralee informed me cautiously. “I remembered that you liked blue.”
It’s true that I had liked blue a few Christmases ago. Had even worn all blue one year. I wasn’t necessarily a fan of it now, though. . . .
I followed both my aunt and uncle up the stairs. The family photos lining the wall made me turn my head back around and stare straight ahead. I’d had those once too. Photos that my mother proudly displayed on the walls of our home. But those photos had been lies. The smiles were never real.
“Here it is,” Aunt Coralee announced as she stopped halfway down the hall and opened the door to a large bedroom. Other than the blue walls, everything else was white.
I liked it. If I weren’t afraid of my own voice, I’d tell her thank you. Instead I put down the backpack from my shoulders then turned and hugged her. That would have to be enough.
“Well, I certainly hope you like my room,” a deep voice drawled from the doorway.
“Brady, don’t,” Uncle Boone said in a stern voice.
“What? I was just being nice,” he replied. “Kinda . . .”
I only remembered my cousin Brady a little. He had never played with me at family events, was always running off with one of the buddies he’d brought with him.
Now he was leaning against the doorframe of the bedroom, brown hair falling into his eyes, a smirk on his face. He didn’t seem happy. Oh God, had they given me his room? That couldn’t be good. I didn’t want to take his room.
“Brady’s just being a brat,” Aunt Coralee explained quickly. “He’s perfectly happy about moving to the attic room. He’s been at us for two years to fix up that space for him so he’d have somewhere more private.”
A large hand landed on my shoulder as Uncle Boone came to stand beside me. “Son, you remember Maggie,” he said in a voice that didn’t leave room for argument.
Brady was staring at me. He looked annoyed at first, but his expression suddenly softened into something resembling concern. “Yeah, I remember her.”
Uncle Boone continued, “You’ll need to show her around at school on Monday. Y’all are in the same grade, and we made sure they put her in several of your classes so you could help her out.” I had a feeling Brady already knew all this. The information was for me.
Brady sighed and shook his head. “Y’all don’t even know,” he muttered before walking off.
“I’m sorry about him,” Aunt Coralee said. “He’s become so moody, and we don’t know what to do with him half the time.”
Even if I did speak, I didn’t have a response for that.
She squeezed my arm. “We’re gonna let you get settled in. Unpack, and rest if you need. If you want company, I’ll be in the kitchen, cooking dinner. You’re welcome to go anywhere in the house you’d like. Make yourself at home.”
There was that word again: home.
My aunt and uncle left me alone, finally, and retreated down the hall. I stood in the pretty blue room and realized, much to my surprise, that I already felt safe. I’d thought the comfort of safety was long gone for me.
“So, you really don’t talk?” Brady’s voice filled the room, and I spun around to see my cousin back in the doorway.
I really didn’t want him to dislike me or be annoyed about my being here. But I wasn’t sure how to convince him that I’d keep to myself, that I wouldn’t bother him or change his life.
“Shit, this ain’t gonna be easy. You’re—” He paused and let out a laugh that didn’t sound like he meant it. “This shit is gonna be worse than I thought. Least you could have helped me out and been ugly.”
Brady frowned. “Just don’t draw attention to yourself. My momma finally got the daughter she never had, but it don’t make shit easier for me. I have a life, you know.”
I simply nodded. I was sure he had a life. He was tall with dark hair and light hazel eyes, and his wide shoulders hinted at the muscles underneath his T-shirt. No doubt girls loved him.
I had no intention of being in his way, but I could see how my coming into his home and taking his room would make it seem otherwise. And now his parents had me in his classes, too.
But I’d prove he had nothing to worry about. I picked up my backpack again and took out the pad and pen I always kept with me.
“What’re you doing?” he asked, clearly confused.
I quickly wrote:
Promise I won’t be in your way. Don’t expect you to help me at school. Just let your parents think you are, and I’ll go along with it. Sorry I took your room. We can switch back if you want.
I handed the note pad to Brady and let him read it. When he finished, he sighed deeply and handed the pad back to me.
“You can keep the room. Mom’s right. I like the attic. I was just being an ass. You think you won’t need me at school, but you will. Can’t be helped.” And with that, he walked away.
I stood at the doorway as he made his way down to the kitchen. I started to shut the door when I heard Brady’s voice travel up the stairs.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked.
“Chicken spaghetti. I thought Maggie might like it since it’s your favorite,” Aunt Coralee replied. Then, dropping her voice a little: “I wish you’d take the time to get to know her.”
“Just talked to her. She, uh, wrote to me,” he replied.
“And? Ain’t she sweet?” Aunt Coralee sounded so sincere.
“Sure, Mom. She’s real sweet.”
But Brady didn’t sound very convinced.
Told Ya to Run
I was getting drunk. That was my main goal tonight.
Slamming my truck door, I headed toward the field where I could already hear the music blasting and see the bonfire lighting the darkness. This was our last Friday night before football became our lives for the next three months. Everyone would be celebrating. Couples would be hooking up in the back of pickup trucks, everyone would have a red Solo cup full of beer in their hands, and there would be at least one fight over a girl before the night was over. It was the end to our summer and the beginning of our senior year.
But I was going to need a beer or six to celebrate. Watching my dad throw up blood as my mother wiped his forehead with pure fear in her eyes—that had been too damn much. I should have stayed home, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Every time he got sick, the little boy inside me came out¸ and I hated that feeling.
I loved my dad. He’d been my hero my entire life. How the hell was I supposed to lose him?
Shaking my head, I ran my hand through my hair and pulled hard. I was ready for the football field, and next Friday night I’d be back in my pads and helmet. But I wanted to feel some pain now. Anything to numb the reality of my life.
My phone started vibrating, and I pulled it out of my pocket. Every time it rang and I wasn’t home, terror gripped me so strongly, I felt sick. Seeing Raleigh, my girlfriend’s name, was a relief. It wasn’t Mom. Nothing was wrong. Dad was still safe at home.
“Hey,” I said, wondering why she was calling me. She knew I was headed to the field party.
“You coming to get me?” she asked, sounding annoyed.
“Didn’t ask me to come get you.
“Are you serious? I’m not coming if you don’t get me, West!” She was pissed. But Raleigh was normally pissed at me about something.
“I guess I’ll see you later, then. Ain’t in the mood for this tonight, Ray.”
Raleigh had no idea about my dad. He didn’t want people knowing how sick he was. We kept our mouths shut and, since the local hospital wasn’t sufficient to treat advanced colon cancer, we took him to the hospital an hour away in Nashville. Usually you couldn’t keep shit like this a secret in a small town, but we did for the most part. Made it easier that my momma didn’t have many friends in Lawton, never had.
As a kid I didn’t get it, but now I did. My dad had been the golden boy in high school. He was Lawton’s claim to fame after playing football at the University of Alabama and then going on to play for the New Orleans Saints. While my mother, she was a total princess—her father pretty much owned most of Louisiana—and my father had fallen in love with her.
But right after my dad blew out his knee, killing his career with the Saints, he found out he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant. He married her against her family’s wishes and brought her back here to Alabama. The town saw it as: He’d been their hero, and she’d stolen him from them. Seventeen years later and they still kept her at a distance. But Momma didn’t seem to care. She loved my dad. He and I, we were her world. And that was it for her.
“Are you listening to me?” Raleigh’s high-pitched scream snapped me out of my thoughts.
Raleigh and I were a particular kind of couple: She liked being on my arm, and I liked the way her body looked. There was no love or trust between us. We had been dating for over a year, and she was easy to keep at a distance. And right now that’s all I had the time for.
“Listen, Ray, I’m getting a headache. I need a break. Let’s take a break, and we’ll talk about it next week, yeah?” I didn’t wait for her to respond, and hung up. I already knew it would be yelling and threats about how she’d go sleep with one of my friends. I’d heard it all before.
I just didn’t care.
I picked up the pace and headed across the grass and between the trees to the open field where the parties always took place. The field belonged to Ryker and Nash Lee’s grandfather. They were cousins and both played on the team. Their grandfather had been letting people use this field for parties since his sons had been in high school. It was just on the outskirts of the town limits, and their grandfather’s house was the closest thing to us. And even that was a good mile away. We could make plenty of noise and not worry about nosy neighbors watching our every move.
I scanned the field and found Brady Higgens, my best friend since elementary school. He’d been passing me the football since we were in Pop Warner. Best quarterback in the state and he knew it.
Brady held up a beer in greeting when he saw me coming toward him. He was sitting on the tailgate of his truck, which he’d driven up here so we could use the generator in the back to play music. Ivy Hollis was tucked between Brady’s legs. No surprise. They’d been together a lot this summer. Ivy was a senior and head cheerleader and determined to claim Brady now that his ex-girlfriend had graduated and moved halfway across the country.
“’Bout time you showed up,” Brady said with a smirk, tossing me a can of beer. He rarely drank. It wasn’t that he was against it, but he was determined to play at the University of Alabama next year. I had been too—once. Now I was just making it day to day, praying to God my dad didn’t leave us.
Beer had become a crutch for me at these field parties. The anxiety from home was all over me, and I knew it. I needed to numb my mind.
I’m pretty sure Brady figured something was up and wanted me to tell him. Of all the women in town, his momma was the only one who was ever nice to my mother. She’d invited us to dinner many times over the years. She brought us red velvet cake during the holidays and always stopped and spoke to my mother at the games. I wondered if my mother had confided in Coralee.
“Where’s Raleigh?” Ivy asked.
I ignored her. Just because she was with Brady didn’t mean I had to answer her nosy-ass questions. I turned my attention to Gunner Lawton. Yeah, same damn name as the town’s. The guy’s great-great-great-grandfather founded it. They owned everything. He was one hell of a wide receiver, though, and around here that was what counted most.
“You alone tonight too?” I asked as I sank down on the bale of hay beside the truck.
He chuckled. “You know better. I’m just trying to decide who I want,” he replied with a smirk. All Gunner had to do was crook his finger, and the girls came running. Sure, he was obnoxious about it, but when you’re richer than God in a small town and one of the stars of the high school football team, you have a whole lot of power. And girls liked his looks, too.
“Let’s talk football,” Ryker Lee announced as he walked into our circle and sat down on the tailgate beside Brady and Ivy.
“I’d rather talk about the fact that you shaved your hair,” Brady replied with a grin.
Last year Ryker had been determined to grow out his hair and get dreads. I’d been surprised to see he’d cut his hair short the first day of practice. He’d gone with his family to visit his grandmother in Georgia, so we hadn’t seen him the last few weeks of summer.
“I got tired of it. I’ll have dreads when I play pro. Right now I don’t need that shit,” he replied, and ran his hand over his head. Looked like he was gonna say something else, but then he stood up and just started staring out over the field and grinning like an idiot. “Actually, screw football. I’d rather talk about who that is.”
I followed his gaze to see a face I didn’t recognize. She was standing just on the outskirts of the party near the rows of trees. Long dark brown hair hung in soft waves over her shoulders and the prettiest green eyes I’d ever seen looked in our direction. I let my gaze move down to her mouth to see perfect unpainted pink lips.
Then there was her body. Holy hell, she made a sundress look good.
“Don’t go there,” Brady warned. I wanted to look at him, to read on his face why he was laying claim to the new girl when he had one tucked between his legs. But I couldn’t stop looking at her. She seemed lost. And I was ready to go find her.
“Why, bro? She’s hot as hell, and she looks like she needs me,” Ryker replied.
“She’s my cousin, dipshit,” Brady snapped.
His cousin? Since when did he have a cousin?
I tore my gaze off the girl to finally look at Brady. “When did you get a cousin?”
He rolled his eyes. “You’ve met her. Like, years ago at one of my family Christmas things in Tennessee. She’s living with us now. Just don’t, okay? She’s not . . . She’s got some issues. She can’t handle you,” he said, then turned to look at Ryker and added, “or you.”
“I can help with issues! I’m fucking great at that,” Ryker replied, a big grin on his face.
I wasn’t going to say the same thing. I had my own issues and I needed an escape, not more shit to deal with. Besides, her issues couldn’t be as bad as mine. No one’s could.
Brady went on. “She doesn’t talk. She can’t. I only brought her tonight because my momma made me. I told her she could stay with me, but she refused to. She’s not all there, I don’t think.”
I glanced back at her, but she was gone. So, Brady had a beautiful but crazy, mute cousin. Weird.
“Shame. This year we get one new girl worth looking at and she’s your cousin and a mute,” Gunner said before drinking down the rest of his beer.
Brady didn’t like that comment, didn’t like it at all. I could see it on his face.
Gunner was right, though. We’d had the same girls in this town since elementary school. They were boring, superficial, and I’d slept with all the good-looking ones. No one was a distraction. They were all just annoying as hell.
Gunner stood up. “Going to get another beer,” he announced then walked off. Gunner was our secu
rity around here. If we got caught drinking, his daddy would have enough pull with the police to get us off the hook. I actually wondered if they already knew about it and that was why they never drove out this way.
My phone started ringing again, and my stomach automatically clenched. I quickly got it out of my pocket and saw my momma’s name on the screen. Shit.
Without any explanation to the guys, I just set my beer down and walked off before answering.
“Momma? Everything okay?”
“Oh yes. Just wanted you to know I left you some fried chicken in the oven to keep it warm. Also, if you could stop by the Walmart and grab some milk on your way home, that would be good.”
I let out the breath I’d been holding. Dad was okay. “Sure, yeah, Momma. I’ll get the milk.”
“You gonna be out late?” she asked, and I noticed her voice was tense. There was something she wasn’t telling me. Dad must be sick or hurting.
“I, no, uh, I’ll be home soon,” I assured her.
She let out a relieved sigh. “Good. Well, you drive careful. Wear your seat belt. I love you.”
“Love you too, Momma.”