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Point of Return

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2014
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Point of Retreat

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Contents


A Note to the Reader

Prologue

Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Part Two

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Acknowledgments

Slammed Excerpt

About Colleen Hoover





This book is dedicated to everyone who read Slammed

and encouraged me to continue telling the story of

Layken and Will.





a note to the reader


Point of Retreat is the second novel in a two-book series. For the first novel, Slammed, visit the author’s website: www.colleenhoover.com.





prologue


DECEMBER 31

“Resolutions”

I’m confident this will be our year. Lake’s and my year.

The last few years have definitely not been in our favor. It was over three years ago when my parents both passed away unexpectedly, leaving me to raise my little brother all on my own. It didn’t help that Vaughn decided to end our two-year relationship on the heels of their death. To top it off, I ended up having to drop my scholarship. Leaving the university and moving back to Ypsilanti to become Caulder’s guardian was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made . . . but also one of the best decisions.

I spent every single day of the next year learning how to adjust. How to adjust to heartbreak, how to adjust to having no parents, how to adjust to essentially becoming a parent myself and the sole provider of a family. Looking back on it, I don’t think I could have made it without Caulder. He’s the only thing that kept me going.

I don’t even remember the entire first half of last year. Last year didn’t start for me until September 22, the day I first laid eyes on Lake. Of course, last year t; urned out to be just as difficult as the previous years, but in a completely different way. I’d never felt more alive than when I was with her—but considering our circumstances, I couldn’t be with her. So I guess I didn’t spend a lot of time feeling alive.

This year has been better, in its own way. A lot of falling in love, a lot of grief, a lot of healing, and even more adjusting. Julia passed away in September. I didn’t expect her death to be as hard on me as it was. It was almost like losing my mother all over again.

I miss my mother. And I miss Julia. Thank God I have Lake.

Like me, my father loved to write. He always used to tell me that writing down his daily thoughts was therapeutic for his soul. Maybe one of the reasons I’ve had such a difficult time adjusting over the past three years is that I didn’t take his advice. I assumed slamming a few times a year was enough “therapy” for me. Maybe I was wrong. I want the upcoming year to be everything I’ve planned for it to be: perfect. With all that said (or written), writing is my resolution. Even if it’s just one word a day, I’m going to write it down . . . get it out of me.





part one





1.


THURSDAY, JANUARY 5

I registered for classes today. Didn’t get the days I wanted, but I only have two semesters left, so it’s getting harder to be picky about my schedule. I’m thinking about applying to local schools for another teaching job after next semester. Hopefully, by this time next year, I’ll be teaching again. For right now, though, I’m living off student loans. Luckily, my grandparents have been supportive while I work on my master’s degree. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them, that’s for sure.

We’re having dinner with Gavin and Eddie tonight. I think I’ll make cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers sound good. That’s all I really have to say right now . . .

“IS LAYKEN OVER HERE OR OVER THERE?” EDDIE ASKS, peering in the front door.

“Over there,” I say from the kitchen.

Is there a sign on my house instructing people not to knock? Lake never knocks anymore, but her comfort here apparently extends to Eddie as well. Eddie heads across the street to Lake’s house, and Gavin walks inside, tapping his knuckles against the front door. It’s not an official knock, but at least he’s making an attempt.

“What are we eating?” he asks. He slips his shoes off at the door and makes his way into the kitchen.

“Burgers.” I hand him a spatula and point to the stove, instructing him to flip the burgers while I pull the fries out of the oven.

“Will, do you ever notice how we somehow always get stuck cooking?”

“It’s probably not a bad thing,” I say as I loosen the fries from the pan. “Remember Eddie’s Alfredo?”

He grimaces when he remembers the Alfredo. “Good point,” he says.

I call Kel and Caulder into the kitchen to have them set the table. For the past year, since Lake and I have been together, Gavin and Eddie have been eating with us at least twice a week. I finally had to invest in a dining room table because the bar was getting a little too crowded.

“Hey, Gavin,” Kel says. He walks into the kitchen and grabs a stack of cups out of the cabinet.

“Hey,” Gavin responds. “You decide where we’re having your party next week?”

Kel shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe bowling. Or we could just do something here.”

Caulder walks into the kitchen and starts setting places at the table. I glance behind me and notice them setting an extra place. “We expecting company?” I ask.

“Kel invited Kiersten,” Caulder says teasingly.

Kiersten moved into a house on our street about a month ago, and Kel seems to have developed a slight crush on her. He won’t admit it. He’s just now about to turn eleven, so Lake and I expected this to happen. Kiersten’s a few months older than he is, and a lot taller. Girls hit puberty faster than boys, so maybe he’ll eventually catch up.

“Next time you guys invite someone else, let me know. Now I need to make another burger.” I walk to the refrigerator and take out one of the extra patties.

“She doesn’t eat meat,” Kel says. “She’s a vegetarian.”

Figures. I put the meat back in the fridge. “I don’t have any fake meat. What’s she gonna do? Eat bread?”

“Bread’s fine,” Kiersten says as she walks through the front door—without knocking. “I like bread. French fries, too. I just don’t eat things that are a result of unjustified animal homicide.” Kiersten walks to the table and grabs the roll of paper towels and starts tearing them off, laying one beside each plate. Her self-assurance reminds me a little of Eddie’s.

“Who’s she?” Gavin asks, watching Kiersten make herself at home. She’s never eaten with us before, but you wouldn’t know that by how she’s taking command.

“She’s the eleven-year-old neighbor I was telling you about. The one I think is an imposter based on the things that come out of her mouth. I’m beginning to suspect she’s really a tiny adult posing as a little redheaded child.”

“Oh, the one Kel’s crushing on?” Gavin smiles, and I can see his wheels turning. He’s already thinking of ways to embarrass Kel at dinner. Tonight should be interesting.

Gavin and I have become pretty close this past year. It’s good, I guess, considering how close Eddie and Lake are. Kel and Caulder really like them, too. It’s nice. I like the setup we all have. I hope it stays this way.

Eddie and Lake finally walk in as we’re all sitting down at the table. Lake has her wet hair pulled up in a knot on top of her head. She’s wearing house shoes, sweatpants, and a T-shirt. I love that about her, the fact that she’s so comfortable here. She takes the seat next to mine and leans in and kisses me on the cheek.

“Thanks, babe. Sorry it took me so long. I was trying to register online for Statistics, but the class is full. Guess I’ll have to go sweet-talk someone at the admin office tomorrow.”

“Why are you taking Statistics?” Gavin asks. He grabs the ketchup and squirts it on his plate.

“I took Algebra Two in the winter mini-mester. I’m trying to knock out all my math in the first year, since I hate it so much.” Lake grabs the ketchup out of Gavin’s hands and squirts some on my plate, then on her own.

“What’s your hurry? You’ve already got more credits than Eddie and I do, put together,” he says. Eddie nods in agreement as she takes a bite of her burger.

Lake nudges her head toward Kel and Caulder. “I’ve already got more kids than you and Eddie put together. That’s my hurry.”

“What’s your major?” Kiersten asks Lake.

Eddie glances toward Kiersten, finally noticing the extra person seated at the table. “Who are you?”

Kiersten looks at Eddie and smiles. “I’m Kiersten. I live diagonal to Will and Caulder, parallel to Layken and Kel. We moved here from Detroit right before Christmas. Mom says we needed to get out of the city before the city got out of us . . . whatever that means. I’m eleven. I’ve been eleven since eleven-eleven-eleven. It was a pretty big day, you know. Not many people can say they turned eleven on eleven-eleven-eleven. I’m a little bummed that I was born at three o’clock in the afternoon. If I would have been born at eleven-eleven, I’m pretty sure I could have got on the news or something. I could have recorded the segment and used it someday for my portfolio. I’m gonna be an actress when I grow up.”

Eddie, along with the rest of us, stares at Kiersten without responding. Kiersten is oblivious, turning to Lake to repeat her question. “What’s your major, Layken?”

Lake lays her burger down on her plate and clears her throat. I know how much she hates this question. She tries to answer confidently. “I haven’t decided yet.”

Kiersten looks at her with pity. “I see. The proverbial undecided. My oldest brother has been a sophomore in college for three years. He’s got enough credits to have five majors by now. I think he stays undecided because he’d rather sleep until noon every day, sit in class for three hours, and go out every night, than actually graduate and get a real job. Mom says that’s not true—she says it’s because he’s trying to ‘discover his full potential’ by examining all of his interests. If you ask me, I think it’s bullshit.”

I cough when the sip I just swallowed tries to make its way back up with my laugh.

“You just said ‘bullshit’!” Kel says.

“Kel, don’t say ‘bullshit’!” Lake says.

“But she said ‘bullshit’ first,” Caulder says, defending Kel.

“Caulder, don’t say ‘bullshit’!” I yell.

“Sorry,” Kiersten says to Lake and me. “Mom says the FCC is responsible for inventing cuss words just for media shock value. She says if everyone would just use them enough, they wouldn’t be considered cuss words anymore, and no one would ever be offended by them.”

This kid is hard to keep up with!

“Your mother encourages you to cuss?” Gavin says.

Kiersten nods. “I don’t see it that way. It’s more like she’s encouraging us to undermine a system flawed through overuse of words that are made out to be harmful, when in fact they’re just letters, mixed together like every other word. That’s all they are, mixed-up letters. Like, take the word ‘butterfly,’ for example. What if someone decided one day that ‘butterfly’ is a cuss word? People would eventually start using the word ‘butterfly’ as an insult and to emphasize things in a negative way. The actual word doesn’t mean anything. It’s the negative association people give these words that make them cuss words. So, if we all just decided to keep saying ‘butterfly’ all the time, people would stop caring. The shock value would subside, and it would become just another word again. Same with every other so-called bad word. If we would all start saying them all the time, they wouldn’t be bad anymore. That’s what my mom says, anyway.” She smiles and takes a french fry and dips it in ketchup.

I often wonder, when Kiersten’s visiting, how she turned out the way she did. I have yet to meet her mother, but from what I’ve gathered, she’s definitely not ordinary. Kiersten is obviously smarter than most kids her age, even if it is in a strange way. The things that come out of her mouth make Kel and Caulder seem somewhat normal.

“Kiersten?” Eddie says. “Will you be my new best friend?”

Lake grabs a french fry off her plate and throws it at Eddie, hitting her in the face with it. “That’s bullshit,” Lake says.

“Oh, go butterfly yourself,” Eddie says. She returns a fry in Lake’s direction.

I intercept the french fry, hoping it won’t result in another food fight, like last week. I’m still finding broccoli everywhere. “Stop,” I say, dropping the french fry on the table. “If you two have another food fight in my house, I’m kicking both of your butterflies!”

Lake can see I’m serious. She squeezes my leg under the table and changes the subject. “Suck-and-sweet time,” she says.

“Suck-and-sweet time?” Kiersten asks, confused.

Kel fills her in. “It’s where you have to say your suck and your sweet of the day. The good and the bad. The high and the low. We do it every night at supper.”

Kiersten nods as though she understands.

“I’ll go first,” Eddie says. “My suck today was registration. I got stuck in Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes. Tuesday and Thursdays were full.”

Everyone wants the Tuesday/Thursday schedules. The classes are longer, but it’s a fair trade, having to go only twice a week rather than three times.

“My sweet is meeting Kiersten, my new best friend,” Eddie says, glaring at Lake.

Lake grabs another french fry and throws it at Eddie. Eddie ducks, and the fry goes over her head. I take Lake’s plate and scoot it to the other side of me, out of her reach.

Lake shrugs and smiles at me. “Sorry.” She grabs a fry off my plate and puts it in her mouth.

“Your turn, Mr. Cooper,” Eddie says. She still calls me that, usually when she’s trying to point out that I’m being a “bore.”

“My suck was definitely registration, too. I got Monday, Wednesday, Friday.”

Lake turns to me, upset. “What? I thought we were both doing Tuesday/Thursday classes.”

“I tried, babe. They don’t offer my level of courses on those days. I texted you.”

She pouts. “Man, that really is a suck,” she says. “And I didn’t get your text. I can’t find my phone again.”

She’s always losing her phone.

“What’s your sweet?” Eddie asks me.

That’s easy. “My sweet is right now,” I say as I kiss Lake on the forehead.

Kel and Caulder both groan. “Will, that’s your sweet every night,” Caulder says, annoyed.

“My turn,” Lake says. “Registration was actually my sweet. I haven’t figured out Statistics yet, but my other four classes were exactly what I wanted.” She looks at Eddie and continues. “My suck was losing my best friend to an eleven-year-old.”

Eddie laughs.

“I wanna go,” Kiersten says. No one objects. “My suck was having bread for dinner,” she says, eyeing her plate.

She’s ballsy. I toss another slice of bread on her plate. “Maybe next time you show up uninvited to a carnivore’s house, you should bring your own fake meat.”

She ignores my comment. “My sweet was three o’clock.”

“What happened at three o’clock?” Gavin asks.

Kiersten shrugs. “School let out. I butterflying hate school.”

All three kids glance at one another, as if there’s an unspoken agreement. I make a mental note to talk to Caulder about it later. Lake nudges me with her elbow and shoots me a questioning glance, letting me know she’s thinking the same thing.

“Your turn, whatever your name is,” Kiersten says to Gavin.

“It’s Gavin. And my suck would have to be the fact that an eleven-year-old has a larger vocabulary than me,” he says, smiling at Kiersten. “My sweet today is sort of a surprise.” He looks at Eddie and waits for her response.

“What?” Eddie says.

“Yeah, what?” Lake adds.

I’m curious, too. Gavin just leans back in his seat with a smile, waiting for us to guess.

Eddie gives him a shove. “Tell us!” she says.

He leans forward in his chair and slaps his hands on the table. “I got a job! At Getty’s, delivering pizza!” He looks happy, for some reason.

“That’s your sweet? You’re a pizza delivery guy?” Eddie asks. “That’s more like a suck.”

“You know I’ve been looking for a job. And it’s Getty’s. We love Getty’s!”

Eddie rolls her eyes. “Well, congratulations,” she says unconvincingly.

“Do we get free pizza?” Kel asks.

“No, but we get a discount,” Gavin replies.

“That’s my sweet, then,” Kel says. “Cheap pizza!” Gavin looks pleased that someone is excited for him. “My suck today was Principal Brill,” Kel says.

“Oh Lord, what’d she do?” Lake asks him. “Or better yet, what did you do?”

“It wasn’t just me,” Kel says.

Caulder puts his elbow on the table and tries to hide his face from my line of sight.

“What did you do, Caulder?” I ask him. He brings his hand down and looks up at Gavin. Gavin puts his elbow on the table and shields his face from my line of sight as well. He continues to eat as he ignores my glare. “Gavin? What prank did you tell them about this time?”

Gavin grabs two fries and throws them at Kel and Caulder. “No more! I’m not telling you any more stories. You two get me in trouble every time!” Kel and Caulder laugh and throw the fries back at him.

“I’ll tell on them, I don’t mind,” Kiersten says. “They got in trouble at lunch. Mrs. Brill was on the other side of the cafeteria, and they were thinking of a way to get her to run. Everyone says she waddles like a duck when she runs, and we wanted to see it. So Kel pretended he was choking, and Caulder made a huge spectacle and got behind him and started beating on his back, pretending to give him the Heimlich maneuver. It freaked Mrs. Brill out! When she got to our table, Kel said he was all better. He told Mrs. Brill that Caulder saved his life. It would have been fine, but she had already told someone to call 911. Within minutes, two ambulances and a fire truck showed up at the school. One of the boys at the next table told Mrs. Brill they were faking the whole thing, so Kel got called to the office.”

Lake leans forward and glares at Kel. “Please tell me this is a joke.”

Kel looks up with an innocent expression. “It was a joke. I really didn’t think anyone would call 911. Now I have to spend all next week in detention.”

“Why didn’t Mrs. Brill call me?” Lake asks him.

“I’m pretty sure she did,” he says. “You can’t find your phone, remember?”

“Ugh! If she calls me in for another conference, you’re grounded!”

I look at Caulder, who’s attempting to avoid my gaze. “Caulder, what about you? Why didn’t Mrs. Brill try to call me?”

He turns toward me and gives me a mischievous grin. “Kel lied for me. He told her that I really thought he was choking and I was trying to save his life,” he says. “Which brings me to my sweet for the day. I was rewarded for my heroic behavior. Mrs. Brill gave me two free study hall passes.”

Only Caulder could find a way to avoid detention and get rewarded instead. “You two need to cut that crap out,” I say to them. “And Gavin, no more prank stories.”

“Yes, Mr. Cooper,” Gavin says sarcastically. “But I have to know,” he says, looking at the kids, “does she really waddle?”

“Yeah.” Kiersten laughs. “She’s a waddler, all right.” She looks at Caulder. “What was your suck, Caulder?”

Caulder gets serious. “My best friend almost choked to death today. He could have died.”

We all laugh. As much as Lake and I try to do the responsible thing, sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between being the rule enforcer and being the sibling. We choose which battles to pick with the boys, and Lake says it’s important that we don’t choose very many. I look at her and see she’s laughing, so I assume this isn’t one she wants to fight.

“Can I finish my food now?” Lake says, pointing to her plate, still on the other side of me, out of her reach. I scoot the plate back in front of her. “Thank you, Mr. Cooper,” she says.

I knee her under the table. She knows I hate it when she calls me that. I don’t know why it bothers me so much. Probably because when I actually was her teacher, it was absolute torture. Our connection progressed so quickly that first night I took her out. I’d never met anyone I had so much fun just being myself with. I spent the entire weekend thinking about her. The moment I walked around the corner and saw her standing in the hallway in front of my classroom, I felt like my heart had been ripped right out of my chest. I knew immediately what she was doing there, even though it took her a little longer to figure it out. When she realized I was a teacher, the look in her eyes absolutely devastated me. She was hurt. Heartbroken. Just like me. One thing I know for sure, I never want to see that look in her eyes again.

Kiersten stands up and takes her plate to the sink. “I have to go. Thanks for the bread, Will,” she says sarcastically. “It was delicious.”

“I’m leaving, too. I’ll walk you home,” Kel says. He jumps out of his seat and follows her to the door. I look at Lake, and she rolls her eyes. It bothers her that Kel has developed his first crush. Lake doesn’t like to think that we’re about to have to deal with teenage hormones.

Caulder gets up from the table. “I’m gonna watch TV in my room,” he says. “See you later, Kel. Bye, Kiersten.” They both tell him goodbye as they leave.

“I really like that girl,” Eddie says after Kiersten leaves. “I hope Kel asks her to be his girlfriend. I hope they grow up and get married and have lots of weird babies. I hope she’s in our family forever.”

“Shut up, Eddie,” Lake says. “He’s only ten. He’s too young for a girlfriend.”

“Not really, he’ll be eleven in eight days,” Gavin says. “Eleven is the prime age for first girlfriends.”

Lake takes an entire handful of fries and throws them toward Gavin’s face.

I just sigh. She’s impossible to control. “You’re cleaning up tonight,” I say to her. “You, too,” I say to Eddie. “Gavin, let’s go watch some football, like real men, while the women do their job.”

Gavin scoots his glass toward Eddie. “Refill this glass, woman. I’m watching some football.”

While Eddie and Lake clean the kitchen, I take the opportunity to ask Gavin for a favor. Lake and I haven’t had any alone time in weeks due to always having the boys. I really need alone time with her.

“Do you think you and Eddie could take Kel and Caulder to a movie tomorrow night?”

He doesn’t answer right away, which makes me feel guilty for even asking. Maybe they had plans already.

“It depends,” he finally responds. “Do we have to take Kiersten, too?”

I laugh. “That’s up to your girl. She’s her new best friend.”

Gavin rolls his eyes at the thought. “It’s fine; we had plans to watch a movie anyway. What time? How long do you want us to keep them?”

“Doesn’t matter. We aren’t going anywhere. I just need a couple of hours alone with Lake. There’s something I need to give her.”

“Oh . . . I see,” he says. “Just text me when you’re through ‘giving it to her,’ and we’ll bring the boys home.”

I shake my head at his assumption and laugh. I like Gavin. What I hate, however, is the fact that everything that happens between me and Lake, and Gavin and Eddie . . . we all seem to know about. That’s the drawback of dating best friends: there are no secrets.

“Let’s go,” Eddie says as she pulls Gavin up off the couch. “Thanks for supper, Will. Joel wants you guys to come over next weekend. He said he’d make tamales.”

I don’t turn down tamales. “We’re there,” I say.

After Eddie and Gavin leave, Lake comes to the living room and sits on the couch, curling her legs under her as she snuggles against me. I put my arm around her and pull her closer.

“I’m bummed,” she says. “I was hoping we’d at least get the same days this semester. We never get any alone time with all these butterflying kids running around.”

You would think, with our living across the street from each other, that we would have all the time in the world together. That’s not the case. Last semester she went to school Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and I went all five days. Weekends we spent a lot of time doing homework but mostly stayed busy with Kel’s and Caulder’s sports. When Julia passed away in September, that put even more on Lake’s plate. It’s been an adjustment, to say the least. The only place we seem to be lacking is getting quality alone time. It’s kind of awkward, if the boys are at one house, to go to the other house to be alone. They almost always seem to follow us whenever we do.

“We’ll get through it,” I say. “We always do.”

She pulls my face toward hers and kisses me. I’ve been kissing her every day for over a year, and it somehow gets better every time.

“I better go,” she says at last. “I have to get up early and go to the college to finish registration. I also need to make sure Kel’s not outside making out with Kiersten.”

We laugh about it now, but in a matter of years it’ll be our reality. We won’t even be twenty-five, and we’ll be raising teenagers. It’s a scary thought.

“Hold on. Before you leave . . . what are your plans tomorrow night?”

She rolls her eyes. “What kind of question is that? You’re my plan. You’re always my only plan.”

“Good. Eddie and Gavin are taking the boys. Meet me at seven?”

She perks up and smiles. “Are you asking me out on a real, live date?”

I nod.

“Well, you suck at it, you know. You always have. Sometimes girls like to be asked and not told.”

She’s trying to play hard to get, which is pointless, since I’ve already got her. I play her game anyway. I kneel on the floor in front of her and look into her eyes. “Lake, will you do me the honor of accompanying me on a date tomorrow night?”

She leans back into the couch and looks away. “I don’t know, I’m sort of busy,” she says. “I’ll check my schedule and let you know.” She tries to look put out, but a smile breaks out on her face. She leans forward and hugs me; I lose my balance, and we end up on the floor. I roll her onto her back, and she stares up at me and laughs. “Fine. Pick me up at seven.”

I brush her hair out of her eyes and run my finger along the edge of her cheek. “I love you, Lake.”

“Say it again,” she says.

I kiss her forehead and repeat, “I love you, Lake.”

“One more time.”

“I.” I kiss her lips. “And love.” I kiss them again. “And you.”

“I love you, too.”

I ease my body on top of hers and interlock my fingers with hers. I bring our hands above her head and press them into the floor, then lean in as if I’m going to kiss her, but I don’t. I like to tease her when we’re in this position. I barely touch my lips to hers until she closes her eyes, then I slowly pull away. She opens her eyes, and I smile at her, then lean in again. As soon as her eyes are closed, I pull away again.

“Dammit, Will! Butterflying kiss me already!”

She grabs my face and pulls my mouth to hers. We continue kissing until we get to the “point of retreat,” as Lake likes to call it. She climbs out from under me and sits up on her knees as I roll onto my back and remain on the floor. We don’t like to get carried away when we aren’t alone in the house. It’s so easy to do. When we catch ourselves taking things too far, one of us always calls retreat.

Before Julia passed away, we made the mistake of taking things too far, too soon—a crucial mistake on my part. It was just two weeks after we started officially dating, and Caulder was spending the night at Kel’s house. Lake and I came back to my place after a movie. We started making out on the couch, and one thing led to another, neither of us willing to stop it. We weren’t having sex, but we would have eventually if Julia hadn’t walked in when she did. She completely flipped out. We were mortified. She grounded Lake and wouldn’t let me see her for two weeks. I apologized probably a million times in those two weeks.

Julia sat us down together and made us swear we would wait at least a year. She made Lake get on the pill and made me look her in the eyes and give her my word. She wasn’t upset about the fact that her eighteen-year-old daughter almost had sex. Julia was fairly reasonable and knew it would happen at some point. What hurt her was that I was so willing to take that from Lake after only two weeks of dating. It made me feel incredibly guilty, so I agreed to the promise. She also wanted us to set a good example for Kel and Caulder; she asked us not to spend the night at each other’s houses during that year, either. After Julia passed away, we’ve stuck to our word. More out of respect for Julia than anything. Lord knows it’s difficult sometimes. A lot of times.

We haven’t discussed it, but last week was exactly a year since we made that promise to Julia. I don’t want to rush Lake into anything; I want it to be completely up to her, so I haven’t brought it up. Neither has she. Then again, we haven’t really been alone.

“Point of retreat,” she says, and stands up. “I’ll see you tomorrow night. Seven o’clock. Don’t be late.”

“Go find your phone and text me good night,” I tell her.

She opens the door and faces me as she backs out of the house, slowly pulling the door shut. “One more time?” she says.

“I love you, Lake.”





2.


FRIDAY, JANUARY 6

I’m giving Lake her present in a little while. I’m not even sure what it is, since it’s not something I picked out. I can’t write any more right now, my hands are shaking. How the hell do these dates still make me nervous? I’m so pathetic.

“BOYS, NO BACKWARD TONIGHT. You know Gavin can’t keep up when you guys talk backward.” I wave goodbye and shut the door behind them.

It’s almost seven. I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth, then grab my keys and jacket and head to my car. I can see Lake watching from the window. She probably doesn’t realize it, but I could always see her watching from the window. Especially in the months before we were officially dating. Every day I would come home and see her shadow. It’s what gave me hope that one day we would be able to be together: the fact that she still thought about me. After our fight in the laundry room, though, she stopped watching from the window. I thought I’d screwed everything up for good.

I back out of the driveway and straight into hers. I leave the car running and walk around to open the door for her. When I get back inside the car, I get a whiff of her perfume. It’s the vanilla one, my favorite.

“Where are we going?” she asks.

“You’ll see. It’s a surprise,” I say as I pull out of her driveway. Rather than turn onto the street, I pull right into my own driveway. I kill the ignition and run around to her side of the car and open the door.

“What are you doing, Will?”

I take her hand and pull her out of the car. “We’re here.” I love the look of confusion on her face, so I spare the details.

“You asked me out on a date to your house? I got dressed up, Will! I want to go somewhere.”

She’s whining. I laugh and take her hand and walk her inside. “No, you made me ask you out on a date. I never said we were going anywhere. I just asked if you had plans.”

I’ve already cooked pasta, so I walk into the kitchen and get our plates. Rather than setting the table, I take the plates to the coffee table in the living room. She pulls off her jacket, seeming a little disappointed. I continue to elude her while I make our drinks and then take a seat on the floor with her.

“I’m not trying to seem ungrateful,” she says around a mouthful of food. “It’s just that we never get to go anywhere anymore. I was looking forward to doing something different.”

I take a drink and wipe my mouth. “Babe, I know what you mean. But tonight has sort of already been planned out for us.” I toss another bread stick on her plate.

“What do you mean, planned out for us? I’m not following,” she says.

I don’t respond. I just continue eating.

“Will, tell me what’s going on, your evasiveness is making me nervous.”

I grin at her and take a drink. “I’m not trying to make you nervous. I’m doing what I was told.”

She can tell I’m enjoying this. She gives up trying to get anything out of me and takes another bite. “The pasta’s good, at least,” she says.

“So is the view.”

She smiles and winks at me and continues to eat.

She’s wearing her hair down tonight. I love it when she wears her hair down. I also love it when she wears it up. In fact, I don’t think she’s ever worn it in a way that made me not love it. She’s so incredibly beautiful, especially when she’s not trying to be. I realize I’ve been staring at her, lost in thought. I’ve eaten barely half my food, and she’s almost finished.

“Will?” She wipes her mouth with her napkin. “Does this have anything to do with my mom?” she asks quietly. “You know . . . with our promise to her?”

I know what she’s asking me. I immediately feel guilty that I haven’t considered what she would think my intentions were tonight. I don’t want her to feel like I expect anything at all from her.

“Not in that way, babe.” I reach across and take her hand. “That’s not what tonight’s about. I’m sorry if you thought that. That’s for another time . . . when you’re ready.”

She smiles at me. “Well, I wasn’t gonna object if it was.”

Her comment catches me off guard. I’ve gotten so used to the fact that one of us always calls retreat; I haven’t entertained the possibility of the alternative for tonight.

She looks embarrassed by her forwardness and diverts her attention back down to her plate. She tears off a piece of bread and dips it in the sauce. When she’s finished chewing, she takes a drink and looks back up at me.

“Before,” she whispers unsteadily, “when I asked if this had anything to do with my mom, you said, ‘Not in that way.’ What’d you mean by that? Are you saying tonight has something to do with her in a different way?”

I nod, then stand and take her hand and pull her up. I wrap my arms around her, and she leans against my chest and clasps her hands behind my back. “It does have to do with her.” She pulls her face away from my chest and looks up at me while I explain, “She gave me something else . . . besides the letters.”

Julia made me promise not to tell Lake about the letters and the gift until it was time. Lake and Kel have already opened the letters; the gift was meant for Lake and me. It was intended to be a Christmas gift for us to open together, but this is the first chance we’ve had to be alone.

“Come to my bedroom.” I release my hold on her and grab her hand. She follows until we get to my room, where the box Julia gave me is sitting on the bed.

Lake walks over to it and runs her hand across the wrapping paper. She fingers the red velvet bow and sighs. “Is it really from her?” she asks quietly.

I sit on the bed and motion for her to sit with me. We pull our legs up and sit with the gift between us. There’s a card taped to the top of it with our names on it, along with clear instructions not to read the card until after we open the gift.

“Will, why didn’t you tell me there was something else? Is this the last one?” I can see the tears forming in her eyes. She always tries so hard to conceal them. I don’t know why she hates it so much when she cries.

I run my finger across her cheek and wipe away a tear. “Last one, I swear,” I say. “She wanted us to open it together.”

She straightens up and does her best to regain her composure. “Do you want to do the honors, or should I?”

“That’s a dumb question,” I say.

“There’s no such thing as a dumb question,” she says. “You should know that, Mr. Cooper.” She leans forward and kisses me, then pulls back and starts to loosen the edge of the package. I watch as she tears it open, revealing a cardboard box wrapped in duct tape.

“My God, there must be six layers of duct tape on here,” she says sarcastically. “Kind of like your car.” She looks up and gives me a sly grin.

“Funny,” I say. I stroke her knee and watch her poke through the tape with her thumbnail. Just when she breaks through the final edge, she pauses.

“Thank you for doing this for her,” she says. “For keeping the gift.” She looks back down at it and holds it without opening it. “Do you know what it is?” she asks.

“No clue. I’m hoping it’s not a puppy—it’s been under my bed for four months.”

She laughs. “I’m nervous,” she says. “I really don’t want to cry again.” She hesitates before she opens the top of the box and folds the flaps back. She pulls the contents out as I pull the cardboard away. She tears the tissue off and reveals a clear glass vase, full to the brim with geometrical stars in a variety of colors. It looks like origami. Hundreds of thumbnail-sized 3-D paper stars.

“What is it?” I ask Lake.

“I don’t know, but it’s beautiful,” she says. We continue to stare at the gift, trying to make sense of it. She opens the card and looks at it. “I can’t read it, Will. You’ll have to do it.” She places it in my hands.

I open it and read aloud.

Will and Lake,

Love is the most beautiful thing in the world. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest things in the world to hold on to, and one of the easiest things to throw away.

Neither of you has a mother or a father to go to for relationship advice anymore. Neither of you has anyone to go to for a shoulder to cry on when things get tough, and they will get tough. Neither of you has someone to go to when you just want to share the funny, or the happy, or the heartache. You are both at a disadvantage when it comes to this aspect of love. You both only have each other, and because of this, you will have to work harder at building a strong foundation for your future together. You are not only each other’s love; you are also each other’s sole confidant.

I handwrote some things onto strips of paper and folded them into stars. It might be an inspirational quote, an inspiring lyric, or just some downright good parental advice. I don’t want you to open one and read it until you feel you truly need it. If you have a bad day, if the two of you fight, or if you need something to lift your spirits . . . that’s what these are for. You can open one together; you can open one alone. I just want there to be something both of you can go to if and when you ever need it.

Will . . . thank you. Thank you for coming into our lives. So much of the pain and worry I’ve been feeling has been alleviated by the mere fact that I know my daughter is loved by you.

Lake takes my hand when I pause. I wasn’t expecting Julia to address me personally. Lake wipes away a tear. I do my best to fight back my own tears. I take a deep breath and clear my throat, then finish reading the letter.

You are a wonderful man, and you’ve been a wonderful friend to me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for loving my daughter like you do. You respect her, you don’t need to change for her, and you inspire her. You can never know how grateful I have been for you, and how much peace you have brought my soul.

And Lake, this is me nudging your shoulder, giving you my approval. You couldn’t have picked anyone better to love if I’d hand-picked him myself. Also, thank you for being so determined to keep our family together. You were right about Kel needing to be with you. Thank you for helping me see that. And remember, when things get tough for him, please teach him how to stop carving pumpkins . . .

I love you both and wish you a lifetime of happiness together.

—Julia

“And all around my memories, you dance . . .”

—The Avett Brothers

I put the card back in the envelope and watch as Lake runs her fingers along the rim of the vase, spinning it around to view it from all angles. “I saw her making these once. When I walked into her room, she was folding strips of paper, and she stopped and put them aside as we talked. I forgot about it. I forgot all about it. This must have taken her forever.”

She stares at the stars, and I stare at her. She wipes more tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. She’s holding it together well, all things considered.

“I want to read them all, but at the same time, I hope we never need to read them at all,” she says.

I lean forward and give her a quick kiss. “You are as amazing as your mother.” I take the vase and set it down on the dresser. Lake shoves the wrapping paper inside the box and sets it on the floor. She puts the card on the table, then lies back on the bed. I lie down beside her, turn toward her, and rest my arm over her waist. “You okay?” I ask. I can’t tell whether she’s sad.

She looks at me and smiles. “I thought it would hurt to hear her words again, but it didn’t. It actually made me happy,” she says.

“Me, too,” I say. “I was really worried it was a puppy.”

She laughs and lays her head on my arm. We lie there in silence, watching each other. I run my hand up her arm and trace her face and neck with my fingertips. I love watching her think.

She eventually lifts her head off my arm and slides on top of me, placing her hands on the back of my neck. She leans in and slowly parts my lips with hers. I become quickly consumed by the taste of her lips and the feel of her warm hands. I wrap my arms around her and run my fingers through her hair as I return her kiss. It’s been so long since we’ve been alone together without the possibility of being interrupted. I hate being in this predicament, but I love being in this predicament. Her skin is so soft; her lips are perfect. It gets harder and harder to retreat.

She runs her hands underneath my shirt and lightly teases my neck with her mouth. She knows this drives me crazy, yet she’s been doing it more and more lately. I think she likes pushing her boundaries. One of us needs to retreat, and I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it. Apparently, neither can she.

“How much time do we have?” she whispers. She lifts up my shirt and kisses her way down my chest.

“Time?” I say weakly.

“Until the boys get home.” She slowly kisses her way back up to my neck. “How long do we have until they get home?” She brings her face back to mine and looks at me. I can see by the look in her eyes that she’s telling me she’s not retreating.

I bring my arm over my face and cover my eyes. I try to talk myself down. This isn’t how I want it to be for her. Think about something else, Will. Think about college, homework, puppies in cardboard boxes . . . anything.

She pulls my arm away from my face so she can look me in the eyes. “Will . . . it’s been a year. I want to.”

I roll her onto her back and prop my head up on my elbow and lean in toward her, stroking her face with my other hand. “Lake, believe me, I’m ready, too. But not here. Not right now. You’ll have to go home in an hour when the boys get back, and I don’t think I could take it.” I kiss her on the forehead. “In two weeks we get a three-day weekend. We’ll go away together. Just the two of us. I’ll see if my grandparents will watch the boys, and we can spend the whole weekend together.”

She kicks her legs up and down on the bed, frustrated. “I can’t wait two more weeks! We’ve been waiting fifty-seven weeks already!”

I laugh at her childishness and lean in, planting a kiss on her cheek. “If I can wait, you can definitely wait,” I assure her.

She rolls her eyes. “God, you’re such a bore,” she teases.

“Oh, I’m a bore?” I say. “You want me to throw you in the shower again? Cool you off? I will if that’s what you need.”

“Only if you get in with me,” she says. Her eyes grow wide, and she sits up and pushes me flat on my back, leaning over me. “Will!” she says excitedly as a realization dawns on her. “Does that mean we can take showers together? On our getaway?”

Her eagerness surprises me. Everything she does surprises me. “You aren’t nervous?” I ask her.

“No, not at all.” She smiles and leans in closer. “I know I’ll be in good hands.”

“You will definitely be in good hands,” I say, pulling her to me. Just when I’m about to kiss her again, my phone vibrates. She reaches into my pocket and pulls it out.

“Gavin,” she says. She hands the phone to me and rolls off.

I read the text. “Great, Kel threw up. They think he has a stomach bug, so they’re bringing them home.”

She groans and gets off the bed. “Ugh! I hate vomit! Caulder’s probably gonna get it, too, the way they pass crap back and forth.”

“I’ll text him and tell him to take Kel to your house. You go home and wait; I’ll run to the store and get him some medicine.” I pull my shirt back on and grab the vase that Julia made us so I can put it on the bookshelf in the living room. We exit the bedroom in parent mode.

“Get some soup, too. For tomorrow. And some Sprite,” she says.

When I set the vase down in the living room, she reaches her hand inside and grabs a star. She sees me eyeing her and grins. “There might be a good tip in here. For vomit,” she says.

“We’ve got a long road ahead of us; you better not waste those.” When we walk outside, I grab her arm and pull her to me and hug her good night. “You want me to drive you home?”

She laughs and hugs me back. “Thanks for our date. It was one of my favorites.”

“The best is yet to come,” I say, hinting at our upcoming getaway.

“I’m holding you to that.” She backs away and then turns and starts walking toward her house. I’ve opened the car door when she yells from across the street.

“Will! One more time?”

“I love you, Lake!”





3.


JANUARY 7

I butterflying hate cheeseburgers.

HELL. PURE HELL IS THE BEST WAY I CAN DESCRIBE the last twenty-four hours. By the time Gavin and Eddie made it home with the boys, it was apparent that Kel didn’t have a stomach bug after all. Gavin didn’t knock when he ran through the front door and headed straight for the bathroom. Caulder was next, then Lake and Eddie. I was the last to feel the effects of the food poisoning. Caulder and I have done nothing but lie on the couch, taking turns in the bathroom since midnight last night.

I can’t help but envy Kiersten. I should have just had bread, too. About the time that thought crosses my mind, there’s a knock at the front door. I don’t get up. I don’t even speak. No one I know extends the courtesy of knocking, so I don’t know who could be at the door. I guess I won’t find out, either, because I’m not moving.

I’m facing away from the door, but I hear it slowly open and can feel the cold air circulate as a female voice I don’t recognize calls my name.

I still don’t care who it is. At this point, I’m wishing it’s someone here to finish me off, put me out of my misery. It takes all the energy I have to just raise my hand in the air to let whoever it is know that I’m here.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she says. She shuts the door behind her and walks around to the front of the couch and stares down at me. I glance up at her and realize I have absolutely no idea who this woman is. She’s probably in her forties; her short black hair is traced with gray. She’s petite, shorter than Lake. I try to smile, but I don’t think I do. She frowns and glances over to Caulder, who is passed out on the other couch. I notice a bottle in her hands when she passes through the living room into the kitchen. I hear her opening drawers, and she comes back with a spoon.

“This will help. Layken said you guys were sick, too.” She pours some of the liquid into a spoon and bends down, handing it to me.

I take it. I’ll take anything at this point. I swallow the medicine and cough when it burns my throat. I reach for a glass of water and take a sip. I don’t want to drink too much; it’s just been coming right back up. “What the hell is that?” I ask.

She looks disappointed at my reaction. “I made it. I make my own medicine. It’ll help, I promise.” She walks over to Caulder and shakes him awake. He accepts the medicine as I did, without question, then closes his eyes again.

“I’m Sherry, by the way. Kiersten’s mother. She said you guys ate some rancid meat.” She makes a face when she says the word “meat.”

I don’t want to think about it, so I close my eyes and try to put it out of my mind. I guess she sees the nausea building behind my expression, because she says, “Sorry. This is why we’re vegetarian.”

“Thanks, Sherry,” I say, hoping she’s finished. She’s not.

“I started a load of laundry over at Layken’s house. If you want, I’ll wash some of yours, too.” She doesn’t wait for me to respond. She walks down the hallway and starts gathering clothes, then takes them into the laundry room. I hear the washer start, followed by noise in the kitchen. She’s cleaning. This woman I don’t know is cleaning my house. I’m too tired to object. I’m even too tired to be pleased about it.

“Will?” She walks back through the living room. I open my eyes, but barely. “I’ll be back in an hour to put the clothes in the dryer. I’ll bring some minestrone, too.”

I just nod. Or at least I think I nod.

* * *

IT HASN’T BEEN an hour yet, but whatever Sherry gave me already has me feeling a little better. Caulder manages to make it to his room and passes out on his bed. I’ve gotten into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of Sprite when the front door opens. It’s Lake. She looks as rough as I do, but still beautiful.

“Hey, babe.” She shuffles into the kitchen and wraps her arms around me. She’s in her pajamas and house shoes. They aren’t the Darth Vader ones, but they’re still sexy. “How’s Caulder feeling?” she asks.

“Better, I guess. Whatever Sherry gave us worked.”

“Yeah, it did.” She rests her head against my chest and takes a deep breath. “I wish we had enough couches in one house so we could all be sick together.”

We’ve brought up the subject of living together before. It makes economic sense; our bills would be cut in half. She’s only nineteen, though, and she seems to like having her alone time. The thought of taking such a huge leap makes us both a little apprehensive, so we agreed to wait on that step until we’re certain about it.

“I wish we did, too,” I say. I naturally lean in to kiss her, but she shakes her head and backs away.

“Nuh-uh,” she says. “We’re not kissing for at least twenty-four more hours.”

I laugh and kiss her on top of her head instead.

“I guess I’ll go back now. I just wanted to check on you.” She kisses me on the arm.

“You two are so cute!” Sherry says. She walks through the dining room and places a container of soup in the fridge, then turns and heads into the laundry room. I never even heard her open the front door, much less knock.

“Thanks for the medicine, Sherry. It really helped,” Lake says.

“No problem,” Sherry says. “That concoction can knock the shit out of anything. You two let me know if you need more.”

Lake looks at me and rolls her eyes. “See you later. Love you.”

“Love you, too. Let me know when Kel feels better, and we’ll come over.”

Lake leaves, and I take a seat at the table and slowly sip my drink. I still don’t trust ingesting anything.

Sherry pulls out the chair across the table from me and takes a seat. “So, what’s your story?” she asks.

I’m not sure what story she’s referring to, so I raise my eyebrows at her as I take another sip and wait for her to elaborate.

“With the two of you. And Kel and Caulder. It’s a little strange, from a mother’s point of view. I’ve got an eleven-year-old daughter who seems to enjoy spending time with all you guys, so I feel it’s my duty as a mom to know your story. You and Lake are both practically children, raising children.”

She’s very blunt. However, the way she says it comes off as appropriate, somehow. She’s easy to like. I see why Kiersten is the way she is.

I set my Sprite down on the table and wipe the condensation off the glass with my thumbs. “My parents died three years ago.” I continue to stare at the glass, avoiding her gaze. I don’t want to see the pity. “Lake’s father died over a year ago, and her mother passed away in September. So . . . here we are, raising our brothers.”

Sherry leans back in her chair and folds her arms across her chest. “I’ll be damned.”

I nod and give her a half smile. At least she didn’t say how sorry she is for us. I hate pity more than anything.

“How long have the two of you been dating?”

“Officially? Since December eighteenth, a little over a year ago.”

“What about unofficially?” she says.

I shift in my seat. Why did I even specify “officially”?

“December eighteenth, a little over a year ago,” I say again, and smile. I’m not getting any more detailed than that. “What’s your story, Sherry?”

She laughs and stands up. “Will, has anyone ever told you it’s rude to be nosy?” She makes her way to the front door. “Let me know if you need anything. You know where we live.”

* * *

THE FOUR OF us spend the entire day Sunday watching movies and being sore. We’re all a little queasy, so we skip the junk food. Monday it’s back to reality. I drop Kel and Caulder off at their school and head to the college. Three of my four classes are in the same building: one of the benefits of being in grad school. Once your course of study is set, all the classes are similar and usually taught in the same area. The first of my four classes, however, is halfway across campus. It’s a graduate-level elective called Death and Dying. I thought it would be interesting, since I’m more than experienced in the subject. I also didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t another graduate elective that I could take during the eight o’clock block, so I’m stuck with this one if I want all my credits to count.

When I walk in, students are seated sporadically around the room. It’s an auditorium-style room set up with tables for two. I walk up the stairs and take a seat in the back of the room. It’s different, being the student rather than the teacher. I got so used to being at the head of the classroom. The role reversal has taken some getting used to.

All twenty tables fill up fairly quickly, other than an empty seat next to me. It’s the first day of the semester, so it will probably be the only day that people show up early. That’s usually how it is; the newness wears off by day two. It’s rare for a professor to have the entire roll show up after day two.

My phone vibrates inside my pocket. I take it out and slide my finger across the screen. It’s a text from Lake.

Finally found my phone. Hope you like your classes. I love you and I’ll see you tonight.

The professor starts calling roll. I send Lake a quick reply text that states, “Thx. Love you, too,” then put the phone back in my pocket.

“Will Cooper?” the professor says. I raise my hand, and he looks up at me and nods, then marks his form. I glance around the room to see if I recognize anyone. There were a couple of people from high school in my elective last semester, but I don’t usually see many familiar faces. Most of my high school classmates graduated from college last May, and not many of them decided on grad school.

I notice a girl with blond hair in the front row turned completely around in her seat. When I meet her gaze, my heart sinks. She smiles and waves when she sees that I’ve recognized her. She gathers her things, then stands and makes her way up the stairs.

No. She’s coming toward me. She’s about to sit with me.

“Will! Oh my God, what are the chances? It’s been so long,” she says.

I do my best to smile at her, trying to figure out if what I’m feeling is anger or guilt. “Hey, Vaughn.” I try to sound pleased to see her.

She takes the seat next to me and leans in and hugs me. “How are you?” she whispers. “How’s Caulder?”

“He’s good,” I say. “Growing up. He’ll be eleven in two months.”

“Eleven? Wow,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief.

We haven’t seen each other in almost three years. We parted on bad terms, to put it mildly, yet she’s acting genuinely excited to see me. I wish I could say the same.

“How’s Ethan?” I ask her. Ethan is her older brother. He and I were pretty good friends while Vaughn and I dated, but we haven’t spoken since the breakup.

“He’s good. He’s really good. He’s married now, with a baby on the way.”

“Good for him. Tell him I said so.”

“I will,” she says.

“Vaughn Gibson?” the professor calls.

She raises her hand. “Up here.” She brings her attention back to me. “What about you? You married?”

I shake my head.

“Me, neither.” She smiles.

I don’t like how she’s looking at me. We dated for over two years, so I know her pretty well. And right now her intentions aren’t good for me.

“I’m not married, but I am dating someone,” I clarify. I see the slight shift in her expression, though she attempts to mask it with a smile.

“Good for you,” she says. “Is it serious?” She’s digging for hints about my relationship, so I make it clear to her.

“Very.”

When the professor starts explaining the semester requirements and going over the syllabus, we both face forward and don’t speak much, other than occasional comments from her regarding the class. When the professor dismisses us, I quickly stand up.

“It’s really good seeing you, Will,” she says. “I’m excited about this class now. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

I smile at her without agreeing. She gives me another quick hug and turns away. I gather my things and head to my second class as I think of a way to break this news to Lake.

Lake has never asked about my past relationships. She says there isn’t anything good that can come from discussing them. I’m not sure she knows about Vaughn. She knows I had a pretty serious relationship in high school, and she knows I’ve had sex; we talked about that. I don’t know how she’ll take this. I’d hate to upset her, though I don’t want to hide anything.

But what would I be hiding? Is it necessary to tell her about all the students in my classes? We’ve never discussed it before, so why do I feel the need to now? If I tell her, it will just cause her to worry unnecessarily. If I don’t tell her, what harm is it doing? Lake’s not in my class, she’s not even in school on the same days I am. I’ve made it clear to Vaughn that I’m in a relationship. That should be good enough.

By the end of my last class, I’ve convinced myself that Lake doesn’t need to know.

* * *

WHEN I PULL up at the elementary school, Kel and Caulder are seated outside on a bench, away from the rest of the students. Mrs. Brill is standing right behind them, waiting.

“Great,” I mumble to myself. I’ve heard the horror stories about her, but I’ve never had to deal with her. I kill the engine and get out. It’s obvious what she’s expecting me to do.

“You must be Will,” she says, extending her hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

“Good to meet you.” I glance at the boys, who aren’t making eye contact with me. When I look back at Mrs. Brill, she nods to the left, indicating that she would like to talk to me out of their earshot.

“There was an incident with Kel last week in the cafeteria,” Mrs. Brill says as we walk down the sidewalk, away from the crowd. “I’m not sure what the relationship is between Kel and you, but I wasn’t able to get in touch with his sister.”

“We’re aware of what happened,” I say. “Layken misplaced her phone. Do I need to let her know to contact you?”

“No, that isn’t why I want to talk to you,” she says. “I just wanted to be sure both of you were aware of last week’s incident and that it was handled appropriately.”

“It was. We took care of it,” I say. I don’t know what she means by “handled appropriately,” but I doubt she expects that the punishment was laughing about it at the dinner table. Oh well.

“I wanted to talk to you about a different matter. There’s a new student here who seems to have taken to Kel and Caulder. Kiersten?” She waits for me to acknowledge that. I nod. “There was an incident today involving her and a few of the other students,” she says.

I stop walking and turn toward her, becoming more vested in the conversation. If it has anything to do with how the kids acted at the dinner table the other night, I want to know about it.

“She’s being picked on. Some of the other students find that her personality doesn’t mesh well with theirs. Kel and Caulder found out about a couple of the older boys saying some things to her, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.” She pauses and glances back at Kel and Caulder, who are still seated in the same positions.

“What’d they do?” I ask nervously.

“It’s not what they did, really. It’s what they said . . . in a note.” She takes a piece of paper out of her pocket and hands it to me.

I unfold it and look at it. My mouth gapes open. It’s a picture of a bloody knife with “You will die, asswipe!” written across the top.

“Kel and Caulder wrote this?” I ask, embarrassed.

She nods. “They’ve already admitted to it. You’re a teacher, so you know the significance of this kind of threat on campus. It can’t be taken lightly, Will. I hope you understand. They’ll be suspended for the rest of the week.”

“Suspended? For an entire week? But they were defending someone who was being bullied.”

“I understand that, and those boys have been punished as well. But I can’t condone bad behavior in the defense of more bad behavior.”

I know where she’s coming from. I look down at the note again and sigh. “I’ll tell Lake. Is there anything else? They’re free to come back on Monday?”

She nods. I thank her and walk back to the car and get in. The boys climb into the backseat, and we drive home in silence. I’m too pissed at them to say anything. Or at least I think I’m pissed. I’m supposed to be, right?

* * *

LAKE IS SEATED at the bar when I walk through her front door. Kel and Caulder follow behind me, and I sternly instruct them to take a seat. Lake shoots me a confused look when I walk through the living room and motion for her to follow me to her bedroom. I shut the door for privacy and explain everything that happened, showing her the note.

She stares at it for a while, then covers her mouth and tries to hide her laugh. She thinks it’s funny. I feel relieved, because the more thought I gave it on the way home, the funnier I thought it was. When we make eye contact, we start laughing.

“I know, Lake! From a sibling standpoint, it’s really funny,” I say. “But what are we supposed to do from a parent standpoint?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’m sort of proud of them for taking up for Kiersten.” She sits down on her bed and throws the note aside. “Poor Kiersten.”

I sit down beside her. “Well, we have to act mad. They really can’t do crap like this.”

Lake nods in agreement. “What do you think their punishment should be?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. Being suspended seems kind of like a reward. What kid wouldn’t want to get a week off from school?”

“I know, right?” she says. “I guess we could ground them from their video games while they’re home,” she suggests.

“If we do that, they’ll just annoy us the entire time out of boredom,” I say. She groans at the thought. I think back on my own punishments as a child and try to come up with a solution. “We could make them write ‘I will not write threatening notes’ a thousand times.”

She shakes her head in disagreement. “Kel loves to write. He would consider that another reward, just like the suspension.” We both think for a while, but neither of us comes up with any more ideas for punishment.

“I guess it’s a good thing we have different schedules this semester,” she says. “That way, every time they get suspended, at least one of us will be home.”

I smile at her and hope she’s wrong. This better be their first and last suspension. Lake doesn’t know it, but she’s made my life with Caulder so much easier. Before I met her, I agonized over every single parenting decision I had to make. Now that we make a lot of those choices together, I’m not as hard on myself. We seem to agree on most aspects of how the boys should be raised. It also doesn’t hurt having her maternal instincts in the picture. It’s in moments like these, when we’re required to join forces, that it’s almost unbearable for me to take things slowly. If I left my head out of it and followed my heart, I’d marry her today.

I push her back on the bed and kiss her. Due to the weekend from hell, I haven’t been able to kiss her since Friday. I’ve missed kissing her. From the way she kisses me back, it’s obvious she’s missed kissing me, too.

“Have you talked to your grandparents about next weekend?” she asks.

My lips move from her mouth, down her cheek, and to her ear. “I’ll call them tonight,” I whisper. “Have you thought about where you want to go?” Goose bumps break out on her skin, so I continue kissing down her neck.

“We could stay here at my house, for all I care. I’m just looking forward to being with you for three whole days. And finally getting to spend the night together . . . in the same bed, at least.”

I’m trying not to come off too eager, but next weekend is all I’ve been thinking about. She doesn’t need to know that I’ve got an internal countdown going. Ten days and twenty-one more hours.

“Why don’t we do that?” I stop kissing her neck and look at her. “Let’s just stay here. Kel and Caulder will be in Detroit. We can lie to Eddie and Gavin and tell them we’re going away, so they won’t stop by. We’ll pull the shades down and lock the doors and hole up for three whole days, right here in this bed. And in the shower, too, of course.”

“Sounds bemazing,” she says. She likes to smoosh words together for emphasis. I’m pretty sure “bemazing” is “beautiful” and “amazing.” I think it’s cute.

“Now back to the punishment,” she says. “What would our parents do?”

I honestly have no clue what my parents would do. If I did have a clue, it wouldn’t be so hard to come up with solutions to all the problems that come along with raising kids.

“I know,” I say. “Let’s scare the butterfly out of them.”

“How?” she says.

“Act like you’re trying to calm me down, like I’m really pissed off. We can make them sit out there and sweat for a while.”

She laughs. “You’re so bad.” She stands up and walks closer to the door. “Will! Calm down!” she yells.

I walk over to the door and hit it. “I will not calm down! I’m pissed!”

Lake throws herself onto the bed and pulls a pillow over her face to stifle her giggles before she continues. “No, stop it! You can’t go out there yet! You need to calm down, Will! You might kill them!”

I glare at her. “Kill them?” I whisper. “Really?” She laughs as I hop back on the bed with her. “Lake, you suck at this.”

“Will, no! Not the belt!” she yells dramatically.

I clasp my hand over her mouth. “Shut up!” I say, laughing.

We give ourselves a few minutes to regain composure before we exit the bedroom. When we walk down the hallway, I do my best to look intimidating. The boys are watching us with fear in their eyes as we take our seats across the bar from them.

“I’ll talk,” Lake says to them. “Will is entirely too upset right now to speak to either of you.”

I stare at them and don’t speak, putting on my best display of anger. I wonder if this is how parenting is with real parents. A bunch of pretending to be responsible grown-ups.

“First of all,” Lake says in a superbly faked motherly tone, “we would like to commend you for defending your friend. However, you went about it all wrong. You should have spoken to someone about it. Violence is never the answer to violence.”

I couldn’t have said it better if I’d been reading from a parenting handbook.

“You are both grounded for two weeks. And don’t think your suspension will be fun, either. We’re giving you each a list of chores to do every day. Including Saturday and Sunday.”

I tap my knee against hers under the bar, letting her know that was a nice touch.

“Do either of you have anything to say?” she asks.

Kel raises his hand. “What about my birthday on Friday?”

Lake looks at me, and I shrug. She turns back to Kel. “You don’t have to be grounded on your birthday. But you’ll get an extra day of grounding at the end. Any more questions?”

Neither of them says anything.

“Good. Go to your room, Kel. No hanging out with Caulder or Kiersten while you’re grounded. Caulder, same goes for you. Go to your house and to your room.”

The boys get up from the bar and go to their respective bedrooms. When Kel has disappeared down the hallway and Caulder has disappeared out the front door, I give Lake a high five.

“Well played,” I tell her. “You almost had me convinced.”

“You, too. You really seemed pissed!” she says. She heads to the living room and sits down to fold a pile of laundry. “So? How were your classes?”

“Good,” I reply. I spare her the details of first period. “I do have a lot of homework I need to get started on, though. Are we eating together tonight?”

She shakes her head. “I promised Eddie we could have some girl time tonight. Gavin started his job at Getty’s. But tomorrow I’m all yours.”

I kiss her on top of the head. “You two have fun. Text me good night,” I say. “You do know where your phone is, right?”

She nods and pulls it out of her pocket to show me. “Love you,” she says.

“Love you, too,” I say as I leave.

When I shut the door behind me, I feel like I left a moment too soon. When I walk back in, she’s facing the other way, folding a towel. I turn her around and take the towel out of her hands. I wrap my arms around her and kiss her again, but better this time. “I love you,” I say again.

She sighs and leans in to me. “I can’t wait until next weekend, Will. I wish it would just hurry up and get here.”

“You and me both.”





4.


TUESDAY, JANUARY 10

If I were a carpenter, I would build you a window to my soul.

But I would leave that window shut and locked,

so that every time you tried to look through it . . . all you would see is your own reflection.

You would see that my soul

is a reflection of you . . .

LAKE HAS ALREADY LEFT FOR SCHOOL BY THE TIME I WAKE UP. Kel is asleep on the couch. She must have sent him over before she left. It’s trash day, so I slip my shoes on and head outside to take the can to the curb. I have to knock almost a foot of snow off the lid before I can get it to budge. Lake forgot, so I walk to her house and pull hers to the curb as well.

“Hey, Will,” Sherry says. She and Kiersten are making their way outside.

“Morning,” I say to them.

“What happened with Kel and Caulder yesterday? Are they in lots of trouble?” Kiersten asks.

“Suspended. They can’t go back until Monday.”

“Suspended for what?” Sherry asks. I can tell by her tone that Kiersten must not have told her.

Kiersten turns toward her mother. “They threatened those boys the school called you about. They wrote them a note, threatening their life. Called them asswipes,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Aww, how sweet,” Sherry says. “They defended you.” She turns to me before she gets in her car. “Will, tell them thank you. That’s too sweet, defending my baby girl like that.”

I laugh and shake my head as I watch them drive away. When I get back inside, Kel and Caulder are sitting on the couch watching TV. “Morning,” I say to them.

“Are we allowed to watch TV, at least?” Caulder asks.

I shrug. “Whatever. Do what you want. Just don’t threaten to kill anyone today.” I should probably be stricter, but it’s too early in the morning to care.

“They were really mean to her, Will,” Kel says. “They’ve been being mean to her since she moved here. She hasn’t done anything to them.”

I sit down on the other couch and kick off my shoes. “Not everyone is gonna be nice, Kel. There are a lot of cruel people in the world, unfortunately. What kinds of things are they doing to her?”

Caulder answers me. “One of the sixth-grade boys asked her to be his girlfriend about a week after she moved here, but she told him no. He’s kind of a bully. She said she was a vegetarian and couldn’t date meatheads. It made him really mad, so he’s been spreading rumors about her since then. A lot of kids are scared of him because he’s a dickhead, so now other kids are being mean to her, too.”

“Don’t say ‘dickhead,’ Caulder. And I think you guys are doing the right thing by defending her. Lake and I aren’t mad about that; we’re actually a little proud. We just wish you would use your heads before you make some of the choices you do. This is two weeks in a row you guys have done something stupid at school. This time you got suspended because of it. We all have enough on our plates as it is . . . we don’t need the added stress.”

“Sorry,” Kel says.

“Yeah. Sorry, Will,” Caulder says.

“As for Kiersten, you two keep doing what you’re doing, sticking by her. She’s a good kid and doesn’t deserve to be treated like that. Is anyone being nice to her other than you two? She doesn’t have any other friends?”

“She’s got Abby,” Caulder says.

Kel smiles. “She’s not the only one who has Abby.”

“Shut up, Kel!” Caulder hits him on the arm.

“Whoa! What’s this? Who’s Abby? Caulder, do you have a girlfriend?” I tease.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Caulder says defensively.

“Only because he’s too shy to ask her,” Kel says.

“You’re one to talk,” I say to Kel. “You’ve been crushing on Kiersten since the day she moved in. Why haven’t you asked her to be your girlfriend?”

Kel blushes and tries to hide his smile. He reminds me of Lake when he does this. “I already asked her. She is my girlfriend,” he says.

I’m impressed. He’s got more nerve than I thought.

“You better not tell Layken!” he says. “She’ll embarrass me.”

“I won’t say anything,” I say. “But your birthday party is this Friday. Tell Kiersten not to be kissing you in front of Lake if you don’t want her finding out.”

“Shut up, Will! I’m not kissing her,” Kel says with a disgusted look.

“Caulder, you should invite Abby to Kel’s party,” I say.

Caulder gets the same embarrassed look Kel had. “He already did,” Kel says. Caulder hits him on the arm again.

I stand up. It’s obvious my advice isn’t needed here. “Well, you two have it all figured out. What do you need me for?”

“Someone has to pay for the pizza,” Caulder says.

I walk to the front door and grab their jackets and toss them in their laps.

“Punishment time,” I say. They groan and roll their eyes. “You guys get to shovel driveways today.”

“Driveways? As in plural? More than one?” Caulder asks.

“Yep,” I say. “Do mine and Lake’s, and when you’re done, do Sherry’s, too. While you’re at it, go ahead and do Bob and Melinda’s.”

Neither of them moves from the couch.

“Go!”

* * *

MY STOMACH IS in knots Wednesday morning. I really don’t want to see Vaughn today. I try to leave a few minutes sooner, hoping I can make it to class early enough to pick a seat next to someone else. Unfortunately, I’m the first to arrive. I take a seat in the back again, hoping she won’t want to make the trek to the back of the room.

She does. Arriving almost immediately after me, she smiles and runs up the steps, throwing her bag down on the table. “Morning,” she says. “I brought you a coffee. Two sugars, no cream, just like you like it.” She sets the coffee down in front of me.

“Thanks,” I say. She’s got her hair pulled back in a bun. I know exactly what she’s doing. I told her once that I loved it when she wore her hair like that. It’s no coincidence that she’s wearing it like that today.

“So, I was thinking we should catch up. Maybe I could come by your house sometime. I miss Caulder; I’d like to see him.”

Absolutely not! Hell no! That’s what I really want to say. “Vaughn, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” is what I actually say.

“Oh,” she says quietly. “Okay.”

I can tell I’ve offended her. “Look, I’m not trying to be rude. It’s just . . . you know, we have a lot of history. It wouldn’t be fair to Lake.”

She cocks her head at me. “Lake? Your girlfriend’s name is Lake?”

I don’t like her tone. “Her name is Layken. I call her Lake.”

She puts her hand on my arm. “Will, I’m not trying to cause trouble. If Layken is the jealous type, just say so. It’s not a big deal.”

She grazes her thumb across my arm, and I look down at her hand. I hate how she’s trying to undermine my relationship with a snide comment. She always used to do this. She hasn’t changed at all. I pull my arm away from her and face the front of the room. “Vaughn, stop. I know what you’re doing, and it’s not gonna happen.”

She huffs and focuses her attention on the front of the room. She’s pissed. Good, maybe she got the not so subtle hint.

I really don’t understand where she’s coming from. I never imagined I would see her again, much less have to practically fight her off. It’s strange how I had so much love for her then but feel nothing for her now. I don’t regret what I went through with her, though. We did have a pretty good relationship, and I honestly think I would have married her had my parents not passed away. But only because I was naive about what a relationship should be. What love should be.

We met when we were freshmen but didn’t start dating until our junior year. We hung out at a party I went to with my best friend, Reece. Vaughn and I went out a few times, then agreed to make the relationship exclusive. We dated for about six months before we had sex for the first time. We both still lived at home with our parents, so it ended up being in the backseat of her car. It was awkward, to say the least. We were cramped, it was cold, and it was probably the most unromantic atmosphere a girl could want in that moment. Of course, it got much better over the next year and a half, but I’ll always regret that being our first time. Maybe that’s why I want Lake’s first time to be perfect. Not just another spur-of-the-moment kind of thing like Vaughn and I had.

I was grieving and going through a lot of emotional issues after my relationship with Vaughn ended. Raising Caulder and doubling up on classes didn’t leave me any time to date. Vaughn was the last relationship I had up until I met Lake. And after only one date with Lake, I knew the connection between us was something more than I’d had with Vaughn, more than I ever thought I could have with anyone.

At the time Vaughn broke up with me, I thought she was making a huge mistake, telling me she wasn’t ready to be a mom to Caulder. She admitted she wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility and I resented her for it. I’m past the resentment now. Seeing how things may have turned out differently had she not made that decision, I’ll be forever grateful to her for calling off our relationship when she did.

* * *

FRIDAY IS MUCH better. Vaughn doesn’t show up to class, so it makes the rest of the day a lot easier. I stop by the store after my last class and grab Kel’s birthday present, then head home to get ready for his party.

The only two people Kel and Caulder invited to the party were Kiersten and Abby. Sherry and Kiersten went to pick up Abby while Lake and Eddie left to go get the cake. Gavin showed up with pizza at the same time I pulled into the driveway. It’s his night off, but I had him pick it up, since he gets a discount now.

“You nervous?” I ask Caulder as I unstack the pizzas on the counter. I know he’s barely eleven, but I remember having my first crush.

“Stop it, Will. You’re gonna make tonight my suck if you keep it up,” he says.

“Fair enough, I’ll drop it. But first I need to lay down some rules. No holding hands until you’re at least eleven and a half. No kissing until you’re thirteen. And no tongue until you’re fourteen. I mean fifteen. Once you get to that point, we’ll revisit the rules. Until then, you stick to those.”

Caulder rolls his eyes and walks away.

That went well, I guess. Our first official “sex” talk. I think the one I really need to be having the talk with is Kel. He seems a little bit more girl-crazy than Caulder does.

“Who placed the order for this cake?” Lake asks as she walks through the front door carrying it. She doesn’t look pleased.

“I let Kel and Caulder order it when we were grocery shopping the other day. Why? What’s wrong with it?”

She walks over to the bar and sets the cake down. She opens the lid and stands back so I can see it. “Oh,” I say.

The cake is covered in white buttercream frosting. The writing across the top is done in blue.

Happy Butterflying Birthday, Kel

“Well, it’s not really a bad word,” I say.

Lake sighs. “I hate that they’re so damn funny,” she says. “It’s just gonna get harder, you know. We really need to start beating them now, before it’s too late.” She closes the lid and walks the cake to the refrigerator.

“Tomorrow,” I say as I wrap my arms around her from behind. “We can’t beat Kel on his birthday.” I lean in and kiss her ear.

“Fine.” She leans her head to the side, allowing me easier access. “But I get the first punch.”

“Stop it!” Kel yells. “You guys can’t do that crap tonight. It’s my birthday, and I don’t want to have to watch y’all make out!”

I let go of Lake and pick Kel up and throw him over my shoulder. “This is for the butterflying cake,” I say. I turn his backside toward Layken. “Birthday beating, here’s your chance.”

Lake starts counting off birthday spankings while Kel fights to get out of my grasp. He’s getting stronger. “Put me down, Will!” He’s punching me in the back, trying to break free.

I put him down after Lake finishes with the beating. Kel laughs and tries to shove me, but I don’t budge.

“I can’t wait until I’m bigger than you! I’m gonna kick your butterfly!” He gives up and runs down the hallway to Caulder’s room.

Lake is staring down the hallway with a serious expression. “Should we be letting them say that?”

I laugh. “Say what? Butterfly?”

She nods. “Yeah. I mean, it seems like it’s already a bad word.”

“Would you rather him say ‘ass’?” Kiersten says, passing between Lake and me. Again, she’s here, and I didn’t even hear her knock.

“Hey, Kiersten,” Lake says.

There’s a young girl following closely behind Kiersten. She looks at Lake and smiles.

“You must be Abby,” Lake says. “I’m Layken, this is Will.”

Abby gives us a slight wave but doesn’t say anything.

“Abby’s shy. Give her time, she’ll warm up to you,” Kiersten says. They make their way to the table in the kitchen.

“Is Sherry coming?” Lake says.

“No, probably not. She wants me to bring her some cake, though.”

Kel and Caulder run into the kitchen. “There they are,” Kiersten says. “How was your week off school, lucky butts?”

“Abby, come here,” Caulder says. “I want to show you my room.”

After Abby follows Caulder out of the room, I look at Lake, a little concerned. She sees the worry in my eyes and laughs. “Relax, Will. They’re only ten. I’m sure he just wants to show her his toys.”

Regardless, I walk down the hallway and spy.

“I’m the guest, dork. I should get to be player one,” I hear Abby say.

Sure enough, they’re just being ten. I go back into the kitchen and wink at Lake.

* * *

AFTER THE PARTY is over, Eddie and Gavin agree to take Abby home. Kel and Caulder retreat to Caulder’s room to play Kel’s new video games. Lake and I are alone in the living room. She’s lying on the couch with her feet in my lap. I rub her feet, massaging the tension away. She’s been going nonstop all day, getting everything prepared for Kel’s party. She’s lying with her eyes closed, enjoying the relaxation.

“I have a confession to make,” I say, still rubbing her feet.

She reluctantly opens her eyes. “What?”

“I’ve been counting down the hours in my head until next weekend.”

She grins at me, relieved that this is my confession. “So have I. One hundred and sixty-three.”

I lean back against the couch and smile at her. “Good, I don’t feel so pathetic now.”

“It doesn’t make you any less pathetic,” she says. “It just means we’re both pathetic.” She sits up and grabs my shirt, pulling me to her. Her lips brush against mine and she whispers, “What are your plans for the next hour or so?”

Her words cause my pulse to race and chills to run down my arms. She touches her cheek to mine and whispers in my ear. “Let’s go to my house for a little while. I’ll give you a little preview of next weekend.”

She doesn’t have to ask twice. I pull away from her and jump over the back of the couch and run to the front door. “Boys, we’ll be back in a little while! Don’t leave!” Lake is still sitting on the couch, so I go over and grab her hands, pulling her up. “Come on, we don’t have much time!”

When we get to her house, she shuts the door behind us. I don’t even wait until we get to the bedroom. I shove her against the front door and start kissing her. “One hundred and sixty-two,” I say between kisses.

“Let’s go to the bedroom,” she says. “I’ll lock the front door. That way, if they come over here, they’ll have to knock first.” She turns around and latches the dead bolt.

“Good idea,” I say. We continue to kiss as we make our way down the hallway. We can’t seem to make it very far without one of us ending up against a wall. By the time we get to the bedroom, my shirt’s already off.

“Let’s do that thing again where the first person to call retreat is the loser,” she says. She’s kicking off her shoes, so I do the same.

“You’re about to lose, then, ’cause I’m not retreating,” I say. She knows I’ll lose. I always do.

“Neither am I,” she says, shaking her head. She pulls her legs up and scoots back onto the bed. I stand at the edge of the bed and take in the view. Sometimes, when I watch her, it seems surreal that she’s mine. That she really loves me back. She blows a strand of hair out of her face, then tucks her hair behind her ears and positions herself against the pillow. I slide on top of her and slip my hand behind her neck, gently pulling her lips to mine.

I move slowly as I kiss her, trying to savor every second. We hardly ever get to make out; I don’t want to rush it. “I love you so much,” I whisper.

She wraps her legs around my waist and tightens her arms around my back in an attempt to pull me in closer. “Spend the night with me, Will. Please? You can come over after the boys go to sleep. They’ll never know.”

“Lake, it’s just one more week. We can make it.”

“I don’t mean for that. We can wait until next weekend. I just want you in my bed tonight. I miss you. Please?”

I continue kissing her neck without responding. I can’t say no, so I don’t respond at all.

“Don’t make me beg, Will. You’re so damn responsible sometimes, it makes me feel weak.”

I laugh at the thought that she believes she’s weak. I kiss my way down to the collar of her shirt. “If I spend the night . . . what are you gonna wear?” I slowly unbutton the top button of her shirt and press my lips to her skin.

“Oh my God,” she breathes. “I’ll wear whatever the hell you want me to wear.”

I unbutton the next button and move my lips a little lower. “I don’t like this shirt. I definitely don’t want you to wear this shirt,” I say. “In fact, it’s a really ugly shirt. I think you should take it off and throw it away.” I unbutton the third button, waiting for her to call retreat. I know I’m about to win.

When she doesn’t, I continue kissing lower and lower as I unbutton the fourth button, then the fifth button, then the last button. She still doesn’t call retreat. She’s testing me. I slowly bring my lips back to her mouth, and she rolls me onto my back and straddles me, then slides her shirt off and tosses it aside.

I run my hands up her arms and over the curves of her chest. Her hair has gotten a lot longer since I met her. It’s hanging loosely around her face as she leans over me. I tuck it behind her ears so I can see her face better. It’s dark in the room, but I can still make out her smile and the amazing emerald hue of her eyes. I slide my hands back up to her shoulders and trace the outline of her bra. “Wear this tonight.” I slide my fingers under the straps. “I like this.”

“So does that mean you’re staying the night?” she asks. Her tone is more serious. Not so playful.

“If you wear this,” I say, being just as serious. She presses her body against mine, our bare skin meeting for the first time in months. I’m definitely not calling retreat. I can’t. I’m not usually so weak; I don’t know what it is about her right now that’s making me so weak.

“Lake.” I break my lips apart from hers, though she continues kissing the edges as I speak, short of breath. “It’s just a matter of hours until next weekend. It’s coming up so fast, in fact, that this weekend can be considered part of the upcoming week. And the upcoming week is part of next weekend. So technically, next weekend is sort of occurring right now . . .this very second.”

She grabs my face and positions me so that she can look straight in my eyes. “Will? You better not be saying this because you think I’m about to call retreat, because I’m not. Not this time.”

She’s serious. I gently roll her onto her back and ease myself on top of her. I stroke her cheek with my thumb. “You’re not? Are you positive you’re ready to not call retreat? Right now?”

“Positive,” she whispers. She wraps her legs tightly around my thighs, and we completely give in to our need for each other. I grab the back of her head and press her mouth into mine even harder. I can feel my pulse rushing through my entire body as we both begin to gasp for air between each kiss, as if we suddenly forgot how to breathe. We’re both desperate, doing our best to get past the moment when one of us usually calls retreat. We pass that moment pretty quickly. I reach around to her back until I find the clasp on her bra, and I unhook it while she frantically tugs at the button on my pants. I’ve pulled the straps of her bra down over her arms to slide it off when the worst thing in the world happens. Someone knocks on the damn door.

“Christ!” I say. My head is spinning so fast, I have to take a moment to calm down. I press my forehead into the pillow next to her, and we try to catch our breath.

She slides out from under me and stands up. “Will, I can’t find my shirt,” she says with panic in her voice.

I roll onto my back and pull her shirt out from beneath me and toss it to her. “Here’s your ugly shirt,” I tease.

The boys are beating on the door now, so I hop out of the bed and go down the hallway to find my own shirt before opening the front door for them.

“What took you so long?” Kel asks as they shove their way past me.

“We were watching a movie,” I lie. “We were at a really good part and didn’t want to pause it.”

“Yeah,” Lake agrees, emerging from the hallway. “A really good part.”

Kel and Caulder walk to the kitchen, and Kel flips the light on. “Can Caulder stay here tonight?” he asks.

“I don’t know why you guys even bother asking anymore,” Lake says.

“Because we’re grounded. Remember?” Caulder says.

Lake looks to me for assistance.

“It’s your birthday, Kel. The grounding can resume tomorrow night,” I say. They go to the living room and turn on the TV.

I reach out to Lake. “Walk me home?” Lake grabs my hand, and we head out the front door.

“Are you coming back over later?” she asks.

Now that I’ve had the chance to cool off, I can see that coming back might not be a good idea. “Lake, maybe I shouldn’t. We got really carried away just now. How do you expect me to sleep in the same bed with you after that?”

I expect her to object, but she doesn’t.

“You’re right, like always. It’d be weird, anyway, with our brothers in the house.” She wraps her arms around me when we reach my front door. It’s incredibly cold outside, but she doesn’t seem to care as we stand there. “Or maybe you’re wrong,” she says. “Maybe you should come back in an hour. I’ll wear the ugliest pajamas I can find, and I won’t even brush my teeth. You won’t want to touch me. All we’ll do is sleep.”

I laugh at her absurd plan. “You could go a week without brushing your teeth or changing clothes, and I still wouldn’t be able to keep my hands off you.”

“I’m serious, Will. Come back in an hour. I just want to cuddle with you. I’ll make sure the boys are in their room, and you can sneak in like we’re in high school.”

She doesn’t have to do much convincing. “Fine. I’ll be back in an hour. But all we’re doing is sleeping, okay? No tempting me.”

“No tempting, I promise,” she says with a grin.

I cup her chin in my hand and lower my voice. “Lake, I’m serious. I want this to be perfect for you, and I get really carried away when I’m with you. We only have a week left. I want to stay the night with you, but I need you to promise me you won’t put me in that position again for at least a hundred and sixty-two more hours.”

“One hundred sixty-one and a half,” she says.

I shake my head and laugh. “Go put those boys to bed. I’ll see you in a little while.”

She kisses me goodbye, and I head into the house and take a shower. A cold shower.

When I get to her house an hour later, all the lights are off. I lock the door behind me and ease down the hallway and into her bedroom. She left the bedside lamp on for me. She’s lying in bed with her back toward me, so I climb in behind her and slide my arm under her head. I expect her to respond, but she’s out. She’s actually snoring. I brush her hair behind her ear and kiss the back of her head as I pull the covers around us both and close my eyes.





5.


SATURDAY, JANUARY 14

I love being with you so bad

When we aren’t together, I miss you so bad

One of these days, I’m going to marry you so bad

And it’ll be

so

so

good.

LAKE WAS UPSET WHEN SHE WOKE UP SATURDAY MORNING and I was already gone. She says it wasn’t fair that she slept through our entire first sleepover. Regardless, I enjoyed it. I watched her sleep for a while before I went back home.

We didn’t get into any more situations like the one in her bedroom Friday night. I think we were both surprised by how intense things got, so we’re trying to keep it from happening again. Until this coming weekend, anyway. Saturday, we spent the evening at Joel’s with Eddie and Gavin. Sunday, Lake and I did homework together. Pretty typical weekend.

Now I’m sitting here in Death and Dying, being stared down by the only person I’ve ever had sex with. It’s awkward. The way Vaughn is acting, I feel like I really am hiding something from Lake. But telling her about Vaughn now would just prove that I wasn’t being completely honest the first week of school. The last thing I want to do before this weekend is upset Lake, so I decide to wait another week before I bring it up.

“Vaughn, the professor is up there,” I say, pointing to the front of the room.

Vaughn continues to stare at me. “Will, you’re being a snob,” she whispers. “I don’t understand why you won’t just talk to me. If you were really over what happened between us, it wouldn’t bother you this much.”

I can’t believe she honestly thinks I’m not over us. I’ve been over us since the day I first laid eyes on Lake. “I’m over us, Vaughn. It’s been three years. You’re over us, too. You just always want what you can’t have, and it’s pissing you off. It’s got nothing to do with me.”

She folds her arms across her chest and sits back in her chair. “You think I want you?” She glares at me, then turns her attention to the front of the room. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re an asshole?” she whispers.

I laugh. “As a matter of fact, yes. More than once.”

* * *

TODAY HAS BEEN Kel and Caulder’s first day back to school since their suspension. After school, they climb in the car with defeated expressions. I eye the books spilling out of their backpacks and realize it’s going to be a night full of catching up on homework for the two of them. “I guess you guys learned your lesson,” I say.

Lake is walking out of my house when the boys and I get out of the car. It doesn’t bother me at all that she’s at my house when I’m not home, but I’m a little curious about what she was doing. She sees the confusion on my face as she walks toward me. She holds out her hand and reveals one of the stars that her mother made, resting in her palm.

“Don’t judge me,” she says. She rolls the star around in her hand. “I just miss her today.”

The look on her face makes me sad for her. I give her a quick hug, then watch her walk across the street and go back inside her house. She’s in need of alone time, so I give it to her. “Kel, stay over here for a while. I’ll help you guys with all your homework.”

It takes us a couple of hours to finish the assignments that piled up while the boys were suspended. Gavin and Eddie are supposed to come over for dinner tonight, so I head to the kitchen to start cooking. We’re not having burgers tonight. I’m sure we’ll never have burgers again. I debate whether or not I want to make basagna but decide against it. Honestly, I don’t feel like cooking. I go to the fridge and slide the Chinese menu out from under the magnet.

Half an hour later, Eddie and Gavin show up, followed a minute later by Lake, then the Chinese delivery guy. I set the containers in the middle of the table, and we all start filling our plates.

“We’re in the middle of a game. Can we eat in my room tonight?” Caulder asks.

“Sure,” I say.

“I thought they were grounded,” Gavin says.

“They are,” Lake replies.

Gavin takes a bite of his egg roll. “They’re playing video games. What exactly are they grounded from, then?”

Lake looks to me for assistance. I don’t know the answer, but I try anyway. “Gavin, are you questioning our parenting skills?” I ask.

“Nope,” Gavin says. “Not at all.”

There’s a weird vibe tonight. Eddie is extremely quiet as she picks at her food. Gavin and I try to make small talk, but that doesn’t last long. Lake seems to be in her own little world, not paying much attention to what’s going on. I try to break the tension. “Suck-and-sweet time,” I say. Almost simultaneously, all three of them object.

“What’s going on?” I ask. “What’s with all the depression tonight?” No one answers me. Eddie and Gavin look at each other. Eddie looks like she’s about to cry, so Gavin kisses her on the forehead. I look over at Lake, who’s just staring down at her plate, twirling her noodles around. “What about you, babe? What’s wrong?” I say to her.

“Nothing. Really, it’s nothing,” she says, unsuccessfully trying to convince me she’s fine. She smiles at me and grabs both of our glasses and goes to the kitchen to refill them.

“Sorry, Will,” Gavin says. “Eddie and I aren’t trying to be rude. We’ve just got a lot on our minds lately.”

“No problem,” I say. “Anything I can do to help?”

They shake their heads. “You going to the slam Thursday night?” Gavin asks, changing the subject.

We haven’t been in a few weeks. Since before Christmas, I think. “I don’t know, I guess we could.” I turn to Lake. “You want to?”

She shrugs. “Sounds fun. We’ll have to see if someone can watch Kel and Caulder, though.”

Eddie clears the table while Gavin puts his jacket on. “We’ll see you there, then. Thanks for supper. We won’t suck so much next time.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “Everyone’s entitled to a bad day every now and then.”

After they leave, I close the take-out containers and put them in the refrigerator while Lake washes our dishes. I walk over to her and hug her. “You sure you’re okay?” I ask.

She turns around and hugs me back, laying her head against my chest. “I’m fine, Will. It’s just . . .”

I lift her face to mine and see that she’s trying to hold back tears. I place my hand on the back of her head and pull her to me. “What’s wrong?”

She quietly cries into my shirt. I can tell she’s trying to stop herself. I wish she wouldn’t be so hard on herself when she gets sad.

“It’s just today,” she says. “It’s their anniversary.”

I realize she’s talking about her mom and dad, so I don’t say anything. I just hug her tighter and kiss the top of her head.

“I know it’s silly that I’m upset. I’m mostly upset about the fact that it’s making me so upset,” she says.

I place my hands on her cheeks and pull her gaze to mine. “It’s not silly, Lake. It’s okay to cry sometimes.”

She smiles and kisses me, then breaks away. “I’m going shopping with Eddie tomorrow night. Wednesday night I have a study group, so I won’t see you until Thursday. Are you getting a sitter, or should I?”

“Do you really think they need one? Kel’s eleven now, and Caulder will be eleven in two months. Don’t you think they can stay home by themselves for a few hours?”

She nods. “I guess so. Maybe I’ll ask Sherry if she’ll at least feed them supper and check on them. I could give her some money.”

“I like that idea,” I say.

She calls for Kel after she gets her jacket and shoes on, then walks back to the kitchen and puts her arms around me. “Ninety-three more hours,” she says, planting a kiss on my neck. “I love you.”

“Listen to me,” I say as I look her intently in the eyes. “It’s okay to be sad, Lake. Quit trying to carve so many pumpkins. And I love you, too.” I kiss her one last time and lock the door behind them when they leave.

Tonight was really strange. The whole vibe seemed off. Since we’re going to the slam, I decide to try to put my thoughts down on paper. I’ll surprise Lake and do one for her this week. Maybe it’ll help her feel better.

* * *

FOR REASONS BEYOND my comprehension, Vaughn sits next to me again on Wednesday. You would think after our little tiff on Monday that she would have given up. I was hoping she would have, anyway.

She pulls out her notebook and opens her textbook to where we left off Monday. She doesn’t stare at me this time. In fact, she doesn’t speak at all during the entire class period. I’m happy she’s not talking to me, but at the same time I feel a little guilty for being so rude to her. Not guilty enough to apologize about it. She did deserve it.

As we’re packing up our things up, still not speaking, she slides something across the table to me, then walks out. I debate throwing the note in the trash without reading it, but my curiosity gets the better of me. I wait until I’m seated in my next class to open it.

Will,

You may not want to hear this, but I need to say it. I’m really sorry. Breaking up with you is one of my biggest regrets in life so far. Especially breaking up with you when I did. It wasn’t fair to you, I realize that now—but I was young and I was scared.

You can’t act like what we had between us was nothing. I loved you, and I know you loved me. You at least owe me the courtesy of talking to me. I just want the chance to apologize to you in person. I can’t seem to let go of how things ended between us. Let me apologize.

Vaughn

I fold the note and put it in my pocket, then lay my head down on the desk and sigh. She’s not going to let it go. I don’t want to think about it right now, so I don’t. I’ll worry about it later.

* * *

THE NEXT NIGHT, I don’t think about anything other than Lake.

I’m picking her up in an hour, so I rush through my homework and head to the shower. I walk past Caulder’s bedroom on my way. He and Kel are playing video games.