I fought the need for a nap. It was only a two-hour drive north from the university. Classes had been easier than I thought they’d be, but I was anxious for final exams and the end of the semester. Passing through Petoskey, I pulled into Walmart and headed straight for the bakery.
“I’m picking up an order for Renae Walton,” I told the lady at the counter. She stepped away from the display case and reached around to where she pulled out a large bag of round, fluffy, perfectly-browned dinner rolls.
“They’re still warm,” she said, smiling at me.
“They smell incredible.” Even through the plastic I caught a heavenly whiff. How was I supposed to drive the rest of the way to the bed and breakfast with these sitting in the passenger seat? I opened my eyes and forced myself out of the daydream of eating these on the way home. “How much do I owe you?”
“Mrs. Walton paid with a credit card over the phone,” the lady said. “You’re all set.”
“Thank you so much.” I balanced the giant bag of goodies and turned to walk away. I paused and looked back at her. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Happy Thanksgiving to you too, young man.” We smiled at one another and I carried my treasure out to my Mustang and put the bag in the backseat as far away from me as possible, so I wouldn’t be tempted to dig in.
The remaining half-hour drive was uneventful. Getting out of the car and walking into the store had sufficiently woken me up, and with each passing mile I grew more and more anxious to arrive. I didn’t know what I was afraid of. Sure, there were quite a few guests staying at the house but that was pretty normal. I didn’t have all my worldly possessions with me like I would when I came home for Christmas break. Whoa, where did that come from? Home. Yeah, this felt like home.
I pulled up to my usual spot next to the garage and left my overnight bag in the car while bounding up the back-porch steps and pausing on the veranda to look out at Lake Michigan with its soft waves lapping at the shore. The weight of the tempting bag of dinner rolls reminded me that my family was waiting for me inside.
I didn’t bother knocking. I was family now. Even though it had been almost three months since I’d been back, this felt like coming home.
“I’m here! The party can begin,” I called out lightly as I stepped into the busy kitchen. Sammy and her mom were wearing aprons and covered in flour. “Did I miss a food fight?”
“Brandon!” Sammy ran and threw herself into my arms, purposely smearing pie crust onto my sleeves. “There, now you got to be part of the food fight.”
“Don’t start something you can’t finish, little girl.” I hugged her back with one arm and held out the bag of dinner rolls, so they wouldn’t get crushed. “I’m an expert food fighter.”
“Is that a challenge?” She looked up at me with a grin.
“Most definitely,” I said, then stepped over to Renae and handed her the bag with mock seriousness. “Mom take these from me before I eat them all. Thanksgiving’s not until tomorrow.”
“How many did you eat on the way up here?” She teased him right back.
“I didn’t dare open them, or I’d be turning around and begging the bakery to make more so I could cover my embarrassment from eating half the bag. They smell incredible.”
“They do smell good.” Renae held them to her face, breathing in the aroma. There was nothing in the world quite like freshly baked bread. She set them on the counter behind her. “Now come here and give me a hug. You’re not getting off that easily.”
I picked her up and spun her around then set her back on the floor. “Dang, it’s good to be home.”
“You’re making me dizzy,” she said, laughing and pushing him away. She stumbled, and he held her elbow to prop her up before she clung to the countertop.
“Sorry, I forget my own strength.”
“You can spin me around.” Sammy held out her arms.
“No way, man, you’ll cover me in flour again. I haven’t recovered yet from your most recent attack.”
She stalked forward with her hands out to tickle me, but I grabbed her up and spun around, making her laugh and squeal. I set her back down.
“There, are you happy?” I brushed my hands down the sleeves of my sweatshirt, trying to remove the sticky flour.
“Looks like you need to wash another sweatshirt.” She raised her eyebrows and smirked.
I met her eyes and cleared my throat. “So, is my apartment ready for me? Or were you going to put me in one of the guest rooms?” I secretly longed to be in the main house with its warmth and homey smells rather than out above the drafty garage like a servant boy.
“We’ve winterized the apartment,” mom said. “We’d like you to stay in the extra bedroom with us on the third floor.”
“That sounds awesome.” I got choked up. I was still reveling in the feeling of having a home and a family. After my parents died, living with my grandparents just never felt like home. By the end of summer, I knew this bed and breakfast was where my family lived. Mom and Sammy. I sighed. “I’ll go get my duffle bag from the car.”
When I came back inside, Sammy was waiting for me in the hallway, having removed her apron and taken her hair down from its sloppy ponytail. “Greetings kind sir, can I show you to your room?”
“But of course,” I said, offering her my arm like a gentleman. I leaned closer and spoke in a theater voice. “Although I’m pretty sure I know how to get to the third floor by now.”
“I’m sorry, guests aren’t allowed on the third floor,” she teased.
“Hadn’t you heard? I’m no longer a guest. I’m family now.”
“Yes, you are.” Sammy bumped my shoulder with hers and we let go of each other’s arms to bound up the grand staircase like a couple of kids.
Running up the stairs reminded me of something I’d failed to mention. “Congratulations, by the way, on making top ten in the state in cross country.”
“Are you stalking me on Instagram?” she asked with a grin.
“Of course,” I answered. “How else am I going to keep up with what’s going on in my little sister’s social and scholastic life.”
Her grin disappeared, and she cleared her throat. She plastered on what seemed like a fake smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “We could always Facetime.”
“That sounds like fun.” We’d reached the top of the second flight of stairs and I opened the door to the third-floor apartment, which always smelled like vanilla candles. I closed my eyes and breathed deep. “Mm… it smells good in here. Why is it that you don’t realize how much you love something until you’ve been away for over two months?”
“Almost three actually.” Sammy pushed past me and flopped onto the sofa, grabbing the remote control. “You know where the guest bedroom is.”
“Sarcastic much?” I said. Geesh. I just complimented her and how good her apartment smells and she snaps at me. I’ll never understand the mood swings of a teenage girl.
I’ll never understand that boy. Man. Whatever he was. Why did he have to keep calling me his little sister? Just when I thought he finally saw me as a woman, he’d cut me down again. I was sick of it.
I flipped through channels, not really caring what was on television. All I saw were ads for black Friday. Sickening display of commercialization. People scrambling to save a few dollars off a bunch of junk they didn’t need anyway. I set the remote down and let the station run to count how many commercials in a row advertised for black Friday sales.
“Anything good on sale this year?” Brandon flopped onto the sofa next to me. “I love shopping on black Friday.”
“You do?” I turned my head and raised one eyebrow.
“Oh yeah, it’s so much fun. I used to go with my mom every year.” He cleared his throat and grabbed the remote, turning up the volume. We were quiet for another two commercials. He spoke softly enough that I could barely hear him. “It’s nostalgic.”
I felt bad. His first holiday season without his parents. I couldn’t imagine what he must be going through. After a few more moments of silent seriousness, he muted the volume and turned to me with animation in his features.
“Think of being one of the people who gets that item that the store has promoted as only having 25 of them in the whole store.”
“But if it’s an item you don’t need than you’re just wasting money,” I reasoned.
“That’s what makes it fun. You’re buying something just for the thrill of it and getting something you’d never buy unless it was a good deal.”
“How do you even know it’s a good deal if you’ve never shopped for it before, so you don’t know the usual price?”
“You just know,” Brandon said. “Take yourself to that moment when the paper lands on your doorstep.”
“I put it in the recycling bin.” I rolled my eyes, but he wasn’t deterred.
“Try pouring over it, searching for fun items you didn’t even know you needed. This store has that item on sale, and that store opens at this time, and you get out your Christmas list.”
“Most things you can get online for the same price.” It seemed so straightforward to me.
“It’s less about the price and more about the fun. Some people just like to get together and go shopping.”
“It’s really cold.” I wrapped my arms around myself, shivering just thinking about it.
“That’s part of the fun,” he said.
“You have to get up really early.”
“We get up early to go running,” he reasoned.
“Not that early.”
“Shop with me.” He leaned closer so that his head was almost on my shoulder. “It will be fun.”
“Whatever.” I scowled but couldn’t hide the tiny smirk I felt playing across my lips.
“Come on, you know you want to.” He raised his eyebrows up and down.
“Fine, I’ll go.”
“That’s my girl.”
Don’t I wish.
“You arrived at the beginning of summer with one duffle bag,” I said, pulling a hoodie off the back of the sofa in his apartment and holding it close to my face. It smelled amazing. “How did you manage to accumulate all this stuff?”
“Hey, that’s mine.” Brandon snatched his sweatshirt from my hands and tossed it into his open suitcase. “After you watched me unpack my one duffle bag, apparently you didn’t stick around to watch me empty every worldly possession out of the trunk of my car.”
“No, I guess I didn’t.” I flopped down into one of the wicker chairs and tried not to look depressed. From the way he was avoiding my eyes, I got the impression I wasn’t trying hard enough.
“Hey, since you’re here, will you get all the food out of the cupboards and pack them into this box?”
“I thought you had a meal plan at your dorm.” I didn’t get up from the chair.
“The food is for you to take inside and feed it to those bottomless pits you call best friends. I can’t leave it out here, the mice will get into it.”
“There are mice out here?” I pulled my legs up onto the chair.
“Not right now,” Brandon said, patting my head as he walked past me on his way to the bathroom. “If you leave food out here all winter long, believe me, the mice will come.”
“When are you coming home, uh, back. When are you coming back?”
He stopped emptying the drawer in the bathroom into his overnight bag and met my eyes. He cleared his throat. “I dunno.”
“Your dorms are closed over the Thanksgiving break, right.”
“Uh, I guess. I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Are you going back to live with your grandparents?”
“My grandparents will be in Florida by then. They go every winter.”
“You could come here for Thanksgiving.” I picked a piece of lint off my legging. I hugged my knees to my chest. “And Christmas.”
“Do you think your mom would mind?” His voice was soft.
“Duh, she would love to have you come stay here.” I gulped. “Remember, you’re family now.”
“Family.” He sighed. “I don’t have much family in Michigan anymore, do I?”
“You’ve got us,” I said. We looked at each other across the room. He nodded but didn’t say another word.
He turned back to cleaning out the drawers in the bathroom. When he was done he gathered up all the towels and threw them in the hamper, then went into the bedroom to strip the sheets from the bed.
“You don’t have to do that,” I told him. “I’m used to cleaning up the guest rooms.”
“I’m not a guest, remember?” His voice was husky. “I can at least carry the hamper downstairs and start a load of laundry.”
“Okay,” I squeaked. What I really wanted was to wrap the sheets around me and inhale his scent that clung to every fiber. Maybe I could intercept them before he started the load and carry them up to my room. Okay, now that’s kinda sick. I needed to get away from him.
I hopped off the chair and bounded out the door and down the stairs. I darted in and around the cobblestone paths that led through the rose garden, trying not to think of all the times I’d watched him work back here, keeping this space beautiful. I ran down the hill past the firepits and stumbled through the soft sand on the beach. My feet pounded down the slats of wood that made up the dock, and I collapsed at the end, staring out into the endless pond that was Lake Michigan.
Light waves lapped at the shore and I wondered where the crashing, pounding swells were hiding. Not even the water was cooperating with my mood. Sobs shook my shoulders as tears flowed down my cheeks.
This had been the best summer I’d ever known and now it was ending. I couldn’t say goodbye. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t stand on the front porch and wave as he drove out of my life.
Twenty minutes passed with me sniffling and wiping my cheeks. Finally, I just sat there staring out into the lake. There were no more tears to shed. Summer was over. Brandon was leaving.
Footsteps jostled the dock and I heard them get closer and closer until he was standing behind me. I didn’t turn around. I waited for him to speak. It didn’t take long.
“The sheets wouldn’t all fit in one load, so I left a pile for you beside the washer.”
“Gee thanks,” I grumbled.
“I’ve got all my stuff in the car…”
“Don’t make this any harder than it already is, Brandon. Just go.”
“I’m not leaving without a hug.”
“Then I guess you’re not leaving.”
“Come on, stand up.” His impatience was coming through his attitude.
He crouched down and sat behind me, wrapping his arms around me and just holding me there.
I took a deep breath, inhaling and memorizing his scent.
“It’s only a couple of months,” he whispered.
“That’s not that long.” He pulled me a little tighter. “You’re going to be so busy with school and your winning cross season, and football games, and homework.”
“Gee, I was starting to feel optimistic for a minute there,” I said. “Why’d you have to mention homework?”
He chuckled then was quiet for a few minutes. “Thanks for making this my best summer ever.”
Brandon kissed the top of my head, stood up, and quickly walked away.
Fresh tears flowed down my face.
Tears flowed down my face as I stumbled up to the house. I had already said goodbye to mom, so all I needed to do was walk over to my Mustang, climb in to the car, and drive away from the bed and breakfast that had been my home for the past three months.
Instead I ducked in the back door and into the mud room where my sheets were already spinning in the washing machine. The little pile of pillow cases and one quilt, and a couple of towels sat in a heap.
I stood there for a moment, then slipped off the Ferris State hoodie I was wearing and dropped it on top of the pile.
Oops, forgot something. Maybe my girls would need to take a road trip to return my missing sweatshirt. Maybe.
I walked back out of the house, climbed into my car, and drove away.
Brandon forgot his sweatshirt. I picked it off the pile of laundry and held it in my arms.
I had stayed out on the dock for another ten minutes and meandered slowly up the hill and through the gardens, so I knew he was long gone.
Maybe I would need to drive down to his college and return it one of these days. For now, I slipped the hoodie over my head and snuggled into it. I also pulled the quilt out from under the other clothes and wrapped it around my shoulders. I hurried up the two flights of stairs to my bedroom and pulled the quilt under my covers where it would stay. I fought the need to take a nap.
“I want to try something new today.” I held out my hand. “Give me your Garmin.”
“What? No. I need it to pace myself.” Sammy pulled her arm away from me, hiding her wrist behind her back.
“I’m going to set your pace.” I reached around her, easily overpowering her futile attempt to hide that confounding tool that was holding her back from reaching her full potential.
I held her hand gently in mine as I unclasped the watch. She didn’t fight me this time. I tilted up her chin, so I could look her in the eye, a cross between a demanding personal trainer and a man seducing a woman. I wondered which role I was playing.
“Just run like we normally do except when I speed up, you speed up. When I slow down, you slow down. If I’m going too fast, let me know. But don’t think about it. Just run with me.”
“Okay,” she whispered. I swear she just batted her eyelashes at me. Yeah… she wouldn’t do that for a personal trainer. I had her right where I wanted her.
I set the Garmin on the side table by the door and led her outside like a puppy on a leash. Instead of heading up the road I took her around back to my Mustang and held open the door. “Your chariot, milady.”
“I thought we were going running.” She hesitated for barely a second before climbing into the car and I casually shut the door and walked around the driver’s side.
“We are. At your high school.” I turned on the car and looked behind me as I backed out of the driveway.
“At the track?”
“No, at the cross-country trail.” I pulled onto the street and gunned the engine, launching us forward like only a Mustang can. There were no other cars or people on the road this early in the morning, so I picked up the speed to eighty before slowing down for the curve.
“You’re going to get us killed, you know that?” Sammy laughed as she held onto the dashboard. “Why do we have to drive all the way to the school when we have a perfectly good road right here?”
“You’re in training for cross country season, not road race season. We’re going cross country.”
“What are you? My personal trainer?”
“If that’s what you want to call me,” I said, turning my head away so I could hide my grin.
We were mostly quiet during the ten-minute drive to the school, that ended up being closer to nine minutes since I didn’t let up on the gas. Today was about shaving seconds off our time. We might as well start now.
I pulled into the parking lot nearest to the running path and before she had a chance to leave the car I handed her a small mesh bag. “Here, put these on.”
“You brought my spikes? I thought this was just practice.”
“Training. It’s called training. Now change your shoes.” I opened my car door and removed my regular running shoes and laced up my old pair of spikes. I was surprised they still fit as well as they did. I hadn’t worn them in almost a year.
When we were finished changing our shoes, we stretched and warmed up as we were heading back toward the entrance to the path. The only sounds were the chirping of the early morning birds. The dew was already soaking through our well-ventilated running spikes.
“What’s your PR for this course,” I asked when we were at the starting point. I focused on my Garmin as if her answer wasn’t important but in reality, this number was going to be crucial for the point I was trying to make.
“I don’t know… like 17:55.”
“Seriously?” I looked up at her as if in shock. “I thought you were faster than that.”
“That’s fast.” She jutted out her chin and her tone took on a defensive note. In reality, it probably was fast for the average high school girl, but not fast enough to reach her full potential.
“You ready?” I held my hand over my watch and crouched into a starting position.
“Are we racing?”
“No, we’re training. Now get ready.”
She grumbled and creased her brows but crouched into her position.
“Ready, set, go!” I pushed the start button as we took off at a decent pace. I didn’t want her to get suspicious by taking off at a sprint.
After a few minutes I subtly sped up and she didn’t seem to notice. We didn’t talk as we ran, we just ran. I picked up the pace twice more until I suspected I’d pushed her almost as much as I should on this first experiment.
When we could see the finish line, I took off at a sprint that was much too fast for her to match, but I knew she’d try. We flew through the spot that would normally be marked as the finish line and I pushed the button to end our timing at precisely the spot where she would normally end.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Her momentum gave her the oomph to slam into me and knock me to the grass. I pulled her down with me, laughing. She didn’t find it funny and shoved away from me. “What the heck was that? Jerk!”
I kept laughing, ignoring that most of my clothes were now covered in dew and I’d regret driving home in my clean car with a wet, grass-covered backside.
I calmed down enough to look at my watch, then did a double take. “Seriously?”
“What?” She grabbed my arm and twisted my wrist to see her time. “No bleeping way.”
“Way,” I said. “I knew you had it in you.”
“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” She held my gaze, a mixture of anger and awe.
“Heck yeah, I did. I’m not gonna let those skinny little princesses set your pace.” I leaned closer and almost whispered in her ear. “You can beat them, Sammy.”
I kissed her lightly on her cheek, then hopped to my feet. I reached down, waiting for her to grasp my hand so I could hoist her up. She tentatively put her hand in mine and slowly stood.
“Let me see that again,” she said, grabbing my wrist.
“You’re not imagining it. Your new unofficial PR for this course is 17:40. You shaved fifteen seconds off your best time doing it my way.”
“I think I kinda like your way.” Her voice held a reverence laced with surprise.
“I figured you would. Come on, I’ll race you back to the car for a cooldown.” We took off at a slow jog and I couldn’t keep the grin off my face.
I couldn’t help grinning as we made our way back to the car. Fifteen seconds? That’s unheard of. I would have been impressed with five seconds or even three. Fifteen? Wow.
Brandon reached into the car and pulled out two water bottles, handed one to me then leaned against the hood.
“You look like you peed your pants,” I said, twisting the cap off my water bottle.
“Whose fault is that?” he asked, turning halfway to look at me. “Are you staring at my butt again?”
“Again? When do I ever stare at your butt?”
“Anytime I walk in front of you.” He smirked.
“Whatever.” I downed half the bottle then stretched every major muscle group and brushed grass off my wet clothes.
“You’re going to need to vacuum my car after this,” he said.
“Yeah, right. Not.”
“It’s your fault we’re covered in grass and mud. You shouldn’t have knocked me over.”
“You shouldn’t have tried to kill me.” I started back around to the passenger side. “Come on. You need to take me home. I won’t just look like I peed my pants if you don’t get me to a restroom.”
“There are some bushes over there,” he teased as he was starting the car.
As we drove he explained his theories about why he’d pushed me so hard. “Running with the twins is holding you back. You’re expending all your energy running neck and neck with them and then they sprint at the end and you can’t keep up.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
“If you start your run at the pace we started today, they’ll peeter out after a few miles and you’ll be ahead. No matter how hard they try, they’ll never be able to overtake you. Then when you see that finish line, kick it into high gear and fly to that first-place win.”
“But they’ve always been faster than me. What makes you think they can’t keep up with my pace even if I start faster than we normally do?”
“Because they’re using you as a crutch, expecting you to always do what you’ve always done. But you and I are going to train hard for these next three weeks until I have to leave for college. Before cross season even starts you’ll be number one.”
College. I gritted my teeth together and turned to the window, hoping he didn’t see my creased brow. College may as well have been a swear word. I didn’t want to think it much less say it out loud. No matter how much fun, or torture, we had training these next few weeks, he was leaving. I’d head back to high school—another couple of swear words—and he’d leave forever.
“Sorry again,” Brandon ran his hands up and down her bare arms as if to warm them up, although I was pretty sure she was hot enough already, even if she weren’t wearing such a skimpy tank top. “I hope you understand. I just don’t think we’ve been dating long enough for that.”
“Maybe next time,” Alicia said, reaching up on her toes to kiss Brandon again. I almost gagged. He kissed her back for a few seconds before pushing her away politely.
“Goodnight, Brandon.” Her singsong voice carried clearly as she descended the steps away from his apartment above the garage.
“Do you think we should tell him that we can hear them from all the way down here?” Kat whispered. She pulled another marshmallow from the bag and stabbed it onto the end of her poker stick. She leaned forward just enough to rest the stick on one of the large stones encircling the campfire, her marshmallow quite far away from the hot coals.
“No way,” Krystal replied. “I wanna hear all the juicy details.”
“Guys, stop. This is his date. We should be more respectful.” I tried to keep from giggling.
“Oh please.” Krystal reached over and shoved my shoulder. “Tell me you’re not steaming with jealousy.”
“Brandon has made it very clear that he doesn’t like me for more than a friend.” Repeatedly.
“Yeah, right. I see the way he looks at you.” Kat raised her eyebrows. “You watch, his date won’t have been gone five minutes and he’ll be out here with us at the campfire.”
As if to prove her wrong, the screen door leading into his apartment creaked opened and swung closed, tucking Brandon safely inside and he turned off his porchlight.
“Guess not,” I mumbled. The three of us all sighed at the same time and then laughed at one another. I grabbed the bag of marshmallows and shoved one in my mouth without even roasting it over the fire.
Krystal poked at the fire with a stick and a large log shifted, sending sparks into the air. The full moon reflected off the gentle waves illuminating the lake as far as the eye could see. I leaned back onto my hands, gazing up at millions of stars. I closed my eyes and breathed in the smoky night air, loving everything about the cool breeze that barely offset the humidity. There was no comparison to summer in northern Michigan.
I sensed, rather than saw, a shadow hovering over me and didn’t bother opening my eyes before I heard a gruff voice, “Come running with me.”
“Oh! You startled me!” Kat jumped beside me. I still didn’t open my eyes.
“I didn’t hear you come down,” Krystal said.
“Were you listening for me to come down?” Brandon asked.
“No… not exactly.”
“I was.” I finally opened my eyes and looked up at him. “Kat said you’d want to come down and hang out with us at the campfire, so yes, I was listening for you.”
“I don’t want to hang out at the campfire. I want you to come running with me.”
“Right now? It’s almost midnight.”
“Yes, right now.” He reached down to offer me his hand. I stood and brushed the sand off my shorts, wishing I could keep my hand in his.
“Okaaay… let me go grab my running shoes.” I made a face at the twins then mumbled to Brandon, “You can wait here if you want.”
“I’ll follow you.” He was close behind me as we trudged through the sand until we reached the gardens. I was grateful for the lighting that guided us along the winding path up to the house. The cobblestones would have been difficult to navigate without the lights. After a few minutes of walking he broke the silence. “Sorry to pull you away from your friends.”
“We were just hanging out. No big deal.” I toppled on one of the stones and he reached out to steady me. I was hyper-aware of his body that close to mine as he pushed me back to a standing position.
“I just need to go running right now.” His voice was much too close to my face and I almost held my breath.
“Okay, okay, I’m hurrying,” I grumbled, wishing I could shake off the warmth of having his hands on my arms. It reminded me of how he’d been holding Alicia’s arms when they were kissing on his porch and I pushed away from him, hurrying the rest of the way through the gardens.
He waited on the porch, stretching his hamstrings while I ducked into the mudroom to grab my running shoes. I came back out and sat on the porch swing to tie my laces. His impatient insistence was annoying. I could almost envision him with his arms crossed and tapping his toes. He didn’t even give me the chance to stretch before he took off down the road. I hurried to keep up.
“Brandon, slow down,” I called. He slowed a little but jogged in place waiting for me to catch up. “I haven’t even warmed up yet.”
“I’m warmed up enough for the both of us,” he snapped. “Come on.”
I tried to keep up, but his pace was a lot faster than normal. It didn’t take long until my legs couldn’t handle it and he was a hundred yards ahead of me. I didn’t bother calling out for him this time. I just let him run. He didn’t even look back. I kept up a decent pace while watching him gain a greater and greater distance from me. So much for me running with him.
At the end of the peninsula I found him at the edge of the beach, hands on his knees, breathing heavy like he’d just run sprints. Probably wasn’t far from the truth.
“What the heck, man? I thought you wanted to run with me.”
“I did. I’m sorry.” We were both panting and covered in sweat. I slipped off my shoes and socks and walked knee deep into the water, considering jumping all the way in. He followed my lead and we stood there staring out at the moon shining a spotlight onto the lake.
“Are you okay?” I asked, turning my head halfway toward him.
“Yeah, I just needed to work off some adrenaline.” He kicked the water as if frustrated.
“Oh… I get it. Your little girlfriend got you all worked up and then left, and now you wish she hadn’t.”
“That’s not true.” His statement was almost a growl. “I asked her to leave.”
“Yeah, I know. I was just teasing ya.”
“How do you know?” Brandon turned toward me, and I shrunk back ready to be reprimanded for what I was about to say.
“We could hear every word you said while you were on your porch.”
“Yep.” I made a popping sound on the end of my word in emphasis.
“You know, that sucks.” He kicked the water harder as if he still needed to get rid of some frustration.
“It’s no big deal. I didn’t want you to sleep with her anyway.”
“I just don’t want to be ‘that guy’ who comes up north and has a summer fling, you know?”
“Shhhure…” I didn’t really get it, but whatever. “You had a willing girlfriend, and you weren’t willing to give her what she wanted.”
“That’s just it.” Brandon turned to me in emphasis. “She’s not my girlfriend. We’ve gone on two dates.”
“And one of them was interrupted.” I cringed, knowing that was mostly my fault.
“Exactly! I don’t sleep around.” He trudged back out of the water and sat down on the sand, leaning back on his hands. “We should at least be in love first, ya know?”
We? I wished he meant me and him, but whatever. I came and sat next to him, hoping my feet would dry before I had to put my shoes back on. He didn’t seem in a hurry to get back.
“It’s been a long time.” He spoke so quietly I almost didn’t hear him. My stomach plummeted.
“So, you have… before?”
“I’m a seventeen-year-old guy. What do you think?” He raised his eyebrows at me.
“I don’t know. Not all guys do that, you know?”
He snorted but didn’t offer any further comment.
“Were you in love?”
“What happened?” I backtracked. “I don’t mean ‘what happened’ that night! I mean what happened that you’re no longer together.”
He chuckled, then got serious again. “We were together for a year and a half, and she dumped me a few weeks after my parents were killed.”
“See, now that sucks,” I said, then mumbled under my breath. “Her loss.”
“Don’t you get it though? It was my loss too. First my parents, and then my girlfriend. Like I needed any more loss in my life.”
“Yeah, I get it. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Me too.” He reached for his shoes and socks, shaking the sand out and brushing off his feet. I followed his lead, knowing I’d be shaking sand from my running shoes for weeks. We got up off the beach and started back toward the road. “Thanks for letting me vent.”
“You’re a great friend, kiddo.”
“Gee, thanks,” I grumbled. We picked up the pace and held a steady jog back down the peninsula toward the house. There was that word, friend. Plus, he’d added ‘kiddo’ as if to remind me that I was too young for him. Whatever.
Note from Author: If you have not read Chapters Nine-Eleven, please read them before reading Chapter Twelve. -Julie L. Spencer
“Get up. It’s time to go running. You’re late.” I yanked the comforter off Sammy, hoping she was fully dressed but not really considering it ahead of time.
“I’m not going today,” she mumbled, pulling her pillow over her head.
“Oh, yes, you are, sweetheart. Get up.”
“Did you just call me sweetheart?” She lifted her head from under the pillow then moaned and dropped it back down. “My head hurts.”
“I’ll bet it does.” I was completely unsympathetic. “The best cure for a hangover is to go running. Now get up.”
“One, you’re absolutely lying, and two, you wouldn’t know.”
“You’re right, and you’re right. Now get up.”
“No, give me back my comforter and go away.”
“Heck no. Get your shoes on.”
“Yes!” I swung her legs over the side of the bed and shoved a foot into her running shoe, pulling the laces a little too tight on purpose.
“Stop, you’re gonna make me hurl. My head is spinning.” She placed her hands on my shoulders as I laced up her shoes. I looked up at her and raised my eyebrows.
“Good, better to do it now than on the side of the road. Shall I grab your trash can? Or would you like to make a run for the bathroom?”
“I’m not actually going to hurl. I was being facetious.”
“Ooh, quite a big word for such a little girl. Now gimme your other foot.”
“What if I don’t?” Sammy tucked her foot up underneath her in a contorted position that would make a master yogi jealous.
“I’ll tickle-torture you until you do.”
“Then I’ll pee my pants, and puke on you.” She relented and pulled her foot out from under her rear end, keeping her hands on my shoulders.
“This day is just getting better and better.” I shoved her other shoe on and laced it tight again. “Go use the toilet before we run. I don’t want to carry you back to the house with puke in your hair and pee running down your legs.”
“Okay, I’m gonna hurl just from that visual.” She used my shoulders as a means of hoisting herself to a standing position and teetered for a few seconds. I sat back on my heels, so she could slip past me and head into her Pepto-Bismol colored bathroom. A fitting color for the condition she was in.
I wondered which end things would come out first. One way or the other, this morning wasn’t going to end well. I was a glutton for punishment torturing her like this, but she had it coming.
“And don’t try to sneak out the window to get away from me,” I called through the closed door. “We’re on the third floor, you know.”
“I am very aware we’re on the third floor,” she mumbled through the door. “I’ve lived here all my life.”
I stood and started stretching my hamstrings while waiting for her. It didn’t take long and I didn’t hear any loud noises, so I assumed the hurling wasn’t going to happen until we reached the beach at the end of the peninsula. I was grateful when she came out of the bathroom with a ponytail in her hair. Perfect. One fewer thing to clean. I could throw her in the lake afterward… tempting thought.
“Let’s go, sweetheart.” I held out my hand, only half expecting her to take it. I was surprised when she did, and even more surprised when I realized how good it felt to hold her hand. It was almost a turn on, but then I considered that I’d be holding her head in a few minutes and there ended that fantasy. Best not to get my emotions involved anyway.
Today was Operation Torture Sammy. Paybacks were a nightmare. Or in this case, a hangover. I chuckled as I pulled her down the stairs. She stumbled and moaned behind me and used my back as a means of keeping herself from falling down the stairs.
When we were halfway down the main staircase, the smell of bacon wafted up to us. I was hungry, but Sammy groaned and held her hand to her stomach. I got her to the front door quickly, wondering if we’d make it all the way to the beach.
We started our run at a leisurely pace. I didn’t want to torture her too much, just enough to make her wish she’d never heard of Jim Beam and to be sure she never drank alcohol again.
With every stumbling foot that hit the pavement, Sammy moaned, eyes closed, allowing her muscle memory to pull her forward. She was funny to watch, and I wanted to laugh out loud but didn’t want to break her concentration. I really hoped she wouldn’t embarrass herself in front of her neighbors. It was only a half mile more to the beach and I could guide her right over to the tall weeds, far away from any patrons who might want to sunbathe in a few hours.
One hundred yards, fifty yards, almost there, shoes hit the soft sand, and there she goes. Perfect timing. Far enough away from everyone else yet close enough for me if I had to carry her home. I doubled over trying hard not to laugh but failing miserably.
“I hate you,” Sammy said after a few minutes of hanging her head over the tall grasses. “You’re the most despicable human being on the planet.” She spit again and cleared her throat, standing up halfway.
“Maybe next time you’ll think of this when you consider messing up my date.”
“There’s going to be another date?” She moaned again, and I wasn’t sure if it was because she was going to be sick again or because she didn’t want me to go on another date with Alicia. Either way, I needed to get her away from that spot or the smell was going to make me sick.
“Come on, let’s go sit on the beach for a little while so you can rest. You’ve had a tough morning.”
“You’re a jerk and I hate you.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, sweetheart. Now come on.” I grabbed her hand and tugged her toward the beach.
“I wanna go home,” she said, dragging her feet reluctantly.
“Do you think you can run back?”
“That’s what I thought. Now come on.”
“My mouth tastes like cotton balls soaked in puke.”
“I’ll bet. Come on, there’s a drinking fountain up here. You can rinse your mouth.”
When we got to the fountain she drank several long gulps then doused her face and then her neck and head, then she ran back over to another clump of grasses and threw up again.
“I should have warned you not to drink the water too fast,” I called over to her. After another minute or two she grumbled at me again.
“I hate you.”
“Yes, I think we’ve established that. Now come rinse your mouth again so we can go sit by the lake. I’m tired.”
“You’re tired? I’m the one who’s hungover!”
“And who’s fault is that, sweetheart?”
“Stop calling me that.” She leaned back over the drinking fountain.
“Hey Sammy…” I pulled her arm gently. “Just take a sip this time, eh?
“Shut up, Brandon.” She took just a little water and spit most of it back out to rinse her mouth.
“Better?” I asked.
“I’m not speaking to you.” She trudged ahead of me, her feet sinking into the soft sand. “I hate you and you’re a jerk.”
“You can thank me for this later,” I said, hurrying to catch up. We sat for a while, mostly not speaking, just enjoying the early-morning summer air and watching the waves crash onto the shore. When we’d rested long enough, we walked casually back down the peninsula toward her bed & breakfast. I wondered how long it would be before she forgave me. I chuckled. Chalk one up to Brandon.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I couldn’t deny I’d hit the punk. His blood was all over my hand.
“We’re just going over to the fair office and talk,” the officer said.
I could see Alicia over the shoulder of the second officer, looking worried and angry. “I’m sorry. Hopefully this won’t take long.”
“I’ll get a ride home with my friends,” she said.
“I promise I’ll make this up to you. I’ll take you someplace far away from my little sister.”
She chuckled. “I’m going to hold you to that.”
“I’ll call you.”
She waved goodbye and the officer led me forward. I strode confidently along, following the other officer and Jeremy, who was hamming up the injury to his nose as if he was dying. Sammy was close to him, still carrying that stupid bottle of Coke. Good. Evidence.
The fair office was a small cinder block building with a few desks and a lot of dust. I was told to sit in one of the folding chairs along the wall. As luck would have it, the chairs were situated in a way that I could see every one of Sammy’s spaced-out expressions. She glared at me.
Officer Bailey brought an ice pack wrapped in a towel and handed it to Jeremy, who was sitting on the other side of Sammy. He moaned a pathetic “Thank you” and leaned back, holding the ice to his nose. I rolled my eyes and looked away.
The other security guard, Officer Smith pulled a chair around and sat facing us. “Would you like to explain why you hit your sister’s boyfriend.”
“I’m not his sister,” Sammy insisted. I wondered why the officers couldn’t hear that she was slurring her words.
“Yeah, well mom asked me to watch out for you,” I said.
“Well you’re doing a great job, Brandon.” She crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair.
“He’s doing such a great job he’s going to be hearing from my dad’s attorney tomorrow,” Jeremy said.
“Are you planning to press charges for him hitting you?” I couldn’t tell if Officer Smith was serious.
“I think you may need that lawyer for yourself because you gave alcohol to a sixteen-year-old girl.” I couldn’t believe the officers hadn’t noticed yet.
Sammy tried to tuck the bottle of Coke behind her back, as if to hide the evidence. Drunk people were so stupid. As if that was going to work.
“What’s that you got there, young lady?” Officer Bailey stepped over and took the bottle.
“It’s just some Coke.” Sammy looked up at the officer with innocent eyes.
“Where did you get it?” he asked.
“I bought it,” she said but couldn’t stop her eyes from straying toward Jeremy.
“I saw this punk kid hand it to her,” I said.
“Shut up, Brandon.” Sammy started crying.
“How old are you, young man?” Officer Bailey asked Jeremy, who glared across the room at me, not answering the officer. “Do you have some identification on you, son?”
Jeremy reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, still glaring at me. He handed his driver’s license to the officer.
“Twenty-one?” Officer Bailey chuckled. “Yeah, you probably will want to talk to that attorney before the night is over.”
“You’re twenty-one?” Sammy turned to Jeremy. “I thought you were my age.”
Jeremy didn’t even look at her and he didn’t speak. He probably realized every word that came out of his mouth from now until the time he called his attorney was going to dig himself further into a hole.
“Well, I’m sure there’s plenty of surveillance footage around the fairgrounds, and enough DNA on this Coke bottle to justify a case against you, so I’m just gonna go ahead and arrest you now and you can explain this to your daddy’s lawyer when we get down to the station. Sound like a good plan?”
The officer’s sarcasm made me want to chuckle, but I held it in, knowing I wasn’t completely out of hot water myself.
“Now, what to do about the two of you.” Officer Smith rubbed his chin. “Did you say she was your sister?”
Close enough, but I didn’t answer that question directly. “The only reason I hit him was because he took her behind the fun house and had his hands all over her. I was defending her honor.” I sneered at the last word, knowing there was nothing honorable about her behavior.
“Is that true, young lady?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Sammy mumbled.
“Do you think you can get your sister home safely?” The officer turned to me. “Since her date seems to be detained at the moment.”
“Of course, I will,” I answered respectfully then stood and held out my hand to help Sammy up. “Are we free to go?”
“Let me get your contact information first.” He wrote down my name and number then I led Sammy out of the fair office.
It seemed like hours had passed that we were in that building yet the carnival was still in full swing. It was surreal. When she started walking the wrong way from where I was parked, I pulled her elbow around to head in the correct direction.
“Don’t touch me, you jerk.” She pulled her arm away from me but kept walking toward the parking lot.
“I’m the jerk?” I followed after her.
“Yes, you ruined my date.”
“You ruined my date. Now we’re even.”
“I can find my own ride home,” she said. “You can go away.”
“I promised that officer I’d get my little sister home safely, remember?”
“I’m not your sister!” She turned to me and poked her finger right into my chest.
“Would you rather I had him call your mom and have her come down and pick you up?”
She took a step back with wide eyes and a gaping mouth. “You wouldn’t.”
“How about if I drive you home and you can hope your mom’s already asleep by the time we get there and then we won’t have to discuss this anymore tonight?”
“Fine,” she huffed, then turned in the wrong direction again,
“My car is this way.”
She turned and followed me without another word until we reached my Mustang and I held the door open for her.
Sammy was going to love our morning run the next day. I hopped in the car with a secret smirk. This was going to be fun.
I was going to make this the worst date he’d ever had. He pulled his car out of the circle drive and I silently seethed.
The twins showed up a few minutes later and we spent half an hour primping in my bedroom before climbing into their little VW Bug and following the rest of the community down to the pier.
The four guys we met were waiting near the entrance, looking just as dangerous and sexy as I’d remembered them. The one guy, I think his name was Carlton, flicked a cigarette down into the sand and ground it under his foot. Another kid, named Mark wrapped his arm around Kat’s waist and pulled her close. Krystal stepped closer to the cute black guy, and I was left facing a flirty kid named Jeremy who had his hat turned backward.
I’m sure Jeremy would have totally been my type of guy, except that images of Brandon clouded my vision. I needed to try harder.
“What does your hat say?” I asked, reaching around Jeremy’s back. He took the opportunity to wrap one arm around my waist while I was so close. His arms were strong, like he lifted weights, but gentle like he didn’t want me to be afraid of him. It worked. I melted into his arms as I turned his hat around to reveal the Pittsburgh Steelers logo. “Do you play football?”
“I used to play football.” His sultry voice was close to my ear and his breath hinted that he’d spiked his bottle of Coke. A tiny thrill shivered up my back and I wasn’t sure if it was in relation to my mother’s warning to be careful, or my own desire to experiment with danger. I chose the latter.
“What’chu drinkin?” I asked in a voice low enough for only him.
“You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” He raised his eyebrows and smirked, but seductively twisted off the cap, one arm still wrapped around me so that I was locked into the cage of his arms.
“Are you answering my question with a question?” I gulped but raised my brow right back at him.
“See, another question.” He pulled me just a little closer and handed my his now-open bottle of Coke.
I sniffed then bravely took a swig. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it paired well with the Coke. I licked my lips as I looked him in the eye. “I kinda like it.”
“There’s more where that came from,” he said.
“Does that mean you’re willing to share?” I asked.
“That depends on what you’re willing to share.” His voice was husky.
“Jeremy, you are exactly what I need tonight.” My thoughts immediately turned to Brandon and how easily this could work to my advantage in making him jealous.
“I’ll take that as an invitation,” Jeremy said.
“Guys,” Krystal called from behind me. “Let’s go ride some rides and play stupid carnival games.”
I grabbed Jeremy’s hand, and followed my friends into the midway. I can’t deny I was constantly scanning the faces to find Brandon but focused my primary attention on Jeremy. I flirted with him relentlessly and stole his Coke bottle frequently.
We wandered from game to game, wasting the guys’ money trying to win a stuffed animal. The guys didn’t seem to mind.
Too soon Jeremy’s bottle of Coke was empty, and he handed it to Carlton, who always seemed to have a cigarette in his hand or his mouth or tucked behind his ear. He wasn’t chain smoking. More that he needed a pacifier. Most of the time the cigarettes weren’t even lit. Whether it was a coincidence or not, he was the only one of the four friends who didn’t have a girl on his arm.
“Will you go grab me another Coke from the cooler in my car?” Jeremy pulled his car keys from his back pocket and placed them in Carlton’s hand.
“Sure thing.” Carlton’s voice was less gruff than I thought it would be. He sounded like he was probably a nice guy. Jeremy on the other hand was danger personified, and I liked it.
“That kid’s dangerous,” I told Alicia. “I can tell.” We were just settling into the sticky vinyl seats of the Scrambler and I locked the handlebar in place.
“Who?” Alicia turned to see where I was looking and lowered her brow. “That guy your little sister is hanging all over?”
“Yeah,” I said, craning my neck to catch another glimpse of them as the Scrambler shifted in their direction. It gained speed with each turn and I could no longer see them. “She’s not my sister.”
“That’s good to know.” The sarcasm dripped from Alicia’s statement as her body pressed up against me from the centrifugal force of the ride. “Because the way you’ve been staring at her all night, it seems more like she’s your girlfriend.”
I focused my attention on my date. “Her mom asked me to keep an eye out for her, that’s all.”
“Oh, you’ve been doing a great job at that.”
“I’m sorry I made you feel that way.” I pulled my hands free from the handlebar and wrapped my arms around Alicia. “I’ll try to pay better attention to you.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.” Alicia rested her hands on my arms, pulling herself even closer to me. As the ride gained momentum, it was more difficult for us to talk and I just held her. Alicia felt good in my arms. It had been a long time since I’d held a girl.
When the ride stopped I fought the urge to look around and search for Sammy. I helped Alicia down from the cart and continued holding her hand as we walked out of the gated area.
I needn’t have worried about searching for Sammy because we ran right into her when we stepped into the midway.
“Well hi, Brandon,” Sammy said. Was she slurring her words? “How are you liking your date with Alicia?”
“I like her just fine, thank you.” My eyes strayed to Sammy’s hip where the punk kid had his thumb tucked into the belt loop on her jeans. I drew my gaze up to his face and he smirked. I looked back over at Sammy. “I thought you said you were just hanging out. This looks a little more like you’re on a date.”
“What are you, my father?” Sammy asked. “We’re just having a little fun. Right, Jeremy?”
“Right.” The guy had the nerve to wrap his arms around her from behind and pull her back against him. “A little fun.”
“Brandon,” Alicia said, pulling gently at my arm. “What do you say we let them have their fun and we’ll go ride some more rides.” I let her hand slide down and wove her fingers together with mine.
Just as I was about to turn away, another punk kid with a cigarette tucked behind his ear walked up to our group and tapped Jeremy on his arm then handed him a Coke.
Sammy reached for the Coke and took it from Jeremy’s hands before he even had a chance to open it. The cap twisted open with ease, without the telltale hiss that always happens when the cap is twisted off a new bottle. Sammy took a long swig then wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Jeremy took the Coke from her and took a long drag before twisting the cap back in place.
“What are you drinking, Sammy?” I asked, my temper near the boiling point. Alicia squeezed my hand, but I ignored her.
“It’s just some Coke.” Sammy actually batted her eyelashes at me.
“Yeah, right,” I grumbled.
“Come on, Brandon.” Alicia pulled me away and I didn’t fight her this time. What else was I going to do? A little voice at the back of my mind reminded me that Sammy’s mom had asked me to watch out for her. I obviously wasn’t doing a very good job.
So much for Brandon watching out for me. He just walked away with Alicia and I narrowed my eyes. Jerk. He didn’t even care what happened to me.
“You want some more Coke,” Jeremy interrupted my seething thoughts as I watched Brandon walk away. With his arms around me, Jeremy turned me slightly so that I couldn’t watch Brandon and Alicia anymore. He twisted the cap off again and handed the bottle to me. I took a long swig as he kissed my neck.
An excited thrill ran all through me and I wasn’t sure if it was from the alcohol in the Coke, or the dangerous boy who was trying to seduce me. I turned my head so that my lips met his and he responded immediately, deepening the kiss in a way that told me he knew what he was doing. I wanted more of that feeling.
He released me from the kiss as if teasing me with what was to come. We trudged after our friends, who were now several booths away, completely oblivious to the conversation with that other guy and his date. Brandon, I reminded myself. His name was Brandon. I couldn’t remember what that girl’s name was.
I stumbled and laughed, and Jeremy laughed with me. His arms were still around me and I held our bottle of Coke, occasionally taking a sip and then holding it up to his mouth for him to drink it too.
“You’re really fun to hang out with,” Jeremy said. “We should do it again sometime.”
“We should do it every night.” My words were slurred, and it made me laugh again.
“We should do it right now.” Jeremy pulled me close again.
“We are doing it right now, you silly boy.” I tapped him on the arm in what should have been me hitting him in jest, but my arms felt like noodles.
He didn’t answer me with words again, just pulled me close and his lips were on mine again. My back pressed against a wall and I realized we were not on the midway anymore but had ducked behind a dingy white trailer of some sort. It was darker back here, but I couldn’t think about that because all I could think about were his lips on mine.
He was a great kisser. Not that I had much to compare it to. Had I kissed a boy before? Yeah, once in sixth grade with this kid who had braces. This felt much better.
Jeremy’s hands lifted my sweatshirt a little and crept up my waist, tickling the bare skin underneath. I wanted to giggle from his tickling, but I couldn’t stop kissing him long enough.
Just when things started getting good, Jeremy was yanked from my arms and thrown to the ground by a big guy who looked familiar.
“Brandon? What are you doing?” I yelled, pulling my shirt back down.
“Yeah, what are you doing?” Jeremy had scrambled to his feet as Brandon was looking back at me and launched himself at Brandon and punched him in the face.
Brandon hauled back and punched Jeremy right in the nose, which led to blood running down his face. There were other people around, but I couldn’t make out many faces. Brandon’s date? Jeremy’s friends, the twins, a police officer?
“Break it up,” the office hollered. “What are you kids doing back here?”
No one spoke, and most everyone else scattered except me, Jeremy and Brandon. The guys were breathing heavy and glaring at one another.
The officer lifted Brandon’s hand, which was covered in blood, and observed Jeremy’s bloody nose, then he spoke into his two-way radio. “I need some help over here behind the fun house with a couple of disorderly teens.”
“I’d like to set you up with the daughter of a friend of mine,” Mrs. Walton said, coming up beside me in the garden. “I want this to be a great summer for you.”
“Uh…” I looked over at Sammy, suddenly uncomfortable with the direction of our conversation. “Like, as in, a date?”
“Yes, Alicia is exactly your age and still single, just like you.”
“Just like me. Hmm…”
“I hate to see you wasting your summer away just pruning shrubs and mowing lawns. You should be out living your life.”
“Well, you know, pruning shrubs and mowing lawns is kind of my job. I’d hate for my boss to get mad at me for slacking off.” After I spoke, I heard Sammy snicker from across the path where she was resting in the hammock with a book.
“I can assure you, she won’t get mad.” Mrs. Walton teased, referring to herself in the third person.
Is it really Mrs. Walton I was worried about getting mad? I wasn’t sure. I turned back to the shrub I was pruning. I couldn’t pin point any reason why I shouldn’t go out on a date with her friend’s daughter, so I reluctantly agreed. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
My first date in almost six months. My first date since my parents died, and the first since my girlfriend dumped me. That was probably why I had butterflies fluttering in my stomach. It was almost as if I didn’t want to go on a date. Weird.
“If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay,” Mrs. Walton said. She brushed an invisible piece of lint off my shoulder. “You can just yawn a couple of times and make some excuse about getting too much sun today and then come home and binge watch sitcoms with Sammy and me.”
“Oh, I’m going to the carnival, too.” Sammy set her book aside and hopped off the hammock. “With the twins… and a couple guys we met last week.”
“Guys?” her mom asked. “What guys?”
My thoughts exactly. What guys?
“We met them at the pier last week. They’re from downstate somewhere. They’re really hot. All four of them.”
“Four of them?” I finally piped in my opinion. “There are only three of you girls. How can that be a date?”
“Oh, it’s not a date. We’re just hanging out. But… ya know… if something comes of it…” She shrugged and raised her eyebrows.
“I don’t like this.” Mrs. Walton clucked her tongue. “We don’t even know these boys.”
“Mom, I’ll be careful.” Sammy sidled up next to her mom and put her arm around her shoulder. “Besides, I’ll be with the twins. There is safety in numbers.”
“Well, I guess. But I don’t like it,” she said. She gasped and looked right at me. “Brandon, you’ll be there. You’re like a big brother to Sammy. You can keep an eye on her.”
“Uh…” my stomach tightened.
“I’m sure that’s exactly what he wants to do while he’s on his date.” Sammy’s emphasis on the word date was none too subtle. “Keep an eye on his ‘little sister’.” She actually held up her fingers and made quotation marks in the air. Who does that anymore?
“Oh, you won’t mind, will you, Brandon?” Mrs. Walton’s complete innocence to the way her daughter was openly flirting with me was a little unnerving. She was clueless.
“I’ll do the best I can,” I mumbled, then met Sammy’s eyes. Game on. Two can play, you know? I raised one eyebrow and she raised one back at me.
“It makes me feel better knowing you’ll be there.” Mom extricated herself from under Sammy’s arm and turned toward the house. “I need to get started on breakfast. We have a full house tonight, you know.”
“I know,” Sammy and I both said at the same time. We stood in the garden staring at each other for a long moment before she smirked and turned with a flip of her ponytail, following up the path after her mother.
I tried not to watch her walk away. I purposely turned completely around so that I was facing the lake, and continued pruning.
The following evening when the doorbell rang, I knew it had to be Alicia because the twins would have just walked in. I hurried to the foyer anticipating my first date in months.
I opened the door to find an incredibly hot babe standing on the porch. I mean, she was smokin’ hot. My jaw almost dropped. I tried to form a sentence, but nothing came out.
“Are you Brandon?” she asked. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Alicia.”
“Alicia.” I held her hand in mine and shook my head to clear my thoughts. “What a beautiful name.”
“Thank you, Brandon.” She didn’t let go of my hand but twisted it to lace her fingers through mine like we’d been dating for months instead of meeting for the first time.
Alicia was dressed just right for going to the carnival in jeans and a pushup tank top with a hoodie tied around her waist in case it got cool later. She smelled really good. She looked over my shoulder.
“Is this your little sister?”
“Huh?” I didn’t realize Sammy had come up beside me until she was at my elbow.
“I’m Sammy. I live here.” Sammy stuck out her hand and Alicia reluctantly let go of mine to shake hers. “Brandon’s our groundskeeper. My mom is the one who set you two up on this date.”
“Oh, that’s right. She’s good friends with my mom. They golf together occasionally.”
They nodded at each other. I finally got my mind and mouth to work at the same time and broke the awkward moment of silence. “You ready to go, Alicia?”
“Definitely,” Alicia said, turning to me and taking my hand again. She seemed sincere when she tossed a glance over her shoulder. “It was nice to meet you, Sammy. I’m sure we’ll see each other again soon.”
“Yes, I’ll see you at the carnival,” Sammy called after us.
I kept Alicia’s hand in mine as I led her down the porch steps to where I’d parked my Mustang out front, top down and freshly washed and vacuumed.
“Wow, great car.” Alicia let me open the door for her like a gentleman and her eyes lit up with excitement.
I pulled the car out of the circle drive and headed toward the carnival on the pier. This was going to be an awesome date. I could tell already.
The lineup was supposed to be according to PR, but most of the kids from the track team had never run a 10K before so they jockeyed to be near the front. We’d let them have their fun for a minute until they thinned out and we blew past them. Brandon’s smirk from up front was a challenge, but not one I could handle. I wasn’t unrealistic enough to think I could beat him.
And he thought I could beat the twins? Yeah right. I wasn’t a chicken. I just knew my limitations. We’d run shoulder to shoulder for the first nine-and-a-half kilometers and then they’d sprint ahead of me. I’d try, but it was pretty much a losing battle.
“Runners on your marks,” the announcer called. “Get set… go!”
We waited patiently while all the little kids, okay not really kids, more like Freshmen and Sophomores, to thin out, and then we crossed the starting line in unison, so our chip timers were synced as closely as possible. It was just a fun habit we’d gotten into over the years. In my mind’s eye I could picture us running marathons together someday. I had two of the best friends ever. I smiled, and we picked up speed simultaneously.
I glanced down at my Garmin and set my pace. No need to overexert myself too early. Let the less-experienced runners sprint ahead and we’d pass them in a mile or two when their stamina wore out. We were in this for the long haul.
I could no longer see Brandon in front of us. He was right. He was much faster than us on his worst day. I wondered if he’d ever won any competitions before. I’d have to ask him later. I had a lot of time to think about him while running that morning. About fifty-five and a half minutes to be exact. Fifty-five minutes to fantasize about running with him every single day for the rest of my life. Yeah right. I was dreaming, just like I was dreaming I’d ever beat the twins. Dreaming about Brandon was more fun. Before I realized how far we’d gone, I could see the lighthouse up ahead. The finish line was in sight.
The finish line came faster than I thought it would. The lighthouse loomed up ahead and I pushed just a little harder. Only two guys were ahead of me. Two extremely fit, extremely relaxed, and extremely fast runners. I didn’t stand a chance. I didn’t let that stop me from pushing a little faster. I might as well have the best time I could. Maybe I could even PR.
Missed it by two seconds. Dang it! Third place wasn’t a bad finish. I could pat myself on the back. I jogged along for a moment more as a cool-down then doubled back to grab a little cup of water. I slammed it down and took a second cup to dump over my head. Then I watched in anticipation for my girls to arrive.
My girls? Where’d that come from. Eh, what the heck? They were my little trio of followers. My mini fan club. Now I was being cocky. I could see them in the distance. They were still shoulder to shoulder.
Come on, Sammy. Pull ahead. I know you can do it. I willed her to gain the confidence she needed to push past the twins. Mind over matter.
I couldn’t see the color of the headbands from here, but I think it was Krystal who took the point position, with Kat behind and Sammy bringing up the rear. Darn. Someday. I’d have to work on that.
Finally, I could see the pink headband in her hair and I called out, “Come on Krystal!”
Her brow furrowed in concentration and she pushed harder. That raised Kat’s competitive streak as well and she was right at her sister’s heels again. Sammy looked angry at me cheering on the twins.
Come on, babe, prove me right, I willed into her mind. You can beat them.
She pushed harder, but it was no use. Their times were within seconds of each other just like always, Krystal, Kat, then Sammy. It was almost as if they planned it that way.
I ignored the twins. They’d have enough accolades from everyone else. I went straight for Sammy and grabbed her in a hug and spun her around.
“Nice job!” I cheered. “You rocked it.”
“Thanks,” she said, out of breath. She pushed me away. “I need water.”
We walked over to the water table and she guzzled one of the little cups, then reached for another and sipped it.
“What’d you place?” she asked.
“Seriously? We both took third. That’s pretty cool.”
The twins finally made it around to the water table and we waited for them to get a drink before we all took off into a slow jog for our cool-down. I had to admit, this summer was shaping up to be better than I thought it was going to be.
No real competition here. One guy was even wearing a Budweiser shirt and looked like he’d had a few too many the night before. Some runners wore matching shirts with Team Stacy in hand-written letters on the back and a big heart on the front with the words Gone but Not Forgotten. I gulped. I could relate to that one. Maybe I should write Team Mom and Dad on my shirt. I blew out a shaky breath and turned away.
Sammy and the twins had no competition either. There were plenty of high school girls stretching nearby. It looked like the whole Northport track team had come out to run the Lighthouse Point Moonlight Run. Probably under threat from their coach to shake off their second-place win at team state finals and get into the cross-country season mindset. Coaches rarely stopped pushing for perfection, and athletes rarely stopped reaching for it.
Having known the girls for the short time that I had, I suspected they’d take first, second, and third in their age group. During state finals they took first place in the four-by-four relay and their splits were within seconds of one another.
“What do you think, Brandon?” Kat sidled up next to me. “Gonna try to beat me today?”
“My worst time would beat your best time.” I snickered and rolled my eyes.
“Is that a challenge?” She raised her eyebrows at me.
“There’s no comparison. I’m a guy.”
“Yeah, but we’re in shape,” Krystal pointed out.
“Have you seen his abs?” Sammy asked. “He has core you could only dream about.” Was she blushing? Cute. I’d play along.
“Sammy and I run together every day.” I rested my elbow on her shoulder. “She should know better than you do.”
“Wait, when have you seen his abs?” Kat asked.
“Yeah, when have you seen my abs?” I cocked my head to the side.
Sammy shifted out from under my arm and mumbled. “You sometimes take your shirt off on really hot days.”
“Are you spying on me?” I teased.
“No, not really.” It was too late for her to backtrack on that one.
I leaned close and cupped my hand over my mouth, pretending to hide my stage whisper. “You won’t tell your mom, will you?”
“Her mom’s probably spying on you, too,” Krystal said.
“I know I would be,” Kat added.
“Okay, this conversation is getting a little uncomfortable,” Sammy said. “I’m going to do some warmups.” She trotted off at a slow jog.
Nice legs. I couldn’t help it. I usually ran beside her, so I didn’t often get to see her from behind in those little running shorts. I needed to get my mind out of the gutter. I bowed my head regally to the twins.
“Ladies, my training partner is getting away from me. I’ll wait after I cross the finish line to congratulate you in your first and second place win in the girls’ division.”
“Ha! We’ll wait for you,” Kat called after me.
“Good luck with that.” I turned my head over my shoulder to answer them as I ran ahead to catch up to Sammy. I fell into step with her and bumped her shoulder. “You like my abs, huh?”
“Shut up, Brandon. Don’t get cocky on us now.”
“You gonna try to beat the twins?” I changed the subject.
She guffawed. “As if.”
“You’re not even going to try?”
“Why bother? They’ll just push harder to keep me behind them.”
“Chicken,” I said, adding a few balking clucks.
“I’m not a chicken.” She reached over and punched me on the shoulder.
Just then the announcer came on the megaphone to announce that it was time to get around to the starting line. It was a good thing, too. I’d have bruises if I ran next to Sammy any more today. That wouldn’t be a problem since the lineup was according to best personal record. I turned around from my position at the front and smirked at Sammy. Game on.
Running To You
Read the next chapter in my work-in-progress!