Unlikely Allies, page 18
"Hello, beach bunny," he said huskily, leaning on a cane.
"You're late," I said, holding back my tears, taking in his appearance. His light hair was longer than it was the last time I'd seen him, and he looked leaner, but the rest of him was all the same. Looking at him, I realized that all my drawings hadn't done him justice.
"It took a little longer than I thought to find my way," he said, taking a step toward me. "I needed to be able to walk to you on my own," he added, taking yet another step closer to me, bringing us a breath away from each other. "That's if you'll have me," he added quietly, studying me intently.
"If you ever do that to me again, I'll hunt you down and make you sorry," I threatened as a single tear streaked down my cheek.
"Trust me, bunny, I'm not going anywhere," he said before sweeping me into his arms.
I sighed with pleasure when his lips claimed mine. Here was the spark I had been missing. He ran his hand up behind my neck, anchoring me in place as he deepened the kiss.
I lost all track of time until in the foggy recesses of my mind I heard someone clearing their throat.
"Oops," I said, pulling back slightly, but not releasing my hold on him.
He slid an arm around my waist and we walked into my house to find my parents eyeing us, knowingly.
"You knew?" I accused my mom, feigning anger.
"Yes, I knew at Thanksgiving, but I had to be sure that you were basing your life on choices you wanted, and not ones that were ruled by some feelings about some guy," she answered. "Call it my motherly right. I wanted to tell you after I realized that despite thinking things were over with Mason, you still planned on transferring to Colorado, but I promised Mason I wouldn't say anything," she admitted.
"I appreciate it, Ms. Hanson," Mason said warmly.
"I've told you, call me Kate," she chastised.
"Okay, I appreciate you keeping my secret, Kate," he said with the twinkle I loved in his eye.
"Just don't hurt my girl again," she warned.
"I promise," he said, tucking me more securely under his arm.
"That's all I ask. Now, let's get your stuff and we can eat some lunch," she said, heading for the door. Rick followed behind and I watched as he reached for her hand and laced his fingers through hers.
"What do you think of that?" Mason asked, following my stare.
"I think it's pretty fabulous," I admitted, facing him.
He dipped down to place a kiss at the corner of my mouth before trailing his lips along my jaw line. Goose bumps popped up along my arms and my breath quickened at the feelings he was evoking in me.
"I've been dreaming about doing this for months," he mumbled against my neck right below my ear and I shivered in anticipation.
"I have to tell you something. I lied to you this summer," I told him.
"You did?" he asked, puzzled.
"Yeah, I'm not in like with you," I said as his lips paused their exploring. "I'm in love with you," I admitted with shining eyes.
"I'm I love with you too, beach bunny," he said as his lips claimed mine.
The bus chugged to a stop twenty yards from us, making dust billow up around the tires in the warm air. I couldn't help marveling at the differences in temperatures from this summer and the one the year before. Mason stood beside me with my hand clasped in his. His prosthetic leg was a couple shades lighter than his skin. I had teased him the first time he pulled a pair of cargo shorts that he was going to have to get a tan prosthetic leg for summertime.
As if reading my mind, he tilted my chin up and dropped a kiss on my lips. I smiled wickedly at him when we parted and I licked my lips. I laughed when his eyes narrowed. It would be a long six weeks in our separate cabins.
"Ew, get a room pervs," Amy said, coming up to join us.
Mom ignored our exchange as she stood nervously on my other side. I couldn't help smiling as I recalled my own nervousness from the previous summer. I reached over and clasped her hand. "You got this," I told her, echoing words from so long ago.
She shot me a stilted smile, resting her free hand against her slightly rounded stomach. She and Rick had been nervous as hell to break the news to Mason and me after their spring wedding, wondering if it would be too much too soon.
"It's a good thing you're married," I had admonished, before breaking into a big smile as Mason clasped Rick into a tight congratulatory hug.
"We know we're older," she dragged out, obviously embarrassed about her age.
"Mom, women in their forties have been having babies for years. There's nothing special about you," I had teased, easing her fears.
I watched her now as she nervously waited for the bus to empty. "They're going to love you, Mom," I reassured her, giving her hand a squeeze as the doors of the bus opened.
Still clutching Mason's hand, I stepped forward underneath the Unlikely Allies sign and waited for my girls to disembark. I couldn't help laughing when they piled off the bus and surrounded me with their high-pitched chatter.
My eyes grew misty when Alyssa finally disembarked. She stood for a moment at the last step of the bus, uncertainty covering her face. When we made eye contact, she looked away quickly, as if she wanted to make a mad dash somewhere. I made my way through the crowd and stopped in front of her and opened my arms. She studied me for a moment and I swear I saw her eyes watering up, just a bit. She stepped forward into my embrace and hugged me tight.
“I’m sorry about last summer,” she mumbled, finally pulling back.
“Hey, it’s water under the bridge. Besides, what happens at UA stays at UA, right?” I said, draping my arm across her shoulder so I could propel her to the center of the group where she belonged.
Looking up, my eyes met Mason's and he smiled proudly at me.
“All right campers,” Dad bellowed into the megaphone, getting everyone's attention. “Girls, ages ten to twelve, you’re with Amy and Kimberly, my daughter, in cabin Raven,” he said, pointing to where Amy and I were standing. “Girls, thirteen to fifteen, you’re with Liz and my wife, Kate, in cabin Sparrow,” he said with sparkling eyes, pointing to Mom. “Boys ten to twelve, you’re with Travis and Ryan in cabin Blue Jay, and boys, thirteen to fifteen, you’re in cabin Eagle with Mason and John. Gather your belongings and head to your cabins. We’ll meet back out here at ten for orientation," he finished before joining us under the Unlikely Allies sign.
Enjoy this excerpt from
“There are moments in everyone’s life that define the type of person you are, and the person you will become,” or so my dad always says—used to say, I corrected myself, kicking at the pile of discarded clothes at my feet. Ugh, how do you pick the right outfit to wear to your own father’s funeral? The words clanked through my head like a roller coaster ratcheting up the track. This was a decision I could use my mother’s help with, but she had spent the past few days adrift in a medicated stupor. She collapsed at the hospital after the no-nonsense surgeon came into the waiting room, informing us that the internal bleeding from the accident was too extensive. His words instantly snuffed out all the hope and optimism we had been clinging to, and in one life changing-moment, my father was gone.
I could ask my grandma for help, but I couldn’t handle the way her eyes swam with tears when she looked at me. As it was, I already felt like I was hanging on to a sinking life preserver, without her dragging me down farther. Her pain was understandable. My father had been her only son. I considered asking my Aunt Donna since she stoically refused to cry, which would have been refreshing amidst the sea of tears that surrounded me, but even she had finally broken down.
Finally giving up, I pulled out the black eyelet ankle length skirt my mom and dad bought me when they spent their twentieth anniversary in Spain the previous year. The skirt brought back bittersweet memories for me. I was jealous when they plan
First and foremost being my little sister, Megan.
Megan had been a surprise addition to our family four years ago. I was twelve, almost thirteen, when my parents sat me down with the news that my mom was pregnant, that they had been trying for years to give me a sibling. New to the idea of where babies came from, I remember being appropriately grossed out at their phrasing of “trying for years.” Once my gag factor was under control, I was actually excited at the idea of having a real-life dress-up doll. That novelty was short lived though. After a few years, I realized that babies really didn’t do much and high school began to consume my life anyway. Megan proved to be a cute baby and an even more adorable toddler, but friends, cheerleading, and my new fascination with boys consumed my every waking moment. Megan would toddle around behind me, chanting my name in her cute little lisp as I fluttered around the house always on my way out the door. Except for the mandatory Friday family nights, which my parents insisted on, during which, I spent the majority of the time texting my friends, I had barely interacted with Megan over the last year. I regretted every single one of those texts now, yearning for just one more family Friday night.
As I left my room, I could hear the low mumble of my aunts talking while my grandma sobbed quietly behind the closed door of her guest room. I headed toward my parents suite and paused outside the door, knocking gently before entering. My mom was curled up on the side of the bed that my dad used to occupy. Her eyes were wide open and she was fully dressed, but she stared blankly into space, looking more lost than I had ever seen her. She was clutching my dad’s favorite shirt between her hands. The entire room was filled with reminders of her former best friend and true love: A closet filled with clothes, the remote control that sat on his nightstand because he loved to watch TV while lying in bed, and the familiar smell of his favorite cologne that still filled the room, all of which pinched my heart as I perched on the bed beside her. I reached over and gently grabbed onto her hand, yearning for her reassurance that everything would be alright, but her hand remained nothing more than a dead fish in mine.
“Are you going to get Megan ready?” I asked.
She finally pulled her eyes from the blank spot beyond, focusing on my face. Her body began to shake slightly as silent sobs turned to tears welling up in her eyes. Her grief caused my own pain to rear its ugly head. I jumped to my feet, not wanting to be sucked in. Someone had to remain strong here.
“Never mind, I got it,” I mumbled, exiting the room before the despair that growled deep in my stomach could claw its way out.
Megan’s room was several doors down the hall from mine. When she was three, Megan begged my parents for the room directly across from mine, but I balked at the idea of having her so close, feeling she would cramp my style. Yet another decision I wish I could retract.
Walking into Megan’s room was like stepping into the ultimate princess getaway. My parents let her re-do her bedroom on her fourth birthday. All her baby stuff was stored away and her room was completely redesigned to celebrate her new “big girl” status. The room was dressed in plush purple carpeting and soft pink walls adorned with pictures of fairies and princesses, and even her very own “Mirror Mirror on the Wall.” They bought her a beautiful sleigh bed made of mahogany with a matching wardrobe and highboy dresser, but what really brought it all together was an elaborate mural of a castle and its grounds decorating the eastern wall of the room. Megan absolutely squealed with delight when she saw it the first time, completely forgetting about her previous desire to inhabit the room closest to mine.
She was still in her nightgown when I entered, sitting in her reading corner with one of her favorite chapter books resting on her narrow knees. Megan was gifted in reading, devouring anything she could get her hands on and could already read at a fifth-grade level. Keeping her in age appropriate books proved to be a challenge. The shelves in her room overflowed with books that I could remember reading when I was much older.
“Hey, Peanut,” I said, sinking onto the foot of the velvet plum-colored chaise lounge were she perched.
Her slender shoulders stiffened at my words, but her gaze remained fixated on the pages in front of her. I cringed at the glaring dark bruise on her forehead and her white plaster encased arm, all evidence of the traumatic experience she had been through. The hospital could have at least given her pink or some other colored cast.
“It’s time to get ready,” I said, stroking her hair.
She acknowledged my words by closing her book and studying me with solemn eyes.
“Do you know what today is?” I asked quietly.
She nodded without speaking.
Megan hadn’t uttered a word since the accident, but no one has seemed to notice except me. I missed her cute little lisp when she called me by a nickname she had coined for me when she was younger. She couldn’t say Kassandra, so I became Kass, Kass to all the members of my family.
“Are you hungry, Peanut?” I asked as I pulled a light pink dress over her head.
She shook her head ever so slightly.
“Are you sure? Not even a peanut butter and strawberry sandwich?” I enticed, naming one of her favorite treats. Her passion for peanut butter was a longstanding joke in our family and was how she had gained her nickname.
She shook her head again.
“What about an ice cream sundae with melted peanut butter on top?” I said, willing to offer anything to get her to come out of her shell.
She remained silent and I sighed with resignation.
“You have to eat, Peanut,” I said, running a brush through her long golden locks before fixing it into a French braid down her back the way she liked. I helped her strap on her black Mary Janes and grasped her small hand as we left the room together.
The rest of my family was gathered uncomfortably in the living room when we entered. My Aunt Donna stood tall, although pale beside my sobbing grandma, while my Aunt Karen kept an arm firmly wrapped around my mom’s shoulders. I wanted to shield Megan from the pain that saturated the room, to flee to a happier place and a happier time, but those days were over. Instead, I scooped her up in my arms, marveling at how light she was. She took after my mom, having a more delicate bone structure, while I had the solid frame of my father.
“The limo is here,” my Aunt Donna said, helping my grandma to her feet. My mom rose at her words and followed behind them, still clutching my dad’s t-shirt in her hands. Megan watched them file solemnly out of the room ahead of us.
“It’s okay, Peanut. We can do this,” I said, pulling her more snugly into my arms.
I set her down as we neared the oversized vehicle parked outside the house. She climbed into the car and onto her booster seat that the limo driver had fastened to one of the long bench seats inside. I waited for my mom to methodically strap her in like she always had before, but she remained fixated on a spot out the window and beyond my line of vision. Sighing, I reached over and buckled Megan myself, pulling the belt tight to make sure it was securely fastened like I had seen my parents do hundreds of times. It had been their diligence to sa
The ride to the cemetery was slow and silent as we made our way through town, passing the brightly-colored store-fronts and droves of people strolling around the sidewalks. To them, this was just another normal day. We finally reached Shady Oaks Cemetery, and all I could think was how this place felt like it was mocking me. It was beautifully inviting with lush grass, perfectly manicured trees, and freshly bloomed flowers everywhere, but there was certainly nothing beautiful about coming here. The driver turned smoothly into the graveyard, pulling up slowly to the spot where we would say our final goodbyes. The one thing that my mom and grandma had agreed on was that my father would have hated the whole church funeral thing, so they settled on a graveside service. I could see the seats under the oversized maroon tent were filled with mourners with many more people standing in rows behind them. The kind limo driver helped Megan and me climb out first and all eyes from the tent focused on us. I felt myself flush slightly at the attention I was receiving, which was unusual because I had spent my life thriving on the attention of others. Whether at dance recitals from my younger years or cheerleading as I got older, I was used to hundreds of students cheering for me as I effortlessly tumbled through complicated routines with my parents watching proudly from the stands. I had always been the envy of most of the student body and I liked it that way.
This attention though was different. It oozed with pity and empathy combined with a mix of relief that it wasn’t them in our shoes. I wanted to be anywhere but here, and for a brief moment, I considered fleeing the scene. That is, until Megan’s tiny hand tightened around the three fingers she was gripping on my right hand. I couldn’t leave her here. When I looked down to see her lower lip trembling, I pulled her closer against my hip as we slowly made our way to the seats reserved for family members.
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