“No, we’re practically strangers now.”
Walking to my car after school, I noticed K.C.’s ex-boyfriend leaning against it. “Liam?” I asked, momentarily curious as to why he was waiting for me but more annoyed, because I just wanted to get home.
“Hey, Tate. How have you been?” His hands were stuffed in his pockets, and he looked between me and the ground.
“I’m hanging in there. What can I do for you?” I asked abruptly. It was unlike me not to ask someone how they were when they had asked me, but I was upset with Liam. He could rot in his own tears for all I cared.
He smiled nervously. “Um, listen. I feel really bad about what happened between K.C. and me. I’ve tried calling her, and I stopped at the house, but she won’t see me.”
This was news to me. When I’d asked K.C. if she’d heard from Liam, she’d told me “no.” My friend wasn’t as honest as she used to be.
“And?” I opened the door to my dad’s Bronco and tossed my bag inside.
“Tate, I just need to see her.” His eyes were red, and he was fidgeting. “I f**ked up. I know that.”
“That’s your excuse?” It was none of my business, but I liked Liam. At least I did before he cheated on my best friend. I wanted to understand. “Why did you cheat?
Running his hands through his dark hair, he leaned back against the truck. “Because I could. Because I got caught up in the scene at the Loop. There were always girls around, and I let it go to my head. K.C. would only come with me every so often, and even then she wasn’t interested.”
My head hurt just trying to think of what to say to him. I couldn’t do this right now.
“Liam, I need to go home. I’ll tell K.C. that you’d like to talk to her, but I can’t be on your side about this. If you deserve it, she’ll forgive you.” Personally, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever forgive him if I were her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wrangle you into this.”
“Yes, you did,” I joked reluctantly. At heart, I didn’t believe Liam was a bad guy. He messed up, though, and I wasn’t sure if it was worth the risk to forgive him. Luckily, I didn’t have to make that decision.
“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. You were my last hope. Take care of yourself, and …for what it’s worth, I am sorry about this mess.” He backed away and walked to his Camaro.
Letting out a sigh, I climbed into the truck and drove off before this soap opera of a day turned into Gone with the Wind.
“Mmmm…what’s cookin’, Good Lookin’?” I yelled as I opened the front door. My body was screaming for my bed, but I decided to put on a happy face for my grandma. I’d missed her.
And I selfishly needed her to remind me that I was a good person. After what I’d said to Jared today, I didn’t even want to face myself in the mirror.
Her arrival could be smelled from the driveway. The rich aroma of sauce and meat danced through my nostrils enveloping me in a warm blanket even before I closed the front door.
“Hi, Peaches!” Grandma seemed to dance from the kitchen to the foyer, taking me into her arms. In the year I’d been gone, I’d missed her scent-filled hugs. The hairspray from her hair mixed with the lotion and perfume she used, and the leather from her belts and shoes created this aroma of home in my mind. After Mom died, I’d needed my grandma a lot.
“Oh, I forgot about “Peaches.” Dad still calls me “Pumpkin.” What is it with you Brandts naming me after fruit?” I teased, knowing their endearments were out of love.
“Oh, now. Don’t deny an old lady the pleasure of her pet names.” She plastered a kiss on my cheek with a mwah.
“Grandma, you’re younger at heart than me.” I dropped my bag by the wall and crossed my arms over my chest. “The only thing old about you is your music.” I cocked an eyebrow.
“The Beetles are timeless. Unlike that “screaming” you call music.” I rolled my eyes, and she hooked my arm, leading me into the kitchen.
My grandma is a product of fifties’ parenting—overbearing, every hair in the right place—but she also blossomed during her teens and the rebellion of the sixties. The desire to be active in her environment and experience the world led her to travel a lot as a young adult. When she found out about me going to France for a year, she couldn’t have been more thrilled. Experience is the best teacher. Her echo followed me everywhere.
While she was just over sixty, she looked much younger. Her hair was light brown with some gray, which she usually wore down around her shoulders. Healthy eating and exercise kept her fit, happy, and energetic. Her style was eclectic. I’ve seen her in pants suits and Rolling Stones t-shirts.
“So tell me how school’s been going?” She grabbed come lettuce off the island and began rinsing it in the sink.
“It’s fine.” My bed wasn’t far off now, and my body was too listless to even entertain the idea of actually telling her the truth.
Her eyes shot up at me, though, and she turned off the water. “What’s wrong?” She was breathing through her nose. That’s never good. This woman knew me too well.
“Nothing’s wrong. I said everything was fine.” Please just leave it alone.
Her eyes narrowed. “When you’re happy, you tell me everything: homework, Science Club, France, Cross Country—“
“I’m totally fine,” I interrupted, running my hand across my forehead. “It’s been a rough day is all. I woke up late and got off on the wrong foot. So what time did you get in?”
She raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow at my change of subject but let it go. “About noon I guess. I thought I’d get in a little early to clean up and start some laundry…” Her words trailed off as she waved a hand through the air. “But you seem to have it all under control.”
“Well, I was taught by the best. Not that I’m not glad you’re here, but you really don’t need to worry. I’ve been doing great.”
“That’s good.” Frowning a little, she continued, “Actually, it’s great. Knowing you’ll be going off to New York next year worries me, and seeing how well you’ve taken care of yourself and the house helps. I guess you don’t need me or your dad so much anymore.”
“I don’t know about that. My cooking stinks, so having you around means I’ll eat better!” I giggled as she shook the leafy lettuce at me and droplets of water flew across my face.
“Hey!” I laughed, taking a paper towel from the stand on the island and patting my face.
Already feeling a bit lighter, I bounced off my chair to help out with dinner. My grandma put together a salad, pasta, and sautéed mushrooms. I made my mouth-watering garlic bread, which was about the only thing I actually baked in the oven. The rest of my diet usually included whatever could be cooked in the microwave. She set up the table in the back patio, and I put on some ambient music, which was common ground for both of us.
“So you think I’ll get into Columbia?” I asked as we served each other.
“I have a feeling about these things.”
“Yeah, you also had a feeling my first kiss was going to be epic. We both know how that turned out.” I joked with her, completely content with this moment. The food looked succulent, while the weightless breeze brought the trees to life and the smell of roses to our table.
She started laughing, almost choking on her sip of wine. “You know”—my grandma held up a finger— “in all fairness, I didn’t know your first kiss was going to be with someone you barely knew. I thought it would’ve been that kid next door.”
My face instantly fell with the reminder of him. Distant memories of the now-ancient dreams I once had for Jared danced through my head. There were so many times growing up that I wanted to kiss him.
“Just because we hung out when I was a tween doesn’t mean we were into each other like that. We were just friends,” I mumbled, my brow now creased with aggravation. The conversation was pleasant until the subject of him came up.
“No, but it was other things too.” My grandma’s pensive expression made me want to change the subject again. “There were things I’d pick up on. The way you two always had your heads together, the way he would look at you when you didn’t know it,…and the way he would sneak over for sleepovers.”
She drug out the last part slowly, her knowing eyes mocking my wide-eyed expression. Oh, crap!
“You didn’t think I knew about that, did you?” she asked.
Of course I had no idea my grandmother knew about that! From as early in our friendship as I could remember, Jared would climb through the tree between our bedrooms and sneak through my French doors. It wasn’t a lot, just when his mom had been drinking and he needed to get away. Since I always had a queen sized bed, we were very comfortable and maintained our own spaces, even though his hand would eventually find mine during the night.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. We’re not close.” Twirling some pasta around my fork, I stuffed my mouth hoping this subject would end.
“How has he been treating you since you got back?”
Mouth still full, I rolled my eyes and shook my head to indicate that things still weren’t good, and I didn’t care to talk about it.
“Have you ever talked to him like I suggested?” She inquired before starting her salad.
“Grandma, I don’t even care to try. We were friends once; now we’re not. My heart’s not breaking over it,” I lied.
“Tate, I know it hurts. He’s been an ass to you.”
“Really, I couldn’t care less. And even if it did hurt, I certainly wouldn’t let him see it. He’s done horrible things to me, and if my tears are what he needs to get off, then he can suffer. He doesn’t deserve my attention.”
My grandma put her fork down, uneaten salad dipping into the pasta, “Tatum, that’s your mother talking.”
My eyes darted up to her, shocked by her annoyed tone.
“Honey, I loved your mom. We all did. And I know she meant well, trying to teach you to be strong, since she knew she wouldn’t be here to guide you through tough times. But honey, letting yourself be vulnerable isn’t always a weakness. Sometimes, it can be a conscious decision to draw the other person out.”
Even though what my grandma was saying sounded sensible, the idea of approaching Jared for a heart-to-heart triggered my gag reflex. I felt horrible about what I’d said to him today, but it didn’t erase all the crap he’d done from my memory. Seeking him out would make him peel with laughter. That was an image that reeked.
“I don’t care about drawing Jared out. Whatever he’s got up his ass can’t be bad enough to treat people how he does. I don’t care.” His brown eyes flashed in my mind.
“Yes, you do,” my grandma stated flatly. “I know how your mother’s death affected you. I know you want to be a doctor, so you can help people that are hurting the way she was with cancer. I know you take her advice to heart and think everything will be better once you go off to college. But Jared’s faults aren’t the only ones hurting you.”
Throwing my fork down on my plate, I wiped the thin layer of sweat off my brow. How did this get turned around on me? “Now, wait a minute. I’m getting pretty tired of everyone being on his side. He walked away from me.” Huffing back in my chair, I crossed my arms over my chest.
“And you let him, Tate.”
“What the hell was I supposed to do?! He wouldn’t talk to me. I tried.”
Bed. Sleep. Escape.
“Calm down. I’m not saying you weren’t a good friend. Of course you were. His issues started this. But it’s easy to say you’ve tried and then just walk away. It’s easy to say that you can’t force help on someone that doesn’t want help and then walk away. You think you’re being noble and strong by turning the other cheek or biding your time until school’s over. But that baggage that you aren’t letting out is weakening you. Sometimes it’s the best medicine to be vulnerable, to let it all out and let him see how he’s hurt you. Then you can say that you’ve tried.”