Part 1: November 2003
This is a book I never expected to write. I believe I had a mental block against writing it. The story is just . . . heartbreaking. Then again, it has a Cletus, so it’s also funny in places. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
As an author, you build your world, you assign motivations to characters and flesh them out, make them real. As I’ve built this world, I’ve added details to my characters’ backstories which I had no desire to visit or describe on the page. Well, fortunately or unfortunately, for those of you who’ve asked that Billy and Scarlet/Claire receive an origin story, I had to write those details in this book.
Simply stated: this book is not a romance, it is a tragic love story.
As I mentioned, it is the origin story, but not just for Billy and Scarlet/Claire. It is the foundation on which the rest of the Green Valley world is built. It can be read as a standalone, and you do not have to read it to enjoy (or not enjoy) any of the other books in the series.
If you’ve read the Winston Brothers series, then you know. You know the characters; the unfolding of the events shouldn’t be a surprise (the good and the bad and the sad). If you don’t want to read the tragic details, skip this book. You can still read what has come before and what is yet to come.
But if you haven’t read the Winston Brothers and this is your first book in the series, then let this serve as a warning. If you have a trigger—any trigger at all—chances are this book is going to trigger you. Just assume it has all the triggers, put it down, and move on to the next book in your TBR.
“Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love.”
― Charles M. Schulz, Charlie Brown / Peanuts
Caution tape barred the way to the chorus room. Gulping a hard bubble of air, my attention moved from the yellow tape to the hallway beyond it, to a white poster board next to the door. The sign had been set on an easel and it read, WET PAINT – DO NOT ENTER.
“No. No, no, no!” My eyes darted again to the yellow tape.
I gripped the paper sack holding my free school lunch. A sound of despair tumbled from my mouth. Heart galloping, pits sweating, my tongue tasting sour with dread, I had a moment.
And by a moment I mean I freaked out.
Officially, I wasn’t allowed to eat in the chorus room. No one was. But early on in my freshman year, I’d snuck in and hid myself between two rows of chairs, careful to dash inside before Mrs. McClure arrived for her lesson planning hour. I’d become quite skilled at leaving unnoticed after the bell rang for fourth period, when her students wandered in.
This had worked for the last (almost) year and a half, but it obviously wouldn’t work today. Making matters worse, this was the last month of school before winter break. There was no sneaky way to find a place to sit in the lunchroom when I’d spent the majority of the year not eating in the lunchroom.
Tugging on the recently repaired strap of my very, very old backpack—some might even consider it an antique—I stuffed the food inside, harsh movements made clumsy by swelling frustration. But then I paused, taking a slow, deep breath, and telling my shaking hands and thundering heart to cool it.
“How does the ocean say hello to the beach?” I asked myself, quietly supplying the answer, “Gives it a little wave.”
The stupid joke helped ease the tangle in my stomach and I cracked a smile, laughing lightly.
Don’t be stupid. This is no big deal. Whatever.
The first fourteen and a half years of life had taught me many valuable lessons. One of the most important was that the magnitude of disappointment was directly proportional to the magnitude of expectations. I’d known this for a while, but the concept had finally solidified in my mind this year during physics class when we’d learned about Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It applied to life and hopes and dreams and expectations too.
Now I had a math equation to estimate my level of disappointment based on my level of expectation. Isn’t that nice?
My first mistake was coming to rely upon the chorus room. Second mistake was allowing myself to look forward to this moment. Today was Friday. Eating lunch in a quiet, heated place was a luxury. Free of people, free of bugs, free of people who behaved like bugs. Now I had nowhere to eat my lunch that wasn’t free of bug people.
“Come on now, Scarlet. You know better,” I murmured, rolling my eyes and angling my chin. “It could be worse. It could be the first month of school.”
My crack of a smile widened, and I sighed as I turned to the tricky zipper of my bag. I needed to be careful. If it was unzipped past a certain point, it wouldn’t re-zip and I’d go the rest of the day with my books and papers falling all over the place.
Plus, I’d have to find a new zipper to sew inside and that would be difficult. Blythe Tanner, who was usually my source for clothes and such items in return for help with can and glass recycling, wasn’t speaking to me ever since my dad threatened to disembowel her dad two months ago. Her father owned the junkyard and my father wanted to store stolen cars in his junkyard. Mr. Tanner—not being a criminal—refused.
A shiver raced down my spine and I promptly submerged it—and thoughts of my father—using a trick I’d picked up at ten years old: rephrase a situation as a scripted comedy TV show. Good old dad, always threatening disembowelments. What a character!
Yeah. I talked to myself a lot. I told myself a lot of jokes. I even had inside jokes . . . with myself. I guess folks needed to talk to someone, and it was mostly just me around for conversation. But that was just fine. I was an awesome conversationalist.
Closing my eyes, I knelt on the ground and placed the backpack carefully on the floor so I could gently tuck my food inside on top of my jacket. The back of my hand brushed against my prized possession, a Walkman CD player, and I was careful not to knock it around. With my eyes shut, sounds that were usually background noise sharpened and increased in volume. The rumble of students talking and eating became a roar, trays being set on tables, soda cans opening, laughter.
My stomach sunk, but only for half a second. Squaring my shoulders and lifting my chin, I immediately demanded that my stomach turn itself around and return to my middle. I did not have time for sinking stomachs, not over something so silly.
Lunch would be over in forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes is no big deal. I’ll figure it out. Pretending to fiddle with the front pocket of my bag, just in case a teacher happened by, I debated my options.
The lunchroom was not a possibility. Two choices awaited me within: Try to sit with the other Iron Wraiths kids, or try to sit with anyone else, because there would be no empty tables. Green Valley was bursting at the seams, too many students and too few seats.
I couldn’t sit with the Iron Wraiths kids. They’d most likely let me, seeing as how my father was the club president, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Prince King would probably try something horrible to get my attention or make me angry, and then Carla Creavers would do something to get Cletus’s attention—who never seemed to sit at the same table twice—maybe flirt with Prince King. Prince King looked like Jared Leto, but he was a complete jerk.
Anyway, Prince King would then get overaggressive with Carla, and then Cletus would intervene—even though it wouldn’t be about Carla, it would be about Prince being “ungentlemanly”—and then there would be a fight and we’d all get detention.
But I couldn’t sit with anyone else. No one wanted to be my partner for class projects—ever—and I honestly didn’t blame them. Who would want their kids hanging out with one of the Wraiths kids? And the president’s daughter? No. Plus, I was under no delusions about the state of my clothes and appearance. Clothes and appearance in high school are everything, and my nickname since seventh grade had vacillated between Smelly Scarlet or Sweaty Scarlet.
“But, you know, their loss,” I mumbled, shrugging.
Another option was the hallway just off the cafeteria, but I quickly dismissed this possibility. Principal Sylvester had forbidden students from the corridor during lunch since last month, after Cletus Winston and Prince King had gotten into a fistfight. Now it was off-limits and heavily patrolled.
A noise snagged my attention, the sound of a toilet flushing, and I turned my head toward it. A few seconds later, two girls exited the bathroom, deep in conversation. I lowered my eyes to my backpack and redoubled my pretend fiddling while they walked past, paying me no mind. As soon as their voices faded, I returned my attention to the girls’ bathroom door and EUREKA!
With my lunch tucked safely in my backpack—and the tricky zipper closed—I brought the bag to my shoulder and stood; my decision made easy by the obvious choice.
“What did one toilet say to the other?” I muttered to myself, walking toward the bathroom and answering in my head, You look flushed.
My lips curved at the joke, and I chuckled. “You look flushed. That’s funny. Or maybe it could be, you look pooped. Or how about, why are you so pissed?” The last punchline had me laughing and shaking my head at myself again, muttering, “Good one, Scarlet. You should write that—”
I was so lost in my self-congratulations for the superior punchline, I almost collided with the boys’ bathroom door as it unexpectedly opened, missing a door handle to the groin by jumping backward and to the side. But my quick thinking meant that my shoulder and chest collided with the boy who was exiting the bathroom, which meant that I fell backward on my ass.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As previously noted, this law applies to life, hopes, dreams, expectations, and masses traveling at varying velocities, especially when one of those masses is a huge boy and the other mass is me.
“Are you—” the boy started, taking a hasty step in my direction that made his sneakers squeak on the linoleum, but then he stopped speaking and moving just as suddenly.
I froze, a colossal spike of renewed dismay chasing the air from my lungs. I fought to keep the grimace from my face, and not just because my tailbone was going to be sore for several days as a result of my graceless fall. I didn’t need to look up to know this boy who’d accidentally knocked me down was none other than high school junior, current star quarterback of the Green Valley football team, every girl’s fantasy boyfriend, and my childhood nemesis, Billy Winston.
Nowadays, I avoided him and he ignored me. Actually, in the scheme of things, it was probably more accurate to say I was beneath his notice. So . . .
“Scarlet,” he said, like the word was a dirty one, and then released a quiet, drawn-out, annoyed huff. “Are you okay?”
I nodded wordlessly. He didn’t move.
When we were kids, I would’ve thrown some insult at him. I would’ve felt anger and irritation at being knocked down by Billy, even if it was an accident. I had a kind of fearless confidence when I was a kid, like I really mattered. All that changed in middle school; not because of any one big event or wound; more like thousands of tiny cuts (literally and figuratively). I’d grown tired of fighting the world because the world always won.
Presently, my eyes on his feet, I kept my mouth shut, waiting for him to leave.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, like he was about to leave. But he didn’t.
“Here.” His tone laced with impatience, he reached out a hand. “Let me help you up.”
Instinct had me flinching back and tucking my chin to my chest.
“What the hell, Scarlet? It’s not like I’m going to hit you,” he grumbled, sounding even more exasperated.
I sat frozen, heat climbing up my neck and cheeks. Just leave, I wanted to holler. Just freaking go! Little kid Scarlet would have.
A moment passed and eventually his hand dropped. Another moment passed and I heard him exhale a sigh, louder this time. Without another word, he walked around me. I listened as his footsteps carried him away, until the sound was swallowed by the maniacally cheerful cafeteria chatter.
Then and only then did I allow myself to breathe. But I would not allow myself to think about what had just happened.
“No. Nothing happened,” I said. “Nothing happened. I tripped and I fell. He was never here. Nothing happened.”
“Uh, I’m pretty sure something happened.”
My head snapped up and I found Ben McClure standing not more than fifteen feet away, his hands stuffed in his jeans pockets, his attention on the other end of the corridor where the cafeteria was, and where Billy Winston had just disappeared.
“Hey, Scarlet,” he said, sounding distracted.
“Oh. Hey, Ben,” I croaked. My cheeks probably matched the color of my hair by now.
If Billy Winston was Green Valley’s picture of the perfect high school boyfriend, Ben McClure was their image of an ideal man, full stop. Ben was about two years older than Billy, but they were both tall and big and square-jawed and deep-voiced. Until last year, when he graduated, Ben had been the starting quarterback of the football team. Billy had taken his place.
But that’s about where the resemblances ended.
Where Billy’s hair was dark brown, almost black, Ben’s was golden blond. Billy had icy blue eyes that felt sharp and piercing, like needles and knives every time he looked at you. Honestly, Billy’s looks were off-putting. He was just too handsome, movie-star handsome, looking at him directly hurt just a little. But Ben’s blues were warm and pretty, like bluebells in the summer. His handsomeness was softer, more approachable, boyish.
Both considered good mannered, but Billy’s idea of polite was coldly formal, whereas Ben treated everyone like his best friend.
Also, Billy never smiled. Even when he was a kid, he never smiled. Ben’s smile was near constant, just varying in size and intention based on the occasion. He had his smile of greeting, his smile of encouragement, his shy smile, his amused smile, his mischievous smile, his—
Ahhhh. Stop it, Scarlet. Stop torturing yourself.
In case you hadn’t guessed by my gushing, I had a bit of a crush on Ben McClure. But in my defense, I think everyone in town did too. Men, women, children, dogs. He was so darn friendly and good. He was the best at everything.
“Whatcha doing?” I felt his gaze come to rest on me where I still sat grimacing on the ground.
Swallowing around the unidentified oral object—an UOO, if you will—making my throat tight, I forced a chuckle. “Uh, well. That’s a valid question. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”
I snuck a peek at him as I found my feet, certain my grin was goofy rather than charming. But that didn’t matter. First off, we were friends . . . of a sort. Ben was nice to me and went out of his way to engage me in conversation whenever we happened upon each other. That didn’t make me special. Ben was friends or friendly with most everyone in town.
Regardless, it still meant something to me. One of my favorite things about Ben McClure was that he didn’t care about who anyone’s parents were, or where they were from, or how old their clothes were, or how old they were. He might’ve cared about how I smelled on summer days when showers were hard to come by, but he never said anything about it.
Point was, he was kind to everybody, all the time, no matter how much of a fool you made of yourself, no matter who you were.
Basically, he was perfect.
Ben’s eyebrows pulled together as he crossed to me, his eyes traveling over my person, and his examination made me hotter under the collar.
“Are you all right? That was quite a fall.” He looked and sounded uncharacteristically irritated as he said this.
“Y—you saw that?” I asked haltingly, wrestling with both my mortification and my heart, which had suddenly gone squishy.
“Yeah, I saw it.” He gave me a small smile that seemed to be tempered with concern. “You keep running into doors like that, I’ll have to follow you around to catch you.”
“Oh. Ha. Hahahaha.” YES PLEASE.
He lifted his chin toward the cafeteria. “Was that William Winston? Knocking you down and not helping you up?”
I shook my head quickly. “It wasn’t his fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going, and he was just minding his own business, and there I was, flying down the hall, not paying attention. And he offered to help me up, I just—”
“Scarlet.” Ben lifted his hands, showing me his palms. “You don’t need to be defending William to me. I know how he is.”
I repressed my urge to set Ben straight about defending William—Billy—Winston. I just didn’t want Ben going to Billy’s momma and repeating what he witnessed. Then Mrs. Winston would talk to her son and make him apologize or something. The last thing I needed was Billy’s ire. And besides, he did offer me a hand. I was the one who refused to take it.
“That looked like quite a fall.” Ben stepped forward, his pretty eyes losing any trace of frustration or resentment; the result caused a warming effect on my stomach.
Or maybe I was just hungry.
“Are you okay?” he asked quietly, looking concerned.
I made a clumsy little snorting sound, waving away his worry. “Oh me? Nah. I’m fine. It would take a lot more than that to hurt my backside. Have you seen how much padding I got back there? That thing is well protected.” Now I snorted conspiratorially, as much as one can snort conspiratorially . . .
Dear Lord in heaven, why am I such a dork?
Truth be told, concern made me uncomfortable and I wasn’t thinking about my words or my snort, I just wanted to change the subject. Growing up, folks never seemed to show me overt concern without an ulterior motive, and I’d known Mrs. McClure’s son long enough to know he didn’t ever have an ulterior motive. Therefore, Scarlet the Grand Dame of Dorkiness, always emerged when he showed concern. Somehow, I’d have to figure out how to subdue the Grand Dame before she reigned supreme.
Meanwhile, Ben straightened, shoving his hands back in his pockets, his eyes skipping over my shoulder to look down the hall. “I haven’t—I would never—” He shook his head, like he was clearing it of something. Then he laughed lightly. “Scarlet, if you’re sure you’re okay, I’ll let it drop.”
“I’m fine.” I grinned, dorkily, I’m sure showcasing a mouth full of crooked teeth. His teeth were straight as pine trees planted in a row. How I envied his teeth.
“Okay then.” Warm smile in place, his gaze once more traveling over my face, he took a small step to the side. “Have you seen my momma? I’m supposed to meet her for lunch.”
Ah! Of course. Ben often met his mom for lunch on Fridays since he’d graduated. He went to college in Nashville but drove home most weekends to help his parents. From my hiding place in the chorus room I refused to eavesdrop on their conversations, focusing my attention on books or whatnot. But I did hear their shared laughter—her light, musical chuckle and his deep, rolling belly laugh—from time to time. It always put me in such a good mood, and I’d catch myself smiling later when I remembered it.
Hearing other people laugh at something friendly, something good-natured, was one of my favorite sounds.
“I honestly don’t know where Mrs. McClure is. The chorus room is closed.” I pointed toward it. “Something about wet paint.”
“That’s right. She said to meet her in the courtyard.” Ben checked his watch, then glanced at me. “I think I’m late. Where’s your lunch? Isn’t it lunchtime?”
“It’s in my bag. I was going to eat in the—well, in my normal spot, but it’s not open right now, so I thought I’d eat in the bathroom.” I cringed, not meaning to confess so much, yet not terribly surprised I had. There was just something about Ben that made me always tell the truth. I couldn’t imagine lying to such a good, kind face. Or the person behind it.
“Scarlet, what are you talking about? You can’t eat in the bathroom. It’s not sanitary.” He gave me a funny look, like he was trying to scold me and not laugh at the same time. “Why not eat in the cafeteria?”
Every muscle in my body tensed at the suggestion, my eyes lowering to the floor, another UOO in my throat. “I’d prefer not.” Not only that, but it wasn’t something I wished to discuss, not with beautiful Ben.
“I’ll sit with you, if you like.”
I shook my head, not even his sweet suggestion could lessen the finality of my decision. Plus, Scarlet St. Claire eating lunch in the cafeteria with Ben McClure wouldn’t go unnoticed. I moved my weight to the left, intending to walk around him. “I actually need to go to the bathroom anyway.”
Ben leaned to the side, blocking my way. “Okay, you don’t want to eat in the cafeteria. How about this, you come with me and have lunch with my momma in the courtyard. Where’s your jacket?”
“In my backpack, but I’m not allowed in the—”
“It’ll be fine.” He slid his hand down my arm and entwined our fingers, sending racing goose bumps up my arm and in my brain.
We were touching. Oh my dear Lord, we were touching. Now I was sweating again. Something about being touched in a nice way, and apparently by anyone I had a crush on, made my glands activate and act a drama. I guess I knew what that something was, but still. The overreaction was frustrating.
“Come on, she’d love it.” Ben tugged. “You know you’re one of her favorite students.”
Self-preservation made me drag my feet. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have lunch with Ben and Mrs. McClure. Rather, going through the cafeteria in order to get to the courtyard was the problem. I didn’t want to draw that kind of attention to myself.
Picture it: me, walking through the Green Valley High cafeteria, holding hands with Ben McClure. Yeah, that wouldn’t go unnoticed, even if it didn’t mean anything.
“Wait a minute, wait.”
“Scarlet, time is running out. If you want to eat, we should go meet my mom. And I’m not letting you eat in the bathroom. So, it’s either you and I sit together in the cafeteria, or you come with me to the courtyard.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll come with.” I gently withdrew my fingers from his, needing him not to touch me so my brain would work. “You, uh, you go on first and I’ll walk behind.”
He inspected me, his eyebrows pulled together into a V, making him look both amused and confused. “You don’t need to walk behind me, Scarlet. I’m not ashamed to be seen with you.”
“I know that, Ben,” I replied softly, my mind and my belly tripping all over themselves at his words.
Mrs. Winston was sweet to me, Mrs. McClure was too. But Ben’s sweetness landed different. It felt like a light touch rather than a squeezing hug.
Reaching for my hand again, his mouth pulled to the side. I took a step back, evading him, and gripped the straps of my backpack with closed fists. “Go on. I’ll follow.”
He studied me again. “Hold up. Are you ashamed to be seen with me?”
I rushed forward unthinkingly, horrified that he’d even ask the question, and grabbed hold of his arm. “Oh no. Never. I’d never be embarrassed of you. You’re just the nicest, most . . .” I licked my lips, knowing I shouldn’t continue that sentence, and added quietly, “I know how lucky I am, that we’re friends.” I was. So lucky.
His fair treatment of me over the last few years meant that other people hadn’t been quite so harsh, and for that I was eternally grateful. Ben McClure was the reigning golden boy of Green Valley, since his birth. Everyone knew the story. His momma and daddy weren’t able to have kids for the first twenty-five years of their marriage. Folks prayed and prayed for them. Then one day, miraculously, she got pregnant after they’d given up trying.
The entire town celebrated, or so that’s the way the town gossip Karen Smith told it. Mrs. McClure’s baby shower had been a sight, with people buying silver baby rattles and engraved cups and spoons. Everything he wore until he was three had been hand-monogrammed by someone’s grandmother. Everywhere he went, people were happy to see him. Big Ben, they called him when he was little. The name persisted even now that he really was big, and he bore it all with grace and patience.
He was everyone’s favorite. Every teacher, administrator, minister, coach. He was great at everything. He was the best.
And this favorite child of Green Valley was grinning at me. At me. Scarlet St. Claire, spawn of Satan and his illiterate mistress. (No lie, my momma can’t read).
Ben reached for my hand where I held on to my backpack strap, fit our fingers together, and coaxed me toward the cafeteria. Again.
“Well, I’m glad you feel lucky. ’Cause I feel the same way about you.” His eyes conducted another sweep of my face, making my stomach warm once more. Or maybe I was just really, really hungry.
And yet, my steps were still slow and hesitant, the dread almost eclipsing the good feelings in my torso. If we were seen—and we were definitely going to be seen—by any of the Wraiths kids, it would get back to my father. And that would be like putting a target on Ben’s back.
“Listen. Just trust me, okay? It’ll be fine. So what, high school kids will see us together.”
“But if we’re holding hands, it might look like something it isn’t, and then people will talk.”
He shrugged, giving me another of his smiles; from where I stood, I couldn’t tell if it was a shy or sly one. “Or, it might look like exactly what it is. So let them talk.” He squeezed my hand. “I’ll keep you safe.”
I tried to return his smile but couldn’t. It wasn’t my safety I was worried about.
“Not only had my brother disappeared, but… a part of my very being had gone with him. Stories about us could, from then on, be told from only one perspective. Memories could be spoken but not shared.” ― John Corey Whaley, Where Things Come Back
My eyes were on the road, but my mind was occupied with the disaster sitting next to me.
“Thanks,” he said.
Without looking over, I breathed in through my nose, stretching my lungs with as much cold air as would fit.
“Of course,” I said, calmly. “Anytime.”
I shifted in my seat. Lord, give me patience.
“You don’t even know why I’m thanking you and yet you say, ‘Anytime.’”
He snorted, then winced, testing his lip. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the pad of his index and middle finger come away bloody. He smeared the red with this thumb, tucking his hands under his crossed arms. A second later he placed one hand on each knee.
“What if I was thanking you for letting me get another dog?”
“We’re not getting another dog,” I said, again calmly. But also with decisiveness. We were not getting another dog. We could barely afford the vet bills and food for the dog we had.
“But you said, ‘Anytime.’ Therefore, I’m taking you as a man of your word, and—”
He snapped his mouth shut and huffed, glancing away from me and out the window. We drove in silence, my old truck jostling us both as we drove over a pothole. This weekend or next, I’d have to check the suspension and shocks. If I can find the time.
“I suppose you meant, ‘Anytime,’ for something else then. Maybe you meant I could have cake anytime?”
He grumbled something akin to, “You’re only letting me have cake anytime ’cause you know I don’t like cake all that much,” then winced again, sucking in a breath. I made the mistake of glancing at him and immediately wished I hadn’t. The color of his nose and the trail of blood dripping down his temple made my insides curdle with breath-snatching worry, rage, and urges I’d never act upon. His left eye was already starting to swell shut.
Clamping my jaw closed, I glared out the windshield.
“I suppose you know why I said thanks, so we’ll just leave it at that.” He sniffed, lifting his nose in the air and crossing his arms again. “I’m hungry, what’s for dinner?”
Lord. Patience. Anytime now. Please.
Cletus may have been just eleven months younger than me, but I couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t consider him a kid. Maybe when he stopped fighting all the time? Or when he remembered that Friday night was his evening to cook dinner.
“It’s your night to cook, Cletus. So you tell me.” Calm. Calm. Calm.
“Well shoot.” He made a tsking noise. “Can we stop by the store?”
He turned to me. “But I didn’t pick anything up.”
“Yeah. I know that.” Because I just dragged you off Prince King behind the stadium instead of picking you up at the store, which is where you were supposed to be.
“So what’s the plan here, Billy? You want me to hunt wild boar in the backyard? If we don’t go to the store, then we’ll have no food for dinner.”
“You got the money?”
He stiffened. A second later, he swallowed so loud, I heard it. “Not . . . exactly.”
I pressed my lips together so I wouldn’t laugh. Of course. Of course he didn’t have the money. “Who’d you give it to this time?” Calm. So calm. Like a placid lake.
“Carla? Carla who?”
I found I needed to inhale deeply again to keep the curses from leaving my mouth. As an extra measure, I covered my lips with my hand, keeping the ballooning frustration inside.
As I debated my options—what to do, what to say that would induce Cletus to do what I wanted, which was to stop acting like a fool—I remembered something Dolly Payton had once said to me at a picnic. She was the CEO of Payton Mills, where I worked, the matriarch of the Payton family, friendly with my mother, looked a bit like Phylicia Rashad, and was the smartest person I knew. She’d called me a natural born leader and gave me this advice,
When you manage people, figure out what your employees need from you in order for them to be their most successful selves. Some folks need praise, some folks need criticism, some folks need structure. Some folks just need small talk, knowing you care, and that’s it. It’ll be different for each person.
Basically, when you’re a leader, it’s impossible to treat everyone the same. Each person needed something different from you—as their leader—in order to succeed. Being in charge meant figuring out what that thing was for each individual, and then giving it to them.
Yelling at Cletus, asking him what the hell he’d been thinking, expressing the extreme nature of my anger and disappointment wouldn’t do any good.
That approach worked with only one of my younger brothers. A sharp word was all it took with twelve-year-old Beau. He wanted blunt honesty. He wanted me to give it to him straight.
But Duane, the other twin, needed praise. I coldly and pointedly ignored Duane and his mistakes, and then I praised his good decisions.
Whereas eight-year-old Roscoe just wanted someone to talk to. If I took the time to sit and talk with Roscoe, reason with him, he did great. Problem was, finding the time.
Point was, the other three could be chastised. They cared about disappointing me. Ashley, who’d just turned fourteen in August, never required any yelling or scolding or praise or talking. She just always did the right thing. Thank God for Ashley.
But Cletus? Confronting him made him more ornery and likely to do the wrong thing on purpose later, just to spite me. Trying to reason with him got me nowhere, he seemed to think it was a battle of wits. Praising Cletus only made him suspicious of my intentions. It was almost like he needed to be tricked into behaving.
So I said nothing, and I ignored the pressure behind my eyes . We drove for a stretch longer, me breathing in through my nose to cool my brain, him sitting perfectly still.
He must’ve been hurting. In addition to his swelling eye, his lip was busted open in one place that I could see. Getting him inside the house wouldn’t be a problem. Momma wasn’t due home with the kids until six, and if we needed more time to patch him up and make him presentable, Ashley could always be counted on to help.
Then we’d just tell another lie at the dinner table, as usual. Maybe something about falling out of a tree. We hadn’t used that excuse in a while.
“Do you want to know what happened?” My brother’s solemn voice cut through the quiet, distracting me from my plans.
I sucked in another bracing breath and leaned my elbow on the sill, pinching my bottom lip with my thumb and index finger. “If you want to tell me the story, I’ll listen.”
I needed to trim my beard. It had come in fully over the summer, just like Jethro’s had when he turned sixteen. Now the hair around my lips was getting in the way of food and kissing. I’d tried to shave a few times, but that just ended up a mess, with my face all cut up.
Plus, razors were expensive.
Cletus uncrossed his arms again, returning his hands to his knees. His fingers drummed out a restless rhythm. “Well now, that’s not a forthright answer.”
“You’ll listen to what happened if’n I tell it, but you don’t wish to know.”
Gripping the peeling leather of my steering wheel, now with both hands, I glanced at the visor above the windshield, where I kept a recent photo of my family tucked against the ceiling. We’d all gone rafting down the Nantahala in August, working as a team, laughing and talking the whole way. Just a normal, happy family.
That’s what I wanted, that’s what we were working toward. I couldn’t see the photo at present, but I knew it was there. A reminder.
“Billy, I didn’t start the fight.”
“Okay.” Lord, give me patience. Please.
“I swear on the grave of Grandpa Oliver, I didn’t throw the first punch.”
“With your fist,” I murmured, the words out before I caught them.
Give me patience. Give me patience. Give it to me.
It was my momma’s most mumbled prayer. Not, Lord, teach me patience. No, not that. A few years back she told me, “Never ask the Lord to teach you anything, he’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget. Just ask for what you want. Ask Him to give it to you, no strings attached. It’s less dangerous.”
Cletus released a loud breath. “Of course, with my fist.”
Give me patience. Lord. Dear Lord, give me patience . . . any minute now. I’m waiting.
“How else do you start a fight if it isn’t with your fist?”
“With your words, Cletus!”
I balled my left hand tightly and pressed it against my mouth, inwardly chuckling at the irony of the moment. I’d just started a fight. With my words. The Lord wasn’t giving me patience, but he sure was demonstrating the impressiveness of his sense of humor.
Cletus tensed, and then I felt him bristle. I felt the energy change in the cab as he gathered his armor of indifference and weapons of wit.
He just wants to fight. Always. All the time. With anyone. It didn’t matter who. He just wanted to rage and dominate and destroy. That’s what he wanted. All the damn time.
Before he could launch his first attack, I exhaled loudly, unfurling my hand and moving it from my lips to my forehead, rubbing against the headache there. “I’m not your enemy, Cletus. I’m not a foe. I’m not seeking to outsmart you or prove you’re wrong.”
“That’s ’cause you can’t outsmart me.”
I wouldn’t goad him, not that I didn’t also have that same instinct, but because someone needed to set the example of restraint. Someone had to be the adult, the voice of reason. Our momma provided the gentle variety. The stern kind had defaulted to me.
“That’s because I have enough sense to know it.” I chuckled a tired laugh. I was so tired.
“What?” he snapped.
“I don’t aim to outsmart you. I have the good sense to know you’re smarter than me.”
The energy changed again, Cletus’s posture losing some of its stiffness, the moment diffused. For now. And that was the problem. Every day with Cletus was like handling a ticking time bomb. He might’ve been diffused for the moment, but he’d just go and arm himself again whenever the notion struck him.
“I know you’re not my enemy.” Now he sounded tired. “But what should I have done? Prince King was—”
“Do I care what Prince King was doing? Do I care what any of those trash biker kids do? No. And you shouldn’t either.”
“They’re not all trash.”
“Fine. They’re not all trash, but they’re all surrounded by trash, and anything that spends enough time in a dumpster eventually becomes garbage.”
He gasped. “That’s harsh, big brother.”
“That’s fact, Cletus. I know I can’t tell you what to do, you’ll just do the opposite.”
“That’s not true.” He sounded insulted. “I take your words under advisement.”
Well, thank God my fifteen-year-old brother who has already been held back a year for all his troublemaking, who keeps getting suspended for fighting at school, and who always seems to be beating the shit out of people outside of school is taking my words under advisement. Never mind he isn’t actually doing anything to change himself, never mind I keep lying to cover for him and bail him out and stop him from wrecking his life. Never mind all that.
Honestly, at this point, if Cletus didn’t end up in jail for assault and battery—or manslaughter—I’d consider it a miracle, and that weighed on me more than anything these days.
More than grades and school, more than the team and football and that scholarship I needed, more than keeping Samantha happy, more than my job at the mill, more than ensuring Momma and Ashley and Beau and Duane and Roscoe were safe and cared for. Cletus was wearing me down. And for the first time in my sixteen years, I didn’t know what to do.
I couldn’t say, “You need to get control over your temper.” Because he wanted to fight, and he didn’t see a problem with it as long as the folks he was beating on were nasty to him.
The only thing I could do was point out how what he was doing, what he wanted to do and the choices he made, how all that impacted others. So that’s what I did.
“What are you going to tell Momma? Hmm? And Ashley? How about Roscoe? You want him following in your footsteps? You like the idea of him fighting with trash like King?”
Once more, Cletus snapped his mouth shut. This time the movement was so sudden, his teeth made a clicking noise. My brother flinched but was otherwise silent.
I turned on Moth Run Road, slowing the truck because we were almost home. I wanted to give him time with his thoughts before we arrived. I wanted him to stew in them, maybe find remorse for his recklessness before we walked in the door.
Predictably, he didn’t say anything until our driveway loomed. “I, uh, I thought maybe I’d tell Momma I fell out of a tree.”
“So, you’re going to lie to her.”
“You’re smart, Cletus. Tell me, if there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, then what’s the harm in telling everybody the truth?”
“Don’t try to out-logic me.”
“I’m not.” I flipped on the blinker even though there was no one behind us, my gaze moving over the fence bracketing the driveway. It needed repair. I looked away, beating down a familiar frustration.
I didn’t have the time. I needed to study for my trigonometry test and write a paper for European history. Football practice had gone longer than usual, which had actually worked out since it meant I’d been at the right place at the right time to break up Cletus’s latest scuffle.
And I wouldn’t have time over the weekend. I had a shift at the mill all day Saturday and I’d promised to spend Sunday helping Samantha’s father rebuild the engine of his hobby car. That left no time for me to fumble my way through fence repairs.
As my attention continued to move over the old house, a gnawing unease settled low in the pit of my stomach. This place needed work, and not the kind of work I was skilled enough to do or had a knack for. Cletus and the twins didn’t have the temperament for measuring and double-checking. If I gave them hammers, they’d turn into woodpeckers.
I did have the temperament, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and rarely had the time to read up on structural house repair. There were only so many hours in the day.
Aside from Roscoe—who was still just a kid, so the jury was still out on him—the simple truth was that the rest of us were good with fixing machinery, but crap at most handy work.
Well, all of us except my older brother, Jet. Problem was, he was shit at everything else, including being a decent person. And I’d sworn after he left us never to ask him for anything.
I ripped my stare from the sagging gutter and the rotted porch beams. Allowing myself to get frustrated at the state of the house was wasted energy. Instead, I scanned the yard. That did nothing to improve my mood. Duane and Beau were in the process of ripping apart an old tractor and various mechanical parts littered the grass. I’d asked them to pick their mess up maybe a hundred times, but I wasn’t asking anymore.
I needed them to listen to me about waking up each morning and going to school, doing their homework, being respectful to their elders, and not causing mischief. Bits of machinery in the yard, making the house look crummy from the road was something I could deal with if they stayed out of trouble.
Well, stayed out of serious trouble, that is. Those two couldn’t stay out of trouble if trouble were a mountain surrounded by a twelve-foot electric fence and guard dogs. Even then, they’d still find a way to fall on top of it.
“Another lie then? That’s what we’re doing?” I asked, allowing my voice to communicate the weariness I felt. Never mind the fact that I’d come to the same conclusion. I couldn’t handle seeing heartbreak on my momma’s face, and I’d do—and have done—just about anything to keep her from hurt.
Cletus had the decency to squirm in his seat. “Lie is such an ugly word. I prefer fiction.”
“A story. One that’ll delight and entertain.”
“Oh. I see.” I nodded. “So, a lie?”
Cletus huffed. “You know what your problem is, big brother?”
Darrell Winston’s prolific sperm.
“You need to lighten up.”
Placing my truck in park, I pressed down on the emergency brake and twisted at the waist to face my brother and his absurdity.
“Lighten up,” I repeated flatly.
“That’s right. I mean, take for example this ride home. Not once did you ask me who won the fight.”
“I don’t need to ask, Cletus. I was there.”
“And another thing, it’s about to snow inside the car and you’re driving without the heat on. Your heat broken? Or do you just not notice that I’m freezing my balls off? Do you even feel cold?” His voice cracked at the end of his sentence, reminding me that he was just fifteen. Just a kid.
Once more, I gritted my teeth. “I feel the cold Cletus. But turning the heat on wastes gas.” Every single one of my paychecks went toward saving for college. Every single one. Momma gave me money for gas, groceries, and such out of her meager paycheck, and I wasn’t wasting her money just to make my delinquent-minded kid brother more comfortable on his ride home after picking a fight with Prince Fucking King.
“Then you should get a more fuel-efficient mode of transportation, so you don’t freeze me to death. Think how that would look. What would Momma say if you delivered me home safe and sound, with the rigor mortis?”
“Rigor mortis?” I didn’t smile, but I wanted to. Despite being a pain in my ass, Cletus cracked me up.
“That’s right. Rigor mortis. You know, the dead people.”
“Where’d you hear about rigor mortis?”
“I didn’t hear, I read. You know how I’m a fan of books? Well, they teach me all this nifty information about the world.”
That was true. Everywhere he positioned himself in the house was surrounded by books: his bed, Grandma Oliver’s chair, his spot at the dining table, the bathroom. He was like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown, but rather than dust it was books. Ashley was this way as well, but with fiction instead of history, biographies, encyclopedias, and manuals.
“You need a different car.” His tone was sullen and he glanced around the cab with distaste. “This rusted piece of junk doesn’t suit you.”
Now he was just being rude. “Yeah. Okay. You’re right. Let’s just go down to the dealership and buy a new car. Can I borrow some money, though?”
Cletus gave me a funny look. “No, you may not.”
“Well, in that case, we’re outta luck.” I made an aw-shucks sound and shrugged. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Cletus, but cars cost money.”
Even beneath his bloodied face, I could see his expression turn mean, which was why I wasn’t terribly surprised when he said, “Not all cars. You could ask Jethro to—”
“Get out of the truck, Cletus. Just, get out.” That’s it. I’d officially reached the end of my rope with him. He knew better than to bring up our oldest brother, nothing made me madder.
Darrell, our daddy, was a cross to bear, and his motorcycle club, the Iron Wraiths, were a thorn in my side. That’s all. I didn’t give two shits about either of them.
But Jet? He was the only person in the world I hated. I hated him so much, I couldn’t think, I could barely breathe with how it choked me, because Jet was Judas the Betrayer. He’d chosen thirty silver coins over us, over me and Momma and the rest of us, and for what? A leather jacket with a sewn-on patch? A brotherhood of degenerates? The approval of our father?
Jethro cared about exactly three people: himself, our daddy, and last I heard, his best friend growing up and everyone in town’s favorite person, the pretentiously perfect Ben McClure. And that’s it.
Well, good riddance.
I shoved open the driver’s side door and stepped out, my shoes crunching on the icy grass, the frigid air doing good things to cool my temper. It hadn’t snowed, but it was threatening. Early November wasn’t typically the season for snowfall. However, this year had been especially cold. I’d already had to fix the old furnace in the basement two times since September.
Cletus also exited the truck, grabbing his backpack from the back seat and struggling to fit it over his shoulder. From the look of things, he’d done something to his arm, and it hurt. My brother may only have been fifteen, but he was already big and bulky, but not quite six feet. I sent a prayer of thanks that he’d finally grown to look more like a man. When he was little, his blond curls and pretty eyes hadn’t been a good combination with his hair-trigger temper.
Giving up on his backpack, he let it hang at his side and came over to where I was, his expression still mean. I could tell he planned to finish his earlier thought and I readied myself.
“I don’t see why you won’t consider a loaner from Jet.”
I swear. Cletus just never knew when to quit.
Glaring at my little brother, I bit my tongue instead of throttling him. He had all the appearance of being in earnest, asking me to seriously consider taking one of Jet’s stolen cars and calling it my own.
“You know why,” I said, looking away from him, my tone gruffer than I’d intended.
Where had I failed Cletus? And when? How could he not see how wrong that was? How could he justify it enough to ask it?
“You know he doesn’t steal from—”
I spun on my little brother, for the first time since I’d separated him from Prince King after practice. I masked nothing of my thoughts, letting him see how bitterly disappointed I was, how angry, how infuriated.
“Now you listen to me. Don’t you ever, ever ask me that kind of question again, you got it? You already know stealing from folks ain’t right. We are not those people. Jet made his decision, and that’s on him. But you, me, Ashley, the twins, Roscoe, we’re better than that. There is no gray, there is only black and white. You don’t take something that belongs to someone else. There ain’t enough justification in the world for thievery. You want something, you work for it. You earn it. You got it?”
Cletus returned my glare, but I could tell his mind was working, looking for loopholes, ways to rationalize doing what he wanted. I had to turn away again before he could see my disgust.
This impulse to take what we wanted, because we wanted it, this was our daddy. Honestly? Seeing it in my siblings made me love them a little less, made my cares feel heavier. Pointless. And not for the first or even the millionth time, I cursed the blood in my veins. Everything Darrell Winston touched, he ruined, made ugly. And part of him made up part of me.
I cringed at the thought. God. I couldn’t wait to leave for college. Just one and a half more years. I could not wait.
Slamming the truck door, I marched away from Cletus, grumbling, “What is it going to take for you to choose right over wrong?”
“Right and wrong isn’t always black and white, Billy,” Cletus grumbled in return, but he did sound chastised, an edge of repentance in his tone. “But I see your point, and I accept it as valid. I won’t bring up Jet’s cars again.”
Finally, I wanted to say. Finally, I’d gotten through to him on something. I’d take the victory.
Cletus’s dog greeted us on the front step, wagging her tail at the sight of my brother. The animal stood from a collection of blankets under the broken chains of the wooden swing, stretched, and walked over to me first. Head bowed, she nudged my knee, giving me a look that seemed cautious.
I patted its head. “Why does your dog always look at me like it’s afraid?”
“It’s ’cause you’re the alpha and she wants your approval. Come here, girl. Come here.”
With one more wary glance, the dog moved past me and to Cletus, meeting him with exuberance markedly different from the reserved, half-hearted greeting I’d received.
“Alpha,” I snorted, shaking my head.
“Pack mentality is key to canine survival. You’re the alpha, so she doesn’t want to do anything to piss you off. It’s a sign of respect.”
“Looking at me with fear is a sign of respect?” I asked flatly, pulling my keys from my back pocket while I made a mental list of everyone’s whereabouts.
Ashley walked over to pick up Beau and Duane from their middle school every day—sometimes with Cletus, sometimes not—while I either went to football practice or work. Then she’d walk the twins to the library, where our momma was an assistant librarian. By now, they were all likely on their way home.
Roscoe was over at the Paytons’, which is where he went every day after school unless it was Momma’s day off, then Simone Payton and Roscoe rode their bikes here. I glanced over my shoulder as I fit the key into the lock, searching for my littlest brother’s bike. He always forgot to put it in the Quonset hut, so he typically left it on the front lawn until he used it again the next morning.
Spotting no bike, I made a mental note to call the Paytons, and I returned my attention to the door. I twisted the lock, but in the next moment the doorknob was yanked out of my hand by someone opening the door from the inside.
“Hey. There you are. What’re y’all having for dinner? I’m starving.”
Before I could react to the sight of my prodigal brother—or his question—he turned away and marched back inside, calling back at us,
“Where’s the beer? I can’t find any.”
What the . . . ?
I thought I was too tired to be angry.
Fury pounded between my temples and wrapped around my lungs like a vise, squeezing, suffocating.
“Wait, Billy—wait,” Cletus said, sounding faraway.
But I paid him no mind. I was already in the house, mindlessly marching into the kitchen, and grabbing my older brother’s arm. Whipping him around, I punched him in the stomach.
He bent over, holding his middle, wheezing, coughing, and laughing. “Well, hello to you too, Billy.”
The bastard sounded cheerful.
Grabbing him by the collar of his precious leather jacket, I pulled Jet away from the fridge and to the back door. It was unlocked, and of course it was. That’s how he must’ve gotten in. Or he picked the lock.
Opening the door and the screen to the back porch, I shoved him out of the house like the garbage he was. “Get out and stay out.”
He was still laughing, still holding his stomach. “Okay, okay. It’s gunna be that way, huh?” he asked, straightening, rubbing the spot where my fist had landed earlier. “Should I wait out here for dinner? You gunna bring it to me, then? Are we having a picnic?”
“All right.” Jet raised his hands, like he surrendered. “I see you’ve had a trying day. What happened? Someone molest your balls at practice?”
I started forward while Jet laughed at his own joke. He had the good sense to retreat, descending the porch stairs with swagger and ease like he had eyes in the back of his head. “Cool down, Billy. I’m just here for a while. I wanted to—”
He gave me a patient smile. “Will you listen?”
Listen? Listen? What could he possibly say that was worth listening to?
We were both off the porch now, standing in the frozen stretch of dead wildflowers and grass. The tall trees of the forest at the edge of our field reached to the sky behind him, brown and gray with spots of yellow and purple, the last of the fall leaves clinging to the branches. The sky above was more gray than blue even though the sun hadn’t quite set. The air looked cold.
Cletus had asked earlier if I could feel the cold anymore, I’d scoffed at the question then, but he wasn’t too far off the mark. I hadn’t been cold in the truck and I didn’t feel the cold now.
“I don’t care to listen to anything you have to say, and I want you gone before Momma gets home with the kids. Go.”
Jet’s easy expression wavered at the mention of Momma. “I think I’ll wait and see what she has to say about me joining y’all for dinner.”
“Why are you even here?” This question came from Cletus, standing somewhere behind me. From the sound of it, he was at the back door.
“You know Billy moved all your stuff to the garage. You’re lucky he didn’t burn it. If you want something, get it from there.”
Fury’s grip around my lungs eased at Cletus’s belligerent tone. He might question me in private, pushing my buttons and testing boundaries, but I could always count on him to have my back in public, especially with Jethro or our father.
Jet’s attention lifted over my head, settled on Cletus, softened. “Oh, hey there, Cletus. How you doing? How’s school? And what happened to your face?”
“Jet, it’s nice to see you’re still alive and all, but don’t pretend you’re interested in how school is going or how I’m doing.”
“Now, Cletus. That’s not—”
“Save us both from the indignity of pretense and get to the point.” I could almost picture Cletus’s single eyebrow lift over his mix of blue-green eyes. “What do you want? You look like shit.”
My vision cleared somewhat at Cletus’s words, no longer red about the corners, and I looked at my older brother. I didn’t like that I immediately noticed how skinny he was. Jethro coughed then, a wracking cough that shook his entire form. His cheeks were sunk, and the skin around his eyes looked paper thin. He was obviously sick.
I pushed my hand through my hair, warring with automatic worry for my stupid brother. Seeing him like this made my chest hurt. Now I was frustrated with myself for still caring about him at all.
This was why I hated Jet. My brother had this effect on me, made me doubt what I knew to be true. Fact, Jet left us. Fact, he didn’t care about us. Fact, he only came back when he wanted something. Fact, I couldn’t trust him. I shouldn’t care that he looked about ready to keel over.
And yet . . .
It hadn’t always been this way. He hadn’t always been untrustworthy. We’d been close.
And then he left, like you were nothing.
Finally finished coughing, the side of his mouth curved up. His lips were bluish purple.
“Would you believe me if I said I didn’t want anything?”
“Nope,” came Cletus’s reply followed by the sound of his shoes on the wooden boards of the porch. “You look like death, and death always wants something. Try again.”
Our brother grinned weakly. “’Death always wants something.’ Ain’t that the truth. I have missed you, Cletus.” Jet’s gaze slid back to mine and he stuffed his hands in his pockets, seeming to study my face. Then he sighed. I could hear his chest rattle with the exhale. “Listen, I’m honestly not here to cause trouble—”
“Then leave,” I said, even as I fought the urge to bring him inside and out of the cold.
There’d been a time, when I was just seven, that he’d made me chicken soup and read to me when I was sick. The soup had been microwaved out of a can and the book he read had been a manual on motorcycle maintenance, but still. He’d been there.
And that was the problem. He’d always been there. I’d relied on him. I had thousands of stories and memories of times Jet had been my confidant, my co-conspirator, my best friend.
Until he wasn’t.
“I just wanted to see y’all.” He shrugged, his shoulders slumping. “I thought maybe you’d like to see me?”
“No. Leave.” I had to be strong, because as much as part of me wanted to believe him, I knew he couldn’t be trusted. Every inch of giving with Jet ended up being a hundred miles of taking.
A hint of irritation turned his friendly expression brittle. “Really, Billy? You get to decide when I see my family?”
I took a step forward, but a hand settled on my shoulder, keeping me in place.
“How about this.” Cletus stepped in front of me, using a deep voice that sounded forty years older than his age. “You go on, do what you do, and I promise to tell Momma you stopped by. You want to see her? You know she’s at the library every day starting at ten. You go see her there. Take her out to lunch. She’d love it.”
“And Ash? The twins? What about Roscoe?”
Cletus shook his head. “That’s up to Momma to decide. You don’t get to decide for her by showing up here out of the blue after being gone for months. That’s exactly what Darrell used to do and I’m with Billy on this one. It ain’t right.”
Jet frowned, his glassy gaze turning thoughtful, and eventually he nodded. “All right. Fair enough. But you promise to tell her I was here.” He pointed at Cletus.
“I will. You have my word.”
“Fine.” Jet glanced around the ground, like he was looking for something. “I’ll be going, then. Oh, just one more thing.” Lifting his eyes, a smirk on his face, he addressed his next statement to me. “Saw your game last week, Billy. You weren’t half bad. And that brunette cheerleader I saw you with? She your girlfriend?”
I said nothing, gave him nothing, because I could sense what he wanted was a reaction. I’d pissed him off, not letting him in the house, and now he was lashing out in return.
“A year ahead of you, right? Already eighteen, legal. She’s a senior?”
Cletus sucked in a breath between his teeth. “Jet, come on now. Time to go.”
“I might look her up,” he continued, still smirking as he took two steps backward, obviously reading the hostility in my glare. “She’s got pretty eyes. Are they green? Or Blue?”
Predictably, my temper was threadbare. Yeah, Samantha was my girlfriend now. And yes, she was older than me, already eighteen. But this act of Jethro’s was bullshit. Jethro knew Sam already because she dated Ben McClure all last year.
It wasn’t Jethro’s trash-talking that had my temper flaring so fast, not really. It wasn’t even about Samantha. Samantha could have been any girl. It was that he would never—never ever, not once in a million years—talk about a girl this way if she was with Ben. He’d be respectful, because what Ben thought mattered to him.
But me? His own brother? There weren’t any insults off-limits. Another reminder that Jet cared for himself, and for Ben, and for some other random folks maybe, just not his family. And that arrow hit its mark. That was my sore spot.
My older brother whistled. “She sure is one sweet piece of ass.”
“You don’t talk to her.” My voice was sandpaper, promising violence, and I knew as soon as I spoke that speaking at all was a mistake.
Jethro’s mouth hitched on one side, and in the moment, I became obsessed with smashing his face until his mouth became indistinguishable from his bruises.
“Oh yeah? What will you do if I talk to her? It’s a free country.”
I took a step back as the image of demolishing my brother’s face crystalized in my mind. Sometimes the viciousness of my thoughts scared me, and I knew fear was one of the main things stopping me from becoming what he was, what my father was. Fear and disgust.
“Nothing? You won’t do nothing?” he taunted, his smile spreading. “What about if I fuck— ”
“Jethro!” Cletus stepped fully in front of me, hollering at the top of his lungs. “Would you just leave already.”
But it was too late. I’d already moved around my little brother, not caring, not afraid, past disgust, just intent on one thing. And if that made me like my father, then so be it.
“…I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”
― John Green, Looking for Alaska
I knew better.
I knew better than to get pissed at Jethro. There was no point with him, he was never going to change. I knew better than to chase him into the woods behind our house, and I cursed my blindness, both the losing of my temper and my lack of direction when surrounded by trees.
Jethro knew this about me. He used to joke I was a city boy born in the country. Now I wasn’t only pissed, I was also lost.
These miserable woods.
I hated them. I hated that everything looked the same. I hated every piece of bark, every branch, every leaf. Some people considered this part of the world beautiful, but I didn’t. I hated the Smokies, the blue and white mist that clouded everything, covered everything. Suffocated everything.
And now I was stuck in them.
I punched a bush. That did not end well for me. In fact, it ended with me face-first in the bush and wrestling with leaves and thin branches on the ground as I struggled to stand. But eventually I did stand, telling myself to hit a tree trunk instead.
The last time I’d been stuck in the woods I’d been just a kid, chasing an unsteady baby Roscoe past the tree line while Ashley tried to talk the twins into a bath. Our momma had been indisposed after a visit from our father.
For those of you who don’t know, indisposed was just a polite southern word for having bruises that needed tending to.
That particular time, Cletus had been the reason for our father’s rage, and he’d been locked in the basement for his own safety under the guise of punishment. Jethro had held me back, stopping me from doing anything by threatening to put me in the basement with Cletus. My older brother intervened—in his own way—before Darrell did too much damage to our mother, distracting and charming our father enough to get him to stop. He then convinced Darrell to go to the club with him, which left Ashley and I to watch everybody as a dark cloud of despair and futility settled over everything.
Just a typical Saturday at the Winston house.
I’d followed Roscoe into the woods, and then he’d led us both out because I’d been useless. All these years later, I could’ve used a toddler Roscoe to help me out of this godforsaken wilderness.
Catching my breath from the brawl with the bush, I glanced to my left, pretty sure I’d come from that direction. I searched the ground for footprints. All I saw were leaves and sticks and dirt.
This day. This shitshow of a day. I still had homework and chores to do. And Roscoe was probably wondering where I was. I needed to get out of here. I didn’t have time for—
I tensed, holding stock still, and listened.
A sound rose above the disorienting noise of the forest. It was a person, singing, loud and clear. A woman, and her voice was beautiful.
“Is that . . .” Guns N’ Roses?
It was Guns N’ Roses. This angelic female voice was singing “November Rain.” I took an automatic step toward the sound.
Laughing a smidge at the unexpected absurdity—that there was some woman out there who’d chosen to unleash her angelic voice on these hellish woods by singing Guns N’ Roses like they were choir songs—my feet were already moving toward the sound. A moment later, my brain caught up and told me she, whoever she was, should be able to help me find my way out of here.
Also, I found myself sneaking, which made no sense. “Don’t scare the woman by sneaking up on her. Make some noise, announce yourself,” I whispered. To myself.
I continued to sneak.
The song was much closer now, and if I strained my ears, I could hear the faint sounds of her moving around. I also smelled and heard a fire.
The ground raised upward, and I followed the incline, breaching the crest just as she finished the last lines of her song. I halted, squinting through the branches of the trees and shrubs, and spotted a blue tent as well as what looked like a clothesline strung between two trunks.
But I didn’t see her . . .
And then she started to sing again, another Guns N’ Roses tune. This time “The Garden.” A breath pushed out of my lungs at her song choice, and how she made it sound like a sacred ballad.
I was just about to take another step forward when I heard the zipper of a tent. Rocking back on my heels, I reasoned against the impulse to shrink back and just listen to her sing for a bit. And that was crazy. Also crazy, I was still lost in the woods and should’ve been spitting mad at my brother. But I wasn’t.
Holding my breath as the tent rustled, the beautiful voice clearer now, I caught a flash of hair, red as a firecracker. At the sight, the forest floor beneath my feet seemed to sway and then fall away. I reached out and held onto the tree trunk at my left, because I knew who this woman—girl—was. I’d know that hair anywhere.
Momentarily paralyzed, I watched Scarlet’s pale, freckled hands reach out and tug on the stiff clothes hung over the makeshift clothesline. My eyes dropped to her back. She was wrapped in a blanket and it looked familiar, like one my Grandma Oliver used to stitch by the fire in her old chair, the pieces cut from worn-out clothes.
I worked to hear past the rushing of blood between my ears, the jumbled disorder made it difficult to concentrate on just one thought.
I had no idea she could sing like that.
What the hell is she doing? Tent camping? It’s winter, for Christ’s sake. She’s liable to catch pneumonia and die.
That’s an unusually high and flat stretch of land she has her campsite on, it certainly would make an ideal plot to build a cabin.
Shaking my head at this last notion, my neck craned as I reflexively tracked her movements. She pulled a rigid pair of jeans from the clothesline, still singing with a voice like a siren, and then seemed to test the dryness of a big Texas A&M sweatshirt. It was the sight of the A&M logo that brought me to my senses.
For the record, I wasn’t an A&M fan, but that didn’t mean I’d turn down any scholarship from any school that got me where I wanted to go. Point being, I’d go to Texas A&M, I’d prefer Princeton, but I’d go to Texas A&M if need be. Whatever it takes.
Back to now, and Scarlet, and her remarkable voice, but mostly it being winter. I should be irritated about finding her squatting on land so close to our house. We didn’t need her kind of trouble. Every single one of my decisions and actions since before I could remember was about avoiding the kind of trouble she and her kind brought.
But I wanted to listen longer. It was a silly desire that made no sense. She’d intruded. She wasn’t welcome, angelic voice or not.
Remembering myself, I straightened my spine. Marching straight forward and onto her campsite.
“Scarlet, what do you think you’re—”
I didn’t get a chance to finish my poorly assembled protest because, without even turning, Scarlet dropped the jeans, let the blanket fall from her shoulders, and bolted.
It took me a split second to realize what she’d done and another after that to force my feet to follow.
This day. This fucking day.
What else could I do? I chased after her because . . .
Well, because . . .
Because she shouldn’t be here! Yeah. That’s why.
A streak of red hair between trees was blessedly easy to track, much easier than Jethro’s long legs. That bastard has always been quick as lightening. Scarlet was short, her legs not nearly as long as Jet’s, but she was surprisingly fast. Not faster than me, but still. It was a good thing I never missed a football practice. The sprints were paying off.
Damn, she’d make a great receiver, though. She’s got good moves.
Eventually, after longer than I’d like to admit, I caught up to her, and brought her to a sudden stop with a hand around her arm. She nearly yanked her shoulder out of its socket trying to pull away, so I grabbed her other arm and tugged her close.
“Hey, would you calm down. I’m not going to—”
Without looking up, she kneed me right in the balls, and out of all the things that I’d witnessed about her over the last several minutes, that was the only thing I should’ve seen coming.
“Jesus H. Christ.” I let her go, wincing, winded, the air leaving my body along with a piece of my soul.
Fucking hell, that hurt.
“Leave me alone! I—I . . . Billy?”
I just wanted to die.
“What the—Billy Winston. What are you doing out here?” She hesitated where she stood. But then she knelt on the ground next to me, her hands hovering over my body but not touching.
“Just—just put me out of my misery,” I spoke to no one, hoping somehow that bush I’d punched earlier would lend me a thin branch so I could strangle myself.
“Come on now, it can’t be that bad.” She placed her hands on her hips, reprimanding me, but also sounding winded.
I glared at her. Surely, death would be preferable to the intensity of pain I was experiencing. It was . . . indescribable. Unfathomable.
She glared back, her eyebrows lifting a notch as she fitted her lips between her teeth. It became clear a second later she was trying not to laugh as I writhed on the ground. After several minutes, Scarlet reached out her hand.
I moved my glare to it, suddenly reminded of that day last week when I’d accidentally knocked her down coming out of the men’s room. I’d offered her my hand then and she’d acted like it was poison. I suspected it was because she didn’t want anyone to see us together. The Wraith kids didn’t fare well if they were seen interacting with outsiders. I wasn’t exactly an outsider, but still. I understood.
Then, not five minutes later, she came walking out of the back hall and into the cafeteria, being pulled around by Ben McClure. Predictably, that had caused quite a stir. It was all the gossips at school had talked about for the last week, and though I was tired of hearing about it, I was also irritated no one seemed to be talking about the real issue.
What Ben McClure had done—pulling her through the cafeteria for everyone to see—had been monumentally stupid and reckless. That kind of thing would get back to her father, and he wouldn’t like it. I didn’t know Razor except for glimpses I’d caught of him at Wraith picnics and such when I was a kid, but I remember being convinced he was the boogeyman. He was the most terrifying bastard I’d ever laid eyes on.
And yet, this was typical Big Ben McClure. Taking what he wanted, whenever he wanted, and not thinking about the ramifications to anyone but himself. He’d always been dense and selfish.
Eventually, I rolled away, deciding to stand on my own. Besides, Scarlet was significantly smaller than me. Her offering a hand to help me up was like when toddler Roscoe offered to help me paint the library.
I made it to my hands and knees, then my knees, then one foot, contemplating death the entire way to standing.
Scarlet stood too, wrapping her arms around herself and eyeing me with a wary expression that reminded me of Cletus’s dog. “I thought you hated the woods.” Her voice was soft, and for the first time since knowing her, I heard the musical quality of it. She really had a remarkable voice.
“I do hate the woods.” I glanced over my shoulder, again uncertain from which direction we’d come. Frustrating.
“Then why are you in the woods?”
Sliding my eyes back to her, I took a moment to inspect Scarlet St. Claire. The first thing I noticed—likely because I was a teenage boy—was that this Scarlet didn’t look much like herself anymore. But then, when was the last time I’d actually taken the time or had the inclination to look at her?
Scarlet and I had, on more than one occasion, played together as kids. Though play might not be the right word for it. Bicker is more accurate.
Presently, all of that seemed like a long time ago, because Scarlet definitely didn’t look like the Scarlet I remembered. Yeah, she still had her freckles and red hair, her light blue eyes, and her big old bossy mouth. But she was—what? Fourteen now? And she was one of those girls whose body looked older than her age.
Waiting for me to answer, she held herself tighter and shivered under my inspection. And that’s when I realized she was in a tank top and leggings—great for showing off her body, horrible for protecting against an uncommonly cold winter.
Ignoring her question, I asked, “What are you doing out here?” Cursing under my breath, I pulled off my coat and shoved it at her. “Take this.”
The redhead twisted away, dismissing my offer of warmth. “It’s none of your business what I’m doing, Billy Winston.” She still sounded winded, and with one last glare, she walked past me.
Scowling, I followed, knowing I’d have to eventually ask her help to get out of here. For the time being I would have to follow, and following wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed doing.
“Fine.” I trailed after her, not sure what to do with my jacket. I didn’t want to put it back on, not when she was obviously freezing. It didn’t seem right.
Abruptly, she stopped and spun on me, her eyes crinkled and shooting fire. “You don’t own these lands and I’m allowed to camp wherever I please.”
She was wrong. Our property did extend back this far, or I was pretty sure it did. But I was tired of fighting—with Cletus, with Jet—and I needed to get home.
So rather than tell her she was wrong, I said, “Whatever.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not angry I’ve set up camp here?”
I didn’t want to lie and say everything was hunky dory, but I needed her help. Her daddy, Razor Dennings, was the president of my father’s MC club. Her momma was Razor’s old lady, Christine St. Claire. That made Scarlet Razor’s only semi-legitimate offspring. Razor had other kids, but none that he’d officially claimed.
The point was, her parents being who they were made her a dangerous person to know or associate with. I knew she and Cletus were friendly, and I’d warned him against the association more than once, but then he was always picking up strays.
I deflected with a question of my own. “Who’d you think I was? When I came into your camp?”
Scarlet lifted her chin. “I thought you were your daddy.”
I felt my eyes narrow, my mouth curve downward. “You thought I was Darrell?”
She gave me a cagey look. “Y’all have many similarities.”
“You mean I look just like him.” I hated the rising emotion clogging my throat as I thought and said these words. I beat it back.
“That, and how you’re both—” Scarlet frowned, stopping midthought. She turned abruptly and began walking again.
I fell in step beside her. “And how we’re both what?”
“Uh, nothing.” Scarlet lifted her chin, clearly fighting a shiver, and seemed to inspect me out of the corner of her eye.
I set my jacket on her shoulders, unable to stand her shivering any longer. “No. Not nothing. You were saying, and how you’re both what?”
Usually, I wouldn’t take the bait. Usually. But something about her voice, the quickness of her frown just now, and mostly that she’d known me her whole life and yet wouldn’t take my hand when offered last week had me pushing to know her thoughts.
Scarlet stopped, huffing, pushing my jacket off. I reached forward before she could and tugged the edges firmly together, buttoning the top button, then the one lower down. “Just take the damn jacket. Watching you shiver and turn blue is making me cold.”
That was true. I wasn’t cold in the car with Cletus, or standing outside with Jet, but something about her shivering made my bones ache.
Watching me warily, like I couldn’t be trusted and my honest concern was some sort of trick, she slowly fit her hands through the arms of my coat. “Well now. I wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortable,” she said firmly.
I lowered my eyelids by half at her statement, like she was the one doing me a favor by taking my jacket. Whatever.
“Just finish your sentence. What else do Darrell and I have in common?”
Taking a deep breath, she seemed to lean away, shift her weight backward as we stared at each other. “Just forget it.”
“No. Tell me.” My voice came out gentle, a hint of pleading there. But that was no matter. Perverse or not, I truly wanted to know how I was like my father. So I can fix it, change it, be better.
Scarlet’s lashes flickered and the hard, stubborn set of her jaw relaxed, just a little. “I was going to say, that you look like him, yeah. But also, you’re both real good at making folks feel their, uh, position.”
“Feel their position?” I searched her eyes and then her face, like I might find the meaning to her words written there.
“You know, their standing. Their pecking order. Whatever you want to call it.” She tucked the bottom half of her face inside my jacket, warming her nose while she watched me watch her.
Feel their position.
Their pecking order.
Mystified, I squinted at her. “Are you calling me a snob?”
Her red eyebrows lifted, and she shrugged. Turning on her heel, she walked away. I stared at the spot where she’d been standing, and then I turned my head and stared at her back, wearing my jacket. Shaking myself, I jogged after her until we were mostly side by side again.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her shrug again, like she didn’t care whether or not I believed her. I grit my teeth.
“Darrell is a snob? Really?”
She nodded. “Yep. A big snob, actually. You’ve seen him at the club when we were kids, correcting folks’ English, speaking over their heads, making jokes at their expense and they have no idea. Your daddy is smart—real smart—better at most everything than anyone else in the club, and he doesn’t let anyone forget it. You know how often he brings up that he married your momma? That he’s better than everyone, more cultured? All the time. Everyone else is dirt and he’s a king.”
My tongue tasted bitter, because her words rang true. Darrell was like that with us before Momma separated from him. Superior is what Duane called it. And one of the main reasons Darrell disliked Cletus so much was because Cletus knew more than him and would correct him.
Nothing aggravated Darrell more than a person who was stronger, smarter, better-looking, more charismatic, more respected. More feared.
But I wasn’t like that.
Shoving my hands in my jeans pockets, I conceded, “Yeah, that’s Darrell. But that’s not me.”
I glanced at Scarlet just in time to see a small smile claim her face before she hid it. She said nothing, but the smile was enough to communicate her thoughts loud and clear.
“I’m not like that.”
Frowning, because whatever was what I said to Cletus when he ranted, or Duane when he was moody, or Beau when he had a crazy idea. No one said whatever to me.
“I’m not, Scarlet.” Breathing out my frustration, I stopped her again with a light hand at her elbow. “Maybe you just don’t know me.”
“Sure. Maybe.” Another quick smile as she peered up at me, there and hidden. Her gaze grew less wary and more candid. “But why would I know you? You’re Billy Winston. You’re a straight-A student, star quarterback of the football team, grandson of the illustrious John Oliver, destined for greatness, the envy of all who know you. You’re a king. And everyone else . . .?” She shrugged again, and this time when she smiled, she let me see it. “Sound familiar?”
“I don’t brag.” I frowned severely, her words making me defensive, uncomfortable. She doesn’t even know me.
. . . But why would she?
“You don’t need to brag.” Her smile widened and she looked at me like I was funny. Again, she turned, leading the way back to the camp and not waiting for me to follow. “That’s the difference between you and Darrell. He brags ’cause he ain’t so certain. His superiority is questionable, even to him.”
I walked behind her as she chattered on, each of her words reaching me just fine.
“But you? You’re certain. You don’t even think about it. It’s just who you are. So, no. You don’t brag. Because, why would you?”
I didn’t know which part of her claims to dispute first, it was all such nonsense. I was certain? Certain of what? Certain I was making a mess of everything? Certain I never had enough time to get everything that needed being done finished? Certain I lacked the knowledge and skill required to keep our house from falling apart?
I wasn’t certain. I was . . . drowning. And I almost said so. In fact, it was on the tip of my tongue as I followed her wordlessly through the woods.
I’m drowning. Everything is falling apart. Help me.
Instead, I pressed my lips together and rubbed my forehead, because asking Scarlet for help would truly be nonsense. We didn’t know each other, not anymore. And how exactly could she help? She was homeless for all intents and purposes.
And why was that? Why was she out here instead of at home? And how did she get Grandma’s blanket? And why was I talking to her or giving her opinion any weight? And why, until moments ago, was she someone I never wanted to know?
This last question was easy, and it had nothing to do with me being superior like Darrell and everything to do with keeping my family safe.
And yet, she couldn’t help who her parents were any more than I could.
. . . Do you want to know her now?
Glowering at the ground, I shook my head. Nothing had changed. I didn’t want to know her and that didn’t make me a snob. I wasn’t a snob. I was confused, that’s all. Tired and confused. I’d say I needed to go on a run, clear my head, except I’d already run three miles today during practice.
No. I didn’t want to know her. But I still needed to get out of these woods, which meant I would have to ask her for help. And once I was out, I’d talk to Momma about Scarlet’s camp, see if she could . . . I don’t know. Relocate her? Maybe get her in a shelter or something? There had to be something we could do to help. It was too cold for anyone to be sleeping in a tent.
“Here we are.”
I looked up, expecting to see Scarlet’s campsite, but was instead greeted by the end of the tree line, dead wildflowers, grass, and my family’s home in the distance.
“We’re at our field,” I said and thought.
“That’s right. I figured you didn’t want to camp with me, so I walked you home.”
I turned to her, searching her upturned face for . . . something. But there wasn’t anything. No problems for me to solve, no expectations for me to live up to (or down to). Nothing. Just Scarlet and her light blue eyes, freckles, and big old bossy mouth.
She met my stare directly, her features impassive. After a long moment, she stuck out her hand, giving me a small smile. It was genuine enough, but it wasn’t exactly friendly.
Inhaling, coming to myself, I looked from her hand to her face, taking the offered fingers. As my palm slid against hers, I stiffened at the little shock of electricity that passed from her to me, or from me to her, impossible to tell the direction. It was cold and dry. Little static shocks weren’t common, but they weren’t unusual either.
“Goodbye, Billy,” she said, holding my stare as our hands were held suspended between us, not moving. “Have a nice life.”
My eyes narrowed at the finality of her words and I felt the side of my mouth kick up a smidge. “I’ll see you at school, Scarlet.”
Her smile widened, like I amused her, but it still lacked any trace of friendliness. “No you won’t.” She withdrew her hand.
With that, she turned and walked back into the woods.
For some reason, I watched her go. I tracked her red hair until she was indistinguishable from the trees and bushes and grays and browns. Only then, when she’d disappeared, did I turn from the forest and make my way across the barren field for home. Tired, spent, her words still irritated me. But at the same time, I also felt strangely peaceful. Actually calm instead of just faking it.
She really does have an amazing singing voice. I wonder if she’s had lessons.
I doubted it. My sister had a pretty voice, but Scarlet’s was something else. Something more. It was angelic for sure, but in a wild sort of way. Robust was the word that came to mind. Someone should give her lessons.
I knew how to play the guitar. I’d taught myself in eighth grade so our momma wouldn’t make me dance. I played the guitar and sang while she forced Cletus and Beau and Duane to stand up with both her and Ashley. Roscoe got out of it only because he was still short. But when he grew up, I reckoned our momma would make him dance with her as well.
Oddly, I had the sudden urge to pick up my guitar tonight. I still had homework to do, chores, needed to check on Roscoe, make sure Cletus’s face was cleaned up, see if Ashley survived her time with the twins. But I’d find the time. Maybe I’ll ask Ash to sing with me.
Yeah. I’d ask Ash. We’d sing, I’d play, and Momma and Duane would dance. He acted like he hated it, but I suspected he actually loved dancing. Out of all of us, he was the best.
Things settled, I gathered one more bracing breath of the winter twilight and jogged the last few feet to the house. It wasn’t until I was climbing the back-porch steps that I realized Scarlet still had my jacket.
★★★★★ “(An) agonizing, beautiful, breath-stealing love story, that deals out tears and laughter in equal measure.” -Emerald Book Reviews
★★★★★ “Equally hilarious and heartbreaking.” -Goodreads Reviewer
★★★★★ “This book is EVERYTHING. It’s the origin of the Winston Family, and readers of the series will love getting their grubby little hands on every single detail.“ -Goodreads Reviewer
★★★★★ “Such a phenomenal story. This is why I love reading!“ -Goodreads Reviewer
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