Excerpt from Vanishing Act

The dedication gives you a clue into the storyline: For all those who grew up a little bit broken, and to the people who helped piece them back together.

But here are the FIRST FIVE CHAPTERS of Vanishing Act, Book 2 in the Lingering Echoes series.

Chapter 1

Kate

I knew he wouldn’t show up, but I waited anyway.

The waiter paused by my table—again. “Can I get you another soda?” He eyed my empty glass. I stopped tapping my fingernails against it and folded my hands in my lap. Rubbing my lips together, I deliberated.

How much more time did he deserve?

Regardless, my bladder didn’t need another refill. I shook my head.

“Or…more bread?”

I ate the entire mini-loaf of sourdough, including the square of butter. In reality, my appetite was lacking, but I’d needed something to do. Keeping myself busy stopped me from picking up my phone and checking the time again. Or searching for text messages or a missed call.

I lifted my chin to meet the young waiter’s eyes. Even in the muted lighting of the sports bar, I caught the deep blue of his irises relentlessly matching my gaze. At least this time, he didn’t raise an eyebrow at the empty seat across from me. Still, his frequent stops embarrassed me. I knew it was his way of hinting that I give up on my pathetic “no show” and open up his table for a more lucrative customer. He appeared to be early college-aged, so I felt even worse wasting his wages on a meal that was obviously not about to happen. Maybe he was working his way through school, and I was sabotaging his efforts tonight by selfishly not accepting the situation for what it was.

He wasn’t coming.

I cleared my throat. “No, no thanks. Um…” I cast one last, desperate glance over my shoulder towards the entryway. Eager, hungry customers sat on the benches stationed in front of the hostess, and even more people lined the walls and continued to flow out the restaurant doors. Letting out a breath of air, I scraped at my fingernails.

“Do you need anything?” the waiter asked again, his voice lowered. This time, he didn’t seem to be inquiring about food. He felt sorry for me. And why shouldn’t he? I knew exactly what I looked like—sitting solo at a table, waiting for a man who would never show up—even if the truth was more complicated and deceiving than it appeared.

Flicking my eyes to the waiter’s face, I was a little taken aback by his attentiveness and what had to be pity. Still, the thought crossed my mind that if being a waiter fell through, he could easily take up a career in modeling. The guy was too good looking to be boxed inside this dim lighting, with his eyebrows accentuating the balance of his features. Of course, he probably knew it, too. I could feel the confidence in his body language—the way he held his long torso tall, emphasizing his height, and he didn’t shy away from how close he stood to me. He crouched down to eye level, resting one arm on the table.

“So what can I do for you?” he asked, awakening me from examining his face.

I forced a closed smile. “Could I just have a few more minutes?”

The waiter smiled politely at me as he stood. He tucked his notepad into the pocket of his apron, and his demeanor returned to a professional manner. “Absolutely. Take your time.” He walked away with a good-natured cadence in his step. The guy was good at feigning patience, at least.

I glanced at my phone, which rested on the edge of the table. Nothing. I wasn’t sure why I believed anything would change. Why would tonight be different from any other broken promise?

After a couple of minutes, I caught the waiter glancing at me from down the aisle. Okay, okay. I’m leaving… I raised my hand and gestured for the check. The blond returned, but his hands were empty.

“Sorry,” I said. “I thought you saw me signal for the check. I’m ready to go if you can bring the bill.”

“No worries, it’s on me,” he said, and then he winked at me.

I frowned. That was nice of him, but I didn’t need the sympathy. It was my own fault for putting myself in this position again. “No, really, I can pay for myself. That’s the least I can do for wasting your time tonight.”

“You know we’re talking about less than five bucks, right? All you ordered was a soda.” The waiter looked around for a moment and then leaned in, placing his hands on the edge of the table. His voice lowered. “Just to clarify, it’s not my wasted time that I’m worried about. I’m sorry your friend never showed.”

“He’s not a friend; he’s—well, never mind.” It wasn’t worth getting into, especially with a stranger who I would never see again. I handed the waiter a twenty. “Please keep the change.”

He studied me for a moment. “You know what? Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” He didn’t take my money and left me watching his retreating back in puzzlement. He disappeared behind the employee doors. My mouth slipped open in confusion. Continuing to sit there by myself, I wasn’t sure I could feel any more stupid. I looked over my shoulder one last time, about to leave for good. Just then, someone joined me at my table, sitting across from me. I whipped around to face him, and my mouth slipped open.

It was my waiter.

However, he had exchanged his white, buttoned-down uniform for a fitted, red T-shirt with charcoal-colored graphics on the front. He stuck out his right hand with a smile.

“Hi, I’m Aaron.”

“Um, yeah, I remember…” He’d been my waiter for the past hour after all. With uncertainty, I shook his hand before pulling away. I looked around me, waiting for a gag act from the other waiters. They must be up to something.

Aaron rested his forearms on the table, clasping his hands together. “So here’s the deal. I’m from Danville, about an hour-and-a-half south of here, and I’m a sophomore at UC Davis. Hands down, my favorite food is a cheeseburger. As for hobbies, it’d be a tough choice between basketball and wakeboarding, though if I had to pick, basketball would likely win. Your turn.”

I tilted my head to the side, both curious and wary about this guy sitting in front of me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m your date for the night,” he said, as if this interaction between us was perfectly normal. “And you’ve been waiting long enough that I figured we would have gone through all the basic pleasantries by now. Let’s get this up to speed. Biggest fear. Go.”

I laughed, stunned yet amused. “I just met you. I’m not going to tell you that.”

“Fine. Hypothetical situation. Let’s say you’re at a restaurant, waiting around for someone who never shows.” He paused to emphasize. “Completely hypothetical.” Then he gave a boyish grin that melted me just a little. “What would you be hungry for?” He slipped the menu across the table with the tips of his fingers.

“Oh, um…” A nervous hand crept just below my lips, my knuckles hiding a portion of my mouth. “Look, I know you feel sorry for me, but you don’t need to do this.” I knew how pathetic I appeared, but a sympathy date wasn’t making me feel better.

Aaron’s expression changed from humored to more serious. “The only person I feel sorry for is the poor guy missing out on sitting across from you.” When I didn’t say anything, he said, “Look, I was about to get off work anyway, so I asked a friend to cover my last couple of tables. I’m free… you’re free… Why not make the best of it?” His fingers tapped the menu again, but he softened his voice. “Come on. What’ll it be?”

What I could really use was something cold to chill the warmth spreading across my face, attributed to both flattery and embarrassment. I was not entirely sure how I felt about indulging in an impromptu date with my waiter. Still, his good looks and very forward antics were a nice distraction from the disappointment I’d felt this past hour.

I conceded, opening to the back of the menu. “Would you judge me if I skipped the dinner portion and opted for a milkshake instead?” My eyes fell to the chocolate-caramel milkshake tempting me from the bottom of the page. Besides, I’d heard this was a good tactic to escaping an awkward situation such as this. Dessert would be a lot faster to consume than a meal if I found myself in need of escape, and given the circumstances, the evening could become weird very fast.

Aaron smiled. “Not at all. I think I’ll join you, although I’ll have to go for strawberry myself.” He turned his head over his shoulder and gestured to a waiter, who just so happened to be keeping a close eye on us from the end of the aisle. The waiter hurried over and accepted our orders in a formal manner, though I caught the humored exchange that took place between him and Aaron. A wave of nervousness fell on me again, wondering if I was about to be pranked by them. But as soon as Aaron faced me, something about his pleasant demeanor calmed me once again.

“All right, you know at least four things about me now,” he said, and I thought back to the speed-dating statements he’d made earlier. He was from Danville, which was a small city by California’s standards. I’d never been there, though it wasn’t too far from my own home. He’d also mentioned liking cheeseburgers (which wasn’t very original but I couldn’t argue with his choice in fast food), basketball, and wakeboarding. Oh, and I’d been right about him being a college student.

“So…” Aaron prompted, motioning with his hand for me to speak.

I sighed, but agreed to play along with his game. “Four things: My name is Kate, and I just moved here from Clearlake—”

“Kate, as in… Kathryn? Kaitlyn?” he guessed.

I shook my head. “Just Kate.” If only everything in my life were as simple as my name. Moving down my list, I continued with, “I don’t play sports, like at all.” I paused, noticing the raised eyebrow judging me from across the table. “What? I don’t!” I laughed under his baffled scrutiny, not entirely convinced he wasn’t about to end this date, or whatever this was, based on that comment alone. I decided it best to move on. “And, following suit to your unoriginal choice in fast food, I am a girl who likes her chocolate.”

Aaron assessed me quietly, his expression suggesting that he was still in disbelief over my lack of love for sports. He pointed a finger at me. “Well, at least we both enjoy junk food.” With perfect timing, our waiter dropped off our shakes. I tried to sip the shake through the straw, but it was so thick that I had to use the spoon instead. Ice cream never tasted as good as it did in that moment, cooling my flushed face from this unexpected attention, and pacifying the sudden acknowledgement of hunger in my stomach. In our silent enjoyment, I caught Aaron looking behind me at the restaurant doors.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing.” He slipped a bite of milkshake into his mouth. I tried not to fixate on the way his lips slid over the spoon. “I’m just wondering if I should prepare myself for a punch to the face or anything like that from, you know, a boyfriend or anyone significant like that?”

He was curious about who I was supposed to meet tonight. I knew at this point that no one was coming, but I had to glance over my shoulder anyway before looking down at my melting milkshake. “No, you don’t have to worry about a boyfriend.” In other words, no, I wasn’t tethered to anyone in particular.

Just irresponsibility, I thought. I met his eyes, liking the way his expression subtly brightened at my words. His interest in me was a positive spin on the evening. Maybe Davis wouldn’t be such a bad move after all.

“So,” I started, deciding to throw out a question of my own. “Do you commandeer lonely tables often?” I tried not to be too flattered by his actions, sensing that this charming confidence in Aaron likely amounted to making a number of girls like me blush with pleasure.

He chuckled. “No, actually, I do not make it a habit to pick up girls at work. In fact, there’s a slight chance I could get suspended or at least highly reprimanded for doing so. They fired a guy last week who had a reputation for spending more time taking phone numbers than filling orders.”

My mouth slipped open and I looked around, wondering if his boss was watching us right now. “I’m sorry; I would never want you to—”

“Don’t worry about it. Like I said, chances are slim. My boss happens to like me better than the other guy.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Your boss is female, isn’t she?”

“Well…” Aaron bobbed his head from side to side. “That is also a possibility.”

I scoffed at him, but I enjoyed the sound of his teasing laughter. Then I dropped my lips over my straw. My attempt was successful this time and I was able to ditch the spoon for the remainder of my dessert, which wasn’t long. In between sucking down the milkshake, I told Aaron about how I had only graduated high school a few months ago, and that I was here in Davis attending the local community college. He didn’t seem deterred by my reference to barely leaving high school behind, although I eagerly moved on from the subject. I admitted that two activities I enjoyed for fun were bowling and miniature golf, which led into a discussion of whether either of those were sports or games, since I’d already stated my distaste for sports. Aaron couldn’t understand how those were the only two maybe sport-like activities I liked. In turn, I learned that Aaron also enjoyed all things belonging to the outdoors, especially if large, motorized toys were involved.

We moved past likes and dislikes, discussing “what-if” scenarios involving ethical dilemmas, silly stories about embarrassing moments, the worst pick-up lines, and random hypothetical situations, like what we’d do in a zombie apocalypse. By the time our milkshakes were merely puddles in the bottom of our glasses, we’d debated each other’s answers back and forth, sometimes laughing until our cheeks hurt at some of our ridiculous answers.

“Last question,” Aaron proposed when he saw me check the time. “Let’s say you contract an incurable disease and only have six months to live. Would you allow yourself to be cryogenically frozen if you somehow knew you would be revived in five hundred years and cured? And,” he added as a bonus, “you would have an even longer lifespan?”

Unlike some of the other questions, I didn’t have to think twice about this one. “You go first,” I decided, saving my answer.

“I’m not entirely sure, but if I were going with my first instinct, sure, why not?” he answered. “It’d be pretty cool exploring the possibility, and seeing what life would be like by then. So much could potentially happen in that amount of time. Yeah, I’d be game.”

I had to admire his bravery, even though his answer clashed with mine. I shook my head. “Not me. In five hundred years, everyone I knew would be dead. I’d have no friends and no family that I knew. What kind of life would that be? I’d rather die among friends and family than wake up for a lifetime without them.”

Aaron pressed his back against the booth and folded his arms. “That’s a really good answer. I can definitely respect that. So family is really important to you, huh?”

“Yeah.” I lowered my gaze and instinctively glanced at my silent cell phone.

Aaron stood up. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I’m just going to pay for our shakes, and then we should probably free up the table. But I want to come back to this topic.”

Watching him retreat, I eyed his attractive swagger. I noticed how he personally interacted with fellow waiters and even a couple of customers as he passed them by. No matter the brevity of their exchange, whether through Aaron’s wide smile or the way he clapped his hand on his waiter-friend’s shoulder with a boisterous laugh, each person seemed to brighten.

Catching myself intensely observing him, I knew I already liked this boy. A lot. In less than an hour, he’d captivated my whole attention, tugging at my thoughts and emotions like a magnet. His natural charm eased the knot in my stomach before I’d even noticed the magic in his presence. I couldn’t resist him if I tried.

That was how I knew I needed to disappear.

Suddenly finding myself solo at the booth again reminded me why I’d arrived at the restaurant in the first place. I hadn’t come to Davis for a boyfriend or even a heart-stopping temporary fling. I’d come with a purpose. To work. To protect my family. I needed to focus, not get caught up in the petty throes of romance or any other giddy distraction. Aaron would make that task impossible. I could already feel myself wishing I could permanently forget my responsibility to family and selfishly indulge in my attraction. I couldn’t risk failure.

With Aaron’s back still turned to me, I slid out from the booth, dropping the twenty-dollar bill onto the table. With hurried footsteps, I slipped out the restaurant doors, pulling my jacket securely around me to combat the cool fall air.

 

Chapter 2

Kate

The next morning, I ignored the bouquet of carnations on the kitchen table. I opened my cupboard and thumbed past the line of cereal boxes, debating between a somewhat healthy, nutty granola mix or just going straight for the pure sugar. My roommate walked into the room, dressed in knee-length leggings and a wide-shouldered shirt that slipped off one shoulder.

“Those flowers came for you while you were still sleeping,” Marie said. She opened a bottle of water and guzzled it down, pausing only to wipe sweat from her brow. “They were sitting at the front door with a delivery note when I came back from my run.”

“I saw them.” I poured the rainbow of sugar into my bowl. “Did you have a good workout?”

Marie folded her arms, watching me for a few moments. “Okay, sweetie—I have to ask.”

I hated when she called me that—but not as much as when she called me “hon”—short for the equally syrupy endearment for “honey”. But as the owner of the duplex and thus, the young landlord who offered me a screaming deal on rent, I really didn’t want to get on her bad side. I decided when I moved in three weeks ago to let “sweetie” slide. She said it to everyone.

“What about?” I asked, feigning innocence. We both knew she was talking about the flowers.

Her long legs strode over to the table, and she picked up the tiny card that came printed with the delivery. She read out loud, “Kate, sorry about last night. It won’t happen again. I’ll be in touch.”

I shrugged, unwilling to offer up anything she didn’t specifically ask for.

She put one hand on her hip, holding the card in the air between two fingers. “Either I’m having a bad case of déjà vu or the same jerk that stood you up last weekend did it again.” She paused to press her nose to the petals. “At least it’s a different bouquet arrangement.” She returned her attention to me, obviously awaiting my explanation.

I grabbed the bouquet, turned it upside down, and shoved it petals first into the trashcan. “Same jerk.”

“Oh, hon, I’m sorry.” She patted my shoulder, making a sympathetic face. “You really need to let me set you up with someone decent, although considering I have zero time to find my own dates, I can’t make any promises. Where did you meet this guy?”

I rinsed out the vase. “It’s not really like that. He’s just someone I’ve known since I was a kid. He was supposed to drive into town again last night.” Truthful without the details. Explaining another missed date with my dad shouldn’t have been difficult. There was nothing weird about a parent visiting their offspring who had recently moved away from home. But I feared too many follow-up questions that I didn’t want to address, which was why I’d avoided telling Aaron last night. It was safer to let him think a date had stood me up.

Aaron. I muffled a sigh. I felt horrible for ditching out on him, especially when he’d been so kind to me. And fun and good looking…. Wistfully reminiscing on last night was a clear reminder of why I’d needed to leave. If we’d exchanged numbers, I’d be wasting time wondering and hoping if he’d call me, and if he did, I’d want to ditch out on my job or homework. I’d be sabotaging myself, and I had too much I needed to accomplish this school year. My brother’s well-being potentially depended on it.

Oh well. That ship had sailed, and I was the reluctant captain at the helm. Drying the vase with a towel, I placed it on the counter. “Need a vase? You can have this one.”

“Save it for later, Kate. An attractive girl like yourself will have more flowers coming your way—just hopefully, not as two pathetic apologies in a row.”

“It’s not a big deal. I’m not really looking for a relationship. I just need to focus on school.”

Marie raised an eyebrow. “Um—if I remember correctly from your rental application, you’re what—barely eighteen, right? Live a little before you buckle down! Besides, didn’t you see the clause at the bottom of the rental application that said you are required to have a social life?”

I laughed. “I would assume you’d want the opposite. Why would you want a freshman bringing her social life into your home?” Not that I really expected to have one. Partying was not at the top of my list of responsibilities.

“Because I don’t want a depressed, over-worked, and under-paid loner for a roommate!” She smiled. “Since I’m stuck in this three-year law degree, I need a cheery roommate who won’t bring me down. I do that well enough on my own. We can’t both be neurotic about school.”

“I’ll do my best,” I lied.

Landing a rental in Marie’s duplex was luck on my part. Having inherited the property from her parents, Marie didn’t even need to rent out the second bedroom in her apartment since the income from the other half of the duplex was profitable on its own. However, when she met me, she took pity on my inability to rent the other half of the duplex and offered me an affordable single room instead.

With minimal savings and no car, I tried my best to set everything up within walking distance or a quick bus route. Although, to be honest—the bus was never quick. Thankfully, the duplex was only half a mile from my school. Since it was Saturday, I didn’t have any classes, but I did have to stop at the mall to pick up my first paycheck.

After breakfast, I slipped on my recently purchased apparel from the clothing store where I worked. Pulling a thin, V-neck T-shirt over my head, I put on my one pair of expensive jeans. I didn’t grow up with an excess of trendy clothes, but my job required that all employees advertise the merchandise at work. Even with my employee discount, I’d have to lose a day or two of pay to afford the jeans, but I had to consider them an investment to my job. Relying on that logic was the only thing that allowed me to appreciate how the style and cut fit my legs perfectly.

I said goodbye to Marie and headed towards the bus stop. It arrived shortly and I swiped my card, eyeing the crowd of people oozing through the aisle. “Excuse me,” I said, sucking in and trying to make myself as small as possible while sliding past occupied seats. At five-foot-three and having inherited my mother’s petite build, this wasn’t overly difficult. There were a couple of seats in the very back that I eventually hoped to reach. Feeling like a pinball, I maneuvered my way down the aisle, angling my body so as not to bump into the shoulders of seated passengers. Halfway down the aisle, I unexpectedly ran straight into the torso of a man. The wallet that I’d been holding between my fingers fell to the floor, spilling loose cards and photos at my feet.

“Ooh—sorry!” I apologized, although in actuality, it wasn’t my fault. He literally stepped right in front of me. I started to bend down to pick up my belongings, but the guy grabbed my arm. Surprised, I looked up at him and instantly noticed his buzzed head and the black-studded earring in his left lobe. A trimmed goatee framed his mouth and chin.

“I’ll get that for you,” he said. He bent over to pick up my wallet. “It was my fault. I was standing up to offer you my seat.” Smiling at him, I accepted my wallet, quickly slipping it into my purse. I glanced at the empty seat and then at him again. He appeared a year or two older than I was, although the groomed facial hair hinted that he could be older than that. His stern brown eyes reflecting back at me made the kind gesture a little surprising.

“No problem,” I said. “I was just going to grab a seat back there.”

Directly behind me, I felt a heavy sigh on my neck. (Yuck. One of the pitfalls of using the bus was uncomfortable proximity to strangers.) An irritated voice followed. “Look, if you’re not going to take his seat, I will!” I didn’t even glance over my shoulder at the cranky woman and instead, accepted the offered seat while the guy with the buzzed head shuffled to the side to let people pass. The bus jolted to a start, and he grabbed the top of a seat to stabilize himself. Regaining his balance, he stuck out his right hand. “I’m Ben.”

“Kate,” I answered, taking hold and feeling the calluses on his palm. I noticed his cuticles stained with dark ink. Or maybe grease, like my father’s often were from his job. I pulled my hand away and broke our gaze, my eyes drifting to the floor. “Oh, my pictures…” Three small, rectangular photos lay scattered on the aisle. They had slipped from the plastic pockets of my wallet.

Ben leaned down one more time to pick them up. Rising, he started to hand them to me and then paused, eyeing the photos. “Who’s this?” he asked.

The protective side in me tensed, and I had to stop myself from snatching the photos from his hand. He was just being friendly. “That’s my little brother.” In reality, he wasn’t that little anymore. At fourteen, he surpassed me in height a year ago—but again, not that hard to do with a sister my size. Still, he would always seem little to me in my mind. I put out my hand for the newly laminated pictures, but Ben brought the photo closer to his face, examining it more closely. His eyebrows knitted forward. Then, in the next moment, a hint of a smile developed.

Puzzled, I asked, “Do you… have any siblings?” My fingers pinched the photos, and I tugged them from his hands.

“Sorry. “ His expression seemed to awaken, and he took a step backwards. “Uh, sure. Yeah. I have a little brother. Your picture just reminded me of him for a second.”

“Everyone needs a brother in my opinion.” Thinking about my brother always made me smile. However, I also couldn’t help but frown, wondering how he was doing today. Would my dad take care of dinner tonight? Would my brother come home, looking defeated because the rich kids had picked on him again? If my dad was breaking promises to me, how many was he breaking to Luke?

I tried not to think about Luke too much because it sent me spiraling into guilt that I had left home and he’d have to fend for himself, more or less anyway. My mom showed up now and then, usually when she needed money, but since I wasn’t there anymore, her presence would probably be more scarce than usual. She was part of the reason my part-time job in high school hadn’t amounted to more savings. Other than giving me half my genes, sadly, she hadn’t offered much else in my life or my brother’s. My dad had his own set of problems, and some days, I knew my brother would basically be on his own.

“So,” Ben said, gesturing to the full bus. “Are you joining the rest of this Saturday crowd at the mall?”

I met his gaze again. Was he attempting to hit on me or was he just making conversation? I wasn’t picking up a flirtatious vibe, and yet, he seemed genuinely curious about what I had to say. “Yeah, I’m just making a quick stop to pick up a check.”

“So you work at the mall. Did you luck out with retail, or do you work the food court wearing a funky hat or some other costume?”

I laughed. I kind of liked this guy. There was a niceness about him that didn’t seem to match up with the slight edge to his appearance, offering an intriguing appeal. “Lucky 8’s—retail,” I clarified. “But sometimes, I wish I’d opted for the food court. At least the cheesy uniform would be free, as opposed to becoming a walking expense every time I’m supposed to be earning money.” I gestured to my required outfit. Not that it wasn’t fun buying new clothes, but I could never purchase anything without cringing inside at which bills might have been paid for if it weren’t for my running tab. “How about you? Off to the mall, too?”

“I’m just returning to the parking lot to pick up my car.” Just as Ben spoke, the bus came to a stop outside the popular hub. Passengers filtered off the bus, pushing him down the aisle in their haste to exit.

“You have a car?” I called to him. “Then why did you take the bus?” My question became lost as Ben shuffled his way towards the front. He lifted a hand in a gesture of goodbye and hopped off.

I stood up, looking for him through the windows, but he was already lost in the crowd. By the time I’d stepped onto the sidewalk, he was nowhere to be seen.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

Ben

She didn’t recognize me, but I figured she wouldn’t.

After seven years, I wasn’t the same scared kid hiding behind locked doors. I would never be that boy again.

Kate had grown up, too. If I hadn’t done my research, I wasn’t sure I would have recognized her off the street either. She wore makeup with deep purple eye shadow that emphasized her pale blue eyes, and her lips were touched with pink gloss. Her face had lost the childish roundness I remembered, fading the young innocence of the eleven-year-old girl I once knew. But I was well aware that the loss of innocence had more to do with life’s cruel blows than mere aging.

Even now, she still carried that protective tension in her expression. I had seen it resurface when I’d been so absorbed with the picture of Luke. I hadn’t meant to stare. But it was crazy to see him so big now—at least, in comparison to the seven-year-old boy I’d known. He must be fourteen now, and even still, I’d caught the fierce change in Kate’s demeanor when I’d held onto the photo too long. She had always been a shield to her little brother. That, obviously, had not changed.

I stepped out from behind the bus where I’d been hiding. Kate had crossed the mall parking lot by now and was entering through the double doors on her way to work. I had every intention of telling her—reminding her—who I was. But maybe our shared past was not one she cared to remember, or deserved to relive. My plans were set, and I would follow through with or without her. But if I could trust her—if she wanted to help—I would tell her everything.

But that would be for another time.

Once I was sure Kate had entered the mall, I walked through the parking lot until I found my car, which I had parked only so I could jump on the bus route that I knew Kate would be on. Having intercepted her as planned, I now had an apartment to visit and hopefully, a new lease to sign. It was time to make Davis my temporary home for as long as my plans required.

***

I knocked three times before putting my hands in the pockets of my jeans. The door opened.

“Are you Ben?” a guy with brown hair asked. Like everyone else in the apartment complex, he looked to be early college-aged, which made sense, given the fact that the apartments were right around the corner from UC Davis.

“That’s me,” I answered, stepping inside. “Ben Sanders.” I scanned my surroundings. It was a basic setup with a mid-sized living room next to a kitchen, and a hallway dividing the back wall that led to the bedrooms.

“I’m Josh, the one you spoke with over the phone,” the brown-haired guy said. He eyed me, pausing on my earring before he continued. “So, like I mentioned earlier, if you like the place, you’d be rooming with me in that first bedroom down there. Go ahead; check it out if you want.” I walked down the hallway and almost collided with a tall blond exiting the adjacent bedroom. He quickly sidestepped me, pausing to turn around.

“Ben, I’m guessing?” he said to me.

I answered his question with a nod.

“Hi—Aaron Jackson,” he said with a casual, pleasant tone. I mumbled a general greeting in return. “Well,” he said, “don’t let me get in your way. I’d take a deep breath before stepping into Josh’s room though.” He continued into the living room.

“Shut up, Aaron,” Josh protested. “I’m trying to sell the contract to half a room, here!”

The two of them bantered while I stepped into the bedroom and took a minute to look around. As promised, it was the larger of the two bedrooms and had its own bathroom. Not that I cared. I had other reasons for wanting space in this particular apartment. However, true to Aaron’s hint, the room was in a bit of disarray with Josh’s belongings scattered about. The bathroom smelled fresh of Lysol or some other cleaner though, so I could tell he’d at least made an effort to make the bathroom somewhat presentable. Or maybe I should be worried that the appearance of the bedroom represented Josh’s best efforts.

No matter. Dealing with a messy roommate was at the bottom of my list of concerns.

“So, what happened with that girl?” I heard Josh say to Aaron. “You never finished telling me.” I stepped out of the bedroom and continued down the short hallway, poking my head into the second bedroom. There was a body buried under a throw of blankets, presumably the third roommate. Considering it was past eleven in the morning, the guy knew how to sleep in. The second bathroom sat across from this room, ending the short tour of the apartment.

“That’s the end of the story,” I heard Aaron answer. “She just took off after I left to pay for our milkshakes. She didn’t leave a phone number or anything. Just an unnecessary twenty-dollar bill on the table.” There was a slight pause, and then Aaron continued, “I don’t know who would stand up a girl like that. She was pretty cute.”

Interested in the conversation, I joined him and Josh in the living room. I sat down on the forest green couch, watching the two of them.

“The term ‘cute’ can be very deceiving,” Josh said. “Cute like… sure, you can help me with my bio homework ‘cause you’re the smartest girl in class. Or cute like, when can we go to the beach so I can see you in a bikini?”

“Nah, I take it back. She was more than cute. She was really pretty actually, but not in an over-confident way where you can tell the girl knows it and wants to flaunt it. She wasn’t super dolled up or anything, but maybe that’s what made her stand out to me. She just seemed natural and real, you know?” Aaron frowned. “I think that’s why I had a lot of fun just talking with her.”

“Well, better luck next time, Aaron,” Josh said, laying a feigned sympathetic hand on his roommate’s shoulder. “But you know what, that’s good news for the rest of us who can only sift through your failed attempts.”

I had to laugh inside at their conversation. This Aaron Jackson was obviously a lady’s man, but I didn’t need Josh to point that out. His gelled, bleached-blond hair and charismatic disposition clearly stated as much.

Josh turned to me. “So what did you think of the place, Ben?”

“Not bad,” I said. “Unless you have any other offers to consider, I’ll sign the contract today.”

Josh raised two fists in the air. “Thank you, Craigslist!”

Aaron laughed and sat down beside me. He hushed his voice but spoke loudly, “You’re saving his sorry hide, that’s for sure. He thought he could handle the payments on that private room but… turns out, you need what’s called income before you can do that.”

“Whatever, man. I had something lined up. Just didn’t work out,” Josh muttered. To me, he said, “Anyway, the paperwork is on the counter. Rent is due on the fifth of every month, so as long as you don’t miss out on your part, everything will be just fine around here. Welcome aboard.”

“Cool. Thanks,” I said, picking up the pen and sheets of paper off the tiled countertop. This was working out better than I had hoped for. I thought for sure these preppies would take one look at me and move to the next name on the list. Or, considering Josh’s desperate demeanor, maybe there was nobody else to consider. Fortune must be on my side today, first, running into Kate and then snagging the apartment I had my eye on. Things here in Davis were running smoothly so far.

“Well, now that the housing issue is taken care of…” In a noticeable fashion, Josh picked up clothes off the floor, draped them over his neck, and then filled his arms with cups and bowls. He moved around the apartment in a sudden hurry, dropping his armful of dishes into the sink, and then moved down the hall with his bundle of clothing.

“Josh—” Aaron called to him. “What are you doing?”

“Are you going to help me, or what?” he asked Aaron, stepping out from his bedroom in a hurry. He tossed a shoe at him. “Here, wake up Nick with this. This crap in the living room is just as much his as mine.”

“See, he knows better than to throw my name out there along with this mess,” Aaron said to me. “Unlike those two clowns, I actually know how to pick up after myself.” Squeezing the shoe between his hands, he scrutinized Josh, who had returned to washing dishes. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you have a girl coming over. Hot date?”

Josh spun around to make a face. “Sick, man. That’s my cousin you’re talking about.”

“Cousin?’

“Yeah, she should be on her way over soon, which is probably against my better judgment, knowing I’ll have to introduce her to you and Nick.”

“So… is she going to tell your mother you’re a complete slob or something?” Aaron asked, making a point of eyeing Josh’s dishwashing efforts. I had a feeling that Josh took as little care for the rest of the apartment as his room.

“Actually, yeah. She won’t rat me out purposely, but my mom’s tried-and-true methods of manipulation will get it out of her over the phone. And then, my mom will literally drive up here next weekend from Sacramento, mop and bucket in hand. She’ll watch me clean every inch of this place, lecturing me about how she raised me better than this.

“That doesn’t sound like too bad of a plan, actually,” Aaron said, rubbing his hands together. “When is this cousin of yours coming over? Let’s get this process started.”

“Hey—” Josh said, pointing a wet spatula at Aaron and splashing suds onto the counter. “Don’t forget to utilize the shoe and wake up Nick. She’ll be here any minute.”

And that was my cue to make a stealthy disappearance.

“Not to be weird,” I said, “but do you mind if I grab a few things and take a shower?”

Josh shrugged. “It’s officially your place now, so you don’t need my permission. Move in as soon as you want.”

“Thanks. It’s just that I’ve been living out of my car for the past week, sort of in limbo so…”

“Yeah, yeah, go for it.”

I nodded in appreciation, hurrying out of the apartment and down the stairs to my car.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

Kate

Josh opened the door and I noticed two guys positioned awkwardly on the floor, one evidently trying to strangle the other.

“Tap!” the guy with disheveled, dark brown hair said. He seemed to have the upper hand and tightened his bicep around the other guy’s neck.

“I didn’t realize your roommates were so… close,” I said to my cousin, humored by their tangled arrangement. At my voice, the blond in the headlock, whose face was practically smashed into the ground, struggled to turn his head.

“Fine, fine.” He tapped the ground, and the brunette released him with a triumphant whoop. Still on his hands and knees, the blond rotated and lifted his face to me.

My jaw dropped. Aaron’s blue eyes stared back at me.

He jumped to his feet, straightening the white T-shirt he wore. “This is your cousin?” he said to Josh, before returning his eyes to my face. I blushed with guilt, but Aaron seemed more bewildered than mad. I offered a small smile while Josh frowned at him.

“Yeah, this is my cousin, Kate.”

I tried to interrupt and tell him that we’d met, but Josh cut in with, “Kate, the roommate with bad manners is Aaron Jackson. And the guy on the floor who won the wrestling match—congrats, by the way—is Nick Cross.” He pointed to Nick, who sat on his rear still catching his breath. He raised a hand in silent greeting, and then used it to wipe sweat from his brow. Josh turned to me. “I’m stuck with these idiots for the year.”

“Whatever, man,” Nick said. “Let’s not forget who the third wheel is. When you couldn’t find anyone else from our dorm to room with, you came to us, remember?”

My eyes moved to Aaron’s. “Hi.” I pressed my lips pressed together with uncertainty. For a moment, we shared the secret that we’d met before. I replayed last night in my mind, remembering the sweet, if not unconventional, way in which he’d become my date. Or whatever last night’s encounter would be categorized. I’d been struck by his features even in the muted atmosphere of the sports bar. Now, with the natural light beaming through the window, I more clearly caught the white gleam of his grin brightening his eyes. His snug, white T-shirt fit the lean, toned frame of his body, and with his fitted blue jeans, he gave the label of an All-American boy a very good name. I suddenly changed my mind about wanting to keep distance between us. Would it really be so bad?

Weak. I’m so weak.

“So, Kate—” He fumbled in his back pocket. “Wait, where’s my—there it is.” He grabbed his wallet off the floor and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “This cash must have fallen out of your purse last night. What a coincidence that you showed up at my apartment so I could return it to you.”

I put a hand on my right hip, my cheeks heating up once again at the reminder that I’d bailed on him. Aaron folded the bill in half and held it out between two fingers with a knowing grin.

I shook my head with another closed smile. “Not a chance. I left that in a stealthy manner, fair and square.”

“Wait, hold on a minute.” Josh snatched the cash from Aaron’s hand. “This is who you were talking about?”

I tilted my head to the side, addressing Aaron. “You were talking about me?” A genuine smile broadened without my consent.

“Uhh…” Aaron’s right hand scratched the back of his head while he looked back and forth between his roommate and me. “Funny story, actually…”

“Get over here.” Josh grabbed Aaron’s arm and led him down the back hallway. I frowned at my cousin, confused. Josh paused to glance at me, and then scanned the chaos of our living room. “Kate, just… shove the cushions back on the couch or something and have a seat. Sorry, the couch wasn’t that mangled earlier.” He frowned at Nick, who only shrugged. “I’ll be right back.” Josh and Aaron disappeared down the hallway.

“What’s that all about?” I asked aloud. Josh was one of a handful of cousins in my life, but we didn’t know each other well, not since my family had moved from Sacramento to Clearlake years ago. However, since we both ended up in Davis, he’d been nice enough to reconnect and help ease me into the college world. Maybe his mother, my aunt, had something to do with it. Given past circumstances, I had a feeling she felt she owed it to me to help where she could.

Nick stood up. “I don’t know. I missed something this morning while I was sleeping,” he said, though he didn’t seem too concerned. “I woke up to Aaron pegging me in the back with a shoe, which is what set off the wrestling match.” Nick threw a couple of cushions crookedly onto the couch, patting the seat hard enough to release a puff of dust. “Here you go. Make yourself at home.” Scratching his bare chest with a yawn, he wandered over to the kitchen in his baggy, blue sweats.

“Thanks…” I opted to sit in the black recliner that was positioned in the corner between the green couch and a mismatched grey couch. “Whoa!” I sank deep into the oversized chair and wondered if I’d be able to get out again. “Nice selection of furniture you have here.” I turned my head to look back at Nick, who was pouring a jug of milk into his open mouth.

“Hmm?” he said, pausing to glance over.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt your breakfast.” Nick swiped at his mouth before tipping his head back again. “I was just teasing about your couches, but…” He didn’t seem to be listening, so I mumbled the last part about my joke not being very funny anyway. I really didn’t mind the old, random furniture and was just trying to make small talk—but failing, obviously.

“Want anything?” Nick asked, his head bent inside the refrigerator door. Ten seconds later, he poured chocolate syrup onto a spoon and popped it into his mouth before retracting it with one smooth movement.

So this was how college boys ate. Not that I was judging. It wasn’t much different from my processed boxed foods and packaged noodles. “No, I’m good. But if you jump up and down, you’ve basically made chocolate milk,” I said with a grin, “and that sounds kind of good.”

Nick snapped the lid closed on the syrup bottle and finally looked back at me. He didn’t say anything for a moment, and then simply commented, “I guess you’re a little funnier than your cousin.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess?” Nick lifted his shoulders in a way that barely counted as a response and returned to scouring his breakfast options. I’d have to remember to cross off casual chitchat from my list the next time I stopped by. He obviously wasn’t into it.

Josh and Aaron emerged from the hallway. I silenced a sigh of relief. Wriggling, I attempted to scoot off the recliner, but the back of the chair naturally rocked backwards enough that I was practically sitting in a jackknife position.

“Here, let me help you with that,” Aaron offered. He stuck out his hand and gripped my own. As he pulled me to my feet, I noticed the veins in his forearm that snaked their way to the rounded shape of his bicep. Once I was stable, Aaron pulled away and shoved both hands in his pocket the moment I was back on my feet. He glanced behind me before taking a step backwards. “So, uh… what do you and Josh have planned for the day? He mentioned something about showing you the ‘college ropes’ and all that?”

I glanced at Josh, my suspicions underway. “Show me the ropes, huh?” I raised an eyebrow and Josh put up his hands, feigning innocence. I turned back to Aaron. “I’m not as helpless as he thinks I am. Sure, I’m new to Davis, I don’t have a car, and I live paycheck to paycheck, but I can handle it.”

I thought Aaron might ask more questions, since he didn’t seem to be one who lacked in conversational skills, but he kept quiet and joined Nick in the kitchen. I turned to Josh. “I will take you up on a trip to the grocery store though,” I clarified. To Aaron and Nick, I said, “I’m figuring out the bus routes, but it kinda sucks carrying around plastic bags, especially when the bag of canned goods breaks on your way to the bus station, you look like an idiot, and you miss the bus and have to wait around for another twenty minutes for the next one.” I paused with a half smile. “Hypothetical situation, of course.”

My comment made Aaron chuckle softly, and I thought about our silly hypothetical questions from last night that were both interesting and entertaining.

“Well, on that note, are you ready to go?” Josh grabbed his keys, so even if I wanted to stay and chat, he was apparently ready to leave. “We can take care of that right now.”

“Sure.” I picked up my beat-up, brown, knitted bag from off the floor and slung it over my shoulder. Josh opened the door for me. “Thanks.” I looked over my shoulder at his roommates. “So I guess I’ll see you guys around from time to time?” I focused on Aaron, unable to hide the hope in my words and the over-eager tone in my voice.

Aaron waved. “Yeah, definitely. Nice to see you again.” He wasn’t even looking at me anymore by the time he finished speaking. Instead, he concentrated on pouring his cereal.

“Later,” Nick called.

I tried not to show my hurt feelings as Josh closed the door behind me. Apparently, I’d missed my window with Aaron. As sociable as he was last night, and despite the excitement in his eyes when I’d walked through the door, maybe I’d offended him beyond second chances. I eyed my cousin’s back. Or maybe Josh had everything to do with the change in his attitude.

 Since it had been a number of years since Josh and I last saw each other, we had plenty to catch up on in the car. We talked about his family, mostly, and what summer was like for him sticking around Davis and working different seasonal jobs off and on. I did my best to keep the conversation away from my own family, and he was polite enough not to ask, or maybe he was really good at avoiding awkward conversation.

We didn’t talk about what I truly wanted to discuss until we made it into the grocery store. Walking down the aisle, I broached the subject. “So your roommates are… different.” I grabbed packaged noodles and threw them into the shopping cart.

Josh added a couple of boxes of flavored rice. “Oh, they’re not that bad. Although, they do wrestle each other a lot, so the scene you walked in on this morning isn’t as rare as you might think.” He chuckled as we both recalled my surprise at meeting his roommates wrapped around each other on the floor.

“When I say ‘different,’ I don’t mean it as an insult. I just meant their personalities are pretty different from each other.” I didn’t need more than five minutes alone with Nick to figure that out. The kid’s social skills ranked about as high as a cranky old grandpa.

Josh chuckled. “Yeah, and they’ve been best friends since junior high or something. Would you believe that?”

“Huh. Surprising.”

“Sorry if Nick was rude to you. He’s standoffish like that with everybody.” Josh tossed Hamburger Helper into my cart, and the boxes landed on my canned tuna.

“Uh-uh,” I said, removing them. “That’s where I draw the line.” Even my poor eating habits had standards. I placed the boxes back on the shelf and opted for a variety of soup.

“Nick wasn’t rude,” I tried to clarify. “Just not real talkative, which is fine. To each their own, I suppose. And then there’s Aaron…” I noticed Josh tense from beside me. I stopped pushing the cart. “What’s going on, Josh? What did you say to him? Did you tell him about my dad? And if you did, you probably shouldn’t be honest with me, ‘cause I’m gonna be ticked.”

“Well there’s incentive for honesty…” Josh held up a bag of chips and I snatched it from his hands, which he promptly held up in front of him in defense. “I didn’t tell him anything about your dad. Why do you care, anyway? The truth is what it is.”

I shoved the chips back onto the shelf, hearing them crunch. “Says the guy with the ‘normal’ family.” I rolled my eyes.

“That’s not fair, Kate. My family has its problems, too. They’re just not as obvious as yours.”

“Or colossal,” I added, but I retreated. “Fine. That’s fair. And I know your family has had a rough go of things financially, too. But there are details about my parents that aren’t necessary for others to know. I came out here to get away from all that junk, not rehash it with the first guy I meet.” I eyeballed Josh. “Which, by the way, you sabotaged quite nicely.”

“Kate, I swear to you, I didn’t tell him about your dad or any of it.”

“Well, all I know is that the guy I met last night was not the same guy who came back after you dragged him down the hallway.”

Josh sighed. “Look, I don’t actually know Aaron all that well. We were in the same dorm last year and he’s pretty cool, but let’s just say there was always a girl—or three—hanging out in his room all year long.”

Well, that makes sense, I thought. Easy on the eyes, charming and flirty when he wanted to be, and then able to turn it off like a switch when he chose to be disinterested.

“Look, I’m not going to pretend I understand everything you and your brother have been through over the years. I mean, I more or less only know what I’ve overheard my mom and dad discussing. But given that information alone, I just don’t think you need someone like Aaron further complicating your life right now.”

Josh was annoyingly right in his assessment, reminding me of my own conclusion last night. It was why I’d left the table in the first place. His expression became serious, and he lowered his voice. “I know it’s not easy coming out here and leaving your brother behind.”

He was right on that one, too. I shook my head and opened my hands. “It’s not. But what choice do I have? I need to make a life for myself, so I can take care of him when my dad relapses again. You and I both know it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Like always. My dad tried hard and had a big heart, but he was a ticking time bomb that detonated without his consent. I had experienced the aftermath enough times to know that being optimistic and realistic couldn’t coincide in this situation for long.

I sighed. I had my goals and didn’t need distractions like that. Besides, guys like Aaron, who could have any girl he wanted, would certainly have high expectations in relationship areas I wasn’t ready to explore. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. Too bad. Aaron’s really hot,” I lamented.

“Why do you think I chose to be roommates with him?” Josh grinned and tapped his head with one finger. “Calculative move on my part. I’m counting on him bringing over all the ladies!”

I made a sound of derision, trying to swallow a wave of jealousy at the thought. Josh only shrugged. “What can I say? The guy is definitely a magnet for the chicks, and I don’t feel bad about capitalizing on my living situation.” I slugged his shoulder. “There are four of us now, just so you know,” Josh said.

“When did you get the new roommate?”

“Right before you came over. This guy checked out the place and signed the contract five minutes later. He was actually in my room showering just before you came over. Kinda weird but whatever.” Josh rubbed his chin with a curt laugh. “He looks a little intense, but if he’s willing to pay half my room rent, I couldn’t care less. Since the semester started three weeks ago, nobody else was biting on the deal because every other responsible person scoped out and signed contracts before summer ended.”

Josh had offered the shared room to me, but I’d just signed up with Marie. Besides, living with a bunch of guys had little appeal to me. I grew up sharing a bathroom with my brother and dad before I moved out, and decided rather quickly that men were gross, especially where a bathroom was involved.

“Sounds like it worked out for the best,” I said, though in my head, a part of me was kicking myself and wondering what it might have been like living in close quarters with Aaron Jackson.

 

 

 

Chapter 5

Ben

“Not her, man. She’s off limits.”

I heard Josh’s voice reprimanding Aaron from the room next door, the old walls doing little to muffle their words. I’d managed to slip into my room just before Kate arrived, not yet ready to explain the cluster of coincidences that really hadn’t happened by chance at all. Josh’s voice continued through the wall.

“I don’t want her to be yet another chapter in your collection of weekend conquests.”

“Come on, Josh. It’s not like that anymore,” Aaron said.

“No? You’re gone for the summer and come back a changed man? No more wild parties and a line of women knocking at your door?”

A player, just like I thought. I was with Josh on this one. I didn’t like the idea of a guy like him being all over Kate. But a part of me burned with growing jealousy. That could have been my life. Should have been. Not the part about being a player necessarily, but I’d wanted to live the typical college life, where one’s biggest problems were grades and women. But instead, I’d been handed the short stick. When most kids were partying on their eighteenth birthday, I was just happy to be escaping the system. Instead of celebrating and heading off to college, I was saving money and trying to figure out how to straighten out my life. How to even have my own life.

The moment of silence from Aaron passed and Josh continued, stern and irritated. “And just ‘cute’? Okay, I know Kate’s my cousin and all, and I don’t want this to sound weird—”

“Warning. You’re about to sound weird.”

“Shut up for a second! I’m just trying to say that I can see how some guys—and not me because I’m her cousin—would find her attractive and take advantage of her. She’s a good person, and I need to keep her away from—”

Aaron cut in. “From douche bags like me?” His tone sounded harsh, challenging.

A slight hesitation before Josh said, “Yeah. If you want to put it that way.”

I wondered if I should intervene before a brawl broke out. Considering Aaron’s height and muscle, it really wouldn’t be a fair match between the two of them by any means.

“Uh, no,” Aaron said, “I don’t want to put it that way. I just want you to understand that I’m not that freshman guy anymore. I’m not going to screw with her.”

Josh’s words came off heated. “You better mean that in both senses of the word.” “Changed or not—hands off. Test your I’ve totally changed theory on someone else. There are plenty of other fish in the UC Davis sea.”

Josh demanded that Aaron shake on it. With the bedroom wall in the way, of course, I couldn’t see if the deal had been struck, but Aaron’s voice concluded, “Sure. Whatever, man. It’s not like I’m hung up on her or anything.” There was a slight change in tone to his voice that made me think otherwise, but Aaron continued with, “I just met the girl, and you’re acting like I made disrespectful passes at her.”

“You’re right. Maybe I’m overreacting. But I thought I should make things clear before you got carried away with her. She doesn’t need drama in her life, trust me.”

“What are you talking about?” Aaron asked.

“Nothing. Let’s just leave it at that and call it good.”

Their footsteps carried down the hallway back towards the living room, where I assumed Kate was still waiting for them. I hadn’t heard much conversation coming from her and Nick. I jumped into the shower to stall my appearance.

I stayed in my room, soundlessly eavesdropping, until Kate left with Josh, and then I stepped out to join Aaron and Nick. Both were sitting on the couch, watching TV from the small flat screen anchored to the wall. Nick flipped through the channels in a mindless manner, while Aaron’s thoughts seemed to be elsewhere, his eyes directed out the window.

At the sound of my footsteps, Aaron turned to me. “You need any help moving your things from your car?”

I shook my head, sitting down beside Aaron on the couch. “I don’t have much. The two bags you saw me haul up the stairs are about all I got.”

“So where you moving from?” Nick asked, his eyes still on the screen. “Other than from out of your car, I mean.”

I forced myself to loosen my jaw. “A little here, a little there. Nowhere really.”

“That’s cryptic.”

He was right. Too cryptic. I’d have to give them something or they’d ask too many questions. “Sacramento area mostly. I only said that because my dad’s in the military, and we did the whole moving around thing most my life. I was last living in Sacramento before I moved out.”

“Josh is from Sacramento,” Nick commented. I flinched, but before Nick could press me about my hometown, Aaron cut in.

“Military?” His voice sounded interested. “That’s pretty tight. What was that like?”

“Not as cool as you might imagine. Not for a kid. We moved about every two years. It sucked pretty hard to adjust to new schools and neighborhoods all the time. Sometimes, we were stationed in small, crappy towns with just as crappy and narrow-minded people.” My eyes might have glazed over then, I wasn’t sure. But I pulled it together before I became overly lost in thought, falling into the memories of these half-true statements. “Anyway, no kid should have to move around so much.” My jaw clenched again, and I did my best to smother the building anger.

An awkward silence followed, even pulling Nick’s attention away from the screen to give me a look of confusion, and maybe concern.

Rein in the crazy, Ben, I told myself.

“Where’s your dad stationed now?” Nick asked.

“About six feet under,” I said in order to kill their questions. It worked.

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.” Aaron’s eyes shifted to the ground and then to the screen.

“Heart attack,” I offered. A common and safe lie. In truth, I had no idea where my dad was. Or who he was, for that matter. For all I knew, he very well could have died from a heart attack. The deadbeat deserved as much. I almost released a sigh of relief when my answer put an end to the questions. Death always made people uncomfortable. I was doing them a favor, really. The truth would make them feel just as awkward. They probably wouldn’t believe me anyway. Most people didn’t, so I’d learned to stop trying. But soon, I would make people listen. I would make them understand.

Nick was easier to silence. Aaron seemed more determined and curious to figure me out.

“What brings you to Davis?” he asked.

“Work, mostly.” I kept my eyes on the TV, hoping to disengage from the conversation. I threw out a bit of safe information in hopes to placate him. “I’m a mechanic at an auto shop downtown. Nothing special but it pays the bills.”

“Are you going to school, too?”

“Nah. Not right now. Maybe down the road. I’m just trying to get my feet out from under me, if you know what I mean.” This time, I did look at him with a serious expression, hoping he was respectful enough to know when to stop asking questions.

Aaron watched me for a few quiet moments before nodding his head. “Well, if you need any help with anything, let us know. We’ve both been here about a year and know the area well.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” I stood up, placing finality to our conversation just in case Aaron decided to press me anymore. “Listen, I’m in need of some caffeine. Anyone else want a soda?” When no one else took me up on my offer, I made a not-so-subtle escape from the apartment. I knew that aside from sleeping there, I’d have to make myself scarce if I didn’t want my plans intercepted or revealed too soon.

 

 

 

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