Home > Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(4)

Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(4)
Tammara Webber

‘What if I find a therapist for him? What if I take him, and you don’t have to be involved, until you want to –’

‘No. Not … yet. Give him time.’

‘But –’

‘Cindy.’ That was his I’m done voice. I was all too familiar with it. When I wanted something my parents didn’t want me to have, Dad had always been the one to deliver the final no, and that was how he said it. Landon, and that scowl. No use arguing once I’d got that.

Before I was born, the Maxfields and the Hellers began celebrating Thanksgiving together. They did it every year – through postdoc assignments on opposite coasts, Charles’s acceptance of an assistant professor position at Georgetown, and my father’s decision to take his PhD and work for the government instead of some university. After I came along, they kept the tradition, settling twenty minutes from each other in Arlington and Alexandria – both inside the Beltway.

This year was supposed to be our year to host. Instead, Dad and I drove to their house, each silent, hating and enduring the stupid Christmas carols on the radio. Neither of us moved to change the station.

My mother had loved holidays – all of them. For her, none were spoiled by too much hype or commercialism. She made heart-shaped cookies in February, oohed and aahed over fireworks in July, and sang along the moment Christmas carols began playing, no matter how many weeks it was until December 25th. I would never hear her voice again. My stomach heaved and my jaw clamped tight, my body launching a protest against the meal we were about to have. Without her.

I sat in the front seat with a store-bought pumpkin pie on my lap and a can of whipped cream in a bag at my feet. We’d burned the edges of the crust, and Dad had scraped off the blackened parts, leaving the pie looking as though squirrels had broken into the house and sampled it. It had to be the most half-assed contribution the Maxfields had ever made to Thanksgiving dinner.

I was smart enough to keep this thought to myself.

The meal was bearable, but grim and pretty quiet until Caleb – who was almost four and still considered cutlery optional – stuck his finger through the whipped cream and pumpkin filling and then sucked it off.

‘Caleb – fork,’ Cindy said gently, for the fourth or fifth time since we’d begun eating. She rolled her eyes when Cole copied him. ‘Cole,’ she said less gently. I couldn’t help smiling when both brothers stuck their pie-coated fingers in their mouths. Carlie snorted a laugh.

‘Wha?’ Cole asked his mother, faking innocence, unapologetically sucking whipped cream from his finger.

Giggling, Caleb copied his older brother. ‘Yuh – wha?’ Then, for some inexplicable reason, he glanced around the table, popped his sticky finger from his mouth, and lisped, ‘Where’s Wose?’ Everyone froze, and his eyes filled with tears. ‘Where’s Wose?’ he wailed, as though he’d just figured out that when your parents tell you someone has gone to heaven, that person is never, ever coming back.

All the food in my traitorous stomach surged up at once. I leaped from my chair and ran to the guest bathroom, the memory of that night condemning me. The sounds I would never forget. The futile screams I’d shouted until I could do no more than rasp her name, until the tears stopped because I literally couldn’t produce them. The useless son I’d been when she needed me.

I puked up everything I’d eaten, gagging on sobs when nothing was left in my stomach.

A month later, Dad quit his job, sold our house and moved us to the Gulf Coast – to my grandfather’s house – the last place he’d ever intended to live again.

LUCAS

I had dinner with the Hellers once a week or so – whenever Charles barbecued or Cindy made a huge pan of lasagne. The Hellers always tried to make me feel like I belonged to them, like I was one of them. I could pretend, for the space of one or two hours, that I was their son, their big brother.

Then I returned to reality, where I had no connection to anyone, except a man who lived hundreds of miles away and couldn’t look me in the eye because I was a reminder of the night he lost the only person he ever loved.

I knew how to cook, but I’d never moved beyond a basic range of meals, most of which I’d learned from my grandfather. He’d been a simple man with simple tastes, and for a time, I’d wanted nothing more than to be like him.

During meals with the Hellers, I steeled myself for the inevitable semi-veiled queries, especially from Cindy – lines of subtle interrogation her daughter had recently taken up. I wondered if Carlie had been deployed last month to find out if I was secretly g*y or just perpetually girlfriendless. She was her mother’s daughter – interfering where she believed she was needed, and often too uncomfortably close to target.

I couldn’t be upset with either of them for trying to draw me out, but there was usually little, if anything, to tell. I went to school and I worked. Sometimes, I went downtown to hear a local band play. I attended monthly Tau Beta Pi meetings. I studied and worked some more.

I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring up Jackie Wallace, Charles’s student – and mine – who’d progressed from capturing my attention during class to stealing into my conscious and unconscious fantasies.

This morning, my alarm began blaring in the middle of a dream about her. A vivid, detailed, solidly unethical dream.

She had no idea who I was, but that fact didn’t stop my mind from imagining that she did. It didn’t stop the sweeping disappointment when I woke fully and remembered what was real – and what wasn’t.

Purposefully arriving late to econ, I slid into my seat, pulled out my programming text and forced myself to read (and reread and reread) a section about transfer functions so I couldn’t watch her tuck a strand of hair behind her ear or stroke her fingers across her thigh in a measurable rhythm that progressively drove me crazy.

Definitely nothing going on in my life that would make it to dinnertime conversation.

I arrived to find that I wasn’t on the agenda, which was all good until I knew why. Carlie, who’d always been a wisp of a girl despite her hearty appetite, sat poking at her food with her fork and eating almost nothing. Cindy always made a small, separate dish of meatless lasagne in deference to her daughter’s refusal to eat ‘anything with a face’. It was Carlie’s favourite meal, but she wasn’t eating.

A worried glance passed between her parents, and I wondered what the hell was going on.

‘How did volleyball practice go, Carlie? Any more talk of moving up to varsity?’ Heller asked in an everything is normal voice.

Carlie’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I’m done,’ she said, shoving halfheartedly at her barely touched dinner and rushing away. Her bedroom door slammed shut, but the thin lumber couldn’t block the sound of her sobs.

‘I’d like to kick that punk’s ass,’ her father growled.

Caleb’s eyes widened. He was constantly encouraged not to say ass.

‘I understand the sentiment, believe me, but what would that solve?’ Cindy set her plate on the granite counter and turned towards the staircase leading to her daughter’s room.

‘It would make me feel a damn sight better,’ Heller muttered.

Carlie’s pitiful wails grew louder when Cindy opened the door upstairs, and all three of us winced.

‘A breakup?’ I guessed. Obviously, this wasn’t about volleyball. I hadn’t even known she was dating anyone, unless – ‘The homecoming guy?’

He nodded. ‘Ditched her for one of her friends, no less. Two-for-one heartbreak.’

That smug little as**ole. I’d only met him once – when he’d arrived to pick Carlie up for the dance. Sliding an orchid on to her wrist and posing for pics, he’d seemed cocky next to her wide-eyed artlessness, inevitably reminding me of Kennedy Moore … which made me think of Jackie Wallace. Dammit.

‘Brutal,’ Caleb observed, his mouth full of noodles. ‘I’ll help with the ass kicking, Dad. We can give him a two-for-one ball breaking.’

Heller harrumphed. ‘Don’t let your mother hear you say that, or we’ll both get our asses kicked.’ His words admonished gently, but he offered a closed fist in solidarity, and Caleb snickered and bumped it.

I’d always defined jealousy as coveting what someone else has. Like me, wanting Kennedy Moore’s girlfriend. There was only one of her. If she was mine, she wouldn’t be his.

So I didn’t know what to call how it felt to watch Charles with his sons, or with Carlie. A form of jealousy, I guess. But they all shared him as a father, and they shared their mother, too. If I’d been born a Heller kid, none of them would have lost a parent for it.

They’d never begrudged me my relationship with their parents, and I was more grateful for that than I could express. Yet as often as we all pretended I was part of their family, Cindy wasn’t my mother, and Charles wasn’t my father. Neither of them could take the place of what I no longer had, as much as they strove to fill those empty spaces.

Upstairs, the sobbing had calmed. Barely audible sniffles were all we could hear between Cindy’s empathetic murmurs and her daughter’s muffled replies. Caleb chortled at another of Charles’s opinions concerning Carlie’s ex – who would be wise to never show his face near the Heller men again if he wanted to keep his nuts intact.

Carrying my plate to the sink, I crushed the envy I wasn’t entitled to feel with the only weapon on hand – my shame.

You’re the man of the house while I’m gone. Take care of your mother.

I’ve never faulted anyone for wanting to be part of a group. Just because I shied away from frats and other campus organizations – exception: those with career-geek networking potential – didn’t mean other people felt the same, and that was fine.

Still, some people on this campus couldn’t seem to dress themselves in the morning without their Greek affiliation stitched or glued on to some article of clothing. The girl speaking with Kennedy Moore before class was one of these. She was doll pretty – but every time I’d seen her, she wore a T-shirt, sweatpants, shorts, jacket or shoes with the letters of her sorority prominently displayed. Sure enough, today was a lettered baseball cap with a sleek ponytail pulled through the back.

She leaned in to say something to him, laying a hand on his forearm, and he cast a glance over nearby socializing classmates. His gaze glided right past me – and everyone else, so I assumed he was looking for Jackie. He caught sight of her just after I did. Back to him, she was laughing with a friend across the hall, out of earshot.

He removed ZTA girl’s hand from his arm but held on to it a degree past appropriate. I’d seen this girl talking to Jackie before. Maybe they weren’t close friends – but she had to know that what she was doing was out of line. As I came closer, their conversation became audible.

‘Come on, Ivy,’ Moore said, glancing towards Jackie again, ‘you know I have a girlfriend.’ There was a note of regret in his voice. Regret. Son of a bitch.

The girl flicked a sidelong glance towards Jackie and back, too, before batting her eyes at him. ‘I wish you didn’t.’

As little as I thought of the guy and as much as I didn’t believe he was worthy of the girl I couldn’t get out of my head, I hoped he’d surprise me and say something to explicitly dismiss this girl’s ill-mannered wish.

But no. His eyes grazing over her head to toe, he murmured, ‘You know you’re too sweet for me. I can be kind of a dick.’

Her eyes sparked. ‘Mmm. Promise?’

I turned sharply into the classroom and dropped my backpack on the floor. Not my business. I clenched and unclenched fists that wanted to pummel him. How could that lucky bastard have a girl like Jackie committed to him and see anyone else, let alone entertain that kind of suggestion?

Five minutes later, he and Jackie entered the classroom together, his hand at her lower back as they moved down the steps towards their seats. Ivy slid into her chair a dozen seats away and a row up from them, her gaze lingering on Moore. When Jackie twisted to grab her textbook, he turned to smile over his shoulder. Ivy’s expression altered to a quick, saccharine smile when their eyes connected.

I returned my stare to the sketchbook on the desktop in front of me, pulling the pencil from behind my ear. Shading the illustration of a guy I’d seen skateboarding up the drag this morning, I made every effort to convince myself of the thing I knew to be true: Jackie Wallace’s heart was not mine to defend or protect against treacherous friends or disloyal boyfriends. Nothing about her, in fact, was my business.

I flipped a few pages back to the second drawing I’d allowed myself to do of her, during my rainy-day filing shift. Hearing her soft thank you in my head all morning, recalling her smile, I hadn’t been able to banish her face from my brain until I consigned her to paper. Even then, I couldn’t forget her bright blue gaze, so close, or the friendly expression I seldom got from any student when wearing that goddamned uniform.

I turned back to the unfinished skateboarder, but minutes later, made the mistake of glancing down the slope of desks to where she sat three days a week, unaware that I watched her. Unaware of my continual internal battle not to. Unaware of me.

Her fingers stroked metrically across the side of her leg – one-two-three, one-two-three – and I imagined that if I was the one sitting next to her, I’d open my palm and let her trace the music she heard on to my skin.

Then Moore reached over and placed his hand over hers, stilling her. Stop, he mouthed. Sorry, she mouthed back, self-conscious and curling her hand into her lap.

My teeth clamped together and I concentrated on breathing slowly through my nose. Stupid, stupid bastard. It was good I had a sparring session scheduled at the dojang tonight. I needed to hit something. Hard.

5

Landon

The fact that my grandfather and my dad didn’t get each other was weird, because they were like the same person born thirty years apart. I’d never noticed that before we moved in with Grandpa. Maybe because Dad had done everything he could to escape who he’d been, or who he might have been. He’d grown up here, in this house, on this beach, but he didn’t have my grandfather’s drawl, or any accent at all, really. Like he’d worked at obliterating it.

Grandpa quit school at fourteen to work the fishing boat with his father, but my father completed high school, left home for college at eighteen, and hadn’t quit until he had a PhD in economics. People in town seemed to know Dad, but he hadn’t lived here for over twenty years, and whenever we’d visited, he hadn’t hung out with any of them. Those people kept their distance now and he kept his, spending his days on the boat with Grandpa. I imagined them out there, all day, saying nothing to each other, and I wondered if that was how Dad and I would be. If it was how we already were.

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