Authors: Lila Felix,Rachel Higginson
Oh, god, what if I had brought him back to the one place that would resurrect more haunting memories than any other place?
I hated that. And myself. How could I have been so callous?
“I promise, I’m fine,” I told him. I cleared my throat of the emotional thickness that coated it and tried again. “Bridger, really, this was so silly. I’m sorry I called you.”
“It wasn’t silly,” he argued. “I’m glad you called me. And I’m glad you’re fine. You scared the shit out of me.” He ended with a shaky laugh and I joined him.
Bridger laughing was about the most beautiful sound I’d heard in a long time.
“I’m such a drama queen! Just ignore me next time!”
A small smile touched his mouth. “Like that’s possible.”
My stomach flipped and my heart squeezed. Was he flirting with me? I wanted to come back with something super cute and witty to say but then he looked around the room again and a cloud came over his expression.
I wanted to spend more time with him. Hell, I was half-tempted to ask him to wait out the day with me. But I didn’t want to put him through anything more. And I didn’t want him to be here when they started the blood tests. Those were always more scary-sounding than they actually were, especially to someone who hadn’t been through them a million times.
“Hey, I’m good now,” I told him. And the words actually hurt coming out of my mouth. “Why don’t you head on home.”
His brow furrowed and he went back to looking angry. On any other person, all that surliness would have driven me crazy! But somehow on Bridger, it just looked hot.
Part of me wanted to fix that about him. Part of me
to give him more reasons to smile. And the other part wanted to keep him angry forever, just so I could stare at him. He was like this statue of a god, chiseled, regal and bent on destruction.
The destruction of my weak heart.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I don’t want to leave you alone.”
I nodded because the word “yes” straight-out refused to leave my mouth. “I have to call Carter anyway and have her bring me up some clothes. She’ll hang out with me.”
It’s the least she could do for abandoning me this morning.
“Oh, alright.” Bridger stood up and shifted on his feet. He looked around the room one more time before finally finding me again. “Feel better.”
It was a demand. He didn’t ask me to feel better, he commanded me to. Despite the general agony I felt at the moment, a shiver skittered down my spine and butterflies punched me in the stomach.
“I mean it, Tate.”
I smiled. “Okay.”
He relaxed some. The tension in his shoulders lifted and his jaw stopped ticking finally. “Call me when you get out of here. I want to know you got back to the dorms alright.”
“Okay,” I repeated. Again. Did I not know any other words?
He seared me with those intense green eyes. The tension in his shoulders that had just left returned lightning fast and his entire body tightened into a coiled force of energy. Something passed between us at that moment, something sizzling hot and so powerful my knees felt shaky even while I was lying down.
And then he left. He just walked out of the room and left me alone.
Bridger Wright, what am I going to do with you?
I laid in my bed for a long time pondering that question. By the time I texted Carter and when she had shown up an hour later, I still didn’t have the answer.
But by then, I’d decided whatever I did with him was going to be a whole lot of fun.
The fun thing about hospitals was that you could leave the room and the patient thought you were gone.
What was she gonna do, get up and check?
Ok, I admitted it may also be the creepy thing about hospitals.
Reluctantly, I slipped out of the room and spotted Cary, the nurse who I knew was well-versed in all things Tate Halloway, but had a terminal case of tight lip.
“Don’t look at me like that.” She caught my gaze as she flitted through clipboards and used the information to erase and update the enormous whiteboard behind her, conveniently wiping away Tate’s information before I could see it.
I sauntered up to the nurses’ station, making sure to stay out of view of Tate’s room.
She waved her finger at me, without turning around, in a negative answer.
It was worth a try.
Anyway, knowing whatever was wrong with Tate felt—intimate. It felt like something a guy in a relationship with her would know. He would know her favorite shirt. He would know what rides to take her on at a carnival. He would know why she crinkled her nose when she saw animals right before she bent down to pluck them off the ground and smother them.
I didn’t know those things anymore about the girl turned woman lying physically frail, but mentally fierce in the bed not so far away.
She didn’t need me in there—obviously didn’t want me in there.
Nope—that’s what boyfriends did.
And I am
anyone’s boyfriend to be used to hold their hands and hold their hearts while another held her hair while they screwed her into oblivion.
Not ever again.
I knocked twice on our dorm door, making sure it was nice and loud so that my dimwitted brother could pulls his pants up or get the girl dressed—whatever awkward state he’d gotten himself into and had no shame about sharing in the spoils.
“Who is it?” West was fumbling around probably wiping up the blood.
This was my chance to get him back for once.
Steeling my posture, I conjured my most feminine voice. “Strippergram.”
It didn’t come out as sultry as I would’ve liked.
“Strippergram? Is that where a grandma strips? Eew.”
Some guys around me had become audience to our little fraternal exchange and weren’t being very quiet about it.
“No, it’s like a birthday song, but from a stripper.”
That high pitched mimic hurt my throat.
“It’s not my birthday.”
Now the whole hall had come out to witness West’s stupidity and my lack of thespian skills. Any other time, my brother would’ve thrown open the door and ravished whatever girl was at the door before she crossed the threshold.
When I wanted him to react, he gave me shit.
“It’s a congratulations on your grades.”
There, that should’ve worked. I didn’t know why I was carrying on this shenanigan so long. Tired of standing there, waiting for him to answer, I slumped down onto the floor.
“Midterms are next week. Come back then.”
He finally opened the door and I fell, back first, into the opening, my legs flailing into the air.
“You do a shitty girl impression. Anyway, I could see the tips of your shoes under the door.”
He could figure that out, but couldn’t figure out a steady way to pick his boxers up from the floor after he showered.
I swear, Mama dropped him.
“Just shut up.” I pushed off the floor and walked into the room, listening to the drowning snickers from the hallway dissipate.
“Stockton called. He said he had something to talk to you about.”
“I’ll call him later.”
West sat across from me, on his messy side of the room, wearing only jeans and a baseball cap. There were books opened everywhere.
“Were you studying?”
He scrambled to close all the books and replace the top on the highlighter. “Yeah, I study. Isn’t that what we’re here for?”
Wait, West knew we were here to study? That was news to me. I truly thought my little brother had come here to party and screw—those were the only things I’d ever seen him do lately.
“Yeah. It’s just usually…”
“I know. Usually I’m acting like a Daniel Tosh version of a man-whore.”
Actually, that was a perfect description.
“What do you know about Tate Halloway?” I tried to act nonchalant about the whole thing, toeing my shoes off and then peeling my socks down, stuffing them into the discarded shoes, all while looking anywhere but at West. The pompous jerk was going to read way too much into my question—I knew he was.
“The question is—what do you know?”
I walked into the bathroom and proceeded to brush my teeth—my mouth tasted like how hospitals smelled, like green beans soaked in bleach and encased in pungent rubber tubing. I was simultaneously ignoring his questions and thinking up an excuse for asking him about her.
“I saw her today—she’s different.”
He scoffed. “What, you thought at twenty she could still be wearing pink overalls and have that curly red hair out to kingdom come in frizz? What I do know is, she’s fine as a mutha—got curves for days and that ass…”
I came out of the bathroom to survey his face. Sometimes you couldn’t tell with West. One minute he’d be climbing up the wacky tree and the next he’d be as serious as a funeral.
This time, judging by the smirk on his face and the gyrating dance he was performing in the middle of the room, I could tell that his words were only to goad me.
“Shut up, Pest.” Pest was a name Stock and I called him when he got out of hand. “I mean as a person, what do you know about her?”
He shrugged. “Nothin.’ I could put my feelers out on her though.”
My expression must’ve shown my disgust for his using feelers and referring to Tate in the same sentence. “I mean, I could ask around. See what’s up with your girl.”
“She’s not my girl. I don’t do girlfriends anymore. They can’t be trusted and you know it.”
That I knew, there were only three examples of girls that didn’t lie and cheat. One was my mother, one was my sister and the other was Cami.
West began to gather his books into his backpack after throwing on a Hurley t-shirt. I smiled at him checking himself out in the mirror. He’d been doing that since we were kids, refusing to go anywhere without the proper grooming.
“Call Stockton. Use Tate for the spank bank. But mostly importantly, get some sleep, old man. You look like hell. I’m going to study. Tonight? Pizza and Call of Duty?”
“Yeah, see you then.”
I waited for him to be long gone before calling Stockton.
Cami answered the phone instead of Stock, but I could hear him in the background, talking to Willa about something.
“Hey, how are y’all?”
She sounded like she was moving around the house. “We are fine. Oh, here, Stock is making grabby hands towards the phone.”
As he took the phone, Stockton cleared his throat. “Hey, Bridger. What’s up? West said he didn’t know where you were.”
There were two roads I could’ve taken at that point. One, I could’ve told Stockton to blow it up his ass, I was a grown man and West didn’t have to know where I was every single second of the day. Or two, and that was the road I knew I’d take down deep in my heart, I could tell Stock where I was to ease his mind.
“I took Tate to the hospital.”
“Who is Tate?” Cami squealed from somewhere near their phone, listening in.
“Tate Halloway, you remember her, Stockton?”
For a few minutes after that, I had to endure Stock giving Cami a very fast-talking version of what he knew of Tate, which was basically the same as everyone else. Poor girl, got picked on a lot (mostly by me), big red hair, freckles for days, and cute as a button.
She was anything but those things now. Tate was smart and sassy. She had moxie and spunk—all those energetic words. She was lively, with a hint of mischief pulling at her curls.
But the best thing for me was to keep my head down, keep on the course and leave the redhead to bounce through her life without me.
I wouldn’t be able to take the heartbreak as deep as the one I knew she’d cause.
After explaining about Tate’s supposed food poisoning, we talked for a few more minutes and solidified my plans to come home for Thanksgiving break, bringing my bratty brother with me. There was never really a question as to whether or not I would go home—I missed my family, what was left of it.
“I know you don’t dig surprises. But your brother has a tiny one for you. So act surprised—I just didn’t want you to blow a gasket.”
I flicked a piece of biscuit at Cami across the table. “What do you know about gaskets California Dream?” West laughed at my joke until she pinched his arm.
She flipped her hair across her shoulder. “I know they’re part of a combustion engine.” Well, that surprised me. “And I also know you’re not gonna blow one thanks to your dear sis-in-law.”
Stockton bounded into the room. “I don’t know what you said, Cami, but damn if I don’t hear a little country lilt growin’ on you.”
He bent down to kiss her as she sat at the table and she giggled in response. “Doesn’t matter. Hillbilly twang or not, I’m still your Duchess.”
Tate Halloway would never be able to settle down into a life like this.
She was too—vivacious for this country life.
Stockton’s bass voice brought me out of that thought. “Well, thank the good Lord for that. Bridger, there’s something I want to show you.”
Cami gave me a drawn-out, dramatic wink as I rose from my seat and followed Stock outside. For a while, we stomped the land without a true path. Looking around, I took in all the changes he’d made—building the new barn, digging a new pond off to the side of the property, and the new ducks now swimming in it.
“You know Mama was a bit of a hoarder, right?”
I laughed. Our mom was an old mountain hoarder. She wasn’t like those ladies nowadays who hoarded anything and everything. She hoarded the good stuff. Since she’d died, we’d found cases of moonshine everywhere—buried.
She’d buried it all.
“I remember a little. She made me help her.”
He furrowed his brow at me. “You used to do it too. I remember you burying shit all the time.”
There was no telling how much good stuff was underneath this family dirt just waiting to be discovered.
“Here.” He pointed to the ground where a shallow hole lay empty, its contents had been removed. “Cami and Willa have been using metal detectors around the property. They say it’s fun, but really I think they use it as an excuse to get out of chores. They claim they’ve found something and then dig and dig for days. Usually they don’t find anything, but this time, they did.”
I looked around the vicinity of the hole to see what they’d dug up, but came up short.
“What did they find?”
“I’ll show you. Follow me to the workshop.”
A barrel of thick smoke came from Stockton’s workshop, what once had been my father’s workshop. We went in and the smells and air of the place took me back to my childhood. The heat of the orange embers glowing, the way the smoke permeated my nose and took up residence for days and days after I’d leave—I could almost hear the sound of my dad’s hammer striking the metal for whatever creation had been commissioned.
Stock kept it pristine and organized just like my father had—it was his homage to my dad’s legacy.
“That’s yours.” He pointed to a new addition to the place. A bench, almost exactly replicating the one my father used to work at, was perpendicular to Stockton’s with every tool specific to silversmithing hanging in regimented lines along the wall.
That was me—the silversmith.
Stockton had been taught the art of blacksmithing, but I’d been taught the art of silversmithing—both by our father. It seemed he knew what he was doing. Stockton, with his broad shoulders and brute force, was more apt to metalworking. I, on the other hand, while similar in build, was more attentive to the smaller details.
While Stockton made gates and archways—I made chainmail and candlesticks.
Stockton made knives and machetes—I made bracelets and goblets.
It was a lot more masculine than it sounded.
My trade was a little more industry specific. I’d gotten some small commissions from museums and cosplay participants, but other than that, my talent didn’t have as broad of a spectrum as Stockton’s.
“Thank you, Stock. I’ve been wanting to work.”
He clapped me on the back— hard. “I know. And that over there is what Mama left for you.”
I approached the big tin can he pointed to over at the corner of my new workbench. I jangled the container in my hand, listening to the sound of what Mama had thought was some kind of treasure before looking inside. The rusty can was chockablock full of—forks. Not just forks. Knives, spoons, and even a ladle were all stuffed inside that #10 food can that had probably once been used for something stupid like creamed corn or corned beef.