Chapter 16 - Alex
“This doesn’t make any fucking sense,” Nate grumbled, letting his head thunk onto the heavy textbook open on the desk in front of him. I looked up from my book and glanced around us, but we were the only ones in our section of the library.
“Aw, it’ll be okay,” I said condescendingly, patting his back. “You’re just dumb, that’s all.”
“I’m starting to think I actually am, Al,” he whined, sitting up and scratching out his latest failed attempt at the math problem. “I’ve been at this for an hour and I’m still not getting it.”
“It’s okay,” I said, more serious. “You just don’t have the foundation, that’s all. This is what you get for sleeping through trig.”
He scowled, slouching in his seat. “Trig was dumb and easy. This is hard.”
“Trig is the foundation for half of what we’re doing in this class,” I argued, stealing his notebook and flipping to a blank page. “And it was only easy because you were in the basic class so you didn’t have to understand what you were doing. You just had to regurgitate answers.”
“Your wisdom doesn’t make me any less fucked on this problem set, Al,” Nate snapped, scrubbing a hand through his hair and staring angrily at the textbook like he could intimidate the problems into solving themselves.
“Stop being dramatic,” I said, rolling my eyes and tugging on his arm. “Check it out…”
I sketched out a right triangle on my blank page and proceeded to walk him through the definition of sine, cosine, and tangent. Then we moved on to the unit circle. Then we practiced graphing the functions on an x/y plane. By the end of the hour, Nate was flying through the remaining problems in our homework by himself and I had my nose buried back in Crime and Punishment. It was Nate’s latest pick for our two-man book club. He seemed to have an affinity for godawfully depressing books.
Because I was so far ahead in classes, and Nate so un-fixably behind, we both had study hall during the fourth period, right after lunch. I liked it, because the rest of the school population was in class, so we had the place to ourselves. Usually we worked in the library, at this little table tucked back into the corner. Sometimes we sat in the courtyard and read, but we were well into November, so it was getting a little cold for that.
I’d gotten my cast off weeks ago, and the scar on my forehead had faded from angry red to pink. It would never fade completely, but I didn’t really mind. It added character, and every time I saw it I thought of that pivotal night in my life. The night I came back to life. The night I exchanged secrecy for striding purposefully through life with my favorite person at my side. I loved that scar.
Nate liked it, too. Or maybe he just wanted me to know it didn’t turn him off. Either way, he treated it like a sacred symbol. He always traced it with his fingertips before we kissed, his eyes warm and fierce with possessive need.
Without moving my head, I looked up from my book, watching him covertly. He was hunched over the table, left hand shoved into his hair while his right flew over the paper, scribbling out solutions that-- now that he understood the process-- I knew would be invariably flawless.
It almost made me angry how easy he picked things up. The concept I’d just taught him had taken me a week of nose-to-the-grindstone studying to understand. He’d mastered it in less than an hour. I’d never thought he was stupid, but the longer we studied together the more I realized just how much potential he was wasting by not graduating.
“You could be an engineer,” I said suddenly, startling him. He jerked his head up, frowning at me.
“You’re so smart,” I reasoned, closing my book and setting in on the table before leaning forward, resting a hand on his arm. “You need to apply to colleges. There’s still time.”
“We’ve been over this, Al,” he said warningly, his voice low, eyes narrow as he studied my face.
“I know,” I whined. “It’s just bothers me. You could do anything you want.”
“Maybe I want to be a mechanic,” he snapped, turning back to his notebook. “Did that occur to you?”
“Do you?” I asked, unphased by his irritation. I think I was the only person in town who didn’t fear Nate Reynolds’s temper.
He didn’t answer, making a show of going back to work, his pencil digging a little too hard into the paper. I smiled. Sooner or later, I’d break him down. He wanted more, just like me, and I’d be damned if I went to the stars and didn’t take him with me.
* * *
“Shit!” I screamed, shaking out my hand. Every cast iron pan should have the handle painted red so idiots like me don’t grab them.
“Don’t curse, sugar,” Daddy said, his voice mellow. He had his back to me, bent over the sink, dutifully washing the endless stream of dishes I was sending his way. It was nearly 3 pm on Thanksgiving Day. I had gravy on one burner, cranberry sauce on another, a massive pot of mashed potatoes on the third, and a cooling, cast-iron pan of cornbread on the last. That was the pan I’d just grabbed with my bare hand and shit it fucking hurt.
Thanksgiving at the Winger house was an affair. Daddy always ended up inviting a family or two from his church, so I’d grown used to the panicked flurry on Thanksgiving morning.
The difference was that, this year, I was in charge because Momma was gone. Fortunately, I didn’t have time to be sad about it because my whole world had become a chaos of beeping oven timers and food splatter.
“They’re gonna be here in an hour,” I said, blowing on my fingers. They weren’t actually burned, and the pain was already fading. I pulled a stack of plates from the cupboard.
“Tom!” I called, and he bustled in from the living room seconds later, standing at attention. I’d tried to keep him involved with odd jobs all day like Momma used to. He loved to help.
“I need you to start setting the table,” I said, handing him the plates and praying like hell he wouldn’t drop them. “One at each spot at the adults’ table, okay? Come back for silverware when you’re done.”
By the time I reached a semblance of readiness with the food, I only had five minutes before the guests would start arriving.
“Go ahead, Aly,” my father said, ever level-headed. “Me and Tom will finish up, here.”
Oh, what heroes, I wanted to snark, but I didn’t have time. I needed to get ready quick. Nate and his siblings had somehow made it onto Daddy’s charity invite list this year. I couldn’t leave him alone with the wolves. The gossip circle at my father’s church was even more dubious of him than the one at my school.
I took a quick shower, washing away sweat and flour and splatters of food. Wearing a towel, I wove my hair into a french braid and threw on some mascara. As I dashed from the bathroom to my bedroom, I heard voices downstairs. Nate’s wasn’t one of them. Was he late? Shit. What if he didn’t show up at all? Double shit. That’d look really bad.
I knew it shouldn’t matter to me what other people think. Nate was all about that-- just living your life and not worrying about other folks’ opinions. I tended to fret a little, though, especially where he was concerned. I wanted everyone to think as highly of him as I did, but he made it hard, especially back then. Sometimes I felt like he was bound and determined to live up to everyone’s awful expectations just to be spiteful.
In my bedroom, I hastily pulled on leggings, a skirt, and a modest white top with a cardigan over it. My feet went into my favorite ankle boots. Before leaving, I looked at myself in the mirror on the back of my door. I looked highly respectable. A perfect little preacher’s daughter. Definitely not someone who lost her virginity in the midnight woods to the town’s most notorious juvenile delinquent. I grinned at my reflection, tracing a finger over the scar on my temple. Almost respectable.
I found our living room filled to brimming with adults, nursing wine glasses and chatting. Daddy had invited two families from his church-- the Smiths and the Popoviches. Peter and Jodie Smith were a nice couple with two little boys, six and four. Peter got laid off at the paper plant outside of town in September, and they’d been struggling ever since. Jodie had to get a job waiting tables at a restaurant downtown, and Peter was working odd jobs. Daddy said they were good people, though. They had a strong marriage and had protected their children from the worst of their struggles. They had “stayed true to God,” whatever the hell that meant.
Neil and Harriet Popovich were an older couple whose children had all left home years ago. My father invited them to dinner because their eldest son, Jack, was overseas, serving in Iraq. They were having a hard time with it, Daddy said, and needed a little distraction, especially during the holiday season.
Then there were my guests, who sat in a corner, looking about as out-of-place as possible in my Momma’s pristine living room. Nate sat in the corner of the couch. The littlest boy sat in his lap, clinging to his arm and watching the room full of adults with wide, terrified eyes. The little girl sat almost as close, but her eyes were bright with excitement, a half-smile on her lips. The older boy, Ronnie I think was his name, sat a few feet away, arms crossed over his chest, scowling at everything. Deb wasn’t there. I’d made a point of extending the invite to her, but I have to admit I was relieved she hadn’t showed up. She hated me.
“You didn’t tell me there was a dress code,” Nate hissed when I drew close, glaring at me.
I hadn’t. I thought it was implied by the occasion. Apparently I shouldn’t have assumed. Nate’s entire entourage, himself included, were wearing jeans. Nate was wearing a plain gray t-shirt, the little girl a stained pink sweater, and the little boy what looked like a pajama top with a kids’ show logo emblazoned on the front. Ronnie hadn’t even removed his puffy overcoat.
“You’re fine,” I lied, trying not to smile.
“No we’re fucking not,” Nate argued, his voice low as his eyes swept over the room of well-dressed adults. “We look like assholes, Al.”
“You sound like an asshole, too,” I whispered, leaning close. “Stop cursing.”
“Shit, sorry,” he dropped back against the couch, clearly overwhelmed. “This was a bad idea.”
“Don’t be a baby,” I said, crouching in front of him so I was eye level with the little kids. “Do you guys want to come see the toy room?”
The little girl’s eyes brightened. “There’s a room just for toys?” she asked, breathless. Even the little boy looked intrigued, although he still cowered in Nate’s grip.
Nate’s ragtag crew trailed me as I wove through the sea of adults and led them downstairs to the basement. It was furnished, and my parents had converted it to a sort of den/playroom for Tom and I. Over the years, it had become more Tom’s space than mine as I outgrew the luxuries it contained. There were legos and toy cars, a train table, a small trampoline, a TV with attached Nintendo and VCR, a big puffy couch, and bins of dolls and dress up clothes from when I was little.
Ronnie made a beeline for the game console, abandoning our group to slump in front of the TV. Tom, kneeling by the train table, looked over his shoulder when we came down the stairs. His boyish face split into a wide grin when he saw us.
“Nate!” he said gleefully, abandoning his game bouncing up. Nate set the little boy on the ground to receive Tom’s overzealous hug, and then set about introducing each of the kids to my delighted older brother.
One upside of Tom’s condition was that he adored kids, and got along with them great. He was low on friends, so any potential new playmate was a delight. He already had the Smith kids embroiled in some made-up story on the train table. I envied the persistence of his imagination.
“Tom-Tom, this is Paul,” Nate said, picking up the boy again. “He’s a little shy, so you gotta be extra nice, okay?”
Tom nodded vehemently. The little girl spoke up before Nate could do it for her. “I’m Trish!” she said, holding up her arms as if asking to be picked up. Tom looked at me, and I nodded. He picked her up in one arm and shook her tiny hand.
“I’m Tom,” he said. “Do you like to play trains?”
“I don’t have trains,” Trish said. “What do you do?”
“I’ll show you,” Tom said brightly, setting her down by the table. He coaxed the Smiths into abandoning their game for a few minutes so he could line up all the trains and tell Trish their names and their jobs. She listened, enrapt, nodding along.
“You oughta join ’em,” Nate said to Paul, but the little boy shook his head hard and buried his face in Nate’s shoulder. Nate rolled his eyes at me. “C’mon, buddy,” he coaxed, kneeling down and peeling the boy away from him, setting him on his feet. “Tom’s really cool, okay? He won’t hurt you, I promise. Besides, you love trains. How many chances are you gonna get to play with real ones? C’mon, I’ll come with you.”
For five minutes, Nate and I knelt by the train table, playing along as the little kids guided the trains along the tracks, shouting dialogue at each other and laughing as the senseless story progressed and evolved. Before long, Paul was leaning over the table, grinning and giggling at Tom’s side effects, racing his train along the tracks while Tom guided a hotwheels car alongside.
“We oughta make our exit,” Nate whispered conspiratorially in my ear. “While they’re distracted.
I nodded, grinning, and Nate tapped Paul on the shoulder. “Hey, buddy, I’m gonna head upstairs. Are you okay, here?”
Paul nodded absently, pushing him away. Before we headed up the stairs, Nate went to the sofa and stood in front of it, blocking Ronny’s view until he paused the game with an angry curse. Then he bent close, face stern, talking to him so low I couldn’t make out the words. When he stopped talking, he stayed there, waiting for something. Finally, Ronnie growled, “Fine!” and Nate sighed and stood, meeting me by the foot of the stairs.
“What was that about?” I asked as we climbed back up to the ground floor.
“I was just telling him not to be an asshole,” Nate said casually. When we got to the top of the stairs, out of view of the kids in the basement, he stopped me from opening the door.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Al,” he whispered, turning to box me in. His hands grasped the rail on either side of my hips as he leaned in close, pressing me back until my shoulders were flush against the wall.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I breathed, raising my face for the kiss I knew was coming.
He let go of the handrail with one hand and, as always, brushed a thumb over the spiderweb scar on my temple. Then his hand drifted behind my neck, tipping my head up even further as he lowered his mouth to mine.
From somewhere beyond the door, my father called my name and we broke apart-- Nate with a stifled groan and me with a giggle. “Serves you right,” I said jokingly, pushing him away. “That’s what you get for molesting me on this holy day.”
“It’s Thanksgiving,” Nate said sarcastically as he followed me up the last two steps and back into the party. “Since when is Thanksgiving holy?”
“Since you started dating a preacher’s daughter,” I said over my shoulder. “Now come with me to the kitchen. We gotta get these dishes plated.”
It was another half hour before we settled down to the the large dining table for dinner. First, I had to put the final touches on the food. Then Nate and I plated them and carried them to the dining room. Then the adults filed through, building plates for their children. Then came the odious task of peeling the kids away from their games and getting them to sit still at the little card table we had set up for them in a corner of the dining room. Then Daddy had to make sure all the adults had wine to drink.
My stomach was an aching pit of emptiness by the time we finally bowed our heads for grace. While Daddy droned on about God and gratitude and blessings, I cracked one eye and glanced around the table. The Smiths had their heads bowed, brows furrowed with concentration as they magnified Daddy’s words and sent them up to heaven, hoping for some divine intervention in their lives. Harriet Popovich appeared to be on the verge of tears, lips pinched together and trembling, eyes squeezed shut. Her husband’s head was bowed so deep his chin was almost touching his chest.
Then there were my guests. Ronnie had dutifully joined hands with Jodie Smith, who sat on his right, but his head wasn’t bowed and his eyes were open, glaring around the table like the lot of us were responsible for every bad thing in his life. Nate was sitting on his left, and both their hands rested on the table, close but not quite touching. Nate’s own left hand was wrapped around mine, and his head was bowed slightly, but his eyes weren’t closed. They were locked on the kids, who sat squirming at their table in the corner.
“... and finally, Lord, we ask that you continue to watch over us,” Daddy was saying, his voice strong and sure as he lead the prayer. He was in preacher mode, guiding his makeshift Thanksgiving congregation to gratitude. “We ask that you challenge us as you see fit, and protect us in our darkest moments when we can’t protect ourselves. We ask that you continue to love your children, forgiving our sins and guiding us through our mistakes. We pray that when the world becomes to much for us, and our spirits find our way to your embrace, that you welcome us into your kingdom and show us the peace we sought on earth. Amen.”
“Amen,” I whispered, eyes stinging as I thought of my mother. Nate’s hand squeezed mine before letting go, and I know he caught my father’s meaning as well as I had.
After the prayer, there wasn’t much room for sadness or introspection. Solemn words and silence were replaced with groans of appreciation as the dishes were passed around. Plates filled and were emptied. Filled again and were emptied again. Wine glasses followed suit. Nate’s charges appeared at his side four times each with empty plates, tugging on his sleeve until he sent them off with a fresh pile of food to devour. I’d never seen little kids so willingly consume green beans and carrots, but Paul and Trish cleaned their plates of anything Nate gave them.
Unfortunately, the rapidly disappearing wine had a liberating effect on the gaggle of adults, and right around the second helping, they started grilling Nate and I mercilessly.
“So, Aly, the college application deadline is approaching,” said Mr. Popovich. He was the dean of admissions at the local university. “How many schools are you applying to?”
“Five, sir,” I answered. “I just turned the last one in last week.”
“Ahead of the game, as always,” my father said proudly, smiling at me. Of course he didn’t know about the five out of state schools I’d applied to as well. He definitely didn’t know about the early admissions application I’d sent to Caltech months ago. We’d been getting on so well, lately, I didn’t have the nerve to tell him about my real aspirations. He wanted me close to home, studying to be a teacher or a nurse-- something respectable and employable so I could work anywhere. Daddy’s real dream was for me to go off to college and find a good Christian boy to marry. For all that he was kind to Nate and accepted our relationship, it was clear he thought it was some kind of phase.
“And what about you, young man?” Mrs. Smith asked, smiling at Nate. “Where are you applying?”
“Oh…” Nate paled, setting his fork down on his plate and shaking his head. “I, um… I was gonna--”
“Nate’s gonna go to the technical school in town,” I answered for him. “He already has a job at Red’s Auto and Services, down on Main Street. He’s really good with cars, so his boss is gonna foot the bill so he can keep him on as a mechanic after he graduates.”
As much as I wanted more for him, I was proud. With no formal training at all, Nate had become an invaluable member of the team at the shop where he worked. So invaluable, his boss was willing to drop thousands of dollars into his pocket to hang on to him as an employee. To me, that was impressive.
Our dinner guests didn’t seem to agree.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Popovich. “That’s nice, dear.”
“Yes,” said her husband, but he was frowning. “I don’t suppose it’s terribly lucrative, though. How do you intend to support a family with a minimum wage?” He looked pointedly at me, as if asking Nate how he was going to take care of me when I was barefoot and pregnant with our fifth child.
Someone remind me of the year, I wanted to scream. It’s the 21st century, people. We can date without getting married and spewing out children. I can work, too!
“Neil,” Daddy said warningly.
“It’s fine,” Nate said, easily, smiling at my father before turning back to Mr. Popovich. “I’m not too worried about supporting a family, sir. Al’s the only girl I have any intention of marrying, and she’s gonna be at college for at least four years and I don’t think she’s gonna be ready to settle down until a few years after that. That gives me plenty of time to save and work my way up the ladder. Plus, she’s crazy smart. She’ll probably be out-earning everyone at this table within a few years of graduating.
“Even if she doesn’t, though, auto mechanics actually do make a decent salary. Modern engines are extremely complex, and half of what your mechanic does to your car looks more like computer science than grunt work. Red, my boss, requires us to stay on top of our certifications so we can work on a broad spectrum of makes and models, which translates to a considerable bump in our earnings. Not to mention, he’s getting old and has no children. He and I have been talking about night classes and a business degree in a few years, so I can take over for him when he retires.”
Most of that was news to me, so I wore the same slack-jawed look of surprise as the rest of the adults at the table. They were probably hung up on talk of an MBA and business ownership, though. My brain had shorted out at ‘Al’s the only girl I have any intention of marrying.’
“But is your boss aware of your criminal record?” Mrs. Smith asked, her voice slightly slurred as she leaned across the table.
“Jodie!” her husband hissed and Ronnie snorted out a laugh, but Nate just smiled pleasantly, elbowing his brother in the ribs without look at him.
“He is, ma’am,” he said, nodding. “And I haven’t been in trouble since Al and I started dating. She’s kind of a taskmaster, with all the studying. I haven’t had a spare minute for crime. Not even a casual convenience store stick up.”
Ronnie barked out a laugh, and I shoved a slice of turkey into my mouth and chewed, trying not to smile.
Unfortunately, Nate’s easy answers to all their questions just seemed to embolden them. By the time we finally stopped eating, the adults had exorcised every rude, intrusive question they must have compiled on their drive to our house. I felt like I was escaping some kind of warzone when I finally found and quiet moment to rise and start clearing away everyone’s plates.
“Nate, can you help me?” I asked, loathe to leave him alone under the microscope, but he was already on his feet, gathering plates and silverware.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, as soon as we were in the kitchen and out of earshot.
“It’s fine,” he said with a grin, setting his armful of plates on the counter and taking mine. “It’s normal to be curious, and they’re right to worry. I mean look at you,” he set my plates on the counter as well and reached out, pulling me to him with a snap. “You’re so sweet and innocent,” he teased, leaning in close and brushing my nose with his. “And I’m such a fucking asshole,” he whispered as one of his hands slipped down to my ass, squeezing hard.
I choked out a laugh and pushed him away. “Wash your hands and get out a mixing bowl,” I said. “We need to make whipped cream.”
“Right here?” Nate asked, raising an eyebrow. “In the middle of the kitchen? With your dad and all those adults so close by?”
I stared at him for a long second, confused, before I caught his meaning. “For the pie!” I said, shaking my head in disgust. “You’re nasty.”
“I just have my priorities straight,” he said, dutifully washing his hands.
He did though, I thought, as I pulled the carton of whipping cream out of the fridge and cleared a spot on the counter. I’d had it in my head he was still drifting, just taking the easiest path without thinking about his future. It hadn’t occurred to me until the adults started grilling him that he might actually have thought about the future.
He didn’t want to be a mechanic because it was the easiest option. He wanted it because it meant job security, growth opportunity, and enough of a salary that he could save while I was in college. He wanted to marry me, and that idea was more appealing to me than it had ever been.
I’d always hated the idea of marrying young. Even after I fell madly in love with Nate, I still wanted to wait. I wanted to live a single life of adventure and freedom before I settled down and started crapping out grandbabies per my father’s wishes. But that night I’d learned that Nate knew that. He knew I wanted to wait, and he seemed like he was more than willing to wait with me.
Suddenly, eternity with a single person seemed less like a looming trap and more like a far-off dream. Suddenly, the thought of four years in California was more daunting than exciting. Four years apart. Would we survive that? Would we even want to?
Yes, I decided with all the confidence and gravitas of the lovestruck teenager that I was. Yes, we would survive. We would thrive. I loved him with all of my heart, and he loved me. What more did we need? What hurdles could possibly undermine a love like ours?