“She’s a great girl, Jace. I’m happy for you kids.” Mom pulls me down to kiss my cheek, and I squeeze her tight to my side. Standing in the kitchen, I’m helping her clean up from dinner and she’s watching the others through the window above the sink.
“Thanks, Momma. I have to say, I agree.”
“You told us about that case, with the little girl? How’s Stella doing with everything?”
“She’s doing good. It was a tough one, and she’s not the only person who struggled. Stella just… she feels things in a different way than others. She’s so damn tough, Mom, but she’s got this heart that’s so big.”
Turning the sink on, she starts washing the dishes, and I pull open one of the large drawers in the island for a drying towel. Taking the clean plate from her, I dry it and finish my thoughts.
“Stella has a history that’s not pretty. But it’s why she works so hard, and she’s honest to God one of the best people I have ever met.”
“Sounds to me like you’re falling in love, Jace.”
Looking out the window, I watch Stella throw her head back and laugh at something my brother said, her long hair blowing in the breeze.
“I think so.”
“So, I wanted to ask, and if I overstep, please tell me.” Handing me a glass, she turns to look at me, resting her hands on the edge of the basin. “Does she know about the accident?”
Shaking my head, I place the clean glass in the cabinet above me. “No, I haven’t told her yet. For so long I couldn’t talk about it, and then it was that I wouldn’ttalk about it. It’s never felt like the right time or place.” I have to swallow the lump in my throat, not accustomed to just speaking so freely about that night.
“If you think she’s someone who you could be really serious about, you need to.”
“I know that.”
“You still carry the guilt, Jace, and it’s something that breaks my heart. None of you boys were at fault for what happened, and I think the more you believe that, you’ll realize it’s okay to talk about them and to miss them. It was almost fifteen years ago. Don’t you think it’s time to let them go?”
Mom hands me the last plate and shuts off the water, giving me a kiss on the cheek before walking out of the room. Finishing the last dish, I set it with the others and close the cabinet, my mind racing with her words.
The guilt has felt like a boulder every single day. It’s never lessened. But the more I let Stella into my heart, the more she heals that wound, showing me it’s okay to live life and move past the responsibility of being the survivor. To be more than that.
Walking across the kitchen, I’m stepping onto the back deck when I hear a loud scream and look up just in time to see Drew with Stella over his shoulder before throwing her into the pool. Laughing, I jog down to the pool, stepping up to the edge as she comes spluttering back up, her wet hair in her face.
“You freaking psycho,” she screeches, coughing as she stands up in the shallow end.
Drew laughs, and I look over to see Mom and Dad trying to keep a straight face.
“The hell are you two doing?” I ask, hands on my hips.
Well, brother dearest, your girlfriend here told me that I didn’t have any balls when I told her I didn’t like roller coasters, so I was just showing her how big they actually are.”
“Drew,” I groan, laughing at him when he holds his hands up in protest.
“Yeah, you got balls all right. But what if I didn’t know how to swim? You could have killed me, you jerk!” Stella crosses her arms, and remorse takes over Drew’s features.
“Shit. I’m sorry, Stella.” Walking over to where she is, he reaches out a hand to help her. After a second, she takes it, and then a huge smile spreads over her face as she yanks my brother into the pool with her.
“Thatta girl, Stell!” I cheer, clapping when Drew springs to the surface, surprise all over his face. Stella giggles at him, and he splashes her.
“You motherfucker.” Her eyes widen and she turns to my parents, who have moved to stand next to me. “That was so rude. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, sweetheart,” Dad says with a laugh. “Drew really is a motherfucker.”
“Real nice, Dad,” Drew grumbles, then goes back to antagonizing Stella, the two of them splashing each other until I can’t take it anymore. Kicking off my shoes, I yank my T-shirt over my head and jump in next to them, helping my girl take down my pain-in-the-ass little brother. I hear my mom yelling at us to stop being children, but we both ignore her.
After all, boys will be boys, right?
A couple hours later, Stella and I make our way out of my parents’ house. Mom got Stella a change of clothes while she threw the wet ones into their dryer earlier, and we all hung out outside while we waited for them. Stella’s hair has mostly dried, and she’s since thrown it up in a messy bun on top of her head.
As we step out onto the front porch, she hugs my parents extra tight, and when she gets to Drew, she smacks his arm before tugging him in for his own hug. Drew laughs at something she says, and when they pull apart, she kisses his cheek. Shaking Dad’s hand, I give my mom a kiss and a half hug to my brother, all of us saying goodbye.
Hand in hand, Stella and I walk to my car. When we’re both settled, I look over and give her a wink that makes her beam at me.
The drive is silent, and I notice the smile hasn’t left her face. When I pull into her driveway and kill the engine, I look over at her again.
“What?” I ask, running my hand up and down her bare thigh.
“Thank you for bringing me tonight. I had so much fun, and your family…. Your family is beautiful. I hope you know that.” Her voice is soft, and I reach out to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear, running my thumb down the side of her face.
“You’re beautiful,” I admit, leaning over my console to give her a chaste kiss. “And my family loved you.”
“Do you want to come in?” she whispers, and I nod against her lips.
“I’d like nothing more.”
The words are nothing but the truth, and I hope she knows that.