“Shit.” Henry hissed and immediately started shaking his hand, as if that would get rid of the pain in his thumb.
He’d just whacked the thing for the third time.
He was having a hard time keeping his attention on what was in front of him. Had been all day. His thoughts kept drifting back to that morning, to the scene he and Josh had walked in on at the bakery, and that guy that had looked at Jess with obvious male interest.
Henry waited until the throbbing eased some, then hit the nail he’d missed into place with a few gentle taps rather than a couple of bangs. A few feet to his right, Josh was hammering away, quick and efficient.
The two of them were working on a small deck they’d been building the last two days. They’d be finished with the job this afternoon.
Tapping another nail into place, Henry tried to hold his thoughts to the present when they started to drift once again.
He couldn’t afford to be distracted again, he was liable to lose his thumb.
So Jessica had been flirting with some guy? It was none of his business, he told himself, not for the first time that day - or the fiftieth. She was free to flirt with whoever she wanted... date whoever she wanted... sleep with whoever she wanted. And so was he.
Henry’s cautious tapping gave way to quicker, harder banging, his frustration influencing his movements, his thoughts becoming more agitated.
The problem was - he didn’t want to flirt... date... or sleep with... anyone but Jessica.
But that was his problem, not hers.
Henry scowled at the nail he was about to attack with his hammer as if it was the guy he’d seen with Jessica this morning.
The way she’d smiled at him... all open and friendly... Henry wanted to be the one she smiled at like that.
His mood, which had been hovering around bummed since this morning, took a nosedive to miserable.
He wouldn’t be surprised if that guy asked Jessica out. He’d have to be stupid not to. She was beautiful.. sweet... kind... smart... funny.
Who didn’t find those qualities attractive?
Whether it was the guy from this morning, or some other guy, he was painfully aware that one of these days, Jessica was going to meet someone, and that ‘someone’ was going to turn out to be ‘the one’.
He’d been dreading the day Jessica met her Mr. Right since he was fourteen, when he’d stopped seeing her as his friend’s little sister... stopped thinking of her as his “buddy”... and started noticing other things about her... like how pretty she was.
It had taken him a while to notice the changes in Jessica... her body’s shift from child to young woman... so gradual. But eventually, he’d noticed the changes in her. She’d lost some of the roundness in her cheeks, let her hair grow out from a bob to shoulder length, gained some height... and started to develop soft, feminine curves.
Henry remembered the moment he’d noticed those subtle changes in Jessica for the first time.
It had been summer. Josh had invited him over for a swim. Henry had just resurfaced after canon-balling into the deep end of the pool, when Jessica had opened the patio door and stepped out... in a purple two piece.
She’d walked towards the pool, smiling over at him and Josh. It was the same smile she’d thrown his way hundreds of times before, but that day, her smile had hit him like a punch to the gut.
Henry guessed he’d noticed her that day, in that way, thanks to a fresh batch of teenage hormones.
Self-consciousness had assailed him as she’d joined him and Josh in the pool, made him feel awkward with everything he did and said.
The discomfort that had sprung to life inside him that day, had become his regular companion, popping up whenever Jessica was around.
An invisible tag-along.
He’d felt so guilty, like he was betraying Josh in some way, looking at his little sister the way he was looking at her.
So... he’d started discouraging Jessica from wanting to hang out with him and Josh.
Josh had never said anything about him breaking up their trio and Henry had wondered if he’d wanted Jessica around less himself at that point. He and Josh had been about to start high school, Jessica was still in grade school for another two years. Maybe his friend had been feeling the age gap between him and his sister a little more that summer.
At any rate, Henry had started seeing Jessica a lot less. And when he did see her, their encounters were always the same... he did something stupid, or said something to annoy her, and she either ignored him, or dished it back.
A little grin flirted with the corners of Henry’s mouth briefly as he continued hammering away.
He preferred when Jessica dished it back, when they got a good tit-for-tat going.
Maybe that was immature of him, but if sparring with her was the only way he could derive satisfaction from their relationship, he was going to enjoy it.
Besides keeping himself on Jessica’s bad side all these years, one thing Henry had told himself, to make it easier to ignore his attraction to her, was that if she found out he had feelings for her, she’d either laugh in his face, or just flat out reject him... either way, showing him no mercy after his years of provocation.
But now he knew... that wasn’t the case.
Jessica hadn’t laughed, and she hadn’t rejected him last Sunday when he’d almost kissed her.
The way she’d looked at him... unsure, but intrigued... the way she’d leaned into him when he’d started leaning towards her... had stripped away a layer of his resistance, had weakened his will, played with his good sense.
In the last week, he’d probably fantasized about telling her he had feelings for her, more times than he had over the last thirteen years.
He had to get his head back on straight. He had to rebuild his defenses against Jessica. And to do that, he had to remind himself of the facts.
And the facts were...
One - Josh might have a problem with him dating his sister.
Two - most couples didn’t stay together.
Didn’t like, fifty percent of marriages end in divorce?
And Three - no matter how much a girlfriend’s family liked you, when the two of you split up, you became persona-non-grata.
Maybe he and Jessica would be good together for a while, but eventually, they’d probably split up. And then he’d be turned away by the Marlin family.
Henry couldn’t risk that.
He couldn’t risk losing the guy that was like a brother to him. He couldn’t lose George and Linda - he was closer to them than his own parents.
Henry felt a stab of resentment, remembering the reason he was closer to George and Linda than his own parents.
His folks had divorced when he was eleven, after months of bitter and ugly fighting.
Henry’s hammering gained momentum again as he recalled how he had become one of the things his parents fought over. The two of them had put the son they were supposed to love, in the middle of their battle, trying to make him side with one of them - epically failing at being adults, let alone good parents.
If it hadn’t been for the support and... normalcy... he’d found with the Marlin’s, Henry didn’t know how he’d have gotten through that difficult time.
He couldn’t lose any of them. He had to keep his feelings for Jessica to himself.
It wasn’t what he wanted, but...
... it was what it was.
Taking a chance on love with Jess was too much of a gamble.
Jessica pulled into her parent’s driveway on Sunday, parked behind her dad’s black Toyota Prius. She killed the engine, got out, and locked her Hyundai on her way up to the house.
Letting herself in, she called out a hello as she slipped her flip flops off by the door.
It had been a hot one today, so hot she’d thrown on shorts for the first time this year. The end of what had been a late spring, had seemingly turned into an early summer over the weekend.
Her mom’s answering hello came from the kitchen. Jessica bypassed the living room on her way to the back of the house.
“Hey, sweetie.” her mom smiled over at her, pausing in her potato peeling and looking up at her as she entered the room.
Her mom’s dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she had on a short sleeved, light maroon T-shirt and jeans.
Her mom made fifty-five look good. Jess hoped she looked that good when she reached her mom’s age.
“Hey, mom.” Jessica smiled. “Where’s dad?” she asked, coming to lean against the counter beside her mom.
“Out back. The weather’s been so nice this weekend, we thought we’d barbecue. I got some really nice steaks.”
Mmm. Jessica liked a good steak. And her dad was a master at the barbecue.
“Is there anything I can help with?” she asked.
“Can you grate up some cheese?” her mom asked. “I’m doing potatoes au gratin.”
In answer, Jessica pushed off the counter, went over to the fridge, and got out an unopened brick of marble cheese. After retrieving the grater, she returned to her mom’s side, removed the wrapper from the Black Diamond and started running the cheese along the grater’s notched face. Cheese shavings quickly piled up on the counter.
Her mom finished peeling the potatoes, started cutting them up, the two of them chit chatting as they worked. When Jessica was done with the cheese, she got out a small knife, helped with the potatoes.
The two of them had started layering the potatoes and cheese in a large, rectangular foil dish when Josh arrived.
Jessica’s stress level, which had been at simmer all day, thanks to the possibility of seeing Henry at dinner, spiked now.
Had he come?
Part of her hoped he had, another part of her hoped he hadn’t.
It was one thing to put on a front and act like nothing had happened for the five minutes she saw him in the mornings at the bakery, it was another to keep that act up for a whole evening.
It registered with Jessica that only one set of footsteps approached from the front hall.
“Hey, sweetie.” her mom said in greeting, when Josh appeared in the doorway. He was in a dark colored T-shirt and khaki’s.
“Hey, mom. Hey, Jess.” he greeted.
“Hey.” Jessica returned, sprinkling the last of the cheese over the spuds.
“Henry not joining us tonight?” her mom asked, laying a sheet of aluminum foil over the prepared dish.
“No.” Josh replied.
Relief filled Jessica at that. Her acting skills wouldn’t be put to the test tonight.
She wished she didn’t have to pretend like everything was the same as it had been. She was only doing so because Henry was. If he’d come tonight, and they’d had a moment alone, she probably would have ended up embarrassing herself because she wouldn’t have been able to resist bringing up what had happened last Sunday.
“Hon, would you please take these down to your dad?” her mom’s voice cut into her musings.
Jessica blinked, replied with a ‘yep’, and accepted the foil dish from her mom. She made her way downstairs, through the rec room and over to the patio door.
Her dad, seeing her coming, opened the screen door for her.
“Hey, Jessy.” he smiled as she stepped outside.
“Hey, dad.” she smiled back.
Her dad lifted the lid of the barbecue, took the potatoes out of her hands with a ‘thanks’, set them down on the grill and closed the lid.
That done, he turned back to her.
“Josh here yet?” he asked.
Jessica nodded. “He’s upstairs with mom.” she informed him.
She swept her gaze out over the yard.
“You guys opened the pool.” she stated, and started towards it, the patio stones slightly rough against the soles of her feet.
Stopping at the edge of the inground, she grabbed onto the ladder for balance, dipped her toe into the water, checking the temperature. She guessed it was around seventy.
Her dad stepped up beside her.
“Got it open yesterday.” he said. “Had the solar blanket on it today. It was at 73 when I took the blanket off a little while ago.”
“You been in yet?” Jessica asked.
She knew her mom hadn’t been in, and wouldn’t be in until the temperature reached eighty.
“Not yet.” her dad replied. “I might go in after supper.”
Maybe she would too.
The sound of the screen door sliding open had Jessica and her dad turning around.
“Hey, dad.” Josh said, stepping out of the house.
“Hey, bud. How’s it going?”
“Good.” Josh replied. He came over and joined her and their dad by the pool. “Mom said to let her know when you want the steaks.”
Jessica knew that wouldn’t be for a bit. It would take a while for the potatoes to cook.
Her dad nodded.
The three of them went over and sat down at the glass-top patio table. Her dad opened up the umbrella that came up through the middle of the table, shading them from the sun. Relaxing back in his chair, he propped one ankle up on the opposite knee. Beside her, Josh adopted the same pose.
“You guys know when your first game is yet?” their dad asked.
Jessica and Josh both played baseball, had since they were little, their dad passing on his love of the game to them.
Josh played on an all guy’s fast-pitch team with Henry. Jessica played on a mixed slow-pitch team with Laura. Both leagues started their season around the end of May, beginning of June, and ended the first or second weekend in August.
Baseball was actually how Jessica had met Laura. They’d both tried out for their high school’s softball team. They’d clicked as soon as they’d met, bonded over shared interests and a matching, quirky sense of humour.
“Mine’s Saturday.” Josh replied. “One-thirty.”
“Friday night.” Jessica shared. “Eight o’clock, I think.”
“Greendale Park?” their dad asked, guessing correctly.
It was an easy guess. Greendale Park was a huge area, with five baseball diamonds, two soccer fields, a small playground and splash pad for kids, and a hockey rink. It was where they played most of their games.
She and Josh both confirmed the location with nods.
“Mom and I will be there.” their dad said, unnecessarily.
Their parents went to every one of their games.
For the next while, she, Josh and their dad talked ball, local and MLB, the conversation declining into good-natured digs and gibes.
She and Josh were fans of the Chicago Cubs while their dad was a fan of the Yankees.
After a while, their dad got up, checked the potatoes. After replacing the foil over them, he shut the lid on the barbecue and headed inside.
Guess the potatoes were getting near done.
Jessica cast her gaze toward the pool, and the yard beyond. Looked like her mom or dad had recently cut the grass. The lawn was still a nice green, but Jessica knew as the days got hotter, it would fade to a dried out yellow.
“What happened between you and Henry last Sunday?” Josh asked out of the blue.
Her gaze swung over to him.
“Nothing.” she lied, furrowing her brow. “Why?” she asked, playing innocent for all she was worth.
He didn’t need to know she and Henry had almost kissed.
If nothing was going to come of it, there was no point talking about it.
“Something obviously happened. I left you guys for two minutes, when I came back you were both acting weird. And Henry’s been... off, this week.” Josh replied.
Off? Off in what way? Jessica wondered.
“He’s been quieter.” Josh said, answering her question without her having to ask it. “And... moody.” he added.
Jessica shouldn’t feel pleasure at hearing that, but she did. It was nice to know, that even though he was acting like nothing had happened, he was just as affected by their almost kiss as she was.
“What happened between you?” Josh repeated his question.
“Nothing.” Jessica repeated.
Her brother gave her an ‘I don’t believe you’ look.
Yeah, she wouldn’t believe her either.
Tough luck, brother.
That was her story, and she was sticking to it.