The hospital’s parking lot is large and full and hides Rod’s gray truck. After stopping at the information desk to find Eden’s room, I swing by the gift shop for a small bouquet of carnations.
I’ve never met Eden, so this will be awkward. I should’ve thought this through more. My stomach twists into knots, and I want to throw up on my mint green T-shirt. Not a good look, so I take a deep breath and step into the empty elevator.
When the door opens, I step out and look both ways, unsure of where I’m going. I read the signs on the wall, pointing the way. I try to avoid peering into rooms and invading anyone’s privacy since I’m doing that to Eden. I round the fourth corner and see a brown-haired man wearing a white T-shirt with his back to me, gazing out the window at the end of the hall. A hand is in his hip pocket, and the other is on his face. His hair is shorter and edgier.
I quietly walk to him, not knowing what to say or how to even present myself. However, he turns and sadly sniffs, and when he sees me, his expression morphs into confusion. “Hadders?”
Stopping in front of him, I tentatively smile. “I think that’s me. But I go by other names.”
Rod smiles in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”
I notice his accent has returned, more pronounced than when he talks about North Carolina in Richmond. I bite my lip before I whisper, “I thought you needed a friend.”
Rod’s eyes fill with new tears. “Oh, my God. You’re the best.” He bends and hugs me. He smells good, like the Greg Rodwell I know, despite any new changes. My stomach aches, but I squeeze him back, happy to be where I’m needed.
Careful not to spill the vase of flowers, I slowly let go of him. Still in awe, he says, “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“Is it okay that I am? I don’t want to intrude.”
He wipes his eyes with the heel of his hand and then shakes his head. “You’re fine.”
“How is she doing?”
“She has a lung infection. CF has weakened her body more, so she’s in here as a precaution. An infection or pneumonia will be what kills her. This could be it, or it might be next time. It’s all a crapshoot.”
I cringe. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t be here then.”
Rod clutches my shoulder and tilts his head as a smile appears. “No. It’s cool. I’m glad you are.”
Glancing down the hall, I ask, “Are you sure? I can go.”
He drops his hand and thrusts both into his pockets, nodding to a nearby room. “Eden’s asleep. My mom is with her. They finally calmed her down with drugs.”
“Who? Your mom?”
He snorts. “No. Eden. She’s pissed off. She hates that we’re all hanging over her and doesn’t think she should be in here.”
“She might be mad that I’m here. She doesn’t know me.”
“No, I want you to meet her. She may be more civilized when it’s not a family member she’s abusing.”
“At least she’s talking.”
“Talking? Hell, she was yelling and throwing shit. They moved her to a room by herself and had to sedate her. She’s acting like she’s three, not thirty. She threw one piss fit because she wanted makeup. My mom brought some to shut her the fuck up.” Rod takes his hand out of his pocket and pulls on my arm, and I trail him to a closed door. “You can meet my mom. She’s not as scary.” He grins at me as we stop at the door. “Most of the time.” He turns around, leans his back against it, and pushes the door, tugging me with him.
Inside the room, the shades are drawn, along with the brown-and-white curtain around the bed. Rod tows me with him to the other side, where a dark-haired woman with glasses is holding a magazine. Seeing Rod and me, her expression is inquisitive.
Rod quietly says, “Mom, this is my friend, Hadley.”
She instantly smiles. “Your coworker?” He nods and smiles at me. Setting down her magazine, she offers her hand. “I’m Lizette Abramson. It’s so nice to meet you, Hadley. Greg talks about you all the time.”
I blurt out, “He does?” Why?
Annoyed, Rod grumbles, “Okay, Mom. Enough. Hadley came down here to see E.” He takes my vase and sets it on Eden’s tray.
His mom replies, “You’ve been such a good friend to him. He thinks very highly of you.”
“Mom, zip your hole already!” he hisses, which makes me giggle.
As he continues to mouth his rant to his mother, I glance at the petite woman sleeping with an oxygen tube in her nose and an IV bag hanging next to the computer screen displaying her vitals. Her dark blonde hair with black tips, matching her eye shadow, fans over her pillow while her dark maroon lips contrast her porcelain skin. Even in sleep, she looks rebellious, and nothing like I had expected.
“You came all the way down here for Eden?” Rod’s mom asks. She looks from me to Rod, smiling but tired. “That’s so nice of you. You’re such a good friend.”
“Greg has been there for me. I owe him a lot.”
He elbows me. “Shut your trap. You don’t owe me a thing.”
Lizette asks, “Are you driving home tonight?”
“No. I’ll hang around for a couple of days. I’m going to check into a hotel.”
“Have you eaten?” she asks me and then says to Rod, “Your dad is in the cafeteria with Sherry and the girls if you two want to go down there.”
He turns to me. “You hungry?”
I shrug. “A little.” Not really.
She waves us off. “Eden will probably be asleep for a while. Go eat.”
Rod grabs my arm and leads me out of the room. He lets go of me as we walk to the elevator bank. “I still can’t believe you’re here. I didn’t think you’d get my message.”
My eyebrows pull together as I peer up at him. “What message?”
“I left you a voicemail.” He pushes the call button, and we wait.
“I didn’t get it.”
“Hadders, that phone of yours sucks major ass.” A preteen boy walks past and snickers.
I roll my eyes. “Morgan told me where you were.”
“Amos and his fat mouth. That hag is glad I’m gone.”
“No. She was sad to hear about Eden. She’s not evil.”
Rod uncomfortably glances at the floor. “Maybe she’s not outright evil. I just...” When he looks back up, he leaves his thought when the elevator dings, and we step in as an older couple exits. “What did your boyfriend say?”
I swallow and twist my ponytail while peering at my blurry reflection. “He doesn’t know.”
Rod’s bottom lip practically sweeps the elevator’s floor. “You left without telling him where you were going and why? That’s kind of a dick move, Hadders.”
I huff, “Rod, he’s somewhere in Pennsylvania. He didn’t even mention what city. He’s been gone since after practice Sunday and will be home tonight. And then he leaves in the morning to go to Kentucky until Sunday. I’ll call him later.”
“Won’t he be mad?”
“Your sister is sick. He’ll understand.”
Propping his fist above the button panel, he ruefully smiles at me. “I think Wilder’s gonna blow a damn gasket.” The door opens, and Rod hooks his arm through mine, once again tugging me. We walk down the hallway a short distance to the cafeteria. We enter the brightly lit room, and he stops suddenly, and I ram into his side.
I peer across the room to a table where a blond man wearing jeans and a white T-shirt sits, eating a sandwich. Going up to his chair, Rod kicks the chair leg, making the man look up and then over his shoulder. Rod sneers, “Hey, douche canoe.”
“I figured it was my ex-wife’s spawn I accidentally fathered,” he mutters with a chuckle. I smile as Rod yanks me forward. When I see his dad’s face, the blond hair, glasses, brown eyes, and graying blond goatee surprises me. Rod looks nothing like his dad.
Seeing me with his son, his dad seems surprised, as well. “Hi. I didn’t know someone was with Greg. My sympathies.” Rod may not look like his dad, but he has his sense of humor.
I laugh as Rod says, “This is my friend Hadley. This degenerate is apparently my dad.”
He sticks out his hand, and I take it with a smile. “Tab Rodwell. Nice to meet you, Hadley. Greg says wonderful things about you, unlike what he says about me, his father.”
Rod snorts. “DNA has never proven it.”
“You’re right. I’d like a refund.”
“Maybe I’ll find a real psychologist instead of a dime shrink like you.”
Tab laughs. “Why don’t you buy Hadley dinner instead of beating down your old man?”
Smirking, Rod says, “Old, the operative word.” He puts his hands on his hips and assesses the light crowd in the cafeteria. “Where are Sherry and the girls?”
“Home. Josie has tickets to a concert. Tabitha has a final project due tomorrow, and Ashley was bored. I think your mom is staying with Eden tonight if E doesn’t kick her out. Hadley, are you driving to Richmond tonight?”
“No. I’m staying at a hotel.” I tighten my ponytail as Rod’s dad stands and gathers his trash. He warmly smiles and waves his hand. “No, you won’t. You’ll stay at my house. We have plenty of room.”
I shake my head. “That’s okay. I’m fine in a hotel.”
“Please. It’s the least I can do. I insist.”
“Ha, ha, Hadders!” I uneasily scowl at Rod, which makes him laugh louder.
Tab says, “I’d better get upstairs. I’ll see you later, Hadley. And please, don’t hold it against me that Greg has my last name. They required it for the birth certificate, and I lost the coin toss.” I giggle as Rod scratches his chin with his middle finger, making his dad roll his eyes with a chuckle.
“Clever, son. Did your sister teach you that one?” Which sister?
“No. My stepmom did.” Tab laughs, shaking his head as he leaves.
Once we pick out our food, and Rod shoves me out of the way at the cash register, we make our way over to his dad’s vacated table. I pick up my salad, and Rod takes his burrito. As I take a bite, he frowns. “Don’t you ever eat anything besides salad and yogurt?”
“No. It’s against my religion.” I smile down at my salad and feel his eyes rolling.
“How’s your stomach?” He picks at his burrito as he awaits my answer.
“Still hurts a little, but it’s better than it was.”
“Shouldn’t it not hurt so much by now?”
I glance up at him between bites. “You have a good swing.”
His gaze drops to the table. “Oh. Right. Sorry.”
Now feeling bad, I ask, “So, you grew up in Durham?”
Looking up, he nods. “My parents divorced when I was seven. Dad remarried.”
“You have five or six sisters?”
“Six. Eden, two steps, Mazie and Sophie. Three halves, Josie, Tabitha, and Ashley. Mazie is older than me by a year and is a pharmacist. Sophie is a choreographer and taught me a thing or two. Jo is seventeen and will go to college and major as a whore. Tabby is fifteen, and wallpaper paste is more interesting than her. Ash is thirteen and manlier than me. I think she’s a lesbian.”
“Rod. That doesn’t mean she’s a lesbian, and so what if she is?”
“Good for her. She’ll score more than me.”
“Do you like your stepmom?”
“Yeah. She’s a gyno. I wish she’d bring me samples.”
With a gargantuan bite of his burrito, he finishes it and crumples his food wrapper. “When we’re done, we can see if E is awake. If not, we’ll go to my dad’s and come back tomorrow.”
“She’s lucky to have you.”
He winces, and his lips pull contritely to the side. “Contrary to popular belief, I’m not an idiot. I know she doesn’t have another year.”
“Just know that you’re not alone.”
He nods at the table. “Thanks, Hadders. That means a lot to me. I feel better having you here.”
I smile. “I’m glad to be, Rod.”
“I don’t hear her mouth. Is she still asleep?” Rod whispers to his mom.
“Yes. The nurse just checked her vitals. She’s stable. Most likely, she’ll sleep for a few more hours. You two should head out.”
“Yeah. Dad invited Hadley to stay with us.”
“That’s what he said. Get sleep and check in tomorrow. She might be up for visitors.”
“Oh, I doubt that, but we’ll be here.”
She quietly laughs. “She wants out of here. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow, Hadley. I know Eden wants to meet you.”
I glance over at Eden and smile. “I just pray she gets better.”
“Me, too, honey.” She sighs and looks at her daughter. “Me, too.”
I follow Rod’s truck about five miles to his dad’s dark red brick house. It’s even bigger than Julie’s. I should’ve been a doctor.
Taking me to the guest room, Rod asks, “Do you want to go for a walk?”
He sets my suitcase onto the bench at the end of the bed. “You take walks?”
“No, I float like a damn ghost.” I roll my eyes and rifle through my purse to find my phone. “We can get high at the park.”
Dropping my purse onto the bed, I spin around. “What?”
He snorts. “I’m kidding. We’ll shoot water guns at small children. Aim at their pants so they’ll get in trouble for pissing themselves.”
Laughing, I wheeze, “You’re seriously twisted. Maybe you are high.”
He shrugs. “It’s good, clean fun! Come on, Hadders.” He slings his arm around my shoulders and pulls me toward the basement’s sliding glass door.
When we reach the park a block away, Rod leads me to the swings, where he loudly yells, “Let’s be swingers, bitch!” The two teen girls on the other side of the playground, sitting and talking on a see-saw, laugh.
I cringe but tease, “I hear you’re a swinging slut.”
He whirls around to face me, twisting the chains together. “Me? No way. I’m a good boy.”
“That’s hard to believe.”
“I am! You’re the one who doesn’t get down and dirty with a certain Richmond hotshot.”
“I tried!” I cover my mouth and close my eyes. Shit! I really need duct tape for my mouth.
When I don’t hear a snarky response, I crack an eye open to see his mouth gaping. “No, you didn’t!”
I fist my hands over my eyes and hang my head. “I don’t know why I just told you that.”
“I don’t know why you did, either. Holy fuck.”
After a moment of awkward silence between us, I sigh and sit up, gazing at the surrounding woods, hoping a sniper takes me out.
Rod is quiet for five seconds until he says, “Yeah. So, you sucked Wilder’s c—”
“Shut up!” He giggles and holding onto the swing’s chains, I lower my head. “Oh, dear God. I have such a big mouth.”
“Did he moan his gratitude for that?” He twists to shove my swing with his foot, sending me sideways, and we both laugh harder.
When my giggles subside with the momentum of my swing, I confess, “I didn’t get very far with it.”
“Why? Did you get bored?”
I frown. “No. We were at his mom’s, and his sister knocked on the door. It kind of killed the mood.”
“Yeah, that would deflate a boner.” I nod as he shakes his head. “I can’t believe you blew Finn Wilder.”
I snort. “I technically didn’t, and he’s not some big celebrity. He’s just my boyfriend, Rod. You said I was a freak because I hadn’t done it.”
“You’re not a freak. I was only joking. I hope you didn’t feel pressured because of my teasing. Hadders, you’re a great friend.” He inhales and scuffs the ground with his sharp-looking high tops and mumbles, “You’re my best friend.”
Lifting my head, I stare at him in astonishment as he stares at the ground. “R-Rod, that’s so nice to say. It’s not a big deal I came down here.”
He noddingly looks up at me. “Yes, it is. That’s not why I’m saying you are. You make me laugh at and with you. You give good advice and are such a good listener.” He runs his tongue between his teeth. “And I also hear you give unbelievable head.” He twirls his swing around, twisting the chains together while mischievously grinning. “It’s Finntastic!”
“I’m going to punch you in the face.” He giggles, and I ask, “How many women have sampled your Rodsicle?”
Rod stops his twisting as he throws his head back and disbelieving laughs. “I can’t believe you just referred to my penis as that.”
“I did. Answer the question. It’s only fair.”
“Too many to count.” He unwinds his swing and spins around in a dizzying move that makes me lightheaded to watch.
“I thought you said you weren’t a whore?”
“What? That’s not whorish, is it?”
I roll my eyes. “So, you’re not telling me?”
Sighing, he looks down to his shoes and mutters, “Two. That’s how many.”
He immediately looks up. “My turn. What’s your grand total of guys, you humped?”
“So eloquent. How’d we get into this conversation anyway?”
“It was all you. I was gonna to talk ’bout puppies and kittens.”
“Oh, right. It was me. Four. Three were brief and stupid mistakes.”
“Is Wilder one of them?”
I frown at his smirk. “Shut up!”
“Maybe you regret his small wee-wee.”
“You’re obsessed with what’s in his boxers.”
“Like I said, he’s a quasi-celeb.”
I grin. “He’ll be a full-blown one someday.”
Rod grins more. “With you, he’ll never be full-blown.”
“Gregory!” I pump my legs to get swinging. “He’ll be a big TV personality on a sports show. He was born a star. I’m just afraid he’ll leave me then.” Would he for fame?
“He’d never leave his Becks. Anyway, who knows. So, he wears boxers? Nice.”
“He mixes it up. Now you?”
I purse my lips. “No. I meant your tally, but thanks for that mental picture.”
He hangs onto the chains and leans back, kicking his legs up. “Aw, yeah. You love thinking of me in my skivvies.”
“Answer the question.”
Rod angles his head back to peer up at the sky. “Same as my first answer.”
I lower my head. “Two?” He nods up at the sky, and I say, “That’s cool.” It’s actually nice to hear.
“That’s fucking lame. I’m embarrassed to have a dick.”
“Wow, Rod. That’s a little much. Were you in love with either?”
He fleetingly glances at me as he lowers his head. “Uh, yeah, the first girl. She broke up with me and moved away. I haven’t heard from her since.”
“Is that the only time you’ve ever been in love?”
Rod glances to the road. “No. One other time, but it was unrequited. She had a boyfriend.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
Watching a car drive past the park, he quietly says, “I’ve moved past it. He was there first, and I couldn’t compete. She’s happy. We’re still friends.”
“That’s good. You’ll find your true love someday.”
“Maybe.” He looks back at me and arches an eyebrow. “Are you sure Wilder’s the one?”
Even though I’m so mad at him and hurt by his revelations, I don’t hesitate. “Yes, he is. I knew it from our first kiss.”
“Which lips did he kiss?”
I scowl at his grin. “Perv.”
“Just asking. Where were his hands?”
“I’d say my cheeks, but you’d take that the wrong way.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
I kick at the dirt and worn grass beneath my feet. “I feel like I’m not good enough for him, or he’d rather have someone else.”
“He wants you, Hadley. Trust me.”
The unexpected serious tone he uses brings my head up. “How do you know for sure?”
He looks out at the park in front of us. “Because he does.”
“Rod, you know something.”
“Let’s just say I had a chat with him recently.”
“In the church, setting up for the shower.”
“What happened? You two didn’t argue, did you?”
“Somewhat. He’s fucking jealous again.”
“Me. Any guy that looks at you. He flat out asked me if I’m in love with you.”
My eyes widen. “He asked you that?” Finn Wilder, what’s wrong with you?
“Yeah. I told him again we’re only friends, but he doesn’t believe me.”
“I wonder if Cara is telling him shit.”
“I don’t trust that fucking bitch. When you weren’t at practice, and Wilder was talking to Val, Cara asked me if I had a crush on you. She probably saw from the look on my face I didn’t appreciate that question. But I think she took that as a yes. That chick is creepier than a box of rag plugs in a church.”
“Oh, she wants Finn. Ricky said so.”
He leans toward me, pulling his swing with him. “He did?”
“Yep. I overheard him telling Finn. He also told Ricky about our sex life.”
Rod’s twangy voice gains an edge. “Was he making fun of you?”
“No, but that I’ve been acting differently. It was mortifying. I wanted to die, Greg.”
Confusion colors his face. “How have you been acting? I haven’t noticed a change.”
“Finn has. He said he doesn’t tell Ricky personal things like that. I guess he lied.”
Rod sheepishly smiles. “Well, you’re telling me personal things about him.”
I reluctantly nod. “I’m just really embarrassed.” I sigh before blurting out, “I’ve wanted sex more.”
Rod’s eyes nearly pop out of his head. “Wow.”
Too late to stop my confessions, I say, “That’s not all. Ever since Easter weekend, he skips condoms.”
“I don’t understand it. After our arguments about me going on the Pill and his not wanting kids now, he doesn’t use protection. I’ve tried offering, but he doesn’t wait long enough. He loves the rush so much.”
Rod tolerantly smiles at me like I’m a kindergartener who can’t get the hang of holding a pair of blunt-tipped scissors for the fifth time. “Hadders, Wilder wants to knock you up.”
I shake my head as I watch a fat robin bob along the grass. “There’s no way. It’s just the risk-taker taking risks.”
Rod blows air between his teeth in a scoff. “Wilder’s full of shit. No sane guy who doesn’t want a baby will ditch a jizz lid, no matter how much they hate ’em. It’s a fact.”
I snort. “A what?”
He incredulously tilts his head. “Really?”
I roll my eyes. “I got it.”
“Maybe he changed his mind and ain’t telling you. Wilder’s not stupid. He’s trying to get you pregnant. That’s definite.”
I laugh in disbelief. “But why would he suddenly change his mind and not tell me?”
He shrugs. “That one is a mystery.”
“What isn’t a stretch is that he’s been jumping again. He and Ricky talked about him doing it under the radar.”
Rod’s mouth falls open. “Has he jumped New River again?”
“I don’t think so. He reports from the bridge every year on Bridge Day, but he always tells people he’s not doing it anymore when they ask. He knows I’d never miss that broadcast. That bridge represents so much in our relationship. But he’s doing something big and lying to me about it.”
“What does Morticia say about all this?”
“I haven’t told her.” I take a deep breath. “She’ll tell me to ditch him. That’s her answer for all his shortcomings. Break up with him and don’t look back.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?”
Glancing at Rod on the swing next to me, I shrug as a smile edges onto my lips. “I don’t know. Maybe because I’m hoping you’ll accept me for being crazy, as is.”
“You’re not crazy. You love him. I know that. And I’m positive he loves you more than leaping from tall shit.” He smiles at me in return. “You can tell me anything, Hadley. I only tease you, but I would never do it to be mean and hurt you.”
I roll my eyes. “Except for making fun of my height.”
“Yeah, except that. You’re cute like a little bunny rabbit with a gimp leg.”
I loudly laugh with a snort. “What the hell?”
He giggles. “Don’t tell me that ain’t damn cute shit right there.”
When we get back from the park, I take a shower and sit on the white bedspread covering the queen-size bed in the guest room. I try calling Finn, but there’s no answer, so I leave a voicemail, telling him where I am.
What’s he doing? Is he on a work trip, or is he tripping off ledges again?
Exhausted, I say a prayer for Eden and her family. Before falling into a fast sleep, I also say one for Finn and his safe return. So I can kill him myself.