Scott quickened his pace, running after Jenny who’d just shot off after seeing a butterfly breeze past her face. Now she was on the hunt, determined to follow the butterfly back to its home, and Scott was trying to keep up with her. It sounded easy, she was only little, but she kept changing direction, zipping off somewhere new every time he’d finally caught up.
“Come here.” He said scooping her up before she could take off again. She giggled as he swung her through the air. He carried her like this all the way back to the manor, pretending to drop her every so often just to add a bit of danger to the pretend aeroplane flight. It only made Jenny giggle harder, loving the thrill that came with plummeting toward the ground. One day she was going to be one badass with roller-coasters.
“Momma, momma.” Jenny called as Eliza came into view, waiting on the porch for them. Scott placed her on the ground and she bolted toward her mother, throwing herself into her lap and wrapping her arms around Eliza’s neck as she recounted the awesome afternoon she’d spent at Dawn Lake, her Uncle Scott teaching her how to swim.
“I almost swimmed all by myself.” She squealed with delight.
“Swam.” Eliza corrected.
“I’m gonna be the bestest swimmer in the whole wide world.”
“Well…” Eliza began, going to correct Jenny again. She soon changed her mind and smiled in agreement. She looked up and greeted Scott with a nod, her eyes quickly flickering to the tattoo on his chest. “Nice tattoo.”
Her tone said it was anything but nice, it said he was pathetic, and he was. He’d gotten it done right after Natalie had left the city and come back to Spring Fields, it was simple, just her name, tattooed over his heart. It was corny and dramatic, but he’d been devastated by her leaving and he’d needed something to hold onto her with. He’d got the tattoo, and he’d never dreamed of having it removed.
“Hey guys.” Came a male voice from behind Scott, one that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Ryan. Bloody Ryan. Why was this guy always around?
“Yo.” Scott said coldly.
“Hi.” Eliza said equally as cold, Scott got the feeling she wasn’t a huge fan of Ryan, but she’d never confirmed it aloud.
“Hey Ryan.” Jenny added, copying the tone Scott and Eliza had used.
“Has something happened?” He asked, confused by the cold greetings.
“Nope.” Scott replied turning to face him.
“Then what’s with…” His voice trailed off, his eyes fixed on Scott’s bare chest. Scott didn’t know whether to be scared or creeped out by it. “What the hell is that?”
Scott looked down and was suddenly hit with the realisation. The tattoo. The tattoo that said Natalie. He was so used to it by now he barely even noticed it, had completely forgotten about it within the space since Eliza had mentioned it.
Ryan’s eyes finally met Scott’s, and they filled with loathing and disdain as they sized him up, pissed off Scott had Natalie’s name tattooed across his chest.
“I knew it.” Ryan all but hissed. “I knew you were still in love with her.”
“Ryan come on.” Eliza said, trying to ease some of the tension.
“Stay away from her.” Ryan warned, ignoring Eliza. “I know you showed up at our house the other night. Don’t ever do it again. Don’t seek her out. Don’t be here when she comes over. Just stay the hell away from her. Got it?”
Scott shook his head. How was Natalie with this asshole? He wanted her to be happy, he was glad she’d moved on and found someone who made her happy. But Ryan? Really? Anyone else would be better than Ryan. Even Pete would be better than Ryan.
“Natalie’s a big girl. She can handle my showing up.”
“She doesn’t want you showing up.” Ryan snapped. “So stop showing up. You’re not gonna win her back.”
“Damn. I wish I’d known that. The air fare I could’ve saved.”
Out of nowhere Ryan’s fist slammed into him, he assumed the guy had been aiming for his face, but instead he’d got his neck. The force smacked the air out of his lungs, and for a few seconds Scott was overcome with dizziness, thrown off guard by the assault as he tried to catch his breath.
What the hell?
Ryan had just punched him.
In the fucking neck.
He looked up, eyes narrowed, and saw Ryan with his fists up, shielding his face, ready to block any retaliation Scott may have been planning.
“You’re not gonna win her back.” Ryan repeated angrily. “Why can’t you just accept that and leave her alone? You’re pathetic.”
“Yeah, I’m the pathetic one.” He snapped, his neck still throbbing from the hit.
“I should have decked you that first night I met you.”
“We all make mistakes.” Scott retorted, straightening up. “We done here?”
He didn’t stick around for an answer. He wasn’t going to stick around and listen to Ryan go off at him any longer. Screw that. Screw him. And screw Natalie for being with him.
He shoved past Ryan and headed around the house, disappearing into the orchard. Exploring it sounded like a great idea right now. He’d spend the rest of the day trenching through the extravagant property, filled with the rows of fruit trees his family had been cultivating for years. He’d get lost in it, maybe he’d never come out. No one would miss him anyway. Why the hell had he even come back?
“You what?” Natalie asked after Ryan had finished recounting the story of how he’d punched Scott. Apparently he’d gone over to talk to him, ask him to back off, but had seen her name tattooed across his chest and punched him instead. At first all she’d been able to focus on was the fact Scott had tattooed her name across his chest. He’d branded himself with her name like an idiot. At least she tried to convince herself he was idiot when really the thought brought a wave of heat to her cheeks. So she’d decided to focus on the punching part instead.
Natalie knew Ryan had a jealous streak. It often came out when the single dads at school would harmlessly flirt with her, or when some random guy would check her out, but he’d never done something like this before.
“I’m sorry.” He said. “I just lost it. He was just standing there, looking all smug, and he wasn’t taking anything I said seriously. Then I saw the tattoo and I lost it. He wants you back Natalie.”
“No he doesn’t.” She said. “Oh my God Ryan. He’s not trying to get me back. Why would you punch him?”
“You said that already.”
“Yeah but I’m…”
“I know, you’re sorry.”
He opened his mouth, probably to apologise again, but she wasn’t sticking around. She stormed into their bedroom, changed out of her pyjamas and threw on the first sundress she could find. She needed to find Scott and sort everything out. This was getting too crazy. She couldn’t avoid him anymore and they couldn’t be weird around one another anymore. Whatever awkwardness was between them they needed to get over it.
“Where are you going?” Ryan asked. “Are you going to check on him?”
“Someone should.” She snapped, storming out the house.
She rushed to her car before Ryan could stop her and pulled out onto the road. It took her five minutes to get to the Garrison property, and another five to make it up the long driveway to their house. Their town was small, and this house and its orchard took up half of it.
She put her car in park and angrily approached the door. She was just about to knock when she stopped herself. She needed to calm down. She wasn’t angry with Scott, she was angry with Ryan.
Taking a deep breath, she pressed the doorbell.
“Hey.” Pete greeted happily when he saw her.
“I’m here to see Scott.” She said.
“I figured this was gonna happen sooner or later.” He replied. “Look, Natalie, you have a good thing with Ryan. Don’t throw that away for my brother.”
“Okay, that came out of nowhere.”
“I think you two should just stay away from each other.” He continued. “You might think your intentions are innocent but there’s just too much history.”
“I’m not here to…” Oh screw it, no one was listening to her anyway. “Is he here or not?
“Natalie, he’s bad for you.”
“I didn’t come here for a lecture, I just came here to talk to him for a minute.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, for you or for him. Natalie, just go.”
This was unbelievable. She was even angrier than she’d been before. It was like she was 16 again, except people were no longer nagging her about beauty pageants and now they were nagging her about Scott, once again making decisions for her because apparently she was too stupid to make them herself.
She was halfway back to her car when she heard the door to the Garrison Manor shut. She turned to make sure Pete was gone and only then did she round the corner, heading for the window to Scott’s room. If Pete wasn’t going to let her in then she’d just grab Scott’s attention some other way.
The moment she turned the corner she saw him, sitting in a crappy old lawn chair beside the air-vent just like he’d always done when they were 16. She felt like she’d been transported back in time, nervously approaching him with a broken arm and a cast for him to sign. Things were much simpler back then.
“Hey.” She said, leaning against the wall beside him.
“Hey.” He replied.
“Still creepily eavesdropping on everyone’s conversations?”
“Oh like you haven’t used it over the years.” He mocked.
“Not as often as I’d like.” She admitted. “Someone’s always with me these days, and I don’t know, I never really wanted to show it to anyone.”
The corners of his lips twitched into a smile that he quickly suppressed, trying to hide that this made him happy. Natalie suppressed a smile of her own. She was happy too, happy that her anger was starting to fade, happy that this didn’t feel awkward. It felt natural, normal, good.
The two of them sat in silence for a moment, listening to the noise coming from the air vent.
“No Jenny.” Came Bryce’s voice. “Ettian is Phoebe’s boyfriend, not Fiona’s. Fiona is his sister.”
“But I like Fiona and Ettian.” Jenny complained.
“That would be incest. Here, play with Derek, he’s an only child he can be with anyone.” There was a pause where Natalie assumed Bryce handed the toy to his sister, then, “He can’t be with Tamrin, she’s married to Jason, they have a child together.”
“I hate playing Barbies with you.” Jenny exclaimed. “You never let me do anything.”
Both Natalie and Scott laughed, their eyes meeting, his clear blue eyes shining in the darkness.
“How’s your eye?” She asked.
“He told you about that huh?”
“I’m impressed.” Scott commented. “I thought the little weasel would try lie about it.”
“And your eye?”
“Is perfectly fine. He got my neck.”
“Yep. The neck.” He turned to face her, giving her a better look at the damage. It was a bit swollen, but other than that it seemed fine. “You need to teach your man how to throw a punch. I doubt this is even gonna bruise.”
“He got your neck. Necks don’t bruise.”
“No they don’t. I’m just gonna have a knuckle imprint there for a couple weeks.” She laughed at his joke and relaxed against the wall. He was fine. He didn’t like Ryan but he wasn’t going to hold a grudge. Ryan on the other hand was another story.
“I’m sorry.” She said. “About your neck. It’s my fault.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yeah it is. I have no idea how to act around you.”
“Yeah, well, we didn’t exactly end in a good place.”
“No, we didn’t. And everyone knows it. That’s the problem.” She admitted. “They all expect me to act a certain way around you. They all expect me to be angry. To…I don’t know…walk around saying how much I hate you, and how much you ruined my life, and how much it sucks that your back. But I’m not angry anymore.”
“No.” She said firmly. “I had to make a choice a long time ago Scott. I could either be angry with you or I could just let it go. I chose not to be angry anymore. And I don’t know how to act around you because everyone else expects me to still be mad. I was avoiding you, partly because I was freaking out, but mostly because I just, I’m still figuring out what to make of you now. This all still feels so surreal.”
Natalie waited for him to say something, add in his thoughts on the matter, but when she looked at him she saw his gaze was fixed forward. He was just staring out into the darkness, his mind a million miles away. She desperately wanted to know what he was thinking, but she knew he’d never tell her. He had that faraway look in his eyes, one she hadn’t seen since the weeks leading up to their breakup.
A familiar feeling tugged at her chest and she instantly knew what it was. It was sadness. He just looked so lost, like he was fighting this internal battle, alone. She couldn’t help but feel sad for him, for the way he shut himself off from everyone because when he’d opened up they’d let him down.
“I’m sorry.” He said softly, still staring out into the darkness.
“For what?” She asked.
“For how we ended. I never should have done that to you.”
“Scott I can’t…”
“You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to forgive me. I just needed you to know that I’m sorry.” His voice was raw, like she imagined her’s would be if she spoke right now.
She was glad for the darkness then, glad he wasn’t looking at her. If he did, he’d see the tears that had formed in her eyes, how close she was to falling apart.
“Thank you.” She said. She couldn’t bring herself to say anything more. She couldn’t trust herself to speak. All she could do was nod a polite goodbye and go home.
Except she couldn’t really go home. Ryan was there, and she didn’t want to see him right now. This moment with Scott, in its own way, had been achingly beautiful. She didn’t want Ryan to ruin it, she wanted to add it to the rest of the Scott memories she held close. So instead of going home, she kept driving, all the way to Fall Creek, the next town over where her mother had moved a couple years ago.