He shrugged, hiding a yawn behind his mug. “I decided to come early.” He was quiet a moment. “I didn’t know you’d moved up a grade.” His eyes lingered on me. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d be missing your own graduation?”
I scoffed. “You’re right, Nate. I must be the genius in this family if you can’t figure that one out. You would’ve said something to Mom and Dad, and you all would’ve made me go.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, I agree with your boyfriend. He told me before he realized I didn’t know you were graduating this year. I agree with the punk.” Nate scowled. “Owen would want you to do it, and you know that. It’s why you didn’t say anything.”
He didn’t get it.
No one did. Even Blaise.
Owen would’ve understood.
“I’m a loser.”
“Aspen.” Nate put down his mug.
I moved away, turning away. “No. I am. I mean, I just am. Girls either didn’t like me—even in elementary school—or they only liked me for Owen. You and he were popular. I wasn’t. I’ve always been ‘off’ from the mainstream, you know? School was where Owen succeeded socially. Not me. That wasn’t for me, and I don’t want to go tomorrow because Owen should’ve been there. And there would’ve been cheers for him, party plans. And it wouldn’t have mattered to me that none of them were my friends, because they were Owen’s. None of those people will be there tomorrow. I’m the loser, and I’ll get polite claps. And that’ll hurt, because I’ll feel like I didn’t live up to his memory. Like I was supposed to fill his shoes or something, like I should get all the cheers for him, you know? Does that make any sense?”
Nate was quiet a beat. “I’ll cheer for you.”
I snorted. “A pity cheer.”
“No,” he barked. “No, Aspen. Not a fucking pity cheer. You’re my sister, and I’ve been an asshole absent brother. Jesus. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but your boyfriend is right. You should go tomorrow, and I don’t care who cheers for you and who doesn’t. I will. I know your boyfriend will, and based on the two wonderful meetings I’ve had with him, I’ve got a feeling he’s going to make everyone cheer for you.”
I grinned because he would. That was a Blaise thing to do.
“But it’s not—”
“Owen would want you to. That’s really the only answer you need. You have to, for him.” His voice dropped, growing hoarse. “I know we’re not that close, and that’s something I want to change, but you have to know that I only left you and Owen in Hillcrest because it was you and Owen. You two always had each other. I knew you guys were good as long as the other was around. And when he died last year—I don’t know.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “I’ve been so involved in other people’s families that I’ve forgotten my own. I forgot you. I’m sorry for that.”
That was nice to hear.
I almost felt like yodeling, that’s how nice it was. I never yodeled.
“Wanna go camping with me?” I asked on a whim.
He laughed. “Wait. You’re serious?”
I nodded. “I really like camping.”
Nate’s lips pressed together. “I’m not a big camping person.”
Oh. I looked down.
He sighed. “Fuck’s sake. Really? Camping?” He gestured out the window. “What about your boyfriend? He thinks you’re pissed at him.”
I grinned. “He kinda threw me under the bus. He can sweat a little.”
Nate’s eyes narrowed. His top lip began to curl. “He doesn’t seem like the type who wants to sweat about hurting his girlfriend.”
“He’ll get over it.” I shrugged. “Nate. Too much talking. More camping. Let’s get a move on. You owe me for all these years of forgetting about me.”
He groaned. “Why do I have a feeling you’re going to throw that in my face a whole bunch more?”
“Because I will.” I was smiling so hard now. “Until you no longer owe me.”
He bit out a laugh, but he didn’t gripe the entire time we were packing Maisie.
I wasn’t really going to make my brother camp with me, but he didn’t need to know that. We would drive out to a campsite, and he could set everything up. I’d make him hang out with me for a bit, and then I’d text Blaise where to come.
Nate could go back to town, and I could spend another night with my boyfriend.
And then, tomorrow afternoon, I’d do what they all wanted.
I’d graduate for Owen.
But I didn’t want to dwell on that just yet. I had a day of camping first.
I figured since Aspen was dealing with family, I should too.
When I swung into my driveway, my mom’s Prius was parked outside, and so was Stephen’s car. There was another car too, but I didn’t know who it belonged to.
I heard voices as soon as I went inside, but when the door shut behind me, they quieted.
A chair pushed back over the floor.
“Blaise?” my mom called.
“Yeah.” I didn’t want to deal with this.
My mom came down the hallway. “Hey.” She seemed tentative. “Hi. How are you?” She started to reach out, but paused. “What?! Your face.”
I winced. “No. I’m fine.”
“I’m good, Mom. I’m fine.”
“Mom. Seriously. Not now.” I gentled my tone. “Okay?”
She stared at me, her hands wringing together. Then, she stepped close and gently pulled me in for a hug. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry.”
It seemed like an eternity had passed since that night. She acted like she hadn’t seen me in months.
I hugged her back. She was my mom.
As soon as she felt my arms, she started crying.
“Oh, God. Mom.”
She gave me another big squeeze before she stepped back. She tried to wipe her tears all dainty like, as if she could absorb them without messing up her makeup.
I shook my head, grabbing a Kleenex. I dabbed it against her face. “Hold still.”
I cleaned her up, and she laughed a little when I was done. “You’ve always done that for me—kept your mother looking good and sane.”
I grunted. “Ship’s long gone for that, Mom.” I gave her a look. “For both of us.” I started to move past her.
“Hey.” She blocked me. “Where’ve you been?”
“We talked about this. He was here.”
“I know, but he’s not anymore, and you’ve still been gone.” She frowned and moved closer, dropping her voice. “Is there—are you in trouble?”
“What? No. I’m not in trouble.” For once. “I’m fine. Just been partying a lot. That’s all.”
“He has a girlfriend,” said a voice from behind her.
Taz had come to stand by the fridge in the kitchen. She gave me a smug look and tossed her hair back. “And he’s been fighting with Cross.”
I ignored my mom and glared at my sister. “Snitch.”
Taz just grinned, moving back into the kitchen. “Come and eat, brother. You’re late for brunch.”
I gave my mom a look. “Brunch?”
She ran a hand down my back before giving me a firm pat on the shoulder. “Your sister brought her boyfriend over.”
“Yeah.” Taz took a bowl of biscuits to the table as I entered the kitchen. She set it down and filled her glass with orange juice. “We’re talking about graduation parties. I’m having one for me and Cross, whether he wants it or not—and whether he knows it’s happening or not.”
Stephen sat next to my mom’s chair. Sure enough, Taz’s boyfriend was sitting at the table too.
“Come on, Blaise. Sit.” My mom made it sound like I didn’t have a choice. “You owe me two weeks. The least you could do is have brunch with us.”
I needed coffee. With whiskey.
I held up a finger and disappeared into the kitchen for a moment. I couldn’t find the whiskey, but I grabbed the brandy.
Taking my drink, I went back over and sat.
“It’s nice that you didn’t ask Zeke to brunch,” Taz said.
I had my phone in my hand under the table. I smiled at her. “Uh-huh.”
Me: Brunch. My house. Asap.
My phone buzzed two seconds later.
Zeke: On it.
Taz gave me a look. “You just texted him, didn’t you?”
“Uh-huh.” I gave her a closed-mouth smile, sipping my coffee. I needed more brandy.
“Uh, so…” My mom folded her hands together, resting her elbows on the table and smiling brightly at everyone. “We’re only missing Cross and Bren. Then we’d have a full table.”
My phone buzzed again.
Aspen: I’m making Nate go camping with me. I’m not mad at you. I’ll call later, okay?
A whole buttload of tension left my body. I almost felt light-headed.
Me: Okay. I meant what I said.
Aspen: Come camping tonight.
Me: Tell me when and where, I’ll be there.
Aspen: I will.
Taz cleared her throat. “Hello? Excuse us, Blaise. Are we boring you or something?”
The world felt right again, so I grinned and sassed back. “You don’t know me well enough to think of me like that, so that makes me think your real brother’s given you that complex, not me.” I gave her a dark look. “Stop putting your brother issues on me. I’m not your twin’s replacement.”
Her boyfriend started coughing and shot me a look.
I smiled at him too.
His name was Race, and he seemed like a decent guy. He came from money, and he was part of Roussou’s underground fighting ring, but that was all I knew about him.
“You’re a dick,” he told me.