“I’m going to give you the blue room,” she says, and grins. “It’s a nautical theme, so I expect you to speak like a pirate all week.”
“Aye, matey, give me a wee breath and I’ll bring yar duffel upstairs.”
She laughs, and it’s on the tip of my tongue to ask her where her room is, but Melissa comes out of the suite at the end of the hall upstairs and pulls up short, staring at us like we’re breaking a rule by speaking while unsupervised. Carey shrinks back into a room down the hall.
Well, at least now I know where she’ll be sleeping.
The back door opens, and Rusty comes in, tracking mud across the kitchen tiles. I wave my arms wildly and, once he looks up, point to his boots. He full-body winces, like he knows if his wife sees this, he’s a dead man. For the next two minutes, we’re silently and hysterically searching for a mop to clean up the mess. Finally I find it, in a small closet down in the cellar, and I’m halfway up the stairs with it and a bucket when I hear her—the silent treatment has officially ended far, far too soon.
“Are you kidding me?” she says. “Not ten minutes we’re in this house and you’re already tracking in mud?”
“Come on, hon,” he says as I step out into the kitchen. “We’re cleaning it up. It was an accident.”
“You better thank your lucky stars it wasn’t carpet because I am not paying for any more of your messes.”
His reply is probably ill-advised. “Who even puts carpet in the kitchen?”
While they argue, I quietly mop up the muddy footprints and meet Carey’s sympathetic gaze when she comes into the room, probably to find out what they’re yelling about this time.
With the floor clean, Carey and I check out the fridge, the pantry, and the cabinets to figure out where everything is. All are fully stocked.
She looks over at me, eyes wide. “Are we supposed to cook for them?”
I shake my head. “Definitely not. They can feed themselves.”
“Have you seen Melly try to cook?” she asks me quietly, brows up.
“Maybe Rusty … ?”
Carey gives me a look that communicates she can’t believe I just asked that, and our attention is pulled away when Rusty opens the fridge and pulls out a beer.
“Russell Clarence Tripp,” Melissa barks, starting back up again. “It isn’t even two in the afternoon yet, what in God’s name are you doing?”
“We are not here to relax.”
“You gonna make me a fucking honey-do list, Melissa?”
Carey’s eyes are drawn over my shoulder, away from the kitchen, and when she looks back at me, she lifts her chin like, Nearest escape?
I nod. Lead the way.
We find a cabinet full of board games, dominoes, cards, and dice and decide on cards in the family room. We can still hear Melissa and Rusty going at each other, but out here it’s more muted and, after a few minutes, I think we’re both able to tune them out. Carey hands me the cards to shuffle, and then makes herself a little shelf to prop her cards against, using some hardcover books and a ruler.
“Clever,” I say, grinning as I start to deal our hands.
“I’m the cleverest.”
“Well,” I say, teasing, “I’m not sure you’re the cleverest. I had a dog—”
“You don’t think it’s possible I’m more clever than the cleverest dog?”
I hold up a finger. “—who knew how to open the fridge and get a beer out for my dad.”
“Okay,” she concedes, picking up a card, “that’s pretty clever. But could he open it?”
“She could not,” I admit, “but she was still the best dog anyway.”
“We had a dopey old Rottweiler named Dusty when I was growing up,” she says, “and one time we were headed to my granny’s house in Billings, and we were in my parents’ station wagon. I was only four or so—at that age I think my parents just threw me in the back with the dog. Anyway, there was a cake back there and I was supposed to hold it on my lap for the whole drive, but Dusty and I shared it instead. Surprising no one, we both threw up in the car. I was covered in blue vomit from the frosting, my parents had to stop at a convenience store on the way, and I ended up wearing a too-big Iron Maiden shirt to my granddad’s seventieth birthday party.”
“I’m not sure what part of this story I like the least,” I say, discarding. “That you shared a cake with a dog, or that you both threw up in the back of a station wagon. I do like the Iron Maiden part, though.”
“It had that creepy mascot Eddie on the front, so I cried every time I looked down.”
This makes me burst out laughing, and it feels so good to be genuinely happy for a few breaths that I lean back in my chair. When I sit up again, I realize Carey has won this game of gin and is carefully laying down her hand.
“Holy shit, how did you win so fast?”
She shrugs, and it’s a sweet, blushing gesture that sideswipes me in a tender space near my lungs. “I don’t think you shuffled very well,” she says. “You dealt me two aces and three jacks.”
I look down at my own motley hand of random numbers and suits. “I think you just got a lucky deal.”
“Eh. I played a lot with the boys back home,” she says, reaching for the cards to shuffle them. “A lucky deal was when you joined Comb+Honey.”
“Lucky for who?” I ask, grinning.
She taps the cards on the table. “Me.”
I think about her words and her tone and her blush as she carefully cuts the deck in two and lines them up to shuffle them, slowly. It occurs to me, watching her, that she doesn’t hide her dystonia from me anymore. I don’t think she ever would have done this in front of me before this trip.
I wonder who else she’s this comfortable around. Certainly not Melissa, not anymore. Things between her and Rusty are still weird, like a stepfather and stepdaughter who don’t interact much. I know she has roommates, but she doesn’t talk about them often.
“Are your roommates back from their trip?”
She thinks for a second while she shuffles again. “No, I think they were supposed to be gone essentially as long as we were. I bet their trip feels like it’s flying by. Can you imagine?”
I give her a sympathetic wince. “What are they like?”
Smiling, she starts to deal. “They’re cool. Peyton is an insurance adjustor, which honestly cracks me up because she’s so energetic and athletic but chose a job where she’s in an office all day. She plays on like three different rec softball teams and umpires for the local high school league. She teaches yoga and is a really active member of a community garden project. And Annabeth is, like, the total opposite. She’s so sweet and gentle, sort of shy until you get to know her. She’s a flight attendant so they get to travel everywhere and …” She pauses, shrugging. “They’re cool,” she repeats, finally.
I see the cloud start to sweep in, the droop in her shoulders and downward angle of her mouth, and feel like an asshole for bringing up anyone outside of this crazy situation, anyone we know who has a normal life and a normal job and normal attachments.
But the more I think about what “normal” is, the more I wonder why I think my feelings for Carey would be any different in another circumstance than they are right here. I don’t have feelings for her because we’ve been forced together, or because I feel sorry for her. I have feelings for her because she’s frankly amazing: she’s brilliant, humble, beautiful, and resilient.
I open my mouth to speak—honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to say, but I need to barrel past this emotion clogging my chest. I’m just hoping some words come out and they make sense—but she shushes me, her eyes wide.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Do you hear that?”
I turn in a panic, listening for what she means. “All I hear is silence.”
Carey’s smile stretches across her cheeks; her blue-green eyes sparkle like the river outside. “Exactly.”
But then her smile fades at the same time the realization hits me, too: silence could mean someone has been murdered.
We tiptoe into the kitchen—no one is there.
No one is in the backyard near the river. No one is in the game room. But when we peek in the entertainment room, we find Melissa on one giant chair and Rusty on another. No gore or blood in sight, only the sound of two people snoring, with Joe Versus the Volcano playing on the enormous screen at the front of the room.
We stare for a second, shocked at the sight. Rusty’s mouth hangs open; his beer is perched precariously on his chest. I’d bet, even asleep, Rusty could hold on to that thing in a hurricane. Melissa is curled up in a tight ball, like her defenses are up even in her slumber.
Carefully, we back out of the room.
“I’m amazed they were watching a movie together,” Carey whispers, awed.
“I checked for blood.” Apparently my threshold for celebration is lower than hers. Her shoulders come up and she laughs, silently, looking at me like I’m kidding, and laughs harder when she realizes I’m serious.
I don’t even know what to do with myself. We have a giant house, a river, food and games and movies in the middle of nowhere, basically everyone’s dream vacation. But more than anything, I just want more time alone with Carey.
“Want to take the car and go for a drive?” I ask.
Her eyes light up. “Hell yes.”
The gravel crunches under our shoes. In my mind, we’ll be driving around winding dirt roads, hugging the curve of the tall green grasses that race alongside the river. In my mind, we’ll have music playing, windows down. Carey will be singing, eyes closed, her arm out the window, fingers dancing in the wind.
In reality, we don’t ever get that far. I’ve driven a quarter of a mile down the road when I feel her hand on my leg at the same moment I start to brake for a stop sign. The second she touches me, my leg tenses and I hit the brake harder than I planned. We both jerk forward and then back, coming to a silent, abrupt stop.