The protective glint in her eye is visible even in the fading light. We pass one of the small cabins where smoke rises from the chimney. The little rectangular windows glow against the dark wood. “He was jealous,” I say.
“Wow.” She lets this sink in for a few more steps, long enough to reach where the path narrows, running beneath the overstretched branches of two apple trees. Fallen leaves are pressed into the ground beneath our feet, and crickets start to chirp from the fields across from us. “What did you say?”
“I don’t even remember what I said. I was yelling and then he was yelling and then we were at the truck he rented and—”
She stops. “A truck?”
In hindsight, I’m not sure how to explain how it happened. The decision was more sensation than thought, a bubble of longing that expanded in my chest until I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think of anything but the feeling of his hands on me again.
Charlie looks away, down the trail toward the apple orchard. I don’t need to ask what she’s thinking—it’s written all over her face.
Turning back, she searches my expression. Her cherry-red mouth—usually open in laughter or a cutting remark—is pulled into a firm line, her eyes tight with worry. “I just want you to be happy.” Her features soften. “This makes me worry.”
“I know.” I take a breath, attempting to form words around the feeling that’s been building inside my chest. “Despite everything that’s happened, whatever was there . . . it hasn’t changed. It was like being back in that garden, being eighteen again.”
“You know I’m always on your side. If you think this is a good idea and will make you happy . . . I’ll work on it.” She shakes her head. “I can’t believe you had sex in a parking lot.”
Footsteps sound on the trail and we glance over as Dad comes into view, hands tucked in the pockets of his jacket.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says, leaning to place a kiss against my forehead. “You two headed into the party?”
With a thumb over her shoulder, Charlie motions toward the muffled sound of Top 40 behind us. “As a matter of fact, I was just heading in. Need to find Trey and make a game plan for when we get home.” She turns to me. “Tater, we’re not done talking about that thing.”
Dad frowns. “ ‘Thing?’ ”
“Nothing—” I say, just as Charlie says, “A truck. Tate’s thinking about buying a truck. Took it out for a test drive last night and everything. Said the stick shift stuck a little but the ride was goo—”
“Right,” I cut in. “Thanks a lot, Charlie. Your advice was very helpful. Have fun inside.”
Charlie waves over her shoulder and walks away with a little bounce in her step. I decide to unscrew all her foundation bottles later.
When she’s gone, I turn back to Dad. “Were you going to the party?”
“Okay, well.” I motion for him to lead the way back down the small hill, and fall into step behind him. “Is Marissa coming?”
“She left last night, actually. Couldn’t miss any more class.”
“I liked her. She seems smart.”
“When are you leaving?”
Awkward awkward awkward. “Yeah,” I say. “Me too.”
“How’s your mom doing?” he asks. “I haven’t talked to her in a few months.”
“She’s good. You know Mom. She’d be good anywhere.”
He smiles. “That’s true. I remember shooting this western when you were little, and you both came on set. It was awful. This tiny little ghost town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing for you guys to do. But I’d come back at the end of the day and your mom had found this old trough or something, had cleaned it up and made you a swimming pool.”
“How old was I?”
“I don’t know, three, maybe? It looked ridiculous, but you two were having the time of your life.”
“I don’t think she ever told me about that.” But it sounds exactly like something Mom would do. Turning a trough into a swimming pool. Making an old chicken coop into a playhouse, complete with a tiny beaded chandelier. Taking something forgotten and making it new again.
“Probably doesn’t remember,” he says. “It was a long time ago.”
We walk a little ways, the silence between us growing louder with each step. “The shoot went by so fast,” I say.
“It did. I’m glad we decided to do this together. You did good, kid. I’m proud of you.”
“I . . .” A hundred words collide in my head, and I can’t seem to put any of them together. It’s not that Dad hasn’t complimented me before, it’s that it’s usually followed by something cutting, or there’s somebody else there, an audience to witness his show of fatherly encouragement. I resist looking to see if there’s someone up ahead or trailing behind; I know we’re alone. “Thanks.”
I can hear the music up ahead and it occurs to me I don’t know when we’ll see each other again. “Where are you off to next?”
“Home for a while,” he says. “Not sure after that. I’ve been waiting to hear back on a few things.”