We spend hours out by the swimming hole, talking and kissing and touching. But neither one of us bring up the future again, and no matter how close we come to going all the way on that old blanket, I hold us back from the edge.
It doesn’t make sense. She’s ready for it: curious and gasping under my kisses. All I want is to possess her, completely, but something stops me from taking that leap. I tell myself it’s to protect her: make sure she’s truly ready, before crossing the one line she can’t take back. The secret is, it’s not her heart I’m protecting here. It’s mine.
“I don’t want to go home, not just yet.” Juliet sighs, as I drive us back to Cedar Cove.
I look over. She’s heartbreakingly beautiful, sitting with her feet up in my passenger seat. Her damp hair is drying in the breeze, and the afternoon sun warms her skin. She’s smiling over at me, so carefree it hurts, and for a moment, I think about skipping our exit on the highway and just driving forever. Her and me, and the open road, nothing holding us back.
But we can’t. I have Brit and Ray Jay, and my mess of a mom, and she has a tomorrow planned out that’s got nothing to do with me.
Pain strikes through me, just thinking of her plans.
“So what do you want to do?” I ask, reaching over and taking her hand. I squeeze it tight, like I can hold her here, right in this moment, forever. “We could go back to mine, have dinner with Brit?” I suggest.
Juliet brightens, but then she pauses. “Are you sure that would be OK?”
“Sure.” I bring her hand to my lips. “She was bugging me about meeting you again.”
Juliet laughs. “OK then,” she agrees shyly, “That sounds great.”
I take the turn out to my house, trying to ignore the other stuff my sister said about Juliet.
She’s a summer girl. That means she’s leaving.
Maybe we could be different, I argue with myself, silent as Juliet hums along with the radio. Maybe we could be long-distance, while she’s still in school, and then…
Then what? A cruel voice mocks. You’ve known this girl ten days. You think she’s going to give up her future, after just a few kisses?
For someone like you?
I tense. Today was like a perfect bubble, where the real world didn’t exist, but now, driving down the same old streets in the same old town, reality comes crashing back with all its doubts and cruel whispers.
I turn. Juliet is looking at me, her forehead creased in a frown.
“Fine.” I lie. “Great. Just wondering if we’ve got any groceries in the house.”
“We’ll manage something.” She beams at me, happiness radiating from her whole body. I want to bottle it, drink it down, anything to stop my doubts raging to the surface and ruining this day.
But when I turn down my driveway and see a beat up old Nissan slung, doors open, in front of the house, I know, the day is already ruined.
“Stay in the truck,” I growl at Juliet.
“Why? What’s going on?”
I reply, I just scramble down from the cab and charge across the front lawn.
The front door is wide open. I stride into the house, fists already clenched at my sides. And there he is: Artie Keller, the low life piece of junkie trash. The man who got my mom hooked into all this misery in the first place. He’s got his back turned to me, trying to lift our shitty-ass excuse for a TV from the console.
I cross the distance between us in a few short strides and smash his face with a hard right hook. He reels back, blood spurting from his nose. “What the f**k are you doing in my house?!” I roar.
I grab him by the throat, shoving him up against the wall. Artie gasps for air, his beady eyes bugging out of his head. “Well?” I yell, shoving him back again. His skull bounces against the plyboard, and I hear the crack with grim satisfaction. Blood is pounding in my ears, and all I can think is how much pain this sniveling excuse for a man has caused this family, how easy it would be to end him for good.
I hear a yell behind me, but I don’t turn. I slam Artie against the wall again, watching the blood gush down his face. When I was younger, he seemed so big, but now he’s nothing in my grip, skin and bones.
“Emerson, stop!” There’s a hand on my arm, pulling me away. I finally drop Artie and he crumples to the ground.
I turn, breathing hard, expecting Brit or Juliet.
But it’s my mom. Tired, and strung out, eyes wide with horror.
She lets out a sob, and pushes past me, going down on her knees by Artie’s bloody body. “What did you do?” she cries.
“What…?” I’m reeling. “What are you talking about? Mom, he was stealing our stuff! Why did you even let him in?” My rage flares brighter. “Did he hurt you?” I demand. “Are you OK?”
She ignores me and fusses over him, whimpering apologies. “I’m sorry, baby, I’m so so sorry.”
Artie groans, still conscious. She helps him to his feet.
That’s when I see the duffel bag by the door. The box filled with photo frames and junk.
I stumble back. The truth is so clear, I should have seen it coming. I’m so f**king stupid.
“You’re leaving.” I say, voice thick with disgust. I stare between them: mom, looking away from me, ashamed and broken. And Artie, sneering. Smug.
“Sorry, kid,” he drawls. “Guess she couldn’t stay away from me.”