My Favorite Half-Night Stand

Page 14

Dream Me asked him to stay after class and he’d just stepped inside my office and closed the door. Normally I’d be horrified by that kind of student-teacher thing, but since Dream Me is dressed as Hot Teacher, and Dream Chris Hemsworth is dressed as Thor (short-hair Thor: Ragnarok, to be exact), I’m willing to overlook it.

I pity the person who has the balls to tear me away from this escape from reality at—I squint at the screen—five thirty, because I’m going to kill them.

With fumbling hands I manage to answer, eyes still closed as I croak out a groggy “Hello?”

“Hey, Millie.”

My sister. My sister who has six-month-old twins and assumes everyone is awake at the crack of dawn. “I wanted to get you before you left for class.”

With a little work, I manage to roll to my side. It’s not much of an improvement. “I don’t have class until nine, Elly.” I reach up and rub my eyes. “It’s not even six yet.”

“Oh, whoops,” she singsongs. In the background I can hear water running and the sound of what I assume are dishes clanking in the sink. Elly is always on the move, always doing at least two things at a time, which is why I know she didn’t call just to catch up. That’s not really our thing, anyway. “Sorry about that. I was checking to see if you’d looked at your schedule yet, or thought more about what I said.”

Guilt flares to life in my stomach.

Despite what I told Reid, Dad’s Parkinson’s disease has its claws dug in deep. Some days, he can barely get moving in the morning. His neurologist has mentioned he might need surgery to stimulate certain areas of his brain. With her two babies and a full life in Seattle, Elly needs help. She wants her single sister to do what she knows I can do: take the summer off and move home when Dad has the surgery, to give her a little break.

The problem is, moving home gives me this humid, panicky feeling in my chest, like I can’t breathe. I don’t want to go home.

Older than Elly by six years, I was always just a bit out of playmate range. I was Mom’s little wacky duck—on my good days, I was silly and playful; on my difficult days I was obstinate. Elly, on the other hand, was quiet and studious—the dependable one. I wanted to host an Unsolved Mysteries reboot when I grew up; Elly wanted to be a nurse.

I was twelve when Mom died, Elly was only six, and suddenly I was the second-oldest in the house. Six years between us meant I was the babysitter, the cook, the maid, the big sister, the one Dad needed to step up. If I’d had Elly’s temperament, it would have been so much easier—I get that now.

But I was also frantic with pain. I remembered every detail about Mom, and her laugh and her smile and her tight hugs. Frankly, I didn’t know how to move about my space, my day, my life without a mother. Elly was almost too young to have such clarity, and it felt completely unfair that I should be expected to take care of her when I needed so much caretaking of my own. I could barely sort out my feelings, let alone help another child with hers.

Elly would ask questions about Mom—what happened, when was she coming back, did it hurt—and Dad would change the subject, so I’d try to answer as well as I could. I’d tell her that Mom got sick, that she wasn’t coming back but that I was here. I’d tell her that it didn’t hurt for long, and Mom loved us very much. Maybe Dad thought he was protecting us from the hard truth that Mom’s death was fast and painful, or maybe it was just too difficult for him to face it himself. Either way, there was no oxygen in the house without Mom there, and over the next few years Elly stopped asking questions, and we all got really, really quiet. It felt like Dad was just waiting for us to be old enough to leave.

I can’t explain it—that feeling of being so untethered to anyone. I used to dream that I was in the middle of an ocean and could see for miles in every direction, but there was no one else around me.

When I turned eighteen, I practically sprinted for the door.

Elly stayed in Seattle for school and got married, turning her loss into what she needed: an anchor and a family. Was it different for her with Dad because he was her primary parent for most of her life? Maybe. But now, after doing everything for the past twelve years, Elly, my patient, gentle sister, is losing her patience with me.

“I’m not saying you should move home permanently,” she says. “But you should at least come home more. Stay longer than for just a weekend. I think the summer could be really good—for all of us.”

“I have to turn my manuscript in by the end of the summer,” I tell her, “and need the summer to make a dent in it.” It’s true, but it’s also a very convenient excuse. Judging by her silence on the other end of the line, we both know it. “Let me see how much I can get done before then and figure out if it’ll work.”

“Thanks, Millie.”

I can tell my sister wants to be happy for me, but disappointment hovers in her voice.

“I’ll update you as soon as I know something.” I roll to my back again and look up at the ceiling, at the way the blue-gray light from the window creeps along the walls. The muted color matches my mood. “How is he?”

“He’s . . .” She shuts off the water and the silence grows while she formulates an answer. If I’m this anxious waiting to hear, what must it be like to live with it, day in and day out? “He’s good,” she says. “Slower now, and less independent. His balance is terrible, so we’re thinking of looking for a new house. Something without stairs.”

Jared and Elly bought their house right after they were married. Things must be getting bad if they’re considering selling it.

“I can help with that, too,” I tell her, swallowing around the lump in my throat. “I’ll have part of my advance by then, and it’s all yours if you need it.”

Two Cocoa Krispies doughnuts improve my outlook dramatically by the time I get to school, but the call with Elly sticks like a cloudy film on a window. I know I did my best as a kid, but I can’t stop feeling like a selfish asshole now. Elly needs me. Dad needs me. But I would honestly rather walk across a beach of broken glass than spend the summer in my childhood home.

Instinct carries me here: with a coffee in each hand, I use my foot to push open the door to Reid’s office. He’s finishing up a call, phone wedged between chin and shoulder, pen scribbling away at something on his desk.

The polite thing would be to wait outside or tell him to find me later, but Reid and I have never been particularly good at boundaries—obviously—and so I set his cup down in front of him and take a seat while he wraps things up. I’m not really in the mood to talk, but locking myself in my office isn’t going to do anything but make me feel worse.

Given the fastidiousness of Reid’s brain, his desk is a surprising mess. There’s the usual detritus of files and assignments and books, but Reid is an obsessive note taker so there are Post-its and scraps of paper everywhere, notes tacked to the computer monitor, the window, the walls. A corkboard hangs just within arm’s reach and it’s so weighed down with bulletins and reports and random scribbles, I’m not even sure how it’s still hanging.

The one on the side of his computer is a drawing of a brain—not just a doodle, but an actual anatomically correct illustration—with arrows and words like limbic and superior colliculus. This is exactly why we no longer play Draw Something—Reid goes way too deep. The Post-it just beside the drawing has the name Lillie and a phone number written in bubbly, heart-embellished script.

Do I remember him mentioning a Lillie?

“Sorry about that. You okay?”

I startle, sloshing my coffee on his desk. I didn’t even hear him hang up the phone. “Shit. What?”

“You’re . . . pouting.” He sounds amazed.

My eyes flick to the tacked-up phone number, and back to where I’m using my only napkin to sop up some of the mess. “Yeah. Totally. Just zoning out.”

Reid eyes me with a curious grin before handing me a few tissues to help. He picks up his own cup. “Thanks for this. I meant to grab some before I started this morning but got called away.”

“Of course.”

He takes a sip, sucking in a breath when he burns himself.

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