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    Krista
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Ridley - 5. Part 5 - End

When I pulled into the driveway I sat staring at the aged brick and concrete pillars that framed a small front porch. I could only make out the other houses in the hazy blue of the early sunrise when I looked out the window. Some people were already up and stirring, heading into work on a weekend shift somewhere. Yawning, I killed the engine and slid out of the car, closing the door gently behind me. The curtain moving in the window caught my attention and told me Mom was already awake. She would have wanted to get an early start, I should have known that. Frowning I walked up the two steps onto the porch and met the open front door and her crossed arms and glare.

“Where have you been?” She asked uncrossing her arms to pull me into a hug. “And don’t use Cara’s party against me, you scared me half to death.”

“Sorry,” I groaned as she broke the hug. She was still in her pajamas, so at least she wasn’t about to head out the door. “Do you know where Cara is right now, by the way?”

“Her phone says she’s at Leah’s,” Mom said, shaking her head as she retreated and allowed me to enter the house further. “I almost expected your phone to tell me you’re halfway to your father by now.”

“They wouldn’t have let me in,” I said, shrugging.

“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” she huffed, but her lips softened into a small smile.

“How do we turn off tracking on our phones?” I asked, squinting as I felt my phone heavy in my pocket. She had to see that I was at the school’s parking lot.

“When you’ve graduated and you’re paying your own phone bill,” she answered as she turned and walked away from me. I had just heard the dinging of the coffee pot that told her it was finished and Mom was never really awake until after her first cup.

“I can probably just Google it,” I countered, rolling my eyes as she added more sugar and cream to her cup than I thought necessary. I doubted you could even really still call it coffee.

“So Gabe kept you out this late?” Mom asked as her spoon swirled the coffee around in her cup. When she tapped it against the rim then gently placed it into the sink, she turned half sipping on it. I knew she was waiting for an answer, but I was already swearing under my breath for telling her that I was going to meet back up with him in the first place. “Maybe he’s not such a sweet boy.”

“Mom,” I said, shaking my head, hoping that she hadn’t read more into what Gabe and I were doing than I wanted her to. “You probably know him better than I do anyway, all those times you talked to him.”

“I hope you didn’t yell at him for that paper,” she said as she walked over to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair for her. I was about to ignore her and go down the hall, but she pointed to my usual seat at the dinner table, if we still ate at the dinner table, we hadn’t for two years. It was me retreating to the living room that had stopped that family rule and Mom had allowed it, none of us wanted the weight of the empty chair and the loss of the voice in the room, it just felt different than when he was deployed and I couldn’t stand the tension.

“Why did you tell him all of that?” I asked as I gave up and fully entered the kitchen as I sat down beside her.

“I like talking about my kids,” she answered as she placed her cup on the table. She caressed it with both hands and her tired eyes fell on me. Her night owl life never treated her well when she had to wake up early. We didn’t eat breakfast in the morning and Mom stopped getting out of bed after Cara and I started showing her that we could wake up early enough to get our asses to school on time. She would always send us a quick text as she started her day, wishing us a good morning and that she loved us. She worked from home, running a sales blog and marketing thing from a small office in an unused bedroom down the hallway the master bedroom was on.

“I had already told him not to put any of that in the paper,” I said looking down at my hands when she started staring at me with her mouth half open.

“I read the paper,” she said, breaking the silence in the room. The light had brightened outside, the sun would be shining properly through them soon. I didn’t expect Cara to roll in from Leah’s until sometime in the afternoon. She would want to make sure she got everything lined out and ready for the Homecoming dance. “What was in there that you didn’t like?”

“The stuff about Dad,” I answered swallowing.

“Ridley,” she said and I heard the quiver of a breath in her voice and I knew she was fighting to keep her voice strong. “When I heard you promise to try out for the basketball team your Freshman year, I was so glad. I thought that maybe you could find something to distract you when your father was deployed.”

“But?” I prompted when she stopped talking. I could see her rethinking what she wanted to say to me, so I was already preparing myself to hear it.

“But if I had known it would have taken you away from all of us these past two years, maybe I would have fought against the idea,” she said as she slid her half-empty cup of coffee away from her. “When it wasn’t so clear that he wasn’t going to be better, the extent of his injuries and what that meant, we lost you too. Just as violent and quick.”

“He’s getting better,” I countered, but I wanted her to confirm that too.

“Everyday,” she said, smiling. “So hopefully you will start, too.”

“I don’t think I changed that much,” I said as my face warmed. This was the last thing I wanted to talk about.

“No, you just came to a complete stop,” she said and I looked up to see a tear fall from her left eye. “The only thing you kept was that promise and you held onto that so hard.”

“What does this have to do with Gabe and why you talked to him about the paper?” I asked, wanting to change the subject.

“Nothing, Ridley,” she answered smiling as she reached up and wiped her cheek on the sleeve of her pajamas. “Like I said, I like talking about my children and Gabe wanted to talk about you. I didn’t think anything I told him would upset you. I didn’t know, so blame me for that.”

“He did know though,” I argued, shaking my head. “And he did it anyway.”

“For someone that knew nothing about you, Ridley,” she said as she reached across the table and took hold of my arm. “Gabe wrote like he was writing about a friend that he cared a hell of a lot for.”

“He doesn’t though,” I said wanting to move away from her, but nothing was more comforting than her hand on my arm. I needed that, I doubted I would never not need it.

“I think he truly does,” she countered and when I looked up at her she offered me a smile. “I think if you weren’t holding on to that promise you made for so long, you probably would have noticed.”

“What should I do?” I asked sliding gently away from her to lean against the back of my chair.

“Knowing you, probably apologize for being stubborn,” she answered as she reached for her cup of coffee. “We both know where you got that from, it wasn’t me.”

“Yeah,” I said smiling.

“I love you,” she said walking up to where I sat. She leaned down and kissed me on the top of my head then gently rubbed her hand through my hair. “Please try to work your way back to us before he comes home.”

I let her walk around me and out of the kitchen before I let out a breath I couldn’t hold anymore. The dark kitchen now had a ray of sunlight coming in from the window. I could see flecks of golden dust swirling around. I felt tired and heavy and it was more than just being awake all night. Mom didn’t tell me what I already knew, that I held people at a distance and shot them down when I couldn’t handle the closeness. I didn’t think I had done it to Mom, but the tears that freely fell down her cheeks told me that I had.

Looking away from the sunlight, I reached for my phone and stretched my leg out forward so that it would slide out of my pocket. Glancing at the clock it told me that I probably would be calling him too early, especially since we were both up too late. I almost let the screen die before I unlocked it and found his number. Standing and wanting to put some distance between myself and Mom’s bedroom before he answered I pushed the chair in behind me and darted for the front door.

“Why are you calling me?” He asked, his voice caught somewhere between a groan and a whisper.

“Where do you live?” I asked as I pulled my keys out of my other pocket.

“What?” He asked and I heard him moving around, his voice was back to normal and I stopped walking after I bounded down the two stairs to the paved driveway. Gabe might have said his goodbye to me last night and gave up on me coming around. I hadn’t given him much evidence that I would.

“Where do you live,” I repeated as I clutched my keys in the palm of my hand and held my breath.

“Just out of town beside the Baptist church,” he answered and I heard the smallest of crashes and swearing under his breath. “Why?”

“Can you meet me outside in about twenty minutes?” I asked as I started walking again.

“Yeah, sure,” he said and I hung up and slid the phone back into my pocket and opened the driver’s side door. In the car, I sent a quick text telling Mom where I was headed, after this morning I knew I had held her up from starting her trip. Frowning, I let the phone die and started the ignition.

Driving completely out of town was something I hadn’t done a lot of, unless it was Mom doing the driving and she wanted an escape. Mostly that involved going to a whole other town and would have me enduring Cara and her shopping and me holding their clothes or pushing the shopping cart. It actually surprised me when I passed the little white church and the house not far from it, just a small line of trees between them. I had to find a place and turn around, but when I pulled into the long gravel driveway leading up to a large white two-story house, I instantly recognized his truck. The other two vehicles probably belonged to his parents and seeing them parked there had me slowing down a little. I hadn’t thought this through, that much was plainly obvious, but now that I was here all I could do was put the car in park and slide out of my car.

Gabe opened the front door and walked out onto the porch. In the sunlight the place looked historic. The white wooden siding was old and the wooden porch with a swing looked so different from the cookie-cutter houses in town. Glancing around I saw chickens roaming around the yard and dew shining on the grass. Fiddling with my keys, I turned to see him still standing just beyond the top of the stairs looking down at me.

“Hey,” I said, sliding my keys into my front pocket.

“Hey,” he said, reaching for the railing leading down the stairs. He was barefoot and his hair was sticking up on one side of his head. His eyes were slightly puffy from sleeping and I knew I looked like a lunatic standing in front of him now, I had to.

“I’m sorry,” I said, but he waved me with his hand and I stepped up onto the front step and slowly made my way up them. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Well I’m awake now,” he said and I watched him look past me to the morning around us, but he moved out of my way when I reached the top step.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated and when he reached up and tried to smooth down his hair he shot me a glare, but gave up.

“Stop worrying about waking me up, I’m awake,” he countered looking past me again. “Do you want to come in?”

“Are your parents awake?” I asked, feeling a flutter in my stomach.

“Awake and gone with my older sister,” he answered, sighing. “They’re picking some things up for my nephew’s birthday party.”

“Oh,” I said and there must have been something odd about my tone because he looked at me, his eyebrow cocked.

“You can come inside,” he offered and when I nodded he started walking towards his front door, still standing partially open.

When he was just about to reach it though, I reached for his hand and when I caught it Gabe turned and before he could say anything I slid my hand up his arm to his shoulder then to the back of his head. A little bit cautious, I leaned forward as his hand reached up and grabbed my elbow. I could see the confusion and when I stopped moving he grabbed hold of my waist and pulled me into him. I felt his lips graze my jawline until I found my feet again to keep from crashing completely against him. Looking at him as his lips found the corner of my mouth, I felt him smile before he readjusted and found my lips wholly.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I broke the kiss, but I felt his hand ball up my shirt on my side.

“Don’t you fucking dare kiss me then leave my ass again,” he hissed leaning his forehead against mine.

“I’m not,” I said, turning my head to the side. “I was apologizing for leaving you last night.”

“What changed your mind?” He asked and I felt him release his fist, but didn’t drop his hand from my side. Swallowing and feeling myself getting hard in my shorts, I wanted to step away from him, but he was already worried about me leaving.

“I’m tired,” I answered, leaning my head completely away from him. I heard him groan, but he let me take a step back.

“Me too,” he said and I smiled.

“No, I meant that I was tired of pushing people away,” I said, feeling some of the lingering defensiveness coming back to me. I knew it would be a hard thing to break, I had two years or longer to fight back against.

“Good,” he said as he finally let go of my waist and I took another step away from him.

“I probably need to get back home,” I said and when his eyes shot wider I fought a smile.

“What the hell did I just get done saying?” He asked, his voice falling to a groan. “Stay, we’re alone, just stay.”

“I don’t know,” I said, my face scrunching up.

“After a few more kisses, I’ll behave I swear,” he answered as he grabbed my hand and led me to his front door. Sighing and willing my feet to start moving with him, I followed him inside his house. The living room was dark and he didn’t stop and allow for me to get used to being inside, instead he led me through the living room and I just got a small glance at the kitchen before he turned down a small hallway that led to carpeted stairs.

When we reached the second floor he glanced over his shoulder. I gave his hand a squeeze and he smirked and continued to lead me down the hallway, more brightly lit than all the downstairs had been. The walls were white and had a few pictures hanging on the wall, but Gabe didn’t give me time to study any of them and when we got to his room he stopped walking and I looked inside. His bed was an unmade mess and he had a balled up towel on the floor with an empty glass on his nightstand. The room was high ceilinged, the two large windows were letting in a lot of sunlight and the sheer white curtains didn’t do anything. His camera was on a desk opposite his bed and he had a small electric keyboard beside it.

“Do you play?” I asked as I stepped inside his room.

“Yeah,” he answered, following me and when we were free of the door he closed it beside me and I felt his hands on my hips again. I let him walk around me already knowing that I agreed to more kissing by following him up to his room. He pulled me with him until we hit his bed and my heart started pounding in my chest when he sat down and gently pulled me down beside him. Instead of kissing me, which I thought was going to happen he sat quietly beside me. I looked around his room, being mostly white like the rest of the house. I noticed there weren’t a lot of things in his room, the large space just didn’t seem filled out by someone that lived here. His closet door was cracked open and I could just make out his clothes hanging just inside it. Unlike my cluttered mess of a room.

“When were you adopted?” I asked, turning my attention back to him. His room continued to brighten as more of the sun made its way over the treeline. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep in here if I wanted to sleep in.

“Not long after I was born,” he answered shrugging. “I was a drug baby.”

“Oh,” I said and he smirked, knocking his shoulder against mine. “What about your sister?”

“She is their biological kid,” he answered and I jumped when his hand found my thigh. I heard him laugh, but he didn’t pull away. “Mom is a nurse, she delivered me and my birth mom pretty much abandoned me at the hospital. I don’t know who my biological dad is.”

“That sucks,” I said and Gabe smiled, shaking his head.

“Not for me, I think in the parents department I upgraded significantly,” he said and I smiled when his smile fell easily into a smirk. “And I got bonus chickens.”

“And a sister,” I countered and he rolled his eyes.

“After all the wedgies I got, I probably would have traded her in for a chicken,” he said and I laughed, which seemed to surprise him.

“Are you going to the dance later?” I asked as I scooted further up into the bed. I was a little bit sore from the game and the weight of not sleeping was starting to hit me now that my mind wasn’t so full of things.

“I have to, to take pictures,” he answered, snarling his nose.

“What do you do, when you’re not doing stuff for the school?” I asked giving up and completely laid down on his bed. I watched him get comfortable beside me, curled up on his side looking at me.

“I read, drive around and take pictures, and I play tennis,” he answered and I looked down to see him fiddling with the edge of his cover between us. “I’d much rather be out taking pictures of abandoned houses or waterfalls, the school thing is just because I know I’m good at it.”

“And the journalism thing?” I asked turning to look at the ceiling, he had a dark wooden ceiling fan. It was slowly turning, but I couldn’t feel the air.

“Not really for me,” he answered and I turned to look at him when his knuckles grazed my arm. Seeing that he had my attention he smiled and slid closer until his hand slid across my chest. “Just something to do, I guess.”

“Yeah,” I said, swallowing as his hand rested on my chest. I could feel my heart rate picking up and I wondered if he could too.

“Will you be at the dance?” He asked and I shook my head before turning to him, grimacing. When he laughed, I felt his thumb rub against my nipple, through the soft fabric of my shirt. Just as I thought he did it intentionally though, he yawned and closed his eyes.

“How long did you sleep before I called?” I asked and his eyes fluttered back open.

“Not long, I couldn’t really sleep,” he answered, cocking an eyebrow. “I couldn’t get someone out of my head.”

“Who?” I asked as I turned onto my side. His hand fell to the bed, but he found my elbow that I used as a pillow.

“Coach Young,” he answered smiling. “The man can fill out a suit.”

“And sweat through one,” I added and he laughed as his thumb made another lap on my arm.

“You should go to the dance though,” he said as his thumb came to a stop. I was already shaking my head at the thought. I didn’t have a date, I didn’t want one. People would still be on the high of Homecoming that I never truly reached. Looking back I wouldn’t remember last night because of a high school basketball game, I would remember a kiss. “We could hang out after.”

“We can hang out after anyway,” I countered, glancing down at his thumb when he started rubbing my arm again. The touching I knew I was too aware of, I had trouble focusing on anything or thinking. I knew I should be going home, I needed to make sure Cara was home and I wanted to sleep. Him touching me though, had me anchored and I thought he might have figured that out.

“Alright fine, I wanted to see you dressed up,” he said, rolling his eyes. “The Homecoming dance will make the yearbook too, some of these memories you won’t get a second chance with.”

“I’ll have better ones, I think,” I countered and when he sighed and rolled onto his back I felt the release of him instantly.

“What are we doing though?” He asked, turning his attention back to me. “You weren’t even on my radar until you shut us down during your interview.”

“I don’t know,” I answered shrugging. “We’re just three or four kisses into all this.”

“So you can still change your mind,” he said as I turned to lay on my back.

“You could too,” I said as I watched the slow spin of the ceiling fan. “I know I won’t be easy to be with.”

“How about we just wait and see,” he said and I felt his hand fall against my arm. I had it resting a few inches away from me, hoping he would make contact again. When he did I sighed and smiled, but hoped he didn’t notice that I liked him touching me. Everything was too new and far outside of where I was just a couple of hours ago. I didn’t expect this and before the kiss I would have fought so hard against it that I knew it just wouldn’t have happened. So me kissing him in my car that started all of this, I knew this wasn’t who I was. I hadn’t allowed myself to get close enough to knowing someone to form any attachment to them. I was probably the only guy my age that never had a crush. I didn’t trust myself with what this all meant yet. I didn’t know Gabe and I didn’t know if the kiss brought me here or him or if it could have been anyone else that night. I doubted anyone else would have given me as much thought, though, so at least I knew that much.

“I think it’s time for me to be getting back home,” I said, turning to look at him.

“Stay,” he groaned, rolling back to his side.

“Doesn’t this feel fast?” I asked as I rolled back to my side.

“Hell yes,” he answered smiling. “I’m not scared of fast.”

“And you’d be fine if after a few days we didn’t feel the same way?” I asked as he scooted closer to me.

“No,” he answered and I watched his eyes dart between the two of mine. “It would feel like a punch in the gut.”

“So why do this then?” I asked as his hand slid across the small space of bed between us and up to rest on my side.

“Because all this might be worth getting punched in the gut,” he answered and I felt his hand grab hold of my shirt and gently pull me forward. It wasn’t enough to slide me across the bed, it was more of an invitation for me to close the remaining space between us.

“I don’t know that it is,” I said, swallowing as I closed the distance between us. We had to interlock our legs to get them out of the way, I hadn’t taken off my shoes, but he was barefoot and when his left one found the bottom of my leg I sucked in a breath.

“So you’re going to leave here with that on your mind, aren’t you?” He asked, balling up my shirt in his fist at my side.

“Yes, I probably am,” I answered and he nodded his head and I felt his breath sliding across my jawline as he breathed.

“Can I kiss you?” He asked and I watched him chew on his bottom lip.

“What will that do, exactly?” I asked, then I swallowed as I felt his hand release my shirt and slide up my side and up over my chest. The touch stopped my breathing until I felt the strain in my lungs and I looked at him. I didn’t know what he was thinking and the closeness we had now was starting to feel too close, but I also felt a little annoyed that he hadn’t kissed me.

“I’m hoping it will change your mind a little,” he answered and I felt the answer as his breath hit my face, we were laying too close for it not to.

“Okay,” I said and I felt his hand complete the journey from my side to the back of my neck and felt the bed dip us closer together as he shifted his weight. When he kissed me I reached up and grabbed his side and held him there. When his tongue grazed my lips I felt my nervousness flare up, but when his tongue came again I leaned into the kiss.

He broke the kiss and when he leaned his head back to rest on his elbow I followed and found his mouth again. I heard him groan as we fumbled to untangle our legs and when he was on his back I hovered over him only truly touching him with my lips. I didn’t know what I was doing and I knew it had to be confusing him, it was a mind fuck for me. I wanted to kiss him though and when he reached up and pulled me on top of him I moved from his lips to his jawline, the stubble tickling my lips, I tentatively kissed him a few more times before I shifted my head and moved lower to rest it on his chest. I heard his heartbeat in my ear, strong and a little fast as his arm pulled me against him.

I closed my eyes wanting to focus and try to shut out all the combative thoughts in my head until I felt his breath even out and his arm release me. I looked up to see that he had fallen asleep and I didn’t know how long we had laid like that.

Not wanting to wake him I tried to pull myself off of him, but he ended up stirring and when his eyes opened he stretched and offered me a smile as I continued to move away from him. I felt his hand land on my shoulder and slide down my arm, gripping my hand.

“Can I see you tonight?” He asked as he lifted himself up on his elbow.

“I don’t know,” I answered, shaking my head. “Sorry.”

“I’ll wait for you,” he said as he released my hand and I didn’t really know what he was saying. It felt like more than just a night or maybe I wanted to think it had meant more. He closed his eyes against the brightness of the room and crawled to his pillows at the head of the bed as I stood. Resting against his pillow he opened his eyes and I offered him a small smile that he returned before I turned and left his room.

The hallway was still bright from the light streaming in from the other rooms. The narrow stairs heading down into the living room were still dark and the house was still empty, thankfully his parents hadn’t returned home yet. Not wanting that to change and catch me off guard and feeling like a stranger walking around in a house I didn’t think I truly belonged in. I walked through the living room and out the front door. I had to squint and readjust to the sunshine as I walked down the stairs and out to my car.

Once inside I backed out of the driveway and turned towards home, my mind no better off than when I arrived this morning. I didn’t know what I wanted or what I trusted myself to want. If this is what Mom meant by waking my ass up, then I didn’t know if I was ready for all of that. I had been so focused on keeping people away so that I wouldn’t feel anything when they left my side I didn’t know how to think.

When I got home, it took me all of two seconds to know that Cara was back home as well. I heard her music blaring from her room and the smell of pizza. There was a box on the coffee table, cheese, which I hated. Only one piece was taken from it so despite not having it loaded down with toppings I took one for myself and started down the hallway to my room.

“Where have you been?” Cara asked and I barely heard her over Adele enough to stop and lean against her door. She turned off her wireless speakers and eyeballed the pizza in my hand.

“I was out with friends,” I answered as I took a second bite.

“Did you finally completely lose it and name your fingers?” She asked as she rolled off her bed. She was wearing what she worked out in, so I figured she was working up to a jog around town this morning.

“Funny,” I answered, rolling my eyes.

“No really, since when do you have friends?” She asked as she shouldered herself past me.

“Mom knows you were at a party last night,” I answered, following her back up the hallway into the living room. Instead of heading to the door she went back to the box of pizza and grabbed another slice.

“You changed the subject,” she countered as she chewed on a bite of pizza.

“Seriously, who delivers this early in the morning?” I asked, looking down at the name on the pizza box.

“Shut up and tell me who it was,” she said, her voice falling to a groan. “You’re not used to friends, it could be a grifter or something.”

“Do you even know what that word means?” I asked and dodged her leg as she kicked out at me.

“No, but your face is probably next to it in the dictionary,” she answered, sticking her tongue out.

“I’m too lazy to be a conman,” I said, sighing. “I do have friends, I just don’t know if it is good for me to have them.”

“Ridley,” Cara said as she walked up to me and I saw a smear of pizza sauce on the corner of her bottom lip. “Stop, just stop and let yourself have the things that you want.”

Cara left for her morning jog not long after she tossed her pizza crust at me. Being back home, not sleeping started to take a lot of the edge off I felt from all the kissing. I knew I wasn’t going to the dance. It was too close to last night and after Matt told me that I had broken a single game scoring record, I figured they would try to work that in. It wasn’t prom, it still centered around sports and this homecoming was all about basketball. Still, Mariana would probably be crowned Queen and Ethan Reed would grin like a devil at Matt for getting to dance with her, but do it in a way that wouldn’t get a glass of punch thrown at him by his own date.

That is how I thought the night would go anyway, I hadn’t been to a dance since grade school when everyone was too chicken to dance. Even the kids that went with dates, I was forced by Mom to take her friend’s daughter Kate. I danced one slow dance with her arms around my neck and both of us barely shuffling our feet to keep from stepping on each other’s toes. Kate did Drama club now and we didn’t hit it off, despite both our mother’s wishes.

With Mom gone, I would have to play the part of pretending to be helpful with Cara as she got ready, so I knew I wanted to sleep before that happened. Walking down the hallway to my room I closed the door behind me, thankful for the smaller window and deep blue curtain that actually blocked the sun. Sliding into the bed I rolled to my side, glancing at my phone for any sign from Mom. She still had most of her eight hour drive ahead of her, so I didn’t expect anything from Dad before then. It had been a special night, that was probably the only reason he was able to borrow a phone. Seeing nothing new I let the screen fade to black and closed my eyes after sliding my glasses off and placing them on the nightstand.

“Ridley,” Cara yelled and I instantly shot up out of the bed. Looking around for her and not seeing her, I swore under my breath and tried to curl up in the bed, but I glanced up and saw the waning glow of a sunset between my curtains and knew I had overslept. Reaching up I rubbed my eyes reaching behind me until I found my glasses. I could hear the music and smell the perfume so I knew I wouldn’t be allowed much more time than what she already thought she gave me.

“Did you have to yell?” I asked when she passed by my door. I heard her skid to a stop in her heels.

“Yeah,” she answered and I watched her slip a small hooped earring into her left ear. Her hair was down in loose curls draped across one shoulder. She was in a dress that came up too high for my liking, but I knew Mom had gone with her to buy it, so I knew I didn’t have a foot to stand on. “I woke you up early, to give you time to get ready.”

“Well I’m not going,” I answered as I pushed myself off the bed and stretched before I continued walking. She let me pass by her and head to the bathroom. Inside I grimaced at the state of the sink, there were tissues with various colors of eyeshadow, glittery and not-glittery. The smell of soap and perfume burned my nose and I cleared my throat as I peed and actually thought about the tux I had for special occasions in the back of my closet. The last time I wore it was for a wedding and that had been one growth spurt in the past, so I doubted it even fit.

“You could stop being an old man and come, you know,” Cara said and I jumped and whirled to see her standing just inside the bathroom.

“Cara!” I groaned, my face getting warm. “I could have had my shorts down.”

“Gross,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Shut up.”

“Well get the hell out of here,” I hissed, waving my hand.

“I need in here,” she said, glancing at the sink. “You’re not going, so you don’t need to be in here.”

“I was thinking about going,” I countered as I started walking towards the sink just as she did. We both knew I was lying, the most I would be doing was making sure Cara got a ride over and then I would wait for her back at home with take-out and a movie.

“Right,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“It wouldn’t be too strange,” I said, raising my eyebrows as I watched her put on another coating of lipgloss and check her eyelashes.

“No,” she answered, letting her hand fall to the sink before she turned to me. “It would be nice to get to go to a high school thing with you before you graduate.”

“Should I go?” I asked not turning to look at her. Instead I saw myself in the mirror, my face flushed from still being slightly embarrassed at Cara nearly catching me with my shorts pulled down in the front.

“Yes,” she answered, shaking her head. “But you know you’re not going to.”

“Yeah I know,” I said and I heard her sigh and in the mirror I watched her turn and walk back out of the bathroom. I glanced down at the mess she left behind and started tossing the used tissues into the wastebasket. The thought of going now just felt too late. I had worked so hard not having a connection to a school that I would feel like a fucking guest if I walked through the doors now.

I ended up dressed in a shirt and shorts before Cara was satisfied and well before her date showed up. Seeing the idiot standing at the front door after I answered it made it all real. Cara had a date that would make her night special or possibly not. Either way she would have a memory to fall back on and remember when she wanted to, for better or worse.

“Is Cara ready?” He asked as he shifted his weight in front of me. He was already about my height, but I didn’t know him. He had reddish blond hair and green eyes, he was in a tux that looked freshly dry cleaned and new.

“Probably,” I answered, glancing over my shoulder for any sign of her, but I hadn’t heard her heels click against the hardwood floors. Sighing I side-stepped and allowed him to enter then I walked back to the couch and watched him glancing around the room looking awkward.

“Oh, good game last night,” he said, nodding his head in my direction when he got tired of staring off into space.

“Yeah,” I offered just as I heard Cara start down the hallway towards us.

“Hi Adam,” she greeted, smiling and I shot Adam a glare as she closed the distance between them. He offered her a small bouquet of flowers that I watched him fiddle with since he got here. He saw the glare I shot him and tensed up briefly when she kissed him on the cheek.

“Ready to go?” I asked as I started to stand.

“Oh,” Adam said, glancing between Cara and over to where I stood. “Dad is kind of waiting to take us.”

“Okay,” she said, turning to smile at me. “That’s fine, right Ridley?”

“It better be your Dad,” I said, walking over to look out the window.

“It is, I swear,” Adam said, his voice falling to a breath and I smiled when I saw an older guy with a receding hairline playing with his phone.

“And you’re about four years too late to be an overprotective ass,” Cara countered and I glanced over just in time to see Adam’s mouth fall open.

“Not really,” I said, letting the curtain fall back to where it rested. “Have fun, call me if you need me.”

“I will,” she said, offering me a smile. “You still have time to get ready and come.”

“Yeah,” I said as the little bastard worked up the nerve to smile and give me a small wave as he put his arm around Cara and led her out of the house.

After the door closed behind them I walked around the couch and into the kitchen. I opened the pantry and grabbed a bag of popcorn and walked over to the microwave. It was darker now than it was inside the house, so the kitchen window became a mirror and I turned and looked at my weak reflection in it. I didn’t know if I would look back and regret not going to my senior homecoming dance. Shaking my head I pressed the open button on the microwave and unfolded the bag and slid it inside. I pressed the popcorn button and leaned against the counter. I knew Gabe was going, I knew he wouldn’t truly expect me to show up. Still, he said he was only going because he had to take pictures.

When the popcorn slowed enough to where I feared some of it would burn I pressed the open button and carefully grabbed the bag from the top. Tossing it on the counter I closed the microwave and pushed myself off the counter and walked out of the kitchen and turned down the hallway. The hallway lights were off and Cara had left the light on in her room so I reached in and flipped off the light before I walked down to my room.

Opening the door I flipped on my light and walked around my bed to my closet. I threw the door open and tripped over the newest game ball. Kicking it with my toe I reached towards the back of my closet to the garment bag that held my tux. Pulling it out I closed my closet door behind me and tossed it on the bed. I pulled the zipper down and reached inside, pulling my tux out by the hanger. It was heavy in my hand as I lifted it to my nose and tentatively smelled the soft black fabric. It didn’t smell like a stuffy closet full of deflating basketballs, but it didn’t smell fresh and clean either. Wrinkling my nose I let it fall back onto the bed and I reached up and ran my hand through my hair. The white bowtie would be hell to tie, Mom usually did that, but I didn’t really have to wear it.

Backing away from my bed I sighed, still staring at it and smelling popcorn. I had a movie picked out and paused on the television. I could call Gabe and meet him after, that’s what he expected. That would be easier for both of us, but I wouldn’t see what the gym looked like. I wouldn’t see the look of pure surprise from Mariana for having won homecoming queen, because she’s that sweet and would actually be surprised. I would see Ethan Reed accept his win with ease, because he was the expectant favorite to win. I wouldn’t see the failed attempts at trying to dance and I wouldn’t see Cara and she wanted to share some of these with me.

Stepping out of the room I walked to the bathroom and rushed out of my clothes and turned on the shower, knowing I didn’t have the time Cara said I still had. People would be getting into the swing of things and if I was going to go, I didn’t want to be too late. So I took a quick and cold shower, not wanting to be hot and start sweating through my tux.

After stepping out of the shower and drying myself as best as I could, I wrapped my towel around me, gunshy about Cara, even though I knew she would be at the dance and I was home alone. I walked quickly back into my room and closed the door behind me. I stepped out of my towel and quickly pulled on a pair of briefs and took the jacket off the hanger first, then the dress shirt and pants. There was a wrinkle in the pants where they were folded on the hanger, but I would have to ignore that as I unzipped them and stepped into them.

Swearing as I struggled to get them up over my ass, I laid down on the bed to zip and button them. I looked down to see the legs rising up to the bottom of my calf muscles. Glancing over at the dress shirt I grabbed it and held it in my lap as I slowly unbuttoned it and when I slid it over my chest I felt my shoulders fight against the tight fabric. Starting from the bottom of the shirt, I was able to get three from the top before I got too worried about popping a button. I let the bowtie fall to the bed, not planning on wearing it anyway and grabbed the jacket. Like the dress shirt it was tight around the shoulder and like my dress shirt it showed more of my wrists than it ought to have done.

“Fucking hell,” I breathed as I stood and walked down the hallway to the bathroom mirror. I stood away from it so that I could see my whole body. I looked like a kid wearing second hand clothes that were meant for a sibling two or three years younger. Glancing down, I could see skin between the buttons as the fabric on my chest was pulled apart. The tux itself didn’t look all that dated, but me about to bust out of it aged it slightly.

Seeing that I was fighting for a loss I walked out of the bathroom and back down the hallway, barefoot and back into the kitchen. I grabbed the popcorn and a bottle of water out of the fridge and walked back to the living room couch. I plopped down on the couch and unpaused the movie.

After the first movie and the second bag of popcorn I glanced at my phone. Dances only lasted three hours and the movie was just over two. Not wanting to start a second movie I balled both empty bags of popcorn up and gathered up the empty bottles of water and walked into the kitchen and tossed it all into the recycling baskets Mom insisted we use after she watched a documentary and saw one too many sea turtles wrapped up in plastic. Seeing her tearing up when she told us about it was enough to convince me.

When I got to my phone I saw the screen was lit up, but fading. I walked over expecting to see an update from Mom, but when I saw Gabe’s name highlighted in the message I unlocked my phone and read the text.

‘Dance is boring, see you in five,’ and I glanced at the time stamp and saw that five minutes had already dropped by two. Looking down at my too small tux I started fumbling over the jacket swearing at myself for wallowing in my own disappointment like an idiot and not changing already.

When a knock sounded I jumped and stood at the edge of the living room and kitchen and thought about darting down the hallway. When a second knock came I looked down at the buttons and the tight pants that showed way too damn much and all the time it would take for me to get changed I sighed and walked around the couch over to the door and hesitated with my hand just on the door handle.

“Ridley, are you in there?” I heard him ask and I jumped not expecting him to say anything. Grimacing I let my hand close completely around the door handle and when I turned and pulled the door open and stepped out of the way.

What he was going to say after I opened the door died on his lips as he entered the living room. I watched his mouth open then close to a smirk and I wanted to push him back out the door. Instead I led him to the couch and we both quietly ignored the little white button that popped off just below my sternum after finally giving up.

“Say it,” I said, glancing over at him, the button still rolling across the hardwood floor after ricocheting off the coffee table.

“I wouldn’t dare,” he said and when I laughed he let himself laugh and I watched him slide further down into the couch resting his hand on his stomach. He was wearing his own tux, a dark, almost black gray with a white dress shirt. He filled it out and I found myself staring at him until he turned his head to look at me, still laughing.

“Are you done?” I asked and he nodded his head, forcing his mouth shut, but the glint of laughter was still in his eyes.

“I’ll try to be,” he answered, swallowing as he reached out and ran his fingers over the soft fabric of my pants. The touch, even though I was watching and knew it was going to happen, caused me to jump anyway.

“I had made up my mind,” I said leaning into the couch as he pulled my leg until I moved to stretch it out. My foot fell on his lap, but he was satisfied and let his hand rest just below my knee. “I wanted to go to the dance, but I guess I grew more than I thought.”

“You still look good,” he said and I shook my head.

“It was stupid really,” I said glancing down at my shirt, open down my chest. When I looked up I saw that Gabe’s eyes had followed mine and hadn’t returned yet. I felt my face warm and reached up and tugged at the sleeve of my jacket trying to make it longer and release some of the tension on my shoulders.

“No it wasn’t,” he said and I looked over to see him looking at me.

“I’m getting tired of being a loser, I guess,” I countered, swallowing against the tension in my throat that usually led to my eyes tearing up.

“You never were a loser,” Gabe said and I felt his hand slide across my knee to my lower thigh. I bent my leg forcing his hand to slide off it, but Gabe scooted closer to me on the couch.

“I kind of am, you can stop defending me,” I countered, turning to look up at the television. It was about to time out and shut off so I reached over and grabbed the remote and turned it off. “You already lied for me, making me bigger than I was with that paper.”

“Ridley, please, you have to see,” he said as I put the remote back on the coffee table and leaned back into the couch.

“I’ll try,” I said, interrupting him, knowing if I didn’t I would start pushing him away again. “I want you to know that I’ll try to be here.”

“I’ll be here with you, I promise,” he said as he shifted on the couch to face me.

“Don’t promise me anything,” I said as I looked at his steady brown eyes. I felt his hand find my leg and when I looked down he was reaching for my hand, but it was resting in my lap. He didn’t look hesitant, but not wanting his hand to slide over my crotch I met his hand with mine and looked up to see him smiling.

“Can I kiss you?” He asked and I felt him squeeze my hand.

“Yes,” I answered, swallowed as my heart raced as he lifted himself off the couch slightly and leaned into me. I closed my eyes as our lips touched and I felt him smile and pull his hand out of mine and I sucked in a breath as his hand found the bare skin of my chest. He distracted me with another kiss as his hand continued its path up to the back of my head.

When he broke the kiss and leaned back against the couch, his hand slid back to my chest and I saw the smirk and glint of laughter building in his eyes again. I felt my face warming again and when I shook my head reaching up and just as I was about to start unbuttoning my dress shirt another button gave up the fight. I looked up just in time to see Gabe lean his head back against the couch and bust out laughing again. It took me a moment to feel it, but when he opened his eyes and looked at me, I smiled then laughed with him.

I didn’t know if after Gabe left for the night and before Cara got home and I had a silent house to myself if I would start second guessing all this. If I knew myself, I knew I would. I had been doing it for so long it would be a hard habit to break. I wouldn’t hold Gabe to his promise, knowing what promises mean to me, I knew that much. His laughter, as easy as it came. His touch and his lips brought me back just enough that I didn’t want to go back. Dad getting better and being hopeful of having him with us again soon brought me back. Tonight had just enough good to not be a failure. I would look back on it when I wanted to and I hoped I remembered it with a smile of the memory of Gabe’s laughter and the rush of blood to my cheeks that told me I was waking up. So maybe when Dad walks through the front door again he’ll see me like he left me, Ridley James Brooks, his son named after his best friend, after losing a card game. Who he taught to love basketball out on cracked pavement until we were too sore to move and too dark out to see.

Copyright © 2021 Krista; All Rights Reserved.
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