The neighborhood could’ve been on the cover of Portland Weekly. The older homes were full of charm and character. Each yard had numerous pants and trees that no doubt added to the life of springtime and the beauty of fall. The yards were small and the sidewalks were in need of repair; showing just how loved they’d been over the years.
I parked along the curb across the street and took a breath before getting out. It had been a long time since I’d been with Nash one on one and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me edgy. My brother may have had a legitimate reason why he couldn’t get Nash himself but I there was also an ulterior motive. There always had been. I may have moved on but my brothers, Ryan in particular, still held on to false hope.
Nash opened the door and waved. His smile was tense and his stress was evident. I stopped at the bottom of the porch and shoved my hands in my pocket.
He was struggling to keep the door opened while shoving his luggage across the threshold. During one particularly agitated shove, the wheel got stuck and luggage toppled onto the porch. I frowned. I had never seen Nash so frazzled before and hoped it wasn’t because of me.
Nash was tying himself in a knot getting whatever was still inside the house, while holding the door open, and trying to step onto the porch to fix the mess he’d just made. I couldn’t stand it anymore and took the steps two at a time so I could up-right his luggage for him.
Nash sighed. “Thank you.” He took a moment to collect himself then, with more finesse than he had earlier, put a backpack and the smaller matching luggage piece on to the porch. He stared at his stuff for a second as he checked off the mental list in his head. When he was sure he had everything, he locked the door behind him.
When everything was done, he took a deep breath, turned around, looked at me, and smiled like I hadn’t just watched him struggle to an inch of his life. “Hi.”
I laughed. “Hi.”
Nash spread his arms, gesturing at his stuff strung across the porch. “Welcome to my shit show.”
“Apparently,” I laughed again. “Everything okay?”
“Oh yeah, it’s good. I picked up a few extra shifts this week so I didn’t have time to pack in advance.” Nash picked up his backpack and the smaller luggage as I was still holding the bigger luggage. I stood and waited for him to walk past me before following him to the truck. “I appreciate you picking me up. I would’ve driven to Lincoln myself but Joe borrowed the suburban to take a group of guys white water rafting.”
“Was traffic terrible?”
“Nah.” I lied. It was really fucking terrible.
“That’s good. Are you hungry?” he asked as I loaded his luggage into the back seat of the truck. “We can stop somewhere and grab a bite to eat. My treat as a thank you.”
“I’m good. Thanks.”
Nash glanced at me then got in the truck.
The ride home was surprisingly easy. Traffic was horrible and it took three hours to get home, but it wasn’t a terrible trip. Nash was always good at conversation and single handedly kept it going the whole time. There were a few times he was annoyed by my lack of involvement but he made a good show of keeping it to himself. I just didn’t have a lot to contribute.
When we were close, I called Ryan.
“There was an accident and I’m going to be a while. Could Nash crash in your guest room?”
I glanced at Nash. He was on his phone, completely oblivious to my brother and his antics.
“Ryan got held up and might be a bit. Are you okay hanging out by yourself for a bit?”
“That’s not what I asked,” Ryan growled from on the phone as Nash said “Oh yeah, no problem.”
“Ryan said you can make yourself at home.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“No worries,” Nash said. “I brought my laptop.”
“He brought his laptop,” I relayed to Ryan, who no doubt heard the conversation. “He’s set. I’ll drop him off in twenty. Take your time and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I hate you.”
I laughed as I hung up. I had a feeling Hawaii was going to be full of this shit but I was ready with plenty of counterattacks.
Twenty minutes later I pulled up to my brother’s house. Nash was the only one surprised to see that Ryan was already there...since he was held up and all.
“As soon as I got off the phone things cleared up,” he said in a way of reason. Nash smiled. I don’t think Nash cared enough to see past the lie. I on the other hand shook my head in disappointment.
“That was low, even for you,” I said after Nash was out of ear shot. “Don’t do this.”
“What?” he asked, trying for the big doe eyes but falling short. “I really thought I’d be late.”
“I’m sure you didn’t.”
When I put my truck in reverse, Ryan frowned. “You’re not staying for dinner?”
“I’m about to spend two weeks with you, I plan to enjoy my last night of freedom.”
“But Nash is here.” I gave him the why the fuck does that matter to me look and he rolled his eyes with a huff. “Whatever. Two weeks is a long time.”
He meant it as a threat but I took it as a challenge. Whatever he had planned over the next two weeks, I would out maneuver.
“Are you trying to miss the flight?” Jane asked as I approached the gates waiting room.
“We don’t board for thirty minutes.”
“Don’t be like that,” she glared playfully then frowned. “You missed lunch.”
“You know I can’t eat a big meal before flying.”
“You weren’t avoiding us?”
I set my bag down and kissed her cheek. Jane rolled her eyes when I took a seat without responding.
The room was packed. Almost everyone was there. Tia, Lon, and their two kids; Jay and Lexi. Logan, Abby, and their two kids; Kody and Kayla. Abby’s brother Carter, his wife Amy, and their three kids; Daniel, Jackson, and Liz. Jane’s best friends Mandy, her husband Rob, and their son Lukas. Ryan, Jane, and their two kids Kayde and Ellie. Nash and me. Cam, Sam, and Penny would arrive in a few days.
If you’re counting, that’s twenty-two people at the airport. Pure insanity.
We were hard to miss when we boarded the plane. We were everywhere. I sat in the back and watched everyone mill around. Everyone was joking and laughing. Full of the kind of energy you only have on vacation.
Most of the kids gravitated to Nash. Even though they hadn’t seen him in a while and he was no longer at every event, it was obvious they loved him and wanted to pick up where they left off.
He had a deck of cards and was showing them some kind of magic trick. I missed most of it but apparently Nash had Kayde draw a flame on one card. He said he’d normally have someone light it on fire but ‘airplane safety’. In the end Nash revealed a card, the same card Kayde had drawn the flame on, only now it was burned just as if it had been lit on fire.
Everyone was out of their damn minds over it. Nash was sitting sideways with his feet in the isle. He looked at me and smiled. I don’t know how to explain it—like a portal for the sun; he brought its energy and light to life. It was the smile he was known for, the one that made me trip over myself all those years ago. Even as a grown ass adult I could feel its effects.
I gave him a half smile and went back to reading my book. Nash was one portal I was not interested in getting too close to. For as beautiful and life giving the sun can be, it can also be dangerous. If you’re not careful, you risk getting burned—or worse.
Half a day later we landed. It took five separate passenger vans to get us to the house. Once there everyone shuffled their way inside. It wasn’t easy fighting a sea of twenty plus people but I didn’t pack much so I was able to make it in one go. On the way to my room I passed a stunned Nash in the foyer. He looked at me like are you kidding me? I shrugged and scooted sideways through the sea of people. Yes, the house was big. Yes, the house was beautiful. Blah blah blah.
I put my stuff in my room then started on a check list around the house. We had a rental company who kept up on things but no one ever cared for homes the way owners do. By the time I finished, I was exhausted. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’ve always hated travel days. Doesn’t matter if it’s an overseas flight or a quick, two-hour jaunt—I’m always so tired after.
Everyone was still milling and still getting settled so I snuck off for a nap. At this point my family was used to me sleeping the first day away.
When I got up it was time to start dinner. We always did a simple BBQ on night one then spent the rest of the evening acclimating to vacation. The teens swam in the pool while the adults got stuff put away and drank beers on the patio.
Still tired, I decided to slip away and go to bed early. The sun had set and everyone sat around the patio warmers laughing. Abby and Jane had made a mess of the kitchen making blended beverages with umbrellas. The only person not sporting a drink was Nash.
I glanced at him before I slipped into the house. He was sitting forward in his chair, holding everyone’s attention as he told a story. I hadn’t been excited to find out he was coming along but if he could be a distraction so I could slip away, well, I guess it wasn’t so bad.
“Don’t you look beautiful this morning.”
I didn’t need Ryan to tell me it was a mess, still, I ran my fingers through my hair.
“Oh good, now your hair is as good as new.”
I flipped my brother off and made my way to the coffee maker. I poured myself a cup then joined dipshit at the bar.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
Ryan smiled. “So bad it’s going to be awesome.”
“And ruin the surprise? No chance.”
I tried to play like I was irritated but we both knew I loved what was about to happen just as much as everyone else.
Not five minutes later the herd of wannabe adults flooded the kitchen. Not a single one glanced my way as they made breakfast; Pancakes, bacon, sausage, and a fruit platter. It had been the same breakfast since Kody started this fiasco ten years ago.
“They look like a professional crew. I’m impressed,” Nash said as he slid into the chair next to me. Ryan and I had moved to the table to give the kids space to cook.
“They just needed a reason to work together,” Ryan added, all smug like.
“And what’s that?” Nash asked.
“Oh, you’re about to see.”
Nash looked at me, brow raised in question. I shrugged. What else could I say? There was no explaining what was about to happen or why.
Everyone took their seats. A minute later semi-beautifully plated breakfast plates were hand delivered to each adult. I had to give it to them, they were getting good at this.
When everyone was finished, the plates were whisked away. That’s when the atmosphere really began to change. My family kept catching my eye and smirking. As much as I wanted to laugh, I remained stoic. It was my role.
When the last dish was in the dishwasher they ran through the house, down the hall, and to their dorm area.
“This is my favorite part of vacation,” Jane singsong’d as she held her mug to her lips.
“Really?” Nash put his hands on the table. “No one’s going to tell me what’s going? C’mon Penn. Fill me in.”
“I have no clue what’s happening.”
“Right,” he laughed. Before he could say anything else, the thunder of feet against the wood floor got louder. Ryan reached around me and patted Nash’s back.
“Don’t worry, you’re about to find out.”
The kids came to a screeching halt then scrambled into a straight line. They stood perfectly straight with their hands behind their back. I eyed them skeptically then shook my head.
The corner of their lips curled. They were trying so hard to hold it back.
“No,” I said again. “This has got to stop.”
Kayde, Ryan’s oldest, pulled a small box out from behind his back then kneeled down and presented the box to Kody. Kody bowed his head in respect before gently taking the box as if it was the most precious thing in the world.
Suddenly, the room filled with the sound of Native American music.
“You are the Alpha of your own life and have roamed the great plains of Oregon for many moons. In that time, you have gained great knowledge, defended your lands, hunted the land, and given so much to your neighbors.”
Kody stepped forward, flaked on both sides by his posse. The music was getting louder, more intense.
“It is with great pleasure that we present this token of appreciation.”
Lexi stepped forward, bowed, grabbed the box from Kody, turned, bowed to me, then set the box on the table.
I crossed my arms and shook my head. “I refuse.”
“Nash, would you please assist the great Alpha?”
Nash, not knowing what was going on but thoroughly enjoying it, quickly pushed his chair back and kneeled next to me with his head down. “It would be the greatest honor bestowed on me to unveil such an offering to the Great One.”
At this, almost everyone was struggling to save face, except Nash, who was alive with improv.
He set the box down by his feet and slowly removed the lid, folded back the tissue paper, and slowly held up the offering.
I groaned and rolled my eyes, “Are you kidding me?!”
The room erupted when Nash held up a pair of speedo style swim-shorts. On the front, where my junk would sit, was a wolf howling. Then Nash turned it around and…
Along the butt were five wolves. “And there’s your pack mates.”
I snatched the offending swimwear and quickly scooted back. “That’s it,” I yelled as I made my way for the boys. They smiled like their lives depended on it then gave chase. There were lots of them and only one of me but I didn’t make it easy.
“The wolf is coming,” JJ screamed as he tried to round the corner. The fucker had socks on and that was the end of him. I squeezed his thigh where he was most ticklish then moved on. The house was full of screaming as I chased them down one by one while the adults cheered from the table.
It felt like forever before I finally got Kayde and Kody. I had them both pinned down, tied together like a pretzel. I lifted the speedos so they could see. “What is this?” I demanded, trying not to smile.
“It’s a gift,” Kody cried. The noise was agony mixed with uncontrollable laughter.
“Well, you know what? Jokes on you. I’m going to wear this speedo every day starting now.”
The look on their faces as I walked away was almost as good as the look at their faces when I came back with them on.
“Watch out, the wolfpack has arrived,” Ryan whooped.
Everyone turned my way. It took a moment for everyone to get on the same page, to notice just how ridiculous the situation was. First, I wasn’t built for speedos. Second, the speedo was absolutely terrible.
The kids were the first to lose their shit. They literally fell on the floor laughing. Then the adults followed. I let them look. I even spun around so they could get their fill.
“The wolf pack is going for a swim.”
Still laughing, the kids scrambled off the floor. They were already wearing their swimwear, having changed when I changed. They raced me to the pool. From the kitchen I heard howling. It was Nash, immediately joined by my brothers, then the rest of the adults. The chorus of howls made the kids smile even more—so proud of themselves and their handy work.
“That’s enough of that,” I hollered as we reached the pool. Everyone jumped in and, after breaking the surface, I pulled the two closest victims underwater as punishment for being sassy.
We roughed around for a while. A bunch of adults joined us in the pool but stayed on the other side and out of the danger zone. Eventually, I tired and tapped out.
I grabbed a lone towel and snatched a pool chair. The sun was hot and the air was surprisingly dry. It almost felt like vacationing in Arizona. I laid out and let the sun work me over.
“Oh, I see the vacationing lizard is out. Such a rare sight with his farmer tan. You must be so embarrassed.”
“Really? Vacationing lizard? That’s what you got?”
“Whatever,” Ryan said. I could hear him roll his eyes as he sat in the chair next to me.
“Whatever?” I mocked. “Vacationing lizard and then a lame whatever? Day two has not done you any favors.”
“Vacationing lizard is a perfect name because it’s exactly what you are. You’re never like this at home. You never stay still for more than a minute. But the second we get here I can hardly pull you off the chair. I’m surprised you don’t have some dumb book?”
I pulled some dumb book out from under the chair and held it up. Ryan took it from me and gave it a once over. “Why is it that you never read except on vacation? Suddenly, you’re some—literary mastermind.”
“Why do you judge my down time? If I want to lay in the sun for two weeks and read books, leave me be. I don’t jump down your throat every time you sit on the beach in a cut off tee wearing Jane’s sun hat.”
“It’s not Jane’s. It’s not even a woman’s hat. I’ve told you this. It’s called an adventure hat and it’s made for men.”
“What’s got Ryan all worked up?” Logan asked, sitting on the other side of me.
“He’s defensive about Jane’s sunhat.”
“It’s not Jane’s!”
“You still pretending it’s an adventure hat?”
Ryan threw his hands up and sat back on his chair with a huff. Logan and I looked at each other and smiled. Then, Logan glanced down my body and laughed.
“Seriously, those are fucking hilarious.”
I propped myself up enough to look at my newest swim shorts. “Yeah. They killed it this year.”
“I bet that Alpha really howls when a cute Beta comes along,” he teased, nodding at the wolf on my crotch. Both Ryan and Logan barked at the comment.
“Should we call Nash over and see?”
I laid back down without comment. If this was where the conversation was going then I was bowing out. Logan let out a brain piercing whistle and I knew it was over.
“On a scale of one to terrible, how much do you love Penn’s new speedos?” Logan asked.
“They’re—interesting. Actually, I don’t hate them. Just wish someone would tell me the story behind them. I can’t tell if it’s a gift of love or punishment.”
“Both,” I said, not opening my eyes or really engaging in the conversation other than that.
“It’s a gift of love,” Ryan corrected. “All jokes aside, they put so much effort into finding the right swim shorts for Penn. It’s literally a year-long process. They’re already talking about plans for next year. No one else in the family gets this kind of care or attention. Honestly, it’s my favorite thing, to see them light up the way they do.”
“It was definitely amazing to watch. But why do they do it?” Nash asked.
“It started with Kody. He was—”
“Yeah, he was four. Just a babe,” Ryan continued. “Penn forgot to pack swim shorts so Jane and Abby picked some up when they went to the store. They knew Penn would hate them so they had Kody give them to him because no one could be mad at Kody, he was the first born in the clan.”
“I remember the look on Penn's face when he saw the shorts,” Logan laughed. “But it was nothing compared to Kody’s face. His nose got all scrunched up and he took the shorts from Penn and said ‘trash’. Then he literally walked to the kitchen and put them on top of the trash lid. Penn ran after Kody, tossed him in the air, then was like ’you did this? You bought me ugly shorts?! How dare you! He read poor Kody the riot act which Kody thought was the funniest thing that ever happened.”
“The whole vacation was little Kody making fun of Penn and his 80’s themed neon shorts. After that, it just happened. As the other kids got older, it became their thing. They buy Penn the most ridiculous shorts they can find and Penn freaks out on them for it.”
“It seems like they outdid themselves this year.”
“I don’t know. They did good but there have been some real winners.”
“There was the year of the Barbie shorts,” Logan remembered. “Or the one piece.”
“Which one? The skimpy one piece or the 1900’s inspired striped set?” Logan laughed.
“Oh, I forgot about that one!”
“Too many good ones, but I agree, they killed it this year. The whole wolf pack thing is going to stick. You know that, right?”
Ryan nudged my shoulder and I grunted. Yes. It was going to stick.
“Lizard man is irritated that we’re ruining his sun worshiping.”
“And yet, here you are.”
“Fine,” Ryan groaned. “C’mon Lo, we need to check the wave runners anyway.”
I still didn’t open my eyes but I could hear some rustling as they got off the chairs and walked away. I continued to lay there. The sun was roasting and I could feel the sweat beading on my skin. I was close to getting up so I could cool off in the pool.
“I don’t think you understand how much this morning meant for the kids,” Nash said. “I could see it on their face just how much joy this gave them. You are a gift to them.”
“It’s just a long running joke.”
“Mhmm, I think we both know it’s not just some joke. But sure, okay,” he teased. I wasn’t sure what to say so I didn’t. Just laid there in silence.
“Lizard man, huh? What’s that about?”
“It’s my brothers grasping at straws.”
“C’mon, humor me.”
“They’re jealous because I tan better.”
Nash didn’t respond but I could feel him watching me and I could tell he was irritated. When several awkward minutes passed, I got up. “I’m going to cool down.”
I was hoping he’d be gone when I got back but after swimming to the other side and back, twice, he was still sitting in the chair, only now it was the one next to mine.
This time I lied on my stomach to even out my tan.
“Those shorts really are hilarious.”
Nash made a few more comments but I didn’t have a lot to say in return. I wasn’t against being friends but apparently, I wasn’t eager, either. Something about having your heart broken in the worst and most unexpected way hardened you against their advances. Who knew?
When I went for another cool down dip, Nash joined. My saving grace was that the boys saw us and couldn’t wait to come and give me a hard time about my wolfpack. Mostly I think they wanted to hang out with Nash without being too obvious about it.
At dinner Nash found his way next to me. And then after dinner, when everyone was sitting outside under the moon, Nash stole the chair next to mine. He spent most of the evening talking to Abby’s brother, Carter, occasionally the whole group, but rarely me. All in all, the night wasn’t so bad.
Once again, I was the first to call it a night. This time I didn’t hide it.
“I’m heading out. See you all in the morning.”
“Goodnight Alpha Sun Lizard. See you in the morning.”
I flipped my brothers off, grabbed my drink from the table, and stood up.
“Yeah, I’m going to call it a night also,” Nash said, grabbing his water and standing up also. “Bunking with teenagers isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I should get an hour or two before they ‘go to bed’.”
Abby frowned. “Is it really that bad?”
Nash waved her off, “Nah, I’m being dramatic.”
Except he wasn’t. I learned a lot about Nash during our super short-lived friendship. One being that he could not hide was a bad night sleep. His under eyes were always darker when he didn’t get good sleep or when he stayed up too late. Now that I was paying attention, I could see that was the case.
I couldn’t help but feel bad. I wouldn’t wish rooming with the boys on anyone but there was nothing I could do. So, I left while they tried to find a sleeping solution that didn’t involve Nash sleeping with a gang of adolescents.
I’m not normally a morning person when I don’t have to be. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem being up at an ungodly time for work, but on my days off I enjoy being lazy. But even with the time change I found myself awake earlier than normal.
No one was up when I went to start coffee. I’d just sat down by the window that overlooked the ocean when I saw Nash outside. He had just finished a run and was still a way off, walking up the path. My cup stilled at my lips. I was taken back to high school when I saw Nash for the first time. I can’t remember if it was track or cross county, all I remember was seeing him run; his blonde hair sweaty along the hairline and messy as all hell. The look of determination, the slender frame, the way he walked around with his hands on his waist, smiling when it was all over.
He just had to be shirtless with running shorts, reminding me of a time not long ago when I thought I had everything I ever wanted. Time had been good to Nash. His hair was much the same, still messy and damp, but his body only seemed to get better. The running, the healthy eating, and karma had clearly tipped the scale in his favor.
And all that favor strolled up the walkway, half naked, and into the house like it was no big deal. Thank god I had my book so I could pretend like I hadn’t noticed him.
Because I hadn’t. I definitely didn’t notice him or his abs or his legs or the soft blonde body hair that seemed to reflect light in an almost angelic way.
“Hey,” he said as he noticed me. He seemed happy and energized. He went to the sink and got a glass of water, then leaned against the counter as he downed it. He then came over and sat next to me. “I’m surprised to see you up. You never were a morning person.”
“I’m still not. I just got a good night's sleep.”
“What?” he tried to look appalled. “You slept so good that you not only got up early, but got up early with a three-hour time change while I haven’t gotten a wink of sleep since arriving. That doesn’t seem fair. You should share your room.”
I laughed because—well, because that was funny. Funny and definitely not happening.
“You know Jane’s friends Mandy and Rob?” Nash nodded like he knew them because they were there but he didn’t know them well. “Well, they have two queen beds in their room. You could bunk with them.”
“Or I could bunk with you.”
“Yeah, I don’t see that happening.”
“Why not?” he asked “We’ve done it before. Tons of times.”
“That’s still a no for me.”
Nash rolled his eyes as if him suggesting we shack up, after everything we’d been through, wasn’t the craziest—and worst—idea in the world. “I thought you said we could be friends. Because a friend wouldn’t let another friend sleep in the dungeon of hell with all of Satan’s fallen angels who were sent to torture said friend by keeping him from the ever-important sleep.”
And friends don’t assume you impregnated someone else without saying something and then run off to never be heard of again. But I didn’t say that because it was history and water under the bridge. Instead, I shrugged and went back to my book. “I guess we’re more acquaintances then.”
I felt Nash’s eyes on me though he didn’t say anything. Every now and then he sipped his coffee but I never felt his eyes leave. Eventually, he got up. He came back with a plate of fresh fruit and a couple bowls of oatmeal as a peace offering.
“I don’t regret,” he said, his voice quiet. “I’ve always believed that life is too short to regret things. If we take a few more seconds to contemplate the choices in front of us, we could make decisions that don’t lead to regret. I truly believe that because it’s worked for me. Even after everything with Lee, I don’t regret marrying him. I don’t regret not finishing college so I could work for Yevo, or settling down in Lincoln. And to be honest, I don’t regret moving to Portland. But I regret walking out on you. I have made excuses for why I did what I did and, although I believe good came from it and I believe that decision wasn’t without basis given everything that was going on with Lee, I know I could’ve and should’ve done things differently. In the end, I didn’t do right by you.”
Nash was looking at me with the genuine sincerity that he was known for, a quality that I had originally attracted me to him. I set my book down. As much as I didn’t want to ever talk about this, I also needed to get it over with so I could fully move on.
“You’re right, life is too short to live in regret, so please don’t. I know that I don’t,” I said.
Nash squared up. “Well too bad because I do, and I know you do too. You were my best friend and I was yours. We both know this.”
I stared at Nash. In all the time that had passed since he left the baby shower, I had never truly realized what had gone wrong between us until that moment. “And that’s the issue. You weren’t my best friend,” I whispered. “You were the love of my life. We were on different levels of commitment the whole time. I was the friend you needed so you could get through a traumatic divorce in one piece. I was too hopeful to see us for what it was. You might have lost a friendship but I lost something more.”
“I don’t think it’s fair of you to discount what I lost.”
“I’m not discounting what you lost but you have to look at it from my side, too. It’s simple for you to sit here and say something like ‘it’s easy to share a bed because we did it when we were friends’. But that’s not entirely true. To me, I was never sharing a bed with a friend, it was always more. I always wanted it to be more.”
“But I wasn’t there, Penn. I couldn’t have been there. I wasn’t even divorced. But I was there at the end, that’s why it hurt when I thought you and Cam…”
“You were hurt because you relived the pain you experienced from Lee, someone who you definitely were in love with. It was Lee causing the pain, not me.”
“It was both. It was what Lee did and what I thought you did. It was a double whammy.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” I said. “You had proof of Lee’s actions. And even after that, you went and confronted him. Why? Because you loved him and you respected him. Because of those things, you had an automatic response to confront him and hear him out. I didn’t get that because we were never at that level to you. I’m not saying this as a dig against you, it’s just the truth.”
Nash groaned and ran his hands through his hair then cradled his face in his palms. After a minute he lifted his head and looked at me. His face was red where he’d been rubbing it and his hair was disheveled. “I was hurt. Not just because I thought you lied to me about Cam but because I loved you. And yeah, maybe it wasn’t the same way that you loved me, but I was there,” he pressed his finger to his chest, over his heart. “I was there, Penn. You took me there. And then I left. And that’s my regret. Maybe it’s selfish to want my friend back, maybe it’s not even possible, but I will fight for it because right now I have two choices.” Nash stood up and put his palms on the table. “I will not choose regret, again.”
People started filtering in for breakfast and Nash grabbed his glass of water and walked away. The whole while I sat there, stunned. The conversation hadn’t left me feeling better about anything—it left me feeling nervous. I shook it off and enjoyed the company of my family then, after little insistence from the teens, I changed and made my way to the pool.
It was another scorcher outside. Still strangely dry but not as bad as when we arrived. I played around in the pool for a while, even managed to dominate two games of volleyball before retiring to the pool chair.
That’s when Nash came out. He was wearing these swim shorts that went mid-thigh, showing off exactly how great his legs were. He walked to the pool's edge and stood with his back to me as he talked to the kids. I had a feeling he was doing it on purpose. I wasn’t one-hundred percent sure what it was, but I knew there was something. He’d worn board shorts before, now he was wearing—not board shorts. And he had his ass to me, shifting back and forth. He jumped in the pool and the whole place cheered.
I grabbed my book off the ground and got to work. Except I could see him through my peripheral vision so I laid on my stomach instead. I spent more time trying to avoid looking at him then enjoying the sun. At some point he flopped down on the chair next to me. “This seat taken?”
He was already making himself at home so I didn’t bother answering.
“You’ve been really engrossed in that book, what is it—Into Thin Air,” he read before I could respond. “What’s it about?”
“Just a general overview of Mt. Everest or—”
I set the book down. “About a journalist who was hiking Everest with a tour guide and how he ended up being caught in one of the worst disasters in the mountain's history.”
“You’ve had that book in your hand since we arrived. I don’t think I have ever seen you read before.”
“I only read on vacation.”
“You didn’t read when we were in Thailand.”
“Thailand wasn’t a vacation.”
“Thailand wasn’t a vacation,” he mocked. “What the heck was it?”
“It wasn’t a vacation,” I repeated. Then to drive my earlier point home, I continued. “You know exactly why I went. You. I went to spend time with you. I didn’t go to play in a pool or relax in the sun. I didn’t go to read or eat good food. I went because it’s where you were.”
“Well, this isn’t vacation for me. I’m here because I want to spend time with you, because it’s where you were going to be.”
“Penn! Are we hiking or what? You said we’d go today,” Kayde yelled.
Nash and I held eyes for a moment longer before I broke to look at Kayde, who was impatiently waiting for me.
“Yeah, give me a minute.” I glanced at Nash, who was still looking at me, almost challengingly, then stood up and walked to my room.
The group was waiting outside when I came out. They were sporting backpacks and water bottles. A few even had backpacks that moonlighted as water bottles. The girls were taking pictures while the guys passed around Rambo style headbands.
“Ready to rock and roll?” I shouted. They threw their arms up and whooped. The house wasn’t too far from a really great hike that overlooked the ocean and the island. In total, I think it was six or seven miles. “Let’s roll.”
“Hold up,” Kody said, “We invited Nash. He’ll be here in a second.”
Of course they did. And sure enough, a moment later Nash came jogging out of the house, ready to go, sporting his classic larger-than-life smile. He looked at me like he was proving a point; see, I’m fighting.
I looked away then led the group toward the trail. Aside from them buying me swim shorts, I always took them on hikes. When they were babies, I’d stay at the house so their parents could leave for a bit. As they got older, I took them to the beach during the day or hosted a movie night so mom and dad could have a date. Even when they were old enough to babysit themselves, we kept going. My brothers never tried to come. I wasn’t the most outgoing in the group and, even though we saw each other all the time, this was our special time. Just me and the kids.
Nash stuck by my side the entire hike. We didn’t necessarily talk, besides a few things here and there, just hiked. Nash joked around with the kids and the kids soaked it up. The way he interacted with them was a gift. So many people overlook teenagers but Nash treats them in a way that makes them feel seen and heard. When he talks to them it’s almost like no one else matters. I knew exactly what it felt like to be on the receiving end of Nash’s full attention. It was addicting.
“We should race to that,” Nash said, pointing to the top where the last one-hundred yards or so were crazy steep. I thought the group would nip that in the bud since they’d always groaned just walking it. Instead, they got excited. They tightened their backpacks and lined up.
“Nah, I’ll walk. I’d like to keep my heart and lungs in my chest.”
Nash laughed then finished getting everyone in a line. Then they were running up the mountain. No one made it to the top without stopping, which made me laugh. I think they so badly wanted to impress Nash, who could’ve made it but stopped when the last person gave up. When I finally made it to the top, they were all sprawled out, exhausted from showing off.
We hung out for a little while and took a few pictures. They had Nash take a group shot of us, I took a group shot of them, they took selfies of each other. When I saw the look on a few faces that they were plotting to take a picture of Nash and I, I knew it was time to go. I wasn’t stupid, I knew they not-so-secretly wanted to parent trap us.
“Last one down the hill gives me a back massage,” I yelled as I gave myself a handsome head start. They were on the far end of the clearing to begin with so I wasn’t too worried. And yes, I know, it wasn’t the smarting thing to encourage them to run down a steep hill, but they managed just fine.
I was the first at the bottom then slowly everyone filtered down until we were waiting for one.
“OooOOo looks like Nash has to give Penn a massage,” Jay teased when Nash came walking out of the trail head. He hadn’t even broken a sweat.
“Oh no, whatever shall I do?” Nash said, clearly not upset about losing…on purpose. I really hadn’t thought that through.
I caught Nash’s eye and rolled mine, letting him know exactly what I thought of his stunt. He wasn’t detoured. He simply smiled and continued on his way. He ended up leading the group back while I came up the rear. Kayde, Kody, and Jay held back until they were crowding me.
“Are you guys getting back together?” Kayde asked.
I looked at Kayde and then shoved his shoulder when I realized he was serious. “No.”
“Then why have you been staring at him all day?” he asked.
“I definitely have not been staring at him.”
“Oh, you definitely have.”
“Yeah Uncle Penn,” Kody said. “We’ve been watching and it’s been all day. All. Day.”
“I think you’re seeing what you want to see and not what’s actually there.”
Jay looked over at me and smirked. “Well, he’s been staring at you, too.”
“No shit, I’ve been wearing an ugly pair of swim shorts.”
“He’s not looking at your wolf pack.”
“Well, maybe he is,” Jay snickered.
“Oh yeah, he’s definitely staring at your wolfpack,” Kayde laughed.
“You guys can go away now,” I said, motioning for them to run along.
“Because you want some alone time with Nash?” Kayde asked. “Consider us gone.” Before I could tell them that was definitely not what I wanted, they ran off. They stopped and said something to Nash, then the whole group took off. Nash laughed then turned and waited for me.
“You wanted to talk?”
“Is that what they said?” Nash nodded. I shook my head at their antics as I walked past Nash. “I don’t know why they said that.”
He caught up and we walked back to the house, shoulder to shoulder. “Is the house finished?” he asked. Looked like he was going to pretend like things were as they had been.
“Yeah, it’s been done for a while.”
“I figured but sometimes the small things take the longest to finish.”
“True, but you’ve been to the house since it’s been finished,” I said. “To grab your phone.”
After you ghosted me.
Nash pointed his finger at me and shook his head. “Nope, nice try, but I won’t bite. Anyway, I wasn’t really looking at the house in great detail. Though I remember it being beautiful.”
“It is but I’m thinking of putting it on the market.”
Nash stopped. “What? Why? That was your forever home.”
“That was the plan but it just didn’t end up feeling like home.”
I would never tell him or anyone else but Nash was around for quite a bit of the build. He spent a lot of hours on the house with me, so many that it was impossible not to think of having a future there, with him. When he was in Thailand and I finished the home, I finished it truly believing we would end up sharing it someday. So, when things ended, the way I felt about the house changed. I used the back door for months because the entrance beam on the porch was one we milled together. I’d put it front and center as a gesture of love but it ended up being a reminder of heartbreak. Even once I was over Nash, the old memories still flooded the house. In the end, it never felt like the home I imagined.
“What are you planning to do then?”
“Sell it, buy new property and build a new house.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
I shrugged. “It kind of is when your family is in the business. I’m not sure they’ll be so helpful the next time around.
“Why?” he asked.
“I’ve been thinking about moving.”
Nash’s eyes bulged. “To where?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Bend, maybe California.”
“Maybe Bend. Maybe California,” he mumbled. “When?”
“I don’t know. When I find the right property. There’s nothing holding me here so why not spread my wings.”
“What about your family?”
“What about them?” I asked. “They might think we need to be attached at the hip but we don’t. They’d survive.”
Nash was quiet for a few minutes. I could see the house in the distance and it looked like the kids were already in the pool. Nash and I long forgotten.
“Do you think you’ll be there in the next year?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I laughed. “I don’t have a timeline. I’m going to California next month and figured I’d look at property while I’m down there. If I find something then I’ll put my house on the market. Are you planning on staying in Portland?”
“I wasn’t planning on it but—”
There was a scream from the house. Not a bad scream but the scream that came from my favorite little red head. I looked to find Cam and Penny standing on the patio watching Nash and I come down the walk way. Cam had to work and couldn’t come until today. They must’ve arrived while we were out.
Cam set Penny down and she came running down the way. When she got close, I scooped her up.
“How’s my favorite monster girl?” I asked. Penny grabbed my shirt with her little fists and babbled back. I walked her back to the house and kissed Cam on the cheek.
“Looked like you two were having a cozy conversation,” she whispered.
I almost turned to find Nash, who I had accidentally ditched, but stopped myself. “Nah, just finished hiking with the kids.”
“Is that why he looks like a kicked puppy who had his favorite toy taken away.”
“He’s probably sunburned.”
Cam laughed. “More like Pennburned.”
“Ha. Ha.” I stared, unamused. “How was your flight?”
“Good. Long. Glad to finally be here. Would you mind watching Penny for a minute so I can take a nap? I feel like I’m going to fall over.”
“Sure,” I looked at Penny. “Want to go for a swimmy?” Penny’s eyes lit up.
Cam told me where her bag was, then disappeared. I got Penny and I ready then took her to the pool where we waded around for a while. She was a water baby through and through but the heat, the play, and the long day finally caught up. An hour later she was asleep on my chest under a shaded lawn chair.
Jane and Abby tried to steal Penny more than a few times but I was the favorite. I got to hang out with her the rest of the evening, uninterrupted. I wasn’t a huge kid person but I loved Penny and my nieces and nephews.
The next few days went by about the same. I woke up surprisingly early, helping with Penny so Cam could sleep in. We’d both be sitting at the table drinking—coffee for me and milk for her—when Nash finished with his run. He’d join us for breakfast before everyone else woke up.
Although I’m unclear exactly what Nash’s promise entailed, I’d say he did a decent job of following through. He was everywhere I was and did one hell of a job weaseling into some semblance of a friendship. It was irritating how easy it was. I didn’t want things to be easy, I wanted to resist, and I did. But it was easier, much easier, to be around him. The feelings weren’t there, not like before, but I did feel something keen to a growing friendship between us.
Unfortunately, not everyone else got that memo.
The boys decided to wolf howl every time they saw me look at Nash, which was annoyingly frequent. Then they decided to meow when they saw Nash looking at me. I’m not sure if they were being completely honest about how often it was happening, if they were, then I have to admit that I was caught off guard.
The howling I understood because of the whole wolfpack thing, but when I asked why the meowing, they said it was the ‘wolf whistle’ and the ‘cat call’. I laughed because they clearly had never experienced either of those in real life. Which made it truly funny.
Except it wasn’t. Because it felt like all day they were howling and meowing. My saving grace was that no one else knew why they were doing it. Until they did. Then everyone was doing it. My brothers were like a dog with a bone. I couldn’t even accidentally glance at Nash without sounding the alarms. It was hard to keep a straight face after a while. How Nash didn’t catch on, I’ll never know.
“You really need some sleep,” I said one morning when Nash came into the kitchen. Usually he’d be getting back from his run by now but that wasn’t the case. The dark under his eyes were a clear sign he needed sleep.
“It’s fine,” he smiled as he sat down. “I’m tired but it’s worth it knowing they’re having a good time.”
“Them having a good time isn’t dependent on you not sleeping.”
“True, but all the rooms are full and we’re not good enough friends to share a room.”
“I never said we couldn’t share a room. I said we couldn’t share a bed,” I explained. “If you want to sleep on the floor, by all means.”
Nash turned his nose up. “You don’t mean it. You’re just saying that because you feel obligated.”
Nash frowned. “Hey, you’re supposed to beg. ‘Please Nash, come sleep in my room. Let’s be roommates and stay up late telling ghost stories, blah blah blah’.”
“Isn’t staying up late telling ghost stories why you have bags of coal under your eyes?”
“Rude,” he said, still holding his nose up but smiling nonetheless. “If you’re nice I might stay with you. We’ll see.”
“I wait with bated breath.”
Nash smiled. “You should come with me this morning.”
“Oh no. Thanks anyway.”
“C’mon,” he pressed. “We used to do it all the time.”
“I know. But I used to be in love with you, which was the only reason I ever ran. When things ended, I realized I didn’t much care for running and I haven’t done it since.”
Nash stared at me. He looked sad and guilty which was not my intention. But, if we were actually planning on being friends, the least I could do was be honest. And the honest truth was that I only ever ran because Nash did. It was my way of trying to have some common ground with the man I was in love with.
“I don’t even know what to say to that. I’m sorry?”
“Nah,” I waved him off. “It was me being young and dumb. I should thank you though, running did keep me in shape. For that reason alone, I should still do it but…nah.”
The corner of his lip curled but didn’t reach his eyes. “Okay, well, I’ll leave you be then.”
I watched Nash as he walked down the walkway and away from the house. I could tell by the tension in his shoulder and the way his head hung that he was upset. I’m guessing because I told him I didn’t really enjoy running? What did he want me to do? Go anyway? Wouldn’t that be the opposite of what we were trying to achieve? Shouldn’t a friendship be based on honesty and not one being crazy obsessed with the other?
I could hear the house waking up and a few minutes later the kitchen started filling up. There were so many people staying in the house I literally hadn’t even talked to everyone. Granted, I was far more introverted than the rest of my family and had no problem staying at the small window seat while the giant tables filled with people.
Cam and Sam came in last. Cam spotted me and smiled evilly. I rolled my eyes and held my hands out, letting her know I’d take Penny so she could eat.
“Just while I dish up and then I’ll join you. We haven’t really talked since I got here and I miss you.”
“What about Sam? You’re just going to ditch him on the first vacation he’s been on?”
“Sam will be just fine. We didn’t connect the dots until we got here but Sam actually went to college with Abby’s brother Carter. They’ll be inseparable this morning.” Sure enough, Sam was dishing up breakfast next to Carter. Both of them were laughing and clearly excited to be reunited. Cam looked at me as if to say ‘see? I told you’ before going to get her own food.
I looked back out the window not expecting to see Nash but thinking about him anyway. Thirty seconds later the whole room erupted in howling. I turned around to see everyone watching me, half of them laughing, the other half howling.
“He’s not even here and you’re still staring at him,” Ryan ribbed from across the room then pretended to gag himself. “We’re trying to eat breakfast here.”
“I was watching the ocean you idiots.”
“Mhmm,” they hummed in unison.
I ignored them but I didn’t look out the window again.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on between you and Nash?” Cam asked when she sat back down.
“Nothing,” I replied lamely.
“From what I hear, you two have been attached at the hip.”
“He’s attached to my hip,” I corrected.
“And yet you don’t seem bothered by it.”
“It’s fine. We obviously get along and I have someone to hang out with that isn’t married.”
“It’s okay to admit that you enjoy having him back in your life. No one will judge you.”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “It’s nice having the company but it’s not like it used to be. I don’t have those feelings for him anymore. It’s just a friendship—or will become a friendship.”
“Come on Penn, you don’t look at him like he’s just a friend.”
“I probably look at him in confusion because I’m trying to figure out what any of this could possibly lead to. I also look at him because he’s hot—what? I may not have feelings for him anymore but I’m not blind. He’s still hot.”
“Does any of this have to do with Jason?”
“What about Jason?”
Cam waved her hand at me. “You and Jason.”
“We both know there’s no me and Jason.”
“That’s not 100% true and you know it. You are going to California to visit him.”
“Yeah, because I’d like to get laid,” I laughed. “I have many years to make up for.”
“You have Nash sleeping under the same roof. You could easily get laid without going to Cali,” she shot back.
“Only if I wanted to marry him, which I don’t. Not anymore anyway. Plus, Nash doesn’t do casual sex and, even if he did, that would not be good for our relationship.”
“Oh, so you admit you’re in a relationship?”
I glared at my best friend. “It wouldn’t be good for our friendship,” I corrected. “Relationship is an umbrella term that includes both platonic and romantic relationships and you know it.”
Cam looked smug. I turned to Penny and frowned. “How do you live with her?” Penny smiled and stuck her cheerio covered hand in her mouth.
We were almost half way through vacation and the house was mostly empty. I think the lack of privacy was finally catching up to people. Since everyone else left to explore the island, I decided to stay. Nash left with Ryan and Jane, which was fine because I needed my own time.
Nash had been quiet since yesterday’s conversation about running. We still hung out most of the day but it was almost like he was waiting for me to initiate any activity; afraid I’d reject his idea. I half expected Nash to show up with his pillow to sleep on my floor, only he didn’t. And yes, there was this small part of me that was disappointed.
I stood on the patio overlooking the yard that gently sloped down to the beach. It wasn’t a great beach like you see in Hawaii ads and brochures. There was no good surfing and the sand was littered with rocks and wood debris.
“It almost feels like I need a sweatshirt.” I jumped when Nash leaned his elbows on the rails next to me, watching the tall grass sway in the wind. “I didn’t mean to scare you.
“Just wasn’t expecting anyone home yet.”
“Yeah, they’ll be a while. I needed a break so I came back early.”
“It would be a good time to take a nap,” I suggested.
“Don’t try to push me away,” he teased. “Though I might. I was hoping the weather would be nicer so I could lay in the sun but—” he gestured to the less than glamorous weather.
“Yeah, it’s not a great day for that.
The wind was really picking up and the tall grass planted around the yard was leaning heavily under the pressure. The dry, desert like heat that had been here at the beginning of the trip was gone and replaced by a breeze with a cool touch to it. I could almost feel the moisture in the air.
“Want to go for a walk on the beach?” he asked.
“I thought you needed a break?”
“From everyone else, not from you.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that so I proceeded to walk.
“You guys got a good deal on the property, didn’t you?” He asked as he sidestepped jagged pieces of wood.
“Hawaii is Hawaii, there is no good deal on property. Only expensive and more expensive. We didn’t buy because of the beach—”
I glared at his quick response, then continued. “We bought because it’s quiet out here.”
We walked for a bit. It was different this time. There was no one around, watching. Nash asked me a ton of questions. I asked a few in return. We shared a lot; some new and some we knew. The cool weather and lack of howling and meowing made it easy to let my guard down. I had no one to impress--not Nash, not my family, not anyone. It was just Nash and I. Despite knowing him since high school and him knowing me for a few years, we were meeting for the first time.
We walked for over an hour then turned and walked back. In that time the conversation never waned. It still seemed like there was more to say, so when we got back, we sat in the grass that bordered the beach with our feet in the sand and talked some more.
I learned more about Nash in that few hours than I had in twenty years. I never knew him and he never knew me because I was nothing but a boy trying to impress another boy. Now I was a man with nothing to lose and so much to gain.
“Are you ready to head in?” I asked. “It’s getting chilly.”
Nash glanced at the ocean, disappointment in his eyes. But when he looked back, he smiled. “If we must.”
We both stood up and shook the sand off our pants.
“My ass is wet from the grass,” Nash said, patting his butt. He turned a bit so he could look at the damage. The fabric on his tush damp.
I felt my pants and laughed, “Mine too.”
We walked inside and shut the door. Nash looked outside at the swaying grass and the choppy water and sighed. “It feels like a storm is coming.”
I stared at the dark clouds on the horizon then looked at Nash, realizing my thoughts were just as turbulent as the thunderheads gathering in the distance.