Hey, friends! This week’s sneak peek at one of my books is a little different. Why? Because this week’s book, First Love, is FREE today! What?! Yes! Check it out here, and make sure to go over to Amazon to get your free copy!
It was finally her turn.
Leslie was in the privacy of her car, just as she’d been for the past hour, driving from the college town where she’d been equipped for all that was up ahead, smiling as she headed towards home. Because she was alone and knew that no one would witness her rather juvenile enthusiasm and esteem her any less for it, she gave a little squeal of joy as she passed the city limit sign.
Home. And with it, all kinds of possibilities.
It felt like she’d just turned a page to a whole new chapter of her life. A new, exciting, and adventurous chapter that she’d been writing in her heart for years, working and striving for the happy ending that she knew was hers for the taking.
Leslie Collins – cupcake queen.
Cupcakes hadn’t always been the dream, at least not at the start. Back when she’d first felt the call to something greater, she’d not known exactly what it was that she was heading towards, but she’d known the reasons behind it, behind the constant drive she felt to be important, to be someone.
“We’ve got to help Travis.”
She’d been only nine years old when she’d spoken the words to her sisters, laying it out as simply as possible, just like she’d always delivered all similar edicts to them. “We’ve got to arrange a wedding for Ken and Barbie.” “We’ve got to get Mom and Dad to order a pizza for dinner.” “We’ve got to ride our bikes all the way around the block.” She was the oldest sister, after all, and Holly and Brooke always needed her to tell them what to do, because at seven and five, they were pretty much clueless.
All little sisters need a big sister, telling them how it’s going to be, and that’s just exactly what Leslie had spent her whole life doing.
She could remember sitting in the playhouse in the backyard with them as she’d delivered these words with all the severity and importance that she could muster in her little girl voice.
We’ve got to help Travis.
This new command about helping Travis had been different than any that Leslie had given to them before, though. Holly had seemed to sense the seriousness in her sister’s tone. Or maybe that was just residual severity from all that they’d been through in the months prior to that afternoon in the playhouse.
There had been a car accident. The three Collins sisters had woken up that morning with two parents who were young and healthy, and they’d gone to bed that night as orphans. If Leslie, Holly, and Brooke had been older, they would have thought through the precariousness of the situation, of their parents being killed without much financial security left behind or any extended family who would be willing to step in and take care of them. If the Collins sisters had been older, their concern would have been as grave as their mourning had been.
But as it was, they were young, and all those concerns were left to someone else. To Travis, their nineteen year old brother, who picked up the mantle of his parents’ failing business, their mortgage, the debt they carried on their cars, the health insurance payments they’d missed, and all the bills they’d neglected, waiting on a better day. Travis had inherited it all, and though Leslie was too young to really grasp the heavy load he shouldered as a result, she’d known enough to discern that he was in need of help.
“Travis has a lot going on,” she’d said, looking between Brooke and Holly, attempting her best to communicate this to them.
“He’s sad,” five year old Brooke had said, which was maybe the most honest thing anyone had said since their parents had passed. There were a lot of cliched words about God’s will, about the valley they were in, and about how the Lord would provide, and Leslie had thought them all true enough, maybe, but on the whole not at all helpful. She appreciated more honest words, even if they were simplistic.
Travis was sad. They all were.
“Exactly,” Leslie said. “Travis is very sad. Because Mom and Dad…”
Holly had sniffed at this, the tears filling her eyes just like they did every time anyone revisited the topic of their parents and the car accident.
“Holly, stop it,” Leslie had said, not meaning to be unkind but sounding that way all the same. “Being sad won’t help anything.”
They still were, though. Even Leslie had moments of grief, where tears couldn’t be avoided, no matter how hard she tried to be stoic and brave.
Just like she was trying to be as she stared at her sisters in the playhouse.
“We’re going to help Travis,” she said, declaring it more emphatically this time as if the words would be truer if she said them with more certainty.
“How are we going to help him?” Holly asked, blinking back the tears that Leslie had forbidden.
How indeed? What could they really do? What would help things?
Leslie had heard enough as she’d listened to the adults talk. Travis had talked a lot with the church pastor and his wife. Not like the Collins family had gone to church before all of this happened, but once it had, that’s where Travis had his sisters first thing, where the pastoral family stepped up and helped him, talking about things like custody, child services, and legal arrangements, things that the girls hadn’t understood. The pastor’s wife had shown Travis how to do their hair, had cooked more than a few meals in the kitchen for them, had walked through a budget with him, and had left long lists of instructions about how to do some of the things that their mother had always done, unnoticed. Laundry, school schedules, meal planning, household budgeting, and other responsibilities that now belonged to Travis.
Leslie had also heard Travis talking with Mr. and Mrs. Sanders, the couple who had worked for his parents, him on the construction end, her as a secretary. There were many conversations between all of them about the business, about the debts there, and about the direction the future projects, which were alarmingly few, would take.
Leslie had heard enough to learn a few things.
The Collins family was poor. Collins Construction, the family business, was failing. Big time.
Travis needed money. And quick.
This is how the Collins sisters were going to help Travis.
“We’re going to help him by giving him money,” Leslie had said to her sisters, expecting that they would just agree with her, no further questions asked.
Holly might have done just that, as that was her personality. Submissive and agreeable, maybe to a fault at times. But there was Brooke, looking between her two sisters with confusion. “What? We don’t have any money.”
That was a fitting mantra for the Collins family. We don’t have any money. Like a family motto, though none of the girls had known it until then.
“Yeah, Leslie,” Holly said softly. “We don’t have any money to give Travis.”
“I know that,” Leslie said, rolling her eyes at them. Then, trying for patience, she smiled. “That’s why we need to figure out a way that we can make money. It’s expensive, running a business and taking care of us. We need to help him. He can’t do it all by himself.”
“How are we going to make money?” Brooke asked, not convinced that any of this was a good idea. “We’re just kids.”
They were. True enough. But surely there was something they could do…
“We’re going to figure something out,” Leslie said, believing that they would with every last bit of confidence that she had.
And though the sisters had no grand ideas that day, in time, they came up with a plan. It was the pastor’s wife who came over one day like she was accustomed to doing as Travis worked overtime, trying to resuscitate his parents’ business as he learned the craft himself. The pastor’s wife would come and help him out where she could, babysitting the girls and helping them with homework, amusing them until Travis came home late to tuck them in, worn out and exhausted himself. She was there at the house that weekend that Travis was working more overtime, carrying bags of groceries with her, unveiling the contents with a great flourish, and revealing several cake mixes and frosting containers, sprinkles and squeezy tubes of decorative icing.
Cupcakes. The Collins sisters were going to make cupcakes, just for fun.
But it was more than just fun. Leslie found that it came naturally, being in the kitchen and following the instructions on the box, decorating the final products with ease and directing her sisters to do the same as the pastor’s wife smiled over them and told Leslie that her efforts were better than most adult’s final products. Over time and several more attempts at the same practice, Leslie wasn’t even using a box mix anymore, choosing her own ingredients and crafting her own recipes with the ease of someone who had spent her whole life baking. She was good enough that people who bought the products she made out of their feelings of pity for the family came back because the cupcakes were really good. Making treats for kids’ birthday parties and classroom parties gave way to more grown up events like bridal showers and baby showers, with the Collins sisters producing the cupcakes then hitching a ride with the pastor’s wife to deliver them to their destination. By the time Leslie was a teenager and Travis no longer had money problems thanks to his own ingenuity, she’d made it into a business, making her own deliveries to weddings, where her cupcake creations were replacing traditional wedding cakes.
The Collins family went from being the poor kids in town to the rich kids, thanks to Travis and his success.
And thanks to Leslie, who smiled at the memory as she pulled her car into the parking space outside the old downtown drug store.
The building had stood abandoned for a couple of years, telling a sad story about the end of an era, a vintage era, of soda shops and drugstores, hometown relics that spoke of innocence and the purity of a community untouched by modernization. Downtown had been falling apart just like the rest of the town, but the economy had taken a turn recently. Oil out west was creating more jobs, and rather than being a commuter community which they’d been in the past, the town had been steadily becoming home to hundreds of families that were now rapidly pouring in, charmed by the homes that Travis’s company was building and by the new shops and sights along the highway, businesses going up quickly to save the town and make it home for a new generation of people.
Leslie felt like she’d stumbled onto a hidden gem with this place. She’d been watching it for the past two years, planning her move as she continued to use a rented kitchen in her college town, making her cupcakes and selling them, personally and at different businesses that would contract her for her services, setting aside all of her profits so that she could make an offer on the building. She was going to use part of her savings to gut the small kitchen and have Travis build her a new one, but the rest of the building was going to remain as it had been in its prime. Very vintage and all, with brick work throughout the interior and natural light pouring in from the generous windows, a place where she could put in some simple furniture and cozy touches, making it perfect for parties and showers, and for just every day customers who would come in for a treat. She was going to take the customers back to a simpler time in life, when the neighborhood sweet shop was the place to be and sweet memories could be recalled with a single bite. And the name of this sweet place?
She could picture the sign now, all done in a whimsical, romantic font in pastel colors, right there on the front of the building, recalling those days of a different era in the hearts of customers, heralding a new and exciting day in her life.
Her phone rang just as she was smiling again. She answered it without looking at the screen.
“You’re praying, right?”
An odd greeting to be sure, but this was actually fairly standard for all of Leslie and Dana’s calls.
Dana had been her roommate in college, selected for her by some random computer generation system at the state university, but Leslie had preferred to think it was providential, completely orchestrated by God. The two girls had become friends quickly, almost like kindred spirits, and Dana had been an answer to prayers that Leslie had no doubt Travis had been praying for quite some time, that Leslie would surround herself with believers who would bring her back to the faith that had become lukewarm to her during her senior year of high school.
There had been plenty of good reasons for that. One in particular. But that one reason wasn’t anywhere near the state university where Leslie met Dana.
“You’ve got to come with me to church tomorrow,” Dana had said that first night they’d been in the dorm, splitting a pizza that Travis had delivered to them before he left Leslie on her own for the first time, nervous and so dad-like that Leslie had wanted to cry. Her senior year had been tough on them, and Travis had been supportive, understanding there at the end.
But she’d swept aside those thoughts that night, pausing between bites to study Dana after the question had been posed. “Church?”
“Yeah,” Dana nodded. “That’s my first priority in getting settled in here. Find a new church home. I thought I’d start with the First Baptist a couple of streets over from here. They probably have a huge college student program, just based on how close they are to campus, but I don’t want to venture in there by myself, you know?”
Leslie did know. New people, new place, new experiences. A new world, honestly.
And it wasn’t like she wasn’t a believer. She still considered herself to be a very serious believer, in fact, so going to church was just one of those things that she would have gotten around to on her own. Eventually. Probably. Maybe.
“I get that,” Leslie said. “And I’ll come with you.”
And she had, pulling out her Bible for the first time in months, opening it up in the small group she and Dana found themselves in, and hearing the words as if they were entirely new.
How did the Lord do that? How did His words, forgotten and ignored for so long, suddenly come screaming back to her senses, overwhelming her into attention, then gently whispering to her heart like they did?
There were seasons to faith, and Leslie soon found herself transitioning to a new one. College had been a season of renewed commitment to Christ and to honoring Him with her life. And it hadn’t been just a season but a new way of life that continued even after college, through the next few years that she and Dana continued to live together and serve well in the church that had become home, being accountable to one another and encouragers all at once.
Dana knew all about First Love and had been praying with her for this meeting in particular.
“I’ve been praying all morning,” Dana said. “Which has gotten me some strange looks from my students. Probably because I’ve just said some of those prayers out loud without thinking.”
Leslie smiled at this. “They’re three. Like they don’t say crazy things themselves.”
“That’s the truth,” Dana laughed. “One of the little stinkers asked me if I had a baby in my tummy earlier. I’m going to assume he asked that because his mother is pregnant and he thinks all women of a certain age have babies in their tummies… and that it has nothing to do with the paunch I have after all those cupcakes you had me sample this weekend.”
There had been a huge wedding, and Dana had stepped in when Leslie’s sister, Holly, had a final scheduled at the same time and couldn’t be her assistant like normal. Dana had done a great job, but she’d eaten a good portion of the emergency stock of cupcakes that Leslie always brought along just in case there were any surprises or accidents in setting up the elaborate cupcake displays.
“Well,” Leslie said, checking her makeup in the mirror, “I hope you taught him that those are conclusions men should never make about women. Or voice out loud, at least.”
“I’m having enough trouble teaching him to wash his hands after he goes to the bathroom,” Dana said. “But enough about my exciting life in Threesville. Are you back home yet?”
“Just got here,” Leslie said.
“How long until you get to the building?”
“Just got here,” she laughed. “City limits to downtown takes about half a second.”
“Is it still as perfect as the last time you saw it? The building that is, not the town.”
Leslie let her eyes wash over it, over her future, all her hopes and dreams.
“Absolutely,” she sighed.
“And you’re meeting with the realtor?” Dana pressed. “Like, right now?”
“Yes,” Leslie said, closing her mirror and taking another breath.
“Then I’ll get off the line and start praying even more,” she said. “You call me later and let me know what happens, okay?”
“Okay,” Leslie nodded.
“Hey,” Dana reminded her. “All for God’s glory, right? Everything that this business will become, all that you’re going to do. Success is being who He’s called you to be, sharing your gift with the world, giving witness to who He is… remember?”
Leslie did remember. Her inclination was to attach success to the deficiency she’d felt when she’d lost her parents, when she’d wanted to help Travis, but when she framed it all in the right light, in what she knew to be true spiritually, everything was different.
She and Dana were good to point it out to one another, to remind one another at times like this.
“I remember,” she murmured. “Thanks for praying.”
As she ended the call, she took a steadying breath, thankful to see that there was an SUV parked at the curb, certain that it meant the realtor was already inside, waiting for her to come in and finally make her an offer after a quick glance.
Hardly any need for the quick glance. She’d looked it over before, weeks ago, knowing that there was no interest from anyone on the building, able to sense the realtor’s anxiousness, knowing that she was ready to move the property as quickly as possible. Leslie had held off until now, until she could make the offer she was comfortable with, one that would leave her with enough money to make her improvements, one that she’d prayed over until the time was right to go forward.
Now was that time.
“It’s all about to happen,” she murmured, giving herself one final glance in the rearview mirror before stepping out of her car, shutting the door behind her, and pointing her feet towards her future, confident steps covering the distance in seconds, one last prayer being uttered from her heart as she stepped onto the curb and moved quickly down the sidewalk.
Here she was. Her future was ready to start, right now.
She opened the door, stepping inside and twirling a little, taking a breath and already imagining the scents that would be pouring forth from First Love in weeks, the customers that would follow, the community she would make here with her business, where everyone would know her name –
She was facing the entrance, her back to the voice, when she heard the disbelief in the simple word. And though it had been six years since she’d spoken to him, since he’d spoken to her… well, she recognized the voice with alarming clarity.
I love you, Leslie Collins.
He’d said it before, many times. He’d said a lot of things. But her mind was fixed on the tender sentiment as his voice trailed over to her, stopping her cold.
No. No, no, no…
With her heart pounding, she turned around, knowing who would be there, scarcely daring to believe it even as her head swore that it couldn’t be anyone else.
And sure enough, there he was.
He was all grown up now but not so far removed from the past they shared that she couldn’t see, in the man before her, the boy who had been the center of her heart for so long. The boy who had then broken that heart and shown everything that she’d believed about him to be a lie.
“Leslie, is that you?” He said it as though he was just as shocked to see her, which he likely was. She’d been gone for six years. And he… well, who even knew where he’d been or what he’d been doing.
The more pressing concern wasn’t Blake’s past. It was his present, which had brought him here, face to face with her.
Why was he here? Why was he in this building? Why was he in town? Why was he showing up now?
Why did her heart hurt all over again, just like she was a teenager again, crying because he didn’t love her after all, because he’d ruined her?
As he watched her with concern, she found her mouth too dry and her heart too full to manage much of anything.
“What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
All the boys who sat outside the high school gym waited with anticipation to see what would happen next.
Blake Young was angry. He was angry a lot, and it was always fun to see what his anger would lead to… unless you were the one facing his anger on your own.
Stupid Ben Sanders didn’t seem to know this as the rest of the boys stared at him, looking between him and Blake, waiting for the explosion that was sure to come and the fight that would erupt between the two boys. Ben Sanders didn’t seem to know much, though, as he drifted through their high school like he always had, dressed in dark colors, always brooding and scowling at everything around him, except for those times that he was loud and eerily laughing about everything. Highs and lows all the time with that kid, so much so that the word was that Ben was “disturbed” and “not right in the head.” The teachers probably had kinder words about it all, but with the students who had spent all of their lives around him in the small school, it was all talk about how Ben was a psycho.
He would have to be psychotic to hang out around the gym after two a days. The varsity football team was spending the last few weeks of summer with two workouts a day, an exhausting routine that prepared them for the season but that left them all but depleted during the hottest part of the Texas summer. Not too depleted that Blake didn’t direct his attention and ire right at Ben Sanders as he skulked past the boys who were his classmates but who didn’t socialize with him at all.
No, they just made fun of him.
Honestly, Ben brought it on himself. Blake always thought this, and it made him despise Ben a little more for being so weak. That was part of why he couldn’t stop himself from the harsh words that he spat out as Ben tried to go past them all as they sat on the grass, waiting until the coach released them for their mid-day break.
“What are you doing here?”
He said the words and felt a sense of pride as all the boys around him glanced his way, respecting him for being so tough, so assured, so confident.
It’s who he was. Life had made him this way.
Ben should have just kept on walking. That’s what other boys that Blake was forever challenging did, their heads lowered, their gazes not meeting his. But not Ben. No, Ben looked up and scowled at Blake.
They knew one another, after all. Blake made a regular practice of tormenting Ben.
“Picking up my brother,” Ben spat out. “What’s it to you?”
His insolence almost justified what was coming to him in Blake’s mind.
“You’re walking in our space.” Blake gestured at the grass around them, at the gym behind him, and the football field not too far away, as though it all belonged to him.
He felt like the school belonged to him. Here, he was someone. Home was crappy, to put it mildly, with his old man reminding him at every point along the way and in every conversation that he was worthless, so it meant something that he had respect at school, at least.
Even with that, though, he felt worthless sometimes. Maybe that was why he acted the way he did. But he didn’t feel worthless just then, as the other boys watched him with smiles and bated breath, waiting for him to lay into Ben Sanders, to follow up all the cruel things he’d said to him during all the years of school with action.
He’d done it before. Fought Ben a few times, spitting on him afterwards, after saying the worst words he could manage, all to the cheers of the other boys.
Ben was likely recalling it as he looked around the space as well.
And then, Ben Sanders did something he never did.
“Shut up,” he said to Blake, as though he had nothing to lose.
Blake was momentarily stunned. He stood to his feet, intending to act on this, but a couple of the other boys held him back.
“Too many people around,” they said, nodding to the school just a parking lot away.
And there were. Teachers, heading out from the high school and towards their cars, retrieving things for the next round of meetings. A few other students, mainly the kiss up types who were doing projects for advanced classes –
And speaking of, there was one of them, rushing over to where the boys all stood, where Ben continued glaring at Blake.
Blake just grinned, knowing that he could bide his time. Ben would be around. He backed away, as though he hadn’t been prepared to punch the psycho in the face, just as another boy approached him, a backpack on his shoulder and a stack of books in his arms.
“Hey,” he said breathlessly, assessing the situation warily, just before his eyes settled on one of Blake’s football buddies. “Hey, Chase.”
Chase MacGregor. Not the brightest bulb in the box but good for a laugh or two. And his parents were rich and always out of town on the weekends, so he was regularly able to get his friends some good stuff for their parties.
Chase looked a little guilty as he met the newcomer’s eyes. “Hey, Jordan.”
Jordan Sanders. Blake remembered his name a second later. Smart kid. Responsible kid. Nice kid. So much so that no one could believe that he and Ben were even remotely related, much less brothers.
“I saw your grade for that summer session of history,” Jordan said, smiling at Chase now. “Great job. I told you that you could do it if you worked hard.”
Summer session, which was the nice way of saying summer school. Chase had failed that history class last spring, but it didn’t affect his eligibility for football. The coaches, however, had insisted he take it in summer school anyway so as to not risk taking it in the fall and failing it again, when they needed him getting hit out there on the field. They’d even assigned him a tutor to make sure that he’d get it done and out of the way.
Jordan had been that tutor, apparently.
“Yeah, thanks,” Chase said, nodding. “Coach said you’d signed on to help me next semester, too. With biology.”
Jordan nodded. “Yeah, I did. I’m thinking you’ll make the honor roll this year.”
Jordan was a tutor and a miracle worker, then.
“Come on, loser,” Ben muttered at his brother, shooting one last dark look over at Blake. “I want to go home.”
“I have work,” Jordan said, his attention turning away from the football players, his features tightening slightly. “Travis texted while I was finishing up with my last student thirty minutes ago and told me I could get in some hours this afternoon. I need you to take me to the new construction site over by the middle school, and –”
And he didn’t get the words out because Ben reached out and pushed him right to the ground, clearly with the intent to hurt him worse than he had.
Blake felt himself tighten up in response. Not from the exhilaration that he felt when he himself was the one fighting but in surprise, seeing how Jordan allowed the abuse. Jordan was bigger than Ben, should have been able to take him down harder and faster than Ben had attempted to do to him, as evidenced by how he was able to get up quickly as though he’d never been pushed at all.
Why would he put up with that, instead of punching his brother right in the face?
“We’re going home,” Ben said darkly.
Then, he was storming off, and Jordan simply followed, picking his books back up and slipping the backpack back onto his shoulders.
“Psycho,” one of the other boys muttered. They were talking about Ben, of course, not Jordan, who even as he made his way across the parking lot attempted to stop and help a girl grab something out of her car. He was a good guy, clearly. The girl who waved him off with a smile as she gathered a giant box out of her backseat seemed to know it. All the boys watched as she opened the box, pulled out two cupcakes, and handed them to him.
“What in the world?” Chase murmured as they all stared, watching Jordan balance those cupcakes in one hand, saluting the girl with them, then making his way to his brother and handing one to him.
Ben didn’t even look at him as he took it.
Jerk. Blake wished he had hit him when he had the chance, no matter who had seen or what the consequences –
“Leslie Collins,” another one of the guys said, whistling low. Almost as an afterthought, Blake remembered the girl at the car.
He turned his attention towards her, watching as she walked through the parking lot, pointed towards the school, with no clue that all of his boys were watching her with interest now.
Leslie Collins. He knew of her. He didn’t know her. She wasn’t the type of girl he ran around with at school or out of school. No, she was a good girl who made good grades, who sucked up to the teachers, and who was always at church.
Blake didn’t do any of those things.
But he was thinking it might be worth doing at least some of them if it got him closer to Leslie Collins. The summer seemed to have done her some favors. She was looking tan, like she’d spent the summer in the sun. She was wearing her long hair loose, letting it fall in waves around the tank top she wore with a cute pair of cutoff jeans and flip flops.
Summer casual but cute. And well put together. Because she was rich. Or at least her brother was. Everyone in town knew about that, but Blake knew it better than most because just a couple of months ago his father, who’d never been able to consistently hold down a job, had somehow miraculously gotten the best one yet working for Leslie’s brother. He was on a construction crew, and it looked like he might finally last more than a season at this job.
“She looks hot,” Chase said as they all watched Leslie continue to make her way into the building. “And not just because she’s got a giant box of cupcakes with her. She looks good even without the food –”
“That’s all you think about,” Blake had muttered, bending down to pick up his bag.
“Cupcakes?” one of the other guys asked. “Why is she bringing cupcakes to the school?”
“For the new teachers’ luncheon,” Chase answered. “She was hired to make some of her cupcakes for the meal.” When all the other boys looked to him, wondering why he would know this information, he shrugged. “My mom is president of the PTA. She hired Leslie.”
“So you might be able to help me get to know her better, huh?” one of the other guys asked, elbowing Chase, his attention back on Leslie.
“You don’t want to get to know her better,” Chase shook his head.
“Oh, why not?”
“Because she’s a nice girl,” Chase said. “And by that, I mean she’s stuck up and a total prude.”
Could be. Blake looked over at her again.
“A prude,” one of the other guys said. “And that means?”
“She won’t put out,” Blake said succinctly.
“That’s a shame,” one of the other guys sighed. “Waste of time, then.”
Blake continued watching her, thinking about this. She looked great. And a challenge?
Well, that was always fun.
“I’ll bet,” he said, leaning over to whisper it to his friends, “that I could get her to put out.”
The other guys turned to him with smiles. They appreciated this almost as much as they had appreciated his readiness to beat Ben Sanders into a bloody pulp. Respect. He could always get it here.
“I’ll bet you couldn’t,” Chase said, scoffing at this.
“School starts next week,” Blake said. “Just watch.”
And he left the school that day with them taunting on, feeling like he was quite the man.
At home, it was a different story.
The Young home was, to put it plainly, not much of a home. Blake credited this entirely to his father, whose unpredictable moods and looming presence made for tension that pervaded every square foot of the tiny trailer they lived in.
Tim Young was like Ben Sanders in some ways. Maybe that was part of the reason that Blake hated them both as much as he did, transferring feelings about one to the other, then back and forth again and again, until he wasn’t sure who exactly he was yearning to hit and why.
Blake would have put it out of his mind entirely, just as he’d been doing most of the summer. He’d spent the majority of those months working a night job waiting tables at a twenty-four hour diner in the next town, which was great for two reasons. He got paid better because he was on the night shift, making for a simple increase in wages that had been enough for him to buy a beat up truck that would give him some freedom his senior year to go where he wanted when he wanted. The second reason the night job was great was because it kept him away when his father was at home. The two were on entirely different schedules, with Blake working all night then coming home during the daylight and his father doing the exact opposite.
Now that Blake was transitioning to a different schedule, picking up a different shift for the job (weekends mainly, because school would start soon), he still wasn’t seeing his father all that often. He’d stay out late then get up early for football practice, coming home only halfway through the day for lunch before heading out to practice again and then onto whatever he had planned with friends for the evening.
He would have liked to continue on like this indefinitely, not seeing his father at all, not even when senior year was over, he graduated, and he finally moved on with his life. Working somewhere, doing something, maybe. Anywhere and anything, just as long as it was far enough away that he could finally breathe.
He pulled his car into the gravel driveway outside the Young’s trailer and felt his chest tighten.
His father’s truck was sitting there.
So much for not seeing the old man. He’d probably swung by on a lunch break.
Or… maybe he’d lost his job. Again.
Blake closed his eyes, thinking of all the drama that was sure to come if this was the case. Familiar, old drama that happened again and again, all throughout his childhood, almost as predictable as the mood swings and the tears his mother would cry afterwards, once the fighting and the yelling was done.
Another lost job. Blake knew what had happened without even having it confirmed.
There was no reason that Tim Young should have failed so spectacularly at every job he attempted to do. He wasn’t a drunk, he didn’t do drugs, and he had no medical condition that would prevent him from keeping an honest job and making a decent living. He’d been married to the same woman for eighteen years and had made a family of three with her, so there was something to be said for his level of commitment and his fidelity and his ability to at least put some money on the table.
But his attitude stunk.
Blake had never known any different at home, but he compared his father and his demeanor to the other men that had been in his life. Coaches, teachers, and even the dads of other friends – none of them seemed to carry the chip on their shoulders that Tim Young did.
It was always someone else’s fault, too. Everything that happened to Tim Young was someone else’s fault. No matter what the reasons were, no matter what had happened, and no matter what the truth was. It was always someone else who was to blame.
Blake took a breath and prepared himself for more of the same as he got out of his car, swearing that he’d just go in, grab some lunch, and head back out. He could sit in his car at the high school and eat there. It’s not like the coaches gave them a long lunch break anyway. No one would think it was strange that Blake was there earlier than he had to be. He could make some excuse if anyone asked, since he didn’t want them to know what the truth was, what he was hiding at home.
Just get in, grab some lunch, and get back out.
He was chanting it in his head like a mantra as his steps carried him to the house, through the rickety door that made far too much noise as it swung open.
Far, far too much noise, as it alerted his father, who was sitting in the living room watching television, of his presence.
Blake suppressed a groan, even as he heard his father get up out of his chair and make his way into the kitchen.
This wouldn’t be a quick in and out then.
Blake raised his eyes to his father’s, startled like he always was by how much looking at the old man was like seeing himself in a mirror. Or at least he assumed that’s just how he’d look if he’d been aged by twenty years and had a hard time of it.
Tim had a beer in one hand, the other in his pocket, as he casually leaned against the counter, watching his son as if sizing him up.
The usual, then.
“Hey,” Blake said in a non-committal tone, turning to the fridge and casting his eyes away from his father’s gaze.
“Football practice, huh?” his dad asked, filling the silence.
Blake nodded wearily. “Yeah.”
“Team any good this year?”
Did it really matter if they were? They wouldn’t be good enough for Tim Young. Nothing ever was. And football was one of those things that he did care about, miraculously enough.
“We’re okay,” Blake said, knowing what was coming.
“Won’t make it to the state championship,” Tim said, falling into the old, familiar triumphant tone so easily, veering towards the same old story he told again and again, even as he took a drink. “Haven’t done that since my senior year.”
They hadn’t. The team had never been as good as they were that year, which was fitting, since Tim himself had never been as good as he had been his senior year of high school. The glory days of that era didn’t have to be the best days of Tim’s life, but he’d made it so, making bad choices ever since and choosing to linger in a past he’d felt he had to give up.
He’d had to give it up, no doubt. There was a very good reason for that. And that reason pulled out some sandwich meat from the fridge, along with a jar of mayo, just as Tim sat at the table.
Tim had become a father at eighteen. Any plans he might have had to go on to college were thwarted by the news his girlfriend had given him at the end of that triumphant football season. She’d forced him into marriage, Tim would say later, and the fact that he had a healthy son nine months after that football season was little consolation as Tim had to work the first of many jobs that he hated as his friends went on with the next season of their lives, all of which required far less responsibility than that of a family man.
He could’ve gone to college eventually, though. Instead, he married Blake’s mother and started putting the blame on her, then on Blake, for all the reasons why he couldn’t. But he could have. He could have even still married her, worked his job, done school at night. Blake’s mother was a hard worker herself, doing a hodge podge of various jobs that she could fit around a mother’s schedule – cleaning houses for money, babysitting jobs here and there, and working from home, using her computer to help people book vacations that she herself would never be able to afford to go on. She would have done plenty to contribute to the family income so that he could have gone onto college, so that she could have as well…
But as it was, Tim felt it was easier to blame and resent everyone than to actually do something about his life.
And Blake’s mother didn’t argue with him about it.
Blake wanted to. He wanted to scream at his father every time Tim said a harsh word to either of them, to tell him to be a man and do something, then. He’d done it before, and it hadn’t ended well. So now, he was just biding his time, waiting until he could get out and stop being the reason for someone else’s constant angst and irritation.
“Team hasn’t been any good since then,” Tim mused, dropping into a chair and kicking his feet up on the table. “Those coaches don’t know what they’re doing. Or maybe there’s just no real talent.”
He watched, almost eagerly, for Blake to react.
But Blake wouldn’t take the bait. These snide comments were always being delivered, but Blake had jumped at them far too often in the past and knew that it was pointless to argue with the man or even defend himself.
Tim Young was a bully.
Blake didn’t fight back, though.
“Probably not,” he said, shrugging, even as he slapped together a sandwich, planning on going back to his room so that he wouldn’t have to continue on with this pointless conversation.
“Still, though,” his dad said, “I’ll be glad when the season starts up. Will give me something to do. Maybe I’ll come out and watch practices some days.”
Blake inwardly cringed at the thought of his father anywhere near the school, watching and tallying up more and more critical comments.
Then, a thought struck him.
“How will you be able to watch practice?” he asked. “Won’t you have work?”
There was a tightness around his father’s mouth now. Blake could see it happening, and without any explanation being given, he could figure out what had transpired for Tim at work.
“No, I won’t have work,” Tim said, phrasing it just so, as though the decision to be freed from the job had been all his.
Blake should have left it at that. He should have just left it, but he couldn’t. All the frustration he felt over the demeaning that took place in this sad home and the irritation he felt on his mother’s behalf for being the one to sustain their family, when there should be no reason that Tim couldn’t do it himself –
“You lost the job?” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. He had really hoped it would be different this time with the job. He knew enough about Travis Collins, his father’s new boss, to know that the man was fair and that working for him should have led to some stability for their family.
Not so much, though.
“Only because Collins Construction is the worst company in town,” Tim said defiantly.
It wasn’t the worst company in town. It was the most profitable company in town. But Blake didn’t correct his father, knowing that it would do no good.
“And that Travis Collins,” his father sneered, “thinks he’s so much better than everyone else. Told me that he expects a certain level of professionalism with his workers. Like he even knows what he’s doing.”
“He must know something,” Blake said, almost regretful the moment the words left his mouth, knowing that they would do no good. But still, he kept on. “He’s the guy in charge, after all.”
“Doesn’t mean he should be telling the rest of us how to live our lives,” Tim muttered.
Why would he be doing that? Unless…
“Dad, why did you get fired?”
Tim met his son’s accusing eyes head on. “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do it.”
This is exactly what someone who was guilty would say, of course. Blake had no doubt that his father was guilty of whatever it was that he was denying now, that he’d done just exactly what he’d been accused of and had lost his job because of it.
“What did they say you did?” Blake asked, not sure that he even wanted to know.
“Lied about my hours,” he said, with a shrug. “Added some in, trying to get overtime.”
It was wrong to do this, obviously, but a fireable offense on the first time?
“Was it the first time you’d been accused?” Blake asked, already knowing the answer.
“No,” Tim said, shrugging like none of it really mattered. “Had to sit through a bunch of talks with the boss about personal choices and integrity and… like that kid even knows half of what my life has been like.”
Blake felt humiliated hearing this, thinking of how everyone in town knew everyone else, and how his name would always be connected to his father, who had a well-deserved and richly earned reputation for being a complete and utter failure of a person.
Blake’s dirty little secret was common knowledge, as it turned out.
Tim’s voice was raised now, and the ambivalence in his eyes had been replaced with thinly veiled anger. Had Blake let his disgust show? Did his father know what he was thinking?
“Yes?” he asked softly, not wanting to incite the rage that was just below the surface. Not that he was scared of the old man, but there were lost causes in life. Spending his anger and his effort on this one wasn’t worth it.
“You think you’re better than me, huh?” his dad asked, astutely judging the direction of his thoughts.
But Blake didn’t indulge him.
“I think I’m going to be late to football practice,” he mumbled, wrapping up what was left of his lunch, intending to head back to the school where life wasn’t nearly as hard.
Even as his father’s arguing followed him out of the house and over to his car, Blake’s mind was somewhere else, wishing and hoping for the day when he could make something better out of his life than the reality that he was stuck in.
He’d always be Blake Young, though. Stuck in this town, stuck being him.
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