What type of idiot invites a guy to meet their parents for their third date? It’s like when someone hops the fence around the gorilla cage at the zoo… and then takes the gorilla to meet their parents for their third date. It’s crazy talk that only a psycho would do.
But here’s the thing. We’ve been texting so much. And he told me that he was falling in love with me after the second date. That’s right, I went on a second date with someone. I bet no one had that on their bingo card.
But I did and he took me into the mountains to watch a meteor shower. And he had a blanket and a picnic basket. I’m practically crying just thinking about it. No one has ever treated me like this. So when my parents said they were coming to visit me, how could I not take the opportunity to prove them wrong?
‘We don’t have a problem with your decision to stop taking your medication,’ they said. ‘We just don’t think that anyone will love you if you’re off of them.’
What? Did my parents just say that? They don’t think their daughter will ever find love being who she is?
Well, let me tell you something Mom, there’s a guy who’s hot and rich that any girl would die to have. And he’s falling in love with me, the daughter you don’t think anyone will ever love.
I’ve always said, if life gives you lemons, you make sure you use them to prove your parents were wrong about you. Seymour is my lemons. Does Sey look like the guy who tosses his keys to the nearest Mexican to park his yacht? A little bit. But according to my parents, I look like a girl who would never find love. So, looks can be deceiving.
The only issue now is that I texted Sey the time and place we would be meeting my parents and he hasn’t texted back to confirm. The guy texts me ‘Good morning, beautiful,’ every day. And on the morning he’s supposed to meet my parents, crickets?
Did I make a mistake? Was I moving too fast? He was the one who said that he was falling in love with me. I didn’t go there. So, how far off is that from inviting him to meet my parents?
I ruined things, didn’t I? Oh god, I did! I took a guy who offered me an olive branch and I spanked him with it.
Approaching a full-on panic attack, I pulled out my phone and called the only one who knew how to handle me when I got into a state like this.
“Lou, what’s up?”
I could hear him smiling through the phone. Didn’t he know my life was falling apart? How could he be smiling at a time like this? Who’s the crazy person now?
“What’s up? I’ll tell you what’s up. I’m headed to meet my parents and the boyfriend, who I invited for the sole purpose of making my parents eat their words, hasn’t told me he’s coming.”
“Wait, he’s your boyfriend? When did that happen?”
“I don’t know. Sometime after our second date. He told me he loved me and…”
“He told you he loved you after your second date?” he asked cutting me off.
“Yeah. Or maybe it was a text. And he might have said that he’s falling in love with me. But that’s just one block away from love-town, right?”
“So, he told me he loved me. Then I told him my parents would be in town and that he should meet them. He said he wanted to and we agreed. But this morning when I gave him the details, nothing. Not even a meme. And I love the funny memes he sends me. It’s one of the best things about our relationship.”
“Wow! That’s a lot.”
“What’s a lot?”
“You just said so many things that…”
“Oh my god, I’m here,” I said cutting Titus off. “What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?”
“First, calm down.”
“I tell you that my life hangs in the balance and you tell me to calm down? This is the perfect time to panic.”
“Lou, listen to me. Take a breath. Breathe.”
Staring at the pastry shop I told my parents to meet me at, I did what Titus said. I took a breath. It was hard considering the giant hands squeezing my chest, but I did. It helped. I barely felt like I was going to pass out anymore.
“Are you doing it?”
“Quiet, I’m trying to breathe,” I told him struggling to take another breath.
After my heart slowed to a deer on caffeine from a chipmunk on speed, I gathered myself.
“You still there?” Titus asked me.
“Okay. Where are you?”
“Standing in front of my doom.”
“I meant physically. What’s your address?”
“I’m in front of Nutmeg.”
“Alright. Do you need me to come there?”
“Aren’t you jetting around the world or something?”
“I wasn’t jetting around the world. I was helping Nero get set up at his new place. You know that. You also know that it was his team’s jet. I couldn’t even afford the peanuts on that thing. Nero had to pay for my ticket back.”
“So you’re coming back?”
“We’re about to land. I could catch a taxi and be there in 15 minutes.”
“Oh wait! Wasn’t I supposed to pick you up at the airport? I’m so sorry. My parents told me that they were going to be in town for the day and my mind just stopped.”
“I understand. I get it. Don’t worry. I’ll catch a cab. And if you want me there, I could be there in minutes.”
I thought about it. I had told my parents that there was someone I wanted them to meet. How humiliating would it be to show up by myself? It would prove that everything they ever thought about me was true. I couldn’t take that. Just thinking about it made me want to fall to my knees in tears.
“Could you?” I asked loving Titus more than I thought possible.
“Of course, I can. The stewardess is telling me that I need to shut off my phone. But don’t worry. I’ll be there soon. I got you, Lou. You know that.”
“I do. Thank you,” I said finally calming down.
It was going to be alright. I didn’t know what was going on with Sey, but I didn’t have to worry about that now. And sure, I had implied that they would be meeting someone I was dating, but they haven’t met Titus. I could have meant that I wanted them to meet my best friend. I was going to be alright.
Staring at the pastry shop again, I thought about who would be waiting for me inside. Frank and Martha hadn’t come to visit me since the day they dropped me off at University. They weren’t one of those caring parents who called their children to see how they were doing. I was their accessory.
Despite them having a lot of money, I grew up like we struggled to get by. I can’t think of a single gift they gave me that cost over $20. Meanwhile, they bought themselves new cars every year. Whatever made them look good in the eyes of the horrible people around them, they did. Making me feel loved or provided for didn’t qualify.
The only reason I could afford to attend East Tennessee University was because of my grandmother. She paid for everything I had. Even when I was a kid, if I needed new clothes or pocket money, I would go to her. She was everything to me.
I definitely wouldn’t have survived my childhood without her. She was the one who told me that it was okay for me to be who I was and that she would love me no matter what. That was before I decided to get off my meds. Grandma Aggie might have even been the one to suggest I do it.
How could she know how alive I would feel once I got off of them? She seemed to know a lot of things that others didn’t. It was like she had a connection to the beyond.
Yet, she didn’t use that knowledge the way my parents would have. With knowledge like that, Martha would turn everyone into her slave while Frank would become a super villain. Frank was quiet but when he stared at you, you could see the horrible things he was thinking.
Grandma Aggie was my only refuge from all of that. I wouldn’t have survived without her. Life was too hard and lonely. I could cry thinking about the number of times she held me in her arms telling me I could get through something. In the times I didn’t believe her, she kept holding me until I did.
Grandma Aggie’s arms were my only safe space in all of Tennessee. I think about her every day and call her a lot. Drawing on the strength she gave me is the only reason I’m able to continue towards the pastry shop now.
I didn’t have a boyfriend to show them, but I had Titus. He was going to be here soon and the friendship we have will prove to them that I am worth something. Even if they don’t think so, someone does. Just like Grandma Aggie always did.
Taking a final deep breath, I stepped in front of the glass door and peered through it. The two of them were sitting there dressed impeccably like they always were. Martha was wearing the navy power suit that made her look like a sailor and her signature pearls.
Frank wore a green polo and khaki pants. He was the most invisible person in the room. I might have been their accessory, but Frank was Martha’s. And his job was to not outshine her in any way. He made the money and opened all of the doors. But he wasn’t allowed to have a personality of his own. That was always fine for him.
Stepping inside, I stiffened my back and walked over. Approaching the table, they turned around.
My mother winced. “You know I hate it when you call us that.”
I did know it. That was why I said it.
“Sorry. Frank, Martha.”
I also knew that Martha liked to hear her name first.
“Would it have killed you to be on time for once in your life?” my mother groaned.
“I don’t know. Would it?”
Martha turned to Frank.
“I can’t deal with her if she is going to be like this. I can’t do it. Not today.”
“Louise, respect your mother,” Frank muttered.
“He speaks,” I said genuinely surprised that he did.
“Do you see what I mean,” my mother told him.
“Louise!” my father said raising his voice.
“Alright!” I said throwing up my hands in defeat.
He hadn’t spoken loudly. But any display of emotion from him was unnerving.
“Must you do this every time?” my mother continued.
“Do what? All I’ve done is say hello. You’re the one who’s been criticizing me since the moment I got here.”
Frank spoke up again. “Louise, we’ve been waiting here for thirty minutes.”
He was right. I had been late. I was giving Sey as much time as I could to get back to me.
But it wasn’t like they hadn’t ever kept me waiting. For example, I’m still waiting on my gift from my thirteenth birthday. There had to be a $0.99 Store around here somewhere.
“You didn’t touch your croissant,” I said looking at the prop in front of them. “Are you going to eat it? I didn’t have lunch.”
Martha huffed in disgust and pushed it in front of me. I know it was a small thing, but this was the first thing they had given me in years. Maybe they did love me.
Tearing into it, flakes from it fell onto my plate and the table around it. Both of my parents watched me like it was feeding time at the zoo.
“So, how is school?” my father asked.
I almost choked. Neither of them had ever asked me that before. I didn’t know what was happening. And as much as I wanted to reply with something snide, I didn’t dare. What if the concern they were showing me was real? What if, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, they actually did care about me? I couldn’t risk ruining that.
“It’s okay,” I said sincerely. “Umm, classes are going well. I have a really cool roommate… Quin. Umm, I have a boyfriend,” I said suddenly desperately wanting their approval.
“I see,” Frank said lowering his eyes.
Had I ruined the moment by reminding him I hadn’t listened to them on the meds thing and had survived? I had, hadn’t I? If I would have kept my mouth shut and just said things were fine, he wouldn’t have looked away. I always do this. I always keep talking when I should be shutting up.
“And here he is right now,” I said seeing him open the door.
Sey had come. He was here! I could have cried seeing him. And behind him were five of his football teammates. What was going on?
As soon as he saw me, his eyes lit up. Throwing the door open, he stepped inside.
“Lou!” he bellowed from across the room. His teammates lined up behind him.
“Sey, what’s happening?”
Sey looked back at the guys. When he did, they started singing.
“Wise men say, only fools rush in. But I can’t help falling in love with you.”
As the guys continued what had to be the sorriest rendition of one of my favorite songs, Sey crossed the room to me. Overwhelmed, I looked at my parents. Both were looking down and away. They wanted no part of what was going on and they weren’t hiding it.
I didn’t care. Whatever was happening was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for me and I wasn’t going to let them ruin it.
“Lou, I know we haven’t known each other very long. But when you meet the person you know you want to spend the rest of your life with, you know. And if you do, what’s the point in waiting?”
“Wait what?” I said both horrified and delighted.
“Like a river flows, surely to the sea, darling, so it goes, some things are meant to be.”
“Lou, what I’m saying is that we might have just met, but I know you. I’ve known you my entire life because you were the dream I prayed every night would come true. So…” he said getting down onto one knee in front of me and pulling a ring out of his pocket.
“Oh my God!” I gasped.
“Louise Armoury, will you marry me?”
My head spun. Was this real? It had to be. I would never put such horrible singers in one of my fantasies.
Could I do it? Should I do it? We had only just met. But, as he said, when you know, you know. And I have never had anyone treat me like he has. Never.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’ll marry you,” I told him with tears rolling down my cheek.
“You will?” he said as happy as I was.
“I will,” I repeated knowing it was the best decision I had ever made.
He took my hand and slid the ring onto my finger. It was a little big but that was okay. We could fix it. We were in love and love could fix anything.
He got off of his knee and kissed me. It was my first kiss as an engaged woman. It was wonderful. I had never been happier in my life.
With Sey’s arms around me, I turned to my parents. They still hadn’t looked at Sey. They hadn’t moved their eyes from the floor. Was it that they couldn’t stand to be wrong? They had said that no one would ever love me the way I was, but this was the proof that they had been wrong.
A man loved me so much that he had asked me to marry him after two dates. Didn’t that say every there was to say about me? I was lovable. I was worth someone’s time.
“Well? Aren’t you going to say anything?” I asked needing to hear their defeat.
It was then that my mother looked up at me. Her eyes locked on mine.
“Your grandmother Agatha died. Her funeral was yesterday. There will be a reading of her will. We expect you there and try not to be late,” she said before both of them got up and walked out.
I watched them stunned. I couldn’t speak or move. I had to have heard them wrong. Or maybe it was a joke.
“Grandma Aggie is dead,” I heard someone say.
I was the one who said it. It was meant to be a question for the two people who were leaving taking my grip on reality with them. But they couldn’t hear me. I could barely hear myself. And as they left the shop and crossed in front of the window, they brushed past another familiar face. That person was holding a bouquet.
“Titus,” I whispered before his devastated eyes turned towards me, and he ran past the window and out of sight.
I couldn’t have seen what I had, could I have? Lou, the girl who had been on more first dates than there are trees in Tennessee, had gotten engaged? That can’t be right. But I had seen it. I was standing there watching it.
Lou had told me who it was she had been texting with. It was with a transfer student who was on the football team. He had arrived this semester so it was after I had been cut. But I definitely recognized the guys singing behind him. They had been my teammates.
Having to close my eyes as I reached my truck, I steadied myself and took a breath. Tears were fighting to get out but I wouldn’t let them. Yeah, I had waited too long. Yeah, I had ignored everything Nero and Quin had told me about telling her how I felt, but I had finally listened. This was going to be the day.
I had made a detour to get the flowers. If I hadn’t, could I had been there to stop it? If I had told her how I felt, would she have still said yes to that guy?
My phone rang snapping me out of my building despair. Pulling it out, I saw Lou’s name. I couldn’t talk to her right now. Knowing I couldn’t pretend to be happy for her, I shoved it back into my pocket.
Looking at the dozen red roses that had cost me an arm and a leg, I tossed them onto the ground. I had been such a fool. I couldn’t be here. I needed to get away. Glad that I had stopped back at my place to pick up my truck instead of coming here directly from the airport, I got in and pulled away.
Within moments, my phone rang again. Pulling it out as I drove, I again saw Lou’s name.
“I don’t want to hear that you got engaged! Don’t you understand that?” I shouted at the phone before tossing it onto the passenger seat.
Knowing that I needed to get as much distance as I could from what just happened, I didn’t head to my dorm. Approaching the freeway home, I turned onto it. Just as I did, the phone rang again. I wasn’t sure why Lou wasn’t getting the point. There was no way I was going to pick up.
Yeah, I had told her I would meet her at the pastry shop but only because her boy had flaked or whatever. But he showed up. Lou didn’t need me there. So, why won’t she stop calling me?
After she called for the fourth time, I turned off my ringer and turned on the radio. I didn’t care what was playing as long as it took my mind off of what I had just seen.
I couldn’t accuse Lou of anything. She had always been upfront about who she was. She wanted to find love and she was going to go out with every guy in the state to find it. I was the one who was too scared to admit how I felt about her.
I had been in love with her from the moment I saw her puckish smile and big, adorable brown eyes. But, what did I do instead of telling her? I became her buddy, her best friend.
Well, ya know what? I’m tired of being everybody’s friend. I want to be desired. I wanted Lou to want me.
But it was too late now. She had found her guy and had gotten engaged. She had only mentioned having two dates with him. I thought I had more time. But I was the only one to blame.
Unable to stop thinking about it on my hour and a half drive to Frozen Falls, I was glad to see Glen’s General Store come into view. It was the unofficial start of our little backwoods town. The drive to my mother’s place wouldn’t take long after passing that.
Pulling up to the split-level log cabin I had grown up in, I took a deep breath. I was home. And, although it wasn’t as fancy as the house Lou’s roommate had bought to be with her boyfriend, it was still nice. This place was on a hill that overlooked a tree-covered valley. You couldn’t ask for much more than that in a town like ours.
Besides, Lou’s roommate Quin had been born into ungodly wealth. My mother just had the pension the Air Force gave her after my father was shot down during combat. She raised me by herself. I wasn’t the type to consider my mother my best friend. But she was my rock. No matter what bad thing happened to me, I knew I would always have her.
Getting out of my truck, I walked to the front door knowing that I wouldn’t have to deal with everything going on around me once I stepped inside. It’s not like I’m scared of change. I’m the one campaigning to open up Frozen Falls to tourists. I’m a big fan of change. I think change is good.
But with Lou getting engaged, Nero moving to a new state, and me getting a new roommate all in less than a week, I could use a little stability. That was my mother. Etiquette, traditional values, and the status quo were the things she lived by.
Flinging open the unlocked door, I looked around for my mother. When I found her, I froze. I probably should have looked away. But the first time you see your mother and her boyfriend sprint from the couch to the bedroom naked, it takes a moment to process.
“Oh my God!” I yelled as the horrible image burned into my brain.
Was this why people in Greek mythology gauged out their eyes? I think I finally understood.
“What are you two doing?” I shouted horrified.
Although it was too late and I would never be able to close my eyes again, I spun facing the opposite direction. I considered leaving but what good would that do? The damage had been done. Besides, where else could I go?
“What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be at school?” my mother said sounding as horrified as I felt.
“I thought I would come and visit you. Maybe I should go.”
My mother exited her bedroom.
“You don’t have to leave. But this might be a good time to tell you something.”
I slowly turned around finding my mother tying the waist of her robe. After what had happened, even this was too revealing.
“Yeah, what’s that?” I asked hesitantly.
“Mike, can you come out, please.”
Mike came out in jeans, suspenders, and no shirt. The man had a receding hairline, a blond beard, and the biggest beer belly I had ever seen. He was the owner of the local diner and growing up, I had always seen the flirting between the two. I wasn’t blind. But this?
“What’s going on?” I asked nervously.
“Honey, Mike and I are going to be moving in together,” she said firmly.
“Mike’s moving in?”
“No. I’ll be moving in with him.”
“I just bought a house on the lake. It’s up near Tanner Cove,” Mike explained.
“It’s beautiful, Titus. And I will be moving there.”
“I know how your Mama likes nice things. Only the best for her.”
I turned to my mother.
“So, what are you gonna do with this place?” I asked her wondering how I fit into all of this.
“I haven’t decided. Maybe I’ll sell it.”
“I see,” I said feeling my chest clench. I winced and then crossed to the couch to sit down.
“You okay, son?” my mother asked.
“It just seems like everything’s changing. Nero’s playing professional football. Lou got engaged. You’re moving in with Mike. Everyone’s getting what they want but me.”
“Mike, could you give us a minute,” my mother said headed toward me.
“Actually, I need to get back to the diner to prep for the dinner rush.”
Mike grabbed his shirt and shoes. “I’ll see you later?”
My mother smiled and watched him go. When he was gone, she joined me on the couch. She took my hand in hers.
“Things change, Titus.”
“I know that. I’m the one who has been trying to convince you of that, remember? It’s just that everyone seems to be changing without me. What am I doing wrong? Why am I the one being left alone?”
“You’re not alone, son.”
“Aren’t I? You’re with Mike. Nero has Kendall. Lou has that guy, whatever his name is. And who do I have? Tell me, Mom. Who do I have?”
My mother’s eyes dipped. She had that look like she wanted to tell me something but couldn’t get herself to say it.
“What is it?”
She gathered herself. “It’s nothing.”
“No. Stop it, Mom. You always do this. If you have something to tell me, just say it. Is it about this place? Did you already sell it? Are you thinking about moving out of town, too?”
“Titus, you have a brother.”
I froze. Of all of the things she could have said, that was the last thing I expected to hear.
“What are you talking about?”
“I can’t say any more than that. But, it’s been weighing on me for a while, and…”
“What? You think you can tell me I have a brother that I never knew I had and then leave it at that?”
“I can’t say any more,” she said resigned.
“Why not? Who is he? Is he in town? Did you have a child before me?”
“No, nothing like that.” My mother took a deep breath. “You two share the same father.”
I stared at my mother as the reality of what she was saying twisted my body. “Mom, you have to tell me who it is. Does he live around here?”
“I made a promise that I wouldn’t say anything.”
“To who? My dad?”
“No,” she said uncomfortably.
“Mom, you can’t just drop something like that and expect that I’m gonna let it go. At least tell me something about him. Is he older than me? Younger?”
“He’s younger,” she admitted.
“So, my Dad had him before he got deployed to Iraq?”
My mother looked down.
“Come on, Mom. At least tell me that? Does he live in town?”
Her eyes flicked up meeting mine.
“He does,” I realized. “Do I know him?”
“Titus, stop it. You’re trying to get me to say things I can’t say.”
“You can do whatever you want, Mom. It’s what you’ve always done. I mean, how could you keep this from me my whole life?”
Her resolve returned. “This conversation is over.”
She got up and headed to her room.
“Oh because you’re done talking about it, you think it’s over.”
“Just let it go, Titus!”
“Let it go? You dropped a bombshell like that and you expect me to just let it go?”
Entering her room, she slammed the door behind her. I stared at it stunned. What the hell had just happened? I had grown up lonelier than I could stand, wishing I had a brother, and I had one this entire time? I couldn’t believe it.
It destroyed me that I couldn’t call Lou and tell her about this. But, she was probably celebrating her engagement. Why had I waited so long to tell her how I felt? I felt like my whole world was coming apart.
Not wanting to be here anymore, I headed for my truck and drove. Being a small town, I didn’t have a lot of places I could go. I could hike out to one of the falls that the town was named after. But I didn’t feel like being by myself.
Approaching Mike’s diner, I saw his truck parked in back. I thought about him and my mother. How long had things been going on between the two of them?
It wasn’t that Mike was that bad of a guy. When Nero was going through his asshole phase, Mike was the only one to give him a job. Considering my mother’s dating options, he was a catch. I guess my problem was everything that came with their relationship like potentially losing my childhood home.
Look, I get it. I’m not a kid anymore. I could find my way on my own. But my world was shifting under my feet.
I had lost the girl I love. I was losing the only home I ever had. And somewhere out there was a brother I might never meet. What the hell was I supposed to do now?
Driving further down Main Street, I next approached Dr. Sonya’s Bed & Breakfast. Dr. Sonya was my new roommate’s mother. Since Nero got drafted and Cali was coming to East Tennessee University as a freshman, us rooming together made sense. The two of us were the only ones there from Frozen Falls. We had to stick together.
Remembering what other project Dr. Sonya had going on, I pulled into her driveway and parked next to a truck I didn’t recognize. Following the path to the back of the beautiful two-story, craftsman home, I circled onto the large stone back porch finding three small two-tops.
“Titus! What brings you here?” Dr. Sonya said exiting the house’s back door to greet me.
“Cali told me you were doing this and since I was in town, I decided to check it out. How’s it been going?”
“Surprisingly good. Marcus is beyond thrilled,” she said showing a hint of her Jamaican accent. “He’s here every morning baking. It’s become a real adventure.”
“That’s great! Now if we can just get the rest of the town on board, we could put Frozen Falls on the map.”
“Literally,” Dr. Sonya said touching my arm with a laugh.
She shared my frustration with the town’s apathy. I was sure that Frozen Falls could be the most popular destination in Tennessee for Eco tourism. We had more beautiful falls per square mile than any other part of the state. It would benefit everyone.
But there were people like Mike and my mother, who preferred to keep things the way they were. What they didn’t realize was that my generation needed a reason to stay. If we can’t find our opportunities here, we will look for it somewhere else. And, how long would the town last when its only residents were over 50?
Dr. Sonya got it, though. It helped that she was born on an island that survived on tourism. That was probably why she opened her bed and breakfast. It was the only place in town a stranger could stay the night. Without her, the town would be a general store, a diner, and a crumbling high school.
“You don’t seem to be your usual jovial self. Something wrong?” Dr. Sonya asked.
I hadn’t expected her to pick up on it. I thought I had been hiding it pretty well. But could I tell her that the girl I’ve been in love with got engaged before I had a chance to tell her how I felt? Could I tell her that I walked in on Mom and Mike and now they’re moving in together leaving me nowhere to live?
“I was just told that I have a brother.”
Dr. Sonya looked at me with as much shock as I felt when I found out.
“Yeah. Turns out I’ve had one for most of my life and my mother never bothered to mention it until now.”
“Did she tell you anything about him?”
I shook my head. “She said he was younger than me and that my father had him before he got deployed to Iraq.”
“Your father was deployed to Iraq?” She asked confused.
“You didn’t know?”
“Yeah, my father was in the Air Force. I’ve honestly been scared to ask if he and my mother were married. She doesn’t like to say much when it comes to him. But after telling me I have a brother, I’m starting to understand why. Do you know anything about any of this?”
“This is all new information to me,” she admitted.
I shrugged. “So I guess I have that going on.”
“I guess you do. By the way, did you want anything or did you just come to check out the place?”
I thought back to the pastry I saw on the table in front of Lou.
“Do you have any croissants?”
“Marcus has made these delightful croissants with chocolate striped over top of them,” she said bugging her eyes with excitement.
“I’ll take one of those. And maybe a coffee.”
“You got it. Sit. Relax. Enjoy the sights,” she said pointing at the view.
“Thanks,” I said choosing a seat and sitting down.
The view from Dr. Sonya’s back porch had to be one of the best in town. Tree-covered hills rippled off into the distance. And on the furthest peek was a cloud of mist from the largest waterfall in a hundred miles.
I was lost in both the view and thought when I heard a voice I hadn’t heard in a while.
I turned to find Claude, the only kid from my graduating class to go to college immediately after high school.
“Claude! Good to see you. What are you doing here?”
“Here in town or here at Dr. Sonya’s pastry shop?”
I shrugged. “Both. Please, sit.”
Claude made his way to the seat across from me. Memories of Claude washed through my mind. I had always been a little jealous of him. Not only was he one of the best football players on our high school team. But he was always so damn good-looking.
The man had perfect features and the most amazing brown complexion I could imagine. I didn’t know how he felt about being the only black kid in our high school. It might have been the reason he kept to himself. But I had always wished we could be friends.
“Well, I graduated early. That’s why I’m in town. And I’m here at Dr. Sonya’s because Marcus said that he was making his chocolate croissants today,” he said with the hint of a smile.
“I heard they’re good.”
I stared at Claude for a moment.
“You know, out of everyone who got out of this town, you were the last one I thought would come back.”
“Same,” he said looking down in thought. “But, my mother’s here. And she’s been needing a little help, so here I am.”
“And what are you doing? Are you working?”
“Do you have a computer that needs repair?” he asked leaning forward with a smile.
“You repair computers? Here?”
“Yeah, well, there’s not a ton of call for it. But when there is, there’s no one else. And I’ve been slowly convincing a few of the businesses to switch to electronic data management, so you never know.”
I laughed. “You mean, to get this town to move into the 21st century? Good luck with that.”
“Thanks. But what about you? I thought you were at East Tennessee?”
“I am. I’m just visiting for the day.”
Claude shook his head in acknowledgment. “You know, I’ve been meaning to get a hold of you.”
“You have? Why?”
“You give tours of the falls to tourists, don’t you?”
“I mean, I have. Why?”
“Have you ever considered that with the right support, it might make a great business? Maybe it could be more than just tours. Maybe it could include some camping or river rafting. You could sell packages for it. I’ve been crunching the numbers. It might take a while, but something like that might be quite profitable.”
I looked at him shocked. “Yes, I have. All the time. Why? Are you thinking about setting up something like that?”
“I was thinking about it. But, I’m only one guy. And I would be much better at the business side of things. If I had a partner, though.”
“You seem to be forgetting one thing. You’re not gonna get anyone in this town to go along with something like that. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“You’ve tried to convince people. But have you considered just doing it yourself? You don’t need permission to go after what you want in life. You just need to know what you want and then not stop until you have it.”
“Claude? I thought I heard you out here. Did you come for more of the croissants?” Dr. Sonya said bringing out my order.
“You know I did,” Claude told her with a smile.
“Well, there are only two left, but I’ll let you have them if you show me how to do that thing on the computer again. It’ll just take a second.”
Claude looked at me with a smile that told me that it would take longer than a second.
“I’m sorry to keep bothering you about it. My computer technician is off flagging footballs,” she said before fake crying.
“No worries. I’ll show it to you now.” Claude got up. “Think about it, Titus. What is it that you want?”
I watched the two of them enter the house and then gave Claude’s proposal some thought. I had considered starting up a tour business many times. I never knew where to begin. That was probably why I was so focused on convincing people to open up the town. I thought that with it would come opportunity.
But, maybe Claude was right. Maybe it was up to me to make my opportunities. Maybe it was time for me to decide what I wanted.
Allowing my mind to jump from one thing to another, it finally settled. There was only one thing that I truly wanted. It was as clear as the sky over the mountains in front of me. What I wanted more than life itself was Lou.
I left Dr. Sonya’s driving around as I thought. What was I willing to do to have her? I was willing to do anything. So, what did that mean?
As it got dark, I returned to an empty home and made something to eat. Knowing I would be heading back in the morning for class, I went to bed early. Lying in the darkness I came up with a plan. I was going to tell Lou how I felt. I couldn’t do it over text. It had to be in person.
In the middle of my first class the next morning, my phone buzzed. It was Lou. I read it and all of the others she had sent.
‘Where r u?’
‘Aren’t u coming?
‘I need to talk to u.’
‘Seriously, where r u?’
‘UR freaking me out.’
This morning’s text was different.
‘I need you. Please talk to me.’
I knew what she needed to talk to me about. She had gotten engaged. She wanted me to be happy for her like I always was. Usually, I liked being her biggest cheerleader. Lou was a fantastic girl. I was sure she didn’t see how great she was. I was only too glad to remind her when I could.
But, I couldn’t do this for her. I couldn’t pretend to be happy that she had gotten engaged to a guy who she had known for two weeks. There was no way.
I loved her. I wanted to be with her. And there was no way Seymour, or whatever his name was, knew how incredible Lou was.
‘6:30 at Commons,’ I replied breaking my silence.
She sent back a heart emoji. It made me smile.
I wasn’t making a mistake. Lou had to have feelings for me, right? I was the guy she returned to after all of her dates. I was the one she came to when she was sad. I was her guy.
And when I told her I loved her, she would know she had made a mistake saying yes to that other guy. She would then break off her engagement and we could finally have the life we were always meant to have.
For the rest of the day, I did my best to pay attention in my classes. But it was hard to take my mind off of what would be the true beginning of my life. I had loved her for so long. Nero had seen through me months ago.
Returning to my dorm to kill the final hour before we were to meet, I ran into my new roommate, Cali. Amazingly, he had had a growth spurt over the summer. So, the once skinny, dark-haired kid who always had a mysterious look in his eyes, had turned into the quiet, built jock.
“Hey,” he grunted when I entered tossing my bag onto the bed and climbing in behind it.
I looked over at him. He had his shirt off. He had to have just come back from football practice.
“You went home?”
“Huh? Oh yeah. I needed to clear my head.” I sprung up. “Wait, do you know a guy on the team by the name of Seymour?”
“Sey? Yeah, what about him?”
“What do you think of him?”
Cali looked away.
“He’s alright, I guess. Why do you ask?”
“I think he asked Lou to marry him.”
Cali looked at me surprised. “Your Lou?”
“Yea,” I said with a look that said how unhappy I was about it.
“Damn. Alright. Did you want to go mess him up?”
That wasn’t a response I was expecting.
“I wasn’t thinking that. But it does sound tempting,” I said with a laugh. I wasn’t sure why, but what he said had made me feel better. “What do you know about him?”
Cali thought. “Rich guy. Transferred from Nashville.”
“He transferred from Nashville?” I asked knowing that despite East Tennessee’s string of championships thanks to Nero and his brother Cage, Nashville was a much more prestigious football program.
“Yeah. He said he liked what we had going on here.”
“Huh. How is he on the field?”
“He’s our starting quarterback. He’s not as good as Mr. Rucker. But he’s okay.”
“He’s not your coach anymore. You can call him Cage.”
Cali didn’t respond.
“If you’re gonna join us when we hang out, you can’t call him Mr. Rucker. You realize that, right?” I teased.
Cali turned red. He might have looked like a new person, but he was the same respectful, small-town boy inside. I was going to have to look out for him. Without someone helping you through the transition, East Tennessee University could mess you up. I had been lucky to have Nero, Quin, and most importantly, Lou.
Cali and I fell into silence as I considered what I would say to Lou. I wasn’t gonna beat around the bush. I was just gonna say it.
‘Lou, I love you. I always have. And I want us to be together. Lou, I love you. I always have. And I want us to be together.’
I rehearsed the words until the heat from them didn’t make my head want to explode. It took a while but when it was time to meet Lou, I was ready.
“Good luck,” Cali said even though I hadn’t told him what I was about to do.
“Thanks,” I replied not asking what he knew.
Looking into the mirror before I left, I stared into the eyes of the shaggy-haired guy peering back. Was there any reason for Lou to choose me over the rich, square-jawed quarterback who had asked to marry her? If there was, I didn’t see it.
But Lou had to know that no one would love her like I would. I would do whatever it took to make her happy. Who else could say that? Lou had to know that that was true.
Crossing campus and approaching Commons’ big metal doors, I entered heading up a half flight of stairs to the study hall. Lou and I met here a lot. When we were in the same class, we came here to study together. When we weren’t, we came to pretend to study while Lou told me about her latest date.
Spotting her across the room on the couch, I headed over. It was our usual spot. It allowed us to get close enough to whisper without disturbing others.
My heart clenched looking at her. My god was she beautiful. She wasn’t very curvy or tall, but she made up for it in personality. Her apple cheeks and puckish smile always made her seem like she was having fun, even when she wasn’t. And her faintly-streaked dark hair was just long enough to touch her shoulders.
Lou didn’t have her usually playful smirk today, however. There was sadness in her eyes. Was it because she was breaking her big news to me? Whatever it was, there was something I needed to get out first. This was when it had to happen. If it didn’t, I didn’t know when I would have the courage again.
Approaching her, our eyes met. I melted.
‘Lou, I love you. I always have. And I want us to be together,’ I rehearsed.
Sitting next to her, she did something she never had before. She put her hand on my thigh as her gaze fell to the ground. The gesture froze me. What was going on? Pushing through it, I began.
“My grandmother died,” she said cutting me off.
“That’s what my parents came to town to tell me. The funeral was last Saturday.”
“They didn’t tell you about the funeral?” I asked shocked.
Lou had told me about her. She had said that her grandmother was the only reason she had survived her childhood. Now she was dead and her parents had stolen her opportunity to say goodbye.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered feeling my heart ache for her.
Then Lou did another thing she had never done. She fell into my arms and cried. I held her forgetting about whatever plan I had. Lou needed me and I was going to do whatever I had to to be there for her.
Nothing ever felt real until I told Titus. And having said it, I knew that my grandmother was truly gone. I would never see her again. It wouldn’t even be in a casket. My parents had robbed me of that. I always knew that my family hated me, but I never knew they could be this cruel.
“She’s gone,” I said feeling his warm arms wrapped around me. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”
“I’m so sorry,” he kept repeating.
It was enough for me to forgive him for not reaching out to me until now. He had said that he was coming to rescue me from being alone with my parents. I had even seen him standing outside the door. He had chosen not to come in.
Seeing him walk away had hurt me. The only thing I wanted was to do what I was doing now, cry in his arms. But he had abandoned me. I had never felt more alone.
But, none of that mattered now that he was here. We didn’t need to talk about why he had gone. There were a lot of things we didn’t need to talk about.
I didn’t know how I was going to break the news of my engagement to him. It was partly because I wasn’t sure if we were actually engaged. Yes, he had proposed with a choir of his teammates singing in the background. It was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for me and I had said yes. But where has he been since?
My parents dropping that bomb on the day of my engagement was a shitty thing for them to do. There was no doubt. It had ruined what was supposed to be the happiest day of our lives. But I wasn’t the one who had done it. I was the girl who had had her heart ripped out of her. There were more important things than grand gestures and Sey had asked to be my husband.
Sure, as I sat stunned, he had sent his teammates home and had held my hand as I tried to process it all. But eventually, he walked me home and I haven’t heard from him since.
Did he think it was up to me to reach out to him to talk about how I was doing? Was he trying to give me my space to grieve?
Whatever he was doing, I hated every moment of it. And considering it had been over twenty-four hours since I had last heard from him, I was starting to believe that his proposal had been a joke. Maybe “joke” was the wrong word. Maybe he had done it because he knew how insecure my parents made me feel and decided that this would prove to them that someone valued me.
I hadn’t told him anything about the struggles I had had with my family over the years. But couldn’t that be a sign that he was the one? Him knowing what I needed without me having to say anything?
“What would you like to do?” Titus asked me eventually breaking the silence.
“Nothing,” I admitted. “I just want to sit here.”
“For as long as you want,” he said meaning it.
“Actually, do you know what would be really nice? Having a game night. Nothing big. Just something nice, you know?”
“I’ll set it up.”
With his assuring words, I sat up pulling myself from his arms. I stared at him. He was the best friend anyone could hope for. This was probably the time to tell him about my engagement. Even if it hadn’t been a genuine proposal, this was my chance to bring it up.
Maybe he would tease me about getting engaged as quickly as I did everything else. Maybe I would then make a few quips about it and brush my moment of insanity aside. Whatever would happen, this was my opportunity to make it real.
“I think I want to go to bed,” I told him instead.
“Of course,” he said collecting my things for me and offering me his hand to help me up.
I took it and then slipped my arm around his waist. I always felt so small in his arms. For most of last year, he had been on the football team. He still had the body to show for it. He was going to make some girl a great boyfriend one day.
Did I think that there was a chance he was attracted to me? Obviously. I have asked out enough guys to tell when someone thinks I’m pretty.
But there is a big difference between finding someone attractive, and being willing to do the things necessary to be in a relationship with them. The key is being able to spot the difference. And I don’t think Titus sees me as worth that trouble. Maybe he never will.
That was fine, though, because he was the best friend I had ever had. I didn’t even know that friendship like his was possible before I met him. Why would I want to do anything to mess that up?
It would be the dumbest thing I could ever do. And I have done some dumb things. There was even a time when I agreed to marry someone I had only been on two dates with. Could you even imagine that?
Titus walked me back to my dorm and followed me inside. Quin was home.
“Hey Titus,” she said cheerfully.
The two of them had met our freshman year when Quin was looking for her boyfriend’s birth parents. Quin was also the one who convinced Titus to attend East Tennessee. The two went way back.
“Why didn’t you tell me Lou’s grandmother had died?” Titus snapped at Quin.
Quin froze. “Lou, your grandmother died?”
“Yeah, it’s not a big deal,” I said trying to brush off my oversight.
“When?” Quin asked, her cute face crinkling.
“That’s what my parents came to town to tell me.”
Quin covered her mouth as tears filled her eyes.
“It’s not a big deal,” I insisted as I crossed the living room to my bedroom and crawled into bed under the weight of it all.”
“Stop saying it’s not a big deal,” Titus said following me. “It’s a big deal. Someone important passing away is a big deal. Your parents not telling you about the funeral is a big deal.”
“Your parents didn’t tell you about the funeral?” Quin asked as the tears streamed down her adorable cheeks.
“I’m sure there was a reason,” I told them hoping that there was.
That didn’t stop Quin from crawling into my bed and wrapping her arms around me. She had never done anything like this before. She has never been the touchy-feely type. But as she held me tightly, all I could think was that it felt good.
“I think you’re in good hands,” Titus said from the bedroom door.
I opened my eyes in search of his.
“Thank you. I don’t know what I would do without you,” I said sincerely.
“I’ll call you in the morning to see how you’re doing,” he said filling a hole I didn’t know I needed filled.
“Umm, not too early,” I joked.
Titus smiled. “What am I, a monster?”
I laughed. It was the first time I had since getting the news. I felt more pain than I had ever in my life. But I knew that as long as I had Titus, I was going to make it through… and then I got comfortable in a cute girl’s arms. My grandmother was clearly looking after me from above.
It was the following day that I received an email from my parents informing me of my grandmother’s will reading. It surprised me that they hadn’t waited until the last minute to tell me about that too.
If nothing else, my grandmother always made it clear that she would be passing down her entire fortune to me. It wasn’t like I cared about stuff like that, but she had insisted. She told me that it had already been taken care of and that I had to prepare myself for it.
I, of course, did no such thing. That was future-Lou’s problem. I was present-Lou. And let me tell you, past-Lou was a bit of an a-hole. She dumped everything she ever had to do on me. Did she even know what responsibility was?
Not having to be at my grandmother’s estate until Friday, I decided not to think about any of that until then. I was in mourning. I had more important things to worry about like how to get out of bed.
“Do you think you would be up for a game night on Friday?” Titus asked when he Facetimed me.
“I have to head home on Friday.”
“What about Thursday?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Then, save the date.”
“I don’t have anything else going on so it shouldn’t be a problem,” I said sadly.
There was a pause as we stared at each other.
“How are you feeling?”
“It’s hard to believe, ya know? I used to call her every two or three days. But I hadn’t spoken to her for weeks before she died. I didn’t even know she was sick.”
“Do you know what she died of?”
“My parents haven’t said.”
“Do you think you could get more details from your brother?”
“You mean the anti-Christ? I haven’t spoken to him since the last time we were both home. We’re not close.”
“Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to mend whatever broken fences are between you two?”
“Titus, I do not trust him with a hammer.”
“I’m serious, Lou.”
“So am I! Once, as a kid, he walked up to me with a hammer, looked me in the eyes, and then smashed my foot with it.”
“It was one of those plastic hammers and he was five, but he had looked me in the eyes before he did it. Message received.”
“How old were you?”
“Four. I’m telling you, he’s the spawn of the devil… and my father.”
“Okay, well, do you have any aunts or uncles you could contact for more information?”
“I’m sorry, Lou.”
I shrugged. “The good thing is that after this weekend, I’ll never need anything from my parents again.”
“Believe me, when you have parents like mine, not having to deal with them is like having a birthday just far enough from Christmas that people have to get you two gifts.”
Titus smiled. “Then I’m happy for you. But I’m sorry it had to happen like this.”
“Thank you,” I said seeing his sincerity.
“Are you sure you’re gonna be up for Thursday’s game night?”
“I think so. You’re not going through a lot of trouble, are you?”
Titus thought. “I’m going through enough trouble that you shouldn’t cancel it for a date, but not enough that you have to feel bad about it if you did.”
I laughed. “You know me so well.”
“I’m glad you noticed,” he said with a smile.
Hanging up from Titus, I suddenly had the energy to get out of bed. I did have classes, after all. Inheritance or not, no one wants to date a dumb girl. Even if she is clearly awesome.
Forcing myself to get dressed, I thought about Sey. I still hadn’t heard from him.
I refused to be the one to reach out to him first. I was in mourning. Didn’t he understand that? Titus did. Quin did. It wasn’t that hard of a concept to get.
Though, maybe the other reason I hadn’t reached out to him was that I was hoping the whole thing would go away. Don’t get me wrong, there were things about being engaged that I loved. I couldn’t wait to bring him to my grandmother’s will reading and rub my engagement in my family’s faces.
‘Mother, you said no one would ever love me. Well, gaze at his amazing cheekbones and tell me how wrong you were. Don’t be shy, your anti-Christ of a son wants to hear too.’
Yeah, that was definitely a moment that needed to happen. But did I want Sey at Titus’s game night? I’m not sure if I did. It felt like something that was only for family. Wasn’t Sey now my family? It didn’t feel like he was. Should I be feeling this way?
After a day in which I heard from Titus a lot, I decided to be the bigger person and reached out to Sey. This wasn’t a battle. At least it wasn’t supposed to be. So, I texted him telling him I was feeling better, and told him about the will reading. Why hadn’t I also mentioned game night? I guess it slipped my mind.
‘I’m glad you’re feeling better, beautiful! When’s the reading?’
‘I might have a game on Saturday. Where is it?’
I sent him the address to the estate.
‘I’ll let you know.’
“I’ll let you know?” I said reading it aloud.
Nothing filled me with less confidence than relying on him to let me know about something. I mean, he was going to be there for me, right? He had to know this was important. How could he not know this was important?
“You getting ready for tomorrow night?” Titus asked when he Facetimed me again, this time as I left my final class for the evening.
“Should I be?”
“I would be considering how often I crush you when we play against each other. But, don’t worry, I know you’re going through something. I’ll be taking it easy on you.”
“Oh, is this how it’s gonna go. Because if you want me to bring it, I’ll bring it. You can count on that.”
“No, no. Everyone agreed to take it easy on you. We know you can’t take another blow with everything going on.”
I stared at my phone’s screen and Titus’s smirking face. Had he gone insane? He had to know that I could wipe the floor with them. I mean, as long as it wasn’t a word game because, you know, Quin. But other than that, I would mess up all of them.
With my mouth still hanging open, I heard Titus’s voice in duplicate. I looked up to see him standing in front of me. He was still smirking at me with his adorable stupid face.
“You’re catching flies,” he said reminding me that my mouth was open.
“I’m just so in shock that you think you have a chance at beating me… at anything.”
“It’s funny how grief affects your memory.”
I laughed a vengeful laugh. “Oh, do I have plans for you.”
“Save it for tomorrow, Maleficent.”
“Maleficent?” I asked having forgotten about anything other than the things I was going to do to him.
“I packed a couple of sandwiches. You wanna find a spot in the grass and chow down.”
“You packed a couple of sandwiches, huh?”
“Yeah. Roast beef. Ham. I figured it would be less of a hassle than heading to the cafeteria and getting lost in the crowd.”
“You figured it would be less of a hassle, huh?”
I took a moment from my spiral into villainy to process what he said.