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Peaches Ain't Pretty

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Harley was three the first time his dad left a mark on him—a ring of red skin shaped like a hand, so big it took up his entire bicep. He doesn’t remember why but he remembers screaming his head off and being dragged out of the grocery store kicking and thrashing. He remembers mama with Abbie on her hip, face screwed up in discomfort, mouth pinched and silent as she followed them through the parking lot. He’ll always remember her silence. In a way, it hurt worse than anything his dad ever did to him.

Even now.

He blots at his split lip with a washrag that drips pink into the white porcelain sink.

“I’m sorry,” Abbie repeats from where she sits on the toilet, knees to her chest with fresh tears treading the tracks of dried ones. She looks even smaller than normal, eyes red and puffy, snot plastered across her nose and smeared onto her cheek. The ugly plastic yellow shower curtain makes for a garish backdrop behind her.

He ruffles her hair how he’s seen dads do to kids after school when they get picked up in shiny cars without rust eating away the trim. He says, “It ain’t your fault. I knew what I was doin’.”

“I knocked over the glass though!” Abbie wails miserably.

He shoots her a sharp glance. She slaps a hand over her mouth and turns frightened eyes to the closed door. They hold their breath in silence but the house on the other side stays quiet. No one approaches.

“It was an accident,” he whispers. “I know you didn’t mean it.”

“Then why’d daddy get so mad at you? You shouldn’t’ve pretended it was you.”

“He’s always mad. It don’t matter what we do. He’ll always find something to lash out about.”

“Shoulda been me,” Abbie sniffs. “I did it so—,”

“Don’t ever say that,” he says harshly. “Don’t you ever believe for a second you deserve what he’s doin’ to us.”

“I don’t like you gettin’ hurt cuz of me, Lee-Lee,” she says, brown eyes shining bright as another fat tear rolls down her pudgy toddler cheek.

His chest goes tight. Maybe he’s just a kid too but he’s her big brother and he’s got the know-how to keep her safer than he’s ever been. He hates that he can’t be here for her during the school day but daddy’s usually at work and in a couple years she’ll be doing school too. They’ll even get to be at the same one for a while until he moves up to middle school. It’ll be nice havin’ her close. They’ve just gotta get there.

Unfortunately, two years seems real far from where they’re at.

“It ain’t cuz of you. It’s cuz of him. You remember that. Always remember that.” He picks up his washrag and finds a clean spot on it and wipes her cheeks and nose. “There you are. Pretty as a peach.”

Abbie snorts. “Peaches ain’t pretty.”

“Says you. Someday I’ll find me a peach so pretty I’ll marry it.”

She giggles and hops down from the toilet. “That’s silly. Can we play with your new truck?”

“Sure,” he says even as his stomach turns.

The new truck showed up in his room the day after daddy hit him in the chest so hard it left an ugly purple bruise the size of an apple that’s still lingering on but has turned a yucky greenish-yellow now. He knows it’s mama leaving him things like it’s some kind of apology for letting daddy do whatever he wants. He gets it. He sees her bruises too and knows she’s got it just as bad, maybe worse since she don’t even get her own room, but the gifts make him feel sour.

They make him feel real sour.

~*~

He ought to know by now there ain’t no such thing as a good day. Even when it’s pizza party day and they get to watch Magic School Bus instead of doing a spelling test, he’s still gotta go home at the end of it and there ain’t no such thing as a good day at home.

As soon as he steps through the front door, Abbie crashes against his chest and nearly sends him stumbling right back onto the porch. He stifles a gasp of pain at the assault on the fresh bruising decorating his ribs and curls an arm around her back as he quickly takes in the living room. Daddy’s truck wasn’t out front but that don’t always mean much with how often it ends up needing to go to the shop.

“What’s goin’ on, Bee?” he asks quietly after seeing nothing immediately concerning. He maneuvers them inside and shuts the door behind him.

“We’re leavin’ again!” she cries. “I just got to start playing with Lucy next door and we’re already leavin’ again!”

His heart drops to his toes. He liked this school. His teacher is real nice and always gives him a gold star on his math worksheets whenever he gets them all right. He’s been keeping the stickers in his notebook and he’d been hopin’ to get a full page of ‘em.

“It’s alright,” he says, patting Abbie’s back. “I bet the next place we go will have a dog even cuter than old Lucy.”

“I like Lucy! She’s plenty cute!”

He makes a face. Too much drool for his tastes but that’s Abbie. She’s always latchin’ onto the ugly ducklings.

“C’mon,” he says, “maybe if we pack up real fast we can go over and say goodbye before we gotta go.”

Abbie groans. “But I hate packing.”

“Tough,” he says, giving her a one-armed squeeze. He ushers her towards the hall. “It’d do you good to get used to it. You know daddy never likes stayin’ anywhere long.”

~*~

He can hear the screaming from the stairwell. He pushes through the heavy door into the hallway and sprints past an older man poking his head out of his apartment. He slings his backpack to the ground in front of number 209 and frantically digs out the little silver key mama gave him when they moved in and warned him if he ever lost it he’d be in a heap of trouble. Neither of them needed to mention who’d be dishing out the trouble.

He jams the key into the lock.

“Kiddo, don’t go in there,” the old man down the hall says. “The police are on their way.”

His stomach turns at the mention of the police—“they’ll take you away and you’ll never see your sister again”—but that’s Abbie screaming. No way can he sit out here where it’s safe and listen to her scream like that.

He pushes into the apartment and the screams increase tenfold. Daddy’s got blood on his face and Abbie by the arm as she shrieks bloody murder and tries to fend him off with a sneaker.

“Let her go!” he screams. “Don’t hurt her!”

“YOU STAY OUT OF IT!” daddy bellows. Veins throb in his neck and a three-fingered scratch on his cheek sluggishly oozes blood down his chin. “There ain’t nothin’ protectin’ her this time! You go sit in your room quiet-like or you’ll be next.”

Abbie screams as he drags her away from the couch, her red face tear-soaked and terrified.

His heart rabbits in his chest the fastest it ever has and he doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t know what to do. He can jump at him but that’ll end with him and Abbie gettin’ the life beat out of them. And besides, there’s no time for all that because—

“Cops are comin’!” he blurts.

Daddy stops in his tracks then turns slowly to face him. “Are you threatenin’ me, boy?”

“No, sir,” he says quickly. “There was an old man in the hall and he said they’re comin’ on account of all the noise.”

He holds his breath as the cogs in daddy’s head turn ‘til finally, he flings Abbie aside. She cries out as she hits the wall but Harley stays very still even though all he wants in the whole world is to run to her. She sobs into the carpet and his heart breaks to bits.

“Get in the truck,” daddy says. “Both of you. If I get there and you ain’t both buckled up I’ll break your legs. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” he says.

He waits until daddy stalks to the bedroom at the end of the hall before he rushes to Abbie and hauls her to her feet.

She throws her arms around his waist and bawls deep wracking sobs into his t-shirt.

“Shh, it’s alright, Bee. I got you. We gotta get to the truck quick, okay?” He doesn’t disbelieve daddy’s threat for a second. Testing his sincerity has never ended well.

She nods and shuffles her feet as he practically drags her to the door. He opens it and nearly trips over his backpack, still lying open in the hall where he left it. Standing over it is the old man from before.

His eyes widen in shock and a wizened hand covers his mouth as he takes in Abbie, heaving and sobbing. “Good Lord.”

He quickly snatches up his backpack and moves to side-step around the old man, but he stops him with a hand on his shoulder. “Son, the police will be here any minute. They can—,”

“Mind your own business,” he hisses, fear coursing through him almost as bad as when daddy had Abbie. They can’t get split up. They can’t. Who’s to say she won’t end up somewhere worse only without anybody there looking after her? It’s like mama always says, he’s got a job as her big brother to keep her safe, and he don’t intend to let nobody stop him. Not his daddy and certainly not this old man.

“Don’t let him see you,” he says quietly. “Daddy’s got a mean streak and he don’t like it when he gets the cops called on him, understand?”

The old man pales and releases his shoulder.

He doesn’t waste another second and hustles Abbie down the hall, past the elevator that’s been busted the entire month they’ve lived here, and into the stairwell. He glances back as the door falls shut behind them and spots the old man slipping back into his apartment.

A heavy feeling settles on his chest as they hurry down the steps. It’s almost like he wishes the old man woulda done somethin’ different.

~*~

“Hey, hey you gotta get it together,” he says, soothing as he can while peeking up at the door to see if daddy’s coming yet. He smooths circles against Abbie’s back like mama does when he’s hurtin’ real bad or sick. “If you’re cryin’ like this when he gets back he’s gonna get mad all over again.”

“T-T-There was a m-mouse and he k-killed it. He just s-stomped it and—,” she cuts off gagging.

“Oh, Bee.”

“It was a darling little thing and he just— There was blood and other stuff and—,” she gags again. “I’m gonna puke.”

He gets the door open and leans her out of it just in time. Christ. If she’d’ve barfed in the truck there’d have been hell to pay and they’d’ve both paid it.

“Alright honeybee,” he says, picking up the name mama calls her when she’s in a playful mood, which don’t happen hardly ever anymore. “You got it all out. It’s okay.”

She’s still crying, tears wearing ruts down her cheeks but at least now she’s quiet. He pulls the door shut and lets her lay her head in his lap until the denim turns damp.

When daddy comes flying out of the apartment building, duffel bag on his shoulder, he don’t slow to look twice at the puke puddle, thank goodness, and hops into the truck, startin’ it up before he’s even got his door shut or the duffel in the seat beside him. The seat where…

“What about mama?” Abbie whispers so soft it’s nearly swallowed by the roar of the engine as they peel out of the parking lot.

“Shh,” he breathes, rubbing circles on her back again.

A deep dark something settles into his bones. Maybe mama don’t protect them as much as he wishes she would but she’s still better than nothin’. She’s still better than being alone with him.

Abbie’s back heaves under his hand as they tear through town, but she stays quiet as a mouse. If she wasn’t in his lap he’d have no clue she was even crying.

~*~

Two days. They spend two days with just daddy, hopping from motel to motel, acting like they’re running from something, afraid to be sniffed out if they stay put too long. They stay as quiet as they can, only speaking when daddy leaves to get more smokes and beer. Sometimes he even comes back with a bag of chips and lets them have it all to themselves.

He only hits him once with the back of his hand across his cheek when they get to the first motel. It gets all swollen until his eye sticks shut and turns purple but he’s lucky that’s all he gets. He’s lucky he doesn’t touch Abbie. She cries at night and he’s not sure if it’s the hunger, the fear, or just plain missin’ mama. He wants to cry too but stayin’ strong is the only way he knows how to show her the world ain’t ending, even if it feels like it is.

The day mama walks through the door with a bag of McDonald’s in hand looking bedraggled and exhausted, he ducks into the bathroom and cries and cries while she’s distracted hugging the life out of Abbie. When he’s finished he sends up a prayer to God even though he’s not really sure he listens to nobody little boys like him, but just in case, he ought to know how grateful he is.

~*~

Daddy sells the truck after that and the car he bought to replace it feels a lot smaller. He doesn’t like it even though Abbie says it’s easier for her to get in and out by herself. They drive for days, staying at what feels like a never-ending string of motels. He hates how small the one-room motel feels and how there aren’t any toys to play with since they had to leave all of their things at the apartment. He peeked in the duffel bag daddy brought and found only his things. He didn’t even grab mama’s necklace that gramma gave her before she died way before he was born.

The only thing he’s got from before is his backpack. He’s got a couple of books he’ll never return, assignments he’ll never turn in, and a single notebook with half a page of peeling gold stars inside the front cover. The pages are already half-full and he’s not much good at drawing but he’s tired of watching the same cartoons over and over on the public access channel. Then again, he’s tired of a lot of things. He’s tired of eating crackers and cold sandwiches for every meal. He’s tired of never getting any time alone. He’s tired of being tired and being scared and being quiet.

But for all the misery to be had in the motels, being stuck in the car is infinitely worse. Daddy only plays old country stations and no one is allowed to talk over the songs. If there’s a commercial on then you can take your chances but they ain’t good odds. He gets real good at not drinking much so he don’t have to ask for a bathroom stop, but Abbie ain’t so good at that just yet. She’s also littler than he is so it’s not really fair.

“Hurry the hell up,” daddy snaps at their backs as he holds out his smoke for mama to light before she lights her own. “If I have to come in after you it’ll mean an ass-whoopin’.”

He grabs Abbie’s hand and tugs her along faster.

~*~

He don’t make it back to school before summer starts. He hates summer. All the other kids are always so excited not to have school anymore but to him, school means a full belly. School means nice people. School means safe. He feels guilty for it but he can’t help the way he feels.

Abbie loves summer. It means she gets to pester him all hours of the day.

They finally settle in a house in some tiny little spit of a town. He’s only been into town once but he remembers how little everything looked compared to where they lived last in their apartment. He don’t remember seeing one single playground or any swimming pools.

It don’t matter, he supposes. It’s not like anybody would take them and they’ll be long gone before they’re big enough to go by themselves.

The house is okay. Upstairs where him and Abbie sleep gets real hot during the day and don’t cool off much at night but it’s a whole floor away from where daddy and mama sleep so you won’t hear him bellyaching. The stairs creak something awful and daddy yells if they go up and down them too much so they learn pretty quick to spend most of their time outside.

Outside is wonderful.

They got no neighbors which Abbie is mighty sore about but he thinks it’s pretty great. There’s open grass for as far as he can run and then some. Where the grass ends, the trees begin. Big tall ones, some with branches low enough to climb. There’s a creek that cuts through the woods that’s shallow and gentle enough that Abbie can play with him. They try skipping stones but they ain’t so good at it yet. Hopefully they’ll stay long enough to get to learn.

They gotta be careful not to come back to the house too muddy but otherwise, they’re free here. They can go where they want and do what they want so long as it’s not raining or so hot mama tells them they gotta stay inside. It’s shaping up to be the best summer ever, but he can’t help but wonder when it’s all gonna go wrong.

For all his wonderin’, he’s not ready when it does.

~*~

They hear the scream all the way out at the creek. They straighten up as one, soaked to their knees with creek water, hands muddy from the play fight they’d been having.

“Was that mama?” Abbie whispers.

They both know there’s no neighbors close. They both know how daddy is. They both know it’s mama.

“I’ll check. You stay here.”

“Lee-Lee,” Abbie says, reverting to the old nickname she used to use for him before she got good at saying his whole name. Lee-Lee and Bee-Bee. Bee-Lee. Lee-Lee and honeybee. Where you find one, the other ain’t far behind. That’s what mama always says. She used to sound happy when she said it. Now he’s not so sure what happy looks like on her anymore.

He puts his hands on her shoulders, leaving muddy prints behind. “It’ll be alright. Stay here. Promise me.”

She screws her mouth up and glares at him but her eyes are wide and afraid.

He kisses her hair and backs towards the house. “I’ll be right back. Stay here.”

He turns and runs before she agrees and runs and runs and runs. He’s gotten better at running and can go farther but he’s still never made it all the way between the house and creek in one go before. He’s gasping and feels dizzy when he finally gets there. He needs to stop and take a break, maybe drink some water from the hose, but this close he can hear things crashing and banging inside.

He hesitates at the door, breathing hard.

Mama’s grown. She can handle herself usually. If he steps in when she’s got things under control he might make it worse. If daddy’s just throwin’ things how he does then maybe she don’t need anyone butting in. It sounds like the crashing is coming from the kitchen so he jogs around to the side of the house and gets up on his tiptoes to see in through the window.

At first, he thinks it’s just daddy in there throwing plates and cursin’ up a blue streak, but then he sees the red on the wall all smeared like something slide through it down to the floor where he’s not tall enough to see. His heart jumps into his throat and before he can think it through, he tears the door open and runs in.

There’s mama. She’s on the floor and she’s awake but staring off like she ain’t sure where she is. There’s blood seeping out from her hairline and runnin’ down the side of her face. It matches the splatter on the wall and the bright splotches of red covering the shattered brown bottle that’s all over the floor.

Daddy throws another bottle and this one explodes against the wall, showering glass and beer all over the kitchen.

What’s he supposed to do?

That’s when daddy notices him standing in the doorway.

“Well hey there champ,” he says in a tone that makes him go cold all over and take a step back. “You come to save your mama, boy? I bet you think you’re a real hero, huh? Rushin’ in here like there’s a goddamn thing you could do to stop me.”

A shiver crawls down his spine and he swallows hard. He knows there ain’t nothin’ he can do but how can he not try? Mama’s hurt. Abbie’s safe. He’s gotta try.

“ANSWER ME WHEN I ASK YOU SOMETHIN’, DAMMIT!”

He flinches, blinking fast, and says, “No.”

“No what?”

“No, sir.”

“You’re damn right you ain’t no hero.” He stalks closer, mean and mad etched into every line on his face. His chin is wet with spit or beer, he can’t tell but he can smell the alcohol as he leans over him and says, “You’re nothin’. You’re nothin’ but wasted space. Wasted potential.”

His breathing is quick and shallow but he looks up and meets his eyes anyway. His knees are trembling and he’s ready for the hit that’ll come any second, but this time he’ll watch it come. This time he’ll be ready for it.

Daddy pauses, the skin around his eyes going tight as he looks back at him and then looks him up and down like he’s coming to a realization. “You’re gettin’ big, huh? Big and brave comin’ in here.” He sucks his teeth all thoughtful then asks, “Think you’re ready to be man of the house?”

“No, sir,” he whispers, heart pounding so hard he can feel it in his ears.

“SPEAK UP!”

“No, sir!”

Daddy scoffs and stands to his full height. “Well tough cuz I’m outta here. Can’t stand another day bein’ disrespected under my own goddamn roof.”

He stands stock-still as daddy turns and stomps off to his and mama’s room. He doesn’t move as things crash and shatter and bang. Minutes that feel like days crawl by and then the front door slams. Still, he doesn’t move, sure it’s a test. There’s not a doubt in his mind that daddy’ll be back to put the hurt on him for trying to help mama after he worked so hard to knock her down.

The car starts and he still thinks it’s a trick until the sound of the running engine fades and fades until he can’t hear anything at all except his and mama’s heavy breathing. He takes a step and nothing happens so he scrambles across the room, dropping to his knees at her side. Something sharp cuts into his knee but he ignores it.

“Mama?” he asks, voice smaller than usual. “Can you hear me?”

Her eyes slide over and meet his, hazy with pain and confusion.

“You want me to call an ambulance?” he asks in a whisper even though daddy ain’t here to overhear. He’s still not convinced he won’t be coming back to whoop him. “Daddy took the car.”

“No, baby,” she says but the words sound slippery in her mouth. Like when Abbie was littler and was still learnin’ all the right sounds to make. “I’mma be fine.” She closes her eyes and rests her head against the wall feeling blindly until she finds his leg and pats it. “I’m be fine.”

He bites his lip real hard to not say anything to that because she don’t look fine and if she goes then it’s just him and Abbie with daddy—or maybe nobody at all if he never comes back like he said. A chill runs through him at the thought. They’d be split up just like daddy always said and he’d never see her again.

“Mama,” he says, his voice as stern as he can make it. “I’m calling the ambulance. We’ll tell them you fell, okay? We’ll tell ‘em daddy’s off gettin’ scratchers and you slipped and fell and bonked your head and dropped all those bottles.”

She blinks slowly at him and then finally a small smile curls her lips as her eyes flutter shut. “Smart boy,” she murmurs. “Always was a smart boy.”

~*~

He don’t know if it’s the bonk on the head that did it or the fact that daddy never came back but mama wasn’t ever the same after that. Distant like a fog separates her from the rest of the world but too sharp when she’s speaking to you direct. Either way, it don’t really matter he supposes. It’ll always be daddy’s fault and he fucking hates him for it.

~*~

Someone slaps the cigarette out of his hand as he moves it towards his mouth. He pivots on his heel ready to unleash hell and stops short as he finds Abbie glaring up at him, backpack slung over one shoulder, long brown hair in a braid as thick as a rope over the other.

Shit.

“It’s like you’re trying to turn out just like him.”

He scowls. “Watch it, Bee.”

“You watch it. You’re following right in his steps. You think I don’t know about all the fights?”

He deflates, chastised. Her point ain’t one he hadn’t realized on his own. He just hates looking at it.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize just cuz you got caught. It ain’t cute. If you’re really sorry you’ll quit those nasty things.”

He smiles. “Alright, you win. He pulls out a fresh cigarette and says I’ll quit tomorrow.”

She rolls her eyes hard. “Some days I can’t stand you, Harley Keener.”

“Love you too, honeybee.”

“Whatever. Let’s get out of here. Marigold is driving me nuts yammering on about that Walter boy like he’s any different from every other boy in this place.”

“Hey now, careful what you say about the boys here. I happen to be one of those, you know.”

She turns up her nose. “I said what I said.”

“Why, you little—,”

They roughhouse all the way to his truck, laughing and giggling. He loses his cigarette when Abbie gets a punch on his ribs right where they’re bruised from his latest brawl. She has an uncanny sense like that.

“Hey, you two! None of that on school grounds. Take it home!”

They glare at Mrs. Hollis but she’s already rushing off to split up a couple sucking face against a parked car.

“I hate it here,” Abbie grumbles as she climbs into the passenger seat.

He tosses his backpack in the bed of the pickup where it’s sure to get filthy with gravel dust and hops into the driver seat. “Anything in particular grating on you today?”

Abbie does her seatbelt and leans back with a sigh as he reverses out of the spot.

“Tired of being managed.”

He huffs a laugh. “Well, settle in. You still got three years left.”

“Don’t remind me,” she sighs. “Can we go for a drive tonight?”

“Can’t. Gotta close at the arcade.”

She makes an irritated sound in the back of her throat. “Don’t they know it’s illegal for minors to work later than ten?”

“I suspect they do. I’m not gonna rat ‘em out though. More hours means more money. How else are you gonna make it to the movies every Friday?”

She sighs deeply. “Oh alright then.”

They both know it’s not movie tickets that they need the money for. Those are nice but without his job they don’t have gas to drive or food on the table. Mama’s job at the diner keeps the lights on and the roof over their head but that’s about it and she ain’t shy about letting them know how much easier she’d have it without two extra mouths to feed.

“Harley?”

“Hmm?”

Abbie doesn’t look up from picking at the loose button on her flannel. “You know I’ll put you in the ground myself before I let you turn out like him, right?”

He smiles faintly. It fades quick. “Yeah Bee, I know. Sometimes it feels inevitable though.”

“It ain’t,” she says, looking up to stare at the side of his face. “You’re better. Leagues better. Just quit it with the smokes.”

“Yeah, alright,” he agrees. He’s never cared for the smell anyway. Mostly he picked ‘em up to piss off mama but she hasn’t even noticed as far as he can tell. “You gonna lecture me about fighting next?

“No.” She pauses thoughtfully. “It’s all gotta go somewhere, right? Just make sure you keep aiming it at people who deserve it.”

He snorts. “Alright.” He glanced at her sideways. “Where does yours go?”

She turns to look out the window and doesn’t answer. They’re turning into the driveway when she finally says, “I heard from Amanda that Tommy O’Reilly tried to force himself on Mary Ellen at that big party last week.”

“Is that right?”

“She’s got a bruise around her wrist. I seen it when we were changing out for gym class.”

Something cold settles in his gut. “I’ll see what I can do.”

~*~

His fist aches but he slams it into ribs one more time before releasing Tommy O’Reilly’s collar and letting him drop to the cracked pavement behind the arcade.

“You best start treating girls with respect, you hear me? Else I’ll find you again.”

Tommy groans and shuffles to sit up against the grimy brick.

He takes that as agreement enough and turns to walk away before anyone comes to investigate.

“You ‘n your sister,” Tommy grunts. “It ain’t right the way you two get on. Everyone knows it.”

He stops, boots scuffing the ground, then turns. “Excuse me?”

“Ain’t neither of you been with anybody else. Them Keeners, they say, best steer clear. Who knows what they get up to at home. ‘S prolly why your daddy left like he did. Ain’t right.”

He stalks back and looms over him then asks in a hard tone, “Are you implying what I think you are?”

Tommy rolls his head back and grins up at him with sharp teeth. “Ain’t implying nothing. Abbie’s a pretty little thing but ain’t nobody wanna stick it where her brute of a brother already been.”

He’d been planning to only mark him up where nobody would see but before he knows it his fist is aching worse than ever and Tommy’s face is a bloody mess where he lies still at the base of the wall.

~*~

“How come you never date?”

Abbie pauses in sopping up his knuckles. He’s perched on the toilet, bleach stinging his nose from the recent cleaning of the tub and she’s standing between his knees with a wet rag that’s more pink than white like it’s supposed to be.

“Why would I?” she asks. “You know the boys ‘round here better than I do. Any of ‘em worth my time?”

“No,” he says without hesitation.

She smiles and goes back to trying to clear away enough blood so they can get bandages to stay in place.

“What about girls though?”

She pulls a face. “Nah.” She side-eyes him. “What’s brought all this on? Got anything to do with why Tommy’s in the hospital getting his face stitched back together?”

He shrugs. “Just wanna make sure I’m not holding you back from living the life you want.”

She steps back to fully regard him. “What’s that supposed to mean? We’re supposed to look out for each other. That’s what you always say.”

“Right but if you wanted to have someone else’s back too, then—,”

She drops the bloody rag in the sink and stares at it hard as she says, “Can I confess to you something?”

“‘Course.”

She chews the inside of her cheek and then looks up at him and says, “I don’t see myself ever settling down and getting married. Not to a boy or a girl or anyone.”

“Cuz of dad?”

“No. Maybe. I don’t know. It all runs together, don’t it? I just... The way other girls talk, it’s something that they just want. It’s already inside them but for me, it ain’t. I don’t know what that says about me.”

“Hey,” he lightly swats her arm with his good hand, “it says you’ve got sense. Who’d wanna be tied down with someone for the rest of forever? You’re a free agent.”

She snorts and shoves his shoulder. “‘Cept for you, you big dope.”

“Yeah Lee-Lee and Bee-Bee, the dynamic duo.”

She raises an eyebrow and shoots him a look. “Maybe someday a trio.”

He tips his head. “How so?”

“You give up on finding that peach of yours already?”

He rolls his eyes. Oh, that. He made a joke once about marrying a peach and she’s never let it go. He licks his lips. She shared a thing about her, maybe it’s his turn to share a thing about him. Something he’s not too sure about yet, having only recently thought it up and all.

“I dunno if peaches are for me after all,” he says carefully. He’s not like Abbie. He doesn’t hate the idea of finding someone to share every bit of himself with, to ride the highs and weather the lows, but he’s never met anybody he could consider sharing himself with like that. The only ones that seem to spark his interest for even the barest moment, well… they ain’t peaches.

“‘Course they are,” Abbie says, matter-of-fact as she pulls a spool of bandaging out of the kit. She levels a significant look at him. “A peach like you is bound to reel in a good one. A peach for a peach.”

He laughs, surprised though he probably shouldn’t be. She probably figured it out before he did. She’s always been observant like that. “Sure, alright. If I’m a peach looking for the prettiest peach in the land, what does that make you?”

She grins impishly. “Dragon fruit, obviously.”

He grins back. “Oh, obviously.”

~*~

College brochures keep ending up on his bed and it’s starting to really piss him off. He knows mama’s dying for the day she becomes an empty nester but she’s out of her goddamn mind if she thinks he’s gonna walk out on Abbie and fuck off to—he checks the latest brochure—MIT? He snorts. Where’s that? Michigan? Not a fucking chance.

On his way out the door, he stuffs it in the trash with the others and grabs his keys off the hook. He’s just about to tear out of the driveway when Abbie comes hurtling off the porch, backpack slapping against her tailbone and her red plaid flannel only halfway on.

He sighs and reaches across to pop open the passenger door.

“Thanks,” she pants as she hops in. “Thought you could ditch me, huh?”

“I wasn’t aware I’d been hired as chauffeur for the evening,” he drawls. “Where to, little lady?”

She snorts and punches him in the arm. “Cut it out. Drop me off at Jayne’s? Trinity said they just got a new shipment in and I wanna see if they’ve got Taylor Swift’s new album yet.”

“You know she don’t do country anymore, right?”

“That’s why I like her.”

He grins. “I’ll do you one better. I’ll park in my usual employee parking spot and you can walk the rest of the way to Jayne’s.”

“But you drive right past it to get to the arcade!”

“Take it or leave it.”

She rolls her eyes. “You’re such a dick.”

He shrugs. “You know what they say, you are what you eat.”

“Gross!”

He pulls out of the driveway laughing as she pummels his shoulder.

~*~

Abbie hangs around for his shift, drifting in and out of the arcade as crowds surge and fall. When he finally shuts off the neon and locks the door, she’s already in the truck, eyelids drooping.

He starts the engine and asks, “Wanna go for a drive?”

She smiles, a sleepy lopsided one that only he ever gets to see. “Have I ever said no?”

He takes them to their usual spot. It’s only ten minutes outside of town but if he goes around Rose Hill and then swings up north of Marville before cutting east again at the river he can stretch it to an hour. It’s an alright drive. If it wasn’t so late and a school night he could go three hours before he starts getting restless.

They each grab an armload of blankets from the back of the cab and haul them into the bed of the pickup where they pile them up and lay flat on their backs, faces to the stars.

“No MIT, huh?” Abbie says after a while. “I thought for sure that one would catch your eye. That’s where Tony Stark went, you know.”

He grimaces. “Let’s not talk about Tony Stark.”

“Still bitter he wouldn’t whisk us away to live amongst civilized folk?”

He shrugs. Bitter isn’t the right word, not for how he feels about his chance encounter with Tony Stark. Their little adventure feels more like a dream than a memory by now. Bitter is absolutely the right word for how he feels about walking into the garage a week later and finding out mama’d sold off all the high-tech equipment gifted to him. She bought a brand new car with her new influx of cash only to wreck it that same year when she was driving home after one too many drinks during her shift.

Yeah, he’s still plenty bitter about that.

Abbie turns onto her side to face him, one arm curled under her head, the other under her chin. “What do you want to do, Harley?”

“What d’you mean?”

“You’re not gonna work at the arcade forever, right? So what do you wanna do?”

“I dunno. Never thought that far ahead.” Honestly, some days he looks back and thinks it’s a miracle he’s made it this far. Graduation is in a few weeks and then… Well obviously he’s going to hang around town until Abbie graduates a couple years from now, but after that, it’s all a big fuzzy blank. What does he want? Then again, what’s it matter what he wants? He never gets what he wants so what’s the use dreaming about it?

He flops his head to the side to look at Abbie and says, “Prolly just follow you around like a puppy. You’re gonna be a movie star or somethin’ big. Maybe I can be your bodyguard.”

She snorts and knocks him with her elbow. “I’m bein’ serious.”

So am I.

He pulls in a deep breath and lets it out. “I dunno, Bee. What do you think I want?”

She regards him under the low light of the waning moon for a long time before she says softly, “I think you want a simple easy life with someone you love with all your heart and who loves you back just as much.”

His heart squeezes in his chest until he can’t breathe. He swallows past the lump in his throat and says, “That’s you and me, honeybee.”

She smiles sadly. “You know what I mean, Harley.”

He looks back to the stars. “I dunno what that’s got to do with mama leavin’ them brochures out for me all the time.”

“It ain’t mama doin’ it.”

He blinks at her, surprised and for some reason hurt. “Why would you do that?”

“You can’t make your whole life revolve around me, Harley.”

“Well, what’s it supposed to revolve around then?”

She looks at him the saddest she’s ever looked. “You, dumbass.”

Oh.

~*~

That summer, Abbie gets hired to help out around at Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson’s farm. She didn’t even tell him she was looking for work until after she was already committed to starting.

“Wish you woulda said somethin’,” he gripes, scrubbing furiously at some stuck mud on the bumper of the truck. “They’re hiring at Jayne’s, you know. I coulda put in a good word and then we’d be right down the street from each other and I bet you’d get a sweet employee discount. Could buy up as much Swifty merch as you can carry.”

“I looked at Janye’s,” Abbie says, from where she’s standing in the bed of the truck, matching rag in hand, hair pulled back in a high ponytail that swishes between her shoulder blades. Her brow is damp and sweat is starting to soak through her tank top at the small of her back as the relentless summer sun beats down on them. “Facts is, Jayne was only willing to pay minimum wage—which is a joke by the way— and the Jeffersons agreed to twelve bucks an hour. That’s simple math even I can do.”

He shakes his head. “They don’t call it back-breaking work for nothin’, Bee. You sure this is a good idea?”

“Yep,” she says, planting a barefoot on the wall of the truck bed before hopping down to the dirt driveway. She jerks her chin at the dirt mark giving him trouble. “Need some muscle to take care of that for you?”

He steps back and gestures for her to go ahead. Skipping forward, she drops to a knee, scritches it off with a fingernail, then after a few quick swipes over it with her rag, she steps back, leaving nothing but shining metal in her wake. She takes a bow.

“Alright, that’s enough showing off.” He slaps at her with his wet rag and she jumps back with a shriek. Then she lunges, whipping out her rag, and nearly catches him in the stomach.

“Game on,” she says with a toothy grin.

The game ends when he gets ahold of the garden hose and sends her squealing behind the garage.

~*~

The first two weeks of working on the farm Abbie gets worked to the bone. She won’t say so to him but every night he gets home from his shift at the arcade he finds her still dirty in her work clothes passed out on the couch. He has to rouse her, make her eat something, shove her in the bathroom to shower, and then make sure she downs a glass of water before she collapses into bed, dead to the world as soon as her head hits the pillow.

To say he’s worried that she’s in over her head would be an understatement. Then things start to turn. He notices it while they’re roughhousing at the pond on a day they both have off work and she picks him up and throws him into the water.

“Holy hell,” he says as soon as he surfaces. “I’m gonna have to stop calling you honeybee and start calling you worker bee.”

She snorts so hard it sounds painful. “Don’t you dare. I’ve gotten attached to honeybee.”

“Got any workout tips? Now that I’m an adult man I think it’s time I got swole.”

She snickers and kicks water at him from the shoreline. It goes wide. “Yeah, get hired as a farmhand and start hauling bags of feed, ya sissy boy.”

“Oh, now you’ve crossed a line.” He lurches up and grabs her by the ankle and she plummets into the pond with a scream.

~*~

“Can I have ten bucks?” Abbie asks around a mouthful of PB&J. “Gonna go see that new horror flick with Bailey and Trinity after work Friday.”

“You sure you’ll be able to stay awake?”

She kicks him with her barefoot under the table. “I’ve gotten better!”

“Mhmm. Don’t you have your own money for that sort of thing now?”

“I’m saving up,” she says shrugging.

He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I got that much.” She’s been working at the farm for a month now—that’s two paychecks, yet she still hits him up for cash to go to the movies and get ice cream and go to the pool with her school friends. “For what? Your own car?”

“Nah, figure one’s good enough. It’d be pretty ridiculous to leave this place with a whole caravan.”

“Carav— Wait.” She’s not… No. “You’re saving up so we can leave? What about school?”

She sets down her sandwich and levels a disappointed stare at him. “Harley, you’re the smartest person I know but you’re dumb as a sack of potatoes sometimes. I ain’t dropping out so put away that worried face. I’m saving up now so that when we’re ready to go, we’ve got the funds for it. That’s how saving works, you see. Gotta start it in advance.”

“Oh.” He’s too relieved to return her sass. “Well, you could’ve said something. I can save up too.”

“This is my part to play,” she says, chin tipped up proud. “Yours is to keep paying the bills and make living here less miserable. Mine is to get us out.”

He frowns. Okay, but why can’t he help? Why does she need to do it all herself? She’s still in school and he’s out. He’s got nothing but time while she’s got friends and a full-time summer job and come fall she’ll spend her days in class and then have homework in the evenings. Is she going to insist on working then too?

“We’re partners, right?” she asks. “Equals?”

“Of course we are, but that doesn’t mean you gotta take this on your shoulders alone.”

“I ain’t alone.” She stands from her chair and plants a sticky peanut butter kiss on his cheek, then pats it as though to make sure it stays put. “I got this. You’re sweet for fretting but let me pull my weight.”

~*~

Despite what Abbie says, he starts tucking away money whenever he can. He opens a savings account and for every paycheck, he deposits twenty dollars into savings. It ain’t much but over the next two years it’ll… Well, it still won’t be much but he feels better for doing it.

Abbie sticks with the farm job all summer. By the end of it, she’s gloriously tan and buff enough that he starts doing push-ups every morning and going for long runs on dusty roads on his days off. He’s not going to be the scrawny Keener. No way.

She keeps the job when school starts, citing that they need someone taking care of the animals while they focus on preparing for harvest. It’s only a few hours a day, a couple in the morning and a couple after school, so he lets it slide but it means that he’s up at the crack of dawn every day driving her over there. He naps in the truck while she works and then he drops her off at school.

It’s weird not going with her and he don’t particularly like it, especially when he sees everyone rubbernecking as she walks up the front lawn. She looks good after a summer in the sun working hard, he can objectively see that, and he can see all the dumb teenage hicks seeing that too. He knows she can take care of herself but he hates leaving her to the wolves.

The best he can do is glare down whichever ones look his way before he drives off. Maybe they should practice sparring together or something. She’s fierce but a little technique and practice won’t hurt. He doesn’t trust anybody in this town, not with leaving his truck unlocked, and not with his little sister.

~*~

He can hear the shouting as soon as he cuts the engine. He jumps out and mud splashes all over his jeans as icy rain beats down on his head but he pays it no mind as he runs for the house.

Mama ain’t like dad was. She never hits. She never throws things but in some ways, he thinks she might be worse. The scrapes and bruises dad left on him healed and maybe he’s got some baggage that he carries around from living like they did, but words cut and if they go deep enough they leave scars. Sometimes he wonders how either of them can feel a damn thing through all of their scar tissue.

He wrenches open the front door and mama’s voice rings clear and sharp.

“I ain’t paying to house some thoughtless dyke! You know everyone in town’s talking about you? Callin’ you the town lesbo? It’s humiliating! Now if it gets out that you’re stupid too—,”

“That’s enough,” he snaps, stepping into the kitchen, heedless of the mud he tracked all through the front room and the trail he leaves as he steps between where Abbie is at the base of the stairs—hands in fists, face red, eyes shining—and mama in the middle of the kitchen with a sheet of paper clenched in her fist.

“Did you know about this?” mama demands, waving the paper at him. “You two have always shut me out. I don’t know nothin’ about what goes on in my own home! You’ve made your own little family and left me out of it. Do you really hate me so much?”

“You don’t want an answer to that.” He steels himself against the hurt that’s sure to slump her shoulder and pinch her face, but instead she hardens, baring her teeth.

“You’re an ungrateful brat, Harley James Keener,” she spits. “After everything I’ve sacrificed to keep us together, to keep you and your fool of a sister together. You’ve never shown me the appreciation I deserve.”

He doesn’t say anything to that. In a way, she’s right. He’s never been able to see anything beyond her silence every time dad turned his anger onto him or Abbie. He’s never been able to rationalize how someone can say they love someone and then turn their back on their pain. He’s never been able to understand why she didn’t get them out. She should have taken them and run. She didn’t. Maybe there’s more to it that he doesn’t understand, but maybe he doesn’t care.

Mama laughs, dark and unpleasant. “Nothing? You got nothing to say? You never have anything to say to me! Admit it! Admit that you’ve never loved me. Admit that you wish it was just you and your idiot whore sister—,”

“Don’t call her that,” he says lowly.

“Harley,” Abbie says behind him. A warning.

Distantly, he realizes how tense he is—ready to spring into motion. He loosens his fists and releases a breath, a farce of calm. Then he says to mama, “If you think we adopted each other and made a family where there wasn’t one, you’re damn right we did. If you’re upset you got left out of it, you can blame yourself for that.”

“Harley, let’s go,” Abbie whispers, tugging the back of his shirt.

He backs up a step.

“Don’t you walk away from me! I ain’t done talking to you!” mama snaps, eyes red-rimmed and furious.

He turns his back and follows Abbie up the stairs.

“I want you out, Harley Keener!” she shouts at his back. “I’m sick of the disrespect under my roof!”

He stops and without turning asks, “You kickin’ me out?”

She doesn’t respond.

“Thought not,” he says, resuming his trek up the steps. “With me gone, who would pay the water bill?”

He follows Abbie into her room and shuts the door. An instant later Abbie falls against his chest, hugging him tight.

“It always scares me when you go cold and quiet like that,” she says.

“Sorry, Bee.” He drapes his arms around her, one around her back while the other rests against the back of her head. She comes up to just under his chin. He’s not entirely sure if that makes him tall or her short.

“She ain’t gonna kick you out, is she?”

“Nah. It’s not like I’d leave without you anyway.”

She squeezes him tight and then steps back, wiping her eyes. “Sorry.” She sniffs. “You just got home and had to walk straight into my mess.”

“Hey, don’t talk like that. She chooses to be the way she is. That ain’t your fault.”

Abbie sniffs again then looks up at him with watering eyes and says, “I’m failing algebra.”

“Algebra?” he parrots dumbly. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve—,”

“I know. I wanted… I don’t know. You never needed help with school. I thought I could take care of it on my own.”

“On your own? Bee, what’s going on with you lately? What’s all this, ‘on my own,’ stuff about?”

She hugs her arms around her middle and digs her toe into the carpet. “I… I just… There’s some stuff mama said and I guess it got to me.”

“Bee, you can’t listen to—,”

She looks up and throws her arms wide. “But she’s right, Harley! She’s right. You baby me. Don’t pretend you don’t. I gotta learn to stand on my own or I’ll be dependent on you forever.”

He shakes his head. “That’s not how this works, Bee. You’re already standing on your own. Don’t you realize how much I lean on you?”

She scoffs. “Please. You’re always there for me, doing every little thing under the sun for me. What do I do in return? Nothing. I’m a leach.”

“That’s bullshit. You keep me sane, Bee. What would I do without you?”

She rolls her eyes.

“No, really,” he insists. “I want an answer because I sure as hell don’t have one. What would I do if I didn’t have you?”

“Harley,” she says sadly, “don’t you get it? That’s exactly the problem. We’re too co-dependent.”

“That’s how we survive, Bee. Don’t let her shame you for surviving when she’s done nothing but try to keep us down.”

Abbie chews her bottom lip. “That’s a fair point,” she says slowly. “I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. I still… You know how you worry someday you’ll look at yourself and realize you turned out just like dad? Well, I worry the same about mama. She relied on him for everything and then he left and she fell apart. I know you won’t leave like he did but… I want to be able to take care of myself. Someday you’re gonna find your peach and I’ll need to be okay with sharing you.”

He snorts. “You dwell on me finding my peach more than I do.”

“Somebody’s gotta keep you moving towards the future. If it wasn’t for me you’d probably sit in one spot ‘till you turned into a mushroom.”

He laughs lightly. “Alright, you got me, but you’re only human. You don’t have to have everything on lock all the time. You can let me help with some things. Things I’m good at that maybe you struggle with.”

“Like algebra?”

“Like algebra.”

~*~

The day of Abbie’s graduation dawns on a full tank of gas, $10,000 in Abbie’s savings account (and a paltry $250 in his thanks to the truck needing new tires), and two duffel bags tucked in the back seat—the only worldly possessions they care enough to bring with them. There are some things you don’t shake no matter how long it’s been and turns out packing light is one of them.

Abbie walks across the stage in the sweltering gymnasium, shakes the principal’s hand while receiving her diploma in the other, then walks off the stage. She keeps walking straight past the row of plastic chairs where she’s supposed to sit back down, to him where he waits, leaning against the doorway, beaming harder than he ever has. He straightens as she approaches and she throws her arms around him.

“Proud of you, honeybee.”

“Couldn’t’ve done it without you.”

He turns, keeping one arm around her shoulders and together they walk out, ignoring the ceremony that continues in their absence. They ditch the cap and gown at the deserted folding table set up for checking them in and out, but she keeps her gold cords, adjusting them over her overalls after she pulls her hair up into a ponytail.

“Ready?” he asks.

“You know it. Where are we headed first?”

He stops in his tracks. “What? I thought I was following you.”

“You’re the one driving, dummy!”

“But… You said—,”

A huge grin cracks across her face and she snickers. “I’m messing with you. ‘Course I’ve got it all planned out.”

He shoves her. “Don’t do that.”

Giggling, she skips ahead and bursts through the front doors of the school and into the beaming sunlight. “Let’s go, slowpoke. The open road beckons!”

They leave Rose Hill behind without a backward glance. They didn’t tell mama what they were planning but she knew. She didn’t bother showing up to the ceremony anyway so neither of them feels bad for vanishing on her. She finally got her wish—a big empty house without anyone underfoot leaving messes and making too much noise and eating her out of house and home.

Maybe it’s silly or soft of him but he hopes it makes her happy. He genuinely hopes she can be happy.

~*~

“What is that?” Abbie demands as he approaches the picnic table. “Keep it away from me or I’ll get second-hand diabetes.”

“They’ve got a chocolate one too.”

He settles across from her with his milkshake, if you can call it that. It’s got strawberry sauce oozing down the sides of the mason jar and a cupcake-sized hunk of angel food cake crammed in the top and buried in whipped cream. To top it off, a thick pink paper straw is jammed through the cake into the strawberry milkshake inside. It’s ridiculous and cost a small fortune, but he wanted the first thing he bought in California to be extravagant and memorable and just in case the milkshake isn’t memorable enough, he gets to keep the mason jar. Granted, he’s got no idea what he’ll do with a mason jar while essentially living out of his truck but the idea of it is nice.

“Pass,” Abbie says, making a face as he breaks off part of the cake and pops it in his mouth before taking a hearty slurp. “I’ve been looking up work we can do while we’re in town and there’s some promising stuff if you wanna take a look. Don’t get that syrupy stuff on my phone.”

Rolling his eyes, he accepts her phone and tabs through the jobs she’s got pulled up. “Set up and tear down for the beach concert sounds cool,” he says around his straw.

“Knew you’d like that one. Look at the fence one.”

He clicks to the correct tab and skims the listing. “Woof. That’s a lot of fencing to repla— Twenty bucks an hour? Shit, sign us up.”

Abbie laughs. “That was my reaction too. I already messaged them. We can do some of those hauling gigs through the week too and that’ll set us up so we can be beach bums for a while.”

He snorts and hands her phone back. “I don’t think you know how to be a bum but alright. Lock us in. Who’s playing at the beach concert?”

“An all-girl rock band called The Mary Janes. I looked up some of their stuff on YouTube. They’re fun. You’ll like ‘em.”

“Cool. What should we do in the meantime?”

Abbie grins, lighting up. “Finish your milkshake.”

~*~

“You know,” he drawls, his voice echoing through the concrete and metal-lined hallway in a discordant symphony with the tour audio playing overhead, “when you got all excitable I thought we’d be swimming with dolphins or something.”

“You don’t think it’s interesting?”

“Interesting, sure, but…” he trails off, staring into the tiny cell. Between the bed and the chipped ancient toilet, there’s barely enough room to stand, let alone live. “It’s inhumane, isn’t it? Pet store hamsters get better treatment than this.”

She nods. “I think seeing all this, it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. It’s supposed to make us want to do better than the people before us.”

Up the hall someone whoops excitedly followed by a raucous burst of laughter, briefly drowning out the recording droning through overhead speakers.

Her lips pinch and she shoots a sharp look at the group then shakes her head. “C’mon, let’s check out the dining room and then we can go out to the rec yard and get some air.”

Hands in his pockets, he gestures with his elbow, “Lead on.”

~*~

After Alcatraz, they’re both quiet, thoughtful. The ferry back to the mainland seems faster than it did going out and before he knows it they’re sitting in the idling truck with nowhere to go.

“Wanna camp tonight or get a motel?” he asks.

“Motel,” Abbie says to her phone screen. “Too tired to bother with setting up camp.”

“Sure.”

Personally, he’d prefer to camp. A motel room sounds a little too much like one of those cells right now. He’d feel better under the open sky, the only walls boxing him in made of flimsy fabric that he could tear through if he was real bound and determined.

But little sister wants walls so she’ll get walls.

~*~

An hour later, they’re still driving around. They’ve passed several hotels, motels, and inns but he can’t bring himself to pull into the parking lot of any of them.

“What was wrong with that one?” Abbie asks, pointing at the vacancy sign as they cruise past it.

“Parking lot wasn’t well lit,” he mutters.

She turns and looks at him like she can hear the lie in his voice. “You’re being ridiculous. Just pick one.”

“I’m trying,” he snaps. “It’s a popular city to vacation in. Places are packed.”

“Not that packed. That one,” she says, pointing out a cute little bed and breakfast up the road.

“Too expensive.”

She turns in her seat. “What are you talking about? We’ve got like six gigs lined up for this week. What’s your problem?”

“My problem is that you made us go to that stupid prison!” he snaps.

“So now you’re being a big baby about staying at a motel? If you didn’t want to go you should have said so! How was I supposed to know you’d get all weirded out?”

“Uh, maybe because it’s an old abandoned prison on an island? People film ghost hunting shows there! It’s not—,”

“It ain’t abandoned, you drama queen. It’s a literal tourist destination! Or did you miss all the middle-aged white people with their cameras out?”

“Dammit, Abbie! Quit making fun of me. I know it’s dumb, alright?”

“What do you want from me then? If you don’t want to go somewhere say so. Quit following me around like a lost puppy and speak your mind for once!”

“Fine. I don’t want to stay in a motel. I want to camp.”

“Then let’s go. I wish you woulda said something while the sun was still up. I could be horizontal in a sleeping bag by now.”

He tightens his grip on the steering wheel and keeps his jaw clenched shut. It’s another half hour to get out of the city and then 20 minutes to the nearest campsite. By the time they’re parked, he’s more exhausted than angry and Abbie’s too pissed to speak to him.

They set up camp in dead silence, working together efficiently out of habit despite Abbie’s harsh, angry movements. As soon as the tent is up, she vanishes inside with her sleeping bag and pillow then yanks the zipper closed behind her, her meaning clear.

Lips pursed, he releases a deep slow breath through his nose then climbs into the bed of the truck. He sits with his back against the cab as he stares up at the deep night sky. The moon is a sliver, only visible in fleeting glimpses as clouds lazily skulk by and the city is close enough that everything is tinted a noxious orange-yellow with only a few visible stars.

He sighs and thunks his head back against the cab. At least out here he doesn’t feel trapped, even if Abbie is furious with him. She’s right. He needs to get better at speaking his mind. He just… He’s used to making sure she gets whatever she wants and that doesn’t leave him a lot of space to think about what he wants. As their extended road trip goes on, he’s starting to realize more and more that he has no idea what that is. Now that he has the freedom to figure out who he is and what he likes and where he wants to go, he’s finding he doesn’t know where to start.

He wants Abbie to be safe and happy. That’s the beginning and the end of the list. He’s never had the luxury of thinking further than that. Growing up the only thing he ever did for himself was beat the stuffing out of jerks who needed a lesson taught but were lacking in better teachers.

…maybe that’s something.

~*~

Pain explodes through his face as his head slams back against the wall and his nose crunches under the force of the fist that put it there. He stumbles, dazed, and a second punch whizzes past his ear—a lucky dodge. He dodges the next one on purpose and then slams his knee into the gut of his opponent. Air wheezes out of their lungs in a satisfying way and they drop to their knees and stay there.

His face aches but he grins through the blood gushing out of his nose. He turns and stops dead.

Abbie is standing in the mouth of the alley, arms crossed over her chest, her breath fogging in front of her face like a bull.

Shit.

“Get in the truck,” she says, then twists, her hair fanning out around her, and marches for the parking lot.

He follows sullenly, the adrenaline high from the fight fading fast in the face of Abbie’s anger. The cold of the night seeps into him. If they were smart they’d’ve stayed in California instead of hopping around the Rockies as the weather turns.

She gets in the driver seat so he reluctantly pulls open the passenger door and heaves himself inside.

She holds out her hand. “Keys.”

He wrestles them out of his pocket and hands them over.

They drive to the motel without another word exchanged between them, which is fine by him as he tries to stem the blood flowing out of his nose with his forearm. His flannel isn’t going to survive this.

It’s not until they’re inside and the door closes behind him that Abbie turns and pokes a finger in his chest. “I’m so fuckin’ pissed at you I can hardly see straight. Go sit on the toilet while I get the kit.”

He watches her stalk off to her duffel bag before wisely slinking into the bathroom without arguing. He’s rarely seen her this mad. It’s not like fighting is anything new for him so he doesn’t get what about this time set her off so bad but he’s not going to make it worse by poking the bear.

She enters the bathroom like a hurricane, tossing the first aid kit in the sink and a towel in his face. “You look like a victim in a slasher flick.”

Wordlessly, he presses the towel against his throbbing nose and watches her warily. She’s warming up to something and he’s getting the vibe he’s not going to like it.

She presses her lips together and inhales sharply through her nose. “You’ve got to stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop fighting, Harley. Every time you go out you come home bloody and I’m damn tired of stitching you back together.”

“You don’t have to. I can—,”

“That’s not the point!”

“I… Then what—,”

“I hate seeing you hurt! I hate seeing you hurt other people! It feels wrong. It feels like—,” she cuts off abruptly but he can tell by the shameful look on her face what she’s thinking.

“It feels like dad,” he says for her.

She swallows thickly and turns big brown eyes onto him. “You’re not like dad,” she says. “I know you’re not, but sometimes…” she trails off, shaking her head. “Sometimes I wonder if there’s a violence in us because of how we were raised up.”

“I dunno what you’ve got to do with—,”

“I’m the one yellin’ all the time, ain’t I?” she snaps. “You never raise your voice. Never. But sometimes I open my mouth and mama comes roarin’ out and I can’t help but wonder if… if it’s the same for you. If sometimes you clench your fist and daddy takes over. It scares me.”

He flinches back. “You’re scared of me?”

“No,” she says emphatically. “No, never. I’m scared of what you’re turnin’ into. I’m scared you’ll get hurt worse than usual and land in the hospital wracking up bills we can’t afford. I’m scared you’ll go after the wrong guy and he’ll find us with his buddies and we’ll both end up in the hospital or worse. I just… It’s not the same as it was in school. It’s so much to risk and for what, Harley? For what? To feel powerful? To feel in control? I don’t… I don’t get it.”

He shakes his head. “I’m sorry I’m scaring you, Bee but it’s not like that. It’s… I dunno how to explain it. It’s the energy of it. It’s sinking into my body and using it to its full potential to outsmart and outmaneuver someone else. It’s—,”

“It’s a game?” Abbie says, incredulous.

He shrugs. “Or a sport.”

“Sports are games, dumbass.”

“Whatever. My point is, I don’t… I don’t know what I’m doing or what I want but when I’m fighting that all falls away and I know exactly what I’m doing and I know exactly what I want. Like, I’ve got a direction and I can finally move forward. I like that feeling. I don’t…. I dunno how to get it outside of fighting.”

Abbie watches, looking between his eyes and down to his towel covering his nose and lingering on his bloody knuckles. Finally, she sighs, world-weary and resigned. “Alright,” she says.

“Alright what?”

“Alright I’ll stop nagging you about the fighting, but,” she adds sternly, “we’re gonna be a team about it and we’re gonna do it smart.”

“I don’t think you should—,”

“I’m not saying I want to tag team with you or something.” She rolls her eyes. “I’m saying you don’t sneak out without telling me to go brawl in an alley. I’m saying I help vet the marks. I’m saying if it looks like you’re losing bad then at least I know and I can do something to distract the other guy like pull a fire alarm or something. I don’t want you going behind my back anymore.”

“I dunno, Bee. That sounds—,”

“I ain’t askin’,” she snaps. “That’s how it’s gonna be or you’ll be hearin’ about it. And you don’t get to pick a fight every damned time we go out. Sometimes I’d like a nice quiet dinner with my brother, you know?”

He huffs an aborted laugh. “Yeah, alright fine. You gonna set my nose or what?”

“I’d leave it crooked to spite you but it’d probably just make your snorin’ worse and I suffer enough as it is. You want me to grab ice first?”

“Nah, let’s just get it over with.”

She sighs. “I think you like to suffer.”

~*~

The fact that Abbie chose to stay in the booth with her nachos rather than following him ‘around back to the dumpster is a sign that he’s getting better at this. She’s starting to trust that he can handle his own. Or it’s the bitter cold keeping her inside. Or it could be that this guy is scrawnier than the ones he normally beats the crap out of. Goes to show that even little guys can be mean enough to harass the waitress and dumb enough to agree to take things outside.

He turns and is surprised by how close the guy is, too close to get a proper punch in, too close to—

Fingers tug him forward by his belt loops and then they’re pressed chest to chest. Lips find his jaw and teeth scrape his stubble.

He goes tense all over. Wha— There’s been a misundersta— Oh. Oh.

The guy presses up against him and sucks a spot behind his ear as his hands wander, sliding around to his backside, leaving behind a hot trail of awakened nerves. He’s on fire. He’s buzzing with energy, lit up from the inside out.

“C’mon tough guy,” the guy murmurs against his skin. “Thought you were experienced, the way you strutted up to me. Now you’re acting like it’s your first time.”

He’s got a choice here, he realizes. He can shove the guy off and beat the crap out of him like he planned, or…or he can see what this is.

He balls his fist into the guy’s shirt and shoves him against the rough brick wall.

“There he is,” the guy pants, eyes dilated and hazed over. “Now hold still while I suck you off, cowboy.”

His mouth goes dry as the guy sinks to his knees and then he forgets to think about anything at all.

~*~

The guy spits next to the dumpster then grins at him, toothy and confident. “Kinda hot that you left your girl inside to come do this. Can’t say I’ve ever been that bold.”

“Huh?” he asks, his brain a puddle of goo somewhere on the asphalt. He does up the zip of his pants then realizes what the guy is saying.

“Think she’d be interested in coming out here and finishing the job?” he asks, gesturing below his belt. “She had that prissy, too-good for a quick fuck look to her so I’d guess not. That’s why you’re here, right? Because she won’t put ou—,”

He steps toward him. “You talk too much,” he growls and then buries his fist in his mouth.

~*~

He slides in the booth across from Abbie silently.

She glances up from the kids’ menu she’s coloring and does a double-take. “You alright?”

“Uh yeah, why?”

Shame, he realizes. That’s the feeling falling over him in waves right now. It’s weird, he never feels shame after a fight but he does after getting a blowie from some asshole behind Denny’s. Is he the asshole for punching him in the mouth after? No, no that was unrelated and well-deserved for the way he was talking about Abbie and the way he treated the waitress before.

So why does he feel so awful about it?

“Did you lose or something?” she asks. “You’ve got a look on your face.”

He shakes his head.

Maybe it’s because he liked it. Maybe it’s because he knew the guy was a tool and he let him put his mouth on him and bring him pleasure anyway. He feels like a tool. Like he used him even though he hadn’t gone out there with the intention to do any of it. Maybe it’s because it was his first time and he doesn’t even like or respect the guy.

That’s… that could be it.

“Yoo hoo.” Abbie waves a hand in front of his face. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” He swats her hand away. “I just uh… I’m fine.”

“Okay, you’re freaking me out. Did you embarrass yourself? Did you trip? Did he laugh and walk away?”

“Shut up, you don’t want to know. Trust me.”

Her eyes light up and she grins.

Aw hell.

“You did embarrass yourself. Tell me everything.”

“Abbie… no. It ain’t—,”

“Tell me! Did he get a hit in under the belt?”

He chokes. “Something like that.”

Abbie’s eyes go wide. “Harley Keener, no. Tell me you didn’t.”

After a long beat, he says, “I told you, you don’t want to know.”

Abbie gags and reaches for her crayons. “Oh my God. That guy? Really?”

“I don’t feel great about it either.”

She pauses and looks up at him again, expression growing stony. “Did he take advantage of you?”

“No,” he says quickly. “It wasn’t— I mean, he surprised me at first but I got on board pretty quick after—,”

“La, la, la, la, la! Too many details!”

He chuckles and the shameful feeling fades to the background as he filches a cold soggy nacho. Next time, he’ll make sure it’s a guy he likes, but he doesn’t see why there can’t be a next time. It wasn’t the same rush that fighting gives him but it was close enough and felt a helluva lot better to boot.

Well, at first. He examines his knuckles, bloody from where they caught on the guy’s teeth but not too hurt. He might get a scar out of it but nothing that Abbie needs to worry about hospital bills for.

“Fruit scale,” Abbie says. “How pretty is he?”

He makes a face. “He ain’t my peach if that’s what you’re fishing for.”

“Answer the question.”

He rolls his eyes. “I dunno. Not quite a pear. Maybe a grape?”

“Oh, ouch.” Abbie snickers, selecting a new crayon. “What was his name?” she asks without looking up from carefully shading in a dinosaur. “Just so I know who to mock you about for the rest of your life.”

He shrugs. “Wasn’t a lot of talking beforehand.” He pauses. “Or after.”

She looks up. “Christ, Harley. You’re a goddamn mess.”

“Yeah.”

~*~

“It’s weird having a place that’s ours,” Abbie comments. She shifts the mason jar so it’s centered on the otherwise empty bookshelf and turns it so the label boasting San Francisco faces outward. She surveys it critically then spins it around so instead the small trinkets, bits, and bobs are displayed unhindered.

“Yeah,” he agrees from the hall as he approaches the front room. It took him approximately thirty seconds to unpack his bag into the dresser. “Reminds me how little we have.”

“It’s fine though, right?” She turns away from the looming empty bookshelf and gazes around at the rest of the spartan living room. Only the couch that came with the apartment breaks up the monotony of beige walls and oatmeal carpet.

“Yeah. It’s only a six-month lease and then we’ll be off in the wind again. Bye-bye Chicago.”

She chews her bottom lip. “Thanks for doing this for me. I don’t even know if the school thing is going to pan out but—,”

“Bee, it’s fine,” he assures her, dropping his hands on her shoulders so that she looks up. “I promise, I’m just as excited as you are.”

Tension releases from her frame and she blows out a breath. “Yeah, okay. I guess I’m nervous. It’s been me and you on our own for a while, you know? I dunno how I’ll get on with other people.”

“You’ll do great. You’ve always been better at making friends. I bet you’ll fall right back into it.”

She makes a face. “Maybe.”

He kisses her forehead. “Definitely. C’mon, let’s go buy plates and whatever else people who live in a place for longer than a week own.”

~*~

Abbie bursts through the door, bright-eyed and brimming with energy.

His lips curl into a reflexive smile and he sets aside his sketchbook as she tosses her backpack to the side. She bounds up to the kitchen table and cinches her arms around him tight.

“Good day, then?” he asks, stifling a laugh.

“Yeah,” she says, sighing dreamily. “It was improv day and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up but after class, Mr. Tate said I’ve got a quick wit and a sharp tongue and that I show a lot of potential.”

“Bee, that’s awesome.”

She finally releases him from her grapple and hops back onto the counter. “You should do a class too. Something you like. Something for fun.”

He rolls his eyes and leans over the back of his chair to say, “We’ve been over this. The semester’s already started. It’s too late for me to enroll.”

“Next semester then. I think it’d be good for you.”

He frowns. “I thought we were only staying for the six-month lease.”

“Yeah but there’s other schools out there, dummy,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Wherever we go next, we should both sign up for something. I want to do musical theater and you should do like an engineering thing or science or whatever.”

“What good’s that gonna do? No one’s gonna hire me just cuz I took one course on—,”

“It’s not about work, Harley. It’s about… It’s about your soul. It’s about feeding your soul.”

“Ooo feeding my soul,” he parrots. “You taking a poetry class behind my back?”

She rolls her eyes and hops down from the counter. “You know what I mean,” she calls over her shoulder as she disappears into the hall. “D’you know what I did with my brown jacket?”

“You mean the one that’s been on the floor in my room for the past week?”

She makes a frustrated noise. “Well what’s it doing there?”

“You left it there after we binged that space cowboy anime.”

She grumbles something he can’t make out and then reappears in the kitchen tying the aforementioned jacket around her waist.

He raises his eyebrows. “Going out?”

“Oh that’s the other thing,” she says, lighting up again. “We’re all going out for drinks to celebrate making it through the first month.”

His eyebrows furrow. “Drinks?”

She shoots him a look. “At a sports bar and grill. Don’t worry I’m not going to whip out a fake ID and get plastered.”

“Alright,” he says slowly. “Need a ride?”

“Nope. They’re picking me up. Should be here soon so I’m going to wait out front.”

“They bringing you home too? Are they gonna be drinking?”

She makes an exasperated face and turns to dig her wallet out of her backpack. “You’re doing the smother hen thing again. I’ll be fine. I’m a big girl and I know better than to get in a car with a drunk person behind the wheel.” She pulls out her driver’s license and her debit card and tucks them in her jean pocket.

“Sure, yeah I know that just… call me if you need a ride home.” He pauses. “How old are these kids? What are their names again?”

Abbie tips her head back and groans. “Goodbye, Harley.”

She shuts the front door behind her and leaves him to stew in silence. Which he does…

…for about thirty seconds. He grabs his keys and shrugs on a coat, then stuffs his feet into his boots and walks out the door. No way is he going to sit at home alone tonight after sitting at home alone all day. If Abbie’s going out, he’s going out.

~*~

He chokes back a moan and fire rushes under his skin, chasing the trail soft plush lips leave down his exposed throat. Blindly, he finds the button on the jeans grinding over him and clumsily fumbles them open just as his phone starts ringing.

He goes still then looks up into brown eyes, dark with desire and trained on him expectantly. Dammit.

“Important?”

Only one person has his phone number.

“Maybe. I should—,”

“Sure, of course.”

Daniel climbs off of him so he can sit up and grab his phone from the front seat where he tossed it and his wallet after they left the bar. Sure enough, Abbie’s face graces his screen, eyes crossed and tongue sticking out like a goober.

“Hey squirt, everything good?”

“Will you pick me up?” she asks, voice small.

He sits up straight and locks eyes with Daniel who is looking more resigned by the second.

“Of course. Where are you? You okay?”

Daniel sighs and buttons his jeans.

He grimaces in apology.

“I’m fine. I’m at uh, the Saddle?”

“The Saddle?” he echoes. “I thought you were going to a sports bar, not a gay bar.”

She sighs. “Yeah, me too. Can you get here soon? I’m really uncomfortable and no one else wants to leave yet.”

“Yeah, yeah of course. I can be there in ten minutes.”

“Okay. Thanks, Harley.”

“Anytime, honeybee.”

He hangs up and sighs before meeting Daniel’s expectant stare.

“I’m not getting you in my bed tonight, am I?” Daniel asks.

That wasn’t going to happen regardless. He has a strict no-personal-information policy. If his partner of the night is dying for a bed to get busy in, he’ll fork over the cash for a motel.

“No, sorry. Little sister needs an extraction.”

The crooked smile that caught his attention in the first place flashes across Daniel’s face, teeth stark white against his dark skin. “Damn. Can I at least get your number?”

“Oh uh, I don’t do that, sorry.”

“Alright, cowboy.” He pops the door open. “Maybe I’ll catch you around some time then we can pick this back up.”

“Yeah, I’d like that. Thanks for being cool about this.”

He pauses, one leg out of the truck, cold February air filtering in past him. “Listen, a guy that takes care of his family is a huge turn-on. Fucking inconvenient sometimes, but still hot as hell.”

He laughs and when Daniel leans forward and kisses him he leans into it. Then Daniel slips out of the truck and shuts the door. He watches him walk across the dark parking lot back to the bar and for a moment he wonders what the hell is wrong with him. Daniel is nice. He values family, he’s funny, and he’s damn attractive. What is he thinking, letting him walk away?

Abbie’s right. He’s never going to find his peach if he never lets anyone close. If only opening up wasn’t so freaking terrifying.

With a sigh, he climbs into the driver’s seat and starts the truck.

~*~

He locks up then hangs his keys on the plain hook by the door as Abbie falls face-first on the couch, moaning. He rolls his eyes at her theatrics and unlaces his boots.

“How’d you guys end up at the Saddle anyway?” he asks. The drive home was mostly silent, save for the classic rock playing softly from the speakers and Abbie’s occasional sigh of profound sadness.

She turns her head, whether to speak or breathe, he can’t be sure, and mumbles, “I’m an idiot.”

“Well that ain’t nothing new,” he says, stepping out of his boots. “but how’s it related?”

She glares at him then closes her eyes. “I thought they’d… I dunno. They’re theater kids so I thought they’d get it. Lots of theater kids aren’t straight.”

He sobers and nudges her legs over so he can sit by her ankles. “You told them you’re asexual?”

She nods. “And aromantic.”

Irritation flits through him, sharp and hot. “And their response was to take you to a gay bar?”

She screws her eyes shut tighter. “They thought on account of me being from the south, that maybe I just hadn’t explored all my options yet and I’d made a hasty decision.”

“What’re their names again?”

She cranes her neck to glare at him then pulls up her legs and sits with her back to the armrest and her knees to her chest. “Don’t,” she says. “I can handle myself. Besides, it’s not like they were trying to be mean or hateful or anything.”

“I don’t care what they were trying to do. I care what they did.”

She doesn’t need to say how upset she is for him to see it. She opened up to new people after fretting about it for weeks and got shut down and told that she doesn’t know her own self as well as she thinks she does. Then to make things worse, she was put in an uncomfortable situation where she was reliant on other people to be able to leave it. He doesn’t care how 'well-meaning' their intentions were. Their actions were despicable.

“Harley, just leave it. Monday is gonna be awkward enough with my big brother dishing out black-eyes over a misunderstanding.”

His temper spikes at the word ‘misunderstanding’ but he squashes it down and holds up his hands innocently. “You’re in charge, Queen Bee. I just go where I’m pointed. If it makes you feel better, you totally cock-blocked me tonight so you can rest easy knowing you’re doing great carrying out the ace agenda on your own.”

A slow smile creeps across her lips until she’s grinning fully. “Did I now? Another princely conquest forsook? Was he pretty?” She flutters her eyelashes.

He sighs and falls against the cushion, letting his head hang back. “He was so hot, you have no idea. The prettiest brown eyes. So,” he sighs, “so pretty.”

“Fruit scale,” she commands.

He rolls his eyes. “He’s a peach for sure. I dunno if he’s the prettiest peach but either way, you owe me big time.”

She laughs. “Add it to my tab. You didn’t ask for his number? You know we’re here for another four months. It wouldn’t kill you to make friends or see someone more than once.”

He winces. “He asked for mine actually. I turned him down.”

“Harley! Was he a jerk or something?”

“No,” he sighs. “He was perfect.”

“Dude! What the hell?”

“I don’t know. I think something’s wrong with me.”

“Yeah, it’s got a name and everything. It’s all the rage in the medical community. They might even pay you to let them study you. Doctors are calling it ‘chronic stupidity’. You’re the worst case they’ll ever see.”

He turns his head to look at her. “What happened to my sweet baby sister? You used to be nice.”

She smirks and reaches for the remote. “I learned from the best. Wanna watch Desperate Housewives to remind us that relationships ain’t all that?”

“Yes, please.”

~*~

It feels good to be on the road again—black asphalt under hot rubber as they zip past fledgling cornfields and freshly tilled soybean fields. He’s in motion again, stretching out neglected wings and shaking off the moss and the film that grew over him while he was stagnant.

Over the past few weeks, they sold off the majority of the household items they accumulated over the months and now they’re back down to a duffel bag each and the promise of no ties holding them to anything beyond each other and their seats. The sun is low in the sky but it’s shaping up to be a clear night with a big bright moon so he isn’t worried about their late start or driving through the night. He’s energized. Ready to start fresh.

Abbie is quiet in the passenger seat but there’s a contentedness to her as she drinks in the passing scenery.

“Kinda thought your friends would want to see you off,” he says.

She looks at him out of the corner of her eye. After a beat, she admits, “I didn’t tell them I was leaving.”

“What? Why not?”

She shrugs and rests the side of her face on the seat, the dying sun lighting her up fiery gold as she resumes gazing out the window. “D’you wonder if we’ll ever find someplace that feels right? Where we fit and we know that it’s where we’re supposed to be?”

“Honestly, Bee?” he says slowly. “I haven’t been looking for a place to belong.”

“I know,” she whispers. “Kinda thought we’d’ve stumbled into something by now anyway.”

He’s quiet for a long time as he thinks that one over. At any given time, he doesn’t find himself thinking very far beyond their most immediate present. Did he like Chicago? Yeah, it was okay. He liked the anonymity the city offered and he liked that he could let his freak flag fly without worrying about dirty looks at the gas station and grocery store, but it felt like a save point rather than anything permanent. He never even considered extending the lease or shopping around for a new apartment in the area.

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t any different than the three weeks they spent in San Fransisco except that it was colder and Abbie was busy even when he wasn’t. That and they had more space from each other which was both good and necessary as well as a pain in the butt at times.

“D’you want to turn back?” he asks. He doesn’t want to—she knows he doesn’t want to—but if it’s for her, he’ll do it.

She shakes her head. “No, it’s fine. I’m looking forward to the next thing I just…” She sits up and looks at him directly for the first time. “I’m not sad about leaving. I’m not going to miss any of the people I’ve spent the past six months hanging out with and getting to know. Is that… normal? I feel like I’m supposed to miss them but I’m glad we’re moving on and I don’t have to answer their texts anymore. I think that makes me kind of an asshole.”

He puts his hand over hers and squeezes it. “That’d make us both assholes then. If nothing else, we can be assholes together.”

She scoffs, smiling reluctantly. “That shouldn’t make me feel better.”

“But it does.”

“It does.”

~*~

They spend the summer hopping from town to town in the midwest. Sometimes they dip into small towns for a change of pace but those stays never last long. Turns out they’ve both still got their hang-ups as far as Rose Hill is concerned. Sometimes he spares a thought for mama and wonders how she’s fairing and if she learned how to be happy yet. Sometimes he wonders if she has if she’d impart to him some tips, but just as quickly, he puts her out of his mind. He’s safer leaving her in the past where he left dad and everything else that didn’t get packed and brought with them when they left a year ago.

It ain’t all bad though.

They spot a pond off the highway and make an impromptu detour to splash around like little kids, dunking each other and roughhousing. They camp when it’s not too hot and buggy and have foot races and tree-climbing competitions. When they find themselves in a city the first thing they do is buy the most pointlessly extravagant item they can find which is how Abbie winds up with a jewel-toned patchwork jacket that she unironically adores and he gets landed with a tie-dye cowboy hat that advertises the Kansas City Aquarium. He’ll never wear it in his life but he can’t seem to let go of it even though it takes up too much space in his pack and usually ends up tossed in the back seat.

In late July, Abbie insists they both take a farm job for a month because they’re ‘getting soft’. He won’t tell her so but it’s a good call. A lot of the work they pick up slants towards manual labor because that’s what people will hire strangers for, but it’s sporadic and if they want to stay fit they need something more regular and neither of them are gym people. They’d rather work than exercise.

So it’s nearly September when—fit and sun-kissed with all of their freckles on display—they roll into New York City and fall in love.

~*~

“Let me see your schedule,” Abbie demands.

He flicks it across the table at her, more focused on sticking his nose in his coffee than anything else. Around them college students mill around, some excitedly and some already dead inside on the first day of term. They all seem so young. Then again, he’s three years behind your average college student so maybe it’s just him.

“Cool, your chemistry class is in the building next to my visual arts class. We can walk together.”

He grunts, idly watching a dead-eyed blonde dump her fourth sugar packet into her styrofoam cup of coffee. There’s gotta be at least five more on the table. Is she going to add all of them? Can that little cup dissolve that much sugar? He sips his coffee as she tears open the fifth and sixth packets with her teeth while scrolling on her phone.

“What are you staring at?” Abbie asks, leaning towards him rather than turning around. “Is it a guy? Can I look? Are you falling in love right now?”

“No and yes, but no,” he murmurs as the blonde sticks a stir straw in her cup and swirls it around in what must be more slushie than coffee at this point. It’s not romantic love or even platonic love. It’s an academic love. It’s the love you feel for a project that’s been your obsession for a long time or is about to be.

“What on earth is that supposed to mean?”

“Shh, she’s about to drink it.”

“What?”

Abbie spins around and clocks onto the girl and they both watch as she stone-faced downs the entire cup in one go, tosses it into the trash, and walks out of the dining hall, all without looking up from her phone.

“Uhh,” Abbie says.

“Incredible,” he says. “I want to study her.”

“You’re dumb,” Abbie says, then flicks his nose.

“Ow!”

He reaches across the table to retaliate and his elbow knocks into his second, un-touched coffee, sending a river of brown flooding towards the people beside them and more importantly, the textbooks sitting atop the table. Acting on reflex, he puts his arm down, halting the flow so instead it soaks into his flannel until it sits warm and wet against his skin.

Abbie bursts out laughing and he sighs. It’s not even eight in the morning and he’s already done with today. Going back to school was a mistake. New York was a mistake. Having a sister was a mistake.

“Sorry about the mess,” he says, shrugging out of his flannel and peeling the wet part off of his skin. “My sist—,”

He looks up into the most beautiful brown eyes he’s ever seen and loses all train of thought. He must be staring, probably open-mouthed, because a pink blush flushes across the cheeks of the most beautiful boy he’s ever seen. His hair is a shade lighter than his eyes and sits atop his head in a loose messy pile of curls. There are bags under his eyes like it’s been a long time since he’s gotten enough sleep but his eyes are bright and curious and fixed on his.

Then they fall to the table as he mumbles, “Umm, don’t worry about it. I’ll catch you guys later,” before scooping up his things and bolting from the room. The second statement was presumably to someone else but he wouldn’t know who because he has eyes only for him until he rounds the corner and disappears from view.

“Who was that?” he asks, the words airy like they were punched out of him. He looks over at the people beside him and finds a black girl sketching furiously and an Asian guy with his mouth slack and eyes round as quarters.

All at once, he comes back to himself and realizes how freaking weird he’s being. His face is hot as he hastily sops up the rest of his spill with his flannel and snatches up his messenger bag all while babbling, “Uh, never mind. That’s none of my business. Invasive, really. I’ll just—,” He hikes his bag over his shoulder, waves awkwardly and hurries away as fast as his legs will carry him, chin to his chest.

Abbie is on him in an instant, nearly skipping to keep up as their schedules flap in her hand. “Did I just watch you fall in love?”

“No, idiot. I don’t even know his name.”

“Peter!” a voice behind him calls. He stops so suddenly he almost trips and turns to find the Asian guy cupping his mouth and shouting, “His name is Peter Parker!”

A grin snatches across his face as something giddy trills inside him. He flashes him a grateful thumbs up and exits the dining hall with Abbie dogging his heels.

“Fruit scale, how pretty was he? Pretty as a peach? Mayhaps the prettiest pea—,”

“Shut up, Abbie.”

He’s the most beautiful boy he’s ever seen and his name is Peter Parker.