When I got to his house that late Saturday morning in May, I couldn’t bring myself to pull into the driveway. Which was ridiculous, but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I came to a stop next to the curb and turned the car off to look at my father’s house for the first time in four years.
It looked the same as it had my entire childhood.
The same well-kept lawn and unchipped white paint that stood out among the less-taken-care-of houses in the neighborhood. The only thing different from last time was that he wasn’t inside anymore.
He never would be again.
The last time I’d seen that house was the day my mother left him with me in tow right after junior year ended. I hadn’t wanted to go. I mean, yes, it wasn’t the best neighborhood, but the school was in a nicer area and I’d been getting a decent education. Not to mention East Branch had all my memories and all of my friends. Most of whom I was sure no longer lived around there. But this was up to me. I had to do it. For my dad.
Unhooking my seatbelt meant nothing was left holding me back and that scared the shit out of me. For the first time ever, I wished Dad would have remarried because then… then this would’ve been up to his new wife. Instead, it was up to me. I was his only next of kin, so the job fell to me. Walking across that street and up the stairs I’d played on as a child was easier than him dying but still so incredibly hard. My fingers lightly brushed against the railing that I’d hit my head on when I was seven, which had resulted in five stitches just into my hairline.
Then I stood in front of the door knowing I had no more excuses not to go in.
Until someone called my name.
Someone I should’ve known would still live next door.
He never would’ve left. And suddenly I was incredibly thankful that I’d picked out a sundress that flattered my body and had taken the time to put a few curls in my long, blonde hair. If I had to see him the moment I stepped foot in town, I may as well look good.
“Laney Douglas? Never thought I’d see you around here again.”
Turning slowly, I got my first look at him in four long years. The boy I had thought about more than I cared to admit in that time.
“Hi, Zac.” Even though I tried to keep the smile from my face, I couldn’t.
The man had grown even more beautiful as he’d grown older. Thick, dark locks that, while still messy, were also shorter than they’d been, and chocolate brown eyes that I’d wanted to drown in every single day of high school. Everyone always wonders what happens to the insanely hot guy after high school ends. Now I knew. He got even hotter.
I thought about what I could say to him as I made my way down the sidewalk and met him right between my father’s house and his. It was a moment so awkward that I didn’t even know what to do with myself. I folded and unfolded my arms. Tried not to look nervous. Instead, I decided to act as if he hadn’t crushed me four years ago.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Good. Good. You?” He did that obvious thing guys do when they take in every detail of the pretty girl in front of them. Not that I had been the pretty girl in high school, but when I moved to Pittsburgh, I found a friend who’d taught me to have a sense of style and I’d definitely filled out in all the right areas.
“What’re you doing back in town?”
“Well… um… ” This was the worst part. Dad was gone. I’d accepted that—I grieved for him every day—but telling people sucked. Thankfully, Mom was calling the few friends he’d wanted notified. Of course, I’d never met any of them. Even still, my eyes started to water, and I swallowed hard. “My dad died.”
The smile fell from his face.
I nodded once while trying to hold back the tears continuing to burn my eyes. Oh, how I wished it were a big hoax. But I’d seen him lying on the hospital bed not moving—not breathing. He was dead. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was a great guy.”
Everybody had loved my dad, even Mom.
An uncomfortable silence hung between us unlike anything we’d experienced when we’d hung out together before. Before, it had been easy. Zac had been my friend. If I still knew him, I’d say he looked like he wanted to hug me. If he wanted to keep his balls where they were on his body, he wouldn’t do it. Not after the way he just cut me out of his life.
“So, you’re back… ” he said, not moving.
I guess he did like them where they were.
“Just for the summer. Maybe less. I have to take care of all of his things.”
Zac nodded slowly. He hadn’t changed much. He was a little taller, but he’d always been tall, six feet when I’d left that summer, so now I’d say six-two. And fuller. He wasn’t bulky like a bodybuilder, but the long, lean muscles that roped his arms and thickened his thighs couldn’t be missed. But I needed to stop thinking about his thighs.
Four years was a long time.
“It’s weird to ask, but is there going to be a funeral? When did it happen?”
All normal questions. Normal questions that I didn’t want to answer.
“Daddy,” a little voice called out from behind him, cutting me off. I welcomed the interruption. At first. This small version of Zac ran at him, slamming into that thick thigh and wrapping his tiny arms around Zac’s leg. “I’m hungry.”
“Sure, buddy, I’ll be right there.” Zac lovingly rubbed the boy’s head, then looked back to me and my wide eyes with raised eyebrows.
Zac had a kid.
All kinds of emotions ran through me at the thought of Zac procreating with someone. Not all of which I was proud of. But I chalked any thoughts of jealousy up to the instability already there by my dad dying. There was no other reason that one of those feelings would be jealously.
Zac wasn’t mine.
He’d never been mine in that way.
But I was pissed. This wasn’t something I should have been left in the dark on and I wondered what else I’d missed out on. What else I hadn’t been told in the last four years.
“Laney, this is my son Dylan. Buddy, this is my friend Miss Douglas.”
“Oh, please don’t tell him to call me that.” It made me feel old. Zac having a kid was doing a good enough job of that on its own.
Zac chuckled and with the amusement still on his face he said, “OK. Dylan, this is my friend Laney.”
“Hi, Laney.” Dylan waved, then looked back up at Zac. “Mac and cheese, please.”
“Sure. I’ll be right in.” Another ruffle of the hair and Dylan ran off back into the house I used to hang out with Zac in.
Finally, Zac looked back up at me. It may have been years since we’d seen each other, but I was pretty sure judging by the look on Zac’s face, he felt guilty. Over what, I wasn’t sure. There were so many things to choose from.
“Oh… are you married?” I shouldn’t want to know that.
He laughed. “No.”
Well, that was interesting. Now I had to know more.
“How old is he?” I asked because I wanted to do the math.
I didn’t fool him. He took a deep breath and a nice, long blink. He knew exactly what I was doing.
“He’ll be four in a few months.”
“Four?” My eyes narrowed as I went through every memory I had from before I’d left, and it hit me. At least I thought it did because the last girl he’d dated, at least the last one he’d told me about, might not be the mother of his child. But since my luck was shit, I knew I’d be right. “Oh.” It wasn’t impressive, but it was all I could manage. “Maddie Preston?” He nodded. That ugly green flashed through me briefly. I really shouldn’t have been surprised. “Ah, the girl every guy wanted.” I shrugged, trying to play this whole thing off while making my escape plan.
My stomach turned at the thought of two of my former friends together. It shouldn’t have. I’d moved on, so of course they had too. Though I’d never know why moving on for them meant no longer being friends with me. I may have wanted more from Zac at one time, but I’d never asked for it. I’d never scared him off.
“She wasn’t the only one every guy wanted.”
Zac did that. He always had. Said things to try to make me feel better, but it wasn’t going to work this time. I never cared what the other guys had wanted. Back then, I’d wanted Zac Walsh to want me. He hadn’t and I’d accepted it because having him in my life as a friend had been enough. But then I hadn’t even had that when it counted.
“Guys didn’t want me in high school, Zac. They wanted what they thought or heard I might do with them, but they didn’t want me.” Somehow a rumor had gotten started and though I had my theories as to how, I’d moved, so it didn’t matter after a while. But Zac had gotten into more than one fight over what was being said about me because he’d been my best friend who would defend me no matter what. Always had been. Fuck. “Wait… If Dylan’s going to be four, then Maddie was already pregnant when I moved.” Zac rubbed a hand over the top of his head, tousling his hair, then nodded quickly. “And you didn’t tell me.”
And that made me angry. Like crazy angry. He’d told me every freaking other thing in the world. Why not that?
Zac, Maddie, and I had been in the same grade, which meant that he’d become a dad at the start of his senior year. That would’ve been tough. But I also wondered why no one, including my own father, ever told me.
It shouldn’t matter, I told myself, but it did.
I’d moved to a new place where I had no friends and within a couple of months the two people I thought were my friends and I’d stay in touch with were no longer answering my calls. No explanation. They just disappeared from my life. More than once I’d wondered if they ever thought of me or missed me.
I guess I just no longer fit into their lives.
And that sucked.
“Sorry,” I said. “That was rude. You don’t owe me any explanations. I’ll see ya around, Zac.”
Turning on my heel, I said a silent prayer that he’d let me get away with shutting our conversation down like that, but knowing Zac, I shouldn’t have expected it to be easy.
“I wanted to tell you,” he called out, causing me to stop and turn back. He closed the distance between us. “But I fucked up and couldn’t.”
We told each other everything. He knew I was still a virgin when I moved and I knew he wasn’t.
He would’ve known when that status changed if he’d been talking to me at the time and I should’ve known when he’d become a dad. All in all this conversation was starting to piss me off even more. Being pissed off wasn’t really something I wanted to deal with right then.
“I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me. Laney, you were really the only person who thought I could do more… be more. I didn’t want to hear the disappointment in your voice when you found out you were wrong.”
There was no comeback for that. I would have been disappointed, but not for the reasons he thought. I’d been a stupid kid who’d thought that one day the hot next-door neighbor would realize that the girl who’d been his best friend almost all of his life was the one for him. The one he wanted to have babies with.
Yeah, I’d always had the clichéd crush on the boy next door, the boy who now had ink on at least one arm. That was new too. And even though I never had a chance with Zac—our relationship just wasn’t that way, even if he’d given me my first kiss—it would have hurt to have known that he and Maddie were so serious. Hell, they were probably together even now. I wasn’t going to ask. I didn’t want to dislike Maddie more than I already did. Even if my crush had been such a tightly guarded secret that she wouldn’t have known about back then.
“I’m kind of surprised your dad didn’t tell you. He played with Dylan all the time.”
I swallowed hard. That was a punch straight to the gut and I had to get away from him. “Yeah, I don’t know. But I’m going to go get started on the house. See ya.”
This time… This time I didn’t give him the chance to stop me. One upside to running into Zac before entering my father’s house was that I no longer had a problem getting through the front door and shutting it behind me.
Slumping against the wood, I took a minute to compose myself before looking around the house I’d grown up in. The living room had been updated at some point because when I lived here there wasn’t such a big TV on the wall. The black leather sofa and loveseat were new as well. Just like always, the house was clean. Dad had been a neat freak.
The first thing I did was move down the hallway that leads to the bedrooms and shut his door. I couldn’t deal with that on day one. Maybe on day eighty.
For now, I just couldn’t.