I pressed the button on my Fitbit as sweat trickled down my temples. The summer heat had been off the charts with high humidity that, according to the weatherman, would last well into next week. I usually didn’t mind sweltering temps as long as I was either on my skateboard, swimming in the ocean, or in an air-conditioned place.
Sadly, our AC had been on the blink, and I suspected it was broken. Dad liked to keep the electric bill as low as he could, which meant the indoor temp was high and not as cold as my bestie’s place. Georgia’s parents both worked at the local hospital. Her mom was a nurse, and her dad was an ER doctor, so they could afford to keep her home cool.
Still, I was tempted to grab my skateboard and hit the park, but Dad wouldn’t like me traipsing out at three in the morning. Not only that, but my junior year was starting the next day, and while I would love to do anything but sit in a classroom with students I didn’t care to know, I’d promised Dad I would do well my upcoming year.
High school sucked the big one. Drama galore, and then there was Grady Dyson. He was the ass of all asses, despite his good looks—tall, football beefy, thick blond hair that curled around his ears, and blue eyes. Most girls in school bowed down to him like he was a rock star. But I wasn’t one of them. The dude had hated me since the seventh grade. He’d stuck his tongue practically down my throat on a dare, and in turn, I’d kicked him in the balls. Then I’d spread a rumor about how awful his kiss had been. Girls had giggled and whispered about him that year. Since then, I’d been on his radar.
Oh, he was making me pay with the crap he’d said about me. I’d ignored the gossip my freshman year, but sophomore year, and one rumor in particular, had been a different story.
“Stay away from Lawson. She’s a terrible lay,” Grady had told his friends and anyone who would listen.
After that, guys looked at me funny or not at all. But I wasn’t one to back down. I’d stormed onto the football field during one of his practices and kneed him in the balls. I’d gotten suspended, but I considered it worth it.
I had no idea how I would keep my cool or bite my tongue, but if I didn’t want to sit in detention or get suspended again, I had to. Aside from Grady, I also had to pay more attention in class. My mind wandered too much. While the teachers lectured, I daydreamed, mostly about nothing or skateboarding—anything but math, English, and science.
My mom had died in a car accident two years ago, and neither Dad nor I had been the same since. It was hard to be happy after we’d lost the glue who held us together. Dad and I had tried to get our lives back to something resembling normal. We’d moved out of our old four-thousand-square-foot mansion that Mom had designed. Too many memories, although it was hard to forget the day we’d moved in. She’d been the happiest I’d ever seen her. Her bright blue eyes sparkled like the ocean on a clear summer day. Her smile had been infectious, and she couldn’t wait to show me my room. She’d had the entire house decorated with new furniture before we stepped into the grand foyer.
“We’re starting anew,” she’d said as she draped her arm around me. “You’re going to love this place, Skye.”
A tear escaped as I planted my feet on the scuffed wooden floor and rose. I missed the plush white carpet I’d had in my former bedroom. Hell, I missed so much, and memory after memory suddenly bombarded me. I sat down on the edge of the mattress and cradled my head in my hands. Every time I thought of Mom, another piece of my soul was ripped away.
Taking a deep breath, I got up once again. I couldn’t keep crying. I couldn’t keep making myself miserable. But it was hard not to shed a tear any time I thought of Mom.
Stella, my Maine Coon, purred from her perch on my chair in the corner.
“It’s okay, girl. Just thinking about Mom.”
She meowed as if she, too, was still mourning Mom. After we’d buried her, Stella looked for her everywhere. It had broken my heart to see her wandering aimlessly around for weeks.
“I know, girl. I’m still grieving too.” I turned on my nightstand lamp, and the soft glow shined on the dirty clothes piled on the floor near Stella.
I wasn’t the cleanest person. That award went to my BFF. Her room was immaculate, but then again, I didn’t have a maid who picked up after me.
I ambled over to Stella, then rubbed her head. “Go back to sleep. I’m just going to crack the window.” Maybe the air wasn’t so stifling outside.
A car door slammed as I was about to raise the blinds. I didn’t have to look out to know Mr. Caldwell, our next-door neighbor, was stumbling up his driveway.
Regardless, I peeked. Sure enough, he was swaying as he walked. The man had a drinking problem. I’d overheard his wife, Bonnie, telling Dad one day that, after his thirteen-year-old son drowned, Mr. Caldwell hadn’t been the same. “He drinks to drown the misery,” she’d said.
Dad and I could sympathize with their sorrow, but alcohol wasn’t the answer. Or at least that was what Dad had said to Bonnie.
The therapist Dad and I were seeing explained that everyone dealt with problems differently.
For sure. I daydreamed and cried. But I also read a ton. When I wasn’t skateboarding, I was reading. I devoured books like a hungry animal, from romantic comedies to political thrillers or anything to keep my mind from wandering down a deep, dark hole that I couldn’t get out of.
Dad, on the other hand, tinkered in the garage during his free time. He liked to fix golf clubs for some of his friends. And every Saturday, he played eighteen holes with his buddies. If he drank, it was never more than one beer.
Once Mr. Caldwell was out of sight, I lifted the window higher, hoping a brisk wind would blow in. Sadly, the humidity was too thick for anything to cool down.
I picked up my Stella. “How about we check the thermostat and then sit outside?”
We had one of those large wraparound porches, which was what had drawn Dad to our modest eighteen-hundred-square-foot home. He’d grown up in the deep South in a similar two-story with lots of land. We didn’t have a large yard, but the neighborhood was decent, and I liked the moss trees and the azalea bushes that decorated properties up and down our street.
I loved sitting in one of the rockers, watching cars and people walk by. I’d practically lived on the porch only to get a glimpse of the boy next door. Colton Caldwell was dreamy in every sense of the word. He had wavy brown hair, almost the color of mine sans the blond streaks. Colton was tall, with eyes the color of warm melted chocolate, and a sexy grin that made my belly swarm with butterflies.
Stella jumped out of my arms, then took off the moment my feet hit the cool tile at the bottom of the stairs.
The moonlight filtered in through the large transom window in the family room, highlighting a path for me as I headed into the kitchen.
As my feet slapped on the tiled floor, I heard faint crying. I held my breath as I sharpened my hearing.
The deep-baritone sob grew louder.
Dad? The last time Dad had shed tears was at Mom’s funeral.
I hurried down the short hall to his room. The closer I got, the louder his cry became.
My heart split in half, and I fought hard not to let my own tears fall. Seeing Dad sob twisted my insides like a violent storm.
Our therapist had said that time would help ease the grief, which was total bull crap. Anytime I thought of Mom, that empty, hollow feeling came back as strongly as the day the social worker had called to tell us that Mom had died on the way to the hospital.
I knocked softly. “Dad?” Then I opened the door and faltered.
Dad was on the floor with his back against his dresser as though he’d fallen and couldn’t get up.
I ran like a sprinter, hoping my legs wouldn’t give out. “What is it? Are you having a heart attack? A stroke?” I dropped to my knees.
He shook his head, blinking several times, his blue eyes clouded with tears. “Why are you up? You have school in the morning.”
“Don’t worry about me. What is it?” I felt his carotid artery as if I knew what I was doing.
His fingers wound around my wrists. “I’m fine.”
“You’re crying. So you’re not fine.”
He patted a spot next to him. “Sit with me.”
Once I did, I grabbed his hand. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Dad was my anchor, my saint, my world, and if he died, I would die a thousand deaths. I rested my head on his shoulder. “Are you thinking of Mom?”
“No, sweetheart.” He took a huge breath. “I need to tell you something.”
I stiffened at the despair weaving through his voice. I knew that what he was about to tell me was bad, not only by his tone, but also by how hard he was squeezing my hand.
“Do you remember what Lou Gehrig died of?” he asked so softly that I almost didn’t hear him.
I nodded. “He lost the ability to control his muscles.” Dad and I were big baseball fans. In the South, we rooted for the Atlanta Braves. Truth was, I didn’t like them that much. My team was the Chicago Cubs.
“Well,” he whispered.
I shook my head violently. “No. No. No. Please don’t tell me that’s what you have.” I knew a little bit about the disease, mainly from watching The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon was a gigantic fan of Stephen Hawking, who’d lived with ALS for many years, which was very rare. Lou Gehrig had died within two years of diagnosis.
Dad shuddered. “Skye, I’m so sorry. I don’t want to believe it myself.” Tears streamed down his unshaven face.
“Did a doctor diagnose you already?” I knew he’d had his yearly physical last week.
He cried. “I have some very revealing symptoms. Remember a few weeks ago when you asked if I’d been drinking because I was slurring my speech? Well, I’m finding it’s hard to say certain words. And one of the guys asked me the other day if I was drunk when we walked off the golf course.”
In my head, I replayed what he’d just said, trying to detect any sort of stumbling in his speech. “But you’re not slurring now.”
“True, but it comes and goes.”
“Maybe it’s just stress.” He’d been under a ton with his job at the local chemical plant, and Mom’s death hadn’t helped.
He dragged his fingers through his thinning blond hair. “I wish it were.”
“So the doctor knows this for sure?” I refused to believe it.
He wrapped me in his arms. “I want you to know I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you’re taken care of.”
My tear ducts burst open, and I sobbed. “I can’t lose you, Daddy. I can’t.” My stomach hurt. My heart splintered and my world went black.
One year later
“Dad,” I called as I wound my way into the family room from the kitchen. In the year since finding out he had ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he had severely declined.
I was blown away by how quickly the disease had taken hold of him. I was blown away by how our life had changed in a blink of an eye. I was blown away by how Dad was on the fast track to another life. And as crazy as it might sound, I often wondered if Mom wanted him to join her in heaven.
I squeezed my eyes shut as I shook off the thoughts of death, of losing another parent, of being alone. I couldn’t sleep at night, I could hardly eat, and if I sat and stared at Dad, I ended up crying like a newborn.
I was only seventeen, and if he died before I became an adult, I would end up with his sister. I’d only met her maybe three times when she visited for a holiday here and there. She and Dad had a strained relationship, a falling out when she was in college over some dude Dad didn’t like. He hadn’t shared the whole story. Over the years, they’d reconciled, but they still didn’t keep in touch on a regular basis.
Despite that, I didn’t want to move to California, and I sure as hell didn’t want to live with my aunt. The last time she’d visited, a year before Mom passed, Aunt Clara was snooty to me. Maybe she’d changed. Maybe she was a nice lady. I’d gotten the feeling she didn’t like kids, and to my knowledge, she didn’t have any.
My mom had been an only child, and her parents had died years before, so that was out.
Even if Dad passed after my eighteenth birthday, I had no idea how I would survive. He’d tried to talk to me about what was to come, but I always ran out of the room in tears. I just couldn’t bring myself to even think about the future without him.
Regardless, watching him decline tore my heart right out of my chest. He’d gone from walking one day to a wheelchair the next and from speaking one day to having no voice the next.
I wished upon a star that I could hear his voice, his laugh, or even a reprimand if the need arose. I missed him calling me “sweet pea” or “sweetheart.” I missed carrying on a conversation with him about anything and everything. He had a computer to relay his thoughts for him, but its robotic voice wasn’t the same.
Dad sat in his wheelchair in front of the TV, wearing a large blue bib over a hospital gown, while Nan, his caregiver of six months, fed him breakfast. Dad had been through three caregivers before finding Nan. I was praying she would work out and stay for the long haul.
She had a great personality, soft and patient. She had a big heart and a caring soul. She reminded me of Mom in some ways.
She and Dad had hit it off from the moment she’d walked through our front door with her easy smile and gentle touch. In a different time, I was certain they could’ve been more than friends. They weren’t that far apart in age. Dad was approaching fifty, and Nan was in her mid-forties.
Above all else, she never complained when Dad was moody or burst into tears, and with ALS, instant emotional changes were the norm, particularly for Bulbar ALS, the rare form that started at the neck and took his voice first.
Tears threatened as I settled behind the leather couch that faced the fireplace, holding in the mountain of emotion that was ready to explode.
Nan pushed her gold-rimmed glasses up on her nose. “Good morning, Skye. Are you ready for your first day of senior year?”
I put on the most genuine smile I could. I didn’t want to show Dad I was unhappy about leaving him all day or how much I hated school in general. High school was a petri dish of drama. The only saving grace for me was hanging with my BFF, Georgia, and our new friend Mia, who’d moved into our sleepy, North Carolina beach town last year.
A laugh broke out in my head. I had to hand it to Mia. She was super comfortable with her body and her sexuality. Me, not so much.
Nan shoved a spoonful of yogurt and oatmeal into Dad’s mouth. “I like the outfit, and your new haircut brings out your pretty features.”
I blushed. “Thanks.” I wasn’t wearing anything special—a pair of jean shorts, a new V-neck that I’d gotten at the Jonas Brothers concert on my birthday last month, and my Vans. I’d also chopped off my long, light-brown hair the day before. I needed a change, something to pick me up and make me feel like I wasn’t being weighed down. Anything to change the sour mood I’d been in for the last year. The change was helping so far. I did feel lighter, and I loved my new style, which I’d found on Instagram.
Even Georgia thought my new look fit me perfectly. “That A-line bob is so skater-girl-esque for you.”
Dad’s blue gaze glistened as he gave me an infectious smile. Then he turned to his computer screen, which was attached to a pole on his wheelchair, and typed with his eyes.
He had the coolest gadgets, compliments of his medical insurance. The infrared bar below the screen tracked his eye movement and allowed him to blink once on a letter, and then it would show up on the screen.
I had a love-hate relationship with technology. In one breath, I was glad he had the tools. His high-powered wheelchair got him from room to room and even outside to enjoy the warm Southern sunshine. I had been ecstatic when he received his computer so he could communicate easily. Before that, he’d had to type with his hands, but he’d struggled with his fingers giving out quickly.
Nan set the spoon down and dipped into the pocket of her scrubs. She had just about every color. That day, she was dressed in a flowered top that hung over dark purple bottoms. She pulled out a hair clip, wound her brown hair into a bun, and secured it while Dad typed.
The sound from the TV over the fireplace floated in the room. We’d eliminated the bulky furniture so Dad could get around in his wheelchair. Aside from the TV and the couch, a table lined the window that peeked out to our porch, with a hand-carved wooden lamp on top Dad had made, and that was it.
The newscaster said something Nan didn’t like—she shook her head. I’d learned to tune her and Dad out when the news was on. They were into politics, which was not my jam.
All I needed was my skateboard, the wind, my earbuds, and music, and I was more than happy.
My therapist had said I should find an outlet to take my mind away from my troubles. After Mom died, Dad had bought me the skateboard, and ever since, the sport had been my salvation, at least in those moments when I was catching air or doing acid drops at the local skate park.
“Skye,” Nan said. “Did you hear your dad?”
I blinked once then twice. “I’m sorry.”
Dad briefly looked at his screen before the computer-generated male voice he’d chosen spoke. “You look beautiful. Nan’s right, the new cut makes your big brown eyes pop. Your mom would love it too.”
I gave him a picture-perfect grin. Otherwise, he might start sobbing if we talked about Mom.
Nan resumed feeding Dad. The spoon clinked against the glass bowl. “Are you nervous about your first day of senior year?”
I had no reason to be. “I’m good.” My goal was to graduate, plain and simple. But I had to do a better job than I had the year before. I’d barely passed my classes because my mind had been on Dad, and I knew I was in for another challenge that year with Dad getting worse. I wasn’t planning on attending college, though. All I had to do was listen, do my homework, and study for tests.
Dad typed again, and after a minute, the computer voice spoke. “I want you to have the best year of school, sweetheart.” Dad’s warm expression was thin at best, and deep within, I could see the sadness oozing out. No doubt he was wishing and praying that he would be around to see me graduate.
Don’t cry, girl. Just don’t cry. You don’t want swollen eyes on your first day. I didn’t want to give Grady Dyson a reason to spread another rumor about me. Still, I wasn’t the perfect student and didn’t toe the line. The only rules I followed were given out by Dad.
I mostly kept to myself, except for Georgia and Mia. We were the three amigos when Mia wasn’t spreading her legs for some guy. She had an appetite for sex, which worked for her. I had yet to go down that road. Georgia hadn’t, either. We weren’t as forward as Mia.
I wanted my first time to be with someone I liked, not someone who would drop me for his next conquest with big breasts and long legs. In my opinion, most guys in high school were on the prowl, searching for an easy time.
My phone pinged as I skirted the couch to give Dad a peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you this afternoon.” Without a backward glance, I answered.
“Where are you?” Georgia screamed. “I’ve been waiting for, like, ever for you to get here.”
Crap. I’d forgotten we were meeting at the local coffee hangout near school. “I’m on my way.”
“Drive. Do not take your skateboard,” she ordered in the high-pitched tone she used when she was frustrated.
“I’ll be there in ten.” Grabbing my backpack and skateboard, I waved to Nan and Dad and walked out into the late-August sunshine.
“Skyler Lawson,” she said. “Drive for Pete’s sake.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Then I hung up, put my earbuds in, turned on my music, and hopped on my skateboard.
Again, I didn’t listen well, and for as much as I loved Georgia, I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the coffee shop. We had plenty of time before school started. But I knew my BFF. She wanted to discuss the day and gossip about the year, goals, and boys.
“We are seniors. We are the queens of the school. We need to come up with a plan for how we’re going to make this year fun and exciting. And I’m going to start by having a party.” She’d told me all this while I’d been getting my locks chopped off. “Besides, we need you to have some fun. Last year sucked the big one for you, and it hurt me to see you so sad.”
Georgia had the best intentions for me, and she loved my dad almost as much as she loved hers. In some way, I thought she was masking her own sadness about my dad.
Still, I couldn’t have fun knowing that he was withering away.mething like that,” Colton replied, not looking at Georgia but at me.
I was hypnotized by the one guy who could tell me the Earth wasn’t round, and I would believe him.
Locks of his hair fell forward, creating a curtain around his strong, angular jaw, shielding us from everyone near us. Suddenly, I felt as though he and I had been transported to a secluded place, where it was just the two of us.
My heart pitter-pattered at a rapid rate.
“Come with me,” he said.
Georgia grabbed my skateboard, her pink painted lips splitting into a brilliant smile, her eyes alight with mischief. If anyone knew how I felt about Colton, it was my bestie. She and I used to sit on my porch and watch him cut the grass. We were lowly freshmen then, as was Colton, but man, he’d been the hottest guy in school.
Mia said something, but I tuned her out as I followed Colton like a puppy. He led me to the passenger side of his truck.
Most guys in school drove trucks—in the South, souped-up trucks were like Mercedes cars. The girls in school—the rich girls, anyway—drove expensive convertibles. I didn’t keep track. Dad had an old Toyota that was officially mine since he couldn’t drive anymore, but frankly, I preferred to get around on my skateboard.
I finally swallowed the dryness in my throat and attempted to speak. “So…”
Colton opened the glove compartment and took out a first-aid kit. “I stopped at your house earlier. Sorry to hear about your dad.”
And just like that, the lust tethering me to him snapped. A rush of sadness blanketed me.
Georgia bounced up, her blond curls swaying with her jean-clad hips. Like Mia and me, she was wearing shorts, soft blue to be exact. We didn’t switch our summer wardrobe until late December or January when the weather cooled down. “We should get going.”
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and talk to Colton. He’d never given me the time of day before.
He hit you with his car. He’s feeling guilty.
It was best if I left, though. I didn’t want to talk about Dad, and I didn’t want Colton’s pity.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Skyler?” Colton’s eyes swam with concern—maybe he worried that I would press charges.
The ache was stronger in my shoulder than my hip. “I’m cool.” I was anything but. My emotions were all over the place. “I’m sorry too. I probably whizzed by too fast, and you couldn’t track me.”
“You need to get that elbow looked at,” he said, his gaze melting me into gooey and warm saltwater taffy.
“I’ll get a Band-Aid from the school nurse.”
“Colton, is that you?” Grady Dyson’s gruff voice scraped every nerve along my arms. Then, like a hurricane, he barreled through, pushing poor Georgia out of the way.
Definitely, my cue to leave. I couldn’t be responsible for what happened if he so much as glanced at me in front of Colton.
My BFF’s feistiness blossomed as she pushed the beefy guy back. “Watch where the fuck you’re going!” She snarled up at him.
He laughed, ignoring her as he all but swatted me out of the way.
I didn’t take shit from anyone, either. “Asswipe.” I kicked him in the calf when I wanted to punch him in the jaw. That would probably have broken the bones in my hand, and I already had an elbow to heal and a shoulder to nurse.
Grady spun around, his ice-blue eyes glaring daggers. “Did you just kick me, Lawson?”
I snorted, puffing out my chest. “Is your dick small?”
His pudgy cheeks burned red as his gaze dropped to my average-sized breasts. “Want to see for yourself?” He grabbed his crotch.
Colton mumbled something I couldn’t make out, and Georgia full-on laughed.
“You’re lucky I didn’t use your balls as my punching bag this time.”
His wince was fleeting, but it was there, nonetheless. “Are you trying to look like a boy, Lawson?” Grady continued to scrutinize me. “Why did you cut your hair?”
I threw him the middle finger as my stomach dropped to my feet. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Grady didn’t like my new look. Then again, rumors about my hair were far better than him telling boys I was bad in bed.
Mia came running up like she was about to save the day, her ponytail swishing behind her. “Back the fuck off, Grady, or I will blast pics of your small dick around school.”
“You, of all people, know my heat-seeking missile isn’t small,” Grady shot back.
Georgia and I snorted at his metaphor—of course Grady had named his third leg. Colton didn’t react at all. Actually, I couldn’t get a read on him, in stark contrast to Grady’s flamboyance.
Petite and fiery, Mia rolled her hazel eyes, brushing off Grady’s bravado. “Well, if you want to get laid again”—she poked him in the chest—“step off.”
Grady squinted at Mia, a muscle ticking in his jaw. Then he turned to Colton, who had just closed the door to his truck. “Welcome home, bro. Are you ready to play football?”
They exchanged a quick manly hug.
It was my turn to roll my eyes. I didn’t remember Colton being friends with Grady. Then again, I couldn’t recall much of my freshman year after Mom’s death.
Colton’s head dipped, his hair falling forward. “For sure.”
Georgia took hold of my arm. “Let’s get out of here. I had Mia put your skateboard in my car.”
Mia flanked me on the other side as we left the guys talking about football and games and the upcoming season.
When we were finally in Georgia’s VW convertible, she asked, “Did you know Colton was home?”
I pushed out a shoulder. “No clue.” His mom came over to see Dad on occasion, but hardly talked about her son, and I had no reason to ask.
“You think he got kicked out of that private school?” Georgia asked, starting the engine.
Mia flipped down the visor in the passenger seat and checked her red lipstick. “Who cares? Have you seen him? His hair. I want to run my fingers through it.”
Sighing, I rested back against the seat, glancing up at the clear blue sky. “Get in line.”
Georgia wheeled out of the lot behind a long line of cars. “It will be an interesting year.”
“Why? Because Colton is back?” I asked, even though I knew what she was thinking.
Georgia eyed me through the rearview mirror. “Um. Yeah. He’s the only guy who stole your heart. So you need to make sure no girl gets her paws on him.” Then she whipped her attention to Mia. “He’s off-limits.”
I had to love my BFF. She always had my back.
Mia propped her arm on the passenger door. “It’s not me you have to worry about. You both know Amanda will be brushing her big tits against him and marking her territory when she sees him.”
Every damn girl in school would be doing the same. Colton was, for all intents and purposes, fresh meat, and I had no doubt he would have groupies hovering.
“He’s his own person,” I said. I didn’t have time to swoon or get caught up in a love affair. Dad was my responsibility, and I had to spend every free minute I had with him.