Authors: Micalea Smeltzer
I narrowed my eyes, opening my mouth to retort. Before I could say anything Rowan slapped her palms against the table. “God, you two are worse than children. I wish you’d just do it already to alleviate the tension!”
Ivy giggled and Tristan looked from his mom and dad to us. “What do you want them to do mommy?”
Rowan’s eyes widened and her cheeks colored.
Trent saved her by leaning his elbows on the table and peering at his son. “She wants them to play Scrabble.”
“Scrabble?” Tristan’s nose scrunched with confusion. “What’s that?”
“It’s a board game,” Trent explained.
“Oh,” Tristan nodded, “I think we have that one. I’ll get it.” He wiped his small hands on a napkin, climbed off the chair, and ran into the living room.
We all swiveled to look at Trenton. “What?” He shrugged, using his hand to cover his smile, “it was all I could think of.”
A moment later Tristan called from the living room, “I can’t find it!”
Rowan started to stand, but Trent urged her to sit. “I’ve got this,” he assured her, gazing at her lovingly. She instantly relaxed as his lips pressed tenderly against her forehead. Sometimes they were too much to handle, but I was truly happy for them. They had the kind of love that comes once in a lifetime and I only hoped I was lucky enough to find that one day.
Trent brought Tristan back into the dining room sans the board game. “Sorry,” Tristan frowned, “we don’t have it.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, reaching for the glass of water. I suddenly felt parched.
We finished eating and the guys were relegated to babysitting duty while Rowan and I cleaned the dishes. I knew the real reason she stuck the guys together. She wanted to talk.
Almost immediately she hissed under her breath, “What the hell is going on with you two?”
“Honestly?” I asked, turning on the sink.
“Nothing,” I shrugged simply.
“Nothing?” She repeated. “That did not look like
“Trust me, it is,” I mumbled, adding soap to the water.
She cocked her hip to the side and stared me down. I squirmed beneath her penetrating gaze, wondering what she saw. Finally, she turned away, taking a dish from me so she could rinse and dry it. “You don’t see it, do you?” She finally asked after a minute or so had past.
“See what?” I replied in confusion.
“The way he looks at you.”
My head shot up to look at her. “See how
looks at me?”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t play dumb with me, Tatum. We both know you’re not stupid.”
“He looks at me in no particular way,” I mumbled, looking back down at the white plate in my hand.
“Did you know that since he started helping you with your paper he hasn’t been with any other girl?” I was shocked by her words but didn’t show it.
“What do you mean by, ‘been with’?” I asked, scrubbing the same plate that already sparkled.
She sighed dramatically and I knew she wanted to smack the back of my head. “If you want me to say it I will.” Before I could reply she said, “Jude has
n’t had sex with anyone since he started helping you.” She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned her hip against the counter. “I know Jude well and Jude
to tell me all about his exploits, even though I’d rather he didn’t.” Muttering under her breath she added, “I think he just likes to watch me freak out. Anyway,” she drew out the word, “my point is he’s been strangely quiet towards me. Are you guys…?” She trailed off, waiting for me to fill in the blanks.
“No!” I cried, almost dropping the plate in the sink. Blowing a piece of hair out of my eyes I said, “You know how I feel about him.”
“I do,” she agreed. “But I also know that your reasons for feeling that way are completely idiotic. I know he tends to act like a playboy and sometimes the biggest douche on the planet, but I wouldn’t be friends with him if I didn’t know he was a good guy.”
Feeling angry, I snapped, “Can you leave it alone? Seriously, how I feel about him or anyone is none of your business. I have a right to not like him. I don’t care what you or anyone else says, he
the reason my brother is dead. I’m stuck with him until this paper is done and that’s it. Nothing more is going to happen.”
She appeared hurt by my words but the cloudiness quickly cleared
from her eyes. Sighing, she quirked a brow and snapped, “You keep telling yourself that, Tate. One day the sexual tension between you two is going to burst and I’m going to be able to say I told you so.”
“What’s going on in here?” Jude asked, appearing in the doorway with Tristan hanging onto his leg crying for him not to leave.
“Nothing.” I answered before Rowan could speak. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, “if this guy here will decide to let me go.” He reached down, ruffling Tristan’s sandy hair.
“Tristan,” Rowan sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Let him go. You can’t keep him here forever.”
“Don’t leave!” Tristan cried, tightening his hold on Jude’s leg.
Jude chuckled. “I’ve got to get Tater Tot over there home and it’s time for me to go to bed. Isn’t it time for you to go to bed too?”
“I don’t wanna!” Tristan shrieked.
Rowan shook her head and mouthed, “I’m so sorry,” at Jude.
“I have an idea,” Jude looked down at the little boy, “what if I read you a bedtime story before I go?”
Almost immediately Tristan released his hold and scurried for the steps.
“Brush your teeth and get in your pajamas!” Rowan called after her son.
“I’ve got it,” Jude assured her with a smile as he took off after the kid.
Looking at me, Rowan sighed heavily showcasing how tired she was. “Kids are hard work.”
“That they are,” Trent agreed, breezing into the kitchen and wrapping his arms around her, “but they’re worth it.” Nuzzling her neck, he murmured, “Let’s have another baby.”
I laughed as she hastily wiggled out of his hold. “How about we try being married for the next one?” Pausing she added, “For like three years.”
His mouth fell open. “But Tristan will be nine then! He deserves to have another sibling while he’s young enough to enjoy it.”
Rowan rolled her eyes. “Talk to me again after we’re married.”
She started to walk away and he called after her, “If it was up to me we’d already be married!”
She laughed, turning her head to smile at him. “You would’ve married me when we were sixteen years old Trenton Wentworth.”
“Damn straight,” he grinned crookedly, his eyes sparkling with happiness, “even then I knew I’d found the love of my life.”
“Bleh,” I pretended to gag. “Y’all are getting to
o sappy for me.”
Trent chuckled. “One day it will be you, Tate.”
“Not likely,” I replied. “Love makes things complicated.”
“No,” Trent disagreed, his eyes growing serious, “love makes life worth living for. No matter how bad your day is, or what kind of horrible shit you go through,
loving someone completes you.”
Cracking a smile, I joked, “Have you been reading poetry?”
He chuckled, brushing his fingers through his dark, nearly black hair. “No.” Sobering he looked from Row to me, “We both just want you to find someone. Don’t hold yourself back from falling in love. Yeah, it’s scary as fuck, but it’s worth it. No matter what,” he looked significantly at Rowan, “it’s always worth fighting for.”
“Seriously,” I assured them, “you don’t need to worry about
me. It’s not like I’m anti-love. I’m just not at a place in my life where I’m ready for a serious relationship.”
“Love doesn’t wait till you’re ready,” Rowan piped in.
God, these two weren’t ever going to let it rest.
“I haven’t found ‘the one’ yet,” I mumbled.
“That’s not true,” Rowan whispered, looking at me sadly, “you’re just too stubborn to see what’s standing right in front of you.”
“I think you’re too caught up in seeing something that isn’t really there,” I countered, jutting my chin in the air haughtily. Between the two of them I felt cornered. I wanted nothing more than to run out the door, but once again, Jude was my ride.
Neither of them said anything more, because Jude returned at that moment. I had never been more thankful to see him in my entire life.
“You ready?” He asked, looking at me first and then glancing at the other two. He could sense the tension in the air but chose not to mention it.
“Yeah,” I told him, breezing past Trent and Row.
I didn’t say goodbye.
I bit into the apple, scanning the piece of paper in front of me. It was instructions for another paper due next week. The professors were throwing the work at us the closer
we came to graduation. Spring break was coming up and I wanted to have everything done before I left for the beach with Trent and Row.
“Afternoon, Tater Tot,” Jude slid into the seat across from me, his heavy bag thumping against the table.
“What do you want?” I asked, never bothering to lift my head from the piece of paper in my hand. I took another bite of apple, chewing loudly.
Out of my peripheral vision I saw Jude lean across the table and clasp his hands together. “I’m not at the nursing home tonight, as you know, but I thought we could do something anyway.”
I set the apple down slowly, like it was a bomb, and let the piece of paper in my hand drift onto the surface of the table. “Like…hang out? With
He chuckled, lowering his head so his dark hair swept into his eyes. “Well, you don’t have to make it sound like a death sentence. There’s something I want to show you, and I thought we could have dinner with Pap again. He’s been begging to see you.” Placing a hand over his chest, he pouted, “Don’t make me break my grandpa’s heart. He’s already in a fragile state.”
Oh, he was guilt tripping me big time. I did want to see his grandpa again, though. “Fine,” I agreed, “but I have to go home first before we go.”
“Deal. I’ll pick you up at
“Yay,” I mumbled, feigning excitement.
He smacked his hand lightly against the table. “By the end of the evening I promise I’ll have you smiling.”
I rolled my eyes as he stood, grabbed his bag and left.
A moment later Rowan took the seat beside me. “What was that about?”
I groaned loudly, causing a few heads to turn my way. “Did you watch the whole thing?”
“It didn’t seem like I should interrupt,” she shrugged casually, unwrapping a sandwich she’d brought from home.
“I know you wish that there was something going on between us, but there’s absolutely
. We’re just…I really don’t know what we are,” I muttered. Jude and I were far from friends, but I didn’t quite feel like we were enemies anymore. The more I read Graham’s letter, it became clearer to me that Jude really didn’t have anything to do with his suicide. But I’d probably always associate Jude with that God awful day and the pain it caused me. That wasn’t something you got over easily.
She sighed heavily and before she could launch into a lengthy speech I interrupted her.
“I don’t need to hear it, Rowan. There’s a lot about me that you and no one else knows. The last thing I need is the baggage of a relationship with
especially Jude. Please, let it go.” I begged, pleading with my eyes for her to stop bugging me about it.
She took a bite of her sandwich and I relaxed, thinking I was off the hook. Wrong.
“I think I understand more than most people about how baggage can keep you from letting someone into your heart, but eventually you have to stop fighting it. Love is a beautiful thing, don’t let your past rule your future. I missed out on so much time with Trent,” tears pooled in her eyes, “because I fought so hard against what I felt for him. I’d give anything to get that time back, but I can’t. I don’t want to see you make my mistakes.”
“How very motherly sounding of you,” I muttered.
She laughed, “I am a mom, I guess it shows in everything I say.” Sobering, she frowned, “I worry about you a lot, Tate.”
That made me feel bad. I didn’t want Rowan worrying about me. I was
fine. I forced a smile and told her, “Honestly, you don’t need to worry about me.”
“Alright,” she sighed again, “I won’t bring it up anymore.”
I doubted that, but I didn’t say it out loud.
“Are you excited for spring break?” She asked, brushing breadcrumbs off her lap.
“Definitely,” I nodded, finishing my apple. “I’m ready to get away.”
I wasn’t sure what would happen to my mom while I was gone, and maybe it was selfish of me, but I couldn’t take being in that broken house for much longer. Besides, it wasn’t like I could live there forever. She needed to snap out of it, and maybe my dad could try being a concerned husband and actually take care of her for a change. Too much responsibility had been on my shoulders for too long. I guessed I was rebelling as an adult, not a teenager.
It was bound to happen eventually—and maybe that made me a shitty person for giving up on my mom, but it had been seven long, hard years. I’d reached my limit and I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to stop making choices based on everyone else and start living my own life.
“I’m worried about leaving the kids, but I know Trent’s mom will take good care of them. It’s hard though. We rarely leave them,” she frowned.
Sometimes I really felt bad for Rowan and all the responsibility she had on her shoulders at such a young age, but she never, not once, complained about any of it. I admired her for that fact.
“They’ll be fine. Lily’s awesome,” I assured her. I’d only met Trent’s family on a few occasions but they were some of the nicest people I had ever met.
“You’re right, but it’s impossible not to worry,” she shrugged.
I stood, slinging my backpack on, and gathering my trash. “I’ve got to get to class. I’ll see you later.”
“Are you going to the library tonight?” She asked before I could get away.
“No,” I answered, “but I think you already knew that.”
Since I was having dinner with Jude’s grandpa tonight, I only made enough dinner for my mom and dad—if he decided to come home tonight. He was gone more and more. I couldn’t even recall the last time I saw him.
I set the plate in front of my mom where I’d seated her at the kitchen table.
She stared at the food like she had no idea what it was. “Mom, it’s spaghetti. Your favorite.”
Her vacant green eyes that were the same shade as mine, peered up at me. “Please, eat,” I begged.
Her head lowered to look at the food once more.
I wanted to take the plate and smash it against the floor. I wanted to yell and scream and pull my hair. I wanted to cause a scene. I’d only ever done it once, but it had done no good, and I knew now would be no different.
My mom was gone and she was never coming back. All I had left was this shell.
I groaned and muttered, “Whatever. I don’t care anymore.”
With my words still lingering in the air, I left the kitchen and headed upstairs to my room. I changed my clothes, but kept it simple in jeans and a loose gray sweatshirt. I pulled my hair to the side and braided it before sweeping a pale pink gloss across my lips.
I wasn’t trying to look nice for Jude, I wasn’t even getting that dressed up, but for once I wanted to feel like a normal girl going out for a while instead of the hermit I’d become. Life had been passing me by for far too long and it was time for me to take control again. I held the reigns of my future and I was doing an about-face. It was time for me and everyone else to discover the real Tatum O’Connor.
My phone beeped from my pocket and I pulled it out to see a text from Jude telling me he was waiting outside. I bound down the steps and to the front door. Just before I opened it, I called, “Bye, mom!” Although, she probably didn’t even hear me.
Jude stood beside his truck, leaning against the passenger door. As I approached he opened the door and I hopped inside. He slid into the driver’s seat and said, “Someone seems eager to see me.” His grin spread across his face, lightening his eyes to a golden color.
“More like eager to get out of the house,” I mumbled.
He nodded his head sympathetically like he understood.
Buckling the seatbelt, I asked, “Where are we going?”
He snorted, driving out of the neighborhood. All the houses looked the same, blending together. I wondered if the people living behind the walls were aware of how bad things were for me, or were they oblivious to everything but their own lives? Probably the latter.
“Where’s the fun in telling you?” He responded.
I should’ve known to expect that kind of answer from him.
I sat back in the seat and brought my feet up against the dashboard, resolving not to ask him any more questions.
Surprisingly, he grew quiet. I didn’t know he could go a minute without filling a void with the sound of his voice.
A little while later he turned down a familiar dirt road. “I thought we were doing something before we went to your grandpa’s?” I asked, as the trees grew plentiful. They were only beginning to bud, but there were so many of them that they provided a decent amount of shade.
That’s all he said on the matter and I knew I wouldn’t get anything else out of him.
Suddenly, he stopped the truck, putting it in park.
I looked around, waiting to see something profound. “Why are we stopping here?” I as
ked, when I didn’t see anything but grass and trees.
“I hope you don’t mind walking,” he smiled, reaching into the back of his truck for something. “
It’s about a mile walk to get where we’re going.”
“I’ll be fine,” I assured him just as he dropped whatever he’d been looking for into my lap. I picked up the Shenandoah University sweatshirt and stared
at it. “Why do I need this? I’m already wearing a sweatshirt.”
He narrowed his eyes at what I wore. “Uh, yeah, that thin thing isn’t going to do anything to keep you warm. Put the sweatshirt on and don’t argue with me. I won’t have you getting sick on my
“Do you even have a
conscience?” I countered, pulling the sweatshirt on. It was warm from the heat of the car and smelled woodsy and masculine with something else that I couldn’t put my finger on that was inherently Jude.
He grabbed another sweatshirt from the back and shrugged it on before climbing out of the truck
with a blanket tucked under his arm. I did the same, standing by the fence as he came around. He tossed the blanket over the fence and grabbed ahold of the top part of the fence and hoisted himself over with one easy jump. Um, yeah…there was no way I could do that in these jeans. It wasn’t that the fence was that high or anything, but I wasn’t sure I was graceful enough not to make a fool of myself. I’m sure Jude would find it absolutely hysterical if I fell on my face.
He held out a hand for me. “Just put your feet on
the bottom piece and lift your leg over. I’ll help you.”
I looked at him hesitantly.
He thrust his hand towards me again. “Come on, Tater Tot, just take my hand. I would never let you fall.”
I reluctantly did what he asked and let him help me over. Somehow, on my way to the other side I lost my balance and my body slammed into his. We fell to the ground but somehow Jude
maneuvered us so that he took the brunt of the fall. He grunted from the impact and then again when my elbow hit his ribs by accident.
“I’m so sorry!” I immediately jumped to my feet.
Jude was sprawled on the ground with brown pieces of grass stuck in his hair. He seemed stunned, but then he started to laugh. “I said I wouldn’t let you fall and then you went and tackled me. I wasn’t prepared for that pretty girl.”
“I’m so sorry,” I repeated, heat infusing my cheeks at my clumsiness. I was so mortified that I was even able to overlook him calling me ‘pretty girl’.
He sat up, rubbing the back of his head. “I’m okay.”
He clambered to his feet, dusting dirt and grass from his clothes. He picked up the blanket that had fallen to the ground and started walking. I had no choice but to follow him.
The dead grass crunched beneath my feet as we trudged through the field. It was crazy to think that in a few short weeks spring would be here and the grass would soon be green. Spring was my favorite time of year. I loved the colors and flowers, even the smells. There was something so promising about spring—it was a new beginning.
Jude stopped in the middle of the field and spread the blanket out on the ground. “Sit,” he instructed.
With a reluctant sigh, I did as he told me. “Why are we out here?” I asked, drawing his sweatshirt closer to me as I shivered.
“I want you to see something.”
“Thanks for the non-answer,” I mumbled as he sat down beside me. He wiggled around until he got comfortable.
He chuckled, sweeping his hair from his eyes. “There’s something I want you to see,” he
repeated, “be patient.”
You’d think Jude would know by now that
I was the least patient person on the planet. Only a few minutes had past when I asked, “What are we waiting for?”
“Oh, Tate,” he chuckled, his eyes crinkling as he lay back, propping his body up with his elbows, “you’re something else.” Tilting his head, he continued, “Look around you, appreciate what’s right in front of you for a change. You need to slow down and