Authors: Caitlen Rubino-Bradway
by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway
Table of Contents
His father kept the engine running while Cam said his good-byes. “A lot of people are going to be heading in for their flights soon,” his father had said. “We don’t want to back up traffic.”
It was five in the morning, and the airport drop-off was deserted.
The air was cool, a relief after the past couple days, but the humidity made it thick and heavy. It clung to Cam’s skin and pressed against his chest, making him work for every breath.
His mother shook his hand and hoped he would have a nice flight. His father nodded and said nothing. His father had very little to say to him lately. Words churned in Cam’s stomach, threatening to choke him. He kept them down. They wouldn’t do any good.
He wished they hadn’t done this. Wished they’d let their driver take him, or let Cam call a car. Grab the bus. Walk. But his parents insisted. It was their duty. He shouldn’t have let them. He should’ve snuck out, before anyone else was awake, and saved them all the trouble. But if he did that…
Naomi hugged him. Or rather she stood there, twisting her hands and glancing at their parents, until he yanked her in for a hug. There was an awkward moment, but it passed, and she burrowed her head in his shoulder.
Their father cleared his throat. Naomi’s fingers dug in for a second, and then she let go. Cam held on tight. “I’m not leaving you. You know that, right?” He needed her to know that. She wouldn’t look at him, but he could see her eyes were swimming and he rushed on. “If you need me, if you need anything, I’m a phone call away. I’ll come right back. I promise.”
She nodded. Her face was a pale, porcelain portrait of their mother’s. Polite. Distant. “I hope you have a nice trip. Please say hello to Aunt Meg for me,” she said, and he wanted to scream at her that this wasn’t a vacation. This wasn’t a time to be polite. He just plain wanted to scream.
Instead he said, “I’ll call you when I get there, to let you know I arrived safe.”
His mother interrupted. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary.”
“I’ll call,” Cam said, thinking, And I wasn’t talking to you. “It would be polite.”
His mother gave a stiff nod. Whatever else, polite always won out in the end. “Say good-bye, Naomi. We wouldn’t want Camron to miss his flight.”
Naomi attempted one of their parents’ polished smiles. “Good-bye, Camron.”
“I love you,” he said. Even though guys weren’t supposed to say stuff like that. Even to their sisters. Especially not in this family.
Naomi started to cry, covering her face with her hands to muffle the sound, and Cam felt the sharp edge of panic. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t abandon her like this. Leave her here, alone. He could stay—through the summer, at least. And then he’d have to leave anyway, and it would be the same. She’d get swallowed up just the same, or she’d learn to fight back.
Cam waited until they turned to leave. Until his father’s shoulders relaxed and they were a happy, normal family. Then he called out, “You’ll want to avoid I-95, sir. Car accident. Traffic’s going to back up for miles.”
His father gave him a black look and slammed the car door. Cam watched them drive off, knowing his father would take 95 just to spite him. Knowing they would sit there for hours while State Troopers cleaned up a very messy accident, and they would know he was right.
He shouldn’t have done that to Naomi. But it made him feel better.
In the end, it didn’t take a full twenty-four hours to get across the country. It only felt like it.
Can hadn’t sprung for nonstop. It was cheaper but, in retrospect, not the smartest move he’d ever made. He could’ve asked the ticket agent about upgrades or different flights, but…he hadn’t decided what to do about the money yet. Until he did, it was smarter to play it thrifty.
So he flew from Savannah to Charlotte, Charlotte to Phoenix, Phoenix to Los Angeles, and then, finally, a puddle jumper from Los Angeles to Sugar Beach. The plane from Charlotte to Phoenix was delayed two hours. The plane from Phoenix to Los Angeles was delayed four. When he had a free moment, Cam tried to stretch out on an empty section of carpet and catch a nap, but his mind wouldn’t let him.
When he landed in Burbank, Cam was tired, hot, and dangerously close to feeling something like regret.
Then he saw the man watching him. Tall, mid-forties, with a worn pair of board shorts and long dark hair pulled back into a haphazard bun. Cam hefted his satchel higher on his shoulder and strode over. “Mr. Brody?”
“Just Brody.” Brody’s shake was strong and callused. “And you’re Cam. Meg,” he said before Cam could ask. “She said you looked just like her. She told you I’d be here?”
Brody squinted at him, his eyes far too shrewd for Cam’s comfort. “I’ll take that,” he said, reaching for Cam’s bag. Cam didn’t want to hand it over, but Brody managed to take it just the same. “Your luggage’s over in B—”
“I don’t have any luggage.”
“No luggage,” Brody echoed.
“No, sir.” He’d shipped his other things last week.
There was that hawk-eyed squint again. “Helluva talker, aren’t you?”
Cam smiled. It felt strange. “Yes, sir.”
“For chrissake—Brody. Not ‘sir.’”
Brody shook his head. “Jesus.”
It took a little time to work their way out of the airport. An airport meant people, and people meant work. Luggage falling on a man’s foot, an elderly woman tripping over a sleeping kid, an excited puppy in a pet carrier with a busted lock. Brody finally clapped a hand on Cam’s shoulder and steered him through the crowd.
By the time he climbed into Brody’s plane, fatigue had faded into a dull, distant ache that briefly disappeared altogether, along with his stomach, during take-off. It was a lot different than sitting comfortably in seat 23B and waiting for the pilot to announce they were at cruising altitude. Brody’s plane was tiny, with barely enough room in the cabin for the both of them.
It was just after ten at night when they touched down in Sugar Beach. The airport was barebones—one long strip, flanked by a few measly streetlamps that were barely able to push back the dark. Meg was waiting at the gate, just like Cam knew she would be. Frayed jeans and flip-flops, bright red hoodie, and her copper hair pulled back in a messy tail.
Brody was right. They did look like each other. Cam had forgotten how much, and the realization pulled at the knots in his gut.
There was no sedate kiss-cheek-how-was-your-flight. Meg ran the moment she saw him, the thwack of her flip-flops echoing across the empty airstrip, and swooped in, squeezing him so tight it knocked the air out of him. He’d forgotten how strong his aunt was. She yanked Cam off his feet without any effort. He could feel the hard ridge of Meg’s muscles under the thin fabric of her sweatshirt. “Hello, Aunt Meg.”
“Hey to you, too.” Meg looked him over, good and thorough, then pulled him back in tight, laughing. She smelled just like Cam remembered, like sawdust and sandalwood. “Oh, sugar, I’m so glad you’re here. Look at you—” pushing him back for another look “—you are so
. Last time I saw you, you were…” She waved a hand somewhere around thigh height.
She was exaggerating. “Last time you saw me—”
“Don’t say it,” Meg ordered. “I don’t want to think about how long it’s been. I’m a terrible person, I know, running off here and leaving you back east to fend them off by yourself. Telephone’s just not the same, no matter how many times you use it.” Her face softened, and she pulled Cam in for another hug, dropping kisses in his hair. He hated the way his arms felt awkward around her. “I’m so glad you’re here. I know, I said that already. I wanted to come out and meet you myself, but there wasn’t room for all of us in Brody’s rust bucket.”
“I heard that,” Brody said, coming up behind them. He had Cam’s satchel looped over his arm.
Meg’s laugh was smoke and whiskey. “Thanks for bringing my boy in.”
Brody shrugged. “Where’s your Jeep?”
“Over there.” Meg nodded to the parking lot behind them. She reached for Cam’s bag. “Here, let me take that. You don’t have to—” Brody smoothly dodged her and headed off to the parking lot.
Meg peered at Cam through the streetlamps. “You look dead on your feet, sugar.”
“I’ll make it back to the house.”
Meg’s left eyebrow arched. Cam always envied how she could move just the one independently, in a perfectly skeptical
“All right, then. Let’s get you home.”
Brody was waiting by Meg’s Jeep. Or in Meg’s Jeep. Or somewhere. Cam must’ve been fading faster than he thought; his sight tended to get blurry when he was tired. Made it harder to focus.
“You want a ride?” Meg offered, swinging up easily into the driver’s seat.
But Brody shook his head and leaned against the open door. “I got a report to finish. How about when your boy gets settled, you two come over and make us one of your pizzas? Sort of a welcome home party.”
“I think you just want one of my pizzas,” Meg said dryly.
“Well, now, I think y’all’d be right,” Brody replied, mimicking her accent.
“If there’s a drop of goodness in your heart, please don’t ever do that again. You sound like Foghorn Leghorn. What’s she going to think?”
What’s the cartoon chicken going to think? Cam thought vaguely, but Body just shrugged. “Whatever she wants. She needs to get out, talk to humans some more.”
Meg laughed again as she started the car. “Lord knows you won’t find any of those here. G’night, Brody.”
“Night. See you around, Cam.” Brody shut the car door and headed back towards his plane.
It was fifteen minutes to Meg’s house. The streets were crowded—noise, cars, masses of people in shorts and sandals. Families with little kids, heading home for the night. Eager young people, heading out for some fun. Every now and again, Cam caught a glimpse of the boardwalk, a long wooden snake pulsing with flashing lights and streaming with people. A Ferris wheel towered over everything, lights blinking along the spindles as it spun in slow, measured circles, and beyond that, the deep black stretch of the ocean. The night was soft, balmy, the air misting around the streetlamps. Cam watched them thrum by, one after another, as Meg twisted and turned through the town.
He was drifting by the time they pulled up. Meg told him to, “Go on up. It’s up the stairs, the green room, second door on the left. The bathroom’s the one right before it. I got your bag.”
He hit the bathroom first, wanting to brush his teeth and get the taste of stale airport coffee out of his mouth. Then wished he hadn’t when he caught his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Funny how when you were tired, your face wasn’t actually yours anymore. It was only shapes, pieced together until you didn’t recognize yourself.
What was he doing? This was crazy. He was crazy.
Too late. He couldn’t go back, not now. He didn’t want to. He chose this. And he was going to remember that.
He was deeply grateful, for a second, for his blind spot. If he didn’t—if he could’ve seen, he’d be tempted to take a peek. And if it didn’t turn out well, he wouldn’t be able to stay. Not here in the bathroom with the scrubbed white tiles, not in Meg’s snug little house, not in the entire state of California. He’d run back to the airport and grab the next flight out and—keep running, he supposed. ‘Til it stopped hurting. He didn’t know.
The room next door was green, as Meg promised. Green and soothing, with warm, brown hardwood floors. He expected to see the boxes he’d shipped the week before, the heavy black suitcases his parents said he could borrow but had to send back. But the room was already perfect—bed made, pj’s laid out, photos set up along the dresser and windowsill. The one of Cam and Naomi, little, young, and hugging, was on the nightstand by the bed. Tiredness fled as he hurried to the dresser, saw his clothes tucked neatly away. There was a brief twinge at the thought that Meg had handled his underwear. There were no boxes or suitcases to be seen.
Shock and pleasure were so sharp they were almost pain.
There were other things, things that weren’t his. The striped comforter. The knotted floor rug. The stacks of detective novels on the bookcase. The Christies and the Childs were his, but he knew he hadn’t gotten to two of those Kellermans yet.
Meg. He tried to smile, to shake his head—because it was like her, because he shouldn’t be surprised—but he was shaking now, actually shaking, and while he could’ve passed it off as the jetlag, or the fatigue, he knew it was because of the room. Her nephew was coming, so Meg had unpacked his things and prepared a room for him. Not just a room. A welcome.
It shouldn’t have hurt. Or, at least, it shouldn’t have hurt that much, but it did. Like a punch to the solar plexus, the pain of it stunning him until he couldn’t think. Until he couldn’t keep from thinking. He was barely keeping the breakdown at bay when Meg thwacked her way up the stairs. “Good, you found it. Not like it’s that hard, you got three doors, but you’d—Cam? What’s wrong, honey?” she asked, seeing his face.