The story so far:
Ethan hit Riley with a bunch of feelings she wasn’t ready for. Feeling awkward and confused, she has come home to find a quiet place to think.
In a daze, I assured Tillie that no, it wasn’t her fault. No, I didn’t hate her. She saddled me with a bag full of books, and sent me off with another hug. This time I felt too numb to care.
I stood outside of her gate with a head full of drama. The general store stared back at me from across the street.
Later, I promised myself. I would think about it when I got home. Right now, I still had work to do.
Louis didn’t have a gate, so I stepped up onto his porch and knocked. Ethan’s delivery was still there, tucked behind a chair to discourage any porch pirates.
I had a bad feeling … or, I corrected myself with another glance at the store, it was another bad feeling. I peeked through his front window, trying to see beyond the curtains. Everything was dark and silent. Was he really out?
I couldn’t help but worry. What if he was hurt, or couldn’t come to the door? Then his car would be here.
I climbed onto a lawn chair and peered through the garage window. I still had to stand on my toes to peek inside, but the garage looked empty. Feeling relieved, and a little bit like a stalker, I left a note on his door.
Sorry I missed you. Will call tomorrow. — Riley
At the end of his sidewalk I hesitated again. On any other day I would have helped Ethan at the store, then walk home with Zoey.
My inner adult assured me that it was best to just talk to him and sort everything out before it got more weird. The other 99% was cheering for avoidance. What was I going to say, anyway? Over a lunch hour he’d gone from a brother to … something else. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted that something else to be.
And what if he changed his mind when I let him walk away? Would I feel relieved, or even more upset? I decided that I would have it figured out by the time I reached home. I turned toward Grandpa’s, and hoped that Ethan wasn’t watching from the store window.
The gravel under my shoes felt especially jagged. The air was too humid. I watched my shadow as it played out in front of me, and wondered what it felt like to be tied to someone forever. Nothing about that sounded romantic or fun.
My thoughts spun in circles as my shadow grew longer. I began to imagine that it was doing its own thing instead of mirroring me. Its steps were just a bit behind mine. Its arms were just a bit more bent. Little acts of defiance against a childish, indecisive jailer.
When I got home, my stomach felt sour and I still had no answers. My spirits sank further when I heard Rose arguing loudly. I didn’t want to get sucked into her drama right then. As quiet as a kitten, I padded toward my room.
“Ethan? Is that you?”
My hand was on my doorknob. I’d been so close. “Just me,” I called back. “Tired; taking a nap.”
Rose’s head popped into the hallway. “Could you grab the laundry first? I’m trying to get your stubborn grandfather to listen to reason.”
“Harpy! You can’t tell me what to do in my own house!”
I’d never heard him so upset. “God, Rose. What happened?”
She smirked, but I didn’t think she was listening to me. “Oh, he has no idea what I can do.” Then she disappeared, and I heard another round begin.
I made my way to the dryer and started pulling things into a basket. Bits of their conversation hammered against my skull, and I ached for a quiet place to reset.
“He’s a good kid. I don’t see why you have a problem with it.”
Rose sighed. “Because they already think I’m taking advantage of you. If you did this…”
“When. And I don’t care what those gossips say.” Connor sighed heavily. “He’s a good kid, Rose. He’s more than earned it.”
I carried the basket into the kitchen so that I could use the large table to sort. Grandpa was sitting in one of the chairs, but Rose stood with her back to the counter and her hands on her hips. “Riley, –” she began.
“Nope,” I replied, cutting that question short.
“Riley…,” Grandpa echoed her.
I dropped the sheet I was pulling out, and let my chin fall against my chest. It took everything I had to keep my expression passive. I did not want to talk about how great Ethan was right then. I didn’t want to talk at all.
“Rose needs to hear this from you, or it won’t end. Please?”
Ugly thoughts rolled around in my mind. What about what I need? “Fine,” I finally agreed, biting off the word.
“How long were you staying in Acorn?”
The question surprised me. My first thought was as long as you do, but I couldn’t say that. “Until I start clinicals. Next year, I guess. Why?”
“And your mom left enough to cover your school?”
Rose interjected, “That’s not the point, Connor.”
“It’s exactly the point, Rose. It doesn’t matter if you accept it or not. I have two girls, and three grandchildren. Heather’s watching out for Riley, and it’s not like I’m leaving her nothing.”
I blanched. “You’re fighting about Grandpa’s will.”
He puffed up angrily. “We are not fighting. I am telling her what will happen, and she’s being a prideful …”
Rose leaned forward. “Oh, finish that sentence.”
Connor steadied himself with a deep breath. “I don’t have enough time for any of this, Rose,” he told her, suddenly looking small. “I need to get this filed, or else everything ends up in probate. That’s not what I want to leave Riley when I’m gone.”
I snapped the wrinkles out of a sheet loudly, pulling their attention to me. “I don’t want to talk about any of this.” It felt good the first time, so I folded and snapped the sheet again.
Rose hid her face behind her hand. “Me either. But what we want doesn’t keep Connor with us one second longer than God intends.”
“What’s the problem.” It was a question, but I didn’t have any energy left to put a squiggle on the dot.
“I’m leaving Ethan the farm, if he wants it. If he doesn’t, I’m going to ask for it to be sold, and you all can split whatever you can get for it.” He glanced at Rose, but she was out of protests.
I stared at the wadded up sheet in my hands. “Sounds fine to me.”
Rose shook her head. “How can you say that? This is your family’s land. It’s your history. It should go to you.”
I shook my head emphatically. “I didn’t come here to get anything except time. With him, where my mom grew up.” I shrugged, avoiding all the teary eyes and trying to keep my own dry. “I got both of those things, so I’m good.”
Grandpa leaned forward to peer through Rose’s fingers. “I’ve made my memories here, Rose. When I’m gone, and Riley’s back in the city, why shouldn’t your boy get to make his memories here next?”
It didn’t matter what I thought of Ethan, or what he thought of me. I dropped the sheet and let it lay there. My last few folds didn’t match on the edges, anyway.
“Yeah,” I agreed softly. I could feel their eyes on me as I stood there doing nothing. “Is that it?”
“Yeah,” whispered Rose.
Eyes closed, I nodded. “I’m going to go lay down. Laundry can wait. We own an iron.” Neither of them said anything else as I left, and collapsed on my bed.
Mom watched me from the picture on my nightstand. I ran my finger over the glass. She was holding her diploma and looking so proud in her cap and gown. Dad was beaming by her side, cradling me in his arms. “Was it this hard when you were here?” I asked her, and she just smiled like she always did. I wished I was as strong as her.
I turned the picture face down and decided to draw a bath.