Beauty & Melancholy

Calla Jane Weary wanted nothing more than to be on her own with the freedom to make her own mistakes. Until her choices broke her and sent her back home filled with shame. Keeping secrets and wondering how to reconnect with old friends, Calla navigates her homecoming with help from her older brother Toby. Not to mention all five Lacey brothers.

The protective family she had taken for granted, and had grown to hate as a teenager, becomes a welcome refuge as Calla finds the strength to stand on her own two feet.

Please forgive any mistakes as I continue working on this project.

Beauty & Melancholy will be released as a full length novel for kindle and paperback mid 2021.

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Update:  I have rewritten most of the book!  I apologize if this causes any confusion to you as the reader.  As this is a work in progress, I am actively writing the book.  This means sometimes a storyline doesn’t work out, and changes have to be made throughout!  All chapters (1-13) have been updated with the NEW version!
* Chapter 14 will be released with my October newsletter.

 

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter one

The heavy Memorial Day traffic along the only road to the beaches could almost be seen as a blessing.  In my nearly four years away from home, I’d almost forgotten what it was like to bake in your car while moving at a slow crawl.  It gave me time to see the changes:  new shops along the boardwalk, a wide new parking lot at the amphitheater, both of which were overrun with tourists.  Mostly, I had time to let nerves eat me from the inside out, while I noticed how almost nothing had really changed at all.  

Except me.  

Toby lived in a rental on the beach, only a few miles from the masses of people swarming our pretty white sand coast.  The only thing that made it tolerable – in my book – was the houses being on private property and exempt from the flood of bodies seeking sun, salt water, and fun.  

We had grown up in town – a mere ten miles from the coast that felt more like a hundred.  Once you went over the bridge into the city, you left behind the strip of islands that served as beachfront, and you could almost forget they existed.  

I pulled my old car, running on fumes at this point, under his house.  Like the others, it was raised on stilts, with parking beneath.  Typical beach house with sand blown paint, bleached under the relentless sun, with a driveway of broken shells.  

The beach called to me, and I let it.  I stood there, letting the crashing of the waves welcome me home.  I had stayed away too long, and I had missed being on the coast with a ferocity I didn’t realize until too late.  

The water my veins, the sand my skin, the blinding sun my heart.  I belonged here.  

Toby rushed down the stairs to meet me before I could even make it half way up to his back door.  With barely time to take in his gloriously tanned skin and broad smile, he scooped me up.  In my brother’s arms, I was truly home, wrapped up in his anticipation and unspoken assurances.  

“Sissy.”  He breathed out a name for me he rarely used since our childhood, and swung me around until I worried we would fall down the stairs.  “Damn, I missed you.  Let me carry this.”  

Toby took my bags from me.  I let him, because they were heavy, and because it felt damn good to hand off some of the weight.  

The look he gave me said it all:  he was sorry for the last four years, he felt guilty for not being there for me, we had a lot to talk about.  But it had been me who had kept him at arms length – especially after I’d gotten involved with Gary – the distance between us my fault, not his.  Toby could surely see the guilty expression coloring my face.  

Yes, my brother and I had a lot to discuss, but for just then, it was enough to be there.  

“You’ll love it here, Calla.”  Toby called up to me as I climbed the steps in front of him, leading the way to the small deck on the back of his house.  “Living at the beach is a dream.”  

The way he said it, I didn’t doubt he believed it.  I could see how the years away from our childhood home had been good to him.  He’d found a place of his own and with it found happiness.  

Once inside, I paused to blink my eyes and let them adjust to the sudden lack of direct sunlight.  Then I followed Toby across his long living room with the phenomenal view of the crashing waves, to where he pointed out the galley kitchen as we went up stairs to the bedrooms.  Sand gritted beneath my feet; a perpetual problem of living at the beach.

Shame bubbled just beneath the surface, and I guessed it would continue to do as I faced being back home.  I had perfected the art of avoidance over the last four years.  Specifically of my home town.  Not going home was both the easiest thing in the world, and the most painful.  College had provided a plethora of reasons for me to stay away.  If by reasons I meant excuses.  The drive was too long.  I had too much homework.  A paper due.  A test or study group to attend.  My job off campus took up all my free time.  My excuses became my reasons, until they took over and helped me forget how I longed to return.

Two bedrooms upstairs, with a shared bathroom being perhaps the only downside to moving in with my brother.  The design of the house was such that both bedrooms had a beach view, although they both looked over the two lane beach access road on the other side as well.  

“You have more stuff in the car?”  Toby asked as he entered the guest room, with me close on his heels.  

“Yeah.”  I nodded, unconcerned with my belongings left in the car below us.  

I lowered to the edge of the bed and took in the room around me.  Small, but bigger than the dorm room I’d shared with Emily the previous four years.  I’d only come to visit a handful of times, and the last time I’d been in this room, I’d slept on an air mattress between a work out bench and Toby’s drum set.  Now the room had a battered dresser, an unmatched bookcase, a small desk, and a full size bed on a cheap frame.  There was even a little night stand with a lamp I would be willing to bet had come from Target.  

On the desk sat a box with graduation cap wrapping paper.

Tears burned hot behind my eyes, and I turned to look out the sliding glass doors that opened to a narrow balcony with a view of the beach beyond.  

Toby had stretched out on the fake-wood floor of the bedroom.  His legs were long and covered with soft dark hair; crossed at the ankle.  He tapped his fingers on the floor in a continuous rhythm.

“Open it.”  He smiled at me and lifted his chin toward the waiting gift.  

“You shouldn’t have.”  I said as I shuffled over to the little desk and retrieved the surprisingly heavy wrapped box.  

“You graduated from college, Callalily.”  His tone sounded gruff, chastising me for blowing off his gift giving.  “I get why you didn’t do the whole cap and gown thing, but a gift was in order.”

“Thanks, Tobes.”  

“Open it.”  He laughed through his words, urging me on.  

I carefully peeled the paper away, for some reason avoiding tearing it, to reveal a truly awesome gift.  

“This is perfect!”  I exclaimed as my hands clutched the best gift ever.  

“You’ve been talking about wanting one.”  He shrugged, like it made no difference that he had been paying attention to me and bought me exactly the one thing I wanted most.  

We hadn’t talked much over the last couple years, but we’d kept up on a surface level.  As I got closer to my degree in creative writing, I learned how easily distracted I was by my computer.  I had started handwriting my stories, then typing them up later, because I struggled to write with the internet beckoning to me.  This gift solved my problems!  It looked like a small typewriter with a smaller screen, and was marketed as the best way to write with no distractions.  It was silly, and I should really learn more self control, but I loved it already.  

I placed the box back on the desk, nearly overwhelmed by Toby’s thoughtfulness and generosity.  

“Everyone’s coming over later.”  He sounded nervous as he said the words, feeling me out.  “A welcome home.”  

We’d discussed not having a graduation party.  I had insisted.  But a welcoming home?  No avoiding that one.  

“By everyone you mean the Laceys.”  

I got lost in a deluge of memories as I faced seeing the family I’d once considered as dear and as permanent as my biological sibling.  Toby and I had been taken into the fold of the Lacey family early on and had grown up with the five brothers and their sanguine parents.  Truth was we’d both preferred spending as much time as possible away from our own home, and our father who took out his anger with the world on his children.  

I could barely tolerate the force of my beating heart as I remembered all I’d left behind when I’d so foolishly run away from home.  College had seemed the ideal way to find myself, to put distance between the girl I had been and the woman I wanted to become.  

“Not all of them.”  Toby laughed, as he clarified, and I looked into his brown eyes that matched my own.  “Rod is busy, training or some shit.”

I didn’t ask one by one if the others would be present that evening.  Bear, the oldest, five years older than me, and one year older than Toby.  He’d gone into the family business, suited up and went to work for the Lacey Garner Corporation, which owned a slew of restaurants and hotels all up and down the Gulf Coast.  Oz, the next in the line up, the same age as Toby, and the unrequited love of my life.  I couldn’t ask my brother about his best friend without revealing too much of my long lost feelings for him.  Feelings I could sense being dredged up as a lifetime of fond memories assaulted me.  

“Sawyer?”  It caused me a different sort of pain to ask about the one I’d hurt the most.  I dreaded Toby’s answer either way.  

Sawyer had been my best friend since forever.  Up until I cut him out of my life three years ago.  

“Hey, Calla baby, don’t be upset.”  The sincerity in his voice only punched at the ache already resident in my chest.  “Sawyer Lacey will show up tonight because he wants to see you, and because he loves you.”  

I nodded, but I wasn’t so sure.  Was it that simple?  Could Sawyer and I just go back to being friends after I dropped him for the controlling boyfriend I’d so foolishly attached to in college?  Gary hadn’t understood the concept of platonic friendship, and I hadn’t been able to tolerate his never-ending rage when it came to my life long best friend.  I chose wrong, and now I had to see the proof of my bad decisions.  

“Milo will show, too.”  Toby smiled, and I could hear it in his voice.  It pulled me from my dark thoughts, and gave me an anchor of hope.  “How long has it been since you’ve seen him?  

“A couple years?”  I shrugged, as if I couldn’t remember the exact last time I’d seen the baby brother of the Lacey clan.  

I’d been eighteen, and so sure of my decision to go away for college.  Milo had been fourteen, excited to start high school.  He’d tagged along with Sawyer and me his whole life, and I’d watched him grow up.  Until I waved goodbye from my car, leaving him and his brothers all behind.  

“He’s as big as Bear.  No lie.”  Toby waggled his eyebrows at me, and I laughed.  

“No way!”  I tried, but failed, to picture him fully grown.  

Milo’s high school graduation was in a few weeks, and I realized then how happy I was to be home for the event.  

“Yes way.”  Toby jumped up to his feet and posed like a muscle man, flexing his arms and smiling with all his teeth showing.  

I laughed at his antics, and held on to the feeling of gratefulness at being home with my brother.  My Toby who loved me no matter what, and who happily took me in when I called him last minute.  Three weeks ago, right before finals, I’d finally ended things with Gary, and by doing so severed ties to all the plans I’d made for after school.  Seeing with clarity for the first time in a long time, I’d finished school, and I’d called my saintly big brother to tell him I wanted to come home.  

“Come on, let’s finish unloading your shit.”  He tipped his head to the door, and I rose to follow him.  

In three trips, we had all my bags and boxes upstairs.  As I unpacked, I wondered how long it would take for the house to feel like home.  Or if it ever would.  How long would it take to wear out my welcome?  I put all my books on the wide shelves of the salvaged bookcase, allowing them to offer me the sense of familiarity I craved from them.  I made room for my things in the bathroom Toby and I would share, and could see the fights that would ensue with this set up.  Like being kids again.  

I didn’t pull out the little writing apparatus Toby had gifted me, not yet ready to face my future.  My carrer plans were amorphous at best.  I found my stride writing short stories, and had even already had marginal success with two pieces being published.  One in a literary magazine, and the other chosen for the university newspaper to celebrate our graduating class.  I sort of knew I wanted to put together a collection of short stories, knowing it would involve a lot of writing, extensive querying to agents and publishing houses, and not a lot of guaranteed money.  I’d need to find supplemental income soon.  

There was time for me to settle in and find my footing before I needed to worry about my life goals.  I needed time to think, to process the past few years, and to get my head on straight.  I was in no shape to make life decisions just yet.  Including picking out clothes for a party which would feature a lot of people looking at me.

 

Me:  Help!

 

Emily:  I would, doll face, but I’m a million miles away.

Emily:  What’s up?

 

Me:  I’m home.  At Toby’s.  EVERYONE is coming over.

Me:  Wardrobe crisis.

 

Emily:  LOL

 

I waited, staring at the screen of my phone while little dots indicated she was answering me.  Rather than continue pacing the small room, I went out to the balcony.  My fingers clutched the rough wood railing, as I let the beach begin to sooth my jangled nerves.  Waves threw themselves again and again onto the white sand.  The sun was near setting, and only a few stragglers remained on the shore.  Birds circled, diving through the air, then sinking to snatch at unseen treasures in the water.  I breathed in the salty air and let it heal me. 

 

Emily:  Too hot for jeans.  Your pink flippy skirt is killer.  Wear the open back tank I gave you.  

Emily:  You’ll slay them all!

 

Emily had been my roommate all four years of college.  We were paired together randomly as freshman.  She was a sorority girl, pep squad, glitter happy, bundle of blonde energy, and not my type at all.  Somewhere along the way we became friends, and we stuck together through the years.  She was what I would call my best friend.  Really my only friend during the Gary Years.  

Gary hadn’t approved much, but then he never did about anything.  The thing with Emily though was that as my roommate, he couldn’t do anything to keep us apart.  All the weeding he did, removing each person from my life who wasn’t him, didn’t apply to Em.  She saw both sides of him before I did, and liked to call him Scary Gary.  

 

Me:  Thanks.  

Me:  Miss you already.

 

Emily:  Me too.  Send me pictures of those gorgeous boys all coming to see you tonight.  

 

She included an emoticon of a devil, and a drooling smiley.  That was Emily.  

It wasn’t even officially summer yet, but I had to agree it was too hot for jeans.  I had driven home in cut offs and a t-shirt, and looked precisely like I had woken up at dawn and driven half the day.  I opened my bedroom door to the landing at the top of the stairs and yelled down to the lower floor.

“I’m taking a shower.”

I didn’t know why I felt the need to tell Toby of my whereabouts other than to keep him from messing with me.  

“Thanks for the news flash.  Now I’ll know to send the guests up to you when they arrive.”

I could hear his laughter float up the stairs after his words.  My answer was a choice word back down to him before slamming my door.  Showering helped wash away the miles I’d driven and the anxiety that had hounded me as I headed toward home. 

I dressed in the pink skirt that fell just above my knees, and the white tank that tied around the neck, and around the middle of my back, and that was it.  Em had bought it for me and called it my Going Out Top.  The one sexy piece I owned.  No bra.  Just a slip of silky fabric draped over the front half of me.  I pulled my hair into a high knot and didn’t bother securing the waves that pulled free to tickle my face and neck.

They say home is where the heart is, and I’d all but forgotten to take into account the fickle organ.  Toby loved me.  The Laceys were showing up, and would hopefully forgive my years away.  I had never stopped loving them, my family by blood and by choice.  I took a final moment, staring out at the beach, before heading down for my welcome home party.  The waves pounded the beach, and my heartbeat began to the match the rhythm, and I began to see the possibility of the life I could have if I only listened to my heart.  

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Two

Voices and movement became evident beneath me.  The party started in a trickle that quickly became a flood.

I stalled only a little, with a swipe of mascara, and a quick dab of lip gloss.  I slipped on sandals, then threw them back into the bottom of the closet with the remainder of my boxes.  Things I never intended to unpack.  

Beach house.  Sand as a yard.  Shoes were not a necessity.  

Joy flooded me at the prospect of a life in which shoes were not necessary.  

I craved the strong arms and watchful eyes of my brother and our friends so strongly now.  With distance a barrier, and with Gary always there to tell me no, I had let years come between us.  Now I ached with longing for the ones I had left behind these last few years.  Still, nerves claimed me.  Toby and the Laceys had every right to be mad at me.  The idea of hurt on their faces tore me apart.  Worse, the idea of fake smiles caused inexplicable pain in me.  Then the idea of their notorious anger directed at me, made my fingers shake.  I had to force myself to leave the room and move down the stairs.  

The spring sun had set on our early evening, and darkness cloaked the beach around the little house.  The doors and windows were all swung open letting the cool breeze rush through the space.  A barbecue like any other.  It was my family – my chosen family – come together.  

My lips stretched into a wide smile as I descended the stairs and the scene came into full view.  Milo and Sawyer were using lacrosse sticks as swords and battling across the living room.  Toby’s voice reached me from the kitchen, talking too loudly over the clacking of the sticks, about a keg of beer.  

Yep.  Home.  

Standing at the bottom of the stairs, I watched Milo and Sawyer play fight, knocking into furniture and making a heck of a racket.  Milo had changed considerably, as Toby had said – big as his biggest brother.  Tall, broad chest, muscular arms.  But the same sweet smile and blue eyes.  Sawyer looked different too.  He’d grown his hair long and it hung golden past his shoulders, swinging around his face as he fought with his brother.  They were glowing – in their element – and smiles cracked their faces wide open.  

“You’re gonna break those, then Bear and Oz will have to kick your asses, and it will ruin my party.”  I had to break the silence.  

I had to make them look at me – to test the waters and see their reactions.  

Of all the brothers, I knew Milo would be the easiest win. 

Sawyer, I wasn’t quite so sure of, but figured we’d work it out later.  

The one who scared me the most was still no where to be seen.  Maybe he wouldn’t come at all.  

No, Toby said Oz would be here.  He was probably in the kitchen with his best friend.  Or outside manning the grill.  

“CJ!”  

Milo tossed his lacrosse stick at Sawyer – who caught it with his left hand while he still held his own in his right hand – and ran at me.  Scooping me up with ease, he spun me around and around.  My little Milo was a man now.  Or nearly.  It was hard putting the lanky fourteen year old I had left behind in the brawny body of this eighteen year old.

“Hey, Milo.  You’re …”  He sat me down and I took him in.  I looked to his pale sky-blue eyes that were bright beneath his brown brows and sandy hair.  He was the only one with their mother’s blue eyes.  “Well, look at you.  You’re all grown up.”

He shrugged like no big deal.  The way he looked back at me, like he was enjoying the view, was new.  With a shake of my head, I slapped him lightly across the chest.  

“Stop checking her out.  Geez, Miles.”  Sawyer shoved his brother out of the way and took his place in front of me.  

My eyes stung with unshed tears.  My heart burned with pain and guilt and elation.  

“Hi, Callalily.”  He hugged me.  Tight.  His arms were around me and it felt like a million types of forgiveness.  His breath moved in my hair and grounded me.

“Hi, Sawyer.”  

“I missed you.  So much.”  He still held me, and I let myself sink into his embrace.

“Me too.  I’m sorry.”

I spoke into his chest.  He was the slightest of all the Laceys.  Which meant he was only six feet two, and less than two hundred pounds.  My nose filled with the salty-air, bubblegum scent of Sawyer Lacey.  

“So you’re done with him?”  He asked in a grim tone.

He said him like he was really saying the evil prick who hijacked your life the last 3.5 years.  If he only knew the truth, there would be so much more venom in that one word.  

“Very done.”  I admitted on a breath, shuddering at the past and allowing myself to feel relieved at the present.

Sawyer nodded as we pulled back from each other.  Looking at him was very much like looking at Toby in that it was achingly familiar.  Like I knew his face better than my own.  

“I’m glad you’re home, Calla.  Really glad.” Sawyer said with a depth of emotion, and left one arm around me.

“You seeing anyone, Saw?”  I changed the subject to prevent tears from coming.  

“Nah.  Couple blokes.”

He had taken to calling the guys he dated blokes back in high school.  It was funny and it stuck, and it was so like him.  

“Anyone coming tonight?”  I hip bumped him as I asked.

I almost said:  so I can meet him, or so I can approve.  I bit back the words as I tasted the tang of hypocrisy and irony in my mouth.  We were a long way from me having a say in any part of Sawyer’s life.  But for the first time in a long time, with his arm around my shoulder, I had hope.

“Nope.  Tonight is about you.”

I stayed snuggled into his side while he walked me toward the kitchen.  I wanted to drag my feet to delay the inevitable – I wasn’t ready for more.  Not yet.

“You want a drink?”  Milo asked, too eager and bouncing around like a hyper puppy.  

“Not from you, little boy.”  I winked and giggled, and he made a show of looking offended.  “It occurs to me that we are all of drinking age.  Except you.  Ha!  It’s not me and Sawyer anymore.”

Our laughter tangled together in a way that was new and old, both fresh and familiar.  

“Shut up.  Like you’re so much older than me.”  Milo mock-pouted, and I hoped I hadn’t really hit a nerve.

I was four years older than Milo.  Just like Oz and Toby were four years old than me.  It wasn’t that much older.  Not really.  

Not now.

We rounded the corner, out of the living room and into the kitchen.  It was packed with bodies.  I had been so focused on Sawyer and Milo, letting them distract me, I hadn’t paid attention to the other voices.  Bear and Oz were both in there with Toby.  Also Mike and Liam, boys from school a few years ahead of me.  They’d always been around too, just not as much as the Laceys.  They were all talking over each other and drinking whatever beer was in the sweating keg on a pedestal in the kitchen.  It was a chorus of voices and stories that interlaced, and laughs that rang out loud.  

Everything stopped when Sawyer ushered me into the room.  Each set of eyes drank me in.  The silence was weighted – heavy with worry, curiosity, and expectation.  

“Well, shit.”  Bear was the first to speak.  To break the spell that had stalled time.  “Look at you, all grown up.”

“Funny.  That’s what I said to Milo.”  My voice sounded wrong, too high and pinched.

“Y’all aren’t kids any more.  That’s for sure.”  Bear grunted, his face uneasy.

His eyes grazed over my body and I felt the burn of it.  Bear was only a year older than my brother, but he had always seemed so much older.  He had always been the leader of them all and set the pace.  The peacekeeper.  Kept the boys in line when needed, urged them on when needed.  He was the biggest of them, too.  Six five, burly.  Blonde curls cut close to his head and sea green eyes.  

He hesitated, unsure, then stuck his hand out.

“Are you crazy?”  I laughed.  “I am not shaking your hand, Bernard Lacey.  Jerk.”

I moved from under the security of Sawyer’s arm and threw my arms around Bear.  He hugged with a tentative pat to my back.  His broad warm hand touched the bare skin of my back.  His embrace immediately stiffened around me.  My sexy going out shirt might prove to be too much for this crowd.  The other boys in the kitchen hadn’t seen the open back – not yet.  Saw didn’t – and wouldn’t – care.  Milo was probably drooling somewhere behind me.  The others?  They’d lose their shit after they noticed.  Bear cleared his throat, and as we pulled apart, his face held a warning.  

Mike and Liam muttered cursory greetings, time having carved a wedge between us, making things awkward.  They gave me brief and friendly hugs.  They went out back, to the deck, to the arrival of a few other friends.  Set up camp out there, giving me a wide berth, and giving me time alone with the brothers.  A few girls I sort of knew from school were around, but none came forward.  

“Calla.”

My name on Oz’s tongue was a dangerous drug.  It worked its way into my system and made it impossible to feign indifference.  

He moved into my space and gazed down at me.  Oz had always been my favorite Lacey – not that I didn’t love them all.  And I was certainly closest to Sawyer.  But I had loved Oz for so long and in such a different way.  I felt sure it all leaked out from my eyes as I looked up at him.  

“Hey, Ozzie.”  I managed, my tongue thick with emotion.

“Jitter.”

I shook my head.  No one was into nicknames like this bunch.  

Bernard was always Bear.   

Oscar was Oz to most, and Ozzie just to me.  

Roderick got shortened to Rod, but he was also known as Pod.  His bigger brothers called him Pod when he was born, because he was the baby then, and like a little bean pod, or so the story goes.  

Sawyer became simply, Saw.  

Milo was Baby Bro.  And Little Kid.  Or just Little.  And a string of other terms of supposed endearment to remind him of his place.  

They all had names for me too:  Calla, Callalily, Jitterbug, or just Jitter.  CJ, for Calla Jane.

“Don’t call me that.”  I half joked, stricken to hear Jitter cross Oz’s lips.

I watched a crease form between Oz’s bright green eyes.  Green like spring grass.  We were on rocky ground at best.  But then, it was me who had crushed on him, not the other way around.  He should be like another big brother, right?

“Sure, okay.”  He nodded and his face was too solemn.  “Um … so can I talk to you for a minute?”

I nodded.  When I turned to head back upstairs, it was met with gasps in response to my shirt.  Shit.

“Calla Jane Weary, what the hell are you wearing?”  My brother choked out.

“Shut up, Toby.”  Oz answered for me.  “She’s not a kid any more.”

His words were spit out harshly, which sent a trickle of fear down my spine.  Fear which had nothing to do with Oz.  Or with my brother.  I tried to shake it off and bury it too deep to ever let it fully resurface.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Three

I had grown up with violence.  Had known it intimately from inside my own home.  From the place were I hid in my room and listened as Daddy and Toby fought.  I still fell right into it without seeing it coming with Gary.  Even though I was stronger now, and putting distance between myself and the last few years, the sound of an angry voice still effected me.  It wasn’t rational so much as reactional.  

Oz must have seen how I faltered after he raised his voice to my brother – he took my hand as he had so many times before when I was afraid.

When Oz held my hand, it grounded me and warmed me with a thousand memories of safety wrapped up in this boy.  Man.  When Toby had grown tired of his little sister tagging along, it had been Oz who stuck up for me and let me join them.  If I fell, Oz rushed to help me up first, always taking my hand in an act of reassurance. 

 I relaxed into the fingers that wound through my own, then I led him up to my room to talk.  

“I know this isn’t the time.  I should wait.”  He paced the small room and wouldn’t look at me.  “You just got home.  And, I …”

“It’s okay.  What is it?”

I opened the sliding glass door.  The heat in the house had risen and made the room an oven.  Breeze off the water stirred the curtains, the air, and me.  I stood in the doorway like it was an escape route.  

“I need to know what happened.”  Oz finally spit out, his eyes bright with latent anger, and his face pleading with me.

“What do you mean?”  I knew what he meant.  Of course I knew, but I didn’t want to face the pain I’d so recently left behind.  I hesitated to admit my part in staying with Gary, or what that time had entailed.  

I wore a mask of friendliness and mild confusion.  I had spent the last few years learning to lie.  Learning to hide behind a mask wiped free of emotion.  

Oz forcibly dragged in a breath.  Then he stopped moving, and he looked right at me.  I shivered despite the heat.  

“This guy …”  He took another deep breath.  Oz teetered on the edge, working to stay level headed, to stay in control.  “What I’ve heard from Toby, and Sawyer, I just need to know what happened.  I need to hear it from you.”

“Why?”  My hand went to my chest, as if it could clutch my beating heart.

Why did he care?  Even Toby hadn’t asked for the details.  As soon as I agreed to come home, to live with him, to take some time off, he let up.  He stopped asking questions.  He was content to know I would be there with him and that he could make sure I was safe.  That was enough for him for now.

“Why?”  His deep voice hummed in my ears.  Oz closed the distance between us, leaving a buffer of space, but not enough.  The heat of him washed over me along with the lemon and mint smell of him.  It was intoxicating.  “God, Calla, you are …  I need you to tell me he didn’t hurt you.  I need you to tell me you’re home for good and never seeing him.  It doesn’t matter why, I need to hear the words.”

He was forceful.  His words powerful.  But Oz was all strength wrapped up with gentleness.  It was different than Gary.  He had been strength all wrapped up with cowardice.  A bully.

“I don’t want to talk about it, Oz.”  I turned away from him, so that I faced the beach.  More people had arrived to the party, and their voices floated up to us.  A party for me, and I was upstairs alone with Oz.  Not for the first time in my life.  The familiarity hurt more than anything else.  “But, yeah, it’s over.  I’m home.  At least until I can get a job and my own place.”

Oz moved in closer until his chest pressed warmly against my back.  A forbidden move that I wanted to read more into than he probably intended.  

“You in this shirt will be my undoing.”  He growled the words low and close, as if he found me desirable.  As if we could give in to temptation.

I sighed and leaned back more firmly against him.  

Oz.  

I was forbidden fruit.  Toby had been very clear that none of his friends were to ever try anything with me.  Bear had taken up the same song.  Oz had sung it along with them, but then there was that night.  

That one night.  

A time when I thought maybe, just maybe, Oz could sense my feelings for him – so much more than friendship – and that he could return them.  Turns out I was immature.  A foolish girl full of wishful thinking.  I had left, then hadn’t looked back.  And I never let myself think too much about Oz.  

“We better go back downstairs.  Before Toby comes up here looking.”  Oz’s voice came out gently, but tinged with gruffness.  A rumbling that I could feel in my own chest.

“Right.  Can’t risk getting caught.”  I sounded as bitter as I felt.  

Which was to say a lot.  I pushed past him and stomped down the stairs.  I acted like the bratty little sister.  I felt myself sliding back into a role that was all wrong, and all right, and I couldn’t figure out which it was more. 

“Toes.”  Yeah, Toby was Tobes, which somehow became Toes.  It wasn’t his favorite.  Which is of course why I said it.  “You better have something other than skank ass beer for me to drink.”

I rounded the corner into the kitchen.  The not open floor plan was not my friend.  I couldn’t see what was happening in there before rushing in.  Mostly everyone had gone outside.  But people were floating in and out and filling all the space of the small house, the deck, and the beach down below.  In the kitchen, Toby was giving Milo shit, up in his face yelling at him.  

“What the hell?  Back off, Toby,” I yelled in shock.  

I shoved my way in, which was not generally a good idea with this bunch.  Any guy who tried to step in-between a fight would be the joint target of those involved.  Not me.  They all worked so damn hard to look out for me that they all but tip-toed around me.  No punches would be thrown if I was too near.  

“Calla, he …”  Toby was breathing hard.  His eyes sharp daggers aimed at Milo.  Maybe something had changed while I was gone.  Maybe they didn’t get along.  I wouldn’t even know something like that – the revelation was a knife into my side.  “I overheard him saying shit he shouldn’t be saying.”  

Toby lifted me up and moved me out of the way.  

“Oh, come on!”  I wailed and I heard laughter behind me.  Several voices.  We were drawing attention.  “I am not a child!” 

No one listened to me, and it did little good to act childish if I wanted them to treat me as something else. 

Toby looked Milo right in the eye.  He stabbed a finger at him as he spoke.  

“Don’t ever fucking look at my sister like that again.  And if you ever talk about her like that again, I will kill you.”

Toby stalked off leaving a visibly upset Milo standing there.  Well, shit.  I’d been back less than a whole day, and Toby had ventured into over-protective-bullshit mode.  Add it to the list of topics we needed to discuss.

“Ignore him.”  I moved in closer to Milo who for real would not look directly at me.  

I turned to the people meandering and hoping to catch a fight, or some gossip at least.  

“Get the fuck out.”

I saw wide eyes that I had the gall to banish people who had come to see me.  Whatever.  

“Milo.  Come on.  Look at me.”  He wouldn’t.  Not fully.  “Toby gives that speech to every guy in a hundred mile radius.  It’s bull.  I’m a big girl.  I can take care of myself.”

It felt like lies.  That last part especially.  Wasn’t that part of the appeal of coming home?  To have someone looking out for me?  But I knew, too, that I could learn to trust my instincts, and despite my less than stellar record, I held out hope for finding someone who treated me with respect.  

Milo almost smiled, and sort of looked more in my general direction.  Milo, the baby of the group, the one who had always looked up to me, he stood there towering over me and clearly scared of my brother.  

“Tell me what you said.  I could use a pick me up.”  I pitched my voice to be flirty.  I cocked a hip to the side and looked up at him until he looked back down right at me.  I smiled and waited with a tap of my toe.  

He let out a small laugh, and it was like a sigh of relief.  I guess he thought I’d be pissed or something.  

“I was just telling Buck that you looked hot.”  His cheeks pinked with his admission.

“I have a feeling that’s the abridged version.”  I batted my lashes, and he smiled but tried not to and it was cute.  “Thanks for that anyway.”

“Like you don’t know.”  Milo said it like a joke, like it should be obvious.

“Maybe I don’t, Milo.  It doesn’t hurt to hear it every once in a while.  Just don’t let Toby … Or Oz … Or Bear overhear you.  Duh.”

“Good thing Rod isn’t here.  I can’t take on all of ‘em at once.”

He laughed.  I laughed.  It was all good.  Or it would be.  The baby Lacey was the least of my concerns; it was easy to see his affection for me hadn’t diminished.  

“Now, escape while you still can.”  I shooed him out the door, into the night, and out of the danger zone if Toby remained on the war path.  

I saw the way the girls at the party watched him.  He was a Lacey, which in this town, made him worth looking at and worth getting to know, and if he liked you, he was oh so worth being on the inside.  

Being with them, it was like being in an exclusive club.  All these other people, they were friends who came to parties, who you smiled at and laughed with, but they weren’t really in.  I was.  And I had almost forgotten what it felt like.  

Like royalty.

The aura around me, the don’t touch buffer which surrounded me, had been something I had grown to hate.  Now I was happy to find myself back in it.  I wanted to be held at arms length just now – from anyone who wasn’t on the inside with me.  

I pilfered the kitchen and found makings for my favorite drink.  Toby did not let me down.  It brought a smile to my lips to know he’d remembered as I doused vodka into lemonade with a dash of cranberry juice.  

I made the rounds at the party.  I smiled and said hello and thank you so many times my face and head hurt.  I went around a few times before I gave up and plopped on the sofa in the living room.  Right under the wobbling ceiling fan.  The noises from the party around me became the soundtrack for a movie I didn’t remember choosing.  Mike and a couple other guys were playing a video game from the other sofa.  

Toby’s living room was long, running the length of the house.  He had set it up like two smaller living areas – one with the giant flat screen and game system.  The other with a huge square coffee table that he had made for board games.  Two book cases overflowed with every board game you could remember existing.  No one was over here on the board game side, just yet, so I took a minute to decompress.

The noise from the party was a racket and coming from every direction.  Hot dogs and hamburgers were being passed around.  The smell, rather than enticing, was nauseating.  

“Want another drink?”

I didn’t open my eyes.  I held out my cup.  I knew Oz’s voice without needing confirmation.  

He took my cup without a word.  House rule:  no one served Calla Jane except one of them.  I was never to take a drink from anyone else.  Ever.  Oz sat down beside me when he came back and put a warm hand on my thigh.  It scorched through the fabric of my skirt.  

“Why are you hiding?”  He asked, voice laced with concern.

“I’m not.  I’m resting.”  I shifted so I sat closer, exhibiting zero self control.  He let me align my leg with his without shifting away.  “It’s been a long day.”

“When can I see you again?”  He asked the question in an almost shy tone, and his fingers traced invisible patterns on my leg.

I opened my eyes and found his face above where mine rested against the back of the couch.  Oz was so beautiful with his golden honey hair, his almost too round green eyes, and his full lips.  I touched his hair, soft like velvet along my fingertips.

How did I answer his simple question?  He could see me whenever he’d like, but I thought better about inviting trouble.  Being near him again reminded me of what we shared before I left, and made the feelings rush back.  I had to stop thinking of Oz as more than another surrogate brother.  

“Maybe you should talk to my brother about that.”  I said the words in a strained voice, unable to stop the petulance that colored my thoughts.

I didn’t say it to be mean.  I just said it because sometimes the truth had to be said.  Otherwise everyone was going around ignoring it.  If I’ve learned anything, it’s the truth will come out eventually.  And for all those who had been wandering in ignorance of it, the truth was a sobering and lethal thing.  

“I don’t care what he thinks, Callalily.”  Oz scoffed, sounding convincing.  

“Yes, you do.”  I shook my head and sat up, putting distance between us, my legs tucked beneath me.  

“You’re right.  I do.”  Oz’s head cocked to one side.  His eyes flicked down to my legs but only for a second.  “I just care more what you think.”

“I don’t know what I think.”  Exhaustion caught up with me, helped along with alcohol, and my mind wouldn’t settle.  

“I want to see you.  We can hang out.  As friends.”  He attempted to shrug, to look nonchalant.  

He failed.  Friends sounded like a toothache that he talked around, denying the pain.  

“Friends?”  Always friends.  “Sure, Ozzie.  Friends.  We’ll do lunch.”

I got up and sauntered off.  I left him there on that couch because if I didn’t get up, I would have said or done something stupid.  I couldn’t afford to be stupid.  I said lunch like it was my own tooth ache.  

I went out to the balcony and sat on Sawyer’s lap.  He welcomed me into the space with no fanfare.  It was easy.  I needed easy.  Listening to him talk with the other people around us was easy.  But I wasn’t really paying attention.  I was tired.

I was twenty-two and I was tired.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Four

Days passed with nothing of substance to fill my time.  

I’d kiss Toby’s cheek when he left for work.  He called it his day job.  Back when I’d been in high school and he’d been putting himself through the local community college, he had learned to fix cars.  He became a registered mechanic and damn good one at that.  He then worked his way up to manage the shop.    

My brother was also a fantastic drummer, playing in a descent band with semi-regular gigs around surrounding towns.  But, music wasn’t enough to bring in the money it took to survive.  

Hence the day job to pay the bills.

I would sip my coffee as Toby drove away, and I would let the loneliness settle in and around me.  

I read obscene numbers of books on my kindle.  

I took walks along the beach – only while it was still early enough not to be brutally hot.  

I drove to the boardwalk and browsed all the tourist traps.  People recognized me and smiled.  Most waved but didn’t come over.  A few got in a hug and asked if I was back for good.  To which I had no answer.

I texted with Emily.  She had taken a job that started right after graduation.  Packed up and moved home to Georgia.  We had fallen into the habit of taking pictures of everything and sending them to each other.  Everywhere she went, she shared it with me.  Every person of interest, I saw their mug.  I did the same for her, showing her the beach, and the house, and my friends.  She insisted Rod was the best looking of all the guys.  And lamented – as did many a girl – that Sawyer was gay.  She kept her mouth shut about Oz.  I had made it clear my feelings for him – on more than one drunken sob fest – and she knew better than to open that can of worms.

A few stories had begun developing in my mind, and I let them tease me as my mind worked on them in the background.  I’d learned that for me, a large part of writing was mulling over ideas and letting them percolate in my head long before I started jotting them down.  I had an idea for the theme of the book I’d put together, what would tie the stories together, and had a vague idea of many of the stories I wanted to write.  I’d be ready to start putting it all into real words soon.  

I also played around with writing blog posts, or submitting to magazines, something more short term than putting together a full collection of my work.   

Days slipped by and I relished in letting myself relax.  Time away from school and away from my toxic relationship began to give me peace.  I’d changed my number after breaking up with Gary, but I still worried he would contact me.  I wasn’t past looking over my shoulder, wondering if he’d show up looking for me, but after a few days at the beach, I’d started breathing again.

“Chicka chicka.”  Toby’s voice echoed through the house.  

Damn, was it already after five?  I had gotten lost in a novel and wiled the hours right away.    

“Boom boom!”  I called the answer back as I headed to my door.  

It was our version of Marco Polo we’d come up with as kids.  

“Get your ass down here.”

“I’m coming, Cranky Pants!”

I bounded down the stairs with quick easy steps.  Contrary to what I’d thought when I moved back to the coast, I had very quickly gotten used to living with my brother.  I even liked it.  He kept to himself mostly, and so did I.  When we did come together, it was easy.  Fun.  Almost like I wasn’t broken.  Or like maybe I could be fixed one day.  

Toby, not being a homebody like me, went out almost every night.  Usually with the guys.  Sometimes with a girl, or a different girl, or to pick up a girl.  I tried not to keep track.

“Tell me you’re coming to the show tonight.”  He called out as I rounded the corner to see him.

He was dirty from work and smelled like oil, or motors, or tires.  Something like cars and hard work.  A smell that I had been associating with Toby for a very long time.  

“I don’t know.”  My shoulders moved in a shrug and I moved around Toby for the sink.  You couldn’t drink enough water with the relentless heat and salt of the beach.

I bit my lip and he stared hard at me.  He had a fierce you better shape up light in his eyes.

“Calla.  You have to get out of this house!”  He was almost but not quite yelling.  I felt that thing again, that almost fear, writhing deep in my stomach.  “You haven’t seen me play in years.  You have to come.”

I took a small step back, my breath snagged in my chest making me choke.  I looked at him, and I wasn’t sure what he saw in me as he looked back.  But his whole demeanor changed.  Like he was the one who was scared.   

My heart had spiked, an immediate over-reaction, and my palms itched.  So much for relaxing as more time passed.  

Fight or flight – which for me was always flight – roared through my system like a freight train.  It blotted out any sense of reason.

“Why are you afraid of me?”  Toby asked in a timid voice, carefully not entering my space, though his body leaned toward me.

His purposely soft voice held an accusation that stung.  The hurt and confusion on his face was painful and prickled at my skin.

I was not afraid of him.  Not Toby.  I knew without a doubt he would never hurt me.  He would die before he hurt me – or let me be hurt.  I was still trying to figure out how to re-train my body not to tense up when I encountered heightened emotions.  

Not that I could – or would – divulge that level of information to my brother.  Part of moving back down to the beach had been to force myself to move forward with my life.  Leaving the bad parts behind where they belonged.

“I’m not. Afraid of you.”  I morphed to Fresh Face Calla.  Innocent smile.  Wave of a hand.  Hopeful he couldn’t hear my thundering pulse.  “I mean, obviously.”

“No.  Uh uh.”  His eyes stared at my face, trying to get a better read on me, “Don’t try to brush me off.  What the hell?”

I bit my lip to keep it from trembling, as I didn’t want to cry.  

“Nothing.  Really.  I was just …”  I cleared my throat and tried to keep my mask in place.  “What time is the show?  Should I go ahead and get ready?”

“We go on at nine.”  He stated simply, letting me change the subject, but not ready to let it go.

His voice stayed weird.  His eyes were taking in my every movement, my every shift of body and emotion.  I knew he saw through me – I just wasn’t sure what he saw there.  

“When do you need to be down there?  Can we go to dinner first?”  My trying-to-sound-natural voice sounded false as it lingered between us.

“I’m playing at Shooters and the Crab Shack is next door.”  Toby grumbled, still watching me, still weary of my reaction.

He was still speaking in a weird tone.  I couldn’t figure out what it meant exactly.  I smiled too much, like a lunatic.  

“Okay.  Cool.  I’m gonna …”  I pointed up the stairs.  “I’m gonna invite Sawyer.”

“Calla.”

I paused at the top of the stairs and looked back down at my brother.  The constant in my life.  My always protector.  I felt swollen with the guilt of having flinched away from him; at having made him feel bad or like he had done something wrong.  

“I’m sorry.”  His gruff voice carried up to me, and the pain in his face physically hurt me to witness.

“For what?”  I asked, but didn’t want to know.

Don’t say it.  Don’t say it.  Don’t say it.  

This was one of those truths that I had tried gracefully to ignore.  One that was ready to come out and bite me in the ass.  

“For not being there.  For not …”  He sighed and as he did, looked older.  More than his twenty-six years.  “For not protecting you.”

“It’s not your fault, Tobes.”  

I sort of smiled.  I definitely escaped from his gaze and hid in my room.

 ***

I went with skinny jeans despite the heat.  A ruffled olive green tank top that fell loose over my hips and showed just enough cleavage.  And my worn the hell out brown birks.  I pulled my hair into two french braids and let them hang over my shoulders.  I may as well play up the whole little sister thing.  It was working to my advantage these days as far as I could tell.  

I rode with Toby in his million year old Ford Ranger.  No a/c.  

“God, can’t you fix this thing?”  I complained, fanning my pits with my hands, knowing it wouldn’t keep me from sweating.

He laughed, “Of course I could.”

“Ugh.”  

The windows were rolled all the way down, which you’d think would help, but no.  Instead it suffocated us with hot, humid air.  Little pieces of my hair flew free from the braids and whipped across my face until I gave up on looking decent.  

“You might have to get a ride home.  From Sawyer.  Or Oz.”  Toby tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and stick shift, always finding the beat.

“Oh, are those two my only approved chaperones?”  The question popped out automatically, laced with snark.

I was happy to be home, and happy for the safety and security that come with it.  I couldn’t help the attitude that bubbled from my lips when my brother said that stuff.   

“Yes.”  He answered with total seriousness.  

“Why can’t you take me?”  I picked at a loose thread on my jeans.  Why did I wear jeans instead of shorts?  My legs were sweating, my knee pits probably had stains.  And Toby didn’t plan to bring me home from our outing.

“I’m playing the second set too, with a different band.  I’ll be there late.”  He didn’t look at me, paying attention to the road and the stupid beach traffic.  “You won’t want to wait for me.”

“Oh.”

He did that sometimes – played backup or fillin with other bands.  He knew all the local bands and they all knew him.  It was cool, but did leave me with limited options.

Short drive down the beach to the boardwalk, and we were there.  When we walked into the Crab Shack, I spotted Oz and Sawyer at a table by the windows.  Evening sun slanted long shadows across their handsome faces, and threw them into deep relief.

“You invited Oz to dinner?”  I half-heartedly complained.

“Obviously.”  Toby shook his head at me.  “He’s playing with me tonight.  What’s the big deal?  You’re being so weird.”

“Shut up.”

I shoved him and he pretended it had an effect on him, swaggering a few steps.  Sawyer typed away on his phone, looking unaware of our approach.  Oz watched me, tracing my every step, and didn’t bother with being inconspicuous.  I wanted to be mad, or indignant.  Instead, I felt happy.  

All the same, I took the seat beside Sawyer.  I knew better than take the one by Oz.  That would throw the earth off its axis.  

We stuffed ourselves with seafood.  Quality seafood being yet another perk of living at the beach.  Talk moved from the show that night, to Sawyer’s project.  The sculpture he was designing for the library sounded unbelievable and I couldn’t wait to see his progress.  We talked about Lacey Garner Corp, and what Oz and Bear had been doing at work.  Talk came in an easy natural flow, except that the topic never ventured toward me.  After a while it began to feel like an elephant in the room, only I couldn’t be sure if anyone else knew it was there other than me.  

“Why no date, Saw?”  I batted my eyelashes as I asked, to which he smiled sweetly.

“I thought you were my date tonight, CJ.”  

I giggled at him, then stole his rum and coke and took a few sips.  

“Now, now, now, none of that.”  He yanked it away from me and downed the remainder.

We all laughed together, and our voices blended into something all at once familiar and achingly strange.  Sawyer threw an arm around my shoulders to hold me close, and our chairs bumped together.  He threw Toby a roguish wink.  Toby looked like he wanted to be mad even though he knew better, while Oz looked legitimately mad.  Not that I knew why – I’d been tucked by his little brother’s side since forever.  

“What are you thinking about?”  Sawyer’s words were soft in my ear.

As soon as we tipped our heads together and whispered, Toby and Oz ignored us.  They hated when we got all mushy on them.  

“I was remembering when you told me you were going to marry me.”  I hadn’t been thinking about that exactly, but something like it.

“Ah.  Young love.”  He sing-songed his reply, and batted his eye lashes back at me.

Together we sighed and leaned in close enough we touched.  

It had been fifth grade.  About the time I had started looking at Oz like more than a brother.  Too young to know what my feelings were, but crushing hard on him all the same.  I’d had a crush on Bear the year before and didn’t think too much about the switch.  Crushes were meant to be unrequited.  They passed.  

But it was different from the start.  Like I loved Oz too much and the idea of not having him always in my life caused pain I couldn’t describe the right way.  When I had told Sawyer, he looked real serious and said, “I’m going to marry you one day, Calla Jane.”  It was the sweetest thing my ten year old self had ever heard.  

“I should have learned then what my love life was going to be like.”  I let it slip out dark and brooding.

“Why would you say a thing like that?”

Sawyer tipped my chin up so that I faced him.  We had a tendency to exist in our own private bubble – at least that hadn’t changed.  I heard my brother and Oz talking about their set engrossed in the upcoming show and the music they shared.  I focused on Sawyer, and tucked his long hair behind his ear.  

“Well, it’s not like you’re going to marry me.”  I managed a laugh, but I could still taste the darkness.

“I would if you wanted me to, Calla.”  His lips barely moved as he spoke.

“As if.”  I pulled slightly away, forcing a margin of space between us.  

My heart thudded, almost in awe of his words, but mostly shocked.  When Sawyer had offered, he didn’t have a preference for boys over girls, and we couldn’t imagine our lives not being spent together.  

“There are different kinds of love.  You know I love you.”  Sawyer’s words were tinged with sweetness, a fine coating of sugar, but I didn’t want any just then.

“I do.”  Of course I knew he loved me, but it didn’t matter.  I nodded my head, but kept the distance I’d created.  “But I wouldn’t do that to you.”  

“So what did that mean?”  Sawyer focused solely on me, digging deeper.  “What’s your love life like?  Hmm?”

“A disaster.”

I gave him a shaky smile.  But then I turned away.  I couldn’t look at the fire in his eyes.  

“Maybe I’ll find a guy tonight,” I announced a little too loudly.

I said it to change the subject.  Sort of.  At least to the present instead of the past.  I said it because I thought it would be normal for me to be interested in finding a boyfriend.  I said it to cover the fact that I had zero interest in finding a guy.  Or at least any guy other than the one giving me the evil eye across the table.  

“Um, no.”  Toby rolled his eyes and did his best gross out face.  

“You are such a neanderthal.  I am twenty-two.  Not to mention single.  You can’t expect me to go to a bar and hang out half the night and not speak to the opposite sex while there.”  I rolled my eyes hard to make the point.

“You have him.”  Toby pointed at Sawyer.  

I sagged, knowing there was no hope, while Sawyer laughed.  

“I give up.  I’m joining a convent.”  I threw my hands in the air and nearly knocked over my glass.

“Now that is more like it.”  Toby made a point of looking pleased, like he had solved some world crisis single handedly.  

“Leave her alone, Toby.”  Sawyer didn’t speak up for me much, not where our brothers were concerned.  I guess maybe he didn’t need to, usually, because they were always on the same side.  

Toby let it go.  But not without giving me a significant look.  A look that said this wasn’t over.  A look that said he knew something was up and we would have to talk it out.  And soon.  I added it to the other topics of conversation queued up and waiting for us to discuss.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Five

Shooters promised a good time on appearance alone.  It had a big thatched roof, a tiki vibe, and sat at the end of the boardwalk.  The breeze off the Gulf blew through the open air design, making it impossible to forget you were at the beach.  The bar sat like an island in the center, and frozen drinks were their specialty.  Barstools circled the island of blenders and alcohol, tall chairs lined the perimeter.  Strictly no tables, leaving mostly the small stage and big dance floor.  

“I’m sitting at the bar.”  I called out to whoever was listening, and beelined to a row of empty seats with a good view of the stage.

I plopped down onto a stool, and Sawyer took residence on the one next to me, where he’d be behind me once the band started.  

We had an hour to kill before they played, with nothing to do but drink and talk.

The waitress came over in a hot pink v-neck and absurdly short cut-off denim shorts.  She looked great with tan legs and tattoos.    

“Oh.  My.  God!”  A squeal, and two seconds later I realized I knew the waitress.  “Calla Jane!  I heard you were coming back.  You know how this town talks.  I couldn’t make it to the shindig when you arrived because I was working.  I’m always working.  How the hell are you?”

Rachael Adams.  We’d gone to school together, and I hadn’t seen her in four years – since graduation.  She looked nothing like the girl she was when I left.  Her hair used to be long and brown, now it was a page boy and streaked with blonde.  Her nose was pierced with a little silver hoop, and a smattering of tattoos adorned her arms and chest.  

“Rachael.  Wow.  It’s been forever.  I’m good.  How are you?”  I met her rambling with some of my own, flabbergasted at how much things had changed.

I stood up so we could hug across the bar as best we could.  

“Oh, I’m good.  Same ol’ same ol’.”  She waved her hand, and I doubted her words somehow.  “What can I get you to drink?”

“Fruity frozen whatever.”  I laughed and gestured to the bay of blended icy drinks.  “Something with berries.”

She took Sawyer’s drink order too and went to work behind the bar.  She slid our glasses into place with a friendly smile, barely pausing.  

“I’ll catch up with you soon.”  She promised as she turned away.

Rachel stayed crazy busy, flitting around the place, taking orders, making drinks, working behind the bar and everywhere all at once.  I’d have to ask her to get together sometime, so we could catch up.  

“She has a kid, you know?”  Sawyer said in a low tone.

“I did not know.”  Turned out I didn’t know anything about the place I’d once called home.

“Yep.”

I spun to face Sawyer, and watched as he pulled his hair back into a messy man bun.  Total hottie, and he knew it.  He winked when he saw me checking him out.  

“Liam Murphy is the dad.”

“What!?”  I nearly spit my drink on his face.  “Liam?”

He nodded.  His jaw set and his face grim.

“It was a mess.  They went out all of about three times.  Couple months later, she’s pregnant and saying it’s his.  He wasn’t so sure.  But you know, just because Rach dresses like this for work, it doesn’t mean she sleeps around.”  He rolled his eyes at the double standards of life.  “Anyway, they did tests.  Liam is dear ol’ dad.  He was this close to severing his rights.”

Sawyer held his thumb and first finger not so far apart.  I was taken aback by the deluge of news, and the emotions it stirred in my chest.  I’d known Liam forever.  Unplanned pregnancy happened, but I couldn’t see him not taking responsibility.  

“You better believe we all gave him his ass in his hands.”  Sawyer shook his head as he remembered the events that must have transpired.  “It was rough for a while.  They were always fighting.  But in the end, that baby is a piece of sweetness, and Liam fell for him.”

He laughed and got this gooey look on his face.  

“Babies are easy to fall for.  It’s the squishy thighs.”  I said it like I had a clue.  

He nodded and took a long drink.  Silence stretched between us, thick and awkward.

“So spill it.”  Curiosity shown in Sawyer’s face as he sipped and asked, breaking the tension.

“Spill what?”

“Give me the last three plus years.  Lay it all out.”  He watched me intently, wanting to hear everything, as if I hadn’t dropped him.  As if he didn’t hate me.

“Every one keeps asking me to talk, to explain, to … whatever.  But I can’t.”  I stumbled over the words and felt heat flood my skin.  “I left all that behind and I don’t want to revisit it.  School was good though.  You’d love my roommate Emily.  She’s like Legally Blonde come to life.  I wanted to hate her and just couldn’t manage.”

He soaked up every word I offered him.  Like he knew he might not get any more.  

“I’m sorry, Saw.  I mean, really, really sorry.  If I could go back …”

I let my apology hang there, unable to go on. 

“If you decide to talk.  I listen pretty good.”  He gave me another wink and acted unaffected.

We talked about the easy topics, and we waited, and we drank.  

The bar was packed – standing room only – when the band took the stage.  Oz played bass, off to the left, and looked oh-so-serious the whole time.  Toby played drums, in the back, and showed off by twirling his drumsticks and catching them between songs.  During songs.  Paul McDonald played lead guitar and did the singing, front and center, and obviously loved every second of it.  He was a real showman, and always gave the crowd what they came for.  More than just good music, he joked around and was so at ease on stage it drew you into the performance.  

There was a short break between sets with radio hits piped in to keep the dancers happy.  The band came out and mingled with us common folk.  

I jumped up and threw myself at my brother.  He hugged me and kissed my cheek, and mercifully didn’t let me fall down as I staggered.  

“I see you are having a good time.  Aren’t you glad I made you come?”  Toby laughed in my ear.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”  I rolled my eyes as he steadied me on my feet.

“Calla, girl, so sorry I missed the bash the other night.”  Paul stuffed his hands into his pockets, and smiled widely at me, “You are looking fantastic.  Old age agrees with you.”

Paul was a shameless flirt, and I didn’t mind a bit at the moment.  He seemed familiar and harmless.

“Thank you, Paulie.”  I gave him a little curtsey because I was a little drunk. 

“Who was that loser tourist you were dancing with during our set?  You owe me the next dance.”  Paul followed that with a suggestive lift of his brow.

I flicked my eyes to Toby, and to Oz.  To what?  To check and see if it was okay?  Old habits died hard.  I immediately brought my eyes back to Paul, and ignored the stunned looks I had found on the other faces. 

“Yes.  Absolutely.  I would love to dance with you.”  The words came out a little too forcefully, shocking every one.

Paul nodded at me and looked pleased as well as a little surprised, like he hadn’t expected me to agree.  

“I’m out.”  Sawyer stood behind me, hands cupped over my shoulders.  “I have an early morning tomorrow.”

“Oh, but you’re bringing me home.”  I turned to tell Paul our dance would have to wait until some other night.  

“I’ll bring her home.”  Oz offered, to the rescue like old times.  

“Text me when you get in.”  Sawyer lifted and lowered his hands a couple times on my shoulders, and I soaked up his touch.

“You’ll be asleep.”  I reminded him.

“I don’t care.”

“Okay.”

Paul took Sawyer’s seat and ordered whiskey.  He ordered me another drink although I was pretty sure I’d had one too many already.  I thanked him and sipped it slowly.  

Toby took off into the melee.  He was looking for some girl he’d met the week before.  Plus he was due back on stage in like fifteen minutes to play with the next band.  Oz lingered.  He didn’t sit.  He stood there looking awkward, which wasn’t something I was used to seeing on him.  

“Dude, you’re making me nervous as fuck.  Sit down.”  Paul muttered, looking edgy as he said it.

Oz grunted and took the stool on my other side.  He didn’t look at me or speak to me, and I wondered if he was annoyed that I was making him wait to take me home.  

But he had offered.  

Then I remembered him following me upstairs after I’d come home last week, and the brief moment we’d shared with his arms around me.  I wasn’t sure if I craved his sturdiness, or if I was getting it all mixed up with his friendship for so many years before.  There were a lot of question marks in my head when it came to Oscar Lacey, and seeing him hovering anxiously nearby wasn’t helping.  

Paul told me about some upcoming gigs, and I worked on ignoring whatever was brewing with Oz.  He even asked me if I’d come see him play.  I said yeah, or sure, or maybe, or probably.  It was easy enough to agree because Toby would be there, and because I had nothing else to do.  Paul had always seemed so effortlessly confident.  Like the Lacey brothers; only poor and never quite on the inside of the group.  But gorgeous with messy black hair and startling blue eyes.  As he sat there talking to me, he seemed a little keyed up, tapping his fingers and swirling his drink.  He looked past me to Oz more than a couple times.  

Did he think it was weird Oz was waiting to take me home? Could Paul sense my tumultuous feelings for the man who sat there watching, but not watching us?   

The next band was technically speaking a bigger deal, although I didn’t like them as well.  Their sound was a too experimental for me.  I knew all those guys, too, but not as well.  Toby, on the drums of course filling in, Sam on keyboard, a guy that went by Blade on bass, and Saint Joe on lead.  Saint Joe had a very real reputation and it was anything but saintly.  I steered clear without having to be told to do so.  

“Dance?”  

I nodded and Paul escorted me to the dance floor with a hand hovering at my waist.  People were swaying, sliding, bumping, grinding.  He put his hands around my hips gently, like I might disappear from his grasp.  

“Are you nervous?”  I asked, oddly fascinated by Paul with his hands on my hips.  

“Maybe.”  He admitted, then tipped his head away a little.

I stared at him with this incredulous look on my face.  He was so real.  So honest.  It all felt like a mirage of dancing and smiling and drinking.

“Why on earth would you be nervous?”  It made no sense.  Rather than put him on the spot, I decided to be funny.  “I’ll spoil the ending for you:  I’m not going to sleep with you.”

It was a joke as much as it was the absolute truth.  But I figured he knew that much going into it.  Plus there was Oz watching us.  And Toby watching us.  But I was joking.  Ha.  Ha.  

Paul’s face went serious, and he didn’t seem to find it funny.  “Obviously.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  I acted offended, even though it made no sense.

“Nothing, Calla.”  He shook his head and tried to regain the easiness that had been between us seconds before.  

I looped my hands up over his shoulders.  The song moved fast around us, and we were like sixth graders shifting side to side, talking more than dancing.  

“I wouldn’t try, that’s all,” he finally admitted.

I wasn’t sure if I should feel insulted.  I think I felt insulted.  Was it my brother who had no doubt already told him not to go after me?  Or was it me?  Maybe I was reading the whole thing wrong and Paul wasn’t into me after all.  

“You are so far out of my league Calle Jane, I’m lucky to have this dance.”

“What?  No way.  That’s crazy talk.”  I shook my head at him.  Then I smiled, a real smile that took no effort.  The lights on the floor changed, and his eyes changed with them.  Kaleidoscope eyes.  It was dizzying.  “You’re the lead singer.  You’re ridiculously good looking.  You could have any girl here.”

“That’s not entirely accurate.”  He shook his head at my declaration.  “You might have had too much to drink.”

“Probably.”  Definitely.  “But I stand by my assessment.”

We danced then.  Found the rhythm and each other.  I knew Paul.  I was safe with him.  So I could press my body along his and enjoy the feeling of his touch without fear.  I got caught up in the prospect of having fun without worrying about the consequences of a violently jealous boyfriend.  Safety could be a heady thing.  

By the third or fourth song I was thoroughly drenched in sweat, and dear Paul didn’t seem to mind.  

When I looked back, my eyes seeking Oz where he’d sat morosely on the bar stool, I realized he was no longer there.  I began to frantically search for him, which alerted Paul to my immediate and absurd level of distress.  

“What’s wrong, Calla?”  Paul’s hands stayed protectively around me, lending me strength.  

“I can’t find Oz.”  I instinctively pulled away, wanting to find Oz more than I wanted to stay with Paul.  “I’m going to find a quiet spot and call him.”  

Evidently more of a gentleman than I’d ever guessed, Paul escorted me, staying near my side, and searching the crowd with me.  Then we walked out onto the boardwalk and toward the parking lot, seeking a break from the loud music and patrons of Shooters.  

“He’s there,” Paul pointed out into the sea of cars as I held my phone in my hands.  

I’d been debating texting or calling Oz.  Unsure if I should take his departure as a sign, and let him be.  Or if I should track him down and make sure he got home okay.  

Relief overwhelmed me as I finally spotted where Oz leaned against his vehicle in the parking lot.  His head hung forward, and his hands were shoved in his pockets.  He didn’t see me, but he was clearly waiting for me.  Guilt stabbed through me at having made him wait – but it went deeper than that because I worried I’d hurt him by ignoring him all evening.  I wanted to make it up to him, to make sure he knew I cared for him.  I would be his friend if that’s what he wanted.  I’d learn to stuff down the stirrings of romance I harbored for him.  

“Let’s go put the poor fellow out his misery.  Shall we?”  Paul gently led me forward, a hand on my arm as we went down a set of wooden stairs.  

Before I could churn over his words – my head entirely too full of berry flavored alcohol – we were approaching Oz.  

“Calla.”  He breathed my name, his eyes raking over every inch of me, worry marring his face.  

Oz shifted forward, as if to reach for me, his arms extended between us, then backed up.  

“I got worried when you disappeared,” I said, keeping my voice light, feeling suddenly weary of the night around us and of Oz’s strange behavior.  “I thought you’d left me.” 

His offense at my easy words was obvious.  He was right of course, I knew Oz would never leave me, and my panic had been unwarranted.  But knowing Oz wasn’t mine, that I needed to let go of the childhood crush I had on him, weighed heavily on me, and let me imagine him gone.  

Paul cleared his throat, throwing tense glances at Oz, but didn’t say anything.  

“I’ve got her from here,” Oz seemed to force his words through clenched teeth, and I wondered how much I’d pissed him off making him wait.    

“Sorry man.  No harm, no foul.”  Paul spread his hands out, moving to put space between our bodies.

“Paulie, I’m sorry.”  

He leaned in for a half-second, “some other time, Calla,” he kissed my cheek then turned and walked away.

I turned back to Oz, who was visibly upset, and barely holding his shit together.  It would have looked like jealousy if I hadn’t known better.  More likely Oz was taking up Toby’s role as over protective big brother.  Those two would be my undoing.  

“Why are you so upset, Ozzie?”  I wanted to soothe his anger, more than I wanted his answer.

“Come on, Jitter, you’re wasted.”  Oz attempted to use a gentle voice with me, and even reached out to take my hand.  “Dancing with Paul McDonald?”

The edge of malice to his voice was my undoing.  My already chaotic emotions couldn’t handle him speaking to me like I was a child, and my level of intoxication pushed me past wonder or worry and straight to indignation.  How dare he pass judgment on me!  I had done nothing wrong.  

My heart ached as I faced this man who I’d always loved in the wrong way.  

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Six

I tried to make sense of Oz, but my sloshy brain wouldn’t fully cooperate.  He’d been sweet at my welcome home, and asked to see me again.  We’d walked a thin line – or I had – between declaring ourselves friends, and begging for more.  Then he’d offered to wait with me and take me home tonight, which seemed a friendly gesture.  But the way he’d watched me, the clear hurt in his expression as he faced me with Paul, the disdain in his tone when he didn’t approve of my choice of dance partner – all that wanted to add up to something more than friendship.  

“Come on.”  He grumbled at me with tight eyes and flat lips.

He opened the door to his sleek black BMW and settled me into the passenger seat.  It smelled like leather.  Like lemon and mint and heart break.  

“Why are you upset?”  I couldn’t keep the break from my voice.  “I don’t understand what I did wrong.”

“Don’t you?”  Oz shook his head, and I wasn’t sure he’d answer me.  “Watching you … with him …” 

“What?”

If he was going to speak in riddles, if he was going to awaken something like hope for more inside me, I needed him to say the words.   

“I didn’t like it.”  He spoke so softly I wasn’t sure he meant for me to hear him.  

I watched the beach pass in a blur out the tinted windows that made the night blacker.  The lights of the boardwalk, of the condos and the hotels that his family owned, they all disappeared as we passed.  I didn’t say another word while he drove me to Toby’s house.  My house.

He parked; the wheels crunching over the broken shells.  Without getting out of the car, he rolled the windows down so that we were bombarded with the salt and humidity of the beach.  

“I’m sorry.”  My voice was weak.  I was so, so close to breaking open.  

“I know, Callalily.”  Like me, the anger had all drained from him, leaving an open wound.

We sat there for a long time.  For a few minutes or for an hour.  We sat there and he held my hand and we were just there together.  Friendship?  More?  Possibilites went unanswered.  

“Go upstairs and go to bed.”  He finally said, his voice low as the waves crashing around us.

“Come up with me.”  I couldn’t get out of the car and leave him.  No way could I pull myself so far from him when he was hurting and it had been my fault.  

I didn’t fully understand how the pieces fit together, but the idea that they might form something other than friendship had taken hold in me.  To walk away might destroy what I’d silently wished into being while I sat there holding Oz’s hand.  

“That’s not a good idea, Calla.”

“Yes, it is.”

He followed me up the stairs and into my brother’s house.  I flicked on the kitchen light and downed a glass of water.  He had one too.  I had never swallowed so loudly as I did in the stillness of that room that night.  

I took his hand for a change, and pulled him up the stairs, right into my room.   

“Please.”

It was all I said.  It was all I needed to say.  He nodded and came all the way in.  I took off my sandals, and settled on the edge of my bed.  I patted a hand on the spot beside me, until Oz sat next to me.  The weight of my past and my present combined and pushed me down, leveled me.  Sifting through it all took too much energy, so I settled for focusing on the immediate problem, and how I ended up leaving Shooters so confused.  

“I don’t know what to say.”  I admitted, unable to look up at him.  Unsure I wanted to see it if Oz was going to tell me he wanted to be my friend.  

“Yeah, me either, Calla.”

“Why were you so upset?  Paul and I, we were just dancing.”  I took the risk of asking, bracing myself for imminent disappointment.

A flash of memory came unbidden into my head.  Another night out drinking and dancing.  A night Emily had dragged me along to one of the bars that kids from school frequented.  She was looking to dance and have fun, and wanted me to come along.  I did.  At some point I danced with a guy.  It was far more innocent than my dance with Paul, a nothing sort of moment.  Out of nowhere Gary popped up and tore us apart.  He’d hit the guy and thrown a fit.  Then I’d left with him to appease his anger and hopefully avoid more of a scene.  No matter what I said, it wasn’t good enough.  It wasn’t the right thing.  He was so mad and kept saying I had crossed the line.  He called me a slut.  A whore.  Easy.  Words that stung as much as his hands when they hit me.  

I knew this was different, what transpired with Oscar.  I knew that, and yet, I was thrown back there, trapped in my own worst memories.  Moments in my life became connected and played on a deranged loop, until I couldn’t sort out the past from the present. 

“I didn’t like it.  I couldn’t stand seeing his hands all over you like that.”  Jealousy colored his voice.  

No, he wouldn’t be jealous, it was probably all in my intoxicated mind.  I was far more drunk than I’d been in a long time, and as we sat in my room, it hit me harder than ever.  And the past still lurked too close, threatening to break through.  I couldn’t push away the image in my head of Gary lifting his hand to me, of his hand yanking my hair, of the fear and pain that had paralyzed me.  

“Nothing was going to happen.”  I said the words, knowing they were true, but still unsure why I needed to say them.  My head still warred with my past.

“You don’t know Paul, Calla, not really.”

“He knows me, Oz.  It would never have gone too far.”

I still couldn’t decide if I heard jealousy in Oz’s words, or if this was all some misguided attempt at looking out for me on my brother’s behalf.  I clung to one idea with hope blooming inside me, but I clung to the other option as a way to keep from getting my hopes up.  Reality would hit bright hot and scalding if I wasn’t careful, and I was too drunk to think straight.  

Oz sighed and his shoulders slumped.  He was upset, and I didn’t understand exactly why, and I didn’t know how to fix it.  But that’s what I did, I fixed things.  I made peace.  I soothed anger.  Or I tried.  I had to because otherwise I got hurt.  

“Calla, you can’t do that.”  He stood up and as if he couldn’t keep still.  That was more like him.  Which set me slightly more at ease.  But his voice was hard.  Pressing.  “You can’t let a guy feel you up like that, right in front of …”

He struggled to keep his breathing even.  I stood up because sitting there suddenly made me anxious.  

“Enough with the big brother, over protective nonsense.  Dancing did not lead him on, or whatever you’re implying.”  I said the words softly.  I didn’t yell.  I just said the words that needed to be said.  To settle things once and for all.  

“You haven’t been a little sister to me in a long while.”  His voice rose with his anger.  I couldn’t keep up.  My head spun dizzily.  I didn’t typically throw up after drinking so I wasn’t sure why I felt like hurling.  “Dancing with him, looking at him like … it sure looked like you wanted Paul to pay attention to you.”

“Stop.”  My voice wavered and tears bubbled up from nowhere.  Or from somewhere in my past where I had this conversation too many times before.  “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

How dare he judge me.  Place blame on me and my actions for causing something that didn’t even occur.  It was madness and I was swept up in it, back and forth between our argument and my past.  Oz didn’t call me a slut.  He didn’t imply my actions warranted anything more than interest from Paul.  But there was an undercurrent of something there, and it reminded me too much of all the times I’d had to defend myself the last few years.  

He took a step toward me, his body precipitously close to mine.  I moved back automatically, my heart rate ratcheting up, and blood pumping adrenaline into my veins.  He regained that step, insistent he be at my side, one hand reaching out to me.  My body scrambled to get out of his reach, acting out of practice, with no conscious thought necessary.  

“What are you doing?  I want to apologize.  I didn’t mean for you to cry.”  Oz and his voice strangled me.  

He would be my undoing.  I was certain of it.  I should have come in alone when he suggested it in the first place.  This was my fault for inviting him up.

“Go ahead then, apologize.”  I said the words like a dare, while I kept my distance.  

My eyes kept vigilant watch on his hands.  On his stance.  As if I could predict his next move.  Just in case.  I hated when fear took control and ruled me from inside out.  

“Calla, I’m sorry.  I was being a jerk.”  His voice was pitched as if he was talking me down off a ledge.  Maybe he was.  

He tried again to close the space between us.  When I jumped, he flinched.

“Seriously, what the hell is going on?”  Oz turned soft.  His words were too soft.  Too gentle.  

“Nothing.  I need you to leave me alone.”  I ground out the words through my teeth, unable to relax all my tensed muscles.

“Like hell I will.”

I cried.  My hands shook.  I fled down the stairs because I needed to move.  But feeling Oz come down after me made me run.  

Like prey, I ran.  Like a predator, he gave chase.

I repeated in my head:  This is Oz.  He would never hurt me.  It wasn’t enough.  The chase fueled my fear and spiked my heart rate until I couldn’t make sense of anything.  All I knew was that I had to escape.  That there was no escape.  Only wide open beach, dark night turning my surroundings pitch, and the waves crashing relentlessly to the shore.

“Calla!”  He called after me as I tried to disappear down the stairs from the balcony and onto the beach.  

Running along the beach was far more physically more demanding than solid ground.  My feet sank and squeaked in the sand.  I couldn’t breathe.

He caught me.  Of course he did.  He grabbed me and wrapped himself around me, my back to his chest.  A tight bear hug hold that I had no chance of getting out of.  

I didn’t fight.  I relaxed so that he held up most of my weight.  I knew when to stop running; when there was no chance of escaping.  When to fold.

“Calla.  Honey.  What’s wrong?”

I sobbed.  He spun me within the circle of his arms and I soaked his shirt with my tears.  One hand rubbed my back and the other was in my hair.  Oz would never hurt me.  I breathed, and I repeated the words I knew to be true, and slowly the panic ebbed away.  It took a long time for me to stop whatever crazy had taken over my brain and to regain rational thought.  With that gone, all I was left with was embarrassment.  

“I’m going to bed.”  My words were stiff.  I pulled away from Oz and the warm night felt very cold without him wrapped around me.  “I’m sorry for that.  I don’t know what that was.  Clearly I drank too much.”

I could blame the alcohol, yes, it was because I drank too much.  I walked back to the house on stiff legs, all the while knowing Oz followed right behind me.  But he let me go.  Didn’t say anything about my behavior, or try to stop me from going upstairs alone.

He slept on the couch.  

Knowing he was down there made me feel safe.  Which was warped.  

I was so messed up.

***

I woke to a pounding head and cotton mouth that tasted like death.  I groaned and somehow made it to the bathroom to brush and pee.  I made it half way down the stairs before I remembered I might run into people – that I didn’t live alone, and besides which Oz had stayed the night.  

When I heard Toby and Oz talking in hushed tones, I stopped and  listened because they were talking about me.  

“I’m worried, man.”  Oz said.  His voice was morning-gruff.  I didn’t imagine he slept well last night.  “Have you noticed her acting strange?”

“Yeah, yeah I have.”  Toby sounded less worried than Oz.  Tired of the conversation, or unwilling to talk too much about it.  “But she’s coming off this long relationship with that asshole.  She just needs some time to adjust.”

“What do you know about this guy?”

“Nothing, really.  I met him a couple times when I went down there to visit her.  He was a jerk.  Controlling, you know?”

I sank down and sat on the stairs.  To keep my hands busy I worked tangles from my hair and braided it.  

“How could you let her be with him?”  Oz was demanding.  Angry.  But I didn’t feel any fear this time.  Just sadness.  

“Because, like everyone keeps reminding me, she’s not a kid.”  Toby lowered his voice to a strong whisper, like he knew I might hear him.  I almost felt guilty for sitting there and listening.  “Because there was nothing I could do.  Don’t put this on me.”

“I’m sorry.  You’re right.  It’s on all of us.”  He so easily took the blame off my brother and onto his own shoulders.  “We all knew something was wrong.”

“She’s here now.”

I stood up and stomped the rest of the way down.  When I came into the kitchen they were smiling like a pair of cheshire cats with mugs of steaming coffee.  I knew I was red-faced, blushing from the appalling events of the night before, and from their words.  I pretended it was because I wasn’t properly dressed.  

“I didn’t know you’d be here, Oz.”  I sort of gestured to my skimpy pajamas.  And hoped that would do for an explanation of my flamed cheeks.

“Ah, you know me, always around.”

Not so veiled message there.  But maybe I didn’t mind.  If I could keep control of myself in the future and not flip the hell out, him being around might be lovely.  If I’d known it would hurt Oz to see me with Paul, maybe I would’ve focused my attention elsewhere.  How different would the night have been if I’d danced with Oz instead?  But then Toby might have been angry.  Maybe I couldn’t win.  

I poured myself a cup of coffee.  Toby sat on the counter, looking at once like a little boy and a grown man.  Oz leaned against the opposite counter, blinking back concern and not doing a good job.  

“What are you guys up to today?”  I asked an innocent question, in hopes of soothing the mood.  They looked at each other before looking at me.  Uh oh.  

“Pool party.  My house.”  Oz said simply.

“Pool party?  We live at the beach.”  I laughed, as I always did when they planned a pool party.

“So?”  Oz shrugged.  He dared me with one look to try and get out of the party.  

“Alright, alright.  I’m in.”  With a shrug, I took my coffee and spun around.

I left them and hoped they didn’t go back to talking about me.  I spent a couple much needed hours to myself, sitting on my balcony reading, picking out clothes, and letting the butterflies go wild in my belly at the prospect of a good old fashioned pool party at the Lacey’s.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Seven

I shouldered a tote bag of supplies, and headed downstairs to meet my brother.  I wasn’t entirely sure where I stood with Oz after the ups and downs of the previous night, and I found myself anxious about how showing up at the pool party would go over with him.  Were we friends?  Was he freaking out about my freak out?  Could there be potential for more between us? 

“Hey, Toes, am I riding with you?”  I asked, double checking, and fighting nerves.  

“We’re walking, little sister.”  Toby smiled and pointed west.  

“Why didn’t you say so?”  

“I forgot you didn’t know.”  He shrugged and gestured for me to lead the way out.  “It’s like ten houses down.”  

Toby’s was the last of the small houses in a tightly packed row along the beach road.  After that they were larger and more spread out, each of them grand and showcasing wealth.  We walked along the water’s edge, and whatever worries I’d been carrying were washed away with the surf.  

“This one.”  Toby pointed at the next in the row of magnificent houses, and we veered toward it.  

“Holy shit.”  I paused, my feet squeaking in the sugar white sand.  

Oz’s house was the most beautiful shade of aqua blue with white trim.  The wrap around porch circled the whole house on three separate levels.  Some areas of the porches were open, some screened in.  Rocking chairs, Adirondacks, chaise lounges, several swings.  The stories on top of the standard beach stilts.  

I looked down at my simple cotton dress to see it perfectly matched the hue of his house.  His house was my favorite color.  And I matched!

“Ye-ah.”  Toby muttered, not saying anything more about the colossal beach house we trudged toward.

Toby and I had made our peace with the Lacey family wealth a long time ago.  Of course as kids we’d seen the differences in how they lived, and we’d understood the impact of money on their lives.  On ours as well.  But the Lacey boys could no more help being born into money than we could help having been born into poverty.  You get what you get.  

We were far from the first people to arrive at the party.  People milled all around in brightly colored swimsuits, smelling of sunscreen, and obviously having a great time.  

Toby escorted me up to the first level where I’d stopped at a wide, cushioned porch swing, then he left me in search of his own bliss.  I liked that he didn’t feel the need to try and keep me company.  

“Calla.”  Oz rushed at me – Toby had obviously told him where to find me.  But he stopped short, keeping a frustratingly respectable distance.  He looked at me like he wasn’t sure if I was still freaking out on him.  “You want something to drink?”

“Just water, thanks.” I laughed in a way that said I knew I had been idiotic the night before.  “I don’t think I should do any more drinking.” 

“Rod’s in town,” he mentioned with excitement, and a tip of his head.  “We’ll grab waters, then go say hi.”

“Awesome.  I’d love to see him.”

Rod was the middle brother, the fighter of the bunch – more so than the others, with more demons in his closet, and more kinetic energy to dispel.  He’d always been a little more closed off, too.  But I’d always loved him a little extra for it.  Like I thought he needed it.  

We found him playing pool in the game room.  I snuck up from behind and goosed him while he was making a shot.  It was risky, and I knew it.  I loved the sound of Oz guffawing in the aftermath.  

“What the f—?”  Rod spun, startled and looking for the culprit.  But like I knew would happen, as soon as he saw me, all that melted away.  “Damn.  CJ, you look good.  Real good.”

“You too, Pod.”

“You do know I don’t let anyone call me that.”  He winked.  I pretended to swoon.  Oz grunted.    

“You are a monster.”  I pointed at his oversize muscles.  “Do you eat small children for breakfast?”

He laughed, handed off his pool cue, and walked off to the side with me.  Something clicked into place inside me since reconnecting with all five brothers.  A rightness I hadn’t known I’d wanted – needed – after years denying myself the relationships I’d once treasured.  How had I thought them overbearing?  Why had I wanted so desperately to escape them all?  

“Only every other day,” he admitted like it was a secret.  

I batted my hands at him and he pretended to fight me.  

“You’re a big ol’ softy.  But don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.”  I said through my laughter.  

Something like peace spread in my chest, seeing him smile and be playful.  Rod had finally found his happiness.  We sat on the little half-wall that separated the area with the pool table from the area with a zillion game consoles.  

“You have any fights coming up?”  I didn’t so much want to see Rod in the ring, as I wanted to be supportive of his chosen life.  

“My trainer would kill me if I so much as thought of fighting right now.”  He shook his head, like he couldn’t even comprehend the possibility.  “Training is my full time job.”

“He sounds tough.”

“Absolutely.  He keeps me in line.”  Rod sounded deadly serious.

“Good.”  I answered Rod, thinking I understood what he meant about needing someone to set and keep boundaries.  “Maybe I should meet him.”

“You want to learn to fight, CJ?”  Rod sat back, and his lips quirked up to one side.  

“Maybe.”

I shrugged.  I hadn’t been serious.  But then, maybe I was.  It was the way Rod talked about the guy – with reverence.  The Lacey boys were tough critics.  If he had won the loyalty of the family’s hardest nut to crack, then he was someone worth noticing.  

But learning to fight back, to throw my own punches, did have its appeal.  I’d refused every self-defense class Emily had suggested over the last four years, sure they’d see right through me and call me on my poor life choices.  Maybe it was time.  Maybe I was ready – strong enough – to face my life head on.  

“Come by the gym next week.”  Rod met my eye, and nodded to assure me.  “Take a look and see what you think.  You can learn the moves without ever putting them to use.  Yeah?”

“Yeah.”  As I said it, I knew it was the right answer.  “Yeah, I’ll come by.”

Something settled within me, like I’d made my first good decision in a long while.  Like there was a chance of getting my life together.  When I caught Oz looking at me, I gave him a smile then looked away.  

Rod nodded his head, and looked like he was proud of me.  I leaned into his side, giving him a half hug.  

In the background, all but ignored, Oz stormed off.  

“What’s up with him?” Rod asked with a tip of chin.

“No clue.”  I shook my head. But couldn’t lie.  “We had a fight last night.  He’s probably still pissy about that.”

“Uh oh.  Fighting with Oz?  That’s not like you.”

“Why is this my fault?”  I joked, but the truth of it stung.

“Didn’t say it was.  In fact I’m willing to bet it was his fault.  Oz is an asshole where you are concerned.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”  I nearly shrieked and forced myself to calm down.

Rod looked around like he was making sure no one paid us any attention.  No one there cared that I was talking with Big Bad Rod.  No one in that particular room knew me well enough to care.  

“Dude is worse than Toby.”  Rod admitted with an eye roll.  “Always triple checking that his own brothers aren’t doing anything stupid or some shit with you.  He’s wound up tight about you.  It’s worse now than it was before you left and it was bad back then.”

“He just takes the whole big brother thing overboard.  You all do.”  I waved away his concerns.  I’d had a lifetime of being looked out for and it wasn’t like Rod wasn’t part of it all.

“Nah.  It’s different with him.  I don’t think it’s a big brother thing with him.”

“You’re wrong.  Oz would never …”. I couldn’t finish the sentence.  There was that one time.

  Right before I left for college.  One time when we crossed that line.  But it was a one off thing that meant nothing to him. A mistake he’d never repeat.  It was only me who got takin in by the romance of it all and fought the heart break of leaving.  

“Calla.”  Rod was serious.  And he never called me Calla.  “I don’t know the details.  I don’t know what you fought about – but Oz is on the look out.  He’s not going to back down.”

I nodded, but didn’t want to talk about Oz anymore.  Even less did I want to bring up my mistakes in college.

“This is a pool party.  I didn’t see a pool.”  I stood up and smoothed my dress down.  Time for a subject change.  We were there to have fun after all.  

“Oh, I know this one.”  Rod’s eyes lit up as he stood over me and I knew what was coming.  “I’ll play Oz.”

I saw the mischievous glint in his eye for a split second before he scooped me up and my face sailed over his shoulder.  I cracked up laughing and went along with it.  

“March!”  I smacked his ass and he high stepped.  

We drew attention, heads swiveling to watch us go.  I giggled and he wiggled me around, and we played our parts.  

“Roderick.  Put her down.”

I heard Oz’s voice.  I knew Rod did too, but he didn’t seem phased by the irritation in Oz’s voice.  I waved at him as Rod kept walking right on by.  

“Nope.  I am a man on a mission,” Rod called back as he proceeded to the pool.

Oz trailed along after us.  I chose to watch Rod’s hips move, or the floor grow after each step, rather than crane my neck and watch Oz follow.  We went down from the game room, to the first floor.  Rod paraded us through a crowded living room, a should have been formal dining room that had guitars hanging on the walls, and right on outside to a deck.  

“You’re going in, CJ.”  Rod gave me a quick warning.

I tensed for just a second in anticipation before we hit the water.  I expected Rod to toss me in.  But he jumped right in with me still slung over his shoulder.  I had sucked in enough air just in time.  We sank like the fully dressed idiots we were, but Rod kicked a few times and we lifted right back up to the surface.  I had become tangled in his arms.  My dress twisted and floated up around my arm pits.  

“Good thing I have on my swim suit.  You jerk.”  I laughed through my false anger. 

Oz stood just back from the edge of the pool.  His face was a horrible mix of emotions that read like anger, or jealousy, or pain.  I needed to talk to him.  Soon.  I had to really talk to him.  We needed to figure out what was going on and fix things.  I missed him.  

He was standing right there, and I missed him.

I pulled my dress up and wiggled my body down below the water to remove the wet cloth.  

“You know,”  Rod moved into my space very quickly, pitched his voice low, and talked so that his breath was in my wet ear.  “Oscar isn’t doing a good job of not looking jealous right now.”

“What?”  I’d just been thinking something similar, but never willing to believe it could be accurate.

Rod pulled back.  We were treading water in the deep end with people all around us.  I glanced again at Oz, standing far enough back not to be obvious, but still watching his brother and me.  

“Just saying.”  He gave me a wink then turned away, swimming to the edge with practiced ease.  “You getting out or staying in?”   

“I think I’ll stay in.”  But I launched my wet dress at him.  “Hang that somewhere to dry, would you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

He stripped out of his dripping t-shirt and rung our wet things out, leaving a trail of water across the deck.  The pool was up a level from the ground, set in a wide deck.  It wasn’t huge, the pool, but big enough.  Normal sized, probably.  The pool at their parents’ house was much larger.  But they lived on the bay, not the gulf.  They said they got enough of sand and tourists at work – at all the hotels scattered along the southeast coast – they didn’t need it when they went home.  

I let myself float, the water a little cold, the sun very hot, and my body caught between the two.  I kept my eyes closed because the sun burned bright.  

I stayed in until I worried my top half would be burned.  I stayed in until my heart slowed to match the soft sway of the water.  People were in the pool, playing, talking, laughing – but they gave me a wide berth.  Either because I looked too far gone to interrupt, or because they knew I was the off-limits little sister.  

When I finally came out it was to remember I didn’t have a towel.  Where had I left my bag?  By the swing?  Or in the game room where we’d found Rod?  

I looked around thinking I could track down Oz, since it was his house, and use one of his.  It didn’t take long to find him.  He was standing just inside the doorway back into the house, drink in hand, talking to a few other guys.  His eyes found me and I knew he’d stationed himself there to keep an eye on me.  Ludicrous.  

“Ozzie!”  I shouted to him as I walked toward the house.  I’d worn a two piece because I wanted a little sun, and because I didn’t want to be one of those girls who hated her imperfect body.  Although I often did.  “Oz-zie!”

I whined.  When I stepped under the shade of the deck above, I went cold.  My skin erupted into a million chill bumps.  

“What’s wrong?”  He rushed to me flooded with concerned.  

“Nothing, silly boy.  I need a towel.  I lost mine.”  I gave him a smile, and kept pretending things weren’t awkward between us.

He let out a burst of air and shook his head.  He ducked his face down like he was embarrassed.  It was a strange thing to see on someone normally so confident in every aspect of his life.  

“Hold on.”

I watched Oz walk over to a rack just a few paces from where we stood and fetch a pristine white towel.  When he got back to me he loosed it and swung it around my back. 

“Better?”  He made a point to look at my face, and I almost wished he’d taken the time to check me out instead.

“Yes.”  I felt like an idiot.  And also not.  Oz was right there and being sweet and I was dazed from the sun.  “Did you steal these from the hotel?”

He brought a finger to his lips and shh’d me.  

“You are such a naughty boy.”

I smacked his chest and he gave me the notorious Lacey Bad Boy Smile.  I swooned a little in response – which is what they were going for when they flashed that thing at you.  

“I doubt your dress is dry.”

“That’s okay.”  I shrugged.  I wrapped the towel around my waist, like a boy, and tucked it tight to secure it in place.  

Oz’s eyes drank me in.  So much better than I’d imagined, his obvious appreciation sent my body into shivers and sped up my heart.

“Enjoying the show, asshole?”  Toby came up and shoulder bumped Oz.  But he laughed in a good natured way which told us he didn’t suspect that we were anything other just the same Calla and Oz as ever.  

“She’s beautiful, what can I say?”  He wouldn’t apologize for looking, which I loved.  

“Yes, but … no.”  Toby made a face.  I stuck my tongue out at him.  “I’m making a beer run.  You are severely low on drinks, brother.”

“Send Milo.”  Oz said with a shoulder shrug.

I was halfway to pointing out that Milo could not purchase those particular drinks seeing that he was all of eighteen years old.

“Milo is drunk.”  Toby said in an amused tone.

“What the hell?  How did that happen?”  Oz seemed honestly shocked.  I didn’t answer with snark on that one.  Too easy.  Toby didn’t either.  We both looked at him like, duh.  “I mean, how did you let that happen?”

“Shit.  Don’t put that on me.”  Toby laughed a little.  Big mistake.  

Oz lunged at him.  Toby saw it coming and spun to the side.  But not in time.  They went flailing onto the deck.  I took a couple steps back.  

This?  I was not afraid of this.  I had seen them fight plenty enough times.  I rolled my eyes as they took swings at each other.  The two of them managed to regain footing only to land themselves in the pool.  Everyone was crowding around and cheering.  It was a testosterone circus.

I managed to hold onto the contentment of being back home, of being surrounded by loving friends and family, of making strides forward no matter how small.  

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Eight

I left Toby and Oz to their play fight, and went into the house, desperately in need of another bottle of water.  I found Milo and a couple of guys his own age acting a fool playing a drinking game at a table in the breakfast nook.  

“Hey, Milo.”  I said with an extra saccharine tone.

 Didn’t want to set off alarms about Toby and Oz duking it out, or that his brother was about to shut this shit down.  Milo didn’t even bother to be inconspicuous.

“CJ,” he stammered, “I mean, Calla.”

His eyes went wide as they took in all my exposed skin.  I gave him a second then cleared my throat which helped him remember his manners.  His cheeks flamed red, and it was kind of adorable.  He was this big giant of a guy now.  Easily pass as twenty rather than eighteen.  Yet he was still this adorable little boy that I’d known since he was born.  God how I had loved to take care of him.  By the time I was five and he was one, I took it upon myself to act like his little mama.  Thankfully his actual mama appreciated it and thought I was sweet.  

It made my brain hurt to put the past with the present and find the guy in front of me.  So much had changed in the last few years.  I felt like there was a gap in my mind, and though I could bridge it, I could never close it.  

“Your brother is kind of pissed,” I mentioned in a low voice.

“Which one?”

And wasn’t that just the question.  He looked around, and he seemed legitimately nervous.  

“Oz.  But you shouldn’t be sitting here doing this if you’re scared of getting caught.”  I laughed at him.  His friends were finally not looking so obviously at my breasts and bare stomach.  Geez.  “Did I teach you nothing?”

“So you’ll help me?”  

“Avoid getting your ass kicked by Oz?  Not sure I can pull that off, but we can try.”

He leaned over the table to his buddies, made a serious face, and said, “Scatter boys.”

They hopped up like their pants were on fire, but they were laughing and being ridiculous.  Falling all over each other and being entirely too loud, like the obnoxious teenagers they were.  

“Pull it together, boy.”  I smacked his shoulder for emphasis.

Milo stood up tall and he towered over me, so I made a show of how far I had to tip my head back to look at his face.  He broke down and laughed.  He went to grab me, but pulled his hands back.  I saw him scan the room, again looking like he’d get caught.  

“I’m sure Toby is still outside with your brother.  You know, you don’t have to be scared to talk to me, or look at me, or whatever.  I’m just me.”

“Yeah, and your brother, he’s your brother, and I know where the line is drawn.”

“Stop it.  Don’t be stupid.”  I grabbed his hand.  It was warm and timid, also big and a little calloused.  I dragged him out to the wrap around porch, on the opposite side of the house of the pool and the ruckus.  I dropped his hand when we found an unoccupied spot to tuck away.  “Do you remember when I would sleep over?  You’d climb into bed with me.  It was no big deal.”

He cracked up laughing.  Holding his belly and bent over laughing.  I waited impatiently for him to stop.  

“That is not the same thing!”  He could hardly talk through the laughter still bubbling from his core.  “It’s different now.”

“I don’t care about that.  I’ve been hugging, and hand holding, and cuddling with the lot of you my whole life.  No reason that shouldn’t include you.”

His laughter died down.  He looked at me like he cared a whole awful lot about what I was saying.  Like maybe he was relieved to hear me say it.  I suspected he would still be afraid to get too close with me.  I guessed it was different with the others, the older brothers.  They could pick me up, swing me around, toss me into the pool.  It had been established across too many years that it was platonic.  With Milo being admittedly attracted to me, and being on rocky ground with my sudden reappearance right when he had become an adult, it did feel different.  Not that I would say so.

I laid back on a lounge chair, and closed my eyes.  I opened the towel and let it fall around the chair to dry a little.  

“Do you hang out with these guys often?”  I asked without looking at him, taking the pressure off his answer.

“No, not often.  I mean, I see them all the time.  But I’m still at home, and they’re all scattered.  I have my own friends.”

He sounded defensive.  I understood the plight of the youngest sibling.  

“Hey, you and me, we have to stick together.  Us babies of the family have to help each other out.”

I heard him move and shift in the chair next to me.  His voice was lower, softer, when he spoke again.

“Tell me about college.  I’m still not sure I want to go, and it’s only a few months away.  What’s it like?”

Milo wasn’t asking about my personal life, or about the jerk boyfriend he had no doubt heard about.  He was asking about college.  I could talk about that without getting all weird, right?

I told him about living in the dorms.  Sharing a room, and a bathroom with a relative stranger.  I told him about standing in long lines, and never getting the exact schedule you’d spent so long perfecting.  I told him about buying the books that cost an arm and a leg, not that money would be much of a factor for him.  I told him about eating in the cafeteria, and about having all sorts of free time unsupervised, which was strange sometimes.  

“It sounds cool, and I’ve been accepted to schools.”  He continued, lost in thought, “I’m not sure it’s for me though.”

“You don’t have to go to college, Miles.”  I propped up on my elbows and looked over at him.  He was lying down too, with his eyes closed.  He peeked and gave me a half smile when he found me looking down at him.  “Half your brothers didn’t do college.  It’s not the only path.”

“I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”  He sat up and the force behind his voice told me this was something he thought about a lot, but maybe didn’t talk about much.  “Graduation is in a couple weeks, and I don’t have any clue.  I am the only one with no ambition.”

“Milo Branford Lacey.  Don’t you ever say that again.  You are not in competition with those goons.”  I sat all the way up too, the seriousness propelling my back straight.  “Plus, it’s not like all of them got their act together at freaking eighteen.”

We both looked out at the next house down the beach.  I knew we were both thinking of Rod.  He spent a good few years in trouble.  At twenty-four he was just getting his life together and had found the thing he loved to do, the thing he was good at, the thing that kept him sane.  I didn’t understand living a life training to fight, but it worked for him.  

“I think Bear was the only one who knew out the door what he wanted to do,” Milo thoughtfully admitted.

“Exactly.”  I shrugged.  “You’re young.  Hell, I just finished college, and I still don’t know what I want to do.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”  I laughed through my words, but it was the full truth.  “I have a degree, but I’m not even excited about getting a job, and I’m already thinking about what else I could do instead.”  

We both stood and stretched, moving to the railing.  The breeze was stronger there and it made my hair fly around my face.  It had taken no time for me to adjust to living at the beach, to being covered in a fine layer of sweat and salt at any given time, and to never wanting to leave again.  

“I was thinking about enlisting.”  He uttered in an unsure voice, as if trying out the words.

That’s the one thing he could have said that would take my breath away.  Like my lungs wouldn’t work right.  My uncle – my dad’s brother – had been in the army.  He’d died in active duty when I was just a baby.  It was his ghost that haunted my dad.  We’d grown up in a military town, but I barely knew anyone who served.  

The thought of Milo putting his life at risk scared me.  It was that mama bird thing, always watching out for the baby Lacey brother.  I forcefully swallowed the welling of fear.  

“Oh yeah?”  I couldn’t look at him.  Though I forced my voice to remain normal.  “Navy or Airforce?”  

There were two bases near us.  Military guys crawling all over the town – all over every nearby town.  One of those branches seemed the logical choice.

“Airforce.”

“Wow.  That would be …”

“What’s wrong?”  He spun around me to face him.  He touched me and it was not awkward.  It was not too personal.  It was normal and I was relieved at that at least.  “You don’t think I should?”

“Oh, Milo, it’s not that.  It’s just scary.  But if that’s what you want to do, then do it.  You’ll be amazing.”  I could picture him in uniform, and finding his place within the ranks.  “I would be worried is all, but that’s just me being a worrier.”  

I tried to laugh it off.  But we went silent again, letting his confession and my worries settle around us.  The party was still going on and we should go back in before we we’re missed.  

“Hey, Calla?”

“Yeah?”  I looked at his handsome face, and hoped I was giving him the right advice.

“Don’t tell them.  Okay?  Not until I decide for sure.”

“Of course.  I won’t say anything.”

He nodded.  It was too solemn and seemed wrong on his youthful face.  

“I’m gonna go find my dress,” I said as a way to cut the tension that had built between us.

“Alright.  I’ll help you.”

We walked together around the exterior of the house, around the massive wide porch.  There were screened in rooms with doors to pass through, and open air areas, and just the porch was bigger than Toby’s whole house.  

Good gracious, the pool was apparently the place to be at the moment with bodies every where.  

I spotted my dress slung over the back of a lounge chair, and Rod’s t-shirt on the chair beside it.  I pointed and Milo and I moved through the crowd.  He put his hand on my low back.  Gentlemen, the every one of them.  I really did love each and every one of those Lacey boys.  

 ***

I managed to stay out of trouble the next few hours.  I let Toby sucker me into playing an old school Mario game, which he only did for bragging rights.  I wandered room to room to deck to wherever and found people to mingle with and to kill a few hours.  

It was fun, but by the end of the night, I was exhausted.  Tired of talking.  Tired of wondering if Oz had avoided me the rest of the day.  Tired of fielding bad ideas, the latest of which was a bonfire on the beach.  Which was illegal.  Thankfully Bear was still around and played the Big Brother card to shut that one down.  

“Toes, I’m heading home.”  I announced to Toby at a reasonably early hour.

My brother sat on a lounge chair looking out over the starlit beach.  There was a pretty girl in the chair next to his.  Not a girl I knew.  I gave her a little smile in apology when I walked up and interrupted their obviously intimate moment.  But I knew better than to leave without telling him.  

“I’ll walk you,” he offered with a nod.

“No thanks, big bro.”  I took a few steps away and waved.  “I’m good.  It’s just a few houses down.”

“Grab a Lacey to take you,” Toby hollered after me.

I gave him the finger.  He laughed, but it was more because of shock.  Certainly not because he was in agreement with my attitude.  

“I’m serious.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll find a Lacey to babysit me.”

I had no intentions of doing any such thing.  I half thought my brother would know I was gonna skip out on my own – and he’d end up coming after me.  But he didn’t come, and I was able to drift away from the big house on the beach with all the good times making it shine like a beacon in the night.  

I stood in the sand a couple hundred feet back, nearer to the water’s edge, and looked at the house.  It was so beautiful.  If not slightly wrecked from the chaos of too many people.

“What are you doing out here alone?”

I swallowed my surprise and nodded as I accepted my fate.  

Of course a Lacey found me.  

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Nine

No just any Lacey brother:  Oz.

Toby had probably texted an all out alert to find some one to walk me home.  As if I were a child.

“I was heading home,” I said, though it was obvious.

“I’ll walk you.”

“You don’t have to do that, Oz.”

“I want to,” he answered simply, truthfully.

“Okay.”  I sighed.  I was unwilling to fight when we both knew I wanted to see him anyway.

We turned to walk back up the beach toward Toby’s house.  My arm brushed his, and before I knew it, his hand took mine.  I hadn’t known I was drifting until he anchored me.  I leaned gently into his body as we moved slowly across the sand, our pace indicating a desire to stay together longer.  

All too soon we had reached the backyard of Toby’s little beach shack.  

“Thanks, Oz.”

My hand was still in his – because no way was I letting go.  I turned to face him, my worries uninvited to the moment.  As I looked up at him, I wanted him to kiss me.  Maybe I always wanted him to kiss me.  The idea of friendship sailed farther away.  

“So,” he said, trailing off.

“Yeah.”  I mumbled, unsure of what to say or how to express my desires.  

We both let out jolted breaths of semi-laughter.  I looked down at the sand that was too dark to see.  Our feet were shades of grey and darker gray in the night.  

“I want to ask to come up with you.  But …”  He cleared his throat and shifted from one foot to the other.  I thought he would say something about my brother.  “But I don’t want to scare you again.”

“I’m sorry, Oz.”  I spun, facing him, and took both his hands in mine.  “I wasn’t scared of you.  Not really.  I just had a moment.”

How could I explain?  How could I explain without telling him all the sordid details?  I couldn’t.  It was that simple.  So I didn’t.  

“Can I come up?  Try again?”

“Yes.”

I was nervous in a good way.  Not afraid.  

We made it all the way up to my bedroom.  He, if possible, looked more timid about entering than last time.  Like my demons had become his demons too.  

“I’m tired.  Lie down with me.”  I knew I had to make the fist move, and I hoped he would oblige.

Oz only barely hesitated before sliding beside me on the bed.  I had bought sheets at the big tourist shop – the one with the big shark’s mouth as the front door.  I loved the cheesy tiki huts and umbrella drinks on them.   

I curled into Oz.  He laid on his back and stretched his arm out so I could tuck into the space there.  I pressed my face into his chest, reveling in his firm strength and inviting scent, then hooked a knee over his legs.  I trapped him there, and he stayed very still.  Too still.

“Is this weird for you?”  My voice was muffled because my jaw was crushed into his broad chest.  I didn’t bother lifting up before speaking.  

“Weird is not the word I would use, no.”  His voice was distant, and I didn’t like it.

“Which word would you use?”

Decades of friendship spread out between us, binding us together, but also somehow keeping us apart.  Inklings of something more pushed in at the edges, making promises and inviting us to take chances.  I couldn’t guess what Oz would say, or if he could guess how much I wanted him to be more than my friend.  

Had we always spoken in such riddles?  Or was that a new development?

“I’m afraid if I say any of them, they’ll scare you.”  It sounded like the admission cost him.

“Never.”  I pressed my arm tighter around his chest.  “Never, Ozzie.” 

I wasn’t afraid of Oz lying beside me, or anything he could say into the stillness of my room.  I was only afraid of sudden anger, of outbursts directed at me.  But he didn’t know that.  He was working with no facts and figuring it out as he went.  I knew I had to be brave enough to tell him the truth about the last few years, and the things that had happened with Gary – but I also knew better than to ruin the moment we both clung so reverently to as we laid together.  

“Calla.”  Oz shifted so that our bodies were even closer; sealed together.  His out stretched arm curled around me and held me.  His breath warmed my hair and sent tingles across my scalp.  “This is a dream.”

It took nothing to tilt my head, to lift my chin and twist a little, and to find his lips.  It was a small movement that took little effort.  Yet it took a lifetime of wanting, and a lifetime of denial.  In one second I had finally pressed my lips softly to his.  

Our lips coming together, soft as it was, changed everything.  Our bodies molded together.  Electricity coursed through my system and woke up parts that had been in seclusion for too long.  The earth held its breath, paused its spinning, and began anew to fit the two of us more perfectly together.  

His response came immediately.  Oz’s lips moved firmly against mine and pushed for more.  I moved, or he lifted me, and he was easier to reach.  Our mouths opened for exploration and for deepening this thing between us.  

I thought of our last kiss.  Not to compare or anything.  It just came to mind, the one and only other time his lips had come together with mine.  It was the summer after I graduated high school, and I’d be leaving for college soon.  We had spent a lot of time together that summer.  I had crushed so hard on him, but he had kept things as they always were – he had been a wonderful friend and additional big brother.  Until the night we had fallen asleep on the beach after trying to stay awake all night for a meteor shower.  When we woke up, alone, and cloaked in darkness, he had held my face tenderly and kissed me.  That kiss had told me goodbye.  It was salty as tears and put an ache in my chest.

This kiss was not a goodbye.  It was a claiming.  I could feel how he wanted me, and I gave all that I got.  I poured every bit of my own wanting into that kiss.  My hands moved over his body.  Oh, how I had always wanted the freedom to let my fingers twine in his hair, to let my palms roam over his arms, pecs, abs, hips.  His hands got the memo of freedom too, and quickly laid claim to my body.  One hand went to my head and held me ever closer to the kiss.  The other slid down my neck, lit flames along my arm, then grasped around my waist.  

Those hands around my waist were the dream come true.  It felt so right, the most right of anything that had ever happened in my life.  I think that feeling must have poured out from me and into the kiss.  We came together like our lives depended on it, crashing and caressing.  

After a good old fashioned make out session, we slept curled together in my bed with my corny tourist sheets.  I let myself pretend that it could be that way forever.  That it could be Oz and me, together.

 

With the dawn of a new day, reality forced its way back into my thoughts and my life.  Oz was no longer in my bed, though the sun was barely bringing the beach to life outside my window.  My heart fluttered in a strangled panic.  Did he leave?  Maybe he went downstairs for coffee.  I had squirmed out of my dress last night, and then slept in my bikini.  I pulled on a t-shirt and cut off shorts before heading downstairs – on the off chance Toby was in the house, he didn’t need to see me half-naked.  

I found Oz sprawled on the couch.  The one in front of the big flat screen that played a muted forensic cop show in the background.  I kneeled beside the couch and rubbed his arm.  My intent was to wake him.  Also to memorize the feel of his skin, and the shape of his muscles.  

“Ozzie, what are you doing down here?”

I whispered the words.  I kept my voice quiet so I didn’t startle him, so I didn’t disrupt the peaceful silence of the beach house with only the crashing of the waves as background noise.  Maybe also so that if my brother was upstairs he wouldn’t over hear us.  But I refused to focus on that last thought.  It sneaked its way in whether I actively thought about it or not.  I was not going to keep things with Oz a secret.  At least not if there was a thing with Oz.  Figuring that out was the first step.

He smiled in his sleep.  I ran my fingers over his handsome face, memorizing those lines as well.  

“Good morning.”  Oz whispered too.  Because I had?  Or because he didn’t want to get caught either?

“Good morning.  You didn’t answer my question.”  My hands didn’t want to stop touching him.

“Toby texted to make sure I got you home safe and sound.  He was on his way back.”  He moved in the groggy way of the morning and rubbed a hand over his face, over his hair.  I watched him blink the sleepiness from his bright green eyes.  “I came down here so he would find me on his couch and not in his little sister’s bed.” 

“We should probably talk,” I said, already feeling the impending doom that would come from Oz letting me down gently.  He’d say he didn’t want to hurt my brother, and in turn would break my stupid, fragile heart.  

I saw the alarm in his eyes.  Such a tough guy, and scared to talk to me?   

“You regret it, don’t you?”  Pain etched his face, and I wasn’t sure if I had things right after all.  

“Me?”  I stood up and spoke at full volume.  “Shit.  Sorry.”

I sat on the coffee table so that I faced him where he sat on the couch.  Our knees bumped together.  

“No, I don’t regret it.  Of course not.”  My heart pounded out a startled rhythm, and I held onto the ounce of hope he offered.  

“Good.  Me either.”

We both let out a relieved breath, then smiled.  

“Okay then,” I wasn’t sure where to go from there, and happily held onto neither of us having regrets.  

“You’ll want to talk about him.”  Oz pointed up the stairs toward where my brother slept.  My brother who had always been loud and clear about the no dating his little sister rule.  My brother who loved Oz like another member of his family and would feel betrayed if and when this came to light.  

“We have to tell him.  I mean, not about last night specifically.  But if we …”  I didn’t look at his face any longer.  I wrung my hands with my worries, because the future was far from certain.  “If you wanted …”

“I want.”

I smiled but I wasn’t sure he could see it with my head down as it was, so I lifted up a little to peek at him.  He was smiling too.  The sweetest smile that held so many promises for us.  

“He’s gonna be pissed.”  All my bravado at wanting to tell Toby drained swiftly away.  I had just gotten him back, and I couldn’t stomach losing him.  “We need to be sure.”

“Oh, I’m sure, darling.”  The left side of his mouth lifted higher into a crooked smile that sent me soaring.  

My head fell forward, shyness and joy rocking through me.  Oz took no time in reaching for me, in holding me there, in offering me his support.  His lips brushed over my hair, and I couldn’t quite believe this was real.  I lifted up to look at him, to meet his intense gaze, and I knew this was a different sort of love than I’d ever experienced.  Bigger.  Stronger.  The kind of love that would obliterate everything else in its path.  

“We’ll talk about Toby, and figure out how to tell him,” Oz assured me with a smile still pulling at his gorgeous lips.  “We have a few other things to talk about, too.”  

I had a suspicion what he would want to talk about.  I wasn’t ready to go there.  I wasn’t sure I would ever want to open up about my ex or our relationship – although I knew I would do it, no matter the pain it caused us all.  

“But first:  coffee.”

He let the serious topics drop and joined me in making a pot of coffee.  He was planning to head home soon and do some damage control.  A full day of clean up was probably in the cards.  I joked that he could afford a team of maids to come out and do it, but he looked offended.  Sure, the Laceys had money, but they weren’t afraid of hard work or getting their hands dirty.  He said he could clean up after himself.  I had to respect that about him.  

“Dad is back in town for a few days.  You and Toby should come to family dinner tomorrow.”

“I haven’t seen him in so long.”  I pictured the patriarch of the Lacey family, with his jovial smile and characteristic mischievous eyes.  But I didn’t know how to show up at a family function while we were at this new and not-yet-settled place, “As Toby’s sister?  Or as a family friend?  Or what?”

Oz gave me a look that told me exactly what he thought about my sass.  So much for letting it go.  He set his fresh mug of coffee on the counter; steam swirled up from it.  In an instant he had his hands around my waist and lifted me so that I was sitting on the kitchen counter.  He stepped in close, pressing between my thighs.  I gasped at his sudden closeness, and grabbed handfuls of his wrinkled t-shirt.  

“As whatever the hell you want to be, so long as you’re there.”

Then he kissed me.  Right there in my brother’s kitchen, as if getting caught wasn’t a very real possibility.  The threat of getting caught thrilled through me.  It gave the kiss an urgency.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter ten

Toby didn’t come down.  Our secret was safe.  Oz and I kissed between sips of coffee and took our chances at my brother finding us.  Each time our lips made contact, electricity and amazement jolted through me.  My heart flung itself into my ribcage, happy to be alive, and trying to get closer to the source of its power.  

Oz went home, committed to his day of clean up, and promised to text me as soon as he finished.  I sat on the balcony, watching as Oz disappeared along the white sand and crashing waves.  Then I called Emily to fill her in on everything from my freak out to my almost relationship.  

“Damn, I wish I was there.” Emily complained with such force, it shocked me, “I need to find a job down there.  Atlanta is stupid.”

“No it isn’t!”  I giggled into the phone and relished the sound of her voice.  I hadn’t known I would miss her so much.  “But you should come down.  It’s only like a 6 hour drive to get here, maybe you could do a long weekend.”

“I’m tempted to pull an all nighter.”  She laughed too and it was musical.  “Too bad it’s Sunday.  But … you know what?  I’m taking a half day on Friday, and driving down there.”  

“Oh my god!  For real?”  I had to stand up; the idea was that big.  

“Yes!  My hours are pretty flexible, and I can make up the time.”  Emily’s breaths came quick, and I loved her more than ever for dropping everything to come down.  “A weekend at the beach sounds perfect.”  

“You’re awesome.”  I put all my love for her in that statement, hoping she could hear it.  “I can’t wait for you to meet … every one.”

“I can’t wait to meet Oz either.”  She knew what I meant.  I was so transparent, it was a wonder Toby hadn’t been suspicious for the last decade.  “Which of these boys do I get?  Because the way I see it, you have a few to spare.”

We laughed and discussed the Lacey brothers.  And my brother.  

“What about on-again-off-again Daniel?” I asked her, carefully, as she hadn’t mentioned her  sort-of-boyfriend at all.

“Daniel is focusing on his career.”  She did a horrible mocking on his voice, all snooty and terrible.  “Which is code for studying his ass off in grad school.  Also code for long distance relationships suck.  Either way, it’s over.”

“I’m sorry.”

Why hadn’t she told me?  I had probably been too selfish, talking about my own problems too much.  

“Nah, it’s alright.  We weren’t that serious.”

I didn’t buy her answer, because it had been serious for the last year or so, but I didn’t push her.  “No one new has caught your eye?”

“Ha.  No.”  She laughed too loud.  “But, honestly, I haven’t been looking.”

“Tell me about your job.”

The sun moved up high, high, higher into the sky until it was overhead, tracking our time on the phone.  Emily took the job there because it was a good offer with a good company.  She took the job because for something straight out of college it was a smart move.  Also, it put her closer to her hometown in northern Georgia, and Emily liked the idea of being closer to her family again.  

I hung up with her when my phone battery was dying.  Which was about the time Toby came back to life and was rummaging around the kitchen making a hell of a racket.  

“Good night last night?”

I came in from the sliding glass door and caught him by surprise.  He cursed after spinning and seeing me there.  I stood leaning against the far end of the kitchen, just at the doorway.  

“You could say that.”  He winked, then returned to whatever he was looking for in his kitchen.  He didn’t give me any more details, and I didn’t ask.  

“Me too.”  I said with a smile, hoping he wouldn’t ask either.  

“Really?  Didn’t seem like you were having that good a time.”  

Toby was opening cabinets and setting out pots and pans and ingredients.  He was extremely preoccupied.  

“What on earth are you doing?”

“Cooking.  What does it look like I’m doing?”  He laughed and gestured to all the obvious signs that led to him cooking.

“I’m sorry.  I wasn’t aware you knew how to cook.”  I met his sarcasm with snark.  

“Funny, coming from you.  I kept you fed, didn’t I?”  His tone and his words were light.  

He wasn’t wrong – Toby had kept us both fed when our dad had stopped making an effort at our well being.  We knew our lot in life, or the one we’d been handed as kids.  No need to dwell on it.  But somehow hearing it triggered a bolt of pain at the unfairness of it – sometimes that was the way of it, unexpectedly bowled over by emotions unearthed by nothing in particular.  

“You did a great job with all that Tobes.”  I easily assured him, thinking of all the meals he’d prepared for me.  

He paused long enough to give me a look and a little bit of a smile.  “I guess you turned out all right.”

“Asshole.”  I threw an abandoned dish towel at him.  He caught it in the air when I didn’t think he’d even seen it coming.  

“Hey, so Oz wants us to go to a family dinner tomorrow.  Bernie is in town.”  I said apropro to nothing, except thinking about families and eating.  

“Cool,” he nodded at me.  “I’ll get cleaned up after work, then we can go over together.”  

I nodded, fine with the plan.  Oz didn’t likely care one way or the other, especially since we hadn’t sat my brother down to have The Talk.  

“What are you making?  I’ll help you.”

Like old times, I thought.  Just the two of us together, taking care of ourselves.  Toby and me holding the world together by the seams.  

“Lasagna.  I need ricotta.  I’m gonna run to the store.  You get started with the sauce.”

“Grab some white wine.”  I called out after him.  

“Since when do you drink wine?”

“Since I don’t know, for the last couple years.”

“Hmm.  I think you’re supposed to drink red with lasagna.”  He had paused, and looked serious about his proclamation.  

“Oh my God.  How would you even know?  Shut up.  I like white.  Something sweet like a moscato.”

“Alright, alright, whatever.  I’ll be back in twenty.”

I should have started the sauce immediately.  I sort of did.  I stood at the cutting board with the ingredients laid out.  I put on a pot with olive oil swirled over the bottom.  But I didn’t do anything else.  Yet.  

 

Me:  Will you come over?

 

Oz:  Miss me already?

 

Me:  Yes!

Me:  Toby is at the store.  He’ll be right back.  We’re making lasagna.  

 

Oz:  I have to finish up here.  I’ll come up soon.  

 

I set my phone on the counter.  Face up so I could watch for any incoming messages.  I began to prepare the sauce in earnest, and lost myself in the job.  

Toby was not in fact much of a cook.  Or wasn’t back in the day.  He taught himself the basics – learning through trial and error and Google.  Daddy had checked out on his responsibility in feeding us by the time Toby was in middle school.  Toby took over, and there was no going back.  We ate a lot of pb&j and grilled cheese.  As I got older, we started doing dinner together.  We’d have our books spread across the table in the kitchen, doing our homework at the same time, and we’d cook.  We learned a few basic meals.  Lasagna was always his favorite comfort food.  

“I wasn’t sure which one to get, so I got three bottles.”  Toby said as he carried bags in through the back door.

“You are such an overachiever.”  I laughed at my lovable and thoughtful brother.  “That must have cost a lot.  I’ll pay you back.”

“No.  You won’t.  I told you, Calla, I don’t want your money.  Not for rent or food or any of it.”

“You don’t have to take care of me any more.”

“Calla.”

I scooped the last bit of chopped veggies into the bubbling sauce.  I faced my brother, the sweetest guy I knew.  He was so stern, so serious, as he looked at me.  Not like I was still a child, but like I was still his.  

“I want to do this.” He said it with such force and urgency, I could no long breathe without pain in my chest.  “Stay here as long as you want.  I missed you, you know?”

“I missed you too.”

I could not stop the tears that fell from my eyes, leaving hot trails down my cheeks.  

My phone chimed, and I jumped.  I grabbed it as fast as possible to keep Toby from seeing it.  Just in case it was Oz.  Of course that made the fact I was hiding something glaringly obvious.  

“What are you hiding?  Who texted you?”  Toby didn’t sound mad.  In fact it was more a mischievous voice, and I suspected he might wrestle the phone from me.

“No one.”  I tried not to sound snippy, hoping he’d let it go.  

“Did you meet a guy last night?”

“Sort of.  I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why?  Who is it?”

Now he sounded suspicious.  

“Don’t be all crazy about this, okay?  I don’t know if anything is gonna come of it.”

“Alright.”  He seemed to think too hard about it for a minute while he emptied his grocery bags.  It was mostly beer and wine.  Plus the ricotta and a block of parmesan.  “It isn’t Liam, is it?  I don’t trust him.”

“Liam is one of your best friends!”  I smacked him.  “But no, it isn’t Liam.”

“Good.  I’d hate to kick his ass.”

“Oh, hey, I invited Oz to join us.  He has a few hours of clean up first.”

“Sweet.”

How was that for a segue?  Speaking of your close friend that I may or may not be having a thing with, he’s coming over in a couple hours.  La, la, la, nothing to see here.  Thankfully my brother trusted me, or trusted Oz, and would never think we’d get together.  

Meanwhile we cooked lasagna, and I became more and more antsy.  By the time we slid the dish into the oven – in a fancy dutch oven dish that Mama Lacey gave Toby years ago – I was about to crawl out of my skin.  I claimed to need a shower.  Which was true.  Which felt like a lie.  I took my time, willing Oz to arrive sooner.  It would never be soon enough.  

While I was squeezing the excess water from my hair with a towel, and had wrapped my body in another towel, still in our bathroom, Toby knocked.  

I knew it was Toby because he said, “Chicka chicka.”

“Boom boom.”  Our version of Marco Polo, which we would hopefully never out grow.

I yanked the door open and flooded him with steam.  

“What?”

He worked so hard not to look at me that it was amusing.  “I want to talk.”

“Right now?  Really?”

“No.  God.”  He backed up a step.  I laughed at him and gave him a smirk.  “Before anyone else arrives.”

“Who else is coming?”

“I don’t know, but if Oz is coming, then chances are a few others will come, too.”

That was true.  A closer family I never knew.  It was insanity, but in the best way.  I was fortunate to be part of it, to have been taken into the fold at a young age.  

“Give me a few minutes.”

So much for spending the next half hour obsessing over the perfect cute but casual outfit.  I threw on simple flat front khaki shorts and a navy blue sleeveless top with white polka dots.  I hurried to get the conversation with Toby out of the way.  I figured it was most likely a warning about whatever guy he thought I was sort of dating.  Or he’d insist he meet the guy.  

I found him in his own room, wearing nothing but khaki cargo shorts.  He was my brother and I didn’t spend much time bothering to look at his physique, but he was objectively attractive.  With his shirt off, the well defined muscles of his arms, chest, and abs were on prominent display.  He was obviously still working out regularly.  Of course I guess working on cars took some degree of strength and helped matters.  

“What’s up brother man?”  I made myself at home on his bed.  His unmade, sloppy, rumpled mess of a bed.  He had the softest slate blue sheets and an old multicolored quilt.  Nothing fancy.  

“Make yourself at home.”  He grumbled and pulled a t-shirt over his head.  

Toby sat next to me, sinking a bit into the mattress.  We adjusted so that we both sat with little kid crossed legs, facing each other.  

“I know this is probably shitty timing.  The way I figure, there is no good time.”

“You’re freaking me out.  Just say it already.”

I knew he wasn’t kicking me out, not after our conversation that morning.  That only left so many topics that he would bring up.  I was narrowing them down.  Actively avoiding the toughest ones, even in my head.

“The other day, when I was asking you to come hear me play.  I thought maybe I’d imagined the way you flinched and moved away from me.”  He paused and looked at me with a mix of guilt and worry.  I hated that he felt bad when he’d never done anything to deserve the way I’d acted.  I hated where this topic of conversation was headed.  “I didn’t want to understand the fear I saw on your face.”

“You’re right, Toby, this isn’t the time.”  I wiggled, barely resisting the urge to flee.  

“I told myself it was nothing.  But it kept eating at my mind.” He glanced up at me, eyes dark with accusations, and framed with worry.  “Then Oz said you were acting weird.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be talking to Oz about me.”  But the excuse sounded weak, and I didn’t begrudge them their shared worry.  

“He was right to come to me, Calla.  He told me when he raised his voice you flinched.”  Toby’s eyes were tight, and a crease formed between his brows.  “He didn’t give me all the details.  I think he felt too bad about scaring you.  He wanted to know if I’d noticed you acting strange.”

I had overheard that very conversation.  I wouldn’t put it past them to have discussed it more than once.  Hatched a plan to be my undoing.  Shit.  I was in trouble.  

“What is it you want to know, Toby?  The food will be ready any minute.  And Oz is coming over.  I’d rather not cry just now.”  My honesty startled him a little, but it wasn’t the sort of confession he had hoped to get from me.  

“I’m sorry, Calla Jane.”  His eyes on me were too much, and I couldn’t keep looking.  “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.  I should’ve visited more and insisted you visit.  I should have seen what was happening.  I kept telling myself not to interfere.”

“You?  Not interfere?  Hardly.”  I tried to joke, but it fell flat.  

“I know I have been the most over bearing big brother in the history of time.  I had to take care of you mostly by myself and I did it the only way I knew how.  You were so small, and so precious.  I just wanted to protect you.”

Sure enough I started to cry.  Hot silent tears that ran in a continuous stream.  I just sat there and let him talk.  He clearly had a lot more to say.  

“When you went off to college, I knew you were trying to get away from that.  From me.”  Toby’s voice hitched slightly.  I thought he might cry too.  

“What?  No!”  I crawled too him.  I held his hands in my own.  “Never.  I did want to be on my own.  To see what it was like, or to prove that I could do it.  But not to get away from you.”

He didn’t directly respond.  He gave my hands a squeeze.  

“I knew you were grown up and I had to let you go live your life.  So I stepped back.”  He shook his head, and the guilt he carried bent his shoulders.  “I wish I could take it back because I knew all along something was wrong with the way things were with Gary.”

I stiffened when he said the name.  The tears were different then, more staggered and raw.  Walls flew up in my mind, blocking the truth from full view.  I tugged at my shorts and smoothed my shirt, uncomfortable and too seen.

“What did he do to you?”  Toby whispered the last question.  His face was pinched with worry.  His whole body reflected the way he felt – like I might run, like I might break down, like I might tell him that his worst fears had come true.  

“Oh, Toby.”  I sighed.  I stopped the tears.  I refused to shed another tear over Gary or over those years of my life.  It was part of my plan in coming home and finding myself again.  “You are the very best big brother in the whole world.  I was the luckiest girl to have you looking out for me.  The thing is, you can’t blame yourself.  Not for anything that has happened – or will happen – to me.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate that …”  He cleared his throat like all his worry was lodged there.  “But I want you to answer the question.”

“I just want to forget.  Some times I wish I could have a college years do over.  Erase it all.”  I sighed.  It was a weighty thing.  It was easier to say the words than I had thought it would be.  “Some times I think it’s just a part of my story, a life lesson that will serve me in the future.”

“Was he just the controlling prick I thought he was?  Or was it worse?”

Toby had put a crack in the walls.  The more words that squeezed through, the wider the gap became.  Until all the words tumbled through at once.

“Worse.  A whole lot worse.  You would think after growing up with Daddy as a shining example of the wrong sort of guy, I wouldn’t have stepped right into a life of …”  I realized that by comparing Gary to Daddy, I had told him a lot more than if I had given him precise details.  I saw the anger that altered his face and hands and breathing.  He worked to stay calm, at least outwardly.  I did the same.  “You know what?  I doesn’t even matter.  It’s in the past.  I can move on now.”

Toby crushed me to him.  We had always been fairly affectionate siblings, but never overly so.  He didn’t hold anything back in that hug.  It was fear and redemption, guilt and forgiveness, love and protection, all rolled into one.  

“I love you.  I hate what you just told me.  I changed my mind, and I do not want to hear the details.  Unless you need to talk about it one day.”  He pulled back, and when he looked at me, I could see he blinked back his own tears.  “I think if I heard that he actually did any one of the things I’m imagining, I would track him down and kill him.”

“That’s why I didn’t tell you.”

“Don’t say shit like that, Calla.  God.  You have to tell me that stuff.  You have to let me help you.  Don’t hide.”

“I’m here.  It’s over, and I’m here now.”

Here, away from Gary, and starting over.  That was about all I could promise.  

He nodded and I could see that he was still buzzing with a surge of emotions.  The Calla and Gary cocktail of terror.  I knew how that shit felt.  It wasn’t easy to swallow.  

“Can you do me a favor, Toby?”

“Of course.  Anything.”

“Don’t tell … any one.”  I decided last minute not to single out Oz.  It might not come off strange since he’d admitted that he and Oz had talked about this very thing.  But it seemed safer to lump the group of them together.  I didn’t want him to talk to any one about it any way.  

“I won’t tell any one, but I think you should.” He said it quickly, then after a pause, made an amendment, “If Oz asks, I don’t know, I don’t want to lie to him.”

“Tell him it’s not your story to share.”

“I don’t know anything anyway, not really.”  He was teetering on that thin line between wanting to know more, and wishing he didn’t know at all.  He was digesting the news.  “Telling Oz won’t make much difference.  One more brother on your team.”

Right.  Brotherly love.  I nodded and my mouth was too tight to smile.  

“Speaking of, we’d better get downstairs,” I said, happy to have this conversation out of the way and done with.  

“Go on.  I’ll meet you down there.”

I gave my brother the time he needed, letting him come to terms however he could, with what I had divulged.  

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Eleven

There was no getting around the awkwardness of the rest of the day.  Oz showed up talking loud, swearing about the state of his house and the subsequent clean up.  He and Toby cracked open beers and for a few minutes acted like everything was normal, but it couldn’t last.  

Oz kept looking at me, and I kept blushing when he looked at me.  I worried what Toby would think, so I kept saying random nonsense that fell flat and killed the mood.  Toby watched me like I might cry or run away after our heart wrenching conversation.  Oz watched Toby, and I could tell he knew something was up – but he might have thought I told him about us, rather than about Gary.  We sipped our drinks and we made the worst small talk possible as we devoured the lasagna.  

“I have to be up early, and I’m beat.  I’ll see you two tomorrow.”  Toby stood from where we’d all been sitting in the wrought iron chairs on his deck.  He stretched and yawned, and I couldn’t help laughing at him.  Just a little.  “CJ, be ready to roll by 5:30, and we’ll head into town to do the Lacey family dinner.”  

Oz nodded, but didn’t say anything.  He picked at the label on his beer bottle, and I once again got the impression he battled nerves.  Only I couldn’t guess the cause.  

“Yep.  I’ll be ready.”  I smiled up at Toby as he slid the door open to go back into the house.  “Night, Tobes.”  

The night was hot and sticky, our cold drinks sweating in our hands, and my skin clammy from the humidity.  A warm breeze made it tolerable to be outside, but in another couple weeks it would be miserable even after dark.  

“I want to say that I could bring you to dinner tomorrow.”  Oz laughed at himself, his face a little pinched as he talked.  “But I know it doesn’t make any sense.  Of course you should ride with Toby.”  

“We could all go together.”  I shrugged, hoping he didn’t feel too left out by the plans we made.  Toby would definitely be suspicious if I baled on him to ride with Oz, but going together seemed a normal thing.  

“Nah.”  He shook his head, and I watched his lips move as he spoke, mesmerized by them.  “I have to drive to Destin tomorrow anyway, and will go to dinner straight from there.”  

“Tell me what you do with Lacey Garner Corp.”  I knew Oz took a job working for the family business, but I had never asked for the details.  I couldn’t picture my bass playing, beach bum Oz donning a suit and sitting through meetings.  

“Mostly I hire artists and deal with calendars and contracts.”  

Oz sat back, brining one ankle up to rest on his other knee.  I followed his lead, and sat back, as I listened to him.  He told me about finding good performers – the right folks for the right places, putting piano players in one hotel lounge, but a jazz band in another.  Each hotel and restaurant they owned had its own personality, and he liked finding the right fit, and helping create the best vibe.  His voice got low, serious, when he talked about making sure they paid well, giving the artists and bands the best deal he could manage.  I knew he and Toby had played too many gigs for exposure or pennies, working their asses off to get paid anywhere near what they deserved. 

We talked, catching up on our lives, until I couldn’t stop yawning.  

“Go to sleep, Jitterbug.”  Oz stood, pulling me up with him, and holding me close as he spoke into my hair.  “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”  

I nodded, my chin against his firm chest, and I relaxed into his warmth and strength.  Standing in Oz’s embrace was more like a dream than reality.  He softly rubbed my back as long as I stayed there, letting me be the one to pull away first.  

“I wish you could stay.”  I tipped my head back and spoke the quiet words up to him.  

“I wish I could say yes.”  He lowered his head and placed a sweet kiss on my mouth.  

Pressing my body heavily into Oz, I savored this stolen moment and kiss.  Unfortunately, I served to remind me we still needed to talk to my brother.  After a few more seconds of giving myself over to Oz, I pulled back.  He kept his hands on me and looked down at me with a serious expression.  

“You’re busy tomorrow, and we’ll be with your family tomorrow night.”  My fists gripped his shirt, unwilling to let him go yet.  “When can we talk?” 

After we talked, then we could handle fessing up to Toby, then we could spend nights together.  We had to do this right, or risk everything blowing up.  

“Come over Tuesday night?”  He asked with a grimace, probably aware I would have to give Toby a reason for not being home.  

What would I say to my brother?  I would figure something out and make it happen.  

“Yeah, okay.”  I nodded again, smiling at him and hoping he’d kiss me again.  

Oscar Lacey did not disappoint.  He smiled right back at me, then pressed his lips to mine, kissing me right through our shared happiness.  

A wealth of emotions flowed through me as I watched Oz walk away, his dark form disappearing into the night.  I loved him.  It was too much, too soon, but that didn’t make it any less true.  I wanted to go after him and kiss him one more time.  I craved running my fingers through his short hair and tugging him close to me.  I could get lost in his earnest gaze.  I could forgot my pain simply by letting go and loving him.

 ***

Worry began to gnaw at me as I spent the day alone.  The lead up to the Lacey Family Dinner becoming hours of anxiety as I tried to imagine being with them and lying to their faces.  Not that they’d ask if I was in love with Oz.  The family would likely have no suspicions of any sort where we were concerned.  But I’d know we were more than friends, and that we’d be pretending otherwise all evening.  

To distract myself, I set up my new writing toy, and spent a few hours learning the ins and outs of the device.  It wasn’t difficult to get the hang of, and it would sink directly to my laptop, meaning I didn’t have to do any copying of my work.  

By the time Toby came home and got immediately in the shower, I had almost forgotten my nerves, and I had a solid thousand words written.  Rather than feeling like work, writing had come easily, the words flowing as soon as I sat down and let them.  It was utterly enjoyable to focus on crafting a story, especially without a deadline or concern about grades.  There would be bigger real-life feedback down the road, but for the time, I could focus simply on telling the story.  

I pulled on a simple sundress, would my hair into a bun to keep it off my neck, and grabbed one of the bottles of wine Toby bought.

“Is it a nice gesture to bring wine?”  I asked Toby as he rounded into the kitchen, hair dripping wet, and keys dangling from his fingers.  “Or is it weird?” 

“Nice.”  He laughed, and headed out the back door.  “Probably more weird for you than me, because I’ve been able to have wine with family dinner for longer.”

“Right.”  I nodded and followed after him, clutching the wine to my chest.  

As expected the drive was hot and left my hair a mess.  I’d insist we take my car next time we went somewhere together if Toby wouldn’t fix his stupid air con.  The fifteen minute trip gave me just enough time to start panicking about seeing Oz with his family, and knowing it would be the last time we were together with them as only friends.  What would they think when we told them about our new relationship?  Would we get congratulations?  Or disapproval?  We’d be altering the dynamics once we told everyone, and I couldn’t clearly anticipate their reactions.  

“You look nervous, Calla Jane.”  Toby pointed out as we approached the door.  “Want me to carry the wine?” 

I could hear the amusement in his voice.  He didn’t suspect anything anything bothered me other than my weirdness about bringing wine.  Why would he?  

“No.”  I rolled my eyes, and kept my hands tight on the wine bottle.  “I’m fine.”  

Without knocking or ringing the bell, Toby opened the front door and held it for me.  We went in together to the house that had been our second home growing up.  It was such a strange thing to go back to places you cherished as a child – to revisit them as an adult.  The house hadn’t changed much.  In a quick glance I could see new throw pillows, updated curtains, and minor decorative alterations.  But the house had the same welcoming vibe, and ultimately felt unchanged from the last time I’d entered.  I had changed though.  We all had, really, as we’d grown up and left the nest, so to speak.  I walked in as a guest, seeing everything with new eyes, and wondering where I fit.  

Then Milo ran across the family room, Rod in hot pursuit, and Oz sauntered in behind them laughing.  Just like that my nerves retreated enough for me to feel the rightness of being back in one of the only places I’d ever belonged.  

“Mom is going to kill them both,” Oz said in lieu of greeting.  “She already warned us all to be on our best behavior tonight.”  

“Has that ever worked?” Toby asked, and we walked through the house to the kitchen.  

“Obviously not.”  Oz laughed again, and when his eyes met mine I momentarily forgot how to breathe.  

“There she is!” Mama Lacey exclaimed, dropping the spoon from her hand, and rushing to me.  “Oh, how I’ve missed you.”  

She pulled me into a tight hug, imparting a whole lot of love into the embrace.  Four years worth of missed hugs all rolled into one.  Elizabeth Lacey hadn’t changed much either – still the picture of grace and elegance, with a touch of craftiness, and the toughness needed to parent five sons.  

“Everything is right with you back under our roof.”  She pulled away, smoothed her hands across my shoulders, and looked at me with wistfulness.  

“I brought wine.”  I held up the bottle, and laughed at my awkward delivery.  

“Oz, honey, open the wine.”  She waved a hand at her son who hovered the closest to us, and he took the bottle from me at once.  

“I know they might not be your favorites anymore,” Mama Lacey smiled and winked at me, “but I’m making green bean casserole, and Bernie is grilling steaks.”  

“Definitely still my favorites!”  My whole body went warm over their gushing.  

“Mac and cheese, too.”  Oz called out, pouring glasses of wine for me and his mother at the kitchen island nearby.  “It’s in the oven already.”  

Milo came in, out of breath, with pink cheeks, and looking guilty.  Then Rod breezed in, only marginally less rumpled, with eyes flashing.  

“Oh, hey, CJ.”  Milo smiled at me, then ducked away, keeping his eyes on my brother.  

“I talked to my trainer, Felix, for you CJ.” Rod said, catching my attention, “If you can come tomorrow morning, he has time to meet you and work with you.”  

“Perfect.”  I nodded, happy, but also embarrassed to have this conversation in front of everyone.  “I’ll be there.”  

“What’s this?”  Oz asked, delivering the over-full glasses of wine to his mother and me.  “Felix Cole?”

“I can’t picture you in a boxing gym, little sister.”  Toby didn’t sound like he was judging, more curious than anything.  

My mouth worked, trying to find an answer, but coming up with nothing.  Rod said something about strength and confidence, and I nodded even though I was watching Oz’s reaction more than listening.  I could practically see the questions stacking up in his mind.  

“Steaks are almost done.”  Bernie popped his head in from the backyard.  “Oh, hello, Miss Calla.  Welcome home, darling.”  

“Thanks.”  I stared at him, more gray at the temples than the last time I saw him, but still looking vital and strong.  Larger than life, just like his sons.  

“Enough talking.”  Mrs. Lacey, brushed her hands together and took charge.  

She gave out commands, sending each of us to complete a task to have dinner served smoothly.  It effectively ended the conversation about my training appointment.  

Dinner conversation ranged from Milo’s upcoming graduation, to Oz and Toby playing a gig at a festival later in the summer.  From Bernie’s desire to get a Great Dane puppy, to Bear’s extended business travel over the foreseeable future.  I enjoyed the food, but more than that, I loved the dialogue between everyone, the easy way it ebbed and flowed, carrying us along.  

Occasionally, Oz and I shared a look across the table.  There was longing there, and I knew he wished as much as me we could have sat together and been open with his family.  But it wasn’t uncomfortable like I had imagined.  

As Toby and I left, saying lengthy goodbyes, and gradually making our way to his truck, my full and happy heart obliterated any fear.  I couldn’t be nervous or afraid when surrounded with such absolute support.  How had I not appreciated this as a teen?  Why had I wanted to go away and find myself?  It was like Dorothy learning that she didn’t need to go any farther than her own backyard to find her heart’s desire.  I had everything I needed – everyone I loved – right there with me.  

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Twelve

I had no idea what to expect, and battled a case of nerves as I walked across the parking lot toward Southpaw Sparring.  It looked unassuming, a generic sign along a strip mall, all the glass along the front reflective and giving nothing away.  I’d done my online homework about the place and knew the owner was a lefty – and learned that the term southpaw referred to him being a lefty, which I found absurdly cute.  I also knew he was a big shot in the boxing training world, and that his gym was the real deal.  Did not makes me less nervous!

Rod and Felix Cole, the lefty himself, were easy to spot once I entered.  They were both hitting and kicking the training bags, looking both intimidating and somehow playful.  Smiles stretched their faces and their laughter met me at the entryway.  

“CJ!”  Rod jogged toward me, using his teeth to loosen the velcro on one of his gloves, then taking them both off.  “Ready to kick some ass?”

I tried to say yes, but ended up nodding and clearing my throat.  

Rod hugged me, evidently not caring about being sweaty, and welcomed me into his domain.  

“Don’t be nervous, okay?”  His energy and smile helped keep me from running away.  “Come meet Felix.”  

Rod escorted me to the man who punched those heavy bags with more strength and gusto than I expected.  When I tensed, Rod put a hand at my low back, and I knew he was urging me to stay calm.  Felix Cole was mid-fifties, in better shape than anyone I knew – other than Rodney Lacey – and had eyes that crinkled and shined when he smiled.  Thankfully I could already tell he smiled a lot.  

“Felix, this is Calla,” Rod nudged me right up close to his trainer, and thankfully didn’t stray from my side.  

“It’s nice to meet you, Calla.”  Felix nodded and looked me over.  “You have gloves?” 

“No, sir.”  I managed to get out, and wished it would have occurred to me to buy gloves.  I wanted to reach out and flick Rod for not telling me up front.  

“You can call me Felix.”  He smiled and looked like he knew what I was thinking, “Don’t worry, we have gloves you can use.  Rod go get her a pair of mediums from the shop and tell Kerri to put them on your bill.”  

Felix laughed as he sent Rod away.  I would pay him back, so I didn’t worry about the money or the fact Felix told Rod to cover the cost.  We hadn’t talked about money, and I could only imagine how pricey training would be.  Today was a freebie, just to see what I thought.  After that I’d have to offer to mop the floors or something to cover my costs.  I would figure it out later, after I made up my mind about the training being beneficial to me or not.  

“He told me you wanted to train, and that he’s known you forever.”  Felix watched me, almost like he studied me.  “If there’s anything else you ever want me to know, I’m a good listener and an even better person to have in your corner.”  

Tears burned behind my eyes, but I held my composure.  Not because he would judge me.  Only because I didn’t need to cry anymore.  Not about this.  I had never faced anyone like Felix Cole, with his bulging muscles, his kind eyes, and his immediate and unwavering calm.

Rod brought me pink boxing gloves with the words BAD ASS across the fists.  As I slipped my hands into them, I changed.  When I threw my first punch to the bag, I both broke apart and came together.  

I didn’t have to imagine Gary as I trained.  He was nothing but a piece of my past.  I only had to feel the burn in my muscles, and wipe the stinging sweat from my eyes, to feel strong.  

My expectations were far surpassed, and I knew I’d do anything to keep coming back.  To keep chasing the confidence that grew into something I could almost claim and own.  

I rode the high from my sweaty, grueling, training session the rest of the day.  Sore muscles made me feel alive, and were proof of my potential for even more strength.  Felix pushed me, but never once said anything to me that didn’t lift me up rather than tear me down.  I had already scheduled another session with him for Thursday, and even had the guts to mention that we should discuss payment then, too.  

Between the inclusive family dinner and the badass bag punching, I’d come to have something like hope swelling inside me.  

Then I left a note for Toby; leaving the house before he got home from work, and lying my stupid pants off.  

 

Dinner plans.  See you tomorrow.

xoxo, Calla   

 

Not strictly a lie.  I had dinner plans.  I would see him tomorrow.  But we all know a lie by omission is still a gosh darn lie, and the guilt start poking holes in my new found hope.  

I trudged down the beach to Oz’s house, and hoped Toby wouldn’t text and ask where I went or who I was with or any such nonsense.  It was doubtful, as he had plans half the nights anyway, and we were adults who could handle our own schedules.  But I knew I was walking to his best friend’s house, and doing it behind his back, which meant I knew he should be suspicious of my said vague dinner plans.  

Then, only two houses away from Oz’s, and able to see the beautiful aqua blue of it in the distance, the reality of what I faced hit me full force.  

This night wasn’t even about dinner.  It wasn’t only about breaking the news to my brother.  I was meant to divulge all my secrets from the past few years – to clear the air before we embarked on something serious together.  The idea of opening my mouth and admitting the truth to Oz sent a shiver down my spine, and slowed my steps.

I’d spent almost my entire life not telling the whole truth.  Not fessing up to the fear I faced at home, or the hunger we sometimes silently endured.  Not saying anything when I wanted to scream for help.  Not telling anyone our father had a drinking problem, or worse yet, an anger problem.  

When I told Oz the truth about my college years, and my troubled relationship with Gary, did I also tell him about my childhood?  

Which secrets were mine to tell?  

I stood in the sand, my bare feet hot and scrubbed smooth from the walk, and I stared at the sky above Oz’s house.  My heart beat too fast against my ribs, echoing in my ears and head.  I took my time, swallowing all the painful truths of my life, and filtering through which ones I could acknowledge with Oz.  

Then I tried desperately to recapture the love and acceptance I had with the Lacey family – Oz in particular.  I recalled my clumsy hits to the heavy bag, and shook out my sore arms which were proof of my ability to learn and heal.  

Pulling an image of Oz into my mind, I let love wash over me.  We’d always had love between us, and this new variation could only make us stronger.  What we had wouldn’t tear us down, and I knew that to be true, and it was that kernel of truth that carried me to his door.  

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Thirteen

About the time I neared hysterics deciding if I knocked or not on Oz’s door, he opened it and watched me climb the remaining stairs to meet him.  In simple board shorts and a soft-looking t-shirt, he looked achingly handsome.  I took a second to appreciate how attractive I found him, and it seemed he did the same, his gaze roaming over me while his lips quirked into a half smile.  

“Jitter.”  

He didn’t say anything else as he reached out for my hand and pulled me into his house.  Cool air and the alluring scent of spices met me as soon as we walked across his spacious living space.  

“I got Thai from that place across the bridge.”  Oz mentioned, gesturing to the spread of takeout containers across the wide island in his kitchen.  

“Smells great.”  I hadn’t been sure I would want to eat once I arrived, anticipating nerves making me too sick, but I was happy to find that wasn’t the case.  

“I’m dying to know how it went at Southpaw this morning.”  Oz didn’t waste any time jumping into the conversation or the food.  He handed me a plate, kept one for himself, and nodded at me to go ahead and serve myself.  

“It was … amazing.”  I sighed, setting my still empty plate on the granite countertop, while I contemplated how to explain it to him.  “I had no idea what to really expect.  I’ve been to regular gyms, and I’ve worked out before, but it wasn’t like anything I’ve ever done.  Felix and Rod, they’re strong, you know?  Fast, too.  But they were so patient with me, and super encouraging.”  

He nodded, and it looked like he bit the inside of his left cheek.  

“What?”  I asked, curious why he seemed to hold back rather on saying something.  

“Nothing.  I’m glad you liked it so much.”  He nodded, still looking a little off, then scooped Pad Thai over half his plate.  

“Ozzie.”  I waited, watching him fill the other half of his plate with a green curry dish.  “Don’t hold back.  It isn’t like you.”  

He huffed a breath from his nose, and I decided to fill my plate rather than stare him down.  If he didn’t fess up to whatever irked him, it would drive me crazy.  But I could wait.  We had plenty to talk about anyway.  

“I’m jealous of my brother, and I don’t like it.”  His voice was rough, and I could hear how much it cost him to make the admission.  “I also realize it isn’t fair, and has nothing to do with you.”  

I laughed, right out loud.  Jealous?  Of Rod?  

“I’m sorry,” I couldn’t stop giggling, and I really did try.  “I don’t mean to make light of your feelings, but …” 

“I know it’s dumb, Calla.”  He laughed a little, too, which made me feel better.  “Want to eat in here?” 

He tipped his head toward the small table with only two chairs on the other side of the kitchen.  Bay windows surrounded it, giving a gorgeous view of the beach.  

“Yep.”  I pressed my lips together to keep from laughing and took my plate to the little table.  “I love this spot.  It’s perfect.”  

I sighed, looking out at the stretch of white sand, and the relentless crashing of the waves against the shore.  Toby had been right:  living at the beach was a dream.  I loved it.  

“How do you think we should break the news to Toby?”  I scooped up a big bite of steaming food, and brought up the easier of the topics we needed to cover.  

“Figured we’d just sit him down and tell him.”  Oz shrugged his broad shoulders, then looked past me, at his own view down the beach.  “Maybe we’ll bring him that Oreo cheesecake he likes so much, and have plenty of beer on hand.”  

I wasn’t convinced cheesecake and beer would really help soothe the hurt and anger we planned to inflict.  But it was as good a plan as any, and I didn’t have a better one.  

“This food is unbelievable!”  I stuffed another bite into my mouth, ready to lick my plate once I finished.  

“They’ve been open about two years.  I’ve been hooked since the first time I tried ‘em.”  Oz nodded and ate at normal pace, unlike me who couldn’t get it in my mouth fast enough.  “I’m glad you like it so much.”  

“Are you laughing at me?”  I laughed at myself, and didn’t mind his apparent amusement.  

“A little.”  His smile was indulgent, and for no reason I could discern it sent a wave of heat to my cheeks.  

Oz rose from the table, and I watched him like a greedy little hawk.  He grabbed glasses and filled them with ice and water.  Nothing special.  Yet I could knew I could get lost watching him doing menial tasks.  The stretch of his shirt across his muscular chest.  The taught curve of his gorgeous ass when he turned his back to me.  The ease and underlying confidence in even simple movements sent spikes of longing through me.  

“Want a wine or mixed drink or anything?”  Oz asked as he delivered my full water glass, evidently unaware of my staring and nearly drooling over him.  

“I’m good.”  

Not that I hadn’t thought about pre-gaming, wondering if alcohol would make all our soul-baring talking easier.  Ultimately, I’d decided it would only make me more likely to break down or freak out. 

We packed up leftovers, and I helped load his dishwasher.  We moved around each other like magnets that couldn’t be pulled too far apart.  All the while, I knew we hadn’t accomplished the goal of the evening, and it loomed over us.  Nerves skated along my skin and I kept rubbing my arms.  When Oz asked me about the strange motion, I told him I was sore from training, which wasn’t completely untrue.  

“Do you want to go for a walk?”  Oz leaned his hips against the freshly wiped counter, and looked at me with such a serious expression on his face.  “Or we can get cozy in the movie room.”

“Movie room.  I don’t remember seeing that when I came over for the pool party.”  

“It’s on the third floor.”  He mentioned casually, still assessing my every breath and twitch.  “Popcorn?”

“No, I’m full.”  

“Sweet.”  He gestured for me to walk ahead of him, though I didn’t know where to go.  “There’s a bar up there if you want water, soda, or alcohol.”  

I nodded and started up the stairs.  A joke about needing an elevator occurred to me, but I decided not to voice it.  Too silly.  

“This is not normal, Oscar Lacey!”  I nearly shouted at him after breaching the doorway to the movie room.  

I’d pictured movie theater chairs or rows of sofas.  Something over the top, but still in the realm of my imagination.  Nope.  A huge U-shaped section did divide the bar along the backwall from the rest of the room.  The floor made up the rest of the seating, cushions and pillows thick over the space, and calling out to me.  Plush, over sized ottomans were scattered along the edges, with cup holders and snack trays.  

“I like to get comfortable when I’m watching movies.”  He sounded the teensiest bit defensive, but mostly amused at my reaction.  

“What’s your favorite spot in here?”  I knew he’d have one, since the room was clearly his dream room made reality.  

“Here.”  He led me to a spot dead center, but toward the back.  You could lean against the sectional if you wanted, or prop up pillows to sprawl out.  

I lowered myself to the absurdly cushioned area he pointed out.  “What are we watching?” 

“Something we don’t actually want to watch.”  Oz laughed, and whether he planned on us talking or making out, I wasn’t one hundred percent sure.  

“You pick.”  I said, nodding and not caring.  Unless … “Not Tron.”  

“Fair enough.”  

I put too much effort into creating the perfect spot, not sitting by not laying, getting my pillows just right, while Oz used a fancy remote with a screen on it to pull up a movie on the huge screen that took up the whole front wall.  

“Speed Racer.  I am not surprised.”  I shook my head and couldn’t help my smile.  

“So,” Oz shifted, turning to half face me, and nestling into his cocoon of cushions.  We both clutched pillows in our arms, like they’d bring us protection from the tough conversation.  

“Yeah,” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for just a second, then looked at the movie flashing across the screen.  “What do you want to know?  I don’t know where to start.” 

“Freshman year.”  

I told him about not knowing what I’d major in, and about moving into the dorms with Emily.  I mentioned how I met Gary and that we got close really quick.  I glossed over the first signs of something darker growing in my new relationship.  Oz didn’t need to know everything.  Talking about my classes and finding my place in Creative Writing came easy.  

“When did you end things with him?”  Oz asked, his voice low and stretched thin with frustration.  

“A few weeks before I graduated.”  

Time moved strangely around the things that made an impact on our lives.  It seemed like only weeks ago – which was scarily accurate, but also like it had been a lifetime.  As soon as I had cut ties with Gary, everything had changed, including me.  I’d finished my degree, moved back home, and started over.  It could have been months or years ago rather than the short time that had passed in reality.  

“Did he hit you?” 

I sucked in air, begging it to give me the strength to speak the truth.  

“Yes.”  

My eyes stayed trained on the movie, rather than dissecting the look on Oz’s face.  I didn’t want to see if he was disappointed in me, or if he fought down anger on my behalf.  

A tear snaked down my face, and I didn’t wipe it away.  I didn’t want Oz to see me cry over another man.  I didn’t want my past to own me.  I only wanted to let it all go.  

Oz took my hand, and a surge of warmth and fortitude swept over me.  We sat like that for several minutes, not speaking, not looking, just being.  Letting my disclosure settle between us.  Hopefully we could move past it and not look back.  

“Can I hold you?” 

“Yes.”  I nodded, my chin wobbling as I turned to him.  

His strong arms wrapped around me and imparted a wealth of love into me.  Rather than feeling dwarfed by him, I was holding my own, giving right back to him.  Cherished.  I felt cherished.  I rubbed my hands along his back and sides, absorbing him into my palms and memorizing the lines of his body.  He did the same to me, keeping me crushed to his chest.  

“One more hard question, Callalily.”  Oz shifted back to his own pillows, leaving only a scant few inches between us.  

I nodded, unable to answer him with my voice.  I didn’t know what he’d ask, but I knew to fear it.  

“Did your dad …” Oz cleared his throat, and I turned to see him shake his head.  He hadn’t stumbled over asking if Gary had hit me, but whatever he suspected of my dad, he couldn’t get it out.  “Growing up, did he … did he hurt you, too?” 

My teeth bit sharply into my bottom lip – to keep from crying, or to stop myself from screaming.  

“That one is a little more complicated.”  My tired voice came out as a whisper.  “He never hit me because Toby always protected me.”  

Oz’s breaths came in and out too quickly, too ragged.  He blinked repeatedly as he digested what I told him.  

“But I don’t feel right telling you anything else.  You need to ask Toby one day.  Or don’t.”  I climbed to my knees, and wanted to beg Oz to let this one go.  “It’s in the past.  I think we both want it to stay there.”  

“He takes care of him.  Did you know that?”  Oz turned to me, anger bright in his eyes and thinning his lips.  “Toby goes out there almost every week to help around the house.  He gives him money and buy him groceries.”  

Oz punched a pillow, obviously needing an outlet for the latest crest of pain I’d shared with him.  I flinched, but otherwise understood Oz’s reaction.  I did not understand his words!  What?  I tried to replay what I’d just heard over again in my head, but still couldn’t make sense of them.  No way did Toby stay in touch with our dad, much less help him in anyway.  It couldn’t be true.  

“No.”  I pushed up to standing, looking around the plush movie room, and overcome by the urge to go home.  

“I’m not trying to start shit between you and Toby.”  Oz reached out and took my arm, slowing me from trying to climb out of the room.  “I’m trying to make sense of him … of this.  Why did I not know about this?” 

I wanted to scream, it’s not about you, but I pressed my lips together.  Pulling my arm free from his gentle hold, I stalked to the door and down the stairs.  God, it was all too familiar to suddenly be fleeing from Oz.  I hated that my stomach flipped and my lungs squeezed.  

Oz had no intentions of letting me escape down the beach by myself.  He walked beside me, and when he took my hand, I leaned into him.  My emotions were all over the place, and I felt wrung out, but I could only be happy to have Oz there at my side.  

As we walked, closing the distance between me and my brother, I had to decide a few things.  Did I confront him?  Did I ignore this information and let him make his own choices?  What did I say about Oz walking me down the beach after my gone to dinner note?  

I didn’t have the answers, but I knew it wasn’t the right time to spring this thing with Oz on Toby.  In view of Toby’s shabby little beach oasis, I stopped, and spun to face Oz.  Hands pressed into his chest, I absorbed his heart beat, and smiled up at him.  

“I need some time to figure out what I want to say to him.”  My mind still sifted through the myriad of emotions and questions.  “Not about us.  About our dad.  And Emily is coming this weekend.  I don’t know … I just …”

“It’s okay, Jitterbug.”  Oz leaned down so that his forehead rested against mine.  “We’ll figure it all out.”  

I nodded, the movement bouncing our heads were the touched.  He slid his hands up and down my arms, then pulled me in for a short but fierce hug.  

As I walked away, I knew he’d be watching me until I was safely inside.  I knew he cared about me, and I hoped we could work through all the mess that raged around us and threatened to knock us sideways.  

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