Chapter Twenty - One

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"Well, that was nice," Estelle said. She stood awkwardly, waiting for me to hug her. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn't.

"Let me know when Austin gets here. I'd stay and wait, but I have to work in the morning."

My dad nodded.

Kale stood in the doorway, half-in, half-out.

My dad hugged me. "What are your plans for the weekend? We're going up to Atlanta if you want to—"

"I'm working." I loved Atlanta, but no way was I going with them. And wouldn't their plans change with Austin coming to town?

"It was so nice to meet you, Kale. Drive safe." Estelle smiled. I wondered if she thought he was my boyfriend. I would never introduce him in that way, but she was awfully smiley and more than a little nosy the way she looked at us when I nudged him to open the door.

I didn't give anyone else a chance to speak before I stepped onto the porch and practically ran down the driveway.

"God, I hate those dinners."

Even after all we had endured, Kale didn't have a word to say.

"Do you have a family?" I assumed he wouldn't answer, but anything was better than silence.

"Do I have a family?" he repeated.

"I mean, obviously you have a family, otherwise you literally wouldn't exist. But are they like that?" I nodded toward the house.

"Nope," he said, staring out the windshield of my car. "Not at all."

"In a good way or a bad way?" I asked.

"Both." He shrugged, buckling his seat belt.

"I think it just bothers me this much because Estelle is so different from my mom. She was really fun when I was young. My mom, not Estelle," I clarified, though he didn't ask. "She used to laugh and listen to music. She would dance around the living room listening to Van Morrison, waving her arms around like a bird or a butterfly. It feels like a lifetime ago."

I was thinking back to that other version of my mom, the one who had long, flowing hair that moved in the wind. She was just as carefree now, but not even close to the same way.

"She used to lift her hands up and push them through her hair, letting it fall around her. It always tickled my face and I would laugh and she would shake her hair and dance around me."

The thrum of my engine cutting through the thick Georgia air was all I could hear. I'd never noticed the sounds before; I'd never had time to.

"And my birthday parties! She used to go all out for them. It was this huge thing, more like a birthday week. We didn't have a ton of money or anything, but she was creative. One year she decorated the whole house in those lights from Spencer's, do you remember that store?"

He nodded.

"They had these disco lights and my mom put them all around our living room and kitchen. All my friends came over. I mean, I only had like ten friends, but they were all there. I had this boyfriend—I think his name was Josh? And he brought me a Game Boy. That was my birthday gift."

I didn't know why I was going into such detail, but I was so lost in my own memories that I just kept going.

"I don't know why he brought me a Game Boy. But I remember getting this karaoke machine and thinking it was the coolest present ever and my mom went into her room and locked the door so we could feel older than we were and not be chaperoned the entire time. Of course, we ended up playing one of those stupid party games and I had to kiss a boy named Joseph, who actually just overdosed on heroine a few months ago ..."

I could feel Kale looking at me, but it was the weirdest thing—I couldn't stop myself from talking. We were at a red light. The sky was pitch-black and the red lights were reflecting off his dark skin.

"Wow, I'm talking a lot," I told him.

He looked over at me.

"It's cool." His voice was so soft.

Who was this guy? So patient, so quiet, yet so in touch with the moment. I tried to imagine Elodie's husband Phillip having a conversation with him. Phillip was buoyant and friendly and Kale ... well, I didn't know what the hell to think of him.

It had been a long time since I'd had this type of conversation with someone, if I ever had. My brother was the only person I reminisced about my parents with. But even he had stopped wanting to relive our childhood with me.

"My mom raised me and my sister up in Riverdale." Kale's voice was sudden and sharp, drowning out the purring engine, the sound of the wind.

"I love that show," I told him and he smiled. I caught it before it vanished. I filed it away.

"It's all right."

"The show or the town?" I asked.

"Both." He didn't smile.

"How old is your sister?" I figured I'd better pounce while he was feeling uncharacteristically chatty.

"Younger than me."

"My brother, too." I wanted to ask him her exact age, but we were coming up to my little white house. "By about nine minutes."

Most people laughed when I told them this. Kale didn't say anything but again, I knew he was looking at me.

The wind blew dirt over my windshield as I pulled into my driveway. Paving my driveway was rapidly moving up my to-do list. I parked and apologized again for fighting with my dad in front of him. He nodded, muttering his version of, "It's cool."

I reached between us to grab my purse from the floorboard behind my seat. "At least you won't have to go through that again. As for me, I'll be back there next Tuesday at seven p.m. sharp." I said "sharp" as much as for myself as for Kale. If I was late for next week's dinner, I would never hear the end of it.

The alley was so dark on moonless nights like this that it was hard to see the porch. A beam came from Kale's phone and he shined it onto the porch.

"I need to get some lights out here."

Kale's body kept moving next to me and I saw him looking around the yard, down the driveway, down the alley to the side of the yard. His neck was sort of jerking. It wasn't an alarming movement, just a quiet survey of his surroundings. I tried to imagine him in Afghanistan, a heavy gun strapped to his body and the weight of the free world on his shoulders.

"My sister is fifteen, by the way," he said, as he walked past me into the house.


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