Under the lights, p.6
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       Under the Lights, p.6

         Part #2 of The Field Party series by Abbi Glines
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  eyes now. I didn’t want to see the rest. I lived it. I tried like hell to block it and unsee it, but I couldn’t. It was there in my mind, burned deeply into me. As it should be.

  I opened the dresser drawer and moved the photo albums I had there over until I found the one picture I had kept. The others I’d left behind. I was sure my mother had thrown them out by now. I didn’t want them anyway. Too many memories. This was all I could stand. Seeing this one.

  Flipping it over, I saw Poppy’s strawberry-blond hair first. It was teased sky high, and she was laughing at me. My hair was equally ridiculous. The bright colors we wore went beyond hideous, but the pink lipstick and blue eye shadow were the best parts. It was homecoming week last year, and this had been our outfit for Eighties Day. Our mothers had grown up in the eighties, so they’d both been very helpful with the wardrobes. We had nailed the look.

  As awesome as we were dressed up, that wasn’t why I had chosen this photo. It was the laughter on Poppy’s face, on both our faces. It was what I remembered most about Poppy. The laughing and the feeling like I had someone who cared. When I had left Lawton at eleven, I’d thought I would never have a friend again.

  Then Poppy had shared her peanut butter sandwich with me because my mother had forgotten to make me a lunch. It had been instant friendship.

  My chest clinched tightly until it was only pain. Tears blurred my vision, and I slipped the photo back in the drawer and covered it with the albums. That was a life I’d never have again. Laughter I’d never feel. Even now when I smiled, I felt guilty for being able to. I didn’t deserve to smile and definitely not laugh. Ever again.

  I often wished I was physically unable to laugh and smile. It felt good when I did, until I remembered why I shouldn’t. The guilt was consuming. It ate at me. It destroyed me.

  Looking around the dark room, I wondered what life would have been like had my mother never sent for me. If I’d stayed here in Lawton. Lived this life instead. Gunner and Brady both seemed okay. They weren’t unstable. It was safe in this small town. But hadn’t it been safe in the one I’d lived in too?

  Bad decisions could have been made anywhere. Like me. I was a product of my mother’s bad decision. She’d made that in this small town, and I’d been nothing but disappointment.

  I’ll Collect When the Time Is Right

  CHAPTER 14

  GUNNER

  I stopped by my father’s office door on my way downstairs for breakfast. It was closed as always. When I was five, I had wanted to show him a turtle I had found and went barging in that door unannounced and invited. He’d been on the phone while I’d been jumping back and forth on my feet with the thrilling news of my new pet. Trying hard to keep quiet until he was off the phone so I could show him. Ms. Ames had been happy when I had shown her, so I thought maybe I could make my father equally happy.

  It was something I did often back then. Try to please the man. Make him smile at me. The eternity of his phone conversation had been enough of a reason to praise me, because I was rarely quiet. When he had ended the call, he’d leveled his dark brown eyes, very different from my own, on me and glared with fury.

  “Why are you in here, Gunner?”

  I held out my turtle, who I had named Charlie Daniels because Ms. Ames listened to music by that name often and I liked to dance to it in the kitchen. “I found a turtle!” I announced with great pride.

  My father looked down at the turtle and then back at me. The rule was I wasn’t supposed to go in his office. He didn’t like me in here the way he did Rhett. Sometimes I wondered if he even liked me at all. But I’d found a turtle, and he needed to see it.

  “If you ever walk in that door again without being invited in, I will take off this belt and beat your ass. Do you understand me?” His voice was a little less than a roar. I didn’t understand him at all. He’d not even acknowledged my turtle. So I held it up higher. Until my elbows were over my head. “But I found a turtle!” I exclaimed, thinking he had somehow missed this information.

  My father reached in my hand and took the turtle from it, then tossed it out the open window behind his desk. “There. Go find the damn thing and stay out of my office.”

  I never did find my turtle.

  And I never called him Dad or Father again.

  The man behind that door I hated. I knew he hated me equally, and it wasn’t until much later that I had understood his hate. One day I’d demand my mother tell me my real father’s name. I wanted to carry that last name. I no longer cared about the name that held power in this small southern town. I wouldn’t live here much longer. When I graduated, I’d take my money and leave. Never to return.

  Except maybe to throw a party the day of that man’s funeral.

  The kitchen already smelled like muffins, bacon, and coffee when I entered it. My parents never came to the kitchen to get food. They would sit at the table in the dining room, and Ms. Ames would serve them their meal. I, however, had started eating in here with Willa when we were kids. I liked it better at the small, round table that was always set whenever I walked in.

  “Morning, boy,” Ms. Ames said with real affection in her voice. “’Bout time you got down here. You’re gonna be late. I put your coffee in a travel mug, and here’s your two blueberry muffins and a few slices of bacon. Don’t eat and drive. Just eat it quick before you go.”

  I was in a bigger hurry than she realized. I had to get Willa and get us both to school on time. “I’ll eat in first period,” I told her, taking the food and coffee from her hands.

  She frowned but nodded. “Okay then. You drive safe.”

  “Will do,” I assured her.

  My mother wouldn’t wake for another two hours. It was a blessing. Having to face her before I’d had coffee every morning would suck. I never saw the man in the office, and I liked to keep it that way. One of the reasons I never showed for family meals. I told Mom that dinner in the kitchen was easier on my schedule for football and homework. It was complete bullshit, but for the most part it worked.

  “Willa doing okay at school? You seen her?”

  “She’s doing just fine from what I’ve seen, but I’ll watch out for her,” I replied, then hurried out the door. I wanted time with Willa, and the more I wasted in the house chatting up her nonna the less I’d have on my ride to school with her.

  She made me remember a happier time. A simple, easy friendship I no longer knew. I wanted it back. Being with her hadn’t just been easy, it had made me feel good. It still did. My chest felt lighter, and I looked forward to being around her. No one calmed me and excited me at the same time the way Willa did.

  I took a long swig of my coffee and let it burn my throat on the way down before starting my truck and making my way to Ms. Ames’s house the long way in case anyone was watching.

  Willa was outside at the end of her driveway, with the brown backpack she carried on one shoulder and a bottle of water in her other hand. Her blond hair was dancing in the breeze as the early morning sun illuminated her. She really was gorgeous. It sucked that I needed her friendship too much to ruin it by getting to put my hands on her.

  I stopped beside her and watched as she climbed inside and looked at my uneaten muffin and three slices of bacon on the napkin on my seat. Her hand reached out, and she snatched a slice, then took a bite before smiling at me. “Next time get her to give you more. She expects me to eat cereal since she leaves so early.”

  I’d keep that in mind. “You can have the muffin. I’ve already eaten one of them. But leave me the rest of the bacon.”

  She took a muffin and began eating like she was starving. I wasn’t sure a girl had ever eaten like that in front of me. Most didn’t eat in front of me at all, or in front of any guys for that matter.

  “Ms. Ames starving you this week?” I asked, amused.

  She nodded, then smiled. “I have a high metabolism, and I require food.”

  “Someone needs to tell your nonna then. She should be sending you off with more
than cereal for breakfast.”

  She shrugged. “Why would I do that if I have you to smuggle it out to me from the big house? Y’all get the good stuff.”

  I knew she meant the more expensive meals. My mother required uppity healthy shit that cost money and was bought at that organic grocery in Franklin. “Fine. I’ll keep you fed. But you owe me. I’ll collect when the time is right.”

  She laughed, and although it didn’t fully touch her eyes, it was definitely a laugh. Something I wanted to hear more of. Willa had a really good laugh.

  I Don’t Drink Alcohol

  CHAPTER 15

  BRADY

  Taking Ivy to Asa’s birthday party didn’t help how she viewed our relationship. It also didn’t give me the opportunity to spend time with Willa. Who had shown up with Gunner. Not that they had stayed together. Gunner had taken off to the woods with Serena a few minutes ago, and Willa was currently talking to Maggie and West. Maggie appeared to like Willa, as did the birthday boy, who kept moving toward her wherever she went. Damn horny-ass Asa.

  Maybe I could get Maggie to invite Willa over so I could have time alone with her that Gunner couldn’t interrupt. He said he wanted friendship. I didn’t believe him, but I think he thought that was all he wanted. He just didn’t realize yet he wanted Willa like I did. I was just ready to face it. I was interested in getting to know the girl she’d become. When we were kids, I’d had a crush on her simply because she was different. Most girls I knew wouldn’t get dirty playing ball or go looking for lizards. She’d been fascinating to me as a kid. Now that she was all grown up, she was still different but beautiful. Willa was like this untouched flower that everyone wanted to see and get close to.

  “I want another beer,” Ivy said as she looped her arm through mine and held on to me like she needed me in order to stand up. She had drunk two Dixie cups full of the beer that we had sitting in a keg on the back of Nash’s truck. She was maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. She didn’t need another cup of beer. Soon she’d be vomiting on my feet and gross shit like that. I wasn’t taking her home trashed.

  “You’ve had plenty. Grab a bottle of water out of the cooler. Or a diet soda or something.” Anything but more beer.

  She pouted, and her lips stuck out in an annoying way. I never really liked the pouty-lip thing. It was meant to manipulate, and that got on my nerves. I didn’t want to be manipulated. “You’ll puke, then pass out, and I’ll be left to explain all that to your parents when I take you home.”

  Sighing dramatically, she glanced over at Ginger, one of the girls on the cheerleading squad, who was snuggled up to Ryker Lee. Ginger had been after him for weeks. He’d finally given her a notice tonight.

  “He’s no fun,” she whined. “Come on, Ginger. Let’s go dance!” she exclaimed, already too tipsy.

  Ginger wiggled her body against Ryker. “Want to dance with me?”

  He winked at her and nodded his head in the direction of the music someone had blaring on their Beats Pill. “Go on, and I’ll watch.”

  Ginger beamed at him, excited about being able to show off. “M’kay,” she replied, and sauntered off, swaying her hips like she knew she was being watched.

  “Dayum girl’s begging for it,” Ryker drawled.

  I chuckled. “Seems that way.”

  Ryker shook his head, then turned his attention toward Willa, who was now standing up from the log she’d been sitting on while talking to West and Maggie. She looked like she might be about to go somewhere. As much as I’d like to make sure she didn’t want Gunner, I also didn’t want her going looking for him and seeing him and Serena going at it.

  “You enjoy your view,” I told him. “I’m gonna go check on something.”

  Ryker laughed. “Sure you are. I’d check on that too.”

  I didn’t respond or look back at him. He knew where I was headed, and he also didn’t blame me. I could see it in his eyes when he looked Willa’s way. She was beautiful, but there were several beautiful girls in Lawton. It was the fact she was new. They all were attracted to the newness of her. A girl they hadn’t made out with or wanted to since they were in junior high.

  Willa was a fantasy they hadn’t worn out yet. She also had an air of mystery around her that appealed to guys. We wanted to get past her barriers. See her smile. Gunner could never be the guy she needed. Willa seemed fragile now. Gunner was terrible with fragile. He’d break her too easily. I could keep her safe and make her smile again.

  Willa was walking away from my cousin and West when I walked up to her. She had made her getaway and was headed for the woods behind the clearing. Through the woods was where all the cars were parked. Which meant that was where she would find Gunner’s truck and Gunner in a probably compromising situation.

  “Willa,” I called out, and she stopped, then turned around.

  She was dressed warm for the chilly late-fall evening, unlike the other girls here, wearing jeans and a dark blue hoodie. Willa hadn’t come to draw attention to herself. “Hey,” she replied with a small smile.

  “You leaving?” I asked, hoping that wasn’t what she wanted to do, because her ride was definitely busy.

  “Uh, well, it’s late, and I’m tired. I saw Gunner head back here earlier, and I was hoping I could find him and see if he’d mind giving me a ride back to Nonna’s.”

  Uh, yeah. Bad idea.

  “I could use some company. It’ll be hard to find him out there, and he did take Serena with him. Might not want to walk up on that,” I said with an apologetic smile.

  Her eyes widened like she hadn’t thought of that.

  “Oh, yeah. No I don’t.”

  I could take her home, but that would mean leaving Ivy to get hammered on her own. I’d picked her up at her house, and her dad had met me at the door. Made me promise to take care of her and have her home on time. I couldn’t bring her home drunk and past her curfew. So leaving to take Willa home wouldn’t be possible.

  “Want a drink?” I asked her.

  She shook her head. “I don’t drink.”

  “You don’t drink? Why haven’t you died from dehydration yet?” I was teasing her.

  She rolled her eyes. “I don’t drink alcohol.”

  “I wasn’t offering you a beer. We have water and sodas too.”

  Her eyes lit up. “In that case, yes. My mouth is dry. I’d love a water.”

  “Come this way,” I said, being sure to walk behind the crowd of people with Willa so Ivy wouldn’t spot me and swoop in to stake the claim she did not have on me.

  We walked around the trucks that did park in the clearing of the field. We needed lights, somewhere to keep the keg, and extra seating, so a few drove their trucks right up in here. Ivy was dancing with Ginger and doing her best to entertain whoever was around. The Dixie cup in her hand made me mutter a curse. She’d be drunk and stupid the next time we spoke. Ivy had been comfortable and easy, so I’d let our relationship grow into something I never really wanted. I didn’t want to hurt her, and honestly, she had started feeling like an obligation. It wasn’t fair to her. Or me.

  What Does Casual Mean?

  CHAPTER 16

  WILLA

  The cold water felt good as I drank several long gulps before stopping. My mouth had been terribly dry, but I’d thought the only drink they had here came out of that large keg on the back of an old blue pickup truck with really big wheels. I really wanted to be at home in my room, reading in my sweatpants and cozy pink socks with the hearts on them that I’d gotten for Valentine’s Day from Poppy last year. The thought of Poppy as always hurt, and I mentally winced.

  Seeing everyone so drunk and carefree had taken me back to a time when I was much like them. Except, unlike here, we had added drugs to the mix. There were no worries, and we owned the world. It was a foolish thing to think that way. Like you were invincible. Because no one was. Death would come sooner for some than others.

  “Water taste that bad?” Brady asked, and I realized I’d zoned into the dark place
I lived often. The one that had been my shield through the months following that night.

  “No, it’s great. I was just thinking of things I’d rather not.”

  That was the only truth he would get.

  “Come on.” He nodded toward the woods. “Let’s get out of the noise and enjoy our water. You can tell me about the last six years of your life, and I’ll bore you with details of mine.”

  “No, thanks,” was my quick reply. Talking about the darkness wasn’t happening. Not even with the counselor they’d made me see in the correctional facility I’d lived in.

  He frowned. “You wanted to escape the party.”

  I smiled because I didn’t realize I had sounded completely rude. “I do. I just don’t want to talk about my past. It’s . . . boring,” I lied. Nothing was boring. It was tragic.

  “Fair enough. We’ll go drink our water and talk about my life. I love to be the center of attention.”

  That made me laugh. “Okay.” Brady put me at ease. Once he had made me feel nervous, silly, and giddy. Now, though, getting to know the older, more mature Brady, I liked him. He was a good guy. Solid. Dependable.

 
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