Finding chase, p.2
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       Finding Chase, p.2

           Lacey Weatherford
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  The panic I repeatedly fought against began to rise inside me. I hated facing something I couldn’t control. It left me feeling completely helpless, knowing nothing I did would ever change the outcome. This was my life now. I was being forced to travel a road I never wanted to take in the first place. It made me incredibly angry at everything. Emotions tumbled and churned, welling up so swiftly I thought I might start screaming.

  Jumping to my feet, I dropped the blades of grass and placed a hand on her headstone, gripping it tightly. “I’ve got to go, Nikki. I’m sorry I’m never strong enough to stay here very long. I can’t take it. It eats me up.” My knuckles were turning white, and I released the granite piece and stepped away. “I love you.”

  Clenching my fists beside me, I headed toward my truck. I felt the need to pummel something. I was glad football was starting, so I had the excuse to pour this emotion into something very physical. I needed something—anything—to ease the frustration.

  “Good heavens, boy! What’re you up to?” Grandpa Warren’s voice came from the doorway, and I glanced in his direction before returning to work.

  “I thought I’d restack the hay bales for you. They looked sloppy, and this one row was pretty close to the outside wall. I noticed sometimes water leaks under right there. I didn’t want it to get ruined if it rained.” I tossed another bale on top of the bottom one before climbing up the stack and hefting it higher, moving towards the upper part of the pile.

  “Chase, I can take care of this. You’ve got a house full of people here for your goodbye party tonight. You need to come inside.”

  Pausing, I wiped my arm across my sweaty brow and glanced in the direction of the house. “I don’t really feel like partying. Maybe you can make excuses for me? I’ll grab some leftovers when I come in later.” I gave a pleading, hopeful look as he stared, his lips pursed.

  “Son, come sit with me for a spell.” He waved his hand toward some of the bales on the ground.

  Sighing, I finished stacking the one I’d been moving and climbed down. I sat beside him, my elbows resting against my knees.

  “You’ve got to be one of the best kids I know.” He clapped me on the back. “I may have had my doubts in the beginning, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy your age work as hard as you.”

  This was high praise coming from him. “Thanks,” I mumbled. “I’m just trying to help out.”

  “I have to say, I don’t like it one bit.”

  His words threw me.

  “What?” I glanced up, confused. I thought he appreciated my help.

  “You’ve got your whole life to work yourself to the bone, Chase. You need to enjoy being a kid. Go be with your friends—laugh, be silly, do some crazy things. Hang with the guys for a while, or try dating again. There are some very pretty girls who’d love to find a handsome guy like you paying them attention.”

  I clenched my jaw, grinding my teeth together. “I can’t do that.” I got up and grabbed another bale.

  “What do you think Nikki would say about how you’re behaving?”

  Hearing her name made me feel like I’d been sucker punched in the gut. I dropped the hay. “Don’t go there. Please, Grandpa. It still hurts too much.” I struggled to maintain my composure.

  “I had a dog once that got tangled in a loose barbed wire fence. His name was Barley.”

  Wait. We’re talking about dogs now?

  “He cut himself real good on his hind leg. I helped him get free, but he ran off before I could put any salve on the wound and dress it proper. He wandered around the edges of the property, limping, but whenever I’d come after him, he’d hightail it away before I could catch him. Finally, one day I found him laying in the field over yonder. His leg was swollen real bad, and I could tell he had a pretty serious infection going on. I knew if I didn’t cut him open and drain it, he was going to die, so I pulled out my pocketknife and sliced into it. Ole Barley, he howled like the dickens and even nipped at me pretty sharply. Green smelly puss shot from that thing, though, and I knew he had to feel a lot better getting rid of the pressure. I carried him to the house and cleaned the wound as best I could. It was touch and go for a while, but finally his leg started healing, and he made a full recovery. Barley and I were pretty close after that. He was a good dog.”

  I folded my arms. “Is there a point to this story?”

  He stood and walked in front of me. “The point is, sometimes you’ve got to lance your wounds, and let all the infection and poison pour out of your soul so it doesn’t eat you alive from the inside out. Sometimes we fail to see there are people around us who love us, and they are waiting to help, but we don’t let them. Instead, we choose to let things fester, going off on our own—licking wounds as we try to heal ourselves.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “Don’t let this happen to you, Chase.”

  I blinked back the tears which threatened and looked away. I knew what he was saying, but I couldn’t give in. It was too hard—too much. “I can’t let it out,” I whispered. “It’s . . . too strong.”

  “I’ve watched you for months now. Every time those emotions of yours bubble to the surface, you stamp ‘em back down inside and let ‘em fester even longer. It’s not healthy what you’re doing. You’ve been through hell. You’ve proven the kind of man you are. It’s okay to cry.” He pulled me to him, hugging tightly. “It’s okay to cry,” he emphasized again. “I want you to know you aren’t alone, son. I love you.”

  Despite my resolve, his words sunk deep to my core. I struggled against it with everything I had, but I couldn’t hold it together. The dam broke, and I clutched the back of his shirt in both of my fists, suddenly overwhelmed with great gulping sobs. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t fight it anymore. I didn’t care if I looked foolish because I knew he was right. I’d been in agony, feeling like I had nowhere to turn. I didn’t know how to express what was happening inside, so I kept it bottled up the best I could, letting off just enough steam every now and then to keep the pot from exploding. It was more than I could bear.

  “I love her, Grandpa,” I cried, my words sounding foreign and choked. “I really love her. I don’t know how to live without her. I don’t want to live without her.”

  He didn’t offer me any words of wisdom, instead holding me as I wept in his arms. I had no idea how long we stood there—I only knew my heart was breaking.

  “Warren?” I heard Grandma Caroline’s voice come from outside, and she appeared in the doorway, stopping short when she saw the two of us. She placed her hand over her heart, and I saw tears in her eyes.

  “We’ll be there soon,” Grandpa said without moving. “Tell everyone we had to finish some things up first.’

  She nodded, blowing me a kiss before she walked away. Grandpa released me, and I stepped backward, lifting my hands to dry my face.

  “I want you do something for me,” he said, carefully watching me.

  “What’s that?”

  “I want you to do one fun thing every day. I don’t want you to feel guilty about it. Give yourself permission to let go once in a while. Do it for your old gramps if you have to. I can’t send you away to school without knowing you’ll promise to do this.”

  I slipped my hands into my pockets, toeing some loose hay on the floor with my boot. “I’ll try.” I swallowed hard, attempting to push past the knot in my throat.

  “Try hard, because I’m gonna ask you every week to tell me what you did. Okay? Take small baby steps to begin with. Can you do that for me?”

  I nodded, not able to speak.

  He draped his arm around my shoulder. “Come on. We’ll sneak you in the back way, so you can shower and get cleaned up for dinner. It’s time for you to rejoin your family and friends.”

  Chapter Three

  Staring at myself in the mirror, I quickly ran a comb through my dark, towel-dried hair before deeming myself presentable enough to join the others downstairs. Ironically, Grandpa’s advice had helped. I did feel a bit better, not that my prob
lems were any different. I sighed and attempted to brush my moody thoughts from my head. It was time to put on my “I’m okay” demeanor as best I could and play a different role.

  Laughter rose up the stairs to greet me as I descended, and I picked my mom’s voice out above them all. I loved the sound of it. Knowing she was happy brought a small smile to my own lips as I rounded the corner into the kitchen. She was leaning against the counter, and her eyes sparkled as she listened to a story Grandpa was telling. Her fiancé, Greg, had his arm wrapped around her, love plainly written on his face as he stared at her. I paused and watched for a moment—she was so beautiful.

  She turned and saw me, and her face lit up even brighter. “There he is!” she said, coming to give me a hug, and the focus of the room shifted in my direction. “Are you all right?” she whispered into my ear.

  “Yeah, everything’s chill,” I replied as I hugged her in return. I released her and bobbed my head toward the others who were crowded around the giant table in the dining area. “Hey everyone.”

  Brett gave me a nod and his girlfriend, Tana, stood to give me a hug. Before I could reach her, however, I was bowled over by Timmy and Clara, who attacked me, sliding down around my knees, capturing me. I laughed and snatched them up, carrying one under each arm.

  “Who let these two terrors in here?” I questioned as they giggled, trying to hang on. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t invite them.”

  “Aunt Tori did!” Clara squealed, calling my mom by the pet name they’d given her.

  I grinned at their mom, Justine. “I don’t think I gave Aunt Tori permission to do that.” I wiggled my fingers against their sides, tickling them, and they screamed as I swung them around.

  “Stop!” Timmy laughed. “It tickles!”

  “That’s the whole point isn’t it?” I carefully let them slide to their feet before squatting to give them each a hug. “Thanks for coming to see me,” I said, ruffling their hair.

  Clara’s smile slid from her face. “I don’t want you to move away.” She threw her arms around my neck.

  I held her tight. “I’ll come visit as often as I can.”

  She let go and stared skeptically. “Pinky promise?” She held her little finger out.

  “Pinky promise,” I replied, wrapping mine around hers. I winked and released her.

  My gaze swept around the table at everyone else, and I gave a wave to Brett’s sister, Brittney, and also to my good friends Chad and Wes. “Thanks for coming.”

  “Wouldn’t miss it, man,” Chad replied.

  “He’s not here for you,” Wes added. “He’s here for your grandma’s cooking.”

  I grinned. “I don’t blame him. Grandma’s the best cook around.”

  “I agree! Let’s eat!” Grandpa said, and I found a seat at the table as everyone began passing the food around.

  “Personally, I think you should move with us to the valley, Mrs. Johnson,” Brett said. “You can cook for Chase and me every day. It would help a lot.”

  Grandma laughed. “You don’t need an old lady like me hanging around cramping your style.”

  “You could never cramp anyone’s style,” I said as I took a bite of the pasta she’d made.

  She beamed. “And that kind of sucking up is exactly what’s going to get you fresh cookies in the morning.”

  “Right on!” I grinned and looked at Brett, Tana, and Brittney. “I don’t know about you, but I’ll be having a party in my pickup on the way to Tempe.”

  “I think I’ll ride with Chase,” Brittney said with a laugh.

  “That’s not fair,” Brett complained, elbowing his sister. “If Tana and I have to go without cookies, so do you.”

  “It’s totally fair,” I replied. “Why should she have to watch the two of you mauling each other, when she can ride with me and have cookies? It’s a no brainer.” I glanced at Brittney and winked. “Stick with me, Britt. I got your back.”

  She laughed and poked her tongue at Brett. “I win!”

  Tana smiled. “Or did you? We now have the car to ourselves.”

  “Ah, to be young and headed off to college again,” Justine spoke up. “I miss those days.”

  “I know, right?” my mom said. “I’d give anything to have the energy I had back then.”

  “Those days!” Grandpa broke in. “Quit talking like that. You’re going to make me feel like I’m an old man.”

  “You’ll never be old, Daddy.” Mom reached over and squeezed his hand.

  “I can attest to that,” my grandma added, waggling her eyebrows.

  I groaned loudly. “This conversation just got scary. New subject, please, before we’re all scarred for life.”

  Everyone laughed.

  “When’s your first practice?” Greg asked me, and I was relieved. Football should be a safe conversation.

  “The day after tomorrow, but it’s more of a meet and greet, go through the rules, get our gear kind of thing. I don’t know if we will actually start any of our training until the next day.”

  “Well, work hard. Hopefully someone will recognize you’ve got talent.”

  “I’ll do my best,” I replied. I knew I had a lot to prove when I got there, though. Things wouldn’t come nearly as easy as they did for me here.

  I parked outside Brett’s house early in the morning. I’d kept the goodbyes this morning as brief as possible. There was no sense in having a bunch of sadness at parting when I’d be returning often.

  Nikki’s mom and the kids had actually been the hardest. Clara cried and Timmy clung to me like he was never going to see me again. I had to keep reassuring them I’d come home as much as possible.

  Justine held me for several long moments. “Please be careful,” she whispered. “You know you’re like my own child now.”

  “I’ll be careful,” I promised. She looked so much like Nikki, especially now she’d grown her hair out a bit. For one brief second I tried to imagine it was really Nikki in my arms instead. Sometimes it was still hard for me to look at her.

  A knock on my window brought me out of my musings. Brett was standing there, and I popped the door open.

  “You gonna sit there all day, or are we gonna get this thing loaded up? Let’s get out of here.” He grinned.

  “Let’s do it. Do you have Tana and Brittney’s things packed already?” I asked surveying the items I could see stacked on the porch.

  “Yeah. My dad helped me load my truck with their stuff last night. All that’s left is my bed and a few boxes to go in yours.”

  “Oh, before I forget. My grandma sent these for you. They’re fresh from the oven.”

  His grin widened as I handed him the giant plastic bag full of chocolate chip cookies. “I knew she wouldn’t be that mean. No way can your car be the only one with goodies in it.”

  “Yeah, she’s too kind hearted.”

  “Morning, Chase,” Brittney’s voice interrupted as she came down the steps.

  “Hey. How are you today?” I left my pickup and gave her a hug.

  “Look, Britt,” Brett said, holding up the treats. “His grandma sent cookies for our car too. What’s your excuse for not riding with Tana and me now?”

  “She doesn’t need an excuse,” I interjected. “Everyone knows I’m way cooler than you. That should be reason enough.”

  Brett elbowed me, and Brittney laughed. “Whatever,” he said. “Twin brother trumps football stud every time, right Brittney?”

  She appeared to ponder this carefully, glancing between us.

  “I have two different kinds of cookies in my truck,” I added.

  “Sorry, bro. I’m going with the football stud,” she replied quickly, and I laughed as Brett shook his head in defeat.

  “She just wants you for your cookies, man.”

  I narrowed my eyes at her. “Is that true?”

  She gave me a wide, innocent look. “Of course not. You’re one of my best friends too. Why should Brett get to do everything with you by himself? Today is my tur
n.” She poked her tongue at him.

  “She does have a point there.” I glanced at Brett with a sly smile. “You do hog me.”

  He grabbed me around the shoulders with one arm. “That’s because I loooove you, bro.” He made grossly distorted kissing lips angling toward my cheek, and I shoved him away, laughing.

  “You’re sick, dude. Let’s get your stuff, so we can get going. Is Tana meeting us here?” I really hoped so. I hated driving to her place and passing the spot of Nikki’s accident.

  “Yeah, her mom is bringing her by right now.”

  We headed toward the house, and I noticed Brittney wasn’t with us. I glanced around and found her leaning into my truck, digging a cookie from the bag. Brett paused to see what I was looking at and shook his head.

  “I warned you.”

  Brittney glanced up and caught us staring. “What?” she asked, as she took a bite and sighed.

  “Nothing,” I replied, smiling. “I know the lure of Grandma’s baking.”

  The sound of a car pulling into the driveway alerted us to Tana’s arrival, and Brett left to greet her. I grabbed a box, stacked it on top of another one and started hauling his things to my truck. A small smile slipped across my lips. I was glad we were doing this together. It would be fun for Brett and me to be neighbors with the girls in our new apartment complex. A momentary stab of sadness followed. These girls were Nikki’s two best friends. She would’ve been my neighbor too.

  Chapter Four

  “You gonna save me any of those?” I asked Brittney. “What is that now? Four?”

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