“Grace, come on, just drop it, okay?” she begged, clearly uncomfortable with the idea. I saw how she flinched, so I did as she asked and dropped it. “Are you excited for the Peach Festival coming up?” she asked me.
Each year, the town held a big festival to celebrate the sweetest peaches in all of Georgia. It was a huge event with carnival rides, barbecue, and fireworks that had been going on for years, but it was the first year Judy was fully in charge of every aspect of it.
“I am! Anything you need, let me know.”
She bit her bottom lip. “Do you mean that? Anything?”
I cocked an eyebrow. “What are you getting at?”
“Well, the day of the event Mama needs some help with some baking…”
I groaned. It was no secret that Mama and I weren’t on the best terms. Then again, I knew how much the festival going well meant to Judy, so I’d do my best to put up with Mama’s annoyance for her.
“I can do that for you.”
She squeaked. “Thank you, thank you. You have no clue how much stress that takes off me.”
“Always and always,” I told her. “I was actually just coming to change real quick before going out.”
“Oh? Where are you going?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
My cheeks heated up in response to the way she asked her question. As if she already knew where I was heading.
“There’s been a lot of talk about you and Jackson Emery,” she told me. “Mama is pretty livid about it.”
“When isn’t Mama livid about something I’m doing lately?” I joked, feeling my nerves build in my stomach. I’d have been lying if I’d said it didn’t bother me that my relationship with my mother seemed so damaged lately. All my life, I’d done my best to make her proud, and now it seemed as if all I did was disappoint her.
Judy gave me a small frown. “I just want to make sure you’re okay. I know what happened with Finn and Autumn is a lot, and I cannot even imagine what’s going on in your head, you know? I just don’t want you to get hurt even more by the likes of someone like Jackson Emery. He’s a terrible person.”
“He’s better than Finn,” I told her, my voice shaky.
“Just because he’s better doesn’t mean he’s good.”
“I don’t want to parent you, Grace. Lord knows the last thing you need is another Mama coming down on you, but I just want you to be careful. I know your heart is broken, and I don’t want anyone else adding bruises to it.”
“You worry about me too much, little sister,” I joked.
“It’s not too much worry. It’s the perfect amount. I just love you, is all.”
“I love you too,” I told her. “Always and always.”
If Mama had approached me the same way Judy did with her worries for me, it would’ve been different. Where Mama was harsh, Judy was gentle. They both wanted the best for me, it seemed, but Mama had a hard time expressing it in a kind way. Perhaps she and Jackson had more in common than they thought. They struggled with expressing themselves.
I understood why everyone worried about Jackson being in my life lately. They were still looking at the out-of-focus version of him the people of small-town Chester had crafted.
Me, on the other hand—I was fully zoomed in.
When I arrived at Jackson’s place as we had planned, I was a bit thrown off. I sent him a text message and waited for a while, before giving up and heading home. It was the first time in all our time together that he hadn’t answered my messages or returned my calls. Plus, whenever I planned to head over, he was always waiting.
I did my best not to overthink it. Jackson had his own life, and I had mine. It was just nice when they crashed together.
* * *
A few days passed, and I still hadn’t heard from Jackson at all. I knew we didn’t have the kind of relationship where I had any right to worry, but I did. It was hard not to, knowing that there were so many storm clouds in that head of his.
I left novels in his corner at the bookshop, but each day when I returned, the Post-it notes were untouched, which only made my nerves build more.
After not hearing from him for five days, I tossed on some clothes and headed over to Jackson’s place to check in on him. When he didn’t answer the door, I walked toward the auto shop, but he was nowhere to be found. Then, I walked around the building and saw him with that sledgehammer in his grip, hammering away at a new broken-down car. His white shirt was tucked into the side of his jeans as he swung the hammer into the glass windows.