I tried to blink away my tears, and I nodded. I knew from personal experience how much they could save a life.
The MISS Foundation helped families who’d suffered from the unbearable loss of a child. When I had my first miscarriage, they were who I turned to. When I had my seventh, they were who kept me from drowning.
I’d once mentioned the foundation to Judy years ago; I hadn’t had a clue she remembered.
But, of course, she did. She was, after all, the one who restored my faith in humanity each day.
I walked over to her and gave her the tightest squeeze. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“Always,” she replied, squeezing me even more. “The dress looks better on you, by the way.”
Oh, sister, you and your lies.
The carnival began, and everyone in town was there—except for the Emery men, of course. I had asked Jackson if he would attend, and he’d said he would rather eat five hundred cans of anchovies than be surrounded by all the folks of charming ole Chester.
I couldn’t blame him. If it wasn’t for me being Chester royalty, I would’ve avoided it, too.
It was probably a good thing he wasn’t there because the number of times his name was upon someone’s tongue was infuriating. Jackson never talked about anyone in town. Heck, I was almost certain he didn’t even know most of their names, but they were true fanatics about tossing his around.
Every time someone said something ugly about him, the hair on my arms stood up. Every time someone called him a monster, I wanted to stand up to them. He wasn’t a monster at all, not the real Jackson. He was so gentle and kind. He saved me when I felt so alone.
When Susie Harps remarked that the town would be perfect if we didn’t let white trash stay, I was seconds away from leaping at her and pulling out her extensions. “I’m just saying, it would be best if his father just went ahead and drank himself to death. Then maybe Jackson would off himself next,” she said in such a despicable tone.
How could those words ever leave someone’s mouth?
How could someone be so shockingly evil? Wishing death on someone? Really?
My arm reached out and if not for a hand landing on my forearm, she would’ve been on the ground.
“Whoa there, slugger,” Alex whispered. As I turned around, I saw his smiling face, and he shook his head. “It’s not worth it.”
“Did you hear what she just said?”
“Yes, but still, it’s not worth it,” he told me. “The more you react to their comments, the more power they have over you. Just walk away. Come on, let’s get some cotton candy.” He placed his arm around my shoulders, still smiling, but I felt sick to my stomach.
“They wished him dead,” I barked.
“Yeah, well, that’s their karma to deal with. If you pulled out that girl’s hair, that would be your karma, but look! Now your karma is clean, and you get cotton candy. I call that a win-win.” He bought me a cotton candy, and I shook my head at him in disbelief.
“How do you always stay so positive? With everything and everyone?”
“Oh, that’s easy—I smoke a lot of marijuana.” He smirked. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Jackson, actually. I just wanted to say thank you.”
“Giving his darkness a chance. As you know, he’s a good person once you peel back those layers, and it means the world to me that you took the time to do that.”
“It’s not just a one-way thing, Alex. He’s done the same thing for me. Whenever I feel like falling apart, he’s there to catch me.”
“That’s the type of friend Jackson is—loyal and always there for you.”
My heart skipped a beat. “You think I’m his friend?”
Alex snickered and cocked an eyebrow. “You think you’re not? Rumor has it he sends you texts.”
“Not to sound dramatic or anything,” he said, leaning in, “but the asshole doesn’t even text me back. You might be his new favorite person. If it was anyone else, I’d probably be pissed, but since it’s you”—he shrugged—“I’ll allow it.”
“So what does he do for the festival days? Does he hang out with his dad?”
“Nah. Normally he sits on top of the shop and drinks while watching the fireworks.”
“Yeah. I’ve tried to join him, but he won’t have it. Alone is something he’s used to, I think, and he has a hard time breaking that pattern.”
Well, maybe it was time to have someone try to break it for him.
* * *
“What are you doing here?” Jackson asked as I made my way onto the roof of the auto shop, holding a bag in my hand.
“What does it look like? I’m bringing you barbecue.” I handed him the food, and he gave me a somber look.