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“I didn’t know! He didn’t know!” I say in an overly defensive tone.

She cocks her head to the side and rolls her eyes as though I’ve insulted her.

“What are you doing, Lake? Don’t you realize he's raising his little brother? This can ruin his-”

Both of our eyes dart to the front door as we hear Will’s car pull into his driveway. I quickly head to the front door in an attempt to block it so she'll let me explain. She beats me to it so I follow her outside, pleading.

“Mom, please. Just let me explain everything. Please.”

She is walking up Will’s driveway when he notices us bombarding him. He smiles when he first notices my mother, but his smile fades when he sees I’m right behind her. He has surmised that this is not a friendly visit.

“Julia, please. Can we go inside to talk about this?”

She doesn’t respond, she just marches toward his front door and lets herself in.

Will looks at me questioningly.

“Your brother mentioned you were a teacher. I haven’t had a chance to explain anything to her,” I say. He sighs as we make our way inside.

It’s the first time I’ve been inside his home since I found out about the death of his parents. Nothing has changed, yet at the same time everything has changed. That first day when I sat at his bar, I assumed that everything in the house belonged to his parents; that Will’s situation was not unlike my own. Now when I take in my surroundings, it sheds a different light on him. A light of responsibility. Maturity.

My mother is sitting stiffly on the sofa. Will walks quietly across the room and sits on the edge of the couch across from her. He leans forward and clasps his hands in front of him, his elbows resting on his knees.

“I’ll explain everything.” He says this with a serious, respectful tone to his voice.

“I know you will,” she replies evenly.

“Basically, what it boils down to is that I made a lot of assumptions. I thought she was older. She seemed older. Once she told me she was eighteen, I guess I assumed she was in college. It's only September, most students aren't eighteen when they start their senior year.”

“Most of them. She’s only been eighteen for two weeks."

“Yeah, I…I realize that now,” he stutters, shooting a look in my direction.

“She wasn’t attending school the first week you guys moved in, so I guess I just assumed. Somehow the topic never came up while we were together.”

My mother starts to cough again. Will and I wait, but the coughing intensifies and she stands and takes a few deep breaths. I would think she's having a panic attack if I didn’t already know she was coming down with something. Will goes to the kitchen and comes back with a glass of water. She takes a sip and turns toward the living room window that faces the front yard. Caulder and Kel are outside now, I can hear them laughing. My mother walks to the front door and opens it.

"Kel, Caulder! Don't lay in the street!" She coughs again as she closes the door and turns toward us.

“Tell me, when did the topic come up?” she asks, looking at both of us now.

I can't answer her. Somehow in the presence of the two of them, I feel small. Two adults hashing it out in front of the children. That's what this feels like.

“We didn't find out until she showed up in my class,” Will replies.

My mother looks at me and her jaw gapes open. “You’re in his class?” She looks at Will and repeats what she said. “She’s in your class?”

God it sounds really bad coming from her mouth. She stands up and paces the length of the living room as both Will and I allow her time to process.

“You're telling me that both of you deny having any knowledge of this prior to the first day of school?”

We both nod in agreement.

“Well what the hell happens now?” she asks. She has both of her hands on her hips. Will and I are silent, hoping she can magically come up with the solution that we’ve both been searching for all week.

“Well, Lake and I are doing our best to work through this a day at a time,” he finally replies.

She glares at him accusingly. “Lake? You call her Lake?”

Will looks down at the floor and clears his throat.

My mother sighs and takes a seat next to Will on the sofa. “Both of you need to accept the severity of this situation. I know my daughter, and my daughter likes you, Will. A lot. If you share even a fraction of those feelings, you will do whatever you can to distance yourself from her. That includes ditching the nicknames. This will jeopardize your career, and her reputation.” She stands up and walks to the front door, holding it open for me to follow her out. She wasn’t allowing us the opportunity for any private time.

Kel and Caulder brush past us as they run into Caulder's bedroom. Mom's eyes follow after them as she gazes down the hallway that the two boys just ran through.

"Kel and Caulder don't need to be affected by this," she says as she brings her attention back to Will. "I suggest we work something out now so that the contact between you and my Lake can be minimized."

"Absolutely. I completely agree," he says.

"I sleep in the mornings. If you want to take them to school, Lake or I will pick them up after school. Where they go from there can be up to them. They seem to do pretty well going back and forth."

"That sounds good. Thank you."

"He's a good kid, Will."

"Really, Julia. It's all fine with me. I haven’t seen Caulder this happy in a …” Will’s voice trails off and he doesn’t finish his sentence.

“Julia?” he asks. “Will you be talking to the school about this? I mean, I completely understand if that’s what you need to do. I would just like to be prepared, beforehand.”

She looks at him, then at me and holds her stare as she speaks. “There’s nothing currently going on that I would need to inform them about, is there?”

“Not at all. I swear,” I quickly reply. I want Will to look at me so he can see the apology in my eyes, but he doesn't. As soon as he shuts his front door behind us, I can’t hold my tongue any longer.

“Why would you do that?” I yell. “You didn’t even give me the opportunity to explain!” I dart across the street and don't look back at her as I run into the house and into the solitude of my bedroom where I will remain until she's left for work.

***

“Layken, do we have any packets of Kool-Aid?” Kel is standing in the entryway, covered in snow slush.

It’s not the oddest thing he’s ever asked me for, so I don’t question him as I grab a package of grape out of the kitchen cabinet and take it to him.

“Not purple, we need red,” he commands. I grab the purple package from his hands and return with a red one.

“Thanks!”

I close the door behind him and grab a towel and lay it down on the tile of the entryway. It’s not even nine in the morning and already Kel and Caulder have been outside in the snow for over two hours.

I take a seat at the bar and finish my cup of coffee, staring at the pile of junk food that I’m no longer excited about eating. My mother got home around seven-thirty this morning and climbed into bed where she’ll stay until around two o’clock. I’m still angry with her and don’t feel like confronting the situation at all today, so it looks like I have about five more hours before I’ll lock myself in my bedroom again. I grab a movie off the bar and, despite my lack of appetite, a bag of chocolate. If there is any man who can take my mind off of Will, it’s definitely Johnny Depp.

Halfway through my movie, Kel comes bounding in the house, still covered in snow and slush as he grabs my hand and starts to pull me outside.

“Kel, stop. I’m not going outside!” I snap.

“Please? Just for a minute. You have to see the snowman we made.”

“Fine. Let me get some shoes on at least.”

I put my shoes on and Kel grabs my hand again and pulls me out the door. I continue to allow Kel to pull me along as I shield my eyes. It’s taking them a moment to adjust to the suns reflection on the snow.

“It’s right over here,” I hear Caulder saying, but not to me. I look up to see Caulder handling his brother in the same way that Kel is handling me. We are both led to the rear of the jeep where they position us inches apart, directly in front of a casualty.

I now know the purpose behind the demand for red Kool-Aid. In front of us, lying flat on the ground beneath the rear of my jeep, is a dead snowman. His eyes are small pieces of twig, shaped into a grim expression. His arms are two thin branches lying at his side, one of them broken in half under my rear tire. His head and neck are sprinkled with a trail of red Kool-Aid that leads to a pool of bright red snow about a foot down from the snowman.

“He was in a terrible accident,” Kel says seriously before he and Caulder break out into a fit of giggles.

Will and I look at one another, and for the first time in a week, he smiles at me.

“Wow, I need my camera,” he says.

"I’ll grab mine,” I say as I head back inside.

So this is what it’s going to be like from now on? Conversing under false pretenses in front of our brothers, avoiding each other in public? I hate the transition.

When I return with the camera, the boys are still admiring the murder scene as I snap a couple of pictures.

“Kel, let’s kill a snowman with Will’s car now,” Caulder says before they dart across the street.

The tension is thick as Will and I stare excessively at the snowman in front of us, not knowing what else to look at. He eventually glances toward his house at our brothers.

“They’re lucky to have each other you know,” he says quietly.

I analyze this sentence and wonder if it has a deeper meaning, or if he was simply just making an observation.

“Yeah, they are,” I agree.

We both stand there watching them gather more snow when he takes a deep breath and stretches his arms out above his head.

“Well, I better get back inside,” he says. He turns away.

“Will, wait.” He swings back around and puts his hands in his pockets, but doesn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry about yesterday. About my mom,” I say as I stare at the ground between us. I can't look him in the eye for two reasons. One, the snow is still blinding me; two, it hurts for me to look at him.

“It’s fine, Layken.”

And we’re back to the official first name.

He stares at the ground where the ‘blood’ has tinted the snow and he kicks at it with his shoe. “She’s just doing her job as a mom, you know.” Sadness spreads across his face as he speaks. “Don’t be so mad at her. You’re lucky to have her.”

He spins and walks back to his house. Guilt overcomes me as I think of what it's like for them to just have each other, and here I sit complaining about the only parent left between the four of us. I feel ashamed for bringing it up. I feel more ashamed having even been mad at my mother for what she did. It was my fault for not talking to her about it sooner. Will is right, as usual. I am lucky to have her.

***

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