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.

We walked into the woods and toward the vehicles parked on the other side. I noticed the truck I’d seen Brady driving to school. He was apparently taking us there. The moonlight wasn’t very bright tonight¸ but it did illuminate the area some.

“My truck’s there. We can go sit on the tailgate,” he said, nodding his head in that direction.

“What about your date?” I asked him, remembering the girl I saw him at school with a lot and that he’d arrived with.

He glanced back toward the clearing. “She’s drunk and dancing. Won’t know I’m missing.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering about her. I hadn’t asked questions at school, but I’d overheard enough to know they were an item. “How long have y’all been dating?” I asked, wanting to get the subject on him immediately, far away from me.

He pulled his tailgate down and motioned for me to hop up. I did, and he sat down beside me. “Not sure exactly. It’s been a casual thing for a few months.”

Casual? “What does casual mean?”

He gave me a crooked grin. “Do y’all not do casual in Arkansas?”

We did, I guess, but what I had seen at school wasn’t what I thought of when I thought of casual. “I’m thinking we have two different ideas on what casual is.”

“No. We have the same idea. It’s Ivy who is confused on the casual thing. She likes to make it more serious than it is.” The guilt that flashed in his eyes wasn’t hard to miss. He couldn’t hide that. I wondered if he even believed what he’d just said.

I was expecting Ivy to come after us at any minute. Hopefully not swinging fists. I wasn’t drunk, and it wouldn’t be fair to her. After six months living in a facility with tough-ass chicks, I could hold my own. One ass kicking and I’d gotten smart. Made the right friends and learned how to fight. It was the only way to survive that world.

“Have you explained casual to her?” I asked, taking a sip of water. I wanted to know if he’d actually tried to tell Ivy they were casual. Brady was a good guy. But this seemed to tarnish him some. Stringing Ivy along wasn’t exactly part of his persona.

He chuckled and shook his head. “No point. She won’t listen.”

“Then you must really like her.”

“Why do you say that?” He frowned like my comment made no sense.

I thought it made complete sense. But then most teenage boys were idiots when it came to females and relationships. At least, that’s been my experience.

“Because you continue to keep her around. She can’t annoy you too bad.”

He was silent a moment, then sighed. “Actually, she annoys the shit out of me. I’m just too nice to hurt her.”

He clearly looked torn up about it, but that was a weak response. No girl in her right mind wanted to be pitied and kept because the guy didn’t like hurting people’s feelings. “If you don’t like her, stringing her along isn’t exactly nice either.”

Brady turned to look at me, and I met his steady blue gaze. I’d always had a thing for his eyes. They were piercing. Once I imagined them looking at me with love, but that had been the fantasy of an eleven-year-old girl who didn’t realize what love was exactly. Or what love could do.

“She’s got a bad home life. Stepmom is mean to her. Constantly stays on her about her body and appearance. She’s insecure.”

So? This still didn’t mean he had to keep her around if he didn’t like her. “If you like her, then own up to it. If you don’t, let her go so she can feel free to find someone who does.”

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