"This is crap. This is crappier than crap. I can't believe I'm going to be stuck in that shithole for six weeks."
"It's not going to be that bad," I said softly. Joe's leg wouldn't quit shaking. Mom had confiscated no fewer than three liquor bottles from his carry-on bag.
"You don't have anything to worry about. Shelby and Mason are cool. Kevin is not."
I leaned back in my seat. I didn't feel well. Due to my ear problems, the altitude change affected me more than it did even the most sensitive of flyers.
"You should really stick it to mom and dad and come back knocked up," Joe said. I glared at him.
"What? Don't you get sick of being perfect?"
I winced. "I'm not perfect."
Joe laughed bitterly. "Compared to me? Compared to the twin nuts? I'd say so."
"You're doing it to yourself," I said. Joe shrugged. "Whatever."
He put his headphones on. Conversation over. I sipped at the watery orange juice on the tray in front of me.
I had kept the tears at bay all day, but they threatened to spill over once more. All the pieces of me - Brayden, Tristan, mom, dad, Joe - we were scattered here and there. Mom was on another continent for crying out loud. Even though Joe didn't want to hear it, I was happy that he would be close by.
By the time we landed, Joe had gone through five packs of peanuts and I had gone through two crumpled up tissues. Joe grabbed both of our carry-ons. I looped my pack around my shoulders. Joe tossed his haphazardly over his shoulder. We joined the shuffle of people lumbering off the plane.
"Don't you even think it," I hissed.
"Think about what?" Joe asked.
It was the twin sense at play again. "Running off," I hissed.
Joe looked at me and scowled. I could almost see the scenario playing through his mind.
Luckily, there was nothing to worry about. Kevin was the first person I saw as the crowd began to break off. He took Joe's bag before Joe even realized he was standing there.
"Good flight?" he asked.
"Yes, thank you," I said breathlessly. Joe just gave Kevin a stony look.
"I hope you're ready to work," Kevin said. "I--"
Before I could turn, a mess of red curls flew at me. Shelby hugged me tightly.
"You've gotten so tall!"
"Joe, look at those muscles! Holy macaroni is that a tattoo?"
Shelby hugged Joe tightly. He actually hugged her back.
"Cool isn't it?" he asked.
Shel opened her mouth, but before she could answer, a tiny version of her was hoping all around us.
"AUWNT AWWEEYYY! UNCOWWWW JOEEEEEE!!!"
Brenna smiled up at me. I scooped her up. She gave me a loud smacking kiss.
"Hi!" I said brightly. Joe held up his hand. She gave him a high five.
"I missed you!" she announced. She lifted her leg and pointed to her shoes. "Look!"
"Totally cool," I declared. Kevin smiled. I knew that Brenna could do no wrong in his eyes. It was the perk of being the first Richardson girl.
"You're still coming Sunday for dinner, right?" Kevin asked Shelby. She nodded.
"The four of us will be there," she said. Kevin nodded. He put a hand on Joe's shoulder. Joe shrugged him off.
"Let's go," Kevin said. Joe gave me a look. I couldn't help it; I hugged him.
"Please," I whispered. "Just try."
Joe didn't respond, but I at least got a squeeze. He slowly started off after Kevin. I had a feeling that even if he did try to run, Kevin would catch him. The man was in amazing shape.
"Rough time, huh?" Shelby asked quietly. I looked up at her. I could see the concern in her eyes.
"You could say that," I said.
"Did you bring paw-paw's ice cream?" Breanna asked hopefully. I laughed. "It would have melted silly."
Brenna's lower lip popped out in the perfect pout. "I want paw-paw."
Shel wrapped her arm around my shoulders. I carried Brenna over to baggage and set her down. She was still pouting.
"Can you help me look for my luggage?" I asked. Brenna's eyes sparkled.
"I can help!" she said earnestly.
"Pink unicorn tags?" Shelby asked. We shared a look; we couldn't help but laugh.
"Pink unicorn tags," I confirmed.
Brenna was on it. At the sight of the smallest sliver of pink she was shouting. As soon as I got my last bag, we headed out to the car.
"Where's Mason?" I asked. Shel checked her watch.
"He's probably at work now. He has class until two. He'll be at work until seven or eight."
"When do you see him?" I asked. Shel cracked a smile.
"Sunday. If we're lucky."
"Daddy works at the hoth-pistol," Brenna explained. She scrambled up into her booster seat. I went around and tossed my bags in the trunk. When all three of us were in the car and buckled, Shel pulled out of the parking space.
"Some day," she said. "Mason will graduate. Then after a year or so of 80-hour weeks during residency, life might just turn out normal."
"And we'll have mooo-ney!" Brenna said. Shel sighed.
"Someone's been eavesdropping on us," she explained.
"How are you doing with your art?"
"It's a sporadic job," Shel said. "When I can get away and do a show in New York or L.A., then things are good. The market isn't huge here, even in Lexington."
I nodded. Shel and Mason didn't have it easy. They knew that going in. Even so, Brenna couldn't have been smarter or healthier. And Shelby seemed to totally accept the now in hopes of a more promising (and relaxing) future.
The drive from Lexington to Sadieville took about forty-five minutes. It might have been a little longer, but I couldn't tell. Brenna started talking about her room, Wal-mart, horses, and swimming and I was totally distracted with her enthusiasm.
"Home sweet home," Shelby announced. The car slowed in the drive.
Mason had inherited his grandpa's house. It was an old house close to the center of town. The siding had seen better days, but it looked warm and inviting. A small barn sat closeby. Shelby helped me with my bags and we entered through the kitchen. Brenna's sandals slapped against the old floor.
"Come see my room! Come see my room!"
Shelby laughed. "Brenners, let me show Ally her room."
The house was small. From the kitchen you could see the living room and the front door. A hallway branched out from the living room. Three small bedrooms and one bath completed the house. The largest room was Mason and Shelby's; Brenna had what was once Mason's stepmom's room. The other room was a combination study and guestroom. It had been made up just for me. Shelby and I dropped my bags. Brenna tugged on my arm.
I followed her across the hall. Her room looked like a clown had sneezed out a rainbow. There were dress-up clothes everywhere. A mess of markers were scattered on the floor. Brenna scooped about twenty stuffed animals in her arm and dumped them on the floor. She scrambled up on her bed.
"Sit down!" she said.
I stepped around everything and sat down. Brenna leaned down and picked up a white box. She took out a fake needle and jabbed it in my arm.
"OW!" I said in mock pain. Brenna giggled.
"Okay, you had your shot. You can go," she said seriously.
Shel was leaning against the door. "She does that to anyone that visits," she said.
I laughed. "Adorbs."
"Brenna, you play in here. Aunt Ally and I are going to the kitchen," Shelby said. Brenna was busily rooting through her doctor's kit.
I followed Shel to the kitchen. She grabbed a pitcher of lemonade and we sat down at the table.
"So, I want to hear all about everything going on at home. I know mom's sugar coating," Shel said. "But first, I bet you want to know what kind of job I've found for you."
I had almost forgotten about the job with everything else going on.
"What is it?" I asked. I watched her pour the light yellow liquid into two glasses filled with maraschino cherry-filled iced cubes.
Shel sat back. Her eyes sparkled. "Well..."