Rooting ((Chapter One))
He was just a flash in my peripheral vision, a blur, really—but I’d come to know him so well that the simple movement gave him away. I turned around right as he reached for me.
“Hey!” I exclaimed as we bumped into each other. Hard.
Jason laughed, ignoring my protests as he pulled me to him. “Sorry. I was trying to surprise you.”
“Yeah, well. It didn’t work.”
We leaned away long enough to glance into each others’ eyes. It had been weeks since I’d last seen him. We’d talked through emails, of course, but it was never the same.
I reached beneath his stronghold on me to grasp his forearms. “How was it?”
His smile became fainter. “Good. Really good. Sorry—I know I didn’t talk about it much.”
I shrugged. “It’s fine; I get it. You don’t have to.”
“I want to. I do. I just can’t right now.” He gestured toward his house, where I barely caught the last, perfectly composed half of Jasmine Parker as she disappeared into her house. “We’re unpacking.”
I craned my neck, searching. “Where’s Ker?”
Jason sucked in his cheeks. “Upstairs. I told her to let me see you first.”
“That’s mean! And how do you know I didn’t want to see her first, hm?”
“Because I know you, Rachel Ferguson.”
“I resent that. You know nothing about me. We’re strangers.”
He laughed again.
My words echoed in my head. They weren’t that far from the truth. Jason and I had just barely begun our timid relationship before his parents decided the whole Parker clan was in severe need of family group therapy. So they took off at the beginning of September, when the ocean was just starting to grow cool. And now it was so frigid you couldn’t swim.
“I really should go,” he said.
I nodded, waiting. What now? A hug? A kiss? Nothing?
He went with the latter, out of absentmindedness or uncertainty I couldn’t be sure. I waved as he jogged away, already feeling far away from him despite the fact that he lived just a few yards away.
Ashley stood by the back sliding door, which stood wide open on days when there wasn’t any wind. Otherwise, we got sand everywhere (a lesson I had learned from personal experience the previous month. Yikes). I squinted at her despite the overcast day. That super breeze had decided to start up.
“Was that Jason?” She asked, when I didn’t answer.
I nodded. “Yeah. They’re back.”
“Oh, awesome. Your mom’s on the phone.”
I wrapped my arms around myself, suddenly feeling cold. “Can I call her back?”
“She said she tried you yesterday but you didn’t pick up. She’s talking to David right now.”
“Tell her I’ll call her back.”
“No, I swear, Ash—I will. Later tonight.”
“If you don’t, you can forget about your birthday party.”
I rolled my eyes. “There’s an incentive.” I hated the thought of the big co-ed beach party Dad and Ashley wanted to throw me—I hated any sort of cliche sweet sixteen celebration. Or any cliche celebration. Which was just about every celebration you could think of.
Dad stepped into view next to Ashley. He had the cordless to his ear.
“Yeah, Cheryl. She’s right here. Just a sec.” Dad held the phone out, and I knew I had no choice. Reluctantly, I slugged my way over to them, snatching the phone out of his hand.
“Hello?” I asked stiffly, bringing it to my ear.
“Hi, sweetie! It’s good to hear your voice!” Mom sounded as perky as ever. I stepped inside, dusting the sand off my bare feet. “I tried to call you yesterday but you didn’t pick up, so I left a message. Did you get it?”
“Sorry. I don’t usually check my cell.”
“You don’t like it?”
“No, I do. I just don’t think to check it.”
“Should I just call here from now on, then?”
“Yeah, sure. That’s fine.”
Dad’s eyes followed me across the room to the couch as I sat down. I stuck my feet up on the coffee table. This was met with manic hand gestures. I pretended I didn’t know what he was telling me and smirked. Ashley fought a grin.
“How are you? It’s been a while.”
“Do you like school okay?”
“It’s all right. I like the kids there.”
“Have you made any other friends besides Jason and Kerry?”
I exhaled slowly. Jason’s group of guys was always nice to me, despite him not being there. Wilson had me sit with them at lunch most days. There were a couple girls who were cool.
I gave her the short answer. “A few.”
We were quiet a moment. Mom hummed under her breath.
“Well. I’ve almost completed my psychical therapy. Which isn’t much of an accomplishment, I guess, but it feels good to say. I’ll now have gained two extra hours every week to do whatever I please!”
“Take up knitting.”
Her answering laugh tapered off into a wistful sigh. “Rachel, I miss you.”
“You too.” Did I? The words had come of their own accord, an automatic, instinctive answer.
“I guess that brings me to my next question. What are you doing over Fall break?”
I hesitated. I knew what was coming—I’d been expecting it forever. Dad and I had already gone over what I was going to say. But hearing her voice likes this—so kind, so sweet, so her—it brought an ache to the hollow of my throat and made me wish for my previous ignorance. Even though I knew this way was better. Knowing who was truthfully there for me.
“Not sure yet,” I said at last. “I can get back with you.”
“Please do. I want to see you.”
“At the house?”
“Or we could meet halfway at Hanna’s. It’s closer.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
Our silence seemed to say more than this whole conversation had. But the message still managed to somehow elude me. Once again, when it came to her—I just got the gist.
I want to go to Hanna’s because he’s living with me. I don’t want to hurt you anymore.
I knew she didn’t. But the fact that she hadn’t dropped idiot Robert the moment everything went down a couple months back—that bothered me more than anything else had so far.
“I have to go,” I said at last. “We’re having dinner soon.”
“I just pulled up to the house. So me too. I love you, Rachel.”
I clicked the END button about a bazillion times before I finally spoke.
“She asked about Fall break.”
Ashley came over to take the phone and Dad playfully pushed my feet off the coffee table. He sat in the spot where they had just been and leveled his stare on me.
“Do you want to go? You know you can.”
I groaned, grabbed a pillow and shoved it against my face. “I don’t know.” I wanted to. But I also wanted to spend the break with Jason and figure out where we stood. I wanted to go into town with Kerry and blow our sparse cash on stupid things, like t-shirts that we would never wear in public, and fake stick-on piercings. Then again, I also wanted to see Aunt Hanna and my still fairly new cousin, Molly. At this rate, she’d be a teenager before I got over there and had a chance to hold her.
“You’ve still got a few weeks, Rachel,” Ashley reminded me. “And until then, look forward to your birthday. Okay? Don’t stress yourself out.”
I ignored her and felt Dad tap my ankle. “What do you say we eat out or something? Invite the Parkers along, maybe?”
That perked me up. “We can?”
“Yes!” Ashley did a rocker-esque air first pump. “Now I don’t have to cook.”
I didn’t stay to hear Dad’s reply. I was already out the door.
_ _ _ _ _
I was laughing so hard my stomach hurt.
“So then this lunatic was like—are you sure those are your feelings? You need to be certain of your feelings in order to begin to heal them. And I told him that kind of rhymed, so he was all: you’re getting off track. Like, seriously? We’re possibly the least psycho people in that whole institution and yet…”
Kerry stopped mid-sentence to wave at the car next to us. I didn’t recognize the girl behind the wheel.
“Who’s that?” I asked, smiling as she drove past.
“A girl from school. Aiesha.”
“Yeah. She’s nice. She actually goes to the high school.”
I racked my brain for her face but came up blank.
Kerry let out a long breath and spread her arms wide. “I am so glad to be back.”
“I’m so glad you’re back.”
“I hated that place. It was awful.”
“Really? Jason said it was good.”
“That’s because he needed it. I didn’t.”
“Oh, right.” Kerry had fought their decision to go to a family therapist, adamant that she wasn’t in need of a “shrink” (her words). That she hadn’t been as deeply affected by Sheridan and everything afterward.
I leaned forward, whispering despite the fact that he wasn’t here. Dad and Ashley would inevitably be listening in on our conversation, albeit subconsciously. “Is Jason any better? Did he ever talk about me?”
A sly smile spread across Kerry’s face. “Aw! You still love him!”
“I don’t love him!”
“Yes you do!” She did an awkward dance. “And yes, he is better. And yes, he talked about you. He read some of yours guys’ emails.”
“To the shrink.”
“What?” They were going to think I was crazy. I couldn’t draw forth any specifics at the moment, but I knew I’d said some eyebrow-raising things for someone who wasn’t clued in on the full story of the past six years of my life.
“Do you think he read them word-for-word?”
“What?” Kerry was distracted, yelling radio stations through the back window to my Dad.
We rattled out of New Castle, and I felt my spirits soar. They’d plummeted ten minutes ago, when Jason said he felt like he should stay and help his parents unpack. Kerry, however, had no qualms about leaving her family with a huge workload. Not that I was complaining. I loved Dad and even Ash, but I’d had enough one-on-one dinners with them this summer to last me the rest of the year.
Kerry and I chatted about unimportant things for the rest of the ride to Culvers, which was our destination for the evening. She asked about school friends and classes. I happily complied with well-executed answers. They were going to settle in for a few days, then start school a week from Monday. While on their family hiatus, they’d been keeping up-to-date with homework and such.
The truck finally rumbled to a stop and we all got out. We gave our orders to Dad and Ash, then went and found a table. Facing off, I finally asked the question that had been bugging me for the past hour.
“So...Jason? Does he still consider us…”
Kerry sipped her water, enjoying this. “Consider what?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
I shook my head, refusing to spell it out.
Kerry sighed. “Of course. I mean, he wants you guys to be a couple. He just doesn’t know how you’re feeling.”
I sagged with relief. “Oh. Okay.”
“And I can’t always be the go-to for information. You guys are both bugging the crap out of me asking all these stupid questions. You’re actually going to have to talk like you’re in an actual relationship if you want this to work.”
Ashley was coming with her soda, Dad following close behind with the food, so I waved her her comment away and straightened up, feeling considerably better than I had five seconds before.
_ _ _ _ _ _
“Can you come here?”
I pushed myself up off my bed and closed my laptop. Despite the fact that we were now next-door-neighbors again, I’d just opened a new email from Jason. I’d only skimmed the first line (So guess what? We’re back. Even though I saw you less than two hours ago. Just wanted to make sure you were aware of that) before Ashley called me.
I entered their bedroom to find her propped up on pillows, squinting at a book. She smiled when she saw me and waved me over.
“What do you think of this color scheme for the wedding? Pale yellow and light blue.”
“It's reminds me of Easter.”
She turned the page and rubbed her eyes. Displays of different purple color combinations made me instantly nauseous . I sat down beside her and relieved her of the book, pulling it onto my lap. “So no luck, I’m guessing.”
“Why is it so hard to pick bridesmaid dresses?”
“I don’t know.” She scooted forward enough to lay back, splaying her arms wide. “It just is.”
I chewed my lower lip. “Then let’s try this: what’s your favorite color?”
“So maybe blue and cream or something?”
“But then that looks like I’m trying to do water and sand or something dumb like that.”
I slapped the book shut. “Maybe you can just do a Christmas theme.”
“That’s what David says.”
“Then it must be a good idea, right?”
She laughed at my sarcasm. “I hate cliches like that.”
“So do I.”
“All right. You can go.”
I hopped up, anxious to see what else Jason had to say. Hopefully something along the lines of: hey guess what you’re still my girlfriend. That would be most ideal.
“Thanks for the help, Rachel.”
I hesitated just slightly before giving Ashley a wave and retreating back into my room.