This wasn’t home. Nothing ever would be again. And besides, I didn’t want a home—the word came with memories too painful to think about.
I knew my aunt Coralee and uncle Boone were watching me closely as they led me through the house. They wanted me to like it here—there was a certain hopefulness in their eyes. I didn’t remember what hope felt like. It had been so long since I’d hoped for anything.
“We gave you a room upstairs. I painted it a pretty cotton-candy blue,” Aunt Coralee informed me cautiously. “I remembered that you liked blue.”
It’s true that I had liked blue a few Christmases ago. Had even worn all blue one year. I wasn’t necessarily a fan of it now, though. . . .
I followed both my aunt and uncle up the stairs. The family photos lining the wall made me turn my head back around and stare straight ahead. I’d had those once too. Photos that my mother proudly displayed on the walls of our home. But those photos had been lies. The smiles were never real.
“Here it is,” Aunt Coralee announced as she stopped halfway down the hall and opened the door to a large bedroom. Other than the blue walls, everything else was white.
I liked it. If I weren’t afraid of my own voice, I’d tell her thank you. Instead I put down the backpack from my shoulders then turned and hugged her. That would have to be enough.
“Well, I certainly hope you like my room,” a deep voice drawled from the doorway.
“Brady, don’t,” Uncle Boone said in a stern voice.
“What? I was just being nice,” he replied. “Kinda . . .”
I only remembered my cousin Brady a little. He had never played with me at family events, was always running off with one of the buddies he’d brought with him.
Now he was leaning against the doorframe of the bedroom, brown hair falling into his eyes, a smirk on his face. He didn’t seem happy. Oh God, had they given me his room? That couldn’t be good. I didn’t want to take his room.
“Brady’s just being a brat,” Aunt Coralee explained quickly. “He’s perfectly happy about moving to the attic room. He’s been at us for two years to fix up that space for him so he’d have somewhere more private.”
A large hand landed on my shoulder as Uncle Boone came to stand beside me. “Son, you remember Maggie,” he said in a voice that didn’t leave room for argument.
Brady was staring at me. He looked annoyed at first, but his expression suddenly softened into something resembling concern. “Yeah, I remember her.”
Uncle Boone continued, “You’ll need to show her around at school on Monday. Y’all are in the same grade, and we made sure they put her in several of your classes so you could help her out.” I had a feeling Brady already knew all this. The information was for me.
Brady sighed and shook his head. “Y’all don’t even know,” he muttered before walking off.
“I’m sorry about him,” Aunt Coralee said. “He’s become so moody, and we don’t know what to do with him half the time.”
Even if I did speak, I didn’t have a response for that.
She squeezed my arm. “We’re gonna let you get settled in. Unpack, and rest if you need. If you want company, I’ll be in the kitchen, cooking dinner. You’re welcome to go anywhere in the house you’d like. Make yourself at home.”
There was that word again: home.
My aunt and uncle left me alone, finally, and retreated down the hall. I stood in the pretty blue room and realized, much to my surprise, that I already felt safe. I’d thought the comfort of safety was long gone for me.
“So, you really don’t talk?” Brady’s voice filled the room, and I spun around to see my cousin back in the doorway.
I really didn’t want him to dislike me or be annoyed about my being here. But I wasn’t sure how to convince him that I’d keep to myself, that I wouldn’t bother him or change his life.
“Shit, this ain’t gonna be easy. You’re—” He paused and let out a laugh that didn’t sound like he meant it. “This shit is gonna be worse than I thought. Least you could have helped me out and been ugly.”
Brady frowned. “Just don’t draw attention to yourself. My momma finally got the daughter she never had, but it don’t make shit easier for me. I have a life, you know.”
I simply nodded. I was sure he had a life. He was tall with dark hair and light hazel eyes, and his wide shoulders hinted at the muscles underneath his T-shirt. No doubt girls loved him.
I had no intention of being in his way, but I could see how my coming into his home and taking his room would make it seem otherwise. And now his parents had me in his classes, too.
But I’d prove he had nothing to worry about. I picked up my backpack again and took out the pad and pen I always kept with me.
“What’re you doing?” he asked, clearly confused.
I quickly wrote:
Promise I won’t be in your way. Don’t expect you to help me at school. Just let your parents think you are, and I’ll go along with it. Sorry I took your room. We can switch back if you want.
I handed the note pad to Brady and let him read it. When he finished, he sighed deeply and handed the pad back to me.
“You can keep the room. Mom’s right. I like the attic. I was just being an ass. You think you won’t need me at school, but you will. Can’t be helped.” And with that, he walked away.