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Page 34

“Will you tell me? If that changes?” he asked, squeezing my hand.

I nodded. “Yes.”

He steadied himself and then cupped my cheeks, leaning in and closing his eyes.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I closed my eyes, too. His lips touched mine, soft and full. He kissed me once and pulled away, smiling before leaning in again, this time letting his mouth part. I tried to mirror what he did, both panicking and melting against him. He held me while his tongue slipped inside and touched mine, wet and warm. Once the dance inside our mouths found a rhythm, I wrapped my arms around his neck and leaned closer, begging him to hold me tighter. I would walk into the Juniper soon, and I wanted the safety I felt with Elliott to encompass me for as long as I could have it.

Just when my lungs screamed for air, Elliott pulled away, touching his forehead to mine. “Finally,” he whispered, the word barely audible. His next words weren’t much louder. “I’ll be on the porch swing at nine. I’ll bring some huckleberry bread for breakfast.”

“What’s that?”

“My great-grandma’s recipe. Pretty sure it’s older than that. Aunt Leigh promised she’d make some tonight. It’s amazing. You’re gonna love it.”

“I’ll bring the OJ.”

Elliott leaned over to give me one more kiss on the cheek before reaching for the handle. He had to yank twice, and then it opened.

I stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the Juniper. It was still dark. I let out a sigh.

“Catherine, I know you said I can’t come in. Can I at least walk you to the door?”

“Good night.” I pushed through the gate, walked over the cracks in the sidewalk, and listened for sounds inside the house before opening the door. Crickets chirped, and—once I reached the door—Elliott’s car pulled away, but there was no movement from the Juniper.

I twisted the knob and pushed, looking up. The door at the top of the stairway was open—my bedroom—and I tried not to let the heaviness in my chest overwhelm me. I always kept my door shut. Someone had been looking for me. With shaking hands, I set my backpack on a dining chair. The table was still covered in dirty dishes, and the sink was full, too. Broken shards of glass were next to the island. I hurried to search the cabinet beneath the sink to get Mama’s thick rubber gloves and then fetched the broom and dustpan. The glass scraped on the floor as it swept across the tile. The moonlight peeked through the dining room window, making the smaller shards sparkle even as they were mixed in with dust and hair.

A loud burp came from the living room, and I froze. Even though I had an idea of who it was, I waited for him to make his presence known.

“Selfish,” he slurred.

I stood, emptied the pan into the trash, and then took off the gloves, stashing them back under the sink. In no hurry, I took careful steps out of the dining room, crossing the hall into the living room, where Uncle Toad sat in the recliner. His belly was hanging over his pants, barely hidden by a thin, stained T-shirt. He held a bottle of beer in his hand, a collection of empty ones sitting next to him. He’d already vomited once, the evidence left on the floor and splattered on the empty bottles.

I covered my mouth, revolted by the smell.

He burped again.

“Oh please,” I said, running to the kitchen for a bucket. I returned, placing it on the floor next to the puddle of vomit, and pulled the towel I’d grabbed on the way from my back pocket. “Use the bucket, Uncle Toad.”

“You just . . . think you can come and go. Selfish,” he said again, looking away, disgusted.

I dabbed his chest, wiping away the drool and vomit from his neck and shirt. He hadn’t leaned over in time even once.

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