KJ won’t go down. Just won’t. He squirms and flops and jumps all over me even after I read him Earl the Squirrel three freaking times. I even make up my own alternate ending where Earl sees the beach for the first time. KJ isn’t buying it.
“Squirrels don’t like the beach, Jackie,” he says. Ugh. I’m not allowed to deviate. Ever.
“Sure they do,” I tell him.
He giggles, shaking his head. “No they don’t.”
I’ve had enough. A deep breath and I remind myself that it’s not his fault. That he’s three. I lean close so that our heads touch. “You know who likes the beach? Me.”
“Will you take me?”
I promise that I will, someday. But my fingers are clumsy with guilt as I stroke his hair until (finally!) he submits to the beauty of sleep. Then, ever so carefully, I slide away and slip on my shoes. A quick peek in on Dad—out cold–and I exhale. After dinner and dishes and bath times and tuck ins, the whole house is settled. I grab my jacket and open the door. To hell with homework, I rush down the steps.
Heath is parked at the top of the street. A blast of euphoria hits my chest seeing his brake lights, hearing the rickety idle of his old Ford. I tear up the sidewalk, past the lazy chain link, fleeing the worry that’s given me just the tiniest head start on the night.
I open the passenger door and slide across the bench seats, crashing into his warmth.
A quick kiss and he pulls away, looking me over. “Everything okay?”
I nod. “KJ couldn’t sleep. We have to get back before seven.”
Heath leans over and kisses me again. I catch his face in my hands. The only face I know that gives instead of takes. “Seven, okay?”
We drive fast, floating, the vents hot from the engine’s work. To my left, the factory lights fill the black, where my father spent twenty years before he quit or got fired, came home and hung his coveralls in the closet where they still wait today.
I push away thoughts of KJ and his needs. If he has enough blankets, if he’ll wet the bed. If he’ll wake up scared and call me Mom again.
Crap. Too much thinking. Heath’s eyebrows are up. His jaw set against the dash lights. He’s beautiful, nothing like my father, although my father was nothing like my father back in high school. I scoot closer, taking his hand, willing him not to take a job at the factory next year. Or ever. Especially not for me. I’m stuck. He’s not…
His arm slides around my shoulder. I reach for his hand like a lifeline and we leave the factory groaning and pluming behind us. I focus on the road stretched East before us. I want to keep going, like Mom did. But I need to turn back, turn back, turn back.
I force myself to stop. Think happy thoughts. But he’s slowing down. We’re just outside of town. I sit up, blinking to life. “Do we need gas?”
Heath shrugs. “I’m turning around.”
“What?” I shake my head, loathing the relief washing over me. “Why?”
But I know why. And as the song ends, I love him for it. It was so sweet, his idea to bring me all the way to the beach just to see a few waves. But the car wasn’t fast enough. The worry caught me.
He hoists a smile onto his face. The car swings onto the exit ramp, then back around to the overpass. I lean into the turn, into him, wanting them both, breathing easier as the car hauls west.
Past the factory again. And I’m ripped apart with regret and relief as Heath promises another time at the beach. He kisses me before I open the door to get out, waif out, to leave this amazing gift of a boy I don’t deserve and walk/not run back down the street. Heath and his brake lights wait patiently, then vanish once I’m inside.
KJ is stirring…calling for me… needing a mother but stuck with a sister. I slide next to him and stroke his hair. I wonder what She might be doing as my father snores in the next room. KJ settles in, our breaths syncing as he falls into a dream. I stare at the ceiling, trying my best to hear the waves crashing…