She clicked her nails on the door every so often, but it wasn’t until they pulled onto the highway after coming out of the Holland Tunnel that she said something. The sun was streaming in and her whole face was lit up with some of the golden coloring having returned. She pursed her lips and closed her eyes for a second. Will wanted to reach out and cup her face in his hands, but he didn’t for a few reasons—one being that she would probably slap him, and the other being that the car would go careening off the overpass. He strangled the steering wheel for a second to quell his frustration, letting out a loud sigh that earned him a curious look from Scottie. She raised her eyebrows at him and he shrugged an apology. When she spoke, her voice came out as barely more than a whisper.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she said. Will turned for a second to look at her, holding her brilliant eyes for as long as he could without looking at the road. Returning to face front, he squeezed the accelerator, but he could still feel her gaze carving into him.
“You don’t need to be embarrassed,” he replied softly, and he meant it. He’d pulled up to the address on 9th Avenue Scottie had given him, realizing it was an assisted living facility just as she pushed the front doors open. They hadn’t even closed behind her when a woman barreled through them angrily, heavily favoring her right leg and yelling something Will couldn’t make out. Scottie whipped around and put her hands up, as if she was trying to block an attack. Will realized he couldn’t make any sense of what she was saying because it was jibberish—or just heavily slurred and affected—he couldn’t tell. A nurse came rushing out, apologizing profusely, grabbing the woman by the hand, leading her back into the facility. She was still looking back and yelling when Scottie climbed into the car next to Will and shook her head, dropping her face in her hands.
“But I am,” she implored.
“Scottie,” Will stammered, “family, is…messy. I don’t want you to ever feel embarrassed about the fact that your mess spilled out onto 9th Avenue,” he said, grinning crookedly. She laughed, and it came easy, her shoulders relaxing a little as she leaned back in her seat, the tension in her brow unknitting. Scottie’s chest flooded with momentary relief—her mom hadn’t scared him away.
“She’s not always like that,” Scottie insisted, realizing that she was like that more and more these days. Her coherent moments were slippery as fish.
“Her memory?” Will asked, thinking of his late grandmother. He only remembered it in blurry flashes since he had been so young, but he saw her shouting at his dad, flailing irrationally. Scottie shook her head.
“It’s severe brain damage,” she confessed, rubbing her face with her hands.
“Oh shit,” Will said, blowing the words out. Scottie nodded again, then turned to look out the window at the Elizabeth Seaport. Huge cargo ships floated in the void, the black ocean calm and bizarre. It made Scottie feel incredibly small. Will didn’t ask her what happened. He wanted to respect her right to make the decision to tell him.
“It was drugs,” she replied heavily after a minute. “She overdosed, lack of oxygen combined with whatever she put in her body. When they revived her, well…” Her voice tightened like a screw at the end.
“She wasn’t the same,” Will offered quietly.
“It was like the revived a different person,” she said flatly.
“How long has it been?”
“Oh,” she replied, looking up to the car ceiling, gears turning, mouthing something. “I think about six years? I’m not sure.” She stopped cold and took a breath. Beginning to shiver, Scottie wrapped her arms around herself. Will reached over to grab her hand for a second to steady her. Then he reluctantly dragged it back to manage the break as they hit a bottleneck. He caught a glimpse of his useless legs as switched lanes and felt a pang of irritation at not being able to keep her hand in his. The information came out of her like she was chewing glass, and he found himself wondering if she had ever said it out loud before.
“I’ve never said that out loud before,” she replied, like she was inside his head with him. He stole a glance at her tenderly.
“That must have been a shock,” Will said after a heavy beat of stillness, unsure of what she needed from him right then, but acutely aware of the fact that he might have an impact on her ability to tell anyone in the future. For whatever reason, perhaps dumb luck or bad timing, he’d run into her mom, and now he was the person she was opening up to.
“You know,” she replied thoughtfully, “it wasn’t. I think I knew it was coming. She’d been using for a long time. I suppose I thought an overdose would kill her instead of…this.” She gestured to the space in front of her and sighed. She tucked her hair behind her ears to no avail—it leapt free. Her curls seemed to have a life all their own and Will’s hand twitched with the desire to run it through them, but he couldn’t. They were about to merge onto the Garden State Parkway. She wanted to say more but there was something there holding her back. They were at an impasse, and she was sealing herself off. She felt like she had to because she sure as hell wasn’t ready to let everything out. She wasn’t even certain why she was considering it at all. Was it because he’d seen her mom laid bare on the street? Was it because she was finally hitting a wall in her late twenties and couldn’t keep everything inside anymore? Was it because Will had made her feel safe in a way she didn’t even know she’d missed?
Will let out a long breath and gripped the wheel tighter, squeezing the accelerator and sliding left.
“It was almost a relief then," he offered softly. Turning to look at her, he felt his chest ache. There was so much welling up in her eyes— a rare kind of anguish. She turned pointedly toward the window and discreetly wiped her eyes.
“Yeah, in a way,” Scottie replied, “At least she isn’t using anymore.”
“And your dad?” he inquired innocently, without thinking. She visibly flinched, and he immediately regretted asking.
“He was never really in the picture. He stuck around long enough to saddle me with his name and get my mom pregnant again.” Scottie laughed and shook her head. Will thought of his own family guiltily. His was whole, and warm, and wonderful. His mom and dad had the kind of relationship he hoped he’d have one day. He had Pete and their two younger sisters Wynn and Olivia and everyone got along. There was so much life in the house when they all returned home. He was looking forward to being all together again. Unfortunately, it felt like Thanksgiving would be the next time everything would line up.
“To quote you at the wedding, I have no idea what to say to that, but I feel like sorry is the wrong thing,” he said honestly. This time she was the one to reach across the middle console for his hand, but he was pressing on the brake, so she found his wrist instead. Her skin was cool and soft, and Will felt a rush of electricity. It ran through him like a whip.
“Sorry is a stupid word,” she declared, giving him a squeeze. Another whip ran through him. He dragged in a stunted breath, willing himself to focus on the road.
“It’s an awful word,” he agreed strongly, almost tasting bitterness in his mouth from how many “sorrys” he’d gotten in the last eight years—even now.
“I won’t say it if you won’t,” she proposed as if they were planning a heist. A smile glimmered across her face and he wanted to latch on to it.
“I absolutely won’t say it if you won’t,” he agreed unequivocally, smiling back. She laughed heartily, and Will found it refreshing as hell, earthy, hoarse, delicious. He risked a glance at her and saw that her eyes were shining under fading light in the sky, the color truly unlike anything he’d ever seen, dark green and earnest. They made Kristin's look like muddy water in comparison. He took note of, as if sketching in his memory, the freckles across her cheeks and nose, the high cheekbones, thick dark eyebrows, full pink lips. He lingered there for a minute until she turned slightly and eyed him.
“What?” she asked with a crooked grin. He shook his head shyly and turned back to the road. They had another full moment where it was like all sound in the world stopped. Color rose in Scottie’s speckled cheeks.
“There’s something about you,” she said softly, but then immediately covered her mouth and furrowed her brow. Will tempered his response, trying to calm the sheer joy that was budding inside of him.
“Me?” he teased, laughing.
“Oh my god,” she bent forward with her face in her hands and groaned. “I thought I was saying that in my head,” she said as she sat back up, incredulous.
“Happen to you a lot?” he asked playfully.
“No!” she shouted, hitting him playfully on the arm, a golden, telltale, fool proof sign of flirting. He couldn’t help but beam like an idiot. Scottie was intrigued by how content he seemed, how welcome her words had been. She took a deep breath, consciously considering what she was doing. She was lowering her guard, something she hadn’t ever been good at, something she’d never practiced, opting instead to keep everyone far enough away where she could run if she needed. She felt her resolve harden. Will wasn’t like anyone she’d ever met. There was this understanding passing between them. He had her.
“Usually I’m a steel trap,” she continued, throwing herself back against the seat.
“Easy over there, steel trap,” he cautioned, pulling his hand off the accelerator and reaching for her. She met him halfway, her hand sliding suspiciously easily into his, their fingers laced together. She rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb and he didn’t want to let go, but reluctantly he pulled away, refocusing on driving.
“Your hands are like sandpaper,” she commented, pressing her palm into his before he let go. He sighed.
“I know.” His voice was apologetic. “It happens with, you know.”
“I like it,” she reacted, shrugging. “It’s rugged.”
"You should have seen me in high school,” he reminisced, laughing distantly. “I thought I was a mountain man.”
“Don’t listen to what people say about Will Nash,” she teased, “but he’s rugged as fuck.” Will shook his head, chuckling to himself.
“What are people saying about me?” he asked incredulously. She shrugged and smiled, turning to look out the window as Will slid into the express lane without a second of hesitation. A few minutes passed in comfortable silence. Scottie focused on the stream of cars that Will was passing at an increasing speed. Will veered left into the next lane, sliding through two lanes in the process and cutting ahead of the car slowing down in front of us, speeding ahead as the divider between local and express rose up out of the asphalt on their right. A little thrill bloomed in his stomach as he accelerated.
“You drive like a maniac,” she assessed.
“First complaint,” he replied seriously.
“I was obviously distracted before,” she laughed, “family tragedy, remember?”
“Next time,” he responded in a snarky voice, “you can take NJ Transit.”
“With pleasure,” she retorted as she reached over and squeezed his shoulder through his t-shirt. He tensed at her touch, afraid of how much he wanted it, and afraid that he would come across as too eager, too desperate.
Silence settled over them as she pulled her hand back to her lap. But, oddly, it felt comfortable immediately. He turned on the radio but had trouble finding a station before he needed to take his hand back to squeeze the brakes. She slipped in seamlessly, turning the nob to a channel he’d never given a second thought to. The electric piano intro to Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger filled the car and Will unconsciously smiled.
“I love this song,” he said simply.
“You can sing along, you know,” she ribbed, he shot her a dirty look coupled with a wry smile. “I bet you know every word, too,” she continued. He was smiling a smile that she remembered swooning over when she first saw him only a few weeks ago. It was a bit crooked and his one dimple peeked out. It felt warm and genuine, like he had no control over it.
“Every word,” he barely managed to say as he watched her tap her fingers on the dashboard. He was inflating on her energy.
And then she sang. She wasn’t good. Not by a long shot. She was pitchy and all over the place, up and down, loud and soft, her already husky voice cracking on the high notes and it was fucking glorious. He felt like he’d known the girl next to him for a long, long time. It was absolutely inexplicable. She made him comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. He felt like a wreck. Trying to pull himself back down to the car and out of whatever fucking fantasy land he was living in. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself. Even able bodied, she felt out of his league. And paralyzed? Who was he kidding. He didn’t want to drag her into this. It felt especially sensitive after he’d thought about how selfish he’d been with Kristin. Who was he to put the reality of his new life on her. Maybe, he thought anxiously, he had to let her go.
Then she started into the second verse. “Now some they do and some they don’t, and some you just can’t tell..”
His doubts dissipated as quickly as they came, and he joined her.
They pulled up to Cory’s family’s house on East Ave and Will immediately remembered simultaneously that he hated and loved this house. Somehow, every year between 4th of Julys, he managed to forget the rocks and the stairs, as if he was wiped clean and scrubbed of the memory of humiliation. Then each year he would pull up to the house and metaphorically kick himself for forgetting. It was a stinging reminder of everything that had changed since his childhood. Will had asked Cory to get a ramp the first 4th of July he
came out after rehab. And rampless the stairs remained.
He used to come down all the time as a kid. His whole family—mom, dad, Pete, Olivia and Wynn—made the drive down from New Hampshire in their Station Wagon. It had been one of his favorite places—a place of carefree possibility. Now it just reminded him of all the things that he couldn’t handle, and all the resentment that had built up between Cory and him. He had just disappeared on Will. He just fucking vanished when Will had needed him most. Why?
In the beginning, Cory couldn’t bear to look at him. It was too painful. Pete couldn’t either, but he stayed. And Nick? Well it had always been Nick and Will, Cory and Pete. Will wasn’t surprised that Nick had been there day in and day out. He smiled remembering Nick grabbing one of the rehab center’s wheelchairs and racing Will down the halls, then careening down the ramp to the cafeteria, crashing into Will and throwing them both from their chairs. They’d gotten in trouble, but Will hadn’t laughed that hard since he’d been hurt six weeks earlier.
But Will didn’t see Nick all that often now that he and his wife had moved to Chicago. But he saw Cory all the time, and it still hurt after all these years. Will had believed that Cory meant it when he said, “We’ll get through this together” when Will was in and out of consciousness right after everything happened. When he woke up, Cory was already gone.
Well, Cory could look away, and he chose to, but Will couldn’t. He was the one who was stuck in the chair for the rest of his life while Cory’s life continued to clip by golden and unhindered. Will wished so badly that he could move past it, just fucking let it go, water under the bridge. And some days he felt like maybe he could. He’d been able to stomach being his best man for Christ’s sake. But sitting there, in the driveway of the beach house that marked each of their summers, the north star they’d always returned to, tallying all the ways it wasn’t meant for him anymore, Will realized, quite suddenly, that he’d been branded with Cory’s inadequacy.
Will gave a self-conscious laugh and took a quick steadying breath.
“What’s up?” Scottie asked, undoing her seatbelt.
“What do you think?” Will replied, turning to look at her as he undid his own. She paused for a second and leaned forward to look up at the house through the windshield.
“Fucking huge,” she quipped, laughing. “But stunning. It looks different than I remember.”
“Yeah,” Will replied absently, trying to remember the excitement he used to feel.
“You seem…” she fished, letting her voice trail off into nothing.
“Nervous?” he finished.
“I was going to say uncomfortable, but yes, also nervous.” She didn’t take her eyes off him and he looked down at his hands fidgeting in his lap.
“Uhh,” he replied with trepidation. She was going to see him embarrass himself anyway, so he decided that he might as well just be honest. His self-loathing was crawling all over his skin, wedging its claws into him. He tried to shake it off. “I always forget about the rocks, and the steps, and Cory still hasn’t gotten a fucking ramp even though I’ve been asking him for years,” he said, his voice tight and fast. Too fast, but he couldn’t slow down. “And all the bedrooms are upstairs. The only one on the first floor is for the kids. It’s the same one that we used to sleep in when we would come down years ago.”
“Oh no,” she said, stifling a laugh, but still managing to show compassion. “Bunk beds. I remember.” Scottie wasn’t sure how to respond to Will’s frustration. It wasn’t something she could relate to, but she did know the feeling of being left out, forgotten, and unable to do something. She imagined though, that what Will was feeling along those lines, was on a magnitude she’d never encountered.
“Bunk beds,” he responded, his voice flat. He looked at Scottie and her lips were quivering. And it was like a reflex, erupting out of him. He couldn’t stop it. Laughter filled the car as Scottie matched him. It was suddenly the most hilarious thing in the world that he was forced to sleep in a bottom bunk bed under a quilt stitched with sailboats and seagulls because he couldn’t get up the goddamn stairs to where the adult quilts were.
As they caught their breath, Will noticed that the windows of the house were open wide, and it seemed like all of the lights were on, illuminating the wrap-around porch.
“Ready?” she asked, wiping tiny laugh tears from the corners of her brilliant eyes. He wanted to kiss her right then and there, but he opened his door instead. A warm breeze met him, and as he inhaled the fresh salt air hungrily, he felt some kind of shift inside himself. His entire demeanor changed and he was lifted by the fact that there were good things about this place, too. It held good memories, the kinds of memories that he’d, god willing, want to tell his children someday. Wrestling in the sand, staying up too late and sneaking chocolate ice cream out of the freezer, learning how to play backgammon with his dad, biking down to the bakery in the chilly mornings and coming back with armfuls of crawlers and Danishes, sitting on the porch in the late afternoon with suntanned skin and popsicle juice dripping down our arms. The very porch he was looking at right then. These were the kinds of threads that made up a good childhood, and he was lucky enough to have them. He looked over at Scottie and wasn’t sure that he could say the same for her. He hoped she had threads like these, too.
He took a deep breath and made a conscious decision. He decided to do everything he could that weekend to forgive Cory—to simply let him off the hook for handling a fucked-up situation in a fucked-up way. How was Cory supposed to have known what Will needed? Will didn’t even know what he needed in those blurred hours, days, and weeks that followed. It might have been too much to ask of anyone. Cory’s wedding and seeing Kristin had dredged up all this old muddy resentment that he thought he’d cleared. Turned out it was just collecting at the bottom of a lake, waiting to be disturbed.
And it was at that moment that she opened her door and the breeze carried her peppery scent over to him. He shivered, breathing as much as he could. She didn’t offer him any help, but he could tell she wouldn’t mind.
“I think I might need your help,” he said as casually as he could, willing himself not to give in to his self-consciousness.
“Okay tell me what to do,” she said smiling at him like she couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do than push his ass over those fucking pebbles. He felt a tender gratitude radiating out of him toward her and he wanted to reach out, but his hands were trembling slightly at the thought. Instead, he twisted around and grabbed the frame of his chair from the back seat.
“Let’s just see what we’re up against, huh?” he mused, feeling his resolution from a few minutes ago begin to take hold. He dropped the frame down on the deep bed of little white rocks and reached around to grab the wheels. Scottie popped out of the car and opened the trunk, pulling out both of their bags and running them up the steps to the door before he could tell her that he could carry his own.
Will transferred out of the car and adjusted his legs on the single footplate, pushing back slightly to close the door as she padded back down the steps like she couldn’t wait to get back to him. Scottie smiled as she crossed her arms and leaned against the hood of the car.
“So,” she said coyly.
“So,” he mimicked her, and she laughed, looking down shyly and attempting to brush her hair behind her ears.
It turned out that Will only needed a couple of light pushes to get through most of the rocks, and he could tell Scottie was unsure of where to put her hands since his chair had no handles. He could feel her waver over his upper back then down to the top of the seat of his chair.
“I’m gonna need some direction,” she finally stated. Will laughed in spite of her and she playfully squeezed his shoulders.
“Aye aye,” He answered jokingly. Then, after telling her she could use the back of his chair to get the most leverage, she bent down to get a good grip. She had to get down quite a bit because she was tall, and the back of his chair barely came up above his butt. With his level of injury, he still had good trunk control so he opted for the lowest back he could find.
Scottie had no trouble until they got to the final push which included a sharp lip up onto the stone path to the porch. She really had to dig her heels into the grit in order to get enough lift as he raised the front casters, balancing in a wheelie position. She burrowed in so deep and pushed so hard that the second Will’s wheels broke free over the edge, she fell forward. He whipped around to see her lift herself up slightly only to roll over onto her back with her face in her hands.
“Scottie,” he whispered, a little too loudly to be a whisper. He didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that Scottie was lying in the driveway rocks and it was absolutely his fault. If there weren’t literally five feet of rocks, he probably could have managed by himself, but there seemed to be no solid surface below them. “Scottie,” he said again, voice straining, “I’m so sorry, shit, are you okay?” He didn’t want to wheel any closer to her because then he might get stuck again and that didn’t help goddamn anybody. When she finally pulled her hands away from her face she was completely captive in the throes of silent laughter. Her face was squeezed tight and her mouth was open, the porch light bathing her in a golden glow. Will’s chest ached with how much he wanted to go to her. Propping herself up on her elbows she struggled to catch her breath.
“You said you’d never say it!” she gasped, pointing at him accusingly.
“What?” he asked, genuinely confused.
“You said you’d never say it. You said you’d never say sorry.”
“Shit, sorry,” he said before he could stop himself. She broke into more quiet laughter and closed her eyes, shaking her head. “Fuck,” Will whispered, joining her.
“What a fucking disaster,” she managed to say as she leaned forward and reached out to him. He locked his wheels and bent toward her, bolting his hand around her wrist. Pulling her up, in a similar turn of events, he used too much force and she flew forward, stumbling into him and landing half on his lap and half on her left foot. Her right hand was firmly on his shoulder and her left hand on his leg. Scottie’s breath caught in her throat as she looked at the man in front of her—leaning into the warmth of his body and inhaling the woody smell of his skin. He was so close to her.
Will could feel her body tense around him, unsure of how to move, or if she should move at all. As she raised her gaze from his lap over his chest, then to his neck, then eye to eye, he couldn’t speak. Neither of them dared breathe. There was laughter drifting from the house lazily, but it seemed to fade away and all Will could see, think about, smell, feel, was her.
“Scottie,” he breathed. She pressed her forehead to his, slowly lowering herself properly onto his lap and reached up, taking his face in her hands. Her slender fingers were working their way through his thick hair. He reached up and put his hands on her waist, savoring the feeling of her smooth skin between her jeans and her t-shirt.
Scottie couldn’t believe what she was about to do, her mouth tingled with anticipation. This felt different than she was used to, visceral and real—not a person to hide behind—and she knew she’d always regret not giving in.
"Don’t talk,” she rasped, her breath mingling with his. A kiss was percolating dangerously between them, but Will wanted to let Scottie initiate. He was testing her stubbornness and it seemed, she was testing his. His heart, slammed against his rib cage, fighting to get out of his chest. The summer breeze ruffled her hair as she looked at him and he ran his hands down her back. She leaned into him even more, her lips grazing his then pulling back slowly, like she was measuring the moment, considering the ripples, steeling herself to jump in.
“Let’s try this again,” she whispered.
“Will you run?” he asked even quieter. She shook her head lightly and looked into his eyes, pulling her hands out of his hair and down to his shoulders. He knew in that moment, without a shadow of a doubt, she wouldn't.
And then, she closed the gap.