She wasn’t actively nervous. The adrenaline had come and gone throughout the day like a steady unrelenting tide—and would undoubtedly return tomorrow—but she was just anxious enough to be uncomfortable and jittery. She felt as if she’d had a few too many cups of coffee right before trying to sleep, despite having exactly zero.
Unable to quiet her hamster-on-a-wheel mind and irritated that she couldn’t get comfortable, she sat up abruptly. There was a part of her that hoped she’d wake Will in the process, but if the last few months had taught her anything, it was that he was a sound sleeper. She used to be a sound sleeper. She remembered the distant days with both fondness and an acrid bitterness. Cory used to joke that she could fall asleep anywhere, and that used to be true. She wasn’t sure why this tiny little thing could send her into a spiral. Meeting Will’s family was something she wanted, something she craved, and something she needed. She needed him, and this came with him.
Will stirred ever so slightly, but dipped back down into the folds of sleep, his breathing as steady and reliable as a metronome. It was comforting—his stability and predictability—but she wanted him to hold her in his strong arms, pressing her against his chest, and tell it was going to be all right. But she wouldn’t wake him. She was embarrassed at her own sudden sprouting of insecurity. It felt childish and foreign and she was angry at it in the same way a kid would be angry about a mandated bedtime. She had no control and that truly pissed her off.
She also felt a twinge of frustration for him. His shoulder had been bothering him all day, a niggling kind of ache that roped it’s way around his arm and over his upper back, and it surprised her how excruciating it was to see him in pain. She could see through Will’s façade. It was about so much more than the acute discomfort.
He was fiercely—fiercely—independent. He absolutely relied on his arms and shoulders. They had to compensate for him losing half his body. If anything permanent or debilitating ever happened to his shoulder he wouldn’t be able to transfer on his own. He’d need help. And he’d go from a man who simply used a wheelchair to a man stuck in a wheelchair. And Scottie wagered that was something that he would never be able to accept.
Biting her lip, she forced herself to lie back down. Pulling the covers up to her shoulders she lay on her side, staring out the window at the Manhattan skyline. The lights twinkled over the dark water as she took a deep breath. Unexpectedly, she heard Will shifting, rolling over toward her. She felt the mattress compress as he leaned down to adjust and untangle his twisted legs with his hands, pulling them behind him as he pressed himself against her back and kissed her neck. She felt her cheeks flush and her stomach flutter as he settled in beside her. He was only half awake, spinning wonderfully in a dreamy haze as he absently rubbed her back. Even in that state of mind, he sometimes couldn’t believe she was in his bed with him.
Scottie relished his touch, the rough pads of his fingers running down her spine, feeling the still whole part of her that he had broken—her skin smooth and unscarred. She looked back at the lights and felt incredibly small, but the warmth of his body reeled her back in and kept her afloat. She steeled herself for tomorrow. She wasn’t small to him.
The sun was bright—too bright. That kind of chilly white light that made it feel even colder outside than it was. The city had disappeared and morphed into thickets of trees as they drove north through New York state.
Scottie knew all too well that she was a flight risk—a bona-fide flight risk—but there wasn’t really anywhere for her to go. She was belted into the front seat of Will’s speeding car. She didn’t even know if trains came this far up. She’d have to find some kind of bus station. No. She had nowhere to run to, and that oddly unsettled and gave her some slight peace of mind at the same time.
Pete was running his mouth, going on and on about something as the trees on the rural road clipped by, Lise laughed sweetly and muttered something back. Her voice sounded like tinkling bells. Will had one hand on the wheel and the other on the brake as they rounded a particularly sharp turn. Scottie felt like she was hearing everything from the bottom of a well.
“Scottie?” Her name was hollow and far away.
“Scottie?” There it was again. She opened her mouth and blinked. They weren’t moving any more. Pete and Lise were climbing out. How long had she disassociated? That hadn’t happened to her in years. It was almost as if she’d blacked out and now there was a hole in her memory—wide, white, and blank. She blinked again and then turned to face Will. His blue eyes were like beautiful complex marbles staring back at her. She wished, almost desperately, that they were in a getaway car.
“Scottie?” he asked again, leaning closer, reaching for her hand. Her instinct was to pull away from him and clamp down on herself, but she fought against it like a rabid dog. She wouldn’t do it. Not again.
“Yea?” she asked, her mouth so dry she couldn’t finish the word. Swallowing and wetting her tongue she spoke again. “Yea? Sorry.”
“Are you okay?” His voice was gentle and careful. A thickness hung between them, as if someone was pressing saran wrap over her mouth and nose. She thought she might cry. Pete’s knocking on the window sliced through and Will whipped his head around, clearly startled. Pete gestured to Will’s chair—still in pieces—by the driver side door. He’d pulled it out of the trunk but failed to properly assemble it.
“Christ,” Will muttered peeved, “it’s not that hard.” He shifted his weight and opened the door. “Pete,” he shouted at his brother’s back. Pete answered, “Yeah?” without turning around. Will sighed and laughed because he felt like screaming. Shaking his head he looked sideways at Scottie. Her expression sent a calming ripple through him. She was here with him. Everything was going to be fine.
“You forgot the seat cushion, asshat,” Will snapped, running his hand through his hair before he reached down to put one of the wheels on the frame.
“I’ll get it,” Scottie said quietly, reaching to undo her belt. She had to stand up and shake herself out. Her legs were jelly.
“No,” Will replied quickly, “Pete can handle it. He’s a big boy. He should be less careless. I mean, what the fuck is this?” Will’s voice clicked from calm to exasperated as he leaned down almost horizontally to hook one of the wheels which had been placed slightly out of his reach. Scottie felt herself giggle and loosen slightly. Keep breathing, just keep breathing. Pete trundled back to the car, making a great show of his shambling gait and shooting Will a dirty look.
“Oh, I’m sorry I can’t fucking walk,” he said sharply, more to himself than to Pete or Scottie, but both of them caught it and didn’t acknowledge it. It felt like the two brothers were angling for a fight, and Scottie wondered, for the first time—pulling herself out of her self-centered and apparently impenetrable bubble—if being back home brought up difficult and painful memories for Will. Her throat tightened, and she closed her eyes to keep from tearing up. Of course, it did. What was she? Some kind of fucking idiot?
Reaching over she squeezed his shoulder as Pete tossed the seat cushion at him without a word and continued up the driveway to where Lise was waiting for him. She smiled nervously and held out her hand. He took it and pulled her in close just as the front door opened.
“Ready?” Will teased, but his voice gave him away slightly. Scottie forced a smile.
“Ready,” she assured him, trying to convince herself just as much in the process. She reached for the door handle and hopped out of the car just as Will’s dad stepped onto the porch.
Giving a slight wave and timid smile as she turned to the back seat to grab their bags, she heard his father clap Pete on the back.
“Slugger, good to see you, son.” John had a deep voice that boomed commandingly over the yard. Scottie walked around the back of the car just as will was pulling his legs out and adjusting them on the footplate. She handed him his bag, which he situated on his lap, and he pushed himself back so she could shut the door. He looked considerably paler than he had when they had both been inside the safe haven of the Volvo.
“Are you okay?” she asked quietly, and almost immediately regretted it. She didn’t want him to think she assumed he wasn’t okay coming home. They hadn’t really covered his feelings about home just yet. She held her breath for a second as he looked up at her, his goddamn blue eyes cutting her to her core. He was smiling, and it threw her a little.
“Just returning to the site where my parents and I almost killed each other after I got hurt. You know, it’s bound to stir up a little of the old dirt.” He was full on smirking now and she reached for his hand hungrily, leaning down to kiss him on the lips. She lingered a little too long, considering his dad and brother were a captive audience, but she couldn’t compel herself to pull away quickly, and he, frankly, didn’t seem too disappointed. His honestly gave her a refreshing burst of relief and it flooded through her.
“Well, well, well,” a woman’s voice floated over to them haughtily. Scottie righted herself sharply and wiped her lips with the back of her other hand. Will wouldn’t let go of the one he was holding—in fact his grip tightened like a screw. “This must be the mystery girl mom has been going on and on about.”
“Wynn,” Will’s voice was earnest as he squeezed Scottie’s hand once and let go to wheel over to his sister, gliding swiftly across the pavement, his arms working so smoothly that Scottie couldn’t help but admire his finesse for what had to probably be the millionth time. He still had the same chair from when she had met him, and she had yet to see him use anything else. It was a sporty chair, all black and gunmetal grey with a seat back that barely brushed his lower back. Fitted to him like a glove, it was a sexy and a sleek extension of his upper body. The way he moved made her legs once again resemble the consistency of jelly.
Wynn leaned down, her dark smooth hair draping over Will’s shoulder as she pulled him into an aggressive hug. She kissed his cheek and whispered something in his ear that Scottie couldn’t hear but he laughed his rich chocolatey laugh and pushed himself back from her as she stood. He swiveled his chair and held out a hand.
“Scottie, this is my little sister, Wynn, and Wynn, this is my girlfriend, Thea Scott, but she prefers to go by Scottie.” Scottie’s palms were sweating, partially because she couldn’t help it when she heard Will call her his girlfriend, partially because Wynn was really beautiful—marked by a dark glossy waterfall of hair with golden highlights, freckle-free lightly tanned skin, and warm brown eyes. Scottie took a deep breath and turned to Will. His dimple was on full display and it cracked a smile on her face.
“Wynn,” she replied warmly, leaning into a hug, “It’s so wonderful to meet you and the rest of Will’s family.” It’s funny, Scottie thought as she inhaled the floral scent of Wynn's still damp hair, in better light, everything changes.
John watched his son hug his two daughters. Wynn came first, the over exuberant and effusive of the two, words tumbling out of her mouth a mile a minute. Next her boyfriend Sean, a nice but effectively bland shorter guy with wavy blonde hair and skin the color of milk, leaned in to hug Will awkwardly. Olivia hovered in the background, a quiet and pensive shadow, leaning down to hug her brother only after he pressed. She gave a hug in the kind of way you knew came from a loving place, but it certainly wasn't tossed in your face. She stood self-consciously to the side as Will made quick work of introducing the striking woman at his side.
She was very tall, a good match for Will’s own expansive height had he not been confined to a sitting position for the rest of his life. She had olive skin, like Ari, but it was a touch darker and richer. But it wasn't her skin that stood out— it was her hair that caught his eye most. Wild waves and curls cascaded down her grey sweater as she hugged Wynn and Olivia. She tried to brush some of it behind her ears as she reached for Will’s shoulder and squeezed but it seemed to disobey, blowing into her face as the wind picked up. Will placed his own hand on hers and looked up at her, beaming. He looked inexplicably happy, but the only thing John could think about was that he shouldn’t be looking up at her at all. Frustrated, he zipped his navy fleece at the chill and turned his attention to his other son who stood tall in stark contrast. The disparity made his chest ache.
“Dad,” Will said, drifting toward the bottom of the front steps. He looked up at his dad and steeled himself for a tough hello—it never felt easy between them, and he could tell simply by the way his dad was standing, that it wasn’t going to be any different this time.
“Will,” Ari’s voice echoed coming out of the house. She was coming down the stairs and from her vantage point she couldn’t see Pete standing off to the side. Will smiled. His mom was always his mom, and hearing her say his name made him feel like a kid again in the best way.
“Mom,” he said, voice soft as pudding. Ari took the porch steps in two steps and fell into her son’s arms. She kissed him on the forehead as she pulled away, ruffling his hair as she took him in. “You look good darling.”
“Thank’s mom,” Will replied quietly, turning to glance over at Scottie, who’d felt that familiar swallowing of words as she looked at Ari. Ari was a well-tuned sports car—as sleek as a Maserati. She had thick black hair cut bluntly at her shoulders, a lithe toned body, light brown eyes, and the kind of skin that wouldn’t wrinkle easily. A long cream sweater draped over her skinny jeans and a large turquoise pendant gave her a kind of cozy chic Colorado mom vibe. Scottie reached self-consciously for her face. What did she expect to be able to do? Wipe off her freckles?
“Mom,” Will continued tenderly, reaching for Scottie’s hand. She shakily took it and stepped forward. “This is Scott—“ But Ari cut him off, pulling Scottie into a hug that was equally as aggressive as the one she’d given Will.
“I know who she is, Will,” she snapped, pulling out of the hug and holding Scottie at arm’s length, examining her head to toe with a microscope. Her sneakers, black jeans, and waffle grey sweater suddenly felt drab, plain, and over worn. “My god, Scottie, you’re beautiful. Will, you didn’t tell me she was beautiful.”
“Mom!” Will shouted, scandalized. Scottie felt her cheeks color dark red. She laughed nervously.
“I take offense to that Mr. Nash,” she replied to her smirking boyfriend. Ari hit Will on the backside of the head and he yelped, rubbing the spot with his hand.
“You call me Ari,” she insisted, and then gesturing at her husband, “and call him John.” Scottie nodded and bit her lower lip.
“I guess I’m chop liver, huh mom?” Pete asked with snark.
“Oh hush, Peter,” she rebuked as she walked up the steps toward her other son. “You’ll get your turn.” She hugged him and Pete introduced her to Lise, whom she wrapped in a tight hug as well. Her smile was absolutely contagious, and Scottie was starting to feel breath coming a little bit easier than before.
“Let’s all go in and eat,” Ari hollered, gesturing to the girls and Sean, who were over by the car. But as she spoke, she slowly turned back to Will, a frown buckling across her forehead.
“John,” she chided, “Why isn’t the ramp up yet?” She spun and crossed her arms over her chest.
“I was getting to it,” John argued. But Ari’s face didn’t shift.
“We talked about this,” she hissed, voice deadly quiet, but not quiet enough to keep the family from hearing from their exceptionally close vantage points.
“Mom,” Will insisted, embarrassment seeping out in between his words. “Seriously, it’s fine.”
“It most certainly is not fine. This is your home. You shouldn’t have to wait for your father to set up a fucking ramp.” Her voice was ice cold and sharp as a cleaver.
“Ari, easy, I’m getting it now,” John barked as he pressed past her and lumbered down the steps toward the garage. Ari huffed and looked down at Will, sincere shame written across her beautiful face.
“Everyone, go inside and get settled, I’ve got appetizers. Wines on the counter. Dig in, make yourself at home.” She gestured to everyone, and her urgency drove people through the front door. Scottie walked her bag up to the porch and returned to grab Will’s from him. Usually he wouldn’t mind her tossing it up on the steps for him but when she reached for it he visibly recoiled as if she'd been trying to scald him with her hand.
“No,” he said quick and awkward, “I’ve, uh, I’ve got it.”
“I just thought with your shoulder you’d,” she started but she quickly felt the words dry up like ash in her mouth. This wasn’t about the bag at all.
“What’s wrong with your shoulder?” Ari probed, voice suddenly urgent and soaked in concern.
“Mom, really, it’s nothing. It’s fine, I’m fine.” Ari was about to protest, but John came around the house, putting on the grand performance of dragging a large metal folded ramp. Grunting, he dropped it over the bottom steps and unfolded it over the top two, shaking it into a locked position. It was pretty narrow and was situated at an extremely steep angle. Scottie thought Will could probably do it, but it felt like a bad idea with his shoulder and now his bag on his lap. She aggressively wrestled with the urge to offer a push like she had all those months ago at Cory's beach house. She knew if they weren't in front of his parents Will would ask. But they were, so he wouldn't. She bit down lightly on her tongue as an insurance policy.
John held out his arms and gestured for Will to proceed as if he were the king of goddamn England. Will balled his hands into fists to keep from punching something—most likely his father in the jaw. His mom had tried to put in a permanent ramp but his dad wouldn’t hear of it. He’d built the house with his bare hands back when his own dad had still been alive. The two of them had done it together when Will and Pete were only five, Wynn was three, and Olivia had just been born. It was a labor of love. Putting a ramp on the front would, according to John in hushed conversations with Ari behind closed doors, ruin it. Although Will wondered in his annoyance, if that wouldn’t have been, in fact, the biggest labor of love of all.
Readying himself, Will put his hands on the push rims of his chair and took a deep breath. It would be much easier to be pushed, but asking for help in front of his parents was absolutely one million percent out of the question. He’d worked so hard to gain respect in his dad’s eyes and independence in his mom’s, and one false move could topple the whole house of cards. So, he gritted his teeth and pressed upwards, ignoring the jolt running down his shoulder at every rotation.
As Scottie watched Will struggle then finally crest the top of the ramp onto the porch, she realized, in order to understand the dynamic at work here, all she had to do was observe Ari and John’s faces while they watched what she’d initially gifted her attention to. It explained everything.
Will skated across the porch and bumped himself over the threshold of the house, purposely averting his parents' gazes. After he was safely inside he took another deep breath before pivoting to face the three of them stalk still, staring, and standing out in the cold.
“Are we not eating?” Will asked playfully. Ari’s trance was broken and she followed him into the house. Scottie walked delicately up the steps, coming face to face with John over her bag.
“I’ve got it,” she heard herself say shyly.
“No, no, I insist. A man always carries a woman’s bag,” he asserted with a genuine smile. “I’m John, Will’s dad, as I’m sure you’ve gathered.” Scottie felt hot under the collar as she forced a smile and produced her name and hand for a shake. She couldn’t help but think that his comment was a round directly aimed at Will.
And then she realized, suddenly, that John had forgotten—or avoided—hugging one of his sons.