“I thought Thanksgiving was on Thursday?” Will joked, trying to keep things light and airy as Ari returned the kitchen after placing two large covered casserole dishes in the middle of the extravagantly set table. Will looked out the window—the sun was hanging low over the frigid lake he’d spent his childhood swimming in.
“Ah well,” John replied absently, “you know your mom. She wanted to make everything special with you all coming home.”
“Yes, I do know, mom,” Will laughed and shook his head, suddenly conscious of his hands in his lap. He didn’t know what do with them and they felt awkward and in the way. What did he usually do with his hands? His mind was precipitously blank. “Can I help with that?” he asked, scrambling to feel useful. His dad turned slightly and gave him a quick once over, a flicker that mimicked the candle light, which Will was sure his dad thought he didn’t notice. But, as fate would have it, he did. A bitter taste filled his mouth. He reached for his beer, which was situated between his legs, and took a swig, hoping to replace one bitter taste with another.
“It’s okay, son, I’m almost done,” John said after a second, straightening up and blowing out the match. His voice had the makings of pity but it stopped just short of being condescending. Will shrugged, trying to let it roll of his back and failing. Wynn pushed through the swinging door with a platter of steaks and placed it in the middle of the table.
“The medium rare one on top is mine,” she warned, spiritedly raising an eyebrow, “so hands off, William.” Will put his hands up in mock guilt as she grinned and pushed her way back into the kitchen.
“I’m so happy she and Sean came in from California,” John remarked as he took a seat at the head of the table. Will wanted to join him, slide under the table and hide his wheelchair from view in an attempt to normalize things—which oddly seemed to work—but there were chairs situated all along both sides. He could move the chair himself, but he knew his dad wouldn’t want him scraping it across the wood floor. Closing his eyes for a second, he posed the question on his lips.
“Uh, dad, would you mind,” he started, running his hands along the push rims, feeling himself give in to the need to swallow halfway through his sentence.
“Oh shoot,” John said before Will could cut back in. “Move a chair out of the way?” Will nodded, unsure of how to interpret the sudden softness in his dad’s voice. “Sorry about that,” John said as he grabbed the chair nearest to him and picked up, carrying it across the room to place against the wall.
“Oh,” Will replied, trying to hide his surprise, “no it’s no problem at all. Thanks.”
“Of course,” John answered as if he hadn’t just made a huge fucking deal of hauling out the ramp so his paraplegic son could join them inside the house he grew up in for a fucking holiday meal. Will decided not to question it.
“But yeah,” Will replied as he wheeled himself up to the empty space and discretely locked his brakes. “I’m so happy she’s here. And Lise. You’ll really like Lise.”
“She seems like a nice girl,” John replied as he swilled his tumbler of whiskey, the large ice cube in the center clinking the edges of the glass. Olivia and Scottie appeared with two hot dishes covered in tin foil.
“Timing is a little off,” Olivia quipped as she placed a casserole dish in the middle of the table. “We should be ready to eat in five.”
“Sounds good, Livie,” John replied, smiling at his youngest daughter. She returned the smile, despite the fact—which Will knew—that she didn’t like the nickname from anyone, but she put up with it for family. Scottie smirked at Will and winked. Will blushed and winked back, loving that she was here in his childhood home, but also worried about what it might dredge up. He thought back to their first date—the date he’d asked her on in front of the open fire at the beach over a very overcooked marshmallow.
“Now that one?” John replied, interrupting Will’s thoughts, “she’s a stunner.” Will smiled. It seemed his dad did approve of one thing—his girlfriend.
“Yeah,” Will replied his voice distant and with her, “she sure is.”
“And she,” John started but hesitated, his voice wavering, his eyes wandering down past the edge of the table. Will could see his feet sitting quietly on the footplate, and so could his dad. He felt heat rising in his cheeks. “She’s okay with, well, you know?” Will turned his gaze from the feet he resented and looked at the man he struggled not to resent.
In that one sentence, it began crystal clear to Will that his injury and ensuing paralysis was still an incredibly awkward, uncomfortable, and tragic thing for his dad to talk about. He was an asshole because he didn’t know how to act, and though it didn’t make up for everything, it did slightly lessen Will’s anger and frustration. He guessed it would be far more difficult and excruciatingly painful to watch someone he loved—like his siblings, or parents, or a child, or Scottie—go through what he went through. He’d much rather just switch places with them and go through it himself. The thought actually caused an ache to bloom in his chest.
“The wheelchair?” Will asked slightly sarcastically, but his dad didn’t pick up on it. He nodded solemnly. “Well, I haven’t told her about it yet, but we’re pretty serious, so when I finally tell her I’m hoping it just won’t matter, you know?” Silence hung for a second between them and Will felt his face pull upward as a smirk threatened to peek through. John narrowed his eyes for a second and chanced a laugh.
“You’re kidding?” he asked.
“Yes, dad, I’m kidding,” he replied laughing. John struggled with letting himself join his son. It felt weird to make a joke about something so, well, awful, but it hadn’t happened to him. It had happened to Will, and now he was joking about it. John supposed, for the first time, that maybe he should consider taking cues from his son on how to handle it.
“She definitely knows, she’s definitely okay with it, and she’s definitely a stunner, and,” Will confirmed, then delicately added, “ and she’s becoming my best friend.”
“Well, son,” John replied, after recovering from his realization, “she sure as hell sounds like a keeper to me.” Will couldn’t help but beam at his dad as the rest of the family joined them.
“What’re you so happy about?” Scottie whispered as she took the seat next to him, sliding her hand suggestively onto his thigh. He loved when she touched him—whether he could feel it or not.
“Oh nothing,” he replied, placing his own hand on top of hers. “I’m just happy.” She laughed softly and kissed him light and quick where his jaw met his neck. And then he realized what he’d realized earlier when he imagined all the people he’d be willing to trade places with if they were in his shoes. He loved her. He absolutely undoubtedly loved her.
Still reeling from what he’d realized he’d wanted—needed—to tell her, Will found himself keeping quiet through most of the dinner. As his sisters rose to clear salad plates, Will chanced a look at Scottie. Despite her confident entrance, she now seemed incredibly nervous, caught up in her own head, not sure what to do nor how to act. Will reached over and squeezed her hand. It was clammy.
“Are you okay?” he asked discreetly, the chatter of his family fading away into the background. She squeezed his hand back and nodded once.
“Yep,” she replied tightly. “I’m just not used to this.”
“Used to what?” he whispered.
“Family,” she answered so quietly he wasn’t even sure he’d heard her correctly. Wynn plopped back down I the seat across from them and smiled, flashing a line of straight white teeth.
“What are you two love birds whispering about over there?” she teased, leaning forward to scoop up the steak she’d dibbed earlier in the night. Will couldn’t help but laugh.
“You got your steak,” he commented snidely.
“I got my steak,” she remarked as she delicately laid it on her plate and passed him the fork. She cut into the meat, checked the color, seemed satisfied, and placed a small bite between her lips. She chewed slowly, eying her brother and the woman he’d brought home. She was certainly beautiful, and Will seemed absolutely taken with her. She had never seen him this doe-eyed—even with Kristin. ”I miss the early days,” she announced after a moment, her voice ruddy with wistfulness.
“The early days?” Scottie asked with her fork halfway to her mouth, puzzled.
“You know,” Wynn pressed, “when you’re so head over heels for each other you can barely hold a conversation.” Will, who was mid-sip of wine coughed and covered his mouth, sputtering like a car engine in distress.
“What are you even talking about?” Will asked after he’d recovered.
"We're talking about how my hands are clammy," Scottie interjected lightly, "real sexy stuff over here." Olivia snickered.
“You two won’t stop looking at each other, it’s making me sick and also I love it!” Wynn argued. Now the whole table was listening. “I mean Sean and I just don’t look at each other like that anymore.”
“Wynn,” Sean replied, his voice a bit wounded. His complexion was so light that even just a slight flush made his face look mottled.
“Oh hush, doll, you know I love the hell out of you,” she comforted him, rubbing his arm. “I’m just saying, new love is a beautiful thing.”
“Especially when,” Pete started but then stopped abruptly, like he’d slammed into a brick wall. He took a sip of wine instead and looked down at his food.
“Especially when what?” Will asked. He knew Pete was about to make some kind of comment about how Kristin had broken his heart, or about how long it had been since Will had been with someone—even someone casual—or about how it must be so hard to find a girlfriend who’s okay with the disability. Frankly, none of those things would have bothered him that much. But this—this sharp slamming of the brakes to avoid what Pete deemed a sensitive subject pissed him off. He wanted to shout across the table, “Just fucking say it.” But he kept his mouth decidedly shut as he watched Pete’s discomfort practically squirm out of him.
“Oh, you know,” Pete stalled picking at the paper label of an empty beer bottle next to his plate, then digging into his thumbnail with his incisor. A beat of silence descended on the table, and John cleared his throat.
“Especially when the girlfriend is a New York 10?” Scottie asked, smiling slightly as she picked up her wine. Olivia laughed first, well perhaps snorted would be a better way to describe it—and Will followed, in awe of his girlfriend’s ability to smooth over a potentially tense situation. Everyone else took Will’s cue and followed suit, the conversation picking up swiftly where it left off before the unexpected pothole.
Will wished he could grow the fuck up and rise above it, but with his family he reverted back to the tender wounded twenty-something he’d been when he’d come home from rehab. He wondered what it must be like for Scottie to see him here and to feel the complicated dynamics at work, surrounding them like trip wires. She’d come from a complicated situation as well, but it seemed that fate had extricated her, and she had told Will, on their first date, that it had saved her.
The memory of their first date was warm. He got lost recalling her hand on the back of his neck, shoulder, arm, hand—when he could spare it—as they drove home the next day after the beach. It had been just the two of them in his Volvo, cruising up the Garden State Parkway. They’d been a few exits away from the Holland Tunnel and traffic was picking up. They hadn’t been moving much when the passed an exit with a McDonalds, the golden arches a shining beacon over the divider, in the sea of metal of exhaust.
“I love a good fast food drive through,” she commented longingly as they slowly pulled past the exit.
“Fuck, me too,” Will replied earnestly. “Something about eating French fries in the car.”
“Using the ketchup bags as tools instead of squeezing them out onto a napkin,” she remarked, of course referring to making a tiny hole in the corner of the packet and squirting ketchup on each fry individually.
“Making one of the bags into a trash bag after consolidating everything into the other,” he replied, his voice far away as if he were living in a dream.
“What’s your pick?” she asked, turning to him and running her hand down his arm. He leaned into her touch, wishing he could put the car on autopilot, so she could climb into his lap.
“Wendy’s,” he answered immediately. Her face transformed from utter shock to complete and perfect joy.
“Fuck off with that,” she whispered dubiously.
“I would never joke about something like this.”
“Mr. Nash, I do believe you just got significantly more attractive,” she stated, voice flirty. Will saw another exit coming up on their right, and what did you know, it boasted a Wendy’s just off the turn. He maneuvered the car to the far-right lane and slid out of the traffic, picking up speed on the ramp.
“How about now?” he asked as the Wendy’s sign came into view. Scottie gasped and cursed under her breath. Smacking him on the upper arm she turned, green eyes wide and clear.
“Now this…this is a proper first date.” Her voice was awe-struck and reverent. Will couldn’t help but laugh as he pulled into the parking lot. It wasn’t what he’d had in mind for their first date. He’d actually decided to take her to this little hole-in-the-wall Italian place near his apartment. They knew him there, as he’d shown up to pick-up take-out at least once a week for the past two years. He knew they’d take care of them—especially Anita, the older woman who owned the place. She’d developed quite a soft spot for Will, always asking him about a lady friend— he couldn’t wait to prove to her that he wasn’t a hopeless case. But Nonna’s could wait. With Scottie, Will didn’t want to press too hard. He wanted to let things take the course they would. Nothing forced. Nothing rushed. Nothing ruined.
He turned into a parking space and went to cut the engine when Scottie smacked his hand away.
“What?” he yelped in shock.
“Are you insane?” she asked between chuckles, “what are you doing?” Will stared at her for a second, and just as he was catching her meaning she continued. “You don’t need to park to go through the drive-through dummy.” Will laughed and shook his head, running his hand through his already tousled hair.
“Goddammit, I almost screwed this up, didn’t I?” he teased, staring straight ahead at the cars speeding down the service road along the highway as he restarted the car.
“Just nearly, yes,” Scottie quipped, pulling her legs up and crossing them on the seat. “Let’s go, Nash.”
They each ordered Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers, large fries, a 6 piece chicken nuggets to share, and Frostys. She went with chocolate and he went with vanilla so they could mix them. Neither of them wanted to commit completely to one flavor.
Once Scottie was loaded up with hot bags of food, Will rounded the restaurant and pulled back into the parking spot he’d grabbed earlier and turned the car off once again. This time she didn’t slap him.
The smell was literally making his mouth water, but seeing Scottie with a lap full of fast food was possibly the sexiest thing he’d ever seen.
“Hi,” she said suggestively. The way Will was looking at her made her heart flutter sharply. His dimple was so incredibly cute she had to bite her lip to keep from kissing him on the spot.
“Hi,” he replied as he undid his belt. He never broke eye contact.
“What?” she asked, anticipating his answer.
“You,” Will said simply and shrugged.
“Me? Or the food?” she asked, unrolling one of the bags and pulling out a single French fry.
“Is both an option?” She smirked, quirking her mouth to the right.
“Of course, it is.”
They dug into the food, talking intermittently, laughing a lot, and emptying all the goods into one bag so they had a designated trash bag. Will tried to situate himself to face her, but it was hard with an uncooperative lower body. He folded his right leg and leaned against the driver’s side door, draping his left leg over the foot of the right. He wasn’t sure if it was comfortable, but it didn’t look terrible, so he kept it. Scottie eyed a French fry and took a small bite, followed by a hearty sip of the chocolate Frosty.
“I ate a lot of fast food growing up,” she said quietly.
“Did you?” Will asked, oblivious to her tone as he rooted around the bag for a ketchup packet. “My parents were so anti fast food. It was always such a treat when we got to have it.” It wasn’t until he looked up that he noticed her gaze was distant and unfocused, her expression tense. Years had been added to her face, and his chest felt precariously tight as he considered her.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, swallowing her words and her expression. A hollow smile replaced her sorrow and it looked entirely unnatural.
“Don’t be sorry,” Will replied automatically, but he wasn’t sure what to say next.
“It holds good and bad memories, you know?” she continued, turning to look out the windshield instead of at him. “It was cheap, which is why we ate it so much. But we didn’t always get meals growing up. My mom, as you’ve heard, wasn’t all that consistent.” Will nodded thoughtfully, trying and failing to imagine what it must have been like to be unsure of where your next meal was coming from.
“I think it’s normal for childhood memories to dredge up both good and bad things,” Will said after a moment. Scottie nodded sadly but then turned her attention from the gloomy patch of grass between them and road back to Will. This time she was smiling a genuine smile.
“I just wish I had the kind of childhood I could brag about, you know?” she joked, chuckling and popping another fry in her mouth.
“Every childhood has it’s pro’s and con’s,” Will replied carefully, “I had a good one, but it wasn’t perfect.”
“I suppose it couldn’t have been with so little fast food,” she teased, tilting her head thoughtfully and smiling. Will laughed and reached for her hand. She met him in the middle and ran her thumb across his knuckles.
“I suppose having no family is better than having a bad one,” she mused, not entirely unhappily. Will didn’t respond. It felt like her moment—her space to work out what she needed to work out. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. “I think losing them early saved me…in the end.”
This was the kind of stuff too heavy for a first date in anyone’s book—but not Will’s. He felt comfortable with her in a way that he’d never felt before. In that moment he just wanted to hold her in his arms and stroke her wild hair forever. Instead he leaned forward and kissed her hand. She looked down at her lap and smiled quietly, tilting her green eyes up toward him.
“Thanks for taking me on a proper date,” she said after a few minutes of silence.
“I’d gladly take you on another…perhaps even more proper date,” Will answered, scooting closer to her as best he could.
“I’d like that,” Scottie answered.
“Not as much as I would,” Will countered, brushing his hair out of her face.
“Wanna bet, Nash?” Scottie whispered as she smiled, crawling toward him over the middle console, brushing the food bad, and garbage bag, onto the floor of the passenger side.
“Be prepared to lose, Thea.”
Olivia didn’t talk too much, Scottie had realized, but she noticed that when she did open her mouth her wit was biting, brutal, and refreshing. She kept everyone in the family in line, forcing them to laugh at themselves. She was a sharper version of Will. Where he softened and bent, she went hard and angular. Pete and Wynn seemed to be the dynamic boisterous duo and the driving force behind the conversation. It was the kind of terrific sparring, laughter, and energy that only came from a family—tightly knit over the years—reunited.
Letting Ari refill her glass, Scottie leaned the newly full Cab against her cheek as she listened raptly to Wynn recount the time she and the boys had “borrowed” their dad’s boat without permission. They simply wanted to show their friends a good time, she argued playfully, and much to Scottie’s surprise, John laughed hearty and full. He seemed to have softened considerably, his hard edges smoothing over. He was being melted down and re-formed. Outside he quite distinctly resembled an asshole of a father. But inside, sitting in the wingback chair across from her, next to the fireplace, with a beer bottle in his hand and the glow of the flames illuminating his face, he was the kind of father you hoped you gave your children. His cadence with Ari was one of practiced ease, grown and earned from years of loving each other—day in and day out. Scottie could see the idyllic childhood Will had so often referenced and it warmed her from the inside out. She snuggled deeper into Will’s chest and he held her close.
Will’s face was flushed and pink, and he felt the tension from earlier finally slip away as his smile at his sister threatened to crack his face in half. Coming home was hard. Sometimes he felt that his desire for his childhood and his resentment at how things had shifted—in both easily perceivable and subtle ways—would cause an explosion. The simple fact that he could feel such strong and opposing things scared him.
Pete burst into laughter as Will continued his tirade as—who they had declared him years ago—“The Fact Police.”
“It didn’t happen that way,” he’d argue.
“Fact police,” Wynn would snap.
“Okay now you’re exaggerating,” he’d press.
“Fact police,” Pete would tease between sips of beer.
“Okay but seriously, I never would have done that!” he’d admonish.
“Fact police,” Olivia would interject quietly, much to Will’s incredulity. Even she—the baby of the family—saw him for what he was—honest to a fault.
“Fine, although, Olivia, you weren’t even there!” Will had conceded, taking a sip of his wine and shaking his head as the whole family erupted in laughter. John chided his boys playfully for enlisting their little sister to drive the boat so they could drink their 12-pack of Bud Light their friend had brought.
Scottie watched the family jab and dodge each other like they’d never been apart, and a piece shook loose inside of her. This was something she had never ever had—even before her sister started using. It had always been more about survival for them, relying on each other in the most basic ways. There had never been room for playful jabs or the kind of sibling contention she was seeing unfold in front of her. They were both too fragile—too emotionally underdeveloped. Her throat began to tighten up as she watched them laugh, and she bit her lip to keep from crying. She was being welcomed with open arms and yet she couldn’t stop thinking about what she had lost—or perhaps, what she had never had in the first place. Will’s arm—warm, strong, and perfect—around her was the only thing keeping her from sinking into the grief.
And then it hit her like a ton of bricks. For the good and the bad and for everything he was and everything he wasn’t, she loved him. She loved him totally and entirely.