“Yeah, well, she’ll get over it.”
I look at her with a mixture of frustration and annoyance. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I just think you’re not being rational right now.” She sighs loud and slow. “She said you’re moving in with me.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you that I’m movin’ in. Congrats, you got what you wanted.” I start walking up the winding staircase to the second floor.
“I want you to be happy, Derek. That’s what I’ve always wanted.” She hesitates before saying, “It’s what your mother would have wanted.”
“How do you know? She’s not around to ask now, is she? Want to ask my dad what he thinks? Oh, yeah. He’s not around, either,” I say, sarcasm dripping from every word.
“Well, regardless of who’s around, you have to go back to Chicago to pack up your things if you’re going to move in with me.”
At the top of the stairs, I call out, “Get movers to do it.”
“Nonsense.” She stands tall and puts her regal nose in the air. “I’ve already arranged for the corporate jet to take us back to Chicago.”
I stop dead in my tracks. “Us? Who’s included in ‘us’?”
“You, Ashtyn . . . and me.”
No, no. “Sorry to break the news to you, Grams, but that’s not how it’s goin’ down.”
“Yes, it is. It’s a done deal and everything is already arranged. Harold will be picking up Ashtyn on Sunday at Elite and she’ll meet us at the airport.” She crosses her arms and gives me a dignified stare that dares me to challenge her. “And that’s how it’s goin’ down.”
I’m sitting in front of Coach Bennett and Coach Smart on Sunday morning for my final evaluation. I fight the urge to bite my nails as they review my stats and performance this past week. They’re also supposed to share any feedback from the scouts who were present at the scrimmages.
“It was a pleasure having you at camp this week,” Coach Bennett starts. “Both Coach Smart and I are impressed by your determination and drive.”
But not my performance.
Coach Smart nods in agreement. “You’re the first female accepted to our program, Ashtyn. We knew there would be challenges, and you faced them head-on. That takes courage, and I admire that in my players.”
Coach Smart takes time to go over my stats with me and I cringe. “Your stats this week are not impressive, Ashtyn,” he says. “The feedback from the scouts and coaches wasn’t what you were probably hoping for, but Coach Bennett secured an interview with the Northwestern coach next week. No promises, but at least they agreed to talk with you.”
Just the thought of being able to talk to a Big Ten football coach should make me excited and happy. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s like as soon as Derek told me he was moving to Texas, suddenly everything feels so . . . off.
“No matter what happens, all of us at Elite have faith that you’ll accomplish whatever you set out to do.” Coach Bennett smiles warmly and holds out his hand. “We will definitely be following your team stats this coming season and wish you all the best.”
I shake both of their hands. “Thank you both for the opportunity,” I say, then gather my duffel from the dorm and wait for the limo to pick me up. I got a call last night that Mrs. Worthington is chartering the corporate jet.
I sit on the small airplane next to Derek. His grandmother insisted on coming with us. She says she wants to help Derek pack his stuff up. I heard Derek protest, but she just ignored him.
It’s hard not to feel Derek’s presence beside me. When we arrive home, Julian runs up to Derek with a big smile and my sister brings out cookies with the words WELCOME HOME in yellow frosting. I can’t eat them. All they do is remind me of the night at his grandmother’s house when Derek finally revealed everything he’s held inside for so long.
“I’m Brandi. You must be Liz!” Brandi says excitedly. Mrs. Worthington flinches when my sister calls her Liz instead of Elizabeth or Mrs. Worthington, but Brandi doesn’t notice. “It’s so nice that you came here for a little visit. Derek, isn’t having your grammy here just the best?”
“Not really,” he says.
Mrs. Worthington whacks him with her purse. “My grandson is lacking in social graces, but I intend to fix that.”
“Where’s Dad?” I ask, changing the subject.
My sister points to the den. “Watching television.”
I peek into the den. “We’re back, Dad.”
He nods as if I’d just come back from going to the grocery store.
“Derek’s grandma’s here, too,” I add, then gesture for him to get up and greet her.
He gets up, meets Mrs. Worthington for a brief moment, then walks back to the den and starts watching TV again.
“Not a social fella,” Mrs. Worthington mumbles as she walks around inspecting the rest of the house.
“My dad’s kinda introverted,” I explain.
“Hmm.” Mrs. Worthington takes one bite of Brandi’s cookie and spits it out in her napkin. “Dearie, are you trying to poison us, or just break our teeth?”
Brandi laughs. “I admit I’m not the best baker.”
“Obviously.” She pats Brandi on the cheek. “We must get you some cooking lessons, dearie. Before you kill my grandson.”
Brandi giggles, thinking that Mrs. Worthington is joking. I don’t think she’s joking at all, but it’s probably best that my sister is clueless.
A low bark echoes through the house before Falkor comes running up to me and gives me slobbery kisses. “And this is Falkor.”
“Eww. Ashtyn, dear, please . . . get that animal to stop giving you a tongue bath. It’s very unsanitary.”
Derek kneels down and Falkor abandons me without a second thought. My dog rolls onto his back while Derek rubs his belly and tells Falkor how much he missed him.
After Mrs. Worthington is settled in my bedroom and the rest of us are in the kitchen, Derek breaks the news to my sister and Julian that he’s moving to Texas.
My sister’s smile fades.
“But you’re my brother,” Julian cries out. “I don’t want you to move to Texas. Don’t leave!”
My sister looks shocked and her eyes are glassy. “I’m sure Derek has thought long and hard about his decision, Julian,” she says in a dull and sad voice. “He needs to do what he thinks is best.”
“Sorry, buddy.” Derek reaches out to Julian, but my nephew ducks out of his reach and runs upstairs. Derek has a grim look on his face as he follows Julian upstairs.
“I failed my husband,” Brandi murmurs. Her arms fall to her sides. She looks totally defeated. “I fail in everything.”
“That’s not true.” I walk up to her and put my arm around her shoulders, comforting her. “You’re a great mom to Julian. He’s a great kid, Brandi. You didn’t have any help and he’s so smart and sensitive.”
She shrugs as she wipes away tears running down her pale, heart-shaped face. “You already pointed out that I’ve been a shitty sister. I’m obviously a horrible stepmother. I should have just stayed in California.”
“No.” I hug her in earnest now as tears fall from my eyes, too. When she hugs me back, I choke back sobs. Derek will take a part of me with him when he leaves, and I don’t think I can face the despair alone. I’m tired and sad and don’t want to be strong anymore. “I need you, Brandi. I need my big sister and I’m so, so glad you’re back.”
“Are you okay?” she asks, holding me at arm’s length, surprised that I’m crying along with her.
I shake my head. “No.”
She wipes the tears from my cheeks and gives me a sorrowful, knowing look. “This is about you and Derek, isn’t it?”
I nod, unable to say the words out loud.
She holds my face in her hands. “I’m here for you, baby sister. I’m sorry, I feel like this is all my fault.”
“What’s this kumbaya moment all about?” Mrs. Worthington asks as she walks into the kitchen. “I swear I feel like I’m in a funeral home with all the crying going on. You know what heals everything?”
“What?” Brandi asks.
I wipe my tears and wait for her answer.
“Spa treatments.” She takes her phone and dials a number. “Harold, do that Googly thing and find me a reputable spa in Fremont, Illinois. Make an appointment for three people for a massage and facial tonight.” She hangs up the phone, but then calls back a second later. “On second thought, make it an appointment for four. Ashtyn’s father is grumpier than I am and definitely needs help.”
“Liz, I don’t think my dad will go to a spa,” Brandi says when she hangs up the second time.
“Yes, he will,” Derek’s grandmother says without hesitation. “Nobody says no to a Worthington. And if you call me Liz again, I might just have to rip those overly dyed extensions out of your head.”
Ashtyn told me I needed a goal. I finally have one, although it’s not really a goal but a mission. I’ve decided to clean the shed before I leave. It was dirty and neglected when I first arrived here, but I gave it new life. I’d already given it a paint job and fixed the broken slats on the roof and walls. This morning I decided to clean the inside of the shed so it’ll look brand-spankin’-new. I cleared out everything, and then went to the hardware store to buy new shelves that won’t fall off the wall and plywood to replace the old floor. I even tiled the top of the workbench so it was clean and usable again.
I saw Ashtyn leave the house this morning with Victor, who picked her up for practice. She’s not talking to me. Julian isn’t, either. I told him I’d come visit him every few months, but that didn’t matter. He told me to leave him alone and he hasn’t looked at me since. That was two days ago.
I stand back and survey my progress. “Not bad for a day’s worth of work.” Falkor, panting beside me while vigorously wagging his tail, obviously agrees with me.
“What in God’s name are you doing, Derek?” my grandmother bellows from the porch. She walks over to me in the grass that needs to be mowed again. At least the backyard isn’t a large patch of weeds and looks halfway decent.
“I’m cleanin’ out the shed.”
“Hire someone to do that.”
“Why hire someone when I can do it myself?”
She holds up a powerful finger. “Because it helps the economy. When you hire someone, they have more money to buy things. It’s basic economics, Derek.”
I have to give my grandmother credit for creativity. She really does believe the nonsense that spurts from her lips.
“Well, basically I’m doin’ it myself,” I tell her.
She sighs. “Well, fine. Just . . . wash up afterward so you don’t look like a street person.”