Nita Walsh’s parents had promised her a weekend trip to the Pocono Mountains for her seventeenth birthday. Her parents were normally super thrifty, but just this once, she’d been able to convince them to splurge.
Less than two hours after they’d left home in Piscataway, New Jersey, and headed west, a storm battered the roof of their dilapidated station wagon. The wipers beat a furious rhythm against the pelting rain as it poured down the windows in transparent sheets.
Her father tapped the brake. From the rearview mirror, Nita saw him squinting at the windshield through his black horn-rim glasses. “I can’t read the exit sign coming up, can you, Jeanne?”
“No. I think we need to pull over, Lawrence.” Her mother’s voice was laced with muted panic.
Thunder rumbled outside and Nita crouched lower in the back seat. The tires made a gentle hiss as they slowed to a crawl on the rain-drenched highway. At this rate, it would take them all day to get anywhere. She pursed her lips and blinked back tears of frustration. Why did she always have the worst birthday luck?
Nita saw her mom’s knuckles blanch white as she gripped her knee. The muscles of her jaw tensed.
“It’ll be fine,” her father insisted. A car whooshed past in the left lane. “We’re not far from Blairstown. If we wind up needing to spend the night, Gladys and Trevor won’t mind keeping us.”
Nita rolled her eyes. The visit to the Stones was only supposed to take a few hours, and then they’d leave for their hotel. She never really felt comfortable staying in other peoples’ houses.
“I still feel bad we never made it to Greg’s funeral,” her mother said.
The death of his college roommate had hit her dad hard. Upset as he’d been about not being able to attend the funeral, he’d talked nonstop for days about checking in on his widow and their son.
Nita should have figured some disaster like this would happen. She just wished it didn’t have to happen on her birthday weekend. It all felt so awkward.
The car slowed as her father struggled to read the exit sign. When he decided it wasn’t the one he was searching for, he gradually accelerated.
“Hey, can I say something?” Nita squinched into the space between the front seats.
“Tell me when you see the Blairstown exit, Sharp Eyes,” her dad said.
Nita groaned and flopped back against the fuzzy blue seat. It was pointless to argue her point about not staying with the Stones overnight. The rain wasn’t letting up.
At least it was only Saturday. Technically, her birthday wasn’t until tomorrow.
The Stones’ bungalow looked old and possibly historic. Trails of ivy twined through cracks in the stone exterior and crept up the sides of the chimney. Flower boxes overflowing with storm-battered fall petunias hung in front of the white trimmed windows.
Gladys Stone’s dark hair was swept up in a bun, a few stray tendrils framing a round, pleasant face. She handed them towels to dry themselves off, then insisted on warmly hugging each of them in turn. “This rain is atrocious. I’m glad you arrived before it got any worse,” she said, gesturing toward the living room couch. “Please, make yourselves at home.”
“I’m sorry we weren’t able to attend the funeral,” Nita’s mother said. “It’s such a shame about Greg. How are you and Trevor doing?”
“Oh, we are managing. Trev does miss his father, though.”
Gladys looked like she was tearing up. Nita glanced around the living room, unsure whether to sit or dash back out to the car to get her book. She wasn’t good at making small talk with people she didn’t know and definitely not in a situation like this. She had no framework for talking about death. It wasn’t something she wanted to think about happening to her, or anyone she loved, for that matter.
When Gladys slipped out to the kitchen to make them hot tea, Nita caught her dad’s eye and nodded toward the car.
“What do you need to get in the car for?” He dug around in his pocket, coins jangling, having trouble extracting the keys.
He still hadn’t gotten them out by the time Gladys returned with three steaming teacups.
“Anita is it?” the woman asked, handing her the first cup off the tray. “You must be, what, a junior in high school now?”
Nita blushed. People always thought she was younger than she was. She smiled politely and said, “A senior, actually.”
“Oh, I apologize. I should have known that.” Gladys fluttered a hand by the side of her head and laughed quietly. “Where have I been?”
Her mother gave Nita a look that meant she should say something consoling.
“It’s okay,” Nita said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Where’s Trevor?” her dad asked. “Is he here?”
Nita felt her cheeks grow warm. She’d lost her chance to grab her book out of the car.
“Oh, yes. He’d be delighted if you went down and introduced yourself, Nita.” Gladys smiled. “He’s in the basement. The door’s just around the corner, inside the kitchen. He’s probably watching football, but just tell him if you’d rather watch something else.”
Nita gripped the teacup, momentarily stunned. The adults clearly wanted time to talk alone. She’d hoped to squirrel herself away in an isolated corner somewhere, not have to strike up more conversation. Especially with a boy.
She threw her dad another look. “The keys, Dad. I really want to finish the book I’m reading.”
Gladys smiled nervously at Nita’s mom, who held the woman’s gaze, a silent kind of apology in her eyes. For her daughter’s awkwardness, Nita supposed.
Her dad procured the required keys, and she dashed out to the car, sans umbrella, snatched her book off the back seat, and jammed it underneath her shirt.
Once inside, she used one of the towels piled by the door to dry off again, relieved that at least she had one good reason in her possession to block out everyone.
“How old is Trevor now?” her dad was asking Gladys.
Slowly, Nita moved past them and made her way toward the basement door.
Nita lost the thread of their conversation, focused on the wood pattern of the door that stood between her and social doom. This guy was three years older than her, so he was probably in college. A sophomore, or maybe even a junior. She clutched the book in her hand.
Halfway down the stairs, she hesitated. On the basement couch sat a tall, very athletic looking, dark-haired man completely enamored with the game flashing before him. The angles of his face were pleasing to her, though she couldn’t exactly say why. Maybe this introduction wouldn’t be so bad after all if she could avoid saying anything stupid at the wrong time.
Nita stopped on the landing at the bottom of the stairs. “Hi,” she said, just loud enough so he would hear.
He turned a set of piercing green eyes on her and fumbled to set down the remote. Nita’s heart gave an impromptu flutter. His expression was solemn, yet he didn’t seem displeased at her interruption, only surprised. “Hi,” he said, a faint smile quirking at the corners of his mouth. He then immediately returned his gaze to the TV, acting like he hadn’t seen her.
Nita bit the edge of her lip. She hadn’t expected Trevor to be as shy as her. The awareness brought with it an odd sort of comfort, mingled with a trace of anxiety. Should she plunk herself down somewhere and start reading or try to engage him in conversation? What could she say to a guy who had recently lost his dad that wouldn’t seem trite or superficial? Should she even mention his death at all?
Nita dug her nails into her palms. This indecision was wretched. She should either go back upstairs or get Trevor’s attention. Somehow.
She edged around the side of the couch and perched at the farthest end. With one eye on Trevor, she opened her book and pretended to read, prepared to introduce herself if his gaze so much as flickered once in her direction. At the next commercial break, she snapped her book shut and stuck out her hand.
“Hi, I’m Nita.”
Trevor punched the mute button and leveled that steady green gaze at her. A slight side tilt made her wonder. Was he curious, or a little confused?
Maybe a bit of both.
His handshake was warm but brief.
“I guess our dads were roommates in college,” Nita blurted out, realizing her mistake right away. A reminder about the family connection was probably painful. She sucked air in through her teeth.
“Yeah,” he said. He fingered the remote balanced on his leg.
She set aside her book. “I’m sorry about your dad.”
Trev cut his eyes toward her, then at the TV, and back to the remote by his knee. One deep sigh, and he seemed to shrink further into the corner of the couch, the planes of his body folding in on themselves as he rested the side of his face on his hand. “Thanks. It was...nice of your family to stop by.”
“We’ll only be here a few hours.” The words came out faster than she intended, and, to her chagrin, she realized they could be taken two ways. One, that she didn’t want to be there for more than a few hours. Or two, that he wasn’t expected to put up with her for much longer, which is how she meant them.
A slight wrinkling of his eyebrows made her wonder what was going through his mind. Relief? Irritation with her?
Nita had no idea what to say next. She’d completely blundered her way into this conversation and didn’t know how to steer it going forward. Trev seemed nice, nicer than she had imagined, and she wanted to come off as herself with him, not awkward or selfish or anything. She dried her palms against her jeans.
The game blinked back on and with it Trev’s attention.
Nita sat back and tried to follow the plays. If only she knew a thing about football. It wasn’t even a game she could pretend to like. Every time she snuck a glance at Trevor, it never seemed a good time to say anything. She desperately wanted him to focus on her, to draw him into a conversation over whatever he liked to talk about.
He fist-pumped for the green and white team at the touchdowns. Nita admired the way the movement accentuated the muscles of his neck.
She distracted herself by picking at her nails, her book the furthest thing from her mind. A dartboard hung on the wall next to the TV, and along the high windowsill nearby, someone had neatly organized a collection of red and green darts. The next commercial break was an eternity in arriving, but once it came, she was ready.
“Hey, Trev?” She felt cool using the short form of his name, but he’d told her she could, so she went with it.
He gave a small nod.
“I’m not much of a football fan. Could we maybe just, like, talk or something? Or maybe, I don’t know, try throwing darts?”
“Do you like darts?”
She shrugged. “I mean, I have really bad aim, but maybe you can show me a good way to throw so I don’t hit the wall. I don’t want to make your mom mad if I screw up.”
“Oh, I hit the wall all the time.” He chuckled and the shadow of an impish smile flitted across his face before it just as fleetingly disappeared, swallowed up in his unreadable seriousness. He jabbed the power button on the remote, set it aside, then jumped up to retrieve the darts.
“Red or green?” he asked, holding out a handful of each color.
“Okay,” Trev said, handing her the green darts. Gently, he took her by the shoulders and lined her up in front of the dart board.
“Stand to the side a little bit,” he said. “Good. Keep your shoulders straight, like that, yeah. You got it. Now, hold the dart with three fingers, like this.”
Nita gripped the dart the way he showed her.
“Not too tight. Hold it at eye level.” He touched the bottom of her elbow, then nudged up the tip of the dart.
“When you’re ready, snap your wrist as you release it.”
Nita let go and the dart hit the outer edge of the board. Internally, she breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God it wasn’t the wall.
They threw a few rounds, to varying degrees of success on Nita’s part. Trev was patient with her, constantly helping her improve her aim, her stance, her wrist flick, or sometimes all three. They hadn’t had as much of a chance to talk as she’d hoped they would, but at least he seemed happier. More engaged, less withdrawn.
When they sat back down on the couch again, she asked him where he was going to school, figuring that was as safe a question as any.
“I’m taking night classes right now,” he said. “The last few years I’ve lived at home. Mom couldn’t take care of Dad by herself, not with having to work at the same time.”
“I can’t imagine what your lives have been like.”
“It’s been hard.”
“I’m sure your mom has appreciated it.”
“She doesn’t like to talk about it, but yeah,” he said. “She has.”
“How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Most of the time.”
“No, I mean...I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, actually,” Nita stumbled. Without the distraction of the TV, the silent isolation of the basement made it seem as though she and Trev were caught in an invisible bubble, their emotions knit inside the walls and stretched taut around them, liable to burst.
She’d only met Trev a couple hours ago, but he seemed gentle, in an unassuming, discreet kind of way. She trusted him without fully understanding why. More than anything, she wished he would open up about his pain. On the one hand, she dreaded facing the harsh reality of loss, but on the other, if it meant earning his friendship, she wanted to hear what he had to say. About any of it.
“You mean, how are we coping?” Trev asked.
“Basically, yeah.” Nita exhaled in relief.
“We’re not.” Trev gave a nervous laugh. “Not most days, if I’m being honest, anyway. We take it a day at a time. We try to be good to each other. We cry easily. We forgive each other a lot. Some days we have a good laugh on top of a good cry...those are the days we consider ourselves blessed.”
Nita felt her eyes burn. She pressed her lips together and glanced down at her hands, her fingers laced tightly in her lap.
The creak of the basement door was her salvation; her father called out from the top of the stairs. “Hey Nita, can you come up here a second?”
Trevor seemed to be watching what she would do. He made no comment of his own.
She rose from the couch. “Let me go find out what they want.”
Nita wound her way upstairs, startled at how much she didn’t want to leave the basement given how awkward she’d felt when she first came down.
Her parents were both in the kitchen together with Trev’s mom. Her mom gazed through the window, looking worried, her forehead furrowed with concern. Outside, the rain continued, the grass and trees in the yard reflecting an eerie green hue.
“This storm’s caused some pretty severe flooding,” her dad said.
Gladys stood by the sink, arms folded gently above her waist.
“The roads are closed, honey,” her mom said.
Caught off guard, Nita wasn’t sure what to think.
“You all are welcome to stay the night.” Gladys unfolded her arms and touched her mom’s wrist. “The spare bedroom upstairs is yours and Nita, you can take Trevor’s room.”
Behind her, she heard Trevor’s footsteps coming up the basement stairs.
“But...where will Trevor sleep?” Nita asked, a funny warmth creeping up the sides of her neck.
“He can take the couch in the basement,” Gladys said.
The door to the basement swung open, and Trevor stepped into the kitchen, all eyes in the room focused on him.
He shrank back as if attacked. “What?” he asked.
“You’re sleeping in the basement, apparently,” Nita said.
He gave her a confused look, then glanced at his mom.
“I know you’ve got a game tomorrow, honey, but the Walshes need a place to stay for the night,” Gladys said.
Nita witnessed an unspoken form of communication passing between them, a thread of understanding, as Gladys held Trev’s gaze.
“Why don’t you help the Walshes bring in their things?” Gladys asked, shooing her son toward the living room. Her dad followed him out the front door and Gladys branched off, directing Nita and her mom upstairs to show them their rooms.
Inside Trevor’s room, Nita hesitated. A single bed with a dark plaid comforter lay against the wall underneath the pitched ceiling. The walls were papered with posters of Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots. A peppery soap smell filled the air, tickling her nose. She had to admit, the room felt comfortable. Safe, even.
In one corner sat a collection of basketball trophies and next to it, a desk with a small green lamp, empty except for a framed photograph. Nita was about to step closer for a better look when she heard a soft thud and the door inched open a crack.
Trevor stepped inside and set down her suitcase on the floor. “This is yours, right?” he asked, his dark hair damp with rain and shining, his face slightly pale.
“Yes, thank you. Hey,” Nita said. “You didn’t tell me you had a game coming up.”
After giving her a quizzical stare, he shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve started playing basketball again the last few weeks. It’s something I’ve always loved to do.”
He swept past her toward the chest of drawers next to the bed. “I just need a couple things and then I’ll be out of your hair.”
The drawer slid open with a squeak, and he pulled out a wad of basketball shorts and a tank top, along with a pair of tube socks. He stopped by the desk, staring at it as if trying to remember something, then shook his head and slid past her on his way out the door.
Nita struggled to find something to say. She hadn’t wanted their conversation in the basement to end so abruptly. There was so much more she wanted to tell Trev, about how truly sorry she was, and how much she just wanted to keep hearing him talk.
His footsteps thumped downstairs, and Nita sighed.
That moment she had hoped for was long since past.
Rain thundered against the roof that night as Nita lay awake in Trev’s bed, staring at the streetlamp outside the darkened window. Dinner had been an awkward, though delicious, affair. Gladys had cooked a turkey breast and whipped up buttery homemade mashed potatoes. Nita suspected her mother had said something to Mrs. Stone about it being her birthday tomorrow. It was sweet of Gladys to make Nita’s favorite meal, at least.
Trevor hadn’t spoken a word to anyone during dinner, which troubled Nita. He’d eaten quietly, set his napkin on the table, and helped his mother clean the dishes afterward.
He was so hard to interpret, though her senses told her he wasn’t a cold, unfeeling person. Quite the opposite, actually, as she’d experienced by his willingness to help her when they were playing darts.
Nita’s face flushed despite the nighttime chill that had settled inside the house, now that all the lights were off. She flung off the covers and flopped her feet over the side of the bed. She felt so awkward lying here in his bed the night before he had a game. If he was anything like her, and she suspected in his own male way he might be, he wouldn’t get any decent sleep on the basement couch.
It wasn’t the kind of thing she could go apologize to him about. He’d really think she was stupid. At this rate, maybe neither of them would get any rest. Nita groaned. This was ridiculous. She was ridiculous. Why couldn’t she be normal and just fall asleep?
It was embarrassing.
Her mouth felt so dry. It had been hours since she’d brushed her teeth, and she’d been so upset about Trev’s dinner silence that of course she’d forgotten to bring up a glass of water. Truth be told, she’d rather have juice than anything else. For that, she’d have to go downstairs. She wouldn’t risk running into anyone; Gladys had come up to bed an hour ago, along with her parents.
Nita hauled herself out of bed and shuffled toward the door, hesitating by the desk. The silver frame of the picture she’d meant to study more closely glinted in the pale light from the streetlamp.
She bent down to examine it. A tall, lanky man stood next to a dark-haired boy, his arm around the boy, his hand resting on the child’s shoulder. The picture had been taken on the front porch of the house; she recognized the flower boxes.
Nita squinted at this younger version of Trev. A tightness seized her throat and a deep heaviness settled in her chest. Well intentioned as her family’s visit was, it must also be a difficult reminder to the Stones of who they had lost.
Here she was, worried about why Trev was so withdrawn, while both of her parents were asleep in the room across the hall. Trev didn’t have that, at least not anymore.
She slipped out of the room and into the hallway, listening for sounds of movement inside the rooms. Satisfied that no one was stirring, she crept downstairs to the living room. The kitchen was beyond that. She’d spotted a jar of cranberry juice in the refrigerator earlier, which would taste perfect. Maybe after that, if she sat up awhile in a different room, it would clear her mind and help her settle some.
She reached the bottom and stopped on the landing. In the dim light, she could barely make out who it was, but someone was seated on the couch, one arm slung lazily across the top of the cushion, the other draped across his stomach, completely at ease.
“Oh hey, Nita.”
“What are you doing up?” he asked with a trace of concern.
She was afraid to move and unsure what to say, for fear it might sound like she had known he was there the entire time. Yet isn’t this what she’d wanted? Another chance to talk to him, without anyone else around to interrupt?
During the day was one thing, but in the dark, with all the adults asleep, being in Trev’s presence felt different. He seemed less tightly wound, more comfortable with himself, maybe even more comfortable with her.
“I didn’t realize tomorrow was your birthday,” he said. “I’m sure you’d rather be doing other things than visiting us.”
Nita gulped. This wasn’t how she wanted her second chance at a conversation to start, and definitely not how she wanted Trev to think of her.
“I just came down to get a drink,” she said, casting a glance toward the kitchen.
At his slight, sad nod, she approached the couch and sat down next to him. “But that can wait. I...I’m glad we came. I really enjoyed playing darts with you earlier. It was fun.”
Trev scratched the sides of his head, then peered at her from the corner of his eye. “Really? You mean that?”
“Yes,” she nodded happily. “I do.”
A shy smile snuck across his face, then disappeared. He stared at an indistinct point on the opposite wall, a faraway look in his eyes.
She squeezed her hands over her legs, settled back against the cushions, and stared off in the same general direction as Trev. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
Trev flicked his fingers against his knee, giving the gesture his full attention. “What’s that?”
“What’s it like? To lose someone you love?” At the same time as she asked the question, her throat constricted. She was simultaneously curious and terrified. Her frame of reference for life didn’t include a vision of anything other than what she currently possessed: two healthy parents and her whole adulthood ahead of her, with her mom and dad in the picture, even after she went to college and got a job.
Trev didn’t answer right away. In fact, the longer she waited, the more she wondered whether she should have asked the question in the first place.
The clock on the mantle ticked by, somewhere off in the distance outside, a stray cat screamed, and while she waited, her palms growing damper by the minute, Nita knew she shouldn’t move.
She should wait.
Finally, Trev leaned forward, propped his elbows on his knees, and gave a soft huff. “It’s not something I would ever wish on anyone.”
His voice broke toward the end, and Nita felt her heart lurch. The corner of his eye glistened, and Nita turned away, acutely aware how painful it had been for him to express even that much.
“I wish it had never happened,” she said. In her heart, she added, I wish I could bring him back for you, though she knew it was a thought better kept to herself and left unspoken.
Another few moments passed, and Nita sensed it, a sincerity flowing between them, distinct as pebbles resting at the bottom of a clear stream.
Trev sighed and relaxed against the cushions, one unbroken line of sinewy flexibility blended with the darkness. “Thanks for asking. Usually, people don’t want to talk about it.”
Her thoughts flickered to the silver-framed picture on his desk and, further back, to her peevishness about being detained by the storm, her anxiety about visiting the Stones to begin with.
It paled in significance compared to this.
“I mean, it’s awful, what you went through,” she said.
In one lithe, unexpected movement, Trev shifted closer to her and wrapped his arms around her, enfolding her in a grasp that was simultaneously warm and muscular, tender and tentative.
He eased backward, his fingers spread wide, palms down, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just done. “I...I’m sorry, Nita. I don’t know where that came from. I’m not usually one for hugging people.”
Little pinpricks of starlight flooded her vision, and she blinked her eyes to clear them away. As quickly as it had happened, it was over. She’d hardly had time to process that Trev was actually hugging her because of the sympathy she’d expressed.
Something inside her had shifted, and her heart was racing to catch up with it, fleet as a butterfly taking wing.
She read the same startlement in his eyes that she was feeling. “Tell me about your dad,” she said. “Anything. All of it. Whatever stories come to mind.”
Slowly, she leaned up against his shoulder and listened as he started talking, shyly at first, but growing bolder as the minutes ticked by.
He told her about family trips they made when he was a kid, how his dad loved to fish and had the largest collection of fishing lures this side of Warren County, which he wanted Trev to have when he died. From where she lay, she could hear the thump of his heart as he talked, quieting as he took pauses, beating harder when he drew on his memory.
At some point, Trev pulled her against him, nestling her between himself and the back of the couch.
He talked about his dad’s favorite ice cream flavor, and the movies they went to see at the old cinema downtown, how he could forecast the weather just by studying the sky the night before. How he loved books and vintage cameras, and most of all how much he loved Gladys and worshiped the ground she walked on, even after they’d had a bad fight.
Nita would never have dreamed he had so many words inside him.
She let him talk, lulled by the rise and fall of his chest. His breathing slowed and gradually, the stories ceased as he drifted off to sleep.
He was warm and she hardly wanted to disturb the hand resting so nicely against her hip, but she also didn’t want to have to explain what had happened to any of their parents if they were discovered lying here like this.
Outside, the rain had finally stopped.
Nita inched out from under Trev’s arm and quietly, carefully untangled herself and crawled off the couch. She crept back upstairs, rubbing her arms against the sudden chill of being away from him.
She slid underneath the covers, pulling them tight under her chin and curling into a ball. Memory mingled with dream, and she slept, waking at first light in the same position she’d fallen asleep.
After rolling over and propping herself up on her elbows for a glance at the clock, she remained stuck there, stunned.
She’d left the door open a crack overnight. A small white dessert plate had been placed on the floor, and on it sat a bag of M&M’s and two Reese’s peanut butter cups. She got out of bed and discovered a tiny note card tucked under the plate that read, “Happy 17th, Nita. Hope your birthday is as special as you. Trevor.”
Nita glanced at the silver-framed picture on the desk and heard the distant chatter of adults talking downstairs, the clank of spoons against mugs as they had their coffee.
She clutched the candy tightly in her palm, a sudden, stark appreciation for all of life burning through her.