Here's a bit of fluff from Better Than You that I never got to write.
The Little Ones
(From Better Than You)
(From Better Than You)
Mike told Tam he was going outside to see if the girls had arrived yet; really, he needed some air. Out on the terraced front steps of the courthouse, the city square choked with traffic and pedestrians spread before him, he took a deep breath down into his lungs that reeked of car exhaust and whatever was being grilled up for lunch at the pub just across the corner. He could hear the fountain, the whine of engines, the occasional snatch of a laugh, the rumble of the train two blocks away. It was a brilliant day – intense with July sunlight, unrelenting in its brightness. The world was alive with dancing heat mirages; the heat, after leaving the air conditioned courthouse, soothing and oppressive all at once. There was nothing fresh about the air he’d needed – it was fully-baked and saturated with the smells of the city – but that was immaterial. He needed, for some stupid reason he didn’t quite understand, to wait, hands in his pockets, as his mother, his fiancée, and his sisters came up the sidewalk and started up the stairs to him.
He greeted all of them, pressed a fast kiss to Delta’s lips, but it was Jo he detained with a hand on her forearm. “Can I talk to you a sec?”
The look she flashed up to him was reluctant and knowing, but she nodded.
His mom watched him a long moment, then moved on. “Come on, girls,” she said, and took Delta and Jess inside with her, leaving Mike alone with his little sister.
In the shower that morning, Mike had rehearsed what he wanted to say to her. It wasn’t a warning so much as a lecture; he had some very stern advice he felt needed to be shared about Tam. Sure, Jo knew Tam – hell, she’d apparently been with guy for years right under his damn nose – but Mike’s best friend had snakes in his head, and Jo needed to understand that being with him wasn’t going to be some sort of romance novel taming-of-the-bad-boy.
He took a deep breath, gathered the words he’d practiced, and glanced all the way down to her little upturned face. He didn’t get a chance to say anything, though, because she said, “Delta brought me the dress. Whadya think?”
It was blue – Tam’s-eyes blue, Tam’s-car blue – and though it fit her tighter on the top than he wanted to see, the skirt was loose and flowing, and girlish. Someone, probably Jess, had done her hair for her, had tamed its waves into gentle order and pulled it back at the crown. An obvious excitement simmered beneath her skin, stained her cheeks a healthy pink, stretched her smile wide, sparkled like gemstones in her oh-so-big blue-green eyes. When, he wondered, had she become so pretty? When had the dirty tomboy of their childhood turned into the girl standing in front of him now?
All that he’d wanted to tell her got stuck in his throat, and suddenly, he was catapulted back in time, his mind reaching for and latching onto a memory that came unbidden to the forefront of his consciousness. The sticky afternoon and the Marietta square faded, and were replaced by the homey, steamy warmth of his mother’s kitchen: frost on the windows, fat snowflakes drifting past. He was thirteen again, and tugging on a stocking cap as he bounded toward the back door.
“Mike,” Mom’s voice reached out and caught him by the back of the collar, bringing him up short with his hand on the doorknob. “Are you going out?”
He cringed. Duh, he was going out; that wasn’t what she was really asking. “No…?” he tried, and glanced over his shoulder at her you’re-not-fooling-me frown.
“You know Jordie and Jo wanted to go out in the snow,” she told him in a scolding voice. “If you’re going out to play, take them with you.”
“I’m not going to play, Mom,” he said, because thirteen-year-olds were too old to play. He lifted his chin in challenge. “I’m meeting Tam at the clubhouse.” Really, at the steep hill on the property that butted up to the clubhouse, but that wasn’t something a mother needed to know.
She nodded. Then, to his horror, stepped to the door and hollered for Jordan and Jo. His two younger siblings came crashing down the stairs, cursing and tripping and tumbling into the kitchen like they’d known why they’d been summoned; they never came to dinner like this. “Mikey’s going to meet Tam,” she told them, and without any invitation from him, they snatched up coats and gloves and hats.
Mood soured, Mike waved off his mom’s admonition to, “Watch out for the little ones.”
It was hard to stay sour, though, once they were outside and walking down the street toward the subdivision’s clubhouse. It so rarely snowed in Georgia that when it did, it was magic. The flakes were the wet, fat kind whose patterns were visible to the naked eye, sifting down to the earth in great sweeping drafts, heavy on the eyelashes, sticking to the frozen ground. It had been snowing for hours, and the nearly six inches seemed like feet to Mike’s southern imagination. The coating of powder was melting and freezing again, forming a crust of ice on top that crunched under their boots. The world was silent, still, watchful. It was white and bitter, the air cutting through their gloves and biting into bare skin, but it was snowing, and that wasn’t something to be missed.
“I wish we had real sleds,” Jo said as they lugged their trash can lids along. Her high-pitched voice was too loud in the quiet of the snow-draped street. “These won’t work.”
“They’ll work for us,” Jordan said. “Mike’s fat ass is gonna weigh his down, though.”
Mike, at least a foot taller than his little brother and taller by the day, was not a fatass, and he bent to scoop up a handful of snow that he dumped over Jordan’s curly head to prove it.
Tam was waiting for them in front of the snow-covered clubhouse, his face pale white under his black hair in the strange, blue light of early evening. He had a red scarf wrapped tight around his throat, but his windbreaker wasn’t heavy enough, and his Converse sneaks weren’t waterproof like Mike’s boots. His hands were in his pockets and Mike wondered if he had gloves. He smiled, though, when they drew close enough.
“Hi, Tam!” Jo chirped.
And because Tam was a good sport about tagalong little sisters, he turned his smile on her and said, “Hey, Joey.”
Together, the four of them went through the parking lot and skirted the pool, went up the short hill and over the low chain link fence at the very back of the property. Mike had to hoist Jo over. The snow had banked in the woods, drifting up high around the tree trunks and filling low spots that were deceptively deep. It felt colder between the trees, and darker, their breaths pluming like smoke as they started up the hill their trash can lids would carry them down.
By the time they reached the top, Mike had rivulets of sweat running down his back and was breathing hard, his face numb with the cold. The flakes still fell, a thick screen between him and the others. Through it, he caught Tam’s meaningful head tilt; the hill that unrolled below them was studded with pines. There was a very good chance they’d break at least an arm, maybe their necks.
“Guys,” Mike turned to his siblings, “let us go first and wait here.”
Jo, her dark blonde hair streaming from beneath her ski cap and across her shoulder, propped her tiny hands on her hips. “Why?”
“Because I’m older,” he gave her his standard answer, and threw his lid down into the snow.
It was useless, though, because Jordan’s prediction proved true; he was too heavy, the snow was too shallow, and the trash can lid too awkwardly shaped to serve as a flying saucer. He went nowhere.
“Damn,” he muttered, getting back to his feet and dusting the snow off his knees. “That friggin’ sucks.”
“Jo -,” he heard Jordan behind him, and the snow swirled, slapped the side of his face, the air stirring. Before he could tell her not to, or even give her a thunderous scowl, Jo took a running leap, metal lid clasped to her chest, and dove onto the snowy hill.
Mike and Tam dropped simultaneous f-bombs. “Watch out for the little ones,” Mike heard his mom’s voice in his head as he watched Jo go gliding down the slope…straight into a tree.
Tam moved first, plunging through the snow in soggy shoes, and watching him snapped Mike into action. His boots threatened to get sucked off as he scrambled down the hill to the tree where Jo lay crumpled, face-down. Tam was crouched and hovering over her, hands suspended over her shaking shoulders. He glanced up through the dark fringe of his hair, blue eyes wild and terrified.
“Should we move her? She…”
Mike glanced down at her, saw her trembling, heard a small sound, muffled by the snow, that sounded like crying. Mike’s heart stilled for one long, terrible moment, as he looked down at his ten-year-old sister lying prone; her hair, its mix of blonde and brown, lay like corn silk across the snow, one small arm outstretched, red mitten the color of blood against the white ground.
“Watch out for the little ones.”
She was constantly on his nerves. Sometimes, he went so far as to hate her. But in the time it took for his pulse to begin again, Mike felt a sharp, cold terror seize him that had nothing to do with the winter evening around him.
Tam’s hand was in the middle of her back, pale as death, the tail of his scarf brushing against the back of her ski cap. Mike pushed him away and grabbed her shoulder – it felt as breakable as a china doll’s in his big hand. Horrified, her turned her over…
And was met with a smile. She was laughing. Her shoulders were shaking with laughter. There was a knot fast swelling on her forehead and a thin stream of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth, but she laughed, and smiled, her blue-green eyes an eerie color in the fading light. “That was awesome,” she breathed.
Tam sat back with a rush of exhaled breath, cutting a smile of his own over at Mike. “You…” he started to scold Jo, but never finished.
Mike wanted to throttle her.
Just like he’d wanted to throttle her when he learned that she and Tam had become so much more than a worried glance and a trailing red scarf in the snow.
The bitter cold of so many years ago receded, the thick carpet of snow rolling back up into his memory where it belonged, and the hot July of the present returned full force. The same blue-green eyes were looking up at him, still full of laughter. Mike looked down at his sister, in her blue dress on the courthouse steps, just minutes away from marrying his best friend, and he realized something about her.
“Watch out for the little ones,” Mom had always said, and Jo was the littlest. But she was the bravest, too. Because as he scanned her face, the unforgiving sunlight pouring down on it, Mike saw that all the excitement that imbued her every feature was nothing of nervousness. She had laughed when she’d skidded face-first into a tree. And she was on the verge of happy laughter now, not because she underestimated the risk at hand, but because she understood it perfectly. She knew it better than anyone; maybe even better than him. Tam was a strange jigsaw puzzle of hardness and hurt, and Jo’s smile, the light in her eyes, told Mike she knew that. There’d never been a shortage of girls who were attracted to Tam, who wanted to go home with him for the night, who thought he was mysterious. But Jo, littlest of them all, was brave enough to go knocking around inside his dark head and love him.
Mike smiled, and he kind of wanted to throttle her, and he kind of wanted to hug her. “I like it,” he told her, and shoved aside his lecture completely. “It’s…very pretty.”
He’d never called her that before and she knew it; she rolled her eyes.
Her gaze came back to his face.
He swallowed. “Watch out for him, okay? And if he ever…well…” he cleared his throat, “I’m here. Just…if you need me.”
“That might be,” her grin tweaked mischievously, “the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
He scowled at her. “Don’t get used to it.”
“I won’t.” She gave him a little salute, and then turned, her arm held out in offering. “Should we go in?”
He tucked her tiny arm inside his and led her toward the door.