That Was the Plan
(From Keep You)
(From Keep You)
In theory, change was an inevitable and good thing. People – general, run of the mill sheeple – said it all the time in some form or other. Tam had agreed in a certain way; had certain parts of his childhood, his life, changed, he might have been spared the trauma that had long ago cauterized his mental wounds. But there were things he wouldn’t have changed for the world. There were things he didn’t ever want to change – like the Walkers’ kitchen, which was, in all its outdated glory, unchanged since the last time he’d set foot on its linoleum floors. Beth Walker’s kitchen was the same as it had always been, and when he walked inside and breathed in the smell of dinner, it was like those four years he’d kept his distance evaporated. They were just a nightmare, a splash of a bad memory, and whatever had happened during that time meant nothing now.
“Oh, sweetie.” Beth was at the stove and she turned and pulled him into a hug, her fluttery hands patting across his shoulders as she squeezed him tight. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re home.”
Jo had said it; Mike had said it; Randy had said it – and now Beth was saying it too and confirming what he had, once upon a time, never dared to hope: He was home.
They had chicken parmesan, all of them around the table. A family. Afterward, Beth told him that the boys’ old bedroom had been readied for him. Jo shot him a wide-eyed, shocked look across the table; they’d as good as announced that they were getting married – clearly, she didn’t think separate rooms were necessary.
But they weren’t married yet, and he wasn’t going to show an ounce of disrespect to Randy and Beth in their house. He thanked them, and when it started to get late and talk of Melinda’s funeral over after-dinner cocktails began to take its toll, he went up to bed. And waited.
As he listened to everyone else get ready for bed, the pipes rattling and house settling, Tam felt a familiar expectation settle over him. It was a nervous energy, an excitement that had accompanied all those moments he’d waited for Jo; it had been four years, but he remembered the feel of it well, the warming, welcome sizzle of it.
He knew she would wait until her parents’ light was out. He turned out the lights, the room aglow with the ambient blue of the streetlamp outside, stripped down to his boxers and slid between the sheets of Walt’s old bed. The irony wasn’t lost on him; the first time he’d ever taken Jo to bed, they’d been in Walt’s house. Now he waited for her in Walt’s bed. He would have laughed if his skin hadn’t been crawling with worry. Suddenly, he was nervous as a teenager. He’d been drunk in Ireland, and his night with Jo there had been a hazy, hurried tumble he couldn’t even remember. Now he was sober and he had expectations to live up to and four years of separation to make up for.
The door opened and whispered across the carpet, a lithe, thin shadow that was Jo slipping inside and closing it behind her. The latch clicked and she took shape in the glow of the streetlamp; delicate arms and legs, an oversized t-shirt and a waterfall of dark blonde hair across her shoulders. Her eyes were a fast, reflective shimmer set in the shadow of her pixie face.
“I swear,” she said in a low voice that carried across to him. “They were just waiting up to see if I’d come over here.”
“Are they gonna come bust us?” Tam asked, only half-teasing.
“Not if they know what’s good for them,” Jo said in a huff, and the sight of her slinking across the room in her sleep shirt destroyed the toughness she’d tried to display.
Tam had a feeling, based on the looks Randy and Beth had given him after dinner, that they hadn’t expected the two of them to sleep in separate beds. But they hadn’t been about to give permission. He’d been left with the sense that whatever happened once the lights were out wasn’t anything that needed discussing. Randy’s big hand on his shoulder, his hard squeeze, had been a silent warning, though: Marry her and marry her soon. That was the plan.
Jo reached the edge of the bed and Tam caught her wrist in his hand, tugged her gently until she realized what he wanted and, wordlessly, climbed over him and settled onto the side of the bed closest to the wall, leaving him between her and the door. The sheets rustled as she stretched out, the silk of her hair splashing across his chest. He curled his arm tight around her as she sighed and smoothed her hand across his stomach, up his ribs –
“My God,” she said in a quiet, strangled voice. “When did you get so skinny?”
Tam stiffened as her tiny fingers traced through the grooves between his rib bones. She’d seen him in Ireland, and the night before, but she hadn’t voiced all the tortured, tender sympathies over his physical condition that had been shining in her eyes until now. She’d been solid as rock in the car that afternoon, when she’d cursed his father and all but ordered him to get out of his own way and just love her already. Here, in the dark, her goal accomplished, her strength was flagging.
Her smooth cheek pressed to his chest as she snuggled even closer, her leg hooking over his hip. She took a deep, shattered breath and Tam shook off his self-consciousness, rolled onto his side so he faced her and gathered her in close, burying his hand in her heavy hair.
“It’s nothing your mom’s cooking won’t fix,” he soothed. But in the bluish wash of light from beyond the window, he saw the sheen of tears tracking down her cheeks. “Aw, baby, I think you’ve cried more in the past two weeks than you have your whole life.”
“I know!” she whispered miserably. “I can’t stop! I’m sorry I’m such a girl -,”
Warmth surged through him as her words teased at an old memory, reminding him of a time she’d said that to him before. She’d been sixteen then, and no less dedicated.
“ – I just can’t believe you’re here,” she said. “And I just wanna make everything better.”
Better for him, he knew. She wanted to fix every part of him that was broken all at once, because she was that kind of girl.
“Some things you can’t make better,” he said, smoothing the pad of his thumb across her temple and through the wet streak of a tear. “And I don’t want you to even try.” There were snarls in his brain he didn’t want her to see, let alone try to untangle.
“Oh, I’m going to try.”
He stared down at her face, shadowed though it was, and knew she was serious. She was going to try. She was more than likely going to succeed.
Her hands splayed across his bare skin, small and warm, callused where fingers met palms from years of yard work and football and dog walking. “I missed you so much,” she whispered.
Most women would have died before admitting that. But most women weren’t Jo. And most guys were too stupid to understand what a blessing that was.
Tam cradled the side of her face and lifted her chin, ducked his head and pressed his lips to hers. His nerves stopped dancing, his worry went away, and four years apart or not, there wasn’t a trace of expectation. Jo’s mouth opened under his, soft and pliant, as sweet as he’d remembered. All that separated them now was clothes; her brother, his father, the words he’d used against her back when he’d thought he couldn’t keep her – those were all gone. And there was nothing tense or urgent about the way he kissed her. They had time now. They had absolute freedom.
He lifted his head and she was staring up at him with liquid, sleepy eyes. “This bed squeaks like a mother,” she admitted with a little sigh.
Tam tucked her head in under his chin, breathed in the smell of her coconut shampoo, and tightened his arms around her. “Okay then,” he said, too elated to be disappointed, “apparently, Delta was trying to get me to ask you to the wedding and not Ryan.”
She chuckled, the sound muffled against his skin. “I think that means we have to be nice to her now.”
“I know. That sucks.”
They talked until she drifted off, and then he lay in the dark, listening to the even pattern of her breathing. And for the first time in his life, he was making plans.