Emma Gray: Part One

“Laney, I swear, if you don’t pick a song,” my brother threatened, his knuckles white as he gripped the steering wheel.

Lane grinned deviously and his hand shot out again to jam the skip button on Lawrie’s radio. Lawrie swore under his breath and slammed a fist hard into Lane’s shoulder. This, of course, only caused Lane’s grin to break into laughter as he cowered in the passenger seat.

Behind them, I rolled my eyes and let my head fall back. It was 2:00 in the morning, far too late (or early, depending on how you looked at it) to handle Lawrie and Laney.

Just as Lane’s hand reached out again to change the song (he suffered from a severe case of music ADD, a fact that had exasperated my brother for years), my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and attempted, bleary-eyed, to read a text from Kyle Grissom, one of the kids on Lawrie and Laney’s high school baseball team.

“Hey, Lawrie. Call Kyle,” I mumbled, clearly not loudly enough to be heard over the music. The boys continued to fight for control of the radio, Lane pushing any button he could come in contact with and Lawrie desperately trying to swat his hand away.

“Lawrie,” I repeated. “Lawwrieee.”

Lawrie was far too busy cursing at Lane, who was now folded over in his seat laughing, to pay me any attention.

But Lane heard me. He reached out again, still bright-eyed and smiling, but this time Lawrie was too quick for him, and Lane’s hand was smacked away before he could reach the volume. (The car, meanwhile, swerved into the emergency lane.) I continued to sing Lawrie’s name until Lane finally managed to turn the music down.

“Damn, Lawrie, I was just trying to let Em talk,” he said, feigning innocence.

Lawrie muttered under his breath again before snapping a quick, “What?” back to me.

“Check your phone. Kyle wants you.”

As Lawrie grabbed his phone off the floorboard, I let my tired eyelids close over gritty eyes. I halfway listened to Lawrie talk to Kyle, enough to get that Lawrie had something of Kyle’s that he needed back by morning.

I must have fallen asleep, because I woke up to Lawrie pulling into a 24-hour gas station. I checked the clock; it hadn’t even been ten minutes. The boys were miraculously quiet. Maybe because they were finally getting tired. They had played an endowment baseball game that evening, about five hours from home. As stat keeper for the team, I had, like always, joined them. Lawrie played third base; Lane was a pitcher, but he hadn’t played in a game his whole high school career. (It was a perfect scenario for Lane: work out and practice with the team, but never have the stress of actually playing in the games.) It had been his bright idea to drive back through the night instead of paying for a hotel room.

Kyle Grissom had apparently had the same idea, as not two minutes later, his red pickup pulled into the parking lot. I lay down in the backseat, exhausted and dreaming wistfully of my bed. Lawrie rolled down the windows and killed the engine as Lane got out and opened the hatch in the back.

Still trying to doze off, I attempted to block out Kyle’s voice as he talked to Lawrie, Lane rifling around in the trunk, the bluegrass radio station that the gas station insisted on playing at full volume.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” came a deep, gravelly voice from directly above me.

I jolted upright, a deep blush creeping up my neck and onto my cheeks. Bradley “Bear” Williams was leaning against the open window, his biceps bulging nicely as he rested his arms on the roof of Lawrie’s SUV. A sideways grin was on his face and his brown eyes smiled with him. A baseball cap rested on his head, halfway hiding thick, brown curls.

I (not so) discreetly wiped the sides of my mouth before running a hand down my hair. “Oh, hey, Bear. Are you riding home with Kyle?”

Uh, duh.

Bear just smiled wider. “Yep.”

Lane had found whatever it was he was looking for and was standing beside Kyle in Lawrie’s window, rehashing the game.

I shot a quick glance back at Bear. “You, uh, that was a, a good game,” I stammered out.

Bear actually chuckled. (Who chuckles anyway?) “We lost,” he said, seeming to enjoy my discomfort.

“Well, yeah, but, but still, it was, you did a, you played well.”

Shoot me, please. Did this guy have any idea what he did to me? I couldn’t even form a coherent sentence.

Bear was full-on laughing now. “Thanks, Em,” he said as Kyle pulled at his shoulder and they started walking back to the car.

“See ya, Emma Gray,” I heard Kyle toss back at me.

I watched them, following them with my eyes as they headed back to Kyle’s pickup. Bear looked good, even from behind, even at two something in the morning. His shoulders filled out his shirt nicely (great shoulders always were my biggest weakness) and, try as I might, I couldn’t keep my eyes from sliding down to his behind. When they were almost to the truck, Bear nonchalantly glanced back over his shoulder and sent me a quick wave and a smile that melted me and paralyzed me at the same time.

Again, did this guy have any idea what he did to me? To every girl he’d ever come in contact with?

In the front seat, Lawrie snorted. “Real smooth, Em.”

I was too paralyzed to smack him.

“What, you got the hots for Bear now?” Lane teased, sliding into the passenger seat.

I blushed. “You guys were listening?” I managed to spit out. I’d assumed they hadn’t been paying any attention to the conversation (if you could call it that) that Bear and I had had.

“Well, um, you know, we just, it was just, maybe just, the last, the last part,” Lane mocked. Lawrie cackled. I felt my blush turn from light pink to fiery red.

“Shut up. Both of you,” I mumbled.

I couldn’t fall asleep for the rest of the trip home. Instead, I sat scrunched down as low as I could get in my seat, obsessing and torturing myself over how dumb I must have sounded to Bear.

Lawrie finally got off on our exit at exactly 3:27 in the morning. He automatically took the right turn into our neighborhood a few minutes later. It had become a tacit understanding by that point: if Lane didn’t ask to be dropped off at his house, he didn’t want to be. And it was the rare occasion that Lane spoke up and actually asked to go home.

Lane and his mom had never been particularly close (his dad and step-mom lived in California), but in the 9th grade, Mrs. Keaton-Addy, Lane’s mom, had been diagnosed with cancer, and she had been fighting it off and on ever since. For the first three months after he found out, Lane had spent literally every night at our house. He had always had poorly equipped coping mechanisms, and instead he tried to ignore anything that might be difficult. Or sad. Or negative in any way.

Lawrie opened the side door to our house and we all stumbled in. We tripped up the stairs in the complete darkness, all three thoroughly exhausted. I scrambled into the bathroom and brushed my teeth, stripping down to a tanktop and a pair of boxers I stole from Lawrie years ago.

When I turned the light off, I headed left to Lawrie’s room, functioning on autopilot. I could barely make out the boys’ silhouettes sprawled on top of the comforter on Lawrie’s bed. I crawled between the two of them, laying my head on Lawrie’s shoulder and lacing Laney’s hand between both of mine. I closed my eyes and listened to their even breathing, letting it lull me to sleep. This was my comfort zone, my favorite place in the world.

My last waking thought was of how right, how good it felt.

It felt safe.

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