Clay

“I’m getting married.”

Ava, my little sister, hadn’t sounded excited, or even happy, any of the hundred times I replayed her voicemail. Her voice was firm and accusing, and it ate at my insides like battery acid every time I listened to it. It wasn’t an invitation, but a summons. It was a declaration that there would be no excuses this time; that I can’t get out of this visit back to the island—the place I’d both grown up and out grown at nearly the same time.

And worse, it means having to face my father. The man I haven’t seen since my mother’s funeral. The man who had discouraged my career in football, as if I’d chosen to go into bank robbery or human trafficking.

Bloodsport. That’s what he calls it. A mindless, brutal game.

And that makes me both a brute and a disappointment.

But alas, my sister has played her ace. I’d even offered to let her have the wedding at my sprawling Memphis estate instead. I’d have sold a kidney if it meant I didn’t have to come back here again.

No such luck.

The tiny plane jerks around me when we finally hit the surface of the water, the propellers winding down as we glide toward the long dock. I could have easily taken a helicopter, or even the ferry in from Vancouver, but my sister made the travel arrangements, and she loves forcing me to wedge my six-foot-six frame into a tiny seaplane. Her revenge for always having to visit me in my new home all the way across the country, I suppose.

I’ve only been home twice since I landed a position playing center for the Memphis Knights football team. I’ve spent less than a week total on Salt Spring Island in the past ten years. This time, I’ll be here for one week to help prepare for the wedding, and I’m back on a plane the morning after the reception. I’m not planning to extend this stay one second longer than necessary, if I can help it.

It helps that I have a mandatory training mini-camp beginning the first of May. I’m contractually obligated to be there to begin pre-season workouts. She can’t complain too much about that, since it’s mostly my income that keeps our small family farm alive in the off season. Not that my father—or anyone besides me and Ava—knows about that.

She was supposed to pick me up today, but as I sweep a glance around, I realize she’s nowhere to be seen.

There is a woman, however, at the head of the bay, standing next to the old brown pickup truck I’d been given in high school and eventually passed down to Ava, but she’s definitely not my sister. No, this woman’s hair is black and tied back in a long braid that hangs carelessly over one shoulder. Her shorts are denim cutoffs, and she has a general air of casual comfort emanating from her that you just don’t see in city girls. But it’s her height that tells me, even behind her dark aviator sunglasses, that this isn’t my petite, blonde sister. Her tan legs are too long, her shoulders too wide.

Ducking out of the plane I hop onto the dock and take a deep breath, letting the fresh, clean scent of salt and forest fill my lungs. I have to admit, I miss it sometimes. Not the claustrophobic little town or the nosy neighbors, but the quiet. There’s no quiet in Memphis, and most of the time that suits me just fine.

Quiet is overrated.

Dave, the haggard old pilot, smiles, handing me my rucksack and patting me on the shoulder with a thin smile on his lips.

“Good to have you home, son,” he says. He’d known me as a boy, but I couldn’t even tell you his last name. Doesn’t matter. Besides a handful of writers and artists, I’m the biggest celebrity to ever eject from this sleepy town. Everyone knows my name. Most watched me grow up. They saw every skinned knee, every rowdy school fight. And now they watch me play every Sunday—at least the few here that actually own television sets. I doubt Dave is one of them. “Congratulations on the championship. Your Ma woulda been proud.”

I nod once. On an island this small, there are no secrets, no privacy. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they have no reservation commenting on it. It used to make me so angry I could spit nails, but now it just rolls off. The inevitable drizzle of home.

Since I’m the closest thing this island has to a local celebrity, I’m especially talked about. After the New York Times ran a piece a few years back all about the wild lives of football bachelors, which featured a section about my debaucherous lifestyle, I’d gotten a dozen concerned letters from townspeople – the bulk of which were total strangers – telling me how I should clean up my act. Never mind that the stories had been wildly blown out of proportion. I’d earned my nickname, Wild Man, for deeds both real and imagined. The entire town reacted much the same as my father, swiftly and without mercy. For a community so full of vagabonds and free-spirits, they sure managed to be a judgmental lot.

I lug my way up the dock to the dirt path, watching the woman as she leans against the truck, her chin down as she stares at her phone, not bothering to look up. When I finally stop a few feet from her, I clear my throat. Pushing off the truck she steps toward me, smiling.

“Hey, you,” she offers playfully.

“Hey yourself,” I say, giving her a once over.

“You need any help with your bags?”

I blink once, relaxing as I realize what’s happening. “I’ve got it,” I say, adjusting the strap over my shoulder. “But I’m sure I can come up with something you can help me with later, if you’re interested.”

Her chin snaps up, an off expression forming on her face. “Did you just…are you hitting on me?” She barks a laugh and I feel the cocky grin fall from my lips. “You’ve clearly taken one too many blows to the head, Clay. Or should I call you Wild Man?”

I exhale, struggling with how to respond. She finally pulls off her shades, and I’m struck by an unmistakable pair of sea-glass green eyes. As soon as the realization dawns on me, I feel the heat hit my face.

“Jesus, Emma, I didn’t even recognize you,” I stammer, glancing her over again. I haven’t laid eyes on Emma in a decade, maybe longer. She’s been Ava’s best friend since they were toddlers–the girl practically grew up at our house. They’re both five years younger than me, and Emma and Ava made it their personal mission to annoy me every day until I graduated high school. When I left home they were only thirteen, and Emma was still the brace-faced, wiry haired annoyance she always had been.

“Clearly,” she teases, stepping forward and throwing her arms around my neck.

“How’ve you been, brat?” I ask, clutching her tightly against me.

In that moment, I realize that she’s not the skinny little kid I remember anymore. She’s grown into a woman, with dark hair and full lips. She’s probably pushing six feet, and her body is impossibly warm against mine. It’s hard not to notice her soft curves, or the smell of sea air in her hair.

Maybe time does pass here after all.

When I release her, she grins up at me, “Not as good as you, you jerk. Heard you won sportsball or whatever.”

I can’t help but make a face. Emma had been as much of a handful growing up as Ava—sometimes more. Honestly, I expected that she, if anyone, would evacuate this town as quickly as I did. She was a dreamer, and her dreams were too big for this island.

We had that much in common.

“I didn’t see you at mom’s funeral,” I say gently, as if defending myself for not recognizing her sooner. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t be feeling this familiar ache in my groin at the closeness of her. “Ava said you were off at clown college or something.”

In truth, Ava had mentioned that Emma was attending some prestigious dance school in Seattle.

She shrugs, turning away and flipping her wavy brown hair over her shoulder, “Something like that. And I’m sorry…you know, about your mom. Sorry I wasn’t here…”

I wave her off, brushing past her and walking towards the truck. “So, where’s my slacker sister? She was supposed to pick me up, but she sent the B-team instead. So typical.”

“She had better things to do than cater to your spoiled ass. It’s her wedding, remember? Can’t be all about Clay all the time around here.”

“Sure, it can,” I say, offering her a wink, to which she immediately rolls her eyes and slides her glasses back on her face.

Tossing my bag in the rusty truck bed I move to open the driver’s side door. Before I can slide in Emma holds up the keys, jingling them.

“Um, I’m driving, loser.”

I just hold out my hand in silence, holding her gaze until she finally sighs deeply and tosses them into my hand.

“It was a good try though,” I say, pulling the door open with a metallic groan. Cranking the ancient engine, I grin. The steering wheel is warm in my hands and it reminds me of happier times, when I was sixteen and I drove it off the island for the first time. I was taking Jenny Miller on a date, and we ended up drinking cheap wine and having sex in the cab. It was awkward and messy and over quickly, just like every relationship I’ve been in since.

“It’s Ava’s truck,” Emma protests, folding her arms across her chest.

I offer her a grin, patting the dash. “It was mine first.”

She opens her mouth to protest again, but is cut off by the jerk of the vehicle as I punch the gas, flying backwards and spinning us out of the gravel and onto the road in a smooth motion.

The window is down and the wind in my hair feels good. It’s long now, nearly grazing my shoulders. No doubt I’ll get some lecture about it from dad—not because he has anything against long hair, but because for as long as I can remember he looks for any reason to come down on me, any reason to complain about my life choices.

The town hasn’t changed at all. Salt Spring Island only has ten thousand residents. The downtown area consists of a half-dozen shops, a few cottage restaurants, and the main square where the twice weekly markets pop up, filled with farmers and artists selling their wares.

It’s almost as if the town is trapped in a bubble, keeping it forever frozen in time, forever unchanging. Only the cycle of tourists in and out over the summer months offer any new lifeblood.

The road is bumpy, but I don’t slow down as we leave the main roads behind and turn onto the winding gravel road that will take us home.

“How is he?” I ask, finally.

Emma doesn’t ask who I mean, she just answers, her elbow out the window, her chin resting on her fist. “He’s good, actually. It’s kind of terrifying. He’s not drinking anymore, though he’s smoking pot for the arthritis,” she licks her lips before continuing. “Seems to help. Keeps him pretty mellow.”

A sharp ripple of guilt rolls through me. I left Ava here to take care of him—to deal with our father and his unpredictable outbursts. It should have been me who stayed, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t be the son he wanted. The offer to play for the Knights had been a miracle—my ticket to freedom. An offer I couldn’t refuse, or at least that’s how I justified it to myself.

“How’s Ava?” I ask, changing the subject. “And, er…what’s his name?”

“Pete.” She clicks her tongue, “He’s…fine. They’re both fine.” She hesitates. “His mother, however, is another story.”

“Giving Ava a hard time?”

Emma nods, raising one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “Pete’s the baby of the family, and since your mom isn’t around…”

Her voice trails off, and I feel myself grip the steering wheel just a little harder.

“She just wants to be really involved. And they are already ticked about having the wedding here. I guess they have lots of extended family hoping to come, but that makes logistics…interesting.” With one hand, she flips her hair over her shoulder and sits back in the seat. “I’m trying to help where I can, but Ava’s pretty overwhelmed. And the number of people coming…well, it’s not helping matters.”

“How many are coming?”

She winces as she speaks, “A hundred, give or take.”

I slam on the breaks, bringing the truck skidding to a stop as we both fly forward in our seats.

“Jesus, Clay,” she nearly screams.

“That’s not a wedding, it’s an army. Where are they gonna stay?”

She shrugs, “The B&B is booked out, and we have the entire Hummingbird Hotel reserved. Every room in your house is full, including yours. Pete’s ben crashing there, but Ava sent him to the hotel for the duration of your visit.”

I shake my head, unable to hide my irritation. “I thought she said it was just gonna be a small, intimate wedding at the farm?”

As if sensing my anger, she lays a hand on my arm. Her touch is so soft it hardly feels like a touch at all. “It will be fine. Now that you’re here, you can help with the heavy lifting—literally, we need you to lift the heavy things—and I can focus on running interference with the Mominator.””

I chuckle, because it’s so typical Emma. Fierce and focused. Just like I remember her.

“As long as Pete treats her right,” I say, putting the truck back in gear and speeding off once more. “Because if he doesn’t, I’ll personally rip out his spleen.”

She snorts, “There will be a line. And you will not be first in it.”

Glancing across at the steely resolve in her expression, I know she’s not joking.

“So, how long are you staying?” she asks after a few moments of bouncing down the old gravel road.

I stare at her for a minute. My knee-jerk reaction is to tell her that I plan to leave the minute the vows are exchanged, but something pulls me up short.

“I’m not sure,” I answer, though I have no idea why.

She leans toward me, filling the cab with the soft, ocean water smell of her, as she tucks one leg under her and shifts back into her seat. “Well, I’m going to put you to use for as long as I’ve got you.”

I feel my eyes narrow, wondering if she meant that in the way that I’m suddenly hoping she did.

“I expect nothing less.”

***

The house looks the same as it always has, maybe the paint on the porch spindles is a little more chipped and maybe the glass in the old windows is a little more warped, but all in all, it’s frozen in time. Even the old porch swing hangs, motionless despite the gentle breeze coming off the shore not far beyond.

The lavender is blooming, the rich scent of it filling the air. It reminds me of summer, sunshine. and happier times. Working in the fields, Ava and I helping mom harvest the delicate purple flowers to take to the farmer’s market. Even dad would come out from time to time, though he spent the bulk of his days locked away in his office. The soul of an artist, mom would say. The truth was, he hadn’t sold a piece in years, even when I was young. I grew up in the field while he grew old behind a closed door.

As soon as Ava opens the door, Duke rushes through her legs and leaps at me, barking the way only a little dog convinced he’s a big dog can. Reaching down I ruffle the wiry fur on his head, earning myself a warning nip. Satisfied that he’s put me in my place, he scurries off, his rat terrier tail wagging as he launches off the porch and into the yard to chase a robin through the grass.

“Missed you too,” I mutter, shaking my head and standing as my sister steps into my arms for a hug. “And I missed you too, I suppose.”

Releasing me, she swats me in the arm. “Took you long enough to get here.”

“Ouch, hey.” I rub my arm jokingly. “You best not damage the goods. The team doc would not be pleased.”

“Walk it off, Wild Man,” Emma teases behind me.

Stepping through the front door again is like stepping back into the past. Framed photos on an old piano greet me as I follow Ava through the living room, past the kitchen, and down the hall to my old room. She pushes the door open and steps aside. I toss my bag on the old twin mattress with a huff. The air reeks of cheap cologne and hair products, and I shoot my sister an unfriendly glare.

“Pete’s been using your room,” Ava explains with a shrug. “As it is, I had to chase him out of here and into a hotel for you.”

“Please, send me to a hotel. I’m happy to stay at a hotel.”

A hand on her hip she frowns. “Nice try, but you’re staying here. There’s too much to do for you to be off drinking and lounging by the pool all day. Also, you’re the best man.”

I shake my head, “I’m the what now?”

“Pete’s brother isn’t going to make it, so you are stepping up to the plate.”

I feel my eyebrows knit together, “How come his brother gets a pass?”

“He’s working with Doctors Without Borders vaccinating children in Uganda. You’re just a douchebag with daddy issues. Suck it up.”

Behind me Emma rounds the corner into the hall and pushes my parents’ bedroom door open. Curious what she’s up to, I follow.

“Whatcha doing?” Ava asks, brushing past me and into the room.

“Well, not that you’re supposed to know, but I’m going through the family albums, looking for photos to add to the slideshow.”

Ava scowls, “What slideshow?”

Closing the leather album she’d been holding with a snap, Emma blinks. “The one I’m putting together for the reception. Duh.” She holds up a hand, “And before you freak out, it was your father’s request. I’m just helping. He said the albums were in here under the bed.”

Out the corner of my eye I see a tick working in Ava’s jaw before she answers. “And how on earth are we going to set up a slideshow outside at the reception?” Her face flushes, “As it is we’re having speakers wired in for the DJ on the back patio. Someone should have told me so I could let the electrician know…”

Emma raises her hands in surrender, “Take that up with the old man. I’m just gonna take these to my place so I can scan them into the computer.”

She grabs the stack of albums, struggling to hold them all.

Lunging forward, I catch one just as it slips from her fingers, “Here. Let me give you a hand.”

With a grateful nod she hands me half the stack.

“Just don’t be too long, I’m making dinner tonight. Pete should be back in a few minutes with the groceries.”

Saluting her with one hand, I motion for Emma to lead the way. Once we’re comfortably out of ear shot, I whisper, “How long has she been like this?”

Emma shrugs, “About two weeks. But it’s getting worse. Don’t worry, I have emergency chocolate and bottles of wine hidden all over your house, plus, when she really goes nuclear, I have a plan.”

I whistle, “Oh, you’re good at this.”

She jerks her head. “This is nothing. You should try sharing a dorm with three high strung dancers right before a casting call.”

The idea has its merits, I decide without saying so. But my expression must give me away because she shakes her head, “Typical, Clay.”

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