Chapter 6

There was only one thing that could have made me feel worse during this time, and it happened. Just when I thought that I was adjusting to life as an ordinary girl in Mud Creek, USA something horrible happened. Jake came over.

He brought me my trigonometry assignment and I asked him to explain the problems to me because I'd never been a whiz at the stuff and Jake's the type of boy who would have been in Advanced Calculus or whatever math comes after it if Mud Creek had offered it to him. I sat staring at the paper he was writing on, but I wasn't paying attention. My mind was busy racing between being mad at him one minute to being mad at myself for thinking those things. What did I have against Jake anyway? We'd been neighbors years before the accident, and I hadn't paid him much mind, either. So what if he spent a night in a hospital with me? It didn't mean things had to be different. It just meant that maybe Jake was a decent guy, not that he cared any more than he needed to.

That's what I had told myself since it happened. All of those weird feelings for him when he didn't come to the house right away, the anger that it had meant nothing to him were all failed attempts to push from my mind the softness in his eyes I'd never seen before, reminders of the things he did without being asked, the way he'd come running when he heard my message on the machine and thought I needed him.

"You get it?" he interrupted. I nodded and sent him home.

Those things I could forget about. Any friend would do those things. But for some reason, I couldn't get past the way he'd held my hand in the back of Daddy's truck.

I watched him leave, half hopeful that the tall boy would turn around and stay, but half painfully aware of what a sucker I was to wish like that.

That wasn't the worst part. I felt pretty low, but not near as bad as I felt when I realized that the blows weren't gonna stop coming for me.

My family was sitting around the dining room table one Monday night, the one night Momma and Daddy made us be home by six o'clock or else inflict their wrath. Her cooking was enough to make it worthwhile, though, so we'd come running from wherever we were at so we wouldn't have to hear the rest of the family talk about how good it'd been.

Three Mondays after my surgery, she had cooked chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, which was my favorite. The only sound in the entire room was chewing, smacking, the occasional slurp, and silverware clinking against Momma's blue flower china.

"You might want to ease up on them rolls," Momma said, pulling the basket out of my reach. I pulled my hand back quickly and shrank back against my seat. "Your face is gettin' kinda puffy."

"Momma," Daddy said with wide eyes. I looked to him for help and pulled my shirt down. "Y'know Jack's been laid up for awhile. It'll come off once she gets back on her feet."

"Well, I know all that, but I just thought…"

I forced myself to swallow around the lump in my throat and took a drink of water before eye contact could be made. My appetite was completely gone, and I couldn't imagine it could ever come back after what Momma had said.

"Excuse'm." Putting my fork down, I swung my leg over the bench and got my good leg under me as fast as I could manage. After hopping and stumbling to my room, an inspection in the full-length mirror confirmed her words.

My face did look a little puffy. The rest of me looked normal, except for my legs that had been losing muscle mass by the minute. My teammates would have been so jealous if they were around to see. The good news was I could still see my jaw line from every angle, and I only had one chin, but my cheeks looked a little droopy.

Someone knocked three times on my door.

"Come in," I grunted, leaning on my bureau for support.

It was James. "I brought you these," he said, pumping my crutches in the air.

"Thanks," I said with a half-smile, grateful it wasn't Momma or Daddy.

He leaned them against the bed. "Daddy wanted to know if you wanna come to the rodeo."

"No, I'm fine. My leg kinda hurts."

My brother did a half wave and crossed to the door. He turned in the doorway and stopped. "I think you look just fine, Jackie, and I mean it."

"Awww!" It wasn't like my shy little brother to speak up like that. "James!"

He left me and I turned back to the mirror with more pride, sucking in my cheeks and smiling at my reflection. The door slammed and they were gone. Whenever nobody was home, I liked turning up my country girl music and singing as loud as I could while I did girly things. It was time to shave my legs – or at least my left and most of my right one. Getting the places my stitches had been was kind of hard, but I didn't even try going over the swollen parts because they still hurt like anything to touch.

I was just finishing my right ankle when the front door slammed open.

"Jackie!" Horse hollered. "I've got Sonic!"

After washing my legs and rolling down my shorts, I yelled back, telling him I was in the bathroom and I'd be right there. He met me halfway and helped me to the recliner where my Sonic cup was waiting.

"Cherry limeade," he said, puffing his lips in pride.

"Ya done good, Horse."

My appetite had returned from dinner, and I helped myself to one of his mozzarella sticks as I wolfed down the drink.

"I shouldn't be drinking this!" I laughed as I took another sip.

"And why the heck not?" Horse asked.

"So many calories."
"Jackie-lynn Little, in all the years I've known you, you ain't never been scared of no calories," Horse reminded me. It was true. I'd never had to worry about it before.

It was harder than I thought it would be, but I told him about what happened at dinner and he got a funny look on his face. He put down his hamburger and turned to face me.

"Listen to me, Jack," he said. I'd never heard him so serious, except for the first time he'd come over after the accident. "Don't you listen to your Momma. You listen to me, and you listen good." He kneeled in front of the recliner and squeezed my good knee. I couldn't help thinking of Jake when he did that, but I obeyed him. "You are beautiful, and you only get more and more every time I see you."

"Thanks, um, Horse?" I said, turning away before he could notice how red my face was, and before I could notice anymore how gorgeous his brown eyes looked when they were honest. "Really. Thanks," I told the wall.

"It's true," he said quietly. "You know I can only take prettiest girl in Mud Creek to the prom, right?"

"Yes."

"Is that a yes, you'll go with me?" he asked.

I turned back to him, checked his face to make sure he was serious, and nodded. "Yeah I'll go with you."

Then the moment was ruined by this pulling at my bladder. My cherry limeade was working quickly to make me uncomfortable. I excused myself and hopped to the bathroom, insisting I didn't need Horse's help. My crutches were somewhere on the floor in my room upstairs, but I'd become a pro at hobbling on one leg. Plus I needed the excuse to leave him because a huge smile was burning at the inside of my mouth to let loose. I had a date to the prom! Just wait until Robin heard about that!

After I washed my hands, I noticed my face was flushed pink and the smile hadn't left and I felt prettier than ever. One second I pushed off the white counter, still looking at myself in the mirror, and the next my right foot slipped out from underneath me. My braced knee slammed into the wall and I screamed in surprise both from the fall and from the sharp pinch of pain in the knee that had just begun to dim.

It was a mixture of water and shaving cream pooled on the floor and seeping through the bottom of my gray shorts. I groaned and rolled over. It wasn't that bad; just needed a minute to stop throbbing.

"Jackie!" Horse said through the door. "I heard a thud."

"It was me," I squeaked. "I fell."

"I'm comin' in." The door squealed open enough for him to pass, and he kneeled next to me.

"You alright? Your knee okay?"

"Uh-huh." My voice squeaked, but I didn't cry. "I hit it against the wall here."

Horse made a coughing sound.

I explained about not having time to wash up my mess from shaving and he nodded soothingly. He asked to look at it, and I allowed him to undo the brace.

"It's all swollen, Jackie." His voice was thick and soothing like butter.

"Uh-huh."

"I'm gonna get you back to the couch so I can take care of you," he said. I smiled and felt better already. He told me to put my arms around his neck and he slid his under my back. It would have been horrible if Momma and Daddy walked in from the rodeo just then and saw us like that. He was so close I could smell his scent and laundry detergent and the peppermint from Sonic on his breath.

"Just hold on," he whispered in his buttery voice. "Nice and slow." He straightened up very slowly, and before I knew it we were upright, his hands still hooked around my waist and my feet probably a foot off the ground. We stayed like that for awhile, just hugging, and then he pulled his head back to have a look at me.

His eyes looked even more wonderful as a question, so I jutted my chin out just enough that if he saw it, he'd know what to do, but if he didn't, it wouldn't be embarrassing. And he kissed me, half of his lips on mine and the other half on my cheek. He adjusted and then kissed me again, short and sweet. It was my first kiss since sophomore year when Phillip Sands and I went out for a week.

I didn't know what else to do but giggle with what little air I had left. He set me down gently and then picked me up like a princess to carry me back.

That afternoon I had been normal Jackie, but when the sun went down I was a prom date and a kissing partner. Did that mean we were together? What was going to happen next?

One thing was sure, though. I had just ruined whatever hope I had left about me and Jake.