Chapter 17: Once More, With Feeling

Waking up at seven in the morning to repack if I need to, which I don't, and embark on an eight-hour road trip with my family is not something I want to think about or do before noon. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for spending quality time with my parents and siblings, and I don't mind getting up at the ass crack of dawn to catch an international flight as long as I'm heading to an exciting locale, but waking up late and learning our vacations plans have changed is not something I'm okay with.

Who wants to go to South Carolina on spring break anyway? I certainly don't, and it's not like I have a problem with South Carolina or Charleston or anything like that. I find both of them to be lovely this time of the year, but we were supposed to be spending the next two weeks in the Canaries. I was really looking forward to fun in the Canarian sun.

Father really is an amazing pitchman to have talked Mother into going along with his Plan B after nixing Plan A in the middle of the night. She had had her heart set on getting away from the pressures of being a public figure to stay at the villa and breathe in the sweet island air, but now this morning, for some odd reason, she's positively excited about Charleston and staying at a bed-and-breakfast. I glare at her when she glides into my room looking perfect and collected with Noel is who dead to the world in her arms.

"Why doesn't he have to wake up?" I say, hugging my pillow to my chest.

Mother kisses his head. "Don't be petty, dear."

"Are you really okay with what's happening right now? Going to Charleston instead of the Canaries?"

She nods. "Of course I am."

"But why?" I whine, flopping onto my back and curling into a ball.

"It sounds like fun, and we can always go to the villa before you go to college," she says calmly, rubbing Noel's back when he fussed in his sleep.

"If I get in to college," I mutter sullenly. I try not to freak at that possibility. It's already late March and I haven't received any acceptance or rejection letters yet. According to the dates on the websites of my top three schools, I should have gotten some sort of letter from them by now. It's really starting to piss me off too. I feel like, if you're going to reject me, then do so and don't make me agonize over it.

"You'll get in," Mother says confidently.

I sigh and sit up. "But on my own merit?"

"How else would you get in?" she returns evenly. I stare at her, confused by her tone. "If you don't get in, I'm not going to buy your education. That's money that can go to a well-deserving charity."

"What?"

"What do you mean 'what'?"

"You're just going to give away my college fund?"

"If you don't need it for college."

"Mom!"

"Don't worry, Amber. I'll give you fair warning before I do."

"You're so gracious."

"Guys, come on!" Father calls from the bottom of the stairs. "Check-in is at three. We have a long drive ahead of us."

"You can't just change plans last minute and expect everyone to be okay with it or be able to repack in half an hour," Juliana snaps from her bedroom.

"Here, here!" Obadiah chimes in from the hall as he goes to take a shower. He's miffed because Father wouldn't let Jordan come to the Canaries with us. And while there was talk of him crashing at Daniel's as we vacationed at the villa, that plan went out the window this morning with Father's breaking news flash.

"You'll see Jordan in two weeks, Obadiah. It's not the end of the world," Father returns, his voice getting closer. "And it shouldn't take you longer than fifteen minutes to pack accordingly."

"You're a guy," Juliana retorts. "You don't understand."

"What don't I understand?" Father demands from the hallway.

"We have to look pretty, darling," Mother answers. "We can't show up looking like we've just slipped out of bed."

"I don't have a problem with that," I pipe in.

"Hush you, and hold your brother," Mother says.

I reach out and take Noel as she goes to diffuse the situation brewing in the hall. Cuddling him close, I kiss the top of his head and rub the back of his hand with the pad of my thumb. He looks so peaceful.

"You have ten minutes to be in the car or we're not going at all!" Father declares in a booming voice. "And if we're not going, then Obadiah will go home to see his mother who so desperately wishes to see him while the rest of us will go volunteer with the elderly, less fortunate or problem children!"

I snort and shake my head. Well, that solves that argument.

Obadiah doesn't want to see his mother right now because of some issue with his stepfather and Juliana hates to volunteer. It's not like she's a terrible person who doesn't care about others, she does care, but something about volunteering makes her really weird. I think she had a traumatic experience at the soup kitchen in middle school when Father took her along to help out a few Thanksgivings ago.

"What's it going to be everyone?" Father demands after a moment of silence. "Should I start loading up the car or not?"

I can't make out the mumbles of Obi and Juliana, but they must've vocalized their defeat since Father clapped his hands once, said "I'm glad to hear that" in a satisfied tone and went back downstairs whistling. I grin at Mother when she walks back into my room.

"Don't you just love family vacations?"

She glares at me and takes Noel back. "Be useful and help your father load the car."

"Aye, aye!" I say, bouncing off the bed and to my feet in salute.

She is not amused.

"I think the next two weeks are going to be great," I continue, still grinning widely. "Don't you?"

Her glare softens into maternal affection and she smiles back. "You know what, Amber, I think you might be right." She heads for the door and pauses before she crosses the threshold. "Did I ever tell you about the time when you, your father and I took a little road trip when you were two or so and I threatened to leave you on the side of the road?"

"What?" I stare at her, waiting for her laugh, but it never comes. I'm so flabbergasted all I can do is repeat myself, "What?"

"I'd really hate to have to do that again," she says in a super sweet and loving tone, still smiling at me as if I've just made honor roll twice in a row. "Well, I'm going to go pack some snacks."

"Mom!" I race after her and stumble in my scramble to follow her down the stairs. "Mom!"

"Go help your father, Amber!" she calls over her shoulder before disappearing around the corner.

"I thought you loved me," I shout.

"Oh, sweetheart, you know I do," she replies, coming back around the corner. "That's why leaving you would hurt me so much more than it would hurt you. Now, off you go," she adds before heading back to the kitchen.

"What the fuck? Can't I have a little fun?" I grumble, stomping as I make my way back upstairs to grab my duffle bag.

"I heard that!"

Obadiah and Juliana are still stubbornly in the house as I help Father with the bags and suitcases and other crap we're bringing along for the ride. Since he already has their defeat in his back pocket, he allows the grumps to have an extra fifteen minutes on top of the half hour he's given them as Mother takes a quick call from her agent and image team.

Tossing Juliana's shoe bag on top of her sweater and jean suitcase, I can't help but wonder two things: how in the hell we're going to fit everything in the trunk of the Escalade and how can Noel be oblivious to the conscious world as Father and I thunk and shove around and rearrange the luggage. I would've woken up when we loaded Mother's beasts of a suitcase.

"Not to be a Negative Nancy, but all of this won't fit," I say, wiping my brow with the sleeve of my tee shirt. It's spring break, for crying out loud! I should not be sweating because of manual labor.

"Yes it will," Father replies confidently. He steps back to look at the scene in front of him and taps a finger on his lips as he studies the luggage already in the trunk and the bags at our feet. "It's simply a difficult puzzle to be solved, and we will succeed. We can do this."

"Are you sure?"

He pats my skeptical face and grins. "Absolutely."

"Need any help?" calls a friendly voice from next door and I stiffen.

What the hell does he think he's doing? He's already doomed me to spend most of my time away from him obsessing about him. Helping my father pack the car is just uncalled for.

I glare at him. "No!"

"Yes, we'd love some," Father says over me. I turn to stare at him, stunned. He shrugs and winks at me. "It'll be fine. Don't worry."

"But—"

"Go rounds up those stragglers while he and I have a little chat, okay?" he says and nudges me toward the front door when I continue to stare at him slack-jawed. "Shoo!"

I ignore Roydon and the teasing way his hand grazes my arm as he goes out of his way to walk past me and head inside the house. I can't hear Mother so she must be in Father's study. Still, I make sure the coast is clear before positioning myself at the bottom of the stairs and screaming for Juliana and Obi to move their respective fat and fatter asses. I'm so amused by Juliana's shriek I don't hear Mother coming up behind me until it's too late.

"Oh, I know, Jesse, but that's how I feel about it," she says in a warm professional tone that completely contradicts the venom in her eyes.

Inching up the stairs, I point over my shoulder and say, "I'll just pop up there and let them know it's time to go," before trying to flee, but she's having none of that and grabs my arm tightly.

"Okay, Jesse. Mm-hmm. I will. All right. Bye-bye," she coos and hangs up. A hint of a smile teases her mouth when I gulp rather loudly. "Would you care to tell me why you were yelling blasphemies across the house while I was taking a business call?"

"I'm just trying to move them along without going upstairs. And my cell is in the car, but Roydon's out there with Dad right now, so I figured I'd just call out and then wait for them to respond, which Juliana did, by the way, with a few choice words of her own."

"I wonder where she learned them from."

Cocking my head to the side, I take in my mother's comfortable yet impeccable appearance. She'd probably smack me if I tell her she looks like a hot mom looking to score with fresh meat.

Instead I say, "You're in a mood. What happened to all that good cheer?"

"What do think? Every last one of you, expect my little Noel, killed my good mood," she replies, her voice softening on his name. "This was not how this morning was supposed to go."

"Well, taking away island fun and teenager love can ruin even the happiest of times," I say with a shrug. I shrink back at her stare. "I'm just stating the obvious."

"Maybe you should go back outside," she remarks, releasing my arm.

"Maybe I should stay here with you," I reply.

"Coward."

"So?"

She sighs and touches my hair. "You'll have to speak to him eventually."

"Who says?" I return childishly. "I can avoid and ignore him for the rest of the year."

"Can you?" Mother asks, doubt filling her voice.

"Yes," I reply stubbornly, but even I can hear the doubt.

"Closure and mutual understanding can be beautiful."

"For mature adults, maybe."

"Amber, I love you."

"But…"

"No buts," she says, stroking my cheek. "I love you and want you to be happy."

"And to achieve some modicum of happiness I should go and talk to Roydon. Is that what you're saying?"

She shakes her head. "No. Not at all," she tells me. "All I'm saying is that I love you and want to see you happy."

"Yeah, okay. That's not going to work," I return.

"What's not going to work?" she asks, furrowing her brow.

Oh, she's good, but I'm not falling for it. "Your reverse psychology, maternal Jedi mind trick." I jab a finger at her. "I'm on to you. All right? You can't fool me."

She tosses up her hands. "All right, Amber. Fine. You caught me red-handed," she says loudly. "Don't talk to him for the rest of your life. And if your spirit happens to be reincarnated, then don't talk to him in your next one."

"All right, I won't," I say stubbornly and put out my chin, lifting my head high. "I'm going outside to help Dad and check on Noel. You can deal with those two."

"Fine."

"Fine."

We head our separate ways, her up the stairs and me barreling out the front door, high on moxie. I don't see Roydon, only Father swinging Noel around and tossing him up in the air. Noel notices me first, on his descent back into Father's arms, and his face brightens, causing Father to glance over his shoulder.

"Oh, hey, pumpkin. Are they ready yet?" he asks as I stop next to him.

I pinch and kiss Noel's cheek before answering, "No, not quite, but I sicced Mom on them. Hopefully they'll be down soon." I look around as casually as I can manage, but I'm not fooling anyone. "Get everything packed?"

He nods. "It might get cramped for whoever sits on the back row, but everything has been successfully stowed in the vehicle," he replies, flipping Noel upside down and eliciting a shriek of laughter from him. He rights my brother before offering me an encouraging smile. "I think you should go talk to him."

"Really?"

He nods.

"Why?"

"I think he's a nice boy."

"After talking to him for, what, ten minutes?"

He gives me a long look. "Sizing people up is kind of my job, you know. And I've been doing an excellent job at it for a long time now." He lifts my chin. "In any case, what could it hurt to talk?"

"Talking can wait," I say stubbornly.

"Can it?" he counters. I nod.

"We're supposed to be on the road already, remember?"

"Sweetheart…"

"Yeah?"

"Go talk to him."

"But—"

"Do it for the sake of your vacation," he interrupts gently. "Do you really want to spend the next two weeks trying not to think about him or obsessing about him when you accidentally do?"

He makes a good point. But am I ready to talk yet? Yesterday is all too fresh in my mind. I don't want to get to that point again where I want nothing more than to inflict pain on him. He doesn't deserve that, and I'm really afraid to go back to that place.

"Just go for five minutes, Amber," Father says. "If it doesn't work out, you can always try again—if you want to—in two weeks."

"I guess I could do that," I mumble, hugging my body. I look at the Hawleys' house and sigh. "I'll be back."

"Take your time. We'll be here."

"Yeah, yeah."

Slowly making my way down the driveway, I head over to Roydon's house with dragging steps and pause before raising my hand to knock. The last time I came over was less than pleasant. I'd really prefer not to have a repeat performance of that with not only Roydon, but with his crazy little sister.

Taking a deep breath, I release the memories of last time and exhale before knocking twice soundly. I hear Roydon shout he's got it to someone and a moment later he's in front of me. He looks surprised to see but smiles at me. I stare back at him.

"Want to come in?" he asks softly, as if handling a temperamental animal. I can't take offense since I was pretty wild and crazy in the bathroom yesterday.

"Okay," I reply and step inside when he moves aside. "I'm here to talk." That raises his eyebrows several inches. "If you'd rather wait…"

"No!" He clears his throat. "No, it's fine. Now is fine." He motions to the stairs. "Should we, uh, go up to my room?"

Grinning, trying to lighten the mood, I bat my eyelashes at him. "Think you can keep your hands off me?"

He smiles and cocks his head to the side. "Hmm. It sounds tough, but I'll give it my best shot."

We smile at each other for another moment.

Why can't we be this? Why does something always have to get in the way of this? This is the us I want. Not the crazy, hot and cold hormonal monkey drama we so often dissolve into around each other.

"Lead the way," I say when his smile dips and signs of nerves show on his face.

He holds out his hand hopefully and I take it, blushing and ducking my head at how pleased I am when he laces his fingers through mine. The action is presumptuous, but his boldness warms me. I don't let go of his hand when he heads for the bed and sit down close to him, shoulder to shoulder.

"I don't want to be crazy with you," I say, breaking a ten-minute standoff of silence. "I want to be crazy about you."

"But?" he says quietly.

"But I don't know if I can be the latter without being the former," I admit. He squeezes my hand and drops a kiss on the top of my head when I lay it on his shoulders. "I can't be bipolar with you. And I can't stand it when we're that way together."

"So we'll stop being that way," he says.

"How?" I ask, sitting up straight. "We can't just turn on a magic switch and be different people."

"No, we can't, but we can work on that together. We can!" he insists at my skeptical glance. "I believe in us. Why is it so hard for you?"

I pull my hand from his and stand. "Because I'm being realistic. I'm not relying on some—some…feeling I have." I turn my back to him and over stare at my bedroom window. "It's nice that you so wholeheartedly believe that there's this great future in us. It's great knowing you care, but that's not enough."

"You're right," he agrees angrily. "It's not enough. I need your help too."

"I know. I'm trying!" I shout. "But it's hard."

"Who said it's supposed to be easy?" he snaps back. Pushing off the bed, he pinches his nose and exhales through it slowly, loudly, closing his eyes as he tries to reel himself back in. I take a moment to do so as well.

This is wrong. That is not how this should be going. This should be civilized, not like two children fighting over who is right or who is wrong. Maybe I should go and we can—

"I'm sorry."

My head snaps up at his words. What does he have to be sorry for? It's not him, it's me. Me! I'm the problem, the cog in the machine who can't figure out that the small ball doesn't fit in the square shape.

"Don't apologize to me," I whisper and hold out my hands to deter him from moving closer. "Look, I'm so sorry for everything. I'm sorry to have put such a sour stain on your senior year."

"Amber—"

"I think what we've got to consider and realize is that not everyone can be Corey and Topanga," I say sadly. "Sometimes you have to be Kevin and Winnie."

"That's unacceptable."

"Roydon—"

"No, Amber. I won't accept that," he interrupts. "I hate, absolutely hate, the last episode of The Wonder Years. Was it more like real life? Yeah, it was. Sometimes the one you want isn't the one you end up with, and you have to accept that, but we haven't even tried yet." He takes my shoulders and grips them tightly. "You have to give us a chance to do it right and proper."

"No more running to other people when our feelings get a boo-boo. No more avoiding our problems. We have to learn to communicate with one another. That's the main things: honest, open lines of communication. Do you get what I'm saying?"

I do, and it makes a lot of sense. We really do suck when it comes to communicating. How many of our problems these past few months have stemmed from a misunderstanding or words said out of pride? Definitely more than necessary.

"It's important for us to shake off the assumptions we hold," he says, breaking through my thoughts. "I'm not a rock star or prince charming. I'm just a run-of-the-mill regular dude, okay? I'm the rhino running on a treadmill, staring longingly at a poster of a unicorn on the wall. That's what I am compared to you. That's what you get with me."

I shake my head, unable to believe what I'm hearing. "I'm not a unicorn. I'm just a plain, old filly."

"Hmm." He stares at me a long moment before smiling sweetly. "A rhino and a horse, huh?"

"It could be worse," I say, smiling back. "We could be a rabbit and a cat."

"I guess." He touches my cheek tenderly. "I propose a pact."

"Huh?" I say as my eyebrows draw together.

He only smiles and spins away from me to plop down on his desk chair. Tapping on his laptop's space bar, he clicks on MS Word when the machine wakes up and cracks his knuckles, as if preparing for an arduous task. Curious, I move behind him, but he waves me away before he opens a music player and blasts some punk band I don't recognize. Sticking my tongue out at the back of his head, I drop down on his bed, kick off my shoes and make myself comfortable.

His weight moving on the mattress wakes me sometime later and I'm surprised I nodded off. He crawls next to me and lies on his side so that we're face to face, sharing the same pillow. He steals a quick kiss before waving a sheet of paper over our heads. Grabbing his arm, after a moment of playfulness and struggle, I take it from him and pop the paper in my hands. I clear my throat and silently read the words to myself. Ignoring his finger as he traces my moving lips.

The Cooler Than a Fairytale Relationship Contract of Benji and Curly

I, Amber Regan and Roydon Hawley, do solemnly swear to respect and adhere to any and all of the following stipulations* pertaining to the development and growth of our personal relationship. If by any chance there is a breach in contract, the offending party will accept any punishment deemed suitable by the injured party without complaint, whether the penalty be violent, civil or otherwise, though verbal communication is highly recommended.

By signing this contract, I do hereby agree to these conditions unconditionally and will uphold them to the very best of my abilities.

Signatures:


Conditions:

No pedestals allowed. We are two halves of the same whole. I am not greater than you, nor are you greater than me.

I will worry more about whether or not I am good enough for myself than if I am good enough for you. You choose to be with me, so you obviously find me worthy.

Trials and tribulations are unavoidable in life, so I must be able to fight for you even when I'm upset with you.

I will not downplay your insecurities. Instead I will listen to your doubts and do my best to prove them wrong.

Communicate! If there was ever a recipe to love, this would be it.

I will maintain life outside of you for the sake of my sense of self. Though you cannot be the sun in my solar system, that doesn't mean my feelings for you are any less.

Trying to be our parents and have their relationships is counterproductive to our relationship and unfair to us—products of our parents, not replicas of our parents.

I will not kill myself or you to be perfect together. Perfect is a fool's goal.


Initial and Date Here After Reading the Terms and Conditions:

Setting the contract aside, I stare at him as my heart beats double time. Does he really believe it could it be this simple? Sign and initial an unofficial piece of paper that was typed up on an eighteen-year-old's personal laptop. All of the conditions are fair and address things that seem to have plagued us throughout this crazy little dance we've been doing since January, and I want to be in a relationship with him, I can't be his friend, so why is there so much doubt in me over this?

"Well?" he asks, anxiety over my silence filling his voice. "How does that sound?"

"How serious are you about this?" I ask.

He picks the contract up off his comforter. "As a heart attack."

"That's grave," I reply.

"It's a legitimate concern that people take seriously," he corrects.

Grabbing the contract, he rolls off the bed and crosses to his desk. I watch him uncap a pen and wait for him to sign and initial it, but he hesitates. Does that mean he has doubts about us after all? He's been the steady rock out of the two of us. If he wavers, how am I supposed to be grounded? I'm the one who needs something tangible. He can't give up on me now.

"It's not a promise of forever," I find myself saying, sitting up and drawing my knees to my chest. "Right? That's not what it is."

"No, it's not a promise of forever," he replies. "Unless you want it to be."

"We're still teenagers," I point out. "Forever doesn't have to be right now."

"No, it doesn't," he agrees. "I think as teenagers it would be foolish to think forever has nothing to do with us. We find forever in moments with our friends or someone special or watching the sun rise. Forever is everywhere," he says and turns to sign and initial his name on the contract. "This isn't a marriage proposal. It's an agreement between two people who want to be in a relationship and need guidelines to steer them away from traps they frequently fall in to around the other. More than that, it's an affirmation of what we want and what we're willing to do to succeed at it."

I stare at my hands for a long time before glancing up at him again. "I'll just drive you crazy," I say softly. "And I'm not sure I'm the sort cut out for long distance relationships. Signing the contract is merely an attempt to by-pass all our previous disasters. There's no guarantee it'll work." He looks ill when I slip on the bed and to my feet. "But it should be an interesting ride together in the meantime. You're right, this isn't a marriage proposal. We're not getting on a ride that's going to last the next twenty or thirty or forty years. If it does, then that's great. If not, at least we'll have some memories.

"You're not a rock star or prince charming. Nor are you a dog or a frog—"

"I'm a rhino," he says with a teasing smile.

"No, you're just what I needed," I correct with a smile of my own. "Thank you."

"So are you going to sign?" he asks as I step forward to wrap my arms around him. I poke him in the ribs when he pinches me ass and smile when he jumps. "It'll look kind of weird when I frame this and my signature is the only one there in an agreement between people."

"I'll sign," I assure him with an evil smile, "when I get back from vacation."

"But why?" he whines, holding on tighter to me. "And who says I'll let you go until you sign."

"I'm just trying to give you some last days of sanity."

"Who says I was sane to begin with?"

"Are you really not going to let me go until I sign?"

He nods.

"Ugh! All right, Benji the Rhino. Give me the pen."

"You won't regret this, Curly the Filly," he replies as I quickly sign and initial my name. He smiles at my sigh of relief. "Were you expecting cell doors to clank shut? And after everything we said here today."

"Color me a contradiction," I reply with a sheepish little shrug. "Sorry. I'll get better."

"I'll help," he says, kissing my forehead. "As much as it pains me to say this, especially since we've finally gotten here amicably, you should probably go. I don't want your father to hate me after we had such a pleasant conversation."

"I guess." I wrap my arms around his neck tightly and kiss him. "Are you going to miss me?"

"Terribly," he replies, taking my hand as we head out of his room. "But this is good for us."

"Is it?"

He nods. "Condition number six, with two weeks of practical application." He slants a challenging gaze at me. "Think you can handle it."

"Better than you, Rhino."

"We'll see, Filly."

"Call me tomorrow and we can compare notes. That is, if I'm not too busy."

"I guess I could take some time away from Sheila to call."

We continue our teasing banter until we reach the fence separating our parents' houses and pause to share a deep kiss. Pulling back, I gaze into his beautiful eyes and smile.

This is going to be fun.


Author's Note: All right, it's done. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read it, even if you didn't like. And sorry if there are any errors or you don't like the ending. I hate it too, but I needed to end this story, otherwise I was going to put it back on hiatus, and that wouldn't be fair to the readers who've stuck around since the beginning. I may revisit this one day, but for now I'm going to let it sit and be what it is.

Thanks to all those who reviewed, and may review this chapter, I really appreciate. Please let me know what you think. I don't mind constructive criticism.