It was one of those perfect, clear August afternoons. The sky was pure blue, crisscrossed by one white contrail that looked like someone had swiped a giant eraser across the sky. Even though it was hot I had the window down and my arm hanging out, alternately letting my hand serpentine through the air or tapping my fingers on the roof to the beat of the music spewing from the radio. My elbow felt sunburned.
But before I get ahead of myself, I should start at the beginning. How I ended up in that car traveling across the country with my brother, his best friend, a dog, and my road-tripping grandmother is a story that started a few months ago when my brother came home from his junior year of college for the summer.
I was temporarily living with my father in my old bedroom. My last roommate had secured a job out of state and since I didn't feel like renewing our lease by myself I moved back in with dad for the summer while I looked around for a place to live. At 24 I felt that it was high time that I lived on my own anyway.
I worked in the admissions office at the local state university (and my alma mater) and while it was momentarily satisfying I was eager to do something else or move somewhere, in that naïve "see the world" phase all twenty-something's go through. Although in my case it was more a pipe dream than a reality because I knew that as much as I liked to fantasize about it that I would never actually get up the nerve to move away from my family, friends, and life that I'd become so accustomed too. Continuity was my friend, my constant companion since my life had turned upside-down after the death of my mother six years earlier.
I'd just woken up from an after-work nap; my face had that too soft feeling after sleeping in my upstairs bedroom in the June humidity. I heard the front screen door creak open and slam shut, a sound I never failed to associate with my brother even when it wasn't him. I realized that I was more excited to see him than I realized as I stumbled out of bed still wearing my work clothes and slipped down the stairs to greet him.
Nate gave me an awkward half hug, patting my shoulder as I pulled back quickly. But his grin was genuine. "Keri, stunning as always," he said, looking at the tracks of oily mascara that had accumulated under my eyes.
I ran a finger underneath each eyelid and tried to tame my curly hair into submission. I decided to let his comment go as I was surprisingly so happy to see him. Nate went to school a few hours away at a small private college that my father could really only afford because Nate had a baseball scholarship. As I was wont to point out, I was the one with the brains in the family but he was the one that got all the scholarships. Perhaps it was my lack of participation in anything at all in high school that was the problem, but I stopped thinking about it then so I could plop down at the kitchen table and watch him drag in several boxes.
He'd spent the last two summers at school as an intern in the sports therapy department but had decided to spend one last summer at home trying to make a little money. I thought it might have had more to do with some pushing from my father, but let it go.
As he dragged the last box in and tossed it into the adjacent den where I was quite sure it would sit, unopened, for at least two weeks he said with a huff of effort, "No, please don't get up. I totally got it."
I shrugged apologetically. It was so easy to slip back into our comfortable roles with each other, our bickering belying how close we actually were. I begrudgingly got up and grabbed a bag of laundry, presumably dirty, and deposited it in the laundry room. When I came back my father had come out from the den and he and Nate were seated at the kitchen table where I joined them.
The three of us chatted for awhile and I smiled to myself thinking about how nice it felt to be together again. I hadn't always been so sentimental but I blamed my increasingly nostalgic mood on getting older among other things I didn't have the time to think about then.
My thoughts were interrupted by the crunching of gravel on the driveway and looked up to see a familiar rusted out sedan pull up to the house. Nate had wasted no time in calling his best friend and I brushed aside my annoyance that he couldn't spend even an hour alone with his family to get up and open the door for Ethan. Nate reached him first and they clapped each other on the back in a typical man hug and then I moved in to offer one of my own.
Ethan gripped me tightly for a moment then stepped back. "Keri! I don't think I've seen you…I don't know, since Thanksgiving at least," he said with a grin.
"I know," I answered, stepping back. "Weren't you ever around when Nate was home on break?"
"I was, but you weren't," he said, dropping into one of the kitchen chairs next to Nate. I looked at them momentarily, really noticing how much they'd both grown up. Nate was taller now even than he was in high school, his lanky body clad in faded jeans and a t-shirt. His hair, so similar in shade and structure to mine, was getting too long I realized as he blew a wayward curl off of his forehead. He was a good four or five inches taller than me but we shared the same intense brown eyes and a spattering of freckles.
Ethan, on the other hand, was several inches shorter than Nate and stockier. His tightly muscled arms were crossed over his chest at the moment, hiding a faded old t-shirt I thought I recognized from high school. He had pale, almost ivory skin with the ruddy undertones of a redhead, even though he wasn't; his dark brown hair was short, cropped close to the scalp. He was never able to hide an emotion with those cheeks, the color rising in them now as he cooled off from the afternoon heat. In contrast to his skin he had sharp, deep blue eyes fringed with dark lashes that any girl would be jealous of. I wondered, idly, why I'd never noticed that before.
As the three of them talked I rummaged through the refrigerator and hastily made a plate of cheese and some grapes and set a sweating pitcher of water on the table with four glasses. I'd resigned many years ago that after my mom died it was pretty obvious I was the only one in the family with any sense of hospitality that extended beyond an open door and a smile. I sat down at the table too and let my mind wander as I listened to them catch up.
Nate and Ethan had been best friends for as long as I could remember, probably elementary school. Our town wasn't huge but large enough to have several school districts. When it became clear that because of where we lived that Nate would be in a different middle school than Ethan my parents went to bat for him as our house was only one street from the district boarder. Eventually the school board conceded and allowed Nate to attend the same school. My brother had been a painfully shy child and my parents understood and appreciated that Ethan, so easy-going and laid back for his age, helped bring my brother out of his shell.
Ethan had spent a lot of time at our house during his formative years. His parents split up when he was still a baby and I was a little fuzzy on the details but I knew that his mother had spent some time in jail for drug dealing and eventually just disappeared. After elementary school his father lost custody of him and his guardianship was awarded to his grandmother. I was fairly certain that a lot of his parenting came from my own parents who took it upon themselves to make sure he was eating well and always had school clothes and supplies. For all of his problems at home though he'd turned out to be a pretty well-adjusted, intelligent kid and he'd been a constant in my brother's life for as long as I could remember.
"Keri!" my dad's voice jolted me out of my daydream. I looked up expectantly. "Are you going to be home for dinner tonight?" he asked.
I pursed my lips. "That depends. What are we having?"
Nate jumped in then, "Please say it's not your famous meat lump, dad. I've been living on college dorm food, but I'm not quite ready for that."
My dad laughed but I caught a glimmer of sadness behind the mirth. After my mom died my father had tried his best to take on the role of both parents. I was old enough to do the shopping and laundry but he'd insisted on cooking. His many attempts at a decent meat loaf were dubbed "meat lump" and deemed practically inedible. Undeniably he'd become a much better cook in the last seven years, but I felt a little bad that Nate's joke had still stung and quickly changed the subject.
"Spaghetti it is, and I'd love to make it," I said, and stood up to gather the empty plate and glasses. Ethan immediately stood and helped to clear the dishes. We exchanged a smile and a head shake as Nate sat, oblivious, and let us clean up after him. Typical. My parents may have made sure that Ethan was prepared for school and offered him parental nurturing but it was quite clear that his grandmother instilled him with manners that were sorely lacking in my brother. "Oh no, Nate, don't get up. I totally got it," I said dryly. He made a face.
Prompted by my thoughts I said, "Ethan, how's your grandmother?"
"She's good. Still insisting on doing everything at home including mowing the lawn. The woman is 85 years old. I told her it's time to give up the ghost and learn canasta or something, but she won't hear it," he answered, stacking the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.
I laughed. "I really need to introduce this woman to my grandmother. I think they'd get along."
Before I could finish my father interrupted. "Oh, Keri- that reminds me. Speaking of your grandmother, she called today."
"I'm sorry I missed her!" I said, disappointedly.
"Well, she wants you to call her back. She has a proposition for you."
I quirked an eyebrow. "Really? A proposition as in the time she wanted me to sell knives door-to-door with her to raise money to enter the 60 and older square dancing competition? How about-"
My father cut me off with a snort. "No, it's nothing like that. She wants you to go on a road trip with her- to her high school class reunion in California."
I had to admit- my interest was piqued.