It seems like the farther away from Austin that Grampa Jack's clunking red truck gets, the heavier the sun beats down on them.
Magnolia—or Nole, to everyone except Grampa Jack and government—lets out a breath she hadn't known she had been holding in. A bead of sweat drips down her back. She absently places her hand out of the rolled down window, marveling at how the Texas heat warps and disfigures the landscape.
"We're almost there." Grampa Jack announces gruffly. It's the first time either had spoken in nearly two hundred miles. He's a man of few words, which Nole greatly appreciates—especially now. "Would you like to stop in town for lunch?"
"If you're hungry." Nole shrugs, looking out at the dusty town moving past them. She feels like if she blinks they'll have already driven past it.
Grampa Jack glances at the watch on his wrist, the color of the leather band nearly matching his own sun-tanned complexion.
"It's about that time. You might get to meet one of my good friends."
Nole gives a nod, not looking forward to socializing.
With the truck parked, Grampa Jack walks around the passenger side to open the door for Nole. She thanks him quietly, unused to the gesture. She knows the older man comes from a different time, a time of old Southern chivalry. Her father had told her stories about the dinner bell and having to wait until everyone had been seated at the table before eating.
At the thought of her father Nole's chest squeezes painfully. She blinks back the tears as she follows her grandfather into the small diner.
"Jack!" A man with piercing blue eyes and a head of barely tamed curls calls out. He's seated beside a man in a Stetson and a crisply starched linen shirt, the silver of his bolo tie as polished and reflectant as a mirror.
"T.J., Vic. It's good to see y'all." A smile stretches across her grandfather's features. "This is my grandkid, Nole. She's around Theo and Tess' age."
Nole nods in their direction, feeling a hint of panic as the two men invite her and Grampa Jack to share their table. The man in the Stetson takes off his hat in Nole's presence, revealing a head of thinning hair. She listens as the men talk, the topics ranging from their children (Tess is Vic's daughter and Theodore is T.J.'s son, she learns) to fishing trips and jerky making.
After finishing their meals, or taking two bites of her burger and pushing fries around the plate in Nole's case, Grampa Jack completes the drive into Vera.
Grampa Jack's place is small, a three bedroom wooden house painted white with rust red shutters. It's nothing like the rows of nearly identical brick houses she's used to seeing in the suburbs. There's a soul to it.
"Well," Grampa Jack clears his throat. "This is home."
This isn't home, Nole thinks. Home is where she took her first steps, where she busted her knee on the sidewalk learning to ride a bike, where she got her period for the first time, where she had her first kiss on the porch—where her parents were murdered and she would have been, too, if she hadn't insisted on going to the movies with her friends.
No, this isn't home.
But she can't go home anymore.
Nole is pulled out of her trance by the sound of tires on gravel. She turns her head to see a beat up green Chevy pull up to the driveway.
The driver gets out and assists T.J. Duley with his cane. Nole watches anxiously as Grampa Jack jogs up to the visitors.
"Magnolia!" Grampa Jack calls out to her, just as she had feared. "T.J. and Theo have offered to help move you in."
"I'll do most of the heavy lifting." The young man, Theo, smiles.
"I can't do much but I'm a good supervisor." T.J. adds with a laugh.
"I don't have a lot to move." Nole says quietly. "But thank you for helping."
"Don't mention it!" Theo calls back, two boxes already balanced on his shoulders. She watches him in awe as he unloads the rest of the truck as if her luggage is made out of feathers. His tanned arms are covered in taut muscles but he's strong, like, really strong.
Nole follows her grandfather and T.J. into the house after Theo.
"This is your room. I don't know if you remember but you stayed here whenever you visited as a kid."
"I remember." Nole murmurs, running her hand over the aged wooden headboard.
Theo brings in the last box, stacking it on top of the others.
"Do you need any help unpacking?" Theo asks. He wipes his forehead almost only for effect. It doesn't appear like he had even broken a sweat.
"Thanks, Theo, but I'm fine." Nole tells him quietly as she looks at the boxes that have filled the room. Her entire life (or what remains of it), all in cardboard.
"It's Dooley." He corrects, to which she raises a brow. "Jack's the only one who calls me Theo, other than my ma. Everyone else just calls me Dooley."
"Dooley." She repeats with a nod. "Please call me Nole, every one else but Grampa Jack does."
"Nole, got it. Well a few of us, some of the other kids in town, are going to the lake later if you'd like to come." Dooley offers with a warm smile, and if this was a year ago she would have yes in a heartbeat.
But that was the old Nole.
"No, thank you." She responds a little too quickly. She sees the flash of hurt on Dooley's face (it's something she's used to, the Grahame look she was given as she slowly pushed away all her friends back in Austin).
"Okay, well, I'll see you around." He rubs the back of his neck awkwardly before joining his dad back in the living room.
"You should give Theo and other kids a chance, Nole." Her grandfather tells her softly.
She gives him a weary look. She just wants to be alone.
"I know what you're doing, Grampa. But I don't wanna give anyone a chance. I don't even wanna be here." She sighs, sitting back onto her bed covered in a faded quilt her grandmother must have made when she was alive.
He gives her a frown, the lines carved deeply into his aged face.
"I'll leave you to unpack then. I better say goodbye to T.J. and Theo." He backs aways, giving her a small nod before disappearing down the hall.
Nole gets up to softly close the door before crawling back into bed. She takes a deep breath and exhales, painful and shuddering. She doesn't hold back the tears, letting the sobs overcome her body and dampen her pillow.
She wants to go home.