Sweet (Contours of the Heart #3) by Tammara Webber

Chapter One

Boyce

Bud Wynn died this morning. According to the attending physician, time of death was 5:23 a.m. He died of liver disease, of cirrhosis, of complications from ascites that caused heart failure—any and all of these would be true enough, I reckon.

I say he died of booze, because that’s truer than anything else.

Under the fluorescent lights of the hallway, everybody in that hospital looked a step closer to death than they probably were. I’m sure I was no exception—but I didn’t intend to die anytime soon. It might have made me a cold-blooded bastard, but the reason I didn’t intend to die was because I was finally free. Free of that gutless, mean old man. Free of the asshole who’d chased off my mother and brother—one to disappear into the dark like a weightless shadow, the other into a grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Free of the charge I took of his final days because nobody else wanted charge of them.

Two minutes after the doctor gave me time alone with the body to say my good-byes, I emerged dry-eyed and signed the papers authorizing the crematory to take him. They would slide him into a refrigerated box in the wall, and there he’d wait out the necessary forty-eight hours until he could be returned to dust. It’s what he’d wanted.

“No fucking funeral,” he’d wheezed from his piece-of-shit recliner when I came in one night about six months ago, like we’d been in the middle of a conversation. I paused in the doorway but didn’t answer. “No goddamned casket. And for chrissake, no crap-ass service. Just toss my ashes in the gulf.” Something in my face must have told him I wouldn’t be toting his remains to the water at sunset in some sham memorial. “Or the john. Makes me no nevermind.”

That was our only conversation about his looming death.

As the sun rose over the gulf, I came home to a place that was somehow different from the shitty single-wide I’d left hours before, because this time he would never return. I’d been claiming it a bit at a time for years now—hard-won territory, every inch—the trailer and the small brick building it leaned into: Wynn’s Garage. But neither had belonged to me. Not until today.

Leaving the front door open, I walked straight up to the stained recliner, deep-sea blue in a former life, now faded and held together with duct tape and loose bolts. Dragging it from its corner, I pulled it across the soiled carpet and rammed it through the front door, down the cracked concrete steps, and into the yard. I stared where it sat harmless and ugly on the dead grass.

I picked it up and moved it to the middle of the asphalt driveway the trailer shared with the garage. Pulling my lighter and smokes from my front pocket, I stared at that chair, memories of my father rushing over me one after another until they all blended into one where I entered the room and he said, “Get me a beer before you go out that door, you worthless dumbass” from that chair. I’d fetch a can from the twenty-four-pack in the fridge and hand it to him, stretching out my arm so he’d be less able to grab my wrist and twist it, or yank me closer and punch a fist into my shoulder, my side, my stomach.

Most of the time, he’d just take the beer, his eyes glued to the flickering screen. One time in five, he’d try to get hold of me. My heart rate sped, remembering. I never knew when he’d lunge and when he’d just snatch the can from my hand and ignore me.

I lit the end of a Camel Crush and sucked in smoke and nicotine-aided calm.

Once, when I was seventeen, he’d punched me so hard I couldn’t breathe for nearly a minute. I thought I was going to die. Stumbling and knocking over the coffee table as I fell just pissed him off more. He lunged and swung again, but I ducked and he missed. A first. That made him furious, and he came at me just as I hit the floor and my lungs decided to unlock and let me live. He kicked me once before I rolled to my feet and realized I’d grown as tall as him in the past few months. He still outweighed me then, but that thought didn’t enter my mind. I was desperate and enraged and scared as hell.

I threw a fist straight into his face, and his nose crunched just like anybody else’s. Why that fact surprised me, I don’t know. But in that moment, he’d reached the end of his godlike reign over me. I saw the realization of it in his eyes as he staggered and swung, missing again. For the first time, I stepped forward instead of falling back. I lashed out instead of cowering. I hit instead of got hit.

He was bloodied and gasping when I backed toward the door—laboring to breathe, inhaling and exhaling and alive and unhurt but for my bloodied fists. I pointed like the grim reaper. “Don’t. Ever. Fucking. Hit me. Again.”

“Get the fuck out of my house!” he’d hollered, the weak squawk of an old man.

“You won’t live forever,” I’d said, but he hadn’t heard me.

I flicked the still-burning butt onto the seat of that chair, where it smoldered and sank like a crab burrowing down into the sand, leaving only a black-ringed hole. I’d gone to pull my lighter from my pocket again when there was a sudden, gratifying whoosh as the seat went up in flames.

I took a step back and pulled out another cigarette, lit and started it, watching that chair turn into a squarish pillar of fire that would soon be reduced to ashes.

“Good-bye, Dad,” I said.

Pearl

My hands gripped the wheel, and I took a slow breath as if I were psyching myself to lift a heavy weight or dive off a cliff. Southbound 181 remained a familiar blur of scrubby grass, gnarled mesquites, and mile after mile of weathered wire and post fencing. The monotonous view usually comforted me, every mile marker bringing me closer to home. Today, the closer I got the more aware I was of the confrontation I’d been avoiding for months and the fact that I couldn’t dodge it any longer.

A lifetime of camouflage fell away, and I was left with nothing but the truth of who I was and the fact that soon everyone else would know. I swallowed hard, reality tightening its fist around my windpipe.

“Mama, I’m not going to medical school.” I forced the words out, testing their impact on my own ears.

I knew my mother well, and while I’d certainly disappointed her before—my shy approach to social situations manifesting in an inevitable lack of leadership qualities, for example—this was disappointment at an unprecedented level. Medical school had been her goal for me my entire life. Our goal for me. Until I realized—with crushing clarity, in the middle of a Harvard interview last fall—that joining the medical profession wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I’d ended up waitlisted at Harvard. My near-4.0 undergrad GPA and above-average MCAT scores weren’t the reason I’d failed to receive unconditional admittance. The premed associations I’d joined, the internships I’d completed, my sorority membership and exemplary letters of reference—these things weren’t at fault.

The determining factor had been my mouth, opening and closing in fishlike absurdity instead of giving a coherent answer to a perfectly standard question from the faculty member leading the interview.

“Ms. Frank,” she’d begun, raising her eyes from the paperwork on the table in front of her and pinning me with a focused smile, “tell us, please—what reservations might you have about joining the medical profession?”

There was nothing accusatory in her tone. She’d undoubtedly posed this question before and expected a competent, thoughtful answer in return. Here was the chance to affirm my desire to study medicine at a university that produces highly skilled physicians (such as Harvard). A nervous applicant might offer a chuckled comment about paying back formidable med-school loans. A self-confident candidate like my boyfriend, Mitchell, might declare: I have no reservations; I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.

Instead, all I could think was, I don’t want to. My mouth worked in desperation, trying to find other, more appropriate words to say, but they wouldn’t come.

I eventually blurted something inane, and after an awkward pause, the Q&A progressed to other interrogations. I made no further blunders as we discussed my premed preparations, methods of handling personal and educational challenges, and the ways I imagined the healthcare profession might change in the near future.

But in the taxi back to my hotel, all I could recall was that one question and the host of suitable answers I hadn’t given. Once in my room, I’d called Mitchell and answered his post-interview debriefing with a vague, “It was fine. I’m just sort of beat.” I couldn’t put my newfound self-awareness into words over the phone. When he didn’t press for performance specifics, I wasn’t sure if he believed I was too tired to elaborate or if he was merely preoccupied with his own interview schedule. He’d just returned from Durham and would be in Cambridge in two weeks. He’d want to dissect every aspect of Harvard’s interview process before he arrived.

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