On the Fence Page 2

“Good, then let’s do this.” Jerom clapped his hands and we lined up. The score was tied at seven with five minutes left. My socks were soggy with mud and my hands slipped off my knees as I crouched down, but I was going to catch this ball. I took off after the snap and Jerom threw a perfect pass. I caught it and ran. Someone grabbed hold of the back of my shirt and I shook him free, nearly sliding across the slick grass.

When there were no defenders between me and the orange cones, I started calling out my own plays. “She hurdles a puddle and spins into the end zone. Touchdown!” I turned around and held the ball in the air like a trophy. “Oh yeah! We are the best!”

“Stop gloating,” Braden mumbled, picking himself up off the ground. “It’s annoying.”

“Sore loser,” I coughed under my breath. He was just like my brothers—he hated to lose.

He put me in a headlock and rubbed his knuckles across my scalp.

A whiff of wet grass, sweat, and dirt filled my nose. “Ugh. You smell. Get off me.”

“That’s the stench of victory.”

“More like the stink of failure.”

He let me go right above a mud puddle, making sure to throw me off balance. I landed on my hands, splattering mud all over my face.

“You are dead.” I jumped on him from behind, digging my knee in his lower back.

He let out a yell-laugh. When I slid off, I went to the sidelines, found his sweatshirt, then wiped my face clean with it. I headed back toward the field, where some guys were huddled together, including two of my brothers—Nathan and Jerom. “What are we all standing around for? Let’s finish this thing.”

Jerom and Nathan both shot me a warning look of silence. It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized one of the guys, Dave, was on the phone.

“No girlfriend emergencies right now. We’re in the middle of the game,” I said, and Dave looked up but his eyes didn’t focus on me.

“Charlie, shush,” Nathan said. “Something’s going on.”

Several more guys crowded in. “What’s up?” Braden asked from right behind me.

I shrugged. “I don’t know, I’ve been shushed.” Over Braden’s shoulder I could see Gage by the starting line tossing the ball in the air over and over. He caught my eye and put his arms out in the “What’s taking so long?” gesture. I just shook my head.

Finally, Dave hung up the phone and said, “I have to go. It’s my grandma.”

“Did you explain to your grandma that we’re in the middle of a game?” I asked.

“She died.”

“Oh.”

A round of groans and apologies went around the group. Dave looked like he was in shock, his eyes glassed over.

“How old was she?” I asked.

He absently ran his hand along his shoulder. “Seventy-something. I’m not sure.”

“What happened?”

“She’s had cancer for about a year. We knew this was coming. We just weren’t sure when.”

“That sucks.” I rubbed my hands together and looked around. Everyone just stood there, not sure what to say. “Should we finish the game, then?”

Braden elbowed me in the side.

“What? It will get his mind off it. And we only have five minutes left. We can’t quit now.”

“Charlie,” Jerom said in his official big-brother scold, at the same time Nathan took one of my arms and Braden took the other, dragging me away from the group.

“What’s the big de—” I couldn’t finish my sentence because Braden clamped his hand over my mouth.

“We, of all people, should understand this,” Nathan said under his breath. “Show a little empathy.”

I bit down on Braden’s finger and he let go. Then I yanked free of their hold. “What should I understand about some lady dying of a disease she’d been fighting?”

Braden reached out, probably trying to cover my mouth again. I stepped out of his reach.

“Shhh!” Nathan hissed, looking over his shoulder. “You should understand that—”

“Fine. Whatever. Tell Dave I’m sorry.” With that, I turned and ran, taking the path around the park, then farther. Why should I understand what Dave was going through? Because someone in his life had died, like someone in my life had? Our situations were nothing alike. My mom had been thirty-one when she died. I hardly got to know her at all. I got a measly six years with her. Six years I didn’t even remember.

The tightness in my chest made it hard to breathe, which made it hard to run. And that made me angry. Running was never hard for me. I forced myself to run until I could breathe normally again. It took a while.

By the time I got home, the sun was high in the sky and I was covered in sweat. Braden stood in my front yard. His wet-from-a-shower auburn hair looked black. He was a little taller than my brothers, which made him lankier, yet his broad shoulders made it obvious he was an athlete. “Hey, feel better?” he asked.

“Smell better?” I said with a smile.

“So that’s a yes?”

“I’m fine. Apparently, I’m just a jerk, but we all knew that.”

Braden cringed. He hated the word jerk. It’s what we all called his dad—well, what Braden called him, and we all agreed. It was as if he felt that word belonged to his dad and was too big of an insult to assign to anyone else.

“So is Dave okay?”

“Jerom drove him home, so I’m sure he’s fine.”

“What’s up with Jerom? Two years in college and suddenly he’s all fatherly?”

“Your brother has always been a good listener.”

He has? And why would Braden know that? I pointed to his driveway and the white work truck parked there. “Your dad got off early today?”

He waved his hand through the air, swatting away the question that apparently didn’t merit a verbal response, then turned back to me. “What are you doing right now?”

“Showering.” I reached my front door then turned around. “See ya.”

He stopped me by saying, “We’re going out for my mom’s birthday tonight. I figured I better go to the mall and find her a present.”

“Probably a good idea.”

My hand was on the doorknob when he asked, “Any ideas for what to get her?”

“You’re asking me?” I laughed. “Funny.”

“I could use a girl’s opinion.”

“Then you better go find one.”

“Well, opinion or not, you want to come?”

“To the mall?” I turned around. He had a look in his eye. Braden may have been a wild card, but I could still read him most of the time, and right now he felt sorry for me. Pity made me angry. “Look, Braden, I’m fine, okay?” And apparently if I needed to talk, Jerom’s ear was available.

He held up his hands in surrender. “Fine.” His eyes seemed to say, Perhaps you do have a cold, cold heart, Charlie. I couldn’t have agreed more.

Chapter 3

Nathan was in charge of dinner that night and had just pulled some sort of pasta-and-meat dish out of the oven, timing it perfectly with my dad’s arrival. Kiss-up. As my dad walked into the kitchen from the garage, he found where I sat at the table and narrowed his eyes at me. I wondered which one of my brothers had tattled and why my dad was so upset about it. For heaven’s sake, what was everyone’s problem? If I had started crying over Dave’s grandma my life would’ve been a whole lot easier right then. Maybe I needed to practice some fake waterworks.

My dad was a nice guy and most of the time a pushover, but when he was in his full police garb and had that look on his face, he terrified me. He hung his keys on a hook by the door, then unbuckled and hung his utility belt as well, the heavy flashlight banging the wall as he did. “Charlie . . . ,” he said in a tired voice.

“I’m sorry.” Then I made sure to give all my brothers a death glare. Gage played all big-eyed and innocent.

“You should be, but that’s not going to be good enough this time.”

“This time?” Had I been insensitive to the relatives of a different dead grandma before?

My dad approached the table and plopped a pink copy of my speeding ticket in front of me. Oh. This was worse than being insensitive. This was about breaking the law.

I tried to talk my way out of it. “I didn’t know the speed limit and I didn’t see him. He was hiding down a side street. Isn’t that illegal, like entrapment or something? Nathan? Isn’t that illegal?”

Nathan hid a smile and brought a pitcher of ice water to the table. Nathan was starting his first year of college next year. His ultimate goal—lawyerhood.

My dad leveled a hard stare at me. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”

“I’m sorry.” I should’ve been honest. It was always worse when he found out about things from an outside source.

“This is the second ticket in as many months. And that’s not counting the ones you got out of by using my name.”

I ducked my head to hide the heat I could feel on my cheeks at having been caught. I didn’t need my brothers making fun of me for blushing. My dad was right. I had been pulled over multiple times. I used his name every time.

“Do you know how embarrassing it is when my kids get speeding tickets? When I have to find out about those speeding tickets from a coworker?”

“I’m sorry.”

“But worse than the embarrassment you caused me is the blow to my bank account.” His finger came down hard on the pink slip, landing on a number written in his own handwriting that read $264.00. My eyes widened. “Yeah, that’s a lot of money.”

I nodded.

“You’re paying for it.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I don’t think you learned your lesson last time because I paid for your ticket. So, you are paying not only for this ticket, but also the last one, and the extra hundred dollars a month you are going to cost me in insurance.”

“But I don’t have that kind of money.”

“Then find a job.”

“How? Basketball camp starts in about seven weeks, and then there’s school and soccer after that.”

“Dad,” Gage piped in, using his winning smile in my defense this time. “Charlie’s just a little girl. Don’t make her work. She’ll never survive.”

Okay, so that wasn’t exactly the defense I was looking for.

“Gage. Stay out of this,” my dad said.

He saluted. “Yes, officer.”

My dad turned his hard stare on Gage, but just like the rest of us, he couldn’t stay mad at Gage either. So he turned back to me. “Figure it out, because it’s my final decision.” With that, he left the kitchen and went to his room to change. My brothers all stared at me and then, as if they’d counted to three, started laughing at exactly the same time.

“Yeah, it’s so funny,” I said. “As if you’ve never been pulled over before.”

Nathan raised his hand. “Never.” Of course not.

“Twice,” Jerom said.

I looked at Gage. Of all my brothers, he and I were not only the closest but the most alike. “A few times,” he said, “but I always got out of tickets. You gotta act a little more innocent, Charlie. You can’t be belligerent with the cops. They don’t like it.”

“How do you know I was?”

They all laughed again. This round of laughter was cut off by the ringing of a cell phone, from where it sat being charged on the counter. Gage jumped up and slid across the island to answer it before it went to voice mail.

My dad came back, and the change in his clothes seemed to change his demeanor as well. He kissed the top of my head. Maybe this meant he was rethinking the whole job thing. “You should probably start looking first thing tomorrow,” he said. Then he looked at Gage and snapped, “Off the phone.”

I sank down farther in my chair and spooned myself some of Nathan’s pasta creation. My dad said a prayer (being a cop for the last twenty years had put the fear of God in him). Then we all dug in. Dinner in our house was like a race. If you didn’t eat fast, you missed out on seconds. I didn’t feel much like seconds anyway.

I lay on my bed, feet up on the headboard, and threw a tennis ball against the wall over and over. There was a single knock on my door, and then someone I assumed was Gage let himself in. He was the only one who never waited for an answer. I tilted my head back and saw an upside-down version of Gage right before he took a flying leap and landed on my head.

I grunted my disapproval and he rolled off.

“So, a job, huh?”

“Don’t remind me.”

“I think this day should go down in history as the day Dad decreed one of his offspring must seek employment.”

“Seriously. Whatever happened to ‘School is your job’ or ‘Sports can pay for college so I consider that your job’?”

“Apparently, someone by the name of Speed Racer changed that.” He paused and—just like Gage to always see the positive in something (which was one of the only ways we weren’t alike)—said, “Finding a job is way better than getting grounded. If you were grounded, all the indoor air your body isn’t used to breathing would dry out your pores and cause you to wither up and die.”

Okay, maybe not positive, per se, but close to it.

He pushed his bangs off his forehead. “Well, for what it’s worth, I offer you my job-hunting prowess.”

“Which consists of?”

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