I'm reclined in my shotgun seat, headphones in with the music cranked loud. Passively watching the clouds fall behind us through the open sunroof. My mother is sitting next to me, softly humming along to the timid whistling of the wind seeping in from the cracked window. The summers are hot and dry in Oklahoma city, but I've heard it's nothing compared to the sticky, mosquito infested niche that is Jefferson, Louisiana. I curl my fingers tighter around my phone, clicking the volume button impulsively in hopes to drown out the intrusive thoughts of what's to come.
Two weeks ago today, I was carelessly walking home from a day with friends when my mother met me at the front door of our house. There was a somber tone in her voice when she insisted that she needed to speak with me.
We sat down side by side at the kitchen table when she gently embraced my hand into her own and began caressing my forefinger with her thumb.
" There's something I need to share with you. I need you to be open minded about this and think it through before you react, Ok?"
Immediately I was on edge, "Alright. What is it?"
" You have a great Auntie, Carolyn. She lives down towards the bayou," she takes a moment to pause and reflect her thoughts before continuing, " I haven't spoken to this woman since I was a child so I'm still trying to understand it all, but she passed and left us her house."
" In Louisiana?" I curl my mouth up in confusion.
" Uhm, yeah. Well, you know how it's been very hard for me to keep up with the bills since your dad left and so I think for now the best option is to go live there for a bit until we get back on our feet. Then we'll plan it out from there. What do you think? I'm needing your input on this, CJ."
Several different emotions filled my body, anger, sadness, shock. My entire insides felt like a whistling pressure cooker ready to explode in her face. How could she suggest I uproot my life away from my home and friends? But I knew she had been struggling with work, picking up extra shifts every night, but completely refusing to entertain the thought of me getting an evening job after school to help make ends meet. The last thing she needed was for me to make things harder for her when she's doing the best she can.
I composed myself long enough to pat her hand and reassure her, " I am going to be right beside you all the way. Whatever you think is the best option for us, I will support you on that decision" Giving her a weak smile, I stand up, kiss her cheek and calmly walk to my room. Closing the door behind me, I grab my headphones and crank the music in my ears until the dangers of the outside world no longer exist. I flop on my bed and cry myself to sleep.
My mother gently shakes my arm as I slowly regain consciousness. I must have fallen asleep. She isn't one for taking breaks during road trips, always so eager to get to her destination before anything else; especially normal bodily functions. The car is parked so we must be here, I conclude, as I slip my headphones off and pause the muffled music.Opening the car door lets in all the musky, sticky heat that immediately attacks my strawberry blonde curls. Yuck. I climb out from my seat, shaking my shirt out, attempting to keep it from adhering to my skin in the same fashion as plastic wrap.
I am in shock at the scenery, but attempting to remain positive for my mother's sake. Before me was a rustic lakeside cabin stacked on a tall layer of brick, moss taking over parts of the roof as the cypress trees hang above ominously. My mother is walking towards the door with purpose, insisting I come take a look inside.
"Yeah because this place isn't straight out of a horror film," I mumble under my breath so she wouldn't hear, following timidly behind her. We both tread lightly on the wood of the steps so that we wouldn't fall through the decaying boards.
"It needs a little TLC if I'm being honest," she says as she pops the door open.
"A Little?" I retort questionably.
She pats me gently on the shoulder before we check out the rest of this disaster of a project. Once we step inside, the whole aesthetic changes. The walls were filled with abstract interpretations of people and animals using vivid colors. In the far corner, there was an old wooden organizer filled with brushes, paints, palettes, anything you could possibly need to create.
"Carolyn sure loved to paint and she was good at it," I'm walking around the room, further investigating the artwork.
"You're right about that. Hey, come check out your bedroom."
There was a tiny hall separating the living space from the outdated yellow accented kitchen, followed by two bedrooms on either side and a small bathroom at the end. My room was much smaller than I had imagined, just big enough for a bed and dresser, with bright pastel purple walls. I wince at the idea of waking up every morning to that paint job.My mother's room is almost identical except for the fact that her walls are a sickly pastel teal.
She turns around to face me and shrugs, "So? What do you think?"
" We can make it work," I smile at her as I lean in for a warm embrace.
" You are absolutely right, baby."
The next few days were spent scrubbing the never ending accumulation of dust and dirt from the home. Finally, we had gotten to a good stopping point where we both agreed it's time to unpack what little belongings we had brought with us. We sold all of our belongings that wouldn't fit inside the Subaru, making a decent amount of money to hold us over until we settled in.
The following morning, we head into town for the first time in hopes of finding some much needed supplies and homegoods. We grab what we could afford and make our way to the register. There was a sign on the countertop advertising a handyman. I jabbed my mother in her side while tapping on the paper.
"We really need the steps fixed before we hurt ourselves."
"You're right," she huffs as she saves the number.
"Y'all must be the new residents to Carolyn's place down by the lake?" The old man behind the counter speaks up as he is packing our items into brown paper bags.
"Yes, sir," my mom answers in her soft spoken voice as she searches in her bag for her card, handing it to the man.
"Good deal. She was a pleasant woman. A little batty, but sweet as can be. Y'all have a good day now," he says with a gentle smile as he pushes the bags over the counter.
A little past noon, an old rusty Chevy clanks it's way up the drive, concluding with the low groan of the engine turning off. My mother and I step out on the porch to see a young, muscular man walking in our direction. He couldn't be much older than myself, probably just out of high school.
"Good afternoon, ladies. I'm Nat, I'm here to fix your steps."
My mother slaps her hands together enthusiastically, "Oh, how perfect?! Thank you!"
He begins immediately by letting the tailgate down on his truck. I eagerly walk over and begin pulling at boards.
"Uhh, what are you doing?"
"What does it look like? I'm helping."
He stops what he's doing and turns towards me, overshadowing me by a foot or so.
"I have this taken care of, I don't need help from a little girl. Go help your momma."
"Excuse me! I am seventeen, so I'm not a little girl for starters and I am perfectly capable of helping!" I raise my voice in disagreement.
He walks up close to me and bends down to where he's in my face. "I don't need help from a little city girl. Go help your momma," he snarls.
"Suit your damn self," my face puckers up from the burning in my eyes as I turn away and stomp my way back into the house before he sees that I'm about to cry.
" Your stairs are all done, ma'am, but unfortunately it looks like your roof could use some work as well. If you'd like, I could come back tomorrow and take a closer look at it."
" Oh, that's so thoughtful of you. However, unfortunately we are running kind of low on cash at the moment with the move and all. So, I'm going to have to get back with you on that."
"Well, I could do the work and you could just pay me back when you have the chance. Consider it a welcoming gift."
"Oh, I appreciate that. Yes, that would be lovely, thank you. "
"Oh, don't mention it. It's what neighbors do." He smiles, tips his hat and then walks away to crank up the old piece of metal in our yard. My mother was smiling and waving as he went.
"He is a lovely boy," she comments, nudging my arm as she walks back inside.
"Yeah. A real gentleman." I scoff, watching him drive down the road.
As it turns out, the roof was in a lot worse shape than we had originally thought. Which of course, meant that Nat would have to be here a lot longer than I could stomach. My mother, insisting on being cordial and polite, made us all ham sandwiches for lunch. Leaving me to deliver the offering to Mr. Macho himself. I set the plate and tall glass of lemonade on the porch rails and then proceed to climb the ladder leaned up against the roof.
"Hey, mom made you some lu--,"
"Get down before you hurt yourself!" He interrupts.
"I'm already up here!" I argued.
"I'll be down in a minute! Do as I asked!"
I huff and oblige.
Nate walks up on the porch and sits down on the porch swing right next to me, without saying a word, he inhales his sandwich.
"Thank you," he muffles, mouth still full of potato chips.
"You don't have to be so damn rude all the time."
"I'm not being rude, you were going to fall and get hurt."
"I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. You're not my dad, my dad is dead. I don't need you looking out for me like I'm a child," without realizing it, I'm in his face, sticking my fingers assertively into his chest.
He chuckles as he swats my hand away, picking up the plate and empty glass.
"You sure do act like it," he walks into the house, leaving me to swing by myself from the momentum of him getting up. His boots are clanking on the flooring, I can hear him politely thanking my mother for lunch. He stops briefly at the door to wink at me mockingly before getting back to work.
"Are you almost done with the roof so I don't have to see you anymore?" I'm leaned up against his truck, awaiting a response as he walked closer to the vehicle.
"Well, now who's being rude?" He grins and flicks my nose, causing my blood to boil and I react by slapping him in the stomach.
"You know you're not all that, Mr. Tough guy! Thinking you can bully me just because I'm a girl, well guess what? That's just not going to fly!" I'm shoving him back with all of my might at this point.
He is laughing uncontrollably, "You really think you're doing something?"
I scream in frustration, unable to process my rage any longer. I walk away, sitting down facing the pond. Suddenly my emotions are defiant against my best efforts to contain myself and I find myself sobbing quietly.
Nat comes and sits down quietly beside me. I hurry to wipe my tear stained face before he notices and bullies me for being weak. Instead, he puts his arm around my shoulder, tapping gently with his calloused fingers. I immediately shrug him off, scowling at him in silence.
"You don't have to be strong all of the time. People are allowed to take care of you. You're so stubborn and hard headed that you don't see it."
"My mother and I are doing just fine without you swooping down with your little small town messiah complex."
" And I'm saying you don't have to be Miss. Big-City-Boss-Babe all of the time either. I understand you feel like you're protecting your mother, which is completely respectable, but in this town we help each other. Y'all aren't alone here. I knew Carolyn well. She gave y'all a home here purposely because y'all were drowning on your own, just face it and come to terms with it."
We sat in silence for a few moments, I'm unsure of what I need to say next.
"You're not so bad, I guess. I'm sorry for calling you rude," I say shyly as I elbow him in the side.
He grins at me in satisfaction, "You're not so bad yourself. Hey, maybe I could take you out one night, show you around. Have some fun, maybe. You do know what fun is, don't you?"
I regurgitate his words in a purposefully whiny voice, " Yes, I know what fun is."
I'm blushing, focusing on the lake. I turn to face him. "Sure. Yeah, we could do that."