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Chapter no 3 – MORGA0

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“Morgan, stop.” Jenny pulls the knife from my hand and pushes me away from the cutting board. “It’s your birthday. You aren’t supposed to do any of the work.”

I lean my hip into the counter and watch her begin chopping the tomato. I have to bite my tongue because she’s slicing the tomato way too thick. The big sister in me still wants to take over and correct her, even in our thirties.

But seriously, though. I could get three slices of tomato out of one of hers.

“Stop judging me,” she says. “I’m not.”

“Yes, you are. You know I don’t cook.”

“That’s why I was offering to slice the tomato.”

Jenny holds the knife up like she’s going to cut me. I raise defensive hands and then push myself up onto the counter next to her.

“So,” Jenny says, side-eyeing me. I can tell by the tone of her voice she’s about to say something she knows I’m going to disagree with. “Jonah and I decided to get married.”

Surprisingly, I have no outward reaction to that comment. But inside, those words feel like claws, hollowing out my stomach. “He proposed?”

She lowers her voice to a whisper because Jonah is in the living room. “Not really. It was more of a discussion. It makes sense for it to be our next move.”

“That is the least romantic thing I’ve ever heard.”

Jenny narrows her eyes at me. “Like your proposal was any different?”

“Touché.” I hate it when she makes good points. But she’s right. There wasn’t a fancy proposal—or even a plain proposal. The day after I

told Chris I was pregnant, he said, “Well, I guess we should get married.”

I said, “Yeah, I guess.”

And that was that.

We’ve been happily married seventeen years now, so I don’t know why I’m judging Jenny for the situation she got herself in. It just feels different. Jonah and Chris are two completely different people, and at least Chris and I were in a relationship when I got pregnant. I’m not even sure what’s going on with Jonah and Jenny. They haven’t spoken since the summer after he graduated, and now he’s suddenly back in our lives and potentially our family?

Jonah’s father died last year, and even though none of us had seen or spoken to him in years, Jenny decided to go to the funeral. They ended up having a one-night stand, but then he flew back home to Minnesota the next day. A month later, she found out she was pregnant.

I’ll hand it to Jonah: he did step up to the plate. He got his life tied up in Minnesota and moved back here a month before Jenny was due. Granted, that was only three months ago, so I guess my hesitation comes more from not really knowing who Jonah is at this point in his life. They dated for two months when Jenny was in high school, and now he moved across the country to raise a child with her.

“How many times have the two of you even had sex?”

Jenny looks at me in shock, like my question is too intrusive.

I roll my eyes. “Oh, stop acting modest. I’m serious. You had a one- night stand and then didn’t see him until you were nine months pregnant. Have you even been cleared by your doctor yet?”

Jenny nods. “Last week.”

“And?” I ask, waiting for her to answer my question. “Three times.”

“Including the one-night stand?”

She shakes her head. “Four, I guess. Or . . . well . . . five. That night counts as two times.”

Wow. They’re practically strangers. “Five times? And now you’re

marrying him?”

Jenny is finished cutting the tomatoes. She plates them and starts slicing up an onion. “It’s not like we just met. You liked Jonah just fine when I dated him in high school. I don’t understand why you have an issue with it now.”

I pull back. “Uh . . . let’s see. He dumped you, moved to Minnesota the next day, disappeared for seventeen years, and now he suddenly

wants to commit to you for the rest of his life? I think it’s odd that you think my reaction is odd.”

“We have a child together, Morgan. Is that not the same reason you’ve been married to Chris for seventeen years?”

There she goes, bringing up another good point.

Her phone rings, so she wipes her hands and pulls it out of her pocket. “Speaking of your child.” She answers her cell. “Hey, Clara.”

She has it on speakerphone, so it stings when I hear Clara say, “You aren’t with my mother, are you?”

Jenny’s eyes widen in my direction. She begins backing toward the kitchen door. “Nope.” Jenny takes the phone off speaker and disappears into the living room.

It doesn’t bother me that Clara always calls my sister for advice, rather than asking me. The problem is Jenny has no idea how to give Clara advice. She spent her twenties partying, struggling through nursing school, and coming to me when she needed a place to stay.

Usually when Clara calls Jenny with something important that Jenny doesn’t know how to answer, she’ll make an excuse to hang up, and then she’ll call me and relay everything. I’ll tell her what to tell Clara; then she’ll call Clara back and relay the advice like it came from her.

I like the setup, although I’d much rather Clara just ask me. But I get it. I’m her mom. Jenny is the cool aunt. Clara doesn’t want me to know about certain things, and I get that. She’d die if she knew that I was aware of some of her secrets. Like when she asked Jenny to make her an appointment to get on birth control a few months ago, just in case. I hop off the counter and continue slicing the onion. The kitchen door swings open, and Jonah walks in. He nudges his head toward the cutting board. “Jenny told me I have to take over because you aren’t

allowed to do anything.”

I roll my eyes and drop the knife, moving out of his way.

I stare at his left hand, wondering what a wedding ring is going to look like on his ring finger. It’s hard for me to imagine Jonah Sullivan committing to someone. I still can’t believe he’s back in our lives, and now he’s here, in my kitchen, chopping onions on a cutting board that was given to me and Chris at the wedding Jonah didn’t even attend.

“You okay?”

I look up at Jonah. His head is tilted, his cobalt eyes full of curiosity as he waits for me to answer him. Everything inside of me feels like it thickens—my blood, my saliva, my resentment.

“Yeah.” I flash a quick smile. “I’m fine.”

I need to give my focus to something else—anything else. I walk to the refrigerator and open it, pretending to look for something. I’ve successfully avoided one-on-one conversation with him since he moved back. I don’t feel like making it a thing right now. Especially on my birthday.

The kitchen door swings open, and Chris walks in with a pan of burgers fresh off the grill. I close the refrigerator and stare at the kitchen door, which continues to swing back and forth behind him.

I hate that door more than I hate any other part of this house.

I’m grateful for the house, don’t get me wrong. Chris’s parents gave it to us as a wedding present when they moved to Florida. But it’s the same house Chris grew up in, and his father, and his grandfather. The house is a historical landmark, complete with the little white sign out front. It was built in 1918 and reminds me daily that it’s over a century old. The creaky floorboards, the plumbing that’s constantly in need of repair. Even after we remodeled six years ago, the age still screams out any chance it gets.

Chris wanted to keep the original floor plan after the remodel, so even though a lot of the fixtures are new, it doesn’t help that every room in this house is secluded and closed off from every other room. I wanted an open floor plan. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe in this house with all these walls.

I certainly can’t eavesdrop on Jenny and Clara’s conversation like I’d like to.

Chris sets the pan of burgers on the stove. “Gotta grab the rest, and then it’ll be ready. Is Clara almost home?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Ask Jenny.”

Chris raises his eyebrows, sensing my jealousy. He exits the kitchen, and the door continues to swing. Jonah stops it with his foot and then goes back to cutting up the vegetables.

Even though the four of us used to be best friends, sometimes Jonah seems like a stranger to me. He looks mostly the same, but there are subtle differences. When we were teens, his hair was longer. So long he’d sometimes pull it back in a ponytail. It’s short now and a richer brown. He lost some of the honey-colored streaks that would show up by the end of every summer, but the darker color just brings out the blue in his eyes even more. His eyes have always been kind, even when he was angry. The only time you could tell he was upset was when his angular jawline would tense.

Chris is his opposite. He has blond hair and emerald eyes and a jawline he doesn’t keep hidden behind stubble. Chris’s job requires him to be clean cut, so his smooth skin makes him appear years younger than he actually is. And he has this adorable dimple that appears in the center of his chin when he smiles. I love it when he smiles, even after all these years of marriage.

When I compare the two of them, it’s hard to believe Jonah and Chris are both thirty-five. Chris still has a baby face and could pass for being in his twenties. Jonah looks all of thirty-five and seems to have grown several inches, even since high school.

It makes me wonder how much different I look now than I did as a teenager. I’d like to think I still appear as youthful as Chris, but I certainly feel a lot older than thirty-three.

Well. Thirty-four, now.

Jonah brushes past me to grab a plate from the cabinet. He glances at me when he does and holds his stare. I can tell by the look on his face he has something to say, but he probably won’t say it because he’s always inside his head. He thinks more than he speaks.

“What?” I stare back at him—waiting for a response.

He shakes his head and turns around. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“You can’t look at me like that and not tell me what you were about to say.”

He sighs, his back still to me as he grabs the head of lettuce and sticks the knife into it. “It’s your birthday. I don’t want to bring it up on your birthday.”

“Too late for that.”

He faces me again with a hesitant look in his eye, but he concedes and tells me his thoughts. “You’ve barely spoken to me since I moved back.”

Wow. He cuts right to the chase. I can feel my chest and neck heat from the embarrassment of being called out. I clear my throat. “I’m speaking to you now.”

Jonah folds his lips together, like he’s trying to remain patient with me. “It’s different. Things feel different.” His words tumble around in the kitchen, and I want to dodge them, but the kitchen is too damn small.

“Different from what?”

He wipes his hands on a dish towel. “From how it used to be.

Before I left. We used to talk all the time.”

I almost scoff at that ridiculous comment. Of course things are different. We’re adults now, with lives, and children, and responsibilities.

We can’t just go back to the carefree friendships we all had back then. “It’s been over seventeen years. Did you think you could show back up and the four of us would fall right back into place?”

He shrugs. “Things fell back into place with me and Chris. And me and Jenny. Just not with me and you.”

I waver between wanting to duck out of the kitchen and yelling all the things I’ve been wanting to yell at him since he left in such a selfish way.

I take a sip of my wine to stall my response. He’s staring at me with eyes full of disappointment as I formulate a reply. Or maybe he’s staring at me with contempt. Whatever he’s feeling, it’s the same look he gave me seconds before he walked away all those years ago.

And just like back then, I don’t know if his disappointment is directed inward or outward.

He sighs. I can feel the weight of all his unpackaged thoughts.

“I’m sorry I left the way I did. But you can’t stay mad at me forever, Morgan.” His words come out quietly, like he doesn’t want anyone else to hear our conversation. Then he walks out of the kitchen and ends it.

It isn’t until this moment that I’m reminded of the heaviness I used to feel when he was around. Sharing the same air with him sometimes felt stifling back then, like he was selfishly taking more of it than he needed and I was hardly left with any air at all.

That same stifling feeling is back again, surrounding me in my own kitchen.

Even though he’s no longer in the kitchen and the door is swinging back and forth, I can still feel the heaviness bearing down on my chest.

As soon as I stop the swinging kitchen door with my foot, Jenny pushes it back open. The conversation I refused to partake in with Jonah gets shoved to the back of my mind for me to stew over later, because now I need to know everything Clara said to my sister.

“It was nothing,” Jenny says flippantly. “She gave some guy from her school a ride, and he started following her on Instagram. She wasn’t sure if he was flirting with her.”

“What guy?”

Jenny shrugs. “Morris? Miller? I can’t remember. His last name is Adams.”

Chris is in the kitchen now, setting another pan on the stove. “Miller Adams? Why are we talking about Miller Adams?”

“You know him?” I ask.

Chris shoots me a look that lets me know I should know exactly

who Miller Adams is, but the name rings no bells. “He’s Hank’s boy.” “Hank? There are still people named Hank in this world?”

Chris rolls his eyes. “Morgan, come on. Hank Adams? We went to school with him.”

“I vaguely remember that name.”

Chris shakes his head. “He’s the kid who used to sell me weed. Ended up dropping out junior year. Got arrested for stealing the science teacher’s car. And a load of other shit. Pretty sure he’s been in jail a few years now.” Chris gives his attention to Jenny. “Too many DUIs or something. Why are we talking about his son? Clara isn’t dating him, is she?”

Jenny grabs the pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator and closes the door with her hip. “No. We’re talking about a celebrity named Miller Adams. You’re talking about someone local. Different people.”

Chris blows out a rush of air. “Thank God. That’s the last family she needs to be involved with.”

Anything involving his daughter and a boy is not an easy subject with Chris. He takes the tea from Jenny and leaves the kitchen to go place it on the dining room table.

I laugh once I know Chris is out of earshot. “A celebrity?” Jenny shrugs. “I don’t want to get her in trouble.”

Jenny has always been quick on her feet. She’s so good at improvising it’s scary.

I glance at the door to make sure it’s closed, then look back at her. “Jonah thinks I hate him.”

Jenny shrugs. “Feels that way sometimes.”

“I’ve never hated him. You know that. It’s just . . . you barely know him.”

“We have a child together.”

“It takes thirty seconds to make a baby.”

Jenny laughs. “It was more like three hours, if you really want to know.”

I roll my eyes. “I don’t want to know.”

Chris yells from the dining room to let us know the food is ready. Jenny walks out of the kitchen with the burgers, and I plate the rest of the vegetables and take them to the table.

Chris sits across from Jenny, and I sit next to Chris. Which means Jonah is directly across from me. We successfully avoid eye contact while making our plates. Hopefully the rest of dinner will go much the

same way. It’s all I really want for my birthday—little to no eye contact with Jonah Sullivan.

“Are you excited for tomorrow?” Chris asks Jenny. Jenny nods vigorously. “You have no idea.”

She’s a nurse at the same hospital where Chris is head of quality control. She’s been on maternity leave since Elijah was born six weeks ago, and tomorrow is her first day back.

The front door bursts open, and Clara’s best friend, Lexie, walks in. “You started eating without me?”

“You’re perpetually late. We always start without you. Where’s Clara?”

“On her way, I guess,” Lexie says. “I was going to catch a ride with her, but Mom let me use the car.” Lexie looks around the table, taking in who all is here. She nods at Jonah. “Hey, Uncle Teacher.”

“Hi, Lexie,” he says, seemingly annoyed at the nickname she’s given him.

Jonah got a job at Clara’s school as a history teacher when he moved back. I still can’t believe he’s a teacher. I don’t ever remember him talking about wanting to become a teacher. But I guess there weren’t a lot of options in our small East Texas town when he decided to move back and help Jenny with Elijah. He came from the business world, but all you need to become a teacher around here is a bachelor’s degree and an application. They’re in short supply thanks to the shitty pay scale.

“You sure you don’t mind keeping Elijah this week?” Jenny asks

me.

“Not at all. I’m excited.”

I really am excited. He’ll be in day care starting next week, so I’ve

agreed to keep him for the four days Jenny works this week.

Sometimes I’m surprised that Chris and I never had another child after Clara. We talked about it, but we never seemed to be on the same page at the same time. There was a stretch where I wanted another, but he was working so much that he wasn’t ready. Then when Clara was about thirteen, Chris brought up the idea of having another one, but the thought of having an infant and a teenager at the same time seemed a little terrifying. We haven’t brought it up since, and now that I’m thirty- four, I’m not sure I want to start over.

Elijah is the perfect solution. A part-time baby I get to play with and send back home.

“Too bad I’m still in high school,” Lexie says. “I’d be a great babysitter.”

Jenny rolls her eyes. “Weren’t you the one who put a random dog in my backyard because you thought it was mine?”

“It looked like your dog.”

“I don’t even have a dog,” Jenny says.

Lexie shrugs. “Well, I thought you did. Excuse me for being proactive.” Lexie finally takes her seat after having made her plate. “I can’t stay long. I have a Tinder date.”

“I still can’t believe you’re on Tinder,” Jenny mutters. “You’re sixteen. Don’t you have to be eighteen to even open an account?”

Lexie grins. “I am eighteen on Tinder. And speaking of things that surprise us, I’m still shocked you’ve had the same boyfriend for more than one night. It’s so unlike you.” She looks at Jonah. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Jonah says with a mouthful.

Jenny and Lexie have always had this kind of banter. I find it entertaining, mostly because they’re so much alike. Jenny had a string of boyfriends throughout her twenties, and had there been Tinder back then, Jenny would have been Tinder Queen.

Me, not so much. Chris is the only guy I’ve ever dated. The only guy I’ve ever kissed. That happens when you meet the man you’re going to marry at such a young age. Hell, I met Chris before I even knew what I wanted to study in college.

I guess it didn’t matter, though, because I didn’t last that long in college. Having Clara so young put a hold on any dreams I had for myself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. Now that Clara is getting older, I’ve been feeling this gaping hole inside me, like it’s sucking the air out of each day that passes by, where all I do is live for Chris and Clara.

Clara finally walks into the house in the middle of my self- deprecating thought. She stops about five feet from the table, ignoring everyone and everything around her as her finger moves over her phone screen.

“Where have you been?” Chris asks her. She’s only about thirty minutes later than usual, but he notices.

“Sorry,” she says, placing her phone down on the table next to Lexie’s. She reaches over Jonah’s shoulder to grab her plate. “Theater meeting after school and then one of my classmates needed a ride.” She smiles at me. “Happy birthday, Mom.”

“Thank you.”

“Who needed a ride?” Chris asks her.

Jenny and I look at each other right when Clara says, “Miller Adams.”

Shit.

Chris drops his fork to his plate.

Lexie says, “Excuse me? Where was my phone call about this?”

Chris looks at Jenny and then at me like he’s about to scold us for lying to him. I grip his leg under the table. A sign I don’t want him to mention we were talking about it. He knows as well as I do that Jenny is a good source of information for what’s going on in our daughter’s life, and if he reveals Jenny was telling me about their conversation, we’ll all suffer.

“Why are you giving Miller Adams a ride?” he asks her.

“Yes,” Lexie says. “Why did you give Miller Adams a ride? Don’t leave out a single detail.”

Clara ignores Lexie, responding only to her father. “It was barely a mile. Why do you seem so bothered by it?”

“Don’t do it again,” Chris says. “I vote do it again,” Lexie says.

Clara looks at Chris in disbelief. “It was hot out—I wasn’t going to make him walk.”

Chris raises his eyebrow, something he doesn’t do very often, which makes it all the more intimidating when he does. “I don’t want you involved with him, Clara. And you shouldn’t be giving guys rides. It isn’t safe.”

“Your father is right,” Lexie says. “Only give hot guys rides when

I’m with you.”

Clara falls down into her seat and rolls her eyes. “Oh my God, Dad. He’s not a stranger, and I’m not dating him. He’s had the same girlfriend for a year.”

“Yeah, but his girlfriend is in college, so it’s not like she’ll be in your way,” Lexie says.

“Lexie?” Chris says her name as more of a warning.

Lexie nods and runs her fingers across her mouth, like she’s zipping her lips shut.

I’m a little in shock that Clara is sitting here acting like she didn’t just call Jenny and slightly freak out that this kid was flirting with her. She’s acting like she doesn’t care, to both Chris and Lexie. But I know she does, thanks to Jenny. I stare at Clara in awe of her ability to pretend otherwise, but that awe is accompanied by a slight disturbance. I’m equally as impressed by her ability to lie as I am Jenny’s ability to lie.

It’s scary. I couldn’t lie if my life depended on it. I get flustered, and my cheeks flush. I do whatever I can to avoid confrontation.

“I don’t care if he’s single or married or a billionaire. I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t give him another ride.”

Lexie makes a move like she’s unzipping the imaginary zipper on her lips. “You’re her dad—you shouldn’t say it like that. If you make a guy off limits to a teenage girl, that only makes us want him more.”

Chris points his fork at Lexie and looks around the table. “Who keeps inviting her to these things?”

I laugh, but I also know Lexie is right. This isn’t going to end well if Chris keeps this up. I can feel it. Clara already has a crush on the guy, and now her father has made him off limits. I’ll have to warn Chris later not to bring it up again unless he wants Hank Adams to be Clara’s future father-in-law.

“I feel out of the loop,” Jonah says. “What’s so bad about Miller Adams?”

“There’s no loop, and there’s nothing wrong with him,” Clara assures him. “It’s just my parents, being overprotective as usual.”

She’s right. My mother didn’t shelter me as a child in any sense, which is part of the reason I ended up pregnant with Clara at seventeen. Because of that, Chris and I take it overboard with Clara sometimes. We admit that. But Clara is our only child, and we don’t want her to end up in a situation like we did.

“Miller is a good kid,” Jonah says. “I have him in class. Nothing like Hank was at that age.”

“You have him in class for forty minutes a day,” Chris says. “You can’t know him that well. Apples don’t fall far from their trees.”

Jonah stares at Chris after that response. He chooses not to continue the conversation, though. Sometimes when Chris wants to make a point, he doesn’t let up until the person he’s arguing with gives in. When we were younger, I remember him and Jonah always going toe to toe. Jonah was the only one who wouldn’t give in and let Chris win.

Something has changed since he’s been back, though. He’s quieter around Chris. Always lets him get the final word. I don’t think it’s a show of weakness, though. In fact, it impresses me. Sometimes Chris still comes off as the hotheaded teenager he was when I met him. Jonah, however, seems above it. Like it’s a waste of time to try to prove Chris wrong.

Maybe that’s another reason I don’t like that Jonah’s back. I don’t like seeing Chris through Jonah’s eyes.

“What makes you say that about him? Apples don’t fall far from their trees,” Clara asks. “What’s up with Miller’s parents?”

Chris shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Clara shrugs and takes a bite of her burger. I’m glad she’s letting it go. She’s a lot like Chris in that she can sometimes be combative. You never know which way it’s going to go with her.

I, on the other hand, am not combative at all. It bothers Chris sometimes. He likes to prove a point, so when I give in and don’t give him that opportunity, he feels like I win.

It’s the first thing I learned after marrying him. Sometimes you have to walk away from the fight in order to win it.

Jonah seems just as ready to move on from the conversation as the rest of us. “You didn’t turn in your application for the UIL film project.”

“I know,” Clara says. “Tomorrow is the deadline.”

“I can’t find anyone to sign up with. It’s too hard to take on by myself.”

It bothers me that Jonah entertains this idea of hers. Clara wants to go to college and study acting. I have no doubt she’d be good at it because she’s phenomenal onstage. But I also know what the odds are of actually succeeding in such a competitive industry. Not to mention if you are one of the few who do succeed, you’re dealing with the price of fame. It’s not something I want for my daughter. Chris and I would love acting to be a backup major to something that can actually sustain her financially.

“You don’t want to help her with it?” Jonah asks, his attention on Lexie.

Lexie makes a face. “Heck no. I work too much.”

Jonah returns his attention to Clara. “Meet me before first period starts tomorrow. There’s another student looking for a partner, and I’ll see if they’re interested.”

Clara nods, just as Lexie starts to wrap up the rest of her burger. “Where are you going?” Clara asks.

“Tinder date,” Jenny answers for her. Clara laughs. “Is he at least our age?”

“Of course. You know I hate college boys. They all smell like beer.” Lexie leans down and whispers something in Clara’s ear. Clara laughs, and then Lexie leaves.

Clara begins asking Jonah questions about the film project requirements. Jenny and Chris are in a conversation of their own,

discussing everything she missed at the hospital while on maternity leave.

I talk to no one and pick at my food.

It’s my birthday, and I’m surrounded by everyone important to me, but for some reason, I feel more alone than I’ve ever felt. I should be happy right now, but something is off. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe I’m getting bored.

Or worse. Maybe I’m boring.

Birthdays can do that to you. I’ve been analyzing my life all day, thinking about how I need something of my own. After having Clara so young, Chris and I married, and he’s always taken care of us financially since graduating college. I’ve always taken care of the house, but Clara will be seventeen in a couple months.

Jenny has a career and a new child and is about to have a new husband.

Chris got a promotion three months ago, which means he’s at the office even more now.

When Clara is away at college, where will that leave me?

My thoughts are still stuck on the state of my life an hour after we’ve finished dinner. I’m loading the dishwasher when Jonah walks into the kitchen. He stops the door from swaying before it even starts. I appreciate that about him. He’s a good dad, and he hates my kitchen door. That’s two things.

Maybe there’s hope for our friendship yet.

He’s holding Elijah against his chest. “Wet rag, please.”

That’s when I see the spit-up all over Jonah’s shirt. I grab a rag and wet it, then hand it to him. I take Elijah from him while he cleans himself up.

I look down at Elijah and smile. He looks a little like Clara did at this age. Fine blond hair, dark-blue eyes, a perfect little round head. I start to sway back and forth. He’s such a good baby. Better than Clara. She was colicky and cried all the time. Elijah sleeps and eats and cries so little that sometimes Jenny will call me when he does cry just so we can gush over how cute he sounds when he’s upset.

I glance up, and Jonah is watching us. He looks away and reaches toward the diaper bag. “I got you a birthday present.”

I’m confused. Before dinner he seemed so tense with me. Now he’s giving me a birthday present? He hands me an unwrapped gift. A gallon- size ziplock bag full of . . . candy.

What are we, twelve?

It takes me a moment, but as soon as I see that it’s an entire bag of watermelon Jolly Ranchers, I want to smile. But I frown, instead.

He remembered.

Jonah clears his throat and tosses the rag into the sink. He takes Elijah from me. “We’re about to head home. Happy birthday, Morgan.”

I smile, and it’s probably the only genuine smile I’ve given him since he’s been back.

There’s a moment between us—a five-second stare, where he smiles and I nod—before he leaves the kitchen.

I don’t know exactly what that five seconds meant, but maybe we’ve come to some kind of truce. He really is trying. He’s great to Jenny, great to Elijah, one of Clara’s favorite teachers.

Why—when he’s so great to everyone I love—have I been wishing he wasn’t in any of our lives?

Once Jenny, Jonah, and Elijah leave, Clara goes to her room. It’s where she spends the majority of her evenings. She used to want to spend her evenings with me, but that stopped when she was around fourteen.

Chris spends his evenings with his iPad, watching Netflix or sports. I waste mine away watching cable. The same shows every night.

My weeks are so routine.

I go to bed at the same time every night.

I wake up at the same time every morning.

I go to the same gym and do the same workout routine and run the same errands and cook the same scheduled meals.

Maybe it’s because it’s my thirty-fourth birthday, but I’ve felt like this cloud has been hanging over me since I woke up this morning. Everyone around me seems to have a purpose, yet I feel like I’ve reached the age of thirty-four and have absolutely no life outside of Clara and Chris. I shouldn’t be this boring. Some of my friends from high school haven’t even started families yet, and my daughter will be out of the house in twenty-one months.

Chris walks into the kitchen and grabs a bottle of water out of the fridge. He picks up the bag of Jolly Ranchers and inspects it. “Why would you buy an entire bag of the worst flavor?”

“It was a gift from Jonah.”

He laughs and drops the bag on the counter. “What a terrible gift.”

I try not to read too much into the fact that he doesn’t remember watermelon is my favorite flavor. I don’t necessarily remember all the things he liked when we first met.

“I’ll be late tomorrow. Don’t bother with dinner.”

I nod, but I already bothered with dinner. It’s in the slow cooker, but I don’t tell him that. He starts to walk out of the kitchen. “Chris?”

He stops short and faces me.

“I’ve been thinking about going back to college.” “For what?”

I shrug. “I don’t know yet.”

He tilts his head. “But why now? You’re thirty-four.”

Wow.

Chris immediately regrets saying that when he sees how much his choice of words hurts me. He pulls me in for a hug. “That came out wrong. I’m sorry.” He kisses the side of my head. “I just didn’t know it’s something you were still interested in since I make plenty of money to support us. But if you want a degree”—he kisses me on the forehead

—“go to college. I’m gonna take a shower.”

He leaves the kitchen, and I stare at the kitchen door as it swings back and forth. I really hate that door.

I kind of want to sell the house and start over, but Chris would never go for it. It would give me something to put my energy into, though. Because right now, my energy is pent up. I feel swollen with it as I think about how much I want a new kitchen door.

I might remove the whole door tomorrow. I’d rather have no door at all than a door that doesn’t even work like a door should work. Doors should slam shut when you’re angry.

I open a Jolly Rancher and pop it in my mouth. The taste gives me a feeling of nostalgia, and I think back to when we were all teenagers, craving the nights the four of us would spend driving around in Jonah’s car, me and Chris in the back seat, Jenny in the front. Jonah had a thing for Jolly Ranchers, so he always kept a bag in the console.

He never ate the watermelon ones. It was his least favorite flavor, and my favorite, so he always left the watermelon for me.

I can’t believe it’s been that long since I’ve had one. I swear, sometimes I forget who I was or what I loved before I got pregnant with Clara. It’s like the day I found out I was pregnant, I became someone else. I guess that happens when you become a mother, though. Your focus is no longer on yourself. Your life becomes all about this beautiful tiny little human you created.

Clara walks into the kitchen, no longer a beautiful tiny little human. She’s beautiful and grown, and I ache at the loss of her childhood

sometimes. When she’d sit in my lap or I’d snuggle up to her in bed until she fell asleep.

Clara reaches to my bag. “Yay. Jolly Ranchers.” She grabs one and walks to the refrigerator, opening it. “Can I have a soda?”

“It’s late. You don’t need the caffeine.”

Clara turns around and eyes me. “But it’s your birthday. We still haven’t done your birthday board.”

I forgot about the birthday board. I actually perk up for the first time today. “You’re right. Grab me one too.”

Clara grins, and I go to my craft closet and pull out my birthday board. Clara may be too old to sit with me while I rock her to sleep, but at least she still gets just as excited about our traditions as I do. We started this one when she was eight years old. Chris doesn’t involve himself in this tradition, so it’s just something Clara and I do twice a year. It’s like a vision board, but rather than making a new one every year, we just add to the same one. We each have our own, and we add to them only on our respective birthdays. Clara’s birthday is still a couple months away, so I grab my board and leave hers in the closet.

Clara takes a seat next to me at the kitchen table and then selects a purple Sharpie. Before she starts writing, she looks over stuff we’ve put on it over the years. She runs her fingers over something she wrote on my board when she was eleven. I hope my mom gets pregnant this year. She even cut out a tiny picture of a rattle and pasted it next to her wish.

“Still not too late to make me a big sister,” she says. “You’re only thirty-four.”

“Not happening.”

She laughs. I look over the board, searching for one of the goals I wrote for myself last year. I find the picture I pasted of a flower garden in the top left of the board because it was my goal to uproot the bushes in the backyard and replant them with flowers. I met that goal in the spring.

I find the other goal I had, and I frown when I read it. Find something to fill all the empty corners.

I’m sure Clara thought I was being literal when I wrote it last year. I didn’t actually want to fill every corner in my house with something. My goal was more of an internal one. Even last year, I’d been feeling unfulfilled. I’m proud of my husband and proud of my daughter, but when I look at myself and my life separate from theirs, there’s very little I can find to be proud of. I just feel like I’m full of all this untapped potential. Sometimes my chest feels hollow, as if I’ve lived a life with

nothing significant enough to fill it. My heart is full, but that’s the only part of me that feels any weight.

Clara begins to write her goal for me, so I lean toward her and read it. Accept that your daughter wants to be an actress. She snaps the cap back on the Sharpie and puts it in the package.

Her goal makes me feel guilty. It’s not like I don’t want her to follow her dreams. I just want her to be realistic. “What are you going to do with an unusable degree if the acting thing doesn’t work out for you?” Clara shrugs. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” She pulls her leg up onto the chair and rests her chin on her knee. “What

about you? What did you want to be when you were my age?”

I stare at my board, wondering if I can even answer that question. I can’t. “I had no idea. I didn’t have any special talents. I wasn’t extremely smart in any one particular subject.”

“Were you passionate about anything like I am about acting?”

I think about her question for a moment, but nothing comes to mind. “I liked hanging out with my friends and not thinking about the future. I assumed I’d figure it out in college.”

Clara nods at the board. “I think that should be this year’s goal. You need to figure out what you’re passionate about. Because it can’t be being a housewife.”

“It could,” I say. “Some people are perfectly fulfilled in that role.” I

used to be. I’m just not anymore.

Clara takes another sip of her soda. I write down her suggestion.

Find my passion.

Clara may not want to know this, but she reminds me of myself at her age. Confident. Thought I knew everything. If I had to describe her in one word, it would be assured. I used to be assured, but now I’m just . . . I don’t even know. If I had to describe myself with one word based on my behavior today, it would be whiny.

“When you think of me, what one word comes to mind?”

“Mother,” she instantly says. “Housewife. Overprotective.” She laughs at that last one.

“I’m serious. What one word would you use to describe my personality?”

Clara tilts her head and stares at me for several long seconds. Then, in a very honest and serious tone, she says, “Predictable.”

My mouth falls open in offense. “Predictable?”

“I mean . . . not in a bad way.”

Can predictable sum a person up in a good way? I can’t think of a single person in the world who’d want to be summed up as predictable.

“Maybe I meant dependable,” Clara says. She leans forward and hugs me. “Night, Mom. Happy birthday.”

“Good night.”

Clara goes to her bedroom, unknowingly leaving me in a pile of hurt feelings.

I don’t think she was trying to be mean, but predictable is not something I wanted to hear. Because it’s everything I know I am and everything I feared I would grow up to be.

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