Authors: Molli Moran
“Assholes,” he muttered, but he could feel the smile tugging at his lips. He’d prepared for a cool welcome, not this.
Reece raised an eyebrow at Jonah, and tilted his head toward Ethan, who was too busy laughing at them to notice. Jonah nodded, and then he and Reece lunged at their brother. When Ethan tumbled, he lowered his head and drove it into Reese’s side. Reese let out a grunt and Jonah managed to escape to a safer vantage point where he could watch his brothers proceed to each attempt to best the other. Reece was larger, and more muscled, but Ethan was still strong.
As Jonah gained his feet, he heard both of his brothers grunting and muttering things that would make even their mother, who was used to their antics, blush. Laughter bubbled to his lips, strong, and real. This wasn’t forced, or polite, like most of his in recent years. This was the sort you couldn’t control or soften; it came out loud, ungainly, and genuine. Jonah’s dad chuckled with his and they blended in a sound he knew well. Like so much about this place, it felt like home.
“Get up, you two,” he called to his brothers. “Reece, you’re getting mud all over Ethan’s clothes, and you know he’ll pitch a fit, and have to change.”
“This is between us,” a muffled voice replied, so distorted with amusement that Jonah couldn’t tell if it was Reece or Ethan. “We’ll be—
—done in a minute.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it!”
Shaking his head, Jonah rolled his eyes at his dad. Sam grabbed Jonah’s bag, and they made a second attempt at getting inside. Jonah grabbed the door and swung it open for his dad, then walked inside behind him. He made it a few steps into the kitchen before his mother caught sight of him, and let out a shriek. He opened his arms, watching the way she set down whatever she was mixing before she approached him.
She put her arms around him, and Jonah rested his head on top of hers. Each time he hugged her, he remembered the first time he realized he was taller than her and the shine of tears in her eyes as she protested him growing up, and informed his father he needed to do something about it. Jonah closed his eyes as he caught the scent of his mother’s jasmine perfume. The smell took him back to spontaneous football games after dinner until the streetlight flickered on, Sunday dinners after church with the entire family crowded in their house, and bedtime stories she’d embellished.
“Hey, Ma.” His voice caught. “It’s good to see you.” He’d seen her a week ago at graduation, but he’d been so busy with school things that he’d barely had time to grab a quick dinner with his family. Now that he was back, he meant to start being an actual part of their lives again.
“It better be! I’ve missed you so much.”
Jenny Walker pulled away, and Jonah took a step back. He knew when she looked at him now, it was probably impossible not to see him as he’d been when he left at eighteen. Over the four years since, he’d become a stranger to them—on purpose at first, and then, accidentally. He’d meant to change that recently, but finishing college, applying for graduate school, and preparing for the next chapter in his life had slowly whittled away at the last six months. Then everything fell into place in rapid succession.
“I know. I missed you, and everyone.” Jonah gave his mom the smile that she claimed could melt even the hardest of hearts. “I know I haven’t acted like I did, but I’m hoping to change that now.”
She waved a hand at him. “We’re all glad you’re home with us. Why don’t you put your things upstairs and then come back and help me?”
“Will do.” Jonah grinned at her, and picked his bag up again. As he walked through the house and toward the staircase he’d fallen down and stumbled up more times than he could count, he was still smiling. Putting a hand on the banister, Jonah stared at the pictures on the walls, climbing the staircase with him. He’d seen them all before of course; he’d even taken a few of them, but knowing he was home for good now made even the familiar seem somehow new.
Swinging open his bedroom door, Jonah stepped across the threshold, and although the walls were painted a different color, and the bedding and furniture had been changed at some point, it still took his breath, and damned if it wasn’t like going back in time. He let his bag slide to the floor, where the thick carpet muffled any sound, and leaned against the wall. He appreciated the changes his mother had made, knowing he wouldn’t want to sleep in here if it was how he’d left it.
Even when he’d been a colossal ass to his family, they’d continually put him first.
Jonah felt a flush heating his cheeks. He knew he didn’t deserve his family’s big-hearted welcome, but he intended to do everything in his power to make up for the way he’d treated them since leaving. He wasn’t sure where or how to start, and he didn’t know if he’d fail or succeed, but he had to try.
“Jonah, get down here!” Reece’s voice was as forceful as ever, another small reminder that some things never changed.
Shaking his head, Jonah walked out of his room and down the stairs. He entered the kitchen in time to collide with Reece. Jonah caught something about “stealing my food,” above Reece’s rumbling voice. Reece had his hands up, no doubt protesting, as Jonah stepped around him, smirking.
“Get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, brother?”
If Jonah’s smile melted hearts, Reece’s eyes could stop anyone in their tracks. He was always giving their parents the most pitiful puppy dog eyes to get himself out of trouble; Jonah shuddered to think of what other nefarious purposes his eldest brother had put those devastating baby blues up to. It appeared their mom wasn’t having any of it though, and Jonah’s grin widened.
“I just wanted to sample,” Reece complained. “This woman is terrible.”
“This woman can still ban you from her dinner table if you don’t stop sassing!”
Jonah busted out in laughter at this, and after a few seconds, he heard Reece, then his mother join in. Reece shook his head, lowering his hands, and biting into something. Jonah watched his brother as he chewed, then leaned in, and planted a noisy kiss on his mom’s cheek. She narrowed her eyes at him, and Reece backed up a few steps.
“I’m going, I’m going, Ma.” He grinned. “You know, this is really Ethan’s fault. You should blame him…” Reece cut off as the screen door slammed, admitting their youngest brother. “Oh hey, Ethan.”
“Nice try, but your innocent tone doesn’t fool
.” Ethan smirked. “Come on. Let’s go settle this in the other room.”
As they left, Ethan clapped a hand on Jonah’s back before following Reece. Jonah watched them, amazed at their easy dynamic. It was as if nothing between them had ever changed, despite the events of the last few years. He stared after them, realizing he more than admired their relationship. He was jealous of it, but it was because he hoped being back might mean he could mend the distance he’d forced between them. He rubbed at his chest, wondering how strong their bond grew when he left.
He really hadn’t
. He’d just
, anxious to be as far as from his hometown and his family as possible. Anxious to outrun the memories crowding through his head, the heartbreak sullying everything about the place he’d grown up. Anxious to run fast enough to shrug the blame ghosting after him.
“I’m fine, Ma.” He flashed her a smile.
It was a lie, and his mother probably knew it, but she didn’t question him. Instead, she gave him another hug, and then put him to work making mashed potatoes—the one thing she’d never been able to get right. Jonah and his mom worked in companionable silence, occasionally breaking it with stories to catch each other up on their lives. She was full of anecdotes about work and life with his dad and brothers, who she’d banished to the living room.
They were watching a football game, though Jonah was fairly sure there was more screaming at the coaches than anything else going on in there. He smirked as he put the potatoes on the table; his dad was now chiming in, as he could have predicted. As much as he wanted to be with them, he knew from Reece’s scattered phone calls, and Ethan’s emails that his mom missed him even more than she let on.
“This all looks fantastic, Ma.”
She smiled at him. “Thanks, Jonah. I wanted to have something special for you since it’s your first day back. And you made the drive from Atlanta, so I know you’re tired and shouldn’t have to cook.”
Jonah scratched at his jaw, fighting a smile. “Ma.” He waved a hand at the table, covered in dishes. “You really didn’t have to do all of that. Don’t treat me like I’m some…prodigal. I don’t want a big fuss made.” He reached for her hand. “I just want to
here with everyone finally.”
His mother pulled biscuits from the oven, and arranged them on a plate, her back to him. When she faced him, he saw the shine in her eyes. She let him take her hand again, and without stopping to question himself, he pulled her into his arms. He hadn’t hugged his mom in too long, but he also hadn’t forgotten how.
They only separated when the family filed into the dining room, and took their seats. Jonah looked around at those he loved, and a familiar sense of pride filled him. In a way, coming home was a fresh start. It was the second chance he still wasn’t entirely sure he deserved, but one he was glad he embraced.
Jonah leaned back in the porch swing, staring at the night sky. Everything moved at breakneck speed in Atlanta compared to here; there, he’d never taken time to admire the stars, roughhouse with anyone, sit down for a family dinner, or really ever relax. He’d only been home a few hours, and he already felt more peaceful than he had in longer than he could remember. He knew it was only the start of the next chapter in his life, but he hoped it was a
Jonah snagged the beer bottle Reece lobbed at him. He gave the contents a moment to settle and then twisted off the top. Bringing the bottle to his lips, Jonah took a long swallow, and noticed Reece doing the same. They both sat their bottles down at about the same time, Reece on the porch railing, Jonah in his lap, and then both spoke at the same time.
Jonah chuckled, and took another drink, steeling himself for this conversation. It was a long time coming for both of them, and part of him was glad they were getting it out of the way tonight. The other part wanted to do anything to prolong the easy sheen of friendship, even though he knew it wouldn’t be real until he and Reece put the past behind them.
“Go ahead. I know we need to clear the air.”
Reece opened his mouth, but closed it. He rolled his bottle back and forth in his hands, staring at it as though it held the answers. Jonah waited, keenly aware of the
of his heart. He felt alternately chained to the swing, and so keyed up he wondered why he hadn’t already shot up onto the roof of the house. He breathed in deep, the familiar scent of honeysuckle tickling his nose.
“I thought I’d know what to say.” Reece lifted his gaze, and it was the least Jonah could do, to look his brother square in the eye, even if doing so almost physically hurt. “I’ve thought about it enough. Gone back over it, tried to figure out what happened. Thought about what I said to you when you left.” Reece paused. “You should know a few things.”
Jonah merely nodded, prepared for whatever Reece needed to say.
“It hurt when you left, but we knew you would go away for college. It hurt even more when you pulled away from all of us, though, because we weren’t prepared for that. You
our lives from yours. Deliberately.” Reece leaned forward. “Dad and I had some idea what happened, but Ethan was just a kid, and he idolized you.” Reece paused, his jaw clenching. “And Ma.” He cursed, and it was an ugly sound. “You know you broke her heart. She lived for the holidays because she knew she’d get to see you then, but we all knew it wasn’t really
“I know I did.” Jonah frowned, thinking of how happy his mother was to see him. Of her face the day he left, leeched of any happiness.
“Then tell me you’re sorry.”
Jonah’s head shot up at his brother’s words. “I’m—”
it, Jonah. Think, because you best mean it. Don’t you
say it if the words aren’t the most sincere ones you’ve ever spoken. If you’re not ready to be a real part of the family again, don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”
Draining his beer, Jonah stood on jittery, soft legs. He knew he deserved this wariness. He knew it, but it didn’t make it any easier to accept that he’d put it all there. He’d created it, and now it was his job to take down the walls. If he’d tried
in the last years—through emails or phone calls, or more than a handful of strained visits—those walls wouldn’t be here now.
Jonah took the four steps in between him and Reece in one. He stood eye to eye with his brother, remembering all the years he’d been shorter than Reece, back when he’d thought Reece hung the moon and the stars. Back before things between them were complicated, back when he hadn’t hurt anyone. Now although they were the same height, Jonah still felt smaller than Reece. He guessed shame would do that to a person.