Where The Gravel Roads Lead Home
Prologue: End of Sophomore Year
There was almost no way Vanessa was going to convince him to go to yoga. She sat on the edge of his bed, wearing those damned yoga pants, which, by the way, were most certainly invented by a woman to cause the downfall of man, because one can’t just not be distracted by a girl wearing them, and a pink tank top that didn’t quite cover her belly button. They had hardly had any alone time in months besides brief moments in the car, or the one time she’d consented to let him take her to the river. Her general anxiety while they were there made him really not want to know what when down with her and Roads, and he vowed to make her forget it if it was the last thing he did. Her blue eyes sparkled with victory as he finally got out his gym clothes.
“Do you want me to close my eyes?” she questioned in a half-serious tone when he actually located acceptable workout pants.
“If you’re afraid you won’t be able to resist me, sure.” Her eyes rolled back into their near-permanent state when they were together. Sometimes he couldn’t help himself. “Sorry.” He grinned sheepishly. “Sure, you can close your eyes if you want.” Ugh, why is this so difficult? They were good together, but he could see it in her eyes, whenever they started to cross that threshold; she was thinking about him. Purposefully, he pulled on a soft green tank top, hoping she would be mesmerized by his arms and he could talk her out of this ridiculous yoga adventure. The only flexibility I am interested in assessing is- He stopped mid-thought as she was looking at him curiously now that he was dressed and off in his own world. How does she do that? he wondered. Regardless, he sauntered over to where she sat and kneeled in front of her, leaning in to nip at her neck. She would never admit how much she liked it, but he did it anyway to get her to breathe the way she did. He rubbed his thumbs along her barely exposed stomach and groaned inwardly. This girl…
“Are you doing your best work because you can’t get enough of me? Or because you really don’t wanna go to yoga?” she murmured as he continued on his journey to her collarbone.
“Obviously because I can’t get enough of you,” he answered seriously. He never got enough of her; how did she not understand that? With trepidation, he stopped what he was doing and pressed his forehead against hers. “Open your eyes.” She did as he asked, and he tightened his arms all the way around her. “You know how I feel about you, right?” he asked in almost a whisper. He knew they weren’t in a place to be making declarations; she was still fiercely guarding her I-am-woman-hear-me-roar-ness, but he just needed her to know.
“I think I do, yeah. Let’s… can we just leave it at that? For right now?”
“Yeah,” he breathed, feeling like they were at least on the same chapter, if not the same page. They held each other’s gaze for several beats.
“I might be persuaded to stay here instead of going to the gym now,” she flirted hesitantly. Oh thank god. A slow smile crept over his face, and he was determined to make her enjoy that decision.
“Are you sure about that? I don’t wanna hear about how you missed yoga for the next three hours.”
“That’s when my mom gets home from work.” He grinned devilishly.
“Well then, I hope you have some ideas about how to entertain me. I sort of get bored easily.” There’s my girl.
“Bored, you say? Challenge accepted,” he boasted, grinning even wider now and sitting up on his knees. He tickled her sides lightly, but captured any laughter she might have let out with his next kiss. He needed to make sure she was here with him, not in her own head. Climbing onto the bed with her, he blazed a trail with his lips from her chin to her waistband. Stopping, he took in her overall demeanor and traced her palm lightly with his fingers. She paused with him, seeming to contemplate the moment. He knew that he didn’t hide his surprise well when she reached for the hem of his shirt and dragged it over his head. Her hands felt good on his bare chest, and it was enough for him to shake off his uncertainty. He needed her to be closer. Holding himself above her, he kissed her most favorite spot beneath her ear.
“Hi,” she whispered to him, breaking the silence.
“Hi,” he said, smiling back, leaning away onto his side to gauge her expression. She didn’t look nervous like he’d expected. She looked…happy. “Everything cool?”
“Yeah, everything’s cool. You smell good,” she complimented randomly, making him laugh.
“So do you,” he admitted, leaning back in to kiss her neck.
“Um, so at the risk of killing the mood we have going on here, do you have protection?” That hadn’t been the next thing he expected to come out of her mouth, but her ability to shock him was sort of one of his favorite things about her.
“Oh, okay, we’re having this talk,” he responded lightly. He sincerely hoped this wasn’t some sort of trick question. “Yes, I do. But that doesn’t mean we have to do anything with it.”
Vanessa sighed. “I know. But do you want… that? With us? You just never say anything, so I don’t… I just wanna know where your head’s at, that’s all.” Her fingers slid between his, and their eyes met. Jesus, he thought.
“V… of course I want that with you. I want everything with you. I just want to be… respectful, of where you’re coming from,” he explained tentatively. He kissed the tips of her fingers on her left hand.
“You are so much more than I thought you were. Before everything.”
“I hope that’s a compliment.”
“The highest of compliments. It’s not often I admit that I was wrong.” He rubbed her bare arm with his free hand to chase away the shiver he’d witnessed run through her.
“Well in that case, go on,” he joked, pulling her in even closer to him by the waist.
“Don’t ruin it,” she warned him. “I want that with you, too.” She barely got the words out before he had to kiss her again. He wanted to kiss her everywhere, to explain what he couldn’t say yet- her neck, shoulders, wrists, elbows, fingertips- everywhere he could reach.
“Just tell me one more time that you’re sure,” he requested, needing to hear her say it.
“I’m sure,” she said plainly, tracing his jaw with her nails. His brain might stop working shortly, so that answer was exactly what he needed.
“Me too,” he let out, resuming his earlier trail down her stomach. Finally, he knew she was all there, with him. There were no more ghosts of relationships past here in this moment, and he let himself be all there too, with her.
“Are you okay?” he asked cautiously, toying with the end of her ponytail. He didn’t know that he was okay. He was completely infatuated with this girl. Being with her had only proven that he was in deep with whatever they were doing here.
“Of course. I’m with you,” she replied seriously.
“That’s the nicest thing I think you’ve ever said to me.” That wasn’t a joke.
“Well, it’s true. Now come here.” He knew he was dangerously playing with fire, but there was no turning back now. He returned her kiss with everything he had, just hoping not to get burned.
♫ “Over My Head” – The Fray
Chapter One: Just Before Junior Year
No, no, no, no, no. Not the crying.
His friends had just dropped him off after a night of probably too much fun, and he wanted to pretend that he was too drunk to address his mother. But he wasn’t. She was sitting in their darkened living room, not even attempting to cover up her sobs when he lumbered through the front door.
“Everything all right?” He wished he could muster up more compassion, but he had a hunch that whatever she was crying about was self-inflicted. Her bottle-red hair was knotted on top of her head, giving him an unobstructed view to her puffy eyes.
“I got fired,” she hiccupped. Luke let his head hang. She’d actually held a steady bartending job for about six months, but he knew when she started coming home less-than-sober that it was only a matter of time. He ran his hand over his face, his buzz fading rapidly.
“Well, Mom, when you drink at work, that sometimes happens.” He didn’t know why he bothered being a dick. It didn’t faze her. She just glared at him before responding.
“I’ll look for something new tomorrow.”
“Have you ever been without a roof or food?” Oh god, not this again.
“That’s what I thought. So maybe you save your disappointment.”
“Will do. Any thoughts on what we’ll do while you’re job hunting and training? For, you know, bills?”
“We’ve always gotten by before.”
“So, do you want to call Uncle Joe, or should I?” The only reason they’d gotten by was thanks to his uncle and the soft spot he had for his hot-mess older sister.
“We don’t need Joe.” She sniffed with indignation like it was true.
“Fine, whatever. We can take something out of my college fund if we need it.” He’d have to pick up work every weekend to replace it, but at least they’d have electricity. His mother snorted. It was not a good sound coming from her.
“What? You have a better idea?”
“Yeah, using money that actually exists.” She took a swig of whatever was in her glass, and he assumed it wasn’t sparkling water. A cold sensation ran from the top of his head down his arms.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means that we have a roof that doesn’t leak.”
“Speak in complete thoughts.”
“Three years ago. Big hailstorm. Leaking roof.”
“Where do you think the money came from for a new freaking roof, son?” Another gulp of her drink.
The icy feeling had reached his stomach. “You had no right to touch that money. That was from Grandma.” His voice sounded so calm coming out of his mouth, and he didn’t know why. His entire lifeline was unraveling at a frightening speed. That money was his way out.
“Until you’re eighteen, I have every right to touch whatever money it takes to provide food and shelter, kid.”
“How much is left?” There had been twenty-five grand in the account the last time he’d looked.
“I don’t know, Luke. Two thousand bucks?” Her stare was defiant now. He should’ve known better than to expect an apology.
“God DAMN IT!” The words ripped from his chest as he saw his future disintegrating. He picked up his mother’s glass and hurled it at the wall. It wasn’t even real glass, and he missed the satisfying shatter.
“Fuck you.” He turned his back on the woman who wasn’t supposed to screw him over and trudged up the stairs. There was nothing to be done. He face planted into his bed and let what was left of the alcohol in his system put him to sleep.
♫ “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” – The Offspring
He knew there was something wrong when he opened his eyes. Shit, what time is it? He realized he forgot to set an alarm last night before he passed out. Finding his phone lying on the floor, he pressed the home button and groaned. Not only should he have left the house five minutes ago, but his texts were also blowing up.
V: We’ll be back to town in ten, just FYI
V: Okay… you’re still picking me up, right?
V: I swear to god if you’re still asleep, I’m going to kill you.
V: That stupid truck better be sitting in the parking lot when this bus pulls up.
V: Annnnnnd we’re here. You’re not. Screw you Luke.
Shit shit shit shit shit. He pulled on a pair of basketball shorts from the floor and didn’t even bother to put anything over his undershirt. By some miracle, he saw his keys lying on the dresser without looking for them and grabbed a Cavaliers hat on his way out the door.
L: Literally on my way right now. I’m sorry. I’ll be right there.
V: Oh, you’re sorry, so that makes it cool that I’m sitting here waiting for you. Kim stayed so I would have company. Thanks for making me look like an idiot.
Luke started the ignition on his truck and peeled out of his driveway to head towards school. It took a lot of self-restraint not to point out that Kim could have just given her a ride home, but he suspected that was not the point. She wouldn’t have been able to hold the fact that she was waiting over his head if that happened.
Luke knew that she’d find out he’d been drinking with Troy and Devin last night and be even more pissed. He’d had a delayed reaction in remembering the scene from when he’d gotten home the night before, but it sucker punched him when it came flooding back. He really needed his girlfriend to cut him slack this one freaking time.
L: You never look like an idiot. Because you’re so beautiful. Be there in a min.
V: You owe me so much more than a lame compliment.
The adrenaline from waking up late had worn off, and a decent magnitude headache was settling in. It is going to be an awesome day.
He pulled up into the parking lot of Gem City High and saw his girlfriend sitting with Kim on the curb, red and black duffle bag by her side. Kim got up to head to her car and shot him a look of sympathy beforehand. Luke hopped out of the truck to greet Vanessa and carry her bag.
“Hey, baby. Lemme take your bag.”
“Don’t ‘hey baby’ me. And I’ll carry my own bag, thanks.”
“V, I know you’re mad, but I’m seriously fifteen minutes late, and I had the shittiest night known to man. Can I just say I’m sorry and we move on from this?” Her glare let him know that was probably not going to happen. He leaned closer to her to gently take the duffle bag from her hand, and she let him. So, progress.
“I missed you,” he murmured.
“You smell like a bar.”
Luke just groaned, knowing there was nothing he could do but wait for her to get over her fit.
“Who were you drinking with?”
“Just Troy and Devin. There was no party.”
“Troy and Devin and who else?”
He could see the crazy-eyed look creep over Vanessa’s face. He could kill Zack Roads for making her think that every guy would cheat. “No one else, V. I swear to you. Come on. Can we get in the truck?”
She silently made her way to his truck and got in, slamming the door too hard for it to have been an accident. “Just take me home.”
“Out to breakfast? Okay, great idea.” He gave her the most charming smile he could muster under the circumstances. It didn’t work.
“Home. You’ll have to charm me later. I’m tired and sore and pissed off and I’ll only get madder if I sit across a table from you and watch you eat hangover food.”
“Fine. Home it is.” His head hurt, he was trying not to have a breakdown about the loss of his college money, and he just couldn’t keep up the argument at the moment.