Bursting into the entryway, Natalie turned in a half circle. Her heart pounded in her chest. The kitchen lay in front of her. To her right, the bathroom. She moved past both rooms, calling out for her father. She hadn’t been in his apartment in at least a year, but nothing had changed. If anything, he had downsized on the amount of Booth paraphernalia. Last time she had visited, he had an old telephone booth in the entryway. She was pretty sure he still had a restaurant style booth as his dining table.
She entered the living room, eyes sweeping the floor for her father. The bedroom door stood ajar.
“Dad,” she called, her voice breaking.
She pushed open the bedroom door and moved inside.
Bright sunlight streamed in through the windows. Squinting, she held a hand over her face. Spots danced in front of her eyes. Blinking, she moved out of the path of the light.
Her father sat on the floor, a full suitcase open in front of him. Huge spiral bound books overflowed from it, some of them half open on the floor, displaying huge maps. She blinked again, unable to believe what she saw. One of the titles read Toll Booths in New England.
“Okay,” she said slowly. “You’re getting out of control.”
He glanced up at her as if he hadn’t heard her come in, yelling for him. “I bet I could sell some of this on eBay.”
“I bet this would qualify as proof of your insanity,” she said, picking up a guide to toll booths in Missouri. “When are you planning on visiting the Midwest?”
Shrugging, Dylan lifted two of the atlas-sized books and set them aside on the floor.
Natalie glanced at his open closet and groaned. “Were you trying to wrestle this out?”
Her father scooped more books out of the suitcase, his eyes glued to the pile.
“I thought you were already packed,” she said, crossing her arms, “and just had to get your suitcase?”
Pressing his lips together, her father shook his head.
“Are you just trying to waste all of my time?” she asked, throwing her hands up in the air.
Dylan shrugged. Avoiding looking at her, he pulled the last toll booth book from the suitcase and added it to the pile. Then, still keeping his eyes from hers, he stood, legs shaking. Shuffling over to his dresser, he tugged open a drawer.
“Are you going to ignore me? Because I can just go home.” She shook his keys. “You can stay here, in your sad apartment, and hire a visiting nurse or whatever.”
“Have some respect,” he snapped, throwing a glare at her.
“Oh, now you can look at me?” She paced, her hands shaking. “You talk about respect, yet you don’t respect me!” Stopping in front of him, she jabbed a finger in his face.
“Stop talking to me like I’m a child,” he said, picking up a pile of tee shirts and dropping them into the suitcase.
“Then stop treating me like your slave!” She spun away, nearly crashing into the phone booth. So much for him getting rid of things. She slammed her palm into it.
It rocked slightly. “Be careful with that!” he said, rushing over and steadying it.
Blowing out a puff of air, she stalked toward the door. “Whatever,” she said. She stomped back into the living room. Slumping into the couch, she buried her face in her hands. Tears stung her eyes. So far, she kept doing exactly the opposite of what she meant to do. She needed to be a better daughter, no matter how difficult her father was. She was all he had, she reminded herself. Whatever mistakes he had made in the past, he didn’t deserve to sit in his apartment all alone while he healed. She rubbed her palm, still stinging from the impact with the phone booth, on her jeans.
Maybe she was crazy, she surmised. Her father didn’t deserve her help.
Still, she had nowhere else to go—unless she wanted to hang out with her stepfather until she found her own place. Gritting her teeth, she closed her eyes. She had made quite the mess.
“Ready,” her father sang, dragging his suitcase behind him. Its sides bulged, as if he had stuffed some of the toll booth guides back in.
Cringing, she got to her feet. In just a few strides, she was at his side. “Let go,” she ordered, tugging the suitcase from his grasp.
“It’s heavy,” he protested.
“No shit,” she said, using both hands to drag it toward the front door. “That’s why I’m going to slide it down the garage stairs.”
He nodded as if he approved, and followed her to the door.
* * *
Getting the suitcase down the stairs proved to be harder than she had thought it would be. It didn’t slide very far, and got turned around, catching on the rungs of the railing. Scowling, Natalie tugged it from between two posts. A sharp pain lanced through her finger. Shrieking, she yanked her hand away. She stared in horror at the bloody spot where both her acrylic nail and real fingernail had been.
“What’s the matter with you?” her father asked from the top of the stairs. “It’s just a nail.”
Speaking from between clamped teeth, she said, “You don’t understand. It’s like having a nail ripped out twice.” The words came out slurred, as if she were drunk. Scrunching her face up, she balled her other hand into a fist, digging her nails into the palm of her hand to distract herself from the pain. Maybe, she surmised as she sucked in a deep breath, this was all karma for some horrible act she had committed in a past life. She didn’t believe in past lives, though. Exhaling, she opened her eyes. Her finger throbbed. The sooner she got her father up to the campground, the sooner she could get it fixed.
Then she remembered her empty bank account and maxed out credit card. Maybe her father would pay for it. Looking up at him, peering down at her with an expression on his face somewhere between concern and disbelief, she reconsidered. Maybe pigs would fly.
After a few more minutes of tugging with one hand, holding her injured hand out of the way, the suitcase popped free. She clambered over it, nudged it with her foot, and it slid down another few inches. Several kicks later, she got it to the bottom of the stairs.
If she ever found a new job, she was going to buy him a rolling suitcase with a long handle.
She dragged it to the pickup, its bottom scuffing against the asphalt.
“Be careful,” he chided, running behind her with his arms open, as if he was going to catch it.
Rolling her eyes, she released it, shoulders dropping. All she had to do was lift it into the bed of the pickup, and she was home free—sort of. The thing had to weigh seventy-five pounds or more, though.
“I can get it,” Dylan said, reaching for it. Beads of sweat rolled down his face.
She swatted his hands away. “Why don’t you get in and start the air?” She smiled at him and handed him the keys. Nodding, he took them and turned toward the passenger’s side. Shaking her head, she used the back of her hand to wipe the sweat from her own face. It was just after noon, and had to be already ninety degrees. Summer was rolling in, in full force.
Natalie looked back at the task at hand. Wincing, she spread her legs, crouched into a squat, and lifted the suitcase. Arms buckling, she hefted it over the gate and into the bed. She started to tumble, caught herself with her elbow on the truck’s corner, smacking her bone into hard chrome.
“Gah,” she screamed, clutching her elbow and hopping up and down. If she made it to the lake without any more injuries, it would be a miracle. Come to think of it, she surmised, scowling down at her blistered heels, she had done nothing but get hurt since arriving in Connecticut.
Whimpering, she walked to the driver’s side. She pulled open the door and slid in. Cool air brushed against her face, and she rested her head against the seat for a moment.
Then, slowly, she realized which song was playing.
She reached for the button to change the station, glancing at the digital display. The first button was the same station. Groaning, she pushed the second button. A car commercial replaced the horrible crooning.
“What do you have against Bon Jovi?” her father asked, reaching for the first pre-programmed button.
“No way,” she said, covering the dashboard. “I’m driving, my music.”
Her father snorted. “This is my truck,” he said.
Deja vu pressed down at her, making her feel as if she hung upside down. Taking a deep breath, she began backing out of the driveway. The sooner they got on the road, the sooner they would be at the campground. Maybe she could talk him into paying for her nails and a bottle of wine.
They hadn’t been on the highway for ten minutes before he started again.
“Why aren’t you getting onto 691?” he asked, twisting in his seat as they passed the exit. The expression on his face reminded Natalie of someone who had just run over his own dog.
Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, she smiled and said, through her teeth, “Because I’m driving.” She felt like a crazy person. She wondered if maybe her father needed medication.
“You’re going to hit traffic if you stay on 84,” he grumbled, crossing his arms. Slouched in his seat, he looked like a kid whose parents wouldn’t take him to McDonald’s.
“Dad,” she said sharply. “We’re going to hit traffic no matter which way we go. As you’ve reminded me a hundred times, I got to the hospital too late in the day.” She huffed, tightening her grip on the steering wheel.
He sank lower in his seat. “I don’t know why you have to yell.”
Pressing her lips together, she stared at the road in front of her. 84 was pretty empty, considering the time of day. She supposed it was because all of the kids were still in school—for another couple of weeks, anyway. If they had left even ten minutes later, she might be dealing with that traffic. Once they got to Route 2, they would be home free—at least, she hoped so.
The sun shone brightly down on the pickup. She smiled. Despite her misgivings, it would be nice to stay at the lake for a few days. At the very least, she could catch up on her tan—as long as Dylan didn’t keep her working all day. Up at the site, there was mostly shade. She would have to keep moving her chair to get even a fraction of sunlight. Down at the beach on the lake, though, it was a different story. Her smile widened. On a Monday, there wouldn’t be anyone else there. She would have the whole beach to herself. Granted, she might not get down to the beach until the next day. Still, she found herself looking forward to being there. Nestled in the country, away from the city, she could get a handle on her problems.
She wiped sweat out of her eyes. Blinking herself out of her daydream, she glanced down at the temperature. “Why did you turn the air down?” she asked, sneaking a look at her father.
He sat with his arms wrapped around himself, body slightly hunched over. “I’m cold,” he grumbled.
She bit down on her lip. Usually, she was cold out of the two of them. ”Cold?” she repeated, pointing out the window. “It’s like ninety degrees out.”
Shoulders drawn up to his ears, her father made a face. “I think it’s the damn blood thinners,” he said.
She turned the temperature down a little. Instantly, he started to shiver. “Why do you have to be so dramatic?” she whined.
“Why can’t you be more understanding?” He pressed the off button. “Open up your window, if you’re so hot.”
Pulling in a deep breath through her nose, she then exhaled through her mouth. She needed to find a way to compromise with him, or the rest of the ride was going to be miserable. “How about we leave the air on, and you can close the vents on your side?” She gave him a smile, proud of her solution.
“My truck,” he insisted, turning and looking out the window.
“Dad,” she tried, but he stared out at the passing trees.
She opened her window a few inches. Wind rushed inside, whipping her hair around, ruining her part. The air felt cool, though—compared to the warming interior of the pickup, anyway. She took both hands off the steering wheel, yanking the hair tie off her wrist in the same motion.
“What are you doing?” her father gasped, grabbing the steering wheel. The pickup lurched to the left.
Natalie yanked it away, correcting their path. “I’ve got it, Dad,” she said. “I do this all the time.”
“Did they teach you that in driving school? Is that what I spent all that money for?” He waved a finger in her face. “Don’t do that ever again, unless you want to give me another heart attack.”
She wanted to tell him that he stressed himself out, but kept her mouth shut. Her hair flew into her face again. Using one hand, she tucked it behind her ears. The next few days, she decided, were going to be anything but relaxing.
* * *
“Take this right,” her father instructed.
“I know,” she said, even though she didn’t. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been to the campground.
Half out of his window, her father pointed up. “They’re getting a new sign,” he said.
“Why don’t you get back in the truck?” she replied, turning onto the dirt road. The truck bounced, its tires kicking up stones. She could just imagine him getting clobbered in the head with a stray rock. As much of a blessing it would be to have him quiet for a while, she did not want to go back to the hospital with him.
Safely back in his seat, her father grinned at her like a kid at a circus. “This is going to be great, Lee,” he said. “You’ll be thanking me for taking us up here.”
She smiled, despite the knot of anxiety in her stomach. The old stop sign loomed ahead. Attached to it, she knew, was a white sheet of paper declaring that visitors pay inside. She had completely forgotten the fees. As far as she knew, the campground didn’t take debit cards. Besides, she didn’t need anymore overdraft fees. “Um, Dad?” she asked, already slowing the truck.
Her father leaned out of his open window again, his eyes closed, a smile on his face. Birds chirped from the trees above. A breeze rocked the mountain laurels softly. The air smelled crisp and clean, like dirt and water and woods.
Loosening her grip on the steering wheel, she shouted his name.
He jumped. Turning toward her, he raised a hand in frustration. “You’re going to kill me,” he declared. “What do you want?”
Taking a deep breath, she patted his arm. “Sorry. Listen, how long are we going to be here?”
He hand a hand through his hair. For the first time, she realized his hairline was receding. Regarding her with his brown eyes, he shrugged. “As long as it takes.”
“Well,” she said slowly, “I need to know, so I can pay them.” She pressed her lips together, resisting the urge to lick them. She had left her lip balm in her purse, which sat on the floor behind her. Since her father wouldn’t let her take her hands off the steering wheel, getting it while driving would have been a miracle. Licking her lips would just chap them even more. As soon as she found a new job, she was going to have to invest in some good lip balm, the kind that didn’t dry her lips out so she would have to use more.
Her father nodded, as if thinking to himself. She expected him to say that he would take care of her. Instead, he said, “You’re going to have to pay for yourself, kiddo.”
Her mouth dropped open. She stared at him. He couldn’t be serious. She started to argue, to say that if she didn’t know how long she was going to be there, she couldn’t possibly pay. Then she remembered that he didn’t know about her apartment or her bills or the job she had left. She suddenly wished she had taken Benjamin up on his offer.
“Or,” her father said, a slow smile breaking across his face, “you can become a co-signer on the site. You’d get your own pass. Of course, you’d be responsible for maintenance and—”
“Whoa,” she said, holding up a hand. “I can’t be a co-signer. I’m here to take care of you, not the trailer. I didn’t even know we were coming up here, Dad.” She shook her head at him.
“Come on, Nat,” he said. “Your mom was a co-signer. It’ll be fun, like old times.”
Scowling, she tipped her head back. She couldn’t believe he had really gone there. “If you hadn’t cheated on her,” she said to the ceiling, “she would still be a co-signer.”
Her father said nothing.
She looked back down, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. They sat just a few feet from the stop sign. She could either drop him off and go back to Waterbury, or stick it out. Being a co-signer wouldn’t be the end of the world, she surmised. At the very least, it would buy her a free vacation. Nodding to herself, she straightened. She needed to look at her situation as just that, time off before moving on to the next phase of her life—whatever that was.
Licking her lips, she eased the truck forward. “Okay,” she told her father.
“You’ll do it?” he asked. The light in his eyes almost made it worth it.
“What do I have to do?” She pulled up to the stop sign.
He smiled. “Nothing, kiddo. You’re all set.”
Eyebrows furrowing, she turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”
He patted her hand. “You’re already a co-signer. I called them from the hospital. Go on, you can just roll right through, here.”
Her hands fell into her lap. She stared at him, mouth open. Her head started to turn. Her lips began to move.
A car behind them honked its horn.
She glanced into the rearview mirror. A station wagon sat behind them, a rack of bicycles strapped to its roof. One of the bikes was askew, as if it had lost a strap.
“Let’s go home,” her father said, motioning for her to drive.
She wanted to argue, but for better or worse, the trailer was going to be her home, for who knew how long.
Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.
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