“I don’t know,” she finally answers and shrugs. But there’s something in her voice that makes me think she knows but she doesn’t want to ask for it.
“If you don’t tell me, I’m going to get you a subscription to Guns & Ammo.” I reach out and pull her ponytail, and she glances over at me.
“Major already gets that. Lame.”
“So I’m guessing a knife might not be a solid gift either.”
“Come on, Eli.” She licks her lips and hesitates. “What do you get for women? I mean, like, what would you get a girlfriend?”
“Don’t know. Never had one,” I say flatly, thinking that if she were my girlfriend this would be a very different conversation.
“Oh,” she mumbles, and her cheeks flush. “Too busy to settle down?”
“Never found the right one before,” I answer, not taking my eyes off her. She stares straight ahead. I’d like to say ‘before now,’ but I can’t. No matter how badly I want to.
“I guess I get to be your first.” I feel the truck jerk when she slams on the brakes. “I meant the first woman you buy a present for. Not girlfriend. Sorry, I don’t—”
I lose the seatbelt that’s tightened around my chest and ignore the heartbeat thumping in my ears. “It’s okay. I got you.”
We look at each other, and she looks away embarrassed. She must be to have someone like me creeping on her all the time. She should be having fun with people her own age. She should be with her friend Alice right now. Fuck, she should probably be with a boy, but I grit my teeth at the thought of another man putting his hands on her. I think about what I did to that little bastard Nick, and I want to punch him in the face all over again.
She clears her throat and tries to push away the tension that’s settled in the truck. “I guess I’ll settle for a cupcake then.”
She laughs, but the double meaning isn’t lost on me, and I spend the rest of the afternoon trying not to dream about what that might actually be like.
When we get back to the house, Alice’s VW is parked out front. We both hop out and go inside, heading straight for the kitchen. Maggie grabs me a Gatorade out of the fridge and passes it to me as she gets a water. Just then, Alice walks in, her face flushed.
“You okay?” Maggie asks, walking over to Alice and looking at her.
“Yeah,” she says, and clears her throat. “I took a nap while waiting for you and just woke up.”
She glances over at me and then back at Maggie, walking over to the fridge and grabbing a water, too. They both start chatting about our drive this afternoon and how Maggie thinks Major is going to get her a car for her birthday. The man isn’t fooling anyone.
Major comes into the kitchen with a ball cap pulled down on his head. “Hey guys. Have fun?”
The girls wave off some nonsense about a show on Netflix and head into the movie room. I go to follow, but I stop, looking back at Major heading into the backyard to fire up the grill.
“Can I talk to you for a second, sir?” I ask, and he nods, gesturing at me to join him outside.
I close the door and join him as he lights the coals.
“I just wanted to update you on my physical therapy.” He looks a little relieved as he nods for me to continue. “I’m all finished with the most aggressive part of the process, and I can do the rest on my own. I only require bi-monthly check-ins at this point.”
“That’s great news, son. Happy to have you good as new.”
“Me too. I’ll still maintain my job at the clinic, but I wanted to talk to you about staying here.”
“Are you ready to move on?” he asks, genuine disappointment on his face.
“No, sir, quite the opposite,” I answer, smiling at him. “I wanted to thank you for letting me stay for so long. And I didn’t want to wear out my welcome. I know eventually I need to find my own place, but I didn’t want to rush it.”
“I’ve told you from the beginning, my home is always open to you. For as long as you need. You’ve been really good for Maggie. She’s really settled in here, and I know I owe that to you.” He squeezes my shoulder and then goes back to the grill.
“She’s done the same for me, too, sir.” I think about how much more she’s done for me, and my stomach knots. I shouldn’t feel this way about her. Am I taking advantage?
“Take all the time you need, Eli. We’re in no rush to see you go.”
“Thank you, sir.” I pause, unsure if I’m about to cross a line with him. “Is there anything you want to talk about, Major?”
He looks at me and then at the house. I turn back and see the girls in the kitchen, pulling something out of the cabinet.
“Is there anything you want to talk about?” he shoots back. His dark brown eyes lock with mine, and a moment passes between us.
Neither of us says a word, and the silence is only broken when Maggie shouts from the back door.
“How much longer on dinner? We want to know if we’ve got time for another episode of Gilmore Girls.”
Major answers her, and I wait until I hear the sound of the back door clicking closed before I speak.
“Looking forward to the burgers tonight,” I say, grabbing the plate and putting them on it.
We steer our conversation into safer waters and have a night like any other. Our makeshift family breaking bread and sweeping secrets under the rug.