Page 20 of Stinger

"Books on tape, GPS…" He scoffed. "Pretty soon people will have no reason to learn to read a book or a map. I'm telling you."

I rolled my eyes. "You should try it, Dad, you might change your mind."

He took my small suitcase and brought it into the living room where we sat down. Fall classes started in a week, and I had driven home to visit my dad and my sisters between summer classes ending and the new semester beginning. I only had a couple days, but I missed them. I missed home.

"Jules and Audrey aren't here?" I asked.

"No, they'll be home soon. They both out of class at five."

I nodded. My sisters were both in college, Audrey at Wright State studying to be a teacher, and Julia was in school at a local hospital where they offered a program to put you through school if you signed a contract to work there for a couple years after you graduated. I was proud of both of them. They both did well in school and worked during the summer to help with the tuitions.

I stood up. "Can I get you something? I'm gonna get some iced tea."

"Yeah, grab me a beer. Thanks."

I went in the small kitchen and grabbed a can of Budweiser out of the refrigerator, the same beer my dad had been drinking for as long as I could remember. I poured myself a glass of iced tea and returned to the living room, handing my dad his can.

He popped it open and took a drink and said, "So tell me about your classes, Gracie."

I took a long drink of my tea. "Actually, Dad, I have something to talk to you about," I said nervously.

"Oh yeah?" he asked, eyeing me.

"Yes." I took a deep breath. "The thing is, I changed my law focus." I looked away, taking another huge gulp of tea.

When I looked up, my dad was looking at me seriously. "Okay. What'd you change it to?"

I laughed nervously. "Well, I know how you feel about the criminal court system, I know you have a lot of experience–"

"Gracie, spit it out."

I looked down. "I decided that I want to work in the prosecutor's office." Silence. After a couple seconds, I raised my lashes and looked at my dad. He had a small frown on his face and his lips were pursed. My heart sunk. I had worked my whole life to avoid that look, my whole life. I almost took it back, right then and there. I almost spit out, just kidding! But then for some reason, Carson's face came into my head, smiling at me, encouraging me. I knew it was my own mind conjuring up his image, but it comforted me anyway, spurred me on. Be brave, Grace.

"Gracie, you have no idea the things I've seen, the side of humanity you'll see if you get into criminal law. I just want to protect you from that. Plus, you don't make any money working in the D.A.'s office. Corporate law is a good, safe field of law, you'll make a good salary, and you won't take your work home with you every day of your life."

I looked down, frowned, took a deep breath and looked back up. "The thing is, I'm tired of being safe all the time," I whispered, looking him straight in the eye. "I'm tired of doing things because they make sense for everyone else except me." My voice hitched on the last word and my eyes swam. I looked down, unable to keep eye contact. I looked back up at him haltingly after a second.

My dad sighed and then studied me for long minutes, looking for something in my face, but I wasn't sure what. Finally he said, "I only ever wanted my girls to be happy. You think this is going to make you happy, then that's all I need. I just never wanted you to be jaded and bitter like your old man."

I let out a short laugh and then sniffled, my tears mixing with my laughter. "You're not jaded and bitter."

He sighed. "In some ways, yeah I am. I accept that. And Gracie, I'm sorry I never made it clear to you that your happiness was important to me. You stepped right in and started taking care of this family when your mom left. I saw it and I let you do it, and that probably wasn't fair to you."

"No, Dad," I said quickly, shaking my head, "I wanted to do that. It made me feel like I was doing something to make things better for everyone. Better for you."

"You were darlin', but I should have made that more my job, than yours. It was too much pressure for a kid. And you always put enough pressure on yourself as it was. Go make yourself happy, Gracie. No one knows better than me that you gotta grab at it and hold on tight when it comes your way. Might not come again."

I let out another little sob and launched myself at him, almost tipping that damn flower covered recliner right over. We weren't big on physical affection in my house, but I just couldn't contain myself in that moment. I loved my dad so much. It was like a ten-ton weight had been lifted off my chest. And as it turned out, I had been the one who had let it sit there all that time. I hugged him tightly and after a minute, he wrapped his arms around me too and we sat like that for a while, me whispering, "Thank you, Dad," in his ear.

"What the HELL are you doing to my dad?" I heard screeched from the living room doorway. I sat up and laughed.

"I'm hugging him, you nutjob," I said to my sister, Julia, smiling and getting up. She was grinning too. "Hi, big sis," she said, hugging me to her and squeezing me tight. My dad wasn't real big on the physical affection, but us girls made up for it with each other. We were each other's anchors, each other's comfort.

"God, you make me feel short," I said, looking up at her beautiful face. Julia was blonde like me, but she had gotten our dad's height and towered over me at 5'9". I was insanely jealous of her long legs and supermodel figure. She could and did eat anything she wanted.

"Audrey should be right behind–" Julia started to say, just as I heard the door slam and Audrey's voice call out, "Helooooo!" A brunette head peaked around the doorway and Audrey's pretty grin lit up her face. Audrey had gotten my mom's side of the family's height like me, but had brown hair like my dad. She was adorable in every way–I had practically raised her when Andrew died and my mom had checked out. I considered myself almost more of an aunt to her than a sister.

She ran in the room and launched herself at me, practically toppling me over as we both laughed and jumped up and down.

My dad cleared his throat.

All three of our heads whipped over to him.

"Do you girls mind? Jeopardy comes on in five minutes and I can't hear it over all the clucking."

I started moving first. "Of course! Here, you sit down." I pushed him into his daisy-covered recliner and handed him the beer that he had sat down on the table next to him before I had launched myself into his lap, and I turned the TV on the right channel.

I looked back at Julia and Audrey and they were both rolling their eyes at me as I went about making our dad as comfortable as possible. Well, whatever, some habits were hard to break. He was my dad. I took care of him. That's what I did. I threw an afghan over his legs and grabbed my small suitcase and all of us girls ran up the stairs, pushing and giggling.

We went into my old bedroom and Audrey and Julia flopped down on my bed as I opened my suitcase and started putting clothes into the dresser drawers.

"So what's new chickadees?" I asked.

Silence. I looked over at them and they were shooting looks back and forth. I put my hands on my hips. "What?" I asked, narrowing my eyes.

"Julia has something to tell you," Audrey offered, grinning broadly.

My eyes swung to Julia who was looking at me nervously. "Yeah?" I let the word drag out, raising my eyebrows.

She started picking at an invisible thread on the hem of her sweater. "Well, the thing is, I kinda met someone."

I raised one eyebrow. "As in a boy?" I asked.

She nodded her head, smiling up at me. "Yes, a boy–"

"Well that's not all. Tell her the big news," Audrey said and Julia shot her a warning look.

I sat down on the bed with them. "Julia, just spit it out," I said, throwing my arms up in the air and letting them fall.

"I'm not a virgin anymore," she blurted out. "I'm de-virginized. I'm a woman!" she finished, giving me a small, nervous laugh.

"The cherry is popped," Audrey offered reverently.

I looked back and forth between them. "You were nervous to tell me, Jules?" I asked on a small frown.

"Well, no, I mean, a little, it's just," she took a deep breath, "yes, I was nervous to tell you." She took my hand. "You've just always been kinda like a mom to us and face it, you're kinda straight-laced, Gracie. I mean, are you a virgin? We talk about everything, but you've never talked about sex with us. At least not on a personal level. You've just always been so driven, so focused on other things…"

I stared at her, thinking. We joked about sex. We made references to sexiness, and hot guys, stuff like that, but I guess she was right. I had never talked about sex on a personal level. I had never really gone to parties or dated boys much in high school and so there really wasn't anything to talk about there. I had never told anyone, except Carson, about my guy plan. That stupid plan that didn't even exist anymore.

I took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, girls. You're right. I haven't been a good older sister in that category. I should have been more open with you. I just… I had all these dumb ideas, that up until a couple months ago, I didn't even know were dumb ideas. I probably needed the talk more than either of you. It's just, without Mom here…I never…I've treated you both like babies, I'm sorry." I huffed out a breath and shook my head.

"No, Grace, we're not trying to make you feel badly. You've always taken care of us. We love you for that. We just didn't know how you'd react to this kind of specific information." Audrey gestured her head toward Julia.

I grabbed Audrey's hand and squeezed it, and then looked at Julia. "Who is he, sweetie?"

She grinned, her eyes sparkling. "His name is Evan and he works at the hospital. In administration. He's twenty-two. We've been dating for three months and I'm in love, Grace. Truly in love. He treats me like a princess–like I'm the most precious thing on the planet," she finished dreamily, flopping back on the bed.

Audrey rolled her eyes. "You're really not sorry you missed all the gushing over the last few months, Grace. It's been truly vomitous."

I laughed. "So, did you… enjoy it?" I asked.

Julia propped herself up on her elbows. "The sex?" She bit her lip. "Well, we've only done it a couple times so far, and… well, no, not really. I mean, I'm sure that's kinda normal…" She frowned, looking over at Audrey.

Audrey raised her hands. "Don't look at me. I'm untouched. Pure. I don't know what to tell you other than you could be broken in some way."

I laughed, but Julia narrowed her eyes at Audrey.

"You're not broken, Jules. The first couple times usually aren't that good. It gets better, I promise. And if you're with the right person–which hopefully you are–it can be incredible. Beyond incredible."

I looked over at them and they were both staring at me. I laughed again. "Okay, girls, we need to talk, and I think I have something to tell you that will make up for the years and years of sex-talk repression in this house. Settle in and buckle up," I said seriously, biting my lip with nervousness. I laid down on my side and propped my head up on my hand and started talking, wondering if I'd get through the story this time without crying because I still missed him so damn much that even two months later, I got emotional saying his name. "So you know that conference I went to a couple months ago…"

**********

Carson

"I still can't believe you enlisted in the NAVY, you crazy motherfucker!" Dylan yelled from the kitchen as he grabbed us both a beer.

I chuckled. "You and me both, bro."

Dylan came back in the room and handed me my beer, and sat down on the other couch, studying me over his bottle as he took a long sip and propped his feet up on the coffee table. "You gonna tell your mom you're taking off?" He eyed me warily.

"Nah, you know what happened the last time I was over there. I'll send her a postcard if I make it to SEAL training in Coronado."

He nodded. He had seen me, or rather, my busted lip after I had gone to see her the last time and gotten into it with her current boyfriend and he sucker punched me like the douche he was.

"So," he said, taking a pull on his beer and obviously changing the subject, "you ever gonna tell me about this girl you spent a weekend with and changed your whole life for?"

I laughed. "I didn't change my whole life for her, dude."

"Uh, yeah, you kinda did man. What kind of pu**y voodoo did she cast on you?"

"Funny. No, I meant, I'm not making all these changes because of Grace. I'll most likely never even see her again." I paused as the pain in that statement washed over me. I had thought about contacting her and letting her know my plans. But what if I failed? No. I needed to actually accomplish something before I let Grace know. "I just realized it's time, that's all. I can't do p**n forever, man. It was time for me to come up with some kind of life plan, some direction at least."

Dylan nodded. "I can't disagree. I mean, as badass as it was to have women p**n stars showing up at our house parties." He grinned. "Not that there's been any partying going on here lately, you monk."

I chuckled, but then I grew serious, putting my hands behind my head and leaning back on the couch. "Man, I might be right back here next year. Do you know what a long shot this is going to be?"

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