Miss Me Not (Page 16)

"Wow, you look amazing," she squeaked, switching off the hair dryer and running her hands through my hair while admiring her handiwork. "What do you think?" she asked, turning my chair so I was facing the mirror.

I hesitantly lifted my eyes, studying my reflection. Who the hell was that? The pinched, drawn expression I had grown accustomed to over the years was gone. With the snip of her scissors, Ginnifer had somehow softened my facial features, making my face appear less haggard and more approachable. I couldn't quite discern how I felt about the change. Did I really want people to suddenly think I was approachable? Being normal was beginning to feel like a kick in the ass.

"Madison, you look amazing," Sarah said, coming up to stand behind my chair. "Your hair looks and feels like silk," she added, running her hands over my hair. I kept my grimace to myself at being petted again for the second time in the last few minutes.

"Thanks," I answered, uncomfortable from the attention. I was acutely missing my shadow life at the moment.

"Her hair is absolutely breathtaking," Sarah said, beaming at Ginnifer like she had just found the cure for hair loss or something. "Okay, let's go prettify our toes and fingers," Sarah said, picking up my bags off the floor where they had been resting.

I didn't see the use in arguing so I followed behind Sarah as she led me to the far side of the salon where they had a specific section set aside just for pedicures and manicures. Forty-five minutes later, both my fingers and toes were lacquered in a deep purple color that almost looked black. I was pretty convinced both were a waste on me, but they made Sarah happy, so I went along with it. I wasn't sure if I had ever made anyone happy before.


"So, Mom says your day together went great," Dean said later that night as we talked on the phone.

"Yeah, it did. No thanks to your meddling though. I wanted to seriously hurt you this morning when I opened the door and saw her standing there."

He chuckled in my ear.

"Not funny, dickhead," I said, shooting the phone in my hand a dirty look. "You're lucky I was able to control my inner freak for the day."

"You're not a freak," he said, no longer laughing. "I really wish you'd stop putting yourself down."

"Just keeping it real."

"Well, your reality of yourself doesn't match mine. And I don't like you putting down the girl I like," he said, seriously blurring our friendship line.

"Like as a friend," I reminded him.

He sighed loudly in my ear. "Yes, like as a friend. I'll be there early tomorrow to pick you up," he said, changing the subject.

"Don't you eat in the afternoon?" I asked, confused.

"Thanksgiving with my family is an all-day event. There's going to be football, gorging on food, games, complaining about how much food you've consumed, then more gorging. You get the point. The Jackson clan makes Thanksgiving their beeotch," he said sniggering.

"And you're sure I need to be there for all that? Wouldn't it be better if I was just there for the meal?" I asked hopefully.

"Hell to the no. You're presence is requested for the entire day."

"Fine," I grumbled, not wanting to admit how intimidated I was. I would rather swim with a tank full of sharks than be thrust in a family holiday. How I had gotten roped into it was beyond me. I was slowly beginning to realize that Dean was like my kryptonite. I just couldn't say no to him.

"I'll be there at nine," he said, chuckling softly at my response.

I responded by hanging up. Just because I caved didn't mean I had to go with my tail between my legs.

My phone beeped with a message.

Sweet dreams. D

Not likely, I texted back, still ticked.

You'll have fun. Trust me and stop frowning. D

Right. Almost as fun as sitting in a Justin Bieber concert.

LOL it's good to see you're looking at the positive. See you in the morning. D

Unless I don't answer the door, I threatened.

Chapter fifteen

Donna had already left for the church soup kitchen by the time I woke up the next morning. Thanksgiving was of course a busy day for the church, and I knew from past experiences that Donna would be in her element, running around setting tables, cooking food and taking care of those in need. Thanksgiving was a churchgoer like Donna's, feel-good day of the entire year. Sure, she'd give to Toys for Tots and spend hours at the church, making up hundreds of shoeboxes to send overseas to less fortunate children, who I'm sure just loved the mini boxes of crayons and twenty-page coloring books, versus a warm meal in their bellies, but who was I to judge? At least they were trying. Maybe, just maybe, if things had been different, if I had been different, I would be amongst them, making up goody boxes and patting myself on the back. I often did this. I would play the "what if" game in my head almost as a punishment. What if I had been different as a little girl and didn't resent all the time spent at church? What if I had embraced the lifestyle, integrating myself in all the activities the church offered? How different would my life have turned out? Would I be happier? Of course, like every "what if" game, we'd never know the truth. That was the point. I had chosen my destiny years ago, and now I had to live with it.

By the time Dean showed up, I'd pretty much convinced myself that maybe a day with Donna would have been better than spending the day with the clan of Jackson relatives I was about to meet.

"Wow, you look incredible," Dean said admiringly as he took in my new clothes. He let out a low whistle.

"Thanks," I answered, flushing slightly. I didn't want to admit to him how close I had come to chickening out. My pulse had raced uncontrollably when I left my shapeless, comforting, black clothes in the closet and instead pulled out a pair of my new jeans and one of the sweaters Sarah helped me pick out. I couldn't help grimacing when I studied my reflection in my bedroom mirror. The jeans seemed tighter than I remember them being the previous day, and I know for a fact that the deep plum-colored sweater hadn't hugged my curves quite as much the day before. I missed my safe clothes. My you-can't-see me clothes.

"Okay, time to pop your eyes back in, Sport-o," I said sarcastically as Dean continued to stare at me with open admiration.

"I can't help it. You're a freaking knockout. Now I'm wondering how I'll keep all my cousins from hitting on you today."

"Right, because I'm sure that will be a huge issue," I said.

A look flashed across his face, but he let the subject drop. "Ready?" he asked instead.

"As ready as I'll ever be."

"It's going to be fun. You'll just be facing my family, not a firing squad," he said chuckling as he opened the vehicle door for me.

"At least a firing squad would be less painful," I retorted as he closed my door behind me. I could hear him chuckling as he rounded the jeep. Not finding the situation nearly as funny as him, I fought the urge to elbow him in the ribs.

"Chuckle it up there, Sport-o. It's all fun and games until your grandparents chase me off their property with a shotgun for corrupting their grandson."

"Isn't that supposed to be a guy's line?" he asked, laughing at my expression. "Trust me, Mads, everyone is going to love you. Besides, there's going to be so many people there today, I'm sure Papaw won't even be able to find his shotgun," he teased.

"Ha-ha, you're a freaking crackup. You should consider taking your comedy show on the road," I said drily.

"So, my mom really had a lot of fun yesterday," he said, changing the subject.

"Really?" I asked, hating the vulnerability in my voice. It shouldn’t matter to me if she had a good time.

"Yeah, she hasn't given herself much alone time since the twins were born. My dad has been encouraging her to get out with her friends. You know, the whole girls’ night thing you chicks like to do."

I shrugged my shoulders. Anything girl-related was foreign to me.

"Right. Well, anyway, he's been after her to get out of the house and hang out with her friends for months now, but she keeps putting him off, claiming she's not ready to leave the twins yet."

"Great, now I feel bad for keeping her out so long yesterday," I said, feeling like a complete ass.

"Nah, that’s my point. She not only jumped at the opportunity to go out with you, but it was her idea. She did a complete one-eighty from every other time an outing without the twins was suggested. My dad was as happy as a kid in a McDonald's Play Place that she stayed out all day with you and came home with her nails and hair done. You're like his new hero now."

"Really, it wasn’t me," I said, uncomfortable with taking the credit. "All of it was your mom's idea."

"Well, you must've done something right. She was practically glowing when she got home. So learn to take a compliment," he said, reaching over to lace his fingers through mine.

I mulled his words over in my head. Compliment. Is that what compliments sounded and felt like? I always figured compliments were supposed to make you flush with pride and were a coveted treat to be enjoyed and pimped. Maybe like everything else, I was a failure at receiving them. I wasn't flushed with pride. Instead, my stomach had an uncomfortable pinch, like it was being tugged on by an invisible string. Only one other person had ever really complimented me, but I didn't allow myself to think about his compliments. At the time, they hadn't filled me with pride or the pinching sensation I was experiencing now, they had made me feel powerful, but I was wrong. He had proved me wrong.

"Are you still nervous?" Dean asked thirty minutes later, breaking up the silence that had filled the car.

I shrugged my shoulders, not really sure how I felt. "I've pretty much resigned myself that there's no turning back now," I said truthfully.

"Mads, I'm not going to let anyone say or do anything that will upset you. I promise. I feel like a complete asshole dragging you here, knowing how uncomfortable you are. I just had this crazy plan to show you what a real Thanksgiving feels and looks like. I don't want you to be miserable though."

"Hello, have we met? Misery is my best friend. We hang out all the time. You know, painting each other's nails and fixing each other's hair," I joked. "Don't worry about me, Sport-o. It's not your fault I'm socially stunted."

His jaw tightened at my words, but he let the subject drop.

"Where does your Papaw live again?" I asked, feigning interest. It was time to throw him a bone. Even if the day sucked as much as it was destined to, I would rather walk down the halls at school buck naked than ruin his day. I could pretend, fool him or hoodwink him, whatever you wanted to call it. After all, I was the master of disguise.

"His house is on the outskirts of Flagler County. The property his house sits on has been in our family for generations. My Uncle John and Aunt Cindy have a house on the property, and so do my Uncle Mark and Aunt Linda. There are a few houses that are sitting empty right now that the rest of us use when we are staying overnight. My parents and the twins headed down last night so the girls would fall asleep in the car."

"Really?” I asked with genuine interest this time. "Your papaw's property must be pretty big."

"It's huge. I think it's something like forty or fifty acres. We all drive golf carts to get around while we're there," he said, once again smiling at me.

His smile strengthened my resolve. I could do this for him. I would chalk it up as my ultimate test in acting like a human.

The next hour passed with Dean regaling me with stories of summers he spent at his papaw and nana's house. I couldn't help chuckling with him as he talked about his first and only lemonade stand.

"I guess in my ten-year-old brain I never considered the fact that if I set the stand up smack dab in the middle of the property, my only customers would be my cousins, who all claimed they didn't have to pay for it since they were family. Needless to say, the stand lost its luster awfully quickly, with me sitting in the hot sun, serving my cousins, while they ran around acting like ninjas, and I was stuck working," he said chuckling.

"So, your first business endeavor was a bust. I'd leave that off your college applications," I teased.

"Oh, it wasn't a bust. I set up shop again later that evening when everyone showed up for one of Papaw's barbecues. I sold more than a hundred glasses that night," he said smugly.

"I bet your cousins were singing a different tune after that."

"Yeah, they were pretty jealous, but I turned out to be their hero when I bought the new Spider-Man game we were all dying to play," Dean said, turning off the main road.

It didn't surprise me that he shared his earnings with his cousins. That's the kind of person he was. Just an all-around good guy. I destroyed lives while he built them up. Together, we were literally a cosmic joke.

"My papaw's property started back there as soon as I turned off the main road," Dean said conversationally, driving slowly over the ruts in the unpaved road.

I took in our surroundings as he navigated his small vehicle over the uneven road. I was enthralled with the large trees and bushes that encroached on the road from both sides. The road forked off several times as we approached a couple of large houses.

"That's where my Uncle John and Aunt Cindy live," Dean said, stopping in the middle of the dirt lane and pointing to one of the houses. "And across the way there is my parents’ house. We use it when we come down here for vacations," he added, pointing toward a two-story wooden house painted a buttery yellow off to my left. "It was built back in nineteen twenty and still has the original hardwood floors. My dad and I renovated it this last summer, updating the electrical wiring and plumbing. We changed out the appliances, but tried to keep the house as authentic as we could," he boasted passionately.

"Sounds like you really enjoyed it," I said.

"I better. That's what I plan on majoring in next year," he said laughing. "My dream is to be able to restore houses back to their former glory. Next summer, I'm tackling one of the other houses on the property all by myself. I'm going to live there while I work on it before I head off to college in the fall."

"Sounds like you have it all mapped out," I said enviously. My long-term goals were zilch. For so long, long-term goals weren't even in the cards. I really hadn't given much thought to where I would go when I graduated. Past comments by Donna pretty much made it clear that she expected me to move out after graduation, leaving me without a whole lot of time to decide what I wanted do with my life. I knew I should start making plans and thinking ahead, but the task up until now seemed so daunting, and quite frankly, pointless. Listening to Dean's long-term plans made me feel like I'd been doused in cold water. It was time for me to man up and start making my own plans.