I was seventeen years old when my family moved to Maidenville, Georgia. It wasn’t a town that people said they were from. If anyone asked, you answered with the county name. If you lived in Maidenville, or any of the tiny, surrounding cities like Morrow or Franklin, you lived in Dawson County. I’d find out that it had more to do with identifying which high school football team you rooted for than anything else.
I’d also find out that the kids in Dawson County had a reputation as a whole. Good girls and boys. Kids who went to church on Sundays and Wednesday nights. Kids who came from good families and went on to have good families of their own. Kids who, even if they didn’t have the best reputation, still paled in comparison to some of the things I’d done. Kids with lives that I’d never understand because I was convinced we had nothing in common. And maybe, in a lot of ways, we didn’t.
We weren’t there for long, and that was entirely my fault, but if our time in Dawson County taught me anything, it was that despite your differences some things are universal. Some things are true no matter who you are or where you’re from.
A cute boy is a cute boy (even if he is the preacher’s son).
It all started with a preacher’s visit. It turned out a welcome to the neighborhood visit wasn’t just a thing that existed solely inside of books and in the movies. My mother cut her eyes to the side, pinning me with a look that said “be nice, or be gone”, as she closed the front door behind her. As tempted as I was to roll my own eyes, I refrained. Maybe I didn’t have the best track record when it came to treating her with respect, but she could hardly think I would let my special brand of aloof rudeness extend to someone I’d just met. Unlike her, Pastor Johnson had never done a thing to make me feel like a stranger in my own home.
Plus, he didn’t bat an eye when he spotted my brother and sister, both at least half a decade younger and more than a few shades … browner than me. It hadn’t been an issue in south Florida, where we’d lived before, but you could never tell what you’d get when it came to a race issue in the Deep South. And anyone who actually lives in it will gladly tell you—Florida’s not really part of the South. Pastor Johnson simply smiled at them and bent at the waist, offering the same hand as he had my mother and me. He didn’t even look offended when they scurried away like the room was on fire immediately afterward.
He wasn’t too bad to look at, either. I would get under my mother’s skin even more later by pointing that out.
“I’d offer you a cup of coffee,” my mother said, moving a stack of paperwork from one end table to another, obviously unsure of what to do with her hands, “but I don’t think we’ve gotten that far into unpacking. It’s probably in a box labeled towels or knick-knacks.”
He laughed politely and my mother let out a nervous giggle.
I didn’t. My mother didn’t know where anything was because she hadn’t done a bit of the unpacking since we’d arrived at the old farmhouse we were renting. The coffee maker, previously located in a box I’d meticulously labeled with Small Kitchen Appliances, had been unpacked three days ago. I’d both used and put it away in a different cabinet each morning so she couldn’t find it. Partly because she hadn’t bothered to get out of bed before noon since well before we moved anyway, but mostly because I was a brat.
“I won’t take up much of your time, I promise.” He smiled at her, then me, then made a point to do the same to Chloe and Lucas where they were peeking in from the hallway. They hadn’t realized that their footsteps were hard to hide on the old, wide-planked hardwood floors. “I just wanted to take the time to welcome you to town. We don’t get many new families here, so I’m afraid I’m a little out of practice.”
Preacher man had a dimple in his right cheek when he smiled and had perfected the “aww shucks” dip of his chin. He was undeniably charming. He made a perfectly fine welcome party of one.
“Well.” My mother smiled back, then echoed my own thoughts. “You seem to be doing a fine job so far.”
I wasn’t mad because what was going on sounded a lot like flirting. Deep down I knew that it wasn’t. I wasn’t even mad that after years in Miami, she’d suddenly developed a southern accent. No, I was mad because the act—the whole fully functional human, mom of three who has everything under control—she put on was something she couldn’t even be bothered to fake around her own family. I could count on one hand the number of times she’d bothered to make eye contact with me while speaking since Jeremy died.
“Everyone has been so welcoming since we moved in.”
False. She hadn’t left the house once. Hell, she’d hardly left her room. Anything she hadn’t been able to do over the phone, she’d sent me into town for. I’d even had to return the damned U-Haul by myself. She hadn’t considered the fact that there was no public transportation of any kind out in the middle of bumfuck Egypt. It had taken me almost two hours to walk home. The porch light hadn’t even been on when I’d finally made it back.
“I’m happy to hear that. Where did you and your family move here from?”
He was so nice. So polite. I wondered if it was put on—some part of the whole small-town preacher thing. Maybe he was showing interest until we decided to join his church. Then he’d go back to ignoring the widow and her mismatched set of children. He looked over at me as the thought crossed my mind. The laugh lines on each side of his mouth were deep and, even though he couldn’t have been older than early forties at the most, the corners of his eyes held tiny crow’s feet that years of faking sincere smiles just couldn’t produce. He didn’t seem like he was putting on an act.
“Miami,” she said, and something like a veil passed over her eyes before she smiled tightly. “I’ll admit this will be quite a change of pace, but after my husband—Chloe and Lucas’s father—passed, it’s a welcome one. I thought somewhere a little quieter, a little less … dangerous, would be a good thing.”
The preacher began to speak again—probably going on about crime rates and how the neighborhood watch was more of a sewing circle than anything else, maybe asking my mother when she’d be starting her new job at the hospital—but I didn’t hear him. I was too busy silently seething and letting my fingernails carve tiny, half-moon indentations into my palms.
Jeremy had been dead for almost three months, and she couldn’t even bring herself to say his name. When she did mention him, though, it was always the same. My husband. Chloe and Lucas’s father. It wasn’t necessary for her to cut me right out of the equation like that. Like he wasn’t anything to me. Like he hadn’t accepted me as his own from the very beginning. Like he hadn’t been one of my best friends in the world. Like he hadn’t been my dad, too. It wasn’t necessary and it sure as hell wasn’t fair.
I’d taken care of everything around here since the move. I returned the moving truck, and I got the registration paperwork for school, and I set up our utilities, and I got the groceries and had unpacked every damn thing so far in this house. Because she was too grief-stricken and unable to handle seeing our things in a home that Jeremy would never set foot in. Because apparently, the thought of grilling on the back porch or playing flashlight tag in the backyard with Chloe and Lucas—the very idea of doing those things without him—didn’t upset me. Or they weren’t supposed to. Because he wasn’t my real father.
She obviously missed that while no one dared sit in his chair, an awful, brown suede monstrosity with a broken footrest, I couldn’t even bring myself to look at it. It still hurt too much to remember he wouldn’t be there anymore.
I smiled politely at Pastor Johnson when he addressed me in conversation, but I didn’t hear a word he said. I guess I was concentrating too much on biting my damn tongue.
Eventually, preacher man left and my mother and I saw him to the door. I followed more out of habit, worried that she would forget herself and start to cry before she made it out of the room. It had happened more than a few times. If the way I trailed behind her struck him as odd, it didn’t show.
“So I hope to see your family at church this Sunday, Ms. Reilly.” He nodded and smiled, and we both watched from the doorway as he made his way to his truck. I swear, seeing a car drive down the road around here, an actual car, was nothing short of a small miracle. He waved one more time before climbing into the cab. My mother waved back, then closed the front door.
She looked at me but didn’t say a word. It was like she was waiting for me to say something to ruin the silence. Like she was trying to piece together what smartass comment would make its way from my mouth first.
“He’s cute,” I said, glancing away as I locked the door. It was a habit I doubted we’d need very much out in the country, but a hard one to break. I lifted one side of my mouth in an imitation of a smile and leaned against the wall. “Not a bad way to welcome a family to town, don’t you think?”
She turned to walk away before the disgusted-sounding plea even left her lips. I stood up straighter, unable to let it go. If she was so determined to spend her time ignoring me, there was no way I would make it easy for her.
“What? Don’t you think he was cute?”
She stopped at the bottom of the stairs, her hand tightening on the banister, and sighed.
“He kind of looks like Jeremy’s friend, Yates, doesn’t he?”
Aside from the sandy blond hair, he didn’t look anything like Yates. I just knew mentioning any of Jeremy’s friends, specifically his co-workers, was guaranteed to piss her off.
“That man is a preacher, young lady.” She paused for a fraction of a second. “And aside from that, he also had a ring on his finger. At the rate you’re going, that’s probably something you should start looking out for.”
She could have slapped me and I would have been in less shock. Fighting to keep the flames out of my cheeks, I took a step back.
“That’s not fair—”
“I’d like to avoid any further altercations, if that’s all right with you.”
I fought the urge to scream. And I fought the urge to cry. I stood in the same spot, hands clenched at my sides and teeth ground so tightly my jaw ached, when her bedroom door closed a minute later.
When my family left for church that Sunday morning, I joined them more out of spite than anything else.
Well, spite and the fact that Lucas begged me to go with them. We’d always been close, despite the nearly ten-year difference between us, but he’d gotten clingier since Jeremy’s death. Most nights, I woke up to him climbing into bed with me. He’d wrap his skinny little arms around my stomach and always breathed a wet spot into the middle of my tank top by morning. He giggled the first time I told him it was okay—that a wet spot from his mouth was better than a wet spot coming from somewhere else.
I took my time choosing what to wear. We’d scarcely attended church before, usually only for weddings and funerals, so I really only had one house-of-God-appropriate dress in my wardrobe. Too bad the last time I’d worn it had been to Jeremy’s funeral. It was dark grey and, until a few months ago, I’d never realized how itchy and uncomfortable it was. I took one look at where it was stuffed into the back of my closet, not even on a hanger, but balled into a wad on the floor, and tossed it into the trash. Maybe I’d burn it or something later.
When I met everyone at the car, it was needless to say my mother didn’t approve of the dress I’d chosen. It was red plaid that looked good against my olive-toned skin, with spaghetti straps and a slightly flared skirt that stopped a few inches above the knee. She probably didn’t care for the way I’d braided my hair in pigtails, either. I was one heart-shaped pair of sunglasses away from pulling a Lolita, and I knew it. Of course, seventeen was a long way from twelve. But that was beside the point.
She didn’t say anything, though. She hadn’t said anything to me all week. Occasionally she sent a message through Chloe or Lucas, but for the most part there’d been absolute radio silence between the two of us.
I didn’t antagonize her any further than my choice of clothes. Even as angry as I was with her, it was the first time she’d willingly left the house. I didn’t want to let her forget about her words or how they affected me, but I didn’t want to completely ruin the day, either.
That didn’t stop me from catching her eye over the roof before I climbed into the passenger seat of her car.
“Maybe Pastor Johnson has a younger brother,” I mused.
She eyed the hem of my skirt and the almost, but not quite, indecent way it rode up my thighs, at every stop sign. Even though the church was at least fifteen miles from our house, there were only two of them. I fought the urge to cover myself up.
“I wonder if this will be like our last church,” Chloe said from the backseat. Somehow, even with her darker complexion and loose brown curls, she still managed to look like a mini-me of our mother. It was probably the light blue eyes and sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks. And if my mother ever smiled again, like she meant it, they’d even have twin dimples. “At the last church, they had those nasty, stale cracker things and that super-sour grape juice. I had to ask for a napkin to spit the cracker out in because I was scared to swallow it. Who knows how old that thing was?”
She talked a lot more than Mom did, though.
“When did you go to a church that had communion?” I turned to face her. “The last actual church service we went to was like, four Christmases ago. You were six.”
She waved her hand through the air, another thing that reminded me so much of Mom. Mom when she was actually engaged in a conversation and more animated than a corpse. Or Mom when she wasn’t too disappointed to meet my eyes.
“Oh, I went with Kayla and her family during spring break.”
Lucas hit her with a side eye that I would have laughed at if he wasn’t trying to be so serious.
“Then why did you say it was our last church if the rest of us weren’t even there?”
They bickered with each other for the rest of the ride. I silently hoped I wouldn’t have to choke down any stale crackers. It was exactly the kind of thing I would have shared with Jeremy before. Probably mumbled under my breath just to hear his reaction. It hadn’t been hard to make him laugh, but doing so still made you feel like you’d won something.
We pulled into the parking lot with two minutes to spare. Most of that time was eaten up by Chloe whining that Mom had left her cellphone at home and how they wouldn’t have anything to play with once they got bored. I pointed out that Lucas was three years younger than her and not complaining, so she could suck it up and act more mature. She pouted, slammed her car door, and immediately hauled ass toward the front of the church. Lucas grabbed my hand and I looked to my mother, wondering if she was going to grab her youngest daughter before she tore in there like a bat out of hell. Her shoulders were slumped and she gave a tired, weighted kind of sigh but caught up with Chloe regardless.
Not in time to stop the heavy front door that she’d just thrown open from banging into the wall behind it, though.
I climbed the last step, Lucas’s hand still clutched in mine, and took a deep breath before we entered the doorway. The big, open room before us had ivory-colored walls and deep burgundy carpet. It was also entirely filled with people, and they were all turned and staring straight at us.
My mother cringed a little, her shoulders pulled up into a shrug and her chin tilted down. I’m sure her apology showed on her face, but I didn’t follow her example. I kept my shoulders back and my chin high. I tightened my grip on my little brother’s hand and gave him a small smile. There was no need for him to start off on the wrong foot. We’d been through this before. If he got embarrassed, he became shy. If everyone saw him as the shy kid, it would be harder for him to make friends here. It was going to be hard enough for him to do that as it was.
Chloe didn’t seem embarrassed by her behavior in the least. She walked to the nearest pew and shuffled in past the first few people in their seats, leaving us no choice but to follow. There was a line of elderly ladies seated in one of the first rows, bending their heads together. They murmured to one another, and I pretended not to see the pointed looks they threw over their shoulders.
We sat and I noticed then that the choir had been in the process of filing into the benches behind the preacher’s stand thingie before we’d interrupted everything. There were three rows of people, mostly middle-aged men and women. They weren’t wearing choir robes like they’d had at the churches we’d been to. Those churches had been bigger, though, flashier, so I figured that had a lot to do with it.
Almost twenty minutes later—after we’d stood up, then sat down, stood up, sat down, sung along with the choir from one hymnal, sat and listened in silence to the choir sing the next song, then sung along with the choir from a different hymnal—I dug my phone out of my purse and tossed it to Chloe to keep her occupied. I took the opportunity to really look around then. That was when I noticed him. Even though I’d kept my face pointed down to the book of hymns in my lap since we’d sat down, I don’t know how I ever missed him.
He looked uncomfortable up there in the third row of the choir. His cheeks were slightly ruddy, and the wavy blond hair around his temples looked damp with sweat. I’m sure the thick-looking, probably wool, suit jacket he wore was to blame. The heat here was almost as stifling as it was back in Florida, and the airflow in the church wasn’t the best. He was a little rumpled, but it didn’t take away from his dark blue eyes that were rimmed with lashes so thick they were unfair, or the sharp angles of his jaw and cheekbones. It didn’t take away from the barely there cleft in his chin that I’d never found attractive on a guy before.
He looked like a character from a show on The CW. And he was staring right at me. I bit my lip to keep my mouth from falling open.
I immediately wondered if the thoughts I was having inside the house of the Lord were going to send me straight to Hell.
There was a watered-down version seated to his left. His attention was on me, too, and even though I wasn’t looking at him, I could tell there was a little more leer to his gaze. They both had the same strong, broad shoulders and the same sandy, wavy hair. The guy on the left was younger, if the lack of scruff on his cheeks meant anything. He didn’t matter, though. Nope, the guy on the right was the only thing I paid attention to after that.
The choir started their next song. It was obvious he knew all the words. He could probably recite them in his sleep, but his lips were slightly out of sync. There was no doubt that he wasn’t singing. Simply mouthing the words. Either singing wasn’t his strong suit, or he didn’t really want to be up there. His cheeks got pinker the longer that our eyes stayed locked. At one point in the middle of the song, he swallowed deeply and lost the line entirely. I looked down at my hands folded on my lap, fighting the way one side of my mouth threatened to pull upward.
The choir was dismissed, and Pastor Johnson took his spot behind the podium, inviting everyone to participate in something called visitation while the choir members found their seats. Before the sentence was even completely out of the poor man’s mouth, every single head in the row ahead of us turned in our direction. It was like I’d been washed in a sea of White Rain hairspray and Mary Kay cosmetics.
“C’mon, Lucas, I’ll take you to the bathroom.”
He clung to my hand and looked just as terrified as I felt.
“Oh, you’re just going to take that door to the right of the piano over there and head straight back,” a woman with an unfortunate haircut but a surprisingly nice shade of pink lipstick offered. “Little boys’ room is the second door on the left, hon.”
I muttered a thank you and hoped that whatever visitation was, it would be over by the time we got back.
When we were back in our seats, I did my best not to stare at the back of mystery boy’s head once the sermon began. I even tried to pay attention to Pastor Johnson’s words.
I failed on both counts.
I’d never given much thought to God, or the Bible, or religion even. It wasn’t something that had been a central part of our household before we moved. Most Sundays we had spent either hanging out at home, watching TV and cooking, or maybe going to the movies or the park. Jeremy worked six days a week, and even though he’d had most evenings free, Sunday was the only full day we’d been able to spend together as a family.
Sundays were harder to get through now because of that. I wondered if our trip to church that morning was my mother’s way of distracting herself from the fact. I wondered if, even though I wasn’t sure if I believed in God, sitting in that room every week with her was something I could do to distract myself as well.
The service ended, and after Pastor Johnson had moved to the exit, people filed out of their rows. The mystery boy four pews up glanced over his shoulder at me as he stood. The sun filtering in through the stained glass windows hit his eyes just right, and I decided right then and there that maybe this place was exactly the kind of distraction I needed.
We waited patiently to join the line of people exiting, my mother nodding and smiling at everyone who offered her a half-hearted, or in some cases over-eager, hello.
Of course, there seemed to be just as many people filing past who were purposely not making eye contact, or side-eyeing the shit out of our family. Like I said, it was hard to tell what you were going to get in the Bible Belt when it came to having a family as … diverse as ours.
An older couple, maybe in their early sixties, glanced over, then looked at each other in a way that had me lifting my chin and taking both my younger siblings’ hands in my own. The woman met my glare and almost stumbled back into her husband’s chest. She shook her head, probably at the less than polite look on my face, and continued on her way.
Yeah, screw that lady.
Filled with an almost righteous sense of indignation, I edged my mother and siblings out into the aisle and toward the exit. If there’d been open space, I would have marched right out that door and straight to the car. I wouldn’t have stopped to say a damn word to anybody. Unfortunately, it looked like Pastor Johnson was taking the time to say a few words of his own to each person as they exited the church. I bit the inside of my cheek to get my temper in check, but the woman from before was up ahead, her head leaned in close to the woman beside her. When they glanced back over their shoulders and lady number two looked pointedly at the spot where Lucas held my hand, I could feel myself turning red. No one had to ask how they felt about us—their faces said it all.
Screw that lady, too.
“Ms. Reilly,” Pastor Johnson’s voice broke through my silent seething, “I’m so glad you and your family could make it today. I hope that you enjoyed the sermon.”
My mother said something back, but I couldn’t tell you what. Three people stood beside Pastor Johnson. I bypassed the preacher completely and didn’t even look at the next two.
I stopped in front of the choir boy who’d caught my eye and let my gaze rake over him. It was part raw attraction and part leftover fury that made my perusal so slow, so thorough, so overtly intimate. I went with it, though, waiting to see his reaction to the way that I dragged my gaze over his wide chest, down to where his torso narrowed, and finally over the front of the light-colored khakis he wore. His pulse jumped in his neck, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed harshly.
I took it a step further by staring at his face, cocking my head to the side and lingering just a little on his mouth. I picked up one of my braids and wound the tip around my index finger. He followed the path of it, transfixed by how the dark, glossy strands slipped around the digit as I lowered it back to rest over my chest. I briefly wondered how easy it would be to wrap him around that same finger. My chest felt tight as I watched his expand with air. It looked like we were both having a hard time breathing.
I extended my hand toward him, keeping it a little closer to my body than was strictly necessary.
“Michaela Reilly,” I offered.
His palm was big and warm, a nice contrast to my normally cool hands. My thumb brushed over the inside of his wrist and neither of us let go.
“Levi,” he said, his voice low and thick. Deep voices did something for me, and his did not disappoint. “Levi Johnson.”
Johnson. Of course. My gaze flickered to my mother. She was still talking to the preacher, but her eyes were on the two of us. She stared at the spot where my hand was still engulfed in his.
“Levi,” I repeated back to him. I smiled slowly, then wet my bottom lip with my tongue. His fingers tightened around mine, and I leaned closer for a fraction of a second. His wrist barely grazed the side of my rib cage before I let go. “I’ll see you around.”
I didn’t know it then, but after the day I met Levi Johnson, nothing would ever be the same.