After Becky finished showering, she changed back into her street clothes and headed for the student parking lot. Tom stood waiting for her, leaning against the hood of her decade-old, blue Chevy Lumina as she approached. His own black Honda Civic was parked next to it. He was dressed simply in black khakis and a powder blue Hope High School t-shirt, darkened in spots where it clung to his chest. Even as simply as he was dressed, the sight of him revved Becky’s engines. Still, part of her wished he wasn’t waiting for her. She wanted to drive home, call Tammy Jo and find out what was going on, and if Tom turned on the charm enough, Becky knew she’d get swept up into whatever he had planned.
“Hey there,” she said, smiling.
Tom stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her. She let him hug her for a moment, breathing in the smell of his skin. When she detected the hint of chlorine, she gently pushed him back. “It’s too hot,” she said. “No time to shower at the Y after your swim?”
“I wanted to be here on time to meet you. Want to come over to my place for supper tonight?”
“Mmmm,” Becky hedged, considering. Tom’s mother cooked like a talented contestant on The Next Iron Chef. “I’d love to, but I have plans.”
“Fine,” Tom said. Although he was still smiling, there was a note of disappointment in his voice. She hated when he acted like that.
“Stop pouting,” she said. She reached out and poked him in the ribs to ease the sting out of her words. “I need to check in on Tammy Jo.”
Becky shook her head. “No. She’ll be more open if it’s just the two of us.”
She joined him, leaning against the hood of her car. The metal hood burned the backs of her thighs and she was glad she was wearing jeans instead of shorts. Despite the heat, she leaned toward Tom and rested the side of her head briefly on his shoulder.
“Have you been waiting long?” she asked.
“Not really,” he said. “After the Y, I picked up a new sheaf of paper at Wal-Mart. I’ve only been here for a couple minutes.”
“How’s the writing coming?” Tom wrote short stories all the time and had been talking about a novel he was planning for several weeks now.
“Okay,” he answered. He fell silent for a moment, then asked, “So how’d practice go?”
“I ran a heat against Lucie today,” Becky said. “She really pushed me.”
“She’s only a sophomore, isn’t she?” Tom asked.
She nodded. “She’s improving. She may give me trouble next year.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” he said. “You’re terrific and you’re going all the way to state this year and next.”
“I wish I felt so confident about it,” she said. “Meg Swanson’s going to be hard to beat.”
“Maybe so,” he allowed. “But you want to know what I think? I think over in Spooner, Meg Swanson is standing in the parking lot with her boyfriend, complaining about how Becky Howard is going to be tough to beat.”
Becky’s heart melted a little then and she leaned over and allowed him to kiss her. His lips were dry and she realized she’d taken him by surprise for a change. The moment sent chills down her spine and she shivered. He drew back and said, “Orange rosemary chicken. Stuffed red peppers.”
Becky growled, hunger catching up with her. It had been a long practice in the intense heat.
“No fair,” she protested.
“Tomato pie. Raspberry yogurt pops,” he continued.
“I can’t,” she said. “Other plans.”
Tom clutched his heart as though he’d been stabbed and staggered backward. “Okay,” he said. “Fine. Whatever you say. I’ll just find something else to do.”
Becky laughed. She stood and leaned toward him to give him another kiss, this one brief. “Check with Larry. I bet he’s free.”
“Homemade barbecue-flavored potato chips.” Tom’s eyes glinted with sexy mischief.
“Meanie,” said Becky. “Tammy Jo, remember? I really need to get going.”
“I’ll call you later tonight,” he said.
“Okay. Love you.”
“Later,” he replied. Tom ducked into his Civic and drove off, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel as he left. Becky watched him go, then climbed into her Lumina and drove home, her stomach growling all the way.
When Becky arrived home, stillness encompassed the house, making it clear no one else was there. On the dining room table, she found a letter addressed to her from her sister, Geena, and calling Tammy Jo slipped her mind. Becky picked the letter up. The Phoenix, Arizona postmark always looked foreign to her. It was hard to believe her sister now lived so far away.
Geena had moved away to attend the University of Minnesota when Becky was in eighth grade. A year later, Geena had become engaged to a young man she’d met at the university, Peter Malkowitz. After they married, Geena and Peter had moved to Arizona, where he had a job with IBM waiting for him.
For the past couple years, Geena had written to Becky at least once a month, and sent her emails weekly and text messages almost daily. Becky missed her sister, and in all of Geena’s communications, Geena had confessed the feeling was mutual. She wished Geena could be with her tonight, when she went to pick out her prom dress.
Becky enjoyed shopping, but it always reminded her of her sister. Geena excelled at shopping for clothes, and served as her mentor. She had created three rules of dress shopping.
“First,” Geena told her in a dramatic voice, “never trust the advice of a salesperson, no matter how well they treat you. A salesperson will say you look great in a burlap bag if it costs a lot.”
Becky would nod in agreement each time Geena gave the speech on dress buying. She had enjoyed these times with her sister, and counted them among the few moments they shared when Geena treated her as an equal.
“Second,” Geena would always say, “never be fooled by a huge price tag. Just because a dress costs a fortune doesn’t guarantee it will look good on you. Remember my purple dress? I look great in that dress, don’t I?”
Becky agreed. Of all the dresses her sister owned, the purple one was Becky’s favorite. Some nights she’d lie awake wishing the dress belonged to her, and for a figure to fill it out. Becky considered her sister attractive, but when Geena wore the purple dress she transformed into a knockout.
“I bought that dress for sixty-nine dollars in JC Penny,” Geena had boasted. “I’d spotted other dresses priced two, three, even four times as much. None of them complimented me like the purple dress.”
She would continue with the speech. The third rule was the most important and whenever she reached it, Geena’s voice drop. In a solemn tone, she told Becky, “Sometimes, it’s okay to break the rules. Dress shopping should be fun, not a chore. Remember, it’s supposed to make you happy. Not your boyfriend, not the salesperson, not Mom and Dad, and not even me. Just you. So learn to listen to your heart, and learn when to trust it.”
The advice had served Becky well. In the last three years, she hadn’t purchased a dress she didn’t love. The only difference now was shopping for them without Geena.
A month before her wedding, Geena had taken Becky dress shopping one final time. Becky’s maid of honor dress had already been chosen and Geena made it clear this spree was for a dress Becky wanted for fun, a gift from one sister to another. Due to the wedding plans, they only had one day free to shop. Instead of messing around in Hope, they went straight to the Mall of America in Bloomington, their favorite retail location. They looked at all sorts of dresses that Saturday afternoon. Geena kept telling Becky price was not a question, but as the day slipped away, Becky still hadn’t found a dress she loved.
“I don’t believe there’s not at least one dress you really want,” Geena said as they sat in the food court on the third floor, munching on tacos and gorditas.
Becky shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ve seen a lot of dresses, but…. This is all going so fast.”
Geena nodded, pursed her lips and stared at her gordita for a long moment.
“All right,” she said. “Magic time. I’m your fairy godsister and I can grant you one wish. Imagine a dress. One dress you want more than any other in the whole world. Just picture it in your mind.”
Becky laughed. “Are you serious?”
Closing her eyes, she did. The dress that came to mind didn’t surprise her, but she felt ashamed for even thinking of it. Her cheeks grew warm.
“You’ve got it,” Geena said triumphantly. “I know you do. Now tell me.”
Becky said nothing and Geena reached across the table and put a hand on her arm, concerned.
“It’s all right, Becky. Just tell me. Whatever it is, it’s yours.”
She sighed. “The purple dress. Your purple dress.”
“I still know you.” It had been a strange statement at the time, but Becky later came to believe Geena had been talking to herself at that moment.
Then Geena had caught Becky’s eyes and said, “It’s yours. I’ve known you wanted it for a long time.”
A month later Geena married Peter and they had moved. The purple dress had stayed behind, hanging in a protective plastic bag in Becky’s closet.
Smiling at the memory, Becky turned the letter over and tore it open. A paragraph on the first page caught her eye.
“I should have finished my degree before marrying Peter,” Geena wrote. “I’ve been able to take a couple night classes per semester out here in Phoenix, but now with the baby due in a month, I won’t be able to keep that up. At the pace I was going, I would have finished my degree in two more years. Now I wonder if I’ll ever earn it.”
The rest of the letter was filled with stories and anecdotes of Geena’s life in Phoenix. It ran five pages in all and when Becky reached the end she was almost exhausted at the thought of all the life her sister had been through. Then she read the postscript, written across the bottom of the last page in a hasty scrawl.
“If I’d chosen my husband as carefully as I choose my dresses,” Geena had written, “I think I might have been a lot better off.”
Becky stuffed the letter back into the envelope. Her body, still soaked with sweat in spite of the shower, felt cold. By the time she ran to her room, stripped off her clothes and buried herself beneath the sheets of her bed, she was shivering so hard she couldn’t stop.
Later that evening, Becky ate her meal quietly. Her eyes kept returning to her mother, and she realized how long it had been since she’d really looked at her. She wondered what it was like to live inside her mother’s skin. Each morning, her mom pulled her hair back into a tight, neat bun, but by the time she returned home each evening, the hairstyle would appear frayed and chaotic. Becky supposed it was a good indication of the emotional drain of her mother’s job as a social worker that unraveling over the course of the day. Even though her her mother’s skin retained a healthy glow that hinted at the beauty she possessed, that glow was slowly wearing away. Becky thought it had to be from the burden of carrying so many of the troubles of others. Finished with dinner, Becky pushed her plate away, leaving half of her lasagna uneaten. Melanie looked at Becky’s plate with a frown.
“Are they loading you down at school again?” she asked.
Becky stopped, her chair halfway back from the table. “What do you mean?”
“I was wondering if you had a lot of homework.”
She shook her head. “Not really. Why?”
“Well, you were awfully quiet when we came home today, and now you haven’t eaten most of your meal.”
“I’m not very hungry,” Becky told her.
Becky’s father, a mild, balding man with large glasses and a wide face, worked as a long-distance trucker. The job kept him on the road most of the time. He’d arrived home that morning as Becky left for school, back from a run to Atlanta. Even though he’d slept most of the day, his eyes were still rimmed red with exhaustion.
As he shot her a weary smile, Becky didn’t think her father looked like a trucker. She thought he looked like an accountant, or maybe a missionary. She often wished he could find another job, so he wouldn’t disappear for days at a time. But he loved the road and it paid well.
He looked at Becky and said, “Lasagna is your favorite. Is something bothering you?”
“Not really,” she replied. Her father stared her down. Becky relented. “I got a letter from Geena today, that’s all.”
“And?” her mother asked.
“She just didn’t sound very happy.”
“What did she say?” her father asked.
Becky thought for a moment. “It’s not what she wrote, really. Maybe it was. I don’t know. Maybe I imagined it.”
There was a short silence and Becky noticed a look pass between her parents.
“Well,” her mother said finally, “try not to let it bother you, then. Concentrate on your track meet.”
She knew her mother was right, but her tone of voice made it sound like an order and Becky tensed.
“I agree,” her father said. “I want to see you run in Madison.”
“So does Coach Lansing,” Becky said.
“I should hope so,” her mother said.
Her father looked directly at her. “And what about you? Do you want to run in Madison?”
The question surprised Becky. “Of course. I’ve been training for this all year.”
“I know. Just checking.”
“I know I can make state,” Becky said. “Meg Swanson’s the only real threat. I read in the Veritas County Register the other day she’s been invited to try out for the Olympics this summer.”
“What about Jen Phillips over in Ashland?” her mother asked.
Becky shrugged. “I’ve beaten her before. She’s tough, but I’ve beaten her.”
“I know you’re capable of it, Becky,” her father said. “It’s not a matter of whether you’ve beaten her in the past. The question is can you beat her Saturday.”
Becky thought about it. She’d trained a long time and felt confident in her speed. “Yes,” she decided. “Yes, I can.”
“Good,” her father said. He looked over at his wife, an unreadable look in his eyes. When he looked back at Becky a moment later, his face was grim. “I wish I could be there to see you run it.”
Becky’s heart dropped. She’d been reminding her father about the regional meet since the beginning of the school year, so he wouldn’t make other plans. Deep inside, she had felt something would come up. “Don’t tell me…”
“Now, I don’t want you to get angry,” he started.
“I’ve been telling you all year.” Becky’s voice rose. She noticed, and made a conscious effort to calm down.
“I know, angel,” her father said apologetically. “I’d give my left thumb to be there. But I’m not my own boss. I’m the only driver who isn’t already scheduled for the weekend. It’s an emergency order that came up while I was down in Atlanta.”
“Where do you need to go?”
Her father looked at his plate, then back at Becky. “Florida. Tampa Bay.”
Becky swallowed hard. He’d be half a country away while she was running the most important race of her high school career. “What are you hauling?”
“Sofas? An emergency shipment of sofas?” Feeling very near tears, Becky looked down at her own plate.
“Becky, it’s not my choice.”
Her mother stood and began gathering their plates. “This is hard enough on your father. Don’t make it worse.”
“I want to be there,” her father said. “You don’t know how much.”
Becky stared at her cold lasagna until she felt like she could speak normally. “I’m sorry,” she told her father.
“So am I,” he said. “Do me a favor?”
There was a moment of silence. Then Becky nodded and the awkwardness passed. “Okay. But you do me a favor.”
“If I can.”
“Don’t miss me at state.”
He nodded. “Not on your life.”
Becky stood and rounded the table to give her father a hug. He kissed her cheek. “That’s my angel.”
She looked over at her mother, uncertain. “You’ll still be there, won’t you?”
Her mother smiled. “You know I wouldn’t miss it.”
Relieved, Becky decided this was the perfect time to go pick out her prom dress. “I’m going out. Is that okay?” she asked.
“This late? Where?” her mother asked.
“Shopping. I want to pick up my prom dress.”
“Do you need any extra cash?” her father asked as he reached for his wallet.
Becky stopped him. “No, I’ve been saving for it. Thanks, though.”
“Don’t stay out late. You have school tomorrow,” her mother reminded her.
“I won’t be too late,” Becky said, and she hurried to her room.
Once there, she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and called Tammy Jo. She felt bad about putting off the call so long, and as she dialed the number the concern she’d been carrying all day rose to the front of her mind again. If Mrs. Ross has been out drinking again…
To her relief, Tammy Jo answered on the third ring.
“Teej,” Becky said, “where were you today?”
There was a long pause on Tammy Jo’s end. “Kinda.”
Warning bells sounded in Becky’s mind. She knew the pattern.
“I’m coming over,” she said.
Becky wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I’ll be there in five.”
~ # # # ~
If you enjoyed this Sample Sunday taste of Most Likely, chapter 2, please consider picking up the entire novel for only $3.99 from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords. Most Likely has been chosen as a featured item at DailyCheapReads.com’s Junior site, and is scheduled to appear there between 3 and 4 PM on Sunday, January 22, 2012.