The Sweetheart Sham

By: Danielle Ellison

“Ma, please,” I say again. She doesn’t like impatience, but I’m trying here.

“Tell the boy,” Lawrence says, pointing toward my bouncing leg. “Put him out of his misery.”

I give him a small nod. Lawrence and I aren’t pals, but it’s nice to have someone on my side.

Ma crosses her fingers in a tent-like shape on the table. The silence is thick, and what if she says no? What if I don’t get to go home? Lawrence takes a bite of pizza. This is not the time to eat.

“Being a groomsman in your cousin’s wedding is an honor, which is what I told your granddad, and if you wanted to do it then I was more than happy to let you.”

But. There’s a “but” coming. I can feel it.

She puts her hand up. “So I emailed your father, and we discussed it. Technically, you didn’t go the last two summers, and it’s his turn. If you go, it’s for the whole summer.”

“The whole summer?” I repeat.

Ma nods. “It would mean missing basketball camp, but maybe your father can arrange something there. It’s also two months without your ma, because I can’t come until the wedding and—”

I jump up so fast I nearly knock over the glass of water onto my pizza. Whatever she says next is muffled in my shirt. It doesn’t matter what rules or conditions she wants to have. I get to go home. I get to see my family again. I may even get to see Georgia Ann, which could be good or bad.

“Thank you, Ma. Thank you. I love you.”

Ma pats my back. “Love you. Now get off me and eat your dinner. We can talk about it more later.”

I move back to my seat and stuff the pizza into my mouth. Nothing has ever tasted so good.

After we eat, I text Will and Drew to meet me online to shoot some zombies. Really, I want to share the news and kill zombies.

“Behind you,” Drew yells in the headset. His character races past me on the screen as a zombie hoard closes in. One move and three are down. Then, there’s an explosion on the screen and cussing in my ear.

“You almost died, Will,” I say, stealing some supplies off the dead.

“I missed it,” Will says.

“Drink some coffee. Shake it off,” Drew says. Will tells him to fuck off and it echoes twice in my ear. They’re together and I’m here, but not for much longer. I’m going home.

“What’s wrong with him?” I ask.

“Someone has a hangover,” Drew says. Will shushes him and Drew laughs. He’s twenty-two, five years older than Will and me, but he was right there when we were growing up. We’re all more like brothers than cousins; we always have been. I’ve met up with them a few times the last couple of years, but not very often. Will and I aren’t as close as we used to be. We’re still friendly, but it’s not the same when you’re not there. Distance will do that.

“From what?” I ask. Culler doesn’t change much. I didn’t always love that place before, but not being there makes me see how special it was.

“The End of the Year Party was last night. My brother is a lightweight, not that I encourage underage drinking,” Drew says.

That makes Will and me both laugh. He may not encourage it, but he had no issues with it when he was our age. His senior year, Anthony Miller snuck in to Pete’s bar, stole half the liquor, and kept the senior class drunk for an entire weekend. Last I was there, Pete didn’t even let minors stand on the sidewalk next to the bar. Only in Culler.

Will chuckles a dry barking laugh. “It was a hell of a night, big brother. I’m still recovering.”

“The End of the Year Party always is,” Drew says.

This is my in.

“Speaking of a party, looks like I’ll be in Culler for the whole summer.”

They both say “no shit” at the same time.

“When do you come?” Drew asks.

“When did this happen?” Will asks.

“Granddad called a couple of weeks ago and Ma told me today. I’m coming in a week.”

“No one says no to Orry Montgomery.” Will laughs.

He’s right. I think if it weren’t Drew’s wedding, I wouldn’t get to go back at all. There’d been reasons over the years we could’ve returned—good reasons—but Ma didn’t want to, and I didn’t push her. Dad has never seemed to want me there all this time. He’s never asked me to come, so I didn’t. I missed it, but honestly, most of the time I didn’t want to go back at all when leaving was so damn hard.

“Emma Claire can’t wait to meet you,” Drew says.

“Trust me. I look forward to telling her all the stories I can so she knows who she’s marrying.”

That makes Drew laugh then shout, “Cover me!” Our characters follow him between some buildings while we launch a full-on assault rifle attack against a horde.

“It’ll be great to have you home,” Will says.

“I’m pretty happy about it.”

I am happy, no doubt about that, but I’m also seriously nervous. Hanging out with my dad is going to be weird—he’s a stranger now to me. Will and I haven’t hung out in a long time, either. Relationships are easy when you’re playing video games and talking on coms; they’re different in real life, when it’s just two people in one space.

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