Beca wakes up on her stomach, her arms shoved up under her pillow and Chloe’s hand resting between her shoulder blades.
It’s so warm and she doesn’t want to move. Yesterday had been insane. Sure, she didn’t really mind Chloe’s family and friends hugging her hello. She’d prepared for that. But then they kept doing it. They kept grabbing her hands and patting her shoulders and children kept wrapping around her legs when she stopped moving. Chloe should have warned her that she came from a freakin’ clan.
But the person who’d touched her the most had been Chloe. And maybe it was because Beca was used to her being touchy-feely. Maybe it was just that she knew Chloe well. Maybe it was the alcohol, but she just didn’t mind when Chloe took her hand or stroked her hair.
Or maybe it was because they’d kissed, so everything else from Chloe felt tame.
She lifts her head, blowing a strand of hair from her face. The only light comes from the porthole window above them, spilling into the bed and lighting up the red curls splayed across the pillows. Chloe’s asleep on her side, facing Beca. Her toes are pressed against Beca’s ankle and the rest of her body is just close enough to not be touching. Except for her hand. Warm and steady on Beca’s back. Her lips are closed and Beca huffs a small breath through her nose, rolling her eyes. Because even in sleep, Chloe Beale smiles.
Speaking of Chloe’s lips. She glances at them and instantly she’s back under that red maple, pressing closer, tasting mint and something sweeter that she couldn’t name. She sort of spent the whole rest of the night tasting it. She’s not surprised, really. She knew Chloe was going to be a good kisser. Even if it was just a small kiss. Chaste, compared to the others she’s had in her life. Admittedly, there aren’t many, but still. It was just a press of lips, a few seconds of contact.
Yet now--sober--Beca realizes that kiss easily takes top spot. It was...sweet. Gentle. Fun. It was so Chloe . It was everything she’d expected.
It was also nothing like she expected, because she’s still thinking about it. While lying in bed beside Chloe’s sleeping form. Staring at her lips. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
There’s a tapping from downstairs, barely audible. It takes her a second to realize it’s someone knocking on the door. But it feels like good timing from the universe, because Beca’s being a creep, so she slides out from under Chloe’s hand and tiptoes to the stairs. She grabs the railings and swings her legs out over the last two steps, landing on the floor and bouncing once to the door. She unlocks and pulls it open.
And instantly regrets it, because it is fuckin’ bright outside.
She grunts, covering her eyes with her hands and blinking rapidly until she can make out more than sunlight.
Eli is standing there, his arms wrapped around a baseball glove and his eyes wider than the ball in his hand. “Hi!” He grins and she blinks against it, closing one eye. She likes him, he’s a cool little dude. But wow did he have to bring the sun with him?
“Hey, dude. Chloe’s not up yet.”
“Oh.” He glances over her shoulder into the dark garage. “That’s okay. Are you busy?”
“Uh, no? Guess not. Just woke up. You need something?”
Eli flushes red as his hair, squeezing his glove tighter and twisting the ball in his hand. “No, I was just--If you guys were up, I was gonna see if you wanted to, uh.” He shrugs, his face breaking into a close-lipped smile. One she knows well, because it’s the one Chloe uses when she’s kind of disappointed. “Mamma said if y’all were still sleeping to let you be. Sorry, I’ll see you later!” He spins on his heel and hurries back off toward the house.
She’ll blame it on the sun later, say it woke her up too much and she had known she couldn’t go back to sleep. But she knows damn well that it’s just because he looks so much like his sister, and nobody likes upsetting Chloe Beale. Or, apparently, Elijah Beale. Groaning, she leans out the door and shoots a quick whistle between her teeth.
Eli jerks to a halt and looks back.
“Let me get dressed. I’ll be out in a second.”
He perks up so much she thinks he might actually lift off the ground. Or worse, hug her. And she’s at capacity for hugs for a little bit. So she just nods and shuts the door.
She dresses as quietly as she can, digging her tennis shoes from under the dresser by phone light. She almost hadn’t brought them, but Chloe had assured her she’d need them. Stupid Chloe, always being right. As she’s coming out of the bathroom, tying her hair back, Chloe moves, her limbs pushing outward. Beca freezes.
But Chloe settles back down quickly, one arm splayed across Beca’s side of the bed, the covers kicked down to her hips.
Beca pulls them back up before she leaves.
“So, where are we going?” Beca had chosen jeans shorts, a black sports bra, and one of her workout tees--the red one that she let Stacie cut the sleeves off of last year. (And part of the sides, the bitch. “It’s fashionable, Beca!”) But it is HOT and she’s grateful for the breeze slipping into her shirt now.
Eli points to the trees lining the back of the property. “Mamma says to keep it near the trees. Mickey broke the window to Gran’s room one time and we never heard the end of it.”
She knows that name. Chloe’s older brother. Chloe always talks about him quietly, with that same little smile that had pulled Beca out of bed to hang out with Eli. The family doesn’t really talk to him anymore, she gathered, but she’s not sure why. She assumes that means he’s a total tool. Guess there’s gotta be one in every family--even the Beales.
He stops a few feet from the trees, handing her the extra glove he’d gotten her to grab from the garage. She slips it on, nodding approvingly at how easy it is to snap open and closed. It’s old and well-worn. The leather along the thumb is cracking, like it hasn’t been used in a long time. “Was this Mickey’s?” she says, pounding her fist into the pocket.
“Yeah.” Eli smacks his own glove against his chest as he backs away from her. “He didn’t keep it oiled and stuff. I take care of mine, though. Mamma taught me.” He skips a few steps--a real feat for someone moving backwards.
“Well, good.” She steps back farther, lifting her glove. “Now let’s see if you can play.”
His first throw is a little wide, probably because he’s bouncing up and down as he throws it.
She twists, snatching it out of the air. “Good, but, like. Throw to me next time, dude.”
“Sorry!” He doesn’t sound it as he grins and stops jumping.
She throws back to him softly, gauging if she needs to be underhanding him grounders for everyone’s sake. But he steps into it easily and opens his glove. He returns it and this time she barely hesitates between catching and throwing. He’s quick and good at keeping his eye on the ball. She grins. It’s been years since she played catch.
He steps back even more, throwing the ball up high and making her scuttle sideways to get under it. “So, do you love Chloe?”
She almost misses the ball. It catches on the outer tip of the glove and rolls off, so she grabs it with her bare hand before it can hit the ground. “What?”
“Chloe?” He gestures back toward the garage. “Mamma said you love her.”
This is why she limits the time she spends around kids. They just say what they’re thinking. And she never knows how to respond. “I, uh. Yeah. Yeah, I do.” It’s not a lie. Chloe’s her best friend. She does love her. Hell, she’s here , isn’t she?
Eli nods and lifts his glove, snapping it closed a few times. “Okay, good.”
That seems to settle it and they fall back into catch and throw like it never happened. She kind of can’t stop thinking about it though, because something about Chloe’s little brother innocently asking if she loves her and that kiss under the red maple are ringing in her head, the underlying beats the same.
Eli’s fast and not afraid to charge for the ball. She thinks her old coach would have adored him. But he misses a few, dashing off after it like a retriever and returning even happier each time. The third one he chases bounces off into the trees and he high-knees it into the bushes, disappearing for a few moments.
She turns to find Emily and Stacie heading for her, both wearing running shoes and shorts that make their ridiculous legs look even more like they might be longer than her expected lifespan. “What’s up? Off to find a beanstalk?”
“Only if you promise to climb mine when I find it,” Stacie says, winking and biting her lip.
Beca snorts. “Tone it down. There are children here.”
Emily’s entire body lifts, like Beca had just jumped out at her from a dark hallway. “Oh! No, it’s totally cool. You should hear some of the stuff my parents say when they think I’m not there.” She pauses. “And when they know I’m there…”
“I meant Eli.” Beca points to where he’s stumbling back out of the bushes, the ball thrust into the air victoriously.
“Hey, Eli!” Stacie calls, waving. He comes running over, leaves caught in his collar and a twig sticking out of his hair. “You got Beca to play a sport ? How much are you paying her?”
He gives a frown exactly like Chloe’s. Which means it isn’t actually a frown at all. It’s a smile, but his eyebrows furrow and he tilts his head a little. Beca has to blink and focus to be certain Chloe hasn’t suddenly showed up in front of them. (With shorter hair and freckles, but oh my god, they look so much alike.) “She wanted to play. Right?”
The look he gives her is so similar to a kicked puppy that she almost punches Stacie straight in the face for making him make it. “Yeah, dude. Of course.”
His smile comes back full force. “And she’s good! Like, really good.”
Stacie pats his head and glances at Beca like she might pet hers too. Maybe she sees the murderous intent in Beca’s eyes though, because she refrains. “I’ll take your word for it, kid. We were just going to wake Chloe for a run. Wanna come, Bec?”
“Will you pay me?”
Stacie lifts an eyebrow and opens her mouth. But then she glances at Eli and closes it again. Beca would bet anything that it physically pains Stacie to kill whatever comment she was about to make. “Well, we’ll see you after then? Mamma’s cooking a Beale Breakfast.”
That grabs Beca’s attention completely. “A Beale Breakfast?” She slings an arm around Eli’s shoulders, aware that he starts practically vibrating with excitement. “Come on, Slugger. We can play again later. I’m getting first dibs on breakfast.”
Like she’s been holding it in, Emily suddenly bursts with an, “Oooh! Beca, you’re so cute with kids!”
Beca glares and Emily’s entire face rearranges itself into panic.
“Or not. No, definitely not. Nope.”
“That’s more like it, Junk. Enjoy your run.” She steers Eli back toward the house, turning to throw over her shoulder, “Put Stacie on a leash before you go. If she sees the mailman or something, you’ll never catch her.”
Stacie sighs heavily. “I have so many responses to that. I’ll text them to you.”
Her phone buzzes almost the whole time she’s chowing down on bacon and eggs and pancakes and--
“What is this?” She holds up a spoonful of something vaguely yellow and kinda chunky. It smells good, but it looks like it might turn her into a mutant or something.
“Squirrel Brain Pudding,” Mamma Beale says, looking up from cutting Eli’s pancakes while Eli and Gran play rock, paper, scissors to see who gets the last chunk of pineapple. Dana leans forward from her seat next to Beca and grabs the last piece, silently popping it in her mouth.
Beca puts the spoon down but Mamma Beale quickly waves a hand at her. “There’s not actually any squirrel in it. When I was a little girl, Gran used to tell all the other kids that there were squirrel brains in it so that she and I could have it all.”
Gran slams a scissors on the table and whoops as Eli throws out paper. “Your brothers were always picking on you. They didn’t deserve pudding,” she says, patting Mamma Beale’s cheek. She reaches for the empty pineapple plate. “Wait. Where--?”
Dana stops mid-chew, pointing at Beca. Beca points back quickly, not wanting to be on the receiving end of Gran's ire.
“You sneak!” Gran throws a napkin across the table with more force than an old woman should be able to. Dana catches it, throwing it back. It hits Gran in the face.
Beca laughs, holding up an arm to fend off any more flying objects. “Did they ever find out? That it wasn’t squirrel brains?”
“Gran told Lew when he was leaving for college, I think.” Mamma Beale tilts her head back, narrowing her eyes at the ceiling as she thinks. She shrugs. “Now everyone knows. But the name stuck. So eat up. I have to go cut some more pineapple for everyone else, because my mother is a pig.”
“Eli ate most of it!” Gran protests.
“I did not!”
“Elijah Julien, are you calling your grandmother a liar?”
Beca finishes her pudding quickly, laughing as Dana and Eli take turns recounting exactly how many pieces of pineapple Gran ate. She pushes back from the table, grabbing her plates (God, she missed the south and their food) and brings them over to the sink. She’s barely turned the water on before Mamma Beale is there, shooing her away.
“Don’t you touch those! It’s Dana’s day.” She pats Beca’s cheek with the back of her hand, her fingers coated in pineapple juice. Touching Beca’s face seems to be one of her favorite things to do. Like mother, like daughter. “You and Chloe get dishes on Wednesday. There’s a chart on the fridge, dear.” With a final shoo, she turns back to cutting pineapples on the island.
“Oh, okay.” She steps back, rubbing her palms against her shorts. “Thank you. For, uh, breakfast. I don’t get how Beale Breakfasts are so good. It’s literally the same thing everyone makes for breakfast.”
“We add a little extra love is all,” Mamma Beale says, smiling so widely her eyes almost disappear. It forces Beca to smile too, because how can you not smile back at that?
“Beca!” Eli hops up from the table, running his dishes to the sink. “Wanna see my Dad’s piano?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Mamma Beale’s hands still. But when Beca looks up, she’s smiling down at Eli. “That sounds like a wonderful idea. Don’t be too long. Everyone else will be in here soon enough, I’m sure.”
“Yes, ma’am!” He grabs Beca’s wrist and tugs her toward the stairs. Two flights later, he drops it and skips down the hall, pushing open the door at the end.
It’s a small room--probably meant to be an office or something. But there’s nothing in it besides a baby grand piano in the center. The blue, lace curtains on the window are thrown open, letting the light spill in and play over the piano’s ebony top. It feels almost like the room isn’t even a part of the main house--like they’ve accidentally stepped into a different place entirely. A place where there’s nothing but this piano and dust particles dancing in the light.
“Dad named her Parker,” Eli says, his voice low, like speaking above a whisper in this room is something frowned upon. He hops up on the bench, sliding all the way to the other end. He pats the seat next to him. “Chloe told me you play?”
“She did?” Beca sits, drifting her fingers over the keys. It’s clean, like they regularly come in here to dust. She imagines Mamma Beale with a polishing rag, leaning over the piano back and humming softly as she cleans.
“Yeah. Chlo talks about you a lot.” Eli presses a key and the room fills with a deep chord that resonates deep in her chest. “When we Skype and stuff.”
“Oh.” She’s not sure what to say to that. She’d never really thought about what Chloe said during those. She knows they don’t Skype as often as Chloe would like. When Beca’s insomnia acts up and she roams the apartment looking for snacks, she sometimes hears Chloe’s quiet murmuring at four in the morning. And sometimes she glances in Chloe’s room and sees her sitting up in bed, legs crossed and her laptop in front of her, a pair of headphones she’d stolen from Beca perched over her ears. But none of that feels like a good response to Eli’s statement, so she answers his question instead. “Yeah, I play some. At work mostly.”
He nods, as if she’s just confirmed a suspicion he had. “Chloe said she’s never heard you play, but she’s pretty sure you’re awesome.” He signs the last part, grinning. His feet swing out, one of them bumping her leg as he kicks them back and forth.
She shrugs. “Never had a chance to. We don’t have one of these bad boys at home.” She pats the piano’s top.
Eli’s nose wrinkles up and he shakes his head. “She’s a girl.”
She sits up straight, rolling her shoulders back and stretching out her fingers. It’s been a little while since she played, but as soon as she touches the keys, it all floods back. She tilts her foot up over the pedals and breathes in deep, holding it for a three count. Eli leans into her side, his head resting softly against her upper arm and she breathes out, pressing the first few notes into the keys with practiced ease.