As if flipping a house all by myself isn’t a big enough job, it turns out that Ian Caldwell, the boy I once vowed to hate forever, lives right next door.
And he’s not a boy anymore. He’s most definitely a full grown man.
Well, I can handle this. I’ll let him know I still hate his guts and to stay the eff away from me. But what do I do when it turns out he’s… nice… and helpful… and funny… and maybe nothing like he was back when I decided he was a total snake? What was once an easy promise to make might turn out to be a lot more complicated to keep.
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“So, how big of a disaster is it?” Maya asks.
I shift the phone to my other ear and try not to breathe through my nose. I’m not sure where the smell is coming from but it’s overwhelming. “Not too terrible,” I lie.
It’s been twelve years since I’ve been in this house, and it’s odd the way it’s exactly the same and also completely different. The couch, the overstuffed chair, the curtains, the ancient particleboard entertainment center—all the same. And yet, when I pull back the curtains over the picture window, there is an impressive crack running from the top to the bottom. That didn’t used to be there. Ditto the alarming scorch mark above the nearby electrical outlet and the large, mottled brown water stain in the corner of the ceiling. Also, that smell.
Fixing this place up to sell is going to be a lot of work. But it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do right now.
In the background of the phone call I can hear Maya’s baby, Sophie, making that odd burbly-chattery noise babies do. “So, in your expert opinion,” Maya says, “what do you think the house is worth?”
“It’s got some issues,” I hedge. I note the suspiciously spongy spot in the living room floor before heading into the kitchen where—okay, yes, this is where the smell is coming from. And no wonder. Three months ago, Mrs. MacArthur—Maya’s grandmother and the woman who owned this house for more than half a century—had a stroke and had to be rushed to the hospital by paramedics. She died a week later, still in the hospital. Nobody’s been in to clean or tidy up, and even the leftovers from Mrs. MacArthur’s last dinner at home are still in the pan on the stove. The power, though, has been off for over a month, and it smells as if something is rotting in the fridge. A lot of somethings, probably.
“It’s still a nice neighborhood, though, right?” Maya says as Sophie’s coos turn agitated. “It’s okay, sweetie,” Maya soothes. “Just a minute. Just give Mommy one minute.”
“Yeah, neighborhood is great,” I choke out, the smell so strong I can almost taste it. It’s all I can do not to gag.
I head into the hallway that leads to the bedrooms and the bathroom. There is a whole collection of photos hung here. Every June, Maya and I used to take the Greyhound bus to spend our summers here, making it possible for Maya’s mother and my parents to work without worrying about childcare, and it’s those summers that these pictures chronicle. We had so much fun here, Maya and I, even if Central Florida in the summer is no one’s idea of paradise. With Mrs. MacArthur we had an almost dizzying amount of freedom. We walked to the public pool by ourselves, took the public bus to the extravagantly air-conditioned mall on our own. We ate whatever we liked for dinner, drank as much sugary soda as we could stand, and played video games late into the night.
Those were some of the best days of my life.
As I move down the wall, I watch myself and Maya grow up from slightly grubby pre-teens all the way to high school seniors. Maya grows long and lean; I become fuller and curvier. Then I reach the last picture, and my smile turns immediately into a scowl. You see, this one has a third person: Ian Caldwell. It’s from before he revealed himself to be an absolute snake, but I still can’t quite believe that Mrs. MacArthur kept a picture that included him. I wonder if Maya knows.
I wince as Sophie begins screaming.
“Do you need to go?” I ask Maya as I peek into the bathroom. I’m relieved to find that it’s in okay shape, as long as you can look past the Pepto-Bismol pink tile.
“No,” Maya says tightly, “just—ow, Sophie, don’t pull my hair, baby—just give me a second.”
Sophie suddenly quiets mid-wail. The silence is disorienting, and I wonder for a second if the call dropped. But then I hear Maya’s relieved sigh. “Hoo, okay. Amazing what a boob will do. All right, so, how long do you think it’ll be before we can put it on the market?”
I step into the next room, the one where Maya and I slept when we stayed here. I forgot how small it is. There’s now a daybed with fluffy blue and white pillows, but back then there were two twin beds jammed in here with barely enough space to walk between them. Maya and I spent so many nights gossiping until late. We talked about what we wanted to do with our lives, where we wanted to live when we grew up. Oh, and boys. We spent a lot of time talking about boys.
That last summer, the only boy Maya wanted to talk about here was Ian Caldwell. After years of him being just the boy next door, they were suddenly inseparable. She fell hard and we both thought he was as in love with her as she was with him. She wanted to marry him. But then, just like that, he moved on. Not just moved on—found someone else before he’d even ended it with Maya. She was heartbroken. I held her in this room while she cried buckets of tears over him. I rubbed her back and we promised we’d hate him forever.
“Well,” I say into the phone, returning to the present and stepping back into the hallway, “what you get will depend on how much you want to do to the place.”
“Bare minimum,” Maya says immediately.
I poke my head into the next rooms, one of which is empty and the other of which was Maya’s grandmother’s room. It’s disconcerting to see it left exactly as it was the night Maya’s grandmother went to the hospital. The bed is still unmade, the covers thrown back as though she just stepped out of it. I turn back. “I think most of the problems are cosmetic. You want to fix a bunch of them, though.” I walk through the kitchen and living room and out into the heavy heat of a Florida summer evening. “It’s going to be several thousand dollars at least.”
Maya sighs. “Damn it. Kevin and I really don’t have any cash to spare.”
I turn to look at the house. The single-story ranch isn’t a bad house—it’s just neglected. With a few thousand dollars’ worth of repairs and upgrades, we could boost the selling price by tens of thousands of dollars. Best of all, I’ve also got the skills to make this happen. Before my professional life suddenly imploded a couple months ago, I was a project manager for a company that specialized in flipping houses. The company would buy a house and do just enough work to it to boost the value a few hundred thousand. My job may not have actually been to rip up carpets and install new counter tops, but I was the one who hired the people who did, the one who ordered the materials, set the schedules, and determined what should be truly fixed and what could be covered up with some spackle and a coat of paint.
“Listen,” I say, doing some mental math involving credit card limits, “what if I fronted the money for the renovations?”
“Oh, Jackie, no—” Maya starts to say but I cut her off.
“I want to,” I say firmly. Because I do. Maya is basically family. We’ve been best friends since the third day of first grade. We’ve been as close as sisters for most of our lives. I would do anything for her. “It shouldn’t take more than a month, six weeks at the most. I’ll do the work or hire someone when I can’t. It’ll be fun.”
It will not be fun. But at least while I’m renovating the house, I can stay here, which temporarily solves the problem of me being kinda, sorta homeless at the moment.
“We’ll reimburse you the expenses, obviously,” Maya says. “And a cut of the profits.”
“We’ll figure something out,” I say. I promise that I’ll be in touch and then we both say, “I love you”, the way we’ve been ending phone calls since forever.
I’m just sliding my phone into my pocket when a voice behind me says, “Can I help you?” I spin around, startled, and find myself looking at a shirtless male torso. A very sweaty, well-muscled shirtless male torso, one with exactly the right amount of dark hair across the pecs. I blink up to lean, rippling shoulders and a strong neck. Above that is a square jaw with a firm chin, a wide, hard mouth, a strong nose and—oh, fuck. It’s Ian Caldwell, all grown up.
You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.
“Ian,” I say, my tone so frosty it’s a wonder he can’t see my breath.
He frowns for a second, runs his hand through his dark, sweat-dampened hair. Then recognition brightens his expression. “Hey, I know you!” With a pleased little smirk on those hard, full lips, he says, “You’re Maya’s friend.”
I feel the dumbest little slice of hurt at that. Maya’s friend. Before that final summer, I swam in his family’s inground pool just as much as Maya did. I cleaned his clock in Super Smash Bros. in his family’s living room. One time, Maya and I went to Disney World with him and his parents and when Maya didn’t want to ride the Tower of Terror, he and I went alone. Twice. Even if I wasn’t the one he dated, I ought to have rated more than just a spot in his memory as Maya’s friend.
Ian doesn’t seem to notice that I’ve turned my resting bitch face up to eleven and rocks back on his heels. He must’ve been out for a run, because he’s only wearing a pair of athletic shorts. “Jacqueline, right?” He looks ridiculously pleased with himself and I grind my teeth. “So, what’s up?” he says. “You here to help out with the house? Shame about Mrs. MacArthur. She was a real nice lady.”
I narrow my eyes at him. He cannot be this clueless, right? He absolutely devastated my best friend in the whole world. How is he talking to me like we’re old buddies right now? “Yeah, I’m here to help with the house. Now get the fuck off this property.”
He blinks in surprise. “What—”
I hold up my hand. “I haven’t forgotten what you did to Maya. I’m not going to forget, you cheating piece of shit. So you’re persona non grata around here, got it?”
“Okay,” he says slowly. He looks dazed. Good. Clearly more people should tell him what a garbage human he is. “Listen, that—” he starts but I cut him off.
“No, we’re done.” I say. “Go to hell for all I care.”
I’m only 5’3”—5’6” in these platform heels I’m wearing—but I feel about seven feet tall as I turn on my heel and walk away. I’ve been waiting twelve years to say all that. This project is off to an absolutely phenomenal start.