Bucket Lists and Booze
The bucket list— the stupid, reckless, overly-ambitious bucket list—and the three wine coolers I’d managed to down since wandering into Kristen March’s graduation kegger three hours ago got me in trouble.
Parties were not my thing. I was more likely to spend Friday night with my favorite book or an AP assignment than with friends and alcohol and bad decisions. I’d managed to avoid parties my entire four years of high school. Also, for my entire life. And I probably would have avoided tonight’s final blowout too if it hadn’t been for the damn bucket list tucked into the tight pocket of my cutoff jean shorts.
The tattered paper was folded into the neatest square I could manage. I’d thrown it away at least fifty times over the course of this school year, but I could never manage to stop myself from saving it.
Senior Year was scribbled across the top of the paper, followed by bullet points denoting my biggest dreams for my final year at Clark City High School and my final year in Clark City, Nebraska. I was three months from blowing this popsicle stand for good.
I’d spend the summer waitressing at the diner I’d worked at for the last two years. Then I’d pack up my meager belongings and say goodbye to Clark City, hello to my future.
My stomach clenched with fierce hope. I could make it. I could survive three more months. I’d lasted this long in this tiny, godforsaken hellhole. I could make it ninety more days.
God, that sounded like a long time when I counted the days.
I could make it three measly months.
There. That was better.
Looking around at the clustered groups of my peers as they drank themselves into oblivion, I couldn’t stop the small smile from twisting my overly full lips. It wasn’t a feeling I expressed very often—happiness that is—but I could feel it slowly creeping over my skin, warming me from the inside out.
For a lot of people at this party, they were saying goodbye to the easy life. Their glory days were fulfilled and enjoyed in high school. They would go on from here and do nothing… become nothing. This was it for them. Their top dog status ended tonight.
The mean girls in the living room, sucking down JELL-O shots and flaunting perfect legs and shiny hair had nowhere else to go but down. They’d spent a lifetime reminding me of how beneath them I was, of how other side of the tracks I was. Of how trailer trash I was.
I’d put up with it. I’d faced it with gritted teeth and clenched fists, but I’d handled it.
Now, it was their turn. Mentally, I released them into the world, bitterly wishing them good luck.
In Clark City they were the elite, the cream of our withered corn crop. But out there, in the rest of the world? They were a dime a dozen. My mom once told me that college was meant to find out just how not special you are. And I couldn’t wait for the Clark City select to have that momentous, reality-altering epiphany.
The jocks surrounded them, beefy, muscled, brain-dead athletes the cheerleaders kept on short leashes. They were as awful as their female counterparts. Unable to use their minds for individual thought, they joined the toxic group think of this tragic town.
The haves and the have nots. Isolated enough from bustling civilization, the only kind of people that tolerated this kind of middle-of-nowhere-ness were farmers with enough land to make it worth their stay or the poor among us who couldn’t afford a ticket to the big city.
I was part of the latter group. Born on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and far enough outside of town to be considered the boonies. The dilapidated double wide I called home was located dead center of the local trailer park and had an open door policy to any of the men that hadn’t managed to piss my hurricane of a mother off.
I didn’t have an idyllic childhood, but it was the only one I knew. I didn’t choose the trailer trash life, the trailer trash life definitely chose me.
“Little Ruby Dawson,” a smooth operator of a voice crooned from behind me. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I stilled, willing my shoulders not to rise. It wasn’t that he’d called me out in an angry way. It was actually the opposite. His voice was rumbly and gentled, as if he were afraid to spook a cornered forest animal.
His voice irritated me all the same. And it did funny things to my resolve. The bucket list burned in my pocket, forcing me to question my motives for showing up here tonight.
Turning around as nonchalantly as I could manage, I stared at the boy that went out of his way to make my life extra miserable. “I could ask you the same thing, Levi Cole.” Ha, using his full name the way he used my full name would show him who’s boss.
He smirked. Because that was what Levi Cole did. He smirked and smoldered and sneered. And sometimes he smarmy-d.
Not that he couldn’t pull it off. Because he so could. Tall enough for a power forward position on the basketball team. Fast enough for starting quarterback. Smart enough to invade all my AP classes. And handsome enough to have all the females simpering after him down every hallway at school and around every stalk of corn on his family’s mega farm. He was the epitome of everything everybody wanted to be in Clark City.
Plus, his parents made him work their farm. So, his muscles were natural. Not the plastic-y gym kind. But the born-from-back-breaking-labor kind. He made some girls drool.
Not me, obviously.
But other girls.
Okay, sometimes he made me drool too. Like when he took off his shirt off for practice. Or when he stopped smirking for long enough to flash a real, genuine, heart-stopping smile. But mostly, he made me consider murder in the first degree.
Unphased by my tone, he leaned forward and I got a whiff of him. I wrinkled my nose, expecting the strong smell of booze. Instead, I inhaled clean soap and the faint hint of laundry detergent.
“This isn’t your scene, Ruby. What are you doing here?”
Again, anyone else in our class would have been aggressive when kicking me out of their party, but he was only openly curious. Not that it would last. Eventually, our moment of neutrality would break and one of us would strike.
Hopefully, it would be me.
Hopefully, I would draw blood.
“Congratulations,” I deflected. “Salutatorian. That’s a big deal. I thought for sure Kristen had it in the bag.”
He narrowed his eyes. I could have sworn it was to stop the eye roll I knew he wanted to let loose. His perfect, perky, popular cheerleader girlfriend was probably the very last on the list of award-winning candidates and he knew it.
“Make fun of her all you want, Dawson. But we both know she would have given a hell of a speech.”
His gaze flicked to where she stood in a group of clones, pumping her fist in the air, shouting, “Chug! Chug! Chug!”
Sucking in my bottom lip, I felt the sting of his subtle insult. He was referring to my valedictorian speech. And how badly the short, insincere, mumbling I’d managed had bombed. What could I say? Public speaking was so not my thing.
Being in public, in general, wasn’t my thing.
Maybe it was time to start drinking. Er, continue drinking.
Reading my mind like he was sometimes unexplainably able to do, he added, “Don’t feel bad, Ruby. That’s what everyone expected.”
God, I wanted to kick him in the shins.
And then the balls.
But I refrained. Because, despite my upbringing, I was a lady.
Also, I had no backup. My best friend Coco had abandoned me for a junior she’d been flirting with for the last three weeks. I was all alone in a sea of people that barely tolerated my existence, let alone my presence at one of their prestigious parties.
“You invited me,” I reminded him, trying to keep the panic from invading my careful disdain. If this had been a prank for him to humiliate me one last time, I would kill him. Or at least spread a rumor about his tiny penis and the three different types of STDs he carried.
“Oh, right,” he said, snapping his fingers.
I waited for more, for the shoe to drop or the guillotine to fall or something to happen, but he just stood there looking at me. “Why is that?” I finally asked. “Four years of parties, Levi, and this is the first one I’ve gotten a formal invitation to.”
“That’s not true. You’ve been invited before.”
“Always seriously,” he countered. It was hard not to believe him when he looked at me like that, with his mossy green eyes intensely flashing and his jaw ticking with impatience.
I shrugged, pretending it was no big deal. “I came to see Logan,” I explained casually. “It’s probably the last time I’ll see him before I go off to college. I wanted to say goodbye.” My throat dried out at the possibility of seeing Levi’s older brother. He’d skipped college and enlisted right after high school. Two years our senior, he was everything this town looked up to. The Coles had given Clark City two celebrities. And now Logan was a war hero, at least in our small town’s eyes, which made him a demi-god or something.
Yet he wasn’t those things to me. He was just a friend and a nice guy that had always been kind to me.
Oh, and the love of my life. Maybe. Okay, I wasn’t totally sold on that. But I’d had a crush on him for as long as I could remember. Once I left for college, I had no plans to return to this town and so that meant if something was ever going to happen with Logan, it would have to happen now or never. Tonight was likely the last time he and I would happen to be in town at the same time before I left forever.
My last chance to cross the biggest item off my bucket list. Actually, two items. It was a short enough list that this party pretty much took care of everything. As long as I remained proactive.
- Go to a party.
- Do something reckless.
- Try an alcoholic beverage.
- Make out with Logan Cole.
- Lose my virginity.
Only time would tell.
Levi looked away, his jaw popping again. “You came to see Logan? You and half the town. Good luck getting an audience with him.”
I swallowed around a nervous lump in my throat. That was exactly what I was worried about. Logan and I were friends, but he had a long list of better friends that would want to hang out with him. He was nice to me, but only because he was nice to everybody. I had no idea how I would catch his attention tonight. I hadn’t even anticipated coming to this party at all. And I was too embarrassed to share my bucket list with Coco or my crazy plans for the night. So, I was doing something I almost never did. Showed up without a plan. I was just going to… wing it. “Maybe you could help me?”
Levi’s gaze found mine again and I could see the wheels in his head turning. He was working on a plan, something to keep me from my goal. But he should remember that I was valedictorian and he was only salutatorian. Which meant he was second place. And I was one step ahead of him.
Er, at least sometimes.
“Help you?” he asked, sounding as surprised as I felt asking him for help.
I shrugged, pretending like I didn’t care either way. “You know, make up for how you treated me for oh, the last eighteen years of my life.”
“Treated you?” He laughed. “You’re serious?”
I raised a single eyebrow. “Or you could just do it because you’re secretly a nice guy.” Honestly, I didn’t think he was secretly a nice guy, but he was the kind of guy that liked having his ego stroked.
“Bullshit, Ruby,” he said, calling me out. “You’re trying to manipulate me.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Somehow, despite our mutual hatred for each other, he knew me better than anyone else. “Is it working?”
He let out a shaky breath and I decided that no matter how he smelled, he must have been drinking. Because he sounded unsure. Nervous even. And Levi Cole was never either of those two things. Surprising me, he grabbed my hand and tugged me closer to him. “I’ll help you talk to my brother when he gets here if you have a drink with me first.”
It was my turn to parrot his demand back as a question. “A drink with you?”
He nodded. “It’s a win-win for you. You get to hang out with me and Logan. Every girl’s hottest fantasy.”
I rolled my eyes. “Is this a trick?”
He shook his head, stepping even closer. “Not a trick.”
My heart kicked in my chest, responding to the touch of his hand against mine and the sound of his voice so gentle and deep. God, it showed how deprived of attention I was. This man was my nemesis and yet he’d managed to light up my entire body with the tiniest touch and the smell of clean laundry.
“Okay. Let’s get a drink.” The wine coolers had spoken.
“Not here though,” he murmured. He led me through the house, grabbing two cold beers on the way.
We found an unoccupied room upstairs that led to a small balcony. This was his girlfriend’s house, of course he knew where he was going. But I wondered if I did. I’d hated Levi for as long as I could remember. My animosity for him was the armor that got me through the school day. He was part of the incentive to get me out of this town. We’d always been enemies, so why was I here with him? Why had I let him take my hand and lead me to this quiet room without a fight? Why even now, in his girlfriend’s house, was my heart beating in that way it always did around him?
Most importantly, why wasn’t I running? Levi always made me run. These inexplicable flutterings were the reason I was running to college, as fast as I could go. Instinctively, I knew, whatever Levi made me feel was dangerous. And I needed to stay as far away from him as possible.
That meant this room was dangerous. And I should leave. I should stick with my plan. I should remember my party goals and abandon Levi’s help.
And yet… the push and pull that had always existed between us felt different tonight. There was more pull for starters. And I didn’t want to push Levi away right now. I wanted to… I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
The bucket list burned in my pocket. I thought about bringing up Kristen again. Talking about his girlfriend usually doused whatever simmered between us in ice cold water. But I couldn’t bring myself to say her name. Not then or for the next two hours as we talked about everything but Kristen or Logan.
Instead, we enjoyed our beers and laughed about our past and the crazy things we did to each other over the years. Eventually we found ourselves lying on our backs, staring up at the sky, counting stars and talking about the future.
“I’m never coming back here,” I whispered to him, the words springing to life once they hit the cool night air. “I’m leaving for college and I’m never coming back. I never want to see this town again.”
He turned his head from the sky and stared at the side of my face. “What about your mom?”
“She can come visit me. Any time she wants. I just… I can’t come back to this place and that trailer and face this world ever again.”
“Was it really that bad? Was I really that bad?”
I laughed and turned to face him. Propping my head in my hand, I found myself brushing his hair back with the tips of my free fingers. “You weren’t awesome. But, I don’t know, I never minded what went on between us. It felt like we were at least playing on equal footing. It’s the rest of the town. The pity. The judgmental looks. The… discrimination. This town is snobby as shit. I’m done being judge based on where I live and who my mom is.”
“I’m sorry I’ve been an asshole.”
I smiled and it felt real. Two hours ago, I’d expected to go to my grave hating Levi Cole. Now he was apologizing for his assholery? What a crazy night. “I forgive you.” He scooted closer, his hand resting on my hip—the heat of it burning through my clothes and skin and somehow branding the bone there. I sucked in a sharp breath at the contact. “I’m sorry too,” I whispered, meaning it.
He held my gaze. “Then I guess you’ll make me visit you, too.”
Confusion interrupted the heating warmth in my belly. “What?”
“If I want to see you, I’m going to have to go to you. Since you’re never coming back here again.”
“Yeah, but you won’t—”
“I will,” he promised, cutting me off. “I will want to see you again.”
“Levi, we’re going in separate directions. This ends tonight.”
His body moved closer to mine, pressing against me from toes to chest. “You’re wrong, Ruby Dawson. This is only getting started.” And then he kissed me into oblivion.
Rolling me underneath him, he took my mouth captive with his. He tasted like beer and breath mints and something solid and lasting and like nothing I expected.
Where I thought his lips would be hard and rough, they were pillow soft and enticing. His kisses were insistent, yes, hungry even. But not invasive.
My fingers curled into his Clark City Football t-shirt and I held him closer to me, desperate for more of him, more of his mouth on me. His hand slipped under my tank top, finding my breast. I arched my back, pressing closer to him.
While this wasn’t my first kiss, this was my first trip to second base and I had no idea I would like it so much. Things were moving quickly, and I didn’t know how to stop. How to stop us.
Or even if I wanted to.
He kissed me harder, his mouth taking mine until I released a breathy sound that came from the very center of me. Led by instinct, I reached for his jeans, slipping my fingers into the waistband and sliding them around to find his fly.
He shivered and laughed at the same time. “God, that tickled.”
Enjoying torturing him, I slid my fingers back, dipping them further inside his boxer briefs.
“Ruby,” he hissed, settling his body more firmly on top of mine, before pulling away completely and jumping to his feet. “I-I can’t.”
I blinked up at him, cold reality suddenly washing over me. “You can’t?”
He gave me a tortured look. “Kristen.”
The chill that swept over my body turned to a fire of anger. “Oh, my god.”
“I’ll be right back,” he insisted, holding his hands up placatingly. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
He rushed from the balcony back into the house while I collected myself into a sitting position. I eyed the balcony ledge and contemplated jumping to end this humiliation.
“What was that?” I asked the dark, Nebraska night. He wasn’t into me. He had a girlfriend. He’d just brought me up here to… to… Holy shit, was this another one of his pranks?
I folded my legs and buried my face in my hands, feeling the heat of my blush. “Son of a bitch.”
The folded bucket list in my pocket dug into my thigh and I suddenly remembered why I was here tonight. I had been planning to make out with a Cole brother, just not that one.
Logan was probably here by now. I could still check everything off the list and give the middle finger to Levi. The night wasn’t totally lost yet.
It was my turn to jump to my feet and rush inside the house. I knew I looked crazy. My hair was wild from being outside and rolling around on the ground and I’d never had a drink before tonight, so I was definitely buzzed. But I was also on a mission.
I found Logan playing ping pong in the basement with some of the other football guys. He smiled when he saw me and set his paddle down to wrap me in a hug.
“I was hoping I’d see you tonight.” His body was warm, but it wasn’t hot like Levi’s. He was familiar, but it didn’t compare to the lifetime of tug-of-war familiarity I felt with Levi. He was Logan and he was my friend. And Levi was my enemy. I should stop comparing them.
The weird thing was, I didn’t usually compare them. Logan was the guy I sometimes chatted with online, when we happened to be on the same social media app at the same time and neither of us had anyone else to talk to—so not often. But we did talk occasionally. And we’d been friends for the two years we were in high school together.
More importantly, I’d had a crush on him since I was a little girl. Er, I’d thought he was nice since I was a little girl. Now that he was here, I could admit the crush hadn’t come until later. Probably around my freshman year, when I’d felt it was time to have a crush on somebody. I mean, Coco’s crush had changed every other day. I knew I had to pick someone, or she would likely question my sanity. And Logan Cole was the obvious choice.
There wasn’t anything about him that I didn’t like. He was nice and friendly and… not mean. I knew those all sounded like the same thing, but in my head, they were different.
I hugged him tighter. The most important thing about Logan was that he didn’t feel like Levi. He didn’t make me feel too hot and too overwhelmed and too… confused. He just made me feel nice. And after this day and kissing his brother and a lifetime of feeling like an outsider, I just wanted to feel nice. For once.
For a night.
“Me too,” I told him, letting the hug linger. I’d been better at flirting with him when he lived here. Admittedly, I was rusty with the whole batting my eyelashes and getting him to notice me. But I was on a mission tonight. Plus, he was a guy. All of my experience with men told me it wasn’t super hard to convince them they wanted to get laid. I mean, my mom got a crazy amount of action. And no offense to her, but… if she could do it, surely, I could do it. At least once. Just saying. “I was hoping we could hang out tonight,” I whispered in his ear. “Alone.”
He pulled back, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion. “Alone?”
Shrugging coyly, I dropped my hand into his like Levi had done earlier. I had to shake my head and adjust my smile back in place to banish Levi from my thoughts, but I pushed on. “Yeah, I don’t know, I thought it would be fun to… catch up.”
His slow smile confirmed that he finally understood. He told his friends he was going to grab another drink but took me upstairs instead. We did grab more drinks and we did catch up for a long time. And it was fun to hangout with him again and laugh and believe he had no sinister motive other than hanging out with me because he genuinely liked me.
Not because he wanted to embarrass me. Not because he wanted to torture me. Like his brother.
When my head felt sufficiently fuzzy and my fingers were numb, I kissed him. And didn’t stop kissing him until my entire bucket list was crossed off.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a massive hangover, an empty bed and a half-torn open condom wrapper I couldn’t remember using. I slipped out of Kristen March’s house without being seen and drove home with more regret than I anticipated.
But my bucket list was done. I’d accomplished everything I set out to do.
And in three months, I would head to college and do the same thing there. Only without the whole virginity thing and Logan Cole.
Or Levi Cole for that matter.
At least that’s what I had hoped would happen.
Six weeks later I puked my guts out after smelling scrambled eggs and everything I had planned and hoped and wished for was thrown into the proverbial fire and set to flames.
I was pregnant.
And six weeks after that, just when I had decided to find the courage to tell Logan, word came back that Logan had been killed in enemy fire in a desert halfway across the world.
That’s when I decided I wouldn’t hope for anything ever again. Hope was for the weak. I had something much stronger now. I had regret. And I would let it direct every step I took forward.