(Book #3 in the Changing Plans series)
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Amber Quill Press
Format(s): eBook, paperback
I’d thought it was exhausting hearing everything on Elliott’s mental list of preparations, but that had nothing on the actual execution. By halfway through my second day in town, my jet-lagged brain was screaming for a little downtime. It was all necessary, though, so I trudged through, especially because I didn’t want to stress Elliott out any more than he already was. Just waiting for the movers—who were twenty-three minutes late—had been enough for him to break out in a sweat.
Before I knew it, Wednesday had arrived, and we were on our way to my parents’ house for dinner with them and my siblings. At least that would be a low-key evening. Elliott and I were clearly the opposites of our families: I was the laidback extrovert among the tightly-wound and reserved, and he was the tightly-wound—though less so in the last year—and reserved one among a bunch of laidback extroverts.
Elliott pulled up in front of my parents’ house. My sister’s truck and my brother’s car were in the driveway, so he parked on the curb.
“Looks like the whole group is here,” I said.
“Good,” Elliott said. “Maybe they can finally RSVP so I can stop hyperventilating.”
I laughed and patted his leg. “I’d tell you to relax, but I know you too well. Don’t worry, I’ll get an answer out of them before we leave tonight.”
We got out of the car and walked up the driveway. I was glad to see my siblings here; having them stationed near Mom and Dad made family visits so much easier. I hadn’t seen much of any of them on my last half dozen or so visits, but then again, my brother and I barely managed to see each other when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor. On my second trip to see Elliott, I’d introduced him to the family, but every time I’d come back since then, it was virtually impossible to line up everyone’s schedules and see anyone. Hell, my brother was the only one so far who’d met Elliott more than once.
But tonight, everyone was finally here.
I rang the doorbell, and a moment later, my mother opened the front door. She greeted us with a taut smile, and hugged me half-heartedly.
That’s odd, I thought as she let me go and avoided my eyes. My mother was reserved like the rest of the family, but any time she saw me, she hugged me so hard I joked she was trying to kill me. This time, she’d given me the kind of quick, loose embrace she might have offered to an acquaintance.
She didn’t offer Elliott so much as a handshake, which wasn’t that unusual. “Elliott,” she said with a smile that didn’t extend beyond her lips. “It’s good to see you again.”
“You, too,” Elliott said with a much more genuine smile.
“The family’s in here.” She gestured toward the living room, and turned to go before either of us could say a word.
Elliott looked at me, eyebrows up. I shrugged. Following my mother into the living room where the rest of the family relaxed, my gut twisted into knots. What was I missing?
Those knots twisted even tighter when everyone in the living room—Dad, Jamie and her husband Bill, and Kevin—simultaneously tensed when Elliott and I walked in. We exchanged stiff handshakes that lacked eye contact, and my sister embraced me with less enthusiasm than my mother had.
My family wasn’t the most outgoing, affectionate bunch, and maybe I just wasn’t used to that anymore. After spending the last two evenings with Elliott’s family, who were the polar opposites, my family’s reserved, aloof nature was more pronounced than usual.
But…something wasn’t right. The atmosphere was unusually chilly, and there was an odd undercurrent in the air that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. My family members exchanged disconcerted glances. My father’s ramrod straight posture was tenser than usual, his neck stiff and, whenever he wasn’t speaking, his jaw set.
Stranger still, we hadn’t been there ten minutes before my brother pulled Elliott aside. “You still playing Zombie Warfare 3?”
“I beat it a couple of months ago,” Elliott said. “Just counting down the days before the fourth one comes out.”
“You’ve beaten it? How the hell did you get past level nine?” He gestured down the hall. “I have my laptop here; would you mind showing me?”
Elliott looked at me. I shrugged, so he said to Kevin, “Yeah, sure, I can give you some pointers.”
“Cool. My computer’s in the back room.”
After Kevin and Elliott left the room, I turned back to my family again, and everyone was looking at me. The air hummed with tension. My heart beat faster as I looked from person to person, wondering what the hell I was missing.
I gulped. “What?”