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New Chapter Update!



Recently I've been going through old books, getting them ready to be part of box sets. Usually I take things away, like the word "that," flip phones, and mentions of TV shows that are outdated. Occasionally I add to the books, when I think of new chapters that need to be written or holes that need to be filled. The following is a chapter I added to With a Friend Like You, right before Bronwyn goes to work for her mother. (If you purchase the book after 9/26/20, the chapter is already included.)


Chapter 10


“And breathe, and stretch. Stretch. Breathe.” “Yoga is exhausting,” Bronwyn noted, yawning. “It is,” Julian agreed. “Imagine how much more exhausting it would be if we were actually doing it.” They lay side by side on the floor, a yoga workout streaming on the oversized television. “What should we do tonight?” Bronwyn asked. “We’re exercising,” Julian noted, draping his arm over her waist. “I meant after, obviously,” Bronwyn said, nestling close, snuggling her back to his front. “Fitness is important.” “I don’t know,” Julian said, his tone filled with uncharacteristic blasé. Bronwyn rolled to face him. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” She poked him. “Occasionally a bit of ennui sets in. It hasn’t happened since you arrived because you’re a clever distraction.” He brushed the hair off her face, smiling. “But I’ve been in this house a long time. Every once in a while I want to break free.” “Oh.” She sat up, her face alight with a new thought. “What?” Julian asked, lying on the floor and gazing up at her. “I’ve got it.” “The Golden Ticket? Shingles? What?” His hand reached out to twine in one of her curls, but she sat on his stomach and pinned his arms, beaming. “I know what we can do,” she said. “I’m beginning to have some thoughts as well,” he said, clasping her hands as they pressed his into the carpet. “It’s going to take some time to get everything ready,” she said. “I’m ready now,” he said. “No, it’s going to be great, you’ll see. I’ll text you when it’s time to come over.” She kissed his cheek and rolled away, darting for the exit as Julian stared after her, smiling. He was no longer bored, and with Bronwyn it was a guarantee he couldn’t remain so for long. She took joy in simple pleasures. Last night she had been ecstatic because an onion ring made it into her fry order by accident. She had set it aside, calling it the ring to rule all onion rings, her precious. When he received her text sometime later, he realized he had fallen asleep. He stood, rifled his hands through his hair, and set off on the short walk to her yard. Stepping over the dividing hedge, he saw a row of twinkling fairy lights and a roaring outdoor fire. “What’s this?” he asked. “Camping,” she said, indicating the tent behind her with a flourish. “Camping,” Julian repeated, his tone dubious. “I was afraid my brawn would fool you into believing I’m a rugged outdoorsman, and now it’s happened.” “You’re going to love it, I promise,” she said. He was doubtful, but she looked so hopeful, so excited. “What does one do while camping?” “When my family used to camp, we fished and cooked our food over a campfire.” His gaze darted to the river. Both their families had docks and boats, for that matter, but for his family it was more a status symbol, something for his parents to pull out on Memorial Day for a few hours. They’d never fished from it, and certainly never eaten what they caught. “Fishing,” he said, trying to sound enthused. “Fishing the Bronwyn and Julian way,” she said, revealing two takeout containers from their favorite local café. “Salmon for you, trout for me.” “Is the fire for ambiance?” he asked. “The fire is for s’mores.” “Those melty things little kids eat?” he asked. “There’s no age limit on s’more love, Julian,” she said seriously, handing him a bottle of water and his takeout container of fish. “Is this what your family did all those nights out here?” he asked. When they were little, her family had seemingly spent the entire summer outdoors. Julian used to watch them sometimes, full of disdain for their lack of class. They had always been loud, barefoot, usually covered in water or grime. Unlike his family, hers had made good use of their river access, jumping off the dock and swimming in the dingy Potomac. When he was a kid, he’d considered them a bunch of toothless hillbilly rednecks, giving Bronwyn a pass because she had seemed like the lone outlier. But as he matured and mellowed, he began to see they were different than he was, not because of their political ideology but because there were so many of them. Laurel and her husband had likely sent them outside for some peace and quiet and, being a large group of adventurous children, they’d made their fun however they could. “We loved to camp,” Bronwyn confirmed. “When I was really little, we used to go to this cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky.” She paused and glanced at him. “What?” “I was waiting for you to add a derisive comment about us being backwoods hillbillies,” she said. “What? No way.” In truth, he probably would have except she sounded so wistful and nostalgic. Camping memories were obviously tender for her, too tender for him to poke at. “What was your favorite thing about camping?” She chewed her bite of trout while she thought of her answer. “For that short time when we were camping, it felt like we were all equal. No one was better at camping.” She took another bite and now it was Julian’s turn to chew thoughtfully. He had spent his life being other because he was an only child. She had spent her life being other because she felt less than everyone in her family. Maybe that was why they fit so naturally together; at last their otherness had found an affinity. They finished their food and Bronwyn showed him how to make s’mores. “I feel so blue collar,” Julian said, licking melted chocolate from his fingers. “Now when people accuse your mom of losing touch with the middle class, she can trot you out and show them your fingers that have touched flaming marshmallows.” Bronwyn said. “Flaming marshmallows sounds like a gay nightclub act,” Julian said, reaching for the box of graham crackers. Bronwyn laughed and he smiled. She was one of those people whose entire face lit when she laughed or smiled. The last few days she’d been doing both often, stark contrast to the state she was in when she first arrived. But what would happen when she submerged herself back within her mother’s reach? “Bronwyn, maybe we should cancel the plan,” he blurted “Cancel? Why?” She gazed at him with her too-big brown eyes, a smudge of chocolate on her nose, a glob of melted marshmallow on her chin. Julian felt like he’d made a massive mistake, as if he was sending her to certain doom. “Because,” he said. “Because why, Julian?” “We have a good thing going here, don’t we? In our little cocoon, in our little corner of the universe?” He reached for a napkin and tried to clean her face but the napkin tore and stuck, making it appear as if she’d suffered a series of chocolate-related shaving mishaps. “Yes, we have a good thing going, the best. Meeting you has been better than all the years of therapy combined and more fun than anything ever.” She was still oblivious to the food on her face, oblivious to the frayed pieces of napkin, oblivious to everything. Julian doused the tail of his shirt in water from his bottle and pulled it up to wash her nose and chin. “So don’t go. Don’t ruin it. We’ll go on as we’ve been. You and me, best pals, having fun day after day, healing all our broken pieces.” He finished bathing her face and dropped his shirt. She slid her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder. He tipped his head, resting it on hers. “Julian, that’s the most tempting offer I’ve ever had. But this little bit of heaven we’ve achieved is an illusion, it can’t last.” “Why can’t it?” he demanded, his hand making smooth passes up and down her spine. She was responsive to touch, ridiculously so, and melted into him, releasing whatever stress her body had been holding. “Because it can’t. You’re here because of a punishment; I’m self-banished. Eventually your monitor is going to come off and you’ll be free, but how will I ever be free?” she pulled back to look at him, searching his face for answers. “It’s time for me to face the things I’ve been running away from my whole life; it’s time for me to face my mother. Thanks to you, I feel ready to do that now. Unless…unless this is your way of telling me I’m not ready?” How could he explain how much he hurt when she hurt? He smoothed his hands over her cheeks, smiling. “Sweet, it’s in the bag. But, being a selfish creature by nature, it’s all about me as usual. You’re about to venture outside our magical realms of no responsibility and no outsiders. I’m going to miss you.” “Maybe I could put it off a little longer,” Bronwyn said, now sounding uncertain. Julian wanted to kick himself for instilling insecurity when he was supposed to be helping her grow stronger. “No, ignore me. Now is the time, and you’re ready. You’re so ready, B.” She smiled and rested her head on his shoulder, snuggling close. “So what else do you crazy conservatives do on a campout?” “First we crank country music,” she said, and he groaned. “Then we get in our pickup trucks.” His answering groan grew louder. “We head down to the Piggly Wiggly and buy some fireworks, something big, loud, and illegal.” “You’re making that up,” he accused. “We have to be careful, though, a lesson we all learned well from Cousin Stumpy,” she continued undaunted. He tossed her over his shoulder and spun her around until she was laughing too hard to talk; it didn’t take long. When he set her down, they crawled into the tent she’d assembled and watched a movie. “I don’t think we’ll pass muster as hardy outdoorsmen,” Bronwyn noted, reaching over to adjust the volume on Julian’s iPad. “We are totally roughing it; this screen is only eight inches,” Julian said. He draped his arm over her, urging her closer. She complied, cuddling close and readjusting the blankets. “This redneck evening has been a lot of fun. Thanks for helping with my ennui.” “You’re welcome, but rednecks don’t say ennui,” she said, smoothing the floppish hair off his forehead. “What’s the hillbilly way of saying I’m having fun with my favorite?” he asked. “You say, ‘Girl, if you were a chicken, you’d be impeccable.’” He wasn’t going to laugh, but he couldn’t help it. And after the first sputter, he was lost, and so was Bronwyn. Eventually they gave up on the movie and spent the rest of the night trotting out their worst and most ridiculous pickup lines. She would be tired tomorrow, but the night of laughter with Julian was worth it. Soon she’d be back in her mother’s world, and all laughter would come to a grinding halt.


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© 2020 by Vanessa Gray Bartal