By Natalie Walton All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Humor


After being forced to move from Austria back to the United States, Zeke Heart has to leave his girlfriend and his new, generally better life behind. There are a few perks to being back, however - one of them being an unexpectedly satisfying job as a football coach for a bunch of middle schoolers. The other is Amal Hajjar, an unbelievably optimistic softy who is as brutally honest as she is fun to be around.

Chapter 1

Airports suck.

“Zeke!” my dad yells to me from the Auntie Anne’s he’s standing near. I’m being one of those moody teenagers - you know the kind - and staring out the window, intensely focused on the airplanes outside. Standing near one of those big ass windows is kind of satisfying since I can see basically everything. Makes me feel like I could rule the world or something.

I don’t turn to face him. “Yeah?”

“Ready to head back?”

“Not really,” I respond and his groan is almost audible. He knows I’m not particularly thrilled to be back in the States. First off, being forced to leave my super hot girlfriend is crime enough. But making me leave Austria in general is too much for one boy to handle. I’ve been an immature jackass about it, but I think I have a little right to be since I wasn’t given a choice to stay. I’d spent most of my freshman year there, along with all of my sophomore and junior years of high school. I was finally getting used to life there. Now I have to come back just in time for my senior year.

Just standing in the Dallas airport is depressing me. I am entirely underwhelmed by this place.

“I’ve had enough of the airports, let’s just get home.” Dad is almost begging now. We have a forty-five-minute drive home ahead of us which neither of us wants to do. It was a nearly twenty-five-hour process flying from Austria to here including layovers and the seven-hour time difference isn’t helping.

I look out the window, watching as luggage gets pulled on one of those little carts over to a plane. “How much do you think the guy driving the cart gets paid?”

Dad approaches the window, pulling his bag behind him. “Probably not enough to make up for working at two AM on a Monday.”

I nod in agreement and readjust my backpack. “That guy probably went to college for engineering or something. And here he is, driving a little cart around and loading luggage onto a plane.”

“I’m sure he has a degree that pertains to this.”

“A degree that pertains to loading luggage onto a plane,” I say flatly.

“Something within it at least.”


College has been on my mind a lot, mostly since I just assumed I’d be looking into schools in Austria, or at least Europe in general. Now my plans are changing again and I’m not sure where I’ll end up. I could easily just go to the same college my older sister, Arden, goes to or I could somewhere totally different. I could always just end up far out of state, away from this place that has treated me pretty kindly, but I’m not in the mood to admit it yet.

Dad turns to look at me. “Can we go home?”

“So I can stay up and watch TV all night?” I ask him. My body is telling me it’s nine in the morning and after spending both of my flights knocked out, I’m ready to run a marathon. Besides, there’s something really motivating about being in an airport with all these people running around. Families going on vacation and coming home from them, returning at ungodly hours with exhausted toddlers and seemingly endless bags. Since the only time I’d ever really gone on a vacation was moving to Austria, watching this is so interesting. It bums me out that I never got to experience it firsthand as a kid.

“I’m sure once you get home you’ll be tired,” Dad tells me.

“I guess I could just call Emaline,” I say and Dad doesn’t respond. Emaline is the most incredible girl I’ve ever met, but Dad is iffy on her, probably because he knows how teenagers are. He kept dropping hints as he and I were packing to leave that I should just break up with her (“it’s for the better”). But we’re persistent. And realistically, even though I’m not sure she’s the love of my life or anything crazy like that, we’ve been dating for nearly a year. She’s my first real girlfriend, the first person I had sex with, all of that stuff. She’s a big deal to me.

We watch out the window for a while and I turn to him. “I guess we could head back now.”

“Yeah?” He asks, perking up.

“Sure. There’s nothing to do here or at home, but I guess being at home is better than here.”

“Well said.”

With that, we make our way out of the parking lot and out to the rental car waiting for us. Before we left we had to make sure the car went somewhere so we decided Arden would be best with the piece of shit. It’s not like we had a way to transfer it to us and keeping it in this parking lot for three years would cost the same as our apartment rent for a year. Now we actually have to figure things out with the car situation, something Dad overlooked.

He’s pretty much just making up this entire trip back home. He rented some apartment neither of us has actually seen in person, decided to sell basically all of the furniture we purchased in Europe and now needs to track down a cheap car. It’s a miracle we even got back to Texas in one piece.

The apartment thing makes me the most nervous since the last thing I want to do is get somewhere that has no furniture or is as cramped as our flight home felt. I’d really prefer to just go home to our old apartment, but that’s really not an option anymore since Dad didn’t want to keep up rent for the roughly three years while we weren’t living there. His landlord made it glaringly obvious that he wasn’t going to be holding a spot for Dad when he returned, a part of that being because Dad was the worst at keeping up with paying bills. This was something I didn’t learn until I’d already moved to Austria when our electricity was shut off like clockwork every month for nearly a third of a year.

“Are you sure there’s going to be furniture?” I ask after throwing my suitcase into the trunk of the car.


“In the new apartment.”

Dad hesitates for a second. “Well, the guy on the phone seemed pretty sure all furniture was left intact for us. There should be cable and internet already available, too.”

“Seemed pretty sure,” I grumble. “Right.”

“It was highly recommended online, it’ll be fine. And as long as there are beds and outlets there’s nothing else we need to worry about tonight.”

“Did we ever end up rebuying one of the American chargers so we could actually use the outlets here?”

Dad scratches his neck. “Uh, I think so.”

“Dad.” I groan and run my hands through my brown hair, suddenly tired.

“I’m sorry! You were supposed to remind me when we landed to try and find some somewhere in the airport,” he says.

“At least my phone has been off for almost an entire day, I should be able to make it through until tomorrow when we can get some from Arden or Mom or someone.”

“Yeah, see, it’s not that big of a deal.”

I try my best to not roll my eyes, but it’s nearly impossible. I know it’s partially my fault for not remembering, but there are certain things I still leave up to my dad to remember. I still depend on him for a lot, which I think will change now that we’re back home. I know people here and I know how to get around, even though I don’t have my driver’s license yet. Leaving before sophomore year and getting back senior year changes the order I’m going to have to have to do a lot of this in. One perk to living in Austria is that I could start legally drinking almost immediately after moving there. The downside is that I’m behind on the typical American high school stuff, like SATs and driving.

The car we’re renting smells like new car and leather, the kind of thing that reminds me of traveling. It’s starting to make me slightly nauseous – a combination of shitty eating habits and an out-of-whack sleeping schedule. The seats are pretty comfortable, but the car itself is sticky and hot in the humid Texan air. It’s the kind where I feel like all I have to do is breathe and I start sweating. I can only hope there is at least air conditioning the new apartment.

Dad throws our two suitcases into the back seat, not even bothering with the trunk. He looks so exhausted that I’m almost tempted to call Arden or Mom to come and get us. I refrain, though, mostly because I know neither of them would be up; they’re not exactly night owls, something that made the time difference more difficult than it could’ve been.

I lean back and roll down my window, looking out at the dark sky the entire ride home.

The apartment is exactly how I had pictured it - average furniture, a small TV, weird carpeting and a kitchen the size of the car we were just in.

“This is nice,” Dad says and props his suitcase up. I flick on more lights and wrinkle my nose slightly at the smell of cleaning supplies. At least they recently cleaned it - something about that is kind of comforting.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I respond. It’s not a bad place, just stuffy without any air conditioning on. It kind of feels homey in a weird way, probably because it is home. We’re actually back in America, with roads we know and signs in English. While I already miss being in Austria, this isn’t so bad.

Or maybe I’m just starting to get tired and accepting this as how it is. This is an improvement after spending nearly a day and a half sleeping in two or three hour chunks in inconvenient places like an airport terminal chair or on the train.

“I’m going to bed,” Dad tells me in a low, tired voice. I look at him, his face not that dissimilar to my own. The only big difference is that dad can grow a ridiculous amount of facial hair - I can’t grow much more than that weird peach fuzz mustache dudes in eighth grade get pumped about - and he has blue eyes, not my brown ones.

I strip off my shirt and sit on the couch, hoping there’s something at least slightly entertaining on TV. For most of the flipping between the thirty channels we’re offered, I’m not even reading the names - I’m too distracted thinking about the upcoming school year. I’ll have to see everyone again, but older and different. People will have established friendships and girlfriends and all of the seniors I was such good friends with before I left won’t be there anymore. I won’t have my sister or her boyfriend and one of my old friends, Levi, to lean on for any bullshit that comes up.

Something about it kind of stresses me out. People always talk about moving away, but not moving away and coming back just in time to see everyone leave again.

After almost an hour of going between infomercials and reruns of shitty sitcoms, I give up and turn it off.

I lay my suitcase down flat and start going through my things, gradually unpacking. I have all of my clothes just kind of tossed in there, but dumb things like ticket stubs and a few books Emaline told me to read are, too. I didn’t bring home much from Austria besides pictures, but sometimes that seems like more than enough.

With no food to eat and no TV to watch, I am in the worst possible way, bored. My suitcase can only amuse me for so long since I already know what to expect. There are no surprises when I just packed it less than forty-eight hours ago.

Eventually, I just give up completely and start walking in the direction of where Dad’s room is. But there are only two doors - his and a bathroom.

“Dad?” I open the door a little and peek in. He has the TV on some news channel and his glasses on with a pamphlet in his hand, most likely about the apartment.

“Yeah?” he responds and puts the paper down.

“Where’s my room?” I ask, glancing around. It’s probably somewhere really obvious, I’m just so sleep deprived it doesn’t register.

Dad clears his throat and hesitantly responds. “You’re going to be moving back with your mom.”

Or not.

“What?” I ask.

“I just have a lot I need to focus on with work and we spent a pretty extreme amount of money over in Austria. All of the different trips we would take didn’t agree with my bank account,” he tells me. Even he doesn’t seem to believe the excuse. He probably just came up with it on the plane while I was knocked out.

Suddenly, the stories of Dad that Arden used to tell me all came rushing back. He was a flake at best and a moron at worst, but he was still my dad – I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. And I had by moving to Austria with him for years. But now we were back and he wasn’t obligated to be my primary caregiver anymore, something Arden had seen enough to not be even be disillusioned with him anymore.


“Don’t unpack anything, I’ll drive you in the morning,” Dad tells me. I immediately think of all of the things I’ve pulled out of my suitcase already in an attempt to feel like I’m home again. “Your mom and sister are excited to see you again.”

“Almost as excited as you are to get rid of me,” I mumble.

He looks at me. “Did you say something?”

“Nothing,” I respond and turn down the hallway, thinking of how I can make everything fit back into that stupid suitcase.

I call my sister so she can pick me up the next morning while Dad is still sleeping. I decide not to say bye to him – an immature decision, but something I would stand by at least for now.

Arden is the prototypical older sister – usually annoying, kind of a know-it-all and blunt. But she’s also the only person who totally, completely understands me no matter what the situation is, even if she doesn’t want to. I can always depend on her to at least try and see where I’m coming from.

“Hey!” She says when she sees me and hugs me so tightly it’s hard to breathe. “You’re so tall now. And so old. You have to tell me everything about Austria. I know you basically already did, but give me the rundown again.”

I smile a little, piling my suitcases into the car and talking almost the entire way home.

It’s kind of a pleasant surprise to see that my mom’s house hasn’t changed at all in the time I’ve been gone. It looks like some of the trimming has been fixed up and a little gardening has been done here and there, but besides that it’s still her house. It’ll always feel like home.

Arden parks her car and helps me - more like gives me a smile of encouragement - get my suitcase up to the house.

“I feel like I haven’t seen Mom in years,” she says and rings the doorbell. “But then again you literally haven’t seen her in years, so I guess you win.”

“Hey!” Mom exclaims when she opens the door. A rush of cool air comes outside and meets the hot, humid Texas air. Goosebumps form all over my arms. Mom cut her hair shorter - it’s around her shoulders now instead of down to her chest. She looks almost glowing. Happier. Maybe having her kids gone has done some good things for her. Arden and I come inside and she wraps us in a hug that feels like home. Immediately I’m knocked over by nostalgia - all of the school pictures, the books lining shelves, the couches, the general atmosphere. I hadn’t realized how homesick I was until I saw it all again.

“Hey, Mom.” Arden smiles.“I’m so happy to see you two.” Mom’s smile is so big I’m almost worried it’ll crack her face. But honestly, I’m just as excited to see her.

“Zeke, look at you. You are so big.”

“Thanks,” I respond and give her a questioning look, unsure of how to respond to that. But I guess she hasn’t seen me since freshman year when my voice was constantly cracking and I was easily a foot shorter. We settle into the kitchen and start talking for what feels like hours. I tell them about Austria and being able to see Europe in general, and Emaline. I talk about the friends I made while I was over there and what the school was like and if it was nice. The questions just seem to keep coming. Mom asks Arden about Levi and what this year of college looks like.

Talking with them feels different from how it did with Dad. He always kept me at arm's length, like he didn’t want to delve too deeply into anything. My personal life was almost completely private from him just because he never asked. It wasn’t like living with Mom where she would ask me where I was going and who I’d be with and what time I’d be home. Dad would just let me leave and see me when I came home. He felt more like a roommate more than anything sometimes.

“Alright, well I have to head out,” Arden tells us. “We’re all meeting at the bar to watch some preseason coverage.”

“Okay.” Mom smiles.

“Bye,” I respond and Arden is out the door, heading to her car and leaving me here. Finally back home. Really, officially moving back in.

“I guess I should let you get settled in,” Mom says, the sudden silence of the house filling in where conversation used to be.

I nod. “Yeah.”

“Are you still hungry for dinner?” she looks at me. “I could make you something if you want. Maybe breakfast for dinner?”

Part of me wants to tell her I haven’t craved breakfast for dinner in years, but the other part knows I should just be grateful.

“Sounds great, Mom.”

“Okay.” she nods and I make my ascent up the stairs.

By the time I make it to my room, I’m suddenly exhausted. It’s really only four, but my body is telling me it’s definitely not. After rolling around on the couch for hours last night, I ended up giving up and putting the TV on. I’ve only dozed off a few hours here and there since then.Looking at my room - entirely untouched since I left - I instantly collapse on my bed, letting my body sink into the familiar sheets.

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