So in the last instalment, we met Astin’s childhood friend Pablo—whom he’s moving in with while he’s back in Texas—and his ex-girlfriend, Martha.
In this week’s instalment, we find out a little bit more about his family…
What Happens in Texas
‘Astin! When did you get back to town?’
Astin stood in the doorway of his childhood home, propped up by his crutches. Nothing demonstrated how much had changed since he was last there more than the frail old man before him. His gramps had always been tall and broad…but he wasn’t any more. He’d lost weight, and there were new lines on his face. Had it really been that long?
‘Hi,’ said Astin sheepishly. He had no idea what kind of reception he’d get from his grandparents or his little brother.
‘Come in,’ said his gramps, stepping aside. Even the house he’d spent most of his childhood in didn’t look the same. Wallpaper peeled at the corners; there were fresh damp patches on the ceiling; they’d had a new TV and fireplace. The 1970s-style decor was still there, but it looked like it hadn’t been touched since the 1970s even though it had been done when Astin lived there ten years earlier.
‘Who is it?’ called his gramma, emerging from the kitchen to see. She, too, was frailer than he remembered. Her back was more hunched than before, her hair whiter. When she clapped eyes on him, they widened, but she didn’t speak.
‘Hi, Gramma,’ he said, raising his hand from his elbow crutch to wave at her.
She tightened her features and regarded him sternly. ‘Cooper’s not here,’ she said before going back into the kitchen.
Astin turned back to his gramps.
‘Don’t mind her,’ he said, but he didn’t offer any reason why he shouldn’t.
‘I wanted to talk to you both,’ said Astin.
‘It might be easier to tackle one at a time,’ said his gramps, falling back onto the sofa and patting the spot beside him. Astin propped his crutches up against the side of the sofa and sat beside him. The sofa was thinner . He could feel the wooden frame underneath the cushions. His gramps didn’t speak. He sat beside him, waiting for Astin to continue. Except Astin didn’t know where to start. Would it have been easier to start with someone who really hated him, like Hollie or Cooper? Compared to them, his gramps hadn’t reacted at all. Why?
‘Well speak then!’ ordered his gramma.
Astin flinched. Frail she may have been, but she was still as stealthy as they came. She stood in the kitchen doorway, eyeballing him.
‘I didn’t think you wanted to listen,’ he replied, his hands in his lap.
She settled into her rocking chair a few feet away. ‘We’re always here to listen to you, Astin. Even when you’ve been dumb.’
That was an understatement. But then, she wasn’t one for swearing.
Astin swallowed. ‘I shouldn’t have pushed you out like that. I was rude—’
‘Damn right you were rude,’ interrupted his gramma.
‘Charlene!’ chastised his gramps. ‘Let the man speak.’
She readjusted herself in her rocking chair, placed her hands in her lap, and leaned forwards with her lips pursed.
‘I shouldn’t have cut you out like that, but I didn’t want you to know how bad things really were. I didn’t want Cooper to see me like that.’
His gramma sighed. ‘But why? He’s your family. It’s in his job description to be there for you.’
‘No it’s not. He’s a kid. He should be out having fun!’
‘Were you out having fun at his age?’
Astin recoiled. No, he wasn’t. He’d been an angry child that didn’t know how to have fun. That’s why his grandparents had taken him under their wing and got him to do as many activities as possible to a) get out his aggression and b) get away from his mother. It had worked. It had worked perfectly until he’d ended up in a wheelchair.
‘I didn’t want anyone to see me like that,’ said Astin. ‘I was ashamed, embarrassed, and angry about what had happened. And now—’ His eyes welled with tears. He wiped at them with his fist. ‘I don’t know what happened to me.’
‘You turned into your mother,’ grumbled his gramma.
‘Do I have to kick you out into the garden with the dogs?’ said his gramps.
Astin gave a small laugh.
‘Y’all know that’s where he gets his temper from. That woman. She’s a harpy who corrupted our son—’
‘Enough! You’re not helping.’
No, but she was right. Astin gave up trying to stop crying. His gramps rubbed his shoulder. ‘Come on now, son. You can still fix things.’
‘Cooper hates me.’
‘Cooper could never hate you,’ said his gramma. ‘He’s just disappointed, is all.’
‘That’s what I said. He thought you were perfect. You shattered that illusion. Most people go through that realisation with their parents. You and Cooper didn’t have that luxury, but I’m sure y’all had it with us.’ She laughed. ‘Cooper looks up to you. You’re out there, living your life in the big city. A lot of people around here don’t have those kinds of aspirations. Look at your old school friends. Most of them still live here.’
She was right. Most of them were still around. They’d all moved on with their lives, though. Some were married with kids. A few were divorced and were on their second marriages. Pablo had his ranch. Martha was a vet. But what was he?
‘Cooper’s at soccer practice if you want to pick him up,’ said his gramma.
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ said Astin.
‘I think it’s a great idea,’ said his gramps. He stretched his legs out in front of him. ‘Gives these old legs a break from driving.’
‘I can’t drive,’ he said, gesturing to his crutches.
‘I’m sure we could find the number for a taxi somewhere,’ said his gramps.
‘Um, yeah. But I mean—’
‘He finishes in ten minutes. You’d better get down there,’ said his gramma.
Oh how he’d missed his grandparents.
The taxi driver ended up being someone he went to school with. They had a catch-up session on the (thankfully short) drive to Astin’s old school, then he offered to wait for Astin and Cooper free of charge. He wasn’t used to that kind of small-town kindness any more. He was used to people being in the situation for whatever was in it for them. Was that what had changed about him? Was that why he’d behaved the way he had? He hopped towards a bench then sat and waited for his younger brother. The sun blazed down on his skin. He felt it burning. It felt good. He knew he was supposed to look after his skin, but he was past caring after everything that had happened. Applying sunscreen felt like the least of his worries.
There was a cheer, then a scream, then a group of tweens ran out of the old school building dressed in their soccer kits. Astin noticed his younger brother instantly. When Cooper noticed Astin, he slowed down so much it almost looked like he was running backwards compared to his friends.
Astin got to his feet and hopped towards his brother on his crutches. Cooper continued his slow walk.
‘Hi,’ said Astin.
‘What are you doing here?’ said Cooper. By this point, many of Cooper’s friends had disappeared. A few appeared to be lingering nearby – to eavesdrop, no doubt. It’s what Cooper would’ve done.
‘Grandparents sent me to pick you up,’ he said.
‘What are you doing here?’ said Cooper.
Astin sighed. ‘Can we go talk somewhere more quiet please?’ He glanced to Cooper’s eavesdropping friends.
‘Fine,’ Cooper huffed. ‘How did you get here?’
‘Taxi,’ said Astin. He pointed to the waiting taxi with one of his crutches. Cooper began walking in that direction without waiting for his brother. Good start.
Astin attempted conversation on the way home, but Cooper didn’t say much. It wasn’t like they could have a deep and meaningful conversation with one of his old classmates driving, either – anything they said would get around the town pretty quickly. It was just as much of a bubble as Hollywood had been. He’d liked the anonymity of New York, even if he hadn’t been a fan of the Hollywood bubble.
Cooper held the door open for Astin to get into their grandparents’ house when they got back, which Astin saw as progress. At least Cooper was still being considerate, even if he was quiet.
‘Beef brisket will be ready in ten,’ called their gramma’s voice from the kitchen.
‘OK!’ said Cooper, running upstairs to change out of his kit.
‘How’d it go?’ asked his gramps as Astin entered the kitchen.
He leaned against the wall. ‘He won’t speak to me.’
‘Give him time,’ said his gramps. ‘He’s a sensitive kid.’
‘More sensitive than you were at that age,’ added his gramma.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ said Astin.
‘It means Cooper wears his heart on his sleeve. You learned not to so that that woman couldn’t use it against you,’ said his gramma. He assumed ‘that woman’ meant his mother. She didn’t have a name as far as his gramma was concerned.
Astin sighed. ‘How can I make it up to him?’
‘I don’t know,’ admitted his gramps. ‘But you’ve only just got here. Give him chance.’
‘Is dinner ready yet?’ asked Cooper, skidding into the kitchen.
‘Well if that wasn’t the fastest shower ever,’ said his gramma.
‘But I’m all clean!’ said Cooper. He raised his arm and sniffed his armpits. ‘I smell fresh and everything.’
He offered his armpit to his gramps.
‘I’m good. I don’t need to check,’ he said.
Astin laughed. ‘How was practice?’
‘You know,’ said Cooper with a shrug.
He didn’t know, but he didn’t know how to keep the conversation going either.
‘How many free kicks did you get this week?’ asked his gramps.
‘Two,’ said Cooper with a frown.
‘That’s one better than last week,’ said his gramma. ‘You’ll get there.’
‘I can help if you want,’ said Astin.
Cooper wrinkled his nose. ‘How?’
‘I can’t play but I can offer some pointers. Gramps can be goalkeeper.’
Their gramps snorted. ‘The dogs would do a better job.’
‘The dogs don’t have hands,’ said Astin.
‘I suppose not. I guess I’ll have to help then.’
Cooper grinned, kissing their gramps’s cheek. ‘Thanks!’ He started to head outside.
‘Not now!’ said their gramma. ‘Dinner’s ready!’
After dinner they sat in the lounge and watched some TV. It was exactly how Astin remembered it except for the crutches and Cooper refusing to speak to him. Cooper did sit next to him on the sofa, though. That was something. Or it could’ve just been because there were no other seats in the living room.
‘Oh no,’ said his gramps from his armchair by the window.
‘What?’ said Astin.
He didn’t need to clarify who ‘she’ was. They all knew.
The front door flung open. She didn’t even close it behind her. It was a good job the dogs were still in the garden.
‘Move out as soon as you turn eighteen, but now everything’s gone wrong you’re back, eh? I didn’t raise you to be no coward!’
Astin curled into himself, eyeing his mother like a zebra about to be taken down by a lion. He didn’t have the energy to argue back with her. He was exhausted not just physically but emotionally too. His mother, on the other hand, was always ready to argue.
‘Well say something!’
‘Leave him alone,’ said Cooper, sitting up. ‘He’s been through a lot.’
‘We’ve all been through a lot, honey,’ she said.
‘No you haven’t. Not compared to Astin. He’s hurting. You shouldn’t hurt him more,’ said Cooper.
‘Hurting? What’s he got to hurt about?’
‘Having a mother like you,’ mumbled his gramma.
His mother turned to his gramma her eyes wild. ‘Excuse you?’
‘Please leave,’ said his gramps.
‘I’m talking to my children.’
‘Shouting at them, more like. When you’re ready to have a civil conversation with them, you’re welcome to return.’ His gramps stood up and gestured to the door. Huffing and puffing, she left.
‘Thank you,’ Astin whispered after she’d gone. Cooper hugged him.