Alice pulled in to the familiar driveway and turned off the ignition. She slumped her head on the steering wheel and let out an audible groan. The drive home had taken her 18 hours, not including the two stops she’d taken to have a short sleep reclined in the driver’s seat.

She unbuckled her belt, grabbed the duffel bag off the passenger seat, opened her door and stepped out in to a fresh Oregonian breeze. She was so pleased to be home.

She walked up the few steps to the familiar door and wrapped her hand around the familiar knob. Twisting gently and pushing she opened the door to her childhood home. Her father had lived here for 35 years; The house a gift from her father to her mother on their wedding day.

Slipping her Converse shoes off at the door, and placing her bag next to them, she quietly closed the door behind her and padded silently through the hallway. She turned right at the first door and entered the lounge room. Her dad had his back to her and he was watching the late news. Another report about the 45th president started playing and her father switched the tv off, sighing.

The tv darkened and she could see herself in the tv screen reflection, and so could he. Her beloved dad turned in his favourite chair and smiled brightly at her.

“Alice! You snuck up on me. Welcome home!” He rose from his chair, walked around it and pulled her in to a warm embrace. He kissed her temple and pulled back, holding her shoulders. “I wasn’t expecting you for another few hours, sweetheart.”

“I made good time, Dad.”

“You sure did. You hungry? I cooked.”

Alice scoffed, mocking him warmly. “You? Cooked?”

“Okay, so I ordered Chinese. What’s the difference?”

“There is a huge difference, Dad. Glad to see you’re still eating well.”

“Well, if the Chinese can live to 100 eating this stuff, then so can I,” her father said with a wink. He pulled her in to another hug. “It’s so great to have you home.”

Alice smiled in to his shoulder. “It’s good to be home.”

He released her from his embrace and gestured in the direction of the car outside.

“You have much stuff to bring in?” He asked.

“A couple of boxes. I can get them, though.”

“Let your old man lend a hand, okay? You just go on up to your room.”

“Thanks, Dad,” she replied. She watched him walk down the hallway and out the front door. She followed behind, picked up the duffel she’d dropped at the entrance, then turned and headed up the staircase to the second floor.

Her room was just how she’d left it. Literally. She noted the layer of dust on the dresser and suspected her carpet had not seen a vacuum since the day she had left almost one year ago. Her dad was not a great housekeeper, but he was a great man. Her mother had left him for a wealthier man when Alice was seven years old. Alice’s dad was left with four children to raise alone, the youngest of which was only three years old. Alice and her three brothers had stayed with their father as their primary custodial parent, their mother agreeing to bi-weekly visits. This pleased Alice very much; She had always been closer to her father.

It had, at times, been hard for Alice to grow up without a steady female role model. Her mother had struggled with guilt and, with her new husband’s money, had tried to buy back their love. Alice and her brother’s were more like their father in the way that they valued experiences and memories more than physical items. Whether they had all been born with this trait, or if it had been ingrained in them through their father, Alice was not sure. But she was so thankful for it. Because of it, it had allowed her to roam and travel freely without being tied to possessions.

Alice’s father entered the room carrying two boxes, one stacked on the other.

“Is this everything?” he asked. He placed them on the floor at the foot of her bed.

“That’s all of it, yes.” These two boxes held all of Alice’s worldly possessions. One contained clothing, the other books. In her duffel she had one change of clothing and her technology; Lap top, cellphone, chargers and noise cancelling headphones.

“Do you want me to fix you a plate of food?” her dad asked as he stepped towards the door to go.

“No thanks, Dad. I think I’ll just unpack and call it a night.” Alice glanced at her watch; 11:41pm.

“Sounds good to me. I’ll head to bed, too. Good night, sweetheart.”

“Good night, Dad.”

Alice spent the next two weeks adjusting to life back home. She wasn’t sure how long she’d be back for this time; The previous year she’d spent in Colorado as a snowboard instructor during the cold months, and had picked up casual jobs in the warmer months. Her English degree was going to waste but she didn’t care. She had one life to live and she wasn’t going to waste it being tied to a 9-5 job. She was sure she’d be back on the road soon; It was just a matter of time. She needed to save up a little more cash to tide her over until she decided on her next big adventure. Her dad wouldn’t accept any money as rent, but she at least wanted to contribute towards groceries and household expenses while she was there. She was 27 years old now, not a teenager riding on her father’s good graces.

Alice had exhausted most avenues in the search for a casual job. It was summer, so most part time positions were filled by high school students. Alice flopped on her bed and let out an exasperated sigh. Reaching across her bed blindly she felt around for her cellphone. She unlocked it and opened up Facebook. She scrolled through her newsfeed; Memes, engagement announcements, baby photos, Buzzfeed quizzes, the usual. Then she stopped scrolling and read,

Shane Merryweather

Posted 54mins ago

Putting my feelers out there to ask if anyone can help out a friend. Need someone to come over for a few hours each day to help me post op. Usual household duties required, I can provide light entertainment, refreshments, and monetary compensation.

That sounds like something I can do, Alice thought to herself. She opened up Messenger and composed a message.

Hi Shane, long time no talk. Saw your post and would love to help out. I’m home for a while and have free time. Alice Ackerman.

Shane was online and she saw the three dots pop up, signaling that he was replying. A message came through.

Hi Alice! It has been ages. Really nice to hear from you. Have had a few responses but most people can only come in the evenings, whereas I need help through the day. Can pay $10 hourly. That work for you? Shane.

Alice read the message and nodded to herself. Sounds ideal.

Perfect, Shane. Just let me know when I can start.

Shane’s reply came swiftly again.

Mom is here with me for another two days. Can you start on Friday?

Alice replied immediately.

Friday works fine. Message me your address, cellphone number and what time you’d like me to come by.

Alice stood up and adjusted the legs of her shorts which had ridden up. She walked over to her childhood book shelf and pulled out a ring binder. She carried it back to her bed and sat down. Her phone pinged; Shane’s details coming through. She ignored her phone and opened the binder. Flicking through the clear pages of school certificates, sports team photos and school report cards, she stopped when she came to her sixth grade class photo. She placed her index finger on the cheery faces and scanned across to find her own. There sat eleven year old Alice; Crooked teeth, long dark ringleted hair. Every single year in school she was placed in the same position for class photos.

Alice had always been the smallest student. Now, as a fully grown adult, she was only 5’1″. She had matured earlier than the other girls her age and had finished growing by the time she was thirteen. Her friends had quickly overtaken her and stood many inches taller than her now. Alice didn’t mind being smaller. She sometimes joked that she was vertically challenged. Other times she called herself “fun sized” in reference to a fun sized candy bar: You don’t often need a full sized candy bar, just a small hit of sugar is enough. And that’s what Alice was; A small hit.

Alice pressed on with her index finger and stopped at the row above eleven year old Alice. Staring back at her was eleven year old Shane Merryweather. He did not have a wide grin on his face like the other boys. He had a small smile across his lips, his cheeks were round and sweet. His long blonde hair hung straight down, almost at his chin.

Alice rested her head back on the head board of her bed. She cast her mind back to Shane in middle school and her stomach flip-flopped. He was shy. He was really very shy, and Alice had loved that about him. The other boys had been loud and rough-and-tumble. Alice, having been raised by her solo father and with three brothers, had been very much a tom-boy through her early school years so was used to schoolboy antics. Because of this, Alice had spent most days playing alongside Shane and his friends. They had been her friends. Her best friends. With them she didn’t need to worry about cattiness, talk of make up- which Alice knew nothing about- having to wear the latest fashion or hairstyles. During recess she’d kick the soccer ball around the pitch with them, and she’d sit with them at lunch. But all that had changed when Alice was sent to an all girls’ school in 8th grade. Alice still resented it slightly.

Her friends, her male friends, had all gone on to junior high together, whereas Alice had had to start over with friendships. She had showed up to class, completed her work, graduated on time and then got the hell out of there. She’d not seen Shane, or her other male friends, since the end of 7th grade. She’d joined Facebook in 2008 and had reconnected with a few of them through there, but had not been in contact with them aside from the odd ‘Like’ or Comment here and there.

Now, Alice grabbed her cellphone and swipped across the screen to read Shane’s message. She saved his details as a new contact on her phone and opened Facebook once more. Typing his name in to the search bar she pulled up his profile page. His profile photo was a beautiful shot of a canyon. Clicking to view more photos she swiped through until she found one of him. She checked the date on it; Six months ago. Gone was his long, straight blonde hair. Gone was his round cheeks. Staring back at her was a man with messy, short cropped fair hair and a short beard. She, of course, expected no less, but it was hard to imagine your childhood friend as anything other than a child. She recognised his gentle brown eyes, though. There he is, she thought.

On Friday, at the pre arranged time, Alice pulled in to the driveway of the home of Shane Merryweather. She had dressed comfortably enough to allow herself ease to bend and move while doing chores. She wore a navy and white striped tshirt, black straight legged jeans which hugged her petite curves, and her trusty Converse. Her dark, shoulder length hair was pulled in to a loose, messy knot on top of her head. As per usual, her entire beauty routine had been a warm wash cloth and water. She didn’t bother with make up ever, even for formal events.

Alice walked up the path and knocked three times on the front door. She then opened the door and let herself inside, knowing that Shane would be resting. She closed the door behind her and removed her shoes. Barefoot, she padded quietly in to the house.

“Hello?” she called, “It’s Alice.”

“Alice, in here,” she heard in reply. She turned left at the voice and entered the lounge room.

Across the room was Shane, partially reclined in a lay-z-boy chair. His plastered leg was propped up on the foot rest.

“Shane,” she said with a smile, crossing the room. “Wow, it has been so long.” She sat on the edge of the coffee table next to his chair and faced him. She drew in a long breath as she took in his face. He was familiar yet he was a stranger.

“Alice,” he extended one arm out and pulled her in to a hug. “God, look at you!” he said as he released her. “How long has it been?”

“About 15 years!” she replied with a laugh.

“15 years. Wow. Holy smokes. How are you? You’ve barely changed.”

“Oh, please!” Alice laughed, sitting back down on the edge of the table. “I’m at least an inch taller, I have more style, and I no longer have vampire teeth,” she said, giving him a wide man-made grin. Shane laughed.

“No, seriously,” he said with a smile, “You look great. You look happy.”

“Well, thank you. And I am. How are you? What have you done to yourself?” she asked, motioning towards the thick cast that covered his leg from thigh to toes.

“Car accident,” he replied soberly. “Drunk driver. I made it out alive, he didn’t.”

“Oh, Shane. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“I’m just so glad to be here, to be honest. And I could be so much worse off right now. All my other injuries have healed well, it’s just my leg that has been an ongoing issue. I’m supposed to be on bed rest for another month.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for, right? So you can rest.”

“Haha, right! And to keep me company. My mom is great and all but it’ll be nice to have someone of the same generation to chat with.” Alice laughed.

“I totally understand,” she said with a smile. “Let me get a few jobs under way and then we’ll chat some more.” Shane nodded his approval.

Alice wanted to stay and catch up with her old friend but she would’ve been naive to think she could get paid just to chat. She started in the laundry and put a load of washing on, then moved through to the kitchen to wash the few dishes in the sink. She popped her head through the lounge door way and peeked in on Shane. He was watching a football replay.

Alice moved through to Shane’s bedroom. She pulled open the blinds and let in the gorgeous midday light. She stripped the sheets off the bed and bundled them in to a ball.

“Linen cupboard?” she called out.

“In the hall” came a reply.

She pulled out a fresh set of sheets and pillowcases and remade the bed. She set the covers back so Shane could easily climb straight in to bed later tonight. Alice found these tasks simple and easy. Having been the only female in a male dominated household growing up a lot of the household upkeep had fallen on her. Her father had worked so much in order to keep her and her brothers clothed, fed and housed, that Alice had become the Mother Hen. And it naturally flowed out of her in these situations, too. She liked feeling helpful and needed.

Alice walked back in to the lounge and Shane looked up from the television and smiled at her.

“Have you eaten?” she asked.

“Not since breakfast,” he replied.

“Let me put something together, then,” she said, wandering off to the kitchen. She opened the fridge and found it well stocked. Shane’s mom must’ve gone shopping before she’d left, she thought to herself.

“Oh, wow. Alice. Thank you so much.” Shane turned off the tv and pulled himself up a little straighter as Alice entered the room carrying a hot omelete with toast. She placed the plate down on the coffee table and took Shane’s arm, helping to sit him up. She placed the plate on his lap and handed him the cutlery. She went back to the kitchen and returned with a tall glass of orange juice, and placed it on the coffee table next to his chair.

“This is really great, Alice. Thank you.”

“No problem at all,” she replied with a smile as she sat down on the couch across from him. She watched him devour the food in record time.

“That was amazing. Compliments to the chef.”

Alice laughed, stood, and took the plate and cutlery away. She washed them, and the frying pan, in the kitchen and returned to the lounge.

“Sit, please,” Shane said, motioning towards the couch. Alice sat down, curling her legs up underneath her. “I’m so thankful you’re here,” he began, shifting in his seat to face her better. “It’s really nice to connect with you again.” His brown eyes were warm and friendly. His small, crooked smile was just as sweet now as it was so many years ago.

Alice couldn’t help but feel comfortable around him.

“I feel the same. We were such good friends, way back when, and I’ve missed you”, Alice said, a blush warming her cheeks, “and the guys,” she continued quickly. “Are you still in touch with them?” Alice asked.

“On and off, yeah,” Shane said, “A couple of us meet up once a month or so to watch a game on tv or down a few drinks at a bar.”

“Sounds fun,” Alice replied with a smile.

“You should come next time. They’d love to see you.”

“They would? How would you know?” she joked with him.

“Oh, you know… The topic sways to you on occasion,” Shane said, a blush rising up his neck.

“It does?!” Alice asked, surprised. “What about me?”

“Oh, nothing really. Just that we miss you!”

“Okay, cool. Well, count me in next time, then,” Alice said with a grin.

“There’s a game on next week, and since I’m practically incapacitated the guys will likely come here to watch it.”

“That’s perfect, since I know where you live,” Alice chuckled and gave a small wink. The washing machine started to chime a merry tune, signalling that the load was finished.

“I’ll sort that,” Alice said, getting up from the couch.

The next few days went by quickly. Alice spent the middle portion of each day with Shane, helping him around his house, helping him to recover. Each morning she dedicated to herself, often running 5 miles before breakfast. When she was out pounding the pavement she felt carefree and had time to embrace the beauty of her surroundings.

There really was nowhere better than home. Each evening she spent time with her dad, and her brothers when they came by. A few nights per week she cooked; Her dad insisted she not but she knew that he was only trying to save her any hassle. As soon as she set the home cooked meals on the table and saw the smile on her father’s face she knew it was what he needed.

Game night came around fast and Alice felt nervous about the impending childhood reunion. Her reunion with Shane had gone fine, but that was because Alice was better one-on-one. She struggled in large groups. She tried to remind herself that these were her old buddies. It would all be fine. She dressed appropriately for the occasion; A blue fitted long sleeve tshirt, denim shorts and Converse clad feet. She let her hair dry naturally after her shower, and she left her wavy hair fall untethered at her shoulders. She had told her dad not to wait up tonight, as she wasn’t sure how long the game would run for. He’d be watching it, too, though, from the comfort of his favourite chair.

Alice stopped by the liquor store on the way to Shane’s house and bought a six pack of bottled beer. She would be driving home, so she’d limit herself to only two drinks. The guys could have the rest.

Alice pulled up outside Shane’s house. She had been here earlier in the day, as usual, and had done an extra careful tidy up and preparation for tonight. She’d laid out bowls and unopened bags of crisps and peanuts for Shane to put out later. There were two cars in the driveway already. She parked on the street and walked over the berm to the front door.

Letting herself inside she slipped off her shoes and padded through to the lounge. She spotted Shane in his chair and two large male heads above the back of the couch. Shane’s eyes darted up when he spotted Alice walk in and he grinned widely. The two heads turned in succession, showing the smiling faces of Hayden and Brad.

“Alice!!” they sang out in unison. They both darted up off the couch and came towards her.

“Hi guys,” Alice replied shyly. Hayden grabbed Alice around the waist and lifted her in to the air, swinging her around once.

“Still our little Alice,” he said, planting her squarely on the floor.

“Wish I could say the same about you two,” she replied, poking Brad in the stomach and touselling Hayden’s hair. Both were men, now, of course. Bearded, tattooed men.