REVISING THE CATCH-UP PLAN
Alabama is a place where dreams die of dehydration on a scorching gravel road. Mac knows. Her summer Catch-Up Plan – a pre-college escape route from her boring, high school persona – lies shriveled up and lifeless on the Gulf Coast shore.
Mac’s been forced to leave her Minnesota home to stay with distant relatives, an unexpected penance for her younger brother’s mistakes. Her coping strategy is distraction. But cleaning toilets at the local high school and hauling sticky kids on her back are doing nothing to ease her loneliness and worry.
Then Mac meets Beau, a dimple-cheeked Southern boy who offers to show her around. Beau suggests Mac’s abandoned summer plan can still happen – with him as her sidekick. Their adventures unveil to Mac an unexpected charm in her rural surroundings and once-distant relatives. She has a renewed hope for her summer…despite the family grudge against Beau that means their relationship must stay secret.
But when sudden, separate events shake her family both here and at home, Mac fears the people she loves may never recover. Both families need help, and she’s faced with a decision: Return home to her parents and brother, or stay and help the family she’s grown to care for in Alabama. The effects of her choice will reveal if The Catch-Up Plan served its purpose, or if she’s destined to remain the dull and ordinary teenager she sees in her reflection.
Five days in Alabama and I’d already discovered three undeniable truths:
1. Pale Minnesota skin was not made for Southern sun. Two minutes in direct light and I was as pink and sticky as State Fair cotton candy.
2. “Sweet Tea” would be better named “Sugary, Delicious Goodness.” How had I gone seventeen years without this amazing beverage?
3. One week and a thousand miles was not enough time or space to erase an unwelcome memory.
I pushed my legs fiercely against the front porch, propelling the old rocking chair into a creaky sway of motion as I tried, once again, to forget that night. My glass of Sugary, Delicious Goodness was sweating against my palm, forcing me to grip it tightly as I took an oversized gulp. I closed my eyes and imagined I was sitting on our deck back home, my long-anticipated summer plans still awaiting me.
The sound of a truck crunching onto the gravel driveway pulled me into the present. I was not at home. I was in po-dunk Alabama, staying with my great aunt and uncle who I hadn’t seen since I was a toddler.
“Hi there, MacKayla,” Aunt Shirley called, smiling and scooting her plump body out the truck’s passenger door. Joe turned off the engine and nodded a silent greeting, the large bald strip across his head shiny as he unloaded several large bags. I scurried to help, the former Girl Scout in me unable to stand by and let a seventy-five-year-old haul groceries on his own. Well, that and my mom’s voice in my head: “Please be good to Shirley and Joe, okay?” Like I was going to turn into some lazy snot the moment I left her sight.
Joe winked and nodded toward the final bag, which was still sitting in the truck. I scooped it up and followed him and Shirley into their house.
When the screen door slammed behind me my eyes shifted among the scores of framed photos on the family room wall to the two that were familiar. The first was of me - my arms crossed as I leaned against an oak tree and smiled broadly for my senior picture. My curly hair had actually been under control that day - pretty much a miracle, and something that would never happen in this humidity. The photo beside mine was of Rosty, my brother. It was his sophomore picture, and it was eerily accurate while also feeling completely wrong. Rosty was smiling against a soft blue background, his brown hair a little shaggy and his eyes looking slightly off to the side. The photos had thrown me since the first time I entered the house - I had no idea Mom and Dad sent our pictures to Shirley each year. I had nearly forgotten I even had relatives in Alabama until I was informed I’d be living with them for the summer.
Shirley was bustling around the kitchen, simultaneously putting away groceries and beginning to prep for dinner.
“Can I help?” I asked. I’d discovered quickly that Shirley was a fantastic cook, and I could use all the help I could get in that realm. My culinary repertoire consisted of boxed mac n’ cheese, microwave vegetables and frozen pizzas. Good thing my dorm this fall was attached to a dining hall.
“Of course,” Shirley chirped, putting an arm around me and pulling me into a side hug as she patted my shoulder. My body felt stiff and awkward against her embrace. She was far more touchy-feely than my family back home.
Shirley put me to work peeling sweet potatoes over the sink. I glanced out the kitchen window to see Joe mowing the small lawn. It seemed like Shirley and Joe were always working. During the day they were at the general store they owned, and in the evenings they split their time between house work and yard work. I supposed it wasn’t that unusual, except that most people I knew who were their age were retired. Their lifestyle was a far cry from rounds of golf and shopping for grandkid toys.
In half an hour a full spread of baked chicken, sweet potato mash, corn bread, fresh green beans and watermelon slices was laid out across the kitchen table, a pitcher of sweet tea in the center. Joe and I sat down as Shirley began loading our plates with massive heaps of food.
“How was your day, MacKayla?” Shirley asked, her cheeks rosy as she handed me a heavy plate.
“It was good,” I shrugged, pausing as I tried to find the courage to bring up a topic I’d been mulling over all day. Just spit it out. “But…I think maybe I’d like to get a job.”
“What are you doing down here for the summer?” he asked. I momentarily froze, looking at him but unable to put the words together. The terrible scene I kept trying to forget flashed through my brain. I suddenly felt tears welling up in my eyes, so I blinked quickly to hold them back.
“Whoa, are you okay?” Beau asked. He leaned forward and reached across the table to grab my hand. I closed my eyes for a second and focused on the warmth of his skin against mine. When I opened them again I looked into his eyes and smiled.
“It has to do with my brother…” I said softly. “But I don’t think I’m ready to talk about it yet.”
“That’s cool,” Beau said, still gripping my hand. “Then tell me about something else. Anything you want.”
I thought for a second, wanting to tell him something meaningful. Then I had an idea.
“Can I tell you about what I was going do this summer? Before I came here?” I asked. I took another bite of cake as Beau nodded encouragingly.
I started with soccer – the team I’d played with the last three years and our determination to have the best season yet. I talked about how it was strange that I’d already played my last competitive soccer game, even though I hadn’t known it at the time. Beau chimed in that he played football in high school, and the competition was something he missed.
“So what else?” Beau said. “What were your other summer plans?"
I grinned and began telling him about Dom and our plans for the summer. I explained how she’d construed the Catch-Up Plan to get me ready for freshman year of college.
“The Ketchup Plan?” Beau asked. “Like, Heinz Fifty-Seven?”
“No!” I laughed. “Catch-up. Like, make up for lost time.”
“And why would you need to do that?”
I blushed. I hadn’t quite thought this part through when I began the story, and now wasn’t sure I wanted Beau to know how boring I’d been in high school. But I couldn’t stop now.
“Dom thinks I didn’t live it up enough,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “She thinks there are experiences I’ve missed out on, and she wants…well, wanted, me to have them before college.”
Beau’s eyebrows raised in curiosity. “I like this,” he said, a mischievous half-grin crossing his lips. “What was on the list?”
I thought back to the night Dom created the plan, how I watched over her shoulder as she wrote a bulleted list of activities in her curly handwriting:
· Sneak out of the house
· Go to a keg party
· Ask a guy on a date
· Learn to like coffee
· Go skinny dipping
· Get really drunk
· Go to a concert
· Take a road trip to Canada
· Make out in the back of a movie theater (That one Dom added after I made her cross off “Have Sex.” I was pretty sure there were about a hundred steps I needed to take with a guy before being ready for that.)
I told Beau everything but the last item, which I didn’t feel like explaining.
“Wow,” he said, his eyes big. “You really didn’t get out much.”
“No,” I muttered, feeling my cheeks turn red as I covered my face in embarrassment.
“It’s okay,” Beau said, pulling my hands gently down to the table. “Honestly, I haven’t done all those things.”
“Which ones haven’t you done?” I asked, hoping it was more than one.
“Now that’s something I’m not ready to share,” he smiled coyly, leaning back in his seat as he pushed his empty dessert plate to the side.
I scraped my plate with my fork, scooping up the last bit of frosting.
“You know,” Beau said, “You could still do the plan.”
I licked my fork and shrugged. “I don’t know. It wouldn’t be much fun by myself.”
“I’ll do it with you.”
The “ting” of my fork hitting the plate – apparently I’d dropped it – sent me scrambling to keep the whole place setting from falling into my lap. When I regained my composure, Beau was calmly resting his elbows on the table, watching me.
“You’d want to do that?” I asked, feeling my eyes grow wide.
"Sure I would. In fact, why don’t we start with number three?”
I scrolled through my mental list and felt the cake jump in my stomach when I reached number three: Ask a guy on a date. I looked across at Beau, who was still leaning toward me, his face full of anticipation.
Don’t think, just do it. “Do you want to go out with me?” I blurted, my voice louder than I planned.
“I’d love to,” Beau said, feigning surprise. “When?”