Ice on my head. The walls are spinning. Eyes swollen. Haze. Where am I?
Someone is holding my hand. It’s familiar, soft, and smells like lemon soap. Mom. I want to get up but the ice will slip. I push past the swelling and look at her.
“Oh, Charlie, thank God. You’re awake.” Mom’s getting all frantically happy, breathing again and holding on stronger. I’m so confused.
“What?” My voice is nearly lost.
“That terrible girl, Dahlia, literally threw you across the hall. You hit your head and were knocked out at once. And then she kept punching you and oh I can’t stop imagining what happened…”
“Mom, I’m fine.” I’m determined to sit up but she keeps me down.
“You need to rest, Charlie. You have all the time you need. Your father’s in the office with Dahlia’s parents.”
“Oh. What is he going to say?”
Mom looks at me uncertainly. “He was very angry when a teacher called him. I can’t stand to hear him yell, so I’m staying with you until he’s done.”
Can’t stand to hear him yell? He’s yelled at her before? I think. But I ignore it. “I want to know what he’s saying.” Blinking back the pain, I struggle to get out of the stiff bed and gingerly pad down to the office where I don’t even have to open the door to hear my father. I don’t go inside; instead, I eavesdrop.
“You know, I though Chicago was a nice place, but apparently people here are jerks and don’t know how to raise their own kids. Have you even talked to your daughter about this?” I cringe at his tone.
Mumble, mumble. I catch phrases like “we never knew…” and “we’re very sorry…” I wonder where Dahlia is. Detention, maybe.
My father suddenly yanks the door open and sees a very unsurprising me standing in front of him. “You won’t have to worry about that girl anymore.”
Detention forever? That’s not likely.
He says, “She got a suspension. For the rest of the week. I figured she deserved to be expelled, but there was a fraction in the rules, something about no evidence.”
My eyes widens. That’s four days from school, and then the weekend, so six days without her. That’s not so bad.
“Ah, Chelsea. Get his stuff, we’re going home.” My father grabs my backpack while Mom takes my books. The spine of one textbook is severed. Could she possibly have used it to hit me?
On the couch, Mom gives me a new pack of ice. There’s a growing bump. About the size of a golf ball, above my left ear. It must’ve hurt because it’s pounding like crazy now that I’m finally settling down.
Crystal flings her sequined purse next to me and starts rambling about her day, and then she realizes something’s different with me. My parents leave the room to go cook an early dinner.
“Oh my God, what happened?” She sits down gently beside me, her voice quiet and soft. I remove the ice. “Wha- God. She did this, didn’t she?” I nod. “Wow.”
I’m curious on why she’s being so nice. “You’re my little brother. You’re my only since we lost Trevor before he was born. I wish I had known him, so you’re the only one I’ve got. I still care about you, you know.”
“Then why don’t you act like it?” I’m astonished she brought up Mom’s miscarriage and that they were going to name the baby Trevor. We don’t talk about him much because he was supposed to be born three years before me, with Crystal being older by a year. One day, he wasn’t there anymore. Something wrong with what Mom was doing, or she didn’t swallow enough vitamins. I don’t know, I’m not a woman and knowing this isn’t vital to me. “It would’ve been better if I had an idea you liked me sometimes.”
Crystal sighs. “It’s hard for me to express emotions. I can never find the right words. That’s why I got into designing. But I’ll try harder.”
“I’m glad you’re concerned about me, Crystal. Makes me feel worth it.”
“Well of course, buddy. If Trevor was here, I’d have two annoying little brothers.” We laugh. “Get better. I’ve got homework to do.”
I guess big sisters can be alright sometimes.
Friday my room is once again in boxes. Dahlia’s suspension isn’t going to keep me safe. My father’s only choice is to move, this time to Scranton, Pennsylvania. I’ve seen clips of it from The Office when I flipped channels during commercials. It’s definitely a lot better than Chicago.
Crystal and I are relieved when we hear this is our last move, but then we remember how far away we are from home and grow sad again. My I-Pod dies along the way so Crystal shares her music with me. It’s the most we bonded in years. And now the reason why she never acts so sisterly to me is clear. It’s because I never acted like a brother to her. We just avoided each other like the movies where the siblings never get along. That’s how society made it. And that’s sad.
I work on a letter to Gabriella, explaining the whole Dahlia thing and where I am now and how much I miss her. I wish her the best about her recent breakup with Carson, secretly glad that they split. She said it was mutual. And now that means I have one more chance to be with her.
My sister and I finish the school year with average grades, not a huge accomplishment but at least neither of us flunked out. The kids are nice and some of them know my story so they don’t bother me much. As much as it actually is lovely here, the snow in the winter and the warm breeze in the summer, I’m counting down the months until I can return to Clovis permanently. I miss Gabriella.
So the summer going into twelfth grade, I’ve been constantly writing her as if we’re just one block away, never running out of words to say. It takes three days to get mail from California, and in those three days I drive myself crazy by playing Sims or taking pictures.
One afternoon I was folding clothes with Mom, occasionally encountering a pair of Crystal’s undergarments, and I toss them aside. Mom laughs, and I smile. I decided to bring up a question since no one’s around.
“Can Gabriella come over for the weekend, when it’s my birthday?”
She slips a hanger in one of Crystal’s designs. “You will be eighteen.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that. Please, she can share a room with Crystal. I just want to see her.”
“Why do you want to see her so bad? It’s only been three years.”
“Three years! God, listen to yourself! Three years is like three million years.”
“I didn’t think you still talked to her.” Mom picks up one of my jeans. “Thought you grew out of it.”
So close to ripping my hair out. “I buy stamps every Saturday. I write to her every day. Is that ‘growing out of it’?”
She looks at me confusedly. “Well, eighteen’s a special birthday. I figure you can spend it with your family.”
Frustration passes off my lips. “I’ve spent the last three years with you, and not a second with her. I need my friend, Mom. She’s my only friend. I thought you knew that.” Heat rises in my voice. “Forget it. You obviously don’t care about my sanity.” I grab my clothes, folded and not folded, leave the living room, and dump them on my bed. How could she forget that Gabriella is my only friend?
The big weekend is here. I arrive home, stunned to see several bright red suitcases at the bottom of the stairs. Curious, I enter the kitchen and someone throws their arms around me.
I’m enveloped in the scent of mandarins and children’s shampoo, black straight hair tickling my face, tears that are both ours streaming down our cheeks, all things that were once sepia is now color again. Gabriella.
“Charlie!” she squeals, her sweet voice practically the greatest sound I’ve ever heard.
“Is this really you? I mean, your hair is straight! You never once straightened when I was in Clovis,” I notice.
“Got tired of the curls. It’s chemically straightened. God, it’s been like an eternity since we‘ve last seen each other!” We still haven’t let go of each other. I don’t plan on it.
“How long are you here?” Please be forever, I think.
“I’ll leave Monday night since there’s no school for Columbus Day, and I traded shifts with someone to cover me. So I’m yours all weekend,” she says with a smile.
“Well, let’s go catch up.” I tug her hand and lead her to my room, ignoring the suitcases.
Gabriella thinks all guys back in Clovis are jerks. The kids from kindergarten are still the same and some are top honors, like herself. The tree house is slowly decaying by the pictures are up and faded and mottled with sunspots, and sometimes she sleeps there to remember me.
We talk about Dahlia, Bay, and Carson, reliving scary and fun moments, wishing I was back home, wishing it was a different time and place. All the while she’s leaning against the wall and I’m recounting our tales, and I can’t help but notice how beautiful she is. We’ve really grown up in three years. I’ve developed a likeness for soft v-necks and her clothes are more sophisticated. But I know her better than that. Tomorrow she’ll be in a tank and sweats, no makeup and natural. It suites her best.
The garage door opens and my parents come in. I wait at the top if the stairs with Gabriella, hardly containing my smile. They look up and smile too.
“Gabriella! It’s so good to see you,” Mom calls. Gabriella goes downstairs to hug her and my father. I guess I have to go too. “Was your flight okay?”
They knew she was coming? I think. Maybe that’s why Mom was difficult a few months ago. Wanted to surprise me. “There were some very interesting Sky Mall magazines,” she grins. How I missed that grin. “Thank you for paying for it.”
“Not a problem. Charles here is always talking about you, and we’re glad to make him happy again.” My father turns to me. “Look at him! You couldn’t wipe that off his face even if a chicken hits me!”
What a weird joke for him to make. I don’t care though, Gabriella is here.
“We’ve set up an extra bed in Crystal’s room. She’s still at volleyball practice at the college but she should be home soon. Why don’t we chat over here?” Mom takes her to the couch, basically ignoring me this time. I plop down next to Gabriella, with nothing to do or say but be mesmerized with her voice I haven’t heard in so long.
It is like old times. It’s comfortable, being with her and my parents. There’s never an awkward moment. Crystal even treats Gabriella as if she’s a cousin or something.
The next day I take her around Scranton, show her to my school and drive on random streets and eventually we wind up at the park. There’s young kids milling around on the playground, shrieking loudly with joy.
“Remember when we were that little?” Gabriella says lightly, pulling me to a patch of emerald green and sitting down.
“Wish it could happen again,” I murmur.
I recall the day I knew I loved her. Our dads finished building the tree house and left us to explore. Gabriella was absolutely amazed by it, constantly shouting out ideas that could make it more like home. I’d agree, added my own suggestions, and said we could work on it tomorrow. We settled down on the edge, Gabriella on the left side of the entrance and me on the other. The world was suddenly silent. No sounds, nothing to distract us. The sunlight was basking on her in an incredible angle; her skin was glowing like polished diamonds. There was nothing left to see but Gabriella’s perfect eyes.
She scooted closer to me, resting her head on my shoulder, her curly hair practically in my face. She fell asleep, breathing so quietly, sitting so still. I could smell flowers from below us and spot lazy bees float through the forest, birds flying from branch to branch. And even though she was off in her own world, I realized she was my own. There was no one else I could possibly love, no one else who could save me. And even though she was deep in her sleep, I still whispered, “I love you.”
That’s how it is now. Gabriella curls up beside me, her eyes closed, the sun resting on her body like a warm blanket. It’s impossible to let go.
Gabriella greets me at the bottom of the stairs in a sapphire dress, sparkling silver jewels coated all over it. “You look beautiful,” I say, hardly believing she’s real.
“Well, wait ‘til you see me eat. I’m starving,” she counters with a laugh.
We get into my car and head to meet my parents at Casa Bella, where of course I order my favorite meal. Gabriella seems to know exactly what she wants and actually orders before me. I glance at her and chuckle, in which she returns.
“Gabriella, how is senior year treating you?” my father asks.
“I’m working on being valedictorian, of course. And I found out my passion. Tennis. My coach says if I keep it up, I could get a scholarship to CSU in Sacramento.”
“Oh, wow. Sacramento. That’s not too far from home.”
“Not much. I’d come home during holiday breaks and such.” Gabriella twirls fettuccini noodles on her fork. “I’m excited. A scholarship would be great.”
I stare at her. Tennis? I’ve never seen her attempting to play a sport.
“What about you, Charlie?”
“Um.” Do I really know what I want to do? I know there’s photography, but that rarely pays well. But I remember one day in biology we learned about birds. I was fascinated by the wings and how they can fly anywhere they want to go. But what are they called? “Ornithology,” I reply, surprised I knew the right word. Everyone looks at me confusedly. “Study of birds.”
“That’s unusual,” Mom says.
“I like birds. There’s something about them that draws me in. The way they take flight, the color of their feathers. It’s interesting to me.”
“That’s not… what we planned.” My father frowns. I hate the scruff on his jaws. Makes him look old.
Gabriella rubs my shoulder. She must sense I’m bothered by him. I take it to a higher level. “I should be able to do something I love. And if you take that away from me, you‘ll be sorry.”
“Charles,” my father warns.
I press on. “Mom didn’t get to keep her bakery. Crystal probably won’t go into designing clothes. You want her to be a nurse, and you barely let her play volleyball. I’m breaking the mold. I’m going to do what I want. You can’t stop me.”
“Who’s going to pay?” he argues smugly.
“Myself. I don’t want your money.”
“Charlie!” Mom exclaims, upset I’ve started a fight in a public place.
“I guess I’m not allowed to have an opinion.” I grab my coat from the chair. “Come on, Gabriella. We’ll see you at home.” The raviolis stay on the table, half-eaten. There’s nothing left for her to take.
In the car, she turns to me and holds my hand. “I’m proud of you. For standing up to him.”
“He doesn’t understand how much Mom loved her bakery. She always came home smeared in flour and icing, and she didn’t care. That was the only time she was really happy,” I explain.
“Maybe she’ll start another one here.”
“I doubt it. She lost it after we moved. She doesn’t bake anything anymore. It’s all store-bought.”
“Well, we’ll cook with her tomorrow. I miss her cupcakes.” Gabriella grins, and instantly I feel calm. Her hand is still in mine. Before it gets too awkward, that she could realize I have feelings for her, I start the car and use both hands for the steering wheel.
Outside my room, Gabriella hesitates. “Can I stay in your room? Crystal keeps the light on all night, and it annoys me.”
“Probably drawing her next outfit. Sure, there’s space. I’ll go get your mattress.” I start to the other end of the hall, until the urgency in her voice stops me.
“Yeah?” I’m afraid to turn around.
“Any chance there’s space in your bed?”
My head is spinning. Did she really just ask that?
A weird noise escapes my throat. “Sure. I guess.”
Gabriella seems to remember something. “I mean, if you’d rather get the mattress, I’m fine. It just hurts my back sometimes.”
Oh, if that’s the real reason. “It is rather old, after all. We used it for camping a while ago.”
I slowly linger back to her and open my door. She looks down at herself. “Right, I have to change.” A little giggle comes out. She returns in a pink and orange striped set of pj’s. Her long legs are toned, and that must be from all the pacing in tennis. She’s so tan, as compared to three years ago. But really, she’s just become more beautiful than before.
My bed is pushed against the window, where I get the best view of the dark sky. There are so many stars outside. I climb in, inches away from the wall, and Gabriella crawls besides me, inches from the edge. There’s a slight middle between us, just a gap, that I know I will fill in a matter of minutes. Her bare skin caresses mine, and I’m trying my best to breathe normally. Her eyes are locked on me, glimmering in the moonlight. All I can do is attempt to stop the insane whirring in my mind and breathe.
Does she know I love her? Does she know that she’s all I can think about?
Her eyes flutter to a close. She hums something, a sweet melody to a song I’ve never heard of. When that stops, I know I can move in. I take her into my arms and fall asleep in the crook of her neck.
I do the same I say every night, with or without her.
“I love you.”