My report card is in Mom’s hand when I come home from school. She frowns at it, and I know something’s disappointing.
“Charlie, if you want to get into a good college, you’ll need more extracurriculars. Maybe join a photography club?”
“We don’t have one. I’ve checked.” I pull out the milk from the fridge, see that’s it’s about three gulps from being empty, and drink it straight from the can. “I can’t imagine what else to join, honestly.”
Mom starts listing a bunch of sports that I can never see myself participating in, until she mentions cross country. There are times when I had to bike to catch a sunset, and my legs were tired and sore. It’s worth a shot, because squatting for pictures won’t cut it.
“Yeah, I’ll try that.” And I won’t have to talk to people while I run. Fantastic.
“If you sign up tomorrow you can be in the meet on Thursday,” she reminds me.
Gabriella’s letter mentions the missing shirt. It’s hidden under my pillow, clearly out of sight from anyone who walks in. I lie and say perhaps Crystal stole it, even though she only ever wears her designs. I don’t want to let go of her scent, that last trace of her in my room. I further reply that I’m joining cross country and there’s only two more weeks until I get on a plane to Clovis.
On Thursday I wait at the start line, glancing around and seeing kids are actually serious about winning. Me, I’m going through this as if it’s a simple jog. The gun blows and kids push past me, disappearing in the woods.
The rhythm of my feet pounding on the forest floor, the short, quick breaths escaping my nose, the crunch of dead leaves as I stomp on them. The trees blur behind me, brown whirling a nonexistent color. I badly want my camera. But I need to finish the race, need to finish so I can retrieve my camera from the bus and return to this unknown world.
My legs push faster, carrying me to an opening where I see yellow lines, people on the sidewalks, cheers and chants. The sun pours back in, warm and inviting, and I run even faster. I want my camera. I need it.
Four other runners are before me when I hit the yellow stripe on the ground. Fifth place. How is this possible? I thought I was much more behind than the others. Then I realize.
Somewhere along the line I got distracted by the forest and took a shortcut. I don’t confess to the officials I cheated because it’ll waste my time in getting the camera. Someone hands me a yellow ribbon and I sprint out of there, hoping I can get to the scene in time.
For the next two meets I do this. Finishing the race as quickly as I can and my place soars. I came close to being first but got preoccupied with a bird resting on a branch right next to the line and tripped over a big pebble. But I didn’t care. I got the picture before other kids could trample me and disturb the bird.
My father’s pleased with this recent activity. He keeps pressing me that I could get a scholarship, but I don’t want to be a runner. I want to learn about birds. Whenever he brings it up I just growl and then he drops it.
We finally meet Ian officially. Crystal invited him over on Christmas Eve for dinner. I can tell my parents approve of him, but Ian still bothers me. There’s no flask present tonight though.
“I can’t believe you guys have been together for two years now. That’s incredible,” Mom compliments.
“We see each other a lot. And I love her ambition to be a fashion designer.” Ian looks at Crystal with lovey eyes, and I’m trying my best not to puke. He’s acting. Unless he’s actually sober.
“And I love watching him play left field and making all the star catches,” she nudges his elbow. They quickly kiss and I avert my gaze to the rolls.
“Remember how we met, David?” Mom turns to my father. “We were in Home Ec together. You thought it was absolutely pointless until that old Yules paired us up.”
“Yes, and you couldn’t stop talking about fondant and sewing together pillows for orphans.” I’ve actually never heard this story. “And I fell in love with your motivation to open a bakery.”
Expletives explode in my mind. If he had remembered that then we wouldn’t have moved in the first place. Mom wouldn’t have lost her calling and she would still bake delicious brownies and pastry items every Sunday. For one second I consider just getting up to leave, but something in my parents eyes begs me to stay. I see it. Certain love.
She sacrificed herself for her family. She knew that moving was the only way Crystal and I would stop fighting, have our own rooms, keep my father happy. Even if she could no longer return to who she was, she built herself back up again. Mom’s been smiling a lot more lately, even singing when she cleans the bathrooms. And all I did was wonder why.
“Charlie, pass the corn, please.” My father extends his hand. For once I forgive him. Just for the fact he made Mom happy by remembering how they met.
Snow falls heavily as I make my way to my car, yelling to Mom I’ll be safe and I won’t get attacked by strangers. I’m just so excited to be finally going back to Clovis. I am afraid, though. What if it’s not what I thought it’d be? I ached for it every day, for the familiar surroundings, and willed myself to bear with Scranton for a few more months.
The sun glows on the road, and I check the clock. I have time. I get out, snap a few shots, and breathe in the winter air. It won’t be precipitating in California any time soon. It rarely did. I never saw snow until Chicago. My mind takes a different trail. Dahlia. I can feel those bruises being punched into me, one by one, all over my back, my arms, my shoulders. The impact of her hand striking my face. My breath taken away time after time, struggling to resurface.
I shudder. Best not to think of it.
I rush inside the terminal and board my flight, being the last one on. Fortunately I get the window seat and gaze outside, flakes spiraling over bare fields, gray sky stretching forever. I count down the hours til I see Gabriella’s beautiful face.
Pulling my bag from underneath my feet, I reach inside for a small black box. I open it, and a solid gold chain holds a branch of two birds facing each other, being cutesy but it has so much symbolism all at once. A girl a grade below me creates jewelry and custom made this for me. Gabriella’s going to love it.
I unfold the message I hid under the necklace and reread it, looking for imperfections. But honestly, if I was a girl I’d love for someone to say it about me.
The birds, they’ve escaped the odds. They found their way back together again. It’s as if they never left the branch they’ve always called home.
Gabriella, you are my home. I couldn’t stand to be without you for all these years. It’s like I never breathed once, and when I saw you all the color in the world floods back in. It’s a hurricane I feel inside my chest, to remember us as kids and the days I spent lost in your beautiful eyes.
I love you. Since our fathers finished our tree house, I love you. Since chasing you on the playground in a game of freeze tag, I love you. Since making weird creatures out of messy Play-doh, I love you. The way you smile, the way your eyes light up, the way the sun glows on you, the way your hand touched mine when we were playing in the sand at recess. The school lunches we’d trade our snacks. You’re my angel, my piece of Heaven. I can’t believe I met you. It’s fate our parents knew each other. Fate that I’m only three months older. Fate that we became best friends.
I don’t know who I am without you. You take my breath away whether you’re with me or not. Do you know how many nights I look up at the stars, hoping you’re doing the same? I’ve memorized this one spot and every night I return to it. I can never tear away from it. Do you know how many nights I wish you could be back in my arms, like the night of my birthday? I miss that adrenaline rush, that spark I feel shooting through me when I even think of you.
I love you. There’s no one that could possibly replace you, I swear it. No one can’t be nearly as special as you, nearly as beautiful as you. It’s you, always.
We’re birds that were separated but now we’re back again. I promise, I’m not letting go. Never again.
Even my eyes get a little watery. The man next to me stares at me, and I glare out the window, trying to avoid conversation. I can still feel his eyes on me.
The plane finally touches the ground and I hurry to be the first one off. I can’t wait to see the look on her face when I give this to her later. At the baggage claim my bag is first out and I’m ready to leave. But I’m still standing there, waiting and waiting for her to arrive.
Where is she? Where could she be? Maybe tennis ran late, but why would she be at practice on a school break, especially the day after Christmas…
It hits me like a house of bricks that landed on me. Squarely in the chest, my throat closes up, lump building on top of each other. My eyes grow hot and it stings when I try to keep them open.
She forgot me.