“Charlie! Charlie!” Gabriella dashes to me, clearly trying to stop me from turning away. She takes a big breath and finally explains why she’s so late. “Carson wanted to fill up on gas, and we couldn’t find enough money, and…”
The rest is a haze. Carson? Is she back with him? My gift. I can’t tell her now.
“… he’s waiting in the car. You’ve got your stuff? Here, I’ll help you.” I snatch my suitcase out of her hands. Why am I being snappy?
I sit in the back while Gabriella and Carson are up front, tossing questions and giggling and bartering couple-y smiles. It makes me sick. Unfortunately it takes forty-five minutes to get to her house.
Gabriella kisses him goodbye and my heart sobs.
She places my stuff in their guest room, the same room we made forts in and played like dragons. “I’m sure you’re tired from the air.”
Actually, I’m not. I was all charged up to give her the necklace, but I don’t see that happening. My energy is drained from seeing them being way too close. Now I feel really nauseous. Like someone kept sucker-punching my stomach. Dahlia.
“A bit, yeah,” I pretend to yawn. “See you in the morning.”
There’s something in her expression that’s disappointed. She expected more. “Night.” Gabriella exits the room and I hear her padding up the stairs and her door shuts. I’m just furious, with her and myself. How could I let myself think that night she felt the same as me? That just because we slept in the same bed it couldn’t be merely platonic? I thought she was done with Carson. I guess she can’t wait on me forever, or keep anticipating that I’ll finally confess I love her.
My extra chance was stolen.
Gabriella has to work since she couldn’t get anyone to trade shifts, so I walked around our neighborhood and stand in front of my old house. The blue paint is fading, the basketball hoop’s net frayed and old, and the porch lamp is on. Someone must be home.
Do it,I tell myself. Ring the doorbell.
To my surprise a young girl answers. “Mommy!” An older woman appears. “Yes?”
Loss of words. “I hope this doesn’t sound too creepy, but I lived here about four years ago. I was wondering if I could see what my old bedroom looked like.”
Her wrinkles define around her eyes. “Of course.”
It’s pink. Unicorns, rainbows, stuffed animals and plastic dolls scattered on the floor. The wall that separated Crystal and me is knocked down. The room is larger than I supposed. The girl’s clothes peek out of the short dresser and socks trail to the closet. Butterflies adorned the wall and Dora stickers plastered on her bed frame.
If she was my sister, I wouldn’t have survived.
“Would you like to see the rest of the house?” the woman asks kindly.
The narrow hallway indicates there is also a father and another boy living in this house. The kitchen floor has been replaced to a glossy brown hardwood. The living room is rearranged, the TV by the window and the couches opposite the dining room entry. This family really changed things.
“Would you like coffee?” she interrupts my observance. “You seem like a coffee guy.”
Normally I put ice in it, but it’s rude to not accept it, after all, she let me in her house. “That’d be nice, thanks.”
We sit at the table and the woman and the girl recount stories of what happened in the past four years, they added a garden in the backyard, and how the son is having trouble finding a job. I tell them about when I lived here, ask which teacher is still around, the normal stuff you’d say to a friend from another place.
“Thanks for letting me inside, I really appreciate it,” I express at the door.
“Any time.” I leave the yard and take an entirely new journey, one I’ve been anticipating for years now.
Dead leaves crunch beneath my feet. I know this path by heart, since I was four. Little rocks kick astray and squirrels scurry by. It only takes me three minutes to find it. The tree house. The sight of it is everything I’ve been waiting for. I climb up the boards, my fingers falling in the crevices that eroded from being touched so often. And the entire world is mine when I reach the top.
I don’t dare look inside yet. I just want to see the peak over the trees, see a little part of town, see the halfway point between mine and Gabriella’s house. The limbs sway, rustling and dancing in happiness. I pull my knees up to my chest and lean back. Everything’s whispering to me. Melodies of joy, shrieks of delight. Enchantment fills my veins, the forest, life. I can feel my heart beat again, renewing and tickles of ecstasy vibrate throughout and it feels so pure. I forget the world, forget that I have to breathe. I’m home.
Now I turn, bracing myself for the memories of childhood to flood back in. but the childish drawings aren’t there. Instead, my letters are taped over them. My scrawls, my I miss you’s are everywhere. Pictures of us when she visited last. Wilted flowers litter the corners, petals strewn off and scattered. Old videotapes our parents filmed of us. In the corner of my eyes I can see a small black book half-covered by a random textbook. It’s bound by a tan string, the outside worn and faded. Hesitantly, I open it.
I figured it was more of my letters folded inside. But no, the pages are dog-eared and heavily marked. It doesn’t take more than a second to realize it’s Gabriella’s handwriting. She dots her I’s with a star, mine are just plain circles.
Do I read on? Just the first and last page. Then I can know how long she’s had it.
I left Scranton today. Charlie is now eighteen and I have until January to catch up. It was wonderful seeing him again, and his family. Even Thunder too, though she’s an old fat dog now.
We hung out like old times. His town is nice, but Clovis is better. Too cold there. At dinner Charlie had an argument with his father. I’m proud of him for defying him. I never had the guts to do that with mine. I’m still stuck with tennis. It’s not too bad, but it’s tiring.
Last night… I don’t know how I feel about that. I asked Charlie if I could stay in his room, in his bed. I know that was really risky, but I was feeling lonely, since Carson and I were in our own fight. I wanted to feel someone’s arms around me, feel protected and safe. It felt so right, like he was made to be my protector. We melded together perfectly. But it was so wrong, because I technically wasn’t single. I had Carson.
In the morning I got out of his bed. I didn’t want to lead him on. So I pretended to look at his pictures, which are actually amazing. I hope someday he goes far.
Flames eat away at my new heart. This entry, it’s so mixed of good things and bad. She went from being proud of me to… to… using me. She used me. Used me to replace Carson. And I thought she had a sense that she liked me, just a little, just enough to want to sleep in my own bed, with me. Every part of me is burning with shame, humiliation. I’m not good enough. And she doesn’t want to be with me. Ever.
When I’m just about melted, I hear footsteps, and Gabriella’s face pops up from the rim. “Charlie, there you are.” Her eyes flicker to my hand. “Is that-?”
“It was bent. I tried to fix it,” I lied.
“Oh, thanks. Here, I’ll take it.” She gently grabs it from my grasp. I don’t really want to read any more of it.
There’s something of an awkward silence, which nearly never happens. “So, this place looks new.”
“Yeah, I didn’t want Mom snooping in my mail, so I taped them up here. You know, I come here almost every night.”
“Really.” I sound bored, but right now, I can’t even look at her.
“I like to watch the sun set. It reminds me of you.”Or Carson, I think bitterly. “Dinner’s ready in five minutes.” She slides down the rope. I stick around. “Charlie? You coming?”
The lump in my throat is bigger than it was sixty seconds ago. “Mhm.” I dry my silent tears and wait a moment longer. Then I slowly reach the ground, and she’s still standing there. I was hoping to walk alone, but I’m not going to reject her company.
I was going to give her what she wanted.Without me.
The rest of my break is spent in the tree house, capturing details of the days I went through in the letters. Gabriella’s diary never shows up again, and I’m glad. Who knows what else she has written about me.
On New Year’s Eve, Gabriella takes me to someone’s party. She says we’ve known them since third grade, but the name doesn’t bring up any recognition. We step inside a disco-ball decorated room and there are tons of kids I should remember, but I don’t. So I feel uncomfortable and very out of place. I keep loosening my tie and then tightening them in a nervous manner, the way I do in any setting where I don’t know people.
Beer is the scent of the night. I’m really familiar with the smell since it’s basically made with grains, and I’ve lived half my time in a wheat field. I’ve tried it once but ended up spitting it back out. Too disgusting and slimy for me to swallow. Everywhere I look I see blue plastic cups and dirty dancing and it’s too much of a club for me to handle. I glance around in desperation for Gabriella but I can’t find her.
I get up and start for the door, when someone yells it’s ten seconds to New Year’s and someone tugs on my tie and pulls me in. Beer is prominent in their breath and suddenly I lose my own. They’re so close to me, so close.
“Seven! Six! Five! Fou…” I finally have the courage to look at this drunk’s face.
“Come on, Carson! Let’s kiss at midnight!” Her voice is slurred.
I hesitate, about to counter that no, I am not Carson, the jerk you’re dating, when it’s at “Two! One! Happy New Year!” and her lips are on mine, mingled with alcohol and she is just so delirious right now I may as well be Carson. Her arms wrap around my neck while my hands stay down to my side. I’m too paralyzed to move. She’s so close to me, I practically lose one of my lungs.
Never expected our first kiss to be like this, that’s for sure. Of course there’s no freakin’ fireworks exploding, no stars spiraling, it’s all gross and it taste funny and nothing is going the way it should. Gabriella’s not even sober.
She pulls away and dreamily looks at my face. “You were awesome, Carson. Too awesome.” Then she staggers away to get more beer.
I should rescue her, but I fish out the keys from her purse, get in her car, and drive away into the abyss of never being good enough.