Chapter 9

Something shifts beside me. I don’t see how this is possible because I’m sleeping in a very tiny bed, but then I realize someone’s limbs are touching mine. Strands of long black hair peek out from under the covers.

            Immediately I jump out. Why is Gabriella in my bed? How did she find me, anyway? I left as soon as I could last night. I look at her bare foot on the other end.Please let there be clothes on her, I think. Yes, her jeans are still on, wrinkled above her ankle. I remember she wore heels and she doesn’t like to sleep with socks on anyway.

            I flinch when her eyes open. She mumbles something, catching my sight. Then she shoots up, squeezing her wrist, and curses.

            “Charlie…” I don’t move. I’m frozen. “Did we…?”

            I shake my head. “Don’t think so.”

            Gabriella pats her torso. “Good, my shirt’s still on. What happened?”

            “No idea. You kissed me at the party, I left, and went to bed. I guess you were too tired to go upstairs and came here.”    

            She stares at me quizzically. “I didn’t kiss you.”

            “Yes, you did. You called me Carson, and said let’s kiss at midnight.” My voice is hard, filled with saddening rage.

            “No, I found Carson and kissed him,” she says impatiently.

            “He was off getting even more drunk! God, Gabriella, don’t you trust me? I didn’t drink! I know what happened!”

            I see it sinking in, settling in her hung over mind, that she unconsciously cheated on her boyfriend.

            “Charlie, I’m sorry.” Her voice. The very same sound that appears when she sees a dying animal. Sees me upset. Sees if she can be forgiven.

            “I’m going to pack. Go get some water. Your mom will have a fit if she sees you in a hangover.” I don’t make contact. Can’t.

            Gabriella closes the door and I can hear her quietly weeping. I try my hardest to ignore her as I throw clothes into my suitcase, but it’s the only sound in the world now. I want to hit something, but there’s only a bookcase with nothing on it. I guess punching my pillow will do.

            Ugh! She keeps using me. What am I really to her? A puppy to cuddle? I don’t even understand her drinking. She always told me she hated beer and never wanted alcohol, not even at her wedding. And six years later, she’s sipping yellow stuff out a plastic cup.

            I keep feeling her skin against mine, smooth and cold. Her drunken lips hungrily kissing me. Her fingers knotting themselves in my hair. I didn’t even enjoy it the way I should have. Sure, I’ve been dreaming of us, finally together with no Carson or anyone in our way. But I’ve never dreamed of her kissing me drunk while I was sober.

            My flight doesn’t leave for three hours. I’d go back to the tree house, but I can’t bear seeing the place we shared. There’s no place to go but the airport.

            Looking for paper, I come across the necklace box in my bag. She doesn’t deserve it. The message, she doesn’t deserve any of it. So I push through and scribble out a note saying I’m leaving, thanks for having me, see you at graduation. I pick up my stuff and catch a taxi, leaving the city that seems to always end with terrible things.

           

            “Gabriella’s called here six times.” Mom wipes a dish as I pass through the kitchen. “Anything going on?”

            “No,” I mutter. Two weeks have passed since I was in Clovis. She has sent a letter for each of those days, but I never bothered to open them. It’s all meaningless apologies to me.

            “Alright. It’s just so unusual of you to not run to the phone to call her back, that’s all.” I just grumble.

            When she calls for the ninth time, I have to pick up.

            “Stop calling,” I reply bluntly.

            “Charlie, wait! Please.”

            “Why did you use me?” This anger keeps bubbling up.

            “I never intended to, really. It just happened.”

            “Like you getting drunk just happened? Like you getting back with Carson just happened? You never once thought about me.”

            “Why do you care so much that I’m dating Carson?”

            “Do you love him?” There’s silence. “Gabriella, tell me.”

            “No.” She says it so quietly I almost didn’t hear it. “No.”

            My heart leaps. But I can’t give it away. “Then why are you with him?”

            “He’s my friend, Charlie. You can’t be my only friend. I need other people too. I need a life.”

            That stings. It shouldn’t, but it does. “I have to go.”

            “Charlie,” she pleads. She’s cut off with the end-call noise.

            We’ve had our arguments before, her saying the best show ever is Cake Boss and my listening to the same song repeatedly, but this is really the first and biggest fight we’ve ever had. Maybe it’s time we finally disagreed on something.

            After a few more weeks, she finally stopped calling. Just wrote letters that went into my box unopened. I know I need to read them, but I can’t. Maybe later.

 

            Trees blossom in March, and my camera is nearly worn out. The screen is battered up and the lens is scratched. I’ve taken great care of them, but along the way the places I’ve been too likes to mess with it. There’s a camera shop in town that fixes it up.

            A girl behind the counter gently takes my camera and cleans the lens. “You look familiar,” she says softly.

            “Um. You do too.” I can picture her, but where?

            “Crystal’s birthday dinner! Right.” She smiles and flips the camera over to the screen. “You were only there for two seconds though.”

            “I was just going to do homework,” I recall. “Wow. Small world.”

            “I’m Kira. Obviously you’re Charlie, ha. Crystal’s always telling stories about you.”

            “Good ones, I hope.” My cheeks burn.

            “You’re cuter than I expected. Hmm.” Now I feel an extra layer creeping. “How long have you had this?”

            “About four years. I’m surprised it didn’t already break, since I’ve used it pretty much every day.”

            “You might want a new one. The lens look like it’ll crash if you anything touches it. I’m sure cracks are cool, but they don’t go with everything.” She hands it to me with several wipes. “Hey, tell Crystal there’s gonna be an awesome party at Riley’s place next Friday. Lots of stuff going on,” she winks.

            “Yeah, I’ll tell her. Thanks.” I head for the door.

            “I’ll be here if anything else comes up,” she calls out.

            A party. By the way Kira winked, I can tell it’s going to be insane. As in, drinking and craziness. I go all brother-y on her when she’s back from volleyball practice. I deliver the message first, of course, but she says she already knew.

            Crystal’s putting away her knee pads when I jump in. “Don’t go to it. I can just see what’ll happen.”

            “I’m twenty. I may not be living without my parents, but I’m still old enough to make my own decisions.”

            “Crystal, please. You don’t know what it’s like. Not that I know of, anyway.”

            “Oh, like you know,” she scoffs.

            “Gabriella took me to a party on New Year’s Eve and she got drunk. And then we got into a huge fight and I haven’t spoken to her since then.”

            Now she looks at me. “Gabriella? Drunk?” I nod. “Wow. Did she do anything?”

            “Just kissed me. Thought I was her boyfriend.” I have to act like I’m not affected by this, but my sister senses everything.

            “You want to be with her.”

            “A little, yeah.”A lot,I think.

            “Well, if it means that much to you, I won’t go. There have been parties on campus that are on the wild side, but I didn’t go to them. Throwing away what I love just to get drunk isn’t me. I’ll come straight here after practice, okay?”

            I’m actually touched she listened to me. It doesn’t happen often. “Thanks.”

            “Though I don’t know how Ian’s going to handle it,” she trails.

            That slimeball. “What?”

            “He was really hoping we could go. Said it’d be ‘off the hooks’,” Crystal relays in a deep voice that makes me chuckle.

            “You do know he drinks, right?” I hope she doesn’t get mad that I’ve noticed.

            “We argue about that too. He never takes it too far, but I worry about him.”

            “Ian’s not a good guy. You deserve better, Crystal.”

            “I know. But you always forgive your first love anything.”

            Oh. First love. Like Gabriella.

            “Test in the morning. Goodnight, Charlie.” She shoos me out.

            “Night, Crystal.”

            What a strange conversation that was.

 

            Dust collects on top of the box that’s decorated with stickers, stamps, envelopes and addresses.You always forgive your first love anything.Slowly I lift the lid and pick up the first letter. It’s the most recent, from five days ago.

           Charlie, this is probably the millionth letter that says the same thing, but I am so sorry for that night. It was wrong of me to drag you to the party, and go off and get drunk when I had a guest. I shouldn’t have left you. But Carson kept introducing me to his college friends and I was pressured to drink. I should’ve said no and went home with you. But I was stupid.

            You have no idea how many times I’ve replayed that night. The buzz in my veins, the rush of rebelling against my parents’ rules. My fingers in your hair. Tugging on your tie. Kissing you. Somewhere in my mind I knew you weren’t Carson. I had to reach up a bit to get to you. But I was so messed up to notice. I’m not going to lie, it was good. Even though you just stood there, it was good.

            I thought Carson took me home, because I couldn’t find my car. But Ezra dropped me off, and I think you’re right, I thought I fell into my room when it was yours instead. And I couldn’t see much so I went straight to your bed and didn’t care someone was in it, I was just so tired.

            In the end, I’m glad it was you.

            Please write back. Anything. I miss you. I still have the ceiling to cover. If one more letter is it, than let it be. I’d rather one more than none.

           She apologized. Well, it was her wrong, not mine.It was good.I doubted she remembered it. The things she did to me. And figuring out I wasn’t Carson, in the moment, it seems too fabricated. Maybe she really wasn’t that drunk. Maybe she was pretending to be so her boyfriend wouldn’t realize she was kissing me, not him.

            Maybe she wanted to try me.

 

            Physics has a ton of gossips who think they’re so cool that they’re friends with freshmen in college, and I’m so bored I hone in on their daily conversations. Of course, that Riley’s party comes up.

            “I heard there’ll be a bartender!” giggles a girl who puts on way too much makeup. She could be pretty if she was natural.

            “Riley’s like, the hottest piece of action at the place. It’d be a total score to get in there,” another girl gushes.

            “My sister knows him personally and sometimes he comes to my house.” The group winks at the third girl.

            I roll my eyes. “You know it’s just a time for people to get drunk and have sex? I don’t call that fun.”

            They all glare at me. “You’re no fun.”

            “Yes, well, I have a life.” Why am I arguing with them? There’s no point to. Mr. Shum walks around and sees we’re not working on the paper he assigned. He scolds the girls but not me. He knows I always finish first.

            “Charlie, come here a second.” Mr. Shum pulls me out to the hall. The girls finish their gab fest.

            “You’re graduating this year. Where do you want to go after this?”

            Mr. Shum really is that kind of teacher that is interested in your life, but just enough so it’s not creepy. He was voted teacher of the year like, three times already.

            My answer is quicker than my mind. “Sacramento.” That’s where Gabriella is set to go. “For ornithology.”

            “Nice choice. And I assume you’ll still do photography as well?”

            “Not professionally. I just take pictures to get stuff out of my mind. And inspire whoever’s looking.”

            His worn face smiles. “They certainly inspire me.”

            I tilt my head. “What?” I don’t remember ever putting up my pictures.

            Mr. Shum raises an eyebrow. “There’s a website called Whisper and Breathe. That’s yours, since it says Charlie Harris at the bottom of the page. A lot of your pictures are on it.”

            “But how did you find it? I didn’t even know there was such a site.”

            “Maybe someone did it for you. Got your memory card and uploaded. Either way, Charlie, they’re amazing.”           

            “I didn’t think people even looked at them,” I mutter.

            “That’s how I found out. Word got out from a student to other students to eventually teachers. We’re all in love with them. You’re really talented.”

            Honestly, I just click the button and move on. I don’t look at angles. I just find the sky fascinating, like it’s my ocean, filled with islands and waves. When I see small things, I crouch down and snap a shot, and then go to another small thing. It really does take the scenes out of my head and puts them in tangible color.

            “Thanks, Mr. Shum.”

            He pats my shoulder. “You should think about selling some prints. You’d be rich if you did.” He opens the door and immediately quiets the class, and says to get out paper for more notes.

            Someone actually noticed my pictures. It was a forty year old man, but hey, it’s a start. And apparently the student body has seen some, and teachers too. I just wish I knew who put up the site in the first place.

 

            Today is March 24. I have two tests and no memory of the material. Fantastic.

            Skimming and mentally photographing the reviews, I’m wondering if Crystal really isn’t going to the party tonight. She could’ve said no and then go anyway. We always do that. Say we’ll save the last cookie for the other but then eat it. It’s sibling love.

            Stats and Government is hard. Because I don’t care about it, it’s not in my career path, and I’m too sleepy to bubble in correctly. The answers are all over the place and I’ll get in trouble, but later.

            Crystal’s at the scrimmage right now, and I’m in bed. Why do I always wake up at home? Ugh. School must put in some kind of air that makes us tired. Crystal promised to text me as soon as it’s over.

            I vacillate on writing back to Gabriella. What can I say? Oh, it’s okay, you were drunk? That’s not exactly a lenient excuse. Since I have two hours and no interesting shows on, I write what could be a rough draft.

           You hurt me. I can’t just forgive you right away. You used me, and didn’t even think how I’d feel. I’ll accept the apology but I can’t forgive you, not yet. Time heals, not words.

            I’ll still see you at graduation. I can promise that. Even though we won’t be graduating at the same time, we can still move on together. I’m willing to make this work if I can just push aside these feelings.

           No more. There’s nothing else I can think of to say. After three hours Crystal still hasn’t messaged me. I figured scrimmages go past late, but never this much. I call her, hoping she will pick up.

            I hear the road and wind and a girl giving directions in the back. “Crystal?”

            “Charlie! The scrimmage just ended, I’ll be home soon.”

            Relieved. “Alright, well-”

            “No, Ian! I have to go home!” I stop to listen.

            “Come on, just five minutes. I want to see what it’s like,” he pleads.

            “You can see it after I’m gone.”        

            “It’s two blocks away! Really quick.” That jerk! I bet he was drinking.

            “Ian!” I know that tone. It happens when I take her colored pencils for a project. “Take me home. Now.”

            The girl in the back is quiet. Maybe it’s Kira. “Ian, just get her home.” It is Kira. “Then we can go.”

            Ian growls. “Fine.”

            “Charlie? I’m back. Ian’s not cooperating well so I’ll be there in ten minutes. Love y-”

            She doesn’t finish her sentence. I hear the phone drop to the floor. I hear screams. I hear a loud crash, dizzying and swirling in my ears.

            “Crystal!”

The End

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