Chapter 1: Prologue
The road before me is black, stained with a stretch of faded white paint weakly illuminated by high beams every few feet or so until it becomes like a memory locked within my vision. The radio is playing softly from the dusty speakers of my Chevy, quiet enough not to disturb Esther who’s asleep beside me, but loud enough to ensure that I don’t start nodding off at the wheel. It’s some rock song from the eighties; Van Halen, or Aerosmith, or something else that I haven’t heard in years, since way back when Dad used to play old vinyls while he worked on his cars when I was little. I hum along and check the speedometer before focusing my gaze back on the road, counting down the miles in my head. Twenty more to go.
The song switches to something with a stronger bassline and I turn the volume down, glancing over at Esther as she shifts in her seat and lets out a faint mumble. She settles after a moment and I let a hiss of air out between my teeth, relieved that I won’t have to face her snapping at me for being too loud. I turn the volume down again, just to be safe, before setting my gaze back on the road and feeling my heart leap into my throat.
There’s a man standing not fifty feet ahead of the car, staring directly at me as though he wants nothing more than for me to keep going. I slam my foot down onto the brakes as hard as I possibly can, one arm shoving back against Esther’s chest to keep her from colliding with the windshield as the entire car swerves and squeals to a stuttering halt. My skull crashes back against the headrest as a loud, sickening thud comes from the front of the bumper. Everything grows cloudy and I can hear the faint sound of Esther’s screams, but a moment later I’m shoving myself out of the car and towards the front, my stomach heaving at the sight of the man crumpled against the muddy road, his limbs sprawling at all the wrong angles.
“Oh my god,” I choke, my knees giving out. The man doesn’t move, his blond hair shining ginger from the splatters of thick blood. His eyes are open and blue. They’re so blue. So blue, and so glassy. “Fuck - oh my god…”
“Avi.” I can hear Esther as her door creaks open, her voice trembling and the squishy sounds of her boots against the wet road as she makes her way toward me. “Avi, what the -”
“Fuck,” I whisper, shaking my head and resting a hand against the man’s cheek. His skin is warm. He doesn’t move, not even to blink. His eyes are so blue. He’s not moving. His eyes are blue and he’s not moving and - “Oh my god, I - I think I killed him…”
“Avi,” Esther says, and a moment later she’s kneeling beside me and I can’t help the thick, dry panic that stabs me through the gut. I choke out a noise, bile rising in my throat, and the man doesn’t move. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t - “Avriel.”
I look over towards Esther, who is staring at me with a furrowed brow and so much worry it reminds me of when we were little and I used to jump off the swingset whenever I reached the highest point. I would always crumple to the ground before popping right back up, but there was always the moment or so when Esther would be begging me not to, racing to my side to ensure that I was okay. Just like a big sister should. Something in my stomach gave and I let out a horrible cough, burying my face in her shoulder.
“Sissy,” I shudder, “I - oh my god, I think he’s dead...I think I killed him…”
“What are you talking about?”
I pull away and look up at her, miserable and terrified as the thought of those blue eyes makes its way into my mind. He’s dead. I killed him. He’s dead and I killed him.
“Avi,” Esther says, watching me with her mouth set into a firm line. “What are you talking about? What just happened?”
“Him,” I manage, turning back to the man. “I killed -”
I freeze. Something settles over me, cold as snow, and despite the summer night air I find myself shivering as though we’re caught in the middle of winter.
The man is gone.
Chapter 2: Blue
hope y'all enjoy, feel free to leave a comment if you want :')
I keep my eyes set out of the passenger window, trying to focus on every towering oak and pine that we pass until my vision has grown tired and my head achy. Esther is beside me on the driver’s side, talking, but I haven’t been listening for a long, long while now.
I can’t stop seeing him. Those blue eyes. The way he didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t breathe. The way he was there, lying dead on the muddy pavement - dead because of me - and then a moment later he wasn’t. Like a ghost. Or a phantom.
Or a memory.
Esther’s still talking and I finally tune in on what she’s saying, my fingers trembling as I tuck them into the pockets of my jacket. Her voice is quiet and shaken, though that doesn’t surprise me. She’s been uneasy riding in cars ever since we were little, and I can’t imagine that waking up to an accident would have alleviated any of that fear. She’s gripping the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles have turned white, her glasses sloping down her nose and her words stuttered and nervous.
“ - was probably just an animal,” she’s saying, checking the rearview mirror before immediately focusing her gaze back on the road. “Or maybe just a trick of the eye, you know? It’s late and you’d been driving for hours. That’s probably all it was.”
I look back out of the passenger window, resting my forehead against the cool glass. It fogs over when I speak, the carbon monoxide from my breath creating little patterns that look like freshly fallen snow, before condensation turns them to beads of water. “It was a man,” I say softly, dragging the pad of my thumb to make a smiley face. “Not an animal.”
She glances over, and from the way her lips are pursed I know that her patience is thin. “It couldn’t have been a man,” she says. “If it was a man, I would have seen him. There was nobody there.”
“I know what I saw,” I whisper, though the argument is futile and we both know it. She sighs and runs a hand through her hair, frustrated.
“It’s late,” she says finally. “Why don’t you get some rest? I’ll wake you when we get there, okay?”
I clench my jaw but nod, resting my head back against the shoulder of the seat and watching the trees pass us by, one right after another. The smiley face has started to fade, thin lines of water streaking through its eyes until it looks like it’s crying. I rub the rest of it out with the sleeve of my jacket, but I can still see them no matter what I do. See how they stare into a nothingness that I can’t understand. See how it’s as though they’re not looking at something, but rather looking towards something. See how they faded away because of me - all because of me - those cold and glassy and beautiful blue eyes.
It’s some time later when Esther shakes my shoulder, and I blink blearily up at her, disoriented from the surrounding darkness that blankets the two of us. She looks tired and resigned, the corner of her mouth perked up in a wry grin that only adds to my overall feeling of guilt.
“We’re here,” she says, and I know all at once that this was a mistake. I follow her out of the car, though, carrying both of our bags up the familiar dirt trail that leads to the small cabin. Old Goldwater gleams in the moonlight behind us, soft waves crashing over the shore and the soft rumbling of thunder rolling somewhere off in the distance. The lake looks smaller than I remember. Calmer. There are a few discarded canoes floating mildly by the docks, but other than that it’s desolate. Discomfort settles like a rock in my stomach and I look away, sweeping my gaze over the few cabins that surround ours. The lights are off in most of them, except for the one tucked back away from the lake and shrouded by blueberry bushes. I can make out the faint figure of somebody on the front porch - two somebodies, maybe - but they’re too far away to see any details. For some reason that I can’t discern, I have the worst feeling that they’re watching us. Waiting. I turn to Esther to mention it, but she’s already up the path to our cabin, unlocking the door. I look back towards the figure, but whoever was on the porch is gone now, only the soft glow of a lantern left to show that they were even there in the first place.
“Avi? You coming?” Esther calls, and I tighten my grip on the bags before tearing my eyes away from the far-off cabin and following her up the trail, shaking my head all the way.
Our cabin is old, just like it’s always been. The porch steps creak under my weight, giving slightly before groaning back into position, dutiful despite their age. There are cobwebs on the thick beams that support the awning, and I can make out my initials ABK in the wood just above the small sign that reads the cabin’s name, Pinenut. I’d carved them back when I was twelve or thirteen - my short-lived rebellious phase - and Dad had grounded me for a week when he’d found out. No kayaking, no swimming, no riding down to the country store about a mile down the road on my bike; nothing but sitting on the porch in the blistering heat and working on my summer homework. That year had been tough. Dad and I had been at each other’s throats every second, with me constantly questioning his authority, his decisions, everything. It’s stupid, now that I think about it. So much time wasted fighting. I wouldn’t realize that he meant well until a year or so later, and by that point everything had fucked itself over. I stare at the small letters, ABK, wondering if they were worth all the trouble they caused and knowing that they weren’t.
“Hey,” Esther’s voice is soft as she rests a hand on my arm. I look over to her, and she’s frowning as though she knows what I’m thinking. “You okay, Bee?”
“Yeah,” I whisper, nodding and trying to look enthusiastic, though I know it’s sardonic at best. “I’m okay.”
She smiles, and it’s warm this time, sympathetic. “It’s weird, right? Being here without them, I mean.”
“Yeah,” I say again, throat tight. “Yeah, it’s weird.”
She smiles again sadly before shouldering her way through the front door of the cabin. I follow silently, trying to make sense of the string of emotions that has started swirling through my gut, well aware that I never really will. The lights flicker weakly a few times before fixing, shining dimly down on the front entrance and illuminating years and years of memories that rise like unsettled dust.
The front entrance is narrow, made even more suffocating by the hundreds of framed pictures that hang on the walls. Past that is the family room, with the same old mismatched furnishings. The kitchen is tiny but quaint on the side, and in the back there’s a small study and two full bedrooms. Only one bathroom. I smirk at the memory of the chaos it used to bring. I’d brushed my teeth in the kitchen on multiple occasions when I was younger, back when Esther had been fourteen or fifteen and took forever to finish showering. I’d stare out of window overlooking Goldwater Lake, singing the alphabet song in my head as I brushed, tucked safely in this little nook of the world and oblivious to everything else around me.
I look over to Esther now, who’s setting up the few standing fans in the living room - no air conditioning - before allowing myself to wander towards the expansive bookcase that used to captivate me. It’s smaller now, and the books not nearly as fascinating, but Dad always used to let me choose my favorite and we would spend the time before bed reading a chapter or two. We’d gone through the first four Harry Potter books in one summer, and the next year he’d taken me to the midnight showing when the first movie came out. I’d dressed up as Harry, and Dad and Esther as Hagrid and Hermione. Mom didn’t go. She never liked stuff like that.
“Hey,” Esther says, and I look up. She’s standing by the hallway that leads to the bedrooms, watching me like there’s so much she wants to say but she doesn’t know how. “Why don’t we head to bed, Bee? It’s past midnight.”
I blink a few times before nodding. “Yeah. You’re right, it’s late.” I look back at the bookcase, though, scanning for the picture that I know is there, that I know I have to see. Cluttered on the wall with hundreds of others, up in the top right corner, an image of our family squished together and caught mid-laugh. I’m nine or ten, holding up a fish I just caught in the lake with Dad pointing to it and grinning like he’s never been more proud. Mom has Esther caught up in her arms, and the corners of their eyes are crinkly from smiling. We look happy.
I glance back over to Esther now, unable to ignore the weight of exhaustion on her face, wearing sadness in place of that dimpling grin. It’s unfair, I realize. All of it is so unfair. We shouldn’t have come back. It’s all just a semblance, and I should have known that. Old Goldwater Lake should have stayed where it belongs: hidden in the past, nothing more than a broken memory and another ghost that we once knew.
I dream of cold blue eyes that night, and wake in the morning to an aching head and the faint smell of bacon. Esther is in front of the stove when I wander into the kitchen. I pour myself a cup of coffee and top hers off, resting back against the counter and watching the lake’s rolling waves out of the kitchen window.
“How’d you sleep?” she asks after a few minutes, placing the bacon on a folded piece of paper towel.
“Okay,” I say. “You?”
“Okay,” she shrugs, turning to face me. “The frogs kept me up. I forgot how loud they get.”
I smile softly. “Yeah. They do get pretty loud.”
“Like a chorus of tone-deaf goblins, isn’t that what Dad used to say? Something like that.”
“Yeah,” I nod. “Something like that.”
We grow quiet, eating together at the small kitchen table that seems empty with just the two of us. I wash the dishes after, humming softly to myself and pausing when I realize that she’s still standing in the doorway, watching me with that look she always has when something’s not quite right.
“Mm?” I turn back to the sink, drying the last plate and setting it on the counter.
“About last night.” She hesitates. “In the car. I’m sorry I was so...dismissive. I was just freaked out.”
I pause but don’t turn to face her, rubbing at the rim of the plate again even though it’s already dry. “It’s fine,” I say eventually, but she sighs.
“You know it was probably just an animal,” she continues. “Or maybe just your eyes playing a trick, right? If it was a man, he wouldn’t have been able to move, at least not that quickly.” She hesitates again, and I can almost hear her thoughts as they dance around in her head. “You know that, right? You didn’t hurt anybody.”
I think back to those blue eyes. The way they stared at nothing. Glassy. Cold. They were real. He was real. But it isn’t an argument worth having, and I know better than to try and start it.
“Yeah,” I say, shaking my head and glancing over at her. She looks hopeful, and even though it aches to lie it’s better than keeping on with something that will only upset her.“You’re right. I was probably just tired. It was probably a deer or something.”
She nods, obviously relieved. “Yeah. Yeah, a deer.”
I hang the towel on the rack, finished with the conversation even if she isn’t. She seems to understand, though she leans back against the fridge and watches me silently, as though I’m on exhibition. It would bother me if it wasn’t simply how she is. Years of her scrutiny has taught me that she means well, really, even if it doesn’t ever seem like it. She worries. A lot. Mostly about me. And I don’t blame her, not really, because after everything that’s happened, it would be kind of strange if she didn’t.
“Any plans for the day?” she asks after a minute or two, and I rub the back of my neck with a shrug.
“Might sit by the lake. Go for a walk.” I shrug again and she nods.
“That sounds nice. I’ll probably run up to the store to get some groceries, if you want anything. I wonder if Jim’s Market still exists.” She pauses then, looking around the kitchen as though it’s the first time she’s really seen it, something in her eyes that looks all too much like sadness. “It’s weird to think that things might have changed. Everything still looks like it used to.”
I nod but don’t say anything, and she squeezes my arm before giving me a smile.
“Well, have a nice walk, anyway,” she says. “I’ll probably go exploring, too. Meet the neighbors, get a feel for it, all that jazz. Dinner at six sound fine?” I nod and she pulls me into a hug, whispering, “Try and relax, Bee. That’s what being here’s all about. Forgetting everything bad and getting back to normal, right?”
“Yeah,” I say quietly, hugging her back and letting out a low sigh. “Normal.”
I change out of my pajamas into a pair of black swim shorts and an Iron & Wine tank once Esther is gone, tugging a beanie down over my hair in lieu of trying to tame the frizzy curls. With a bottle of water and a book tucked under my arm, I start down the dirt path that leads from our cabin to the shore of Old Goldwater, my face turned up to the sky as the hot June air hangs stiffly around me.
It’s so much stranger to see it now than it had been last night. Everything looks the same, as though it’s remained in stasis for over ten years now, never once changing during my lengthened absence. Even the boats attached to the end of the fishing dock haven’t changed, still bumping against one another lazily as the smooth waves roll in from the island in the middle of the lake. It’s as though I’m walking around within a memory. Part of me expects to see Dad coming down from our cabin with a fishing pole in hand, ten-year-old me waddling after him with our lunch cooler, but even I know better than to hope for something like that. It looks the same, but that doesn’t mean that it is.
I slow when I reach the smooth grass caught between our cabin and the shore, sitting cross-legged and staring out over the deep blue water. The sky is the color of a robin’s egg, white clouds blocking out the sun just enough so that the heat lessens for a moment, looking like giant gobs of cotton-candy. That’s what Dad always used to call them. He would stick his arm into the sky and pretend to pluck a piece of cloud to eat, chewing loudly until I was laughing so hard my stomach hurt. I smile now at the memory, tucking my legs into my chest and watching as the cotton-candy clouds roll gently through the sky.
The morning passes calmly, and it’s not until half noon that I hear the faint sound of voices. I look up from my book, scanning for the source and feeling a small smile tug at my lips when I see the group of people about fifty feet away down the shore. There are six of them approximately my age, and they’re all pushing a motorboat into the water, shouting and arguing and laughing hysterically. It takes a few minutes before they finally manage, and they clamber in one after another as the motor begins to churn and the boat takes off into the water. One of them, a man with wavy blond hair, stands on the edge once they’ve gotten far enough out, letting out a triumphant shout before diving into the lake. Everybody else laughs and a girl with striking red hair cannonballs in after him, leading the rest of them to follow suit except for the small boy with dark raven hair, who I can hear complaining about the water being too cold. I smile, resting my chin in my hand as I watch them. They seem at home with one another, joking and talking and and laughing so loudly that it echoes back towards the shore. Part of me wants to jump in the water and swim out towards them, to join in despite our unfamiliarity, but I know that it’s not something I would ever really do.
They all eventually get back into the boat and start their way towards the island, getting smaller and smaller in the distance until they’ve disappeared. I reluctantly turn my attention back to my book, although it’s not nearly as interesting now as it had been before. I wait for the boat to come back from around the other side of the island, but two hours later it’s still gone and I’ve given up hope, instead making my way back up to our cabin for a late lunch.
Esther is still out and I nibble on half a PB&J as I unpack my suitcase, stacking my books on the small bedside table and propping my guitar case beside it. I nod when everything is in its place, wandering out towards the living room with footsteps that sound like nothing more than soft taps. It’s so quiet. Everything is so quiet, and it’s so unlike it should be. Dad used to say that silence was only ever for praying and sleeping, and that anything more was a wasted opportunity. Part of me wishes he was here now - no, all of me wishes he was here now - to fill up the silence in the way that I can’t. He’s not though, and so I settle for humming quietly and hoping that it’s enough.
It must be an hour or so later when there’s a knock at the front door of the cabin, and I look up curiously from where I’m seated on the couch. Anxious titters come from outside as I approach, and when I open the door I’m surprised to see two people standing in front of me, a man and a woman, both with pretty blond hair.
“Hi,” the woman says, and her voice reminds me of a Disney princess. She smiles. “You’re new here, right?”
I hesitate but give a slow nod, my mouth suddenly very dry as I recognize her as one of the people from the boat earlier. I hope she doesn’t expect me to say anything. It’s still so difficult.
“Awesome,” she says, her smile only widening. “We’re your neighbors, then. Well, we’re some of your neighbors. Everyone else is back at our cabin, but we didn’t want to overwhelm you. I’m Kirstie.”
She holds out her hand and I shake it slowly, knowing that it’s my turn to introduce myself but not entirely sure if I can bring myself to do so. I try to remember what Dr. Napan used to tell me, chanting the steps in my head the way I’d done for years now.
- Make eye contact and smile if the situation is appropriate.
I look up at Kirstie and force my lips into what I hope is a warm grin.
- Extend your hand, palm raised slightly towards the sky, and grip the other person’s firmly.
I take her hand and shake it, unsure if the pressure is correct but too desperate to get this over with to really care all that much. I pull away and try to smile again.
- Introduce yourself. Start with a greeting, and then your name. Make sure to speak loud enough that they can hear you.
“Hi,” I whisper, my voice scratchy. Kirstie smiles again, though I can tell from the way her brow furrows just slightly that she’s confused. I feel my face grow warm, stuttering over my words that still feel as though they’re all wrong. “I’m - I’m Avi.”
“Nice to meet you,” she says, glancing towards the man that’s standing beside her. He’s wearing sunglasses and a beautiful smile, holding his hand out to take mine as though it’s the most natural thing.
“So nice to meet you, Avi,” he says, his voice warm and soothing. “I’m Scott. Were you out by the lake this afternoon, by any chance?”
I hesitate, nodding again, and his smile grows.
“Cool, that was you, then. I thought so, but I wasn’t sure.”
I manage a weak smile but don’t say anything, and a few moments pass before I can see the discomfort settling over the two of them. Part of me wants to explain everything, to apologize, to do whatever I can to get them to stop looking at me like that, but instead I look down at my socks and wait for them to leave. Kirstie clears her throat after a second, and I’m grateful that she’s at least polite about it.
“Well, we should get going,” she says slowly. “I’m sure we’ll see you around, though. We’re in the cabin just next to yours, it’s called Chestnut, I think? It’s the one way back behind the blueberry bushes. Drop by whenever you get the chance, you can meet everyone else.”
I nod again, thankful when they both say their goodbyes and start off back down the trail. I can see them talking quietly as they walk away, and Kirstie glances back at me with her lips pursed, making me shrink back behind the door as I watch them go. They seemed so nice. It’s so unfair. It would have been so much better if Esther had been here with me; it’s always easier to talk with her around to act as a translator when my mind simply won’t let me speak. It should have gone better, though. I should have been better. Ten years of speech therapy, and I still can’t say a fucking hello. I shut the door quietly behind me, annoyed and exhausted and so utterly resigned.
Esther comes home a few hours after that, and the two of us make dinner together. She asks how my day has gone and I manage a soft reply, though it’s hard to talk with the thought of Scott and Kirstie still on my mind. I can see their cabin, tucked far back from the lake, when Esther and I settle on the porch after we eat. The lights are on and the group of people from the boat are visible through the windows, the soft sound of music lilting through the quiet air. I look back down at my book, running my thumb over the words and sighing at how beautiful and terrible they manage to be. I feel a warm hand on my arm after a little while, and I look up to see Esther watching me with that worry she always seems to have.
“You okay, Bee?” she asks, and I smile at the nickname. She’s called me that ever since the summer when I was eight and captured a little bumblebee in a jar to keep as a pet. Dad made me let it go, saying that it wasn’t nice to keep it trapped when it had lived its whole life outside, and I cried as I unscrewed the lid and watched it fly back into the air. The next day, though, after he got back from the store he gave me a stuffed animal bumblebee, which I still have to this day. I became Bumblebee from then on, though after everything that happened I started to hate it. Bumblebee. Me, bumbling Avi who couldn’t speak correctly anymore - who couldn’t speak at all. Esther had shortened it to just Bee after that, and even though it wasn’t the same, it worked as well as anything else would.
I smile now at the way she’s looking at me, like I’m still thirteen and a confused little boy. “I’m okay,” I say quietly, clearing my throat. It’s always been so much easier to talk to her than to anybody else. Way back, after everything, she was the only one I talked to for what must have been months. Everybody else got silence, but not her. Never her.
She grins, relieved, and rubs my arm again. “Good. I think I’m going to head inside, then, it’s getting a bit chilly out. Are you gonna stay out here for a little while longer?”
I nod and she kisses my head before slipping back into our cabin, leaving me to the dusky evening and the hypnotic sound of the frogs by the lake. I wander out down the trail and follow it towards the shore, slipping off my shoes so that I can feel the sand between my toes. I walk the length of the beach for a few minutes, tossing rocks into the water and seeing how many times I can make them skip, although I never manage more than two. It’s nice outside, if a bit cold, and I tuck my hands into my jacket before pausing to look at the faded sky above the water. Dark clouds are knitting together and I know that it’s likely to storm soon, but I don’t want to go in just yet. I’m just coming to the end of the beach where it turns into thick woodbrush when I hear a voice call my name, footsteps coming up from behind me. I turn to see the blond man, Scott, jogging over with another smile. He’s still wearing the sunglasses, which are rather unnecessary given that it’s twilight, but he seems unbothered with such a fashion choice as he slows on his approach.
“Hey,” he says, bowlike lips pulling into a grin. He has reddish-blond scruff on his cheeks and chin, and with the way he’s smiling it looks like he should be on the cover of Vogue. I can’t help but smile back, despite how nervous his presence makes me. I hope he doesn’t want to talk. I don’t want look stupid in front of him; not again, at least. He runs a hand through his wavy blond hair, and something about it looks familiar, though I don’t know why. “Avi. Hey.”
I only nod, but my silence doesn’t seem to phase him. Instead he chuckles and shakes his head.
“I just wanted to make sure you were good. You seemed a little uncomfortable this afternoon, and I - well, I’m sorry if we overwhelmed you or anything. We can be a bit much, sometimes.”
I swallow before looking down at my hands and shrugging. He hesitates before speaking again, and although his words are blunt, he says them with undeniable care.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
I bite my lip before shaking my head slowly, and he nods as though he’s considering something.
“Okay,” he says, before smiling again. “No worries. I’ll stick to yes or no questions.” He pauses again before his brow furrows. “I’m sorry, was - was that rude? I didn’t mean for it to be, I only meant…”
I laugh and he relaxes a bit.
“Good, you’re laughing. That seems good. Is that good?”
I nod and his smile returns.
“Good. Awesome. Fantastic.” He turns a little, as though he hears something. “Well, I should get going, then, I promised Mitch we would have a wine night. I’ll see you around though, yeah?” He runs his hand through his hair, accidentally bumping his sunglasses so that they slip off his nose and fall to the sand. “Oh, shit.” He stoops down to pick them up before looking back at me, and all at once I feel my stomach drop. “Have a nice night, Avi. See you around.”
I don’t say anything, staring stiffly into his eyes as the evening grows colder, confused and terrified as I realize exactly why he looked so familiar.
The man staring at the muddy dirt road, his blond hair slick with blood and his eyes glassy and cold and unblinking. Dead. Dead because of me.
Scott smiles again, and I wonder not for the first time in my life if ghosts are real.
Beautiful blue eyes.
Chapter 3: Sunshine
But it’s not him.
It takes a moment for me to realize, but once I have, it’s obvious. His jawline is all wrong; it’s too strong, too defined, whereas the man’s from last night had been rounder and less angled. And Scott’s face is scruffy with gingery-blond hair, while the man had been clean-shaven. The more I look, the more differences there are. Scott’s nose is too sloped, his cheekbones less prominent, his wavy hair just a shade lighter, his Cupid’s bow too dramatic. He looks similar - the eyes are exactly the same, that bright icy blue that sends goosebumps over my arms - but it’s nowhere near exact.
I let out a breath.
He’s not the man from last night.
“Avi?” Scott’s voice is soft, his tone all too familiar. He’s trying to be polite - trying to make me feel like less of a freak - but he’s confused and probably uncomfortable, not that I blame him considering the fact that I’ve likely been staring intently at his face for far too long now. I feel warmth spread over my cheeks and I take a step back, looking down at my bare feet, my toes wiggling in the damp sand. Scott is quiet, and I want to tell him that I’m sorry and that I don’t mean to make him feel awkward, but the words are gone, just like they’ve been gone for years, and so I simply stand there and wait for him to walk away.
A minute or two passes and his feet stay exactly where they’re positioned in front of mine. He’s wearing blue flip-flops, and his toenails are painted purple and pink and yellow. I can make out a faint stretch of black ink on the inside of one of his ankles - a tattoo, maybe - but I can’t see what it is from where I’m standing. I wonder if he has any other tattoos. The thought makes my blush worse.
Another minute passes and he still hasn’t moved. Finally, after what seems like ages, his heels turn and I let out a breath, expecting him to walk back down the beach the way he came. He doesn’t walk away, though, instead crossing his legs and plopping himself down onto the sand, craning his head up so that he’s seated directly in my line of vision. His eyes meet mine and he smiles, and part of me is terrified that this is the lead up to a cruel joke, though his face is still friendly and his smile kind. I swallow, shifting nervously, and he rests his arms behind him so that he can lean back and survey me curiously.
“Well, it didn’t seem like you were going to look at me on your own, so I improvised.” He hesitates, biting at his lip with something like anxiety playing within his eyes. “I hope that’s okay? I - I don’t mean to be intrusive, but you seemed upset and I’d be a dick if I just left you here...”
I don’t say anything, obviously, and his brow furrows after a moment.
“It’s okay if you want me to leave. Do - do you?”
I look away, not even sure if I do or not. He’s nice. He’s really nice. But he also looks just like the man I possibly killed last night, and the idea that it might have been his brother, or his cousin, or somebody in his family is too much for my stomach to handle. My arms cross over my chest and I can feel my shoulders hunching forward protectively, wishing I could answer though I’m interrupted before I even have the chance to consider what I would say.
“Avi?” a voice calls from behind me, and I turn to see Esther making her way down the beach towards us. The tension eases from my body and I take a step towards her, glancing back to see Scott standing and wiping the sand from his shorts. “Hey, Bee,” Esther continues, wrapping her arm around my shoulders when she reaches me. Her eyes are concerned and something akin to disapproval flashes over her face when she looks over at Scott. “Everything okay?”
Scott steps towards her quickly, holding out his hand and giving a nervous smile. My stomach aches with guilt. “Uh, I’m - I’m Scott. Nice to meet you.”
“Scott,” Esther says, shaking his hand apprehensively. “Nice to meet you. I’m Avi’s sister, Esther.” She turns her attention back to me, her eyebrows knitted together, worried just as she’s always been with me. “What were you guys up to?”
“Just talking,” Scott answers easily, and despite everything I can’t help but smirk at his answer.
“Talking,” Esther repeats, her eyes narrowing. I bite my lip and look out over Old Goldwater, trying not to laugh. “Really. You and Avi were... talking.”
Scott seems to realize his mistake and gives a laugh, rubbing at the back of his neck and bowing his head a little. “Well, not really talking, but…” He trails off, his eyes flicking over to meet mine, and he looks so sweet that I feel a genuine smile break over my face. His shoulders relax and he smiles, too, his eyes twinkly and bright. “I was actually letting him know that he should drop by our cabin tomorrow,” he says after a moment, and something in my tummy flutters. “A few of us were gonna go on a hike up to the waterfall. He should come.” He looks back over to Esther. “You should come, too.”
Esther nods, though she’s still studying him cautiously. “Thanks. I’ll think about it.”
“Right,” Scott says, unfazed by her obvious disinterest. “Well, I should get going, it’s getting late.” His eyes meet mine and he smiles again. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
I hesitate. I should say no. I hardly know him, and he looks all too much like somebody I thought I’d killed, and going with him tomorrow means spending time with complete strangers, something which I always do my best to avoid. But he’s sweet, and he’s smiling at me, and for once in my life I don’t want to say no. I give him a slow nod, my cheeks growing warmer, and his kind smile turns into a big, goofy grin.
“Awesome,” he says, all dimply and cute. My stomach flutters again. “Fantastic. I’ll see you tomorrow, then. It was nice meeting you, Esther.” He doesn’t look at her as he says it, though, his eyes lingering on mine. It’s the sort of look that means something, his gaze nearly overwhelming it’s so different than what I’m used to. It makes me feel big. Important. He’s looking at me like I’m something that matters - like I’m not just some shadowed soul, caught between existence and nullity. He’s looking at me like he can see me. He’s looking at me like he wants to see me.
“Nice meeting you, too,” Esther’s saying, and Scott nods thoughtfully before smiling again, taking a step back towards his cabin.
“Bye, Avi,” he says, and I manage a small, damn near bashful wave. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a nice night.”
Esther turns to me when he’s gone, but I keep my eyes set on his retreating figure, struck by how beautiful he suddenly seems. The setting sun makes his hair brazen with auburn and gold, the breadth of his shoulders contrasting the taper of his waist, and I find myself blushing at how pleasing his proportions are. It’s a weird thought, but it’s true. I never really notice bodies, male or female, but his is captivating. He’s broad and tall and bigger than me, probably stronger, too, but instead of making me feel small and intimidated like large men usually do, it’s reassuring. Everything about him is reassuring.
“Bee?” Esther sounds worried. I finally look over at her, at the draw of her brow and the way her chin is set. Protective. It’s how she looked when she used to keep me safe from bullies, after everything that happened. There had been countless times when she’d interfered in a confrontation that I could do nothing to stop, back when I didn’t talk and the kids at school had started making fun of me and calling me Dopey. She always came bursting in like a knight in shining armor, shooting insults right back at them until they got bored and left me alone. That protectiveness never really stopped, and even though I’m twenty-four now, she still sometimes acts like I’m a damsel in distress that she needs to save.
“You okay?” she’s asking, her arm comforting around my shoulders. “He looked like he was bothering you.”
I shake my head, glancing back over to find Scott again, but he’s already out of sight. “I’m fine,” I say quietly, starting back up the beach towards our cabin. Esther’s arms slips down from my shoulders and she falls into step beside me, kicking up the stray stones and empty snail shells that litter the sand. “He’s nice,” I continue, tucking my hands in my pockets and swaying a bit as another smile pulls at my lips. “He’s really nice.”
Esther nods, her silence humming with unsaid thoughts. “That’s good,” she says slowly. “Are you really going to go hike with him tomorrow?”
“I want to,” I whisper. “He’s sweet…”
She pauses and turns to me, and from the look on her face I know that I’m in for an infamous big-sister-talking-to. “Bee…” She hesitates, tucking her hair back and scanning her eyes over Old Goldwater. “You don’t know him. You just met.”
I can feel the butterflies in my stomach dying off one by one. “I know that.”
“He might seem really nice, but you’ve only known him a few hours and I don’t think it’s a good idea to...to build him up so much in your head, you know?”
I don’t say anything, staring down at my feet and nudging a pale stone with my big toe. She sighs, her arm looping through mine.
“I’m not trying to ruin your mood,” she says gently, tugging me along as she starts walking again. “But I don’t want you to end up disappointed if he’s not as great as you make him out to be.”
I swallow, my throat dry. “But he’s nice…”
“He might be very nice,” Esther concedes, “but he also might be not-so-nice. I just…I don’t want him to be another Timothy.”
I flinch at the name, my eyes set on the ground as we walk. She has a point. Of course she does. She has a point - a valid point - and I hate it.
Way back, when I was sixteen or seventeen and still had trouble speaking to anybody but Esther, there were always those people every so often who were fascinated with me. Avriel Kaplan, the boy who wouldn’t talk. They thought it made me interesting, compelling, romantic. They always wanted to know more, to know why. They wanted to be the one to fix me, the one to finally get Avi Kaplan to speak again. And then, when they finally realized that they couldn’t, they always left. It never bothered me because I never cared about any of them, never allowed myself to care. Except for Timothy. Timothy was different. And Timothy hurt the most.
I’d been eighteen and a freshman at the local community college. Timothy sat beside me in my Intro to Literature seminar, and he was nice. He always made jokes when the professor wasn’t paying attention, but despite that he was ridiculously smart and eloquent. He let me copy his notes when my mind wandered during class, and he gave me rides home after our Wednesday class, buying me coffee and pieces of honey bread at Starbucks when winter came around. And he was always so sweet. We were never anything more than friends, but I found myself wondering what it would be like to hold his hand, to kiss him, to have him kiss me back. I thought I loved him, thought he would be the one to finally break me out of this hell I’d been living in ever since everything that had happened. By that point I’d been going to speech therapy for four years on and off, and while I still couldn’t bring myself to talk to anybody but Esther, for the first time I actually wanted try. I wanted to talk. Timothy made me want to talk - and not just the bits and pieces I usually managed, but real, proper conversations - because there was so much I wanted to say to him, so much I wanted to do, so much I wanted to give. And so I tried. For him, I tried, and it was awful, and it was exhausting, but I tried because I loved him and I wanted to be more for him. I tried. And it worked.
And then he left.
It was gradual, but obvious. The more I started to speak, the less interested he became. I still don’t know if it was because he liked being the one to control what was said, or if he had built up some fantasy of me in his mind that my self-expression had ruined, or if he just simply didn’t like me anymore, but once that semester ended he stopped responding to my texts and always ignored me when I saw him on campus. He’d become my best friend and I’d wanted him to become more. I wanted to tell him everything on my mind, everything I felt for him, everything that had happened. He was the only person I actually cared about besides Esther, and then he left. He left because of me. Gone as though he’d never been there in the first place. Like a shadow. Or a ghost.
And it broke my heart.
After that, I stopped talking again. Esther was the only one who got more than silence, but even then everything I said was a near echo of her words. Dr. Napan, my speech therapist, grew less and less hopeful. Technically I could speak, but after everything it just got to be too much, all of it, and it stayed too much. So now I simply stick to nodding and shaking my head when it comes to strangers, the simplest form of communication, and it’s easier this way. I don’t talk, and people don’t bother me, and when they try to - when it feels as though they may be another Timothy - I ignore them.
Except for Scott.
Because Scott is different, and Esther is right. He’s sweet, and kind, and beautiful, and for the first time in six years I’m absolutely captivated by another person. And it feels just like it did with Timothy.
I swallow and look out across Old Goldwater, my throat tightening. Esther’s arm wraps around my shoulder and she pulls me into a hug, her voice soft.
“I just want to make sure that you’re safe, Bee,” she whispers. “And I want to make sure that you don’t get hurt. By all means, be friends with Scott, get to know him. He might be a great guy - hell, he probably is. Just...be careful, okay?”
I nod slowly but don’t say anything as we walk the rest of the way up to our cabin. I can see the lights on the front porch of Scott’s, the group of people gathered together and laughing loudly, and I feel a tug in my chest to go to them. I catch the faint outline of broad shoulders and a gleam of blond hair, and that ache - that want - only grows. I look away, teeth chattering, before following Esther back up the darkening path.
That night, I dream of crinkly blue eyes and a sweet smile. And in the morning, when Scott comes to our cabin to see if I’m still interested in going on the hike with them, I have Esther tell him that I’m not feeling well while I watch on silently from behind the kitchen door. He looks surprised, a little crestfallen, but he nods and leaves, and that’s all it takes.
Esther spends the morning down by the water before leaving at around four in the afternoon to see a mechanic. Our car has been acting up since we arrived - since I hit the man with the beautiful blue eyes - but when I mention the correlation Esther only rolls her eyes. The front bumper is in pristine condition, she argues, not even a scratch, and as much as it doesn’t make sense I have to concede. At the speed I’d been going, if I’d hit somebody it would have left a dent of significant size. Esther tells me again and again that there was no one there, that I hadn’t hit anybody, and as much as I disagree - as much as I know that the man was real - I can’t argue against facts. She hadn’t seen him, the car is unmarked, and I had been exhausted when it happened. My eyes were probably playing tricks on me. It seems a cop-out, but at this point there’s nothing I can do to argue my side - and it’s not as though I particularly want to be right, considering such a triumph would inherently confirm manslaughter. And so I try and do as Esther says, and I try to let it go. It had been late, and I had been driving for hours, and I was probably just seeing things. I didn’t hurt anybody. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault.
I’m still stuck on such unpleasant thoughts when I bring my guitar down to the beach that afternoon once she leaves for the mechanic. The sun is still high in the sky, hindered only by a wayward cloud or two, and I can almost hear Dad’s voice humming the first verse of You Are My Sunshine like he always used to do on days like this when I was little. He wasn’t the best singer, but he’d prop me up on his shoulders and I’d sing along, reaching my tiny arms up and up and up to try and touch the sunbeams. He always said that maybe when I got older I’d be able to reach, and I could capture the rays of light in a pretty glass jar and save them for a rainy day. I’d loved the idea so much but I hated the fact that I would have to wait, so one morning I woke up to a tiny bottle next to my bed with a white label on the side that read Extra Sunshine. Dad said that I should try and fill it up whenever I got the chance with whatever made me happy, whatever made me smile, and that each little token would count just as much as a ray from the sun. I’d stuffed it full of doodled pictures and pretty stones and acorns that I found near the bushes of our cabin, and he was right - it worked. Whenever it was rainy out I would dump out my sunshine and look through it all, the cloudy sky outside an insignificant memory. I still have the jar - I even brought it with me, tucked away in the side pocket of my suitcase so that it wouldn’t break on the way here.
It’s empty now.
I shake my head and force my mind to clear, such heavy thoughts too much to handle on a beautiful day like this. I settle in the grass just before the shoreline of Old Goldwater, my guitar resting back against my chest comfortably as I strum a few chords. My calloused fingertips run over the strings, well-acquainted, and I look out over the deep blue of the water, happy to let the music flow through me of its own volition.
I don’t notice him until he’s here, settling himself next to me as though there’s no place he’d rather be, blond hair messy and forehead beaded with sweat but those blue eyes still crinkling up at me. He’s smiling, and it’s kind, and everything about me freezes.
“Hey,” Scott says, resting his arms behind him so he can lean back and raise his face to the sun. I hadn’t noticed before, but he has a sleeve of tattoos curled over his left bicep, a garden of inky flowers. It’s beautiful. He smells like peaches, too, and never before have I been so distinctly aware of how pleasant peaches smell. His legs are sprawled out before him, long and lanky, and he’s barefoot, painted toes wiggling in the cool grass. He looks worn out, probably from the hike, but happy. He smiles over at me again, and I want to know how his scruffy cheek would feel against mine. “Feeling better?”
My cheeks are blazing, because of course I said that I was sick this morning, and of course he’s sweet enough to play along with such a blatant lie. I nod quickly before fixing my eyes back on the body of my guitar, figuring that it’s safer to avoid his gaze altogether.
“Good,” he says, and the sincerity makes me all the guiltier. “I’m glad. It’s honestly so shitty to be sick during the summer, especially when it’s so nice out.”
I can feel his eyes on me but I don’t look up, flinching a moment later when he taps a finger on my guitar.
“Do you play?”
I nod again and I can hear the smile in his voice.
“Will you play something for me?”
I catch his gaze without meaning to, and he’s grinning over at me as though we’re old friends just catching up. He looks intrigued, though, like he’s trying to figure me out, trying to understand. I’ve seen that look before and I know it never ends well, but I can’t help myself when I tilt my chin forward and play the first few measures of a Paper Kites song. His eyes slip shut and his lips quirk into a tiny smile, his head swaying in time to the music. His knee bumps against mine, but he doesn’t move it away.
“Pretty,” he says softly when I finish. “Sad, though. Do you sing, too?”
I hesitate, and I must have made quite the face because he laughs, his fingers curling over his mouth to hide his smile.
“Sometimes, then?” he teases, and I blush before nodding again. “Will you sing for me? Or is it kind of like the talking thing where you just don’t?”
His words don’t really sit well with me and I look up, squinting from the sun as I whisper, “I can talk, you know.”
He looks surprised, though it immediately morphs into an apology. “Of course. I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. No, I - I know you can talk, you introduced yourself to Kirstie and I yesterday. You just...prefer not to?”
I shrug, plucking at the guitar strings. “It’s complicated.”
Scott nods. “Understandable. Is it like an anxiety thing?”
“Something like that.”
He nods again before resting back so that he’s laying in the grass, his hands tucked under his chin and those lazy blue eyes crinkling up at me. “You weren’t actually sick this morning, were you?”
My face grows warm and I look away.
“It’s okay,” he says softly. “I didn’t mean to pressure you last night when I invited you. I just thought you might like to come. Get to know everybody, you know. I promise they’re nice.”
I don’t say anything and he continues after a moment, his voice so gentle it feels like a lullaby.
“If I’m bothering you, you can just tell me to leave, you know. Or, I don’t know, furiously shake your head or something.”
“You’re not bothering me,” I whisper, and that pretty smile returns.
I nod and he looks so dimply and happy that I can’t keep myself from smiling, too.
“We’re having a campfire tonight,” he says after a few moments of content silence, tugging his fingers through his floppy blond hair. “We’ll be cooking hot dogs and s'mores and stuff. You should come. Only if you actually want to, though, you don’t have to lie to get out of it this time.”
I hesitate but nod again, my face growing even warmer. “I’d like to give it another shot.”
He grins. “Cool. I’ll come get you at like eight, then?”
I nod and he pushes himself up, wiping the grass from back of his shorts. His shoulders look even broader up close, and that look in his eyes - that utter attentiveness - is still there. He’s looking at me, and I feel big, and it feels so surprisingly nice.
“By the way, Avi?”
I look up at him, shielding my eyes from the sun and the brilliant gleam of his smile. “Mm?”
He winks at me, and I swear that my face is on fire.
“You’re really cute.”
Chapter 4: Campfire
Scott comes to our cabin promptly at eight, his floppy hair tucked into a knitted maroon beanie and his eyes glinting from the lantern of the front porch. Esther is watching from the kitchen window as he knocks at the door, her gaze disapproving on the surface but flickering with unavoidable concern beneath. She’s worried - of course she’s worried, her baby brother is falling headfirst into a decidedly precarious situation that has the potential to end very badly - and part of me would be annoyed with her if I wasn’t so thankful. She knows that I don’t do this; I don’t meet people, I don’t talk to them, and god knows that I don’t voluntarily go along with them after only twenty-four hours of acquaintanceship. But Scott feels different, and he makes me illogical, and I know that I need her right now to be my common sense because frankly, I can’t.
There’s a brief greeting between the two of them and I huddle behind her as she gives him a less intense version of the shovel talk, my face on fire at the barely restrained snarl in her voice. Scott is calm as ever, agreeing to not to keep me out too long and to be sure to walk me back home after. It seems a bit much considering we only live about a hundred yards away, but it appeases Esther and a moment later she’s kissing me on the cheek and sending us off down the dirt trail past the blueberry bushes. I glance back to see her watching us from behind the screen door, her eyebrows pinched together and and her lips pursed, and I let out a slow breath before turning forward again.
The night is cold and I shiver despite the hoodie I’m wearing. Scott glances over at me, nudging my arm with his and giving an easy grin.
“The fire will warm you up,” he says, though he’s moved closer so that I can feel his body heat through the thin fabric of my jacket. I smile gratefully and give a nod, tucking my hands in my pockets. “So,” he starts a moment later, eyeing me with an amused look. “Is it just me, or does your sister completely hate me?”
My face flushes and I shake my head.
He hums softly, thoughtfully. “She’s just protective then?”
I hesitate, unsure if protective is the right word. It’s more than that. I’m all that she has, and she’s all that I have, and it’s been like that for years now. If anything ever happened to either of us, I’m not sure if the other could handle it after everything that we’ve already gone through. Protective doesn’t even begin to describe the relationship we have. People say that they’ll do anything for someone they love all the time, but they never really mean it. That’s the thing, though. We mean it.
Scott hums again and I focus my attention back on him. He’s looking up at the indigo sky, seemingly unbothered that I didn’t answer his question. He looks far away, and I want to ask what he’s thinking, where his mind has wandered off to, but he glances over at me before I have the chance to work up the courage.
“A bit of forewarning,” he says, and I nod. “Everyone’s excited to meet you tonight, and they’re usually chill, but sometimes they can get to be a little much. If you feel anxious or anything, just let me know and I can get you some space, yeah?”
I pause, surprised at the sincerity in his voice. He’s watching me evenly, those blue eyes warm with kindness and vacant of any teasing. He’s serious. He’s telling me what to expect, and he’s ready to adapt to whatever I need - me, a complete stranger. It’s not just sweet, but it eases the tiny knot of doubt that’s been sitting in my stomach, the fear that coming with him was a mistake. I can’t help the smile that breaks over my face, biting my lip and looking down at my shoes.
“Thank you,” I manage to whisper, and when I look back up he’s smiling, too.
“Anytime,” he says softly. “Oh, and Avi? One more thing.”
I nod for him to continue, and a wicked look comes into his eyes.
“I hope you like ghost stories.”
I take another sip from my Coke, scanning the circle of five or six people gathered around the campfire and chatting aimlessly to one another. A few of them shoot curious glances my way - no doubt interested because of Scott’s brief introduction of “Avi this is everyone, everyone this is Avi” - but thankfully none of them linger too long. Scott’s busy adding more wood and newspaper to build up the fire, and he pauses once he’s finished to say something to a lean boy with raven hair who’s passing by with a carton of strawberries in his hands. The boy nods and a moment later his eyes slide over to me, a gaze that might have been piercing if he wasn’t smiling with the sweetest dimples I’ve ever seen. He hands the strawberries off to a girl with bright red hair and squeezes his way past Scott, who adds another log to the fire before turning and disappearing up the back porch stairs of the cabin. I watch as he goes, my heart picking up in my chest and a thick layer of panic settling over me, before a moment later my attention is forced back to the raven-haired boy as he plops himself down in the chair next to mine.
“Hey,” he says, his voice higher than I’d been expecting. “Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here?”
He must see my confusion because a moment later he giggles and nods his head forward, wrapping his dark green bomber jacket tighter around his shoulders. He’s not a terribly small person - more or less the same size as I am - but the jacket is so large on him it looks like he’s being swallowed by a frog. My face grows warm and he smiles.
“Your shirt,” he says, and I look down at the old band tank top I’m wearing. It’s one of Dad’s. “Pink Floyd. My mom was a stan back in the 70s, says she snuck backstage at one of their shows and followed David Gilmour into his dressing room, and honestly - me, too. He was damn sexy. But guitarists usually always are.”
I hesitate before nodding dumbly, unsure of what to make of this tiny and loud human. He laughs and those dimples come back out to play.
“I’m Mitch, by the way,” he says, resting his head in his hand and letting his eyes wander over me. “And you’re Avi.” He pauses, a slow grin pulling at his lips. “I can see what Scott meant. A total Dad with a capital D. Well,” he smirks, “we’ll have to wait and see about the capital D, but I have faith.”
My eyes grow wide but he only laughs again, glancing up when somebody calls his name from across the circle. His smile softens and he pushes himself up, shooting me a wink and a quick goodbye. A tall, dark-skinned man is waiting for him by the fire with two beer bottles, and Mitch presses a kiss to his cheek and wraps his lithe fingers around the neck of one of the bottles, saying something that makes the man laugh loudly. He glances over at me one last time as they wander back towards the cabin and away from the crowd of people, the corner of his mouth pulled into a smirk that makes me shrink back against my chair.
I look down at my hands, a strange, unpleasant feeling growing in my tummy. I guess that’s what Scott meant when he said that his friends can be a lot to handle. Harmless, obviously, and likely nice beneath all of the teasing, but still far too much for me to handle on my own. The minutes pass by and I feel myself growing smaller and smaller until I’m nearly curled in on myself, my heart thumping like a kickdrum. Scott’s right inside and I know he’ll probably be back soon, but part of me just wants to leave without saying anything, to get away while nobody’s looking. I don’t belong here. It’s obvious, and it’s stupid to think that I could. It’s wrong. All of this is wrong.
I drop my Coke on the ground and push myself up from my chair, shoving myself towards the back porch of the cabin before freezing in my stride at the sight of Scott coming down the stairs with a package of marshmallows and a few chocolate bars in his hands. He smiles when sees me, those pretty blue eyes twinkling as though I’m the most important thing on his mind. It’s almost enough to make me want to stay, and it’s certainly enough to make me feel guilty for wanting to leave.
“Sorry for disappearing on you,” he says easily as he rounds his chair, tossing the food on the ground beside him. “Kirstie needed some help, but I promise I’m back now.” He looks around, a cute little dimple forming between his pale eyebrows. “I swear I saw Mitchy come over to talk to you. He’s about your height, voice of an angel, little queen?” His eyes meet mine again and the intensity of his stare makes my stomach do somersaults like it’s fucking training for the Olympic gymnastics team. “He’s kind of hard to miss. He said he wanted to meet you.”
“Um.” I cough, nodding my head once. My tongue feels too big for my mouth, but I manage to whisper, “Yeah, he - he came over.”
Scott’s face lights up, and it’s enough to make that uncomfortable feeling in my stomach lessen at least a little bit. “Really? Oh my god, yay. Did you meet Kevy, too?”
I shake my head and fidget with my fingers, tapping out the beat that my heart should be at and aligning it with my breaths. It’s a coping skill Dr. Napan taught me years ago, something to help me ground myself when my mind kicks into overdrive. Scott glances down at my fingers before back up at my face, his excitement faltering as concern shines through the cracks. He studies me a moment before resting his hand on my arm and tugging me a few feet outside the circle of people. Even being such a small distance away from everyone makes the anxiety in my veins slowly start to fizzle out, and Scott moves again to stand directly before me, blocking my line of vision so that all I can see are his broad shoulders and the dark canopy of pine trees. I take a deep breath, tapping out the beats of my heart until they’re at least somewhat regular. Scott watches me, silent, waiting patiently until I’ve managed to calm myself enough to function as a normal human again.
“Are you okay?” he asks softly, as though he’s afraid if he speaks too loud he’ll wake some slumbering beast. It’s sweet and so terribly innocent. He really has no idea. I nod but he shifts, dissatisfied. “I - I messed up, didn’t I? I left you alone.”
“New people,” I breathe, nibbling at my lower lip. “New people and crowds are always hard.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, and he looks so guilty that it’s making me feel bad. His hand is still on my arm and I rest my fingers over his, squeezing gently and giving a half-smile that I hope is enough to reassure him. He smiles back weakly, so naturally kind and good. He doesn’t know, and there’s no reason for him to, but he’s trying and that’s more than anyone else has ever done.
“It’s okay,” I whisper.
“I’ll do better,” he says, and it almost sounds like a plea, like he’s scared I’m going to leave. He’s not really wrong to worry, and I wince at how I’d honestly thought it would be okay to just sneak away without saying anything. Desperate times, and all that, but he deserves better. “I promise,” he continues quietly. “I promise. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I say again, and I mean it.
He looks conflicted but nods after a moment, stepping back towards the campfire and offering out his hand. I stare at it for a long, long time, terrified of what it might mean and what it might not, before I finally shove away my thoughts and take it anyway. He smiles and it looks almost normal, and I manage to smile back.
“Okay. Come on, then,” he says. “Let’s get back to the others.”
“Way back in the fifties, down in Alabama, there was an old lady who lived on the edge of a small town right beside the elementary school. The kids would walk by her house every day on their way to school, and every day she’d be sitting on her front porch in her rocking chair, rocking back and forth and back and forth and creaking away. They called her Old Suzy, though nobody really knew if that was her name or not. Nobody really knew anything about her. All they knew was that she was out there, every morning and every afternoon when the kids walked to and from to school, creaking back and forth on her rocking chair. Creak… creak… creak...” There’s a pause, and the woman telling the story - I think Scott introduced her as Megg, but I can’t really remember - surveys the rest of us around the circle, a wicked gleam in her eyes from the campfire. I shiver as the night air grows chilled, and Scott glances over at me with a grin.
“Scared?” he teases, and my face burns.
“Cold,” I whisper back, and a moment later his arm - which has been resting along the back of my chair - settles warmly around my shoulders instead. My face flushes even more but I don’t protest, only tucking my chin into the collar of my jacket and leaning into his side a little more. He smells cinnamony and smoky and so damn good. The butterflies in my tummy have officially gone haywire.
“One morning,” Megg continues dramatically, and I look back over at her and force myself to listen despite my general disinterest in the story. “One of the boys from town, little Johnny Cashman, was late on his way to school. When he passed by Old Suzy’s house, he noticed something was different. He couldn’t tell what it was, and he was late anyway, so he hurried on into school and he forgot all about it. That afternoon, as the kids walked home past Old Suzy’s house, all of them commented on how something was different. Something wasn’t quite right. But none of them could tell what it was. The next day, the same thing happened. Something was different. Something was off. Old Suzy was there on her front porch every morning and afternoon, but something it wasn’t the same as before.
“A few days later the school was shut down for having a plumbing problem, and there was an awful smell all around because of it. The kids walked home early and it was then that someone dared little Jenny Marbury to run into Old Suzy’s yard, touch the front porch, and run back without getting caught. She wasn’t one to turn down a dare, and so she marched her way into Old Suzy’s yard and through the front lawn up to the porch. The wind picked up and made the smell from the stalled plumbing even worse, and Jenny was just a few feet away from the porch when she realized why something had seemed off about Old Suzy’s house. And so very, very slowly, little Jenny finally looked up at the front porch, only to see the rotting body of Old Suzy sitting in her rocking chair, maggots in her eyes as she rocked back and forth in the wind and creaked again and again for the first time in days. Creak… creak… creak…”
“Ew,” Mitch whines loudly, and everybody laughs as the spell is broken as easily as it was cast. Low murmurs start up as Megg takes a sip of her beer with a chuckle, and there seems to be a general consensus that while the story was creepy, mostly it was just long-winded and kind of dull. The criticism seems harsh to me, but Megg is relatively unbothered as she reaches for another beer, and I write it off as good-natured teasing. Mitch is the only one still glaring at her, looking thoroughly disgusted. “You were supposed to tell a ghost story,” he says, wrinkling his nose, “not a scar-young-children-for-life story.”
Megg rolls her eyes, though she’s grinning like she’s never been happier to be challenged. “Yeah? Fine then, cupcake, you tell one.”
“Easy,” Mitch says, sitting up straighter and eyeing the rest of the circle until everybody grows quiet again, anticipation hovering in the air like beads of rain. I shiver and tuck my nose into my jacket as the wind picks up, grateful when Scott tightens his arm around my shoulders. “It’s late at night, and a man settles down for bed. He switches off every light in the house, turns off the television, and climbs under the sheets. He’s just on the edge of sleep when he hears the door to his bedroom creak open and quiet little footsteps cross the room towards him. He breathes a sigh of relief when he realizes that it’s just his daughter coming to see him because she had a nightmare. Still half-asleep, he takes her hand and leads her back up to her room, tucking her into bed and mumbling his way through a bedtime story. He kisses her forehead and turns to leave, smiling when he hears her little voice say, ‘Night night, Daddy.’ It’s only when he’s back in his own room, crawling under the covers and on the edge of sleep again, that he remembers that his daughter has been dead for six years now and he lives alone.”
Silence hangs around us and Mitch leans back in his chair, smirking triumphantly at the slight shiver that grips ahold of everybody. But not a moment later Megg pushes herself on the edge of her chair and claims that he stole the story from Reddit. A faint blush on Mitch’s cheeks is enough to reveal the truth, and everybody hounds him for an original, shouting over one another and laughing so hard it echoes back through the surrounding woods. Soon enough Kevin, the man who was with Mitch earlier, comes to the rescue and tells the next story, reminiscing about some encounter he had when he was a teenager and trespassed through some old state school property. Kirstie follows, and then Nicole joins in, and then Megg again. They go around and around, sharing ghost stories like it’s some old tradition of theirs and teasing one another when a particular story doesn’t go over too well. Some of them are just okay, but others are terrifying and make me glance over my shoulder at the black woods behind us, unsure of what I think is out there and too afraid to really consider it. I’ve never really believed in ghosts before, but the eerily quiet darkness and the memory of the man with dead blue eyes in front of my car are enough to make goosebumps tickle the back of my neck.
Strangely enough, Scott is the only person who doesn’t tell a story. There are a few times when everyone turns to him expectantly, like it’s unusual for him to be so quiet, but he only shrugs and claims that he doesn’t have anything new to share. I’m curious if that’s really true, or if he’s staying silent for some other reason. I’m not vain enough to think that it’s because of me, but I can’t help but wonder.
It’s close to midnight when things finally start to slow. The ghost stories have faded to regular conversation and I allow myself to relax back in my chair, looking around the circle of such curiously strange people. Mitch has fallen asleep on Kevin’s lap, his face smooth and so much younger without those dark, knowing eyes staring out at you. Kevin and Kirstie are talking quietly, their heads bent together and their voices low, and despite the apparent intensity of their discussion, every so often Kevin’s hand runs over the length of Mitch’s spine and tangles in his hair, almost as though he can’t help himself. I smile and look over to Megg and Nicole, who have decided that playing slaps is more interesting than any ghost story could ever be. The fire has died down to nothing but smoldering embers, glowing faintly in the dark night. The tip of my nose aches from the cold and my right ear - which has been resting against the side of my chair for the past hour or so - has become unpleasantly numb. My eyes wander up to Scott, who’s looking over into the woods almost as though he can see something there. His face is set and stony, something akin to hope flickering beneath the surface, but a moment later he looks down at me and it melts away into a sweet smile.
“Ready to go?” he asks, lifting his arm from around my shoulders. I try not to pout, shivering at the chill that immediately begins to bite. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.”
We say our goodnights to everybody around the circle, and I’m surprised when all of them - even Mitch, in his sleepy state - remember my name. Scott leads me around the side of their cabin, using his phone as a flashlight despite the wash of moonlight that acts as guide, and we round up on the path past the blueberry bushes and down towards the lake. Old Goldwater looks as though it’s made of ice, glittering through each soft wave and freezing upon the shore. Scott slows as we get closer, eyes soft, and I linger beside him a moment before settling on one of the logs that looks out over the horizon, not quite ready to go home yet. He joins me, his thigh pressed against mine and his hands folded in front of himself, and his thoughts are so loud I can hear them dancing around in his head. They’re frenzied. Almost panicked.
“Did you have a nice time?” he asks, and for some reason he looks guilty again.
I can’t help my frown, clearing my throat. “Yes.”
He bites his lip. “Are you lying?”
My frown deepens. “No...”
He nods and looks back out over Old Goldwater, and the crazed dance of his mind begins again. I don’t want to intrude, don’t want to bother him, but he looks like he’s about to think himself to death and if anyone knows how awful that feels, it’s me. I turn to face him, my knees bumping against his hands.
His head hangs low, shoulders slumping, before a moment later he’s mimicked my position and is staring down at me with those bright eyes. The moonlight makes him look softer, younger. It occurs to me after a second that I don’t even know his age.
“I wanted you to have a nice time,” he says finally, mouth quirked to the side. “And looking back on tonight, I can’t really see how you could have. Like, you sat there for like four hours drinking Coke and listening to my friends - who you don’t even know - tell stupid stories. That’s it.”
“That’s not it,” I argue quietly. “I - I mean, I had a s’more, too, so…”
He squints at me, eyebrows raised, before a moment later he cracks a smile and shakes his head. “I…” He laughs, rubbing the back of his neck, and I can’t help my grin. “Okay, technically that’s true. Yes, you had a s’more. But like…” He sighs, his smile fading. “I don’t know. The more time that went by, the shittier I felt. Because it wasn’t really that fun for me, so I don’t know how it could have been fun for you.”
I shrug. “It was okay.”
“That’s what I mean, though. It was okay. But it wasn’t great. I feel like I wasted your night. I wanted to hang out with you, but we hardly talked. Well, not that we really talk that much to begin with, or that you do, but…” He shoots me a wry grin. “Feel free to stop me if I’m being a dick, by the way, because I’m honestly starting to feel like one.”
I shake my head, smiling. “You’re fine.”
“Fine, but still,” he groans, tugging at his beanie. “And I realize I sound like a literal toddler right now, but I still feel like I wasted your time.”
“Okay,” I say slowly, crossing my arms, unsure of what exactly he’s looking for. “We - we can hang out now?”
“It’s almost midnight.”
He squints. “You’d want to hang out with me right now? After the past four hours? In the literal middle of the night?”
I shrug again, pushing myself up and starting down the path that leads to the shore. “Sure,” I call back, tucking my hands in my jacket pockets and kicking at a stone until it rolls into the water with a quiet glug. I can hear Scott following me, and he touches my arm gently.
“Really?” he asks, and when I turn to face him I’m struck suddenly with how beautiful he is. I smile, nodding, and he hesitates before stepping forward. “You know, you’re talking to me. A lot.”
I am. I hadn’t noticed it, but I am, and all at once anxiety shoots through my stomach - pure terror that he’ll tell me he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t want to hear it, he wishes I was quieter. But he only smiles, and I feel like I’m melting.
“I like it,” he whispers. “So much. I really, really like talking to you.”
My face flushes and his smile grows, and I’m aware of how many nerve endings there are in my body and how he’s making each and every one of them buzz uncontrollably. His hand moves from my arm and he steps back slowly, looking out over the lake with that pretty smile still on his face.
We’re quiet, and I settle down on the ground after a few minutes, him joining me not long after. He slips off his shoes and wiggles his toes in the cool sand, resting back lazily and looking out at the water. The cuff of his jeans rolls up a bit and I catch a long stretch of dark ink along the inside of his ankle, though the fading moonlight isn’t enough for me to make it out clearly. It looks like a tattoo and I find myself wondering how many he has, only to blush at the thought of where they might be.
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” Scott says after a moment, and I look up to see him watching me with a grin. “Emily Dickinson. I got it when I was sixteen. It’s quite possibly the most hipster white girl thing in the world, but at least it’s not an infinity sign.”
I laugh and he crosses his leg so that I can get a better look. The script is stunning - the sort of cursive that’s nearly illegible, but gorgeous all the same - and there’s the outline of a small bird sitting on the word Hope.
“Beautiful,” I whisper, running my thumb over the words. It’s smooth except for the light blonde hairs on his ankle, the ink a startling contrast against his cream skin. “Did it hurt?”
“Not really. It just felt kind of annoying, like someone was poking me with a mechanical pencil.”
“How many do you have?”
He tilts his head to the side, looking up at the sky like he’s trying to remember. “Nine? Well, that depends if you’re counting my sleeve as individual pieces or just as one. Counting it as one, let’s go with nine.”
I raise an eyebrow. “What are the others?”
He taps the left side of his head. “Music note on my ear, Dickinson on my ankle…” He holds up his hand, where two of his fingers are darkened with ink. “Safety pin and skull, matching with Mitchy. Sleeve of flowers on my arm.” He pauses and gives me a smirk. “And the other four are a secret. Maybe I’ll show you them sometime.”
I blush and he laughs, nudging my arm.
“What about you? Do you have any? You could definitely pull off a sleeve, you’ve got the hair and beard for it.”
I shake my head and he nods, leaning back and looking up at the moon.
“Well, if you ever want to get one, let me know and I’ll take you.” He eyes me, a devilish look on his face. “I’d be honored to take your tattoo virginity.”
My mouth drops open and he laughs again, clapping his hands together and covering his mouth with his fingers. It’s quite possibly the most precious thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m too caught up with such cuteness to be embarrassed by his comment. He leans against my shoulder and giggles again, the corners of his eyes crinkly and his pretty lips curled up, and it’s the nicest sound I’ve ever heard. I could get used to hearing his laugh. I want to get used to it.
“I’m sorry,” he says once he’s recollected himself, though he doesn’t move away from where he’s leaning heavily against my shoulder. He feels warm and solid and I’m thankful he can’t see my blush in the darkness. “That was really forward. But, for the record, I meant it.”
He laughs again and now I’m grinning like an idiot, burying my face in my hands to avoid his gaze. When I finally look up, he’s flopped himself down on the sand beside me, his long legs stretched out and his arms raised above his head. He gives me a smile and I lay back, tucking my hands into my chest as the wind picks up. He rolls over onto his side to face me, and I can make out a splatter of freckles along his nose. Call me the Wicked Witch, because I’ve officially melted.
“So,” he says, his voice suddenly formal. He puts on a stern expression, though he’s still too bubbly for it to work. “Avi. Tell me about yourself. How old are you?”
I tuck my hands under my head, smiling as I look over at him. “Twenty-four. You?”
“Twenty-one, nearly twenty-two.” He thinks for a second before scooting closer. I can feel his warmth, but it only makes me shiver more. “What do you do for a living?”
“What does that mean?”
“People give me money and I write them songs.”
He pauses. “Wait, really? Holy shit, that’s so cool. What type of songs?”
“Movie soundtracks, mostly.”
A smile breaks out over his face and my tummy grows warm. I like that I can make him smile, that I can make him happy. “That’s amazing. What sort of movies?”
“I worked on Tangled.”
It takes a moment, and then he’s pushed himself up and is staring down at me incredulously. “Tangled? Like, the Disney movie Tangled? The one with Rumplesnatch or whatever her name is? You wrote the soundtrack for it?”
I shrug. “Not all of it. The main composer liked my stuff and bought the rights to some of my songs. He changed a lot of it.”
“Still, though, that’s amazing. Like...holy shit?” He shakes his head and tucks himself back down in the sand. “Damn. You’re a composer. Like an actual composer. Will you play me some of your compositions sometime?”
“Okay,” I whisper, biting my lip as another stupid smile threatens to break loose. “What do you do?”
“Well, I just graduated college and am trying desperately to escape impending responsibility. I figured I’d give myself the summer before real life begins, but I’ve already started applying for jobs anyway. Double major in Neuroscience and English Literature. My interests are heavily divided, if you couldn’t tell, though part of me just wants to throw it all away and try and become a children’s book author or something.”
“Why not do it?”
He sighs. “I don’t know. It sounds scary. And stupid.”
I smile and nudge his knee with mine. “If it makes you happy, it’s not stupid.”
He eyes me, rolling over onto his stomach and resting his chin on his hands. “Very wise words from someone who’s too young to hold such wisdom.”
“I have a lot of time to think.”
He laughs, though a moment later he tilts his head to the side and studies me curiously. “How does it work? The talking thing, I mean. Yesterday you hardly said a word, and now you’re having a full blown conversation like it’s nothing. Is it anxiety?”
I hesitate and look down at my hands. “It’s complicated.”
“But you’re talking to me?”
“Because it’s easy. And I want to. You’re not scary like other people are.”
“Oh, believe me, I can be very scary.”
I roll my eyes but don’t say anything, shivering as the wind picks up again. Scott scooches closer and rests his head next to my shoulder, and part of me wants to climb on top of him and cuddle my way into his arms like a little baby otter, while the other part is still trying to remember how to breathe regularly.
“Avi? Wait, is Avi short for anything?”
I swallow. “Avriel.”
“Avriel,” he whispers, like he likes the way it tastes on his tongue. I want to know what it tastes like, what he tastes like. “I like that. It’s pretty.”
I bite my lip. “Th-thanks…”
“Avriel?” He tucks his hands under his chin, another sweet smile tugging at his mouth. “I know we only met a few days ago, and it’s really late so I probably don’t make a lot of sense, but you’re cute and sweet and I would really like to kiss you right now. Can I?”
My face feels like it’s on fire. My lips part as a slow breath works its way out, my heart hammering like a woodpecker in my chest, and the word comes out of nowhere as I answer his question without a second thought
Chapter 5: Picnic
sorry i've been gone for like ten thousand years!!! lol i kinda forgot about this story but im back and im ready for scavi >:D
hope you enjoy, and leave me a fucking comment bc im v lonely :")
“Oh,” he says, the smile dropping off his face. It looks wrong, seeing him without a smile, without those crinkly eyes and dimples, those scruffy cheeks pink and flushed. He looks like a half-finished portrait; beautiful and filled with potential, but horribly incomplete. His gaze only holds mine for another moment before he looks away, clearing his throat. “Um - okay, sure. Of course, yeah, that’s fine.” He laughs a little, but it’s a tight, uncomfortable. “Uh - is...is there a reason why? I mean it’s fine, obviously, you don’t have to...but I - I thought…” He trails off and looks over towards me, helpless.
“Um,” I say quietly, pushing myself up. The sand is cold against my palms and I concentrate on it - the smooth chill, something real, something to keep me from floating off into those beautiful blue eyes. My stomach feels like it’s been filled with burning coals and I tug my legs into my chest. Scott’s still watching me, waiting for an answer, an explanation, but anxiety is gleefully digging its way into my thoughts, tormenting me for believing that this - whatever this is, between him and I - could ever work.
“It’s okay,” he says again, and I wish that he would stop saying that, that he would stop being so nice. He sits up, too. Our thighs are no longer touching. I grip at the sand with my fingers but it slips away. “I didn’t mean to upset you or anything, and I’m sorry if I did. I only thought…” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. Are you okay?”
I turn towards him, not even sure how I can answer such a tremendously obvious question. I’ve never been okay. For the past ten years, I’ve never once been okay. “Um,” I whisper, and suddenly I’m thirteen again and the words aren’t there. “I - I - I...I don’t…”
“Avi?” Scott sounds far away, and when I force my gaze back up it’s not him anymore. His face is blurred, messy with curves that aren’t there and horrible, bloated features that have turned his skin grey. He’s covered in blood. I swallow and look away, squeezing my hands so tightly I can feel the sting of my fingernails digging into my palms. I don’t even realize I’m crying until the tears are there, my lips wet like I’ve been kissed by the ocean. I try to breathe and it doesn’t work until finally it does. It takes a long, long time before I can look at him, but when I do his skin is cream again and he’s beautiful.
“Are…” He hesitates, his shoulders hunched. “Are you okay? Did you just…”
I wipe at my cheeks with fingers that are still trembling, tugging my legs into my chest. “Um,” I whisper, “I’m - I’m f-fine.”
He looks terrified but he manages a nod, asking softly, “Do - um, do you want me to take you back to your cabin?”
I sniffle a little, hating how childish it sounds. “Yes. Please.”
He nods again but says nothing more, helping me stand and supporting my weight when my own legs can’t. The walk up the beach and onto the smooth grass is awkward and stilted, and by the time we reach the path with the blueberry bushes I’ve decided that there’s nothing in this world I hate more than myself.
“Here,” he says, helping me up the porch stairs. My tears are gone now and my face feels coated with a thin layer of paper, cracking and ripping as I try to force a smile. He’s still looking at me like I’m something big and important, but looks are always deceiving and I know that he’s likely counting down the seconds until he can book it off the porch and never speak to me again. I look down at my shoes, wiping at my nose and sniffling again.
“I’m,” I whisper. “I - I’m sorry...”
Something warm rests on my cheek and a moment later my chin is being tilted up so that I’m looking at him. Those blue eyes are still crinkly and beautiful, but they look too glassy and his skin looks too pale and if I squint, it looks like his hairline is sticky with blood. I shrink further into myself, wishing that tonight had never happened.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” he says gently, his thumb stroking over my cheekbone before a moment later he pulls back. “I shouldn’t have asked. I didn’t mean to make you upset, it’s just - I - I guess I messed up a lot tonight, didn’t I?”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “No, you - you’re really nice. I’m sorry…”
“Avi,” he says gently. “Really, you don’t have to apologize. I don’t want you to apologize.”
“It’s just…” I swallow and look down. “You’re nice, and I - I - I’m...I’ve - I’ve never -”
“Avi,” he says again.
“I - I’ve n-never kissed anyone, and y-you…” My face aches with heat and I take a step back, until I’m pressed against the side of our cabin. “I’m sorry. I’m - I’m s-sorry.”
“Avi,” he starts again, but I’ve already opened the screen door and pushed my way into the cabin, leaving him alone on the front porch. My breathing is irregular and my stupid heart won’t stop thumping in my chest. The hallway feels too narrow and I bump against the walls as I force my way towards my room, knocking down a few pictures and wincing when they clatter to the floor. I can hear Esther calling my name from the living room but I ignore her, not stopping until I’m safely in my bed and burrowed under the covers. I’m an idiot. Such a fucking idiot. The door to my bedroom creaks open after a few minutes and the edge of my bed dips, a small hand resting on my shoulder.
“Bee?” Esther asks gently, but I just shake my head and bite at my lip so hard I can taste copper. She sighs, threading her fingers through my hair and brushing through the curls. It reminds me of what Dad used to do when he read me bedtime stories, way back before everything. It sends a shudder through me and I choke back a sob. “Bee? Avi, honey, what happened?”
I don’t say anything and she sighs, settling herself next to me and rubbing her hand over my back.
“I think Scott’s still on the porch, you know.” She brushes her fingers through a snarl in my hair and I wince at the slight tug. “What happened, honey? Did...did he try and do anything?”
I shake my head, numb. “He’s so nice.”
“Then why are you upset?”
I squeeze my eyes shut, my stomaching aching. “I…” I bite my lip, face contorting into something that feels ugly and horrible. “I…”
“It’s okay, Bee. Shh, it’s okay, you’re okay.”
“I - I just wish I didn’t have to - to b-be me anymore…”
She tenses, her long fingers frozen against my neck. I bury myself further under the covers and she sighs, voice cracking.
“C-Can you...can you go? Please. I w-want to be al-alone…”
She sighs again but a moment later the bed springs up and a thin cotton blanket is draped over my shoulders. She kisses my head, whispering, “I’ll be in my room if you need me, alright? I love you, honey. Sleep well.”
The door clicks shut and I hear the steady thump of her footsteps as she goes back down the hall. I don’t move. Somewhere outside of our cabin the wind shudders and an owl calls out sadly. I think of Scott, and it’s a mistake. I close my eyes. The night passes me by.
I don’t leave my room the next morning. Instead, I take the small glass jar labelled Extra Sunshine from my suitcase and set it on the bookshelf. It looks out of place beside the hundreds of old fishing manuals and novels written decades ago by the locals. It looks empty, sad. I dig around in my suitcase for a pen and a piece of scrap paper, hesitating a moment before scribbling out Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. I stare at the sentence for a long time, reading it and rereading it, sighing as I stuff it inside of the glass jar and pray that someday I’ll be able to open it again and not feel so helpless.
I spend the next few hours unpacking and rearranging the room so that it doesn’t look like it did back when Dad used to stay in it. Though Esther and I haven’t been to Old Goldwater for years now, nothing has changed, even down to the worn floral quilt that lays across the end of the bed. The constancy is somewhat reassuring, but it also makes my chest ache in a way I can’t quite describe. It makes me forget everything that happened, everything bad, and that’s good. But when I remember again - when I remember that I’m not twelve anymore, and Dad and Mom aren’t here with us, they aren’t anywhere - that’s bad. It’s really, really bad. Change is good. Change makes it hurt a little less.
It’s almost noon by the time I’m satisfied with the room. I’ve pushed the bed up against the far wall, right beside the vast window so that I’ll be able to see the moon over the treetops each night and I’ll be woken by the sun each morning. The bookcase stands next to the bureau, which stands next to the closet, and the old writing desk is just beside the doorway. It looks messy and rustic, but it’s different, and I like it.
I’m sitting at the desk with my notebook and guitar when I hear it, distinctly, the sound of three quick clacks from the other side of the room. I pause, glancing to the door and then to the window, wondering if it’s Esther standing outside my window trying to get me to come out. It doesn’t seem likely; she’s never been the sort to pull anything like that and would much rather just knock at my door. A low panic settles in my throat at the prospect of - if it’s not her - who it could be.
Another thwack rings out and this time I see the pebble as it hits the glass of my window, not hard enough to shatter the glass, but almost. I set my guitar on the floor and hop onto my bed, undoing the lock and sliding the glass pane and screen to the side. Standing below my window, huddled amongst the blueberry bushes with a basket tucked under his arm, Scott grins up at me.
My mouth grows dry and I try to think of something to say, but the words aren’t there and so I simply gape down at him. He doesn’t seem to mind, his smile only widening when he notices me and gives a cheerful wave.
“Hey,” he calls up, tossing the pile of rocks he’s holding back into the bushes. My face warms and I tuck a piece of hair behind my ear. He holds the basket up above his head, like it’s Simba or something, and I wonder briefly if he’s going to start singing The Lion King. “I come bearing gifts,” he says instead, and his eye crinkles are noticeable even from up here. “When I talked to Esther she said you hadn’t come out to eat anything, so I brought you some lunch. Can I come up?”
The fact that he must have come to our cabin that morning to try and see me makes my stomach flip, especially after how horrible I’d acted last night. My heart thuds in my chest and I look down at the bushes, trying to gauge the distance from my window to the ground and wondering if it wouldn’t be easier for him to simply come through the front door. It’s got to be at least an eight feet gap, and, while Scott’s a giant, even he’s not that tall. I look back over to him with an arched eyebrow. He laughs, loud and unashamed, and I wonder if I’m somehow lucky enough for this to be another chance. I hope so. I really do.
“I can jump,” he says, as though reading my doubt. He steps close to the cabin and takes the basket by the handle, leveraging it back and swinging it a few times. “Here, catch this, okay?”
I’m not even given the opportunity to argue before he’s throwing the basket into the air and it clatters against the windowsill. I scramble forward to catch it, pulling it into my room and setting it down beside my bed. When I stick my head back out of the window he’s somehow found a foothold in the cabin siding and is climbing up easily, like he’s done this hundreds of times before. He reaches my window quickly, bracing his weight against the side of the cabin and giving me another beautiful smile. His face is only inches from mine and reddened from the exertion, and I want to kiss the determined little dimple that’s formed on the side of his cheek.
“Well, hey there,” he says, laughing again. I don’t say anything, but I at some point I’ve started grinning and I don’t think I can stop, don’t think I want to. “Holy shit,” he pants, “I haven’t done this in years. It’s harder than I remember. Um,” he readjusts his hold, his lower torso and legs still dangling out of the window, “probably should have let you answer before I climbed up, but can I come in? I’m like five seconds away from getting a splinter in my dick and I’d rather not experience that.”
I burst out laughing and grab his arms, pulling him in through the window and collapsing back onto my bed, and somehow he winds up half on top of me. He doesn’t move for a moment, his hands pressed to my waist and his chest brushing against mine, and he smells like fresh oranges and lavender. I breathe in slowly, my eyelids fluttering and my heart helplessly thrumming like the wings of a hummingbird, and I wonder if he’s going to kiss me, wonder if he’ll try to, wonder if I’ll let him this time.
But he only says, “Sorry,” a second later and rolls off of me, flopping his head against my pillow. His hairline is pricked with sweat and his cheeks with roses, and he’s staring over at me with a smile that I want to taste. “Didn’t mean to tackle you.”
I swallow, silent and warm from his proximity, and a crease tugs between his eyebrows.
“You’re quiet again,” he says, pushing himself up onto one elbow. “You haven’t said anything. Is - is that because of me? Because of last night? If it is, I’m sorry about what happened. I really didn’t mean to upset you.”
I clear my throat, opening my mouth to speak only to find that I can’t, not really. I don’t want to say anything, don’t want to mess this up again. I settle instead for a shrug, but the worried look on his face doesn’t go away.
“Avi,” he says, and it’s serious, concerned. “I mean it. I didn’t - I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, and I’m sorry that I did. I thought it was okay to ask but it wasn’t, and I apologize for that. I’d like to be your friend, if you still want to be mine, but if you don’t I - I don’t want you to have to tolerate me just because you’re too nice to tell me to fuck off. I wanted to see you today because I was worried, but you - you don’t have to keep spending time with me if I make you uncomfortable, or if you don’t want to.” He hesitates, his shoulders deflating a little. “I come on a little strong a lot of the time, but if you want me to stop...I will. You’ve just gotta tell me, because otherwise I won’t know and I don’t want to bother you just because I don’t know you want me to stop...”
His rambling trails off and I bite my lip, rolling onto my back to stare up at the ceiling. There are little glow-in-the-dark space stickers scattered throughout, courtesy of my younger self from that one summer I was obsessed with astronomy. Dad had bought me the stickers at the country store down the road, and he and I had spent the afternoon sticking them on the ceiling and walls of his room. We’d meant to take them down before we left at the end of the summer but we never did, and they were still there the next year so we figured we’d leave them be. Looking at them now, though, I can see that their phosphorescent plastic is faded and grey and no longer glows in the dark, and it makes my chest ache again.
“Scott,” I say hoarsely, staring up at the dead stars and wondering how many wishes had been wasted on them. “Why did you ask to kiss me?”
He’s quiet for a moment, and it’s nice to know that he’s genuinely thinking about it. “I wanted,” he starts slowly, before pausing again. “I can’t pretend it was some deep reason, because it wasn’t,” he says finally. “We only just met. I mean I don’t really know you and you don’t know me. At least not that well. But I know that you’re nice, and shy, and that sometimes you get a little brave and say something that I don’t expect, and I like that. But,” he glances over to me, lips pursed, “I think I mainly asked because you’re cute, and you make me smile, and I wanted to. I like kissing people, and I think I’d like kissing you a lot.” His lips quirk up, and it’s almost resigned. “Shallow, I know.”
I nod, looking back at the stars, my cheeks hot as I whisper, “What does it feel like, then?”
I nod again, too flushed to look at him, and he laughs quietly before rolling onto his side and facing me.
“Here,” he says, taking my wrist gently in his hand and tapping my pointer and middle finger. “Have you seen The Hunger Games? Yeah? Hold these two fingers up like Katniss does in the movies, kinda like you’re using your hand to make a gun but without your using thumb.”
I frown and meet his gaze before copying what he says, holding my fingers up like we used to do in Cub Scouts. The corner of his mouth perks up again and he chuckles softly.
“Okay, this part is kinda gross,” he warns with a grin, “but lick the pads of your fingers and down to where your knuckle joint is” - he demonstrates with his tongue and my eyes widen - “and then kind of wave them around so that they dry a little. Like this.”
I mimic what he does, trying not to think about how ridiculous this is and that he’s just making fun of me, until my fingers are just shy of being damp. He nods, balancing his weight on one arm and lifting his head so that I have no choice but to watch him.
“And then part your lips,” he says, his gaze not leaving mine, “and gently press your fingers to your mouth” - he does so - “and close your eyes” - his eyelids flutter shut - “and bring your lips together” - his mouth closes slightly - “and kiss.”
I swallow thickly, my fingers shaking as I follow his lead and close my eyes, kissing my fingers before pulling away and looking back up. He’s watching me, an unreadable look on his face, and the warmth of the afternoon suddenly feels much too apparent.
“Th-that’s what it feels like, then?” I ask quietly, unable to even remember anything but how soft his mouth looked and how beautiful he is when his eyes are closed.
He nods once, voice a little raspy. “Yeah, that’s - that’s as close as it comes to the real thing.”
I bite my lip but don’t say anything, and he stares down at me with an expression I’ve never seen before, at least never directed at me. I wonder what it would feel like to try the kiss again, though, this time, if instead of my fingers it was him. His mouth against mine and his hands back on my waist, how it would feel to simply stop being me but instead to be more, to be me and him, both of us, to feel his lips on my skin, his fingers in my hair, how it would feel to stop panicking long enough to let myself have this, have him, at least once. I clench my fingers into a fist and tuck it against my chest, watching his face and wondering what he’s thinking, if he’ll ask to kiss me again, knowing that I’ll say yes this time, just this once, I’ll say yes to him and I won’t be afraid.
But he doesn’t ask. Instead he clears his throat and looks away, the arch of his cheekbones colored scarlet as he says, “Um, I brought you some lunch if - if you want.”
I blink and watch as he pushes himself up on my bed, long legs dangling down and one hand opening the small wicker basket that’s been left ignored. I sit up beside him, watching silently as he pulls out a container of strawberries, two pieces of what looks to be banana bread, and a sliced block of cheese. My stomach growls and he looks over, eyes crinkling as the awkward intensity of the moment vanishes. I smile, too, crossing my legs and stealing one of the strawberries.
“I wasn’t sure what you liked,” he says, nibbling on a piece of cheese, “and honestly we didn’t have much food to begin with. I thought it would be fun, though, a little indoor picnic. I have iced tea, too, if you want some.”
I pick at the strawberry stem and accept the small jug of iced tea when he hands it to me. It’s unbearably bitter to the point of sourness, and I try not to make a face but he catches my disgust all the same, stifling his laugh with his fingers.
“I take it you’re not a fan,” he says, and I grimace as I cap the bottle and hand it back to him.
“No,” I say, sticking my tongue out. “No, it’s - it’s great. Strong. Is - is it fermented?”
“Honestly it might be. Nobody dates anything in our fridge so that could have been sitting there for weeks now.” He sets it on the floor, eyebrows creasing although he’s still laughing. “Yikes, okay I promise I’m not trying to kill you. The strawberries are definitely fresh and Mitchy made the zucchini bread yesterday, so those are fine.” He sniffs at a piece of cheese, shrugging. “This isn’t moldy yet, so I’d say it’s passable. Note to self: don’t bring along expired food when you’re trying to woo someone. Gotcha.”
I raise my eyebrows and look up at him, nearly choking on the strawberry. “Woo?”
His face turns scarlet and he stammers, “Well, not woo insomuch as - court? Or, um, maybe like -”
I shake my head, dazed but unable to help my grin. “You sound like you’re stuck in the 18th century.”
“I mean,” he rubs at the back of his neck and chuckles, bashful. “Yeah, sorry. I sometimes forget about language, and how we don’t say shit like that anymore. Back when I was taking a course on Shakespeare, I would use the word ‘cuckold’ in daily conversation. Not only did most people not understand me, but when they did I got the weirdest fucking looks. Okay, so not woo and not court. Maybe like…” He pauses, thinking. “Do we even have a modern day equivalent?”
I take a bite of another strawberry, tilting my head to the side. “Pursue?”
“Now that’s just creepy. I’m not gonna go around saying I’m pursuing you.”
I blush. “Are you, though?”
“Am I what?”
“Pursuing me?” I gesture to the basket of food and the ostracized jug of iced tea. “Is this evidence of that?”
He pauses, biting his lip. “If you’re not opposed to it, then yes. I like you, Avriel, a lot. I’d like to get to know you more if you’ll let me.”
I look back down at the container of strawberries in my lap, not sure what to say to that, not sure if he even wants me to say anything. I can’t pretend that I don’t feel something here - something that I’ve not felt before, something that I’d do just about anything to keep on feeling. But I’m also not blind to the fact that situations like this, no matter how wondrous they might seem, don’t always work out for the better. He could get tired of me, probably will. I’ll stop being some mystery for him to figure out, and he’ll gradually lose interest until I’m nothing more than a forgotten pursuit, as he’s so loath to put it. If this - whatever it is - ends, it won’t affect him, not really. I can’t say the same for me.
“I’d like,” I say quietly, “to get to know you, too.”
“Okay,” he says, and when I look up he’s watching me like whatever I say is important to him, like he cares. It’s the nicest look, and I can’t imagine losing it when I’ve only just found it.
“But I’d like to just be friends,” I whisper.
Something in his eyes sinks, though he masks it with a smile and a nod. “Friends,” he agrees, taking a piece of cheese and looking down so that I can’t see his face, and I’ve never regretted anything more in my life. “Friends sounds perfect.”
It’s late that night when I’m down alone by the lake, my toes wiggling in the sand as I look out over Old Goldwater and listen to the quiet sounds of nature, almost eery in the wash of moonlight. Scott and I had spent the afternoon talking and listening to music, and we’d made plans for tomorrow to finally go on a hike down to the waterfall. The prospect of spending more time with him makes me giddy, and I feel a slow tug of regret in my gut for being too scared to let this become something more than just a friendship. I’d talked about it briefly with Esther, but she’d seemed happy about my caution and hadn’t said anything other than that she supported me, no matter what. I’d walked away from that conversation only much more confused and desperate than I’d been going in.
I sigh and lay back on the sand, staring up at the stars and trying to find the Big Dipper. I’ve just found it - my head tilting to the right - when I make out the shape of somebody on the beach walking towards me. I sit up, my heartbeat increasing, squinting through the darkness to try and determine who it is. I relax a moment later when I catch the shine of messy blond hair, a smile already tugging at my mouth as I call out, “Scott.”
He doesn’t say anything, just keeps walking towards me, hands in his pockets and gait slow, I call out to him again, wondering if he has headphones in. He still doesn’t react and I push myself up, my bare feet squishing in the sand as I go to meet him halfway, sand stuck to the sides of my arms.
It’s only when I’m a few feet away that the moonlight illuminates his face, and I stumble to a halt, my heart catching in my throat.
It’s not Scott. It could be his cousin, maybe, or his brother, but it’s not him. His jaw is too round, not nearly severe enough, and his face is clean shaven. His cheekbones are high and prominent, and his hair is the wrong color, even in the wash of the moon. He’s not quite as tall and his body isn’t as lean - baby fat rounding out his face and arms and stomach. It’s only his eyes that are the same, eyes that are set straight ahead of him as he continues walking down the beach, like he can’t even see me. Eyes that are too familiar for all the wrong reasons. Eyes that I saw almost a week ago now, staring glassy and dead as blood trickled down over his forehead.
My stomach lurches.
It’s the man - the man from our first night here, the man standing in the middle of the road, there when a moment before he wasn’t, the man whose body had cracked against the bumper of my car and the man who I’d seen die in front of me, because of me. The man who, when I’d looked back down to check again for a pulse, had disappeared into thin air.
“Oh my god,” I choke out, stepping forward and reaching for him with a trembling hand. “Ex-excuse me? I - I - I...oh my g-god…”
He doesn’t look over to me, just keeps walking, keeps humming to himself. I stagger forward but he doesn’t turn, doesn’t react.
“Hello?” I call weakly, but it’s not any use. Either he can’t hear me, can’t see me, or is simply ignoring me. My stomach aches again and I feel tears hot on my face, confusion such an old friend as it wraps an arm around me. “Please,” I whisper, teeth chattering. “I - I’m sorry…”
But he keeps walking down the length of the beach, gate slow like he’s trying to clear his mind. I go to try again - one last time - a hand reached out to touch him, I blink, and then -
And I’m alone on the beach.
Like he was never even there at all.
Chapter 6: Waterfall
next chapter's gonna be funnnnnn :"D
comments are my everything, hope you enjoy <3
The next morning I watch silently as Esther loads her bags into the car, my hip resting against the wooden beam of the porch and fingers fidgeting with the list of county emergency numbers left to us by the couple we rent the cabin from. She closes the trunk with one final sigh before turning, her hair already coming loose from her bun and framing her face as her eyes sweep over the porch, a last minute check that she’s got everything.
“I’ll be back in ten days,” she says, eyes finally landing on me, the last item on her checklist, the one that she’s leaving behind. I nod but she sees straight through to my panic, wrapping an arm around my shoulders and pulling me into a hug. “You’ll be fine, Bee. We knew going into this that work would probably call me in, it’s not like this is unexpected.”
“I know,” I whisper, hugging her back and clutching the paper tighter between my fingers. “But…”
“I didn’t expect it to be this early, either. But I’ll be back for the Fourth of July, and we can FaceTime every night if you want. Besides,” she pulls away, glancing over to the cabin beside ours set back into the woods. I can make out the silhouettes of four or five people on the front porch, though they’re too far away to tell if any of them are Scott. My face is warm when she turns back to me with a smirk. “It’s not like you’ll be all alone. I’m sure Scott will take good care of you.”
My eyes grow wide. “E-Esther...”
“He seems like a really nice guy, Bee,” she says with a shrug, smoothing my hair down. “He came over yesterday morning to see if you were okay. We talked for a few minutes and I got the feeling that he genuinely cared.”
“I - I thought you said I should be careful with him.”
“I still think that,” she says, “but, you shouldn’t be so careful that you wind up driving him away. You’re warming up to him - you’re talking to him - and I never see that happen. Don’t let it scare you.”
I nod again but don’t bother responding, and with a kiss to my cheek and one last goodbye, she climbs into the car and is off. I watch until her taillights disappear down the main road before pulling my jacket tighter around myself and looking down onto the beach of Old Goldwater. It’s empty, the water quietly lapping against the shore and a pair of kayaks tied onto the dock, banging up against the metal poles every so often so that the air is greeted with an infrequent, dull clunk. There’s no evidence of anybody having walked the beach except for my own footprints ingrained in the sand from last night; footprints that only stray for a few feet before retreating dutifully back into pattern. No evidence of the man from last night. No evidence that he was real and not simply some conjuring of my tired imagination.
I glance back over to Scott’s cabin, watching as the blurry figures move about their back porch, undoubtedly having breakfast together and laughing just loud enough so that I can hear them. I think back to a few nights ago, how they all gathered around the campfire and told ghost stories, one right after another, as though it was some sort of tradition of theirs. It makes me wonder, briefly, if there was anything in that; if maybe their fixation on the paranormal stems from a real life ghostly figure or two, perhaps a blond-haired, blue-eyed man that walks the beach and county roads at night. I wonder what they would say if I asked. But I know that I’ll never be able to bring myself to, so it doesn’t really matter.
I spend the rest of the morning at the kitchen table, catching up on work emails and sending the draft of my newest composition to my manager. Despite the confusing mix of emotions in my chest, by the time the afternoon rolls around I’m feeling more or less content as I keep watch outside the window for Scott to come meet me for our hike down to the waterfall. He’d texted asking if I’d mind if Mitch and Kevin came with us, and after a brief flash of hesitation I’d said it was okay, figuring that - while I’d been unable to handle Mitch on my own a few nights ago - if Scott was there, I’d be fine.
A knock sounds at the door at half-past one, and I grab my backpack and water bottle, smiling when I’m met with a sleepy-eyed and messy-haired Scott waiting for me on the front porch.
“Hey,” he says, eyes alight to match his grin. Kevin and Mitch are down the trail a ways, and appreciation warms in my tummy when I realize that it’s done purposefully - that Scott’s allowing me the opportunity to adjust to the situation, starting with just me and him and then adding Mitch and Kevin to the equation. It’s a simple action and it’s possible that he’s not even aware that he’s done it, but it eases my ever-present anxiety and I can’t help my smile as it grows.
“Hey,” I whisper back, slipping my backpack over my shoulder and locking the cabin door behind me. We start down the trail in a comfortable silence, his neck craned up to look at the sky and his hand bumping against mine every so often. Mitch looks up from his phone as we grow near, imp-like features perking into a pretty smile.
“Oh my god, daddy,” he calls, and it takes a second before I realize he’s talking to me. I stumble over a rock and Scott places his hand on my lower back to keep me steady, his usually content expression growing stern as he looks at Mitch.
“Don’t be a dick,” he says, and Mitch sticks out his tongue.
“I’m not, I’m just saying hi. Am I being a dick, Kevy?”
Kevin looks like he wants nothing to do with this argument, smiling wryly. “You’re definitely being something.”
“This like feels like a personal attack,” Mitch grumbles, but thankfully his exuberance lessens when he glances back over to me. “Sorry if I’m being a dick. You are what you eat, I guess.”
“Mitch,” Scott groans, but Mitch has already started up the path into the woods, giggling as he drags Kevin along by the hand. My stomach feels stuffed with burning coals and I look up at Scott slowly, twiddling the straps of my backpack. His hand is pressed smack over his face and he’s shaking his head.
“You know,” I say with a shrug, “he should really introduce some variety into his diet. That doesn’t seem like it contains a lot of nutritional support.”
Scott stares at me, brow creasing in a moment of incredulity before he stifles his mouth with his hand and lets out the loudest laugh. It takes a minute before he recovers, and it makes me smile to know that I’m the cause of such a beautiful sound.
“You,” he says, eyes crinkling, “oh my god, you. I - you are...you’re literally my favorite person.”
I don’t know what to say to that, don’t know how to say that he’s mine, so instead I tighten the straps on my backpack and start into the woods after Kevin and Mitch. He follows dutifully, the broken sunlight shining down through the treetop canvas and painting his skin a multi-toned canvas. I think about mentioning the man from last night, but I don’t want to break this again, don’t want to push him away without meaning to. He speaks before I can bring myself to say anything, anything at all, voice a low hum as if to respect the silence of the mountainous trees around us.
“I used to come down here with my sisters,” he says, pushing back a branch that blocks the trail and letting me pass first. “It was a sort of tradition we had. Every Sunday afternoon we’d hike down to the waterfall and stay there until dusk, or until the mosquitos got too annoying.”
I smile. Kevin and Mitch are a few yards ahead of us, off in their own little world, and it makes me a bit braver to know that they can’t hear us.
“My dad and I did the same thing,” I say, and he looks over to me. “We found the waterfall when I was seven, I think, and we came down every few days.”
“It sounds like you two are close.”
“Yeah,” I whisper. “We were.”
“Is your sister gone, by the way? I thought I saw her packing up this morning but I wasn’t sure.” He laughs. “I was kinda hungover and the light felt like it was burning my eyes out.”
“Just wait ’til you see me sparkle, sweetheart.”
I smile again as I look over to him. “Yeah, Esther had to leave for work.”
“That’s shit. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Are you leaving, too?”
I shake my head, fiddling with the zipper on my jacket and squinting up at the patch of blue sky I can make out between the leaves. “I wouldn’t want to.”
“I know the feeling,” he says, and it’s almost wistful. “There’s something special about this place. This is my first time back in a few years, the first time without my mom or my sisters, and it hasn’t changed at all, any of it.”
“I love it,” I say quietly, and he nods.
“Yeah. Me, too. I’m surprised that we haven’t met before. I mean we both came here each summer as kids, you think we would’ve.”
“We stopped coming when I was thirteen,” I say, slowing so that we’re still a good ways away from Kevin and Mitch. They’re at a fork in the trail now, fighting about which way it is down to the waterfall. Mitch is arguing very passionately that it’s a right turn, that he’s come this way a hundred times and he knows what he’s talking about thank-you-very-much. I feel a little bad for Kevin, considering Mitch is completely wrong and it’s actually a left turn.
“We still could have met each other,” Scott’s saying, and he catches my arm when I trip over a tree root. I shake my head, cheeks growing warm.
“Even if we did, you probably wouldn’t remember me.”
“Of course I’d remember you,” he says, turning to look at me, and the intensity of his eyes makes my heart catch in my throat. “You’re impossible to forget.”
My lips tug up despite myself, my cheeks even warmer as I tuck a piece of hair behind my ear. “Well,” I say softly, looking away. “I’d definitely remember you, too.”
“Hey, lovebirds,” Mitch calls back to us, annoyed, and I blush again when I realize that Scott and I have stopped walking altogether. We hurry to catch up to the other two, our conversation put on hold for the rest of the hike down to the waterfall. The path is overgrown with wildflowers and berry bushes, bunching together a few hundred feet before opening out into the mouth of an enclosed freshwater pool. On one side crashing down from a wall of rock is the waterfall, and across from that a small cave that filters into Old Goldwater. It’s silent save the sound of rushing water and birdsong, and a tranquility and unexpected sadness settle over me as Mitch leads the way through towards the sitting rocks. It looks exactly the same as it did ten years ago; the familiar bushes scattered along the beachside and lily pads floating at the entrance of the cave. Part of me expects to see Dad swimming out to stand behind the waterfall like he always did when we first came out, but there’s no sign of movement except the shadows of fish in the water and a few brave squirrels darting across the rocks. A warm hand settles on my back and I look up to see Scott watching me, sunglasses pushing back his honeycomb hair so that I can’t miss the concern on his face.
“Okay?” he asks quietly, so that Kevin and Mitch - who have already begun to lay out their blankets on the beachfront - can’t hear him. I only nod because I know trying to speak with this lump in my throat will only make him worry more, only make him uncomfortable. It doesn’t work, though, his brow furrowing as his hand cups my cheek, skin barely brushing against skin, his thumb pressed to the corner of my eye. When he pulls away even I can’t pretend that the tears aren’t there, and his eyebrows pull together as he steps closer, whispering, “Are - is there anything I can do?”
I look down at my hands, shaking my head because there’s nothing he can do, nothing I can do, either, because this - this shouldn’t be happening, there’s no reason for it, and I’m so fucking tired of being so fragile. I let out a slow, shaky breath but he doesn’t move away, doesn’t say anything, just lets me go through it because that’s all that we can do, all we can ever do.
“Avi,” he says when a few minutes have passed, and my eyelashes stick together when I try to look at him. “I don’t really know anything about stuff like this but - would - would a hug help?”
I swallow and let out a sigh that sounds more like a whimper, and I don’t even know that I’ve nodded until his arms are wound around my back and I’m being cradled into his chest. It feels suffocating - too much, too much - but after that initial spike of panic I’m fisting my hands in his shirt and pulling him closer, his body sturdy and weighted and something that I can hang onto, something that I can trust without the fear that it’ll crush me, something that feels like nothing in my life ever feels - something safe. I don’t cry after that, at least I don’t think I do, and I don’t think about Dad, don’t think about opening the door, don’t think about seeing him there with -
Scott’s voice cuts through my thoughts, a low hum that vibrates down my back and into my tummy. It makes my head hurt a little less, makes it a bit easier to breathe. When I finally recollect myself I pull back with a cough, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Sorry,” I whisper, and he tucks back a piece of hair from my face, the motion so natural I hardly notice the way my skin tingles beneath his.
“You don’t have to apologize. Are you okay?”
I don’t reply because there’s not really a good way to answer that question. Instead I manage a tired, embarrassed smile, saying, “You’re getting pretty good at this.”
I mean it as a joke but he takes it more seriously, his hand still cupping my face, thumb circling my cheekbone like he doesn’t notice he’s doing it. “I’m glad,” he says, still watching me with that intense stare. “I want to be able to help you with stuff like that, in any way I can. Besides,” he smiles, and I breathe out slowly at how beautiful he is, how unbothered by all of this he seems, “I’m always down for cuddles whenever I can get them.”
I laugh, playing with the traps of my backpack as I look over to where Kevin and Mitch are already swimming in the water. They’re playing Marco Polo, Kevin’s eyes closed as he moves with his hands out in front of him, searching. Mitch calls out “Marco!” before darting away, though he’s not fast enough and Kevin catches him by the arm. Mitch squeals and lets out an annoyed shout, but a second later Kevin’s pulled him closer and Mitch has wrapped his arms around Kevin’s neck, smiling down at him and saying something quietly, something only the two of them can hear. It’s sweet and my chest warms at how beautiful they are together, how perfectly they seem to fit, how right. I look back up at Scott slowly, flushed when I notice that Scott’s hand is still cupping my face, his arm still around my waist, his body mere inches away so that with every breath the smell of oranges makes me grow more and more dizzy. I blush. Scott only smiles.
“Come on,” he says, pulling away and starting down to the beachfront. I follow, keeping my eyes straight ahead and not allowing my thoughts to wander to the past, not right now. I spread out my towel, slipping off my shoes and socks when I get distracted by Scott pulling his shirt off over his head. Normally I’d be able to control myself, but the ink running down his spine hardly allows for such consideration and I find myself openly staring. He notices and laughs, eyes crinkling as he tosses his sunglasses on his towel and stretches his arms.
“I forgot you haven’t see my backpiece,” he says, pulling out a tube of sunscreen from his bag. “You can look closer, if you want, I don’t mind.”
I take up his offer without a word, moving closer and keeping my hands together against my chest so that I won’t try and touch. The tattoo is beautiful, spanning the arch of his shoulder blades and stopping halfway down his spine. It shows the silhouette of a man looking out a vast window, where below stands a proud tree and another man, this one less corporeal - as though he may not even be there and is instead just a ghost - staring back up. Snow falls around the two of them, both outside and inside, covering everything with a terrible sort of equality. I swallow, not understanding what it is, where it’s from, but positive that it might just be the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen.
Scott looks back after a minute or so, mouth quirked up. “Confused?”
“A little,” I admit, shaking my head. “But it’s beautiful.”
His smile grows. “Thank you.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a scene from my favorite short story. ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce, if you’ve read it.”
“You should.” He smiles again, widening his eyes. “It’s spooky.”
I laugh, ducking my head as I move back to my towel, though I can’t help but look back at him. I spot another tattoo starting at his hipbone and running up his ribs, this one a decrepit clock tower with roses bursting from the cracks. “You and your ghost stories,” I say softly, fondly, and he rubs his face with sunscreen, sticking out his tongue.
“Ghost stories are fucking great, thank you very much. Besides, there aren’t any ghosts in ‘The Dead.’”
“Then how is it spooky?”
“Read it and you’ll find out.”
I hesitate, playing with my hair absentmindedly. My heart picks up. I try to act nonchalant, but I hardly know the meaning of the word. “So, do - do you believe in ghosts?”
He pauses and makes a face like he’s thinking, lips pressing together. “I believe in a lot of things. I’m not sure if ghosts are one of them, but I wouldn’t say that I don’t believe in them. Does that make sense?”
“Kinda,” I whisper, looking back out at Kevin and Mitch. “Have you ever seen one before? H-Here?”
Scott’s quiet, and when I glance back over he’s watching me curiously. “Have you?”
I open my mouth but haven’t the chance to speak, flinching when Mitch’s voice calls up from the water, “If you two could hurry the fuck up, we’re playing Fishy, Fishy, Cross My Ocean.”
Scott waves his hand at Mitch dismissively and turns back to me, but I pretend to be very invested in putting on my sunscreen and by the time I’m finished he’s already forgotten everything we were talking about. I tug off my shirt and wrap my arms around myself as I follow Scott down to the shore, my head loud and messy and confused. The water is cool but not unpleasantly so, and when I dunk my head it feels like I’m being shocked back to life, goosebumps erupting over my skin and my teeth chattering when I breach the surface.
Scott’s a few feet away when I blink the water out of my eyes, his wet hair matted to the side of his face and his lips pulled into a gorgeous smile as he watches me.
“You know,” he says as he doggy-paddles over, “with your hair, you kinda look like the little mermaid.”
I give him a look but before I can speak his eyes widen and he laughs, splashing the water excitedly.
“Wait, wait, oh my god, it works. Because her name is Ariel and your name is Avriel. Oh my god I’m a genius, somebody franchise this shit.”
I roll my eyes but smile anyway, and he only floats onto his back, waving a hair as he natters on.
“Hang on, I’m brainstorming. Avriel the Little Merman, coming to theaters near you. Oh my god” - he splashes again - “wait, Ariel can’t speak and neither can you. It’s perfect. Wait,” he says again, looking over to me with parted lips. “Hang on, I - that came out wrong. Shit. I didn’t mean it in a nasty way, I just - I - I was noticing the similarities between you two. I know you can speak, obviously, I mean you’ve been speaking all afternoon, it’s just that sometimes you don’t, and, um…”
“Scott,” I stop him, shaking my head. The irony doesn’t escape me that I’m now the one reassuring him. “It’s fine. I know you didn’t mean it to sound mean.”
He lets out a breath, nodding. “Okay, good. I really didn’t. I’m just stupid sometimes. A lot of the time. Especially around you.”
“You’re fine,” I say again, relaxing back into the water and raising my face toward the sun. “Ariel’s a new one. At least you didn’t call me Dopey.”
“Do - do people call you that?”
“Sometimes. When I was younger.”
“Shit, Avi, I’m sorry. That’s cruel.”
I shrug but don’t bother answering, not exactly thrilled to have this conversation, to feel like I’m being pitied. I squint out across the pool, stretching my arms before giving Scott a smile and saying, “Race me to the waterfall?”
He purses his lips, looking like he wants to argue, like he wants to talk more about my traumatic childhood, before deciding on a nod that makes my shoulders slump with relief. He dives forward without another word and I follow him, lungs pulsing and muscles burning, the cool water and shining sun making it all too easy to forget my past, forget my thoughts, forget myself.
We spend the rest of the afternoon in the water, until my fingertips have wrinkled like prunes and my skin is permanently stained pink from the sun. Kevin and Mitch head back early, something about wanting to check out the drive-in movie theater a few miles down the road, and Scott and I lounge out on top of the rocks for what feels like hours. We swim until we’re too tired and then talk until it’s too hot out, and then swim again, until the cycle repeats so many times i lose count. It’s nice spending time with him, even if by the end of it I’m exhausted and ready to be by myself. The sun has just started to set when we pack up and start back on the trail to the cabins, the wind picking up and dark clouds rolling in. Our first summer storm. The air smells like dirt and lightning, and my skin prickles with goosebumps not necessarily caused by the cold. We’re almost to the trail that leads to my cabin when the clouds knit closer together and it begins to pour, and for some ungodly reason Scott stops in the middle of the rain by the blueberry bushes to pick a few of the ripe berries.
“They’re amazing in pancakes,” he calls when he notices my look of incredulity from the dry safety of the porch. He tucks them into his pocket carefully before hurrying out of the rain and up towards me, raindrops rolling down his cheeks. “I’ll have to make them for you sometime.”
“I don’t think they’re worth getting wet,” I say, pulling my damp hair back and wringing out the stray droplets. He checks that the berries haven’t gotten squished and smiles cheekily.
“They’re definitely worth getting wet. Besides, rain always feels nice, especially after a hot day.”
I nod but don’t say anything, braiding my hair to keep it from drying too crazily. Scott goes back to counting his berries, and his pure excitement at something so simple makes me smile, my tummy warm and my heart thudding faster in my chest. I feel like a complete mess; exhausted yet enamored and horribly confused, and the longer I look at Scott the worse it becomes. He catches my gaze a moment later, a smile breaking over his face as shakes the rain out of his hair.
“Well, I’d better go see what’s on for dinner. Kirstie said something about mac and cheese. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I say quietly, swallowing when he leans against the siding, his arm brushing against the ABK I’d carved into the wood when I was younger. “Tomorrow.”
“You’ll be alright here by yourself?”
I nod again and his smile softens, the corners of his eyes crinkly. He’s beautiful, and my stomach feels like it’s on fire.
“I’ll see you later, then,” he says, but when he turns to leave I can’t help myself.
He glances back towards me, shadowed against the clouded backdrop. I take one step forward, my chest aching, before standing on my tiptoes and pressing my lips to his cheek. He tenses, silent, and when I move back he tilts his chin up, just a bit, brushing our noses together. My gaze rises slowly to meet his, as though to find his heart in his eyes, blue like the darkened sky and haunted by faint figures I can’t understand. I step back, hands bumping against the screen door and lip catching between my teeth as I smile, my voice shaky and quiet but good enough for now.
Chapter 7: Kiss
A roll of thunder shakes the cabin walls. I tuck my chin under the fuzzy blanket I’ve been cuddled in for the past two hours, my toes wiggling out as my socks gradually slip further and further off of my feet and my cramped fingers holding tight to my book. It’s the type of coziness I’m not accustomed to; a solitude so sweet it nears figmentation, and I try and allow myself to enjoy it while it lasts because I don’t know when it will come again. I feel whole. The rain pounds against the rooftop and thunder hums its siren song, but it doesn’t frighten me. I’m safe inside with a battered Agatha Christie novel and a scraggly old blanket, and I’m warm, and I’m alright. I’m happy. My cheeks warm and I wiggle further down on the couch, the image of Scott’s surprised face still heavy on my mind, surprise that quickly turned to amazement, and then delight. Such a beautiful expression that stemmed from me . It makes me giddy and flushed, that I can cause him to look like that, that I have some sort of effect on him in the way he does on me. I want to try it again, want to press my lips to his cheek, his nose, his mouth, want to see that confusion on his face turn to fondness, turn to desire. I want to kiss him more than I’ve ever wanted anything, and it’s only the angry rain outside that keeps me from marching over to his cabin and doing so. I can imagine it, though, and the more I do the deeper and deeper into the cushions of the couch I sink. I want to kiss him. That thought makes me happy. I’m going to kiss him. That thought makes me fucking ecstatic.
Thunder growls again and I roll onto my side, flipping back to my page though I can’t focus my attention on the words as they dance across the yellowed paper. I wonder how it will happen, if I’ll be able to bring myself to actually kiss him or if he’ll have to make the first move. Either option makes my tummy flutter and I squirm again, my smile making my cheeks ache. His hands cupping my face, holding me to him, nose brushing mine. I’ve never been close to somebody like that, never wanted to, but now separation from him is intolerable. I don’t understand it, how he’s so easily worked his way into my head, my heart, like he’s always been a part of me that I’ve yet to notice until now. It should scare me. It should make me want to shrink back and seal my lips and never speak again, but instead it makes me want to sing. Infatuation doesn’t begin to describe it, but it’s a good enough place to start.
I’ll go over in the morning right after breakfast. We’ll walk to the country store about a mile up the road, just talking as it’s so easy to do with him, fingers brushing as the sunlight warms our skin. Maybe we’ll pause along the way, help a turtle cross the road or pick wildflowers out by the old barn that’s been abandoned for years. Maybe he’ll try to hold my hand and maybe I’ll let him, maybe I’ll pull him close to me, stand on my tiptoes and wrap my arms around his neck, and maybe he’ll smile down with those crinkly blue eye and whisper something sweet, whisper my name, whisper that he wants to kiss me and ask if he can. And maybe I’ll say yes, maybe I’ll just press our lips together without a word, and maybe he’ll hold me like I’m fragile, like I’m important, like I’m his and he never wants to let me go. Maybe he’ll kiss me. Maybe I’ll let him do it again.
I pull the blanket over my face as heat rises to my cheeks. I’m smiling like an idiot but I don’t want to stop. For the first time in a long time I feel happiness without the impending sense of sorrow, and I want to dwell in it. I take a warm bath that night when the power goes out, candles scattered around the tub and bubbles getting stuck in my beard, my thoughts attuned to him, only him. When I lay down in bed it’s with his eyes on my mind, his name warm on my lips, and I can’t help but wonder if all the bad things in my life have led me to him, led me to this place, this time, this moment. It feels like a memory, but one of the good ones. He feels like a dream. And I feel so fucking happy.
It’s still raining when I wake, but it’s the sort of rain that makes you stretch your bones and snuggle back down into the covers with a smile on your lips. The storm is gone and all that’s left are its little cloud brothers trying to make themselves just as grand and fearsome as they pour down over Old Goldwater. They’re not quite successful but it’s the thought that counts, and I breathe out a quiet contentment before pushing myself out of bed.
The power’s still out but the muddled glow from my window is enough for me to see as I pull on a pair of old jeans and a warm patterned sweater. It’s a little too big for me and there’s a hole by the collar, but it’s Dad’s and that makes it an exception. Breakfast is light - half a banana and peanut butter - because the thought of enacting my plan makes me far too antsy to eat anything substantial. I didn’t expect to still want to do it when I woke, but I do and that scares me more than it should. Even if I can’t bring myself to kiss him at least I’ll be able to spend some time with him, see him smile. That’s worth every anxious butterfly in my tummy as I grab my raincoat and slip out the front door, hurrying down past the blueberry bushes and up the trail to his cabin.
Kirstin opens when I knock, a look of surprise on her face before it melts into a warm smile. She’s still in her pajamas and her hair is tied in a bun that resembles a rat’s nest, but she’s anything but embarrassed as she pulls the door open further and beckons me in. I stay where I am.
“Hey,” she says, peering past me to look up at the sky. “Damn, it’s still raining?”
I don’t know if she expects me to respond but I remain silent, her eyes sliding back to me after a second.
“I take it you’re looking for Scott?” she asks, and I nod. “He’s just hopped in the shower. He’ll be out in like twenty minutes, though, if you wanna come inside and wait. We’re making breakfast. Hungry?”
I hesitate, unsure of how to decline politely, when a familiar face pops up behind Kirstin. Mitch grins when he sees me and despite the anxious tug in my stomach I offer a weak smile back.
“Daddy,” he croons, sighing happily. “The man who’s turned my Scotty into a sappy little schoolgirl. I’d buy you a drink in celebration but it’s only ten in the morning, so you’ll have to settle for a congratulatory pancake.”
I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about and he gives me no time to ask for clarification before grabbing my upper arm and dragging me into their cabin, the screen door clattering shut behind us. He chatters on like we’re old friends, arm tossed over my shoulders as he steers us into the kitchen that’s jam packed full of far too many people for me to handle. I’m plopped down on a stool with a cup of orange juice in front of me while Mitch starts cooking, and even through the dizzying haze I’ve fallen into I still notice he’s using the blueberries Scott picked last night in the pancakes. That little bit of familiarity makes my heart stop hammering quite so hard in my chest and I press back against the wall, determined not to freak out in front of everyone.
It’s the same group from the campfire. All of them are wearing pajamas or robes and eyes filled with sleep, and it makes me feel more of an outsider than usual. Nicole and Kirstin are looking at something on a laptop and throwing raspberries in the air to catch in their mouths, and Kevin is helplessly trying to control Mitch as he whirls around the kitchen to cook the most intricate pancake I’ve ever seen. Yet despite the madness I feel myself calming, grateful that nobody tries to talk to me past a courteous greeting.
Five minutes later a plate is placed in front of me and Mitch leans against the counter, licking a gob of peanut butter off a spoon. He says nothing and neither do I as I hold the fork I’ve been given between unsure fingers. Kevin has given up and is busy making a smoothie on the far side of the room, though I can see him glancing over to us every so often as if to make sure that Mitch hasn’t tried to eat me. I swallow and put the fork down, appetite gone.
“So,” Mitch drawls, taking another spoonful of peanut butter from the jar. It’s unsanitary and I wrinkle my nose. Maybe he has the jar to himself. Or maybe he’s just gross. “How was your night last night?”
I shrug and he nods, squinting down at me.
“Hm,” he hums, before tossing the spoon down and cupping his chin in his hands. “Okay, so I know I’m supposed to give you the whole ‘if you hurt my best friend I’ll kill you’ thing, but I don’t really think it’s applicable here. You’re not exactly dom-top, sweetheart, and I like that about you. I think he needs that. He’s too soft to be with someone hard.” He pauses, eyebrows pinching together as he surveys my presumably confused face. “Do I make you uncomfortable?”
I clear my throat. “A little.”
The stony mask of his face softens and he nods, this time far more gentle. “I’ll work on that, then. I know Scott said you have some issues with anxiety? I definitely get that. If I’m ever being a dick and I don’t seem to realize it, just smack me or something.”
He reaches forward then, taking my hand in his and giving a squeeze. I jump but catch myself before I pull away.
“As long as he’s happy, I’m happy,” he says, like it’s final, important. “Make him happy.”
He doesn’t wait for me to say anything before he’s out of the kitchen with Kevin right behind him. I watch them go with an uncertain taste of reluctance on my tongue that dissipates immediately when Scott saunters in, a towel around his waist and shoulders dripping with water. He doesn’t notice me at first, reaching into a box of cereal with one hand and grabbing a bowl from the cupboard with the other. He’s got a handful of Cinnamon Toast Crunch halfway to his mouth when our eyes lock, and I give a little wave that makes his ears turn crimson.
“Oh, gey,” he says, putting the cereal slowly back into the bag. He wipes his fingers on the towel around his waist before deciding that’s a definitively bad idea when it nearly comes undone and slumps low on his hips. I wonder if that’s all he’s wearing before blushing at the thought and pushing it as far away from my mind as I can, eyes going haywire as they try to find an appropriate place on his body to look at. Chest is bad, chest is very, very bad. Shoulders are less bad, but still too broad and bare and wet to stare at safely. Face is good, eyes are even better. I try a smile but it feels weird on my face, and I regret coming here.
“Hi,” I say, and Kirstin and Nicole giggle as they survey the two of us over the brim of the laptop. My cheeks feel warm and I can’t handle the silence, clearing my throat again. “So - so you’re naked?”
Scott’s lips purse like he’s trying not to smile. “It would seem so.”
“Oh,” I nod. “That’s...nice.”
He takes a step towards me, looking down at the untouched pancake and glass of orange juice on the table. “So you’re in my kitchen?” he asks, corner of his mouth quirking up into that grin I can’t get enough of.
“It would seem so,” I whisper.
“Oh,” he says, teasing me. “That’s nice.”
“I…” I shake my head, standing. “I - I can go if -”
“You’re fine,” he says warmly, smiling down like he’s actually happy to see me. My palms are sweaty and I wipe them on my jeans, wondering what would happen if I kissed him now, if I just walked forward and wound my arms around his neck and pulled his lips to mine. There are too many outcomes to fathom, too many things that can go wrong, but I want to. God, I want to.
But instead of kissing him, I blurt out, “Are you always naked in your kitchen?”
He chuckles. “More often than you might think.”
“Oh,” I say faintly as far too many images pop into my head. “Awesome.”
He laughs again and glances to Nicole and Kirstin, who are not so subtly watching us with a fascinated interest. “I’ll go get dressed,” he says, looking back at me. “Unless you’re here for something urgent?”
I shake my head and, satisfied that I’m not about to drop dead or anything, he disappears back out of the kitchen. Part of me wants to stick close and follow him to his room, but even I know that would be too much. Instead I settle for waiting in their living room, similar to ours with a wide bookcase and mismatched furnishings that make it look like home. In the corner there’s an old television and the far wall is cluttered with hundreds of photos. There’s one that looks recent, a family of four with pale blonde hair, and I smile when I recognize a teenage Scott standing next to three women who must be his mom and sisters. They’re smiling at the camera with Old Goldwater in the background and a fuzzy figure lingering on the beach far into the distance. I can’t make out if the figure’s a man or a woman, and I’m squinting to get a closer look when a soft voice says behind me, “I see you’ve found the embarrassing family photos.”
I turn, a smile already on my face when those pretty eyes meet mine. He’s thrown on a loose sleeveless shirt and floral printed shorts, and though they’re not exactly the most flattering he still manages to look like he’s modeling for a summer magazine. I step back against the wall when I realize how close he is, lip caught between my teeth, but he doesn’t seem to notice as he studies the photo with an intense sort of fondness.
“I must have been thirteen or fourteen there,” he says softly, a hand coming up to mess his damp ginger hair. “Yeah, because I’m wearing a Destiny’s Child shirt. That was the summer I discovered them and fell in love with Beyoncé. Ugh, she’s such a goddess.” His eyes slide down to meet mine, crinkling. “Hi.”
“Hi,” I whisper, and it looks like he wants to do something but can’t quite bring himself to. Kevin and Mitch walk by talking loudly about tofu and I shrink further back against the wall, tapping my finger along to the beat of my heart. I don’t know why I’m nervous, but it’s Scott and I guess that’s a good enough reason.
“Want to go to my room?” he asks, eyes drawn like he’s concerned. It’s sweet. “It’ll be quieter there. Less people.”
I nod, grateful, and he leads me down the hall without another word. His room is at the far end and up a rickety staircase that has my heart hammering by the time we’re up. I expect it to be a dank little attic room, but it’s cool and bright with a vast window on either side, and somehow it’s entirely him. A small twin bed is propped by one of the windows with a blue quilt softened by years of use, and beside that is a mahogany writing desk. It’s small but not cramped, smelling of oranges and flowers and books, and part of me wants to stay up here forever.
“Very Emily Dickinson,” I say, turning to him with a smile. He chuckles and rubs the back of his neck, looking around like he’s seeing the room for the first time, too.
“Yeah, that may or may not be the reason I chose it,” he admits. He readjusts one of the picture frames on the wall that encases a pressed rose, and my tummy warms. I touch my finger to the glass, marveling. “It makes me feel Victorian or something,” he continues, like he’s embarrassed but can’t help himself. I like that he still says it, still trusts me enough to. “If that makes sense. I don’t know. I like it. Like I’m a ghost or something.”
That catches me off guard but he moves away before I can understand why. His thoughts feel like the wind after that, dancing from one thing to another in unpatterned strokes of conversation. He’s nervous, I realize finally as he’s showing me one of the books on his desk. Just as I am, he’s nervous. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I don’t know if I want to.
“Avi?” he says, and I look up from the book. His brow is furrowed. “Can I ask you a question?”
I nod and he motions me to sit, perching beside me uneasily on his bed. It’s still raining out and the window is streaked with water. I watch one of the droplets as it rolls down the glass, like it’s in a race against the others. It looks like it’s about to take the lead when the bed shudders and my concentration is gone. I look over, surprised to see Scott laying down with his eyes closed. Without thinking I lay back, too, turning on my side to face him.
“You’re nervous,” I whisper, and he opens one eye. I can feel his warmth even though he’s not touching me. I want him to touch me.
“You’re confusing,” he says, and even though it’s not harsh it still makes my breath catch. I’ve heard that before. It’s never a good thing.
“It’s okay,” he says, but I’m not sure if I believe him. “You...okay. I’m not - I’m not the sort of person to push something once someone’s told me not to. I’m really not. But” - he huffs - “you said you wanted to be just friends and I completely respect that. It just gets a little confusing when you - when you kiss me, you know?” He shakes his head. “Unless you’re into platonic cheek-kissing? Which, if so, that’s totally cool and I’m down. But you don’t seem like the type of person to do that, so I’m just..? A little confused? Or did I just completely imagine last night happened and I sound mad?”
That makes me smile a little despite the rapid beating of my heart. “You didn’t imagine it.”
“Okay,” he says slowly, “um, do - do you have answers to the other questions? Because those are kinda the most important.”
I bite my lip. “Can - can you show me what it’s like?”
I nod and he rolls onto his side. His eyelashes are pale but so long, fanning out against the flush of his skin. I want to kiss his freckles.
“You want me to kiss you?” He hesitates, frowning. “Like - platonically?”
I shake my head. “Or - or for real. If you want.”
His face softens and I can’t read his expression, can’t tell if it’s good or bad. One of his fingers rests on my cheek and it makes my skin hum. His nose bumps against mine.
“Can you tell me,” he breathes, “if this is a one time thing?”
My eyelids flutter and he moves closer. “Why?”
“Because if it is then I want to make the most of it.”
I laugh and his hands are warm against my back, my neck, cupping my face. “It’s not,” I whisper, “but - but you should still make the most of it.”
The corners of his eyes crinkle and he nods. “Deal.”
And then he kisses me.
It’s different than I expected. His lips are soft and a little wet, his stubble scratching against my cheek and making uncontrollable tingles shoot down through my veins. I have no idea what I’m doing, my fingers clutching the front of his shirt like I’m afraid he’ll pull away, afraid he’ll stop. It doesn’t feel like much, not at first, but then his hand rests against my thigh and his mouth opens and I feel disjointed and drunk and warm everywhere.
I always thought I would hate it. That someone else touching me, holding me, kissing me would make me feel anxious and restrained and panicked, but this tastes like safety and the only thing I want is for him to touch me more, hold me tighter, kiss me again and again and again. My arms wind around his neck and his fingers trace over my cheek, and when I press forward he lets out this small noise that makes my thoughts dizzy. I can’t breathe, and he’s around me, and I love it.
He pulls back after a second, eyes closed and mouth parted and chest brushing against mine. I can’t read his face and terror strikes me all at once at the horrible possibility that he stopped because he hated it, hated kissing me, only ever did it out of pity. But then his eyes flutter open and he looks down, the tip of his nose nuzzling my cheek and a smile already on those pretty lips. I let out a breath, and he kisses me again.
“You know,” he whispers, curling his fingers along the underside of my jaw. It makes me jump before I melt back against the bed, shivering. “I’ve wanted to do that since the first time I saw you.”
I nudge myself forward, wanting to be closer. “Yeah?”
“Mm,” he hums, brushing my hair back. “Can - can I do it again?”
I nod desperately. “Please.”
He laughs and then his lips are back on mine and I’m sinking again. It scares me how much I want him, how willing I am to let him do anything as long as it means he won’t stop touching me, won’t stop kissing me. He rolls onto his side a little more and his knee comes to rest against my hip, almost like he wants to cage me in, keep me to himself. I like that thought more than I should, and an involuntary moan slips out that has me blushing and burying my face in his shirt. He chuckles, pressing kisses to my forehead, my nose, my chin.
“I had no idea you were so responsive,” he teases when I look up, and my cheeks grow even hotter. “I like it. It makes it easier to drive you crazy.”
My lip catches between my teeth, eyes slipping closed as he presses me back against the soft quilt. I love the way he holds me - one hand on my thigh and the other cupping my face - not rough but not gentle either, like he’s not afraid I’ll break under his touch. it makes me feel big, important. He makes me feel out of my mind. I wrap my arms back around his neck and this time I’m the one who kisses him.
I don’t know how much time passes, only aware of his hands and mouth on my skin, but eventually we end up with his chest pressed to my back and his fingers playing with mine, sleepily watching as the rain falls outside. I never thought that kissing could be so tiring, but I can’t keep my eyelids from drooping every few seconds, that buzzing feeling everywhere with each small kiss he presses to my neck.
“Avriel,” he whispers, reverent, like I’m something he worships. His thumb carves out a path along the lines in my palm, his chin tucked perfectly in the crook of my neck. He’s enveloping, wide and tall and gentle and comforting, and I pull his arms around me like a security blanket, entranced by him, by all that he is that I never thought I could have. “Avriel,” he says again, and my eyes slip closed, his voice a lullaby.
He kisses the line of my jaw, warm. “I like kissing you.”
I turn to face him, my hands on his hip, his back, the smooth expanse of his chest. I’m not sure where his shirt has gone, but I don’t mind its absence in the slightest. When I tilt my chin up his lips meet mine halfway, sweet and addictive. He pulls back when there’s no air left, his chest rising against mine, and I want this more than I’ve ever wanted anything.
“Stay,” he breathes, like there’s any chance of me leaving, like I ever could. I kiss him again, press him back against the quilt, promise to stay as long as I can, as long as he’ll let me. Rain taps at the window outside and he holds me ever closer, only he and I, just this once, the two of us encased in a glass portrait together - a feeling, a moment, a memory that I will never forget.
Chapter 8: Date
please forgive any glaring mistakes, i hope you enjoy :")
“Good morning,” a sleepy voice says, and my eyelids flutter open to see a very groggy, very smiley Scott mere inches from my face. It takes a second for me to remember where I am - Scott’s bedroom, cuddled up against him, warm, safe - before my overexcitable heart settles in my chest and I melt back against the comfy mattress. The vintage teal clock on the wall tells me that it’s just past noon. Rain still taps outside on the leaves and the sky glooms cloudy and grey. I nuzzle my face against Scott’s chest.
“It’s not actually morning,” I mumble, and he huffs a soft laugh. His hair is still damp from his shower and a complete mess from how many times I’ve run my fingers through it, and I slide one hand up to grip loosely at the pale gingery blond strands. It feels so nice to touch him, to have him touch me. I’m at that sweet point of tiredness that won’t let me fall asleep again, but instead makes me needy for snuggles in a way that I haven’t been in a long time. Scott’s mouth brushes against my forehead and I remember kissing him, how nice and right it felt, and I want to do it again but I’m too cozy to move. I peek one eye open and see him watching me, and an unusual surge of bravery washes through me.
“You know,” I say, tucking my hands under my chin, “you should kiss me.”
His nose crinkles as he smiles. “Oh, I should?”
“Well, if you insist,” he whispers, tilting his chin down to brush his lips against mine. It’s sleepy and languid, his hand cupping my chin and his knee bumping against my legs, and when he pulls back I can’t help the slow smile he takes with him.
“Hi,” I say, arching my shoulders before curling back into his arms. His body is the perfect size to wrap around mine. Soft. Everything about him is so soft and gentle. It makes me feel like everything is going to be okay. It makes me feel like I’m going to be okay.
“Hi,” he says back, tucking my hair behind my ear and kissing my temple. “Might I just compliment you on your extraordinary cuddling skills. Truly some of the best I’ve ever seen.”
I roll my eyes. “Stop.”
“I’m serious,” he argues, his eyes crinkling as he nuzzles closer. “You have soft, pretty hair to play with, you’re tiny and warm, you literally smell like tea and cookies , for fuck’s sake. And” - he tilts his chin up, brushing his mouth over mine in a sweet kiss and grinning when he pulls away - “you’re incredibly kissable. 10/10, honestly, you could be one of those professional cuddlers and make millions.”
“Fine then, that’ll be fifty bucks.”
He giggles and kisses my nose, and I wonder what I’ve done in a past life to have deserved him. “I don’t have fifty bucks to give you now, unfortunately,” he hedges. “How does dinner and a drive-in movie sound instead?”
I feel my heart beat faster. “Like a date?”
“That’s the idea.”
I hesitate. “I’ve never been on one.”
He props his head on his hand, his fingers trailing along the dip of my waist and over my hipbone. His face is puckered, thoughtful. “Would you like to go on one?” he asks finally.
I want to tell him that I’d like to go anywhere with him, do anything with him as long as it means that he’ll keep looking at me like I’m the most important thing he’s ever seen. Instead I nod a little, the tips of our noses bumping together like docile waves. “Okay,” I whisper, and he smiles.
“Yeah. Okay. I’d like to.”
“Awesome,” he says softly, and the way his mouth quirks up just at the corners makes me unable to keep myself from tipping my head down and kissing him slowly. His thumb presses to my chin and his legs tangle in mine, and when I pull back he smiles, radiant and beautiful and good, and I know that I could love him and he could be mine and we could be happy, and somehow I want it. For the first time in so long, I actually want it. I want him. I want us.
And that terrifies me.
Scott comes to pick me up the next night in an old blue truck that looks like it’s on its last breath. He hops out before I’m even down the porch steps, jogging over to the passenger side and opening my door with an exaggerated bow. I stifle my laugh and accept his extended hand, settling myself against the well-worn leather seats. Dangling from the rearview mirror is a little silver hummingbird charm, and it wobbles when Scott gets in on his side. He looks slightly more put together than usual; his hair styled with a little wave, his button up shirt that’s patterned with blue and purple flowers, his usually scruffy face neatly trimmed. He smells warm and sugary, like apple pie, and when he presses a kiss to my cheek I notice the small nick on the side of his neck, just below the edge of his hairline.
“Oh,” he says when I point it out, cheeks flushed a pretty pink. “I was trying to buzz the sides of my head and I put the clippers on wrong. Nicole took over before I accidentally decapitated myself.”
I can’t help my laugh and his blush grows.
“I promise I’m not incompetent with everything,” he says, looking over to me fondly. “You can’t tell me you’ve never had a blonde moment.”
I shake my head and grin. “I’m brunet through and through.”
“Damn,” he says wistfully, “can’t argue there. At least one of us has common sense. Oh, by the way” - he digs for something in his pocket, coming up with a folded piece of blue paper - “I was going to get you flowers, but flowers always die and then they smell kinda gross, so I did this instead. You just have to promise not to read it until you’re alone, though, okay? Actually it’s better if I just give it to you at the end of the night instead. Okay, pretend you didn’t see this.” He shoves the paper back into his pocket and I laugh again, and when he looks back up at me he’s the closest to bashful I’ve ever seen him.
“You’d think it was your first date, not mine,” I say, and though I’m teasing it seems to make him relax a little. He bites his lip.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. You should have seen me this afternoon, I thought Mitchy would strangle me with how many outfits I made him watch me try on. And he actually likes fashion.” His eyes crinkle, and his openness is startling yet endearing. I like that he can tell me what he’s thinking without fear that I’ll judge him, without having to censor himself. Still, though, I figured that I’d be the one panicking and I’m a little surprised he’s stolen my gig.
“If it makes you feel better,” I say with a smile, tracing my thumb over the back of his hand, “I watched 50 First Dates this morning to try and get some advice.”
His forehead wrinkles and he laughs, bemused. “I don’t think that movie is the best source for dating tips.”
“I mean, hey, they had fifty first dates. Probability leads me to believe that at least one of them must have been good.”
He smiles and laces his fingers through mine. The look on his face isn’t quite amusement, nor is it amazement, but it’s something between the two and I find I rather like it. “You are,” he says with a shake of his head, “you are so much.”
I hesitate. “Is that a good thing?”
“It’s the best thing,” he promises, cupping my chin and kissing me sweetly. “You’re the best thing.”
We’re quiet after that, but happily so. He pulls out onto the main road and we drive with the windows down and the breeze blowing our hair all over the place. His hand rests on my thigh and I trace over the lines of his palm absentmindedly, watching the quaint country scenery as we pass it by. It’s a gorgeous night and the sun meanders through the sky, on its way to the horizon but in no real hurry. I’m grateful for that. I want as much time with him as I can get.
We stop by a small farm on the side of the road with a food stand in the back for dinner, and Scott takes my hand as we walk up like it’s the most natural thing for him. It’s a cute little joint with sandwiches and homemade ice cream made from the farm’s cow’s milk. He insists that he carries our food when it’s ready and we sit at one of the picnic tables scattered by the pasture fence, able to the see the cows grazing not too far off. It’s perfect and serene and I’m surprised I’ve never been to the farm before when I was younger, surprised I didn’t even know about it. Scott shrugs but doesn’t offer up an answer, but I don’t mind. It’s beautiful. He’s beautiful.
Conversation is light and natural as we eat. Somehow it evolves into a contest to see who can throw a french fry in the air and catch it in their mouth first. I win on the second try but he keeps going, until almost all of his fries have ended up in the grass and he’s left with an empty container and a pout. I laugh but take pity on him, giving him a few of mine to ease his mind and grinning stupidly when he starts loudly thanking Jesus for my generosity.
It’s easy. That’s the only thing I can think of as the night plays on, as his hip bumps against mine on our way over to see the cows. It’s so, so easy, being with him. The words are there and they don’t seem afraid to let themselves out, and I don’t feel like everything I say is messy or boring. It’s easy. When he tries to pet one of the cows and it nearly bites his finger off, my first instinct is to burst out laughing without fear that he’ll hate me for it. It’s a certainty I’ve never felt before. A sturdiness. I feel okay, and he’s the reason. It’s easy.
He hums to himself as we wander up the dirt road of the farm. It’s an old rock song that Dad used to love - Van Halen, I think - and I join along much to his surprise. He smiles and leans forward just enough to brush his lips to cheek.
“You’re funny, you’re sweet, you’re gorgeous, you’re talented, and you like 80s rock? Oh my god, you’re the man for me,” he says with a wink, and I roll my eyes. He slips his fingers through mine.
“My lullabies as a kid were Pink Floyd and Cinderella,” I say dryly, and he grins.
“My mom always told me I was conceived at a Grateful Dead concert,” Scott muses. “That was, of course, before I knew what ‘conceived’ meant, so I thought it was the coolest thing because, like - Grateful Dead? Anything to do with them is fucking awesome. Then I had sex ed in middle school and it wasn’t so cool anymore.”
“Aw, I can just imagine your mortified little face.”
“Conceived, Avriel. I was conceived at a concert. Who fucks at a concert? I couldn’t look at my mom for weeks.”
I blush but don’t say anything. We’ve come to the end of the path and turn to make our way back, pausing to pet the horses that have come out from their barn.
“What’s she like?” I ask after a few minutes.
“Ah. She’s nice. Strong. She raised my sisters and I by herself and I’d never pretend like that was an easy job.”
I nod. “Single mothers are incredible.”
“Yeah. Yeah, they are.”
“What about your father?”
Scott doesn’t answer immediately, his gait shortening as we near the food shack. I worry I’ve pressed too far and open my mouth to apologize but he cuts me off, his voice thoughtful and strained.
“He died when I was a baby,” he says, quiet. “I didn’t really know him.”
My shoulders hunch. “I’m so sorry…”
“It’s okay, don’t worry about it. Hey, we should probably get going. The movie starts in like thirty minutes and I fully intend on vacuuming down an entire bucket of popcorn by then.”
I laugh even though it feels a little off, following him back to the truck. Part of me is terrified he’s upset, but he doesn’t show it. He still helps me into the passenger seat like he did before and holds my hand as he drives. I force myself to relax a little, taking slow breaths that align with the rate of my heart just like Dr. Napan taught me, and somehow it actually works. I rest back into the soft leather of the seat. It’s okay. I’m okay.
The drive-in is packed with cars already and we park at the back, the end of Scott’s truck facing the enormous white screen that plays old movie previews on repeat. We stack blankets in the bed and he runs off to buy popcorn and candy, leaving me to lounge back in the warm summer air and watch the people milling about. The sun has just set and the sky is struck violet and orange, staining the fluffy clouds a technicolor dream. I rest my cheek against the cool metal of the truck, smiling.
Scott returns just as the movie’s about to start, a faint outline in the fading light. He hands me a container of popcorn, skittles, and two Cokes, and just when I think that’s all he starts unloading different types of candy from his sweatshirt pocket. I gape at him.
“Sweet tooth?” I ask, and he chuckles, finally settling next to me and wrapping one of the blankets around his shoulders.
“I wasn’t sure what you liked so I got one of everything.”
I blush and my tummy flutters. “How sweet.”
He laughs. “That’s funny. Sweet. Get it? Like... candy.”
“Oh my god,” I mutter. “Shut up.”
His grin is devious but he does as he’s told and digs into the popcorn. The cars around us are silent but for a few excited whispers as the white screen stutters and the opening credits flash. The quality is grainy and accompanied by intense, near terror-inducing music, and I arch an eyebrow, only just realizing that I don’t know what we’re about to watch. I trust Scott not to choose a horror movie without at least telling me, and from the number of children I’ve spotted such a film doesn’t seem likely, but as the cast credits roll and the uneasy music grows, so does the low panic in my tummy.
Before I’m allowed a true taste of what my anxiety has in store, though, Scott’s arm wraps around my waist and I’m tugged gently into his side. I relent gratefully and he presses a kiss to my cheek, whispering calmly, “Clue. It’s based on the board game. The opening looks frightening but it’s actually a comedy, albeit of the murder mystery variety. There aren’t any jump-scares or anything like that, I promise.”
I nod and the tension gradually eases from my body, helped by the languid way his fingers trail through my hair and along my shoulders. “You’ve done your research,” I whisper, and he huffs a laugh, his breath warm against my neck.
“If by research you mean watching it religiously from the time I was five, then yes, I’ve done copious amounts of research.”
I smile and look up to him, able to make out the faint arch of his features shrouded by the night. “Ah. One of your favorites, then?”
“It’s the top of the list. Quite possibly the best movie to ever grace this earth and I don’t say that lightly.”
“I look forward to it, then,” I murmur, growing quiet as an old-fashioned car rolls on screen. Scott’s arm stays wrapped securely around my waist and I sink back a little more into him, until my back is pressed to his chest and his chin rests on my head. It’s more comfortable than I’d have thought and I can’t pretend that being so close to him doesn’t make my heart hammer against my ribcage. It’s perfect. I can hardly pay attention to the movie, but it’s still perfect.
“Tim Curry,” he says against my ear when a man’s face appears in frame. “Absolute god. I had a crush on him growing up.”
“Really?” The doubt in my voice makes him chuckle, but I’m serious. The man is about forty or so and terribly English through and through, with a pointed nose and a Cheshire Cat smile to top it off. He’s not unattractive and his voice is nice to listen to, but I can’t imagine him being the source of anybody’s infatuation.
“Imagine him ten years younger,” Scott whispers, kissing my neck and cuddling me closer. “With curly hair and a full face of makeup, wearing nothing but stockings and a corset.”
The mental image isn’t unpleasant and I smile, looking up at him. “Stockings?”
“Okay, I see it.”
“He was gorgeous. And he’s funny in this movie which makes it even better.” Scott sighs dreamily. “What a man.”
I smirk and nudge back against him, teasing, “Should I be jealous?”
Scott smiles and his eyes crinkle as they meet mine. “Nah. He was only a crush, and you’re…” He pauses and leans forward to kiss me slowly, sweetly. I’m breathless when he pulls back, the tip of his nose bumping against mine. “You’re you.”
It should be cheesy but somehow, with him, it’s not. I bite my lip and return my gaze to the screen, Scott’s arms wrapped safely around me and his heartbeat steady and certain against my back. That sturdiness settles about us again. It’s easy. With him, it’s all so, so easy.
The movie ends up being funnier than I expected and I begin to fall in love with the way Scott laughs. It’s stuttered and sporadic. Feeling it vibrating against my back, muted in the curve of my neck, warm in the air around us, it’s beautiful. I lose track of the plot more than once and miss countless jokes because all I can bring myself to focus on is him, all of him, his chuckle and his breathing and his quiet commentary as he alerts me that his favorite part is coming up or this scene’s a bit scary or the shoddily imposed audio will get quieter here before suddenly increasing at this particular line. It’s evident that he knows the movie by heart and it’s endearing - it makes me want to catch every gesture and every bit of dialogue - but all my mind cares about is how he cradles me back against him, how he trails his fingers through my hair, how he presses tiny kisses to my shoulder every now and then as if he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. He’s enthralled and so am I, but with what we simply can’t agree.
When the movie’s third - and final - ending rolls to a freeze frame he tenses behind me, stretching his shoulders before nuzzling his chilly nose against my neck.
“We should hurry if we want to beat the crowd,” he murmurs, and though I’m cozy and warm cuddled against him, I know that waiting in traffic for an hour isn’t the most ideal situation we can set for ourselves, no matter how desperate I am to spend more time with him.
The blankets are stowed in the back of his truck and he helps me into the passenger seat, pulling out of the drive-in before half the other movie-goers have even thrown away their popcorn cartons. The wind sends goosebumps down my spine as we start up the old country road, his fingers laced in mine and his voice soft and sweet as he sings along to the radio. He walks me to my front porch like the gentleman he is, but I can’t bring myself to be nearly as composed. My heart hammers like a stampede and my palms are sweaty. The words crack on themselves as I ask softly, “Would - do you want to come in? I have lemonade.”
He hesitates, his front teeth dragging over his bottom lip, before smiling. “Sure. I love lemonade.”
He follows me into the kitchen dutifully, sitting at the breakfast bar and surveying his surroundings with small, polite glances. My hands shake a little as I pour the glasses. I don’t know why. It’s not that we’re alone together now - we’ve been alone plenty before - nor is it that we’re still technically on a date, but it’s something and I have a feeling that it’s just him. He makes me nervous - excited - confused. I’ve never felt anything like it before. It’s thrilling.
“Thanks,” he says when I hand him his glass. I know I could sit next to him but I stand by the counter instead, taking tiny sips as I try to understand this apparent revelation I’ve had. “So,” he continues after a minute, his eyes crinkling. “Did you like the movie?”
“Yeah,” I say quietly, matching his grin. “It was funny.”
“Yeah,” he echoes, thoughtful. “Avriel?”
“Are you okay?”
I pause. “Why?”
“You just seem a little different,” he says, standing. My heart beats faster as he moves to the counter. His eyes are sincere and something revs in my chest.
“Oh,” I whisper, and his eyebrows crease.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes,” I say, though truthfully I’m not sure. I feel almost giddy and it’s not a feeling I’m accustomed to. All I can think about is that he’s only a few feet away. Too close. But no, that’s not quite right. It’s not like when I feel suffocated, when there’s too many people around me and I’m being drowned beneath the waves. It’s not that. It’s like I’m reaching - searching - for something that’s lost, something I can’t have. He frowns at me and I worry for a second that he’s made me crazy.
“Avi?” he says again, moving closer, and then it clicks and I understand what’s missing, what I can’t find. I stand on my tiptoes, winding my arms around his neck, a surge of bravery warm in my chest as I kiss him.
He seems surprised, at least a little, but that doesn’t stop him from looping an arm around my waist and bracing the other against the counter. The anxiety fades and this is right, this is exactly what I was looking for, exactly who I’ve been looking for. He kisses me gently, sweetly, pressing tantalizing pecks to the corners of my mouth, my lips, my cheeks. It’s good but it’s maddening, and I try and remember what he did yesterday, what felt good and what I wanted more of. I clutch one hand in his hair and part my lips. He arches into me and his hands, which have been appropriately placed up until now, lose all sense of chivalry as he slides them down against the back of my thighs and tugs so that my abdomen brushes against his. I tense, warmth spreading everywhere, and a blush colors my face when he pulls back to meet my eyes.
“Are you okay?” he asks, cupping my cheeks, chest rising and mouth pink.
“Yeah,” I manage, eyelids heavy. “Kiss me again?”
He smiles prettily before complying and god, I could kiss him forever. Somehow his arms cage me in against the counter and then he’s holding me, hands on my thighs, my back, my chest, everywhere as my poor heart tries desperately to keep going. He’s addictive. He’s beautiful. And it’s so, so easy.
It feels like hours before we come to a stop, my skin tingly and numb as he pulls back from where he’s been pressing me against the couch. I don’t recall how we got there and don’t care to try, captivated by the tenderness on his face as he presses slow, gentle kisses to my neck. He places each one carefully, cautiously. It makes me feel treasured. Worshipped. He makes me feel important.
“It’s late,” he whispers, his finger catching a piece of my hair and tucking it behind my ear. I blink, and it’s like I’m drunk.
“You should stay.”
He laughs, and it’s soft. He’s so soft. “If I stay I won’t be able to keep my hands to myself.”
“You say that now,” he whispers, kissing behind my ear, “but in the morning you may not agree.”
“Stay anyway. Kiss me more.” I pucker my lips, making a kissy face. “I like kissing you.”
He smiles and leans forward, capturing my lips in his and kissing me deeply so that I can barely breathe when he moves back. “I like kissing you, too,” he murmurs, dragging his teeth along the underside of my jaw. “Mm, so fucking much…”
I wrap my arms back around his neck and hook one of my legs in his, pulling him down against me again and panting when he runs his tongue over my collarbone. “Stay,” I whisper, bringing his mouth back to mine. He hums and it turns to a moan halfway through. I adore him.
“I shouldn’t,” he manages when we break apart again, and I shake my head.
“I - I don’t want to move too fast.”
“Then we won’t.”
He traces a finger down my cheek, smirking. “A slumber party, then? Can I braid your hair?”
I blush at the thought but nod, and he kisses my forehead before flopping beside me on the couch.
“Are you sure?” he asks, and it’s serious, concerned. His versatility makes my mind spin. “Because I can go home if that would make you more comfortable.”
I shake my head at that, at how he even remotely thinks I’d be more comfortable without him. The thought makes my stomach flutter and I’m surprised to find that it’s true, but it is. I like being with him. I really, truly do.
“I’d like you to stay,” I say, and his face softens. He kisses me, just once, and my heart aches for him - aches for this boy I hardly know who has somehow changed everything, who has somehow changed me.
“Okay,” he whispers, and I think I want to love him, think maybe I can. “Then I’ll stay.”
Chapter 9: Morning
hope you enjoy, and leave me a fucking comment bc im v lonely!!
I lend him pajamas and he gives me a kiss before disappearing into the bathroom to change. I don’t move for a minute, pressing my weight back against wall and allowing my eyes to slip shut, my thoughts warm and sleepy as they muddle through towards comprehension. I’ve never had a boy stay the night - I’ve never had a boy to stay the night - and I don’t know what to do, what to say, what to avoid. Movies only ever show to give him pajamas and maybe a glass of water, but those movies also tend to wind up with a sex scene not long after, and any thought of that happening tonight makes my already tense brain go haywire.
I pull myself together and get the spare sheets from the hall closet. It seems rude to make him sleep on the couch when his own bed is a two-minute walk from my cabin, but I want him to stay and he said that he would. Still, though, it doesn’t sit right, and my overexcitable mind wracks itself for a solution. I can sleep on the couch instead and he can take my bed. Perfect. Unless that’s weird - I shake my head because is it weird? We can always sleep together, we did it before a few days ago and it was fine, but something about that seems to strongly go against first date etiquette. Does Scott even care about first date etiquette? Do I? Should I? I know I should talk to Esther about this but it’s almost midnight and she has work tomorrow and I’m completely on my own. I breathe out shakily. I shouldn’t have asked him to stay. It was stupid and selfish and he should just go home before -
Scott’s voice is warm and I jump a little as his arms wind around my waist, his chest brushing against my back. He smells like toothpaste and cherry blossoms. My worries stutter and crumble like ash.
“Hi,” I whisper. He kisses my neck and pulls away, taking the sheets from my hands to spread them over the couch like it’s nothing. He doesn’t even question his apparent banishment to the couch. I force myself to breathe.
“You know,” he says, tucking the sheet into the cushions and turning to me with a gentle smile, “if it makes you uncomfortable, I don’t have to stay. You were, after all, a bit compromised when you offered.”
My face flushes hot. He’s not wrong. I asked him to stay because, in that moment, I couldn’t imagine him leaving. It’s still the same - I don’t want him to leave - but the urgency, the fear, is gone. He finishes with the sheets and straightens, brushing a curl back from my face.
“Avriel,” he says. “Are you okay?”
I look down. “Yeah. Long day. I think all my anxiety is catching up to me.”
“Would it help if I left?”
It’s true. If he left I’d spend the night worrying that I drove him away, that he hates spending time with me, that this entire thing between us was ruined because of me. I’m tired and my head hurts, but I still want him here. I always want him here. It’s confusing. It’s wonderful.
“I don’t,” I start quietly, “I don’t really want to talk anymore right now.”
He nods. “Okay.”
I nod, too. He smiles.
“Can I make you a cozy cup?” he asks, and all the air’s heaviness dissipates. I ogle at him and he laughs, taking my hand in his and tugging me to the kitchen.
“Okay,” he says, “upon reflection I’ll admit that sounds weird. I promise it’s not. My mom always made them when I was a kid. She said it’s like a hug in a mug” - he pauses by the cupboard, his eyes lighting up - “wait, that’s even better than cozy cup. Hug in a mug. Hug mug? Mug hug?” He shakes his head. “Not important. Anyways, she used to make them for me if I was feeling sad or had a nightmare or whatever. They’re literally magic.”
I don’t say anything as I watch him dig through the cabinets, pulling out various items and humming to himself. He lets out a victorious shout when he finds a container of honey, grinning back at me.
“You have all the ingredients, I don’t even have to substitute. This is great news.”
I give a small, confused smile but he just winks at me, twirling towards the sink and putting the kettle on the stove. Two minutes later he turns, holding between his palms a mug filled with milky, faintly brown liquid. I wrinkle my nose.
“Okay, it doesn’t look the best,” he admits as he hands it to me, “but I promise it tastes nice. Half a cup of milk, a tablespoon of honey, two teaspoons of cinnamon, stir all that together and fill the rest with boiling water. Vualá, a cozy cup. If you’re feeling really adventures you can add in one or two drops of vanilla, but I always prefer the standard version.” He smiles, the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth. “Taste it.”
I blow the steam away and take a cautious sip, him scrutinizing me all the while. It’s sweet and creamy and reminds me of the horchata Dad used to order whenever we went out to El Cerro for dinner. I was never allowed to have my own because too much milk used to give me stomach aches, but Dad always let me steal sips of his when Mom and Esther weren’t looking. I haven’t tasted anything like it in over a decade, and it makes a scratchy feeling form in my throat. I look back up at Scott and try to smile even though it hurts.
“Good?” he asks, his cheeks dimpling when I nod. “Yesss, victory. You have to try my mom’s version sometime. I don’t know how, but even when I use the exact same ingredients and do everything she does, hers always comes out way better than mine. I think it’s the whole motherly love thing.”
I smile again but don’t say anything, my throat still aching like I have a cold and my fingers trembling against the warmth of the mug. Scott seems to notice my lack of enthusiasm and ducks his head with a quiet laugh.
“You look sleepy,” he says, nudging my arm. “Why don’t you go to bed? I’ll sing you a lullaby if you want.”
He’s teasing but god, I wish he wasn’t. He does escort me back to my room, though, nosing through the bookshelf and desk while I set my cozy cup on the windowsill and pull the sheets back. He turns with the small glass jar labeled Extra Sunshine in his hands, smiling with a light of curiosity in his eyes. I’m too tired to give it a proper explanation and settle instead for a simple, “For what makes me happy.” That makes his smile grow and he sets it back onto the desk, leaning against the doorframe.
“I like that,” he says. “It’s sweet. Innocent.”
I smile and shrug tiredly, and he tucks a piece of hair behind my ear, his thumb resting on the underside of my chin.
“Get some rest, Avriel,” he says softly, stooping low to kiss me once. It’s chaste and quaint, the sort of kiss that’s not meant to initiate anything more but instead to simply showcase the persistent tug of affection one feels for another. That he feels it for me makes my head dizzy, and I sigh when he pulls back.
“Goodnight,” I whisper.
“Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere,” he quotes, dimpling down at me, and I can’t remember what it’s from but it makes me feel warm, safe. So does he. “Sweet dreams, Avriel. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I sleep fitfully and, when I wake for the sixth time at seven the next morning, I resign myself to dreadful consciousness. The day is just coming into itself; faint beams of light interrupted by storm clouds, and the tranquil pattern of rain tapping at the windowpane. I curl my hands beneath my chin and watch the droplets of water roll down the glass. When I was little, Dad and I always used to make a game out of it. He chose one drop and I chose another, and we watched with bated breath as they raced to the bottom of the sill and melted away. He won more than I did, but that was okay. There was always another game to be played, another chance to be victorious. My chest aches like something’s not there anymore. I miss him.
I roll onto my side and grab my phone from the bedside table, pressing the green button to FaceTime Esther. She’ll be coming back in a few days, but I haven’t talked to her in more than a week and that makes me uneasy. Scott feels so big and important in my head that he makes everything else seem little, irrelevant. It’s not his fault, if anything it’s mine, but that’s still kind of scary. Esther picks up on the fourth ring, her face coming on screen, and then tension in my stomach lessens.
“Hey, Bee,” she says cheerfully. Her hair is pulled into a tight ballet bun and her glasses are sloping down her nose. She looks tired but content, and I smile. “You’re up early.”
She pauses and worry clouds her eyes. “Nightmares?”
I shake my head and she relaxes, the camera shifting as she settles back on what looks to be her couch.
“Good,” she says, nodding to herself. “Good. Have you been taking the melatonin? And your anxiety meds? I know you say they make you feel off, but you can’t just stop taking them without at least talking to Dr. Napan first.”
“I’m taking them,” I promise her, and she look skeptical but relents. As overbearing as she is sometimes, I have to admit that I’ve missed this, missed her.
“Fine. Good. What’s up, then? You seemed like you were doing really well.” She hesitates. “Is - is it something to do with Scott? I know you were getting pretty close with him. Is that all still going well?”
“Yeah,” I whisper, rolling onto my side. My face in the corner of the screen is squashed and hidden mostly by my blanket, but I’m convinced that she can still see my blush. “Um, he’s here now.”
Her lips part. “As in...he’s in bed with you?” She grins. “Avi -”
“The couch,” I groan, burying my face in the pillow. “He’s on the couch.”
“He stayed the night?”
“We had a date.”
“You had a date?” She nearly shouts it and I frantically turn the volume down on my phone. “Avriel Benjamin, you had a date and you didn’t think to tell me about it? I could have helped you pick out an outfit, I could have given you pointers, I could have given you -” She pauses. “Do you have condoms? Avi, I could have given you condoms. You always have to use condoms, do you understand me? If Scott ever tries to convince you not to use them, then you slap his meatstick away and you get the hell out of there, okay? A guy who doesn’t use condoms is not a guy to waste your time with.” Her face becomes blurry before focusing again, and there’s a pen cap between her teeth. “Hang on I’m making you a shopping list. Durex are good, but if they don’t have any then get Trojan. It’s always a good idea to have lube, too, okay? There’s no such thing as too much lube.”
My face burns and I stare at her, mortified. “Esther -”
“Look, there’s no time to be embarrassed about stuff like this. You and I both know that the sex ed at our high school only applied to straight people.”
“I’ll text you the list of what you should get, okay? And ask Scott when he was last tested. STDs and STIs are not worth ten minutes of feeling good, do you understand me? Avriel? Promise me you’ll be safe.”
“I’m - I’m n-not,” I shake my head, spluttering over my words, “I’m not going to - to have sex with him.”
She gives me a look, pulling the pen cap out of her mouth. “You may say that now, but things can change and it’s always best to be prepared. Just buy the condoms, Avi. Worst case scenario is that you never need them and you end up using them as balloons instead.”
I nod weakly if only to ensure that she stops saying the word “condoms.” She has to leave for work a few minutes later and, with a few blown kisses and the promise that she’ll see me in a few days, I’m alone again.
I consider trying to sleep but decide against it, creeping out into the hallway with a blanket around my shoulders. Scott is still sleeping soundly, his legs tossed over the arm of the couch and his hands cuddled to his chest. He looks young and untroubled. His mouth quirks as his breathing deepens, pale eyelashes fluttering, and I wonder what he’s dreaming about, wonder if it’s me. I stand there for far longer than I should before retreating into the kitchen to make tea, humming to myself as I watch the rain scatter across Old Goldwater. It’s peaceful. Home. I smile, and I know it will be a good day.
I read in the armchair beside the couch for a few hours, only looking up when Scott’s shoulders arch and he rolls onto his tummy. His eyes are slow and sleepy as he blinks, and he nuzzles his face into the cushion.
“G’mornin’,” he mumbles. He curls his head down and his body disappears beneath the blanket, all but for the wave of messy hair and the very tip of his nose. He looks like a burrito and I stretch my legs out, smiling.
He groans. “Ah, fuck.” His head pops out and looks up at me, eyes crinkling. “S’cold. Cuddle me?”
I open my mouth to decline but stop midway, unsure why my first instinct is to say no. I do want to cuddle him. There’s not much else in this world I’d rather be doing, and I push myself out of the chair and into his arms without a word. He wiggles happily and pulls me into his chest, like I’m a puzzle piece he’s been missing. Warmth spreads through me straight down to my pinkie toes.
“I had the weirdest dream,” he hums against my neck. “I was walking to the Super Bowl with you, Mitchy, and Harry Potter, and we were freaking out because we were, like, supposed to be performing at the halftime show but we were running late. I think Tim Curry was there, too? Anyway, we were trying to get into the stadium but the guards wouldn’t let us in, so you started Irish breakdancing to distract them while we snuck past.”
I laugh. “What’s Irish breakdancing?”
“Hell if I know, I don’t think it actually exists.” I can hear the smile in his voice. “It worked, though, but when we got inside it wasn’t actually a stadium, it was like a creepy old house and we were in a murder mystery. And we had to cause another distraction by, like, kissing while Mitchy played a harp that was actually a bomb? And then I was Harry Potter and I kept wondering why I was kissing you instead of Ginny.” He muffles his giggle in my hair. “Safe to say, I think we solved the murder mystery but I don’t actually remember how it ended.”
“You’re so weird,” I mumble, and he grins.
“I like to think of myself as more of an innovator than weird. Irish breakdancing? The biggest trend in 2018, one hundred percent.”
“Are you even Irish?”
“I’m pretty sure every white person is at least some part Irish.”
“True,” I say laughing again as I roll onto my side and closer to his chest. We’re entirely too big to both fit together, but he’s got his arms around my waist to hold me steady and it’s not as uncomfortable as it could be.
“Kirstie, Megg, and I were gonna go shopping today,” he says after a few minutes, gently kissing my neck in a way that’s both distracting and much appreciated. “There’s a little town about half an hour away. We were gonna look around, probably get some lunch and head back in time for the campfire tonight. More ghost stories.” He rests his thumb on my hip, drawing out little circles and stars. “You should come. If you want to. Unless you’re sick of me, that is.”
He’s teasing and it’s sweet, but I can’t stop thinking about what Esther said. I was going to head to the store today anyway to get some food as well as - I blush - the “supplies” on the list that Esther sent me. Logically I should just get them while out shopping with Scott, because the nearest store is almost twenty minutes away and going on a separate trip just to get them is stupid and a complete waste of gas, but the idea of him watching me buy condoms makes me want to run screaming for the hills and I’m not sure I can bring myself do it. I wonder if he has condoms. That would make everything so much easier, but asking if he has them is almost as bad as getting them myself. I’m a second away from shutting down completely from panic when he nudges my neck with his nose, his voice soft.
“I promise it’s okay if you don’t want to go, Avriel. Whatever you want.”
“Do you have any STDs?” I blurt out.
“Um,” he says, his entire body tensing before he laughs so hard his chest shakes. “No, I don’t. What? Where did that even come from?”
“Esther said that if you don’t use condoms I should slap your meatstick away,” I repeat weakly, and he laughs again.
“Esther has a beautiful way with words. My meatstick, huh?”
I blush and bury my face into his chest.
“Well,” he starts slowly, still giggling, “as it happens, my meatstick is quite accustomed to condoms. I always use them. And I was last tested in early June, so a little over a month and a half ago. I’m one hundred percent clean and haven't been with anyone since I was tested.” He brushes my hair back, and he’s smiling when I manage to pull myself together. “Any other questions, my safe-sex connoisseur?”
My cheeks are warm and I shake my head.
He grins, a wicked gleam coming into his eyes. “Well, I have one. How long have you been thinking about my meatstick?”
My mouth drops open and I shove his arm. “Oh my god, shut up.”
“You’re the one who brought it up,” he argues. “My meatstick was perfectly fine on its own and then you came along -”
“Please stop saying ‘meatstick.’”
He smirks. “What would you prefer? My diddly doo? My salami hammer? My love shaft?”
“Oh my god -”
“What about my pork sword?”
I push him again and he laughs, continuing easily like he’s memorized the thesaurus of awful romance novel vocabulary.
“Ooh, what about my meter-long King Kong ding dong?”
“Literally shut up.”
I try to wiggle out of his arms but he scoops me up like it’s nothing, laughing and cuddling me to his chest until I’m forced to give up and slump my forehead against his. Somehow I’ve ended up sprawled over his lap and panic hits me that I’m crushing him, but he seems entirely unbothered as his blue eyes crinkle up at me and his arms secure themselves around my waist. I brace my hands on his shoulders, steadying myself. Being this close to someone is still new to me, still peculiar and strange, still so much for my wavering heart to understand. The fact that it’s Scott makes it better and worse at the same time.
“Hi,” he says, his thumb pressing to my bottom lip.
“Hi,” I breathe. I relax onto his lap and he wraps his blanket around my shoulders, tugging gently it so that I’m pulled down further onto him, our chests flush together and our legs tangled. I feel warm and frazzled and he’s so beautiful my head hurts. He smiles again.
“Is it okay if I kiss you?”
That he’s asking makes me melt, and I nod, his scruff tickling the tip of my nose when he tilts his neck up and drags his mouth over mine. It’s chaste and polite for only a moment before he curls his fingers into my hair and parts his lips, his tongue soft and warm and sending shivers down my spine. I don’t know much about French kissing - I don’t even know if people still call it French kissing - but it makes my breath catch and he’s very, very good at it. I open my mouth and he moves closer, until it becomes obvious that I’m not really kissing, but instead I’m being kissed. And god, does it feel nice.
His hand rests against my lower back, tucked beneath the hem of my shirt so that the tips of his fingers press to my skin. His touch is gentle, cautious, like he’s worried I’m more fragile than I look. It’s endearing but part of me wants to know what it would be like if he wasn’t so careful, if he wasn’t so soft. I wind my arms around his neck and he smiles against my lips, holding me closer, his hand still pressed to the small of my back until it feels like I’m being branded by the pure heat of his skin. I shiver and he kisses me deeper, and it’s like I’ve been pushed through the clouds on the way to the sun.
He pulls away before I’m ready to let go and kisses my forehead, his chest rising rapidly.
“Fuck,” he whispers, before his eyes crinkle and he laughs. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
I swallow, confused. “What?”
“You.” He tucks my hair behind my ear, shaking his head like I don’t understand. It’s true. I don’t. “You are…” He kisses me again before moaning and pulling back. He looks unruly and hungry and so beautiful. “You are so addictive. I swear, you’re like a drug. I could kiss you forever.”
That sounds rather appealing to me and I smile. “Okay.”
He groans. “Don’t encourage me. I don’t want you to get swept up in the whirlwind just because I’m overexcited.”
I swallow and let my hand rest on his face, on the pale hollow of his cheekbone. He’s golden. Stunning. “What if I want to get swept up?”
“I don’t doubt that,” he says, and though something about his tone is patronizing I can’t bring myself to be offended. “Letting yourself go is one of the most incredible experiences. But it can also become one of your greatest regrets.”
“I...I don’t think I know what you’re saying.”
“You’re a virgin, Avi. In every sense. I don’t want you to give that up in a moment of desire and then wish you hadn’t, especially not with me. I don’t want to be the one that takes it from you if you’re not ready.”
I feel my face grow warm. “Virginity isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.”
“No, I agree. But I also don’t think it’s something you should disregard, or try and get rid of like it’s a bad habit. You know?”
I look away, my face flushed. I’m embarrassed, I realize belatedly, and I find myself becoming even more embarrassed because of it. “How old were you?”
He sighs and I think for a moment that he won’t answer, before he says softly, “Fifteen.”
“And you regret it?”
“Yes. I regret letting my first time be with that person, because he - he wasn’t very nice to me. I didn’t know him very well and I wish I never tried to. I don’t want you to do the same.” He rests his fingers under my chin and tugs gently until my eyes meet his. “I like you. A lot. And I want to keep kissing you, and I want to take you on more dates, and I want to do...other things. But I don’t want to do anything like that if you’re not ready. I don’t want to be something you regret.”
“Do you honestly think I could regret you?” I whisper, and he smiles sadly.
“Anything is possible.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
“I am sure,” I say, moving back so that my knees are on either side of his waist. “I like you. I think about you a lot.” I bite my lip before adding, “And your meatstick.”
He laughs loudly, covering his mouth with his fingers until I miss that dimply smile. “All very good things to know. I - and my meatstick - will keep that in mind.”
“Good,” I say, nodding my head like we’ve accomplished something, although I’m not terribly sure we have. He smiles up at me and he looks so sweet that I can’t help but lean down and kiss him again. He tastes like warmth and sleep and I want to do this forever, but a second later we’re interrupted by the persistent and loud growl of his stomach.
He pulls back laughing and I grin despite myself, rolling off of the couch and holding out my hand.
“I’ll make you breakfast,” I say, and he hops eagerly on his toes as he follows me to the kitchen.
“Wait, really? Oh my god, you’re actually perfect. Can we have pancakes? I’ll go pick some blueberries outside if you want.”
His sudden reversion back to childlike excitement makes my heart flutter, and I watch fondly as he runs outside into the rain with only his pajamas on to gather blueberries from the bushes. I shudder at the cool wind that blows through the screen door and abandon the pancake mix to grab a sweater. I’m just outside of my bedroom door when I freeze suddenly at the sight of him standing there, goosebumps erupting over my arms and back and something like bile churning in my stomach.
He’s beside the bookcase in my room. He’s tall, taller than me, maybe six feet, give or take an inch. And broad. His shoulders clad in an old patterned sweater and his work boots scuffling against the hardwood floor. My head grows light and I stumble back against the wall, and he turns to look at me, turns to stare right through me. My heart stutters. My heart stops. My voice is gone like it has been for so many fucking years, and he’s here like he hasn’t been.
Chapter 10: Dad
A/N: im so so so sorry this took so long and that it's so short and probably not very good lol. i've had writer's block to the max, especially with my longer stories. but i hope you can enjoy this somewhat, and i think that after this chapter it will be easier for me to write this fic :")
content note: contains brief mentions/descriptions of suicide
I’m sitting on the bedroom floor when Scott finds me.
He’s got a bowl of blueberries in his hand and a smile on his face that disappears the moment he steps through the doorway. I don’t say anything. I don’t look at him. He kneels beside me and he’s speaking, low and soft and something that used to be okay, but the barriers my mind has built up around itself feel heavy and forceful, like a tomb enclosed from the light. He rests his hand on my shoulder but I don’t move. He pulls me into his arms, against his chest. I don’t speak. I don’t know how. Ten years later, I still don’t know how. My eyes are burning like I’ve opened them underwater, and my cheeks feel stiff and damp. My knees are shaking. I’m shaking. I’m lost. I’m thirteen years old and I’ve just walked into our house after school, and even though I’m home I’m so fucking lost.
He was wearing a suit and tie. The first two buttons of his shirt were undone and his skin was blue beneath the rope. His head looked swollen and his body too small. Like one of those Halloween decorations you string up from the trees. He wasn’t rocking, but the rope was turning, his body was turning, slow and steady and quiet. I thought it would be louder. I could smell his cologne. My lungs ache hissed.
I stood there for a long time in the doorway of the bathroom. My teeth chattered and my jaw kept clenching, one hand gripping the strap of my backpack too tight, hanging on. I didn’t say anything and he didn’t say anything. I’d seen dead bodies on TV before. They were always grimy and shiny, covered in lights and makeup and the knowledge of fiction. His face looked like leather. The room smelled of urine.
The closest phone was in my parents’ room but I didn’t want to go in there. I walked down the stairs to the kitchen and I dialed 911, like I was always told to do in emergencies. A woman’s voice answered. I told her that there had been an accident and Dad needed help. She stayed on the phone with me while the police and ambulance were dispatched, and I slid down against the mahogany cabinets in the corner of the room. I didn’t say anything but she kept talking, low and gentle, asking me questions about myself and if I was okay and what my name was. I didn’t answer any of them but that didn’t stop her, like she was reading them off of a grocery list. When the front door opened and paramedics rushed in I let the phone drop onto the tile and I covered my ears. My head hurt. A nice man gave me a box of juice and a warm blanket and rubbed my back and talked to me while they took Dad down from the bathroom. While they took his body down from the bathroom. The man said I was going to be okay. He kept saying it. He said I was going to be okay. He said I was going to be okay. He said I was going to be okay. I was okay. I was okay. I was okay. I’m okay. I’m okay. I am. I am. I am, I am, I am, I am I am I am I am I am i am i am i am iam iam iamiamiamiamiamiamiamiam
When I open my eyes I see the dead stars. Stickers that Dad put on the cabin ceiling. One of them is peeling back, dangling and twisting and caught by a thin strand of old glue. I look away and curl my fingers against the smooth bed sheets, my nose tickling when I breathe in deep. A figure sits against the closed door. Hunched shoulders and kind eyes. Scott.
“Hey,” he says when he sees me, standing. “You’re awake.”
I swallow the thickness down and he sits beside me on the edge of the bed. His hands are already resting on my shoulder, my cheek. Always touching. It used to make me smile, like he couldn’t keep himself off of me, but now I feel cold. My stomach feels filled with stones, drowning my lungs right up into my throat. Breaking me down. Burying me.
“Hey,” Scott whispers again, fingers on my jaw. His is clenched. He’s scared. “Hey, honey, I - I’m glad you’re awake. I called Esther. She’s on her way up from Connecticut right now. She says you’re gonna be okay, that sometimes you get like this but you’re always okay after you sleep or something. She’s a little worried though.” He chuckles. His voice cracks. He’s terrified. “She’s gonna come back up early and take care of you, okay? I’ll be here, too. I’m gonna take care of you, Avriel, okay? I promise. You’re gonna be okay.”
I blink slowly and look back at the door. I almost expect to see the tall man still standing there. Dark hair like mine, a mustache, ratty old Goodwill sweaters and unkempt whiskers. A smile like nothing else in this world. It was him. There’s no other person it could have been. Maybe he’s alive. Maybe he’s only been away for the past decade, off on some great adventure and now back like nothing ever changed. Maybe he’s come back for me. Maybe he really loves me too much to ever leave, like he always promised. Maybe he was really there, standing in his old room, staring at me, smiling, and it was really real as much as it wasn’t. I blink again. I look away from the door.
And maybe I’m a fucking idiot.
“Avi,” Scott says, and his hand is on my face, tracing my cheekbones, the point of my chin. He shuffles up to lay beside me and he’s all height and warmth. I shiver, grateful for it but too heavy to thank him. He’s upset and afraid, but he wraps his arms around my waist and nuzzles my neck and holds me anyway. I’m not okay but he’s here and that’s something. I bury my nose into the sheets and I cry and he stays close.
All the while I watch the door, but Dad doesn’t come back.
When Esther comes she makes gnocchi with chicken and vegetables for lunch. The thing about Esther is that she knows me at every point and can read me even better. No matter where I’m at, she gets it, and the second she steps into my bedroom and takes a gander she immediately insists that I need comfort food. My tummy feels bubbly and icky and the thought of eating is nauseating, but if Esther says I need something, I know well enough to trust her judgement.
That’s how the three of us end up sitting at the kitchen table spooning potato pasta into our mouths and not speaking. That’s normal for me, but Scott looks like he wants to explode and Esther just looks tired. I roll my fork between my fingers and nudge a piece of broccoli across the plate, swirling it around in the sauce before leaving it teetering on the rim. It topples over onto the table and I stare at it until my eyes grow unfocused. When I look back up, Scott and Esther are watching me. It’s the sort of look I used to get a lot when I was younger. Like I’m a ladybug trapped underneath a magnifying glass and doing my best to waddle away, but to no avail. Like I’m pathetic. Unstable. I know they don’t mean to, they’re probably just worried, but they are. It makes my lungs fill with too much air. I put my fork down.
They talk a little after that. Esther asks Scott about himself, about his family, about anything normal. He’s got two older sisters that both already have families of their own, and a handful of nieces and nephews that he adores. I can picture it, him with small kids, and I know he’d be great with them. He’s got the patience and the heart for it. We’re different in that sense, he and I. I’ve never been a fan of them, never been a fan of most people. Kids are cruel. I’ve had enough of that in my life.
I try to help clear the table when we finish eating, but Esther stops me with a hug that sends me into a crying fit. Worry crashes over Scott’s face but Esther’s already pushing me towards my bedroom before he can say anything. I excuse myself and, five minutes later when Esther knocks on my door, she tells me he’s gone back to his cabin for now. I don’t say anything and just nod. My face feels heavy, like my cheek muscles are being anchored to the ground and my eyelids sewn shut. I feel fragile. When Esther comes to sit with me I start crying again. This time I don’t stop, but she just rubs my back and stays with me until I fall asleep. It’s fitful and brief, and when I wake my head is pounding. My back is damp with sweat. I want to go home. But Dad’s dead and Mom’s gone and the house will smell like bleach, and it’s not fair because I was doing okay and now I’m not anymore and ghosts aren’t supposed to be real. It’s easier this way, though. Quieter. I thought it would be louder. There’s nothing more to say.
So I don’t speak.
The next day passes and nothing changes. I wake early and sit on the porch watching the rolling waves of Old Goldwater reflect the sun as it makes its way through the sky. I can hear people over at the cabin next door - Mitch and Kevin, I think I can make out, and a few others - but I don’t look over and they quiet down soon enough. Scott comes up the trail past the blueberry bushes at around noon, but he’s intercepted by Esther before he can make it up the front steps. They talk a little and he seems upset, but finally he nods and turns away stiffly. When Esther rejoins me on the porch she doesn’t say anything and neither do I. It used to reassure me, the companionable silence we always had together. But now it’s just terrifying.
I wake the next morning and there are suitcases by the front door when I walk out to the kitchen. Esther’s sitting on the couch, a book in one hand and a pad of paper against her thigh as she scribbles something down. Her eyes are hard and studious but they soften when she looks at me.
“We’re going home,” she says, and my throat itches. “At least for a few days. I called Dr. Napan and you have a counselling appointment at four this afternoon. I’m gonna need you to pack some clothes, okay, Bee? We can get breakfast on the way.”
I shake my head and stumble back until my elbows hit the wall. Esther stands, placating as always, but I just shake my head again.
“It’s just a little setback,” she says gently. “It’s nothing we can’t handle, okay? You’ll see Dr. Napan and you can talk to her, maybe she’ll adjust your meds a little. We’ve handled stuff like this before and we can handle it again.”
“It’s different this time,” I whisper, and she frowns.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s - Dad,” I manage, and the look on her face makes me want to hide underneath the kitchen table. I stare at my hands. I hate that they’re shaking. “I saw Dad.”
“Avi,” Esther says, breathless. “Dad is dead.”
I squeeze my eyes shut, shaking my head again. “I saw him.”
“Avriel,” she says, taking my arms and holding my cheek between cold fingers. She isn’t wearing her glasses and the green of her eyes is watery, almost translucent. “Sweetheart, I’m sorry. I want him to be alive more than anything, you know that. But he isn’t.”
“I know that,” I say numbly. “But I still saw him.”
“Why don’t we go talk to Dr. Napan about this, okay? You’ve been overwhelmed lately with everything with Scott and being back here after all this time and missing Dad, and it’s understandable that it’s been too much for you to handle, it really is. Maybe you thought you saw Dad, but, Bee - it wasn’t real. It wasn’t him. You know it couldn’t have been him.”
“I don’t want to be crazy,” I whisper, and she tucks my hair back.
“You’re not crazy, Avi.”
“I see things that aren’t there. Dad. The man I thought I hit with my car. I saw them both, and they - they looked so real, sissy.”
“Oh, honey,” is all she says as she wraps me in her arms. I don’t want to cry but I do anyway, even though I’m all out of tears and struggling for air. She coaxes me into packing a bag after that, promising that we’ll only be gone the night and we can stop and say goodbye to Scott before we go. I decide against that, not wanting him to see me like this anymore than he already has, and instead pin a little note on the front door of our cabin in case he comes by again.
I’ve just zipped up my backpack when I see the note on my bookshelf, sitting on the lid of the Extra Sunshine jar. I think back to a few nights ago on our date, when Scott said he wrote it for me instead of buying flowers, and touch the folded blue paper like it’s something that can break. When I open it my chest swells, and I feel like I’m mourning someone I’ve never known.
If you’re reading this that probably means that our date is over, and in case it was a shitty date then I’ll apologize here. BUT if it was a great date, then you’re welcome. I hope we can do it again :)
Mixtapes used to be a big thing back in the nineties (or so Perks of Being a Wallflower has led me to believe) and it kinda sucks that we don’t do stuff like that anymore. I’d make you a cassette tape, but I don’t think you’d have anything to play it on, so a playlist will have to do. You can listen to these on your own if you want, but I kinda wanna listen to them with you so I can explain why I chose each one (this is my really lame way of setting up a second date without you knowing by the way, I hope that’s okay)
Thanks for putting up with me :)
Halo by Beyoncé
On My Mind by Ellie Goulding
Misery Business by Paramore
Downtown by Macklemore
moules frites by Stromae
Be My Baby by Ariana Grande
Moving Mountains by Disclosure
Don’t Mind by Kent Jones
I listen through every song on our drive home. Some of them are poppy and cliche and others are stunning, and I love each and every one because Scott chose them for me and I don’t think there’s anyway that I couldn’t.
My appointment with Dr. Napan goes as well as I could have expected. When I tell her that I hit a man with my car who wasn’t actually real, she looks concerned, and when I tell her that I saw Dad, she looks downright frightened. I leave with the feeling that I’m a burden and a prescription for a heavier dosage of medication than I already take. Esther and I don’t talk much.
I play Scott’s playlist on repeat that night and the next morning as we drive back. Esther wants to stay home for a little bit longer but I can’t stand the thought of leaving Old Goldwater yet. A few weeks ago I wanted nothing to do with it, but now I can’t imagine not being there. I don’t know what that means.
Scott is outside of his cabin when we pull back into the dirt inlet, and he jogs over to meet us as we get our bags from the trunk. Esther looks ready to tell him that now isn’t a good time, but I stop her with a look and she purses her lips before nodding briskly and walking back to our cabin. I breathe out shakily before forcing my eyes to Scott’s, unsure of what I’ll find there.
He mostly looks tired and hyper, like he’s just downed four cups of coffee. He bounces on his heels a little and his forehead is wrinkled, and he’s beautiful.
“Hi,” he whispers hoarsely, and I clear my throat.
Relief crashes over his face like a wave. “You’re talking. I - I wasn’t sure…”
“Yeah,” I say. “Me neither.”
“How are you?” he asks, and it’s the sort of question I dread.
“They increased my medication. My doctor thinks it was a stress break.”
“But you’re okay?” he whispers, and I bite my lip because it’s so naive and so endearing that he can possibly think I’m capable of being okay.
“Scott,” I say quietly, my chest hurting. “I think you should forget about me.”
He looks taken aback. “What? Why?”
“I’m not - I’m crazy, Scott. I’m not normal. I never will be.”
“I see things that aren’t there. I can’t be around people without having a fucking panic attack, and I - I can’t even talk right.”
“No, listen to me. I’m crazy. I make up things in my head, and I - I think that I hit people with my car that look just fucking like you, and I think that I see my father walking around our cabin even though he fucking killed himself when I was a kid. I see shit that isn’t there. I see people that aren’t there. I’m just gonna get more fucked up, you might as well leave while you’re not so invested.”
The look on his face isn’t one that I can read easily through the stupid tears that are already blurring my eyes, but his lips are pursed and his eyes are wide and that’s enough to know that he hates me.
“You see people that aren’t there,” he repeats, and it’s soft and confused. “Someone who looks like me and someone who looks like you.”
I wipe at my face, my shoulders sagging as I hiccup, “Yes. I’m crazy, Scott. We’ve established this.”
“No, that’s not why I… Avi… it’s just that...” He shakes his head and looks back up at me, eyes wide and blue like the moon. “I see them, too.”