Charlotte felt his hand, calloused from over a decade of manual labour and guitar-playing, on her upper arm, his fingers just brushing the edge of her newest tattoo. She sighed inaudibly and turned, hoping some further embarrassment was not forthcoming.
“I, uh… I didn’t mean it that way.” His words were quiet and rushed, his half smile apologetic, so different from his signature smirk.
She cocked her head; waiting, curious, surprised.
“You know Jalapeños, on 2nd?” he queried.
Of course she knew Jalapeños. Anyone who had grown up within a 40-mile radius of the town knew Jalapeños. She couldn’t count how many birthdays and special occasions she’d spent there, nor how many gallons of fried ice cream she’d consumed over the years.
“Okay, well, seven o’clock tonight,” he said hurriedly. “Little booth in the back, near the street.”
She opened her mouth; whether to protest or agree she wasn’t sure. But the words froze in her throat, and he was already making his way back toward his brother, confident that she’d be there.
Damn him, he wasn’t wrong. He was still fully aware of the effect he had on her, which apparently had not diminished with time. She’d always had a good poker face – too bad she was barely patient enough to sit through the river – but it was like he could bring her emotions to light with just a breath.
He could have seen straight into her soul, had he tried. But he never had tried, and never would, because that’s how he was. He had never let anything more than marginal interest (in anyone) show, and she had tried desperately not to trail him like the puppy she turned into when he was near. That was why she had been so surprised he’d stopped her; she’d fully expected to walk right out of the store and maybe run into him infrequently during her stay, face burning with shame each time from the incident she perceived as distressingly awkward. Instead, her whole day, and maybe her summer, had changed.
Charlotte couldn’t decide whether or not that was a good thing. She’d done an excellent job of forgetting, after the initial pain. She had her methods of mentally folding up memories, stuffing them into boxes and burning them to cinders with her mind. She discovered that the ashes were still potent, though; if she pried them out of their box there may be no containing them again. And the distortions they had undergone in her head might make them more dangerous than ever.
She sighed, cutting off the train of thought, gazing down the aisle where he’d disappeared, and instinctively reached for her cell phone to remedy – or at least clarify – the situation. Then she realised the futility of the action; the boy went through mobile phones faster than his redneck family went through 12 gauge shotgun shells. The likelihood of him having the same number as when they’d talked two years ago (shit, what a day that had been) was in the negative numbers.
She sighed for what felt like the millionth time today. Her boyfriend – ex-boyfriend, she remembered with a pang of guilt – said she signed far too often. But it was such an accurate expression of everything she was feeling. She grabbed two Monsters – it was going to be a longer day than she had anticipated – and let the cool air from the fridge clear her head just a little.
Back in the car she popped open a can and took a swig of the java-flavoured stuff. The taste rocketed her back to her high school days, crammed with flashbacks of insufficient sleep and recalcitrant anxiety. Her boyfriend had always hated the smell of coffee, but she didn’t have to worry about that now, so she downed half the drink before she could linger on that thought much longer.
Too much was crowding Charlotte’s mind, and she couldn’t make peace with any of it. She just twisted the key in the ignition, threw the car into reverse, and tore out of the parking lot, hoping maybe someone from those torturous years of middle school was lingering in the road. No such luck. She took the long way downtown, windows down, music deafening, letting the mountain breeze amuse itself with the tendrils of hair escaping the tangled knot at the nape of her neck.
Charlotte had decided to stay at a little inn near the heart of town, a few shops down from the theatre. She’d always loved it for some reason growing up, but, living here, she hadn’t had any occasion to stay there before. It wasn’t cheap, and she would soon have to find more affordable lodgings – there were probably some Airbnb-ers floating around here, the wealthy middle-aged type who could afford to stay in their cabins at the base of the mountain for ski season then abandon them for the rest of the year. But for a night or two, she would live out this little childhood dream.
She parked, checked in at the front desk, and made her way up the stairs and into her room, loving the quaint but polished interior already. She headed straight for the window and pushed it open to survey the wide, familiar “river” (really just a sliver of their extensive mountain lake) that the inn backed up to. She knew what she would find. It was a pleasant view, and the water was still a deep blue-green, but it would have been truly beautiful six years prior, before the damn highway had cut through the landscape, carrying trucks bound for who-knows-where. Well, they were probably headed for one of the few big companies in the area, or maybe to Canada, which was only an hour’s drive (hour and a half, if you took the backroads). She knew it benefited the economy of the struggling little town, but the alders and birches which had once lined the river seemed a steep price to pay, to a girl who lived to lose herself in the forest.
She turned away from the window and flopped onto the bed, checking the time on her iPhone, which was miraculously intact after 18 months of use. She was getting better at not damaging stuff, but people and relationships didn’t necessarily fit into that category.
13:00, the screen read. It felt much later, between the lack of sleep and the two-hour time difference from where she lived.
She wanted to look nice this evening, but not six-hours-of-prep nice. Charlotte wasn’t big on naps, but she was exhausted after driving through most of the night. She’d been so eager to arrive that she hadn’t bothered to book a place for the night in Montana, just driving virtually non-stop from Wyoming, and she was finding that half an energy drink wasn’t as effective as it used to be. So she set several alarms on her phone, all five minutes apart, then cuddled under the warm duvet on the bed. One eye open, she gazed at the digital clock radio on the nightstand as it kept the time.
She’d left the window open a crack, and a breeze twirled lazily into the room, lifting and settling the corners of the sheet, seeming to whisper confidentially to her while caressing her face.
She vaguely missed the tick of the analogue clock in her dorm, but the faint sound of speedboats on the lake and people chattering as they walked along the shops and to the beach comforted her infinitely more.
Charlotte knew she was home, finally. She felt at peace as her mind cleared of trivial worries and went wandering over wildflowers and sunsets, pine trees and mountaintops, all within reach for the first time in years.
The last moment that she remembered seeing captured by the glowing red display was 13:07. Three, seven, and one – her lucky numbers. She smiled to herself as she drifted off – maybe the gods were in a good mood today.
SORRY FOR ANY TYPOS. Even though I read through it 295790438 times, I am running on exactly zero hours of sleep, and the Adderall makes it worse.
(Okay yeah, these passages are largely for myself. And I know many pieces may seem cliché – I probably read too much fiction. Besides lagging exposés of my life, y’all haven’t seen much straight prose on my blog, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m better at integral calculus than coming up with an extended plot line. It’s just not something my brain does. But this…scenario(??) has been in my mind, and I decided to jot it down and see where it went instead of playing it through my mind every night. I can’t promise anything spectacular, but it may give you a peek into my heart. I won’t tell you how much is fiction and how much is fact, because I don’t want you to worry for my mental health any more than you already do. Ha.
I enjoy connecting them to The Daily Post each day because it gives me direction and helps me know where to stop. When I spend a long time on something, I like to share it with you, and these take hours (I know, it doesn’t show. Woe is me).
Did you miss the first installment? Pt. I: The Gods Never Were Kind.
(This might shed some light on the title, too)