Authors: Courtney Cook Hopp
And then — nothing.
Everything went black.
“CeeCee! Cee! Oh my god.” Grace was yelling too clo
se to my ear. “Cee, you have to wake up.”
“Should I call an ambulance?” a male voice asked.
“I don’t think that will be necessary.” Another voice, a woman’s voice.
My body was spent, drained of the beauty, the horror, feeling as if I’d run a marathon without ever having moved my
feet. I lifted my heavy hand and pinched the bridge of my nose. It all came back — the dress, the unruly hair, the handshake — my grandmother.
“You see?” I heard her say. “Let’s give her a moment. I’m sure she’ll be just fine.”
“What kind of cracker-jack wisdom are you spouting, lady?” Grace snidely asked.
Grace. Thank god for Grace.
Because I had no idea what just happened or if I was fine as the haunting images faded into the fuzzy gray of my mind.
“And you. You can take your hands off her,” Grace said as she pulled me from the warmth I’d been
cocooned in, my back shifting to the cold, hard floor. “CeeCee, you need to open your eyes.”
“Please, Grace. Stop shouting.” I forced my eyes open. Grace’s face hovered over mine, her hair creating a strange, spongy halo effect. I turned my head to the body kneeling on the other side of me and caught sight of Quentin’s brows knit harshly over his pensive eyes.
Grace probed on, touching her fingers to my cheek. “You’re so pale. Are you okay? Can you get to your feet?” I did a quick mental checklist of my body, trying to figure out how and why it betrayed me.
“I’m fine.” It didn’t sound convincing, not even to my ears. “What
“I think you fainted.”
Fainted? I groaned but couldn’t be sure if it had been audible or not.
“Is something hurt?” Quentin asked, his tone challenging, causing heat to flush my cheeks.
“No. Nothing’s hurt.” Except my ego. I needed out, the overwhelming urge of flight kicking in, because I had no explanation for what just happened.
“Maybe we should call your aunt,” Grace said as I tried to stand. Quentin reached out to steady my rise, but I leaned into Grace, not wanting to have what just happened, happen again. His hands retreated deep into his pockets as a rigid mask rolled over his face.
“No, really, I’m fine.” I smoothed out the front of my shirt and pushed my unruly hair behind my ears, ignoring the tension radiating off of Quentin. The other gawkers in the room dispersed, pretending to go back to their own conversations.
“Delightful,” my grandmother chirped, oblivious of the awkwardness. She turned her head slightly to a clean-cut gentleman I hadn’t noticed hovering behind her. “Felix, isn’t this delightful?”
He took a half of step forward, and quietly replied, “Yes, ma’am.”
Her face looked amused by the whole episode, causing my spine to bristle. Maybe if I w
alked backward, down the stairs and out the front doors, I could start this night again. Stare up at the hammering man two minutes longer before entering, take the elevator instead of the stairs, not gaze at my running women for so long. I glanced over at the wall. They were still there, laughing and ridiculing our group that had congregated in front of them.
Grace looped her arm through mine, eyeing Evelyn suspiciously. “Thanks for your help, um . . .?”
“Evelyn,” she replied, holding out her hand to Grace. I was tempted to slap it away, but was curious to see if Grace would hit the ground like I had.
Grace shook her hand without incident before turning to Quentin. “And you are?”
“Just a guy who works here.” His feet shifted, antsy to move away from our random little entourage. His eyes darted to me before quickly looking away. “Who, needs to return to work.”
“Thank you for your help, Quentin,” my grandmother said with an expression I couldn’t read. “It will always be appreciated.”
He raised an eyebrow to her before purposely moving toward the exit without another word. I’d run too.
“Well, um . . .” I had no idea what to call the woman in front of me.
“CeeCee,” Evelyn said, handing me a business card that Felix had procured from his folder. “I enjoy coffee, do you?”
“I guess,” I said hesitantly.
“Then that’s where we’ll start. When you’re ready, of course.” Abruptly, without another word, she turned on her heels and walked away with Felix trailing behind.
I stared in disbelief. That’s it? My eyes shifted to Grace and then back to the receding figure. I meet my long lost grandmother for the first time and all I get is a business card and an “I ca
n’t be bothered, so you call me” offer for coffee. I looked down at the elegant font that scrawled her name across the business card, disbelief icing over my heart. She could wait an eternity for the phone to ring.
“Who the hell was that?” Grace asked as she pulled me toward the door.
I was pliable putty, unable to fight Grace’s pull to the exit. Picasso’s beauty faded as we rounded the corner out of the room. I drew in a deep breath. And another.
“Evelyn, of course.” I couldn’t bring myself to mention she was the Grandmother I’d never met, who obviously could care less about my existence. That would be too humiliating to confess. Even to Grace.
“No. I don’t know the first thing about her.” Which was the truth. I knew nothing about that woman.
Grace stopped and looked me in the eye. “Cee, are you okay? Do you want to sit or something?”
“No,” I sighed. I didn’t want to sit and linger, wondering if Evelyn would appear again. Or Quentin. “I need air. Fresh air. I need to get out of this building.”
We pushed our way out the front doors, the late summer evening still holding the chill of fall at bay. I looked up, just as the Hammering Man’s hammer descended down above us, threatening to knock us both to the ground.
“What happened in there?”
“I have no idea.” I tore my eyes from the hammer, needing to clear the muddled chaos that still trickled through my head. “You saw more than I did.”
“All I saw was a bunch of commotion, and you, out cold, chillaxin’ on some
hottie’s lap with his arms wrapped around you.”
“Seriously?” Embarrassment crept
up my cheeks. “I was in his lap?”
“Yeah,” she snorted. “I’m surprised he didn’t set off your anti-guy repellant.”
“I’m not ‘anti-guy.’”
“Girl, you are about as warm and fuzzy as a porcupine when it comes to the advancements of the opposite sex,” she said, trying to stifle her laughter. “But, mm-mmm, you do know how to land. If you’re going to pass out, make sure you drop on top of a rugged, delicious morsel. Did you check
. Him. Out?”
“Trust me, he wasn’t all that delicious,” I replied, even though I couldn’t quite shake the tantalizing green eyes from my mind. “Besides, I thought you liked your boy toys honed and polished.”
“For that bad boy, I’d make an exception.”
“Bad boy?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Boys who tow the line don’t end up with scars running down their face. If it had been me nestled in his arms,” she said, waggling her finger in the air, “I wouldn’t have been in any hurry to giddy-up.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t you the one who pulled me off his lap?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, unable to hold back her laughter any longer, her hair dancing with her glee. “A jealous fit must have taken hold.”
Minutes proceeded like hours as we made our way back to Grace’s house. I was convinced I would never sleep as I lay in the dark listening to her slow, even breathing, my brain stuck on replay. Over and over the images of the night trampled through my mind. The painting. The scar. The colors. The horror. Evelyn. No hugs, no emotional reunion, only coffee and a hand shake.
Time ticked. Tocked. Taunting. Holding sleep hostage.
My mind in an endless spin cycle. Until, finally, the wee hours pulled me down into a strange and restless state of unconsciousness.
My women danced across their canvas, escaped their boundaries, and gracefully floated through the air, down to a murky bed of green.
It was peaceful.
Fluttering like a parachute. Spinning. Bending. Morphing. Forming eyes. Eyes that stared into my own, reaching out and drawing me in. With arms and a body. His scar glimmering in the pool of silver light that shimmered down from above. We twirled to silence. Dipped into nothing. Only the cool air whispered fluffy, cotton flakes across our skin.
I leaned into his protective arms as the sky began to burn red. Heat sweltered up around us before a curtain blissfully fell black over the rain of fiery debris plummeting down.
It was chaos, beyond chaos, as I maneuvered my mom’s old ragtop Karmann Ghia through the school parking lot. And it was pouring down rain, a fine tribute to mark the first day of my senior year.
Two weeks had slid by.
Fourteen days since I’d forced the awful black and white images into the deep files of my mind. Fourteen days of pretending I hadn’t come face to face with a grandmother I’d never met. Fourteen days before Grace finally quit asking me if I was okay, or if I felt faint.
There was nothing to touch. Nothing tangible that screamed out the events of that night. Only a business card propped up on my dr
esser, which I worked hard to ignore. I hadn’t heard from my grandmother or bothered to call her, my pissed-off-ness with her indifference always coming between any two rational thoughts my brain tried to produce.
And him. Embarrassment kept my mind from wandering over his existence.
I dashed across the parking lot, the downpour reenacting my morning shower and undoing my efforts to tame the kinky mess. I moved through the school and pulled a damp piece of paper from my pocket, attempting to read the locker number and break-in code bleeding into the fibers of the paper. I found my small slice of metal stamped with the appropriate number and fumbled with the dial.
“Vanderbie! Hey, Vanderbie!”
I looked up. Sean. The only other personality able to rival the force of Grace’s at Vashon High. He strutted — he always strutted — sporting the usual student garb of jeans and a form fitting t-shirt, both looking amazingly dry.
“Hey, Sean.” I focused my attention back on the dial, determined to make my second attempt work. “How did you escape the pre-school drenching?”
“Skill,” he answered with a smirk.
I tried to lift the handle. No go. “Damn,” I muttered with a kick to the door.
“It’s not Fort Knox, Vanderbie. Three numbers, three turns, and voilà.”
“Did I mention breaking and entering aren’t part of my future calling?” I quipped back, making a third attempt.
“Give me that.” He snatched the piece of paper from my hand and stepped between the locker and me. An overwhelming cloud of cologne descended down, forcing me to step back as he manipulated the dial. The smug look was back in his round eyes, peeking out from behind his jet-black hair as he pulled the locker open. “
Like I said, ‘voilà’.”
“Now I know who to call for my next big heist.” I threw my wet jacket into the locker and kicked the door closed.
“For you Vanderbie, anytime.” And there it was, his wicked, heart-melting smile that could make a statue lift the corners of its lips. I couldn’t stop my own grin from making an appearance.
Sean looked down and caught sight of my upturned lips. “You really have a
great smile, Vanderbie, smooths out your sharp edges. You should use it more often.”
His voice was quiet, friendly, reminding me of my brother Foster. Flustered, I pulled the strap of my messenger bag over my head and muttered, “What are you talking about? I smile.”
He leaned in as if imparting a deep secret. “Not often, Vanderbie. Not often.”
Everything buzzed like white noise, holding me hostage to his words that pulled on emotions better left alone. His cologne swirled around us, and I wiggled my nose to try and keep from sneezing, but the fumes won the battle of the airwaves. The odd moment dispelled.
“Aa-chu,” I blew and rubbed my nose. “Dude, did you pour an entire bottle of pretty water on yourself this morning?”
“Oh, you know you love it,” he said, his wicked smile back. “Or are you afraid you might
, you know . . . pass out.”
My body relaxed, happy to be on safe conversation ground, even if it was at my expense. “Yeah, well, this girl would prefer a little more o’natural stink to that pungent cloud of musk you bathed in.” We stepped out from the lockers and moved into the flowing stream of students heading to class. Sean was a flirt through and through with every girl, somehow making you feel recognized and not demoralized.
“How’s your old man?”
“Nothing’s changed,” I
answered curtly, pretending to read my class schedule. Nothing and everything.
“Ah.” He waved to someone I didn’t know, blissfully changing the subject. “Who’ve you got for homeroom?”
Letting out a sigh, I answered, “History with hard-nose Sherrell. Someone in administration has it out for me.”
“Nah, he’s not too bad.”
“This coming from the collegiate football player already on track to a full-ride scholarship.”
Grinning, he threw his arms out wide and said, “What can I say? I’ve got a gift—I’m adorable and happen to be able to throw a football.”
“Hence the cavalier attitude toward any threat to your GPA. We should all be so lucky to be born with a gift.” I was only kind-of teasing. Sean managed pretty decent grades even though his picture could be found next to the definition for jock. But it was his easy-going banter that I safely sunk into, avoiding any type of deep conversation.
“Hey! Sean. CeeCee,” Grace’s voice called out.
We both did a simultaneous scan and spotted Grace’s hand bobbing up and down over the heads of the other students. We pushed our way over and found Dylan and Avery relaxing on a bench next to her.
“Glad to see you’ve all gathered to give me my proper glory,” Sean said as we approached.
“Just call us your glory puppets,” Grace retorted, her eyes shining more than her voice. I looked between the two of them, wondering if there was something going on.
There never used to be, back when Grace had foisted me upon her posse of friends. They really didn’t have a choice — about me, or her for that matter. She’d moved to Vashon the year before me and decided Sean, Dylan, and Avery, who were island lifers, would be the perfect blend for her to hang with. She didn’t ask, she just decided. The same way she’d decided they would accept me, no questions asked.
Avery’s long, dark hair swung over her face as she nodded in Grace’s direction. “Sean, you do remember who you’re competing with for attention, right?” Her eyes smiled their friendly gleam as she winked at me, never a hint of pity displayed for the girl who was down one parent, and out an emotional connection to the other.
Without so much as a missed beat, Grace countered, “Listen, sister, I don’t need to compete for attention. It just naturally comes my way.”
“Yeah, like Vanderbie naturally passes out,” Dylan joked, stretching over to Sean for a fist bump.
“You’re hilarious, funny man,” throwing my finger in Dylan’s face. “You do not want to mess with me.”
He unfolded his lanky frame and stood, towering over me. “Oh, I’ll mess with you, Vanderbie.” The heat in his tone promised something I was not interested in.
I stepped back and put my hands in the air. “Hey, I just want to know how much longer I’m to be the butt of your jokes?” I asked, shooting Grace a slitty-eyed look.
Waving me off with a flick of her wrist, she said, “Girlfriend, you knew I wouldn’t be able to keep that kind of thing to myself.”
“Remind me not to tell you my deepest, darkest secrets.”
“Now those, I can keep,” she said with a smile that didn’t quite convince me.
, Sean!” We all turned our heads to a group of sophomoric girls on the approach. “Good luck at the game on Friday.”
“Thanks girls. I expect to see you cheering us on in the stands.” Sean gave them one of his heart-melting grins and waved as they giggled by.
“Good luck at the game on Friday,” Grace mimicked under her breath. “Could they be any more obvious?”
Sean turned back to us, ignoring Grace. “I expect you all to be there on Friday giving me my proper glory, too.”
“Isn’t it supposed to rain on Friday?” I asked, not the least bit excited about getting drenched while watching yet another sporting event.
“Oh, our poor little California girl,” Grace teased, making her voice sound sad and pathetic. “Still not used to seasons actually changing.”
“This coming from the girl raised in the heat of the south. Don’t you melt in the rain?”
“You know it, but my people have spent lifetimes adapting.”
“Of course they have.”
The bell rang, sending us in five different directions.
The next four days were a repeat of Monday, with the exception that I knew where my classes were and by Wednesday, I’d managed to open my locker.