Authors: Amanda Lance
I sunk into my chair and immediately dumped out the cartridges of little jams and jellies and began stacking them. It gave my hands something to do, and kept my mind steady. From the corner of my eye, I counted the number of earrings in a waitress’s earlobe, the number of breakfast cereals on display.
“Okay, but can I say one more thing?”
“If it’s the last thing you ever say about it,
“Good people think they’re responsible for others, but sometimes you can only take care of yourself.”
“What are you? A fortune cookie?” I regretted the words as soon as I said them. “I—I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be so nasty.”
“It’s okay.” Adam poured more syrup over his food. “It’s just the high cholesterol talking.”
I smiled at his plate. “Better than diabetes.”
“W-what I’m saying is, you aren’t responsible for what Hays did. You have to do what’s best for you and no one is judging you for doing what you had to in order to survive.”
I scoffed but immediately stopped myself. He was right, I did sound bitter.
I went over Adam’s words as we drove back. I had no doubt he intended to comfort me, but he had gotten to me again, reminding me that I was probably the source of Charlie’s misfortunes. I would have to live with that knowledge for the rest of my life.
“I had a lot of fun today. I hope you did, too.”
“Actually, today is the best day I’ve had in…” I choked on my own half-truth. “…in a long time.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
I looked back up and smiled. I was no longer so sure.
We got back to Baybreeze just as the settling sun was starting to send people home for the day. Grumpy adults and sunburned children scampered around us, fathers struggling to carry umbrellas, coolers, and overloaded bags of toys.
“I don’t envy him,” Adam said.
“Reminds me of when Robbie and I were little,” I mused. “Makes me miss my mom.”
“Your mom would be proud of you…” He trailed off, but I didn’t like it. Who was he to say Mom would be proud of me? He had only met the woman through the photo album. He had no right to just assume she would be accepting of me and automatically proud of the decisions I had made. I had known her my whole life and still remained unsure if she would support the relationship Charlie and I had. What I had done to be with him, what I hadn’t.
“You don’t know that,” I said. “I’m not the person I should be.”
He laughed. “No one turns out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “From what I understand, your mom was a good person. I can’t imagine she wouldn’t be happy with the way you turned out.”
I flinched. I very much doubted Mom would be happy with the fact that I may have contributed to murdering, or at the very least, seriously injuring the one I loved.
So instead I only said, “She was a great mom. Great moms tend to love their kids unconditionally.”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “No matter how lousy an aim they have.”
“Or how high their blood-sugar is.”
It was nice to part with Adam on good terms. Somehow it made me feel lighter, like some of the weight had been lifted from my shoulders. A part of me hoped he sort of felt the same, while the other part of me still instinctively wanted to look out for Charlie and the guys. I relived the conversation in my head, trying to figure out if I had let anything give, if I had let too much get out. I was satisfied that I probably hadn’t. And it suddenly seemed so strange that Adam would even still care. All these months had passed and there had been no new developments on my case, so why was he still so interested in my welfare?
Maybe it was like he said, I was his first “big break” and he felt responsible for me. But that didn’t mean he had to come out here today, that didn’t mean he had to keep my secret about freaking out from Dad. I usually wasn’t so oblivious, but maybe Charlie had been right, maybe Adam wanted something more. Obviously that would be something I could never give him, or anyone else. I’d always belong to Charlie whether I wanted to or not. But what in the hell was wrong with me? I had laughed with Adam, had fun at the shooting range, even. Worse yet, I hadn’t been lying when I said it had been the best day I had had in a long time…
Except that I didn’t deserve easy days. I didn’t deserve peace, or any kind of reprieve from my sorrow. If I really was the reason Charlie was behind bars, the reason he had tried to hurt himself, then I had no right to be smiling and eating, enjoying the sunshine when Charlie couldn’t. I had no right at all. Life was a privilege, and I had given it up the second I’d let Charlie down.
I had been considering it for longer than I wanted to acknowledge, since Charlie had been moved from section A of the paper to B, C, then not at all, since the rumors that he was dead were the only ones I heard until I didn’t hear any at all.
I considered that it might get easier still and I hated it.
didn’t deserve easy. I didn’t deserve peace. If I had just been smarter, more clever, honest, then none of this would have happened. I could try to pin the blame on Adam, or Melinda being noisy, the FBI being ambition, but really it was just me. I was a selfish little girl who was too concerned with what others thought to just do what was right. I had wanted to be with Charlie, to be happy and live forever in the ocean where no one could ever touch us, but instead, I deserved the pain, the suffering, and every insurmountable torture I could inflict on myself.
But my family didn’t.
I had subjected Dad to worry for weeks, probably ruined Melinda’s spring semester, taken the air out of Robbie’s sails. I was weighing all of them down. And while I deserved to feel the hurt, they certainly didn’t. I thought about how gracious Melinda had been and her brand of tough love. We may not have been friends in a traditional sense, but we were roommates, and she had followed her own code to a T. I couldn’t say I would have done the same if the situation had been reversed. Even Adam did his best to make amends, trying to win my friendship. Though he had only ever been decent to me, I’d only ended up disappointing him.
Disappointment made me think of Dad. What would he say when he found out I hadn’t registered for the fall term? It was a surprise that he wasn’t fed up with me already.
I imagined they would all be eventually.
I ran from the beachfront properties and took off for the boardwalk. While it was early in the evening, the lines for rides were already starting. Couples I passed held hands, while girls tried deciding what tattoo to get. Children with ice cream faces clung to their parents and young men staggered in and out of the bars…all of this life was going on without Charlie, without anyone but me ever knowing how much he loved me and how wonderful he was, how he had saved my life and changed me.
Pretty soon it was about to go on without me, too.
The lifeguards went off duty at sundown, and after that, swimming was at one’s own risk. Even as I walked out to the pier I could see big signs in Spanish and English, emphasizing the danger and listing the shifts of lifeguards. Only a halfwit would be bold enough to try and swim on a night like this, when the tide was low and rip currents were probable. I wondered if Dad and Robbie would believe that I had gone for a night swim.
I moved a few inches closer, counting the wooden boards of the boardwalk before looking around. There weren’t any couples making out, or homeless people leering around, I didn’t think I had seen anyone under the pier either, making my escape even more flawless. There was so much hurt, the sense of a moment became like a suffocating wave of its own. And as I looked out at the ocean, I thought about how truly horrific it all was, how awful it was to fall asleep without any warning and stay trapped there.
Was drowning as painful as I imagined? Did the water flood the lungs when panic set in? I closed my eyes and imagined the muscles of arms and legs giving out, giving up. It was all so clear, so certain.
It was all I wanted.
Before I realized it, I was stepping up even closer, the lights of the pier blinking in and out too much for anyone far away to notice me. The water was black, the blackness inside of me, though now even that was starting to fade. In pretending to live life, I had really started to live it, and soon the blackness would take the numb away.
I looked over the railing, though I hadn’t remembered climbing up and over it. Only a few stars were lingering in the open sky, and from far away the screams of delighted tourists were being unleashed from the Tilt-a-Whirl. The Ferris wheel was alight with neon scopes of blue and green.
Like eyes I’d never see again.
“Did you know 8% of deaths are drowning?”
I whispered it to myself, not even knowing where it came from or why I had said it, but it seemed like such a logical solution that not doing it seemed more impractical than not.
I leaned forward enough to inhale the sea. If Charlie’s remains were still out there, then maybe mine would meet his.
Instead of slipping, my hands willingly let go of metal railing, still warm despite the lack of sun. My scabbed and torn fingers were uncramping, giving in to what the rest of me wanted.
And then they weren’t.
Something wrapped itself around my left arm, twisting and pulling so hard I thought for an instant that my shoulder might have been withdrawn from its socket, that instead of falling into fierce waters I had landed on something else.
“You ain’t getting out of this that easy.”
Weary, narrow brown eyes peered into mine, swearing and calling me names. Their owner tossed me back to the boardwalk like I was little more than a stuffed animal.
Before I could get out anymore, shouts were being called from a distance and he looked away from me to their direction, angrier than ever.
“Get up,” he commanded.
I was somewhere in between that place of astonishment and fascination. I didn’t think the first person I’d see in hell would be Reid, but then again…
“Get up,” he said again. “If I have to make you, you’ll be sorry.”
I did as instructed, knowing now from the shouts of glee echoing off the waterfront that I couldn’t be dead. As far as I could see, I was still on the pier, still in Long Branch.
The sea hadn’t taken me after all. Even the water didn’t want me.
“Follow me and be quick or I’ll drag you out of here by your hair.”
I would have followed him anyway, this ghost who had probably come to torture me some more. His large strides were epic in comparison and I had to half-run just to catch up with him, dodging the curious looks of people who had happened to gaze at the end of the pier in those moments.
Apparently we had attracted a scene.
“What’s going on?” I shouted from behind. I struggled to keep-up as he effortlessly worked his way into the crowd, but I couldn’t lose him now.
He led me out to a parking lot, where the sight of a very familiar orange car lingered under a street lamp.
I watched him get in. I waited.
“This—this isn’t p-possible,” I stuttered, still very much out of breath. For an instant I thought back to the ocean and the pier, my pathetic lungs wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.
The car started, revved up, and without being told, I got in. Maybe, I thought, he was here to drive me into the afterlife.
“Y-you’re here,” I muttered as we raced down sandy streets, horns blaring at us and pedestrians waving angrily.
“You are not pulling this crap again,” was all he said. “Selfish little bitch.”
I ignored his insults. I didn’t care what he called me. “What are you doing h-here? Charlie?”
“Ruining what’s left of his life, but you’re gonna fix it,” he said, his eyes riveted to the road. “And if not, you’ll sure as hell wish you’d taken the ocean route.”
My mind wouldn’t let me believe it but my heart had already started to flutter, digging itself up from the blackness I had buried it in. I closed my eyes and counted to ten.
“They won’t let me into the hospital,” I tried to explain. “I’ve been trying for weeks.”
“We got him out of there, but he wasn’t at the meet spot. The dumbass probably went off to see you, your house probably.”
I watched the lights fly by. “No,” I said. It was suddenly all so clear. “But I do think I know where he went.”
Pulling up at the entrance gates, I was almost jumping with excitement. If I was right, then I might see Charlie, if wrong, then I could be walking into something far worse than suicide.
“Here?” Reid laughed. “You think he escaped from lock up to look at some
“Shut up, Reid.”
I made a move to get out of the car but he stopped me before I even had my hand on the door. His grip on me was as tight as his stare, and for a moment I thought I saw something mixed in with his hatred for m., Was I so daft to think it was concern? Certainly not for me, but for Charlie, maybe.
“You may have everyone else fooled with this innocent act, but I ain’t buying. “Get him back here in five minutes or I’m coming back for you and it won’t be pretty.”
I shrugged him off. “Quit your threats and go do something useful like steal a getaway car.”
“Hey,” he sneered, “didn’t I just save your life?”
I slammed the door behind me. “Like I said, something
The atrium looked different at night during the summer. Everything was in bloom and the perfume of a dozen different flowering species flushed my nose, making me both inhale and sneeze at the same time. My eyes had a hard time adjusting without the light, but I jumped at every animal in the bush, the cooing of anonymous birds in the trees.
I immediately went to the willow trees, stuck somewhere between hoping and knowing that Charlie would be there. Of course every logical part of me knew that he probably wouldn’t be, but I had to try. This place was probably the last secret we had left.
I slowed my pace as I approached the grove. Though I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, I felt eyes on me instantly. My brain told me it was an animal, a curious night creature, but my heart told me it was something, someone entirely different altogether. Pulling back the willow curtain, I peeked into the hiding spot the tree accidently created. Gnats immediately attacked my face so I pulled back, stumbling over the brush.
Someone was laughing at me.
I never thought I could be so happy to be so awkward.
“Charlie.” I blinked to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, and yet sure enough, when I opened my eyes, he was still there. His eyes dulled by the dark and fog of night. A thin pad of white gauze was taped to the side of his right temple, a heavy looking cast of white plaster on his arm; I looked at it, unable to stare at anything else.
“Hi,” he breathed.
“P-please don’t scream. I swear I ain’t gonna hurt you. I—I’m gonna leave in a minute. I-I just wanted to see you before…” he trailed off, unsure of how to finish. “I ain’t gonna bother you no more. I promise.”
I nodded, choked back my tears. “I understand.”
We waded in the pause, neither of us daring to look at one another, perhaps for fear of what we might see. I already knew what a mess I must have been, but it genuinely surprised me how distraught Charlie was. Head wound aside, he was unshaved and disheveled. His hair was considerably longer than usual, and as I stepped closer I could have sworn I even saw a twinge of gray at the root that even the dark of night couldn’t conceal. He wore a clean olive colored t-shirt, but it was way too big for him, and his usual oil stained jeans, but his boots were dotted with the brown remnants of blood, though from who, I didn’t dare to ask. I flinched at the sight and turned away.
“A-are you okay?” he asked.
“How…” I asked. “How did you—”
“The fellas.” He didn’t even smile. “They haven’t given up on me yet.”
I nodded, grateful beyond words.
“Elise? The guys?”
He nodded. “Everybody’s all right.”
I sighed with relief. It seemed like awfully great lengths just to avoid me, but then again, they were probably avoiding the police as well. I stared at the ground, waiting for the rest of the words to come.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be,” he said. “I want you to be happy.”
“I don’t deserve to be happy. If I did something that encouraged you to do this—”
“Don’t,” he said. “Don’t be sorry. “Believin’ you loved me w-was the greatest lie of my whole life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Especially freedom.”
“I’m serious. I’d serve ten life sentences if I thought you loved me. It doesn’t matter that you went to the cops—”
“The cops?” I couldn’t have been hearing him right. There had to be something wrong with my ears. “Charlie, I didn’t.”
He stepped away, like getting further away from my words would help deter the truth. “Hey, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Charlie, I’m telling you I didn’t—”
“It’s all done.”
“Do I have to hold a gun to your head to get you to listen to me or what? I’m telling you I never told the cops anything, nothing true, anyway.” I took a step closer, feeling an unprecedented daring. With Charlie alive and well, the world was an entirely new place and everything seemed possible. I could consider my safety important once more, but still entirely irrelevant at the same time. With this adrenaline, with Charlie, I was invincible.
“I’m trying to tell you what I’ve been doing. I spoke to the press on your behalf, lied when they interrogated me again…” I said. I wanted to reach for him, to wrap my arms around him and kiss away any skepticism he may have had. And yet it was scary for me, too. What if his injuries had caused memory loss on a short or even a long term scale? “Didn’t anyone tell you that? I’ve been to the hospital every day since—Dad insisted I go to Long Branch this last week but—I was there, waiting for you.” I laughed. “I even tried praying the other day, if you can believe it.”
The tears were hot on my cheeks, but I couldn’t stop them from coming, especially when his hand reached out for me. In spite of this, he stopped himself and pulled away, something calling him back to himself at the last second.
“You feel guilty.” His lip twitched enough to almost be considered a smile. “It’s okay, though, you don’t have to. I-it makes sense that he would make you happy.”
He spat those last words at the ground, not accusingly, but smoldering with disgust instead. In his mind he knew a truth that didn’t exist, and instead of listening to reality, he was trying to pardon me for an offense I hadn’t committed. Still, he couldn’t hide the anger we were both so familiar with, and despite that forgiveness he was so desperate to grant, he couldn’t escape his own instincts. If there was ever was a time to use that to my advantage, it was now. The temper kept Charlie alive, kept him on his feet and going when he wanted to give in to something that wasn’t real was the same temper that had helped get him into so much trouble in the first place. Now I’d have to see if I could make my anger work for me. If fury was all Charlie would listen to, then I would
? Charlie, you’re the only
that could ever make me happy.”
Charlie stepped away as I moved closer. “Do you hear me? Your jealousy was only ever that.”
As the pain started in my chest, I questioned the odds of someone my age having a heart-attack, waited a second to see if the ache would shoot up my arm like I had read about so many times. When it didn’t, it occurred to me that it was only the terror coming back, my body bracing itself again for what might happen if I couldn’t make Charlie believe the truth.