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Authors: Leen Elle

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BOOK: Guilt
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"Well, I have to say, this is quite a change for me. I don't usually keep company at lunch. But for you, I'll make an exception." She teased.

"Well, don't I feel honored." He exclaimed, and his eyes brightened just a little.

After a moment of silence, Claire reverted her attention back to the reject girl, who was still enduring the bully behind her. The jerk found his prank just as entertaining as he had five minutes ago.

"Claire", Corry broke the lull in conversation, "Ah, would you . . ."

Before he could finish his question, the sound of metal scraping on tile interrupted him. The Freak pulled out a chair across from them and sat down in it. He dropped his lunch tray on the table, and gave them an ambiguous stare as he began to shove a hamburger into his mouth. Claire and Corry just looked at him, bewildered by his intrusion, and disgusted by his eating habits.

"Um," Claire spoke up to the Freak at last, "I didn't know you had lunch this period."

"I do," he responded mid-bite.

"Oh." The whole experience felt strange, not to mention embarrassing. He was the school 'Freak', after all. But Claire had a sudden revelation (probably the product of her recent people studies) that he was as lonely as any teen and wanted the company, no matter how he acted in a way that covered up the fact. For a girl who sat by herself everyday, what kind of reputation did she really have to lose by sharing a table with the Freak, anyways?

She turned back to Corry. "So, what were you going to say a minute ago?"

"Ah," he glanced at the Freak. "Never mind."

"Hey," the Freak got their attention, again. "Have you heard the latest on the kidnapping case?" He shoved the last of his burger into his mouth and washed it down with a swig of chocolate milk.

"Apparently," he continued, "they found one of the girl's shoes in the woods." He opened his bag of peanuts. "Didn't say which woods, though. I bet it was just out back here, behind the high school."

Corry slammed his fist down on the table. Claire turned to look at him, and saw a red face and furrowed brows. He snarled at the Freak. "That's enough. Get over your morbid fascination, you shithead." Then, he got up and walked out of the cafeteria.

Claire sat there, stunned. Her eyes involuntarily fell back to the reject girl and the paper wad boys. The Freak followed her gaze and saw the bullying. He took a peanut from his bag, and chucked it at the jock, hitting him in the forehead. The boy looked around and made eye contact with the Freak. When he realized who threw the peanut at him, he scowled, but stopped his prank and returned to eating his lunch.

The event brought Claire back from the befuddlement caused by Corry's rage. She looked at the Freak, who smiled at his own handy-work, and then she stood up from the table. She gave him a disappointed look, not because he threw the peanut (she would have congratulated him on his aim, there) but because he made Corry upset. She left the cafeteria, hoping to catch up with her friend, but he was nowhere to be found.

In art class, later that day, Corry didn't say much. Even when Claire attempted to discuss the final exam for George Eliot's
Silas Marner
, which Corry had read the year before and promised he would find his old test copy for, the boy just didn't say more than three words together. What he did do was give the Freak dirty looks all through the period.

He waited for Claire after class, but didn't speak a word until he left her at algebra. His dark mood seemed to be worse than ever, and Claire began to wonder if she should say something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

I woke up in the night. A noise roused me from a dreamless sleep. It was a lonely call that echoed through the distance. A melancholy trumpet solo that resonated one mournful note over and over, and was accompanied by a muffled rhythmic rumbling that resembled the drum roll on a tympani. That sound made me shiver. I hadn't heard it in so long, and it felt ghostly to my ears. I couldn't explain exactly why, but it made me want to cry.

When I was a small girl, the sound of the train scared me. A thin wooded thicket lined the long and narrow backyard of our home, and beyond it, the train tracks stretched. The swing set my father built for us stood near the thicket, and that's where I spent most of my summer days.

But when the train came through, I ran.

It always sounded so angry to me, a wounded beast enraged because it was in pain. Then, the vibrations would come and the earth would start shaking. I thought the ground might actually crack open. So, I sprinted for the house long before the engine passed by. Once inside, I hid underneath the dining room table and covered my ears to block out the train's furious cries. It was my safe place.

As I got older, I became braver. I stood out there, by the swing set, daring myself to watch the train pass. Lil used to run into the thicket waving her arms in greeting at the conductor. I never did, and I didn't look to see if he ever waved back. I just stared at the long massive rail cars as they whipped the air through the trees. It was enough to know that the monster always took the same route, flying by at top speed, then disappearing. I knew that I would have a day or two of peace after that.

No matter how old I got, the sound of the train held some kind of inexplicable torment for me. The dread changed and reshaped itself with maturity, and tonight I turned that anxiety inward. When I heard the echo, all at once, I feared time. The train's call was the sound of my childhood, fleeting into the void. That feeling weighted on my heart and weakened my lungs.

These days, Brickerton's last working railroad track saw use maybe twice a week, usually at three o'clock in the morning. Once the train's horn woke me, I couldn't get back to sleep. Counting the minutes and watching the hours go by, I gazed at the red glowing numbers of the twenty year-old old alarm clock that sat on the white washed dresser.

An ache began to make its way into my lower back from another night spent on an old stiff mattress. By four thirty, I decided to go downstairs and sleep on the couch. With my arm wrapped around my pillow, I dragged the old bed comforter down the stairs, only to find that my destination was already occupied. Jacob slept soundly there, with the light of the muted television casting a blue glow over his face.

He looked peaceful, with the handsome features that he'd inherited from his mother. Only, his countenance was much more innocent than hers had ever been. I didn't blame him for stating that I was a bitch the evening before. Children only knew what they were taught, and parents had unequivocal influence over their offspring, even if they didn't think they did. Lil had painted an unjust picture of me for my nephew, but I'd never been around to disprove it.

My sister wasn't my favorite person in the world, but she did appear to make a general attempt at motherhood. That softened her a little - a very little - in my eyes. The fact that her son only seemed to pick up on the improper lessons – that part, I had to admit, was entertaining. Payback.

After a moment of slight disappointment over the fact that my intended resting place had been usurped, I settled myself in the armchair. It beat the hardwood mattress upstairs.

I must have finally dozed off because when I was shaken awake, a rude awakening effected by my mom, the sun was creeping through the curtains. I shifted my position in the chair, and discovered that I had a stiff neck now to go with my aching back.

"Clairebie, honey," Mom said, "what are you doing sleeping in the chair?"

"I don't know," I responded while trying to rub the cramp out of my neck. "I used to be able to sleep anywhere. In a chair, on the floor. Heck, I remember throwing a blanket down in the yard and sleeping there for hours despite the tree roots that poked into my back. Nothing seems comfortable anymore."

Mom just laughed and looked over her shoulder at me as I followed her into the kitchen. "You're still in your twenties, dear. Just wait. It gets worse." She grabbed the coffee pot from the dish rack. "Much worse."

She had a grin on her face while she filled the pot from the faucet. Apparently, my complaint was amusing. While she set the coffee maker up to brew, I grabbed the leftover pumpkin pie from the refrigerator. All hope of keeping to a healthy diet this weekend was shot, anyway. Why not enjoy myself?

After two cups of coffee, I went upstairs to take a shower. I had no plans for my day, but I might as well be ready for anything. After pulling some clothes out of my suite case (a thick sweater because the new snow on the ground outside told me it would be another cold day), I heard my cell phone beep. I'd left it on the nightstand last night, and must have missed a call. But it was only eight thirty in the morning. Who would have called me so early? Certainly no one from the west coast. That area of the world was still asleep.

I didn't recognize the phone number, so I grabbed Kain's napkin from my purse. Sure enough the number matched the one he gave me. He didn't leave me a message, though, so I thought maybe he dialed me by mistake.

Once the water heated up in the shower, I jumped in. This would be the warmest moment of my day. I knew that when I shut the water off, the wintry air would give me permanent goose bumps. Even in the house, I couldn't quite stay warm enough.

After I blow-dried my hair, I heard the beep of my cell phone, again. Kain called a second time, but now he left a message.

"Hi, Claire. This is Kain. Remember me? From the cemetery and the diner? Anyway, I enjoyed talking to you, and was wondering if you'd like to get together again while we're still in town. Give me a call, okay? Bye."

I sat on my rock hard bed, and played back the message two or three times. God, he was so nice. My guilt over having tried to use him to find closure reared its ugly head, so I decided I wouldn't call him back. My reasons for seeing him were unfair. He seemed to be interested in me, and there was no way I could reciprocate. Too many reasons kept me from doing so.

An hour went by. I lounged around in the bedroom rummaging through boxes, when my phone rang, once more. Kain's number showed up on the ID. He was nothing if not persistent.

As it rang a second and third time, I struggled with myself. Should I ignore him and just let it be, or should I return his kindness with my own extension of friendship? A new facet of guilt won out in the end, and I pushed the button to accept his call.

"Hello?" My greeting came out as a question, all innocent, like I didn't know who could be on the other end of the line.

"Hi, Claire." Came the reply. "It's Kain. How was your Thanksgiving?"

We talked for a few minutes, just small talk about the holiday and the weather. Then, he asked if we could get together for lunch. I told him I would meet him at the diner around noon. We hung up not long after that.

I didn't bother to try to look nice for him, since I had no desire to be desired. I just stayed in my sweater and jeans, and braided my hair to keep it out of my face. Mom gave me the third degree as I bundled up into my winter coat and mittens. The explanation that I was meeting a friend for lunch just wasn't enough to satisfy her. But I did get away, at last, binding a scarf tightly around my neck as I plowed through the three inches of fresh snow to my rental car.

No one else in town wrapped up as much against the weather as I just did so early in the season, but they were used to it. My blood ran thin, and I'd rather stick out like a sore thumb than turn blue with frostbite.

With the town being smaller than my memory gave it credit for, and the traffic being as nonexistent as it had been my first day back, I made it to the diner a little too early. So that I wouldn't have to wait by myself again, I decided to stop and fill up the gas tank in the car.

Gas stations were one of the businesses that you could count on finding on every other corner in this town, but I purposely went to the one on Liberty Street and Washington. In my childhood, it used to be one of the last remaining gas stations that had a pump attendant. That was probably why Mom always used to go there: she couldn't pump her own gas. Since the station turned to self-serve like all the rest, I wondered if she finally learned, or if Dad had been evermore stuck with the duty.

BOOK: Guilt
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