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Authors: Eliza Freed

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BOOK: Redeem Me
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He’s at home, hopping out of his bright red pickup truck, wearing jeans and a T-shirt that outlines his well-worked body, muscles toned from working under the sun rather than in a gym. His sandy brown hair is a bit too long and falls out the sides of his hat. Even seeing only a few small pieces I can tell the sun’s brightened it. It’s as if I’m seeing him for the first time in years.

So much has happened. So many horrible things. Actually, just one horrible thing, but I’m a different person than I was in August, one not worth knowing. I use the back of my hand to wipe my brow.

“Well, if it isn’t the hardest person to find in Salem County,” he says as he clears the distance between us with long strides. Noble is tall, six-two. I know because I’ve heard him tell girl after potential girl at Rutgers over the past four years.

“Have you been looking for me?”

“Me and about a hundred other people. I even called Margo to get your new number, but she’s hardcore. Said she couldn’t share any information about you.” He crouches down beside me, and I become aware I’m covered in dirt and most definitely have some on my face. “And then I pull into my own driveway and find you here, planting flowers. I would have guessed New York City.” He flashes the most perfect smile. It moves from his lips straight up to his sky-blue eyes and it’s suddenly even sunnier outside.

“Was there something you needed?” I ask, avoiding his smile.

“What do you mean?”

“Why were you trying to find me? Do you need something?” He plops down right in the mulch where I’m working as if we’re settling in under a shady tree.

“I just wanted to make sure you’re still alive.” With that his smile fades. His eyes sadden and the clouds come back.

“Haven’t hung myself yet,” I answer, and force a smile. “I have some free time this afternoon, though, after I cross self-loathing and wallowing in humiliation off my to-do list.” I return to planting the mums, but we both start laughing. I forgot how easy it is to laugh with Noble. How easy it is to laugh.

“Come to lunch with me?” he asks.

“No.”

“Come on.”

“No,” I answer again, back to sharing no emotion.

“Charlotte, come on. Don’t make me beg.” Now he’s lying flat on his back in the flower bed, his hat pulled low over his eyes. He makes me want to lie down with him and be happy the way he is.

“I can’t go out to lunch with you. Look at me. I’m a complete mess.”

“Who cares? It’s not the prom. We’ll go to the Wagon Wheel. No one’ll even notice us.” He exaggeratedly rolls his eyes, mimicking a thirteen-year-old girl. “Get over yourself.”

I stare at him for a few seconds. I have no idea why, but I get up, walk to the spigot, and wash off my hands. The cool water soothes my sun-drenched skin. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be sunburned tomorrow. “You’re seriously going to let me in your truck looking like this?”

His grin and eye roll call me absurd without him having to speak a word.

*  *  *

The little bell hanging in the doorway rings, announcing our arrival just like at the prom, and believe me, we’re noticed. I’d almost swear Christine Mattos gasps at the sight of us. Is it our appearance, the sight of us together, or the mere fact that I’m in Salem County instead of anonymously living in a foreign country? I’m not sure. If Noble notices, he’s giving no indication. We pick a table on the side of the small dining room and order sweet tea from our waitress. I pretend to read the menu as I contemplate the different escape scenarios. It won’t be easy.

“Don’t bother wasting your time trying to figure out how to get out of here. The worst is over.” He leans in as he whispers, holding his menu up to shield us from the now rather quiet dining room. “Besides, you look like you haven’t eaten in a month.”

Noble flashes his sweet mug at the waitress and orders a BLT. I order the same since I haven’t read one thing on the menu and don’t want this lunch to last any longer than necessary.

“It’s going to be number five,” he says as if I know what he’s talking about.

Embarrassingly, I do. The Wagon Wheel has a number light box above the kitchen door. When an order is ready, the number lights up and a bell rings. My entire life I’ve passed the time here by guessing which number will be next.

“Number three, without a doubt.” Again we both smile.

“Why didn’t you call me?” he asks as his face turns serious. “Maybe I could have helped.”

“There’s no way to help this. I love you too much to inflict me on you,” I answer, and my face contorts into a sneer, angry at myself for becoming so unwantable.

I see her coming out of the corner of my eye, but not soon enough to brace myself. “Well, if it isn’t Charlotte O’Brien! I had no idea you were back in town. Are you going to be here for a while? Moving home for good?”

I know Nadine from high school. Knew her sister better but had always liked them both.

“I don’t have any definite plans yet. Just here for lunch today.” I look at Noble and silently plead with him not to give me up.

“After everything that happened with Jason, you should be home, with people who love you and can support you.”

The mention of his name makes me wince. I try to cover it but the look on Noble’s face makes it clear he’s seen it. Nadine keeps talking about coming home without skipping a beat. She trails off as she glares at the top of my head in horror. For a moment I actually think she’s speechless, but she sits down, looks me straight in the eyes, and says, “Now, let’s talk about your hair.
What
is going on? You do realize people can still
see
you?”

“Nadine, ease up.” Noble looks at me with an unspoken apology. Perhaps now he will help me escape.

“What? It’s my business to make sure people look good in this town, and, Charlotte, there’s no better revenge than being hot. Did you hear I opened my own salon? Here’s my card.” She hands me a chartreuse business card with
SALON NADINE
scrolled across the center. “Call and I’ll get you in. I’ll do you myself so you don’t have to worry about anyone asking a lot of questions.”

“I don’t kn—” I try to get out, but Nadine’s standing up to leave.

“It was great seeing you. Call me later and we’ll get you fixed up. Oh, and you need to eat something. You look like a cancer patient.”

The bell rings and I look up to see the number five light up.

B
ack in the saddle, trying this church thing again
, I think as I look for my wallet to confirm I have some money for the collection. I finish blowing my hair dry and put on eye makeup and lip gloss. I’m determined to look nonsuicidal at church today. Nadine calling me a cancer patient, while difficult to hear, did have an impact on me. My parents would insist I dress my best at church. My mother thought I should dress my best every day, no matter where I am, but there was absolutely no excuse for not “putting your best foot forward in the house of the Lord.” So here’s me, putting my best foot forward.
God help me.

I half listen to the church announcements as I read the bulletin. Butch comes in and, again, sits in a pew diagonally behind me. I show no sign of recognition. It may be in my head, but every person in the church is watching my reaction to his arrival. Pastor Johnson takes his place at the pulpit and asks us all to prepare ourselves for worship. The lady next to me sits quietly with her Bible in her lap, listening to the organ play. What’s she doing to prepare herself? I figure it’s probably like yoga and I try to breathe calmly as I look through my third eye. I’ll bet I look weird sitting here with my eyes closed. I open them and look at the lady again. This time I’m annoyed.

Is it normal to feel this self-conscious in church? Shouldn’t this be more natural?
Sweatin’ like a whore in church
comes to mind and I smile a little. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the preparation Pastor Johnson has in mind.

We pray together for the forgiveness of our sins and Pastor Johnson asks us to silently confess. Why do I keep coming here?

Dear God, please forgive me. As I mentioned before, I’ve wished death on Jason, and Stephanie, and their baby. That’s actually not me repeating myself. I did it again this week. Every day this week. I hate them all. I think of ways to hurt them. I have detailed daydreams about him being caught in a fire, or trapped in a sinking ship, or crushed in a car accident, or shot during a bank robbery, or worse. I’m wretched. I’ve also spoken disrespectfully to Butch, who’s not only my elder, but also a veteran. Although he totally deserves it. Oops, forgive me for that one, too. I think that’s it.

Oh wait…I also saw a little bird minutes before it was murdered by a cat and did nothing to help it. I don’t know why I didn’t help it. It’s haunted me ever since. Please forgive me, Lord, and I hope the little blue bird’s enjoying his time with you.

“Hear the good news, believe it, bet your life on it, in Jesus Christ’s name you are forgiven,” Pastor Johnson absolves us. And we sing.

I take a deep breath and exhale. Pastor Johnson’s sermon focuses on forgiveness this week. Not exactly my favorite topic. If I forgive Jason and Stephanie, how will I defend myself for killing them? Sure, he has some excellent points. Forgiveness is a gift for myself more than for my fellow man. Holding on to animosity and anger allows the devil to have a place in my heart. And the most compelling: If God is to forgive me, I must be able to forgive those who trespass against me…
trespass or fuck some whore when they should be at Rutgers with me…
I look at my Bible as if I’m studying the Scripture.

Pastor Johnson asks, “Do you think it’s God’s will to use your tongue to curse others?”

I think I’m not quite where Pastor Johnson needs me to be. I’m okay with it, though. It’ll give me something to confess next week.
God help me.

*  *  *

A long week of early rises for 7:30 a.m. teleconferences with Bruce has left me craving my bed this morning. Which makes me wonder: If it’s Saturday and it’s 8:30 a.m., why is someone ringing my doorbell? I yank myself out of bed, and through the dining room curtain, I see Noble’s truck in my driveway. The doorbell rings again and I stumble to the front door.

He’s like sunshine penetrating the storm door. “You up?”

“No,” I say.

Noble ignores my taunting. “I’m playing hooky today and I want you to come with me.”

“Where are you going?” I ask, already knowing I’m going to say no.

“The shore.”

The shore.
There’s not another destination on Earth I would consider.

“Come in while I grab a few things.”

How is it he gets me to do these things? First the Wagon Wheel and now a shore outing. I pull a tote out of my closet and throw in a towel and underwear. I brush my teeth and slip on a bathing suit and dress. I search all over my house for sunscreen, as Noble patiently waits in my foyer. I know I had it Labor Day weekend.

“Do you have sunblock?” I ask.

“I have some SPF fifteen in the truck, but you might want something stronger.”

I raise my eyebrows, questioning.

“We’re going out on the water.”

I pull my hands to my chest in a praying motion. “A boat?”

“Kind of. Don’t expect too much.”

“No problem,” I say with signs of delight creeping across my face.

I climb into Noble’s truck and find a brown bag with a chocolate glazed donut, my favorite, on the seat. “You remembered,” I say, peering into the bag. It’s a small gesture in the scheme of things, but it’s Noble being noble the way he used to be…before everything happened.

“I’ve only been out to breakfast with you at least a hundred times,” he says, lessening the significance.

*  *  *

It is a glorious morning. The most perfect blue sky, dotted with clouds you could spend the entire day identifying by shape. We ride east with the truck windows down and my elbow resting on the door.

“How’s work?” he asks.

“Uh, it’s okay,” I answer, taking a huge bite of my donut and getting glaze on my chin.

“That good, huh?”

“Well, the job is good. But I’m going to Saratoga Springs with my boss next week and I think he might want to have sex with me.”

Noble’s face hardens. “Interesting. He might want to? Are you going to do it?”

“Probably. It’s just about time for management to start allocating yearly bonuses,” I manage, keeping a straight face until Noble starts laughing. The sound of it pulls me back to my house at Rutgers, and the back of his pickup truck in high school, and the eighth-grade dance, and our fourth-grade class trip to the Franklin Institute. It seeps into me and fills some of the emptiness I’ve been clinging to.

“Seriously, what’re you going to do? Do you want me to come with you and pose as your boyfriend?”

“Not yet. I’m thinking about just telling him the truth,” I say, settling down.

“Which is?”

“That I just ended a relationship and I’m not ready to start a new one.” I sigh. “That I don’t have sex with married men and that I’m in general not interested in him.” I say all this as if it’s a great plan and will obviously work.

“Okay, where are we going and what time do you need me at your house?” Noble offers again.

“What? It’ll be fine.” Of course it’ll be fine. Bruce is my boss; that’s it.

“You’re going to tell your boss that he’s ugly and an adulterer after he hits on you. It’s not going to be fine,” he says. Noble’s analysis does make Bruce seem less of a boss and more of a jilted suitor.

“Oh. I’ll keep working on Plan B.” I study the sky. Noble always gives great advice. He took care of me. There’s a cloud shaped like a sword next to one that resembles a flower.

Noble pulls into a parking spot on Fifty-Eighth Street in Ocean City. I run to the bathroom and when I come out, Noble’s inflating a boat with a pump hooked to the truck’s cigarette lighter. I’m elated at the sight of it. I stand still and acknowledge joy—she so rarely visits anymore—and run back to the truck.

“It’s awesome,” I say, and I can’t hide my excitement.

Noble’s pleased with himself. I grab my bag and we load our minuscule pile of belongings into the boat along with two empty milk gallons tied to ropes and paddles. We carry the boat out to the beach. I take off my dress and use Noble’s sunblock. Noble helps me with my back without me asking him to and I return the favor.

I overpour the sunscreen and end up with a pool of white on his shoulders. I spread it all over his back and massage it in as Noble patiently waits. I work across each shoulder and down his biceps, losing myself to the contours of his arms. I’ve known him my entire life, but never touched him like this. I realize I’ve slowed and pick up the pace, forcing my eyes to the ocean in front of us. When the sunscreen’s finally disappeared, I step back, a little unsure of what just happened.

The beach is deserted, except for a fisherman a block north. Most day-trippers are probably up by the boardwalk. There are only a few left; it’ll be October next week.

“Put your valuables in here.” He hands me a large Ziploc bag.

“Are you planning on sinking?” I ask, and Noble looks at me, amused, as I place my money, cell phone, and keys into the bag. We leave our towels and clothes on the beach and stuff the Ziploc bag into a compartment in our boat. We carry our boat out past the breakers, fighting to get it over the few large waves we encounter. Noble tells me to jump in. I do before it gets too deep and Noble gives us one final push out to sea before climbing in himself. The water is still warm. It’s a dark gray, like steel against the flirty blue sky. We paddle a little farther out to make sure we won’t catch a wave.

“Does this look like a good place to drop our anchors?” Noble asks.

“It’s perfect,” I say, tilting my face to the warm sun.

Noble fills a milk jug with salt water, caps it, and hands it to me to drop it on my side and tie it to the handle of the boat.

“Leave enough give in case a big wave comes,” he says as he ties the other jug to his side. Noble and I are facing each other. I lie down and prop my ankles up on the edge of the boat behind him.

“What do you think we should name her?” he asks, and I can’t think of a thing except how happy I feel in it.

“I can’t think of anything. It’s too beautiful out here.”

A flock of geese honk as they fly by, heading south. They’re probably trying to figure out what direction to go since it’s still seventy-eight degrees here.

“I know what you mean,” he says, and I shade my eyes to see him in the bright sunshine. Noble is looking at me in a way he never has before. More than just a friend.

“How about we call her
Mindless
?” I suggest, smiling at Noble. He lies back, too; we’re floating feet to head. I rest my head again and let the sun warm my face, and the sounds of the waves lapping against
Mindless
heal my mind. I’m glad I came.

“I’ve missed you, Noble,” I say without opening my eyes.

“I figured you had. I mean, it’s been obvious the way you keep calling me.” His tone is curt, absent of his usual playfulness.

“Are you mad at me?” I ask, sitting up a little.

“Charlotte, I saw you almost every day for the last four years at Rutgers, and every day before that for our entire lives. Then something horrible happens to you and you change your phone number and refuse to answer your freaking door.” He pauses and looks out to sea. “I was worried about you. Really worried.” His tortured face confirms it.

I sit up completely now.

“I’m so sorry, Noble. I just didn’t want to put you in the middle…and I don’t want him to know I’m home. I couldn’t ask you to lie.” I feel myself getting hot and I hope I don’t start crying. I splash myself with a handful of water from over the side of the boat.

“He knows you’re home.”

The water in my hand falls to my leg as I absently watch my fingers open. The horizon catches my eye and something about it reminds me to breathe.
He knows you’re home.
Noble sits up, his eyes forcing mine to look at him, but he doesn’t say a word. A thousand questions run in and out of my mind, but I never take my eyes off Noble, too afraid of what releasing him will allow me to do. He’s disgusted by the situation. Probably because I’m such a coward for hiding from Jason.

“How do you know that?”

“He called me two weeks ago. He said Ralph Tighe saw you in church. He wanted to know if I could keep an eye on you for him.” He pauses and I try to remember if I saw Ralph Tighe. “I told him I’d love to, but you won’t take my calls or see me.” Noble turns away from me and looks at the horizon.

“Did he say anything else about church?” I don’t want to keep talking about this with Noble, but I need to know if Jason knows I’ve seen Butch.

“Like what?” Noble asks, trying to figure out what I’m getting at.

“Nothing.” I let it go and lie back down. “Noble.” He turns from the horizon and looks down at me. “I’m sorry. You’re one of my favorite people in the entire world. I shouldn’t have cut you off. I was terrified. Can you forgive me?”

Noble looks as if he wants to ask me something else, but relents. “You are forgiven,” he says, and he flashes me a smile that confirms it. “You know how you can make it up to me?”

“How?” I ask, thankful for a happier subject.

“Give me your new cell phone number so I don’t have to keep knocking on your door to talk to you.”

I consider the request. I’ve only given it to Sean, Margo, and Jenn from Salem County, and Violet, Sydney, and Julia from Rutgers. Noble’s another step, a step toward a normal life again. “I’ll give it to you on one condition.” Noble eyes me. “You have to save it in your contacts under an alias.” It’s a ridiculous precaution, but Jason’s been relentless in trying to get a hold of me, and I
can’t
talk to him.

“An alias.” He nods in agreement. “No problem. I’ll save it under ‘Mindless.’” We both laugh until the boat rocks. Everything’s always so easy with Noble. This is what I need now. Easy…peace…Noble.

I lie back and remember Jason’s and my only trip to the shore. He wore cutoff jeans and I asked him before we left if he wanted swim trunks. He scoffed at the suggestion. As soon as we dropped our things on the beach, we headed right into the water. It was crowded and Jason was having trouble keeping his hands to himself. I suggested we sunbathe for a while, but his shorts were driving him crazy, and he kept touching me, which was driving me crazy in all the right ways. We ended up having sex in my mom’s Camry back by the bay. Only Jason and I could screw up a day at the shore. We were home in time for a late lunch. We really are from two different worlds.

BOOK: Redeem Me
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