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Authors: marian gard

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BOOK: To See You Again
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Chapter 8

 

Collin

 

I inhale and exhale deeply, attempting to calm my
nerves. I've never been so thankful to hear someone speak at a charity event in
my life, because it has forced Leighton to cease her badgering about Raven. She
isn't going to let this go. I glance at her and she's literally sitting on her
hands. I cut her off as soon as they introduced Maxine and had to angle my
chair away from her to deter her whispering. I was doomed as soon as she caught
me staring at Raven. I'd mumbled that I knew her from somewhere, and that was
all it took for Leighton to practically dragged me across the room toward her.
I can't get the image of Raven's horrified expression out of my mind, and I
feel sure I should leave her alone, but I seize each chance I get to steal a
glance at her.

Out of the corner of my eye I can see her long,
slender neck, and for some inexplicable reason, it takes me back to the first
night she and I really hung out as friends. We'd been in class together for
nearly an entire semester and were approaching our final project. Our professor
had insisted that we pair up with a critique partner. Neither of us even asked
the other; it was just assumed.

 

Collin (1996)

 

I see Raven seated in the back of the basement
coffee house we both love to frequent, her face buried in a book. I weave
through the tables and booths and dump my backpack on the table. She jumps.

"Hey, Collin! Geez, sneak up on people much?"

I glance down at where a watch would be on my
wrist if I ever wore one. "Um, weren't we planning to meet tonight?"

"Yeah, but not for another—" she glances down at
her actual watch and her mouth falls open slightly. She looks so cute like
that. "Whoa, I totally lost track of time." She grins at me pointing to her
text. "Good book."

I nod and take a seat. She is dressed in a
sweatshirt and jeans, and has her hair tied back loosely with dark, wavy wisps escaping
haphazardly. I glance at her face, and notice that as near as I can tell, she's
makeup-free. I'm not used to this; most of the girls I know get themselves all
decked out when they're hanging out with a guy, especially if they're single,
like Raven. I confirmed that little fact about her last week. She's so
beautiful; I guess she doesn't need to bother with all that.

She digs around in her bag and extracts a folder,
which she immediately holds tight to her chest. She gives me a bold look. "I
want you to be brutal. Give it to me straight, Collin. I need this project to
be good."

I grin at her. "Um, OK." I put my hand out and she
continues clinging to her folder. "Are you going to give it to me, or are you
hoping my x-ray vision will kick in?"

She flashes me a smile and slides it across the
table and then cocks an eyebrow. "And where's yours?"

I lean down and pull out some ragged notebook
sheets and toss them on the table in front of her. "I'm sure it's total crap so
get out your red pen."

"Ah Collin, with that can-do attitude you can
achieve anything!" She giggles, seizing the stack of papers lightning fast, like
she fears I'll retract them. Smart girl.

We sit in comfortable silence as we read through
each other's work. I would say I'm surprised at how good her writing is, but
I've been in class with her all semester, and she's the best there is. I feel
myself sweating. What is she going to think of my work? In fact, for the first
time in ages, I found the motivation to really put forth effort on something,
simply because I knew she was going to read it. We spend the next few hours going
through each other's work line by line. You'd think it would be tedious and
awful, but time flies.

"Looks like we're closing the place down." Raven
gestures around the empty coffee house. I follow her gaze, surprised that I
hadn't noticed. "Let's leave a big tip and get out of here. The staff are
shooting daggers at us with their eyes and I come here too often to risk
getting my coffee spit in!" She whispers.

I shift in my chair to look behind me and see two
employees lined up behind the counter with expressions that are split pretty
evenly between annoyed and bored. I start shoving stuff into my bag, and she
does the same.

"Do you want to go hang out somewhere? I drank so
much coffee that I don't think I'll be able to sleep anytime soon." I feel a
surge of nervous energy while waiting for her reply. What the hell? I think I
was in Jr. high the last time a girl made me nervous.  

She looks at me tentatively. "Sure, I guess, but
not much is open right now." I note the apprehension in her voice and am
scrambling to read what's behind it.

"I have to develop some photos…would you um, like
to come along?" Truly, I could do this any time, but I prefer after hours when
I don't have to feel rushed. We each toss some bills on the table and she
slings her bag over her shoulder, following my lead out the door.

"Like to the dark rooms?"

I feel my palms getting sweaty. Maybe this was a
bad idea.

"It's OK. It was a stupid idea."

"No, I'll go," she says, falling in line next to
me. "I just had no idea they were still open at this hour."

I give her a wry smile. "Well, they're not
exactly."

She's quiet for a minute and I'm rapidly trying to
think of a way to tell her I'm not hitting on her, without it coming out like
an insult.

"Is this like foreshadowing, or something?"

I laugh. "What?"

"You know, if this were a scary movie or book or
something, would this be the part where the audience starts yelling at the girl
to run in the other direction?" I just stare at her. I have no idea where the
hell she's going with this. "I don't know—the whole thing just sound kind of
murdery," she says, looking up at me with her huge, blue eyes.

"Murdery?" I laugh again. "What?"

She shrugs. "I don't know. Dark room, empty
building… no one can hear my screams…sounds pretty murdery." Her lips are
pressed together in a tight smile.

I pull the key out of my pocket and pause before
sliding it into the lock, arching one eyebrow. "So, let me get this straight.
You think there's a chance I could m
urder
you in here and yet you
followed me to the basement anyway?"

She punches my bicep. "No! I'm just messing with you,
while simply pointing out that asking some chick to come down here with you
alone at night is kind of murdery. But lucky for both of us, I'm
not
some random chick, I'm your friend, so I'm not worried about it."

Just now it hits me. I gaze back down at Raven and
realize she
is
my friend and somehow, some way, she's managed to become
one of the closest friends I've ever had. She's quirky and weird, but smart as
hell, and I feel
different
around her…relaxed.

At the sound of the lock releasing I say, "Well then,
as your friend, I feel obligated to tell you that ‘murdery', is in fact, not a
word."

She rolls her eyes and pushes me the rest of the
way into the room. "OK, Dr. Webster, enough of your nitpicking. Let's get this
show on the road."

I grab a chair, sit down, and start unloading the camera
equipment that's permanently stowed in my backpack. She's messing with her messenger
bag on the other side of the room and I steal a glance at her. If she were any
other girl, I would've made a move by now. There's a part of me that's
practically screaming to push her up against the wall and kiss her until she's
breathless and wanting much more of me than just my lips, but I can't risk it.
I don't think she sees me that way at all, but even if she did want that from
me, too…when it was over I would have no clue how to keep her in my life
afterward. I run my fingers through my hair and let out a sigh. I want this
girl in my life for as long as she'll stick around.

Chapter 9

 

Rachel (Present Day)

 

An hour and half later we've made it through
dinner, and I've managed to compose myself
somewhat.
I've tried to shift
my focus to the task at hand, as well as to give Tim reassuring smiles anytime
he looks my way. I'm praying he hasn't changed his mind about me yet. It isn't
that Tim is unfair, but he isn't exactly known for second chances either, and
there's no shortage of talented people in my office who would happily take my
place in a heartbeat.

I haven't so much as glanced in Collin's direction
since taking note of his table's location upon my return from the ladies room.
I feel his presence, however, in the same way in which I suspect a person
senses a spirit in a haunted house. He feels like that to me, too—like a ghost
of my past—appearing before me. In spite of seeing his solid form right in
front of my eyes, I can't escape the sensation that his body is just an
illusion; the real Collin is gone, ensconced somewhere in our shared history,
safely locked away. I expended so much energy searching for him years ago, that
it took me a long time to accept he really wasn't going to be a part of my life
anymore. I sit here feeling like some spell has been reversed, releasing Collin
into the here and now. Only it has altered him in some way; most notably,
putting him in a suit that previously would only have been imaginable had he
been pretending to be a Wall Street exec for Halloween. Who is he? Who has he
become? I can't decide if in order to compete against him I need to imagine him
to be someone completely new or if I need to think only of his dark, angry side
that was at least partially responsible for our friendship's death.  I go with
neither, and try not to think about him at all. Instead I turn my attention to
the guest speaker: Maxine Jefferson.

She is the new CEO of Marshmen's department
stores, a long-time chain throughout the Midwest that in recent years has lost
its luster, especially among younger shoppers. She has been tasked with its revival—reinventing
its image—a challenge that makes our company's collective mouths water.  Tim
feels attending a charity function near and dear to her is important, and I'm
sure he's right.

Maxine rises to the microphone and clears her
throat following her introduction and applause. I'm surprised at how much she
looks like the picture I saw of her in the press release. She's a tall woman
with short, wavy, dark hair and an impressively trim figure for someone I'm
guessing to be in her mid-to-late fifties. She leans in to speak. "My daughter
was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three years ago." Suddenly, all attempts to
forcibly forget Collin's presence are thwarted, as I'm spun back in time to a
conversation he and I had early on in our friendship.

We'd just finished eating an incredible meal he'd
prepared in my tiny galley kitchen in the apartment I'd rented sophomore year. "Collin!"
I exclaimed. "My God, where did you learn to cook like this? I couldn't pull
off anything even close to this. In fact, that may have been the first time the
oven's been used since I moved in."

A shy smile slipped across his face—one that I
felt almost sure I wasn't intended to see—and then he regained his composure. "There
is life outside of a microwave, Raven."

I kicked his foot under the table. "I'm serious. I
don't know anyone our age who cooks like this. Where on earth did you learn?"
He leaned back in his chair and looked at me, locking his eyes on mine just
long enough to make me inexplicably blush. I didn't know him as well back then,
and could never tell what he was thinking.

Finally he spoke, his voice lower and quieter than
it had been before, as though he feared someone overhearing us. "I used to cook
a lot with my dad." His answer was simple enough, but his delivery seemed to
hint at something a lot deeper.

I set my fork down gently and lowered my voice
too. "Used to? But you, um, don't anymore?"

He looked down at his empty plate. "He's dead."
What I did next, I knew later to have been a mistake, but at the time he didn't
make me pay for it. I leaned in closer and took his hand in my own. "I'm so
sorry, Collin, what happened?" He pulled his hand away from mine. Not in a rude
way, but there was a nuance to the gesture that made it clear he was more
bothered by the touch than he was trying to let on. Collin is very sensitive about
perceived pity. Pity is not at all what I felt in that moment, not even close,
and maybe on some level he knew that.

He picked up his wine glass and finished its
contents. "Which version do you want? The one I was told when he died, or the
one I found out about six years later?" Shocked and off balance by his response,
tears welled up in my eyes and I snatched a napkin off the table, trying lamely
to prevent them from spilling down my cheeks.
Fail.
Collin's expression
softened immediately.

"Hey." He tilted my chin toward him with a single
finger. His voice shifted and became gentler, softer. "Listen, I'm sorry. Stuff
with my dad's death is…complicated. I'm not used to talking about it. My mother
remarried not long after he died and it was like I was supposed to act as
though he'd never existed, that's how everyone else acted anyway." He sighed
and puts a hand to his forehead. "In spite of my mother's attempts to hide it
from me, I found out his death wasn't due to a car accident. I mean, you'd
think I would've known that all along since both our family cars were fine." He
let out an uncomfortable laugh and then shrugged. "I was little."

Even now, a decade later, I can still feel the
same sensation in the pit of my stomach as I did then. I wasn't sure what he
was going to say next, but I knew whatever it was, it must've been more painful
than losing your dad to a car crash. The grief of that alone seemed
unfathomable to me, and my heart ached for him. Collin proceeded to tell me
that his father had hanged himself in the shed in their backyard. He'd been
discovered by a neighbor, who had seen the door flapping open in the wind, and
had gone over to shut it, only to find him twisting from a rope inside, already
gone. Everything was cleared away before Collin got home. His mother's parents
had already decided to tell him the story about the accident. His distraught
mother had gone along with the ruse, not knowing what else to do. I can't blame
her too much. How would you explain suicide to a child that young?

"My grandparents hated my dad and they were upset
with my mother for marrying him. My dad was an artist. He was really gifted,
actually. But he was also ill."

"Ill, how?" I asked, struggling to understand
everything I could before he shut down and refused to tell me more. I knew
enough about him at the time to know any personal disclosures on his part were always
brief and few and far between. He stood up, carrying dishes to the sink and I
followed, as though tethered to him, with our empty glasses.

"He was a manic depressive, or bipolar. I don't
know what they call it now." He shrugged. "Anyway, had these like wild mood
swings where sometimes he would be up all night creating all kinds of stuff, or
disappear for a few days. Then at other times he would be really down. I can
remember stretches when he had trouble getting out of bed for weeks at a time."
Collin's voice was flat and distant sounding as he talked. It was almost as
though he feared getting to close to any of the memories he described.

"That must have been so hard on you." I felt dumb
and naïve, and at a loss for words. I wanted more than anything to hug or hold
him, if he'd let me.

Collin shook his head. His eyes were far away, remembering.
"When he was alive he was a great dad to me. The best he could be, anyway. He
always wanted to involve me in whatever he was doing. Teach me."

"What kind of art did he do?" I asked.

"All kinds really. He was an amazing painter and
photographer. He loved to cook. He was always learning new techniques in the
kitchen. We ate all kinds of fun stuff when he was cooking." A faint smile rose
and fell on his face.

"Wow. I see where you get it, then." He deflected
my compliment, shaking his head ‘no'.

"I'm not an artist. In fact, when I was growing up,
if I tried to do anything artistic it seemed to really upset my mom. She didn't
want me to be like him, I guess." He shrugged and I could no longer resist the
urge to touch him. I placed a tentative hand on his arm and he allowed it.

For the first time in several long minutes he
turned and looked directly at me. "It was as though she thought if I did things
like that I would get sick too. The older I got, the more I looked and sounded
like him. It was as though she became afraid of me, or disgusted by me, or
something." His voice trailed off.

He walked back to the couch and sat down, his
expression far away again. I followed and sat next to him, placing my hand
gently on his knee. "Being a gifted artist isn't what made your dad sick,
right?" I felt tears threaten again. He nodded his head, but didn't reply.

"Collin, I can't imagine what it must've been like
for you to lose your dad and then on top of it have to feel shame for who he
was. Or deny your own talents because you may have shared some of them with
him." He wasn't looking at me, but I could tell he was still listening. "You're
an adult now and you don't have to accept their story about who or what he was.
You have your own memories—only you know what he meant to you. No one can erase
the history you shared. You don't have to carry their version of any of it
around anymore, if you don't want to."

His eyes shifted to mine; wet, but not tearful.
"I'm mad at him too, you know, for leaving me behind. And for this." He pointed
to his head. I squinted my eyes in reply, not sure if I was following. His
voice cracked. His emotions had clearly overtaken him. "The fucking ticking
time bomb in my head. You have no idea. None. What it's like to have everyone
waiting and watching for you to go crazy." That was all I could take. I pulled
him into a hug and held him as tight as I could.

"You're not crazy, Collin," I whispered into his
chest. My voice, shaky and emotional, reverberated back to me. "And there isn't
a time bomb inside of you." We stayed like that for a little while and then
eventually he pulled away, but just before he did, he planted a small kiss on
my forehead. That was the only time he ever kissed me…that is, until he did it
again, on the night that ended everything.

I'm pulled out of my memory by Beckett who is seated
next to me, clinking his ice around in his otherwise empty glass. I stare down
at the perfectly-shaped cubes, shrunk smaller in his crystal glass by the
warmth of his hand and the temperature in the room, and remind myself of where I
am. I blink, hard, willing myself back into the here and now. Parts of Maxine's
speech come floating back into my consciousness, captured somehow during my
mind's hiatus.  Her voice booming through the microphone is commanding, and
simultaneously sincere, as she recounts their struggles with her daughter's refusals
to stay on medication. I tilt my head slightly, away from the table, and
pretend to be checking over my shoulder for something, while actually
attempting to steal a glance of Collin. He's seated just a few tables away and
is turned so I can easily see his face. Given the nature of this talk I can
only guess what he must be thinking and feeling right now. But
guess,
is
all I can do, because his face is impassive; he's giving nothing away. It
appears some things haven't changed after all.

I shook hands with Maxine and managed to say a few
intelligent things that seemingly met with Tim's approval, and now Beckett is
guiding me out to the rooftop patio alit with twinkling, white lights and decorated
with beautiful floral arrangements. There are a few table and chairs where some
couples are seated, but mostly people have congregated by the balcony, enjoying
Chicago's impressive skyline. A few guests are standing toward one corner,
attempting to stealthily smoke, although I don't think it's allowed, even all
the way up here. Beckett is talking, and I'm listening; but when I can, I
covertly scan the smokers for Collin. I'm engaging in one such scan when I hear
his voice directly behind me.

"Forgive my interruption, but with all the, um,
chaos
,
before I don't think I got to introduce myself." I swirl around to see Collin
extending a hand to Beckett. They exchange names and handshakes as I stare up
at him and then down at his amiable girlfriend who is smiling brightly at me.

"I'm Leighton." She thrusts a confident hand into
my own weak and trembling one. I start to say Rachel, but she says it for me
and I rip my eyes from hers and look up at Collin. He smiles at me and now I understand
what people mean when they say things like
my stomach did a flip
because, I swear, mine just did. Thank God for all of us that Leighton seems at
ease as she continues talking. She's still clutching my hand, now in both of
hers.

"So you guys were college friends, right?"

Her teeth are so white that in the darkness of the
night they almost appear to glow. I continue to stare at Collin for half a beat,
who gives me a smile I don't recognize as his, and then I turn to look at
Beckett who smirks down at me in a way that cautiously questions:
Did you
have a head injury you forgot to mention?
Now all eyes are on me, and
waiting.

BOOK: To See You Again
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