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Long Time Gone: Chapter Five

HIS LAUGH WAS BEAUTIFUL, Rett thought. Calum’s nose scrunched up, lips stretched into a smile. Something she hadn’t yet seen. She’d come close that morning, she knew as much, but his scowl had immediately replaced the minute twitch of his lips. But there he was laughing just because she said something that wasn’t even funny.

Kellie Marie’s head swiveled around, and Rett watched her friend crane her neck to see what was going on. Calum noticed, falling silent in an instant. She hated how easily he closed himself off. Never before had she met someone as aloof, in-inflicted isolation, as he kept himself. As she watched him glower at the desk, Rett made a vow to herself.

She would get him to open up if it killed her.

He stuck by her side as she led him through the hallways to the gymnasium. His long, pale fingers clenched around the strap of his backpack, and he held his head up high. Calum looked as proud to be an outsider as he was two days ago, when he’d first stepped foot into Oak Creek High. Only Rett could now see a bit behind his facade: He wasn’t nearly as unaffected as he pretended. It bothered him that he was there.

She hadn’t been surprised when she walked into his bedroom the day before and saw him on the bed. He made no secret of how he felt about the town, and she understood why he would hide away. Even with acting like it wasn’t a problem, gossip could get to the best of a person. Rett wished—not for the first time in her life—that rumors weren’t a way of life around Oak Creek.

“You made him laugh.”

Rett’s brows rose toward her hairline at Sofia’s accusatory tone and turned to face her friend. “Well, hey to you, too.”

“Cut the crap, Rett. How’d you make him laugh?”

“I don’t know,” she said, and it was the truth. She had no idea why he laughed at something so unfunny. She certainly hadn’t meant it as a joke.

“Well, he sounds ridiculous,” Kellie Marie sniffed as she sidled up to the girls. “He’s cute, but his laugh is horrible.”

“I think it’s nice,” said Sofia, frowning.

Rett sighed and pulled her gym shirt on over her head. Her stomach churned, tightened. She knew that when Sofia said someone was ‘nice’, it usually preceded interest in said someone. She would most likely ask Calum to go steady by the end of the week. Something hot reared its head in Rett’s chest.

Clearing her throat, she turned away from the locker and forced a smile. “Okay, can we talk about something other than Calum please? We’ve talked about him enough since Miss Georgie said he was comin’.”

“Is someone jealous?” Kellie Marie’s face split with a smile, and she nudged Sofia. “Looks like you got competition.”

Rett spluttered, protesting, “I’m not jealous. Y’all are just annoying.”

Sofia threw an arm over Rett’s shoulders as the trio made their way to the door. “Don’t worry, Rett. You can keep him. I have my eye on someone already.”

“When’s that ever stopped you before?”

Rett rolled her eyes and ducked away from Sofia. Kellie Marie’s question ignited the typical argument between the two, and Rett did not want to be in the middle of it. She stayed out of the squabbles as much as possible—she had better things to do with her time. As the girls exited the small hallway from locker room to gym, Rett’s gaze caught on Calum sitting in the bleachers. He’d changed into the uniform, which took her by surprise. He had worn his jeans and tee the last two days, but there he was in the customary shorts and T-shirt. She bit her lower lip when he smiled at her.

The smile vanished as quickly as it appeared, but it had existed in that second.

She hurriedly turned back to her friends and their conversation, which had shifted from Sofia’s relationship status to the party Darren was hosting in the field on Saturday. Even as Rett agreed she’d put in an appearance, she wondered what it would be like to feel Calum’s thin lips on hers.

Oh, boy.

Rett found out on Friday that Calum had kept the robot baby stuffed in his bag, only pulling it out on the bus to school. Rett frowned—what if something had happened to the thing, and they failed Child Development? She didn’t want to have to go to summer school for one credit. Her plans for college would be gone. Poof, out the window. He rolled his eyes when she said as much, and she rolled hers when he told her to stop worrying so much. She reminded him he had more to lose if he failed.

Dark circles lingered under his eyes, and his lips tugged downward. No subtle smile that morning, only scowling. She placed the doll on the seat between them and hoped the thing wouldn’t start its crying in any of her classes. It wouldn’t have been the first time lessons were interrupted, but Rett always felt the same mortification other students did when they took Child Development. Now it was her turn to feel something other than secondhand embarrassment.

The reason Calum was so exhausted became clear by the end of the day: The doll cried every hour, and once, there was nothing she could do to shut it up. She nearly threw it at the wall in anger as everyone stared at her. It was only Miss Reynolds’s exasperation that kept Rett from losing her temper; the teacher let her escape to the hallway with the ‘baby’ so it would stop disrupting class. Rett didn’t even have the patience to walk with Calum to their classes, opting to take the robot outside out of earshot of anyone else.

He fell asleep against her shoulder on the bus ride home, and Rett did everything she could to not wake him. He didn’t stir even as the vehicle bounced and rocked as it barreled down the road. He smelled like something earthy, spiced. She liked it.

The crying continued well into the afternoon. The evening. The night. Rett sat on her bed and reached for a pillow, placing it over the doll’s face. The door opened, and Eliza poked her head into the room.

“Everything okay, honey?”

Rett glared at her mother and said through gritted teeth, “I’m never havin’ a baby.”

“I promise they’re not all annoying like that thing,” Eliza said with a laugh. “Can I help with anything?”

“Nah, this is my fault for thinking this class would be an easy grade.”

“Okay. Come get me or your daddy if you need us. Try to get some sleep, honey, and stop smothering the poor thing.”

“Ain’t like it’s real,” Rett grumbled even as she moved the pillow. The doll was suspiciously quiet. She didn’t trust the silence.

“Maybe it’s best you don’t have kids,” her mother teased before pulling the bedroom door closed.

Rett stuck her tongue out at the door then sighed, staring down at the ‘baby’. She regretted ever signing up for the class. It just seemed easier than woodworking. Deciding her mother was right, Rett leaned over to turn off her bedside lamp then shoved her window up in its frame. The cool night breeze flowed through immediately. It smelled of rain, the storm that skirted past the town in the night. She shoved the doll aside, covering it with the pillow again, and sprawled across the mattress. As she laid there, her mind traveled back to when she’d caught Calum roaming around.

He had seemed genuinely surprised that she was still awake. As if he was the only one who would dare be awake after ten o’clock. He was in for a rude awakening if he thought only city folks stayed up late and slept all day. Oak Creek had its own sort of nightlife, even if it wasn’t what Calum Winger was accustomed to.

Many nights, Rett had laid in bed just like she was, listening to the teenagers of the town sneaking out through their windows and heading to the river or the fields. Anywhere but their homes to party until the sun came up. It was a horribly kept secret in the town. Heck, half the parents would do patrols around the areas, keeping an eye on the kids through the night. They believed it was better for the teens to get their wild behavior out under supervision instead of off at college.

Her thoughts took a sharp turn. Why was Calum able to get under her skin like he had? Rett frowned and wished she wasn’t smothering the doll with her pillow. She’d rather smother herself for thinking those thoughts. She’d never cared so much about making someone happy in her town.

It didn’t feel much like hating seeing people miserable. It was a stronger base desire, something she couldn’t explain no matter how much she wanted to. For some inexplicable reason, she needed him to be happy. She needed him to stop believing he would never belong, for him to stop waiting to get out.

Rolling over in bed, Rett stared out the window at the sky. The Big Dipper scooped its way across the sky through the stars surrounding it, its miniature clone so close yet so far. She’d wondered since childhood what was out there in the universe. Conspiracy theorists claimed aliens were already on Earth. ‘Rational-minded’ people claimed aliens didn’t exist, but Rett believed there was no way Earth was the only planet in existence with intelligent life. There were aliens, she thought, and not the little-green-men type.

She only hoped if they ever came, they came in peace. Or maybe she would be dead by that point, so what did it matter? She wouldn’t be around for a war between Earthlings and extraterrestrials.

You’re delirious, her brain whispered. She needed to sleep. It was after one in the morning. Praying the ‘baby’ would stay silent for the rest of the night, Rett closed her eyes and counted. One sheep, two sheep, three shhh. . .

“We are never having a baby,” she announced as soon as Calum came to the front door of Georgie’s house the next morning.

His dark hair stuck up in all directions, and pillow-lines still crossed his cheek. He must have just woken up to her pounding on the door, but Rett didn’t care. She yanked the screen door open and shoved the doll against his chest. His usual glower disappeared, replaced with furrowed brows and pinched lips.

“What?”

“This stupid thing kept me up most of the night,” she growled, “so we are never having a baby. At least, I’m not. You can have as many of ’em as you like, but count. Me. Out.”

“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t ask you to be the mother of my child,” he snorted as he tossed the doll onto the couch.

“What, think I’m not good enough to be a mama?”

He blinked owlishly then looked around for support. No one was there; he was on his own. “Rett, I really don’t know what you want me to answer that with.”

“Neither do I!”

“Then why are you shouting at me?” he asked, throwing his hands in the air. The robot baby let out a squall that went ignored.

Rett deflated. She was. She was shouting at him for no good reason. She shook her head, muttering an apology. His thin dark eyebrows drew together, but all he did was scoop the doll up off the couch. She didn’t care what he did to it—he could rip its head off, and she wouldn’t give a damn. She hated the thing. She hated herself for taking the class. Thankfully, Monday was the last day of the project. Then she could spend the rest of the semester learning about something she’d never want. The project had officially destroyed any desire she might have had for having children.

She turned on her heel before Calum could say anything else and let the screen door slam closed behind her. She stormed down the street, crossed the footbridge, and stomped the two streets over to her own house. She didn’t bother taking off her shoes before falling face-first onto her bed. Sleep came quickly but, unfortunately, not for long.

Rett had just opened her book when the first tap sounded. She dropped her dirty clothes into the hamper as she looked around for the source of the noise. Something hissed, and she turned to the window, barely stifling a shriek at the pale face on the other side of the screen. She clambered onto her bed and knelt in front of her window.

“What the heck are you doin’ here?” she asked.

Calum glanced over his shoulder then faced her once more. “Can—Can I come in?”

“I. . . What?”

“You’ve been in my room. It’s only fair I’m in yours.”

His leer fell flat. His eyes were dark, stormy, with something she couldn’t hope to understand. Rett looked back at her door then nodded. If Calum was seeking her out, he must have had a reason. An important one. They weren’t friends, not yet. She held up a finger and rushed to close her door, hurrying back. Calum stepped back as she pressed against the edges of the screen until it popped out of place. He caught the screen, leaning it against the house, and Rett sat back on her heels out of the way. His thin frame toppled into the bedroom.

He slid off the bed and stood in the middle of the room, staring around at the walls. His lips quirked at the photograph of her riding a pony as a child. Finally, he met her gaze. “Sorry, I just. . .”

“Oh, sit down,” she said, rolling her eyes. He did. She raised a brow at that, having expected more of a fight. He didn’t smell like he normally did, all spiced earth. “What’s goin’ on?”

He let out a quiet giggle—a genuine, true giggle—and waved a hand in the air. “You sound funny, you know that?”

“No more’n you do, Winger.”

“I like how you say my name. You see me.”

“You’re pretty solid, so I’d say yeah, I see you.”

He shook his head vehemently, rocking with the motion. “No, no. I mean, you see me. I’m not just a trouble-making outsider to you.”

Rett sighed, not rolling her eyes but just barely, and nudged him with her socked toes. His eyes moved slowly until his gaze landed on her face. “Cal, why are you comin’ to my house in the middle of the night?”

“I miss my home,” he whispered.

All of Rett’s protests vanished from her throat. How could she continue to pester him about coming over so late when he was being so honest? For once, she felt like she really was seeing him like he said she did. Seeing him for who he was, instead of the front he put on. She had an inkling weakness was a huge no-no for him. The confession given in an undertone was only proof of that.

She didn’t speak, and he took the silence as permission to continue. He told her of his home, the place he ached to be, and his siblings. He spoke slowly, haltingly, as he said his father left when he was only eleven. Rett hated the wistfulness—the subtle anger—in his voice as he explained how he often had to take care of his sisters and brother because his mother worked too long of hours so she could keep a roof over their head.

“I thought I hated it,” he admitted, voice pitched low and eyes trained on the ceiling. “But now, I want that more than anything.”

“You’re homesick.”

“I guess.”

“Calum?” She waited until he turned his head. “Why were you even sent here in the first place? Sounds like your mama could really use your help.”

“’Cause I was an idiot. You were right, Rett. I wanted to be seen, for someone to know me as me. Thought I had it with my friends. I, uh, I nearly burnt my school down. She tried, y’know? Wasn’t much she could do.”

His lashes fluttered against sharp cheekbones when Rett reached for his hand. She squeezed gently, heart racing and a buzzing flitting along her skin. It was just a touch, the smallest point of contact. He didn’t stop her from leaning forward to wrap in a tight embrace. He melted into it, and she recognized the stench clinging to him. It wasn’t just cigarette smoke.

“Well, as long as you’re in Oak Creek, you got me, okay?”

“Why?”

“’Cause no one should be alone like that.”

“So what are you reading?” he asked after clearing his throat. He shifted away but held her hand once more.

Rett let him cling to the comfort she silently offered. She allowed him to change the subject. He listened while she described the novel, a mystery-thriller she wasn’t too fond of but couldn’t leave unfinished. Calum’s gaze lingered on her lips as she spoke, and he smiled when she told stories of the townspeople, the people she grew up with and would know for the rest of her life.

Miss Reynolds’s father accidentally caught Mister Jameson’s pants with a fishing hook and hadn’t realized it until it was too late: Barry Jameson stood in the middle of the river with his underwear showing for the world to see. Miss Hannah Young came to town only four years ago, but everyone knew she’d only moved from New York to get away from her ex-husband.

“Messy divorce,” Miss Maudie had said, nodding knowingly. “He kept the house.”

It wasn’t bad in Oak Creek, Rett assured Calum, just different. One day, he would look back on his year spent in the town and realize it wasn’t as awful as he’d feared. And who knew, maybe it would turn out to be one of the best times he’d ever had somewhere that wasn’t Las Vegas.

Calum fell out of the window an hour later, but he didn’t walk away for a long minute. Instead, he stared at the billions of stars in the sky. Pointing to one, he asked Rett if she knew what it was. She did, after a moment: Segin, in the Cassiopeia constellation. She’d studied the stars for too long to not know. His lips quirked up in the corner, and he looked at her with an unreadable expression on his face.

“It almost feels like I could be home,” he whispered before turning on his heel.

Rett watched him disappear into the night, saying a silent prayer he didn’t fall off the footbridge or get lost. He’ll be all right. As long as he stayed on the streets, he would be fine.

She fell asleep to the conversation—his voice—echoing in her ears.

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