HE KNEW IT WAS a horrible decision, but Calum still waited for Rett to sit with her friends before slipping out of the cafeteria. It was too close to friendship, that moment in US Government, and he wasn’t there to make friends. Rett was only meant to be someone he could mimic, not someone he could potentially care about. All he would do was get through the year then go back to Las Vegas.
He would happily leave her behind. He would leave this whole town behind without remorse or looking back. He could only do that if he didn’t give a damn.
Calum spent the afternoon walking back to town, cursing himself for letting himself get drawn in by Rett. His black T-shirt clung to his soaked skin, and he wished he’d worn anything but jeans in that weather. It was a horrible combination. Something lit up in his head the longer he walked: He regretted leaving the school. At least the building was cooled by an archaic air conditioning system. It had been a surprise to hear the rattling for the first time. He’d assumed that with a town so small, he would have to suffer through the heat.
Thankfully, someone approached in a beat-up pickup truck, and Calum stuck out a thumb, praying they held a modicum of kindness. Sympathy.
No one was at the house when he finally arrived, and he filled a glass with water only to drink it all within seconds. Filling it once more, he headed to the bedroom he was forced to live in. He yanked the curtains closed and changed from his jeans and T-shirt into a pair of basketball shorts. He didn’t bother with a shirt. He might as well be comfortable if he had to be miserable.
Though the windows were open, no breeze came through. The curtains hung from the rod, unmoving and drab. They’re like my life. Stuck at a standstill with nowhere to go. Calum groaned and rolled over onto his belly. He was getting maudlin. He only hoped it wouldn’t get worse the longer he was in Oak Creek.
He let himself think of his mother and siblings as he dozed off. His friends. At least he had them to look forward to.
His eyes snapped open at the banging. Gunshots? The thought barely crossed his mind before he remembered where he was—a town where people didn’t need guns if they weren’t hunting for their food. He tugged the pillow over his head and tried to ignore the knocking, because that was what it was. Someone was at the house, and he didn’t want to see them. Though he could hardly breathe with his face beneath the pillow, he didn’t remove it. It muffled the sounds, but there was no escaping the squeal of the door as it opened. Calum let out an unamused huff. Of course people there had no respect for other people’s homes.
“So. Thought I might find you here.”
He squeezed his eyes closed, pretending he hadn’t heard Rett’s voice. Maybe if he ignored her long enough, she would go away. Unfortunately, his luck had never been what one would call ‘good’: She plopped down onto the mattress beside him. Her fingers grazed through his hair as she tugged the pillow off his head, then she poked his shoulder. Repeatedly. Did the girl ever stop being so annoying?
“What do you want?” he snapped despite knowing it was her goal to get him talking.
“To bring you your homework. Told the teachers you had a headache and was about to throw up, so they said feel better.”
“Great,” he mimicked her drawl before waving a hand in the air. “Leave it in the trash.”“Nope. You’re gonna do it all ’fore you come back tomorrow.”
“And who said I am?”
“I did,” she said, as if he was meant to obey just because she told him what to do. She really didn’t know him if she thought he’d do it. “Don’t make me look like a fool.”
Before he could formulate a response, the weight beside him disappeared. He listened to soft footsteps creaking across the room then blew out a breath. The sight of the window-frame met his gaze. The wood was rotting, just like he was in the backwoods town. He twitched when she spoke from the doorway.
“If you ever wanna get outta here, ya gotta play by the rules.”
He gave a quiet snort but didn’t roll over. “Haven’t you heard? I’m a rule-breaker.”
“See, I doubt that. I think you’re just a boy who thinks he’s so tough but is actually desperate for connection. But what do I know? Do the work, Cal. See you in school tomorrow.”
She left without waiting for a reply. Calum tugged the pillow over his head again and closed his eyes. He’d left school because of her, and she’d showed up in the room that wasn’t his. He had no idea why she cared about him. They didn’t know each other. They were strangers, and refused to consider the possibility of her being anything more. He couldn’t let her under his skin. She didn’t belong there.
Rett was nothing to him.
And stop with the ‘So’ at the beginning of your sentences, he thought though she was long gone.
Exhaling sharply, he shoved the pillow away and rolled onto his back. A sheaf of papers sat on the bed beside him, a paper-clip holding them together. Someone had written his name in the corner of each page. Large, rounded letters and I’s dotted with circles. For some reason, he wasn’t surprised to see how Rett wrote. The handwriting fit her personality. He couldn’t explain why—he would never be a handwriting analyst. He just. . . knew.
He found himself, to his utter shock, filling out the worksheets as quickly as he could. “Don’t make me look like a fool,” she had said. Why did he want to listen to her? She was nothing, but he couldn’t stop himself from trying to please her with something so small. Trivial. Insignificant to anyone else, but so important to himself.
Maybe because she was right, even if he’d refrain from ever admitting it: All he’d wanted back home was someone to see him as he was, not as a stand-in father to four children. He didn’t want the duties of a dad; he wanted to be a teenager and seen as one. He had that with hi friends. Horrible influences and enablers though they were, his friends were the only ones who had understood his desire to ruin something. To get the attention he’d needed. To escape his responsibilities. For a few precious hours, he hadn’t had to think about feeding his siblings or getting them to and from school. He didn’t have to fight with them to go to bed when all they wanted was to say goodnight to their mother. She was never home, but Calum was.
At least until the kids were asleep. Then he would sneak out, lock the doors behind him, and meet up with the others to wreak havoc on Las Vegas. Of course he went home if Melissa called if she was confronted with someone she couldn’t handle at fifteen, but more often than not, Calum slipped back in through his window in the early hours of dawn without anyone realizing he’d sneaked out.
Georgie came home at six that evening. She didn’t ask why he wasn’t in school all day, but Calum readily offered up the same excuse Rett gave the teachers. His aunt gave him a look that said she didn’t believe the lie, but all she said was she hoped he felt better. Why was he lying so easily? So willingly? Especially to the woman who took him in when she didn’t have to. Sure, Georgie was his mother’s cousin, she was family. But she could have said she had enough to worry about and another mouth to feed wasn’t it. She could have turned him away without hesitation. Instead, she opened her home to him, and Calum was repaying her with falsities and the desire to turn the town upside down.
He didn’t want the quiet peace. He wanted to destroy it all and leave behind a wake of chaos.
He roamed the streets until sundown. There wasn’t anything to do, so he sat on the footbridge and watched over the pond. The sunlight warmed his skin to the point of discomfort, but he didn’t move to the shade. Calum wanted to remind himself of where he didn’t belong—the place he would eventually escape from. The heat kept him grounded in his hatred. His thoughts couldn’t trail elsewhere if he had something to focus on.
Children played in front yards and the streets; their shouts and laughter echoed through the town. He hated it. The sounds reminded him too much of the family he was forced to leave. He hadn’t called home since arriving in Oak Creek, so he had no idea how his siblings were faring. Did Melissa take over the duties of caring for the younger ones? Was Miranda still having nightmares, and had Josie apologized for breaking Michael’s model airplane? Was their mother still working herself to the bone to provide for the little family? Calum would never know unless he called, but calling felt too much like admitting to a weakness. Especially this early into the banishment.
Later that night, after Georgie, Tiffany, and Charles had gone to sleep, Calum popped the screen from his window and clambered out into the hot night. There were no streetlights to illuminate the way, something he wasn’t used to. Las Vegas was never dark. But the moon was enough. It was witness to his roaming, his unfamiliarity with the streets. The serenity of the night was a reprieve from the gossip of the day. No one spoke of him or to him—he was well and truly alone with only his thoughts and the screaming of insects. He could breathe, breathe in the scent of earth and quiet, exhale all the stress he’d carried with him for so long.
“Miss Georgie’s gonna be so mad at you,” a voice called, and he turned around. No one was there, but he recognized the voice. Rett laughed quietly. “To your right, buddy.”
“What are you doing up?” he asked once he caught sight of her face in a window. He moved closer if only to not shout from the middle of the road.
“Could ask you the same thing.”
“Doesn’t matter, does it?”
“No, I guess not.” She paused before disappearing from the frame. Light filled the room beyond as she settled back in, and Calum stared at the gold-yellow glow on her dark hair. “Miss Georgie hears you snuck out, she’ll tan your hide.”
“She doesn’t need to know.”
“Finish your homework?”
“No,” he lied.
Rett grinned, shaking her head, and pulled her long hair into a quick braid. “See you tomorrow, Cal. Get some sleep.”
The question slipped out without permission: Would Rett keep the late-night wandering a secret? He didn’t care if his aunt found out. She couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Rett gave him a slow smile and swore she wouldn’t tell a soul. He trusted her. Somehow, he knew she meant what she said.
She turned off her light, saying another goodnight, and Calum continued on his way. Thunder rumbled in the distance, promising a rainstorm. Wispy clouds floated across the moon, but still silver shined through. It was a beautiful night—hot, air thick with moisture, but peaceful.
He shook his head much as Rett did. He couldn’t be getting sentimental about a town that meant less than nothing to him.
Calum replaced the screen in his window before realizing his only entrance was now blocked off. The front door would make too much noise and wake his aunt and uncle. Or, God forbid, his cousin. Maybe he could sleep on the porch for the night and get up with the sun. Pretend he’d taken an early morning stroll. No one would know.
“If you’re gonna sneak out, boy, least you could do is plan ahead.”
His uncle chuckled from the porch swing, leaning forward out of the shadows and into the moonlight. “Lucky I woke up for a cigarette, ain’t ya.”
Calum didn’t consider it luck. Not of the ‘good’ variety, not really. He hadn’t wanted to get caught. He should have just left the screen off the window until morning, slipped it back on his way to the bus stop. Charles let out a quiet, rough laugh again and began rocking on the swing. He gestured for Calum to join him. Calum hadn’t known his uncle smoked. He figured no one in the town so much as drink, even with the bar on the corner of Main and Pine. Risking Charles’s judgment, Calum asked for a cigarette.
“Little young to be killin’ your lungs,” said Charles even as he held out the pack.
“What are ya, seventeen? Guess I can’t say much. Started smokin’ when I was twelve and never quit.”
Calum ran the toe of his shoe along a crack in the wood. “Does Georgie know?”
“Boy, you’ll learn Georgie knows everythin’. Ain’t a durn thing you could do that she won’t be able to sniff out within seconds. Just you watch, she’ll have you cornered and spillin’ secrets you didn’t even know you had.”
“I don’t have secrets,” Calum lied only to receive a snort in response.
Once the smoke disappeared from the air, Charles led Calum back to the window. The teenager climbed through and dropped to the bed, watching his uncle replace the screen. Charles disappeared around the house, and Calum flopped backward to lie down. The front door squeaked open then closed, heavy footfalls across the living room, then the house fell silent. The night turned out far differently than he’d expected. Charles was more talkative in the midnight, Calum realized. Or maybe he’d been trying to put the teen at ease. Welcome him to the family dynamic.
The sun rose before Calum could fall asleep. He’d spent the hours flipping his cellphone between his hands, but the screen only ever said ‘No signal’. Georgie had warned him, but he hated the lack of connection to the outside world. He wanted to call his mother and text Kyle, see what was going on with the group lately.
Georgie didn’t let him get by without eating breakfast for the second day in a row. Nothing of what was on his plate looked appetizing—some kind of lumpy sauce over misshapen biscuits, a slab of ham, and eggs with runny yolks. He forced it down anyway. He didn’t want to offend his aunt. He had to admit afterward that he felt less awful with his stomach full.
And the food hadn’t been half-bad.
Rett waited at the bus stop when he arrived, and Calum almost smiled. They shared a secret, after all, but it was too close to friendship. So he settled for his customary scowl which received an eye-roll and a quirk of her lips. He loathed the fact she was so kind to him. Be rude for once. Then I can justify hating you.
But he didn’t hate her. Not really. He only hated what she stood for: Kindness to a complete stranger, not pushing for information but willing to listen. She represented a place he wanted to escape.
They walked together to every class, even though it wasn’t needed. He could find his way through the school with his eyes closed. He disappeared at lunch but stayed in the building. The hallways were deserted, and it made it easy to find a place to hide for the half-hour. Rett beamed when he appeared at her side at the bell, and he swallowed thickly at the sight. Her gray eyes sparkled behind her round wire-rimmed glasses. She caught her lower lip between her teeth and bounced off down the corridor toward the English classroom.
“And Mister Winger, you’ll be paired with Miss Cox.”
Paired? Paired for what? And when had they arrived at Child Development? A full hour had disappeared, and he had no idea where the time went. He’d been too distracted by the nearly-black hair draped over Rett’s shoulder, the occasional twitch as she focused but couldn’t sit still. The smell of her body wash—coconut. He hated coconut.
Miss Young announced the next partnership, and Calum glanced at Rett from the corner of his eye. She smiled back and leaned over. “We’re parents.”
Giggling, she gestured with her chin to the box on the teacher’s desk. “It’s robot-baby time. It’s always the first project of the semester. Then we learn all about how we messed up being parents.”
“Do I have to?”
“Don’t if you don’t wanna,” she said with a shrug. “You’ll just fail and not have enough credits to graduate. Then how will you get outta here?”
“You really want me gone, don’t you?” he asked, letting out an humorless laugh.
She stared at him, her gray eyes too scrutinizing. Calum resisted the urge to squirm in the silence between them. Finally, she glanced at Miss Young before turning back to him. “I’m not the one who wants you gone, Cal. And I don’t like seeing people miserable. You’re clearly beyond that.”
“I hate it here,” he whispered and winced when he realized what he just said. He hadn’t meant to put it into words.
Miss Young placed something on Rett’s desk, moving on immediately. Calum stared in abject horror at the thing. The longer he stared, the worse it got. The thing’s peach-colored ‘flesh’ was more gray than any other color, scuffed up from years of use. The head was dented in, and one of its arms was held on with silver tape. Obviously, it had seen better days. Calum finally closed his mouth, blinked owlishly, then turned his gaze onto Rett. Her shoulder rose and fell.
“We get the handouts from the larger schools. Sometimes, we end up with abominations like this.”
Miss Young clapped her hands and called out the rules for the assignment. Calum struggled to understand her through her accent as she told them to take care of their ‘babies’. Just because they were beat up, she said, it wasn’t an excuse to treat them horribly. When she announced it was time to choose which ‘parents’ had the thing first, Calum immediately faced Rett. She raised a brow and shoved the doll toward him.
“Don’t think I’m takin’ care of it first just ’cause I’m a woman.”
He couldn’t help it: He laughed and shook his head, but he caved anyway.