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Long Time Gone: Chapter Six

CALUM KNEW HE SHOULD never have gone to Rett’s. Before he even knocked on her window, he’d known he needed to go back to Georgie’s and leave the girl alone. It was too close to friendship—to companionship—and he didn’t want that. God, but he did, though. Somehow, over the previous five days, Rett had proved it wasn’t always awful to make a new friend.

Even one who wouldn’t burn down a school with you.

But he’d gone to her house, climbed through her window, and told her the secrets he’d kept locked inside since his mother sent him to Oak Creek. Hell, before that. The resentment he felt for being a stand-in father, how he enjoyed it even in its stressful moments. How he was a stronger, [better] man than his father could ever dream of being. How he hated the responsibilities.

Rett had let him in and, more than that, she’d listened without interrupting him. She didn’t judge him for what he said. She’d only watched him with those deep gray eyes and smiled a soft smile as he admitted to being homesick. She had held his hand and promised to be there for him. It was a friendship he’d been craving, a connection to something [good] that he could cling to.

So it really should not have been a surprise when things changed. He talked more—to her. He stayed just as quiet and reserved as before with anyone else, but with her, the words tumbled free. She already gave proof that he could say anything and she would never judge him. She would never spill his secrets. He did, however, try to talk more with his aunt and uncle. They’d taken him in. The least he could do was care.

He learned the Stones had lived in Oak Creek for five generations, and Georgie had come along when she was nineteen, marrying Charles within the year. Neither Charles nor Georgie were planning on leaving any time soon, though Tiffany had dreams of stardom. Calum didn’t care to know what kind of dreams those were.

The town didn’t feel as oppressive, either. People greeted him as they greeted everyone else. It seemed as if being friends with Rett during the last handful of days showed everyone that he was a kid worthy of their tolerance. Miss Maudie invited him over for tea and finger sandwiches on Sunday, and he’d gone if only to spite Rett. He should have listened: He threw up as soon as he could escape the woman’s house. Rett had the decency to refrain from saying ‘I told you so’. She only patted his back as he spat bile from his tongue.

“Everyone’s fallen for Miss Maudie’s kindly nature,” she said. “Woman forgets tea should have flavor and sandwiches are meant to be cold.”

“I feel like I’m dying,” moaned Calum when his stomach clenched again. Rett’s response was drowned out by another bout of vomiting.

Once he finished, she giggled and promised he would be fine—“Just stay away from Miss Maudie’s hospitality.”

Calum groaned and told her to stop reminding him of his mistake. With one last retch, he stood upright and wiped his mouth on his arm. Rett’s nose curled in disgust, and she wrapped her fingers around his wrist and pulled him behind her. He followed her down the street to her house.

He’d never seen her house in the daytime. Only that night when he climbed through her bedroom window. But he got his first look: Chipped white pain and black shutters. The entire thing was similar to his aunt and uncle’s, and he wondered if the interior was the same. Windows gleamed in the sunlight, and an oak tree stood tall in the front yard, surrounded by brilliant splashes of color from flowers dancing in the breeze. Rett grinned back at him then led him to the blue-painted door.

For some reason—inexplicable in a way he’d never be able to put words to—Calum wanted to see more o that smile.

Just inside the door was the living room. He wondered if every house in Oak Creek opened up to the living room, then shook the thoughts away. The kitchen was straight ahead, a door beside it. To the right of the living room were two doors; Calum knew the farthest one led to Rett’s room. He wondered where her parents were.

“That’s Mama and Daddy’s room,” she said when she noticed him staring around. Her fingers were still around his wrist as she tugged toward the door next to the kitchen. “This is the bathroom. Duh, right? There’s a spare toothbrush in the medicine cabinet. Make sure you wash your hands.”

He managed to hide  his smile while he closed the bathroom door behind him. She cared so much about someone she didn’t truly know. He hadn’t told her everything, and he never would. As he scrubbed the vomit from his teeth, he stared at his reflection in the mirror. Even he had to admit he didn’t look as haunted as before. He was happier, and it showed. He might never consider Oak Creek home, or anything close to it, but Rett was quickly making it less of a torturous prison.


Calum stared blankly at Rett before shaking his head. She couldn’t have suggested what he thought she had. It was a foolish plan, a decision that could only bring harm to someone. Instead of questioning her sanity, he took a drag off his cigarette and flicked the ashes toward the ground.

He’d been smoking more around her.

She planted her fists on her hips and scowled. “One good reason. Gimme one good reason, and I’ll drop it.”

“Because I don’t want to?”

“Not good enough.” She sighed and dropped to sit beside him on the swing. “C’mon, you been here three weeks, and you ain’t had a lick of fun. Just come with me.”

“To a river in the middle of the night while everyone drinks. Is that what you call fun?”

“In this town, yes.”

“I don’t exactly have a death wish, Rett.”

“No one’s sayin’ you do.” Rett nudged his foot with hers, ducking her head to meet his gaze. “Look, we all know we’re being watched. No adult would be dumb enough to risk us swimming while drunk. We pretend they ain’t there, and they pretend we ain’t being stupid.”

“And everyone’s okay with this?”

Calum couldn’t believe it was really like that. His mom would have him shipped to some other distant relative if she found out Oak Creek was just as full of temptation as Nevada. In Oak Creek, he could drink. Be reckless. He could do nearly everything he did back home without his family finding out.

He didn’t want to burn the town to the ground anymore, but he could still have the fun he missed.

“If I die, I’m haunting you,” he warned, and Rett giggled in response. He froze when she rested her head on his shoulder, but then she was off, bounding off the porch and beckoning him to follow.

Georgie scrutinized him over dinner, though she didn’t say anything. Calum knew she was aware of the plans for the night. The whole town was, if Rett was right, and he had no reason to not believe her. As he pushed peas around his plate, he wondered why his aunt ever said he could stay. She had a market to run and a daughter to raise. Had she ever anticipated taking in her cousin’s ‘troubled’ kid.

He had to admit, if only to himself, that living with Georgie and Charles wasn’t as bad as he expected. He’d thought they would be overbearing, knowing his history, and they’d not give him any slack in case he went too wild. He had imagined being locked away only to be let out of the house for school. But there they were letting him roam around town without needing to check in. Calum fully believed they would let him walk right out of Oak Creek if he decided to.

They were allowing him to join the rest of the teenagers down at the river, and he could breathe at the promise of fun.

Maybe it was because the town was so small that things were so different. He had never had the feeling of community at home, even in his neighborhood. Neighbors didn’t care if you had enough to eat, only that you left them alone. No one came together to help build a new barn for a family on the outskirts of town who’d lost theirs in a fire. Nobody ran a free-for-all drive of donated clothes, and people certainly didn’t take only what they needed and leave the rest.

Oak Creek did.

Calum had sat on the edge of the crowd with Rett, watching townspeople pick over the offerings. Nothing was left by the end—it would have been donated to a thrift shop—but no one hoarded everything they could see and want. No one argued over anything, even Missed Julia and Maudie who reached for the same shawl. Miss Maudie only laughed and pressed the fabric into Miss Julia’s arms, claiming the pink would look better with her fair complexion. Calum hadn’t felt the disappointment he anticipated at the lack of fighting.

He missed getting into fights. He always felt alive while punching someone.

Tiffany smiled as she helped wash the dishes after dinner. “Heard Rett invited you tonight.”

“She did.”

“What’s goin’ on ‘tween you two, anyway?”

“She’s my friend.”

His voice was too defensive, he knew it. That was all Rett was, though. A friend. And if his cousin insinuated there was more, Calum would overthink everything. He would scrutinize every interaction with Rett until it became too awkward. She would walk away like everyone did. Kyle was the only one in Calum’s friend group that hadn’t ever left. People came and went, and no one could stop the facts of life. As sure as the sky was blue and the grass was green, people left.

“Well,” Tiffany began, breaking him free from his thoughts, “she’s pretty cool so don’t mess it up.”

“Mess [what] up?”

Tiffany rolled her eyes and flicked water in his direction. “The friendship, ya idiot. She’s a nice girl. Don’t screw it up.”

“I wasn’t exactly planning on it,” replied Calum with a scowl.

“You hate it here, don’t you?”

He blinked then blinked again. His cousin’s voice had gotten softer as if she didn’t want her parents to overhear from the living room. He sighed, wiping the fork in his hand with the towel, then set the utensil in the drawer. A multitude of potential answers rattled around in his brain. Should he tell the truth, or should he say what he’d tell anyone else? Rett was the only one who could know the truth.

“Yeah, I hate it here.”

Tiffany snorted, pulling the plug from the drain. The pipes growled as the water swirled, and he waited until the sound stopped before looking at her. She leaned against the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. Her T-shirt today advertised a brand of soda, and a ‘T’ dangled from the chain around her neck. She stared at him with narrowed brown eyes, thin lips pressing together. He refrained from squirming under the intensity of her gaze. That would signify awkwardness, weakness, and Calum was not a coward.

“Stay friends with Rett,” she commanded, and he reared back.

“Why do you care?”

“Because as much as I don’t like you, I also don’t wanna deal with you whinin’ all year because you’re lonely.”

“Well, I don’t like you, either, so I guess we’re even.”

“You two almost done in there?” called Georgie, breaking up the conversation.

Tiffany rolled her eyes, but her voice was bright, sweet, as she said, “Yeah, Mama, just finished. I’m gonna go do my homework now.”

“That’s a good girl. I suggest you do the same, Calum.”

“Yes, Aunt Georgie.”

Tiffany bounced past Calum with a smirk, her blonde hair swaying around her shoulders, and her door closed moments later with a loud click. He dried off the counters and thought of everything his cousin had said. Why did she care whether or not he and Rett were friends? Tiffany had barely spoken a word to him since he arrived. Was it really selfishness that made her warn him against ending the friendship with Rett?

Deciding he could think on it later, Calum disappeared into his room to finish what few assignments he had left. Rett had demanded he do his work, so that was what he would do, even three weeks after her command. He had to get out of the town. Following the rules was the only way to do that. Rett said so.

“Psst, Cal.”

Calum had the screen popped from its frame within seconds of Rett saying his name. She beamed at him in the moonlight then turned as Tiffany emerged from around the corner of the house. The trio ambled silently toward the end of the street where a large group stood. Calum fell back while his cousin joined the cluster. The closer they grew to the woods, the more Calum slowed. Rett frowned, pulling him to a stop.

“You don’t wanna do this, do you?”

“I do.”

Her silver eyes darkened with something he couldn’t understand, and she ran a hand through her hair. “Cal—”

“I promise, Rett. I. . . I wanna see what this is all about.”

“Then I guess we should catch up,” she murmured before holding out a hand. He took it without a word, and she grinned and dragged him along behind her.

Her skin was rough yet soft, the hands of someone who worked with and cared for them, and he laced their fingers more securely as she led him down the path. Loud music filled the air—a driving beat under a thick drawling voice—and multiple someones sang along. His grip tightened around her hand when she stumbled in the dark. Had she already been drinking? No, he hadn’t smelled alcohol when she tapped on his window. When he clambered out onto solid ground and stood within inches of her. She’d smelled only of coconut and nighttime air. She squeezed his hand as she steadied herself, a silent promise that she was okay, then he followed where she took him.

He would follow her anywhere.

It was nothing like any movie he’d ever seen. He expected wild. He expected dirty dancing that had no place in decent public or for the others to have broken into groups to make out and more. Instead, what he saw were thirty teenagers at the edge of the river with torches planted in the dirt. A truck had been backed into the area, its speakers letting loose some country song. Even the dancing was tame.

Calum expected something vastly different, but he was thankful that was what he got.

True to Rett’s word, he could see shadows moving in the woods—adults checking in on the kids, making sure those who were drinking were being careful. Making sure they were all safe. If he was home, his mother would have the cops after him for being out in the middle of the night, for drinking three years too young. Though he’d only seen two since he arrived, Calum had to wonder why none of the officers had the same qualms about underage drinking that most of the country did.

The thoughts all disappeared when he looked back at Rett. There in the firelight, she was more beautiful than he’d ever seen. Her navy tank-top exposed her shoulders, and the glow from the flames highlighted her freckles and a sliver of a scar. He wondered where it came from. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head in a sloppy bun, and she danced with Kellie Marie to a song about speeding down backroads with cops in hot pursuit. Calum watched Rett for a long minute; something warm settled in his chest at the sight of her smile, the way she closed her eyes and swayed to the music. The jolt in his veins as she met his gaze and held out a hand for him to join her.

He hadn’t danced since his junior formal the year before, but he danced with her that night.

A week later, Rett’s fingers wrapped around his wrist, and she tugged him to a stop. “I wanna show you somethin’. C’mon.”

“Where are we going?” he asked even as he followed her out of the school.

“Just hush up” was all she said in response.

“Why are you so mean to me?”

She grinned but didn’t say a word. Calum let her lead him around the side of the building, ducking down when they reached classroom windows, then her fingers laced with his. Her footsteps quickened as they crossed the baseball diamond, and he jogged behind her until they reached the tree-line. She slowed then, squeezing his hand before releasing him. His hand grew cold despite the heat.

Sunlight dappled the ground through the canopies, and birds squawked as the pair made their way down the trail. Twigs cracked beneath their feet, but Rett stayed quiet while she pushed through the brush. As she walked with surety to wherever she wanted to show him. Calum couldn’t help but wonder what it was.

There wasn’t much she’d kept secret so far—he even knew of her dreams of getting out of the town. “Not for long,” she’d said two weeks ago when he stared at her in surprise. She would always come back; she just wanted something more to prove she could do it. He’d asked if anyone else knew. She didn’t respond to his question. He still hadn’t received an answer, so he took as a secret of their own.

They shared plenty of them. More nights than not, he’d sat outside her bedroom window, and they talked under the spotlight of the moon. Georgie never spoke of his sneaking out, but Charles made sure he was on the front porch by the time Calum came home.


He wasn’t sure when he started considering the tiny house a home. Probably around the time Rett changed his mind about Oak Creek, when he realized that perhaps it wasn’t as awful as he’d feared. Just like she had said he would, he started enjoying the quiet of a town so small. He liked the people in it and the slowness of everything. Most of all, he liked that it was only a three-minute walk from his window to Rett’s.

“We’re here,” Rett announced as she came to a stop nearly two hours later. They must have walked all the way back to Oak Creek.

The river stretched before them, trickling in the thick September heat. There hadn’t been any rain despite the promising thunderheads that lingered at the edges of the sky. The water reached the banks but just barely. On the other side was more forest. Calum could see nothing beyond the trees there, only darkness between the trunks.

He stepped closer to the river and stared down at the fish swimming lazily by. Their lives were so simple—just keep swimming and lay eggs to continue their lineage. The only thing they had to worry about was not being eaten by bears. Were there even bears in Oak Creek?

Rett nudged him with an elbow, gesturing with her chin toward an enormous oak standing tall above them. He watched her approach the tree, dropping her bag to the ground, then she scaled up the trunk as if she’d done it every day of her life. Her sneakers scraped against the rough bark, and Calum’s heart leaped into his throat when she lost her footing. But then she was perched on a wide, thick branch hanging over the river. He gazed up at her, and she beamed down at him with a brow raised.

“Gonna join or stay down there like a chicken?”

Despite himself—despite his better judgment—he grinned and let his backpack fall to the dirt beside hers. He wasn’t nearly as skilled as she was, but he managed to reach the branch without killing himself or falling. She carefully shifted so she was facing him, sitting astride the branch. He mirrored her stance and ignored the way his heart raced in his chest. The ground looked so far away.

“So why are we here?” he asked, and she shrugged, kicking her feet.

“I come here a lot. Figured we were friends so I could share it with ya.”

“Do all your friends know?” [Please say no.] If she said ‘no’, it would mean he was special to the first person in a long time.

“They know I got a spot here in the woods, but we usually hang out in more conventional places.” Her shoulders rose and fell. “Ain’t gonna force ’em to be where they didn’t wanna be.”

He nodded, but what could he say? He could say nothing. He didn’t have friends who cared about any of his secrets. Even Kyle didn’t. All the guys cared about was what trouble they’d get into and how to run from the cops. But there was Rett sharing another secret with him. Instead of speaking, he looked around at the woods surrounding them. A rusted-over truck sat in a distant cluster of trees. Just beyond that was a mobile home.

Even through the distance, the sight screamed of abandonment.

Calum hesitated. Her judgment would be worse than Uncle Charles’s. She was someone he had no connection to. Nothing but their secrets and the moment hidden together so far above the earth. Charles was family. He had to care about Calum. Rett, though. . . She had no obligation. Yet she cared.

Her brows rose when he pulled the box from his pocket. He’d managed to sneak it through security with him, and he hadn’t wanted to touch the last of his stash before that moment. But he felt it was the right time to show Rett who he really was. What his family had to deal with. She watched him closely without saying a word. He listened to water slipping along rocks, soft splashes from fish. Birds called out in the trees. One hopped along a branch overhead. Rett stayed quiet even as he took the first drag from the joint. He held it out to her with a curl of his lip.

“Wanna try?”

[Judge me. Get it over with. Be as disappointed in me as everyone else in my life.]

“Was waitin’ for ya to ask.”

He froze when she took it from him, her fingers brushing against his. His voice was challenging when he asked, “Well, why didn’t [you]?”

“Don’t you know, Cal,” she began before inhaling the smoke, “it’s rude to help yourself to someone else’s pot.”

She exhaled slowly and drew in another drag. He took the joint back and thought that maybe there was more to Rett Cox than he originally thought. And whatever else she was might be something he could love.

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