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Long Time Gone: Chapter Three

LORETTA COX WATCHED CALUM scan the classroom before he took an empty seat in the back. Being new couldn’t be easy, especially when it was in a town with only eight hundred inhabitants—most of whom lived out of the center of said town. She’d lived there for almost eighteen years, generations before her and generations after. The way it had been with almost every family that remained. It wasn’t often fresh blood entered without leaving soon after.

The last new family was the Harveys, and they were gone seven months later.

Calum didn’t look away from the lab table when she sat beside him. It wasn’t official, not really, but Rett had been the school’s ‘welcome wagon’ since she was old enough to remember routes through school. She never knew why she’d started, or why she kept doing it, but she had to. It felt wrong not to help. Despite making friends with the newcomers only to have them leave again, she never stopped.

Calum, though, he was different somehow. Maybe it was because he acted as if it didn’t bother him, the gossiping and gawking.

Georgie Stone never really talked about her nephew before. All anyone ever knew was that she hadn’t seen him since she was a little kid. Certainly not a little kid now. Rett examined Calum from the corner of her eye. With his black hair and deep brown eyes, sharp cheekbones and slender body, he could have been a model in Paris or somewhere equally fashionable. Yet there he was in Oak Creek pretending there hadn’t been rumors since before he even set foot in the dirt outside the station.

Rett had been excited to meet him—new people brought new experiences—but she’d seen neither hide nor hair of him since he arrived. He had kept himself isolated in his newness. She would never be able to do it. Not like he was. She wasn’t built for it.

It was hard enough playing Virgin Mary in the Christmas pageant, and she grew up around these people. They watched her grow from tiny little Loretta to Rett. She should be used to the attention during the play, but she still threw up before the show every year. Yet Calum was calm, cool, and collected.

As Mister Johnson called for attention, Rett scribbled on a piece of paper: Let me see your schedule. Calum glanced at the note, raising a thin brow, then did as told. Mister Dupree knew what he was doing. He’d placed Calum in all of Rett’s classes. She figured it does make it easier to show the kid around if they were heading to the same place. So she said a silent ‘thanks’ to the school secretary before passing the schedule back to Calum.

He didn’t say a word to her through any of the classes or on the treks. He refused to talk about himself even when Miss Reynolds tried her hardest. She was the sweetest teacher in the entire school, and Calum acted as if she didn’t exist. Rett still showed him around with his sullen silences. Somehow, he managed to keep his head held high as people stared at him unabashedly.

Rett already knew what they all thought. They’d said the same things since Georgie first announced her nephew was coming to stay for the year.

“Why would he ever leave Las Vegas, though?” Kellie Marie Watson had asked, looking around for validation. She didn’t have to search hard. The rest of the student population agreed with her.

Heck, even Rett agreed. What did Oak Creek have that Las Vegas didn’t? The closest thing to ‘big city’ they had, after all, was the arcade between the corner and hardware store. The games were from the eighties and out of order more often than they are playable. The ice cream shop was the main point of congregation for the younger generation. Rett always wondered if that was how teens felt fifty years ago. All sock hops and sharing a malt with their sweetheart.

As she guided Calum toward Algebra II, Rett almost wished for the days when the biggest gossip was Miss Judy forgetting to water her blossoms and risk her hydrangeas’ lives.

Calum disappeared once they reached the cafeteria two hours later, and Rett stared after him before sighing. She’d foolishly hoped he would at least sit with her at lunch. The boy needed a friend to help him through his first day. But now he’d gone off. She let herself have faith that he would find her when the half-hour was up.

“So? What’s he like?” asked Sofia Alvarez the second Rett sat down with her tray.

Rett paused before shrugging. “Quiet.” It was all she could say.

“That’s. . .”

“Informative,” Kellie Marie finished Sofia’s sentence.

“What do y’all want me to say? Ain’t like I know him,” Rett protested. She found it rather unfair that they expected her to have any more information than they did. Just showing him around wasn’t exactly a fount of knowledge.

Kellie Marie tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder, leaning forward. “Somethin’ ain’t right about that boy. I’m tellin’ ya. I heard he ignored Miss Reynolds. No boy ignores Miss Reynolds.”

Rett ignored the implications in her friend’s words. Someone not showing attraction to someone didn’t mean a thing. But of course someone would latch onto Calum’s lack of interest as a way of finding fodder against him. She stayed silent, though. There was no point in arguing with her friends. Not really.

To her surprise, Calum popped up at her side once she dumped her trash and filed out of the cafeteria with the others. Rett pushed away the warmth in her chest, the tightening of her belly. He just wasn’t familiar with the school, that was all. They weren’t friends. She grinned up at him before setting off for English, him following close behind.

He didn’t seem to mind when she dropped into the seat beside him on the bus. He didn’t look away from the window, and the ride back to Oak Creek was quiet between them. Rett knew it was only a matter of time. She would get Calum talking eventually. She was nothing if not patient and persistent.

“How was your first day of school, kiddo?” her father asked later that night as he set the stack of plates beside the stove.

Rett sighed and finished mashing the potatoes. There wasn’t anything to tell, and Matthew knew that. The first day of school always went the same way: Teachers made unnecessary introductions, assigned the first homework of the year, then let the students do whatever as long as they behaved. It was a routine the entire town knew, one they relied on. Without the routine, life wouldn’t be the way it was.

Matthew’s day at work was just as uneventful. He delivered the mail on time then came home to his daughter and his wife. It was what he did every day except for Sunday when he would go fishing or spend the afternoon

Eliza finally exited the bathroom just as Rett and Matthew finished placing the dishes on the table. Her chocolate brown hair hung wetly around her face. She’d come straight home from work at the meat plant two towns over, disappearing into the bathroom for a shower while her daughter cooked dinner. Rett hated the end of summer. Not because it meant going back to school—she enjoyed that—but because it meant her mother worked longer hours at the plant.

As soon as the trio finished eating, Rett cleared the table and washed dishes while her parents relaxed. She had been doing that, cooking dinner and cleaning up, since she was twelve, when she had begged her parents for more responsibilities. She’d wanted a dog, she remembered, and had to prove she could handle it. The dog never came, but Rett found she liked the tasks.

There was something calming about bringing together ingredients into one cohesive meal and scrubbing dishes. She knew it fell into gender stereotypes, but she didn’t mind it at all. She was who she was, and at least her future husband would be happy and well-fed.

She set the last plate into the draining rack and wiped down the countertops. The television played in the other room, laugh tracks and one-liners. She smiled when her mother laughed along with the show. It was Rett’s favorite sound, listening to Eliza decompressing after a long day of being on her feet. Matthew murmured something inaudible under the sitcom, and Rett’s smile grew.

Home had never felt so much like home before.

Telling her parents she would be on the porch, Rett slipped out the front door to sit on the top step. Crickets chirped in the grass, and fireflies woke from their slumber. She wondered what they all dreamed about, if they even dreamed at all. Night fell over the sleepy town as gently as it ever did. Kids had gone inside, and only the old women were out doing their evening speed-walks.

Miss Agatha Emerson was bound to break a hip if she wasn’t careful. The woman was nearing ninety and still moved as if she was thirty.

Miss Jeanie Morgan waved as the small group of women approached. “Good evening, Loretta.”

“Evening, Miss Jeanie. Lovely night, isn’t it?”

“Right you are.” She grinned, false teeth too white in the twilight. “Have a good night, Loretta.”

“Good night, Miss Jeanie, Miss Maudie, Miss Agatha.”

Miss Maudie Bryant raised a hand to wave, sending her arm fat swaying. Rett watched the women vanish around the corner. She breathed in slowly, let the town seep further into her blood. Her thoughts traveled from the peace she found on the porch. She swore to herself she wouldn’t, but Rett considered all the possible reasons for Calum’s sudden appearance in Oak Creek. Maybe he was on the run from the law and knew nobody would find him here in the middle o the nowhere. After all, a town with so few residents was the last place anyone would hide.

Or maybe he got into some trouble back home and was exiled to Tennessee. Had he gotten a girl pregnant? Too many fights? Grand theft auto?

The possibilities were endless, and Rett would drive herself crazy if she kept trying to figure it out.

Her parents had already gone to bed by the time mosquitoes annoyed her into going inside. She stood in the doorway, staring out over the quiet street, then closed the door behind her. There was no reason to lock it. Making her way through the darkened living room by muscle memory alone, she stopped at her parents’ bedroom door and listened for the familiar voices.

It was a song she’d listened to for her entire life. Eliza and Matthew’s quiet conversations before falling asleep, the insects through open windows, the creaking of the floor beneath Rett’s feet as she went to her room. The routine was familiar enough, and she derived stability from it.

The bedside lamp came on with a soft click and hum when she flipped the switch. Her sea-gray walls hid beneath posters and photographs, and she smiled at the picture of Kellie Marie and herself at the 4H fair two years ago. They’d been waiting in line for the Ferris wheel, trying to eat all of their cotton candy before it was their turn to clamber into the seat. Rett remembered how ill they’d felt after they had come off the ride.

She flopped down on her bed, fingers running over the seam of the quilt. Her Mamaw put it together using all of Rett’s baby clothes—of which there were too many—and added to it on Rett’s birthday every year until Sandy died four years ago. Rett had taken over stitching more squares onto it, though she didn’t use the quilt outside of winter. Tennessee summers were far too hot and humid for that. So she kept it folded at the end of her bed until it was needed. Every time she used it, she felt as if her grandmother was holding her once more. Sandy’s embraces were always full of love and warmth. She was an amazing woman, even if the old badger would throw shoes to get someone’s attention.

Rett closed her curtains long enough to change into a pair of cotton shorts and a tank-top, then pinned the lace back again. Turning off her lamp, she sprawled across her bed and listened to the sounds of the night coming in through open window. An owl hooted somewhere in the nearby woods, and there came the mournful sound of a train horn blaring through the night. Calum might never warm up to Oak Creek, but it was her home. All she could do was try to show him how beautiful it could truly be.

Calum waited with his cousin at the bus stop when Rett joined them. Tiffany raised a perfectly plucked brow, glancing between him and Rett before tossing her hair over her shoulder. “My mama wants me to say thanks for showing him ’round yesterday.”

“Wasn’t a problem,” said Rett as she shrugged, her beat-up sneaker scuffing in the dirt.

“Yeah, well, you know Mama. Gotta say thanks for the dumbest things.”

“I’ll stop by this afternoon.”

Tiffany nodded then turned toward her friends walking toward the stop. Rett fell into line next to Calum, still stubbing the toe of her sneaker into the ground, and stared at him out of the corner of her eye. His outfit looked out of place here: Dark jeans and top, immaculate shoes. She knew it would change the longer he was in Oak Creek. No one could go anywhere without wearing half the town on them.

She cleared her throat. “So. . .”

“Does everyone here start sentences with ‘so’, or are you the only annoying one?” he snapped, and Rett reared back.

“Get bad sleep or somethin’?”

“No, just already sick of this town.”

“Get used to it. You’re stuck here for however long for whatever reason.”

To her surprise, his lips twitched though he still didn’t look at her. Rett frowned and stared at the ground. He wasn’t supposed to find amusement in what she said, but he had. Why? She didn’t get the chance to question it. The bus pulled up, and the group filed on.

He moved his bag so she could sit beside him.

Rett knew she didn’t need to—the high school was too small—but still she led him from class to class. He remained silent the entire day, not even answering questions from the teachers. He didn’t do the classwork, and he refused to look at anyone. But he scowled less than he had the day before, so Rett considered it a win.

She doodled on a scrap piece of paper while the teacher pointed to various words on the board. It was just a rough sketch of Mister Harper droning on, the students little more than uneven circles for heads with drool bubbles. Once finished, she slid it across the desk to Calum. She didn’t expect a thing from him. She didn’t even anticipate him looking at it. But he was full of surprises: He spent the next ten minutes doodling back. His was of a skyline, a shadowy figure standing atop a tall building with a billowing cape. Above the character were the words Boredom Man! Here to put villains (and students) to sleep! His handwriting was atrocious; she struggled against her giggles once she deciphered what he’d written.

“Miss Cox, is there something you’d like to share with the class?”

“No, sir, Mister Harper. Just thought of somethin’ I saw on TV last night.”

The teacher pinned her with an unimpressed look then heaved a sigh. His potbelly rose and fell with the motion, then he suggested she keep her mind on the chemistry lesson. She nodded and waited for him to turn his back before scribbling, Thanks for getting me in trouble at the edge of Calum’s drawing.

Anytime.

Rolling her eyes, she tucked the paper away and focused on the lecture over the US government.

Calum vanished at lunch again, like he had the day prior, but unlike then, he didn’t reappear after the half-hour was up. Rett waited for him until the warning bell, but he never showed. Sighing, she waited another moment longer then headed off to English. She’d tried. She could only try again later.

She would get through to him eventually.

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