Seven Years Ago
CALUM WINGER DIDN’T WANT to be in Oak Creek—wherever Oak Creek actually was. All he knew was it was somewhere in the middle of Tennessee. And that his mother had enough of his behavior and sent him over a thousand miles to live with an aunt and uncle he hadn’t seen since grade school eleven years ago. He just wanted to be back home with his friends, doing whatever they wanted.
But no. He was forced to stand outside a tiny bus station in a tiny town, waiting for someone he wouldn’t recognize.
Behind him was the station, barely big enough for the people who rode into the town—no one but him and an adult. The woman barely glanced at him before disappearing inside. He wondered if there was air conditioning in the building before deciding he didn’t care. He didn’t want questions. The bus pulled away out of what he assumed was a parking lot, though it was no more than a large patch of dirt. A beat-up bicycle leaned against the side of the station. Calum almost imagined tumbleweeds from every Wild West-era movie he’d ever watched, scuttling across the ground.
The sky was a far purer blue than he could see at home. He had to admit the quiet was a point in Oak Creek’s favor. He stared down the road toward the buildings he could see in the distance. They were tiny pinpricks with the miles between them and him. No cars approached the station from either side. Calum hefted his bag further onto his back and started walking.
Thankfully, living in Nevada prepared him for the heat, so the trek wasn’t horrible despite the distance. Though the sun hung high in the sky, a breeze disrupted the still air. He might not have been accustomed to walking so far, but anything was better than standing outside the tiniest bus station he’d ever seen in his life. He glanced down at his cell phone, at the last text his mom had sent: Georgie’s Corner Store. At the time, he hadn’t realized why she sent the message, but Natalie had done her best to make sure he kept it anyway.
Calum was glad he didn’t delete it.
He reached a corner an hour later and looked between the buildings. To his right stood a dilapidated bank across the street from a diner that looked as if it would collapse in the slightest breeze. An ice cream shop sat on the corner diagonal from where he stood, and he turned to the left to see an enormous rusted building with a sign declaring it “Mitchell’s Auto Shop”. Farther down the road sat another building, wooden booths out front holding brightly-colored objects.
“Must be Georgie’s,” he muttered when he realized the objects were fruits and vegetables.
The ‘store’ ended up being the size of a small house full to the brim with goods. A girl about his age ambled around behind the counter, putting away packs of cigarettes as she hummed under her breath. She didn’t seem to have heard the bell tinkling over the door, so Calum stood and watched her. Her blonde hair bounced in its ponytail, and her black top revealed a stretch of tanned skin. She turned to grab another box, caught sight of him, and shrieked.
Calum struggled to understand her accent—thick, drawling—but he thought she screeched, “What the Hell, dude!”
“Sorry, I’m looking for Georgie?”
“And you can’t make a sound?” She sighed, rubbing a hand over her face without disturbing her makeup, and turned toward a curtain hanging from an archway. “Mama! Someone’s here for you.”
She gave him a withering look before going back to her task. Calum didn’t know why, but he felt like he just made an enemy already in the town. And it was his own cousin. Before he could dwell on it, a plump woman emerged from the back. Her silver-streaked blonde hair laid flat around a sweaty, ruddy face. The T-shirt she wore read the name of an amusement park, judging by the silhouette of a rollercoaster around the letters.
“Hey, Aunt Georgie.”
Georgina Stone bustled around the corner of the corner to fold him in her arms. “Oh, honey, is it already four? I’m so sorry. We had a pipe burst out back, so I been fixin’ it and lost track’a time.”
“It’s okay. It wasn’t a bad walk,” he said. Why was he trying so hard to reassure a woman he hardly remembered?
“Well, gimme a second, and I can give you a ride to the house.”
“I can walk.” His aunt frowned with roughened, stained hands planted on her wide hips, and he forced a smile. “I promise I don’t mind. The pipe won’t fix itself, right?”
“Too true. All right,” Georgie conceded, though it came out sounding more like ‘aw rye’.
He tried to understand what she was saying—he really did—but her thick drawl made it near impossible. His cousin took pity on him and wrote down the directions to the house. Her hospitality ended there: She all but threw the slip of paper at him with a roll of her brown eyes. Despite being family, he couldn’t remember her name. Brittany? Tiffany? Something equally common.
Left on Main, left on Holly, over the footbridge, right on Willow Lane. #7. Simple enough.
He pulled his bag higher on his shoulder and set off, leaving behind the sweltering interior of the corner market. Old men sat on the porch of the hardware store, grizzled voices echoing over the quiet street. Older women ambled slowly down the side of the road; their rubber-soled shoes scuffed on cracked pavement. Calum could feel everyone’s eyes on him as he trekked along the street. His mom had warned him about this, being new in such a small town.
“They have nothing to do, Calum,” Natalie said before patting his cheek. “Be a good boy, now. Call when you get there.”
Georgie had warned him that his cell phone wouldn’t be of much use in Oak Creek: Service was spotty at best. Calum had stared in horror as his mother said he would have to use his aunt’s landline.
That was what his life had come down to. His mother made him swear not to use Georgie’s phone or anything but calling her. It was a courtesy that Georgie was allowing him to call long-distance, and he was not to take advantage of that. He knew what his mom really meant: He couldn’t contact his friends and be tempted into causing more trouble. But really, what trouble could ever be found in such a small, quiet town?
The footbridge stretched over a pond green with algae. Large clumps of wildflowers grew around the edges, and something fluttered in the tall grass. He stood at the edge and watched the water rippled with something beneath its surface. Wood creaked beneath his foot when he stepped onto the bridge. Some planks had even rotted away. Calum wondered if the shortcut was his cousin’s way of killing him before he could settle in where he didn’t belong.
Willow Lane was aptly named, he saw as soon as he reached the corner. Two large willows loomed on either side of the street, their branches weeping toward the ground. His lips twitched when he noticed a face between the curtain of leaves. The child squeaked before letting the branches clatter together again. Calum schooled his face into his customary scowl and continued on.
Barely larger than the corner store, the house sat in the middle of the block—or as close to a ‘block’ as the town had. Calum stared at it, at the peeling yellow paint and the shutters hanging off their hinges over the front window. Wilted grass filled the space between street and home, and weeds poked up through the gaps of the walkway.
Abruptly, Calum realized Georgie never gave him a key. Did she expect him to break in through a window? It wouldn’t be hard. He’d done it dozens of times before. But no, the front door squealed open, screeching before slamming back into its frame. A man stepped out onto the porch, and Calum swallowed harshly. The man was taller than even Calum was, and the thick muscles in Charles Stone’s arms could squash Calum’s head without the man breaking a sweat. His shirt stretched tight around a barrel chest, and his dark eyes narrowed in the August sunlight. He tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans. Charles cleared his throat.
“Was just on my way to pick you up.”
“Didn’t need it.”
“I see that. Well, c’mon in, boy. Your aunt’ll have my ass if I made you stand outside.”
Calum followed his uncle into the house and stifled a grimace.. The door opened straight into the living room. At the back was a small hallway leading to the left. The kitchen was attached to the main room, and even from where he stood, he could tell the room could hold no more than two people at a time. Faded wallpaper covered the walls. The wooden floor showed its age, scratched and warped as it was. He stared at the photos hanging lopsided around the living room, pictures of the Stones through the years. His cousin smiled back at him from every photograph.
A sharp contrast to the dirty look she’d given him in Georgie’s.
Charles beckoned for Calum to follow him to the hallway. To the right was a bathroom. Calum knew he would hate having to share such a tiny space. The room was barely large enough for the toilet, shower, and sink. Makeup and hair products cluttered up the shelf on the wall. Another door stood in front of Calum. His fingers tightened around the strap of his bag as Charles warned Calum against entering.
“Tiffany values her privacy.” Pushing open the door on the left, Charles stepped back. “This is where you’ll be staying.”
Calum bit back a sarcastic ‘thanks’ when he got his first sight of the bedroom. Yellowed walls, thin gray carpet. Half the room was taken up by shelving full of his aunt and uncle’s belongings—he didn’t care to know what any of it was. A bed nearly filled the other half despite it being smaller than the one he had at home. The entire place was too different from home.
“Georgie and I been meanin’ to clean it out so you got space,” said Charles in lieu of an apology. “If you can deal with it ’til this weekend, we’ll finish haulin’ things to the attic.”
“It’s fine,” Calum muttered as he weaved his way around the massive amount of stuff to the bed. He dropped his bag on the mattress and glanced at his uncle. “Thanks.”
“Well, I better get back to work. Georgie and Tiff will be home ’round six.”
Calum nodded and listened to the boots stomping across the floor. The screen door screamed as it inched its way closed, then the house fell silent. Dropping to sit on the bed, he stared at his feet. He wasn’t used to the eerie quiet. In Las Vegas, there was always some sort of sound. It was dead in Oak Creek. No cars passing on the street, no emergency vehicles or loud music from the neighbors. Not even children playing outside. Only birds in the trees.
I want to go home. He finally took in the room he would be living in for the next year. It wasn’t much, but he supposed it would have to do until he could make his escape. It certainly could have been worse.
He missed his friends, his mother. He missed his siblings, even though he was the eldest child. It wasn’t his choice to have children, yet he had to share the responsibility of caring for his three sisters and one brother while their mother worked herself to the bone. He often felt he was their father as much as he was their brother, all because their dad walked on them when Michael was just a baby.
Now Calum was stuck in Oak Creek, and he wished he could be home with his family. He would have gladly done everything his mom asked of him if it meant being there.
The bed creaked when he laid down, and the pebbled ceiling offered nothing as he stared at it. He let his mind wander back to when his mother had left him in the airport. He should have left as soon as she was out of sight. He should have never gotten onto the plane. He should have run to Kyle’s house and hidden away.
The worst part was he couldn’t even blame his friends for what he did. They’d gone along with it, sure, hadn’t told him it was a stupid idea. But it was his fault for nearly burning down the school. It was the last in a long line of stunts causing damage around the city, and his mother finally reached her wit’s end. Calum didn’t even know why he’d done it or anything else he did.
All he knew was he’d been a horrible son, and his family deserved better.
True to Charles’s word, he and Georgie spent Saturday carrying boxes to the attic through the pull-down door in the living room ceiling. Calum watched them for a few minutes then muttered that he was going to explore the town. His aunt told him to be home by sundown, but that was it. No warnings to behave, no specific time to be back in the house, no threats to check in on him. His mother would have vowed to call him every hour if her workload allowed it.
There was nothing to see in the town. Calum ambled through the streets, inspecting everything while pretending he wasn’t, but none of it truly captured his attention. Dead grass, flowers blooming in front of rundown houses, and roads that had seen better days. There weren’t even any sidewalks, for God’s sake. Then again, he hadn’t seen a car coming or going since he arrived four days ago. What was the point when what you needed was within walking distance?
Kids were out today, running through streets and gardens, squealing as they sprayed each other with water. They all came to a stop as he passed, watching him closely with wide eyes. Calum ignored them. He didn’t need to hear what they might have learned to parrot from their parents. He could only focus on planning a way out of Oak Creek and back to Nevada where his real life awaited.
He was back at the house before sundown even began. There was nothing to see and no one to care about.
Tuesday arrived too early. Georgie woke him promptly at seven, but Tiffany was already in the bathroom getting ready for school. So Calum changed in the bedroom—not his, never his—and struggled to make his hair lie flat before giving up after ten minutes. His aunt had made breakfast. She didn’t know he never ate breakfast. All he needed was a cup of coffee, and he was ready to go.
Tiffany agreed, with no small reluctance, to walk with him to the bus stop. She didn’t talk to him on the trek, and he didn’t care. His heart raced under his ribs the closer they got to station, a painful tattoo that reminded him he didn’t belong. He hated the bile creeping up his throat. The acid burned its path, and he wished he could get rid of it. Oak Creek High wasn’t the first new school he ever attended, but he was sure it would be the last.
He would graduate and go back home.
He had to.
Tiffany spoke long enough to tell him the ride would be almost forty minutes. Then she fell silent as a group of teens approached.
The bus was empty by the time Calum stepped inside. The driver grunted in greeting, and Tiffany shoved at his back, hissing for him to get a move on. Calum swallowed and sat in the seat behind the driver. His cousin flounced toward the back and dropped into a seat while the other kids piled on. They were still finding their seats when the doors shut with a grinding sound, and the bus pulled away from the stop. No one gave him a second look as more and more students filled the empty spaces. He listened with half an ear to the conversations going on around him—tales of summer events and parties, lamenting being back in school, even sexual escapades. These kids aren’t prudes, he thought, as one girl recounted what she’d done in bed. Calum promptly stopped eavesdropping.
He’d just retrieved his schedule from the front office when a girl popped up beside him. She grinned and shoved her round wire-rimmed glasses more securely onto her face. Her hair fell around her thin face, a curtain of nut-brown that gleamed in the harsh lighting, but her smile took him aback. A small gap resided between her two front teeth. Freckles dotted her cheeks under stormy gray eyes.
“Hi, you’re Calum, right?”
He could only nod. She had to have known already what his name was. He saw her at the bus stop, he’d seen her hesitate beside his seat on the bus before moving on. She lived in Oak Creek, so she couldn’t pretend she didn’t know all about Georgie and Charles Stone’s nephew. He was probably the first unfamiliar face she had ever seen in her life. She cocked her head before shoving a hand out toward him, seemingly unaffected when he didn’t shake her hand.
“I’m Rett. Well, technically, it’s Loretta, but it’s such an old-fashioned name. What’s your first class?”
“Animal Science,” he mumbled after a quick glance at the paper in his hand.
“Johnson?” He nodded again, and she gestured for him to follow her into the crowd of students. “C’mon, I’ll take ya.”
He trailed after her without thinking. A large part of him already disliked the girl. She was bubbly and kind, the kind of good girl to take home to Mother. The opposite of his friends. The voice in his head screamed for him to ignore her. Rett was the type of person his mom wanted him to be. His mother wanted him to change who he was and make friends who wouldn’t enable his reckless, dangerous behavior.
All he wanted, however, was to do his time here, pretend he’d changed, and go home.
But as he followed Rett to a building behind the school, he wondered if she could help him pretend. He could emulate her personality long enough for people to think he’s a good guy. Maybe if he did, Natalie would let him come home before the year was up.
He watched Rett’s hair sway with each step, her loose-fitting top fluttering in the breeze. She glanced back at him every so often and beamed when she saw him still following. Calum hoped she couldn’t see the nervousness consuming him. He waited until her back was turned to wipe sweat from his brow. To steady his hands and his breathing.
There was no point in allowing anyone to see him as anything less than collected. It was a weakness that would only invite questions he couldn’t care less about answering, inspection from people he’d rather never have met.