Home > One Small Thing(8)

One Small Thing(8)
Author: Erin Watt

I stop at the stairs. “It’s nothing. Forget it.”

“It’s not nothing. Oh, Lizzie, I’m sorry. I’m sick with worry all the time. Every minute that you’re gone from the house, I keep thinking what if. What if you’re hurt, too? I can’t have that happen.”

I run up the stairs. I need to get to my room and away from my mom. I reach my bedroom and stare in surprise. I’d forgotten they’d removed the door. I spin around to see Mom right behind me. She flushes with guilt, not even able to look me in the eye.

I fist my hands at my sides, digging the nails in deep so that my self-inflicted pain keeps me from going off, saying things that will end up in an ugly shouting match.

Instead, I trot downstairs and aim for the back door.

“Where are you going?” Mom screeches in alarm.

I lean my head against the wood door frame. There are black marks on it around the handle. Likely from my dad. His fingers are always smudged with oil or grease or dirt. I rub my finger against one mark. It doesn’t budge. “Outside,” I mutter. “To the swing.”

Not waiting for her to respond, I jerk the door open and dart outside. The autumn weather is crisp and fresh. Dried leaves that have just started to fall crunch under my feet as I walk and then begin to run toward the rope swing hanging in the corner of our lot.

Dad hung this swing when Rachel was eight. She climbed on it and broke her wrist a week later. Mom cried and begged Dad to take it down, but, strangely enough, he didn’t. Instead, I wasn’t allowed to swing on it by myself for an entire year after that. Mom didn’t think it was safe.

Despite her fears, I never injured myself on it, and now, years later, it’s still strong as ever. I sit down. The afternoon sun gives my face a kiss. I take a deep breath and push off with my toe. I want to get over Rachel’s death, but here, in this house, in this town, it’s impossible.

Rachel is everywhere. Her room is in the same exact condition it was the night she died, except Mom has made the bed. Rachel never made her bed. She’d wake up late, throw the covers on the floor and rush to the bathroom we shared. Downstairs in the mudroom, Mom still has her name in white chalk over her section of the storage bench. The piano that only Rachel ever played still sits in our living room, meticulously dusted each and every day by my mother. The wood-and-rope swing Dad constructed for Rachel is still hanging in this yard, even though no one has used it since she died. If I go into Rachel’s room, I’ll see her volleyball uniform hanging on the back of her door. Even her toothbrush is still in her side of the Jack-and-Jill bath.

I once asked Mom why. She broke down and shut herself in her bedroom for an hour. Dad glared at me the whole time. I never asked again, but Mom told me later that it was so we would never forget.

Forget Rachel? How could you? Even if you razed this house and all its possessions to the ground, you wouldn’t forget her. I don’t say any of this to Mom, though. The grief counselor they sent me to after Rachel’s death says everyone grieves in their own way and that no way is wrong. But I can’t help but measure my sadness, or lack thereof, against my mom’s or dad’s or, hell, even the kids at school.

All of them expect me to react a certain way, but I just want to be me. If I knew who me was. I’m trying to figure that out. It’s why I keep trying different things. I don’t fit in here. None of the Darling crowds feel right to me. That’s why I went with Ashleigh the other night. It’s one of the reasons that I slept with Chase—no, sorry, Charlie. I thought, wrongly, that I’d find out something about myself.

I guess I did. I found out I make shit choices when it comes to guys.

Shame tickles my throat. I gulp it down, because really, I have to cut myself some slack about this. Having sex isn’t a crime. I’m seventeen—most of my friends, Scarlett included, have already lost their virginity. Macy had sex for the first time in freshman year, Yvonne when she was a soph. Technically, I waited way longer than most of my peers.

But if I had to do it over again, I’d turn around and walk away.

Wouldn’t I?

I scrub my hands over my face, but a soft whining noise has me lifting my head. For the first time in what feels like years, a genuine smile tugs on my mouth.

I hop off the swing and wander over to the wooden fence that separates our yard from the Rennicks’. The sweetest sight greets me—big brown eyes and a wet black nose and the sloppy, drooly tongue of the big black mutt whose head is popping out from between two slats. The gaps in the fence are just big enough for Morgan to stick his head through, but not enough that he can wiggle his whole body free.

I wish he could, though. I’d love nothing more than to run around in the yard with him and be the receiver of his doggy kisses. Actually, I want all the neighborhood dogs to join us—Morgan, Mr. Edwards’s yappy terrier and the Palmers’ labradoodle. That would be a thousand times better than sitting here thinking about what a failure I am.

“Hey, buddy,” I greet the dog, kneeling down to pet his face.

His tongue instantly comes out to lick my hand. He looks so happy to see me that I want to cry. Animals break my heart sometimes. They love you so unconditionally, so deeply. Even when you’ve mistreated them—and I’ve come across many abused animals at the shelter—they still want nothing more than to please. Fucking heartbreaking.

“How was your day, cutie?” I ask him. “Did you chase any squirrels? Find any sticks? Tell me everything.”

A male chuckle sounds from behind me, and I shoot to my feet in surprise. When I turn around, I’m expecting to see him.

Only it’s not him.

It’s Jeff.

7

“Hey there, Lizzie.” Jeff smiles at me, then at the furry head sticking out of the fence. “Cute pup.”

“He is. And it’s Beth,” I correct by rote.

A crooked smile appears. “Right. Beth. I forgot. You’re all grown-up now.” He reaches out and pulls on a lock of my hair, something he did back when I was fourteen and had a giant crush on my sister’s boyfriend.

I try not to blush and fail. “You’ve been gone awhile,” I say to cover my embarrassment. I head back to the rope swing and plop down on the wooden seat.

His crooked smile grows into a full-blown grin. He doesn’t look any different than when he left Darling two years ago. He still has that solid square jaw and dark eyes that crinkle at the sides when he smiles. My sister thought he was the most beautiful boy in the world. I didn’t disagree.

“Two years,” he confirms. “But Darling hasn’t changed at all, has it? The same stores, streets, people.”

“Yup.”

“I like it.” He brushes some nonexistent dust off his jeans. “Everything overseas was foreign and different, but Darling is the same. That’s why we always want to come home, yeah.”

“Yeah? You picked up an accent,” I tease.

He grabs the rope and gently pulls me forward. “Hard not to after two years there, but I’ll lose it in time.”

“Do you miss England? I’d like to go sometime.”

“Would you?” He chuckles. “I don’t think you’d like it. You’re made for small-town America, Lizzie. It fits you. There’s no point in going away from here. It’s got everything you need. People you love and who love you back. Out there, no one really knows or gets you.”

“Dinner!” Mom calls from the back door.

“Great. I’m starved.” Jeff waves a hand toward my mom to let her know we’ve heard her. “Come on.”

“Are you staying?” I drag my toes into the ground to bring the swing to a stop.

“Yeah. I miss your mom’s roast beef. Can’t get that over there in the UK. The meat’s not the same, you know?”

“Aren’t they famous for their cows? I read that on the internet somewhere.”

He throws an arm around my shoulders. “Didn’t they teach you in fifth grade that seventy-five percent of what’s on the internet is trash? You going to trust me, your old friend Jeffrey, or some online rag?”

“You.”

“That’s right.” He squeezes me.

His arm feels strange around my shoulders. It doesn’t belong there. This is Rachel’s boyfriend. It’s her shoulders his arm should be around.

Dinner is less of a mess than I’d imagined it would be. My parents love Jeff and are thrilled he’s back at the table.

“It’s like old times.” Mom sighs.

“Only better because we’re older and Lizzie is prettier and I’ve been lifting.” He flexes and Mom laughs at his playful antics.

Dad grunts some form of approval.

“How are sales at the store?” Jeff asks my dad. “I heard they might be opening up a Home Depot in Lincoln, so some competition might be cropping up, huh?” Lincoln is a town twenty minutes east of us.

“They’ve been saying that for years and it still hasn’t happened. And even if does, I’m not worried. Those big-box people don’t know the difference between an Allen wrench and a Phillips screwdriver, son. As long as they keep employing ignorant boys, the folks here will always come back to me.”

Jeff and my dad talk about the store some more, and then Jeff tells us about his grandparents’ apartment in England, except he calls it a flat and his accent bothers me a little but I can’t explain why. Of course you’re going to pick up certain phrases and mannerisms when you live somewhere else for two years.

It’s not Jeff, I guess. I’m just on edge from everything that happened today. Seeing Chase at school. Finding out that Chase isn’t Chase. He’s Charles. Charlie. The boy who, in my house, is looked upon as a villain. A murderer.

I’m Charles Donnelly. And I’m sorry.

As I pick at my dinner, moving my mashed potatoes around on my plate, my mind drifts. I try to recall what I know about Charlie. He was a summer kid, as far as I remember. His parents were divorced, and he visited his mom in Darling during the summer and lived with his dad the rest of the year. His dad lives in Springfield or Bloomington or something. Definitely a city, but I can’t remember which one. And I only know this because my parents told me. I’d never met Charlie before Saturday night.

   
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