The familiarity of his arms was like a drug. No matter what I was feeling – happy, sad, panicked, flustered, agitated, angry – when his arms wrapped around me, so did peace. I moved my chin up to look at his face. Dark, thick, painfully long lashes dusted across his cheekbones as he slept. Lashes that many women would kill for. And although the lashes were feminine to an extent, when his eyes were open there was no mistaking his masculinity. Eyes the color of slate gray hid behind those lashes, and when he used them to look me over, when he perused my body with them, I could feel the smoothness of the granite they resembled silking over my skin.
His face was beautiful. His strong square jaw left room for one dimple that sat on this left cheek. His unmarred skin was smooth and creamy besides just the few dark freckles that gave him a distinct look. We were both still young, just eighteen, but he was already so manly I shivered to think what he would look like in five or ten years.
I leaned up to press a gentle kiss just at the bottom of his chin and as he roused I pretended to look apologetic, but really I wanted him awake. I wanted him, period.
“Awake already?” His voice rasped, still groggy from sleep. “What time is it?”
“I don't know,” I replied honestly as I trailed kisses along his jaw, following the line of his jaw down the slope of his neck. He pulled away to look at me.
“Charlie,” he said softly to me. “Are you sure? I don't want to hurt you,” he said all too sweetly as he placed his hand on the side of my face.
“I feel fine,” I whispered, trying to convince him I was indeed ok.
“Aren't you, uh, sore?” He asked sheepishly. I grinned at him and shrugged my shoulders.
“Asher, I know I lost my virginity a few hours ago, but I was far from chaste before that. I'm not sore at all.” He gave me a concerned look.
“You'd tell me if you were hurt, right?” I nodded at him. “You'll tell me to stop if it gets to be too much?” I nodded again and then leaned up to press my mouth to his.
“You're already too much,” I said against his lips. “But I get what you mean.” And with that he took me under him and made love to me for the second time in our lives. Loving him was easy and beautiful, and I wish I taken more time to cement the memories in my mind. There was no way to know that in such a short time everything would be taken from me. Everything.
I heard the thunk-thunk of something hitting the ground next to me, but I didn’t look up. I just continued to draw in my notebook. It wasn't my choice to move to a new town and not having anyone to spend recess with isn't making my first day at a new school any easier. The pencil in my hand trailed lead across the paper and I know eventually it will look like something, but right now it's just lines and scribbles. All my drawings start out that way. My hand just kind of goes where the pencil takes it, but it always turns into something.
More thunks. More rocks and pine cones landed near me and I finally turned my head to see where they are coming from.
“Hey. New girl.” A boy with red hair and freckles covering his face stood at the bottom of the hill I am sitting on. His hand went up over his eyes trying to keep the sun out. “New girl,” he said again.
“Yeah?” I answered.
“What grade are you in?” He shouted at me.
“Fifth,” I yelled back.
“What's your name?”
I paused and tried not to roll my eyes. I had to deal with this my whole life.
“Yes. My name is Charlie and I'm a girl.”
“That's a pretty stupid name,” he said through laughter. I turned back to my drawing, not willing to debate with him about it. I've been dealing with it since I started school. I never knew why my parents chose a boy's name, but it didn't matter. I was stuck with it. More gray lines appeared, circling around each other, some darker than others. Then something bounced painfully off of the back of my head. My hand reached up to the injury and my head snapped back to look behind me again. Another rock headed straight for me but I ducked to the side to avoid it.
“Hey!” I yelled at the red-headed boy who is now taking aim at me again. “That hurt!”
The boy dropped his arm a little, still grasping the rock in his fist.
“You've got a boy's name. Can't you take a little pain like a boy?”
Suddenly another boy came up behind the redhead and shoved him to the ground.
“What's your problem, Ryan?” The boy towered over him, fists clenched at his sides. “You can't go throwing rocks at girls, Dude. You're messed up.” Ryan brushed his hands on his jeans, trying to free the dirt and pebbles that are stuck to his palms from landing on the ground.
“I didn't even throw them that hard and they were small.”
“Doesn't matter. It's wrong.” The dark haired boy looked over at me, and then back to Ryan. “I think you should apologize,” he said.
“Give it up, Asher. You're just sticking up for her because she's got a weird name just like you.” Ryan stood up, spared one look back at me saying nothing, but then turned away and walked towards the school building. I still rubbed the small knot that was forming on the back of my head.
“Are you ok?” Asher asked, walking up the hill towards me.
“Um, yeah, I think so,” I said, still trying to rub the pain away.
“Is it your first day?”
“Yeah, I just moved here.”
“Do you want me to take you to the nurse?”
“No, I'll be ok, but thanks.” I gave him a small smile and turned back to put my notebook into my backpack.
“So, you've got a weird name too?” He asked.
“It's not really a weird name. It's just not supposed to be a girl's name.”
“What is it? Bob? Max?”
I laughed. “My name is Charlie.” He tilted his head to the side, seeming to contemplate what I'd told him.
“That's not a weird name. There's another girl who goes here whose name is Casey. That's a boy's name I guess. It's could be worse; you could be Frank or something.”
I laughed again. “Asher isn't a weird name, either. I like it.”
“Thanks,” he said as he came up right next to me. “So, why'd you move to Willow Falls?”
I shrugged my shoulders, trying not to let on that I didn't really want to talk about it. “I just go where my dad tells me to.”
“Oh. Are you sure you don't need to go see the nurse? I don't mind showing you.”
“No, I'm good,” I said with a small smile.
“Well, I guess I'll see you around.” He gave a small wave and walked back down the small hill. I continued to put my things away and the longer I thought about Ryan and the rocks he threw at me, the more I thought about why I was here in the first place.
Thinking about my mom and how she died was never fun, but it was something I found myself doing often and usually a times when it was inconvenient - like now. The tear that fell down my cheek wasn't because Ryan had thrown rocks at me, but because my mom died. My dad didn't know what else to do, so he moved me away from my friends I'd had all my life to be closer to my grandparents. That was the reason for the tears, not Ryan. But I couldn't let anyone see. I'd never live it down if I was caught crying on the first day at a new school.
No one would know that every time I wiped away a tear it was because I pictured my mom laying in a hospital bed, tubes and wires coming seemingly from every available inch of skin, eyes closed, chest moving only slightly with each shallow breath. It was not because some idiot didn't like my name. My shoulders slumped, my backpack came to rest at my side, and I looked up to the sky trying to calm down enough to go back to class. Deep breaths - one after another.
I managed to get my emotions under control and headed back to my classroom. The rest of the day dragged on, time slowed down by the loneliness of not being around anyone I know. A girl sat in the desk next to me and I caught her looking in my direction more than once since lunch. My eyes drifted over to her and again, she looked at me. I pushed my brown, stick-straight hair over my shoulder, turned my head towards her and gave a faint smile. She smiled back and just that one moment made the day not totally suck.
I gave my attention back to the teacher at the front of the room but a few minutes later I felt something poking my elbow. I looked over and the blonde girl next to me handed me a note. Taking it from her, I hid it under my desk to unfold it.
Hi! My name is Reeve. Did you just move here? What's your name?
I looked over at her as she stared straight ahead at the teacher, convincingly looking like she was interested in the geography of Africa at the moment. I took a pen out of my bag and replied to the note and then, when the teacher turned his back to the class for a moment, tossed it onto her desk.
My name is Charlie. I did just move here. First day.
I watched her read it and then she scribbled under my writing and handed it back to me.
How do you like it so far?
I read her question and shrugged my shoulders. Then I wondered how I was supposed to write that in the note.
It's ok, I guess.
When she read my response, she looked over at me and smiled. She folded the note up and put it in her backpack. She didn't pay much attention to me for the rest of the day.
When school was over, I walked out of the building and headed towards the field that sat on the side of the building.
“Charlie!” I heard my name and turned around to see Reeve running towards me. “Hey! Where are you going?” She came to a stop in front of me, her backpack swinging from side to side behind her with every step.
“Walking home.” Home was such a weird word to use. I wasn't walking home. Home was hours from here, back at my old house. I was really walking to the house we'd just moved into, but it didn’t feel like my home.
“Cool. I walk home too, but I live that way,” she said as she gestured in the opposite direction. “There's this place, The Range, it's just a few blocks over. Sometimes after school I go there to hang out. It's kind of like a coffee shop, but cooler. You can just be there and hang out with friends. They have some video games and comfy couches to read on. Anyway, maybe sometime you would want to go with me? It's better than just going home and doing nothing,” she said with a smile. Before I could think about it I was smiling back at her.
“Ok, I'll have to ask my dad first, but I think it will be ok.”
“Great!” Just as Reeve's smile grew wider, my eyes landed on the boy from earlier, Asher, walking past us. He saw me too and kind of nodded his head, giving me a very small smile. I smiled back at him weakly, embarrassed, remembering how we'd met and what he'd done for me. “Did Asher Carmichael just smile at you?” Reeve looked at his back as he walked away, but then looked back to me confused.
“Uh, I guess.”
“Oh my gosh, he's so cute. How do you know him?” My mouth opened to answer, but I looked back at him, no words coming out yet. Cute? I hadn't noticed. A few of my friends from home had crushes on boys, but I never understood it. He wasn't ugly, but I wouldn't call him cute. Puppies were cute.
“I just met him at recess.” I looked down at my hands that had started fiddling with the hem of my shirt. “He told another boy to leave me alone.”
“He stuck up for you? Oh, em, gee. He's so cute. Who was bothering you?” Her words came out at a million miles per hour, and as she spoke she used her fingers to twirl her hair around and around. Eventually the hair got tangled and she had to yank her finger free, but then she'd just start all over.
“His name was Ryan. He had red hair.”
“Ew. Ryan Miller? He's a jerk. Don't worry. If Asher told him to leave you alone, he will. Why was he bothering you?”
“He was making fun of my name,” I said as I shrugged my shoulders. I didn't tell her about him throwing rocks at me, that was a little too humiliating.
“What's wrong with your name?” She asked, truly confused.
“It's a boy's name.”
“Oh, well that's a dumb reason to make fun of someone. You don't even pick your own name. So he's really making fun of your parents. What a jerk.”
It was hard to tell for sure when she was done talking. I waited a second or two before I spoke.
“It's ok. I'm used to it. Anyway, I'll ask my dad about The Range. Maybe I'll see you tomorrow?”
“Definitely. I sit right next to you, so it would be hard not to see me.” She smiled, then blinked, staring at me.
“Ok, well, I'll see you tomorrow, then.”
“Ok, bye!” Reeve turned around and bounced towards the other side of the school. I watched her for a few seconds still a little dizzy from her rapid talking. I finally turned and continued towards the break in the fence that went around the school that would let me out onto the street of my new house.
The field was probably meant to be used for sports like soccer or football, but here were no goals or bleachers on the sidelines, just grass. There was a trail that went around the field. The trail was made of bark dust and looked like it might be used for running. There was only one cut-through in the fence along this side of the property. The fence backed up against a row of houses, some of which you could see into the backyards. Most of them had big bushes that made it hard to see anything besides the roofs. The cut-through was lined by trees and covered in gravel. It was only about fifty feet long, but it felt like an tunnel. Once you were inside it, you couldn’t see out of it, except for the two entrances. Treetops canopied the walkway and tall shrubs on either side boxed you in.
Once you came out the other side, you were just plopped right into a neighborhood. You could either go left or right. My new house, if I remembered, was on the left. I took the turn and noticed that Asher was walking ahead of me, about a half block up the street. I watched him as he came to a stop in front of my house, looking up at the blue two-story house my dad had bought without even seeing it. My grandparents lived in Willow Brook, so they had been able to check it out for him, but still, it was a little crazy. Asher only stood there for a few seconds and then continued down the street, turning right at the end of the block continuing on the sidewalk. Maybe he had known the family who lived in the house before us and missed whoever had been there. That made me think about my friends back home, and I wondered if they were missing me. Maybe Dad would let me use his cell phone to call Lucy after dinner.
The house was empty when I opened the door - empty of everything. Hardly anything was unpacked so there were no pictures hanging on the wall, no dishes in the cupboards, but even more disturbing to me was how empty the house was of any feeling. I was so used to my old house; it held all my memories. So many memories. I remembered baking cookies with my mom, rolling out sugar cookie dough on the island that sat in the middle of the kitchen. I remembered her flattening the dough with the rolling pin, blowing her brown hair out of her face, smiling at me, pretending not to see me sneaking pieces of dough into my mouth. This new kitchen meant nothing to me, held no memories. I'll never hear my mother's laugh in this kitchen or play monopoly with Lucy.
I turned from the empty room and went up the stairs to my bedroom which, thankfully, was at least partly put together. My dad had been sure to get to my room first. I collapsed on my bed and must have fallen asleep because the next thing I heard was the doorbell ringing. At least, I assumed it was the doorbell. My old house's doorbell rang once, a single chime. This doorbell went on forever and sounded like a grandfather clock. It rang the entire time I walked to the front door. I was so irritated by the obnoxious bells that I swung the door open with more force than necessary. I was surprised to see Asher standing on the other side.
“Oh, hi,” I said, caught off guard by the sight of him on the porch.
“Hi. My mom made these and asked me to bring them over. She wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood.”
I looked down at the plate he handed me and tried really hard not to let it show on my faced how upsetting it was to get a plate of homemade cookies from his mother. I took them and thanked him, manners always won out.
“Did you know the family that lived here before me?” I asked him, trying to get my mind off the fact that he had a mother who made cookies and how unfair it suddenly seemed.
“Yeah, my best friend Trace lived here. His Dad's job transferred him all the way to Minnesota so they moved. My mom said that maybe someday I could go and visit him over summer vacation.”
“That sucks that he moved, but it's cool that your mom would let you go see him,” I offered.
“Yeah,” he said but then paused. “Is your head ok? You know, from earlier?” My hand automatically moved to rub the small bump that had formed where the rock hit me.
“Yeah, it's no big deal. Thanks again for stopping him.”
“I saw you made friends with Reeve.” I shrugged.
“She seems nice. She talks a lot.” He laughed at my comment.
“That she does. But you get use to her, I guess.” He rocked back and forth on his heels a few times and I stood there, not really sure what else there was to say. “Well, I walk to school every morning so if you want, you can walk with me.”
“Ok, maybe I'll see you in the morning.”
“Ok, see ya later.” He turned and walked down the porch and I closed the door.
The next morning I waited in the front family room, peeking out of the window, until I saw Asher pass my house. As he walked by, I saw him look over towards my door. I could tell he was contemplating waiting for me or just continuing on his way. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw him continue walking. After the way he saved me yesterday, the cookies, and the way he seemed to be too nice, I just couldn't bring myself to walk to school with him. I didn't want him feeling like he was obligated to be nice to me. I didn't want anyone feeling like they were obligated to me in any way. At that moment, I mostly just wanted to blend into the background and forget everything that had happened to me.
I kept my head down at school, sat with my drawing pad during lunch and recess, trying to let my pencil occupy my thoughts instead of the fact that even though I was lonely, I didn't want to befriend anyone. I walked across the field on my way home when Reeve came running up behind me.
“Charlie!” I turned to see her and she had a big smile on her face. “Hey, do you want to go to The Range with me today?”
“Uh,” I hesitated. “I didn't get a chance to ask my dad yesterday. He's expecting me home.” I said as I gestured towards the alley.
“Ok, well, let's walk to your house and ask your dad then.” She started walking with a determined gait. We walked to my house together and there was not even one moment for me to get a word in. She talked the entire time, filling me in on all the kids in our class, what had happened on the latest episode of the television show she was watching, and how she had gotten a great deal on a new pair of jeans at a trendy store in the next town over. Her rate of speech was baffling and also comforting because I didn't have to say anything.
We went into my house and I called my dad, who agreed I could go with Reeve as long as I was home for dinner. He sounded excited and relieved that I had made a friend, and he probably would have let me leave the country with her if he thought it would have made me happy. I put my book bag on the counter and we left, walking back the way we had came. Halfway across the field Reeve caught me off guard by asking me a question.
“So, what does your dad do?” The silence that came when she paused for my answer was strange. I appreciated her incessant talking.
“He works in construction.”
“Like, building houses and stuff?”
“Yeah, mostly. Offices. Anything really.”
“That's cool. What does your mom do?”
And there it was. The moment I dreaded with every person I encountered - having to talk about my mom.
“Nothing. She died.” Reeve stopped walking and her mouth gaped open. I couldn't look her in the eye, so I stared at the ground, hoping she'd recover quickly and continue talking about unimportant, distracting things like she had the entire way up until now.
“She died?” I nodded my head, not saying a word. “How?”
“I can't imagine not having a mom,” Reeve said quietly as she started walking slowly.
The Range was actually a pretty cool place; there was nothing like it back home that I had ever seen. It was part coffee shop and cafe, part arcade, part pseudo-library where the no talking rules were lifted. There were board games, video games, books, a few computers to use the internet, couches, bean bag chairs, there was even a hammock in the corner of the reading area. There were mostly younger kids there, sixteen and under, it looked like. Obviously, once kids got their driver's license they found cooler places to hang out.
Reeve led me to where the counter was and we both ordered a soda. Reeve then headed towards a table where a few girls sat. I hesitated, nervous about sitting with a bunch of girls I didn't know. I missed Lucy immediately. Reeve sat down and motioned to the chair next to her. I sat down and tried to smile without looking like I was in pain.
“Guys, this is Charlie. She just moved here,” Reeve said excitedly. I gave a small wave to match my small smile.
“Hey, Charlie. Where'd you move from?” A blonde girl across the table asked.
“A town about five hours from here. Bridgeport.”
“Never heard of it. I'm Celia, by the way,” the blonde girl responded.
“It's a small town,” I said quietly. The girls continued to talk amongst themselves, and every once in a while Reeve would try to involve me in the conversation. I appreciated her attempt at making me feel comfortable, but I was still the new kid and it had always been hard for me to open up to new people. Especially now. The more I talked with these girls, the more they would want to know about me, and the more I would have to tell them. No thanks. I'd rather keep it all inside if I could.
“How long have you been growing your hair out?” Celia asked at one point. I absentmindedly reached for my hair which, if left down, hung well past my hips. It was thick, long, brown, and very straight.
“Besides small trims, I've never cut it. My mom would never let me.” I felt my own heart speed up at the mention of my mom, hoping the girls wouldn't ask me anything else that would make me talk about her any more. Reeve caught my eye and must have noticed my unease.
“Isn't it pretty? Rachel, weren't you going to ask your mom if you could dye yours blonde? Summer's coming and blonde would be a really good color on you. Is anyone doing anything fun for summer vacation?” And just like that, with words spilling out of her mouth, words meant to save me a little bit of discomfort, I thought maybe I had made a true friend. All the girls took turns talking about their plans for summer and I, for the first time in weeks, had a genuine smile on my face.
After we were there for a little over an hour I noticed a few boys walk in, Asher being one of them. Reeve immediately looked over to the group of four boys and turned to whisper to the girls at the table.
“Asher saved Charlie from Ryan yesterday at recess. He was bullying her and Asher made him stop.”
“Shut. Up.” Celia looked at me with interest. I shrugged.
“He didn't save me. It wasn't that big of a deal.”
“She keeps saying that,” Reeve said with a confused look on her face. “Charlie, if Asher made Ryan leave you alone, it's a big deal. He's so cute.”
I laughed - a true laugh.
“And you keep saying that. What does that mean anyway? How is he cute?” I looked over at him and he looked like any other boy.
“I don't know. It's his eyes I think. And those cute dark freckles he has. Who has freckles like that? No one.”
I took a closer look at him. Ok, Reeve was right about the freckles. They were unique anyway. Not the usual light brown color of freckles, but a dark brown. And they looked bigger than normal freckles, too. Instead of a lot of small ones, he had fewer larger ones. It was distinctive.
“Reeve, you're boy crazy,” Celia said. Reeve just smiled. Asher walked past us and nodded at the girls at the table. Then his eyes turned to me.
“Hey Asher,” I responded, desperately wanting him to walk away.
“I didn't see you on the way to school today. Should I wait for you tomorrow?”
“Yes!” Reeve practically shouted. Asher looked at her briefly, then back to me.
“Should I wait?” My earlier appreciation for Reeve having saved me from talking about my mom quickly dissolved and was replaced with irritation for putting me in this, almost worse, situation. How could I say no now?
“Uh, yeah, sorry about this morning. I was running late.” He smiled widely, a dimple appearing on his left cheek.
“No problem. I'll see you in the morning.” He walked back to where his friends waited.
“He wants to walk to school with you?” Reeve asked, eyes almost bugging out of her head.
“I'm sure his mom is making him; she made him bring over cookies yesterday afternoon.”
“Oh my gosh. He's so cute,” Reeve repeated. Luckily the conversation moved on to something else.
The next morning, like I knew he would, Asher waited for me at the bottom of my driveway.
“Hey Charlie,” he said with a smile as I approached.
“Hey,” I said, looking at the ground for a moment to gain some courage. “Listen, you don't have to walk to school with me. I know your mom is probably making you walk with me. It's fine.” I paused, waiting for him to respond. The seconds it took for him to speak were very heavy and filled with my rapid heartbeat.
“My mom isn't making me walk to school with you, Charlie. Can't I just want to walk to school with you?”
“Hey,” he said as he crouched down to get me to look at him. “What does this mean?” He shrugged his shoulders at me in an exaggerated way. I exhaled loudly and turned to start walking towards the school.
“I guess I just don't understand why you would want to walk with me.”
“My best friend just moved away and I use to walk to school with him every day. I guess I just thought maybe you were looking for a new friend as much as I was. I'm sorry.”
Regret and shame washed over me. It hadn't occurred to me that he might have needed someone to be there for him. I was too wrapped up in my own unhappiness to even consider that perhaps, the boy who lost his friend as well, might have needed me to be his friend.
“No, I'm sorry, Asher. I'm not good at meeting new people and making friends. I've never had to. I lived in my old house since the day I was born. My friends back home have been my friends since I was born. I've never had to make new ones. I'd really like it if we could walk to school together.” I looked over at him, hoping the sad look was gone from his face. I was rewarded with a dimpled smile.
“Great. I hate walking alone.”
Asher and I walked to school nearly every day until, finally, we were old enough to drive.