I'll Be Here, page 1
I’ll Be Here
Copyright © 2012 Autumn Doughton
All rights reserved. This book may not be used or reproduced, scanned or distributed in any form without permission from the author except where permitted by law. All characters and storylines are the property of the author and your respect and cooperation are greatly appreciated. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
I’ll Be Here
It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But, you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart.
Mumford and Sons
“Roll Away Your Stone”
“It’s not you, it’s…” his voice trails off lamely. He takes a breath, drawing his eyebrows together.
I wait for the sucker punch while the sinking, gaping feeling grows inside of me. Three agonizing seconds. Four. Five.
Inside of me is all whirl and spin. A cockroach is doing pirouettes on my chest. A cockroach in a tutu.
I would breathe but a giant has his grubby hands wrapped around my lungs and he’s squeezing.
All these images swim around me. That first night at the beach. A wide smile of perfectly even teeth. His almond-shaped nails. The flat tire we got last summer on the way home from Sam’s lake house. Strong hands on the tire jack—on me.
And the silky gold dress that’s hanging on the front of my closet door—a constant reminder of my perfect prom plans. Now the dress, the magazine clippings of dramatic updos, and the three shoe boxes stacked in the corner beside my dresser so I’d have “options” all add up to nothing more than a silly fantasy shattered and scattered like an exploded star. Debris flutters down around me. It’s the confetti at my going away party.
Ignoring his hazel eyes, I stare down. At my cheese fries. At the crushed peanut shells scattered across the dark wood floor. At the centimeter long thread jutting from the hem of my sweater.
A quick assessment of my body reveals: both eyeballs are on fire which is probably an indication of tears in the near future. My tongue feels like it’s been switched out for extra-absorbent cotton balls and my wildly thumping heart is so loud that I’m sort of surprised the guy sitting in the booth behind us hasn’t shouted at me to keep down the racket. At least it’s still beating, right?
I take a deep breath and try to focus on clearing my head because that’s what people say that you’re supposed to do in these situations.
Across from me Dustin’s mouth is moving and I guess that words are coming out of it, but I can’t even hear what he is saying over the roaring in my head. I squeeze my eyelids shut not wanting to see his suntanned face with the signature dimple smack-dab in the middle of his left cheek, or the sandy curls that I like to brush back and tuck behind his ear even though they always slide stubbornly back. The insides of my eyelids are dark and filled with purply-white sparkling stars. It’s like I’m getting a glimpse at another galaxy and I have this crazy idea that I’ve been sucked through a black hole and spit out in an alternate universe.
Another deep breath.
The thundering in my head finally begins to subside and I lift my hand and make the universal “stop” motion. Thankfully, Dustin shuts the hell up. Even with my eyes closed I know that he’s watching me and waiting. I can feel his waiting like it’s a solid thing bumping into my leg—nudging me to get a move on it, calling me a slowpoke.
My hands are full of air.
My mouth is full of dirt.
When I do open my eyes, it’s almost a surprise to see that things in this place are relatively normal. It’s just your run of the mill Friday night. The bar area is packed to the brim with people watching a game on a big screen television.
No one even bothers to look over at us but I wonder what would happen if they did. Would they be able to see? Would they notice that my head has fallen off my body and rolled under the table? Or would they just see a girl in a booth sitting with a plate full of greasy fries in front of her?
The waitress brushes by the table. She’s got a tray piled high with plates of onion rings and cooked flesh. With one free hand, she flips her coppery hair over her shoulder and pulls out a stack of napkins from the maroon half-apron tied at her waist. She sees me watching her and half-smiles with one side of her wide mouth. I smile back out of habit but it feels weird on my face. Like I’m a Potato Head and I’ve got the wrong mouth on. The waitress keeps moving. People are waiting on their food.
Across from me Dustin shifts uncomfortably and furrows his brow again. It’s an expression I know well and find endearing. Or rather, did. Did find endearing that is. Now I see that it just makes him look impatient and a bit arrogant.
Looking down, I focus on the small wart that has blossomed on his right thumb just below the nail. As a rule, warts are not sexy.
Dustin dusts salt off the table before leaning forward and speaking quietly. “I thought you knew.”
God, he says it almost accusingly and I have to bite my lip to keep from reacting. His hair is caught in the collar of his shirt. Instinctively I reach out to fix it and then I stop myself, pulling back my fingers. Remember that’s not your job anymore.
I want to tell him that he’s wrong. I want to say that I didn’t know—that I had no clue. I want to say that my insides are buried beneath an avalanche of giant boulders and we need to organize a search party. I want to flop full-bodied on the floor and sob my heart out. I want to scream. I want to shout something big. Something huge. Something earth shattering.
But I don’t.
I don’t sob or scream or say anything at all. I just stare ahead and I’m sure that my face is wearing forty-five different emotions and that Dustin is flipping through the archives in his mind trying to decipher all of them. He laughs nervously as he picks up his fork and takes a stab of steak. This boy—my ex-boyfriend—orders his meat medium rare and I watch red juices squish through the spaces between his white teeth as he chews.
Another deep breath. I let the air settle into my lungs before blowing it out.
This is where I’m supposed to talk, right? That’s what a normal girl would do. You’re anything but normal, mom is always telling me. You’re not an average teenage girl. You just like to pretend sometimes, she’ll say with a quick squeeze above my wrist and a quirk to her smile that hints at pride. As if telling me that I’m abnormal is a compliment.
Finally, I manage to make my mouth work. “Let me get this straight…” My voice sounds all wrong—weak and scratchy like I’m covering my mouth with my hand. I grip the edge of the booth to keep from tipping over. “You brought me to a steak house to break up with me?”
This surprises him.
Of all the things he was expecting me to say after he finished his little speech on growing apart and college and the bigger picture, I can tell that this was not it. His hazel eyes widen in confusion and I have to remind myself that I don’t want to look there. I shift my gaze to his earlobe. For some reason it’s so much paler than the rest of him. Until this moment I never noticed how long Dustin’s earlobes are. They look like soggy wads of toilet paper.
“What do you mean?” He asks and swallows a lump of meat and pulls his drink to his lips.
“I’m asking if you knew that you were going to break up with me before you brought me here,” I gesture absently to our surroundings, “to this steak house.”
Dustin’s upper body mirrors mine. He slides forward in his seat, his elbows propped on either side of his white plate. His face is a vacant playground. His eyes are two dangling tire swings. His nose is a slide. His mouth—the seesaw.
He holds his knife and fork five inches off the table. I can smell the musky cologne he’s wearing. It’s the one I bought him last Christmas. I spent an hour at the tester counter and my entire paycheck on it. My nostrils flare as if pissed off at the memory.
“Well… yeah. But I don’t really see your point Willow.”
“My point, Dustin, is that I’m a goddamn vegetarian.”
The drive home is predictably awkward. Tucked into the passenger seat, I’m silent but not necessarily sullen. I stare out the car window and let the familiarity of the sights calm me.
There’s a certainty about it all.
George’s Bait and Tackle shop on the corner of Northside Boulevard and White Shell Drive. The Quick Mart where you can get a pack of Rolos and a blue raspberry Icee twenty-four hours a day. Helen Dilken’s flower shop that smells like adoration. The army recruitment office with its red awning and bright white lettering. The sandwich shop where I lost my first tooth in the tough center of a sourdough roll.
Cool links of the silver bracelet that Dustin gave me for my birthday slide between my fingers. It’s engraved in French. When he gave it to me last year it seemed positively romantic. Now I realize that it was stupid. I take Spanish.
The car slows to a stop at the light bracing Howard Avenue against Collins Drive. Our bodies sway forward and then settle back into the bucket seats of the black Beemer Dustin’s dad bought him for his eighteenth birthday. It was supposed to be an upgrade from the used Land Cruiser he’d gotten for his sixteenth birthday. My parents consider my six year old silver Honda an upgrade from riding the bus.
The Beemer still smacks of newness—all leather and fresh carpet chemical smell. He’s particular with the car in the extreme. No food allowed. Ever.
Dustin’s right hand slides down the side of the steering wheel. The low-timbre hip hop that Dustin favors ensnares the quiet and shoves it out the exhaust pipe.
There’s a faint pink ribbon of light edging the building darkness. Mom’s probably going to wonder why I’m home so early. Before I skittered out of the house and hopped into Dustin’s car nearly two hours ago I had mentioned a movie that I wanted to see. Behind me, Dustin had grunted in typical boy fashion. I’d assumed it was because he wasn’t in the mood for a goofy romantic comedy and I’d said something about seeing it next week or whatever.
That bit keeps playing back in my head and I feel a teeny bit stupider after each replay. Like I should have known then that there is no next week for us.
“Willow,” he says in a voice so low that I can barely hear the words over the music. We’ve stopped at a red light.
I turn then and when I look at his face—all eyes and mouth and faint lines spreading out in worry, I think that this whole night has been a huge mistake or a really lucid dream and I’m going to wake up and everything will be all right. Dustin Rant cannot be breaking up with me. He cannot be leaving me. It cannot be true.
The moon watches patiently.
Dustin looks ready to say something. My heart thumps wildly in my chest and I think about reaching over to brush my fingers across the planes of his face. My hand moves. But the light flicks to green and just like that, the moment snaps. Dustin’s expression changes and his forehead rumples. He turns away and his foot descends on the clutch forcefully. He shifts the car into first gear and we plunge down the road leaving the words behind us.
Five turns later and we’re on my street. The house three across and one down is having a party and the guests have eaten up all the street parking.
Dustin pulls into my driveway and kills the ignition. Muffled music from the party crawls over the lawns and hedges and through the glass of the closed car windows. I can barely make out the cheesy love anthem. It feels like ironic mood music.
For a few minutes, Dustin and I just sit in the dark—each of us alone in our bodies. I think that I should probably open the door and get out but it’s like my butt is glued to the seat. My seatbelt is still looped across my chest. Dustin’s gaze burns into the side of my face. I don’t know that I am crying until I taste the saltiness of tears on my lips.
Now his voice is a sigh. A whisper. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He repeats it again and again.
I’ll never understand why I have to ask but I need to know. “Is there someone else?”
Dustin’s breath catches.
Minutes hang from the moon.
I could climb up them like a ladder and bury myself in stars.
I let myself look into his hazel eyes and now I know the truth.
I know it all without the words.
There is someone else and he doesn’t have to say it to make it true. There it is. And I’m hurt and bled dry but in some ways I guess it’s better to be left for something than left for nothing.
“Thanks for dinner,” I say robotically as I let myself out of the car.
Dustin says something else but I don’t hear it. I am already halfway to the house and my heart is in my ears. I stumble on something but I find my balance and keep moving. My muscles ache and my eyes sting but I just go forward because I need to.
This is me, Willow James, broken and crying.
This is me, Willow James, at the beginning.
I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.
I’ve swallowed a thousand bricks.
At least, that’s how I feel as I lean the solid weight of my head against the closed door.
Gracelessly, I drop my purse on a narrow table beside the ceramic blue elephant that guards the front hall and stumble out of my high heels. Have I mentioned how much they’ve been hurting my feet?
“What in the world?” My mom is bent over at the hip with her arms stretched above her at an impossible angle.
She straightens, settling her limbs back into all the proper places and shakes her short blonde hair out of her eyes.
My mother can be found doing yoga on a purple mat in the open space between the living room and the dining room at all kinds of odd hours. Once, I woke up to use the bathroom at three in the morning and she was doing a feathered peacock pose against the wall. She says that it relieves her stress when she’s tense. I say that it’s weird.
Mom tucks her hair behind her ear and I catch this look on her face like she’s annoyed at my obnoxiously loud entrance. But then she sees my expression and the way that I’m clutching my chest.
The world slips away.
She reaches me faster than I expect and she wraps me into her bony arms and her soft musical voice. A part of me wants to move past her to the safety of my room where I can languish in my sudden aloneness alone, but she won’t allow it and for once I’m too tired to fight.
Her hands push tangled, mermaid hair from my tearstained face and she is looking at me with that special expectant expression she gets sometimes. Her voice and her touch carry me into the kitchen. It smells like rosemary.
She guides me to the wooden chair with the scrolly arms and the springy seat that I claimed as mine long ago. A minute later a glass of tangy white wine is pushed underneath my nose. I look up and she raises her eyebrows at me.
“What? You’re almost eighteen, you’ve just been dumped and you’re not driving anywhere tonight.”
I’m stung by the word dumped.
Is that what I’ve been? It sounds
You dump trash. You dump yard waste and old ripped couches that smell like body odor and forgetfulness. You dump cigarette butts and banana peels and hazardous waste. But people?
I take a tentative sip of the wine. It’s tangy and the slight burn it makes sliding down my throat feels good.
Moonlight filters in through the window above the sink and makes bizarre shadows of the appliances on the counter—like the microwave is about to eat the toaster and the coffeemaker and the soap dispenser are holding hands.
We are seated at our kitchen table. It’s a low-slung table that is really an old door that my mom found propped in the alley behind an antique store years ago. I remember watching from the backseat of the crappy green car we had in those days as she haggled with a goateed man about the price of the thing. Since that day, the table has been three colors: mustard, a crackly reddish-brown, and its current shade Calypso Breeze, which is really just a fancy way of saying blue.
Mom watches me carefully. Her eyes are wide-set and unusually large for her small face giving her a constantly surprised expression. Right now her thin lips are pursed into an oval shape. Her elbows rest on the table and as she leans forward she makes a hammock for her chin out of her palms.
I can guess what she is thinking. She never liked Dustin. She says he “stifled” me or some crap.
Here’s the thing about my mother: she’s a bit bohemian, hence the name Willow, and the yoga, and the dream-catchers hanging in our bedroom windows, the flowing crocheted tops that fill her closet, and the compost bins out front. She fancies herself an artist. The reality is that she manages a gym downtown.
Mom was born in Georgia to a conservative family of gun owners and during her tumultuous teen years she rebelled by becoming a peace-loving humanitarian who migrated to the beach with plans to sell jewelry and paint watercolors.
Dustin is (or was) a little too “square” for her liking. Most mothers would be thrilled with a sports-coat-wearing young man, but Julie Beagle is not most moms. She tolerated Dustin just barely. My mom admires people that push boundaries and inspire “movement,” whatever the hell that means. Dustin’s favorite pastime is killing zombies in a post-apocalyptic video game.
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