It was the worst fight yet.
“Austin, you need to listen to me,” my dad was shouting. I couldn’t see his face, but I could picture it contorted with rage.
Austin’s yells back were followed by a slam of the front door, and I knew my parents would now be standing in the kitchen, gripping the kitchen chairs with white knuckles. If I went out there now, I would be subject to their anger, or worse, their tears.
Silently I slipped down the hall, feeling like a shadow on the wall in my own home. It had been so long since we had had a normal family. I remembered when we used to go down to the lake at the edge of town, Austin in his bright red swim trunks pretending he was a firefighter, and me in my blue suit, pretending to be a dolphin as I jumped into the clear water.
But those days were gone. Now all that remained were gloom and resentment—and other emotions that I didn’t want to take the time to acknowledge.
I quietly went out the backdoor, knowing my parents wouldn’t even notice my absence. My bike was leaning against our shed, looking rather beat up. When I was younger, I had hoped that my parents would let me share a car with Austin once I was old enough to drive, but when my sixteenth birthday had come around this year, there was no mention of a car. Only a card and a promise that they’d take me on a trip this year. Only I didn’t see how that was possible, not with my brother the way he was.
Sighing, I peddled down the road, heading towards LuLu’s diner. I knew Lexa worked tonight, and I needed someone to talk to, someone who actually had time to talk to me.
The cool night air whipped across my face, and it seemed to sink down past my skin, traveling through my blood, making me feel restless.
“Charlotte!” Lexa shouted as I walked into the diner. She wiped her hands on her apron and came over, hugging me tightly. “You haven’t come to visit me in two days,” she said, implying that this should be a crime punishable by law.
“Sorry,” I said. “You know how things are at my house.”
Lexa grimaced, then quickly changed topics. “You won’t believe who is here!” She started gesturing towards the back of the diner at an empty table.
I was about to point out that there was no one there, when from behind me came a voice—
I turned and saw a boy a little older than me standing just feet away, his parents already trailing out the door.
“It is you,” he said. “How are you? How’s Austin? I’ve been meaning to see him, but we just got back a few days ago, and things have been a little hectic.”
I blinked, expecting him to disappear when I opened my eyes, but his dark ones continued to stare into mine. Behind me, Lexa coughed, probably trying to fill the awkward silence as I apparently had become mute.
“Charlotte?” the boy said.
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe it was him. “What are you doing here, Will?” I finally managed to choke out.
Lexa coughed again, and turned away from us to help a family that had just entered the diner, and I was sure that relief was written on her face as they walked in.
Will didn’t seem affected by my rude demeanor, instead giving me an easy grin that lit his whole face.
“My family moved back just yesterday,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to stop by and say hi to your family, but unpacking has been a nightmare.” He gestured at his parents who were waiting outside. “They’re not the best at packing, so it’s been an interesting test on all of us.” He laughed. “My dad put the mixing bowls in the same box as our living room decorations; there’s no sense to any of it.”
I gave a hesitant smile. He was the same Will that I remembered from two years ago, the funny popular guy, the one that had been best friends with my brother. But so much had changed with my brother, and it was painful to see Will standing in front of me now, almost reminding me of what I had lost when my brother had started going down the wrong path.
Will had moved so far away, my brother and him had lost contact after a couple months. I had no idea how my brother was going to react to seeing him, but I figured it wasn’t going to be good. Nothing was good to him these days.
“I hope you’re able to finish moving in without too much chaos,” I said, trying to be polite and stay calm. I didn’t want him to know about my brother. I was embarrassed. Once upon a time I had looked up to my brother and Will. They had been good role models, good students, athletes, and caring people.
“I’ll probably swing by your house in the next day or two,” Will told me. “I wanted to surprise Austin. He always enjoyed a good surprise.”
My smile did not match Will’s, and he must have begun to pick up on the fact that I was feeling awkward because he gave me another smile and left. As soon as the door closed on his heels, Lexa came squealing up to me, grabbing my arm and bouncing on her heels.
“What did he say?” she exclaimed. “No, no, what did you say?” She looked at me with big eyes. “No, what did he say?” She had too much energy to focus on a single question.
“He wanted to know if I would marry him,” I said with a straight face, and I thought Lexa would keel over in a dead faint. “Of course he didn’t,” I said, although Lexa continued to look too enthusiastic.
“How is it possible for him to look even more handsome than he did our freshmen year?” While she pondered this question out loud, my mind wandered to more pressing issues. Such as how my brother was going to respond to seeing Will. Maybe it would make him want to be better… I didn’t want to get my hopes up though.
“Charlotte, what did he want?” Lexa pulled on my sleeve as if she was five and asking for candy.
“He moved back into town,” I said, and she let out an excited yelp, that made several of the customers look up from their tables, their forks halfway to their mouths. “Yeah, he wanted to know if Austin would want to hang out.”
Lexa’s excitement drained away at the mention of my brother’s name. She had been friends with me since first grade, and she knew the depths of trouble my brother had gotten himself into. She alone stood by me last year when my other friends stopped calling or acknowledging me, their parents telling them that I was from a dangerous family and not to be trusted. Talking about my brother was the one conversation that made Lexa act her age.
“What do you think will happen?” she whispered, now aware that the diners were watching us.
I shrugged, sick of dwelling on my brother, sick of letting it control my life. “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I said, not quite truthfully. “I have no intentions of talking to Will, and why should I? He was my brother’s friend more than he was mine.”
Lexa gave me a look, knowing full well that I had always had a crush on Will when we were younger, but I remained adamant about my indifference.
“I should get going home,” I told her. “My parents will be wondering where I’ve gone.” That was also not true, and she knew it, but Lexa knew better than to call me out on it.