I close my eyes and I can hear water rushing down a drain. The shower stopped moments ago, and I hear Wrinkles shaking off behind the bathroom door. And I wonder if it is time to go.
From this entire place. From this pretend I have been playing at.
I hear a door upstairs open, and then slam shut. Bryan. I can’t help but to watch as he descends the stairs. It has almost been a week of me being here and already I find this as something out of the ordinary—the way he is now is hesitant with each step, even holding the railing, and it is so different from the way he normally tramples around.
I watch him the entire way, sympathetic, and his sharp green eyes narrow.
I turn my face from him. Not really sure if it is for his sake or mine.
“Here,” he says, tossing something to me.
I catch it. It’s a newly broken ice pack wrapped in a paper towel. “Thanks,” I say, though, I’m not hurt. Awkwardly I shuffle the blue pack in my hands, the inside of it moves like jelly amongst the frozen bits.
Bryan sinks into the chair across from me, and without ceremony, throws his leg up over the side of the dining table. He stretches out his leg and leans forward as if to touch the toe of his sock, the action pushing off a placemat. He had changed into basketball shorts, so I can see the tension running down through his muscle.
I offer him the ice pack, “You need this more than I do—”
“I don’t.” Voice flat and too quick. Too defensive. Under the freckles, there’s a hint of red on his cheeks.
I decide not to question him and place the icepack on the table. We sit in silence for a bit, the condensation from the ice pack running off on the table between us.
“It’s your fault anyway.” He says.
“I didn’t know you’d let him out, I—”
He just scoffs.
I figure he probably just wants some space, and I’ll be happy to give it to him. I get up and turn the hall to the guest room, but in that moment, before I can pass through the hallway, the bathroom door opens.It almost hits me in the face, and with the hallway being so narrow I have no other choice but to step back, the path being obstructed so completely. Wrinkles scampers out and I feel the brush of his wet fur pass by my ankle as he goes, his nails clicking loud on the hardwood.
And the door of the bathroom finally shuts again and I find another obstacle in front of me, this one even more impassable.
The runner. I realize now that I do not even know his name.
And it is the littlest thing, but I focus on the droplets of water sliding off the tips of his dark hair.
He smells fresh, like shower gel. The lavender scented shower gel for guests that Grace left neatly on the bathroom shelf. He had borrowed something else too.
“Hope you don’t mind. I borrowed a shirt. I had mud all over mine.” He says, and with that, he waltzes out of the hallway and past me. Drops a towel onto Bryan’s head.
“Smells like wet dog.” Bryan says, slapping his hand away, but he doesn’t push the towel off his head.
The runner just laughs.
I should be going but I find myself staring at him. The runner. This guy I didn’t know. I hadn’t even asked his name. He holds himself well, with a stance that conveys easy confidence, maybe even arrogance. He’s lean, but I can tell it comes from athleticism and not neglect. Running must be his thing. He’s still wearing his running pants which outline the lines of his body underneath.
The T-shirt, my t-shirt, is a little big on him. I try to recall the Latin words inscribed underneath, but they’re lost to me now.
Wrinkles is circling around the table and eventually, panting still, plops down to sit next to Bryan. And Bryan, despite himself and his horrible mood, reaches down to give Wrinkle’s a scratch on the head.
“You probably didn’t think he could run like that?” The runner says.
But Bryan doesn’t respond, just rolls his eyes. Silence. I realize that the runner is talking to me. And waiting on me, his dark eyes, expectant.
“Oh.. Yeah, I didn’t know. It was an accident.”
Bryan clears his throat, loudly, a ploy for attention. I think he’s going to bring it up again—how I am apparently everything wrong with the world. But surprisingly, he says, “It’s fine. Whatever.” And then just yawns. It takes me off guard a little. He ruffles the towel in his red hair before pulling it down again to rest behind his neck.
The runner laughs again. “Good thing I intercepted.” He says eyes still on me.
And I think maybe… no. Can’t be. Has to be, just my imagination... right?
I try my best to ignore it and look to Bryan. He’s pissed but at some point, since arriving back at the house it was directed at the runner too. Weren’t they supposed to be friends? “Don’t expect a medal,” he says to the runner. I thought he was going to end at that but then he says after sighing deeply, “I’m stopping by tomorrow to drop off the paperwork.”
It’s a weird segue, and I feel like I should have no part in this conversation, like an outsider listening in.
“Oh, I didn’t realize you were starting this week.”
“Im not.” he says, eyes meeting mine. He doesn’t have to say it, but it’s obvious I am the reason and he is not at all happy about it. “I can’t start until next week. I’m just dropping off the paperwork.”
Bryan clicks his teeth. “I’ll be there Sunday. That’s the official start of pre-camp anyway, aint it?”
“Yeah. Just thought you’d come earlier.”
“Whatever. What about you?”
The runner laughs. “I was supposed to leave this afternoon. I was packing everything up when I heard something weird in the woods.”
Bryan clicks his teeth. “Hey, uh.. do you know if your sister is around tomorrow?”
“Gone. She went to Laurelwood this morning.”
The runner shrugs. Then he looks at me again. “Well, if you want company... How about him?”
I go a little wide eyed, they are both looking at me now. I recall on the long drive from the Amtrak station to here, Grace had stopped suddenly, and I was jolted out of sleep. When I opened my eyes again there was this young deer on the road, right in front of us. He had these little fuzzy horns, I guessed he was a younger one, and he was wide-eyed and dumbstruck. I imagine I look like that deer now. In the headlights and frozen.
Thankfully, Bryan answers for me “of course he doesn’t.” And then, “Just go home.” Bryan says it to the runner. Maybe to me too.
The runner just laughs again, like this deep little chuckle. I glance over and see him smiling. Like Bryan’s rudeness is endearing somehow. He turns to go. But as he goes he passes me and on instinct I just move out of the way. He grabs something from the bathroom, the towels he had used for Wrinkle’s bath I realize. As he passes me again he says, “Seriously though, you should go with him.”
He lingers for a moment, as if he is waiting for me to say something but I don’t have anything to say. I just nod. And the runner flashes a smile and then finally goes. I watch him leave.
“Good riddance.” Bryan says.
And then, it’s just me and Bryan again. The air around us stagnant.
I make my way back to the guest room but Bryan says “hey.” He seems serious. A question is in his eyes.
And I wait for him to speak. For whatever odd hesitation he had to fade.
I go back to the guest room and shut the door behind me.
~ * ~
It takes a long time to sleep. Counting the panels on the ceiling helps.
And the midnight darkness dims a little when my phone lights up again.
I read PJ’s messages. The glow of the screen lighting up the fracture in it’s face.
when are you back
That’s all. Not even a question mark. Like it’s for sure that I will.
Eventually I’ll have to.
I don’t know
~ * ~
Morning comes again.
Sometimes I really wish I could just throw my phone into an ocean somewhere.
I throw it on the bedspread instead and watch as it just settles there on top of the sea stars and sand dollars printed on the fabric. Why does this room have a beach theme at all? The ocean is hours away.
I go out and into the bathroom. I look like mess. My eyes slightly bloodshot, bags under them. Sleep had mostly eluded me.
I shower and change.
After, I go out into the kitchen.
Bryan’s there hunched over a bowl of cereal. And he has this frown on this face when he looks up.
He never says good morning, so I don’t this time. Start up the coffee machine and set up the coffee filter. Pour the ground coffee in. Press play.
Wrinkles, unaware of how to read a room, prances over and sits right on top of my foot. His tail thumps the side of the kitchen counter.
“Hey,” Bryan says. He looks a little flustered. “Thanks for yesterday.”
I’m confused. I really thought he would be angry. “Yeah.”
“Yeah.” He echoes.
And it’s awkward, again. Always so awkward.
And if it couldn’t get any worse Bryan looks troubled and I can feel he is going to say something else. Ask something else. And he does. “I know it isn’t really any of my business but.. why…” His words trail off and he looks like he is trying really hard to find them again. “why are you here?”
I blink. And try suppress the recoil showing on my face. But I can’t. “Look, obviously you don’t want me here. But I’m here. Visiting my father and you said yourself you’re going wherever for the summer. So what does it matter? We don’t have to like each other.”
Bryan’s expression sours like he wants to argue about some point here. But instead, he averts his gaze momentarily. His expression softening. He sighs. Looks back at me and it’s a new one. Almost like it hurts to say it—“Sorry.” He actually says it. “I was an ass.” He declares this.
“But why? What did I ever do?”
He doesn’t say anything to this. Just crosses his arms and leans back in his chair, tipping it precariously before landing down again. “I said sorry.”
“Ok.” I go back to the coffee. Tend to it. Pour a cup and nurse it.
“You know… maybe if you want… If you’re going to stay… you can take a ride with me? I work at a camp this summer. It’s a bit farther up. Like 45 minutes. Through the mountains, countryside and stuff.”
I’m surprised by this. Maybe a little skeptical too, did Grace put him up to this? The runner?
He must see it too because he says, “I just thought… I don’t know. I really don’t want to go alone honestly. And since there’s nothing else to see around here you have nothing else to do.”
I revel a little in seeing him wait for an answer. He is still tipping the chair, seemingly not at all afraid of falling back. Like the conversation made him more nervous than falling.
“When are you going?” I say.
I apologize to anyone following this story for the long delay in this chapter. If you are still following, thank you for your patience. I made a few minor changes to previous chapters to fix typos and improve on clarity in a few areas. -RATIO