by Azrael Tseng
Can her childhood crush lift Rachel out of her depression? 2nd Place Rhythms & Writing.
Wow. I can’t believe the house is still standing. It’s gotta be a hundred years old, like Grandma. There she is on the stoop, holding onto the railing like a tornado will snatch her up and blow her away like Dorothy. She looks smaller and skinnier since the last time I saw her, but it could be that dark, blooming floral print dress that practically swallows her. Or maybe I’ve just gotten bigger.
I haven’t been here for what, five years now? Not since the summer of fourth grade. And I haven’t seen Grandma since the funeral…
“Hi, Grams.” I plant a kiss on her dry, hollowed cheek. Years ago, I’d have hugged her tight and kept squeezing while she laughed a full-hearted, throaty trill too impossibly vigorous for her frail frame. But she’s changed since that long stay at the nursing home. She’s supposedly much better now since they let her come back home. Yet she still feels like a wisp of her former self.
Like how I feel.
“I’ve made the bed in Paul’s room and your favorite PBJ sandwich…” she calls after me as I skip past her, through the open doorway and up the stairs, backpack jiggling.
“I know, I’ll be down for lunch!” It’s more words than I’ve spoken to Mom in months but I’ve always preferred Grandma anyway.
The room’s exactly as I remember it -- the walls plastered with posters of last-century bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Radiohead. The wooden antique desk in the corner by the window. And the wide single bed with the pullout below. Dad’s room.
Something catches in my chest. I can’t breathe. I let the backpack slip off my shoulders and thump onto the floorboards. Slumping against the doorframe, I feel tears well up and an unbearable pressure push from inside, trying to get out. I want to scream, to cry, to thrash about on the floor all at the same time.
Fuck. I need to calm down.
I grope for my backpack and pull it over. I put the Oxycodone in a ziploc in the bottom compartment, wrapped inside a towel. It’s not there. I check again, shaking out the green fluffy towel thoroughly but nothing drops out. Panic hammers through my veins and pounds my skull. Oh shit, I’m going to black out. Where the fuck’s my stash!?
I dump the entire contents of my backpack out on the floor and dig through them like a scavenger who thinks he saw an intact slice of pizza in a garbage dump. Nothing. Fuck!! I know I packed it. I’ll have to call Dylan for more but will he come all the way down here to Nahcotta for a delivery? I have to try. I need my Oxy.
I pull out my iPhone and see a message from Mom. Ignoring it, I hit ‘5’ on my speed-dial. There’s no dial tone. Is there no reception here? I glare at the screen and notice a conspicuous blank where it used to say Verizon. Oh my god.
Mom. She cancelled my data plan. How dare she!
I swipe open her message. ‘My darling Rachel, I’m doing this for your own good. I know…’
“You know nothing!” I scream and hurl the phone across the room where it smashes into the wall with a loud crack. I want to hit something, hurt something, destroy. Anything to get the hurt and rage inside out of me.
“Rachel, you’ve got a visitor!” Grandma calls from downstairs. “It’s Mike!”
Oh my god, Mike. I can’t let him see me like this. I had the biggest crush on him when I was eight and he was twelve. Even though I haven’t seen him for so long, I still picture him as that cute, sun-bronzed guy with long blond locks always game for a summer adventure.
I take a deep breath and hurry downstairs, massaging the tension out of my face with one hand.
“Wow, is that really you?” Mike gushes as he does a double-take.
I try to process the tall, young man with a swimmer’s shoulders and silhouette in the doorway, matching it with the image of the sweet, cherubic-faced boy I remember. What does he mean by that reaction? Does he think I’ve grown fat or are my cheeks still puffed from my rage-fit earlier? I dare let a tiny flicker of hope dance on my heart that he means I’ve become prettier, maybe even hot by fifteen-year-old standards? A sudden awareness that I’m wearing a comfortable but none-too-attractive off-shoulder blouse and denim shorts weighs on me. Damn. I should’ve taken a minute to change before charging down to meet him.
“You cut your hair,” I said, then proceeded to mentally facepalm myself for stating the obvious. His Greek god wavy locks no longer graze his shoulders but cling closely to the nape of his neck.
He shrugs. “You… look… fantastic!”
My heart melts and jumps up into a little dance of joy at the same time and I force myself not to smile too broadly. Or should I smile more to show him my appreciation of his praise? Isn’t there a rulebook for this? Why didn’t I ever read it before?
My fingers try tying themselves into knots behind my back and I feel my cheeks burning with blush. Shit. It’s like I’ve never been complimented before in my whole life. Well, I actually haven’t -- not by a cute guy I like anyway, or any guy. Wait, am I supposed to compliment him back? Or is it too late for that now? How many seconds are allowed to pass before the window closes?
“Did you just get back?” he asks, doing that one-shouldered shrug I've always found inexplicably cute.
The metaphoric window slams shut on my groping fingers but I at least have the sense to nod furiously. Much too hard probably, because an amused grin spreads across his face, making my heart beat faster. “Wanna come out on the bay with me?”
I become a bobblehead on the dashboard of an ATV tackling the bumpiest road ever made. A minute later, I’m in an old brown pickup truck with windows rolled down cruising towards Willapa Bay.
It’s my first time riding in a truck with a hot guy. Not just any hot guy -- Mike, from my Grandma’s town, whom my whole family knows and likes. I suppose I might like him more than all of them combined but you’ll never get me to admit it. I’ve never told anyone. We don’t talk but simply enjoy the salty breeze ruffle our hair and pat our faces. For ten minutes, I forget about everything and just let the wind carry it all away.
Every now and then, I sneak glances at him when I think he isn’t looking. He acts like I take rides with him all the time.
“So, erm, you on summer break too?” I ask.
Gosh, how lame am I? Of course he’s on summer break; it’s the middle of July. I’ve got to be the the world’s worst conversationalist or the best at shutting one down before it even begins. I wince and smack my head against the dashboard, almost un-metaphorically.
“No, actually I’m helping Dad out on the oyster farm. He’s been shorthanded since Uncle Jeb died last year and it’s hard to find good help who don’t mind the hours and the work -- you know, getting your feet wet and hands dirty, smelling like crap.” He laughs and I laugh along although I don’t really know what the joke is. It’s just so easy to go along with what he does. Even when we were still kids, he always led us on adventures to explore the bay or just made up games to play for the whole gang of us.
“I’m sorry about your uncle…” I vaguely remember him -- a bushy-bearded man with a big tummy and bigger voice, always with a beer in his hands at one of our frequent barbecues. “What did he die of?”
Not quite scintillating cocktail fare but at least I’m not stammering. In fact, I’m surprised I can even talk about this topic which I’ve avoided like an old fat photo of myself on Mom's Instagram account.
“Cancer. He went about two weeks before your dad. Sorry I didn’t turn up for the funeral. There was just so much that needed doing here. I wanted to go, really. Sorry, it’s a poor excuse.” He runs his fingers through his hair and leaves his hand tangled on top, which I recognize as something he always did when he was stuck thinking about something.
“Well, I didn’t come for your Uncle Jeb’s either. Didn’t even know.” I don’t know how I sound. Too callous? But Mike just purses his lips in an ‘oh well’ manner and does that one-shouldered shrug again.
I swallow and say something I can’t quite believe, “He committed suicide, y’know? My dad.” I’ve never allowed myself to say the ‘S’ word. Ever. Not since that day Mom said it to me and I started screaming and crying, trying to drown out the sound of it.
Mike doesn’t say anything but nods ever so slightly, then turns to look at me with such sadness and empathy gleaming wetly in his eyes. And I just keep talking -- about how I blamed Mom for everything, how I turned to drugs to dull the pain. All the stuff I’ve wanted to talk about since that day in October but never did comes pouring out. He just sits there and listens.
I don’t even notice that we’ve stopped in front of a shack on the coast. A small wooden dock juts a little way over the water but there’s no boat tied to it. “I thought we’re going out on the bay.”
“There’s something I want to show you first. Come on.” Mike hops out and walks over to the shack door, jingling his keys as he picks one out.
After pouring my heart out to him, I can’t very well let him walk off with it, can I? I get out and follow. The inside is unlike anything I could’ve expected. The floor’s covered with furs and skins of all kinds of animals -- I’ve never been any good at telling them apart, but I think they’re mostly deer, and smaller creatures? A few framed photos of Uncle Jeb showing off prize catches hang on the walls. A spiritcatcher skulks in the corner and a desk covered with all kinds of junk trinkets takes up nearly a quarter of the space.
“Uncle Jeb left me this -- pretty neat, huh?”
I peer at a strange-looking curio sprouting feathers and eyes and decide not to say anything.
“Here -- I want you to have this.” Mike holds out a necklace strung with what looks like bits and pieces of amber. Some resemble frosted cereal flakes, and others misshapen peanuts or beans. It reminds me of a grade-school crafts project.
“What are they?” I hold out my hand and he drops the necklace into it.
I stare at them like I’ve just traded everything I have for a handful of magic beans. “I thought pearls are round and white.”
“Most people prefer them that way but we can make them in an assortment of colors. The ones you’re holding aren’t cultured; they’re natural. Uncle Jeb and I found them over the years when we harvested our oysters. They’re accidents of nature but I think they’re beautiful.”
“Why are you giving this to me? It obviously has sentimental value…”
Mike fixes his light brown eyes on me and breaks into a half-smile. “The oysters that made these pearls are all dead, eaten. But every time I look at this necklace, I remember that they left something amazing behind. It helped me a lot this past year getting over my uncle’s death. Maybe it’ll help you too.”
Suddenly the pearls feel round and perfect in my palm. A bead of warmth lodge in my heart and for a moment I can imagine Dad’s arms wrapped around me, his voice whispering, “We’ll get through this together.” I might just survive the summer without my phone and Oxy after all.