“I wouldn’t have gone away from Mama in the first place. Why’d you do that?”
I’m grateful to see Mama coming back with more stuff. “I dunno why, kid,” I say to Gracie. “Maybe you can teach me how to be smarter.” My sarcasm is lost on her.
When we get home, Dad is in the garage unloading a bed frame and a mattress from the back of the minivan. I help carry them into the house. Everything inside me wants to ask for my bed to be set up downstairs so I can have a place of my own, but I don’t dare. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. So we set it all in the hallway outside Blake’s bedroom until we can move his crap around to make space for mine. It’s going to be a tight fit.
I go out to the garage to close the minivan’s hatch when the school bus pulls up in front of the house. I slam the door hard, and then turn and watch as a dozen kids get off the bus. Shivering like crazy, I fold my arms across my chest. It’s fucking freezing in this state.
Blake is the third one off. And there’s the group of girls. Some of them look at me, all shy and curious, and some are oblivious. The girl in the red coat I saw this morning yells good-bye to her friends and turns in the opposite direction from them, but stops in her tracks when she sees me. She catches up to Blake in the driveway and walks with him. Says something that makes him laugh. She’s a little taller than him, and when they approach, I can tell she’s older than him. My age, maybe. I’m guessing I’m supposed to know her.
“Hey, Ethan, wow,” she says. “I can’t believe it’s really you.” She has crow-black hair and deep, dark eyes, not quite perfect teeth and big, soft-looking lips, the kind you want to bite. She hops in place, apparently excited to see me, which feels nice. Despite the slicing cold wind, I feel a stirring and shove my hands in my pockets.
“Hey,” I say, teeth chattering, looking at Blake for help. “Um . . .”
“It’s Cami,” Blake says, rolling his eyes like I’m stupid. “She’s lived down the street since birth?” He says it like a question, as if making me feel stupid will bring her back to my memory.
“I’m sorry,” I say, looking back to her, and boy, am I sorry. “I don’t remember much.”
She grins. “It’s okay. I can’t believe you’re back. Everybody thought you were dead.”
“Yeah, I figured.” I’m sure I’ll hear that a few more times before everybody settles down, too. It’s a pretty sick thing to say to somebody, if you ask me.
“I cried for weeks. It was horrible. You were my best friend. We took baths together when we were babies. Our moms used to be friends, back when . . .” She trails off, not embarrassed, but looking at me curiously, like she hopes I remember.
“Wow.” I don’t know what to say to that. Taking baths together. Jesus. I just look at my feet and stomp them on the garage floor, watching the fluffy new snow skitter away, leaving my footprints looking huge, like a monster’s. “I’m sorry I don’t remember you. I wish I did.”
“You look different,” she says then. “Not how I pictured you.”
“I need a haircut.” I shrug, trying not to blush thinking that she’d been picturing me. But blushing in the cold wind probably wouldn’t make a difference anyway.
“When are you coming back to school?”
“Monday, I guess.”
“Cool. Well, I gotta get home. See you around?”
“Yeah . . . we’re having a party or something tonight, so I’m sure you’re invited. . . .”
She grins, reaches out, and squeezes my upper arm, then turns and waves over her shoulder.
I wave back like a dork.
Blake scowls at me.
“What,” I say.
“Dude. How could you possibly not remember her?” He shakes his head and we turn to go inside.
What starts out as a quiet visit by Grandpa and Grandma De Wilde turns into an extended family reunion. And after the six o’clock news hits, the neighbors start coming too. The phone rings nonstop and finally Dad turns the ringer off and lets everything go to voice mail. People bring food and drinks and it gets really loud.
I recognize some people, aunts and uncles and cousins, from the photos I had studied. But after about the millionth time of having people expect me to know who they are, and then the disappointed looks on their faces when I don’t, I get kind of sick of it. It’s so hard letting people down over and over again. It’s making me feel a little out of control, and I get that anxious skittering in my stomach again.
Finally, I escape. I throw on my new winter coat and step out to the side of the house that is blocked from the wind, and I suck in the freezing night air. My cousin—I think his name is Pete or Phil or something—is out here too, having a smoke, so I bum one, wanting it so bad but hating myself for doing it, because I quit like a year ago. But I can’t help it. This is all a little too much.
I’m glad when Phil-Pete leaves so I can be alone, clear my head. And here I stand, freezing my balls off, sucking down a cigarette, and wishing for some of the booze that is flowing inside the house, when across the frozen freaking tundra comes a sweet red coat of distraction.
I bury the cigarette in a snowdrift, wishing I hadn’t smoked it, but loving the fleeting rush. Wishing I had a mint. Wishing I could remember Cami, even just a little bit. Her looks remind me of a girl I hooked up with at the youth home—Tempest, her name was—only Cami has class. My gut tightens. I step out into the wind.