I checked my phone for the first time since I had arrived in Charleston. In the morning sun numerous texts from Katie stared up at me, amidst them was one from Chassie. I frowned pushing my hair back from my face as I closed it with a decisive snap. Beyond the window I could see the sun reflecting bright diamonds of light off the ocean's surface. The dream from the night before still hung with me, intermingling uncomfortably with everything else. I felt heavy, shackled to a boulder of stress and misery.
I shook my head, trying to escape the uncomfortable thoughts. Simon, Simon, Simon, even in my dreams he just wouldn't let me go. I stepped over to the dresser before pulling out a loose-fitting teal blouse and a pair of kaki shorts. I discarded the t-shirt and gym shorts from the night before on the floor. I'd clean later.
Unconsciously I drummed my fingers against my phone for a moment before snapping it open again. I had a feeling James wasn't appreciating the constant calls from Katie, it was really time to give her a call back. It rang twice.
"Good God I thought you weren't ever gonna call, do you have any idea how worried I've been over here?" She snapped through static. "I've called Mr. Dreyton so many times he stopped answering his phone, I figured if I bugged him enough he'd pester you into calling me back. Why has your phone been off this entire time?"
"Hi to you, too," I muttered. "Well let's see, for your inconvenience the fire decided to destroy my phone charger when it turned the rest of my house into a pile of smoldering rubble."
She lapsed into silence momentarily, and in the background I swore I could hear a number of farm animals including a pig, a cow, and a chicken screaming at her in unison.
"You live on a farm," I said, suddenly amused. She let out an unhappy groan. "You realize you are the perfect southern stereotype? This is where we get our ideas that you all wear overalls and carry a chicken around under your arm from."
"I personally do not live on a farm," She snapped. "My grandmother who I'm staying with for a while does."
"Are you wearing a straw hat and chugging moonshine from a jug on your front porch at night, Katie?" I asked, trying desperately not to laugh. "Pigtails and plaid?"
She growled, "Glad to see you're doing better."
I smirked wryly at my phone. It was easiest to let her think that. Maybe it would calm her down a little, allow her not to worry about me for a change and focus on her self, maybe give me a little spare time to think.
"Yeah. Better. Now tell me, do you scream yeehaw when you're lassoing the horses up every evening?"
"I hate you. I'm getting off the phone now. And next time I call you better damn well answer. Oh, also any more jokes about me living on a farm and I'll drive down there and ram this cowboy boot up your ass, okay?"
"Alright, one last question though, and I'll let you go," I laughed. "Will you sing 'Achy Breaky Heart' to me when you come down here to do it?"
"Go swim with the sharks, Maggie," She retorted immediately, hanging up the phone. It was hard not to smile to myself, acknowledging that talking to Katie for even a second had helped my mood a bit, more than likely it was all the cheap jabs I had been able to take at her current surroundings. Regardless, I wasn't quite as upset, too busy imagining Katie surrounded by chickens and cows wearing overalls and plaid. I hadn't even realized I had walked myself down to the kitchen in search of food. It was empty, just like the entire house appeared to be. Usually you could hear someone shuffling around, maybe music or a voice every now and then, but there had been absolutely nothing. I grabbed a pop tart from the cabinet, chewing it mechanically as I trekked into the off-white living area and staring outside towards the sand-dunes. The breeze brushed the grass gently, and I realized I had a certain ache to be out there in it.
The wooden path that led from the house in the dunes to the beach was partially buried in sand. I could feel the small grains working themselves in-between my toes; they were hot and uncomfortable, forcing me to quicken my pace in search of cooler footing. The tide was a welcome reprieve, washing gently around my feet as I stopped ankle-deep in its cool waters. The air was sticky, but held its salty coastal scent which counteracted the humidity in my opinion. It made it a bit more bearable, despite the knots I knew were already forming in my hair.
"I was beginning to think you weren't real, you know." A voice called behind me. I turned to find Cal jogging towards me, smiling; dark tan a harsh contrast to the vivid white shirt he wore. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, messy hair pushed back and out of his face.
"That's an odd thing to say," I noted. There was a small group of boys in front of the house next door, staring in our direction. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. "I'm going to take a wild guess and say that's your house."
"Still no blushing or giggling, am I really not that charming?" He sighed.
"I'm sure you're plenty charming," I commented. "I've just had a rough week. You'd probably fare better elsewhere."
"Ouch. You really are one tough cookie. Are all northern girls like this?" Cal asked, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. I felt a twinge of guilt; taking it out on this kid was uncalled for, he really hadn't done anything, just try to be social; try to talk to the new girl, just like Katie.
"No, look, I'm really sorry, it's just you've caught me at a bad time. This isn't a vacation for me, I honestly don't have a choice as to whether or not I wan to be here and I'm just…" I trailed off, wrapping my arms around my torso as I stared out at the ocean.
"You just need to get your mind off things."
"If only it was that simple."
He leaned down to my eye-level, holding a crooked smile. "It is. It's called having fun. Got any plans for the day?"
I wasn't going swimming. I wasn't planning on hanging around the house. I refused to go anywhere near the garage, even if it was simply for retrieval of my car. What did I have to do? No friends, no jobs, no classes, just bad memories and fresh pain.
"Nope, no plans."
He stood back up to his full height, crossing his arms over his chest. "Have you been downtown?"
"Actually I haven't had a chance," I admitted.
He clapped his hands together, a large grin spreading across his face. "Go grab some shoes—something comfortable—and give me five minutes. I'll come pick you up. You haven't experienced Charleston if you haven't been downtown."
"But what about your company?" I nodded towards the group of guys in the background.
He only glanced back briefly. "Three versus three volleyball. It can wait."
I paused momentarily as I did the math in my head. It may not have been my best subject, but even I knew the basics, and I knew something wasn't quite right.
"There are five of you," I stated flatly.
"Exactly why it can wait. Our sixth member is strangely absent," He confirmed. "Now, shoes? I'll be there in five."
He waited for a reply as I stood, hesitating. "What if I said I didn't want to come?"
"Well, I'd be sitting in front of your house for quite some time, wouldn't I?"
I couldn't help it, I smiled. "Are all southern boys so…"
"Nice, charming, attractive?" He finished. I let out a laugh, pushing my hair away from my face.
"I was going to say persistent."
"Can't even give me that one, can you?" He sighed. "Oh well, at least I got you to laugh this time. Five minutes; I'll be waiting."
I was still smiling as I watched him jog off before turning my focus to the empty house I had exited. I saw a flash of a shadow from one of the upstairs windows. A slight panic started to grip the corners of my mind; should have been empty, just like the pool, just like the garage.
I was waiting outside when Cal pulled up. My venture indoors had been quick; the house bare of any inhabitants, alive or otherwise. But it felt cold and unwelcoming, and waiting outside seemed like a much more pleasant alternative.
Cal's hair was still wet when I slid in the passenger's seat. He smelled fresh and clean, a light blue button-up had replaced his white t-shirt. Admittedly, he cleaned up well.
"So when you said you were staying down the beach I didn't know you'd be right next door. That's convenient, and interesting."
"Not sure I like interesting," I replied flatly, remembering the times my admittance into Brown had been categorized as such.
"No, no, it's not bad. It's just no one expected them to be back this year after…you know. Let alone with company." He shrugged, eyes flashing in my direction briefly.
"I don't see how we weren't expected to run after all that's happened," I muttered. "Everyone needs—as you put it—an escape."
"'We?'" He asked, giving me a curious glance as we drove down the small streets.
"Just how much do you know of the situation, exactly?" I sighed. My name and picture had been thrown around in the news with the entire fiasco. Reporters had initially shown up at my house and the funeral home wanting interviews, anything. I had stayed inside, avoiding them to the best of my abilities. That didn't stop them from getting a snap-shot of me every now and again, though.
Cal shrugged. "Just what my parents told me. Why? I still don't get what you mean by 'we.' Is that why you're down here?"
"No, it's not," I said shortly. "And if you want me to have fun, it's best we forgo the conversation for now. If you're really that curious look it up."
"One last question and I'll swear I'll let it drop, well, for now at least," He admitted. I gave him a pointed look; at least he was honest about it. "Okay, I lied, two."
"You're used to getting whatever you want, aren't you?" I asked. It was easy to see, getting turned down, being told no, and being shown disinterest weren't something he was accustomed to. He was a rich southern boy who lived in a multimillion dollar house on a beach; he was determined and honestly despite what I had initially believed, he was prying, just in a way that came off a lot less…annoying. He was good at the guilt trips, tossing out a darling smile and a quick amusing line to get what he wanted.
"What?" He asked, shocked.
"You always get what you want, girls, answers, and entrance to parties, whatever, because you're from money and you're charming, right? Has anyone ever told you that?"
"Accurate." I finished.
He fell silent for a moment, letting out a sigh. "Yes, okay? I'm a spoiled little rich boy who is used to getting what I want, and I'm so highly unaccustomed to having someone bat away my questions or advances that I'm a bit perturbed. There, happy?"
"I won't be until we can drop this discussion," I quipped.
"Look, I just don't get it, why are you staying with the Dreytons? What kind of connection do you have with that family? They never bring anyone here, no friends, no one. And then everything that happened this year, two of them gone and suddenly they're back, with you in tow. It just… makes no sense." His frustration was highly apparent as we started the trek over a very large, daunting bridge. The harbor around it was bustling with ships containing large cargo crates on the opposing shore with the city behind it, and on the side nearest us was an old battleship by the name S.S. Yorktown. It was a beautiful sight, and before that I hadn't realized just how busy Charleston could be. To the far right, farther down the water's path back towards the continental U.S. I could see another bridge in the distance, and a paper factory. That apparently had been the bridge I had come to Charleston on.
"Fine. I'll tell you, but on one condition." I turned, pointing a threatening finger in his direction. "Do not ask me any more questions about this. I don't care how desperately you want to know, I'm banning it. And if you do ask me anything else I will kick you. I'm not in the mood to do this, but I want to get it over with before we get to the city and you ruin a perfectly good day by pestering me the entire time. Deal?"
He gave me a sideways glance, eyes alight with curiosity and excitement. "You're really going to tell me?"
"Only if you don't ask anymore questions. Do we have a deal, or not?" I said lowly.
"Deal, deal, here, shake on it," He said, holding out a hand as he managed the steering wheel with his other. I took it quickly, giving it a brief shake.
"Both hands back on the wheel please," I sighed. "I can't tell you if we drive off the side of the bridge."
"This is the new bridge, Maggie, the Ravenel Bridge, it's not like the old Cooper River bridge, we'd total my car but we wouldn't go off the edge," He laughed. The Ravenel bridge, the one Oliver went running on every morning. I contemplated the length; the bridge itself was huge, on the sides it did have an area for pedestrian bikers and walkers, but I couldn't imagine anyone running across the thing. It wasn't just the length, but when you factored in the slopes that came with it, it really did seem like an impossible, if not suicidal feat. I certainly couldn't do it, I didn't understand how anyone could.
My attention shift back to the anticipation ridden silence that the car had fallen into; Cal was waiting, and I was stalling. I took a heavy breath, focusing on the river we drove over and the cargo ships leaving their ports.
"It's complicated, really, really complicated," I muttered. "I was sucked into the situation with Mrs. Dreyton, not by choice, but it happened. I was more a part of it by the end than I ever wanted to be. I lost something very precious, and I cost Mr. Dreyton even more. Somehow I got tied up in the tangles of that family even further, and Mr. Dreyton took me under his wing. Initially I just accepted the offer to run the bank after he decided to retire, more out of guilt than anything else, really. But why I'm here with them now, well, I wasn't lying when I said I had nowhere else to go. My house burnt down about a week ago, and I lost everything; I lost my father."
Cal said nothing for a few minutes. The car was heavy with silence; I swallowed, blinking rapidly to avoid the tears I knew were threatening to fall once again. I needed to admit it though, needed to say it out loud to someone. No one else would have pried at that point, knowing the pain was still too fresh and raw. But I needed to face the truth; maybe it would help me cope, perhaps it would eventually lift some of the weight I felt constantly pressing down on me.
"What about your mom?" He asked, clearing his throat.
"I said no more questions," I scoffed. "But if you must know, she died when I was little."
"Oh, shit," He breathed, regret immediately covering his features. "Look, I'm sorry, if I'd have known I would have never—"
"Stop, now, just stop. You didn't know, you couldn't have known, so there's nothing for you to apologize for. It's human nature to ask questions, I can't fault you for that."
He ran a hand through his drying hair, perplexed and uncomfortable. "Still, I shouldn't have been so persistent, I had no idea, Jesus I'm sorry."
I shook my head, already feeling tired and absolutely hating his sudden apologetic nature with every fiber of my being. It wasn't just the fact I hadn't wanted to discuss it in the first place, more than that it was that I didn't want the pity I knew would come along with the truth. I didn't want another person constantly walking on eggshells around me, wondering just how much it would take to break me down again.
"Don't you dare keep this up," I sighed, dropping my head against the headrest. "I came with you because you promised fun, you told me I needed a distraction, and if you're going to act like this for the rest of the afternoon then I may as well have stayed at home by myself. I don't need your pity, or sympathies, or apologies. I need just what you said; I need to get my mind of things. But you acting like this certainly isn't going to do the trick."
"How do you feel about carriage rides?" He asked immediately.
"Never been on one," I shrugged, the tension in my shoulders relaxing as he quipped a smile.
"Well, there's a first time for everything. There's plenty of stuff to do around here, lots for tourists, even more if you're a local and you know where to go. Carriage rides are just to get you the basics, a little history behind the town, then we'll walk around a bit, and do lunch…"
Cal kept talking, and I found myself listening as he spoke so animatedly about the town he lived in and cherished so much. He glanced at me once or twice as we entered the city, traces of pity behind his deep green irises, which no matter how he tried to keep in check shone through. I smiled and played along as we both tried to forget just what I had told him, as we fought to chase down the distractions that would be a welcome reprieve for both of us.