This is the last one I will be posting tonight! So, if you haven't read the chapters beforehand, please make sure you do! Chapter 12 was posted yesterday, so all others are new as of today. Thank you, and enjoy!
The next few days past in a blur. My body went through the motions, but it was like my mind trailed behind after it. I ate, went to class, conversed with Liv and my family, and slept. It was an easy, uncomplicated few days, which was just what I needed. Anything more than that would have provided allowances for my mind to wander to places it didn't need to go. I didn't want to think about the stadium story or the disappearing children. They all lead me back to James, and he was forbidden territory.
My parents seemed to realize I wasn't quite myself, which shouldn't have been too difficult a task to begin with. I had dropped the sarcasm, answered all questions in a normal, even voice, and sat quietly on the couch doing homework. Truth be told, it probably looked like an entirely different person had taken my place – the well behaved, put together daughter my mother had always dreamed of was finally living under her roof.
Even Lui and Ling noticed my change. They watched me through the corner of their eyes while we shared close quarters. They had started to whisper things to each other while sneaking looks in my direction. Just last night, Lui had even asked me if I was alright. I nodded and told her there was nothing to worry about. Her faced demonstrated she thought there was, in fact, almost everything to worry about.
The only hiccup to existing in a daze had occurred a few days ago. I had been walking down the hallway, eyes unfocused, and suddenly found I was approaching Wes as he walked in the opposite direction. Images of the night we shared flashed before my eyes, and the anger started to boil in my system. I inhaled and attempted to cool it. Wes watched me attentively, his features hard and agitated. He didn't seem vindictive though, only annoyed. It was when I passed him by, I realized he didn't have any intention of retaliation. He wanted to forget about what had happened that night, and I couldn't be any more relieved. I wanted to forget it, too, as well as every other event leading up to the night in his car.
It was the first time in my history with journalism that I wished for nothing more than to be done with an unsolved story.
Liv had taken special notice of my behavior. While I had explained some of what happened to have put me in this state, I hadn't told her everything. Mainly, she knew about my falling out with James. When I told her the condensed story, her green eyes wilted. I wasn't sure why it had caused her such dismay, but she seemed particularly upset by the fractured working relationship James and I had established. I then explained the reason why we had gotten into an argument, and her expression became alive once again.
"He said what?" she had asked.
I simply nodded.
"That ass," she hissed. "I swear, I thought he was done acting like a prick."
I forced a laugh. "James O'Brian? That'll be the day."
Since then, Liv had made a point of staying by my side as much as possible. Though we didn't talk about it, she knew how much James's words had upset me. Liv understood my feelings on the injustice in Riverport: the disparity made me sick. All my sarcasm was rooted in the initial feelings.
That weekend, Liv had asked me stay over at her house again. At first thought, I hadn't wanted to; being so close to James rattled me inside out, and I was doing my best to avoid any feelings at the moment. But Liv had insisted, stating it would do me some good to enjoy a night without any reminders of what had been going on.
I laughed darkly to myself. The reminder what right next door to her.
In the end, I agreed. A night at Liv's house had never let me down before, and I knew her parents would have some idea I was in a foul mood, which would give them reason to prepare an even more exquisite dinner than normal. I was going to be consuming a five-star meal tonight.
Even when Liv pulled into her driveway, her beautiful white house glistening in the setting sun, I still found I had trouble dismissing the memory – a part from James – plaguing my mind. Harriet and the woman. It was as though it rested just below my skin's surface, and it was always ready to make an appearance. Especially in recent days, a part of me grew restless as the thought. I wanted to know what she had been up to.
As anticipated, Liv and I shared a restaurant worthy dinner inside the lowly lit dining room. Richard and Charles, who had both seemed to be tipped off by Liv, kept the conversation light. They made a few jokes and told some stories, which had broken off the rust around my shoulders. By the end of the dinner, I was laughing authentically and even joining in with their silly antics. Liv had wonderful parents, and I was thankful they were a part of my life. It was the first time in days I felt like myself.
"So, I have to tell you something," Liv said after dinner. We were tucked inside her magnificent bedroom with soft music floating around while we looked through a stack of magazines on her bed.
"Do you now?"
Liv nodded. "I – uh – well, I met someone."
This news had me tossing the magazine across the room. I then rolled from my back to my side and directed my full attention on her. "You what?"
Liv giggled. "Yeah, it's new. I mean, I don't know if it will turn into anything."
Lifting my arm, I nudged her shoulder. "Stop stalling. Tell me the details!"
A blushed bloomed on Liv's cheeks as she shimmied herself up into a sitting position against the wall of pillows. "He's – um – he's really nice. I met him in a class, actually. I don't know, it's all so new and everything."
"Liv!" I shouted, also ramming myself upright, but far less gracefully. "Spit it out! Name, looks, personality, date of birth, social security – all of it!"
Chucking to herself, she continued, "Oh, alright. His name's Isaac Reinhardt. He's cute" – Liv's blush deepened – "he's got really nice, deep skin, shiny black hair… Anyway, I met him in my ceramics class."
"Sounds like a dream – an attractive guy who knows how to use his hands."
Liv elbowed me. "He's really nice."
"I'm sure he is," I said. "He's got to be with you on the other end of the line."
Liv attempted to scowl, but she ended up looking more amused than anything.
"So, besides nice, what else does Isaac have going for him?"
Liv drew a breath like she was settling into a warm blanket. "I don't know – he's really thoughtful. Like, he remembered something I had mentioned in passing, and, just the other day, brought it up and asked me about it." I playfully shoved a finger down my throat causing Liv to roll her eyes. "He's funny. He makes me laugh all the time."
"Really laugh? Not fake-Liv-laugh just to be nice?"
"Really laugh," she said. "I like him, Maggie."
Though by default I wanted to make a sardonic comment, the look on Liv's face blocked the words. She was staring dreamily into the space before, a half smile resting upon her mouth. She really did like him.
"I'm happy for you, Liv. Really. He sounds like a good guy."
Liv nodded aptly. "He is. He's also on the football team, which, as you know, is a big turnoff for me traditionally, so I'm taking it as a good sign I like him this much."
I cut her off. "He's on the football team?"
Liv's eyes narrowed slightly, and she said, "Yeah. Why?"
In all the commotion and turmoil, I hadn't told Liv the exact outcome of my date with Wes last weekend. The only thing she knew was that it didn't end well. If I had explained the situation in its entirely, she would morph into her alter ego and hunt him down. Not that I didn't enjoy seeing the feisty version of Liv, but I didn't much feel like dragging her through my trouble, especially considering my actions hadn't been entirely ethical. Liv had warned me about continuing the fake relationship with Wes.
But the circumstances had now changed. Liv was seeing someone on the football team, and, even though I didn't know the full details, Wes had let enough slip to cause me great concern for anyone who dated a player. The Society, whatever that might be, was making the members keep track of their conquests in order to gain points for entry. I had to tell Liv everything, which is exactly what I did.
"Wes did what to you?" Liv's voice was shaky.
"Listen – it's okay. I'm fine."
"Maggie, he attacked you! Why haven't you told anyone about this?"
Truthfully, the thought had crossed my mind. However, I succeeded in talking myself out of it every time. For one, I had basically been leading Wes on. Did I deserve what happened solely based on this act? Of course, not. But there were a lot of other factors playing into the situation. Most notably, I had been investigating him. And the thought of the story caused me a lot of dismay these days. I wanted nothing more than to drop it – no matter how difficult that was proving - which was why I was trying to also drop the Wes incident.
"It's not a big deal – I'm fine," I said, and added, "Really," to attempt to ease the tightness of Liv's eyes.
"You could have been hurt, Maggie."
"I know." I needed to tell her one tiny detail further, but my mouth hesitated. "It's the reason James and I aren't talking anymore."
"Wes? Why?" Liv asked.
"Well, he was there that night. Turns out, he followed Wes's car." Liv's eyes doubled in size. "He thought I wouldn't be able to handle myself if Wes did anything. He was wrong, of course. I was perfectly fine and took care of it. He just gave me a ride home."
"He followed you?"
Sliding my eyes down from Liv's, I stared intently at my hands wrapped together. "Yeah."
"Wait," she began, "I don't get it. Why are you mad at each other?"
"Because he followed me."
With a parted mouth, Liv waited for me to elaborate.
"I told him not to! I could handle it myself. And I did!"
"Maggie," she said in a coddling voice, the one she used when she thought I was being irrational. "That may be so, but things could have gone much different that night. James… he was just trying to make sure you were safe."
I sighed a deep breath of air and glanced out Liv's balcony window. Blood was simmering beneath my skin, and, I realized for the first time in days, I didn't feel much like a zombie. As much as I wanted to deny it, Liv had a point, one I was going to have to face sooner or later. The thought of James still made my stomach clench, but, when everything boiled down, he had been just been trying to look out for me.
The thought, though, quickly disintegrated. My mind then traveled to the day before everything with Wes had happened, the day James had been over at my apartment for dinner. My insides were on fire again. I had a right to be angry with him.
"He doesn't care about my safety. He was doing it out of his own self-interest," I said.
"How can you say that? He followed you, Maggie, all the way out of the city, just to make sure you were safe."
I didn't want to believe her words, so I didn't.
Just then, the doorbell rang from downstairs. Liv and I both snapped our attentions towards the sound. It was a reprieve from all the turbulence swirling inside her bedroom. Moments later, a series of footsteps could be heard thundering up the staircase. A knock rapped on Liv's door, and then Charles appeared in the doorframe.
"It's for you, Margaret."
Slipping a glance to Liv before easing off the bed, I headed out the bedroom door after Charles. "Who is it?" I asked but was only met with a soft chuckle from Charles. I heard the padded footfalls of Liv trailing behind me.
Emerging into the foyer, I noticed another person was standing beside the door. Against the warm light flooding into the space stood James. He was fiddling with his hands, and his head was downcast. When his eyes shot up to find me, he stood to attention. I stopped dead in my tracks.
Noticing I had halted my journey, Charles turned to me and said, "We've lived next to James for years. He doesn't bite."
I didn't respond. I couldn't respond. My mouth was frozen shut, yet every inch of my skin burned.
"Can I talk to you, Ren?"
My eyes dove into James's. Despite every ounce of me fighting against it, my feet carried me forward.
"I'll leave you both to it, then," Charles said, casting me a grin and then heading for the living room.
"Let's go outside."
With a newfound mind of their own, my feet followed James out the grand front door.
The night air cooled my hot skin; a gentle breeze swept around the neighborhood, rippling through my loose hair and rustling the leaves laying in piles near the end of Liv's front lawn. James and I stood still beside one another on the porch, neither of us saying a single word. It was silent, and I could start to hear the sound of my own heart pounding in my ears.
I shivered. While the wind was mild, the air was crisp. It was probably close to freezing outside, and I hadn't grabbed my coat.
"Do you – let's go to my house," James said.
I trudged along after him. However, upon his front door opening. James and I were met with the sound of two angry voices firing words at each other like ammunition. It startled me, and I threw myself backwards on his porch. James shut the door with a snap, turned towards me, and said, "How about a drive then?"
For the second time in a week, I found myself inside of James's car. The smell – both new and somewhat earthy – was enough to send my thoughts delving into the past. It was as though my mind was looking at the memory with new lenses. Instead of anger at James's action during my night with Wes, I instead felt a sense of gratefulness. It was a strange feeling to look upon James as he drove down the winding road into the city and be filled with appreciation.
We were silent during the drive, but the air in the cabin was buzzing with electricity. My skin felt charged, and, looking to James for what felt like the tenth time that night, I noticed how taught his arms were braced against the steering while, and knew he was overcome with the same energy.
We were heading down a twisting road, deeper and deeper from the glimmering hilltop of the Westlake district. James slowed to a stop, the night filtering inside the windows, casting everything around us around in inky velvet. Then, the car stopped, and I glanced out the front window. We were on the edge the river. Even from inside the car, I could hear the current ripping wildly along.
James turned the key in the ignition, and the idling car fell silent. The overhead dimmers shone around us, and, for the first time since I saw him standing in Liv's foyer, I saw James's face in full view. His eyes weren't harsh as I expected, and his jaw wasn't set in its normal mold. He looked uncertain, nervous even. My body became a stone in the passenger seat.
"Ren, we need to talk." James's voice drove a wave of shivers down my spine.
"Okay," I said, barely louder than a whisper.
James glanced out the front window towards the roaring river, his thoughts swimming around just as loud in his head. I could almost decipher them.
"I need you to know – I don't hate you." His eyes still swam in the river. "I've never hated you, not really."
I gulped, and it was audible. James returned his attention to me and our eyes locked. "Of course, you hate me. That's our schtick."
He ran a hand through his hair with the tiniest hint of a smile. But it dwindled quickly. "I didn't mean what I said the other night at your parents."
"So why did you say it then?" I asked.
James drew a breath. "The same reason I said those things back in high school."
The memory of James at my apartment all those years ago swooped into my mind. We had been working on the article which was to represent our city by providing both insight from those who lived on opposing sides of the river. James's community and my community. We had done okay so far, and we interviewed a few people who resided in the Westlake district. It was when we had to do the same for my area, things went awry.
James was recording, and I was asking the questions. I knew a lot of people in my community and selecting those to interview didn't pose as much of a challenge. However, once I started to ask the questions, James became angry, telling me I was skewing the story. He said I was asking questions which would lead the interviewee down a designated path, leading the viewer to sympathize with my community.
And, he was right. I was. I was definitely biased when it came to the disparity that existed between the Westlaker's and us. The story was supposed to be an accurate representation of our city, and what better way to expand upon this by recording interviews with citizens from both places? The Westlaker's saw the city as a beautiful, thriving community full of many unique shops and quaint parks, while those from my area were subjugated and swept under rug, all the while keeping the city as neat and pretty as the Westlaker's were accustomed to.
James's had grown angry at this, and claimed it wasn't appropriate to take our story and turn it into exposé on what I viewed as a lack of equality. Despite my anger, I had acquiesced, just a little, because I could understand where James was coming from. Maybe this story wasn't the one to express all my pent-up feelings for a city that had done nothing for me but demonstrate how hard it was to rise above the category in which I was placed into at birth.
James had been invited to stay for dinner that night. My mom had made something delicious, because everything she made was delicious. James had had more than one serving. In my opinion, he seemed to have enjoyed himself. In later years, I wondered if I had read his signals wrong, or maybe he had just been a master at hiding his true feelings, because what happened after dinner had gone against the grain of everything leading up to it.
Slipping back into reality, I said, "You told my mom the kitchen wasn't hygienic and that you were worried about getting food poisoning. And then you left saying our apartment was a complete mess, and you couldn't understand how anyone lived like that." A thousand needles poked at my throat.
James's gritted his teeth as he closed his eyes. "I know."
"I had never seen my mom so upset after you left – never. And then you come back into our house and start to say the same things?"
"Ren, listen – I didn't mean what I said, okay? And I know it's too late for that, but I need you to –"
"No!" I said. "You don't get to say you didn't mean it just so you can clear some part of your conscious. I won't let you!" I tore my gaze from James and pulled at the door handle. It was locked. After flipping the switch, I threw the door open and launched myself into the cold air. The wind nearly froze the tears that had started streaming down my face as I strode towards the river.
The intermingled sound of water and wind howled wildly in my ears, but it wasn't quite loud enough to drown out the sound of crunching gravel behind me. I didn't turn around, and I didn't move any further. The only way to go would be over the cliffside and fall towards the river. James was beside me before I decided which outcome I preferred.
"My parents aren't really parents." I didn't say anything, and James took this as means to continue. "They work late hours, are gone all the time, and we never – never – share meals together. I can't even tell you when the last time we had… So, having dinner with your family and having regular conversation – I enjoyed it. I've been craving it."
Finally, I let my eyes move to James's. They were resolute, serious.
"Ren, I didn't mean those things I said. I was jealous, alright? I was a sixteen-year-old stupid kid who didn't know how to express himself properly and lashed out on your family because you had what I wanted. And here I am, five years later, and I still don't know how to express myself." James laughed bitterly. "I'm jealous of what you have. That's all."
"You're jealous?" I asked. I was trapped in an alternate universe; it was the only plausible explanation.
James ran his hand through his hair again. "You think it's so perfect up on that hilltop – I know you do – but it's not. It's an illusion. Money and power, what are they all good for? My parents hate each other, hate each other. And I'm caught in the middle. I'm counting down the days until I get out of here." James cast his eyes on the river. "You might not think it, Ren, but you have a good thing with your family."
"A good thing? My dad works himself to the bone day and night for a measly wage, my mom cooks, cleans, and stresses over us constantly, while my sisters are fighting the same injustice I faced when I was there age – being classified as nothing more than another kid from the east side. How is that a good thing?"
James groaned, but not in annoyance. "I know. I know that. I really do. But at least you have a family you can rely on. A family who cares."
A blew air from my lips. "You – your community – you have the power to change everything, but instead you all pretend like we're the problem, and not the product of one."
"I'm sorry, Margaret," James said, so quiet and warm I felt the goosebumps on my skin skyrocket and then nullify. "I'm sorry for everything. And I don't want us to stop working on this story, because we're on to something."
I sighed. "The story's a dead end, James. Wes didn't pan out with much, and I don't know where to go from here."
"Not that story."
My head snapped to his. "You want to keep investigating the missing children?"
James nodded. "We need to. Nobody else is going to do it, and the people of this city need to know what's going on – both sides of the river."
James and I each landed our eyes on the roaring Columbia River, the very center of our city, the line between to the two halves.
"It's quite the divide, isn't it?" I said.
Whew - I hope you all don't mind that I posted so many in a row! I would be SO grateful if you let me know how I am doing with this story. It's a lot different than anything I've every written before, and I would love to know what everyone thinks :)