Brandon gets to his feet. “My problem is we’re here because of you. We had to move because of you. You f**ked everything up!” Just like that, he’s gone. I sink down to the porch stairs, knowing everything he just said is right, but it’s the first time he’s actually said it to me.
I feel like hitting something. Slamming my fist into something as hard as the guilt pummels me. I screwed up getting Chrissy to meet Adam. I pushed her to tell when she didn’t want to and then I screwed up my family’s life, too.
“Hey.” Charlotte steps around the side of the house.
I’m looking at the ground, trying to calm down. “Hey.”
“So…your brother just totally lost it.”
I almost laugh and I’m pretty sure that’s what she wants me to do.
Charlotte stands in front of me for what feels like forever before she asks, “Wanna go for a hike?”
I risk looking up at her. She has this soft sort of smile on her face like she’s unsure of herself. I don’t know what she thinks there is to be unsure of. She knows I’ll go with her. I’m always down to do anything with her.
“Don’t you have to work?”
“It’s under control.”
I stand up and step closer to her. She’s not as tanned as I remember from last year, but that’s probably because it’s so early in the summer. She’s wearing another pink tank top, only this one is darker, and it makes me want to smile because I don’t think I saw her in anything pink before. She used to make fun of Sadie for wearing it.
I also notice her neck is bare, not that I can blame her. Why would she want to wear the necklace I gave her when I was such a prick for six months?
“Sure. Want me to grab us something for lunch?” Just looking at her makes me a little out of breath and then that makes me feel like a douchebag.
“I’ll take care of it.”
Charlotte jogs off, around the back of her house and heads in the side door, staying far away from the store up front where her mom and sister work so often. It takes her less than five minutes to come back out with a backpack on and her hair tied up in a knot.
“Come on,” she says, moving briskly. We head up the trail between her house and the cabins.
We walk through the field where everyone played night games a summer ago and hang a left up a path winding up the mountain. It isn’t too steep, and the trail is worn from the feet of many others who have taken this same route.
“I feel like a p**sy.”
“Ugh! I hate that word. Why do guys use it like that?”
I shrug. “Sorry. I feel like a wuss. Like you’re riding to my rescue or something.”
We’re walking side by side and she slows down a little. “Girls can’t ride to a guy’s rescue?”
“No, no. They can. It just makes us feel like pu—I mean, wusses.”
“You’re different. Than you were, I mean,” she blurts out before speeding up again. I think she’s trying to get away from me because of what she said.
Those words percolate around inside of me for a minute. I am different. I know it, but I don’t want to seem different to her. For better or for worse, I actually liked the way she seemed to need me last summer. Like I gave her something that no one else did, but now I’m the one who needs her. The thought makes my muscles tighten.
“I don’t want to be different. Not with you at least.”
She stumbles a little at my words. I grab her hand to steady her. I think about what it was like to hold her last night and I’m not sure I want to let go. Still, my hand pulls back. I’m not sure I have the right to hold her for no reason like that.
“Tell me how I’ve changed.” It’s not like I don’t know, but it’s different hearing it from her.
“You curse more,” she says. “And you’re quieter.” She pauses and continues onward, and I know she’s working through whatever she has to say. She did that summer. I always wondered if it was because everyone just assumed everything about her instead of asking her opinion and listening to what she had to say.
Finally she continues, “Last year when we were quiet…it felt okay. Like it wasn’t a big deal because words aren’t always necessary. Now, when you’re silent, it’s feels like you have too much on your mind to talk.”
This time it’s me who stumbles. How does she always know the thoughts going through my head, sometimes even better than I do?
I don’t want to be too sad to talk when I’m with her. “I’m okay,” I tell her because I want to be and it makes me feel weak to say anything else. I don’t know why I get sad sometimes. I mean, I guess I do because of what happened, but I don’t know if it should still weigh down on me like it does. Then, I feel like shit for thinking that way because Chrissy has to still be dealing with it, right?
“You also didn’t lie last year.” She smirks and then I do the same.
“Whatever.” The air around us isn’t has heavy as it was. I wrap an arm around her shoulders and pull her to me playfully.
Charlotte laughs as we keep going up the mountain, but then she whispers, “You didn’t fake it last year either.”
I don’t have to fake when I’m with you, I almost tell her, but it sounds too cheesy.
We hike for about an hour before we find a place to have lunch. I open Charlotte’s bag and see it’s packed with sandwiches, water bottles, and a blanket. Geez, I should have packed the food and I definitely should have carried the bag.
“You should have let me carry the pack up here.” Trying not to look at her, I lay the blanket down.
“Why?” she asks and those words draw my eyes to hers. I can tell she really doesn’t get why I would want to carry the bag. Little things like that are my favorite aspects of Charlotte. She doesn’t rely on anyone.
“I don’t know. You just should have.”
“I’ll remember that.” A small grin tips one side of her mouth up.
“You’ve changed, too.” We sit down and I open the lunch bag and give her a sandwich before grabbing one for myself.
“Yeah, right.” Charlotte rolls her eyes. “I’ll always be the same old Charlie Rae Gates. I’ll spend my life in Lakeland Village, take it over, and Alec will work with me. If you ask our parents, we’ll probably even get married one day—”
“—What? You’re planning on marrying Alec? Did you forget you’re sixteen?” Plus, Alec? I don’t want her to buy into all the crap that people expect to happen.
She shrugs. “Probably.”
I toss my sandwich down. “I thought you said you guys were just friends.”
She sighs and takes a drink of her water. “We are. You just don’t get it. He’ll be here. I’ll be here. He loves The Village.”
“But you don’t have to be here, Char.”
I don’t realize I used the nickname until I see a quick flash of what almost looks like panic in her eyes, though I’m not sure why she could panic over that. Maybe just because it’s the first time I used it.
“You don’t understand, Nathaniel. Never mind. I don’t want to talk about it with you.”
“Whatever,” I reply. And I think both of us know that’s the end of our hike for today.
Almost the second we come through the clearing and up to the main part of The Village, Mr. Gates and Alec look up at us from where they’re fueling the boats. One look and I can tell her dad is pissed.
“Charlie Rae Gates! You better have a good excuse why you disappeared when you knew I needed your help today. Your mom and you sister are both gone and Alec was supposed to have the day off.”
My gut sinks. She bailed on work because of me. Knew she’d get in trouble, but she did it for me.
“I’m sorry. I just—”
“There is no just about it!” Mr. Gates interrupts. “You know I depend on you. It’s not like you to skirt your responsibility like this. I’m extremely disappointed in you.”
“It’s my fault.” I hope like hell a lie will come to me quickly, and it does. “I got lost up on the mountain…and I called my brother’s phone, but I guess he left it and Charlot—I mean, Charlie found it. She came up and showed me the way down.” It feels strange to call her Charlie, but I have a feeling it’s the best thing to do around her dad.
“You got lost?” Alec tries to hide his laugh. I’ve never felt like punching him as much as I do right now. He’ll be here, I’ll be here…
Her dad gives me the evil eye. “I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again. I can help you guys out, if there’s anything I can do.”
Charlotte looks at me. “You can help me with—”“No. That’s not necessary. We can’t put you to work. You’re a guest,” her dad says, but it feels like there’s more to it than that. I almost tell him I’ve helped her before, when he wasn’t around, but I don’t want her to get into more trouble.
“Come on, Charlie. We have work to do.” Mr. Gates turns around and leaves, but not Alec, he walks right up to Charlotte, grabs her hand, and starts to walk away with her.
“Bye,” she blurts out over her shoulder. Still, she lets him lead her away.
Last year my parents made us go to some Fourth of July celebration with them, but this year, they’ve decided to stay at the cabin. I’ve held back a million times from telling them I thought this was supposed to be a family vacation, but it’s not like I really want to spend all sorts of extra time bonding anyway.
Brandon talked our parents into letting us take the car to town for the carnival. I’m not sure why he wants to go anyway. Sadie still gives him the evil eye whenever we’re around her. She’s still with whoever the guy is, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. I think she’s surprised he hasn’t come crawling back to her—I honestly am, too—but since he’s suddenly playing football with Alec and his friends again, I guess he doesn’t care about anything else.
“You haven’t been sneaking out the past few weeks.” Brandon takes a right turn to get onto the windy road that takes us to town.
“Thanks for telling me. I thought I had.” I don’t want to talk to him about Charlotte. He wouldn’t get it. He’s still always giving me shit about screwing her. It’s not like I can make him see that we’re just friends. It’s also not like he’d understand why things are awkward with us. Hell, I’m not even sure I get it.
“What’s up with you and her?”
Damn, what is this? I don’t get why he wants to start talking all of a sudden. We’ve never talked about girls before. “What’s up with you and Sadie?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious that nothing is. Whatever. Be a douchebag. I was just trying to talk.”
For a second I wonder if that means he needs to talk to me about something. It doesn’t take a genius to see something went down. Especially when you factor in he hasn’t really been seeing any girls since. Did Sadie somehow break my brother’s heart? Doesn’t seem likely, especially since he’s the one who ignored her. Plus, he doesn’t really seem to care about her, but I don’t know what else it would be.