This is not usually how Alec and I do it, but I will be able to run faster without my gun. And…maybe it’s not something I should be thinking, but it feels good to think of him having my back.
“Let’s do it.”
He squeezes my hand tighter. I forgot he even had it. “If we win, you have to meet me tonight.”
My brain tells me to say no, but my heart is beating to say yes. The word is pumping through every part of me. There’s no other option. “Okay.”
Nathaniel smiles and I think it might be the best smile in the whole wide world. I bet his girlfriend loves that smile, too.
“Ready?” he asks. “On the count of three.”
I set my paintball gun down.
“One,” he says. Pauses. “You can do this. Run fast. I’ll be right behind you.”
I nod again. Who knows if he can see me but once we step into that field, everyone will be able to. The lights are that bright.
As soon as the word leaves his mouth, I run. Run with everything I have. My chest hurts. My legs hurt. Nathaniel is right behind me.
“Keep going. Shooting on your right,” he yells. I hear the pop, pop, pop of his paintball gun. I keep running. Brandon curses. Alec and Nathaniel are shooting at each other. I don’t pay attention. Just keep moving. As soon as I get there, I grab the flag and Nathaniel grabs me and jerks me into his arms. He lifts me up and we laugh, not a drop of paint on either of us.
I sit in the dark, waiting for it to be time to meet Nathaniel. It’s like there’s electricity inside me. A live wire that’s flipping all around because I’m anxious to have another of our nights together and because it seemed so important to him that I meet him. I know it makes me sound bratty, but when he didn’t push for it sooner, it made me feel like it didn’t matter. I think maybe I wanted him to…maybe not fight for me to meet, but to pull for it. To show me he wanted it and he did and that means more to me than the knowledge that this will make it hurt more when he leaves. He’s here now and I don’t have anything else I look forward to.
I’m taking this.
Quietly, I push my widow open and crawl out. The “pillow me” is under the blankets. Not like anyone will check on me, anyway. As soon as my feet hit the ground, I hear Mom’s voice surfing on the wind as it drifts from her and Dad’s partially open window.
“I’m so tired of this place! I tried to make it work, but I don’t want this life, Richard!”
“We’ve been okay,” Dad replies. “Things have been better. We’ll close for a week or so and take a trip this fall. Get out of here for a while. This is our life, Tabitha.”
“A life only you want! You and Charlie Rae love it here. This place fits you. I just…I want to take Sadie and go. You can go, too. We can sell and—”
“No! I’m not selling. This is our past and our future. How can you just want to throw it away? And what about Charlie? You’re going to leave her?”
“She can go if she wants.”
I grab my chest. Fight to breathe. Tears fill my eyes and I turn to run. I stumble and fall, but get right back up again. They’re leaving? She wants to take Sadie and leave? Leave me? I stop when hope fizzles in my veins. I could get out of here. How could I want to leave Dad? I don’t. I love him. And it’s not that she really cares if I go or not.
Her words hit me again and I dry heave. I fall to the ground again and cry. They’re going to leave and I’ll be stuck here. Then the guilt mixes in, making me nauseous. Is here really that bad? I don’t like it, but I would never just bail.
“Charlotte?” Nathaniel’s voice comes from behind me. “What’s wrong?”
I scramble to my feet, embarrassed that I’m on the ground crying. All I can think about is the fact that they’ll get out of The Village to find a new life, and then I hate myself for wishing for the same thing.
Nathaniel steps toward me. I try to turn my head away, but he ducks and follows, tilting my chin toward him. “What’s wrong, Star Girl?”
I watch him in the moonlight. His eyes look like they belong in the sky and I want to talk to him. I want to tell him things because I need to get the words out. Nathaniel has the key that can set them free before they eat me alive.
I can’t talk to Dad, Mom, Sadie, or even Alec. Not about this, but more than anything I want to tell him. “I hate my life.” If there was a way to snatch back those words, I would. They sound so end of the world and I’m not like that. I’m a realist. I know how things work and I usually don’t run so high on emotions, but…I think he might get what I mean. I hope he will.
“Wow…that’s pretty brutal.” There’s a laugh in his voice and it’s just what I need. It makes me smile when two seconds ago it felt like I’d never smile again. In this second, I’ll do anything to forget what I just heard. The thoughts are still there. They can’t disappear that easily, but they aren’t what I want to focus on right now.
“I want to show you something,” I tell him.
Nathaniel nods and I head down path that will lead us where I want to go. When I get there, I disappear into the trees. Nathaniel steps up beside me and grabs my hand. It’s not the way Alec and I have held hands before. Our fingers are weaved together and I like how his hand is a little bit bigger than mine.
We don’t talk as we follow the trail into the night, each of us carrying a flashlight in our free hand. It doesn’t take long to get to the fort my dad made us when we were kids. It’s a decent size. Alec and I used to have secret meetings out here with our friends so it’s big enough for a small group of kids to stand inside.
The little plastic table we used to keep out here is long gone, and the place is empty, but I like to come out here now and again. Alec and I used to play in the creek running behind the fort.
“What is this place?” Nathaniel asks.
“It used to be my hideout.” I shine the light inside. There’s no door or anything like that. “It’s not much, but when I was younger I used to think it was the most amazing thing in the whole world. I helped my dad build it.” That was back when I thought The Village would always be the place for me.
“That’s cool. None of my friends back home have stuff like this. And my dad was always too busy to help us make one.”
I nod at him. “Let’s go out back.”
If I’m being honest, I’ll admit it’s a little scary out here at night, but I grew up stomping through this place. Kids party on the mountains in Lakeland Village. It’s just a part of our lives.
When we get behind the fort, Nathaniel asks, “Why were you crying?”
I sit down and he follows right behind me. “I thought you were so different that first day. I thought you would be scared to get dirty or something.”
Nathaniel laughs. “Wow. Thanks. And you’re stalling.”
I pull my knees to my chest and wrap my arms around them. I let my light dance around the trees and look up to see the stars. “Why do I feel like I can talk to you?”
“Because you don’t know me.”
Maybe that’s true, but I also want to tell him I do. I do know him. Maybe not everything that matters, but I know him.
“When I was little, I thought The Village was magical. We were so lucky, right? People paid us to stay here. We cleaned boats and took people on tours and I could swim all I wanted or explore out here. Dad and I would make things and Sadie and Mom would mostly stay inside, but they’d tease us and we laughed and everything felt okay. I never thought I wanted to leave.
“And then as I got older, I realized that Mom hated it more and more every year and Sadie never really liked it and I started to watch the stars. It feels like nothing matters when I look up there, ya know? I used to dream about getting to study them one day, but I never really got the fact that I would have to leave to do it. When that occurred to me, I thought I would just be happy watching them. It was then that the stars became my magic instead of The Village.”
For a second, I think maybe I should be embarrassed saying all of these things to him, but I’m not.
“You don’t want to leave one day?” he asks.
“No. I do. That’s the problem. It’s like, I’m suffocating here now. I love it, but I don’t.”
“You only have a few more years till you’re off to college.”
I shake my head. “Who would help Dad if I left?”
“Can you just come home for the summer to help him?”
“We’re open all year. It’s not nearly as busy, but there’s ice-skating on the pond in the winter. There’s an apple orchard close that people like to visit in the fall. Wagon rides take them back and forth from here to the orchard. We don’t get people who stay months at a time, except in the summer, but people do come.”
He still doesn’t look convinced, so I add, “You don’t get it. It’s always been Dad and I versus Mom and Sadie Ann. He depends on me and he loves this place so much. He thinks I love it too and I do, but—”
Nathaniel brushes the hair back from my face. “You want to follow the stars.”
“I do… And planets. They all fascinate me.”
“What happened tonight?”
Automatically, I open my mouth to tell him. “I don’t think my mom loves my dad anymore. She said she wants to leave…to take Sadie Ann and go.” The words make it all too real again. My chest aches.
“Shit,” Nathaniel mumbles and puts an arm around me. I drop my head to his shoulder and let a few silent tears trickle down my face. He doesn’t talk and that’s perfect. He just lets me be and holds me because nothing he could say would fix this. I’m grateful he seems to know that.
We sit like that for a long time. He smells fresh like after the rain, but with a hint of something else. I hear him breathe and wonder if he hears me, too. Finally, after who knows how long, I can’t stop myself from asking the question that’s filled my head since Sadie told me.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
Nathaniel stiffens beside me. It’s all the answer I need, but he offers one anyway. “Um… Kind of.”
I chuckle and pull away from him. It hurts my chest, but it’s not something I didn’t know. “You can’t kind of have a girlfriend.”
“I’m serious. We were together. We’ve been together since December, but when summer came, and we knew I would be leaving, we decided to take a break.”
I sigh. “But you’ll get back together when you go home.”
He looks like he doesn’t want to answer. “Probably.”
I nod, not willing to let myself cry again. There’s no point. What will the tears do? It’s not his fault I like him. That I…what? Became infatuated with him the second I saw him? It’s so stupid. It serves me right that he ‘kind of’ has a girlfriend.
“You’re so freaking cool, Charlotte. I wanted nothing to do with this place when my parents told me we were coming. Both Brandon and I were pissed, but we’ve had a kick ass time. You’re fun to talk to and I’ve never met another girl like you. You’re like…hell, you’re almost like my best friend.”