He stood at the top of two large rocks by the river. His back was to me, straight and slim, his stance wide, hair flipping freely in the slight breeze. The soft bubbling over the expanse of boulders lay at his feet.
Something made my heartrate speed up, and I first thought it was fear. Why was he alone staring at the river like that? Was he contemplating something drastic? But his gaze was up into the sky, his head held high, and his shoulders broad. He could not be suicidal.
I watched him, unmoving, breathing slowed, eyes unable to tear themselves away. How long would he stand there? At first he appeared ageless to me in the reflection of the piercing sun on the glittering water.
“Vivien!” My stepmother’s voice broke the spell.
As if she had yelled an animal mating call in the middle of a library, I cringed and whirled to find her and quiet her with a death glare.
She was too far back down the rocky river trail, her head lowered, gaze scanning every step she took before she made it. She didn’t move as deftly as I did around the great outdoors that was our backyard here in Index, Washington.
In the half second it took me to spin back around, the guy was staring at me, and I realized he was a teen like myself. His body had rotated to face me, arms lowered, shoulders square. Self-assurance radiated off his chest like the sunbeams hitting the left side of his face. Brow furrowed, he gave me a look that seemed more curiosity than irritated at my intrusion. He stared openly, giving me pointed eye contact as if he were a fearless, all-knowing being, his eyes deep brown orbs.
I gawked helplessly back at him, fumbling with my shirt hem, feeling a bit like a peeping tom. “Hi. Sorry,” I muttered. “I live around the corner. Was just hiking the river.” Why was I explaining?
He waited silently, shifting to watch Nevira approach. His eyes and short, wavy, dark hair said part Asian to me. But he was also tall and fair. He wore jeans with torn cuffs and a hole in the knee. On me, they would’ve made me look like an impoverished urchin. On him they looked purposefully hip. A camel-colored corduroy jacket covered a white t-shirt with a low v-neck, and black Converse shoes completed his look. He had a stud in one ear and the sun glistened off of it every time he moved.
When he said nothing more, I floundered. “I’m sorry to bother you –”
He turned his head back to me. “I’m Ash.” His voice was as strong as his posture.
My stepmom was going to be there any minute, and then my part of the conversation would end. Nevira, Lord love her, still subconsciously treated me like a child who would open her mouth and spit out something horrific. Nevira clearly found it safer to speak for me in company. Or no one had told her she was an airwaves hog.
“I’m Vivien Lark,” I murmured, before Nevira trudged up, sweat soaking her blond hair.
We had hardly walked a half mile. I couldn’t believe she was already this tired. The bi-weekly treks had been her idea. Nevira had watched me slip outdoors for long hikes often this year, and had assumed her stepdaughter was retreating from her. She obviously thought it was a way to bond. I wasn’t sure I liked sharing my me-time. She was probably regretting her decision now.
Nevira swiped the back of a hand against a gaudy sweatband that clung to her forehead. She leaned over, hands on her knees, and took a deep breath. Reaching into her backpack – the thing must’ve weight twenty pounds, and was seriously overkill – she pulled out a gigantic, brand-name water bottle and guzzled from it.
Embarrassed, I poked her in her sweaty side. “Nevira, this is Ash. Just met him,” I whispered.
Nevira held up a hand for Ash. “Catching my breath,” she panted.
I was more mortified by the second but could come up with nothing new to say.
“Ash, do you live around here?” Nevira finally choked out, blowing wisps of loose bleached strands from her face.
“This is my stepmother,” I added, still grasping for words. He must never think we were actually related.
“Hey,” he replied simply, ignoring Nevira’s question.
Nevira steadied her aching sides with a hand on her waist. She pointed the other one in the direction we came. “We live like a block down that way. Our backyard has the white picket fence that opens up right on the river.”
I elbowed her.
She flashed me a puzzled frown.
“You don’t have to tell a strange teenage guy where we live!” I mouthed.
Nevira, ever the friendly one. Ever the clueless, helpless blonde, as my dad liked to say. I knew for a fact that opposites attracted, because my new stepmother was as ditzy as my father was smart. He seemed to love her for it, but she kept my blushing muscles working.
Nevira smiled apologetically at Ash. “You’re probably here for some fresh air and solitude, and we’ve interrupted your time with our asthmatic wheezing!”
“Speak for yourself!” I muttered, this time loud enough that I hoped Ash would hear.
He probably thought we were hillbilly Index hicks, overly-friendly and nosy as all get-out. Feeling my neck get hot, I took a step away, more than ready to put Ash behind me and move on.
Ash’s shoulders suddenly lost some of their tension, deflating under his fashionable corduroy jacket. He shrugged. “I come here often. I’ll probably see you around.”
I allowed a polite nervous smile and a quick bend of my wrist in his direction. Nevira laid a heavy hand on my shoulder for support. Sighing, I trudged forward, leading her over the least slippery path. For some reason, I was angry, thinking of the handsome, serious Ash seeing me with Nevira and thinking she was family.
“You’re not going again, Dad,” I whispered. The stiff, smooth leather of his briefcase handle in my hands felt like as much of an enemy as ever. I pinched it hard between my fingertips, willing it to crack and break. It was rare when I vocalized my wishes, and Dad had long stopped listening to them. He was buttoning his sleeves, shirt starched and spotless, tie pin gleaming at me like a goading, winking eye.
I used to love the smell of leather and shoe polish – I used to think the aroma belonged to my father alone. I was told I played with the tassels on his shiny black Oxfords before I even took my first steps, my drool clouding the perfect mirror-like surfaces.
I still kept his first red leather briefcase, hidden in the back of my closet, as if I were pretending I didn’t still love it with all my heart. When the handle had cracked, my father donated it to my dress-up collection, and I had played “Daddy Businessman” for weeks, shuffling precariously in those shoes of his. I slung one of his ties around my neck loosely, and the end flapped against my knees.
Mom had taken pictures.
That was before she left us.
She said he was obsessed with his career, he loved new business ventures more than he did anything or anyone else, and that I, his daughter was such a daddy’s girl that I would end up just like him. That we were all nothing but demanding on her – that she was losing herself.
I had been a bad three-year-old.
That was my only memory of her – telling me I was bad. I didn’t understand what I had done, and I still couldn’t fathom what was muddling the emotions boiling over in her brain that day. I only knew one thing: I wasn’t worth raising. My mom had made that abundantly clear when she left us for good, not giving even an inkling of where she was going. The wind blew through a back window to shut the front door hard after her – I remember that too.
But my father proved I wasn’t worthwhile as well, every year after, when he chose to travel month in and month out for his job.
Every time he prepared to go, I tried to crack the handle on his briefcase. When I was five years old, I was convinced that the world would run out of leather luggage if I could destroy enough, and my father would be forced to stay with me. Most of the time, I resorted to scissors when he wasn’t looking.
By the time I hit high school and my teens, Dad was convinced I needed “a woman’s hand.” For the most part, we had stopped communicating, and I, completely unaware of how to repair that, satisfied myself with longing looks at his back every time the roller suitcase emerged from its too-brief nap in the master closet.
I knew now that defaming his personal belongings would never have stopped him in the slightest. Our four thousand square foot house, right on Skykomish River, with its wrap-around porch and manicured arboretum-like garden, was proof of that. Dad had enough money to buy a luggage store, if need be. But it didn’t stop me.
Nevira came into our life after my fourteenth year. For the most part, she was benign. She tried to keep house and cook that first month before caving to Dad’s pleas that she hire a maid and chef. After that, she became the trophy wife she was supposed to be. Only fifteen years my senior, she put on a motherly air that made her seem as silly as a peacock without tail feathers.
She accompanied Dad on some of his business trips, and stayed home pretending to be mom to me the other half of the time. I put up with her whims, mostly because I wasn’t one to vocalize my complaints, and partially because I truly thought that, if I were completely alone any longer, I would go mad. Most of my childhood had been survived hiding in my room reading books and doodling mythical creatures, vainly trying to tune out the sounds of Spanish soap operas below. My previous nanny spoke not a word of English, and the TV had been her soulmate. The best part of gaining a stepmother was that Lolita and her romantic dramas had been dismissed for good.
“This will be the last trip of the quarter, Viv.” Dad attempted to comfort me, checking his tie in the gleaming reflection of the oven. Everything shone in the monstrosity of a house I called home. Sometimes I hiked outdoors just to remember what dirt looked like.
I don’t believe you. You always lie. “Mhmm,” I murmured, squeezing the leather handle in half until my palm started to sweat. It had been a long time since I had cracked a briefcase handle. At least I had stopped using scissors. Yet the physical attempt of it – the destruction – was my passive aggressive tradition, and I vowed to keep it up until I walked out of that home for good.
Maybe my father would miss me when I leave him like mother did. The thought strangled me, and I had to smother a sudden wash of tears.
For the first time that year, Dad was paying attention. “Choking up now that your old man is going? It’s just like any other time, Viv.” Dad’s slick, dyed, honey hair betrayed no gray. Maybe he thought the moniker “old man” sounded cute and homey.
“I’m so not choking up,” I muttered.
“Oh, sixteen-year-old girls are moody like that.” Nevira bustled into the kitchen with all of the awkwardness of an out-of-control spinning top. Her lipstick in one hand, she kissed my dad goodbye and then rubbed at the smear on his mouth. “Sorry, handsome.”
Looking over her shoulder at me, Nevira adopted what she probably assumed was a careful and concerned, motherly frown. “Vivien is really sullen these days, I think… and dreamy! Too dreamy for her age. I’m worried about her.”
Dad gave me all of a millisecond glance. “Watch some TV or order a pizza, Viv. Take some time to have fun. Finals aren’t for a while yet. Relax.”
Relax. It was Dad’s favorite word. Nevira and I were to be like his paintings on a wall in his home, relaxing. Doing nothing. Why didn’t he ever take his own advice?
“I’ve got to get to school.”
“No hug?” Dad smoothed out the crease in his briefcase handle after he picked it up off the barstool where I had been abusing it. Neither of us had ever acknowledged the ongoing feud between his briefcase and me.
Even though my whole body wanted to ignore his hug and trudge out of the house, a sudden tightening of my throat reminded me of my deepest fear: that one day Dad wouldn’t come back either. This might be my last hug, and I should treasure it and never refuse it. I couldn’t remember what it was like to hug my mom. Hugging Nevira felt like pressing a sack of rocks against yourself. Her fake bosom was anything but comfortable. Still, that was another good thing about gaining a stepmother – there was less chance Dad would leave both of us. Not with the googly-eyed gazes he still gave his second bride. There was a vicarious security in those gag-worthy looks.
As I hugged him, the fabric of the lapel smothered my cheek, the scent of the downtown drycleaner assaulting my nose. Then there it was, shy at first, and finally in my head at full volume: Dad’s musky cologne. I inhaled and held my breath. Please don’t let this be the last time I see you. Please be safe.
One week remained clenched in my junior year’s tight-knuckled fist. All that barred me from summer vacation were the gaping mouths of finals ready to swallow me whole. I can make it! Inwardly cheering myself on, I walked out the school gates with the regular flow of high schoolers heading home for the day. Lagging behind the group going in the opposite direction of my house, I dragged my feet against the cement of the sidewalk. Maybe stopping and getting an ice cream to-go would make studying more appealing. At this point, it felt like feeding myself piece by piece to a group of hungry crocodiles.
A bike approached the group quickly, whizzing down the paved street. I looked up, absently curious, and recognized the rider. Ash from the river.
Noticing me an instant before he passed, he locked eyes with me and winked.
My heart rose up in my throat. There was no denying that he was gorgeous and a little exotic. He was also a brand new face. I was positive he didn’t attend my school.
I was the least popular girl in school. My label was “the rich bitch” – how poetic – after Dad had given me commemorative coins to pass out to my friends on my birthday back in ninth grade. Not wanting to hurt Dad’s feelings, but embarrassed by the idea, I had simply arrived early and left them on everyone’s desks –like solitary alien eyes twinkling up at them.
The comments had been insulting, as I expected, and very soon someone traced the bizarre gifts back to me. It hadn’t taken them too long – Dad’s company name was on the back. It was obvious I was handing out expensive leftovers from a work party. It didn’t win me any friends, and, unfortunately, helped brand me for my next couple of high school years.
Forcing myself not to look backwards at Ash riding away, I focused on putting one step in front of the other as I trudged forward, fiddling with my backpack straps.
My town boasted one old-fashioned ice cream parlor kitty-corner to the school. Many high school sweethearts congregated after school and ate at Cheryl’s. It was quaint with pin-striped green walls, white and chrome barstools, and photographs of Paris. The owner also liked kids, and gave out free scoops once in a while.
I lived in the tiny city of Index, population 199, out in the middle of nowhere. The surrounding area was smothered in ancient trees, craggy mountain peaks that were always a delicious shade of purple, and muddy roads. In town everything was quaint and small. At the end of my street, a “general store” the size of my livingroom sat like a friendly nod to Bonanza.
No one was a stranger here. Dad had moved out here to “raise his child away from the busy city with fresh air and nature.” Except for his daily run, he still chose to spend his time in the mercury streetlights of Seattle over our country air and nature. I wished he had heeded his own advice.
Ash felt like a foreign object in a microscope slide of boring normal cells. There was no possibility that he had moved to the area. I knew every house that was for sale in town – a grand total of one. And no one had bought the Aspens’ rundown, unkempt antique yet.
Cheryl’s was full, but not packed tight. The saccharine smell of cold delight caressing my nose, I stood in line, swaying back and forth on my tiptoes to see the ice cream choices. I knew I’d probably just choose butter pecan again, but there was always the possibility bravery would actually visit me and I’d venture out of my norm and do something new. Yeah, so it was a relatively slim chance, but it existed.
After ordering a double scoop of butter pecan in a cup, and promising myself I’d be adventurous another day, I reached into my backpack for my wallet. A hand shot out behind me with a wad of cash and laid it on the counter in front of me.
“That was nice.” The owner, manning the register, smiled.
I spun to see Ash, standing so close I couldn’t move my arm without touching him. So I didn’t move.
He was tall. His chin could have rested on my short head. He grinned with one corner of his mouth, standing his ground in front of me and not politely retreating a step. He didn’t touch me but was close enough that I knew he must hear my rapid pulse.
I gaped at him, unsure of what to say. “Thanks.” I ducked my head, furious at my embarrassment.
Waiting a second or two too long, Ash finally stepped aside, and pointed back at the counter. My ice cream was waiting for me to begin breathing again and receive it.
It was so rare that a guy wanted anything to do with me besides get my phone number – something I was deathly afraid to give out. I didn’t drive yet and I didn’t have a cell phone. Nevira had deemed both “unsafe for minors.” I assumed she just wanted to keep me close to home so she could play mother longer. Either that, or Dad had confided in her about the suitcase, and they had both deemed me emotionally unstable. But the idea of Dad telling his wife about my suitcase mauling tradition made my insides quake in anger, so I avoided that thought like a disease.
I was also terrified of giving out my home phone and Nevira picking up and blabbering everything that came across her mind to whatever male sat captive on the other end of the line. So I said no to the guys who inquired. After that had happened a couple of times, I must have been labeled in the back alleys as a prig. No one asked again.
My knees were a little weak at the strange kindness, and I was in no hurry to leave. Wanting to see what Ash did next, I took a seat by the window, leaning my burning forehead on the cool incandescent tile counter. Summer was almost upon us, and the weather betrayed its upcoming presence. My skin was damp from the short walk down from the school. And my head hummed with excitement.
Ash sat down in an empty booth, holding a cone with something chocolate perched on top of it. He pulled out his smart phone and kept his head down, zoning in on the screen. I noticed he wore the same outfit that I had first seen him in – white t-shirt, camel jacket, and ripped jeans. Strands of his dark hair flopped down over his forehead, his head bent. He licked the ice cream every few seconds, cleaning his perfect lips after every bite.
I didn’t realize I was gawking at him until someone clattered down onto the stool next to me, obscuring my view. My cup of butter pecan sat forlorn and forgotten on the counter. I turned back to it and stirred it lazily, shoulders slumping. I tucked my black hair behind my ears and forced a spoonful of cold sugar into my mouth, my taste buds numb. Familiar cold weight filled my chest. Even when someone reached out to me in kindness, I was paralyzed with lonely dread, unable to respond. I was sick of myself.
As if my feet had grown tired of my pathetic brain, I found myself standing, pushing back from the stool. The metal seat squeaked as it spun, and I recoiled. But my legs weren’t finished with me. As my hand absently reached out for my bowl of ice cream, my feet started moving towards Ash’s booth. While my chest clenched in panic, my legs didn’t stop until I was sliding into the bench across from Ash, and sitting right in front of him. The hard, sparkly plastic of the seat burned into the backs of my shorts, screaming at me to retreat.
Horrified, I sat still, silently placing the cup in front of me and waiting, my eyes wide. The noise of the busy parlor masked my quickened breathing.
Ash glanced up at me, his eyebrows cocked. He put the phone down on the table and licked his ice cream. “There you are. I thought you’d just sit across the room and stare at me until you burned a hole into me with your eyes, but I’m glad you came to join me instead.”
Heat flipped my stomach. I stared down at my cup. “Sorry. I’ve just never had anyone pay for me before like that. I wanted to thank you and not be so rude.”
Ash thrust his ice cream forward at me. “Want a taste?”
It was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “Of your ice cream?” I squeaked.
He smiled with both sides of his mouth this time. “Yeah, I’ll trade you. I want to try your butter pecan too.”
Was this a date now? Sharing germs with a strange guy? What if he was a psychopath?
“I’m not a weirdo stalker, I promise.” He held up a palm, as if reading my thoughts.
I could feel my nose turning pink by this point, so I threw my face forward, closed my eyes, and clamped my mouth over the tip of his ice cream. I hated chocolate-flavored anything, but that was the furthest thing from my mind. I couldn’t taste it anyway. My whole head burned.
Ash was still smiling when I opened my eyes. He reached for my spoon and filled it with a generous scoop of my butter pecan. Slowly, and almost reverently, he brought it to his lips. Closing his eyes as if in great pleasure, he swallowed it, and then opened one eye to peek at me. “Is this how I’m supposed to do it? You have to close your eyes to eat ice cream?”
He was teasing me. I tittered and then cleared my throat. “No…” I murmured.
“I’m sorry. I’m teasing you.”
Are you reading my mind too?
He put more ice cream on my spoon and held it out to me, handle facing me. Cocking one eyebrow, he nodded at me to take it.
Hands jittering nervously, I took the spoon from him, careful to make sure our fingers didn’t touch. I then proceeded to shovel more ice cream into my mouth.
Ash picked up his phone, sliding it into his inside jacket pocket. After another few licks, he dropped his chocolate ice cream onto a napkin lying on top of the table, and grabbed another one out of the metal dispenser to use on his hands. “I visit your Skykomish River often but this is my first time in Cheryl’s.”
I swallowed the ice cream that had been melting, forgotten, on my tongue. “Where are you from?”
The closest town up the road from me. I couldn’t imagine him being able to bike back home. It was nonstop uphill. “Did you bike here?”
“Yeah.” Ash put his clasped hands on the table in front of him and gave me eye contact once more.
I stared back down at my cup of melting butter pecan.
“You live here in town, Vivien?”
At first hearing my name surprised me, but then I remembered I had introduced myself at the river. “Yeah. We’re over the bridge near the white water rapids shop. At the end of that street.”
Recognition crossed over Ash’s face and he nodded. “Ah. The great big place?”
“I’ve biked all through here after hiking and swimming the river,” he explained.
We sat in silence for a minute. I stole a peek up at Ash, but he was still watching me, seemingly lost in thought. He seemed confident in his own skin, not shy and covertly wringing his hands like I was doing under the table.
I forced myself to keep the conversation going. “I’m a junior. Finals are this week.”
“Same. We finished last week.”
I realized that Ash’s smooth voice was rapidly putting me at ease. “Do you have friends you meet while you’re here? I’m not in their spot, am I?” I glanced around the parlor, hoping I wouldn’t have to get up – or worse, share a booth with more strangers.
Ash smirked and bit his lip, for the first time looking like a normal teenage guy. “Nah. I just moved to Gold Bar. But if I did, I’d tell them to get lost. I’d rather be with the pretty, raven-haired girl I bought ice cream for, of course.”
The compliment came off his tongue so easily that I marveled. “Raven?” I giggled.
Ash squinted one eye at me. “You have cool hair.”
The nerves in my toes tingled and I couldn’t speak.
Ash closed his eyes for a long minute. “It reminds me of my mom’s. Hers is jet-black too. She’s originally from Thailand. She’s beautiful – at least when her eyes aren’t bloodshot and swollen from sleepless nights drinking.”
My brow furrowed. I was quiet, wishing he would stop speaking, but afraid to try to silence him. Why was he telling me this? Mothers… There wasn’t a fouler subject in the world according to me.
“DUI.” Ash picked at his ice cream cone, tearing pastry under his fingers. His strong, lean chest took a weary breath, and his shoulders drooped. “One too many DUIs actually. It’s a wonder she didn’t kill anyone in any of her accidents. They locked her up for three years.”
My eyes were as dry as sandpaper and my chest closed in on my heart like protective steel.
“Sorry!” Ash straightened up and laughed. “Don’t know how I got onto that. I don’t do small talk well.” He ran a hand through his burnt chestnut hair.
I was supposed to comfort him, to say something polite and charitable. But I was silent and my body had gone cold.
All mothers fail their children. It was something I had steeled myself against ever caring about again.
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