Spring Break

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Chapter 11

Elise bit her lip and stayed quiet.

“You know firsthand what assholes the Kardezas are. But when we offered you a chance to live among them, you thought of taking it,” Jay continued. “You wanted to sell your soul for a ridiculous show called Skinterns, for fuck’s sake. Did you know I proposed that show as a joke? Chandler stole that fucking stupid idea.”

The whole lobby was watching him now.

“And you wonder why Paul thought he might be doing you a favor by capturing shots for the gossip magazines,” he said. “Headlines like that sell big. That’s what we thought you wanted. And now that Paul’s dad is dying, God forbid he take the money for himself and go home to Michigan.”

Jay stared at them both.

“But it turned out we were wrong about you, Elise,” he said as he turned to walk away. “When you had Chase Rinehart wrapped around your finger, you chose him. That’s not the way we thought it would go.”

“Yeah, and I ruined it,” Paul said.

He looked Elise in the eye one last time. “I’m sorry you met me,” he said. “I hope you’ll be able to forgive me one day.”

The security guards grabbed him by the arms. “Off you go,” one said as they hauled Paul away. “You’ll never step foot in this resort again, you hear?”

He looked back at her, but Elise turned her head in disgust.

Elise ran back to her suite and flopped onto the bed. No one was there. She closed the blinds, blocking out the warm sunshine until the room was as dark and cold as she felt. At least her tears felt soothing on her sunburned cheeks.

She remembered the dream she had earlier. She was waking up alone to a soul-crushing reality. And this reality wasn’t fit for TV.

Elise didn’t sleep that night. At dawn, she got out of bed and pulled the curtains aside to watch the sunrise.

The morning sky was dark and overcast, and the ocean looked grey and uninviting.

Elise slipped into her jeans and a t-shirt. She was as quiet as possible as she left the suite, hoping to disappear before Carson awoke.

She didn’t know where she was going. She took a right on the street outside the resort. It became a winding country road dotted with cottages.

Families owned those tiny houses before Right Now moved in. But now most of them looked shuttered and lonely.

They’ll be gone by next year, Elise thought with powerful sadness. There will be a huge new resort and casino sitting on top of those houses where families used to live. Happy and humble families. Imagining them sitting on the porch or around the dinner table made her so miserable she wanted to cry.

“Why did I ever come here?” she whispered to herself as she wandered down the road. “Why?”

A black pickup truck pulled over to the curb.

“Elise,” Paul called out. She kept walking, ignoring him.

“Elise, please talk to me,” he said, stopping the truck.

“Give me one reason why I should,” she replied.

“Well, if I never see you again, there’s something I have to tell you.”

She waivered for a moment, unsure of whether to keep walking. Finally, she opened the passenger door and slid into the seat.

“What is it?” Elise asked. “An excuse for why you’re a complete creep?”

“No,” Paul said. “I won’t make up excuses. And I’m banned from the island already. But I would risk going to jail to talk to you.”

“Why should I be here?” Elise asked again.

“Please, listen,” Paul said. “I think we’ve met before. The night of the accident, I think you were there.”

“You mean the suspicious accident that killed your brother?” Elise asked, feeling more panicked by the second.

“No, it wasn’t suspicious,” he said adamantly.

“It’s really hard to believe anything out of your mouth,” she replied. But from the look in his eyes, she couldn’t imagine that he was lying.

“Let me tell you the story,” he said.

She took a deep breath. “I’m listening.”

Eight Years Earlier

“Hey PJ,” a boisterous voice yelled. “Catch!”

It was autumn in Pine City, Michigan, and Paul was a senior at Pine City High School. He was also the quarterback of the football team.

Jimmy McGrath, one of his two best friends, came running up behind him. “You should see the team we’re playing this weekend,” he said. “They’re total rednecks.”

The older Paul Kilcher looked up at them from his team roster. “Hey, what did I tell you two about getting cocky?”

“We have this one in the bag,” said Mike Womack, Paul and Jimmy’s other best friend.

There were nice days and there were beautiful days in northern Michigan; this day was perfect. It was the fall color season. Tourists from downstate flocked north when the leaves turned brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow.

Downstaters called the rugged, sparsely populated pine forest north of Route 10 “up north.” Paul, Mike and Jimmy called it home. They were the football stars of Pine City High School, about to take the team to the State Championship.

The next hurdle in their quest to become state champions was a playoff game against Jonesboro, a tiny hamlet deep in the woods.

“You should see their team, dude,” Mike said to Paul and Jimmy. “We’re talking straight-up Deliverance Country boys. It should be an easy win.”

Paul’s dad, Coach Kilcher, didn’t appreciate talk of easy wins. As the much-loved varsity football coach and a Gulf War veteran, he taught his players to never take victory for granted. Although Jonesboro was home to trailers, one convenience store, and two churches, they were good. Very good.

He also didn’t tolerate his players mocking their opponents. In fact, he couldn’t stand watching them be cruel to anyone. Why? Probably because Paul’s fourteen-year-old brother, Wade, had Down’s syndrome.

Wade went to Pine City High School, too. He was a freshman, and he was Paul’s biggest fan. He worshiped his big brother even more than the rest of the school. He was the football team’s official mascot.

Paul loved Wade. He loved stopping by the special needs classroom before the school pep rallies to grab Wade. He hoisted him onto his shoulders after the big wins. He loved to run off the field and into the late-summer sunset against the horizon of pine forests.

Jimmy and Mike loved Wade too. But since sophomore year, Mike had loved him for all the wrong reasons. One summer day, they were heading off to the tiny beach on Lake Missaukee. On one side of the lake were cottages owned by wealthy downstaters. On the other side was the Pine City beach, where the boys from Pine City High went to flirt with girls.

That afternoon, Wade followed them.

“Dude, we cannot bring him,” Jimmy said.

He hesitated after seeing the pained look on Paul’s face. “You know we can’t give him our full attention at the beach.”

Jimmy knew Paul was sensitive about Wade. When they were younger, the kids who hissed insults like “retard” might as well have stabbed Paul in the heart. As soon as he grew into a tall, muscled quarterback, he beat them up.

Mike was a big brute of an athlete who wasn’t near as gentle toward Paul and Wade.

“Seriously?” he said. “PJ, this kid is like a girl repellent.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out two one-dollar bills.

“Wade, do you like Kit-Kats?”

“Yeah,” Wade said.

“Why don’t you walk to Pine Mart and get one?” Mike said.

“Wow! Thanks, Mike!” Wade exclaimed.

“He can’t...” Paul started to say. Pine Mart was the town grocery store where everyone in Pine City shopped on Saturdays. Paul knew his parents might get a phone call telling them that Wade had been there alone.

“Dude, really?” Mike said. “Stay home with him, then.”

“Don’t do that,” Jimmy said. “Wade can handle walking to Pine Mart.”

“Don’t you get sick of babysitting?” Mike asked.

Paul said nothing, feeling the peer pressure eating away at him. He turned to Wade.

“Come right home, you hear?”

“I will.”

“One more thing, Wade,” Mike said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a mini bottle of Wild Turkey whiskey, his drink of choice.

“If you see one of these, put it in your pocket,” Mike said in a condescending singsong tone. “Okay, Wade?”

“Are you serious, Mike?” Paul exclaimed.

“Jesus, Kilcher, I’m kidding,” Mike said. “What’s your problem?”

“Tell Wade you’re kidding,” Paul demanded. “Or else we’re not going anywhere.”

“You sound like my mom,” Mike said. “Stop being such a pussy. I ought to put a frilly pink dress on you already.”

“Shut up before I knock you out,” Paul said.

And shut up he did. Mike was the loudmouth jerk of a jock who ruled the school and threw all the best parties, but Paul was the strongest.

“Wade, I’m just kidding,” Mike said with a slight sneer as they walked out the door.

Paul, Mike and Jimmy were swimming with the junior cheerleaders when they heard Wade shouting. He ran down the hill toward the beach.

Mike turned to Paul. “Just so you know, I’m pretending not to know him.” But Wade bounded up to Mike anyway.

“Big Mike,” Wade said, calling him by his nickname, “I have a surprise for you!”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a mini bottle of whiskey.

“Holy shit, he actually did it!” Mike exclaimed. Jimmy laughed, too, until Paul shot him an enraged glare that shut him up in an instant.

“Give it to me,” Paul said with an outstretched hand.

“No,” Mike shot back, cracking the bottle open and taking a gulp of straight whiskey. “You heard him. It was a gift for me.”

He back-slapped Wade, who basked in Mike’s towering presence, feeling anointed.

“The little retard ain’t so bad, PJ,” Mike said.

Paul snatched the Wild Turkey out of his hand, shoving Mike backward with a forceful slam to the chest.

“Come on Wade, let’s go,” Paul said.

He tossed the bottle into the lake, feeling tears well up in his eyes.

Life in Pine City was more fun before they discovered drinking. Paul was in ninth grade when Mike presented him with a can of cheap beer and challenged him to drink it. They were in Mike’s basement at the first party of the school year.

“I don’t want to get in trouble,” Paul said.

“Pussy,” Mike retorted.

It was his favorite insult. Paul recoiled at the nasty words Mike hurled at anyone who challenged him: Pussy. Faggot. Cocksucker. He often had to fight back the urge to smack him. Then again, Paul knew he learned it at home. Mike’s dad was a mean-faced ex-Marine. He got kicked out of football games for hurling obscenities and reeking of whiskey. At Mike’s house, Paul saw Mr. Womack pour an amber-colored drink into a glass of coke, usually after an especially vicious tirade. The bottle had a picture of a turkey on it.

Being the star jocks of the school was fun, but in secret, Paul pined for his childhood. He grew up on a Christmas tree farm on the outskirts of Missaukee County, which had one claim to fame. It was the Christmas tree capital of the world. Paul loved that farm. He adored the smell of the pine needles, which he wished he could bottle and carry around forever. He loved Christmastime, when merry families arrived to cut down trees. Paul’s dad would help them strap the tree to the roof of minivans or load them into the back of pickups. They always said “Merry Christmas” as they drove away.

One of Paul’s earliest memories was standing against the wooden fence on the outer edge of the farm. He and peered through the posts at the little towhead boy on the other side. The little boy had a yellow toy truck and a red wagon.

“Do you want to be friends?” the little boy asked Paul.

A man’s deep voice called him. “Hey, Buddy!” the man yelled. “Where’d you go, little buddy?”

The boy’s name was James John McGrath, the youngest in a family of five boys. Mr. McGrath had called him Buddy, so that was what Paul called him.

“I’m PJ,” Paul said before the little boy went inside.

His next memory was of the day his parents told him he would have a little brother. Paul already had two big sisters, Rachel and Emily. The day his parents told him he was getting a baby brother was the best day of his life. Mom’s belly grew until the night she and Dad went to the hospital.

Two days later, they came home, empty-handed.

“Where’s my brother?” Paul asked as he padded into the room.

Instead of cradling a newborn in a blue blanket, Mom was crying.

“Your brother is going to live with another family,” Mom said.

Paul screamed “No” until his breath ran out. He dropped to the floor and flailed his legs, kicking and screaming. “No, no, no.”

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