Eight Years Earlier
I check my watch for what feels like the fiftieth time in the last hour. I’ve been sitting on the same itchy sofa that has obviously seen better days, for what feels like forever. I’m not sure why I even agreed to come to this stupid party. I mean, it’s not like Carson Vader is even a graduating senior this year. But he is on the football team and there’s no way the class of 2013 will turn down free alcohol.
I lift my untouched beer off the glass coffee table and pretend to take a sip before setting it back down again. I’m not sure why I even bother with the pretense. Pretending to drink is for girls who want to avoid boys bringing them one and I don’t have that problem in the slightest. I’m pretty much invisible at Peach Creek High School and believe me, that’s hard to do with a town population totaling less than five thousand. However, I guess when you grow up the town trailer trash, invisible is preferable to the alternative.
There’s only one person in this world that sees me better than anyone, that knows everything about me. That I know will always be there for me no matter what. My best friend, Cin.
The only problem is, my brain can’t seem to comprehend that what is clearly platonic love on his end, is all that we’re meant to have. I just wish the uncomfortable tightening in my chest would take a night off so I can do what I need to.
Don’t chicken out now.
I lean back into the uncomfortable sofa and sigh, then check my watch again because exactly forty seven minutes ago, Cin headed upstairs with Belinda Carter, junior class president and captain of the swim team. I haven’t seen him since.
I wish I could say that this pathetic behavior I’m exhibiting at the moment is a onetime deal, but then I’d be lying. I might not attend all the parties— well, any parties really— but that doesn’t mean I haven’t spent an entire Saturday night sitting around at home waiting for Cin to call at some ungodly hour. Those are the moments I look back on that make me cringe. If I have any regrets about high school at all, it’d be having Cin as my only friend. I’ve always been shy, pretty reserved in a way that doesn’t yield many female friends and although I’ve come a long way since the trailer park, people around here don’t forget so easily. They just get better at hiding their disdain behind polite smiles— or worse, the blank, indifferent glances that say I don’t even see you.
I can’t wait until college. There was a time when I never thought I’d even go, but that’s just another thing Cin wouldn’t stand for. I snort at the memory of sitting at the dining room table while studying for the ACT. Cin all but told me off, saying “People with straight As go to university.” At the time, I’d brushed him off. Doing well in school to get to college wasn’t my end game. School was a vessel I used to exhibit some modicum of control over my life. I needed something, anything to separate me from the name I bore. I didn’t work for a four-point-five GPA for anything other than the satisfaction it gave me to say I was nothing like my drug-addicted mother and deadbeat father. But, like always, Cin wore me down. So, I applied to every school in the state of Georgia and I’ve decided to attend a prestigious all-girl college, with plans to major in business management.
On the outside, my life finally seems to be coming together after so many years of disappointment and dysfunction. However, my emotions? My heart? Remain in a perpetual state of longing for something I’ll never have.
At exactly eleven thirteen, Cin stalks down the stairs with an easy confidence I’ve come to love and envy all at once, over the years. His dark, almost black curls are a little mussed and those dimples of his are prominent in his wide grin. Like the sucker I am, I follow him with my eyes all of the way to the kitchen, exhaling with relief when I don’t see Belinda straggling behind.
I watch as he chats and laughs with a few of the guys on his baseball team, their eyes glittering— still on their high from winning the state championship.
And just like the sucker I’ve always been, when Cin directs his attention toward me, my belly flips.
‘Are you ready to go?’ He signs to me and I nod. I wait patiently by the front door as Cin says his goodbyes to his friends and once I’m outside, I inhale the fresh air to swish out the stink of teenage drunkenness.
Grateful to have Cin to myself finally, I follow him to his jeep and hop in the passenger seat before he’s even at the car. He gets in beside me and the moonlight sparkles off of the emerald stone of his championship ring.
I don’t have to ask where we’re going because we’ve had the same Saturday night tradition for as long as I can remember. No matter how late it is, when both of us are home, we always climb to the roof of his house and share an entire pack of Oreos. The only days we’ve missed are when he travels for baseball with his summer team.
When we arrive, I’m not surprised to find that there aren’t any cars in the driveway. Cin’s father is a neurosurgeon and is gone almost all of the time now. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times he’s made it home at a decent hour since Geraldine died.
I follow him into the big empty house I’ve been in so many times before and we take the stairs two at a time to get to the guest bedroom. Once there, we climb out of the window and make our way to our usual spot.
It’s a miracle neither of us have ever fallen off considering we discovered this spot when we were just kids.
I smooth out my dress before lying back on the blanket Cin laid down over the shingles and look up at the stars. It’s moments like these I’ll miss the most when Cin and I go off to university. And just like that, my palms begin to clam up.
Because I still have yet to tell him that we won’t be attending UGA together.
At the time, it sounded like the best idea— what could be better than going to college with your best friend? But after watching Cin bed nearly every girl in Peach Creek, Georgia all through high school… Well, let’s just say I’m not sure my heart would be able to survive another four years of that.
“What happened to Belinda?” I snort. I’m not sure I really want to know. But I do.
I always do. Otherwise my imagination will fill in the empty spaces and that’s worse than not knowing.
Cin shrugs. “She was asleep when I left her.”
“You’re incorrigible,” I mutter, shaking my head.
“Big word.” Cin tosses an Oreo to me and it lands on my stomach. I separate the cookies, lick the frosting out of the middle and then eat the two halves. Cin shakes his head at me in mock disgust.
“Not all of us have a future career in baseball. Some of us will actually have to think for a living, imagine that…” I push a ‘tsk’ through my teeth and Cin clutches his heart.
“Hey, I meant to ask. Have you paid the fee to reserve your dorm? I got an email that said the deadline is coming up and the price goes up afterward so I thought I’d ask.”
And there it is. The topic of conversation I’ve been trying to avoid all month long. You can’t keep lying to him, Noelle. I gulp, the cookie turning to sawdust on its way down.
“If it’s about the money—”
“It’s not that,” I interrupt him.
Cin frowns. “Okay… So what’s the problem?”
My hands fidget in my lap and release a breath I’ve been holding all month. “Cin… I’m not going to UGA.”
My best friend shifts to a sitting position. The look of confusion mars his beautiful features and I avert my gaze to avoid the betrayal in his eyes.
There’s a pregnant pause. Then his calm baritone interrupts the song of the cicadas. “What do you mean you’re not going? How could you not go to college No No? After all of that work? I don—”
“I’m still going to college,” I rush to assure him. “I’ve just decided to go… you know, somewhere else.”
His frown makes its reappearance. Even white hot with anger, he’s still the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. “Where?” He demands.
“A highly respected and recognized, all-girl institution in Atlanta.”
Cin stares at me for the longest time and I try to read his expression but it’s completely blank, giving nothing away. Eventually the edges of his mouth curl upward into a smirk. “All girl college, huh?”
I scoff and choke a sigh of relief at the same time. “Yeah… I am so not letting you visit me.”
“Maybe I’ll apply. Colleges like diversity.”
I punch him in the arm playfully, but sigh on the inside. This right here is the exact reason I’m putting some distance between Cin and I. I can’t keep pretending it doesn’t rip my heart to shreds every time I have to hear about his back seat indiscretions from Lisa the cheerleader or Holly on the softball team. And although we talk and joke about it so casually, he doesn’t have the first clue that that’s exactly what’s happening to me on the inside.
Because I’ve been in love with my best friend as long as I’ve known him and knowing I’ll live the rest of my life a sitting duck in friendzone purgatory is crushing enough without adding salt to the wound.
“You have to let me go sometime, Cin. We won’t be having sleepovers in tents or sitting on the roof eating junk in our thirties,” I remind him.
For a while, he doesn’t speak and the cacophony of night insects rush to fill the silence. I’d wondered my entire childhood what kept people in this shoebox of a town with its lack of economy and diversity, but the peace it brings at night? The beautiful summers? Sometimes, sitting up here next to Cin I don’t have this nagging, suffocating urge to pack everything I own and hop onto the next greyhound out of here. But I can’t spend the next decade of my life suspended in autopilot, coasting through shit while I wait for those rare, beautiful moments that were too far and few between, growing up.
Peach Creek is where you marry your high school sweetheart, get knocked up, and remain tethered to a life of service, sacrifice, and compromise. Maybe that’s the dream for most of the girls I’d attended high school with, but I’d never been allowed to dream. From the moment I turned fourteen, I got my first job sweeping floors in Ray’s Grocer and worked my way up to part time assistant manager while keeping up my grades, avoiding home, and studying for the SATs— all so I could keep a roof over my young cousins’ heads and food in our bellies.
As much as I love Cin, he’ll never understand what it’s like to walk alone amidst a mass of privilege. Not when the price of a college application fee is a month’s worth of bread, eggs, and milk. We don’t live in different worlds just physically, but our brains function on opposite stratospheres. For him, there are no consequences. For me, there’s one for every decision I make.
That most of all is why I’m ready to move on from Peach Creek. And from Cincinnati Barker.
“I know,” he whispers as if agreeing with my thoughts rather than responding to my rant. “I know.”
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