Breath of Fresh Air

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Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven -

When I return home, mom’s car is missing. Immediately the dread fills my chest but I push past it. My mother is a grown woman and she has to make her own choices and decisions. I look on the bright side of her disappearance as I enter the house. Surprisingly enough, she hasn’t left a mess behind, not even a single trace of coffee grounds in the sink. With her absent, I can look for her pocket book of phone numbers. She always used to keep it in her bedroom on the bedside table, but now I think she’s moved it. That always changed her hiding places at least twice a month. I guess with the addiction came the paranoia.

Instead of her room, which would be the first place I’d normally check, I move toward the table next to her chair. Between the overgrowing stacks of magazines, I find the little pocket book mom has had since I was a baby. The wire binding is falling apart and a few pages are scattered between sections of magazines. The cover, which shows a collection of butterflies, is creaked, showing the gray color leather underneath. Gently picking up the book, I open flipping the torn pages, hoping to find a certain number. When I come across the number, it isn’t familiar and I know I’ll need to check the phone book in case the number is old. If mom isn’t in constant contact with someone, like her dealers, she doesn’t update the phone numbers.

Unfortunately, mom has gotten a new phone in two years if the date is accurate on the one I find in a kitchen drawer. The binding is also creased on this one but thankfully the pages are stuck together. Trailing my finger down the names I stop on a familiar one. I recall that Clyde told me, Penelope’s parents split up, she’s no longer Mrs. Rider. The question is how do I contact Penny if she’s no longer a Rider.

Easy, I realize. Nathan. No one seemed surprised last night at the party when Penny was in Brooke’s face. I was the only apparently surprised by the display of despair. Back in high school, Nathan had his hand in just about everything. He called it right before graduation that Penelope would become queen bee after Alisha was gone. I didn’t expect it back then because Penelope wasn’t Penny and she that girl wasn’t capable of the kind of pain she inflicted now. I shake my head and I sigh as I grab the phone. The last thing I want is to bother Clyde, but maybe he’ll have a way of contacting either Nate or Penny.

Clyde answers on the third ring. ”Didn’t think I would be hearing from you again. What’s up?”

“I was wondering if you knew how to contact either Nate or Penny?”

"Penelope Rider? I have the last number Nate gave me. I think he’s indisposed on the moment. Alisha always manages to put a pretty face on for work, but Nate’s still passed in a room upstairs. Let me check the book of numbers. Hold on.”

Clyde is gone about five minutes before he returns. He recites the number slowly twice to make sure I got the numbers right. ”I think that might be her mother’s number. She’s been staying with her for the last year. Since her parent’s split, she’s been trading off who she stays with. Hopefully she’ll be with her mother. Later man.”

We hang up and I recite the numbers in my head. If I happen to talk with Penny’s mother, it’s going to be even more interesting.

~*~

After a short conversation with Penny’s mother, I leave the house heading toward the meeting spot. Thankfully Penny was home, nursing the hangover her mother was carefully avoiding. The moment she got on the phone, it was obvious she didn’t believe her mother who told her I was on the phone. Of course, I had to say a few things that made me want to puke, but it was the only way to get Penny to meet me. She wanted to be the new Alisha Carter, only one way to get her to meet me and that was to act as if I were interested, which I certainly was not.

I chose a meeting spot that I found my last month in town before I left three and a half years ago. It’s a place I know we’ll never find a single person from the high school inside. Even if we do, it probably won’t be someone that will easily know who I am. After being gone so lung, I’m pretty sure my face blends into the crowd.

Easy Beans shines in the dim sun light as I step out of my truck. Thankfully I was able to smoke at the house before I left and urge is diminishing again. Something about trying to quit this time is harder. Maybe it’s the stress of being back in town, this close yet so far away from Brooke. Easy Beans is a small coffee shop that was just opening three and a half years ago. It isn’t a large place, just a few tables, and doesn’t have as many coffee flavors as Starbucks or a larger brand. Though the minute I step inside, I’m reminded of those all-nighters after I found the place. When everyone knew about my late nights at the diner, this was the only place I could escape. Not to mention I never received a look about studying in the back booth with a black coffee.

The smell of coffee beans is stout but I suck it in. It’s been a long time since I was in a coffee shop. The smell of the beans brewing, the light conversation, and comforting atmosphere greet me like an old friend. I order a black coffee, dropping a dollar in the tip jar before taking a seat in the back. One look at my watch and I snicker. I’m ten minutes early wondering how Penny likes to arrive. I notice a few other people inside, they look young, probably from the community college closer to the mall. One of them is texting and it makes me a little envious. I never had a cell phone even growing up. I always heard from my friends through word of mouth.

Suddenly the bell above the door chimes and I look up. My lips curve into a smirk as a familiar girl steps inside. She’s wearing silver shades, knee length dress, and sandals. I watch as she approaches the counter, orders a drink, waits, and then looks over the room. When she spots me, she sighs before heading in my direction.

“Ashford,” Penelope says as she places her mug on the table. Pulling out the chair, she carefully takes a seat folding one leg over the other. “What do I owe this meeting? I assumed it was about meeting up after the party. Now,” she pauses, her eyes roaming my barely kept together state. “I can see that I was mistaken.”

“What makes you think that?” I ask, sipping my coffee as I lean back in my chair.

“Oh Ashford,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Cut the crap. We both know you’re not here to flatter me or pretend this is date before the date. Just get on with it.”

She surprises me by opening her purse and pulling out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. It’s then I remember this place isn’t non smoking. Half the tables have small black or glass ashtrays. She immediately lights up, taking a long drag.

“When did you start smoking?” I whisper, staring as the smoke drifts from the end of the cigarette.

“The summer after you graduated,” she shrugs, holding the stick between her fingers, elbow on the table. “Like I said, cut the crap, Ashford. Why am I here?”

I look down, tracing the edge of the coffee cup. Mine is almost empty and I feel the caffeine doing it’s trick. “What’s the deal between you and Brooke Baker?”

Penny immediately laughs sarcastically, before tapping the edge of her cigarette on the ashtray. She places it between the holders and sips her own drink. It looks like some kind of caramel drink with foam that sticks to her upper lip. “That’s really funny coming from you. Why does Alisha hate her so much? Why did you guys do that prank against her three and a half years ago? You do realize your prank stands in infamy? I mean, unless the prank offends Brooke, lately it’s dull. Justin Powell was the last great prank of the school, everyone loved it because it was against Brooke. As queen bee, she’s the social outcast. You wouldn’t believe how much that school has changed because of that prank.”

“Changed how?” I immediately question, my fingers ball into fists.

Penny shakes her head, picks up the cigarette and leans back in her chair. “You’re not popular based on who you are anymore. I mean, you’re popular for what you do to other people. Make them scared of you, afraid of social suicide and you stay at the top. If you want to be remembered, it’s all about what you do to others. I thought you would know this. Alisha might have fallen from grace because of her actions, but she continues to harper on Brooke to this day. Maybe if she and Nate wouldn’t mess with Brooke so much, we’d lay off. Though I think you leaving cemented what happened with Brooke even now.”

“My leaving was supposed to help. Do you not realize how hurtful you are?” I question her. The glare on my face doesn’t seem to bother her.

“Unlike your group, we’ve all gotten better at keeping what happens at the school under wraps. There is no video to keep me from my dream school. Plus, it’s just high school. In twenty years when we come back for the reunion, Brooke will probably be better than all of us. She’ll probably thank me, giving her to push she needed to be better than your doormat.”

I’ve never wanted to hit a woman, but I ever broke that promise, it would be Penelope Rider.

“What happened to you?” I whisper, shaking my head. Leaning back in the chair, the front legs lift in the air.

She finally finishes her cigarette, pressing it out in the ashtray. I watch as she takes the spoon stirring her coffee. “Let’s just say I got first hand experience from AC herself.”

Alisha loved to call herself AC, short for Alisha Carter back in high school.

“What does that mean?” My eyes narrow.

The smile on Penny’s lips turns into a smirk. “When Alisha got the rejection letter because of that prank, she was furious. She wasn’t even mad about the prank, but at Brooke herself. You see, you left, Alisha lost her place in her dream school. She basically had nothing, while Brooke was practically gold in high school after the prank. It could have gone one of two ways back then. Either the entire school rallied behind Brooke, denouncing the prank of your year, or Brooke becomes the social leper. Alisha wasn’t about to let Brooke get the spotlight in a good way.”

Penny shakes her head, sighs, staring into the swirl of her coffee mixture. “That summer, there were parties all break long. Every weekend there was a party and every weekend, I met Alisha there. She was the queen bee, popular graduate off to become good and better things. Everyone knew Alisha could do it, but then she confessed to me while drunk what had happened. She wanted revenge on the girl who took everything from her. She pampered me to become her successor of the high school. Back then all I wanted was to be popular, what upcoming sophomore doesn’t? I listened to her, became Penny instead of Penelope. I ruled the halls of the high school with fear. Unlike Alisha who hid her cattiness from you and half of your group, I didn’t hide. There were guys that loved a who stood up for herself. I ruled with fear and intimidation and thanks in part to Alisha, Brooke became the most hated person in school. If you wanted to up the social ladder, Brooke was the key. She always was.”

I feel like I’m going to be sick. Brooke was right. It was my fault. I let Alisha off her leash for that damn prank. That damn prank that changed Brooke’s life.

“It just got better when her mother committed suicide. Though,” Penny blew out a breath. For the first time I saw regret in her eyes. “At that time I wanted to leave her alone. Losing a parent isn’t easy. I don’t know the personal pain of them dying, but I know how splitting up can hurt. Alisha wouldn’t have it. Plus, Brooke was so hated among the other students that the suicide just became another way to make fun of her. That part I wasn’t particularly proud of. Being queen bee, I had no choice, I had be worst than everyone. In the end, I think it was the jokes about her mother’s suicide and Justin’s prank, that finally broke Brooke. After that, she wasn’t much in the spotlight anymore.”

The only thing I want to do right now is track down Alisha. I thought she was just a girl looking for attention in high school. Turns out she’s a conniving witch ready to hurt anyone that comes before her.

“I’ve talked to you about everything. Mind if I get a question?” Penny, traces the edge of her mug with her white manicured false nails.

I just nod because my throat is closing up.

“Why did you come back? Seems odd that you would come back the moment of graduation.”

I chuckle sarcastically. One would think people would put two and two together by now. When I meet her eyes, Penny looks at me a little stunned.

“So that’s why she did it?” Penny whispers before shaking her head. “Damn, didn’t realize her jealousy was that bad. Tell me this, Ashford, where you in love with her back then too? Is that why Alisha has been so determined to make Brooke’s life a living hell?”

I break eye contact. “Honestly?” I ask rhetorically toward the table. “I’m not sure. Back then I wasn’t ready for that kind of thing. Now, I know I’m not good enough. Knowing that,” I look up meeting Penny’s eyes, “that I’m responsible for everything that’s happened in Brooke’s life tells me I don’t deserve her. Yet, I’m not going to stop until I make things better.”

Penny lifts the mug to her mouth before placing it back on the table. She reaches over, rubbing her thumb over my knuckles. “I don’t care what Brooke or anyone says, you aren’t responsible for Alisha Carter. Hell, Alisha isn’t responsible for my actions. I chose to do those things. Even I know I’m more a follower than a leader. Brooke will not have to worry about me in September. I’m off to college. Though, I think talking with Alisha, I mean really talking, getting things off your chest might be the only way to get through. I heard that Brooke can’t afford a university, she’ll be attending the same community college with Alisha.”

Penny winces at the look on my face. “If you really want to make it up to her, I’d start there. Where it all began.”

“How do I get her to forgive me?” I mumble. Maybe Penelope isn’t such a bad person.

Penny giggles and I almost glare at her before she holds up a hand. “I thought what they said about guys being clueless was just in the movies.”

I give her a blank stare which just makes her eyes even more full of humor. She shakes her head, pushing the empty mug aside. “Brooke still believes that you didn’t care about her back then. That you were using her for the prank. Prove her wrong. Show you do care. Care about her, what your actions have done to her. Show her that you love her. Pretty obvious if you ask me. Put in effort. Trust me, it will work.” She shrugs. “Plus if she tries to walk away from you, act like she’s not interested, she’s completely interested. I wouldn’t be queen bee if I didn’t know that Brooke Baker is totally smitten with you, Ashford Rocks.”

I look down, a smile finally forming on my lips. Maybe not all queen bees are as selfish as Alisha Carter. Maybe in the process of repairing my relationship with Brooke I could help her with Penny. Only time will tell.

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