EAST: Chapter 3
THE WAITRESS INTERRUPTS OUR silence when she sets down a plate of food and a glass of water. I avoid looking directly at her as I thank her. Ash eyes the food while I eye him, and when he doesn’t move or say anything else, I slowly pick up a fork. He looks away.
Terror builds, slowly—no, not terror exactly; more the cold shock that comes before outright terror, that holds you in place even though all you want to do is run run run and never look back. Other patrons are trickling in, ordering, sitting, chatting. There’s too much of a crowd; what could I do? My breath shakes, my hand shakes. Ash’s eyes are closed but I feel as though he’s still watching me. Each bite seems to last a million years.
Halfway through the salad, I say abruptly, “How’d you find me?”
“Jem,” he says. He opens one eye to watch for my reaction.
I jab at a green leaf. Silence, again, as I work my way through the rest of the meal. He moves, sitting up, rubbing his hands, then settles again. Sometimes he seems to peer at my face, sometimes his eyes wander around the diner. Vaguely I wonder that no-one has recognized him yet. I feel the weight of his gaze like a coldness that lingers and refuses to leave. I shiver.
Quickly, I wave at the waitress when she next passes our table, and sigh in relief when she immediately comes over to refill my water. “It’s a nice day, today,” she says idly, making conversation. “The temperature dropped but at least there’s some sun. But have you heard the forecasts? It’s supposed to snow soon.”
The idea is so foreign that I forget myself and I look her right in the face. “Snow? Truly?”
Her eyes widen, and I realize my mistake, but it’s too late. Her mouth drops open. “Holy shit, you’re her!”
I grit my teeth. She continues to stare, and several diners in the other booths are turning around, craning their necks to get a good look at me. Calm down, calm down, I chant in my head, picking up the glass to take a long drink of the cold water.
“I can’t believe you have the audacity to show your face here.” Suddenly her tone has changed; it’s full of malice. “Do you even know who I am?”
It’s such a change from the usual crap I get that I pause, and consider her face.
She sneers. “I’m Kieran’s older sister, you skank.”
There’s a sudden movement as Ash stirs, and then he clamps a hand on his left wrist and stills. The waitress barely spares him a glance, still intent on me. “You might think you’ve got everyone fooled, but the truth will out.” Her voice is rising, everyone is staring, and her words echo in my mind. I reach for the glass of water again. The wet surface is smooth under my fingertips, the cool, icy surface biting at my skin. “You won’t be able to strut around town like that for much lo…”
She keeps talking, but only four words exist in my mind. The truth will out. THE TRUTH WILL OUT.
A spray of cold water and glass shards arches over me. The waitress screams, then tumbles back when Ash throws himself out of his booth and shoves her away—then he turns around, just as the glass explodes—right in his face.
“She tried to kill me!” The waitress is yelling, crying, pointing at me. Her flailing arms hit Ash on the back and he slips on the wet floor, and lands half in my seat, an arm grabbing onto my leg for support.
“Sorry,” he grunts.
I jerk away, and take his elbow to help him to his feet. “Oh, my God,” I say. “Your face. Look at me—wait, look at me.”
“I’m fine,” he says, trying to push my hands away.
“Shut up and look at me,” I snap right back.
His hand clenches, and then falls, and he turns his face to me. His skin shines wetly with water and sparkles of glass, and yet… I grasp his shoulder to pull him close to me. There are a few small, thin red lines, but that’s it. “What the hell…” I breathe. “Did it not hit you?”
Ash doesn’t answer, and I make the mistake of looking at his eyes. They’re watching me coolly. Clear, grey, clear-as-water. I know what you’re afraid of.
I suck in a sharp breath, and push him away.
He lets me, and shakes his head, then takes a napkin from the table to wipe his skin clean. That’s when I realize the waitress is still yelling.
“—she’s a psycho, she took the jug and threw it at me, she was trying to kill me—”
“I didn’t not throw anything at you!” I say loudly. “Look, hey, I didn’t even touch—”
“Don’t come near me!”
I throw my hands up, exasperated. But everyone is looking at me with suspicious eyes, and a man who looks like he could be the manager is stalking towards us. Oh, crap.
“What’s going on here?” He demands.
The waitress stops mid-sentence and bursts into tears. “She—she—sir, she—”
“It was all a misunderstanding,” says a soft but firm voice.
I look at Ash. The waitress looks at Ash, the manager looks at Ash, everyone looks at Ash. “Asher?”
Suddenly Ash’s face changes. He smiles, and it’s like the sun coming out, and I’m left with my mouth open, gaping like an idiot. “Yep, it’s me,” he says smoothly. “Sorry about the mess. It was a misunderstanding. I knocked the glass off the table and it startled the girls. Please let me pay for any damages—”
“Oh no, that won’t be necessary—”
“She threw it at me!” The waitress interrupts hotly. She glares at Ash. “You’re friends with her. You’re trying to cover for her, you’re in this together—”
“Kayla,” the manager says sharply. I’m faintly amused by the expression on her face; there’s no doubt that she and Kieran are siblings. “Don’t be so dramatic. Get this mess cleaned up, and then come find me in my office.
He turns his back on her completely to smile warmly at Ash. “My dear, dear boy! I can’t believe you’ve come back! Where did you go? How is your aunt? You’ll have to…”
While they take and reminisce, and while the rest of the diners realize ASHER IS BACK IN TOWN! and crowd around him, I lay out a few of Jem’s bills on the table and slip out of the diner. Once I’m standing on the sidewalk, I take a long, shaky breath, and start walking back to school.
I’m cold all over. If this is only a small taste of what he’s going to do now that he’s back, I’m not so certain I can stand it. If he’s going to stir everything up again right when things are already stirring…
He catches up to me in barely a few minutes.
“Hey, wait,” he says.
“What?” I snap.
He keeps pace with me. “A bit of gratitude would be nice,” he says coldly.
I look at him incredulously. “Gratitude? What for? Knocking that glass off the table ‘accidentally’ and standing by while she screamed at me?”
“I covered for you!” He says, so strongly that for a second I almost believe him. “You’re the one who—actually, what did you do anyway?”
“Nothing,” I snarl untruthfully.
“Look.” I stop, suddenly, and force myself to look him in the eyes, without shivering, to jab a finger into his chest. “I don’t know what your agenda is, or what you want in Edgecliff, but I’m warning you now: Stay away from me. Stay away from my family. You’ve already done enough.” Already I’m choking up with fear at the thought of what he might do to me for daring to say all this to his face.
“East, I don’t have an agenda, I’m just here to… Visit.”
I snort. He runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah, save me the lies,” I say with as much disdain as I can muster. The only reason I’m brave enough to do this is the fact that school is barely half a block away, and if I scream, people will hear me. I hope. “Just don’t come near me.” Please.
“If you would let me explain—”
“It’s two damn years too late for that, Asher,” I snarl.
His lips curl, and he tucks his fingers into his pockets, then takes them out again. He looks at me unhappily. Don’t believe him.
Slowly, he nods. “Alright,” he says; and finally, finally, finally, he leaves.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Dennis indeed comes back the next day, and, upon arrival, is greeted in vastly different ways by each of the three of us. Dad wraps him in a bear hug and says something that makes him roll his eyes in a I’m-so-not-crying way. Jem holds his hand out and they do their own little twin-handshake-hug-thing.
When it’s my turn, Jem gives me a shove forward. Dennis frowns down at me, though not as severely as usual.
“Welcome back,” I say brightly. “How’s college?”
“Good. You alright?”
And that’s the end of it.
Dad coughs and Jem rolls his eyes. But we’re not little kids anymore and Dad’s finally realized, I think, that nothing he does can make Dennis and I get along. Dennis and I aren’t the closest—we aren’t close at all—and we’re fine with it. Anyway, I’ve got Jem.
The next morning, when I’m in the kitchen eating breakfast, Dennis is the first to come down.
“’Morning,” I say.
He grunts in reply, grabbing a carton of juice from the fridge and chugging at least half of it in one go. I watch as he finally comes up for breath and wipes his mouth with his sleeve.
He notices me looking and scowls. “What?”
He just scowls even more. Dennis takes after our mom, so unlike Jem, who’s blue-eyed with brown hair bleached from all our days out together, Dennis has a mane of shaggy hair, a permanent scowl, and hazel eyes that lean more towards green. Now he’s even grown a bit of stubble.
“Of course you can’t. You’re not like me.”
I hum instead of replying, and finish my breakfast in silence. But after I’ve changed and packed my bag and opened the door and am halfway down the porch, he stops me.
“Wait a sec,” he calls. “I’ve got something for you.”
I’m frozen in shock as he kicks the door shut and comes out to me, holding out his hand. In his palm is a neatly-wrapped paper parcel. “Thanks,” I say, the word hanging uncomfortably in the air between us. He fidgets.
I pull on the knot to loosen the package, and unwrap it carefully. A small black jewelry box appears. I raise the lid.
Nestled against some white fabric is a thin silver bracelet with a single charm. It’s in the shape of a circle, the bottom half set with a deep blue stone and a pattern of three silver wavy lines dividing the middle. It’s perfect. I’m amazed.
I look up at him with wide eyes. Dennis’s scowl seems to soften the teensiest bit when he meets my gaze, though I still can’t read his expression.
“Wow,” I say, with much more enthusiasm. “Um, thanks.” Am I dreaming?
His lips tip upward, a tiny motion that almost doesn’t even count as a smile, but it’s the closest to civility that our relationship has ever been, so I’ll take it. I feel the urge to hug him, then I figure it’s better not to try my luck. He might decide to hate me in just the next second. Dennis is moody like that.
“You’re welcome,” he says awkwardly.
I slip it onto my wrist, watching it sparkle under the morning sunshine. Dennis says, “Well, bye, then,” and heads back into the house. I look up just as the door closes behind him, and then back down at the sparkling bracelet.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
School is unbearable. Everywhere I turn I think I see him—either Ash, or Kieran. Except Ash is never there; it’s just some other kid lurking in the shadows, some other kid with blond hair and grey eyes that I somehow mistake for him.
And as for Kieran, he’s always there. Glaring, glowering, trying to trip me, trying to push me, trying to slam the door on my fingers. I barely escape that last one.
The story of our adventure at the diner seems to have gotten out. They avoid me even more than usual today, but thankfully, it’s only a half-day. By 12:00 I’m the first one out the door, and when I see Jem’s familiar truck parked right in his old, familiar spot, I smile.
Only… It’s not him.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I say loudly.
Ash doesn’t even look at me. “Get in,” he sighs. “Jem told me to come get you. I’ll take you for lunch, then take you home.”
I shake my head. “Um—no thanks,” I say. “I’ll walk.”
To nobody’s surprise, he maneuvers the truck right into my path. He leans out of the open window again, still not looking at my face. “I know I promised to stay away, but your brothers were busy today and they didn’t want you to walk home alone. Come on.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“It’s winter. Where’s your coat? You’ll freeze to death. And not right now, you can’t. Haven’t you seen all the news of the recent kidnappings?”
“It’s just Edgecliff,” I say, and suddenly I’m struck by a strange, almost nostalgic wave of déjà vu.
Ash finally meets my eyes, then. He says carefully, “Not ‘just’.”
No, no, no. No nostalgia. But it’s too late—this is too similar. The winter, the cold, the trees, the wind in my hair, the words. His voice. And behind him, the field, slightly dark under the clouded sky, and the trees a blur of violet.
I make a decision. I let my backpack slide off my arms, knowing that Ash would pick it up and return home with it, with a story ready for my brothers when they get back and ask where I am.
Ash watches my movement. Then his eyes zone in on my wrist. “Where did you get that?”
But I’m already gone.