Read Ripple Online

Authors: Heather Smith Meloche

Ripple (19 page)

Her expression turns soft and sympathetic. “That's nice that you take care of her like that. She seemed pretty upset during our chimney fire.” Her teeth clamp around her lower lip, like she doesn't want to mention Mom being completely nuts.

“Fires scare her,” I say.

“That night was scary.”

I think of her stepdad, inside dealing with it. “Your stepdad wasn't hurt?”

“No.” She shrugs. “He can handle stuff like that.”

“And everything inside your house is all right?”

She nods. “We're fine.”

We get into the car, and I head toward Porter Cemetery in downtown Hallend. We don't talk for several minutes. The lights of the passing cars speed by in the dark like floating mini-kaleidoscopes.

Finally, Tessa says, “Was that your relative in the graveyard?”

I wince and bite my tongue to keep from snapping that it's none of her business.

But she sees my expression. “You don't have to tell me.”

I release a frustrated sigh because it's hard to talk about Ryan. But he's a huge part of me. And I consider that after hearing Tessa out tonight, I'll either decide she's worth my time and want her to know about him. Or I'll quit talking to her and it won't matter what the hell she knows. So I tell her. “My little brother Ryan's buried here. He fell off the roof of our old house and broke his neck.”

She leans toward me in her seat. “Oh, God. I'm sorry.”

I shake off her sympathy. “It was four years ago.”

Her warm hand rests on my leg. “I can't imagine ever getting over that,” she says.

I don't look at her. Can't. Her touch makes my insides inflame. Her light vanilla-and-berry scent weaves its way to me like she's a freaking gourmet dessert tray. I shift in my seat. Then move my leg so her hand falls, but it still tingles where she touched it.

“How is your mom now that Ryan's gone?”

I jerk a look at her. It's odd hearing her say Ryan's name. No one talks about him anymore.

“I mean, that must have been super-hard for her.” Her forehead wrinkles.

“She's not dealing with Ryan's death as well as me,” I confess.

Tessa keeps her eyes on her hands now folded in her lap. “Your mom doesn't like me very much. I probably shouldn't have pounded on your door like that last week.”

I choose my words carefully as I ease Mom's Jetta in front of the cemetery entrance. “It just takes my mom a while to warm up to people. She doesn't know you, so she's not as friendly as she could be.”

I turn the car off. The silence and darkness covers us, the car, the cemetery before us. It's an eerie black kind of quiet, but peaceful and away from everything, reminding me again why I can't get enough of this place. The dead never demand more than I'm willing to give.

Tessa takes in the calm, her eyes scanning one shadowed gravestone after the next. And I think maybe she was right—this place of buried pasts might be the perfect place for her to talk to me. She
can start by telling me what goes on in her screwed-up head and why she lets losers touch her.

But before I tell her to start talking, Tessa gets out of the car and heads straight for Ryan's grave.

•   •   •

I release a frustrated sigh as Tessa becomes a petite shadow moving through the graveyard. I scrounge in the pocket behind the passenger's seat to find the flashlight I make Mom carry in case of emergencies.

With the flashlight on, I jump out of the car to meet Tessa in front of Ryan's headstone. Part of me wants to pull her away. But another part of me wants Ryan to meet her.

I can hear his voice. “She's pretty, Jack. I like how big her eyes are.”

Me too, buddy.

Tessa crouches down and gets close to the inscription on Ryan's headstone. I shine the light on the words, and her fingers gently trace the engraving, like it's a warm body instead of bitter cold stone. Watching her, something deep and painful I'd worked damn hard to bury tugs inside me.

I only cried once when Ryan died. I got home from sweeping the flower shop downtown to find police cars, an ambulance, clusters of gawking neighbors.

Fogerty, the original one, was the one to tell me. We weren't supreme enemies then. He'd only busted me a couple times skateboarding where I shouldn't or spray-painting caricatures of my high school teachers along the entrance drive to the school. In front of my house, he hovered over me with his square head and his eyes sunken and too far apart. He looked at me with pity.

“Your brother had an accident,” he said. “He's gone. I'm sorry.”

But his voice was like the buzz of a mosquito, wickedly annoying while I tried to concentrate on everything going on around me, while I was watching my parents having a massive screaming match by the garage.

“You're a drunk, Alice!” Dad said.

“I'm not drunk!” she slurred. “I'm fine.”

“You haven't been fine for a long time. And this is your fault!”

“How dare you!” She tried to punch him, but missed and staggered.

Dad shook his head, disgusted. “He's dead! Don't you get that? Ryan's dead!” He rubbed the tears away from his face that looks so much like mine—cleft chin, straight brown hair framing blue eyes, a prominent, slightly upturned nose.

“I know! I know he's dead!” She gulped against a sob.

I walked behind the house, under a tree where it was quiet and empty. I let myself cry. But only for a minute. I cried for Ryan. For Mom. For the sudden understanding that my family was completely broken. And although I can fix almost anything, I knew this was going to be one hell of a repair job. And it became the first one I failed at miserably.

Now I step right behind Tessa and put my hand on Ryan's grave.

“My mom was drunk. She was out of her mind wasted.” I don't know why I throw this at her. With her fingers touching Ryan's headstone, it just feels right.

Tessa stands, her body between me and the stone.

“Mom had no idea Ryan was doing something he shouldn't have.” I rub the back of my neck. “Hell, she had no fucking clue what day it was. Ryan's death
her fault.”

I glance over Tessa's head to the graves in front of the dark line of trees. “But it was also my fault.”

“Why? You weren't the one who was drunk.” Her eyes probe me. I came here so she could talk, but I'm the one spilling everything. But she's listening. And
me. And then her fingers weave through mine, squeezing my hand like she's squeezing the information out of me.

“I didn't have to work that day,” I say. “I would go and help out at the flower shop just to get away from Mom. I hated what she was like when she was drinking. I left to get the hell away from all her drunken craziness, and Ryan fell.”

It's weird saying this out loud. No matter how many times you say the dirty things you've done in your head, they don't seem completely real until the truth of them launches off your tongue.

“Jack, I understand why you left.” She blinks back emotion. “I would have done the exact same thing. I would have left, too.”

Her voice, soothing and warm, sinks into me. “Tessa, you have to talk to me.”

She nods, then looks toward the small pond, the sliver of moon casting a pale rippling light across its black surface.

We make our way to the stone bench by the water. We sit close, but I make sure I'm not touching her. I can't be distracted from whatever she's going to say. I turn off the flashlight and let us adjust to the dark. “Spill, Tessa.”

She takes in a deep breath. “I don't know where to start.”

I kick at the dirt, at the tiny stones crowding around the bench's concrete legs. “Start with the truth.”

“I don't want you to hate me.” Her voice sounds scared and small.

“Listen,” I tell her, “it's totally true that I might hate you after you say what you have to say. I can understand what I saw at that house party. I mean, I might not like it, but he's your boyfriend. Whatever. But I don't get the dude in the truck at the car wash.” My lip curls uncontrollably. “And I totally don't get why you are caught up with the Cornish Street dealers or with that asshole Ty Blevens.”

I bend down and grab a handful of now-loosened stones near my feet, absentmindedly roll them in my fingers. “I mean, one minute, you're trying to be all straight and narrow and sitting with the cream of the Pineville High crop at lunch, but then you're at that hellhole on Cornish. And then you try to kiss me last time we were here like we have a connection, even while you have a boyfriend,
you've got some other guy's filthy fingers up your shirt.”

She lets out a pained squeak, and I think maybe I should stop. But I can't. I'm pissed. And hurt. And sick of life shitting all over me. And frankly, I'm on a roll.

“So seriously, Tessa, I don't give a crap where you start. Just start talking, or, for absolutely fucking sure, you and I will never talk again.”

I whip a stone into the water. The tiny ripples spread as it breaks the surface.

She nods, then braces herself on the bench. “Okay,” she says before sucking in a huge breath. “So my stepdad drinks. A lot.”

“Why?” I throw another stone at the pond.

“What do you mean ‘why?'” She looks confused. “I guess because he likes it.”

“Well, of course he likes it. My mom loves it. But only because it stops other shit from happening in her head. It's like a symptom
of something shittier, you know?” She stares at my profile, but I keep my eyes forward. I don't want her to see how thinking about Mom rips me up.

“What is her ‘something shittier'?” she asks.

I shrug, trying to minimize it. “She sometimes has delusions.”

“Like she sees things?”

I toss two stones at once. The ripples merge quickly. “Sometimes. She just sort of convinces herself of stuff that's not real.”

“All the time?”

I shake my head. “Not all the time. But it's getting worse.”

She takes in my ugly truth. “I'm sorry.”

I twist to face her, half annoyed and uncomfortable. “It's your turn, Tessa. How does your stepdad's drinking stick you in a car wash making out with some scumbag?”

The round point of her chin quivers. She looks like I've speared her against a wall and have a gun to her head. “I don't know. I can't explain what happens sometimes. It's kind of like when you were talking on the school roof about how pulling your pranks and being all bedlam-y—”

“Bedlam-y,” I repeat and can't help smiling at her cool, made-up word.

“Well, you said it made you feel powerful. That's like weirdly how it is.”

“That greasy dickhead at the car wash made you feel powerful?” I can't get my head around it.

And maybe she can't either. She shakes her head, thinking. “No. Uh-uh. It's not
really.” She bites the inside corner of her mouth, finding the words. “It's like, when my stepdad drinks and he goes off on me, I feel like I'm worthless.” She winces, like she's feeling it right then. “And then my biological dad lives in D.C. with his new
perfect family, and he talks to the guy who starches his shirts more than he talks to me, and so sometimes, I feel”—she shrugs—“kind of ignored and completely left behind. I mean, he's my
. It seems like he should care about me, like, a fragment more than he really does.” She sucks in a shaky breath, scanning the calm black.

“Then there's my grandmother. That's a whole other layer of suck. She's pushing me to go to a school I've never really wanted to go to and major in something I would never have chosen. All so I can, I don't know, like, become her or something. And my parents, who can't pay for my college, think that's a great deal for a lot of reasons. So I'm working my ass off to get into U of M to try to be something I'm totally not.”

Her face tightens, like she's holding back tears. “So, sometimes, being with guys—” Her voice catches. The wind, the distant traffic, the pulse of the cemetery and pond beat into the night.

“It's okay, Tessa, just say it.”

A tear races down her cheek. “Sometimes, being with guys makes me feel less shitty. You know? A little more powerful and less empty. At least for a few minutes, when I'm with them, you know, in
way, I actually feel a little better about myself.”

My muscles clench until I'm up and standing. And I can't tell if I'm pissed at her, or her stepdad and biological dad, or her grandmother, or the guys who screw around with her when she's vulnerable. I just know I have to get some space.

“I feel so horrible saying all that,” she says, still sitting on the bench behind me. She sounds deflated. I walk to the edge of the water and try to understand. She's looking for a little comfort. And control. I get that. Hell,
am. Everyone is. But her bouncing around to different guys, I don't know if that's something I can be around. I couldn't stand watching that.

“When you saw me earlier today,” she keeps talking, “my real dad had just graced me with one of his rare, superficial phone calls. It was horrible, and I was feeling shitty about that and about this whole drug thing I've gotten myself into, and then the guy from Cornish came up to my car window—”

“Wait.” I hold up my hand. “So, like, you don't even know this guy from Cornish?”

She shrugs. “I met him a couple times before yesterday.”

I shoot her a disbelieving look. “He's practically a stranger.” I rub my cold hands over my face. “I'm sorry, Tessa. Because I like you. A lot. But this”—I wave my hands like all her baggage is sitting right in front of us—“you just dropped on me, that's a little too much.”

She walks to me and touches my arm. “But that's why I needed to talk to you, Jack. Because you're different. You're not like the other guys I'm with. There's something, I don't know, I'm more
with you, and you make me feel good and better about myself by just
with me.”

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