Have you ever known somebody who changed the course of your life? I have. Her name is Annabelle Hawthorne, and she’s my muse.
Whenever you grow up next door to somebody your own age, especially if that person is the opposite sex, things are just assumed about you. I remember when she and I were younger, maybe seven or eight, and we were nothing short of inseparable. My mom would whisper to her mother that we were so cute together and one day we’d get married. I wasn’t even into girls back then, but for some reason, I was into her.
Things got in the way, though, and our time together grew less and less frequent as the years wore on. First she wanted to hang out with more friends—different friends, and ones who didn’t always want me around. She’d fight for me, saying she wanted me to come along, but eventually those things ended. A few more years passed and she started doing activities like gymnastics and cheerleading, all while I shoved my nose a little bit further into my books and escaped into worlds that always seemed to welcome me with open arms. We finally got to the point where we’d nod at each other and say hi when we were both outside, but I knew she only did it to be polite. She didn’t dislike me, at least I didn’t think so, but we were from two different worlds then. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, she was from Venus and I was from Gliese 581 d.
“Theodore, are you ready to go?” my mother asked from the base of the stairs.
I grabbed my Velcro wallet with the duct tape-covered rip on the outside and my three-year-old iPhone before going out of my room and walking down the stairs to my mother as she grabbed her purse.
“I don’t know why I even need to go to this stupid thing. It’s not going to help,” I said with typical teenage angst that seemed a bit much, even for me.
“It was recommended that you go so that you can work through your emotions. Therapy isn’t a bad thing, you know,” my mother said.
“You and Dad are the ones getting divorced, not me. Maybe you two should think about going instead,” I said as I walked towards the door.
“Hey,” she said, grabbing my shoulder and looking at me sternly. “I’m trying to do what’s best for you, Theo. I know you don’t want to go any more than I want all this to happen. I didn’t choose all this, remember? We have to make do with the best that we have.”
As she let go of my shoulder, I walked out the door and towards the car. I could feel the tension in my chest. Why wasn’t my father required to go to these things? Oh, that’s right, it was because he left us for another woman and they were living it up in Punta Cana or some other city I’d never heard of. I guess I’d just have to do what I’d done every other session and say what I needed to say to not only get out of there for the day, but to also end the session early. I had a feeling my therapist was going to say that I’d made remarkable progress and that I was just fine.
As we got into the car I strapped myself in and looked over at Annabelle’s house to see Trent, her star football player boyfriend, pulling into her driveway just as my mother was backing out. I tried not to look as we backed out of the street, as the two of us unfortunately had to drive in that direction, but it was like staring into the sun. You know you shouldn’t do it, and that it can damage your eyes, but sometimes curiosity gets the better of you and you take a quick glance. This time, I shouldn’t have stared into the sun.
I saw her coming out, a smile on her face, as her whispering strands of mahogany-colored hair flowed in the crisp autumn breeze. She was something of an enigma to me, and as we drove past her house, my eyes affixed firmly on her, she glanced at me, at us, and I felt the panic inside me. It only happened for a moment, a single blip in the timeline of the universe, but to me it might as well have lasted as long as the evolution of this species. The sad part was that I’d evolved this far only to wish I could devolve back into a swamp thing as her eyes locked on mine.
As she looked at me her smile went away, though I wouldn’t call her expression melancholic. Trent, with his manicured eyebrows and forty-dollar spray-tanned skin, looked over, my mother not driving quite fast enough, and I saw him snicker and roll his eyes. Yeah, that was just about how things went these days.
I sunk a little into my seat as my mother, oblivious to the social mocking and shame I just endured, turned on her favorite radio channel, easy listening, and tapped her fingers on the wheel as we pulled out into traffic and began our ten-minute ride to Dr. Grier’s office for my session.
As we walked into her office, I smelled the distinct scent of Ivy League greatness that seemed to emanate from her dark wood floors and cigar club-quality leather chairs. The receptionist, Lily, checked us in and told us with a soft voice that the doctor would see us soon. It wasn’t that I had anything against Dr. Grier or therapists in general; I just didn’t think I needed to be here. I didn’t even have a choice in the matter. If anything I was just collateral damage because of adultery and a broken, loveless marriage.
“Good evening, Theodore. Are you ready to come on back?” Dr. Grier asked, wearing a pinstriped gray pantsuit.
Without saying anything I got up and left my mom to flip through Reader’s Digest as Dr. Grier led me back to her office. Her lighting was dim. I walked towards the patent leather couch that never agreed with the fabric of my pants. I sat down, my body sliding a little, before I caught myself and wrapped my arm around the outside of the armrest.
“How have you been feeling since our last visit?” Dr. Grier asked.
“Oh, can’t complain about anything,” I said with a smile.
“Are you sure about that, Theodore? Many times when we’re dealing with difficulties in life, we tend to create fantasies in our minds about things being happy and fine and we try to live in those fantasies even though they aren’t real,” she said.
“Oh, wow, that sounds crazy. I’m doing well, though,” I said with a half smile that any seasoned interrogator would see through.
“Mmhm,” she said, as she jotted down something in her notebook. “How has school been going this past week? I see that we talked about you applying for colleges soon. Have any picked out?”
“I haven’t been keeping up with that,” I said.
“How come?” she asked.
“I’m not sure it’s for me,” I replied.
“College?” she asked, with what sounded like a gasp in her voice.
“Yeah. I’m not sure it’s for me, you know? I have no clue what I want to do with my life, and I don’t really want to spend the money trying to figure it out,” I said.
“If you aren’t going to college, what will you do with your time? How will you live?” she asked, as if the only way to live was through conventional means.
“Just like I have all this time up until this point, I suppose. I don’t see much changing.”
There was a certain sense of taboo whenever you talked about college and the desire to not go. I wouldn’t say I never wanted to go, but what’s the point if you have absolutely no direction? When I was a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist, but that obviously wasn’t in the cards any longer. I really didn’t want to sit out in the sun all day every day brushing the dirt, and my grades weren’t exactly up to par to do that.
I focused on a swirl on the wall that was covered by a shade of green reminiscent of a bowl of pea soup that had been left out for a few days. Still, it was almost better to just look at that than to pretend I cared about being here.
Dr. Grier talked to my mother after the session as usual, and I only wondered what they could be talking about.
“He doesn’t seem interested in much of anything these days,” my mother would say.
“You know, he wants to skip college altogether and work flipping burgers for the rest of his life,” Dr. Grier would rebut.
My mother would gasp, bringing her hand over her mouth like she did whenever something she didn’t agree with popped up. She’d keep her distance for a couple days, making sure not to bring it up, but the overbearing weight of the news would make her mind crumble around her and she’d just have to bring it up at the worst time, and I’d have to defend myself and try to calm her down—even if that meant lying to her. We had a rapport going.
“Ready?” my mother asked as she came out, forgoing any further discussion.
Without saying anything I got up out of the chair and followed her out to the car. The crisp autumn air tickled my senses and made me stick my hands in my jacket pockets.
We got in the car, she turned on the heater, and without saying a word, we pulled out of the parking lot and started to drive home. I guess it was going to be one of those kinds of nights.
I ate dinner later that night in my room as I worked on some international business project that was due later this week. My phone buzzed, my best friend, Martin, asking me what I was up to. Martin was one of the only people in this world I knew I could always count on. He was a sweet chocolate man who wore sweater vests to high school and played with Pokémon cards in weekend tournaments all over the state. He might be weird, but I was stuck with him.
“Just working on this project. It never ends,” I replied, adding a sad-face emoji to the end.
I set down my phone and picked up a black marker to write the name of the country I’d been assigned on the top of my project. It was Sweden, and I was supposed to think of a product or service that would benefit the people, as well as how I’d sell it, for how much, and why I chose that item. The problem wasn’t with the project, but with the country I was assigned. I didn’t know anything about Sweden. I liked their candy fish, but what else was there?
My hand, which rested on the poster board as I wrote out my letters, rubbed against the black ink and caused a small smudge, which I quickly tried to get out with a dab of spit on my right index finger. What a mistake. If anything, I just made it worse, and now it turned a stony shade of gray that was easily noticeable even across the room.
My phone buzzed on my desk and I peered at it to see Martin saying he was reading a most fascinating book on Napoleon Bonaparte and his rise to power. I ignored it, instead trying to fix my smudge, before I thought of a bottle of white-out I had in my cabinet. It would still be a bit noticeable, but nothing like this.
My cabinet, which held my most prized possessions, right next to the junk I stuffed in there to make my mom think my room was clean, sat next to my window. I walked over, peering out of the window before I opened the door and looked at the withering piece of string that connected my room and Annabelle’s. We used it as kids to communicate with each other at night. A tiny basket used to sit up there before a storm flipped it off about six years ago.
I opened the cabinet door, looked around for the white-out, and found it before closing the door and looking out the window again. Annabelle was there, sitting on the end of her bed consumed by the glow of her iPhone.
Turn away, Theo, turn away. Go back to your desk, work on your project, and go on with your life. You only look like a creep, and you’re definitely not helping your reputation if she catches you. Still, though, I couldn’t help but peek, a quick peek, as I saw her put her hand to her mouth, close her eyes, and begin to cry.
“Why is she crying?” I asked myself under my breath.
I set the white-out on my desk behind me and gazed on with furled eyebrows as I considered trying to get her attention. She hadn’t noticed me yet, since her overhead light was on and her blinds were drawn, though I guess they’d been like that for years and she’d never once waved or said hi.
Just as I was about to look away and grab my phone after it buzzed, it happened. She looked out her window, her eyes locking with mine. I felt my stomach knot up with butterflies and nerves as I tried not to vomit. I tried to look away, as if I weren’t looking at her and we just accidentally saw one another, but who was I kidding? Even when she was crying she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
She waved, though not in the friendly ‘how are you’ kind of way. It was limp, the tips of her fingers slightly curled, as if she were defeated and was waving her white flag for help. I waved back, curling the left side of my mouth up in some half-done smile that wasn’t really a smile. She mouthed something to me—something I didn’t understand, though I desperately wanted to. I put my finger to my ear, mouthing that I couldn’t hear her, before she went up to the window and pointed towards the swing set that sat between our houses. She made a five with her hand and pointed back at it, as if asking me if I’d meet her there in five minutes. She couldn’t really be asking that, could she? Why would she? We hadn’t interacted, much less talked, in years.
Without an ounce of hesitation, though, I obliged, nodding as she smiled a little, got up off her bed, and turned off her lights. Was this real life? Was this really happening?
My mother was asleep on the couch with the television illuminating the room as I snuck out the back door towards the swing set, where Annabelle was already waiting. She sat on the swing, the rusted connection above squeaking with each move. The cold and dewy nighttime air reminded me of autumn nights we spent out here catching the last stragglers of firefly season.
“Hi,” she said, the chipper tone of her normal voice gone.
“Hey,” I replied, taking the swing next to her.
“It’s been a long time,” she said, looking at me.
“Yeah, it has,” I replied, before wiping my palms on my pants.
We both swung slowly, neither one of us knowing exactly what to say after our absence of interaction, though part of me could tell that we both were glad it was ending.
“I’m sorry about your parents. My mom told me about it,” she said.
“It’s fine. It’s nothing,” I said.
“You don’t have to act like it’s nothing. It’s something serious,” she said.
“Not to me,” I replied, as my once nervous manner turned into a small bit of annoyance that I couldn’t escape the topic.
“You know I’m always here for you, right? Like if you want to talk or something. I’m here,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, with a sincerely appreciative tone. “If you don’t mind me asking, though, why were you crying?”
“Just…problems. You wouldn’t understand. I don’t want to burden you with it,” she replied.
“I might understand if you tell me. Besides, you’ve never been a burden to me. Far from it, actually,” I said.
“Just problems with Trent. He’s been kind of an ass lately, and sometimes I wonder if he’s purposefully doing this to hurt me,” she said.
“What kinds of things?” I asked, equal parts wanting to help her and satisfy my obvious curiosity.
“Flirting with girls, going out with friends who are girls who he swears nothing happens with, and just things like that. He’s also been really rude lately, like putting me down and stuff. It’s nothing,” she said, as if she regretted saying anything.
“You can do better,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” she said, scoffing at the notion.
“I’m serious, Belle. He’s the last guy you should be thinking about dating. You could do so much better,” I said.
“Yeah? Like who?” she asked, as our eyes locked and our swings swung at the exact same speed.
I clenched my fist, it definitely turning white underneath the shroud of darkness. I wanted to blurt out that she could do better with me. I’d loved this girl since I was three, and wanted to marry her since I was five, and I couldn’t think of anybody better for her than me. I wouldn’t treat her like Trent would, and I’d be everything she needed. Was she just waiting for me to say my name? Did she want me to confess it all to her? I knew she was likely vulnerable right now, with her current relationship up in flames, and even though my fist was starting to become numb from clenching so hard, I couldn’t get myself to say my name. I couldn’t get myself to confess my feelings to her and try to win her over. Not only because of my crippling fear, but because it wasn’t right. She wasn’t right, at least in the right state of mind for something like this. She was a little broken, and I couldn’t take advantage of that. If she picked me, if she wanted to be with me one day, it should be because of the person I was, and not because of what another person was doing to her. I—we, deserved more.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure he’s out there,” I said as I unclenched my tight grip and knew I’d be kicking myself for years to come.
A dog barked in the distance as the static noise of cicadas all around us kept our sudden silence from being too unbearable.
“Yeah, I hope so. We should do this again sometime,” she said.
“I’d like that. I don’t think I have your number anymore,” I said, even though I knew I never had it to begin with.
“Here,” she said, with a small smile, before motioning for my phone.
She typed it in under a new contact file and locked it before giving it back to me and getting up off of her swing.
“Thank you for being exactly what I needed tonight, Theo. You always know the right things to say,” she said before coming forward and giving me a hug.
Closing my eyes, I breathed in and smelled her lavender-scented shampoo before she let go of the hug and walked back into her house as I sat there teetering on the edge of the swing. Maybe my creepiness looking out the window wasn’t such a bad move after all.
Time never seemed to go slow enough between classes anymore. Here I was, a senior in high school, and you’d think I was a frazzled, timid freshman from the way I rushed to my locker and to my next class. I feared nothing more than being late and getting in trouble. Seniors were supposed to rule the halls, to slow down and take their time to socialize as they took their final year with a grain of salt, but I was unfortunate to not be one of those kinds of students.
I’d spent the better half of the rest of my night talking to Martin and telling him all about what happened with Belle on the swings. He hadn’t ever known her, aside from when he saw her at school, and he was definitely the only person in the world who knew about my undying love for her. It was a secret I swore him to, and I knew he could keep it.
I saw her pull out of her driveway this morning on her way to school, but we hadn’t texted, talked, or had any interaction aside from that swing set. Hell, I wasn’t even positive any of it ever even happened. Maybe I just dreamt it all up.
With my books gripped tightly between my arm and my side, I rushed to class, dodging a stampede of freshmen with rolling backpacks before having to contort myself through traffic to pass the stoner kids, who all walked slowly in a large group. There was a couple making out outside of my classroom in the distance like they did every single morning, as if their lips couldn’t bear to part for a single class period. I couldn’t imagine the horror.
I sped into the classroom, which was only about a third of the way full, as my teacher, Mr. Jamison, wrote equations on the board. I was in Algebra II, the bane of my existence, and as I sat down next to Martin, catching my breath, he couldn’t help but blurt it out.
“Did you talk to her yet?” he asked, a silver mechanical pencil gripped between his palms.
“No, not yet. It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours,” I said.
“You have to act if you’re going to get with her, Theo. Do you think girls like that just wait? No, they don’t. Have you ever seen a mating documentary before? Tons of guys are going to be flaunting their brightly colored feathers and dancing around her so she’ll be with them. You need to flash your feathers even brighter,” he said.
“That’s not my goal, though. I’m not trying to get with her. I’m not trying to use her for my own gain,” I said.
I pulled out my worksheet from my notebook before knocking my pen off of the edge of my desk and a few desks forward. Getting up, I walked up to it, bent over, and picked it up, and noticed a pair of shoes near my hand. I stood back up, ready to move, and she was there, smiling at me, her hands gripping her books as they rested against the tops of her thighs.
“Hi,” she said in a flowery tone.
As if I were in an anime, I saw rainbows and flowers appear all around her as the sun hit her just right and her hair, which was long and flowing, flew in the breeze that encompassed her.
“Hey,” I said, before shaking my head a little and pulling myself back into reality.
“Please take your seats,” Mr. Jamison said, pulling the cap off of a dry erase marker.
With a lump in my throat, I turned around and walked back to my seat as Trent and two of his football buddies walked into the room laughing and slapping each other’s chests.
How they were in this class I’d never know. I guess the school and football team were in serious need for these guys, so they put them in here and gave them passing grades even though we all knew they couldn’t do basic first-grade math, let alone Algebra II.
“Please take your seats, gentlemen,” Mr. Jamison said.
Trent walked over to Annabelle, his seat near her, before bending over and giving her a quick kiss.
She looked taken aback, as if she couldn’t believe what just happened. I couldn’t believe what just happened either. Martin couldn’t believe what just happened. Mr. Jamison began to teach, asking us to turn to some page in the textbook, but I couldn’t be bothered with that right now. I was fuming on the inside, my fists clenching, before I saw Belle take out her phone quietly and type something out. Was she going to text me something? I guess she didn’t even have my number, at least not that I knew, and before I knew it she’d hit send and put it away. Oh, how I wished I knew what she’d sent out.
“Mr. Quinn,” Mr. Jamison said, catching my attention as I snapped out of my trance.
“Y-yes, Mr. Jamison?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“I asked if you knew the answer to question thirty on the study exam. Would you please come up to the board and work out the problem?” he asked.
Nervously, I got up from my seat before walking down the aisle and grabbing the marker from his hand. I stood there, my face a foot from the white board, as my palms began to get sweaty and my knees began to buckle. I knew the answer to this, math was my strongest subject, yet for some reason, I just couldn’t get myself to think about it. It was as if my mind had been sucked out of my head and I was left with an empty skull with an acorn rattling around inside.
“You may begin at any time,” Mr. Jamison said.
A few people chuckled behind me as I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I didn’t know public humiliation was still a valid form of punishment in this age. Why not stone me as well? It might be less painful.
I started to work out the problem to the best of my ability, though I suppose my best wasn’t quite good enough. I’d gotten about halfway through before I hit a brick wall and knew that nothing else was going to come out.
“I’m afraid I don’t know any more,” I said as I looked at him.
“Take a seat, Theo. Does anybody else want to come and finish it?”
I set down the marker as Julia, the smartest girl in the class, possibly even the school, walked up and began to work on my equation.
“What a nerd,” Trent said, as I was about to pass him.
“Shut up, Trent,” Annabelle said, slapping him after I walked past.
“Yeah, Trent, don’t make fun of her boyfriend,” another kid said with a laugh.
I quietly sat down, my cheeks becoming warm as I wished this would all be over with. I wished high school would be over with.
There was a tap on my shoulder as I collected my things for the day at my locker. I turned around, grabbing my backpack from its safe haven of a metal hull for the day, before I saw Annabelle standing there, crowds of people walking around us.
“I’m sorry for earlier. I wanted to say something, but you left before I had the chance,” she said.
“Nothing for you to be sorry about. You didn’t do anything,” I said, wrapping the straps of my backpack around my shoulders.
“I know, but I felt I should say something. He can be like that sometimes. I think it’s one of the reasons things have gone so bad between us lately. Sometimes I just don’t think that I can deal with it,” she said.
“Don’t ever feel like you have to. You can do better, you know. What were you even planning to do after high school is over? Aren’t you two going to different colleges?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s going to Duke to play football. I was thinking of the University of Illinois in Chicago. It’s a good campus, and I’d be in the city finally. No more country roads and getting lost in corn fields,” she said with a smile.
“That sounds awesome, and also the reason why you should try for better,” I said as I closed my locker.
“Do you need a lift home?” she asked, almost out of the blue.
“I was just going to take the bus,” I said.
“I can take you. If you want that, that is. I understand if you’d rather not,” she said.
All I could think of in this moment, this most perfect moment, was Martin inside my head, his deep voice telling me to take the opportunity and go with her. He’d say I was an idiot for not taking the invitation, and that this could be my chance to get closer to her. Besides, she was asking me, and that was cause enough to go.
“Yeah, I’ll come with, if it’s not a burden or anything,” I said.
“Theo, we live literally right next door to one another. It’s not a burden. Come on,” she said, grabbing my jacket sleeve and pulling me along.
The sea of other students around us seemed to part as Annabelle guided me towards the parking lot. I’d rarely ever been there, since I’d only been picked up early a few times because of doctor or dentist appointments, and because I wasn’t cool enough to have anybody drive me home. Martin’s mom always picked him up, and I couldn’t say I had many other friends besides him.
We walked up to her car, a 2006 Toyota Corolla, which was red with a small knick on the front passenger side door. We got inside, the key quickly being inserted, and some bubblegum pop music started to blare. She quickly turned it down, cracked down the windows, and pulled out for us to wait behind the line of cars.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, just before it was our turn at the stop sign.
“Yeah, I could eat,” I said nonchalantly, as I rubbed my palms against my jeans and tried to act cool.
“Good,” she said with a smile before screeching out of the parking lot.
That was one thing I forgot about Belle. She had a penchant for speed. Even when we were kids, she had this motorized plastic car that would top out at a few miles per hour. I swear she must’ve done something to it because when I was in the passenger seat I was clutching on for dear life as she zigged and zagged between bushes and trees without a care for safety. I suppose old habits die hard, and right now, as I dug my fingernails into my thighs, I wished this habit would’ve died a long time ago.
“Still eating here, huh?” I asked as we pulled up to the restaurant.
“How could I not? It’s basically our childhood,” she said, putting the car into park and opening her door.
We walked inside the Dairy Queen, the interior a little updated since I was last here, though it was somehow still the same. There were ice cream cakes in the refrigerators, and the menu, now sporting some new items, was still familiar enough to take me back to a simpler time.
“Welcome to Dairy Queen. What can I get for you?” the cashier asked.
Annabelle seemed to know what she wanted, like always, as she left me to suffer the agony of leaving a cashier to stand there and wait for me while I fumbled with deciding between a burger or chicken strips. I ordered the chicken strips and paid before turning and seeing Belle smiling and laughing a little.
“Same old Theo. Can’t not have his chicken strips with sweet and sour sauce,” she said.
“Hey, there’s some new things about me that you don’t know about,” I said as I grabbed my number.
“Yeah? Like what?” she asked as we filled up our drinks.
Truthfully, I had no idea what had changed since we last talked. I knew that sounded crazy, since it had been many years, but I thought I was about the same person now as I’d always been. You might find new interests or hobbies in life, but who you are is who you are from the day you’re born until the day you die. Your body might change, but what’s inside is as true now as it is until you take your final breath.
Just as we sat down and set our numbers on the edge of the table, the cashier brought us our trays and took the numbers away with him. I opened my dipping sauce, which looked exactly the same as always, and began to dig in as Belle took out her phone and let out a small though not quite silent sigh.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, with food still in my mouth.
“Trent is blowing up my phone as usual. He can be so annoying sometimes,” she said.
“I know it’s not my place, especially since we aren’t, you know, as close as we used to be, but you should just move on. You said it yourself earlier that you’re going to different colleges anyway. Why make your final months of high school torture?” I asked.
“Well, it’s not like any other guys are busting down the door to date me…” she replied.
“Not everything is about that, though. You don’t need to be with somebody to be happy, Belle. You can just be with yourself. You can be with your family, or better yet, with friends. Strengthen bonds with current friends, as well as make new bonds with new friends,” I said.
“What about strengthening bonds with old friends?” she asked as I looked up and locked eyes with her.
“That too,” I said, sporting a small smile.
I didn’t know if it was the aroma of the Blizzards they were making, or if they pumped this place with some kind of anti-nervousness gas, but being around Belle wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I used to think it would be. I used to see her outside or around school or whatever and get butterflies and insane nerves, but there was something about talking to her and being around her again that just made me feel like I was home. It was like we were kids again, and she still had that missing front tooth that she used to squirt water out of. It was nice.
“I’m really glad I saw you last night. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while, but I was a little nervous,” she said.
Did I hear her correctly? Did she just say that she was nervous to talk to me? I must be dreaming.