CHAPTER 6 – NATE
The streets still slick with ice, I drive the family SUV, fitted with chains on the tires. After painting for twelve hours straight, sleeping for only six, and then getting up to paint for an additional six hours, I need to get out for some fresh air. Even though the art room is well-ventilated, I still get headaches from time-to-time. I wasn’t certain if they were caused by fumes or intense focus– or in this case, hunger. I’d forgotten to eat today. Normally, I could rid myself of the headaches without any medication by just stepping away from my art for a few hours.
At the pizza place, I nod to a few people I recognize from school before finding an empty table in Lauren’s section. She waves from across the room. She looks so different in her work uniform than she did in that red sequined shirt yesterday. For a few seconds as she lingered at my locker while I watched Misty and Clark, I’d almost accepted her offer to go to her house after school, left unattended by her still-vacationing parents. I could almost see myself with her as she flirted with me. She’d been hinting at it for weeks, even while I was still with Misty. When she brought her lips to my ear, though, whispering to me what she wanted to do with me, I lost interest. I could smell the liquor on her breath, even though school had only been out for fifteen minutes. I could not have been less attracted to her at that moment.
“What’ll it be?” she asks. “I get off in fifteen minutes.”
“I’m busy,” I lie.
“What, the painting again? God, get a life, Nate! You’re young. Enjoy it.”
“I am,” I tell her, confused. I don’t think anyone my age can really understand what it’s like to be truly passionate about something. Something other than getting wasted or getting laid. I don’t know how I fell into this group of friends. They’re nothing like me, but I guess misfits tend to flock together, even without having much in common.
“Cheese and mushroom?” she sighs.
“Yeah. And water, please.”
At the table in front of me sits two guys. One guy with dark hair has his back to me. The other– the one facing me– looks strangely familiar, but I don’t think I know him. Initially, I wonder if he might be someone I went to school with before transferring here, but I can’t place him. I try to ignore their conversation, but the music in the restaurant isn’t quite loud enough and even with his back to me, the guy in front of me is a noisy and opinionated New Yorker.
“If you guys hadn’t moved away, I think I’d ask her out.”
“Yeah,” the guy facing me laughs. “I hope she’d be smarter than that. You blew it. I wouldn’t let that happen.”
“You’d cock-block me?”
“Shut up, she’s my sister.”
“She’s lookin’ good, though. She’s starting to look like a woman.”
“What, just because she decided to wear makeup today?” He laughs, pushing his reddish-blonde hair out of his eyes.
“No,” he says, “although that doesn’t hurt. I think I see something happening up here,” he says, bringing his hands up to his chest and curling his fingers into crude little cups.
The other guy drops his slice of pizza and pushes his plate away. “Either you stop talking about Emi, or I get a cab home.”
Emi. Red hair. Sister. I study his features quickly. His eyes are a muddy brown, nothing like her crystal clear green ones. Maybe it’s a coincidence. I look harder, using my artist’s eye to examine the fine details of his face. I only saw her briefly the day before. His skin is pale, like hers. That’s not enough to make a convincing connection, though. I wish I could see her again.
Lauren brings me my food and drink, then stops by the table next to mine to ask if they want refills. She flirts with the guy facing me in what is likely a wasted attempt to make me jealous. As she walks away, his face flushes red and he smiles. I see her dimples in his cheeks. They have the same smile. I’d know that smile anywhere.
I can’t help but eavesdrop now, but as I eat my pizza, they don’t talk about her anymore. They talk about people they obviously know from another city. I’m sure it’s the city she lived in before she was forced to move here. Still waiting for a little more evidence, I finally get it when this guy– whose name I’ve learned is Chris– starts talking about his parents imminent divorce.
The friend lights a cigarette, undoubtedly used to what’s acceptable in New York. Lauren promptly lets him know that he can’t smoke in the restaurant in our small town. Instead of putting it out, Chris and the other guy decide to leave.
I pull out a few bills and throw them on the table as I get up to exit the restaurant. The two guys are still talking by the door when I get outside.
“Hey, uh,” I interrupt, “do you have another one of those?” I gesture to his cigarette, shivering in the cold.
“Sorry, man,” he says.
“Joey, damn it, give him one. It’s freezing, come on.”
“No, it’s alright,” I say, backing away.
“Come back,” Joey says, reaching into his pocket. He hands me both the pack of cigarettes and the lighter. I take one out and light it, thanking him as I hand them back to him. I take a few steps away to the other side of the entrance. I’m not sure what compels me to stay and listen, but I do, trying to look like I’m intently focused on something across the street.
A car pulls up, and an older man and woman get out. “Chris,” the woman calls. He turns around, startled. I sit down on a bench and stare at my feet, tapping them to a silent rhythm that only I can hear. As I think about her, I realize the rhythm is my heartbeat.
“What are you doing here?” he laughs.
“Is Emi with you?” she asks, frantic. I can’t help but look up once I hear the urgency in her voice.
“We got into it,” the woman continues. “We left her in her room and had dinner with Mom, and when she went to take her some food, she was gone. Her coat, purse, boots are all gone.
“Well, I don’t think she’d be here. Wherever she went, it’s probably closer to Morristown, because she’d have to go on foot. I doubt she’d take a bus anywhere.”
I don’t wait to hear anymore, trying to act casual as I make my way to the SUV. Having grown up here, I know Morristown like the back of my hand. I also know good places to hang out on a Saturday night.
The main problem is, I don’t know what she likes to do. At all. Would she try to sneak into a bar? Or would she find a coffee shop, settling in with a cappuccino as she listened to a live local musician? I decide to just head to the north end of town, where the residential area meets the shopping strips.
Cars honk at me as I drive well below the speed limit. I laugh at the thought of getting pulled over for that. Would the cops still take me to the station for that offense? Suddenly, it’s not funny, and I decide to park the SUV next to a coffee house. I go inside and order a chai latte, needing something to keep me warm while I wander the downtown streets looking for a girl I know nothing about and have only met once. I realize my chances of finding her aren’t good, and judging by her despondent mood yesterday, I doubt she wants to be found.
Fifteen minutes later, two streets from where I parked, I see her distinctive hair as she sits with her back to the window. She’s alone in an ice cream shop. Literally, there are no other customers.
A tiny bell notifies the staff of my presence. Two women greet me, one likely in her twenties, the other closer to my age. “What can we get you tonight?” The older woman glances at the warm beverage in my hand. “You can’t bring that in here, sir.”
I nod once as I continue toward the counter, and tell them I’d like a chai latte.
“We don’t have those here,” she says.
“Fine,” I tell her. “How about a triple dip sundae in whatever flavors you want,” I suggest softly, slipping a ten on the counter, “and then you two can enjoy it and ignore me while I drink my chai latte with my friend over there.” I smile, my eyes pleading with them. “I don’t think my coffee will drive away your customer, okay?”
“Okay,” the younger woman says with a quiet giggle. She starts to take the money, but the older woman stops her, picking up the bill and handing it back to me.
“Just this once,” she says.
“Thank you.” When I turn around, I have to do a double take. Is it her? With her red lips and colored eyelids and rosy cheeks, I barely recognize her. When she finally looks up at me, I recognize her eyes. I’d know them immediately, and feel instantly connected to them. She squints them at me, then smiles.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hi,” I tell her, acting surprised to see her there. “Ice cream? Tonight?” I ask her.
She nods her head. “I can’t get much colder.” She wraps her puffy coat tighter around her. I pull my cap off my head, letting my hair fall messily and swiping it out of my eyes. “What brings you here, if not for the ice cream?”
“I, uh,” I start, unprepared. “I was just taking a walk.”
“A walk,” she confirms, as if she mis-heard me.
“I needed some fresh air.”
“Oh,” she says. She takes a spoonful of ice cream from the pint container and puts it in her mouth, letting it melt on her tongue. I glance down at her book.
“You have Miss Spindler?”
“English Lit? Miss Spindler?” I pull out the chair across from her tentatively, and wait to see if she has any objections. I hadn’t noticed her purse in the chair, but she moves it for me, setting it on the floor. I take that as an invitation and sit down.
“I think that’s her name, yeah.”
“Me, too,” I tell her. “What period?”
“None of her classes fit with my schedule, so I have a period of independent study that I use for her classwork.”
“Well, I’m a year ahead in reading,” I tell her.
“What grade are you in?” she asks me. I’d assumed we were in the same grade, but now I realize she’s a year ahead of me.
“I’m a sophomore.”
“You don’t act like a sophomore,” she says. “I don’t know where you get your confidence, but it makes you seem much older. And your eyes look… older, too. You don’t have that puppy-dog, pitiful sophomore look.”
“Did you think I was a senior?”
“You could pass for one,” she admits. “You’re definitely tall enough. Do you play basketball?”
“Hell, no,” I laugh. “I don’t like sports.”
I can feel my cheeks blush a little, as if I’m suddenly embarrassed by what I do. Maybe she likes jocks. Maybe she’ll be disappointed to find out that there’s nothing more to me than my paintings. “Pretty much,” I say softly, looking down.
“Whoa, there went your confidence,” she laughs. “What just happened there?”
“Nothing, that’s just my thing. I paint. And draw. And sometimes I write music.”
“And you’re ahead in reading. You’re starting to sound like a Renaissance man or something. Nate Wilson, the guy who can do anything.”
“Except play basketball,” I correct her.
“Screw basketball,” she laughs. “It sounds like you do all the important things.” I can’t help but smile. She smiles, too, showing her teeth as they begin to chatter. Should I offer her my coat? Is it too forward? Too obvious? “So what character do you have to profile?”
“The Squire,” I tell her. “Have you read that part yet?”
“Just the description at the beginning. You’re my son.”
“Wait, you’re the Knight?” She nods her head. “That’s odd. But I guess there aren’t that many women in the book to go around.”
“Why is it odd?”
“You have to present the character to the class, as the character, you know?”
“No, I didn’t know that.” She sounds annoyed.
“Yeah, she normally tries to assign characters that aren’t too much of a stretch to perform. I wondered who got the Knight. I didn’t think there were any guys in that class good enough to play him.”
“Not even you?”
“Especially not me,” I tell her.
“Well, the girl in my story is named Emily, so I guess that’s where Miss Spindler is coming from. Emi’s short for Emily.”
“Ohhh,” I comment, remembering the Knight’s tale. “This is starting to make more sense.”
“So, what, you have to perform for Miss Spindler in private, then? Now if that’s not intentional…”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“The young squire, who’d do anything for love,” she says, her voice suddenly very theatrical. “The cute boy, telling his tale of love to the young, single, lovesick teacher.”
“You’ve got an imagination on you, don’t you?”
“It’s one of my better qualities.” She takes another spoonful of ice cream, but this time she twirls the spoon in her mouth after swallowing, drawing my attention there.
“Did you call me cute?”
“I don’t think so,” she says, her cheeks growing red. She dips her head down toward the table and pulls her coat tighter again.
“And mine isn’t really a story of love,” I tell her, letting her off the hook. “It might have been, but it was interrupted unexpectedly. I don’t know the ending to my story. The god damn Franklin cut me off,” I laugh, and she does, too. “And for the record, I get a pass from my math class to come present for your class that day.”
“So you’ll see me in shining armor…” she mumbles. “Great.”
“That’s a sight,” I tell her. “No offense, but I don’t think you’d be able to stand up straight with full body armor.”
“Then I won’t waste my money. Maybe I could make a cool breastplate of foil and cardboard.”
“That sounds like a better plan.” For the third time, she shivers, and this time pulls a hood over her head.
“You do know it’s below freezing outside, don’t you? I just don’t understand why you chose to come here,” I question her.
“It’s peppermint, though,” she explains, as if it all makes perfect sense, “it has some warming qualities… or something…”
“Really?” I ask her. “Here,” I say, taking off the lid to my latte, “try this.”
“I don’t like coffee.”
“It’s not coffee, it’s–
“I can’t have chocolate,” she adds quickly, pushing the drink back to my side of the table as if it’s offensive to her.
“It’s not hot chocolate, either,” I tell her, looking at her sideways. “It’s a chai tea latte.”
“That sounds disgusting.”
“It’s not. Plus, it will warm you up. Either drink some of this, or I’m taking off my jacket and making you wear it. And all I’ve got on under this is a t-shirt, so you’ll probably feel bad.”
“Probably not,” she says with a straight face. One dimple starts to form though, and she touches my finger with hers as she takes the drink from me. “Oh, my God, that’s good,” she says, drinking more. “Take some ice cream,” she offers, pushing it toward me. “Take it all, please. Because I want this. Can we trade?” She speaks so quickly, and continues drinking at will, so there’s no chance for me to say no. “Please?” she asks, her eyes pleading with me. “I’ll get you a spoon.”
“I don’t want your ice cream, but drink up. I’m tired of hearing your teeth chatter.”
“Thank you,” she says. “If you don’t want ice cream, why’d you come in?”
“I saw you from the street, and I thought I’d stop by.”
“Well, I was at this pizza place,” I start, and she looks at me curiously, “and I think I may have seen your brother. Do you have one?”
“I do… why do you think that though?”
“His hair was the same color as yours.”
“Lots of people have strawberry-blonde hair,” she says as she rolls her eyes.
“Well, he was also new in town, talked about a sister named Emi, and mentioned his parents were going through a divorce.”
“Was he with a cute dark-haired guy?” she asks.
“No,” I answer her. “I didn’t think he was cute.” She laughs a little.
“So did you actually meet him? My brother, Chris?”
“Not officially,” I explain. “But I was close enough to overhear that your family is looking for you.”
She averts her eyes and drinks some more of the latte.
“I’m not going to ask questions,” I tell her. “It’s none of my business.”
“Thank you,” she says. “I’m not really in the mood to talk about it; nor am I in the mood to go back home.”
“I won’t make you do either. But this place is closing soon, and I’m not going to abandon you until I know you have somewhere to go. Did you drive here?”
“No, I don’t know how to drive.”
“My brother takes me where I need to go. Or I take a bus.”
I nod toward the front window, trying to get her to look outside. The snow has started to fall heavily again, and with the sun down completely, I’m sure the roads and sidewalks will be sheets of ice in no time. I glance at her feet. At least she has boots on.
“Do you have any friends here? Someone’s house you can go to?” She shakes her head.
“You’re the only person who’s talked to me.”
“Well, you were a little intimidating at school,” I tell her, remembering how closed-off she seemed yesterday.
“I’m really not,” she says.
“I see that now,” I agree. “My car’s two blocks from here by the coffee shop. Walk with me, I’ll get you another latte, and we’ll figure out somewhere you can go.”
“Okay,” she agrees, standing from the table when I do and following me back out into the street.
©2012 Lori L. Otto
Do you like what you’ve read so far? This is a prequel to my Emi Lost & Found series. You can download the first book, Lost and Found, for only $.99!