Home > All the Little Lights(8)

All the Little Lights(8)
Author: Jamie McGuire

“Is that why you were punching our tree?”

He looked down, either unwilling or unable to answer the question.

“A lot bothers me,” I grumbled, sitting back. I glanced at the clones, dressed in cutoff denim shorts and floral blouses, just variations of the same shirt from the same store.

Dad tried to make sure I had the right clothes and the right backpack, but year after year Mama watched as more of my childhood friends faded away. She began to wonder what we’d done wrong, and then I began to wonder, too.

The truth was, I hated Presley for hating me. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mama that I would never fit in. I wasn’t vile enough for those small-town, small-minded girls. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t really want to, but at fifteen, I sometimes wondered if it was better than being alone. Dad couldn’t be my best friend forever.

I took a bite of my sherbet.

“Stop,” Elliott said.

“Stop what?” I asked, the cool orangey-goodness melting on my tongue.

“Looking at them like you wish you were sitting over there. You’re better than that.”

I smirked, amused. “You think I don’t know that?”

He swallowed whatever he was about to say next.

“So what’s your story?” I asked.

“My parents are going on a couples’ retreat for six weeks. Some kind of intense counseling. One last stab at it, I guess.”

“What happens if they stab and miss?”

He picked at his napkin. “I’m not sure. Mom talked about just the two of us moving back here as a last resort. That was a year or two ago, though.”

“What do they fight about?”

He sighed. “My dad’s drinking. Dad not taking out the trash. Mom nagging. Mom spending too much time on Facebook. Dad says he drinks because she ignores him; Mom says she’s on Facebook all the time because he never talks to her. Basically, the stupidest stuff you could imagine, and it escalates like they’ve been walking around all day waiting for the other to set them off. Now that he’s lost his job—again—it’s worse. Apparently the therapist said Dad needs to be a victim, and Mom enjoys emasculating him, whatever that means.”

“They told you that?”

“They’re not the fight-behind-closed-doors type of parents.”

“That blows. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know,” he said, looking at me from under his glasses. “This isn’t so bad.”

I squirmed in my seat. “We should probably, um . . . we should go.”

Elliott stood, waiting for me to slide out of the booth. He followed me out, so I wasn’t sure if he noticed Presley and the clones covering their insults and giggles with their hands.

When he stopped next to the trash can behind their booth, I knew he had. “What are you laughing at?” he asked.

I tugged on his T-shirt, begging him with my eyes to keep walking.

Presley rolled her shoulders and lifted her chin, thrilled to be acknowledged. “Just how cute is Kit-Cat with her new boyfriend? It’s precious how you don’t want to hurt her feelings. I mean . . . I have to assume that’s what”—she gestured to us—“this is.”

Elliott walked over to their table, and the girls’ giggles quieted. He knocked on the wood and sighed. “You know why you’ll never outgrow the need to make others feel like shit so you can feel better, Presley?”

She narrowed her eyes at him, watching him like a snake ready to strike.

Elliott continued, “Because it’s a temporary high. It never lasts, and you’ll never stop because it’s the only happiness you’ll ever have in your sad, pathetic life that revolves around manicures and highlighting your hair. Your friends? They don’t like you. No one ever will because you don’t like yourself. So every time you give Catherine a hard time, she’ll know. She’ll know why you’re doing it, just like your friends will know. Just like you’ll know that you’re overcompensating. Every time you throw insults Catherine’s way, it’s that much less of a secret.” He made eye contact with each clone and then Presley. “Have the day you deserve.”

He returned to the door and held it open, gesturing for me to walk through. We navigated the parked cars until we were on the other side of the lot, and headed back toward our neighborhood. The streetlamps were on, the gnats and mosquitoes buzzing beneath the bright bulbs. The quiet made the sounds of our shoes against the pavement more prominent.

“That was,” I began, searching for the right word, “legendary. I could never tell someone off like that.”

“Well, I don’t live here, so that makes it easier. And that wasn’t entirely mine.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s from a scene in Detention Club Musical. Don’t tell me you didn’t watch it when you were little.”

I stared at him in disbelief, and then laughter erupted from my throat. “The movie that came out when we were eight?”

“I watched it every day for like a year and a half.”

I giggled. “Wow. I can’t believe I didn’t catch it.”

“I’m just glad Presley didn’t. That would have made my monologue much less intimidating.”

I laughed again, and this time Elliott did, too. As the laughter died down, he nudged me with his elbow. “Do you really have a boyfriend from out of town?”

I was glad it was dark. My entire face felt like it had caught fire. “No.”

“Good to know,” he said with a grin.

“I told them that once in middle school, hoping they would leave me alone.”

He stopped, looking down at me with an amused smile. “I’m guessing it didn’t work?”

I shook my head, every instance of their badgering coming to mind like a barely healed wound breaking open.

Elliott sniffed and touched the tip of his nose with a scraped knuckle.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” I asked.

The laughter and grins faded. A dog barked, low and lonely, from a few blocks away, an air-conditioning unit clicked and shuddered, an engine revved—probably the older high schoolers dragging Main Street. As the quiet surrounded us, the light in Elliott’s eyes disappeared.

“I’m sorry. That’s none of my business.”

“Why not?” he asked.

I shrugged, continuing our trek. “I don’t know. It just seems personal.”

“I’ve been telling you about my parents and all their problems, and you think my bloody knuckles are personal?”

I shrugged.

“I lost my temper. Took it out on your oak tree. See? No magic trick. I still get angry.”

I slowed. “Frustrated about your parents?”

He shook his head. I could tell he didn’t want to say more, so I didn’t push. On our quiet side of town, walking along the last road within city limits, the world as Elliott and I knew it was ending, even if we hadn’t quite realized it yet.

Houses lined each side of the street like little islands of life and activity. The lit windows broke up the darkness between streetlamps. Occasionally a shadow would skirt across one of them, and I wondered what living on their islands was like, if they were enjoying their Friday night watching a made-for-television movie, snuggled on the couch. The worry of paying bills was probably far, far away.

When we arrived at my gate, my island was dark and quiet. I wished for that warm yellow glow from the windows in the surrounding homes, the flicker from a television screen.

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