Everyone forgot my birthday as our kitchen became a mission control, full of ringing phone, loud voices, crying, and panic. My mother refused to leave the phone, positive that Charlotte would call any minute and say it was all a joke, of course she was still going to Harvard. Meanwhile my mothers friends from the PTA and Junior Leage circled through the house making fresh pots of coffee, I hate coffee, wiping the counters down, and chain smoking by the patio door. My father shut himself in his office to call everyone who had ever known Charlotte, hanging up each time, frustrated, to cross another name off of the long list. Charlotte had known way too many people, there had to be at least five pages of names in front of him. She was eighteen, so technically she couldn’t be listed as a runaway.
They’d already tried Jake’s apartment in Chicago, but the number had been disconnected. Then they called the Jerry Springer show, where they kept getting an answering machine encouraging them to leave their experience with this weeks topic—My Twin Dresses Like a Dyke and I Can’t Stand It!—so that staffer could get back to them.
“I can’t believe she’d do this,” my mother kept saying. “Harvard. She’s supposed to be at Harvard.” And all the heads around her would nod, or hand her more coffee, or light another cigarette.
I went into Charlotte’s room and sat on her bed, looking around at how neatly she’d left everything. In a stack by her closet was everything she and my mother had bought on endless Saturday trips to Wal-Mart for college: pillowcases, a fan, hangers, and her new blue comforter, still in it’s plastic bag. I wondered how long she had known she wouldn’t use any of this stuff—when she’d hatched this plan to be with Jake. She had fooled us all, every one of us.
To be honest, a part of me had been looking forward to Charlotte going off to college at the end of the summer. I thought her leaving might actually give me some growing room, some sunlight. Charlotte always had the better place than me. She was first place in a contest, I was third. She had a boyfriend, I had my stuffed animals. I wanted a chance to finally strike up on my own. But this changed everything, I’d always counted on Charlotte o lead me. She was out there somewhere, but she’d taken her own route, and for once I couldn’t follow or fall behind. This time, she’d left me to find my own way.
I got up from her bed and went across the hallways to my room, kicked off my slippers, and crawled into bed. I woke up in my pajamas this morning and hadn’t taken them off all day, everything was so stressed around the house that my mother hadn’t even noticed.
I reached out to my bed side table and dialed Paige’s number and chatted for a while, telling her everything that had happened. She said that she wasn’t surprised, because perfect people like Charlotte pull a big surprise one way or another. I told her that I agreed with her in a way, if you watch the movies there’s always that one popular-perfect-princess that gets good grades, is “super nice!”, and then one day, bam, she’s pregnant. Who saw it coming? Oh schocker!
Paige had to get off the phone because I guess her new stepdad isn’t “going to have the damn phone bill ran up by a teenage girl he’s known for two months.”, well I guess we know how nice this one is. I hung up the phone set it back on the reciever, reaching out to my lamp that sat on my bedside table and pulled the cord to shut it off. Maybe if I close my eyes and go to dreamland I can find her, Charlotte was always in dreamland, and ask her why. Just a simple ‘why.’ Why had she left me to calm mom down on my own? Why had she left me to my first day of sophomore year alone? Why, why, why?
The next morning when I woke up I realized I hadn’t dreamed at all, not one fleeting image. I took the book Charlotte gave me out from under my matress, where I’d hidden it, and opened it to the first page. There was a drawing of a half moon, sprinkled with stars, in the corner.
July 30, I wrote at the top of the page. Nothing last night. And you’re still gone.
I couldn’t think of anything else to write, so I got out of bed, threw on a baggy pink tanktop and capris, and went down the stairs to the kitchen. The door to my parents’ room was closed and my father was in his office. He was massaging above his eyebrows and was talking on the phone. He had to have talked to a hundred people in the last twenty-four hours.
“I understand that,” he was saying, his voice level, but I could tell he was starting to get angry. “But eighteen or not, we want her home. She’s not the kind of girl who does something like this. She’s a perfect girl.” That’s when I decided to leave, I was tired of hearing the word ‘perfect,’ especially when it was being said about Charlotte. I walked over to my mother who was standing by the coffeemaker with one hand occupied with a cup of coffee and the other with a balled up tissue. She dabbed her eyes and looked up to notice me, “Hi, honey.” I gave her a soft smile and opened my arms, she walked over to me and rubbed my back. “It’s gonna be okay, mom. She’ll come back. You know she can’t live without you.” I told her, gently, in her ear.
“I know, but it’s still so hard because I don’t know where she is or what she’s doing. I don’t even know if she’s alive.” She breathed in long and deep to let out another stiffle and weep.
“She’s alive. I know she is, I can feel it.”
“You two always said that about each other.” She pulled away, putting each of her hands on my upper arms, smiling.
“That you could feel it. Remember when you dove into the pool when you were little? Your father dove in after you and we took you to the hospital. You were out cold.” she guided me over to the kitchen table and pulled out her chair, signalling for me to do the same. She crossed her leg over the other, “I was scared to death, so scared I threw up all over the waiting room floor. Charlotte looked to me and said, ‘She’ll be okay, mommy. I can feel it.’ and what do you know, fifteen minutes later you were awake and ready to go home.” I smiled at her, remembering diving into the pool and then the next thing I knew, I was sitting in a hospital bed with a ton of nurses around me. It was silent for a while until she said softly, “I’m sorry your birthday was ruined.” And her eyes teared up again, I smiled and shook my head, telling her it was okay. “Do you want to do anything today?” She blew her nose.
“I was actually just going over to Paige’s house, if that’s okay.” I told her as more of a statement than a question.
”Yes, honey, of course. You go. Have fun, but don’t be back too late.” She shooed her hand at me and I stood up, giving her a hug. “I love you, Holly.”
“I love you, too, mom.” I yelled back as I closed the patio door.
Paige was my best friend whose mom had just gotten married, again: This was number five. She only married rich, and never for love, which led Paige to live in a nicer house each time, going to different exotic places, and getting more and more things to bribe her love for her new stepdad.
I walked through my backyard, waving to Patty as she worked away in the garden, hopping over the ditch behind our back gate and slipping into the feild that separated my neighbor hood from Paige’s. When I was about halfway through the feild I heard someone walking near me. “Who’s there?” Nothing. Okay, Holly, it’s probably just a rabbit or something. Dont freak out. I thought, until someone jumped out in front of me.
“Boo!” Paige flung her arms out.
“Jesus Christ, Paige.” I put my hand over my heart. “You scared me half to death!” She started laughing hysterically. “Ha ha, very funny. You got me.”
“You should’ve seen your face! Oh my, God, Holly!”
“Yeah, whatever. What are you doing back here anyways?” I brushed her off.
“I was just walking to your house. You?”
“I was just coming to yours. Do you wanna go to the gas station? Get something to drink and some snacks?” She shrugged her shoulders and fell into step with me, babbling about going out for the cheer team when school started again. She tried convincing me, arguing that it was one of the few things Charlotte had never done, and therefore I was pretty much required to do it. I wasn’t so sure about this.
“She never did it for a reason,” I told her as we reached the street. I had soon figured out that going out in public would be strange for a while, not only because of the raging California heat, but because of the occasional whispers and stares I had gotten. And I wasn’t even far away from my house, only on the next block and families sitting on their porch talking to neighbors would get real hush-hush and look back and forth at me. I mean, it doesn’t surprise me, Charlotte was well known around our small town, it was great end-of-summer gossip, earning me a new found notoriety that made me very uncomfortable.
“And what reason was that?” Paige asked me, completely ignoring the stares we were getting.
“Because she was an athlete,” I said. I was realizing more and more that I was referring to Charlotte in the past tense, as if she was dead and not just gone. “Not a Barbie doll.”
“Cheer leading is a sport,” Paige said firmly. “And besides, you get to go to all the good parties.”
I sighed, shaking my head. Paige and I were mismatched as friends, but somehow we’d stuck together since sixth grade, when she moved to town with her mom from New York to live with Stepdad Number Two, the car dealer king, across the street from us. All the girls at school hated her immediately because she was flat-out gorgeous, even then: tall, with a perfect figure, cherry-red straight hair, huge brown eyes, and full pink lips in a heart-shaped face. Her arrival at Oceano Middle preceded the breakup of two well-established couples, as well as marking the beginnings of a reputation built more on speculation and wishful thinking than truth, which had followed her since. But I knew Paige. I knew she only chased boys because her father, who hosted a kids’ show in Atlanta called Chaps Chap, had refused to acknowledge her as his daughter, even after a blood test prooved otherwise. She once told me that as a kidd she watched his show everyday, and that he was great with all of the kids in the audience, so goofy and funny, pulling rabbits out of hats or telling stupid jokes.
“He just seemed like he’d be the perfect dad, you know?” she said. “And all I could think was that he hated me. But I still watched, every day. I don’t even know why.”
Paige’s mom, Liza—also a red head, tall, and gorgeous—kept remarrying, and Paige got trips, clothes, jewlery, and big rooms in nice houses with her own TV, room phone, and a different, nicer, cell phone each time. The love she wanted she’d learned to look for elsewhere, with mixed results.
At the beginning of ninth grade, last year, Liza had an affair with her boss and moved Paige across town, divorcing Number Four to live with the man who would soon become Number Five. My mother breathed a sigh of relief, thinking now I could find a “nicer” girl to be best friends with. But I knew Paige, like me, didn’t make friends very easily. And she was good to me: strong, fun, and fiercly loyal. And if I didn’t have many other friends because of her—most girls were intinidated by her looks, or thought she wa too pushy, or just flat-out feared for their boyfriends—it never bothered me. I never missed having a wide, thick circle of girlfriends: Paige was more than enough. We were comfortable with each others flaws and weaknesses, so we stuck together and kept to ourselves. And once my mother realizes that I wasn’t going to start wearing short skirts and dating half of the football team—so Paige-esque—she relaxed and got used to her as well. She always like to see Paige as needing structure (it was all of those divorces, a man and woman should be together for ever: as it says in the bible! my mother would say), so she took to inviting her to dinners and holidays on our yearly beach trip. folding her into our extended family.
Now as we reached the gas station, the only one in our small town might I add, Paige walked ahead of me, “I’ll just go in. You want the usual right?” I yelled back, yeah. The usual consisting of: Lays Orignial chips, a diet Coke, and Razzlers. I walked around the front for a few minutes with my head down and my arms folded across my chest, trying to keep the hot sun off of my body as much as possible. I looked around by the gas pumps and only saw one car. A red Ford Mustang. It had to be from the late sixties. As I heard the ringing bell on the store door I turned around, expecting Paige.
That moment was when I got my first look at Harry Styles.