I was furious the day I first met you. Furious at my parents, at my Uncle Tony, at that ass Gareth Richmond. But mostly, I was furious with myself.
The dawning sky still held a scarce scattering of stars, though the first rays of the sun could be glimpsed creeping over the horizon. The waves swished gently, invading then retreating from the shore. A very picturesque scene and a direct contradiction to my current emotional state.
I stalked along the boardwalk, shoulders hunched forward in stiff determination, scowling. The bus station should only be a quarter mile away, which meant freedom was only twenty minutes from grasp—five minutes to walk to the station, five minutes to buy the ticket, and then a ten minute wait until the 5:00 a.m. bus arrives to whisk me out of this wretched town and back to Somerville, New York.
I was so intent with my mission I nearly missed you sitting on that stonewashed bench. The only reason I noticed was because you raised a hand, offering me a quick—almost shy—wave.
I ignored you and strode on. The ocean breeze nipped at my cheeks; although Backwater Bay, the name of this thrice-cursed Rhode Island coastal village, was generally warm mid July, the early mornings still had a chilly bite.
The bus station finally appeared: a single story concrete building, squatting rudely at the fringes of town. I marched up to the ticket counter. Sweat gathered in the creases of my palms. My parents had made it very clear when they kicked me out of the house that I was to remain with my uncle and think about the consequences of my actions.
I’ve always been a good girl, the paradigm of the perfect daughter. Always obey rules, hang out with respectable friends, don’t do drugs or alcohol, get good grades. One hundred percent clean except for a little blip that marred my pristine record the last week before I finished junior year. The little blip that resulted with me being stuck in Backwater Bay for the entire summer.
“To hell with what my parents want,” I muttered. I was going to buy a ticket back to Somerville, and if they didn’t want me back home, well, they would just have to deal. I figured I could always crash at a friend’s house; maybe bounce around my small circle of peers so that I don’t overstay my welcome until my parents were ready to have me home.
I rang the little bell on the counter. An attendant wearing a Londonpike Community College sweatshirt popped up. He stifled a yawn. “Hello, how may I help you?”
“Single ticket to Somerville, New York. Please,” I added as an afterthought, reaching into my pocket to grab the wad of bills I’d filched from Uncle Tony’s wallet last night. There goes another black mark on Charlotte’s once-spotless track record.
The ticket attendant punched some buttons on the keyboard. “That would be sixty dollars.”
I froze, unsure if I’d heard right. “Sixty dollars?”
He nodded, eyes darting to his buzzing cell phone and tapping his fingers along the countertop.
“But the ticket was listed as thirty dollars on the website.” I’d only grabbed fifty total, figuring I should have some extra cash for food and a taxi once I got back to New York.
The attendant shrugged. “Sixty dollars is the current price. It’s listed in the brochure.” He held up a crinkled pamphlet to illustrate his point.
I bit back a frustrated sigh. I could walk back to my uncle’s cottage and steal some more money, but the 5 a.m. bus would be long gone by the time I returned. Which meant I would have to wait until tomorrow before making my escape. Which meant I had to spend another miserable twenty-four hours in this town.
“You buying a ticket or not?”
I shook my head and pushed away from the counter. “Not now.”
He grunted and pulled out his cellphone, turning his back on me. I started the mile-and-half trek back to the cottage. Strips of red and gold streaked the sky, announcing the sun’s arrival. A few gulls circled overhead and let loose their throaty cries.
You were still on that bench when I walked past again. Didn’t offer me a wave this time. Instead, you simply asked, “Why are you upset?”
I halted in my steps and gave you a stare.
After a moment, you said, “Are you angry? Anger’s not good for the soul. Poisons it.”
I finally recovered from the shock that a complete stranger had just asked me why I was upset, and blurted out, “Who are you?”
Then I took a moment to study you. Probably be pretty tall if you unfolded your lanky frame from that bench; dark, dark hair that was slightly tousled paired with an aquiline nose. I guessed you were around my age, give or take a year or two. You were wearing sunglasses (cheap plastic shades with red sides), which I found peculiar since the sun hadn’t even fully risen yet.
You patted the spot next to you. I remained rooted in place.
I was about to write you off as some cracked out wonk and be on my way when you said, “Name’s Ryan. So what’s got you all worked up?” You patted the bench again, an insistence that I sit. “Usually sharing whatever’s bothering you makes it seem, well, not so bad.”
I snorted. “What are you, a philosophical holy man spouting words of wisdom?”
“If that’s how you want to view me.” Your mouth curved into an easy grin. You pointed at the bench. “Sit.” The word came out a command.
On a normal day, I would’ve ignored a beach bum trying to pull some Dr. Phil crap on me. But that day, I stopped and considered your words. Perhaps it was the briny sea air messing with my brain, or the early morning fog still hazing my mind (waking up at 4:00 a.m. took its toll). Either way, I dropped down into the spot beside you and stared out into the ocean.
“So,” you said expectantly.
“What’s been eating away at your nerves?”
“Why are you wearing sunglasses?” I shot back.
You leaned back, arms crossed behind your head. “Ah, so we’re doing a one-for-one exchange. Very well, I’ll answer your question then you answer mine.”
“What? No! I never—”
“I wear my sunglasses because the world can be a dark place.”
“That makes absolutely no sense. Wouldn’t wearing sunglasses just make the world seem darker?”
You held up a finger. “An answer for a question. It’s my turn.”
“That’s not fair. You can’t not explain an answer like that.”
“Darling, the world’s far from fair.”
“Did you just call me darling?”
“Yeah,” you said all innocent like.
I opened my mouth to snap back some biting retort, but instead burst out laughing. Even now I don’t know why I started laughing—maybe it was the absurdity of the whole situation: Charlotte McConnell, top of her class, ex-perfect daughter who fucked up big time, got kicked out of her house, attempted to sneak back home at 5:00 a.m. using stolen money, and ended up attending an impromptu therapy session with a stranger on the beach.
“What?” you asked, still maintaining an innocent air.
“Nothing,” I managed to choke around my laughter. “I mean—you—me—darling, of all things to say—it’s just—never mind.”
Tears squeezed out the corners of my eyes. I wondered if I should be worried. Maybe I should add another label to my name. Charlotte McConnell: ex-perfect daughter, class valedictorian, thief, and a certified crazy who’s lost her mind.
“Alright, my turn to ask a question,” I said.
“I still haven’t asked mine.”
“You did—you asked ‘what’ when I started laughing.”
You tilted your head, sliding me a sideways look–at least that’s what I think you were doing, since I couldn’t see your eyes hidden behind the tinted lens. A smile slowly spread across your face. “Huh. I suppose I did.” You clicked your tongue and slowly shook your head. “You’re sharp, darling, dagger of a mind. Careful you don’t cut yourself.”
“So. Tell me why you wear sunglasses when you claim the world to be a dark place.”
“That’s not a question. Nice try, though.”
I appraised you with newfound respect, impressed you’d seen right through my ploy. “Why do you wear sunglasses and yet claim the world to be a dark place?”
“First of all,” you began, “I only said the world can be a dark place. There’s plenty of light in the world—sometimes you just gotta search for it.” A pause. “Do you believe eyes are the windows to the soul? Don’t answer that—” You cut me off before I could even utter a word. “Anyways, if eyes are the windows to the soul, I don’t want just anyone looking through them and into my soul. It’s personal, you know? The soul is the very essence of a human being. It’s the most intimate piece of a person.”
“So your sunglasses are some type of filter to your soul,” I said dubiously. “A layer of protection.”
“Soul glasses. S-o-l glasses.” I nodded at you. “Your turn.”
“What were you upset about this morning?”
I sighed, blowing air out through pursed lips. A wisp of hair flew up. “I don’t know—everything and nothing, I guess. It’s a long story. Complicated.”
“I didn’t have enough money for a bus ticket.”
You didn’t say anything.
I added, “And I was already feeling bad about stealing money from Uncle Tony—I mean, it’s not his fault that I’m stuck in Backwater Bay.”
You still didn’t say anything, and I was beginning to get the impression that you were judging me hardcore behind those shades. Feeling obligated to justify myself, I amended, “Well, actually it kind of is Tony’s fault, since he’s the one who offered my parents to take me in for the summer when he heard they planned on sending me to some crap-ass camp in Georgia. So now I have to wait until tomorrow for the next bus.”
You raised a brow. “That’s it? You’re upset because you have to wait an extra day to get out of here? You seemed so upset I thought something much more tragic had happened. Like you’d lost your phone or a seagull had stolen a muffin from your hands.”
I patted my back pocket, feeling the familiar shape of my iPhone. “Can a seagull even fly with a muffin?”
You nodded empathetically. “Happened to me last week. Just strolling along with a cranberry-orange muffin then—bam—gull swoops in and snatches my breakfast. Simply tragic.” Your face was completely serious.
I stared at you for a moment, then you cracked up. After a couple minutes, you finally collected yourself enough to form coherent words. We chatted a little bit more. Small talk, about little, insignificant things. Favorite artists. Last book we read. Grossest food ever eaten. I told you my name. You tried to convince me Backwater Bay wasn’t a hole-in-the-ground town and to give this place a chance. Didn’t work, though; I was still determined to get out of this dump tomorrow morning.
Beep beep beep. I jerked at the sound and looked around, searching for the source of the sound.
“Oh, it’s my watch.” You lifted your wrist toward me. The watch face was flipped, so the digital numbers appeared upside down. You hit some tiny button on the side and the beeping ceased. “It’s my six a.m. alarm,” you explained. “Sometimes I get distracted and lose track of time.” You stood and offered me a hand. “It’s been lovely talking with you this morning.”
I grasped your hand—it was warm and strong. “Thanks.”
“You have a beautiful smile.”
I blinked in surprise. I hadn’t even known I was smiling.
You turned to the left, presumably headed to wherever you lived. I went right, back to Uncle Tony’s house.
“Charlotte!” you called out.
I paused in my steps and glanced over my shoulder. “Yeah?”
“Don’t forget to smile more.”
And that was the first day we met.
My sister Naomi said my heart was too trusting for this corrupt world. My sister Naomi is also a 24-year-old college dropout living with her boyfriend in a flat in New York City. She’s an off-off-off-off Broadway actress by day and a recreational weed user by night. (Though she prefers the term “appreciator of the fine grasses”.)
I envy her. Taking everything day by day, having no grand plan for her life. I wonder if it’s futile, all this planning for what happens after. After high school. After college. After securing a job, marrying, having kids. After fucking after.
Sometimes I’m tempted to shred up my resume, transcript, certificates, plans for the future, and watch them drift like lost ashes. There’s a certain beauty in not knowing where you’ll end up.
The second day I accidentally slept through my alarm. I sprinted out of the house at 4:45 a.m. and ran for the bus station. You were sitting on that same bench and offered me a wave. I slowed down to return the greeting. I arrived at the station three minutes after the bus had left. I walked back to the cottage and spent the afternoon watching some inane reality show.
On the third day, I left the bus money in a jacket still back in my room. You waved at me when I walked past you on the gray bench both times. Later that day, Uncle Tony recruited me into helping him scrape old paint off the backyard shed. My parents called me that evening. I ignored them, letting my phone go to voicemail.
On the fourth day, I walked to the bus station, stood looking at the ticket booth for a minute, then turned right around and retraced my path. You raised a hand when I drew near, giving me the customary greeting. I stopped in front of the bench. After a moment of consideration, I dropped into the empty space next to you.
“Hey,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s me.” You wore different shades today: a pair of aviators with plum-black tinted lenses.
“So you’ve decided to stay in Backwater for a bit.”
I ran a hand through my hair, twirling the end of my ponytail. A whiff of your cologne mingled with the salty ocean breeze. “Figured I could stay for a week or two before returning home. Maybe help Uncle Tony finish fixing up the shed before I skip out.” In truth, I’d grudgingly come to adore this quaint little town; kind of like how you might fall in love with the mangy stray cat that persistently scratches at your back door every morning ever since you took pity and gave it some kitchen scraps.
“Are you here everyday?” I asked just to change to subject.
“Pretty much. Unless the weather is real bad.”
“How bad is ‘real bad’?”
“Hurricane weather bad.”
I got to test out your words the next morning when I woke to an intense downpour. I slipped on a parka and pulled on rain boots before splashing my way to the bench. You were there. We didn’t talk that day—the wind stole the words from our lips every time we opened our mouths. I was impressed that you managed to hear the beep beep beep of your watch over the shrieking of the storm.
At first, my early morning walks to The Bench were spontaneous. But then they became part of my daily ritual. We talked about anything, everything and nothing. I think it was our sixth or seventh meeting when you asked where I came from.
“Somerville, New York,” I replied. “It’s a cheesecake town.”
Your eyebrows shot up in confusion.
“White and rich,” I clarified.
You pushed up your sunglasses, which had been creeping down the bridge of your nose. (Pair of Ray-Ban’s, real nice looking.) “So nothing like Backwater.”
“No, not at all.” I leaned back, soaking in the moment—the wispy clouds sailing overhead, the sandpipers skittering along the shore, and the buoys rising and dipping with the swells like nodding heads. “Somerville is home of the state champion football team, mansions with immaculate lawns, and the world’s biggest asshole.” An asshole named Gareth Richmond, to be exact.
Perhaps you heard my voice grow colder or harder because you tsked and said, “Curb the animosity, Charlotte.”
I turned around, annoyed you had the front to reprimand me. My voice came out flat. “Let me tell you a story about a boy, a girl, some crystal, a gun, and a night that should’ve never happened.”
Once upon a time there was a girl who had a heart too soft for this cruel, cruel world. A heart too full of trust that she foolishly entrusted to a boy.
“Trust—such a funny word,” I murmured.
My trust is the wings of a butterfly, strong enough to take flight, yet fragile enough to break at the merest snap of the fingers.
The boy snapped his fingers.
Beep beep beep. Your watch went off just as I finished. You stood, drumming your fingers against the of the bench, then said, “Kill them with kindness.” A pause. “I’m sorry for what happened. But I still urge you to rise above the hatred, Charlotte.”
I jerked to my feet, jaw working furiously. “I didn’t come here for a lecture.”
I stormed away, leaving you by the bench, fingers still drumming.
Next day, I slept in, exhausted from helping Uncle Tony remodel the shed. I asked him if he knew a boy named Ryan. He didn’t. I came down to the beach around noon; a pair of siblings—a little boy and his older sister—sat on The Bench, sharing an ice cream sundae.
Another couple of days passed before I saw you again. You were smart enough not to mention our last conversation.
The topic of our talks varied. Sometimes we talked about our daily lives:
“I live with my grandfather,” you told me. “He makes a mean grilled cheese—he adds bits of sweet pepper, bacon, and mushrooms.”
“Sounds simply divine.”
“Oh trust me, it is. I’ll try to bring some tomorrow morning,” you added right before your alarm went off.
I watched you for a bit before heading back to Tony’s cottage. You walked slowly and kept tight to the boardwalk’s edge, as if savoring each step.
Other days we talked about the cosmos:
“Isn’t it beautiful to think that we’re all made of stardust?” I asked one particularly warm morning. “To think that everything on this planet used to be part of a star that shattered into a trillion tiny particles, combining and recombining to form all the natural elements.”
“Yeah. The whole world is made of guts of an exploded star.”
I scrunched my nose. “Way to ruin the image.”
“And since all matter is recycled, the water you’re drinking might have once been dinosaur piss.”
Only three things remained constant: you always greeted me with a wave, wore a pair of shades, and left promptly at six a.m.
The days blurred by, turning into weeks. Before long, only two weeks of summer remained.
The sky was just beginning to lighten when I slipped out the kitchen door and headed for the bench. Pinpricks of stars glimmered, fighting to remain seen before the all-consuming rays of the sun drowned them out. The ocean sang a lullaby and the waves cradled wooden fishing boats back and forth.
I knew something was wrong the moment I saw you. Your normally relaxed face had been replaced with a pinched countenance. “Hey,” I said, slightly worried because I’d never seen you look so off before. “Something wrong?”
You took off your glasses—same pair of red plastic shades you wore the first time I saw you—and twirled them between your fingers. Leaning forward, with your elbows propped against your knees, you just sat there silently, looking out into the ocean as if your soul is a world away. Finally, you turned towards me and said, “I’m leaving Backwater in three days to live with my aunt and uncle in Vermont.”
The first thought that came into my mind: Impossible—you must be lying, playing a prank on me or something. You’re a part of Backwater Bay as much as the sand is part of the beach, as the waves are part of the ocean. You and that bench, every morning. A permanent fixture.
The second thought that I had: Your eyes were green. It’s the first time I’ve seen your eyes properly.
“Why?” I finally asked.
You shoved your shades back on. I already missed seeing your eyes.
“My grandfather had a stroke yesterday. He’s being moved to a hospital in Providence for recovery.”
I took your hand and gave a comforting squeeze—a small gesture meant to reflect sympathy, sorrow, and sincerity. A ghost of a smile graced your lips. We spent the rest of the morning in silence, you lost in deep thought and me wondering if you’ll take off your glasses again.
“You have lovely eyes. Grayish green, like the Atlantic waters,” I blurted out. My neck flushed immediately.
You appeared taken aback. Then in a quiet voice, you said, “I never knew I had green eyes—nobody’s ever told me that. Thank you for telling me.”
I arched a questioning brow. “Um, why—”
“I’m blind, Charlotte.”
By now the sun had nearly risen fully, a big fat yellow globe perching above the waterline.
“Oh,” I said.
I was trying to think of a proper reply when your watch sounded. We simultaneously stood. A question suddenly popped into my head. “Wait—the first day we met, you said I had a beautiful smile. How did you know I was smiling?”
The corners of your mouth quirk upwards. “I could hear it in your voice. I heard your smile and it was beautiful.”
That was the last time I saw you alive.
Let me clarify. You’re still alive. I’m dead.
I’m still not sure how Gareth Richmond found my uncle’s address, but he did and was waiting for me on the front steps at 6:23 a.m. I only remember the exact time because I’d pulled out my cell phone to check a new text then looked up to see Gareth staring back at me.
He was stoned as hell. I’m not even sure he recognized me.
My first reaction was to chase him off the property—maybe give him a healthy dose of yelling to ensure he doesn’t return. How dare he show his face? Track me down? Confront me? How dare he do all this after he killed Naomi?
I opened my mouth to give him a taste of my anger (punctured with the occasional expletive as needed), but he lurched upright and slurred, “Wait, Charlotte, hear me out.”
I crossed my arms and jutted out my chin. “Fine. But whatever you say, it better be a damn good explanation to justify your presence here.”
Gareth nodded. “I’m sorry—”
I made a retching noise. “Nope, you’re not. Strike one. Three strikes and you’re out. Choose your words wisely.”
“If there’s anything I can do to—”
“Strike two. Gareth, if you’re here looking for forgiveness, go away.”
He threw his hands up. “Fine. I’ll leave. Just please don’t kill me before I get to my car.”
“You drove here?” My eyes skimmed the area and spotted his black Cadillac haphazardly parked besides the shed. A fresh dent stabbed the passenger’s side.
Gareth walked—actually, staggered would be a more accurate term—to his car. Took him nearly ten minutes to cross the yard and then another two minutes to figure out how to unlock the doors.
He was going to kill himself driving back to Somerville in his current condition.
Kill them with kindness.
Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if you hadn’t said those four words to me. But you did and there’s no turning back time to recant those words.
“Goddammit,” I muttered.
I strode to the car and rapped on the hood. Gareth rolled down his window. “Get out,” I snapped.
He stared at me, confused.
“I’m driving you home.”
“Serious enough to call the cops if you don’t get out of the car right now because there’s no way I’m letting you onto the roads right now.”
“Thanks, Charlotte. Really appreciate it.”
I didn’t grace him with an answer. I slipped into the leather seat, turned on the ignition and peeled into the street before he’d even buckled up. I cranked the AC to high and texted Tony, letting him know not to worry about me, while I waited for a light to turn green.
Gareth napped. He must’ve driven through the night in order to reach Backwater this early. It was late morning when I pulled over to refuel. I didn’t want to wake Gareth. (He’s much more pleasant when he’s unconscious and mumbling incoherent words.) So I paid with my own cash, though I planned on getting a reimbursement before parting ways with him. I could only take the whole kill them with kindness thing so far.
When I returned to the car, Gareth had woken and seemed to be in a clearer state of mind. “I can drive now,” he said.
“Like hell you are.”
“No, really. We’ll find the nearest bus station and you can be on your way back to your uncle’s in no time.”
“Shut up. I don’t want to hear another peep from you.”
Gareth snapped his mouth shut and turned away. We drove in silence for about ten minutes before he started whining again, trying to convince me to relinquish the wheel to him. Here’s the thing about Gareth: when he gets worked up, he becomes very animated.
I don’t remember what exactly I said; all I recall is seeing the back of Gareth’s hand flying towards my face. I don’t think he meant to actually hurt me, but the blow had enough force to rip my hands from the steering wheel.
Screaming. A violent impact. A bright flash. Then darkness.
So Gareth is still alive and so are you.
They said I had a quick and painless death. I guess that sounds about right, since I don’t remember any pain or the actual part of dying itself.
What am I? I’m not sure myself. I don’t think I’m a ghost . . . I’m more of a conscious, I guess. The essence of the mind that used to be part of a corporal girl named Charlotte McConnell.
You never found out about my death. Which is understandable. Nobody knew about our early morning talks except for you, me, and The Bench. Nobody knew that we knew each other.
I don’t think I had ever fully forgiven you, Ryan Windsor. You’re the reason why I died. If I hadn’t offered to drive Gareth home that day, who knows what I would be doing now. Meeting my new college roommate for the first time? Attending English 101 in a lecture hall with three hundred other freshmen?
It’s been nearly a month since I’ve died and I think I’m finally ready to let go. I’m ready to forgive and move on.
Ryan Windsor, thank you for a beautiful summer.
I’m ready to find out what happens in the final after.