Weeks went by in a haze. I walked around empty and lost. My parents went about life as they normally would have. My mother bugged me with little things to try to evoke some kind of reaction from me. My father thankfully avoided the topic of school at dinner for a few nights. I couldn’t even handle the thought of going back without Carter. The morning I woke up and saw the large white tent in the backyard, I snapped inside.
I dressed in the all white dress my mother picked up for me, filled with anger and resentment for having to go through today. I applied my makeup and put on the charm bracelet from Carter. He gave it to me the first year we were dating and added every charm on it over the last six years. I fingered the white gold heart charm.
Grabbing my phone and purse, I ran down the stairs and hopped in my car. I never looked back as I speed out if the driveway and away from that house.
I pulled over to the side of the road and let out a deep breath. I was sick of driving after four hours and was glad to have finally found my destination. I traveled up and down this road for over an hour looking for this very spot, unsure how I didn’t see it when passing the first few times. I looked out the window at the tree on the other side road. Wreaths and flowers surrounded the trunk of the tree in memory.
I put the car in park and opened my door. My legs felt weak carrying my body across the street. I knelt down in the moist grass as tears blurred my vision. Notes and cards from friends were covering the base of the tree. I reached out and ran my fingers over a framed photo of Carter with his high school soccer team. My throat closed up and I choked on the sobs breaking free.
I had to see this spot for myself. I spent the last two weeks since the funeral sitting at his grave site every night. I put my rose on the top of his casket before watching him lowered into the ground. I saw his name carved permanently in granite. Now, I had to see the spot were his life ended. Friends from home and school made the drive to this little town, but I needed to make this trip alone.
I looked at all of the cards filled with “I love you” and “I miss you”. Photos of Carter smiling with friends and family were stapled to the tree and around the ground. The grass was torn up with tire tracks and skid marks were still on the pavement.
Anger filled me and I punched the bark of the tree. Standing up, I kicked and pounded on the tree. The rough bark scrapped my hands, but it didn’t make me stop. Tears soaked my face and I cried out as I lashed out at the inanimate object in front of me. I kept hitting the tree until all the energy and anger temporarily left me.
I sat back down on the soft ground and leaned my back against the tree, picking at a blade of grass and tearing it in half. I thought coming here would make me feel better, but I felt worse. I thought seeing the spot he died would give me some closure, then I would have somewhere to leave my anger and blame. Instead, I sat here feeling stupid for thinking I could blame a tree. Cater would tell me I was being irrational and emotional if he was here right now.
It feels like yesterday, Carter and I were packing up my dorm room to make the drive home. We were dancing around my room and stuffing my things in boxes. I kissed him goodbye and told him I loved him at my car. I wished him good luck and waved to him as he pulled out of the parking lot of the campus.
He would never make it back home. It was the last time I would ever see him. He would never see me, or his family, after that. Today, he was missing my graduation party.
I stood and made my way back to my beat up car. Looking at my phone in the center console, I found eighteen missed calls and twenty-something text messages. I tossed the phone into my purse that sat in the passenger seat. I closed my eyes and rested my head against the headrest. I couldn’t stand being there today without Carter with me. I didn’t think I could stand being anywhere without him.
Carter was a huge part of the person I was today. We were together for most of high school and all of college. He helped me and held my hand every step of the way. After six years of being with one person, revolving around one person, how was I to move on without him? I begged my parents to cancel the party, but they insisted that it would be “good for me”.
I glared daggers back at the tree that ripped my heart right out of my chest. My insides felt tangled together and my eyes burned from the tears. I put my trembling hands on the steering wheel. The silver ring on my finger unraveled me even more. Memories of the night Carter placed the five-year anniversary gift on my finger flashed in my mind.
I smacked the steering wheel and started up the engine. After several turns, the old car finally came to life. I didn’t know where to go from here. I should have gone to the cemetery instead of making the ridiculous drive to see the tree Carter hit with his car, the last place he took a breath. At least in the cemetery, I felt like he could hear me, or was even looking down on me. I felt nothing but anger here.
Hearing my phone vibrate in the seat next to me reminded me of another reason I drove here. I was avoiding home. I was avoiding seeing anymore sympathetic faces, or worse, faces pretending everything was the same. I was avoiding the friends Carter and I made over the years as a couple. These people felt like strangers to me now that he wasn’t here. I was avoiding his family that would surely come, to show support for the girl they thought would someday be family. Every face only made my heart break more.
I pulled my car off the side of the road and drove to the next town. Driving any further would take me out of Ohio. Small brick-faced shops lined the quiet street. Flower pots lined the sidewalks and one red light stood at a four-way junction. I felt like I stepped into another time. I sat at what seemed to be the only red light and looked in the window of an antique shop.
I parked on the street and looked in the rearview mirror at myself. My eyes were red and swollen. My hair was frayed and falling out of the neat bun it was pulled into this morning. I saw a coffee shop down the street a little way, so I grabbed my purse, figuring I would walk down and use the restroom to clean up and pass the time. Eventually, the calls would stop and people would realize I was not going to be there.
I stepped out the car and straightened my dress before taking off toward the cafe. The aroma of coffee assaulted me as I opened the door. The shop was long and narrow, with a counter on one side of the room with a few small tables with chairs on the other. The place was decorated with vintage signs and artwork. The browns and blacks brought a warm and cozy feeling to the place.
Spotting a door in the back labeled 'Restroom’, I headed back before anyone could see me in my disheveled state. I locked the door behind me and dusted the grass and dirt off of my bare knees. I dug through my purse and retouched the makeup I expertly applied this morning. After reworking my long hair in to the bun, I sighed and opened the door. The cafe was still empty, but some voices told me at least some staff was hanging around.
A young guy, about my age, appeared before me behind the counter. He had jet black hair, about chin length. His eyebrow and bottom lip were pierced, along with more jewelry in his ears. His arms stretched out before him on the counter to hold himself up. They were covered in colorful tattoos from the wrists to under his short sleeves. He would look intimidating if it wasn’t for his eyes. They were a chocolate brown that showed warmth.
"Coffee?" he asked finally with an amused smile.
"Please. Large. Mocha Latte," I answered as I dug for my wallet.
I watched him work on making my drink. At Georgetown, students were proper and clean. I haven't had many conversations with people covered in tattoos and piercings. I try to never judge people and be accepting of all, but the contrast in his hard appearance and the soft look in his eyes threw me off. It goes against all the stereotypes your mind makes up from television and movies.
"Passing through?" he asked as he handed me my drink and took my card to swipe.
"Kind of," I muttered while looking down at my outfit. I stuck out like a sore thumb in my formal dress and white high heels, which are now covered in dirt. It was obvious I shouldn't be here. I took my drink and card from him and found a table near the windows to sit. I watched as people walked in and out of the other stores and talked to each other on the street.
I took out my phone and turned it back on. Notifications filled my screen of text messages, voicemails and missed calls. I debated turning the phone back off, not wanting to deal with home just yet. Navigating to the last voicemail, I listened to my mother's voice. She was tense and her voice clipped as she accused me of being selfish and embarrassing our family. I almost laughed at the irony. I wasn't forcing them to do anything they didn't want to do just to make myself look better. I simply refused to play along with the facade.
My stomach rumbled and I was reminded I have barely eaten in weeks and my body was running on empty. The sky was turning a light purple color as the sun went down behind the trees. A long drive home was not what I wanted, or needed, right now. I had no plan on what to do after I saw the tree Carter hit. I always have a plan, never setting out without one.
Pushing the worry to the back of my mind, I stood and made my way over to the counter. "Any good places to eat in this town?" I asked as I leaned over the counter to get Brown Eyes' attention.
Wiping his hands on his black apron, he came over to the counter. "Minnie's Diner is down Main Street a little bit. They have the best meatloaf,”
Of course they would have a Main Street.
"But, she's actually closed for a few days. Staying with her daughter in Florida for her grandkid's graduation,” he said, looking thoughtful. "There's Hank’s. Great burgers."
I sighed in relief that Minnie's wasn't the only place for food in the town. I was amazed Brown Eyes knows this Minnie's personal business, though. He hardly seemed like the type to hang out with the diner owner and grandmother. I guess everybody knows each other around here.
"Thanks," I said as I slung my heavy Coach bag over my shoulder.
"No problem. Hank's is on the corner to your right when you come out of here."
I nodded and headed outside. The air was cooling and I scolded myself for not brining any clothes, or even a shaw. This is why I plan everything. I hate being stuck without control. I drove the short distance to the corner just so I wouldn't be without my car there. I glanced at the intersection, spotting the large painted sign with the name 'Hank's' on it.
The one story building was brick and had no windows. A neon open sign hung in the glass door. This must be a bar, but I had no other options and was not about to start driving aimlessly looking for a more family-friendly place to eat alone. I parked and entered the building.
The smell of smoke and beer met me. A long bar lined the wall with bottles of liquor filling the shelves behind it. Low hung lights with green shades gave the place little lighting. Several guys played pool in the back corner. Several other men stopped to look at me from the tables scattered around the room.
I took a deep breath and made my way to the bartender, who was watching me from the bar. The older man had graying hair and looked slightly overweight. I tried to ignore the fact that I looked like an alien in here, with my stark white dress, expensive purse, jewelry and high heels clicking on the weathered tile. I took the barstool directly in front of the bartender, feeling eyes watch me the whole way there.
"Lost?" he asked bluntly.
"And very hungry sir," I said meekly and embarrassed.
He gave me a sad smile and handed me a sheet of laminated paper they called a menu. After quickly scanning through, I ordered a burger and fries. I anxiously played with the charms of my bracelet while waiting for my food to come. I could feel the eyes burning into my back, but the voices picked back up as I no longer was the center of attention.
I couldn't tell if it was dark out yet from inside the dark and dingy bar. I almost laughed when I thought of my mother's reaction if she knew where I was, instead of her well-planned party. I never went out to bars and partied like my classmates did. I stayed in, concentrated on my studies and watched as Chloe and the girls got ready to head out for nights of fun and drinking. I didn't imagine this would be the kind of bar they would go to, though.
My food arrived and I slowly ate the burger to stall from having to start the drive home. Driving in the dark on the winding country roads was the last thing I wanted to do. After all, I know how dangerous that could be. Maybe Carter would be sitting on my patio with me right now if it had been daylight for his drive home. Maybe I wouldn't be in this smokey bar alone.
I slid my card to the bartender when he took my empty plate. "Do you want to start a tab?" he asked me.
"For drinks?" I asked, like I have never been in a bar before. "Yes," I answered quickly to cover my embarrassment. I could at least try to look like I know what I am doing and remotely blend in. I grabbed my ID from my purse and slid it across the bar.
"What can I get you then, sweetie?” He tucked my card under the register.
"Scotch. On the rocks,” rolled off my tongue before even thinking. I had no idea what I was thinking. I saw it in so many movies and commercials, it seemed like the right thing to say.
The bartender tried to hide his laugh and shook his head. Taking a bottle from the shelves behind him, he filled a glass and slid it in front of me. The smell burned my nose as I lifted it to my lips. He watched me curiously as I inhaled a deep breath. I took a long drink from the glass to keep up my rouse.
The liquid burned my throat like I swallowed flames. I instantly started coughing and shaking my head to clear the burn. I kept my eyes down on the ice cubes in my glass to avoid looking at the bartender. Surely, he must know how deep over my head I am by now.
"Hey, Hank," came from a voice from next to me, drawing the worried man away from me.
"Ryder," he said back to the voice while popping the top off a beer bottle and sliding it across the bar. I didn't even hear him ask for one.
I rolled the glass around in my hands and kept my gaze down. I just wanted to crawl up in a hole and hide from here, this bar, and home and my family. But, I currently have no where to hide that’s not any of those places.
"You’re not from around here, are you?" I heard in a deep voice near my ear.
I looked up quickly to see the guy, named Ryder, sliding over to the stool next to me. His eyes traveled from my high heels, up my bare legs and the rest of my body before landing on my face. I wanted to cringe away from his look, but my body made no moves. I could almost feel his eyes moving up my skin.
Even with an empty and broken heart, my mind could not ignore that the face in front of mine was striking. Black hair spiked in every direction. His pointed jaw and high cheekbones brought all your attention to piercing, dark brown eyes. Some stubble on his chin made him look older, but his broad shoulders and wide chest showed a body of someone younger. He raised one eyebrow at me, reminding me he asked a question.
"Um...no. I’m not," I stuttered, turning away from his handsome face. He was opposite of Carter in almost every way. I could see him still watching me from the corner of my eye, so I took another drink to break the tension. My body shuddered as the Scotch burned it's way down.
"Hank, Mojito," he called out, slamming his hand on the bar.
Hank slid a tall glass with mint leaves and a clear liquid inside. I turned to look at Ryder in shock as he slid the Scotch away from me and downed the rest.
"This is better. Trust me," he said, sliding the glass closer to me.
In utter curiosity, I took a small sniff. The smell of citrus and mint was a delightful contrast to the previous drink.
"Thank you," I said, bringing the drink to my lips. The drink burned when swallowed, but then was washed away with the freshness of mint, lime and bubbles.
"Ryder," the stranger said, sticking out his hand. His eyes shined bright with amusement and something that looked almost daring, like he was challenging me.
"Kallie," I answered, putting my hand in his. His large hand covered mine. It was rough and instantly warmed my whole body.