Never Came Back: Chapter 4
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Later that evening, I wandered onto my old elementary school playground.
The raw familiarity overcame my heavy thoughts. The empty clang of the flag pole. The deserted asphalt marked with hopscotch grids. In the back of my mind, I could hear the familiar cry and scream of the other kids. I never thought I'd miss the day when the most complicated problem I faced was being the chubbiest girl on the playground.
Dad weighed heavy on my mind. A feeling of sheepishness overcame me—I shouldn’t have just run away like that.
Maybe I didn’t feel that bad.
With darkness settling in, all the toys looked like lumpy shadows. Despite the light pollution from the city, a few stars poked through the early velvet sky. I lay on by back beneath the swing set and stared. The playground fell empty. My brain cleared out of it's own accord; I fell into the darkness and didn't stop.
The ring of my cell phone pealed through the playground. I almost ignored it—there’s no way he’d have my number—but decided against it at the last moment. My stomach caught when I saw the name on the screen.
A sob stuck in my throat. I didn’t even know I needed her, and there she was. With a sniffle, I answered.
If it had been any other day, I would have laughed at her. Her intuition often frightened me. Today, though, I just swallowed the lump in my throat.
“It’s . . . I don’t . . .”
“Are you okay?"
“I can tell something happened.”
“Yeah, it did. Lex, you’re not going to believe what happened.”
“Your Mom wanted to go on a walk.”
“My dad came back.”
Her screech made my toes curl—grating and oddly comforting at the same time.
“What . . . I mean . . . he just . . . how did . . . tell me now.”
The words fell off my lips one at a time. Once they started rolling, I couldn’t stop. They flew with uncanny speed and fervor, until I didn’t know how to stop them. Finally, when the story ended with me walking out of the restaurant, Lexie spoke again.
“Chelle. Whoa.” The whistle of her breath as she let out a heavy sigh comforted me. “This was not what I expected. I was just calling you with another great idea for Nutty bar tower and this? Wait a minute. There’s no TV or music in the background, which means you aren’t at your mom’s place or at the Frosting Cottage. You’re at the playground, aren’t you?”
A few tears had trailed out of my eyes and dripped into my hairline. I wiped them off with the back of my wrist.
“I knew it.”
"Of course you knew where to find me," I said. "You know me. You're my best friend. You spent years with me to learn those little details. That’s what it takes. Years. You didn’t leave when things got tough.“
"You always hated the swing set though," she said.”Which is beautifully ironic, if you think about it. Are you lying underneath the swings?"
“Yes. Because I never used to fit," I said. "They always dug into my legs and hips."
"They wouldn't do that now."
"So why not sit in the swing instead of laying underneath?" she asked.
I sucked in a deep breath. "I don't know. Doesn't seem right."
Lexie paused. "Do you want to talk about this, Rachelle? This is . . . this is big.”
A long moment of silence swelled between us, accompanied by a knot of dark anxiety in my chest.
"No. It’s the last thing I want to talk about.“
"Too bad. Spill."
My emotions were past pain; a blessed numbness made it easy to disconnect from my thoughts for the past hour. The few minutes I had with Dad at the restaurant passed through my mind as if I had been a bystander. Had I been wrong to walk away? Should I have let him talk and explain himself?
No, I thought. He walked away once too.
I wondered why I didn't feel any better.
"I don't know how to feel," I finally said, breaking the span of silence, just as I knew I would the moment I answered the phone. "Seeing him . . . it was . . . I don't even have the word for it."
"Are you angry?"
I bit my bottom lip. Why couldn't I say no? "I can't be sure. Maybe happy isn’t the right word.”
"Is there anything you're not feeling? Maybe it would be easier to start there."
"Hungry," I whispered. "I'm not hungry right now."
Lexie giggled. The edges of my lips twitched—it was kind of comical. "Well," she murmured. "That's something."
I swallowed the lump in my throat for the second time. How could I tell her that his abandonment felt even more real now that he'd shown back up? That he should have let us keep things in the past by staying there himself. Selfish, I thought. It was selfish of him to come back. No matter how pure his intentions. Dealing with mind-Dad in Janine's office had been difficult enough. Having him here made it all too real.
"It'll be okay, Rachelle," Lexie said. I jerked out of my thoughts and wondered how long I'd been in them. "You'll figure everything out. It'll probably just take some time."
"What do I do now?" I rubbed a hand over my forehead, willing a headache away. "It's all so confusing."
"Talk to Janine. That's what you do."
My eyes drifted shut. Janine. Of course! Why hadn't I thought of that? Janine would know what to do. What words would affix the volcano flowing inside of me. I swallowed. A call to Janine would certainly be in order, but meeting with her would be over twelve hours away, at the very soonest. How was I supposed to navigate through this confusion until then?
"I . . . I shouldn't have stormed out of the pub like that," I said. "I don't know how to find him. I don't even know where he's living now or what his number is. Maybe I've messed this all up. Because even though I don't want to talk to him, I do. I want to know everything."
Lexie cleared her throat. “Ah . . . I just so happen to have his phone number," she said.
My eyes narrowed. "What?"
“He left it with Pat, then Pat called me. Said he didn’t have your number. He didn’t know it was your Dad, of course. Even I hadn’t guessed that. He just thought it was someone you might be dating. Anyway, I guess your Dad took the number to Pat, asked him to get it to you, but didn’t give a name or anything.”
“That’s why you called?”
“Well, yes, but seriously about this Nutty bar idea . . . Also, he told Pat he’d be in town all weekend. He really wants to see you, but he understands if you aren't ready. You can call him anytime. I’ll text it to you.“
My fingers trembled. “Oh. Ah . . . thanks."
Her voice faded into concern. "Take things at your own pace, Rachelle. You don't have to do anything. But it may comfort you to know that Pat said your dad was pretty shaken up after you left. He waited for almost an hour to see if you'd come back."
My eyebrows shot up. "Really?"
“Yeah. I’m not his biggest fan either. I don't like that he left you and your Mom. But for your own sake, maybe you should think about talking to him. Might help."
“Love you too, Chelle. It may not seem like it right now, but you will get through this. You always do.”
With a sniffle, I turned my gaze back to the stars. We fell into a calm silence as the air thickened with darkness and moisture in the wake of the sun. I closed my eyes and drew in a deep breath.
I'd talk to Janine. She'd know how to help me out of this mess.
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