Return to Paradise (Leaving Paradise) – Episode 2
It’s obvious from the look of the place he lives alone. There’s no artwork on the bare white walls. The place isn’t like my house back in Paradise-it’s too plain and too unused, like he just comes here to sleep and that’s it.
“You divorced?” I ask.
“You gonna stop asking questions? I think I liked you better on the ride here, when you didn’t talk at all.”
After Damon makes a surprisingly good dinner of chicken and rice that reminds me of my mom’s cooking, he heads down a narrow hall to bed. It’s quiet in the house. I’m not used to this much silence. At Rio’s place, there were always people partying or coming in and out at all hours. I didn’t mind, because I don’t sleep much anyway.
I turn the light off although I know I’m not going to get much sleep tonight. It’ll be like usual … every fifteen minutes I’ll wake up and stare at the ceiling and pray for sleep to come. It does, but in such short spurts I wonder what it’d be like to get a full night’s sleep with no interruptions. That hasn’t happened for years … since before the accident.
In the morning I’m eating some healthy whole-grain type of cereal when Damon walks into the kitchen. I can’t help but ask, “Why did you help me?”
“Because I think you’re a good kid,” he says, his back to me as he stands in front of the stove and fries some eggs. “You just have to make better choices.”
In the late afternoon, we throw our bags in the car. Damon stops off at the Redwood community center, where a big white van is waiting for us. He gets summoned into the building and tells me to hang by the van and introduce myself to the rest of the group. There’s two other guys and three girls standing there waiting with their baggage.
When one of the girls moves aside and I get a glimpse of the person she was shielding, my entire body goes numb.
watch my protein bar fall onto the blacktop in slow motion, and the bite in my mouth tastes like dust. What is Caleb doing here? Where has he been the past eight months? He left town without a trace after our brief and crazy relationship. Why didn’t he try to reach me, or at least give me a sign that he’s alive?
He’s got those same blue eyes, that same chiseled face, and those same lean muscles peeking out of his T-shirt. He’s real, and live, and walking right toward me.
I can’t look away, even though I desperately want to.
He lets out a slow breath and says, “This is kinda awkward, huh.” His voice sounds familiar but different. It’s got an edge to it that wasn’t there the last time we saw each other.
“Yeah,” I manage to squeak out. Umm …
“How’ve you been?”
I can’t answer that question. It’s too fake. If he cared how I’ve been, he would have figured out a way to see me or talk to me. He left me before Christmas, before New Year’s, before Valentine’s Day, before my birthday, before prom and graduation. Before I got the news I’d have a permanent limp for the rest of my life without any hope of a full recovery. “What are you doing here?”
He shrugs. “I was asking myself that same question this morning.”
One of the other guys standing with us, the one with long curly hair that falls in his face, farts. What’s worse is that he makes a big show of moaning and pushing it out, like a little kid.
“Dude, do you mind?” Caleb asks.
“What?” the guy says, unfazed. “I had to let it rip.”
“Let it rip when you’re alone, man. Don’t be a fuckin’ prick.”
“What are you, the fart police?” the guy says, stepping toward Caleb. Caleb stands tall, as if he’s been in a lot of fights and isn’t afraid of adding another one to his tally.
This is unreal. I can’t feel my toes because I’m in shock, and Caleb and this guy are going to get into a fight over … farting?
“Cool it, guys,” bellows a rough voice. A tall black guy with a clipboard points to me. “Maggie, can I have a word with you for a minute? In private.” He points to Caleb. “You too, Becker. Now.”
I follow the guy away from the van, painfully aware that Caleb is following close behind. I’m tempted to turn around and demand to know where he’s been, but I don’t even know if I could get the words out.
The guy stops at a picnic table and drops his clipboard on it. He introduces himself to me as Damon Manning, the senior leader and chaperone of our group, then looks pained as he says, “Obviously, you two can’t be on this trip together. Maggie, I had no idea my assistant put you in as the replacement after Heather dropped out.”
“I’ll drop out,” Caleb offers eagerly.
“The hell you will, Becker. You’ve got no choice but to do this.”
That means Damon expects me to drop out. If I was the old Maggie, the one who was afraid of the least bit of conflict or confrontation, I’d drop out in a heartbeat. But I’m stronger now, and I don’t back down from anything. Even Caleb.
I turn to Damon with determination. “I’m not dropping out.”
“Maggie, I’m sorry but it’s not going to work with both of you-”
“I’m not leaving,” I interrupt.
Damon rubs a hand over his bald head and sighs. I can tell he’s wavering … at least a little bit. What can I say to convince him I don’t have to quit the trip just because Caleb happens to be on it? Truth is, being with Caleb will be a challenge-a huge one I hadn’t expected. But I decide I’m going to prove it to myself and to him that I’ve moved on. I don’t let the past dictate my life anymore. We’re both eighteen now, both considered adults in the eyes of the law.
“This is a bad idea,” Damon chimes in. “A really bad idea.”
“Can I talk to Caleb alone?” I ask him.
Damon looks from me to Caleb. “Okay. You’ve got five minutes.”
When Damon walks away, I swallow hard and force myself to face Caleb. He looks worn out, but at the same time a fierce strength radiates from him.
I used to think he was everything I wanted and needed. If I had Caleb Becker at my side, my life would be okay. And it was, for a little while at least.
“It’s been eight months,” I say in a small voice. Thinking of how much I’ve missed him makes my eyes well up. I blink and pray my tears don’t fall. Not now, when I have to stay strong. I say something, anything, so I don’t lose it. “You missed graduation.”
“I missed a lot of things,” he says, then slowly starts to reach out his hand before he shoves both hands in his pockets.
I know I probably look pathetic. I feel pathetic. But I’m sick of feeling sorry for myself. I’ve had to move on. I’ve gotten stronger every day. I can’t get sucked back into the soap opera of Caleb’s life. I won’t let that happen.
I look at the big white van that’s supposed to take us on a four-week trip together. We’re going to share our stories publicly, hoping to prevent others from experiencing what happened to us. I bite my lip at the irony. How can we do that, when the truth of Caleb’s and my accident is still buried?
I kick at some loose pebbles of tar on the blacktop. “He said you have no choice but to go on this trip. Why?”
Arms folded, Caleb leans against the picnic table and sighs. “Okay, here’s the deal. Big surprise: I got myself in trouble again. It’s either this program, or I go to jail. The ball’s in your court, Maggie. You want me to quit, I will. I’ll take the consequences.”
The last thing I want is Caleb back in jail. I’m afraid to ask for details of how he got into trouble, so I don’t. If he wants to tell me, he will. But I know he won’t because he doesn’t know how to trust anyone, least of all me. I might have been a part of his life once, but now I’m not. I’m a stranger to him, and he’s a stranger to me.
“It’s only four weeks,” I tell him. “I think we can handle it.”
“Four weeks stuck in a van together, and then you never have to see me again.”
I close my eyes when he says that. He shouldn’t disappear again. His sister needs him, and his mother struggles every day with her prescription drug addiction. “After the trip, you should go back to Paradise.”
“Not gonna happen, so get that thought out of your head.”
Forgetting my sadness and gathering courage, I stand up straight and look him in the eye. “You know what I think?”
“I think the tough and stoic Caleb Becker takes the easy way out.” There, I said it.
“My life is a lot of things, Maggie, but easy isn’t one of them,” he says. He clears his throat. “And if you think seeing you right now is a piece of cake for me, guess again…” His voice trails off.
“Maybe this was fate giving us a second chance at saying goodbye. You know, before we both go our separate ways again.”
“That must be what it is,” he says sarcastically. “So you’re absolutely cool with going on this trip together?”
I clear my throat and look over at the van. “I’m cool with it as long as you are.”
Pushing himself away from the table, he walks away from me and heads over to Damon. They talk for a second, then Caleb tosses his duffle in the back of the van and climbs inside.
“Caleb said you worked it out,” Damon says to me when I limp over to the van.
“It’s only four weeks. It’ll be fine.”
Damon looks about as convinced as I feel, but I assure him the past is behind us and we’ll get beyond it. I really hope I’m not lying to myself.
In the van, the two girls who I met this morning are sitting in the front seat. The girl named Erin has a pierced nose and lip and has tattoos running up and down her bare arm. She’s reading a book while leaning against the window. The other girl, Trish, has long, really shiny blonde hair and could definitely pass for one of the popular cheerleaders back in Paradise. She has dark makeup on her eyes and wears light pink lipstick. It looks good on her.
I purposely avoid even glancing at the rear benchI’m not going to look where he’s sitting-and slide next to Matt on the middle bench. I know Matt from physical therapy, since his appointments are usually after mine on Wednesday nights. Matt lost three quarters of his left arm, and his right arm is scarred, but I’m not sure exactly what happened. I’m sure I’ll find out once we share our stories.
Matt gives me a friendly but reserved smile. “I didn’t know you’d be here,” he says.
“It was a last-minute thing,” I tell him, eyeing Trish and Erin in the seat in front of us and wondering if Caleb will decide to ditch the trip at the very last second. Part of me wants him to leave, but the other part wants him to stay so I can prove to myself that I’m truly over him, that the pain that lingered after he left is gone.
My pulse quickens when I hear Caleb shifting in his seat behind us. It’s not a good sign that I’m hyper-aware of his every movement. I’m probably in for four weeks of real torture-maybe even worse than the year of physical therapy after the accident.
Never mind how I felt when Caleb abandoned me. In the weeks and months after he left town, I prayed that he’d come back. I used to keep my light on at night, so if he came back he’d see it as a sign that I was waiting for him. He lived next door, so I would gaze out my window for hours on end, hoping to see the light on in his room. My fantasy was that he would tell me he made a huge mistake by leaving Paradise.
But he never did.
In the end, I realized I had relied on him too much.
Damon gets into the driver’s seat and turns around. “Well, guys, this is it. Our first stop is a camp-based summer school for teens. We’ll be sleeping in cabins at their campground tonight, and you’ll be expected to share your stories with them. Tomorrow we’ll leave and head to our second gig. But right now, take a second to introduce yourselves while we’re waiting for Lenny. As y’all know, I’m Damon Manning and I’m your chaperone.”
To be continued………