Return to Paradise (Leaving Paradise) – Page 4
Damon leads us into the woods. About twenty kids are sitting beside a campfire on tree stumps, waiting for us. They all look up when we approach.
The crackling of the wood makes me think back to the time when my dad and I used to go with Brian and his dad camping up in Wisconsin. Last time I talked to Brian, he was dating my ex-girlfriend Kendra and working at his dad’s hardware store.
“Take a seat,” Damon says to our group. “Pick an empty spot anywhere.”
I sit next to this guy with a bunch of acne, who must be a freshman with out-of-control hormones. He smiles weakly at me.
A woman gets up and says the kids are from high schools in the Chicago area and are required to take summer school to move on to the next grade level.
After the woman talks, Damon stands. “I’ve brought some teens here to tell their stories about how reckless driving has affected their lives. I know some of you think you’re invincible, but guess again. Listen to them. Hear their stories. You’ll be smarter for it.” He sits down.
What does he expect us to do, jump up and tell our sob stories? Does he actually think these kids sitting around the fire will give a shit? This is a joke.
“Hey, guys. I’m Matt.” Matt’s voice cuts through the silence. He clears his throat. A few kids look up, but most are picking at their nails or staring into the fire. A few are whispering to each other, totally uninterested in what Matt’s about to say. “I guess I’ll go first. A few months ago, I was coming home from a high school football game. I was an all-state wide receiver. We’d just beaten our rival team on their turf, and I was stoked. The entire time on the bus back to school, we were joking around. I was feeling good. Damn good.” He looks up. “Invincible, even.”
Some of the kids are still talking amongst themselves, not giving a shit that poor Matt is pouring his heart out to them. Matt doesn’t seem to notice they’re not paying attention, or maybe he doesn’t care.
“After we got back to school and piled in our cars, I was at a stoplight. A friend of mine was next to me. I revved my engine. He revved his.” He pauses. “When the light turned green, I pressed down on that pedal so hard my head jerked back. It was a rush, especially knowing I was leaving my friend in the dust. That’s when I lost control of my car. I don’t remember much before slamming into the tree, and when I woke up I found out they’d had to amputate my arm. The crushed metal mangled it beyond repair.”
As if that isn’t enough, Matt struggles out of his T-shirt. Now he’s got their undivided attention. A few kids gasp, some cringe, and some stare. His chest is still scarred and he’s got less than ten inches of his arm left.
He sits back down. “I’m not feeling so invincible now. Lost any chance of a football scholarship and … and … and…” He swipes at his eyes. “And I’ll never be able to catch a football again.” He looks up, his expression defiant. “Try putting your pants on using one hand. Just for one day, try doing that simple task with one hand. I can tell you right now, it isn’t a piece of cake when you’ve got one arm. If you want the God’s honest truth, it sucks. I wish I could turn back time, but I can’t. I made a stupid decision because I thought I was invincible, and I’ll pay for it the rest of my life.”
He sighs and hangs his head.
Well, that was a downer. Damn. And all along I’d hoped we were gonna roast marshmallows and make s’mores. Some bonfire this turned out to be.
My gaze turns to Maggie. Our eyes meet for an intense moment, but then she breaks the connection quickly and focuses on the ground.
When she looks back up, she says though the strained silence, “I’m Maggie. Almost two years ago I was hit by a car …
When she stands, she focuses her accusatory gaze on me. Is she going give it up that I was the one convicted of hitting her? I wasn’t the one who did it, but she doesn’t know I’m holding that secret. Or, even worse, does she expect me to stand up and say I ran into her while driving drunk? I’d choke on the lie. Dammit, I can’t deal with this. Not now.
Before she says another word, I stand and head back to the cabin.
“Caleb, get back here,” I hear Damon hiss.
I ignore him and keep walking.
pause as Caleb retreats into the darkness, the light of the campfire flickering against his dark shirt. I want him to hear my story. The accident changed my life forever, and if anyone needs to hear my side of it, it’s Caleb. He owes it to me to listen. The fact that he picked up and walked away was a slap in the face. It means he doesn’t care … about me, about what happened to me, and about our relationship that he professed to be real.
Feelings of anger and betrayal settle inside me. I take a deep breath and look around at the faces of the teens watching me, waiting for me to explain how teen reckless driving affected my life.
“I still have scars …” I say, my voice trailing off. I let out a slow breath as I think about the reality of it. “Inside and out. A boy I liked was convicted of hitting me, and he went to jail for it. The sad part is, the accident not only affected the two of us, it affected both our families … and pretty much our small town as well. None of us have been the same since.”
A small blonde girl with French braids raises her thin hand. “What about the boy?” she asks. “What happened to him?”
I look over at Damon, leaning against a tree in the back. He thinks Caleb was the one who hit me. “I don’t know. I think he blames me for being the reason he went to jail.”
“That’s stupid,” the girl mumbles.
“If you make a mistake, you pay the price,” one of their counselors says.
The woman has no clue of the truth … that Caleb didn’t make a mistake but paid the price anyway.
Trish stands next. She talks about how she was at a high school party and someone at the party slipped cocaine into her purse. When she got pulled over for speeding and running a red light, she got arrested. The drug charge is on her permanent record, and now every time she applies for a job she has to check the box that she’s a convicted felon.
With emotions running high, Damon and the rest of the leaders say it’s time to head back to our cabins.
When we reach the cabin, Damon storms inside. “Yo, Becker!” he yells in a deep voice I swear could scare the toughest person. The girls are startled and the guys are practically standing at attention. “Get the hell up!”
Caleb is lying on his bunk, his arm resting behind his head. He’s wearing loose sweatpants and no shirt. He sits up, seemingly unfazed. “What’s your problem?”
Damon walks right up to the bunk. “Get down here, you smartass.”
“Nice language, Damon.” Caleb jumps down in one movement and faces Damon straight on. They’re about the same height, but Caleb is lean and muscular compared to Damon’s bulk.
“Yeah, well, I call it as I see it. Apologize to Maggie for walking off,” Damon demands as he gestures in my direction. “It was totally disrespectful and rude.”
“Sorry,” Caleb mumbles insincerely.
Furious, I nudge Damon aside and stand toe-to-toe with Caleb. It’s too bad I’m hyper-aware of the ripples in his bare chest just a few inches away. “Why are you so intent on acting like a jerk?”
Caleb gives a short laugh. “‘Cause I am one.”
“Why are you doing this?” This isn’t the real Caleb, the Caleb I grew up with. This is a hardened, fake representation and I hate it.
“I’m not doing anything. This is me, sweetheart. Take it or leave it.”
“What’s going on between you two?” Trish asks.
“Nothing,” I say to her. “Nothing’s going on. Right, Caleb?”
I limp out of the cabin, the loose floorboards creaking beneath my sneakers as I get some needed distance between me and everyone else. When I step into the warm night air, I feel better. As I cling to the railing and awkwardly maneuver myself down the three stairs to the grass, I feel Caleb’s presence behind me.
I ignore it, even if my stomach is twisting in knots. I have so much to say that I’m holding back.
“Maggie,” Caleb’s voice echoes through the night air.
I continue walking. When he catches up to me, I turn on my heel and limp away from him. “Leave me alone,” I say over my shoulder.
“What’d you want me to do, listen to you talk about how I hit you with my car while I was drunk, then left you for dead lying in the street, then how I went to jail, then after I came out of jail we started … started…” He winces and presses his palms to his eyes, as if putting our story into words makes it unbearably real.
“A relationship?” I ask, unfazed.
“Whatever you want to call it. It would never have worked.”
“You didn’t even give us a chance.”
“Your mom hates me. My parents would freak if they saw us together. Hell, Maggie, even Damon warned me away from you. You should have been thankful I left, but it’s obvious you’re still holding out for something to happen between us.”
I walk up to Caleb so close I can almost feel the heat and energy radiating off him. “You need to get over yourself. What we had was a short fling. I’m so over you it’s not even funny.”
“Come on, Maggie. Admit there’s still a part of you that wants me, even though you keep acting like you’ve gotten me out of your system. You protest too much.”
“I feel nothing for you.”
Just when I’m about to step away and go back to the cabin, Caleb reaches out and wraps his fingers around my wrist. “Really?” he says.
I swallow, hard. Those fingers on my wrist are full of reckless energy … I know about those fingers all too well. I get mad at myself for remembering how it felt to have that energy focused on me … those fingers lightly caressed my skin once upon a time. All I should be thinking about is putting him in his place, instead of feeling a connection. But when I look up at him, I forget about everything else because those intense, ice blue eyes that are oh, so unique to Caleb Becker are sucking me in.
I twist my wrist out of his grasp, determined to break whatever spell he has on me once and for all.
I’m walking back to the cabin when I hear Caleb laughing behind me.
I stop and turn around. “What’s so funny?” I demand. I hope I don’t have toilet paper on my shoe or gum on the back of my jeans.
Caleb’s laugh turns into a cocky grin. “I figured it out.”
“Figured what out?”
“Why you’re so adamant about letting me know it’s over between us.” He crosses his arms on his chest. “It’s because you’re trying to convince yourself it’s over. But you and I both know there’s something still going on between us.
“You’re delusional. The only thing going on between us is hatred and resentment. And I’m not just talking about me here. You resent me just as much as I resent you.”
When he steps forward, I take a step back. “You sure?” he asks, his expression even more cocky.
To be Considered…….