Saturday, July 15, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 22

City of Secrets

Chapter 22

Previously: When Penny's older brother died, she didn't just lose him. She also lost the friendship of the best friend she shared with her brother. Josh left town when Richie died, without a word of goodbye to Penny. Penny hasn't heard from him all summer.

Chapter 22
    Penny pulled the keys out of the ignition, but didn’t get out of her mother’s Subaru—anger held her rooted in place. “I’m working from home today, so I’ll fix dinner. It’ll be nice to sit down as a family again,” she said, mocking her father’s words from that morning. She didn’t know who she was more angry with: her dad for breaking yet another promise, or herself for trusting him.

    “It’s not like we’d be a family again anyway.” They’d never be a family again—not with one member missing.

    “Darn it,” she muttered, slamming her hands on the steering wheel. She wasn’t doing herself any good, and she wasn’t doing her mom any good either. She needed to hurry and get back home. They never left Vicky alone for longer than twenty or thirty minutes—not since the time she’d left the gas stove on all day.

    Penny grabbed her purse and got out of the car, the misty air hitting her in the face. She glanced up at the darkening sky, wondering if there would be another downpour. That week they’d experienced an unusual number of storms, even for Caribou Canyon. Penny thought it was fitting, considering recent events. She hurried through the parking lot and stepped into Josephina’s Diner, enjoying the rush of warm air.

    She was about to step up to the counter when a familiar laugh rang through the restaurant. The sound travelled straight to her heart and gripped it tightly, even as her pulse sped up in anticipation. He’s back, she thought. How could she have forgotten? She wasn’t ready for this. Not in the slightest. She’d known she would have to face him eventually, but she’d hoped to have time to prepare. Time to talk herself into being strong. She didn’t feel strong. She felt lonely and weak, homesick and lovesick.

    “Whoa. That is seriously nifty. Teach me,” a girl said. Her high-pitched voice was easy to hear in the nearly empty diner.

    “Really?” asked the voice that had haunted Penny’s waking and sleeping thoughts for the past three months.

    “Yes, really. And shut up about it already,” the girl said.

    “Okay. It’s easy. You just rip a small piece off the end, put it in your mouth, and blow.”

    Penny knew she shouldn’t look, knew she didn’t want to see who he was flirting with, but she couldn’t not look. Turning, Penny saw Josh Abbott—she knew it was him even though his back was to her—sitting in the farthest booth. Her heart broke at the sight of him—the best friend she’d needed desperately and the unrequited love she’d longed for. His auburn hair was slightly mussed up, and even in her anger she still wanted to run her fingers through it.

    He was home. He was home and he hadn’t called her. Despite the fact that he’d been freezing her out, she realized that she’d still expected to hear from him when he came home.

    Penny turned her gaze to the girl who sat across from Josh, pain and jealousy coursing through her. The girl was thin, and didn’t look to be older than fourteen. Her hair was light brown and cut close to her head in a style more common on boys than girls; it made her small ears look more prominent, giving her an elfish appearance. Her skin was so pale it was almost white, and Penny figured it had to be makeup, that the girl must be trying to pull off a goth or emo look. The dark circles under her eyes, which were also probably makeup, served to further prove that assumption.

    The girl put a straw in her mouth and blew the wrapper at Josh, who laughed. She let the straw fall from her mouth, a grin spreading across her face. “Holy shit that was fun.” She hopped out of the booth and skipped to the counter. The girl, who was as short as she was thin, was dressed so strangely that Penny couldn’t help but stare. The girl wore a blue knee-length pencil skirt, the kind a business woman—maybe a lawyer—might wear, except the lawyer probably wouldn’t have paired it with black and white striped tights. The lawyer also would’ve left the sparkling red Mary Jane shoes at the store, figuring that an outfit resembling that of the one worn by the Wicked Witch of the East would be frowned upon in court.

    The girl grabbed a handful of straws from the dispenser—her thumbs were hooked through self-made holes in the black hoodie she wore—and skipped back to the booth. Penny watched with growing jealousy as the girl blew another straw wrapper at Josh.

    “I thought this would get old, but nope. It’s great. I feel like I’m giving an alien a tour of Earth,” Josh said.

    “An alien?” she said, her voice full of offense. A wrapper hit her square in the nose, and she grinned. “Yeah, that is I. Alien here. Prithee, Jay, don’t take me to your leader. I suspect authority could be problematic for me.” Proving this, she put another straw in her mouth, this time shooting the wrapper into the booth across from her.

    Jay? She calls him Jay? His name is only one syllable; he doesn’t need a nickname. Jealously flared through Penny as she stared at the elfish looking girl who was utterly fascinated by blowing wrappers off of straws. You’re just jealous because you never gave him a nickname. 

    “Oh my god, did you just say prithee?” Josh said, laughing. “What kind of textbooks did your dad teach you from?”

    “Jay—” the girl began, but cut herself off. Her voice had lowered and her smile disappeared.

    “Shit, Tone, I’m sorry. I wasn’t—”

    “It’s okay.”

    Penny had been in the process of trying to will the girl to stone with her eyes when Josh’s words hit her. The girl wasn’t some random groupie who’d followed him home. Penny realized that she was staring at Antonia Torrance, daughter of the town shut-in, and the new lead guitarist of Hell’s Descendants. Penny had seen the girl’s picture on the band’s website, but hadn’t recognized her in person. Antonia—who, according to the band’s website preferred to be called Toni—had been the talk of the town back in May, when she’d gone from being Caribou Canyon’s second most reclusive resident to touring the United States with the nation’s hottest new band.

    Toni’s father was George Torrance, former mayor of Caribou Canyon. According to Penny’s parents, George was once amicable and warm, and a friend to nearly everyone. He was the most popular mayor the town had ever had. All of that changed when George’s wife died after giving birth to their daughter. George had sold his palatial house in the center of town and moved to a secluded cabin at the top of Riverdale Road, a windy dirt road that led to an old hunting area that was rarely used anymore.

    George Torrance had become a ghost, a shut-in. By association, his daughter became one too. George never enrolled her in public school, opting to teach her at home instead. George took care of all his business online and had his groceries delivered—a service not normally offered at the Stop and Shop. Penny knew that it was George’s former status that influenced the store manager to make an exception for him. Even the delivery people never saw him—they left the groceries in a cooler on the porch, where enough cash to cover the bill and a tip were waiting in an envelope.

    Curiosity temporarily replaced Penny’s jealousy. Penny had been hearing rumors about the Torrances her entire life. One rumor stated that Toni had died years ago, having been killed and cannibalized by her crazy father. Another was that Toni was a demon child who’d killed her mother shortly after entering the world, and kept her father imprisoned in their home. Whispers around town said that Toni would sometimes come out during the full moon, walking around in the woods and howling at the sky. Others insisted that Toni didn’t exist at all—that she’d died along with her mother, and that was the real reason George had shut himself away from the world.

    Toni was Richie’s replacement. As much as Penny hated that someone had stolen Richie’s rightful spot, even she couldn’t deny that Toni was a good guitarist. She was brilliant. She’d learned all of Hell’s Descendants’ songs so quickly that the band hadn’t needed to delay the tour.

    Penny couldn’t take her eyes off Toni. She realized that the girl wasn’t wearing white makeup after all. She really was that pale; Penny wondered if the dark circles under her eyes were real as well. She’d been wrong about the girl’s age. Toni was at least sixteen or seventeen—Penny thought she’d be a junior if she went to public school.

    Richie’s replacement, Penny thought, the jealousy taking over again. Why couldn’t you have just stayed in your cabin? It was a selfish, unfair thought. It wasn’t Toni’s fault that Richie had died. She couldn’t be blamed for taking the opportunity to escape her sheltered world. Penny knew she had no right to be angry with the girl, but she was. That anger—fueled by pain and jealousy—grew as she continued to watch Toni and Josh. If people didn’t know them, they’d think the two had been friends for years. Good friends. Maybe even best friends. He was talking to her like she was Richie. Josh truly had found Richie’s replacement.  

    “Hey there,” a gristly voice said. Penny turned to see Walter Morris, co-owner of Josephina’s, walking out from behind the counter and heading her way. She was grateful for the excuse to turn away from the besties in the back of the restaurant. Penny smiled at Walter, whom she’d known her whole life. Walter and his wife had owned and ran the diner since before Penny was born. Walter and Josephina were two of the nicest people Penny had ever met. She’d always found it endearing that they’d stayed in Caribou Canyon and ran the diner, despite the fact that over two decades ago they’d won twenty-seven million dollars in the biggest lottery jackpot in Colorado history. Other than visiting their home in the Hamptons once a summer, the couple never left Caribou Canyon.

    “Hi, Walter. I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to make you come all the way over here.”

    He smiled back, every crinkle and crevice in his face moving along with his lips. “S’all right, honey. Crazy, idinit?” Walter said. His white apron was stained with what looked like ketchup, and he was staring just as blatantly at Toni as Penny had.

    “What?” Penny asked, feeling guilty for having stared for so long.

     Walter glanced at her and winked before turning his gaze back to the tiny girl who was sure to be the talk of the town once word got around that she was back. “Thought she was a groupie at first, till I membered seeing ‘er picture in the paper. Can’t believe it. Poor thing, locked in that cabin.”

    “Yeah,” Penny whispered, hoping Walter would get the hint and lower his voice.

    It was too late. Toni looked up at them from across the restaurant. Her eyes travelled over Walter dismissively before coming to rest on Penny. She tilted her head and stared at Penny just as curiously as Penny had stared at her. A second later, she leaned across the table and whispered something to Josh.

    Oh no, Penny thought, heart pounding. He’s going to turn around, he’s going to see you. Dread and anticipation warred inside her. She wanted so badly to see him, but she wasn’t sure if that was because she wanted to hug him or slap him. For that reason, she considered turning and running out the door. But she couldn’t. She was frozen.

    Josh turned, lifting himself partly out of the booth and leaning over the back of it. His face was unreadable as he stared at her. Penny’s mouth was dry, and she wasn’t sure she could’ve spoken even if she knew what to say, so she waited for him. He’s going to call you over. He’s going to apologize. Don’t let him off easy. Don’t give in. Penny was still steeling herself to be firm, to let him know how much he’d hurt her, when he smiled and lifted his hand in a wave. A second later, he turned and slid back into the booth.

    Penny gaped. She hadn’t thought it possible for Josh to hurt her more than he already had, but he just did. That wave was a punch in the gut. A wave. Over a decade of friendship, and all he could muster was a wave.

    “You wanna come getch your order, honey?” Walter asked.

    Penny nodded and followed Walter to the counter. “Be right back,” he said, disappearing into the kitchen.

    Penny sat on a stool near the register, her back facing Josh. She tried to focus on The Eagles’ Hotel California that was playing over the speakers, rather than the sounds of Josh and Toni’s conversation.

    She breathed a sigh of relief when Walter came back and set a bag full of to-go boxes on the counter. “That’ll be $17.44.” Handing him a twenty, she waited for what felt like an eternity as he opened the register. Walter paused, bill hovering over the drawer, and glanced at Toni and Josh. “Didn’tch you two have a thing, or something?” Walter asked, in a voice that was loud enough for the entire town to hear.

    Penny’s cheeks burned. Was he trying to embarrass her? “Uh, no. We were just friends.”

    “That don’t mean you didn’t have a thing. What’s he doing, treating you like he don’t know you?”

    Walter’s words were fuel for the anger that was already burning inside her. She took a deep, steady breath, trying to stay calm. “It’s nothing, Walter. Can I just have my change?”

    Walter moved at a pace that would only be slower if he’d simply stopped moving entirely. “What does he think? He too good for us now?” A harsh laugh escaped the man’s mouth. “Well, he better think again.”

    Penny shrugged, not sure what that was supposed to mean. Finally, Walter presented her change. She put a dollar bill in the tip jar—despite his slow speed and humiliating comments—and pocketed the rest.

    “Bless your heart, honey. You wanna know something?”

    No, I want to get out of here. “What’s that?” Penny asked, trying her hardest to keep her voice friendly.

    “You’re one a the good ones, Penny Harper. Too good for us. Don’t be taking this the wrong way, but I hope you get out of here, honey. I really do,” he said, his smile gone and his voice low.

    The strange statement was enough to momentarily distract her from thoughts of Josh. I hope you get out of here. It reminded her of the conversation between her aunt and her father—the one she wasn’t entirely convinced was a dream. “Uh, okay. Well, it’s senior year, and I plan to go to college, so I guess I will.”

    Walter nodded slowly, and Penny was struck by the sadness in his eyes. “Yeah, that sounds good. You have a good night, honey.”

    Penny forced a smile. “You too.” She was halfway to the door when Josh’s loud laughter hit her in the gut. She froze, the anger and hurt washing over her again. The urge to simultaneously slap him and hug him was almost overwhelming.

    Penny was moving before she could think it through. She didn’t know what her plan was—to hit or to hug—but she figured she’d find out when she got there. Penny stopped when she reached their table, standing where a waitress would.

    “Oh,” Toni said, tilting her head at Penny. Penny was caught off guard by the curious expression on the girl’s white face. Toni’s eyes, a deep blue that gleamed in protest to the shadows underneath them, were wide. “Hello. I know who you are. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say something to you or not.”

    Under different circumstances, Penny might’ve had a lot to say to that statement, but she couldn’t think about Toni at the moment. She turned to Josh, and could’ve sworn she’d seen pain in his eyes before he pasted a very cordial and very un-Josh-like smile on his face. “Hey, Penny. What’s up?” he asked, in a tone one would use to speak to an acquaintance.

    “What’s up?” she repeated mockingly. She shook her head. It was like she was nothing to him. Like it didn’t even matter that they’d gone from talking everyday to having spent three months apart. “Too bad she doesn’t have a sister,” Penny said, tilting her head in Toni’s direction. “Then the replacement would be complete.” With each word, her anger increased. She might’ve been able to maintain control if it weren’t for the look of dumbfounded shock on Josh’s face, as if he had no idea why she was mad. It was that expression that pushed her over the edge. She picked up the half-empty glass of soda in front of him, tossed the liquid in his face, slammed the empty glass back on the table and walked away while Josh was still gasping in surprise.

    “Whoa,” Toni said, before bursting out laughing.

    Penny passed Walter, who was coming out from behind the counter, towel in hand. Her heart sank, heavy with guilt. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed at him.

    He winked. “Don’t be, honey. You’re better off.”

    Penny felt like the door was miles away; every step she took toward it, it moved even farther away. She was forced to listen to Walter assuring Josh that he would take care of the mess, and to Toni apologizing profusely for laughing and asking if she could help. Josh was silent. That silence told her everything. When Penny finally reached the door and stepped outside, she knew she had her answer. Josh wasn’t her friend anymore; maybe he never had been. 


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