I stroll through the small group surrounding the fire, my hands tucked into the pockets of my jacket to ward off the light chill that clings to the air. It’s the first bonfire night of the summer, the weather still a little crisp in the evenings and the crowd thin since not everyone has finished up the semester and traveled home from college yet. At the height of the summer season, there will be over a hundred people here, cars lined all down the dirt path leading into the closed-down campsite. But tonight, there are only about 20 or so folks scattered about, drinking and listening to music and reveling in the feeling of summer just on the horizon.
To be honest, I’m not really sure why I decided t¬o come. I guess I feel bored…maybe a little impatient. It’s this unfamiliar feeling that’s been skittering beneath my skin recently, a sense of not knowing exactly what to do with myself. It’s as if I’m just sitting around, waiting for life to happen.
Normally, I’m fairly relaxed, so this sensation is very unlike me. That’s why I’m here, trying to find something to do, someone to talk to, something to take my mind off this feeling of stagnation.
My eyes scan the attendees littered around the gravel and dirt circle, taking stock of everyone and trying to decide who to approach. Unsurprisingly, most of the people here tonight are locals who graduated a few years before or after me. Familiar faces from around town, people I know of but don’t really know.
Until my eyes halt on a familiar old Chevy Blazer in red with a white cover.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, my voice light and teasing as I approach the broad-shouldered back of a man I’ve known almost my entire life. “Aren’t you too old to be at one of these things?”
Rusty pins me with an unimpressed look then returns to whatever he’s doing at the tail end of his car. “I’m not here to party, Bellamy. Those days are in my past.”
I snort and shake my head, watching as he tugs out a box of beer. “I didn’t think you were here to party, Rusty. Besides, how long has it been since you graduated high school? Twenty years?”
He pauses and looks back at me over his shoulder with narrowed eyes. “Fourteen.” Then he gives me his back again.
“Same thing.” I lean against the Blazer and kick one foot over the other, tilting my head up to look at the sky, the stars slightly obscured by the smoke rising in the clearing between the trees.
I hear Rusty snort. “It is most certainly not the same thing.” He passes by me and thunks a box onto the hood. “I thought you were supposed to be good at math.”
I ignore his comment.
“So, what exactly are you doing here tonight?” I ask. “Because it looks like you’re planning to dole out booze to Cedar Point’s youth. Does Boyd know you’re selling your product at the bonfire?”
He lets out an irritated sigh. “I’m not selling beer to Cedar Point’s youth, Bellamy. Everyone is of legal age. A sale is a sale, and someday, when you’ve moved out of that plush house your parents own and you actually need the money you work for, you’ll see what I mean.”
I roll my eyes, not surprised by his bristly attitude. Rusty’s always been that way—angry at the world. I don’t make that statement with judgment; it makes sense considering the shitty hand life has dealt him. Still, it’s rare for me to see him talk to anyone without a scowl on his face, besides his younger sister, Abby, and my brother, Boyd. The two of them have been friends since they were really young, which is why I’m not intimidated by his irritable bear act the way everyone else in town is.
That doesn’t stop me from noticing what a dick he can be sometimes.
“You know, you have a way of being incredibly condescending.”
Rusty heaves one of the boxes up on his shoulder then grabs the other and slides it forward until it’s tucked against his hip.
“I do know. I figure it’s the best way to keep you from annoying me with your jabs about how old I am.” He starts walking away, heading over to where Corinne Paulson is standing with a group surrounding her dad’s Saab.
I glare at his retreating form, cross my arms, and watch the slowly growing crowd. I’ve been here all of five minutes and it’s easy to see that coming tonight was a mistake. Instead of chitchatting and laughing with friends to distract myself, I’m stuck volleying insults with a guy who barely tolerates me.
Sighing, I push off of Rusty’s car and round to the back, nosily eyeing the contents in the trunk: a few more beer boxes, what looks to be a box of tile samples, a flannel blanket, and—I huff a laugh.
A box of condoms. Classy.
I snag the box and glance inside, unsurprised when I see there’s only one left. If I know anything about Rusty Fuller, it’s that he is a man about town, and if I put stock in town gossip, it seems like he mostly gets his kicks with tourists passing through and looking for a good time with a guy who looks like a lumberjack.
I could never sleep with someone like that—without emotion, without connection. Sex is special, something to be shared with people who mean something.
I glance back over to where Rusty is still talking with Corinne and roll my eyes at myself. Clearly it’s time to leave. Standing around, snooping through the back of Rusty’s Blazer is not what I had in mind for the evening. I should have just stayed home and done absolutely anything else until it was time to leave for my late shift at The Mitch.
Part of me thinks I should wait to say bye to Rusty, though I doubt he even cares. When I walk around to the front of the car, giving one final glance to the crowd before heading out, I hear my name in a familiar voice that has my heart swooping down into my stomach before launching itself into my throat.
My eyes scan to the right until I spot him a few feet away, walking toward me, and I can’t help the way a smile explodes on my face. God, I wish I could be more subtle, but that’s just not how I was made.
“Hey, Connor!” I say, cringing only slightly at the overly enthusiastic way my voice has hit such a high note.
“Hey, Bells,” he says, the sound of my nickname rolling off his tongue sending something warm through my chest. “You taking off?”
I shake my head, my plans changing on a dime now that Connor is here.
“No, I was just…”
But my voice trails off when I spot the body that emerges from behind him as he comes to a stop a few feet away.
As they come to a stop.
And I know instantly that they are a they.
She’s beautiful. Short, thick, brunette hair that flips in a little bob around her jawline and wide beautiful eyes.
“Hey, Rusty,” Connor says, and I glance briefly to the side, spotting Rusty’s approaching form.
“Pruitt.” Rusty’s response is just as gruff as always.
I can’t do anything except stare wide-eyed at Connor and the girl next to him…the one holding his hand.
“Hi, I’m Stace,” she says, smiling at all of us. “Like Stacy, but without the e sound. Except my name ends with an e so…” She shrugs. “It can be really confusing.”
I blink a few times then look at Connor.
“Stace, this is Rusty and Bellamy. Bellamy and I knew each other in high school.”
Knew each other in high school. I almost want to laugh. That’s how he wants to describe us? As people who knew each other in high school?
As if we don’t know each other anymore?
As if we mean nothing to each other now?
“And Rusty owns Cedar Cider,” he continues, “which is the best beer in town.”
Rusty steps forward, and when I glance up at him, I see the tight smile on his face, his hands on his hips.
“Thanks for the compliment, Pruitt, and nice to meet you, Stace, but I need to take off.”
“No worries, no worries,” Connor says. “We can’t stay long anyway. Just wanted to bring my fiancée by and introduce her to anyone who’s back in town, though it looks like not too many people are out tonight.”
I think that’s what he says, but I can’t be sure, because the ringing in my ears began when I heard him refer to Stace as his fiancée. I must stand there staring with my mouth agape for too long, because it isn’t until I receive a physical nudge from behind me that I snap out of it.
I glance at Rusty, who is looking at me with a quirked eyebrow.
I look back at Connor, who is still watching me with an easy smile on his face like he hasn’t just obliterated the very foundation of my heart.
“Yeah, sorry.” I shake my head and try not to look like I’m dying inside. “What did you just say?”
“I said,” Connor says slowly, “are you gonna be here a while? I was gonna walk Stace around…”
I clear my throat then shake my head. “I actually have to leave soon. I have… I’m closing at The Mitch tonight.”
He bobs his head. “Yeah, okay. Well, we’ll see you around. Maybe we can swing through later and grab a drink.”
“Nice to meet you,” Stace says, giving a friendly wave before she and Connor are turning and heading off toward a group of people a little ways away from us.
I watch them go, not even caring how awkward and weird I’m surely being by staring after them. Everything inside me feels dead. What the hell is happening? He’s engaged? I didn’t even know he was dating anyone.
My stomach rolls.
How long have they been together?
I spin around and put my back to the light of the fire, shielding my face from anyone who might be watching as a tear streaks down my cheek. I bat it away with the sleeve of my jacket, but just as quickly as the first popped up, another follows, and I know I need to get out of here immediately.
Without thinking, I walk to the passenger side of Rusty’s car and tug the door open, climbing in next to him.
“What are you doing?” His question is tinged with that same irritation from earlier.
“I need a ride.”
“Tough shit, Bellamy. I have somewhere to be.”
I yank the seatbelt forward and click it into place.
“Please?” I ask, scrunching up my eyes trying to hold back the tears.
Rusty says something else—something equally as dismissive—and it’s clear he doesn’t want me here with him right now. But I don’t hear him, because I bend forward and put my face in my hands as I burst into tears, my emotions slamming through me.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, choking the words out between sobs.
I hear Rusty sigh and then feel the car begin to roll forward, hopefully carrying us far, far away from what is surely the worst moment of my life.
When I glance out the window 15 minutes later and see that he’s pulled up outside The Mitch, my stomach turns over. I feel like I can barely breathe right now, let alone go in for a closing shift where I might have to face Connor and Stace later on top of dealing with every drunk in town.
Though downing a bottle of tequila sounds like it might be a good idea.
“Can you just take me home?” I ask, my voice small.
“I literally just drove you in the opposite direction of your house. You couldn’t have said that earlier?”
“I’m sorry, I was…” But I don’t get the sentence out before my eyes scrunch up and I break into tears again.
I hear him grumble something about my brother, then the car moves forward, through the gravel of the dirt lot and back out onto the main road. He doesn’t turn in the direction of my house on the other side of the lake, though. Instead, he drives the few minutes back into town and then out onto the road that exits Cedar Point and leads down the mountain. It only briefly occurs to me to ask where he’s going, but I resolve to just sit in silence and wait until he eventually takes me home.
I’ve never missed a shift before, so when I text my co-worker Emily to let her know I’m not feeling well and won’t be able to head in, it only takes a split second before I get her reply saying she can cover for me, which I appreciate since I’ve covered for Emily on many, many occasions.
The tiny distraction her text provides is gone in a blink, leaving me with a stark reminder of what I learned tonight.
Connor has a fiancée.
Thinking about it again sends another wave of tears to my eyes, but this time I manage to sit and cry silently as Rusty drives us along the winding road out of town.
Connor was just here, in Cedar Point, not even three months ago for his mother’s birthday. He came into The Mitch, sat at the bar, and talked with me all night like nothing had changed between us since last summer. He did that thing, the tucking my hair behind my ear thing that he’s always done. Maybe I’m just incredibly naïve, but I feel like that’s way too intimate of a thing to do to someone who is not your fiancée when you’re engaged.
My train of thought is cut off as we come to a stop. I sit up straighter, wondering where we are. I’ve driven up and down this mountain for my entire life and have never stopped here before, at what looks to be a random turnout about ten minutes from town.
When I glance at Rusty, he’s staring out the windshield, his jaw tight and his hands squeezing the wheel like he’s hoping to rip it out.
A few minutes go by, and we just sit in silence.
Then, without a word, Rusty shifts the car out of park and turns us around to head back into town. I glance back, wondering what the hell that was abou…
And then it hits me.
I look at Rusty where he sits, taking in the emotion that’s rolling off of him in waves. Today is the anniversary of when his parents died, when they were run off the road by a drunk driver just a few minutes outside of town.
It was the most horrible kind of tragedy. Cedar Point was devastated. Rusty and his sister Abby barely held it together. I was pretty young at the time—junior high, I think—but I remember the service like it was for someone in my family. It was the very first time I’d been to a funeral, and it left a mark I’ve never been able to wipe clean.
I want to say something to him.
Anything. Anything at all that might soothe him or ease some of the pain I’m sure he must be feeling, but I’ve never been good with words. I never know what to say or how to make anything better. Instead, somehow, I always seem to say something that makes it worse.
It’s why I like numbers. There’s no emotion in numbers, always a right answer.
With people, with situations like this, there’s always the probability to get it wrong, and I hate to be wrong. I stay silent, eyeing him frequently as he drives us back into town and up the east side of the lake toward my parents’ house.
“You gonna be okay?” he asks once he pulls into our driveway and comes to a stop.
I nod and try to give him some kind of smile. “Yeah. I’ll be…” But a wave hits me, and I break into tears again. “I’m so sorry,” I say, dropping my face into my hands again. “I feel so stupid crying about this when you’re actually dealing with real pain, but I can’t help it.”
Rusty sighs, and then I’m startled by the feeling of a big, warm hand patting me roughly on the back. I glance up at him in surprise, catching the uncomfortable look on his face as he tries to console me, and my tears are brought to an abrupt halt as I burst into laughter.
He immediately withdraws his hand, but I keep laughing even as his eyes narrow at me.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Because…” My words come out in chunks as I continue shaking. “That was…the most awkward…consolation…back pat…to ever occur.”
Rusty rolls his eyes and sits silently as I finish laughing, and when I finally trail off and wipe my eyes—this time from laughter and not from crying—I let out a long sigh and sag back into my seat.
“At minimum, thanks for the laugh. I needed it.”
He makes some sort of sound that’s reminiscent of a grunt of affirmation.
I grab my purse off the floor and push the door open but then turn to look at Rusty before I hop out. “I’m sorry if I ruined your evening, your plans to go…” I wave my hand, gesturing vaguely as if that can encompass anything about what his plans were tonight.
He shrugs a shoulder. “It’s alright.”
Nodding, I reach out and place my hand on his where it sits on the stick shift and give it a squeeze.
“See you around, Rusty.”
The man bobs his head once and gives me a tight smile, and I take that as my cue to get the hell out of his car and out of his hair. I head into my dark house and up to my childhood bedroom, and I cry myself to sleep.