Old Things Die (But Not Us) -- Chapter fifteen: Strangers in Paradise

Fiction By Madalyn Clare // 8/25/2019

I don’t really remember how I reacted, but it probably wasn’t gracefully, because Grace Jung looked at me with a confused expression. Before the other ladies had time to say their ‘nice to meet you’s, Miss Jung cocked her head to the side.
She was exactly what I imagined her to look like from her voice. The woman stood towering above the others, whether it was her admirable height or the fact that she wore high heels to accentuate it. She was dressed like she just got off of work from a professional job, like a lawyer or something, in deep neutral colors. Her hair was bobbed off just about at her shoulders and she boasted a regal face, if not an intimidating one. Her eyes could have been sweet and kind, but her expression gave off a guarded gaze.
Wendy Scheike must have felt the tension, so she maneuvered her short blonde self in between us and smiled. “Nice to meet you,” she chirped. “You know, I have a son about your age. He’s playing lacrosse in school. Do play any sports?”
I slowly shook my head. “No,” I finally replied, but my voice was drawled out a little. Perhaps I was rude?
Maren patted my shoulder. “He’s more of an academic,” she prodded me on.
My eyes were still locked on Miss Jung.
“What’s your last name, Levi?”
I didn’t want to answer. She already knew anyways.
Miss DePonte glided her warm presence towards Maren. “How old are you, sweetie?”
Maren was glad to take the reins, and I was relieved as well. As our roles were now reversed, I surreptitiously scooted behind her so I could think.
Grace Jung was here. Was it wrong to want to ask her about Josh? If it all boiled down to it, I had sort of agreed with myself to let him go. But all of a sudden an opportunity – if just to ask if I could say goodbye – arose and I couldn’t tell if I should take it.
I glanced back up at girl-talk. Miss Jung had joined the conversation, still seeming guarded but not cruel. She wasn’t looking at me.
Was she ignoring me?
I noticed that Maren had no fear of these women. Perhaps she had no fear of ladies in general. She had changed from a fly on the wall to the star of the show as she charmed the women with her words and smile.
“You’re a very bright young lady,” Miss DePonte praised. Her voice reminded me of warm sunshine. He eyes flicked towards me. “You’re a lucky young man, Levi.”
I raised a brow, confused. “Excuse me?”
Maren almost laughed.
“Aren’t you two together?”
I wished I didn’t feel so embarrassed as I shook my head. “No, ma’am, we’re just really good friends.”
Miss Scheike looked at us, then smiled, as if to say, “That’s what you say now.”
“Is your name Levi Cannon, by any chance?”
My heart stopped. My brain stopped. Everything stopped.
“Excuse me?”
Miss Jung inclined her head towards me, her arms crossed gracefully in front of her. “Your last name. Cannon, by any chance?”
Maren glanced at me, a brow furrowed.
Slowly I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Leaving Miss Scheike and DePonte confused and Aunt Trinh in a stupor, Miss Jung leaned back in victory.
“Excuse me if I was rude; I’ve been hearing of more Levi’s in a week than I ever have.” She sat back down in the living room and sipped her iced tea, her eyes looking straight into me.
I couldn’t say that she gave me all the wrong vibes. What I could figure was that she was a careful and silently calculating sort of lady. But right now, all I felt was fear of her, as if she could cast spells on me or destroy my life.
Miss Scheike slowly sat down beside Miss Jung and set her confused gaze on me. “Did something happen?”
Maren tugged on my sleeve, yet again hiding behind me. “Levi,” she whispered, “what is she talking about?”
I looked down at my feet, admiring my toes, before I muttered, “I was going to leave.”
The ladies didn’t seem to hear me, and Miss Jung cocked her head to the side. Maren seemed to be the only one who heard. “What’re you talking about? Do you have a plan?”
I again raised my head and faced Miss Jung.
I wasn’t in the wrong. It was an accident. And why were we calling it an accident in the first place? I had no need to be afraid of her because of some coincidences. Nothing here was my fault. Reality may have been uncomfortable now but this situation wasn’t my fault. I stood up a little straighter.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were coming here. To be completely honest, I was going to leave for Maine again tomorrow morning. I didn’t come here to see Josh.”
“Who came to see me?”
I think the world stopped in that single moment.
My heart was in between stopping and thudding profusely, and I just felt in pain with surprise. That voice.
The short, scrawny teenage guy showed himself coming from the backyard door. When his eyes fell on me, his expression changed from that sort of innocent curiosity he usually had on his face to a sudden drop of his features in perfect surprise.
Joshua Kang stood only ten feet away from me.
He was different. I knew him by his large brown eyes and his sort of way of standing, but he was different. His hair was cut short and his eyebrows were visible. He wasn’t dressed in worn, baggy clothes but new shorts and a tee shirt. His shoes were new too. His hands dangled lifelessly at his sides, though he held a dog leash in one hand.
He stared almost blankly at me.
The room was silent.
He was there. I could see him and it wasn’t in my head. I saw him, flesh and blood, I could talk to him. I could approach him.
But I didn’t.
The differences…
Did I really recognize him?
I felt like the world could have gone on without me, but I was deaf – numb – to it. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t recognize the person in front of me.
Miss Jung slowly stood up and approached Josh. She laid a hand on his shoulder. She whispered in his ear. Unfortunately for her the room was silent so I heard perfectly.
“What do you want to do about it, honey?”
Josh mechanically inclined his head to her, but his gaze was empty on her. It was like his soul left his body and all that was left was a cold machine.
He nodded.
“We have some catching up to do, Aunt Grace.”
...
He sat beside me at the edge of the property.
The Beakes had a fairly large backyard for the neighborhood, sporting a small fish pond and a garden you could just fall into. Two dogs – I think a husky and a terrier – roamed around us, curiously sniffing me and playing with Josh. Apparently when he had come, he spent most of his time with the animals.
Josh said nothing but stared into the fish pond, softly stroking the husky’s head as it plopped itself down in his lap. I didn’t make a sound, but studied him.
He still had a scar on his neck, starting just behind his ear. Product of a broken bottle. I could see the callouses all over his hands, all for different reasons. I knew it was the same person.
But I was comfortable talking to Joshua Kang. This person sitting with me made me a little uneasy, unfamiliar. He had no wounds across him
I had never seen him look so unharmed.
All of a sudden he looked up, but not directly at me.
“How have you been?”
Those words stung.
I wasn’t always good with talking to people. I had a few default small-talks to get me through obligatory greetings to other people, and that was one of them. To me I saw those words as a barrier of some kind, as if you couldn’t actually say what you wanted because you couldn’t be vulnerable to the people who asked that question.
“I’ve been good.”
I wasn’t okay. I hadn’t been okay since he left.
But I couldn’t say that. The wall was already built.
“That’s good.”
Besides the calm running water of the pond, silence ensued.
I didn’t know what to say anymore. I just wanted one of us to explode, to tell the truth, but right now, I couldn’t be the one. I wasn’t strong. Something in me broke… or broke down, I couldn’t tell. Right now I was too vulnerable to be strong like I used to be.
I hated this. I wish I could open my mouth and never shut up. I wish I could tell him how much I missed him, how sorry I was for taking him for granted, how I’d leave him alone if he wanted me to, call every day if he wanted me to, stay for a while if he wanted me to. But I couldn’t. All I could think about was how scared I was that we weren’t talking right now.
We always had something to say. We always knew that being quiet was okay too.
But now I had nothing to say. Now the quiet wasn’t good. I couldn’t do anything about it.
“You’re being too quiet,” Josh said softly.
I glanced at him, and he was looking at me, deep into me. A soft smile painted his face.
His eyes sparkled.
His eyes sparkled when everything was okay.

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