"Your mother called and left you a message," the receptionst replied as she glanced at Natalie's name on the note she'd sent. She handed Natalie a slip of paper. "She said she'll be late picking you up this afternoon, because the movers were running late. I also have a few papers for your mother to fill out and sign," she added, handing Natalie a small stack of papers. "You can bring them back to me once she has done so."
"Thanks," Natalie replied.
As she turned to leave, she nearly ran into Vince who was on his way in.
Vince suddenly grinned when he saw her. He tossed his head back confidently as he began to speak, "Hey . . ."
Before he could say more, the receptionist interrupted in a crisp, almost harsh tone. "You can go on in, Vincent. Ms. Johnston is expecting you."
Natalie quickly took the opportunity to quietly slip out of the office.
"Have a seat, Vince," Mrs. Johnston greeted him as he entered her office. As he plopped down on one of the chairs, she opened the file folder on her desk. "How have things been going lately?
Vince shrugged, "Alright, I guess."
"Good. I have notes from all of your teachers regarding your assignments and your progress . . . You have quite a few assignments that haven't been turned in yet. Why is that?"
"I haven't got around to them yet."
"Let's go through the list, shall we? I'd like to discuss what progress you've made so far on this assignments, what you need to do still, and make a plan for you to get them completed."
"Isn't that going to take a long time?"
"Why? Do you have somewhere more important you need to be?" she asked skeptically.
Vince glanced out the window for a moment and shook his head.
"This is going to take as long as it's going to need to take and we'll continue to do this exercise every week if necessary. We're going to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to get you back on track with your school work, so you can graduate this spring."
By the time Ms. Johnston had finished going through his assignments Vince was ready to get out of there . . . more than ready. He'd been ready to go before fifth period started, but he forced himself through the school day. When she finally dismissed him, he practically raced out of the building and found his friends waiting impatiently outside.
"What took you so long?"
"The principal kept me after," Vince replied, rolling his eyes. "What's up?"
As his friends started talking, Vince's attention was drawn elsewhere. He spotted Natalie sitting on the school steps with an open book on her lap. Once he saw her, he couldn't take his eyes off of her.
"Yo, V," his friend said sharply, snatching his attention away from Natalie. "Listening?"
"No, sorry. What?"
"He was too busy checking out that chick over there," another friend said with a sideways grin. "Why don't you stop gawking and go talk to her?"
"Nah," Vince shook his head.
"If you aren't, maybe I will. . ."
"Nuh uh," Vince said stepping forward accepting the challenge. "Step back." He pushed past his friends and walked up to Natalie.
"Hey," he said.
She looked up warily, "Hey, again."
"Listen, I've just got to ask you something . . . is your daddy a thief?"
"My dad? What?" Natalie said, confused. The question startled her. She had just thinking about her father, how her mother said he reacted to their conversation on the phone, and possibly meeting him soon. Why would this boy randomly bring him up? What did he know about her father?
Vince leaned forward, "because I swear he stole the stars from the sky and put them in your eyes."
Natalie scoffed and rolled her eyes. She breathed a sigh of relief now that she knew what was going on. "Okay. Whatever."
"No, I mean it. I just saw you sitting here and I knew I had to come over and say hello."
Natalie glanced over at his group of friends watching and then back at Vince. "Well, you have and now I've got to go." She gathered up her books and turned to go back into the school building.
"Hey, wait. Don't be like that. Come on. Come back."
Natalie walked off without pausing or looking back.
Before Vince even turned around, he could hear his friends howling with laughter. He sucked up his pride and headed back with as much bravado as he could muster.
"Ooooh . . . shot down!"
Vince shook his head. "She wasn't my type. Too stuck up."
"Come on, let's get out of here," one of the boys said, stopping the laughing and ribbing from the other two. "We've got better places to be."
“Oh hey, Natalie. What are you still doing here?” Maura asked as she ran into Natalie in the front hallway. "Getting involved in some after school activities?"
“No, I'm just waiting on my mom. She’s running late waiting on the movers.”
“You’re moving today? Did your parents decide to move to Arrendale Heights after all?”
“Oh, that’s so exciting,” Maura smiled. “Hey, instead of waiting here, do you want to walk home with me? You’ll be in the neighborhood and your mom can pick you up my house.”
As Natalie hesitated, trying to make a decision, she caught a glimpse of Vince and his friends milling outside. “Sure. Just let me call my mom and I’ll see if it’s okay.”
“Great! If she says it's okay, I’ll show you around the neighborhood.”
After she made the phone call and cleared the plans with her mom, Natalie followed Maura outside. She wasn't happy to see that Vince and his friends were still there. When he turned her way and gave her a long look, she tried to avoid eye contact and went along her way as if she hadn't seen him at all.
Maura sighed. “I wish he’d stop hanging out with them.”
“Vince, my brother," Maura said quietly as they walked away from the school. "I wish he’d drop those friends of his. They’re no good.”
“He’s your brother?”
“Yes. Do you know Vince?”
“Not really. He just came up to me a minute ago and said . . . hello.”
“Oh, sorry,” Maura said. Once the words were out of her mouth, she realized she wasn’t sure what she was apologizing for, but somehow she sensed that Natalie didn’t appreciate the interaction. “My brother's not a bad guy, I promise. His friends though, they're another story. But you don't have to worry. My mom will be home, so his friends won’t be there. Vince probably won't be around either.”
A few minutes later they had left the schoolyard and had arrived at Arrendale Heights.
“So how long have you lived here?” Natalie asked as Maura pointed out the sites.
“Forever. Seriously, almost my whole life. I think we moved into our house when I was about three. We moved in not long after the neighborhood was built, just like most of the families who live here now. We haven’t had many new neighbors at all since the neighborhood was started.”
“So I’m really going to be the new kid on the block.”
“Don’t worry about it though. Everyone is super nice. There’s always someone in the neighborhood to talk to . . . Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No, it’s just me.”
“So it was just you and your mom for awhile, huh?”
“Yeah, for a long time, until she met Simon.”
“Do you like him or are you going it miss it just being the two of you?”
“No, I do like him. I’m glad my mom has finally found someone who makes her happy.”
“I wish my mom would find someone like that. I know she has me and Vince and her friends and the people she works with at the hospital, but sometimes I know she gets lonely.”
“How long has she been divorced from your dad?’
“They were never actually married,” Maura explained. “She got divorced from Vince’s dad, then fell in love with my dad, but he moved away before I was born, before he or my mom knew I was on the way. My mom said she tried to get in touch with him, but she was never able to . . . Do you ever wonder what your dad is like? I try to imagine what mine is like from what my mom has told me. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like if he came back and he and my mom had another chance to be together. I wonder what it would be like for us to all be a family together. Did you ever imagine that about your parents?”
“Not so much,” Natalie admitted. “I guess I was just used to it being the two of us. It seemed strange to think of things any other way.”
Natalie paused before adding, “Besides my dad got married to someone else after my mom and I moved away. He already has his own family.”
“Then you do have brothers and sisters,” Maura pointed out excitedly. “You just haven’t met them yet.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“Oh wow. I wonder what they’re like.”
“Yeah,” Natalie responded, anxious to change their line of discussion. “So you said the people here are nice?”
“Oh, yes. It seems like everyone has known each other forever. We’re like a big family. I’m sure you’ll feel like a part of it in no time.”
“I met a woman from the neighborhood a few weeks ago,” Natalie began cautiously. “Simon and I wanted to drive by the new house and check it out and someone greeted us. She seemed nice . . . a little strange, but nice, I guess.”
“Oh really? Who was it?”
Natalie cleared her throat. “Cassandra Kitteridge. She actually knew my mom before I was born.”
“Mrs. Kitteridge? She’s a neat lady. I know what you mean about a little strange, but she is really friendly when you get to know her. I actually babysat for her kids a few times.”
Natalie tried to maintain an air of indifference as she casually questioned Maura. “How many kids does she have?”
“Two, a boy and a girl. Brooke is almost twelve and Doug just turned eleven,” Maura answered, but Natalie said nothing, taking the information in. Maura pointed ahead, “That’s their house."
Natalie paused, watching as a man and two children got out of the car parked in the driveway. Natalie felt her pulse quicken as the man looked in their direction.
Maura waved, “Hi, Mr. Kitteridge.”
As Maura stepped forward, motioning for Natalie to follow, the moment seemed surreal. Natalie followed, her legs mechanically moving forward as of their own free-will. Her eyes unable to look away from the handsome, smiling, forty-ish man in front of her.
“This is Natalie.”
“Hi,” Blaine said, reaching out to shake her hand.
Natalie took it, her arm feeling as heavy as lead.
“She’s moving into the new house behind yours,” Maura continued. Natalie could feel the change of tension in his handshake and noticed the change of expression on his face as he seemed to really look at her. Suddenly, he seemed to be studying her face as intensely as she had been studying his.
“We’re in the same class at school. She came home with me while her mom is waiting on the movers.”
As Maura continued to talk, Blaine finally found the voice that had been lodged in his throat.
“Is Reese Burroughs your mom?” he asked.
“We, um, we knew each other a long time ago,” he said slowly, as he tried to take everything in and tried to make sense of what he was seeing and what he had heard.
“I know,” she said quietly, hoping he would catch the deeper understanding behind her simple response.
“You go to school with Maura?” he asked confused. “What grade are you in?”
“I’m a sophomore.”
“Like me,” Maura chipped in.
“So you must be fifteen, sixteen?” he asked, still trying to put everything together.
“I’m fifteen,” she replied. “I’ll be sixteen in December.”
As Blaine stepped back, his mind making quick calculations and fishing for possible explanations, a moving van drove past. Reese was driving the car following behind it and when she saw Natalie and Blaine standing together in the front yard, she abruptly hit the brakes and pulled into the driveway.
She got out of the car, her stomach twisted with nervousness and walked towards them. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Blaine replied. He couldn’t believe she was standing in front of him for the first time in fifteen years. But that was not the most surprising thing he was having trouble believing at the moment. “I think you were right, what you said on the phone. I think we do need to talk.”