It didn’t matter what Aralia was saying as she stroked my hair soothingly, like a mother with her child. I admired her maternal instinct, God knows I’d never experienced it, but in that moment, it didn’t matter how she tried to comfort and assure everything would be okay. It wouldn’t. My heart ached and I could hardly breathe as my body shook with rapt tears. I should have been used to it by now, to those terrible words, the laughter, and the snide remarks. It was all I had experienced since arriving in Whisper Bay. But it was the graffiti on my locker that had finally shattered me:
I should have been used to disappointment and a broken heart, but I was a fool. A fool who believed in love, and that somewhere out there, was someone to love me. I thought he was the one. I thought this place would be different. I was so wrong. I was always wrong. I could taste the tears on my lips as I tried to take jagged breaths, the sounds of my wails echoing off the walls of the cave. This was our place – Aralia’s and mine, our secret, the one place we could hide and escape the world. Tucked into a small outcropping along the northern coast of town, accessible only during low tide, it was a place few would dare to venture. Yet we did. It was the only place we could breathe, where the reality of life couldn’t penetrate or harm us. “It will be okay, Chloe. It’ll be okay,” Aralia continued to assure, her hand still in my hair. “I will never let anyone in again!” The words were barely recognizable through my blubbering. “You don’t mean that Chloe.” “Yes, I do. I do! Never again!”
He cannot be more than forty. Surely not more than that? I’d been asking myself that question for a year and I still didn’t know the answer. Patrick Pettigrew, my boss and the manager of The Music Box, was gorgeous. He was six-foot-two, broad shouldered, and had sandy blonde hair with a few odd strands of silver dispersed throughout. His smile was like sunshine in the early morning, and his goatee was always immaculate. He even had a killer tan from hours of surfing every day. Surfing was the reason why he never opened the store, and why I always did. This morning however, he was breaking protocol and holding a meeting before the store opened for business. He never had meetings, and his desire for one now had us all on edge. There were rumors that the store was under threat of closing. There was talk of new owners who wanted to close down the current location and move the store to the new strip mall. The Music Box was the largest stand-alone record store in Whisper Bay, hiring many of Kranmer High’s students, like myself. I was eighteen and an assistant manager, not too bad if I did say so myself, and only after a year of living in the quaint seaside town. If the rumors were true, the owners would pay a higher rent, have a smaller store, and need fewer employees. I was as nervous as the others were. I needed this job more than any of the others did. “Good morning guys,” Patrick’s gravelly voice broke into my thoughts. “Sorry for the delay. I was waiting for someone, but he’s here now.” He turned, looking over his shoulder at the young man who stood behind him. I could see my coworkers’ eyes shifting around me in confusion. Who was this guy and why was he so important that it required a meeting to tell us? “Alright guys, we have a new member to our team. As you know, Jaimie left us for college last week, so let me introduce you to my nephew, Oliver Pettigrew. He will be joining the roster from today forward.” He looked over at me, and right then I couldn’t help but be distracted. Patrick had beautiful eyes. “You’ll need to readjust a few things, Chloe, but I’m sure you can make it work.” I nodded my confirmation as he continued. “Oliver has recently returned to town from Los Angeles, so I’d appreciate it if you guys would make him feel at home again.” He looked around, his eyes falling on each person present, and I noted a strange expression flash across his face as a small murmur rose from the other employees. He laid a large hand on the back of his nephew’s neck. “Get to work everyone.” So, Oliver was Patrick’s nephew. Poor guy had definitely gotten the short end of that gene pool stick. He was shorter than Patrick was, only a few inches taller than I was. He was slender to the point of almost being wiry, his clothes were conservative, and his hair was a fiery red that hung in loose waves to the nape of his neck. I couldn’t see his face; his mop of hair obscured it almost entirely. He kept his head down the entire time, but from the rest of his appearance, I guessed it was nowhere as finely chiseled as his uncle’s. “Chloe, could you come in my office a moment?” “Yes, Patrick, be right there.” I scampered to answer my boss’ call as Oliver followed him. Once inside the office Patrick explained his request. I was to train Oliver. Perfect! He was sticking me with him for the next few weeks in order to get him acclimated to how the store ran. What was this? Was he grooming Oliver or something? Was Oliver going to take over my job? Silent panic gripped my chest in an iron hold as I tried to keep my expression placid. “Whatever you say, Bossman.” I looked over at Oliver, who had yet to acknowledge me. He seemed far more interested in the framed vinyl records and posters Patrick had decorating his walls. “Hey, let’s go,” I called and marched out of the office letting the rest of my words fall behind me. “We open soon.” “Hey, Chloe, Damon’s brother is coming to town this weekend and he’s looking to have some fun. You in?” Andrea’s nasally voice resonated in my ears, disrupting me from showing Oliver the morning routine for working the till. The girl could get on my nerves with her whining and her laziness. If it were up to me I would have fired her, but Patrick hated letting people go. I wasn’t entirely sure Oliver was paying attention; he hadn’t said anything since we started. In fact, he hadn’t said anything at all since he arrived. He didn’t even look interested in what was going on. If the new owners were planning to hand my job over to some twerp just because he was the boss’ family, they had another thing coming. I would show them that I was the best person to assist in running the store. No little redheaded runt was going to take it from me. I had very few things in life to call my own, and of those things, my favorite was The Music Box. Even though The Music Box was just a job to most, it was an oasis to me. It allowed me to make the money I needed to support myself, while allowing me to be around the thing I loved most – music. Learning to play the guitar was a bonus, and to me it felt like a requirement of the job. I could never learn everything there is to know about music, there just simply was not enough time in the day. “I told you already. I’m not dating, so stop trying to set me up,” I resounded, returning to the cash in my hand. I couldn’t remember what number I had stopped at. “Damn it, Andrea, you made me forget my count. How many fives were there again?” “Thirty-three.” The voice I heard didn’t belong to Andrea. I had never heard this voice before. I turned to look at Oliver. His eyes were on the floor and he gave no indication that the sound came from him. “Did you say something?” I asked him, unsure. It couldn’t be he who spoke, could it? Shockingly, the timid voice replied, “There were thirty-three fives when you stopped.” I was skeptical and challenged him. “How can you be sure?” “I counted them.” I laughed. Was he trying to put one over on me? “You didn’t count them.” “Yes, I did,” he rebutted. At this point, I was really getting annoyed, “Look, I don’t have time for games. We’ve got to be open soon and I need to get this done.” I restarted my count. Thirty-three fives. I counted them. What did he take me for, an idiot? I wasn’t about to let him trick me. Was that his game? Was he planning to sabotage my work efforts in order to help his own cause to take my job? Well, I’m smarter than that. I counted the fives again and to my shock, there were thirty-three. “I told you,” Oliver said quietly. I let my annoyance flare. “So…I don’t care. It is my responsibility to check the till, not yours. You just need to pay attention to how we do things around here and stop spacing out. This is a business not a playground,” I retorted and returned to counting the rest of the till money. “I was paying attention.” I inhaled a deep breath. Was this guy trying to make me angry? If he was, then he was succeeding. I don’t know if Andrea sensed my anger building or if she was really just ignorant because the next second she was back to talking about her boyfriend’s obtuse brother. Did she not understand me earlier or is it irritate Chloe day? “Look, it’s been six months, Clo, don’t you think it’s time to end the drought?” she challenged, walking over and peering up at me from the sales floor. I was thankful she was so lazy and that the bird’s nest was small or else she may have been tempted to come up and annoy me up-close. The bird’s nest was a small rotunda that acted as our checkout counter. It allowed three hundred and sixty degree views, could hold a maximum of four registers if needed, such as at Christmas, and was perched on a platform which was accessible by a set of six short steps. To me, Andrea was the epitome of a flake. She never exerted more energy than necessary to do anything, well, except party. Taking the six short steps to the bird’s nest would require way too much of her. Looking up and shouting from where she stood was much easier. “What does time have to do with anything? I’m done talking about this, and when I say I’m done, I’m done!” My adamant words were punctuated by the slamming of my till drawer. I initialed the accounting slip to confirm the cash I’d received. “You sign next to me,” I instructed Oliver. He obeyed without hesitation. I gave Andrea a final frustrated look, but found her eyes were regarding Oliver with a hint of suspicion. I wondered why. “Come on Oliver, I’ll show you where you can keep your things,” I huffed at him and marched down from where I stood. He followed me without question, his Converse sneakers squeaking against the hardwood floor the whole way. ~~~ I hated to admit it but Oliver was more organized than I was, and freakishly so. He had managed to master every aspect of our jobs in less than a week. In fact, he had done better than that. With him at the store we hardly needed a daily stock check as he seemed to record every sale in his mind and tallied the sum in his head. It was amazing! Nevertheless, the other employees did not see it that way. They never spoke to him and the odd time they looked in his direction, there was a sense of discomfort, almost fear. How was Oliver able to make my job look so easy? If he kept this up he would outshine me in no time and I would be out of a job. Nevertheless, there was still one area where he lacked the Midas touch, and that was with customer relations. He was simply awful at dealing with people and he wasn’t making any friends amongst the staff either. In fact, they all seemed to avoid him. I was determined to find out who Oliver Pettigrew was and why he was back in Whisper Bay. After weeks of working side-by-side with him, barely ever hearing him speak, I decided that I was going to have to become an investigator if I wanted to know his game. If there was anyone who could shed light on the enigma that was Oliver Pettigrew, Samuel Donaldson, our in-house weekend DJ, my guitar teacher, and the person who knew the stories about everyone was the one to ask. “Sam, you’ve lived here your entire life, right?” I asked him, as we disassembled boxes behind the store for the upcoming recycling and refuge collection day. He nodded. “Every single day and no desire to go anywhere else.” He looked up at me with a pleasant grin. “Why do you ask? You wanna know something?” His eyes twinkled at the prospect of gossip. I wasn’t one who normally cared about the rumor mill, after all, I knew how it felt to be on the receiving end of rumors. I did want to know about Oliver though, and since he wasn’t providing any insight in our rare conversations, Sam was the best way to get the information I wanted. “What can you tell me about Oliver?” I asked covertly to ensure I wasn’t overheard, and then leaned in closer to hear his reply. I didn’t have to use any coaxing for him to spill all he knew. “Oliver Anderson Pettigrew. Mother, Noreen Pettigrew is the only sister of Patrick Pettigrew. Was briefly married to Robert Todd, but divorced before Oliver was born. Reasons abound as to why. Oliver himself is a bit of a tale. Always a loner, he never had many friends in school but he excelled at his work. He was eight when they bumped him up two grade levels. He graduated high school at the age of fifteen. Only person in Whisper Bay history to ever do that.” “What? He’s our age. What, is he genius?” I mocked, folding a box in half and then again. “Actually, yes he is.” I looked at Sam in shock. I could feel my mouth hanging open and quickly shut it. “Are you serious?” “As a heart attack my British cutie,” he teased and flicked my nose. He’d been calling me that since we first met and he heard me speak. I didn’t have an accent, though everyone told me I did. I sounded perfectly normal to me; it was everyone else who sounded strange. “What else do you know?” I urged him, my interest piqued. Sam smiled. “Why all the questions? You never get involved in this sort of thing,” he noted with a grin as he continued disassembling the cardboard boxes. “Or is it that you’re interested in little Ollie for other reasons?” he chortled. “Of course not!” I immediately defended. Oliver and me? I shuddered at the thought. “I work with him every day and he barely speaks to me. I just want to know who Oliver is. Are you going to tell me what you know or not?” Sam’s smile grew. “If you say so.” He folded another cardboard box, huffed and continued. “He and his mother live up at the old lighthouse on the point. She doesn’t come to town. Hasn’t for years. My cousin works at the market and he brings groceries out to her every week.” He paused and I looked at him. “He said he never sees her. It’s strange. She leaves a check in the mailbox and he leaves the items on the stoop.” “That is weird. Is something wrong with her? Like some skin ailment or something that she’s trying to hide?” I asked as my mind tried to conceive a reason for such strange behavior. “It is weird. Three weeks ago, my cousin said when he went to the house Ollie opened the door. He wouldn’t speak to my cousin either. He just handed him the check, took the food, and shut the door. Even when my cousin attempted to ask him questions about why he came back, he would not answer him. The guy is weird central.” “Why did he come back?” This was what I wanted to know. He shrugged and continued working on his stack of boxes. “No one knows for sure. I heard someone say he couldn’t hack it at that college of his. Someone else told me that they heard it was drugs.” He shot me a look. “You remember that guy who came by a few times? The one who was dressed in all black every time he came?” I rifled through my memory. “Yeah. He came to see Oliver.” Sam nodded. “From what I hear, he’s some drug guy or some degenerate, and he wasn’t coming to visit anyone but Ollie. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Indeed. “I also heard Oliver had a nasty stepdad who knocked him about because he didn’t talk much. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he had turned to drugs or something. Everyone needs to cope.” I didn’t hear much after that. My mind was reeling with the news of Oliver’s stepfather. I knew what it was to have a father knock you about. Unlike Oliver, it hadn’t been my stepfather, but my father. Then he left. Many said it was for the best, but no matter how terrible he was, he was still my father. I loved him. Then he was gone. They always leave. My eyes shot up as none other than Oliver stepped out the door. He looked at me and me at him. Then he did the strangest thing. He smiled at me. Then he was gone.