Discover more from STOP. KISSING. FINN.
STOP. KISSING. FINN. - Chapter 18 + Tracks by Banks, Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson
Of course, I hadn’t forgotten anything. I still got that ache in my chest every time I thought of him.
Happy New Year! Thanks so much for reading along and making it this far—just a few more chapters to go! If you’re enjoying this experience and want to kick off 2022 with some good karma, please make sure you’re subscribed, share this Substack with a friend, and leave a comment. I appreciate every bit of support! **
Chapter 17 recap: Finn’s been (literally) distant but accepts Charlie’s invite to Liz’s party/ping pong tournament where he thanks her for not getting all “quiet and weird.” I mean, it’s not like they owe each other anything, right? Charlie’s crushed and Andy’s there to help her pick up the pieces.
“The Birks are in,” Gary yelled from the storage room.
Seth, our “holiday help,” looked up at me from his phone. Seth was a sophomore at the community college and was supposed to double as a salesperson and temporary bookkeeper. So far, I'd watched him drink coffee and flip through a series of vinyl binders he called “the books.” I was pretty sure at least one of “the books” contained take-out menus. He was camped out by the seating area in the coat and vest section and let me wait on three customers in a row.
“I'm answering audit emails,” he said and looked back down at his screen.
“I bet,” I said under my breath and walked towards the backroom to help Gary with the shipment.
“Oh, Charlie. Good, it's you.”
“Of course. Seth is saving his thumbs for the IRS.”
“Nothing. Do you want me to unpack or shelve?” I asked.
“Why don't you unpack and shelve just this first box while I run to the post office. When I get back, I'll help you with the rest.”
I'd heard that before. “Okay, Gary.”
“Put on some music. Seth made coffee, too.”
“Yeah, I saw that.”
“I'll have him cover the front while I'm gone,” he said as he wrapped a scarf around his neck. “Getting chilly out there. Feels like boot season!” He gave me a double thumbs-up before he closed the back door behind him.
I waited until I heard Gary's truck start up and leave the parking lot before I pulled out my cell phone. I was working a double so I could have at least one full day off over the weekend to study for exams and work on my independent study. Andy and I were supposed to meet at some point for a calc review. He hadn’t texted yet.
But Finn had. I stared at his name for at least ten seconds before I tapped on the message.
Cancel your New Year’s plans – they sucked anyway. Blank Pre-launch party at Jackson’s lake house. Invite Only. Details soon.
It was obviously a mass text that tons of other people had received. Or at least some other people had received. It wasn’t like Finn had sat down and written a message just for me. It had been a whole week since the party and he hadn’t been in the art room or texted. “I’m trying to forget he exists,” I’d told Andy.
Now Spinning: Drowning by Banks
Of course, I hadn’t forgotten anything. I still got that ache in my chest every time I thought of him.
Invite only. I focused on those two words. It was a mass text, but he obviously couldn’t have included everyone in his phone if it was invite-only. He would have had to go through the list and check off only the people he wanted to invite.
I’d told myself I was done. I wasn’t going to be the one to reach out again. The phone suddenly lit up with an incoming call. It was from Marlena. I hit “Ignore” and returned to the text screen.
I hit “reply” and stared at the cursor.
Hey. How are you? I typed and stared at the “send” button. Maybe something specifically about the party was better. Like a question about where the lake house was. Andy would have scolded me for responding at all.
The screen lit up again with a call from Marlena. I groaned. Clearly, she had something she was just dying to tell me, which couldn’t mean anything good. I hit “Ignore” again.
I backspaced over my message.
Where is Jackson’s lake house?
I hit send before I could reconsider. Figuring it would take hours or probably days for a response, I got to work on unpacking the delivery. Before I could slice into my second box, my phone buzzed.
Like 1 hr drive. How are you?
I threw the utility knife down on the workbench. I needed to focus.
How are you? That was what I was originally going to write. That’s what I was going to write instead of I can’t stop thinking about you even though you’re an asshole. You’re pretty much the best-looking guy I’ve ever talked to and it still kind of surprises me that you ever wanted anything to do with me. And even though you slept with me and basically ignored me, I can’t help but still like you because there’s just something about you…How are you?
The screen’s light faded and then quickly came to life again. Marlena.
I hit “Accept.”
“What?!” I yelled into the phone.
“Hello?” It was Bill's voice. I almost instinctively hung up.
“What’s up? I’m at work.”
“We’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” His voice was softer than usual. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
“What’s going on? Why are you calling me on Marlena’s phone?”
“We're at the hospital.”
My stomach flipped. “Is she okay?”
“Yes, she's fine. She's talking to the doctors. Actually, something happened, Charlie.” I was pretty sure it was the first time he'd ever said my name out loud. I hated the way it sounded coming from him.
“We got a call from the hospital a couple hours ago. Your mom tried calling you but it went straight to voicemail and she didn’t want to leave a message,” he said again.
“What happened?” I asked again more firmly. I was angry. Idiots should not be in charge of relaying medical information.
“Your grandmother...” he began.
“Is she okay?” I gasped.
“She's...they don't know, yet.”
“Bill, WHAT HAPPENED?” I yelled.
“It looks like she had a heart attack,” he said calmly. Too calmly. In that instant I hated him more than I’d ever hated anyone. I hated that he thought that was something he could say so calmly.
“She called an ambulance, and then the hospital called your mom. She's in intensive care,” he said.
“Is she going to be alright?” I demanded. I looked up to see that Seth was looking down on me from the door frame.
“We don't know much yet. They need to do tests. She probably needs surgery.”
“I'm coming right now. Which hospital?”
“Good Samaritans, but—” I hung up on him before he could finish. I kicked a cluster of shoeboxes out of my way.
“Seth, I need to leave. You're going to have to cover the store.”
“Did Gary say that you could? I'm supposed to go on lunch.”
I didn't answer as I pushed past him. My hands shook as I fumbled under the counter for my coat and bag. I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek. I needed to keep it together long enough to get to the hospital.
“Tell him it's an emergency,” I said as I walked out the door.
Everyone says the same stupid thing: “I hate hospitals.” Like that's some kind of unique revelation. Of course, everyone hates hospitals. They are filled with sickness and disease. Even the healthy people are unhappy because they, too, are surrounded by sickness and disease. The only exception is the maternity ward, but even the happiness there comes at a cost.
“I hate hospitals,” Bill said as he folded his arms and slumped down in the waiting room chair.
I looked up from my history book and glanced over at Marlena in time to catch her rolling her eyes. The last few days had been truly awful – probably the worst days of my life. It had also been the most time I'd spent with Marlena and Bill since I'd moved in with Gram. I couldn't tell if it was because of what was happening with Gram, but they definitely got on each other’s nerves a lot more often than I'd remembered. It was as if ten years later she was finally noticing all of the things I'd instantly hated about Bill.
They hid their general annoyance with each other well enough when we were with Gram in her room. Not that it really mattered. She was still under heavy sedation and couldn't speak. But, when we all had to go back to the general waiting room – like now, when they were changing her dressings from the operation– it was like everything they'd been holding back came out.
“They're so freaking depressing,” Bill added.
“Well, what do you expect?” Marlena snapped.
“I'm just saying I hate hospitals. They depress me.”
“Well, you know what depresses me? My mother having a heart attack.”
“Jesus Christ, I was just saying.”
“Bill, do me a favor. If you can't say anything supportive, just don't talk to me.”
“I wasn't talking to you.” Bill was starting to raise his voice. Another cluster of waiting room occupants grew quiet and looked in our direction.
“Shhh!” she hissed. “You're embarrassing yourself.”
“Oh my god,” Bill said under his breath and re-crossed his legs. He snatched an outdated copy of Sports Illustrated from the chair beside him and flipped through its pages.
“I need some air,” she said and stood up. I shot her a panicked look. The only thing worse than being with both of them was being alone with Bill.
She seemed to read the look on my face. “Charlie, want to come with me on a coffee run?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Call my cell if anything happens,” she said without looking at Bill.
A wall of damp, cold air pushed back on us as we stepped through the sliding glass doors.
“It sure doesn't feel like Christmas,” she said as we walked through the parking lot. I wasn't sure if she meant the weather, which did feel more like late fall, or the fact that we were spending the holiday in a hospital waiting room.
“What did you and Gram do last Christmas?” she asked.
“Um,” I said, trying to remember. “We made dinner and then we saw a movie that night.”
“You went to a movie together?”
“Yeah, the one about the queen of England.”
“Huh,” she said and unlocked the car.
“Where did you go?”
“Turks and Caicos,” she said. She flicked on the windshield wipers.
She turned on the ignition. “Where should we get coffee?”
“Well,” I said. “There's this place Scones. But I don't know if they're open on Christmas.”
“Let's give it a try.”
It was apparent, as we drove through town, that everyone else had plans for that afternoon. The streets were empty of cars, dog walkers, mail checkers. We pulled into Scones parking lot, which was dark and desolate.
“It's closed,” I said.
“Darn. I'm guessing most places are,” she said. “Maybe the grocery store? They have that little cafe area, right?” she added.
There was only the slightest chance that Finn would be working on Christmas, but I didn’t want to risk it. “Um, yeah, but it's really bad coffee.”
“Well,” she said, “Not sure we have better options available at this point.”
“Maybe we can see what's open at the plaza?” I said and turned towards her. For a moment, we shared a look of shared defeat. The sad truth was that neither one of us had any better place to be at this point. Driving around, even if it was fruitless, was better than hanging out with Bill in the hospital waiting room.
“Sure, why not,” she said.
The shopping plaza was like any other you'd find in suburbia. The monstrous, chain hardware store, flanked by a dingy-looking dollar store and a nail salon advertising the same “Grand Opening” manicure special it had been selling for the last two years. Signs for fast food glowed from the far corner of the parking lot.
“Well, I see one place that's open. And, I know they have coffee,” Mom said, gesturing toward the neon signs.
“Beggars can't be choosers,” I said.
Now Spinning: Winter Song by Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson
The place was mostly empty. Christmas songs played faintly over the crackly speakers. A few senior citizens sat by themselves, hovering over their trays of fries and burgers. One family with two young children camped out in the corner. They seemed perfectly content, happy even, to be having a Christmas dinner of assorted value meals.
I added a plastic thimble of creamer to my large coffee and stirred. “Should we take these to go and get back to the hospital?” I asked.
“They'll call if something happens. Let's sit for a minute.”
We slid into a plastic booth and wrapped our hands around our Styrofoam cups.
“What are your friends doing for Christmas?” Marlena asked.
“The usual stuff,” I said. “Visiting with family, dinner.”
“Right,” she said and took a sip.
“What were you and Bill planning on doing?”
“Nothing, really,” she said and turned toward the window that looked into the parking lot. “Dinner out somewhere. We hadn't made reservations yet.”
We sipped for a moment in silence. A strained version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” played in the background.
“Thank God this didn't happen last Christmas while we were out of town,” she said, breaking the silence.
“The last thing I would have wanted was for you to have to do this alone.”
“Uh-huh,” I said a little tensely. Except I did do this myself. Remember last spring?
“This is the reason Gram needs to be in a place that can give her the care she needs.”
My jaw clenched. I put my cup down and crossed my arms.
“Are you seriously going to turn this into an 'I told you so' conversation?”
“Charlie,” she began.
“Because I really don't want to hear it. And, to be honest, I have handled this kind of thing alone. Remember last year? When she fell?”
“Yes, of course. And, you did a great job,” she said. “You handled it better than most of us could.”
It was a relief to hear her finally acknowledge what I’d done.
“Then why do you keep insisting that I can't handle it anymore?”
“Because she's worse now, Charlie. This was a warning, and we were lucky. The next time she could die.”
It was nothing I didn't already know, but it was another thing to hear it out loud. I could feel my eyes getting hot.
“Honestly, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do. I know you don't want to live with me and Bill. And, I don't blame you.”
I focused on the plastic lid of my coffee cup, running my thumb over the imprinted lettering. It was also a relief to know she didn’t expect me to move in with them.
“But Gram needs more support than you or any of us can give.”
I didn't respond. I knew I'd sound choked up. Plus, she was right.
“Listen…we don't have to figure out everything right this second,” she said after a minute.
I took a deep breath and nodded.
“I mean...it's Christmas!” she said with mock enthusiasm. I laughed a little.
“Merry fucking Christmas!” she said. I laughed again.
“How about another round of coffees and maybe some apple pies? I've heard fabulous things about the apple pies here.”
“And then, if you want, I can drop you back at the house so you can get some rest. Or maybe meet up with friends? Did you already exchange gifts?” she asked.
“No,” I said. The truth was that, in the midst of everything that had happened, I hadn't gotten a gift for a single person.
“Well, then you should do that. Try to get your mind off of everything. I promise I'll call if anything changes at the hospital.”
“Sit tight and I'll get us some dessert,” she said and slid out of the booth.