**Originally published by 72 Hours of Insanity**
By Chrissie Rorhman
Most days, my brother Jared and I spend the hours between school ending and night falling at the park at the end of the street, loitering long after the other neighborhood kids have been called home. He’s twelve, a year younger than me, but bigger, and getting bigger still. Our sister Sami outgrew the playground two summers ago, around the time she developed an interest in boys and managed to procure a cell phone from one of her friends with money. They even pay for it, added it to their “family plan.”
The metal bars of the jungle gym are flecked with exposed rust and chipping paint, and the merry-go-round is wobbly, its handholds too hot to touch under the high afternoon sun. But there is fresh air here, and there are kids to play with, even though we’re older than most of them. The ones I recognize from school hang out in the shadows of the Oak trees, passing around cigarettes and a bottle of Faygo mixed with someone’s dad’s vodka. Even if they wanted anything to do with me, I’m not sure I want anything to do with them. Jared, though, is starting to grow curious, wrinkling his nose and asking, “What smells funky?”
We barely speak when we’re home, communicating more with shoves and kicks, but the playground is a neutral ground. Jared and I are equals here, and we play like it. Today, the jungle gym is a building ablaze, and Jared and I are firefighters working together to put it out. Across the park, Rebecca Lowery is giggling, sipping from a spiked soda bottle while she drapes all over Dylan Smith. We’re dragging pretend hoses over from the seesaw/fire engine, but my attention is split, and my flip flop catches on something in the sand.
I hit the ground hard, scraping my palms and knees. Rebecca laughs harder, but I doubt it has anything to do with what Dylan said. I roll into a seated position and brush my raw, bleeding hands against my shorts, swipe away the sand that’s stuck to my sweaty cheek.
Jared is laughing too, gasping for breath around a full-bellied chortle. “Smooth move, Grace,” he manages.
Like I haven’t been hearing that one my entire life. “I didn’t fall,” I protest, kicking a clump of sand at him. “I tripped.” I point to the spot where my flop stuck and spy a bit of metal glinting in the failing sunlight.
I dig into the sand and unearth a class ring topped with a dull red jewel the size of my fingernail. A guy’s ring, too large to fit even my thumb. Holding the object reverently in my palm, I think finders keepers, because I’ve never held anything so beautiful. The only jewelry I’ve ever had are those stick-on earrings that look like pastel gemstones, and a yellowish plastic chain necklace from a grocery store gumball machine I “won” for fifty cents when I was seven. This ring is something different, something real. There’s some heft to it, and if it weren’t covered with years of grime, the red stone in the center would be shining. It feels special, and I feel special holding it, like it was here waiting for me all this time and I only now noticed it.
“Give it!” Jared shouts, knocking me backwards.
The ring bounces out of my hand and is sucked back down by the soft sand. My heart stops, and I scrabble forward before Jared can get his grubby hands on it.
He shoves at my shoulder, and I push him back, rotating my body. I land a lucky blow, sinking my elbow into Jared’s soft gut. He falls back with an oof. I scoop up a handful of sand where I saw the ring land, relieved to feel the weight of it within my palm. I push up from the ground and run towards the house, leaving behind my dislodged flop. I don’t have much of a head start, but Jared’s been getting slower over the past few months. I jump over the concrete step to the front porch and burst into the house, breathless, then run down the hall to the room Sami and I share and stuff the ring beneath my mattress. By the time I step back into the hall, Jared is there, bent over and wheezing.
“Finders keepers,” I say with a smirk.
He snarls and shoves me into the wall.
We aren’t on the playground anymore.
That night, while everyone else is asleep, I clean the dirt from the stone in the bathroom sink. With my fingernail, I pick granules from the grooves on either side of the ring. ‘1998’ and ‘CHHS’ are carved on one side, along with two deformed faces I recognize from posters for school plays. On the other side, a music note, and the name Richie.
I rub absently at the fresh bruise on my thigh and wonder what he was like, the mystery boy connected to this ring. With the water still running–a high offense in this household–I connect all the dots between us. CHHS must be Camden Hills High School, where Sami goes and where I’ll be a freshman next year. The tragedy/comedy masks stand for the drama department, and I was a chorus member in the seventh grade Spring musical. The music note must mean Richie was in band, and I played the clarinet for three months in fifth grade, before Dad left. Richie and I have so much in common.
I fall asleep with the ring gripped in my hand, thinking that he probably played the clarinet, too.
The deep red of the gemstone doesn’t match the colors of Camden Hills High; everything Sami brings home from school is patterned in navy blue and white. I look it up in computer lab the next day and decide it’s a garnet. The birthstone for January. My birthday is January 19.
After school, I don’t go to the park with Jared. Alone in our stale-smelling house, I dig the yellowish plastic-y chain from a box of keepsakes on my closet shelf and slide Richie’s ring onto it, then loop it over my head. The weight of the ring pulls uncomfortably on the back of my neck, but I don’t care. I feel better already, having this bit of Richie with me.
Richie wouldn’t have told everyone in class about how I ran away from the park with one flip flop on. Richie wouldn’t have pinned me down in the hall and given me a dead leg. Richie wouldn’t have forgotten my birthday last year. I know it in my heart.
Richie would have been nice to me, I decide. Richie would have taken care of me.
By the end of the week, the fictional Richie has begun to take real shape in my mind. He’s seventeen, like Sami, but could pass for older. He wouldn’t have to steal liquor from his parents’ stash; he has a fake ID and can buy whatever he wants. Better stuff than Dylan’s dad probably drinks. A shank of dark brown hair falls over his forehead, and his eyes are the color of melted chocolate. He has freckles, which would make Sami jealous, because when she does talk to me, it’s about a guy in her homeroom with gorgeous freckles.
On Saturday, Mom has the night off. Jared stays in his room and Sami lounges in the living room, but I sit at the table while she boils some water for spaghetti. With the TV droning in the background, I swing my legs beneath my chair and run a fingertip over the engravings on the ring. “Can I have a snack?”
“What? No, Gracie,” Mom says, sounding annoyed. “You can wait half an hour for dinner.”
I huff. “I bet Richie would let me have a snack,” I say, the words slipping out before I can stop them.
She frowns. “Who’s Richie?”
Heat erupts in my cheeks.
“It’s her imaginary boyfriend,” Sami announces from her spot on the lumpy sofa. “She’s getting weird, Mom. Like, seriously weird.”
“Be nice to your sister,” Mom says, adding pasta to the pot.
“I’m not being mean,” Sami counters. “She’s wearing that freaking thing around like a necklace and talking about him like he’s a real person. Tell me that isn’t weird.”
“He is a real person,” Mom says, dumping a jar of store brand tomato sauce into a smaller pot. “The ring belonged to someone.”
“Yeah, some old dude.” Sami gets up from the couch and comes into the kitchen. She leans over the table to grab the ring from where it’s settled against my sternum. “You know this is the year he graduated, right, Grace? He’s like, old now.”
“Shut up!” I slap at her hand, folding the ring into my palm.
Sami raises her hands and retreats into the living room. “Whatever,” she says, flouncing back onto the couch to resume staring at her phone.
“Found your ring man,” Sami says on Monday as we pack up for school.
“What?” I blink as she waves her phone.
“Yeah, I posted in some community Lost and Found page on Facebook that my weirdo sister found a class ring in the park.”
I grasp the ring, the metal cool and comforting in my increasingly sweaty palm. “N-no.” She can’t do this, I think. She can’t take this away from me.
And then, Richie won’t let her.
I sleepwalk through school, unable to eat lunch. Annoyed by my shuffling zombie pace on the walk home, Jared finally leaves me behind to catch up with some other kids who live on our street.
My fingers clinging desperately to the ring, I’m hardly able to put one foot in front of the other, knowing that this Other Richie might already be at my house, waiting to take this special thing away from me.
A presence steps up next to me and I instinctively duck, expecting that Jared has doubled back, or Rebecca Lowery has trotted up to torment me.
Instead, a warm voice says, “Hey, Gracie.”
I look up and there he is, just as I imagined. Freckles and all. Richie. My mouth moves soundlessly.
“Don’t worry.” His chocolatey gaze is intense as he stares down at me. “I’m here for you, Gracie. I won’t let anyone be mean to you. I won’t let anyone come between us.”
And just like that, he’s gone.
I spend the rest of the walk home searching for Richie in every space between houses, every shadow stretching beneath trees. I don’t see him again, and now I’m not even certain I really saw him at all.
Much to Sami’s annoyance, Other Richie never shows up to claim his ring.
“Mine now,” I tell her, grinning.
I don’t give it much thought, content to know that things are going my way for once.
Rain pounds against the window, shaking the glass in its frame. The storm is so loud we can hardly even hear the television. The three of us share the lumpy sofa, arms pulled in to avoid touching each other. Despite the fact Jared is the youngest, it’s somehow always me who ends up smushed on the narrow middle cushion.
Sami’s gaze is glued to the screen of her cell phone as Jared flips mindlessly through the channels. Her head pops up. “Wait, go back.”
“Just go back, moron.”
He sighs but flips back to the previous channel. “It’s the news,” he complains.
Onscreen is an image of a mangled car, the hood mashed against an interstate guardrail.
“No other vehicles appear to have been involved in the crash,” the reporter says, her expression and tone somber. “Forty-year-old Richard Brand was declared dead at the scene.” A second picture appears on the screen, of a man with red hair and a beard.
“Holy shit,” Sami says. “That’s him.”
“The ring guy. Look.” She thumbs the screen of her phone until she brings up a Facebook profile. “Look,” she says again, sticking the phone in my face.
The picture is of a smiling man with red hair and a beard, hugging what must be his infant son. Other Richie.
The real Richie.
Don’t worry, he had told me earlier. I won’t let anyone come between us.
“Crazy,” Sami says, shaking her head and flopping back. “Guess we know why he never showed.”
I don’t say anything, but my fingers are trembling when I reach up to touch the ring hanging from my neck.
By the end of the next week, news of Richie has spread like wildfire through school. In every one of my classes, kids are whispering about Grace and her imaginary boyfriend. I don’t think it’s very funny.
Neither does Richie.
I’ve seen him a few times now, usually on the walk home from school. Enough to know that I’m the only one who can see him. I want to ask him about that Other Richie but bite my lip, afraid he’ll leave. He’s the only person who is nice to me.
Rebecca and her friends are huddled near the pick-up area outside of school. The entire group dissolves into giggles as I approach.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” Rebecca taunts, swinging her ponytail and sticking a hand on her hip.
I ignore her, keeping my chin up.
“Those girls shouldn’t laugh at you,” Richie says as he appears at my side.
“It’s okay,” I tell him in a small voice. My cheeks burn as a fresh peal of laughter erupts from behind me.
“No,” Richie says, a frown creasing his handsome face. “It’s not. They should be nicer to you.”
Remembering what happened to Other Richie, I grab at his arm, not caring what Rebecca and the others see. “Richie, no, it’s really okay.”
“Gracie,” he says, turning to face me. His expression is serious. Is…scary. “I would never let anyone be mean to you. Just like I would never let anyone come between us.”
My stomach twists into a knot. “Did you do something to that other Richie?” I ask in a whisper.
“That man was not Richie,” he says harshly. When I jump, he reaches out and takes my hand. “I’m Richie. You know that, Gracie. You know I’ll take care of you.”
I nod numbly, and Richie disappears.
A scream sounds behind me, followed immediately by a long, loud screech of car tires, a sickening thump.
By the time I turn around, people are screaming. In the road, Rebecca’s body is bent and bloody.
Richie is standing on the curb behind her friends. When I see him, he smiles at me.
Mom picks me up from the police station, where I’ve had to sit with someone from Child Services until they could track her down. I called Sami, but they wouldn’t let me go home with her, and she didn’t have the number for Mom’s work. I couldn’t even remember where Mom works. All I could tell them was “I didn’t see what happened” and “I don’t know.”
But I do know.
Sami had gone home with Jared a few hours earlier, and they’re both asleep by the time we get home.
Mom tucks me into bed, lays a hand on my head. “Are you going to be able to sleep, Gracie?”
I don’t want her to leave, but I don’t want her to stay. I’m afraid of what Richie might think. What Richie might do.
“Yeah,” I whisper.
She smiles and pats the ring resting on my chest. “At least you have this to make you feel better, right?”
My stomach lurches. I press my lips together and nod.
As soon as she pulls the door shut, I throw back the covers and sit up in bed, tugging the chain over my head. With shaking hands, I stick it and Richie’s ring inside a sock, ball it up tightly, and stick it at the very bottom of the lowest drawer of my dresser. I shut the drawer and hurry back across the room to my bed, where I bury myself under the blankets.
Go away, I plead in my mind, my lips moving along. Go away, go away.
My heart is pounding so fast I can hear it thumping in my head. I can’t sleep. The room is silent but for the soft chuffs of Sami’s breathing from the other bed.
Just as I’m beginning to drift off, a shadow falls over me. Instinctively, I open one eye, see Richie’s ring dangling in front of my face.
“Did you lose this, Gracie?”
I’m stuck with Richie. No amount of wishing will make him go away. I’ve tried to throw his ring away. I’ve tried leaving it at school. I’ve buried it back in the sand at the park. I’ve tossed it into the creek.
He always brings it back. He always comes back.
Richie is with me everywhere now. He sits across the room while I try to study for a history test.
“You know I just want to take care of you, Gracie,” he says seriously.
“I know,” I reply. It’s worse when I try to ignore him.
The door whips open and Sami pokes her head. “Who are you talking to?” She surveys the room with a curled lip.
I hold my breath, but I know that she doesn’t see Richie. No one ever does.
“You’re such a freak,” Sami mutters, and slips back into the hallway without closing the door.
I cross the room to push it shut, stand there with my palm pressed against the rough wood.
Leave her alone, I think, I plead, my eyes squeezed tightly shut. I know it doesn’t matter.
“I think Sami’s going to try to come between us,” Richie says thoughtfully. “I think I’m going to have to do something about her.”
He doesn’t listen to me anymore.