Authors: Emily Martin
Tags: #Young Adult, #Contemporary, #Romance
Natalie dying, the sight of Declan at her funeral, this is what I think about when Mom leaves for her first chemo session. Because Declan understands how quickly the world can crumble. How everything that used to define you can get choked out. He understands how easy it is to lose someone.
I haven’t left my room all morning. I need some fresh air, so I climb out onto the roof ledge and lean back against the house. Graham is right downstairs. I suppose I could try talking to him about Mom, but he’s got this attitude, as though all of this is happening for a reason. People around here like to call everything a part of God’s Plan. But you can spend years, your whole life, even, waiting for the rest of the dominoes to fall. In the end, good people dying too young will never make sense. And I can’t make sense of how this is happening to my mother. I mean, the woman flosses her teeth every single night. It just doesn’t compute.
And I refuse to look online for advice on how to deal with Mom. One time I had a black spot on my tongue and the Internet told me I was dying, when really it was the bismuth in the Pepto-Bismol I’d eaten that turned it black. Well played, Internet.
Unfortunately, talking to Declan isn’t an option either. Aside from the obvious problem that it’s been almost a year since we’ve had a conversation longer than five minutes, how would I even bring something like this up? It’s not as if I can corner him after class and be like, “Hey, Declan, remember when your mom died? Well, pretty soon we might be in the same club!”
God, just thinking that. I’m going straight to hell.
Someone knocks on my bedroom door. Before I can scramble back through my window, Sadie pops her head into the room.
“Graham let me in.” She closes the door behind her and then climbs out the window, taking the spot beside me. We both melt back against the siding.
I pick up a pine needle from the gutter and break it into tiny pieces, tossing each little section off the roof. The spotty shade from the trees outside my room is no match for today’s mugginess. The heat is coming at us from all angles, carried on the wind and rising up off the black shingles. It gets trapped behind my knees and under the arches of my feet, places I never realized could sweat so much. Sadie watches me tear apart another needle, then sits forward.
“You want to go somewhere?” she asks. “Take your mind off things?”
Sadie isn’t big on hugging. Which is fine, since she has zero percent body fat and her hugs are full of ribs and sharp elbows. But she excels in the art of diversion. We’ve been friends since freshman year, but it was after Natalie passed away that this particular skill started to come in handy. Sadie was there for me in a different way from Declan. There when I needed to be someone else for a little while.
She grins and crawls back through my bedroom window. Tells me to follow her. And I do. I always do.
* * *
Stepping outside of Will’s house two hours later, I call Cory.
I can’t believe Sadie did this to me. Again. Every Friday it’s the same story. We go out together and she disappears with some guy, which inevitably leaves me with another. The only difference is that this time, I’m pissed.
“Hey,” Cory says when he picks up.
“Can you come get me?”
He sighs. “Address?”
“Seven eighty-four Beverly Drive.”
“You owe me.”
The door opens behind me and Kyle saunters out. He lights a cigarette and offers me the pack. I take one, mostly because I need something to do with my hands while I wait for Cory.
He holds the Bic halfway between us. I lean in for him to give me a light and I’m rewarded with another whiff of that god-awful cologne he wears.
I move to the driveway and lean back against the garage door, filling my lungs with carcinogens. I bet my mother has never had a cigarette. She never microwaves food in plastic containers, either. And she hardly ever drinks more than one glass of wine. But this is a world in which beautiful people die ugly deaths all the time. The same world that turned a quick trip to the grocery store one day in January into mangled steel and broken glass and one more kid without a mother. The same world that stole Natalie away from a family that loved her.
I take another drag. My chest burns, but I hold my breath, allow my lungs to smolder, and start counting down the time it will take Cory to get here. I estimate there are twelve minutes to kill and about three to go before I have to remind Kyle that the answer is still no.
It only takes two and a half. Kyle props himself next to me in the forward-leaning, aggressive posture of someone accustomed to getting what he wants. He’s having all kinds of trouble grasping the concept of rejection. Though to be fair, lately I haven’t been known for saying no any more than he’s used to hearing it.
“I’m liking you in this skirt.” He flicks the ash off his cigarette and eyes my legs. “Of course, I think I’d like you better out of it.”
His fingers graze up my thigh. I shift away. “Fuck off, Kyle.”
“Geez, can’t you just take a compliment without getting all defensive?”
“I love how I’m supposed to take that as a compliment.” I cross one ankle over the other.
He considers this a moment. A car turns onto the street, but my false hope drains as it drives straight past us.
“I would take it as a compliment if you wanted me to remove my clothes,” he reasons.
I take a long drag and blow the smoke in his face. “I’m sure you would.”
Kyle squints at me and his smile grows wider. “You’re so moody.”
“I like that, too.”
My eyes close and I rest my head against the garage door.
“Seriously, you okay?” he asks.
I open my eyes to find something like genuine interest in his. “Like you care?”
“Hey, I’m just saying you look preoccupied. Thought maybe I could help you relax.”
“You can’t.” I look down at my cigarette. “But . . . thanks. I think.”
He shrugs and I straighten as not Cory’s but Declan’s car pulls to a stop in front of us.
I toss the cigarette down and yank at the hem of my skirt.
Cory jumps out of the front seat and makes an ushering motion with his arm.
“You didn’t have to give up shotgun for me.”
“Oh,” he says, ducking his head down to give Declan a dirty look, “but I did.”
I pull on my seat belt and Cory slams my door shut before getting in the back to sulk.
“Thanks for getting me,” I say with a sideways glance to Declan.
He’s looking past me, out my window to the top of the driveway where Kyle is. Then he turns his head straight forward, but I catch him taking in my outfit through his peripheral.
Why did I let Sadie talk me into wearing a skirt this short? I must look completely ridiculous.
I tug the flimsy cotton a little lower over my thighs and cross my arms.
“So, Harper, who’s your friend?” Cory leans forward to look out my window. “Oh, it’s Kyle Marcell!” He waves idiotically at him and I slap his hand away from my face. “Nice choice.”
I sink against the door and rub my temple. “Shut up, Cory.”
“Why don’t you lay off her tonight?” Declan asks as he puts the car in gear.
Cory pops back up between us. “Stick around for a while, Declan. You’ll see how quickly you get tired of playing chauffeur and carting her drunk ass across town.”
It’s basically the verbal equivalent of getting pantsed in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. Not terribly surprising given how Cory feels about all the things I’ve kept from Declan. About the secrets he’s had to keep for me. But I’m no stranger to public humiliation and I flat out refuse to let Cory see how much it stings. So I put on my boxing gloves and play along.
“I’m not even drunk. Also, I said shut up.”
“Fun fact about Kyle,” he goes on, apparently for Declan’s benefit. “Last year I was standing behind him in the lunch line and he wondered out loud what an unpickled pickle would taste like. I tried to explain that it would taste a lot like a cucumber, but he said he couldn’t picture it.”
A small smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. Declan seems to notice the shift in attitude.
“So what you’re saying is that Harper’s standards have skyrocketed since I left town?”
My chest constricts. Declan wrinkles his nose and shoots me an apologetic smile, as though he’s afraid he’s gone too far. I force my grin to stay put, though it takes more work now than before.
“You are both such assholes,” I say. “I’m never calling you for a ride again.”
“You’re an asshole,” Cory retorts. “And you better call me every time you need a ride.”
Declan turns right out of the neighborhood and looks over at me. “You know what we need?”
I examine my cuticles. “To get the hell out of Carson?”
“Or ice cream.”
“Ray’s,” Cory and I say at the same time.
Declan hands me his phone. “You mind texting Mackenzie and inviting her?”
“Oh.” I look down at the phone. My cheeks go hot. “Yeah, sure.”
Really, I should have seen this coming. Of course Declan is interested in the cute, bubbly blond girl.
We park down the street and meet up with Mackenzie and Gwen at the back of the line, which reaches all the way out the door. But Ray’s is worth it. People come from miles away to try the flavors only we have. Cardamom, praline crunch, peach crumble. Ray’s is an institution in Carson, not to mention the only place besides Frank’s Diner that’s open past nine.
“You know how many flavors they have,” Gwen is saying as we approach. “Start thinking about what you want now or we’ll be here all night.”
Mackenzie loses focus as soon as Declan comes into view. “Hey! Thanks for inviting us! It’s, like, the perfect night for ice cream. Such a good idea.” She turns back to Gwen. “I think I want something with chocolate.”
“That narrows it down to about twenty options,” Gwen says.
Declan introduces Cory, and I take the opportunity to slip out of the way.
I squint at the chalkboard menu above the counter—they really do have an insane number of flavors—and don’t look down again until I’m near the front of the line. Cory is already ordering, and Declan is ahead of me. He steps to the side to order from someone else, and behind the counter I spot my epic, what-the-hell-was-I-thinking mistake from the pool over spring break. Jake Thornton.
Jake’s back is turned, but the crowd thins as a family makes their way outside to eat, and now there are only a few feet between us.
“Uh-oh,” Mackenzie says.
“Don’t even tell me they don’t have your flavor.” Gwen follows Mackenzie’s gaze up to the menu board, zeroing in on the handful of flavors they’ve crossed off. She holds her hand up as Mackenzie turns toward her with her bottom lip stuck out. “Please, no.”
“What kind of ice cream place runs out of mint chocolate chip? I thought that was such a good choice. . . .”
Jake hasn’t turned around yet. I can still make my escape.
I start to back out of line. “You know, I don’t think I want anything. I’m kind of lactose intolerant anyway.”
Declan blinks at me. “What? No you’re not.”
“No . . . I’m not.” I tuck my hair behind my ear and my eyes slide back to Jake just as he turns to face me.
“Hey, Sloan.” Jake’s gaze wavers from my face and I fold my arms across my chest. “Long time no see.”
I risk a glance at Declan. With a furrowed brow, he’s watching Jake.
“What’ll it be?”
“A scoop of java chip. In a cup, please,” I say.
“Strawberry milk shake!” A guy in a chocolate-stained apron holds out Declan’s order. He casts me one more glance before walking over to claim it, leaving me without anyone to hide behind. I turn back to Jake just as he holds out my ice cream.
“How much?” I ask.
“It’s on me.”
He grabs a spoon from the canister next to him and hands it to me. “I’m sure you could get creative and figure out a way to repay me.”
A familiar tension locks down on my shoulders. Heat builds in my chest and travels up my neck. I keep my eyes on the spoon.
Maybe on a different day, if it wasn’t the cherry on top of one of the worst weeks of my life, or if it wasn’t right in front of Declan, who after tonight probably thinks I’m a complete skank-wad, maybe then I would let it go.
Instead, I channel Sadie. Twist the spoon around in my ice cream and look up through my lashes. Holding his gaze, I flip it onto my tongue and slowly, teasingly pull it out of my mouth.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” I whisper.
He looks over his shoulder, checking that no one can overhear, before resting his elbows on the glass. “Well, I think we should finish what we started in that pool,” he says in a hushed voice.
“Right.” I stab the spoon into my ice cream and grab a five-dollar bill out of my purse. “But you know what, Jake? I don’t owe you a goddamn thing.” I toss the money across the counter at him and move past Mackenzie, who’s still sampling flavors, and Gwen, who, judging by the raised eyebrows and stunned smile on her face, witnessed the whole thing.
Declan holds the door open for me and stares over my head. “Everything all right over there?”
I answer without turning around. “Yep. Everything’s fine.”
After a few more samples, Mackenzie lands on peanut butter and joins us at the picnic table we’re occupying.
“It’s good.” She slides in next to me on the bench. “But not mint-chocolate-chip good.”
“We’ll get you mint next time,” Gwen says.
Mackenzie takes another bite and leans across the table toward Declan. “What’d you get?”
She’s propped on her forearms, giving Declan a view of what’s under her neckline. Not that her shirt is really that low-cut. In fact, her vintage all-American look is downright wholesome. No wonder Declan likes her.
He holds out his Styrofoam cup and she takes a sip. From his straw.
I drop the spoon back into my melting ice cream.
“Mmm, not bad.” She gestures to her cup. “Want to try mine?”
Okay, please tell me she’s not about to spoon-feed him.
“No, thanks,” Declan says. But he keeps smiling at her, like it’s just the nicest thing in the world that she offered.