Authors: Amy Matayo
I hear the intimate details about her husband. Unlucky me.
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but our lawyer has called twice. So you’re gonna need to find that phone of yours and call him back. The news isn’t good…”
That isn’t what I wanted to hear. I eye him for a few moments, trying to settle my thoughts. “There’s nothing we can do?”
“He has a couple of ideas, but he didn’t give me any specifics. Said he needed to talk to you before proceeding with any of them.” He sighs long and slow. Neither of us saw this coming, but one of us has to deal with it, and fast. Two days. That’s all the time we’ve got. And it looks like the responsibility has fallen on me.
“All of this because of a donkey and some hay? Is this what the world has come to?” I tent my fingers and peer over at Scott. Unbelievable. That’s the only way to describe the mess we’ve landed in. And all because we dared to—
“It’s a little more than that, I guess,” he says. “But, yes. That description pretty much sums it up. Don’t spend too much time stressing about it. We’ll find a way through this, even if it takes a while.” He pauses for a moment before that stupid grin reappears.
“What?” I ask, knowing what’s coming.
“Just thinking about the girl. I’m just so proud to see that my little boy is finally growing up.”
While a growl, I push back my chair and stand. “Shut up. I’m two years older than you, and mind your own business.”
At that, Scott laughs. “This time next month you’ll probably be buying rings.”
I can’t let that one go and spin to face him. “I don’t do commitment. Or rings. You know that.” I’ll never do commitment. A person can only take so much abandonment before they decide enough is enough.
Scott’s smile slips a little. “I was kidding. But now that you’ve brought it up, one of these days you’re going to figure out that you can’t spend your life alone. Never mind this girl—maybe she’s just some random face that you’ll never see again. But eventually, I hope you can get over your past and decide the future is worth taking a chance on. Otherwise, you’ll be facing a long, lonely life.”
For a long moment, I just stare at him. I don’t point out that Scott isn’t dating anyone either. Or that he’s hardly qualified to dole out relationship advice. Or that his family is pretty much perfect and he has absolutely nothing in his closet resembling my history. Or that if I wanted his counsel I’d ask for it. I just stare. And get mad. Not at Scott, but at myself.
Because something tells me Kate isn’t just a random face.
And that freaks me out more than Scott’s words ever could.
“Thanks for the advice, Dr. Phil. Next time I want it, I’ll write you a letter.”
Scott’s smile returns. Thank goodness, because I can’t stand when the guy gets serious on me. In the five years I’ve known him, it hasn’t happened often. I pull my car keys from my pocket and head out of the office. Scott follows me, but gets stopped by Mrs. O’Hare.
“Scotty, can you come over here and look at this bump on my elbow…”
Serves him right. I hear Scott sigh and pick up my pace like the crap-head friend I am. It’s survival of the fittest in this office, and if it’s between the two of us, I have no problem letting him die. Figuratively speaking, of course.
My phone is already ringing when I open the car door. I lunge for it and then silently curse the disappointment I didn’t expect to feel when I discover that it’s just a stupid telemarketer. Eight-hundred numbers should be outlawed, especially because I’ve paid my bills. I don’t owe anyone anything, so they should leave me the heck alone. I let the call go to voice mail and stare at the screen. The disappointment was real, so now I’m faced with a dilemma.
Before I can chop them off or talk some sense into them or whatever you’re supposed to do with fingers that have a mind of their own, they start dialing. Kate picks up on the third ring.
Ten minutes later, we have plans for tonight. It’s Monday, and I’m mentally calculating which restaurants we should go to that won’t make the wrong impression, though I’m not sure how to make the right impression, either. Something unpretentious, but definitely not cheap. After a few seconds I give myself my own personal eye-roll. This girl makes me stupid. Or so freaking excited that my mind goes on rapid scramble mode. Either way, my brain isn’t working the way it’s supposed to.
I give up on it and punch in a few numbers. This time the line rings twice.
I spend the next hour talking to my lawyer.
“Vanilla,” she says.
“Vanilla isn’t even a real flavor. That’s like saying your favorite color is white. Boring. Bland. A cop-out answer if I ever heard one. Come up with something different.”
“I know what I like, and I like vanilla.” She licks her cone and goes for more, leaving a little milky swirl at the corners of her mouth. I open my mouth to point it out, but decide she looks too cute and say nothing. “Besides, you can add stuff like chocolate syrup and peanut butter and Snickers bars and have yourself a whole big sundae.”
“Don’t knock it until you try it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” And then that’s all I want right then, a Snickers bar. Forget the bananas; this opens a whole new world of sundaes in my mind. And that’s the way my brain works. It gets on a tangent and has trouble realigning. So I force it into submission with my next question, something I’ve thought about ever since we ate breakfast together that very first morning. Only three days ago, but I feel like I’ve known Kate forever.
“So this term paper you’re supposed to write. Found a subject yet?”
She sighs and stares into her ice cream like it’s the saddest sight in the world. “No. Like I said, I’m not sure how to approach it. I don’t know who to ask or even where to start looking.”
That’s what I hoped she would say. Because I’m a sick, sick individual who will use things like children and unfortunate circumstances just for an excuse to keep seeing her again. So much for playing it cool and backing off.
“Turns out that I think I can help you, if you want it.” I take a bite of my cookies and cream like the entire plan I’ve spent three days thinking up won’t kill me depending on her answer.
Pathetic: that’s one word to describe me. Loser: that’s another.
“How?” She looks over at me skeptically, as if wondering why I didn’t mention this earlier. Why indeed? Because scheming and plotting take time, that’s why.
“I’m a Big Brother to a foster kid, and I visit him every week.” I leave out the rest of it. One thing at a time. “I’m going to see him in the morning. If you want to, you could come along with me and talk with him. He’s a great kid, and I don’t think he would mind.”
I crinkle up the wrapper from my vanished cone and drop it in a wastebasket outside the ice cream shop, then shove my hand in my pocket and turn to face her just in time to see her using her tongue to catch a drop of melted vanilla sliding down her chin. I quickly focus on the
sign hanging to the right of the door. I can’t watch her that way. I’m a guy, after all. A guy whose mind just took a dip in the gutter and went for a swim.
I clear my throat. “So, what do you think? Interested?”
A look of pure exasperation crosses her face. “Of course I’m interested. Why didn’t you say something sooner?” She tosses her own wrapper into the trash and looks at me.
“I guess I just thought of it,” I lie.
“Well, I guess someone has a really bad memory. What other secrets are you keeping in that closet of yours?”
“No secrets, and definitely no closets,” I say. Another lie. With every second that ticks on the clock, I’m growing more jumbled up and crazy because of this girl I barely know. But when she smiles and moves in beside me, something inside me settles.
Before I can question the wisdom of it, I reach for her hand. When she responds by linking her fingers through mine, I feel like I can breathe.
And that’s when I realize it.
I haven’t breathed in years.
“Say It Isn’t So”
—Hall & Oats
or someone going to visit a foster kid, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time getting ready. My make-up is done, my teeth have been brushed, I’ve rinsed with mouthwash twice—rationalizing that good hygiene is crucial. And now it’s time for clothes. Reaching for a red sweater, I try to tell myself that I want to make a good impression. That I don’t want to come across as stuffy or unfriendly. That I’m overly concerned with making sure the foster kid likes me.
All of this is true.
Except I’m not thinking about the kid. I’m thinking about Caleb.
I shove my arms through the sweater sleeves and pull it over my head, then check my reflection in the mirror. My hair has developed an odd part, so I run my fingers through it to smooth out the top. Sometimes I think about cutting it—the ringlets make me look a little like a darker-headed Taylor Swift on a bad hair day—but I haven’t found the guts to do it. Plus, my roommates have threatened to kill me if I try, so I guess it looks okay. To everyone but me.
The red sweater might be too much. I’m eyeing a safe brown one balled up on a shelf in my closet when Lucy barges in and plops on my bed. Her feet hang off the end, and she swings them back and forth as she looks at me.
“Now, you know this guy could be dangerous.”
“He’s not dangerous.” I pull on my cleanest pair of jeans and spray them with perfume, just in case they’re not so clean after all.
“He could be a serial killer….”
“He brought me home from the bar and never once touched me.”
“…or an animal abuser.”
“He bought me Gummy Worms. Pretty sure he likes animals.”
“That might be the dumbest thing you’ve ever said.”
She’s right; I roll my eyes. But we’ve had a hundred different versions of this same conversation since Lucy’s hangover faded a few days ago. All the questions might be touching if I wasn’t ninety-nine percent sure her guilt was spurring them on. I’ve lost count of how many times she’s apologized since Saturday morning, but she’s long since been forgiven. By me. Not sure she’s gotten that far with herself.
“What does he do for a living?”
“He’s a—” I start to say, but then I realize I have no idea. I frown at my own stupidity for not asking. The guy probably thinks I’m not at all interested, something I will have to remedy at the first opportunity today. “He sponsors foster kids.” It’s all I can come up with.
“And that pays the bills, how?” Lucy is so sarcastic sometimes. It’s usually the reason we get along so well. Right now, I want to kick her out of my room.
I shrug instead. “I have no idea. I’ll ask him and get back to you.”
“Not if I ask him first. He’ll be here in ten minutes. Better go jot down my interview questions.”
She uncurls her ridiculously long legs from the bed and swings her perfect chestnut hair that falls in a graceful cascade down her back. At that moment I remember once again all the reasons I hate her. She bounces out the door, her bare feet slapping against the tile in the hallway. I can hear the opening and closing of drawers in the kitchen, which tells me she wasn’t kidding. The click of a pen. The swish of notebook paper. When it comes to Lucy, poor Caleb doesn’t stand a chance.
“Your roommate’s kind of crazy,” Caleb says as he opens the car door and climbs out. “Wait there.” I sit in the passenger seat and watch him walk around the front of the truck. He’s wearing worn, low-slung jeans and a tight black sweater that shows not only his ridiculous biceps, but also that lone eagle wing tattoo that insists on peeking out of his neckline. That wing has kept me distracted the entire drive here. My door opens.
“One hundred percent certifiable.” I look up at him.
“Do I like dogs? I can’t say that I’ve ever been asked that question before by a girl I’ve just met. Felt like I was being sized up as a serial killer or something.” Or something. Boyfriend eligibility, actually, but I can’t say that. Yet.
I shrug. “She’s an animal lover. And don’t forget—”
“Crazy,” we finish together. I look at the small brown building in front of me. “This is the center? It looks different than I thought it would.”