Lola and the Boy Next Door
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And there he is.
Cricket Bell is standing front and center, searching for something. Someone. And then his gaze locks onto mine, and his face alights like the stars. He smiles—a full smile that reaches all the way to his eyes—and it’s sweet and pure and hopeful.
And I know what is about to happen.
My palms break into a sweat. Don’t say it. Oh, please God, don’t say it. But this traitorous prayer follows: Say it. Say it.
Cricket weaves easily around the other customers as if we’re the only two people in the store. The music over the loudspeakers changes from a sparse pop song into a swelling rock symphony. My heart pounds faster and faster. How badly I once wished for this moment. How badly I wish it would end now.
How badly I wish it would continue.
He stops before me, tugging at his bracelets. “I—I hoped I’d find you here.”
Blood rushes to my cheeks. NO. This feeling isn’t real. It’s an old emotion, stirred up to torment and confuse me. I hate that. I hate him!
But it’s like I only hate Cricket because I don’t hate Cricket. I cut my eyes away, down to the Phoenix album in my hands. “I told you I was coming.”
“I know. And I couldn’t wait any longer, I have to tell you—”
The panic rises, and I grip the French band tighter. “Cricket, please—”
But his words pour forth in a torrent. “I can’t stop thinking about you, and I’m not the guy I used to be, I’ve changed—”
“Cricket—” I look back up, feeling faint.
His blue eyes are bright. Sincere. Desperate. “Go out with me tonight. Tomorrow night, every ni—” The word cuts off in his throat as he sees something behind me.
Cigarettes and spearmint. I want to die.
“This is Max. My boyfriend. Max, this is Cricket Bell.”
Max jerks his head in a small nod. He heard everything, there’s no way he didn’t.
“Cricket is my neighbor.” I turn to Max. “Was my neighbor. Sort of is again.”
My boyfriend squints, almost imperceptibly, as his mind sorts this information. It’s the exact opposite of Cricket, who is at a complete loss to hide his emotions. His face is stricken, and he’s backing up. I doubt he even realizes he’s doing it.
Max’s expression changes again, just slightly. He’s figured out who Cricket is. He knows Cricket Bell must be related to Calliope Bell.
And he knows that I’ve purposely excluded him from our conversations.
Max places an arm around my shoulders. The gesture probably looks casual to Cricket, but Max’s muscles are strained. He’s jealous. The thought should make me happy, but I only see Cricket’s embarrassment. I wish I didn’t care what he thought.
Does this mean we’re even? Is this what being even feels like?
The air between us is as thick as bay fog. I have to act, so I give Cricket a warm smile. “It was nice running into you. See you later, okay?” And then I lead Max away. I can tell my boyfriend wants to say something, but as usual, he’s keeping his thoughts to himself until they’re formed in the exact way he wants them. We walk stiffly, hand in hand, past his friend at the information desk.
I don’t want to look back, but I can’t help it.
He’s staring at me. Staring through me. For the first time ever, Cricket Bell looks small. He’s disappearing right before my eyes.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but whenever Max and I are on a date, I want to stay out longer, walk farther, talk louder, so more people will see us together. I want to run into every classmate who’s ever teased me for wearing pointed elf shoes or beaded moccasins, because I know they’ll take one look at Max with his dark eyebrows, inked arms, and bad attitude and know that I’m doing something right.
Usually, I’m bursting with pride. But as we trudge back to his new van, I don’t notice the face of anyone we pass. Because Cricket Bell asked me out. Cricket Bell asked me out. What am I supposed to do with that information?
Max unlocks the passenger-side door and holds it open for me. Neither of us has spoken since we left Amoeba. I mumble a thanks and get in. He climbs in the driver’s side, turns the key in the ignition, and then says, “I don’t like him.”
The flatness of his tone makes my stomach turn. “Cricket? Why?”
“I just don’t.”
I can’t reply. I don’t know what I’d say. He doesn’t break the silence again until we pass the Castro Theatre’s landmark neon sign, only blocks from my house. “Why didn’t you tell me about him?”
I look at my hands. “He’s not important.”
Max waits, jaw tense.
“He just hurt me, that’s all. It was a long time ago. I don’t like talking about him.”
He turns to me, struggling to stay calm. “He hurt you?”
I sink into my seat, wanting anything but this conversation. “No. Not like that. We used to be friends, and we had a falling-out, and now he’s back, and I’m running into him everywhere—”
“You’ve run into him before.” He’s staring at the road again. His knuckles tighten on the steering wheel.
“Just . . . in the neighborhood. He’s not important, okay, Max?”
“Seems like a glaring omission to me.”
I shake my head. “Cricket means nothing to me, I swear.”
“He wants to take you out every night, and you expect me to believe there’s nothing going on?”
The van jerks to a halt in front of my house, and Max pounds on the steering wheel. “Tell me the truth, Lola! Why can’t you tell me the truth for once?”
My eyes sting with tears. “I am telling the truth.”
He stares at me.
“I love you.” I’m getting desperate. He has to believe me. “I don’t love him, I don’t even like him! I love you.”
Max closes his eyes for what feels like an eternity. The muscles in his neck are tense and rigid. At last, they relax. He opens his eyes again. “I’m sorry. I love you, too.”