Lola and the Boy Next Door
Page 22

 Stephanie Perkins

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I’m lucky to live in a place that’s doesn’t have to hide what it is. Businesses like the Sausage Factory (restaurant), Spunk (hair salon), and Hand Job (manicures) are clear about the residents, but there’s a genuine sense of love and community. It’s a family. And like a family, everyone knows everyone’s business, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I like that the guys at Spike’s Coffee wave as I pass by. I like that the guys at Jeffery’s know Betsy needs the large container of fresh Lamb,Yams & Veggies. I like—
“LOLA !”
A stab to my gut. With dread, I turn to find Cricket Bell performing a spin move around an elderly couple entering Delano’s grocery as he’s exiting. He’s carrying a carton of freerange eggs in each hand. “Are you headed home? Do you have a minute?”
I can’t meet his eyes. “Yeah.Yeah, of course.”
As he jogs to catch up, I keep moving forward. He’s wearing a white dress shirt, a black vest, and a black tie. He’d look like a waiter, except he’s also wearing his colorful bracelets and rubber bands.
“Lola, I want to apologize.”
I freeze.
“I feel like a jerk, a total ass for . . . for putting you in that situation last week. I’m sorry. I should have asked if you had a boyfriend, I don’t know why I didn’t ask.” His voice is pained. “Of course you’d have a boyfriend.You’ve just always been this cool, gorgeous girl and seeing you again brought up this whole wreck of emotions and . . . I don’t know what to say, but I messed up, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
I’m shocked.
I don’t know what I expected him to say, but it certainly wasn’t this. Cricket Bell thinks I’m cool and gorgeous. Cricket Bell thinks I’ve always been cool and gorgeous.
“And I hope this doesn’t make things even weirder,” he continues. “I just want to clear the air. I think you’re amazing, and being your friend that summer was the happiest summer of my life, and . . . I just want to be a part of your life. Again.”
I can hardly think straight. “Right.”
“But I’d understand if you don’t want to see me—”
“No,” I say quickly.
“No?” He’s nervous. He doesn’t understand how I mean it.
“I mean . . . we can still hang out.” I proceed carefully. “I’d like that.”
Cricket droops with relief. “You would?”
“Yeah.” I’m surprised by how obvious it is. Of course I want him back in my life. He’s always been a part of my life. Even when he was gone, some fragment of his spirit lingered behind. I felt it in the space between our windows.
“I want you to know that I’ve changed,” he says. “I’m not that guy anymore.”
His body energetically turns to face mine, and the movement startles me. I trip toward him and smack into his chest, and one of the egg cartons drops from his hand and topples toward the sidewalk. Cricket swiftly grabs it before it lands.
“Sorry! I’m so sorry!” I say.
The place where his chest touched mine burns. Every place where his body touched mine feels alive. What kind of guy did he think he was, and who is he now?
“It’s okay.” He peeks inside the carton. “No harm done. All eggs accounted for.”
“Here, let me take that.” I reach for a carton, but he holds it above his head. It’s way out of my reach.
“It’s okay.” He smiles softly. “I have a much better grip on things now.”
I make for the other carton. “The least I can do is carry one.”
Cricket starts to lift the other one up, too, but something solemn clouds his eyes. He lowers them and gives one to me. The back of his hand reads: EGGS. “Thanks,” he says.
I look down. Someone has drawn a game of hopscotch onto the sidewalk in pink chalk. “You’re welcome.”
“I’ll need them back, though. My mom was craving deviled eggs, and she asked me to pick those up. Very important mission.”
This is the moment. Where I either make things permanently awkward or I make genuine on our friendship. I look up—and then up again, until I reach his face—and ask, “How’s college?”
Cricket closes his eyes. It’s only for a moment, a breath, but it’s enough to show me how thankful he is for my question. He wants to be in my life.
“Good,” he says. “It’s . . . good.”
“I sense a but.”
He smiles. “But it’s been a while since that whole surroundedby-other-students thing. I guess it takes time to get used to.”
“You said you were homeschooled? After you moved?”
“Well, we moved so often that it was easier than enrolling over and over, always taking the same classes. Always being the new kid. We’d done it before, and we didn’t want to do it again. Plus, it allowed us to work around Cal’s schedule.”
The last sentence sticks to me in an unpleasant way. “What about your schedule?”
“Ah, it’s not as bad as it sounds. She only has so long to do this. She has to make a run for it while she can.” I must look unconvinced, because he adds, “Another five years, and it’ll be my turn in the family spotlight.”
“But why can’t it be your turn now, too? Maybe I’m being selfish, because I’m an only child—”
“No. You’re right.” And I catch the first glimpse of tiredness between his forehead and his eyes. “But our circumstance is different. She has a gift. It wouldn’t be fair for me not to do everything I can to support her.”
“And what does she do to support you?” I ask before I can stop myself.
Cricket’s expression grows sly. “She does the dishes. Takes out the trash. Leaves the cereal box out for me on weekends.”
“Sorry.” I look away. “I’m being nosy.”
“It’s okay, I don’t mind.” But he doesn’t answer my question.
We walk in silence for a minute, when something strikes me. “Today. Today is your birthday!”
His face turns away from mine as fast as a reflex.
“Why didn’t you say something?” But I know the answer before I finish asking the question. Memories of the last time I saw him on his birthday fill me with instant humiliation.