Lola and the Boy Next Door
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“It was supposed to be ready on your birthday, but I wanted it to be perfect. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. But I was stalling. I blew it. I messed up everything.”
I rip off the end of my hummus wrap. “Calliope messed up everything.”
“No. She never would have been a problem if I’d told you how I felt. But I didn’t, not even when I knew we were moving—”
“You knew you were moving?” I’m shocked. For some reason, this news is worse than Calliope’s betrayal. How could he keep that from me?
“I couldn’t tell you.” His body twists in misery. “I thought you’d give up on me. And I kept hoping the move wouldn’t actually happen, but it was confirmed that night.”
He waits for me to look at him. Somehow, I do. I’m overwhelmed by sadness and confusion. I can’t take any more. I want him to stop, but he doesn’t. “I’ll only say this once more. Clearly, so there’s no chance of misinterpretation.” His eyes darken into mine. “I like you. I’ve always liked you. It would be wrong for me to come back into your life and act otherwise.”
I’m crying now. “Cricket . . . I have a boyfriend.”
“I know. That sucks.”
It surprises me, and I give a choked laugh. Cricket pushes a napkin toward me to blow my nose. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Was it wrong for me to say that?”
“Are you sure?”
We’re able to laugh as I wipe away my mascaraed tears, but our lunch is resumed in agonizing silence. The distance between us feels too close, too far, too close. It’s warmer than it should be underneath this green canopy. My mind throbs. I’ve always liked you. What would my life have been like had I known this unquestionably?
He still would have moved away.
I’ve always liked you, I’ve always liked you, I’ve always liked you.
But maybe we would have stayed in contact. Maybe we’d even be together now. Or maybe I would have lost interest. Am I only fixated on Cricket because of our traumatic history? Because he was my first crush? Or does something about him transcend that?
He’s polishing the skin of a golden apple against his arm. Faeries. Temptation.
“Remember that day I made you the elevator?” he suddenly asks.
I give him a faint smile. “How could I forget?”
“That was the day I had my first kiss.”
My smile fades.
“I’m better now.” He sets the apple beside me. “At kissing. Just so you know.”
“Cricket . . .”
He holds my gaze. His smile is sad. “I won’t.You can trust me.”
I try not to cry again. “I know.”
Despite this complication—knowing he liked me then, knowing he likes me now, and knowing he never purposefully hurt me—as we walk through the woods, the smoky haze between us lifts. The air is tender but clear. Am I that selfish? Did I just need to feel desired? But when I study him on the drive home . . . I can’t help but notice his eyes.
There’s something about blue eyes.
The kind of blue that startles you every time they’re lifted in your direction. The kind of blue that makes you ache for them to look at you again. Not blue green or blue gray, the blue that’s just blue.
Cricket has those eyes.
And his laugh. I’d forgotten how easy it is. The four of us are laughing about something dumb in that silly way that happens when you’re exhausted. Cricket tells a joke and turns to see if I’m laughing, if I think he’s funny, and I want him to know that I do think he’s funny, and I want him to know that I’m glad he’s my friend, and I want him to know that he has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. And I want to press my palm against his chest to feel it beat, to prove he’s really here.
But we cannot touch.
Everyone laughs again, and I’m not sure why. Cricket looks for my reaction again, and I can’t help but laugh. His eyes light up. I have to look down, because I’m smiling so hard back. I catch my parents in the rearview mirror. They have a different kind of smile, like they know a secret that we don’t.
But they’re wrong. I know the secret.
I close my heavy eyes. I dream about reaching across the backseat and touching his hand. Just one hand. It closes slowly, tightly around mine, and the sensation of his skin against mine is astounding. I’ve never felt anything like it before.
I don’t wake until I hear his voice. “Who’s that?” he asks sleepily.
Some people claim to know when something bad is about to happen, right before it actually occurs. I feel dread at his question, though I can’t say why. His tone was innocent enough. Maybe it’s the silence in the front seat that’s so deafening. I open my eyes as the car stops in front of our house. And I discover the deep feeling in my gut is right. It’s always right.
For there, passed out on the front porch, is my birth mother.
Skin and bones. I haven’t seen Norah in months. I don’t know how it’s possible, but she’s lost more weight. For as long as I can remember, Norah has been too skinny. Now—body propped against the porch railing, sweater balled into a pillow to support her head—she looks like a pile of twigs wrapped in hippie rags.
Is she just asleep? Or has she been drinking again?
I flush with shame. That’s my mother. I don’t want Cricket to recognize her, even though it’s obvious the pieces have been put together, now that the question hangs in the air. Nathan is rigid. He pulls the car into our driveway and turns off the engine. No one gets out. Andy swears under his breath.
“We can’t leave her there,” he says, after a minute passes.
Nathan climbs out, and Andy follows. I turn in my seat to watch them prod her, and she immediately startles awake. I release a breath that I didn’t realize I’d been holding. I get out of the car, and I’m blasted by the stench of body odor. Cricket is beside me, and he’s talking, but his words don’t reach my ears.
Because it’s my mother.
On my porch.
I duck away from him and push up the stairs, past Norah and my parents. “I fell asleep waiting for you to come home,” she snaps to them. “I’m not drunk. Just evicted.” But I focus on my key in my hand, my key in the lock, my feet to my bedroom. I collapse in bed, but a voice says something about a curtain, it won’t stop talking about a curtain, so I haul myself up to shut it and then I’m back down. I hear them in the living room.