Love and Other Words
Page 15

 Christina Lauren

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“Wow.” I looked over my shoulder at him. “You’re smart.”
His smile came out crooked, his cheeks popped with color. “Nah.”
I turned back, examining the photograph tacked in the corner. In it were three boys, including Elliot, and a girl on the far left. It looked like it had been taken a few years ago.
Discomfort itched in my chest. “Who’re they?”
Elliot cleared his throat and then leaned in, pointing. He brought with him a burst of deodorant – mildly acidic and piney – and something else, a scent that was completely boy and made my stomach drop. “Um, that’s Christian, me, Brandon, and Emma.”
I’d heard these names in passing: casual stories about a class or a bike ride in the woods. With a sharp pang of jealousy, I realized that although Elliot was becoming my person, my safe place, and the only human other than Dad who I could truly trust, I didn’t know his life very well at all. What side of him did these friends see? Did they get the smile that started out as a raised eyebrow and slowly spread to an amused twist of his lips? Did they get the laugh that overrode his tendency to be self-conscious and shot out in a loud haha-haha-haha?
“They look nice.” I leaned back, and felt him quickly step away behind me.
“Yeah.” He went quiet and the silence seemed to grow into a shimmering bubble around us. My ears started to ring, heart thudding as I imagined this Emma sitting on the floor in the corner, reading with him. His voice came in a whisper from behind me: “But you’re nicer.”
I turned and met his eyes as he did his quick wince-nose scrunch maneuver to get his glasses up higher.
“You don’t have to say that just because —”
“My mom’s pregnant,” he blurted.
And the bubble popped. I heard the stomping of feet along the hallway, the barking of the dog.
My eyes went wide as his words sank in. “What?”
“Yeah, they told us last night.” He shoved his hair off his forehead. “Apparently she’s due in August.”
“Holy crap. You’re fourteen. It’s going to be, like, fifteen years younger than you.”
“I know.”
“Elliot, that’s crazy.”
“I know.” He bent down, retying his shoe. “Seriously though, I don’t really want to talk about it. Can we go to your place? Mom has been queasy for a few weeks, Dad is acting insane. My brothers are dicks.” Nodding to the box of books, he added, “And I have some classics to add to your library.”
Dad gave us a knowing glance as we tromped inside and up the stairs.
“Isn’t your birthday on Tuesday?” Elliot asked, following me down the hallway. His shoes were falling apart – his favorite pair of checkered Vans – and one sole made a flapping sound every step.
I looked back over my shoulder at him. “I told you that once, like, five months ago.”
“Shouldn’t you only have to tell me once?”
I turned back, leading us into my room and all the way back into the closet. Since we’d moved in, the space had slowly taken on a life of its own, and was now complete: of course there were the shelves along one entire wall, the beanbag chair in the far corner, and the futon couch on the wall opposite the bookcase. But only a couple of weeks before, Dad had painted the walls and ceiling a midnight blue, with silver and yellow stars dotted in constellations overhead. Two small lamps illuminated the space – one near each of the seating options. In the middle of the floor were blankets and more pillows. It was the perfect fort.
Elliot curled up on the floor, pulling a fleece blanket onto his lap. “And you’re on spring break?”
I chewed my lip, nodding. “Yeah.”
He fell quiet, and then asked, “Are you bummed you won’t be with friends?”
“I am with a friend.” I looked at him, widening my eyes meaningfully.
“I mean your girlfriends,” he said, but I didn’t miss the way he blushed.
“Oh,” I said. “No, it’s okay. Nikki is going to Peru to visit family.”
Elliot didn’t say anything. He watched me choose a book and rearrange my own pillows before getting comfortable. Thinking of how I felt looking at a picture of him with his friends – and how much more I wanted to know about his life outside of this closet – I considered my next words, letting them tumble around in my head before speaking. “I stopped hanging out with most of my friends for a while when Mom got sick, so I could spend time with her.”
He nodded, and though his eyes stayed fixed on the notebook in front of him, I could tell his attention was solely on me.
I scanned the first page, turning to the chapter I’d just started. “And then when she was gone, I didn’t really feel like going to sleepovers and talking about boys. It’s kind of like they all grew up while I put myself back together. Nikki and I are still good, but I think it’s because she doesn’t really hang out outside of school, either. She has an enormous family she sees a lot.”
I could feel him watching me now, but I didn’t turn, knowing I’d never be able to finish if I did. The words seemed to bubble up in my chest, things I’d never talked about with anyone.
“Dad tried to get me to hang out more,” I continued. “He even arranged for me to go to this kids’ club thing down by his work?” I glanced quickly up at Elliot and then back down. “He said it was to socialize and make friends, but it wasn’t. It was a group for grieving children.”
“We all knew what we were doing there, though,” I told him. “I remember walking into this huge white room. The walls were covered in things I think were supposed to be teen-related: boy band posters, pink and purple graffiti on bulletin boards, fuzzy beanbags and baskets of magazines.” I picked at a stray thread on my jeans. “It was like someone’s mom had come in and put up all this random stuff they thought teenage girls should have in their room.
“I remember looking around that first day,” I continued, pulling my thick ponytail over my shoulder and fidgeting with the ends, “thinking how weird it was that we were all there to just hang out. After a few days I noticed that all the girls had almost the same haircut. Like seven girls, all around my age with these chin-length bobs. A few weeks later I found out that all those girls were like me, they had all lost their moms. Most of them just got these simple, easy haircuts.” I paused and began twisting the ends of my hair around my finger. “But my dad learned how to put my hair in ponytails, what kind of shampoo to buy, he even had someone teach him how to braid and use the curling iron for special occasions. He could have done what was easiest for him and just cut it all off. But he didn’t.”
For the first time I looked up to see Elliot watching me. His eyes were wide with understanding and he reached over and took one of my hands.
“Did I ever tell you that I have my mom’s hair?” I said.
He shook his head but gave me a real smile. “I think you have the prettiest hair I’ve ever seen.”
thursday, october 5
stand outside the entrance to Nopalito on Ninth, and without having to look too deeply inside, I know Elliot is already in there. I know this because it’s ten minutes past eight. We agreed to meet at eight, and Elliot never runs behind schedule. Something tells me that hasn’t changed.