Warnings: Foul language.
I woke up to a familiar salty, fatty smell that made my mouth water. Did Mom make bacon?! I leapt out of bed and hurried downstairs so I could manage to snag a portion for myself before Ben ate it all. Luckily, Mom was still struggling to wake him up.
I sat down at the table with my serving just as Joaquin appeared in the kitchen. I didn’t want to acknowledge his presence. The scolding Mom had given us the other day was still fresh in my mind, though, so I decided to be polite.
“Good morning,” I greeted him before I dug into my bacon. It was extra crispy, just how I liked it! I took my time to savor the delicious taste. Who knew when Mom would cook again? This was super atypical. I had to make the most of it!
Joaquin set his plate down on the table across from me. I looked at him, but he didn’t raise his eyes off his food. Fine by me. Let him be the jerk if he felt like it. Today, his short hair was pressed against his forehead by a red beanie, and it made strands of it fall into his eyes. My stomach churned again, and I took another bite of bacon, trying to convince myself that the feeling there was hunger, and nothing more.
“I like your hat,” I mumbled without thinking. I immediately dropped my eyes to the table as my cheeks grew unbearably hot. Why did I say that? I forced myself to look at him; I didn’t want him to think that I was flirting. Because I wasn’t! The damn hat just…. Gah! It looked nice!
He was looking at me now. His dark eyes were clouded with an emotion I couldn’t quite decode. It looked like confusion… or maybe it was disgust? He was finally about to speak when my brother trudged into the room.
“Mornin’,” Ben mumbled, wiping sleep from his eyes.
Joaquin’s face fell back into its usual scowl. It unnerved me, so I looked back down at my gradually emptying plate for the rest of the meal.
“Looks like rain,” Mom remarked with a frown as Ben pulled out of the driveway in his pickup truck. I surveyed my beat-up hatchback, a gift from Aunt Kat, before turning back to give my mother a good-bye hug.
“Have a good day, sweetie,” Mom said as I climbed into the car. I swore I saw her wipe a tear from her eye as I drove away.
It made sense, I guess. It was the first day of our senior year. Soon enough, our first day of school would mean moving into a dorm at college. Ben would be at Sims U, the state football powerhouse, on a full scholarship (he hoped), and I would be at prestigious Bellvine University.
I had dreamed about going to Bellvine ever since I learned what an Ivy League school was. My parents both went to Goth, so I could probably have an advantage there, but I didn’t want to be on a city campus. Bellvine was the perfect school, and the tour I’d taken over the summer had only confirmed that. I’d already submitted my application for early decision admission. I was considering no other option – Bellvine or bust! I was that confident that I would be accepted.
I brought my attention back to the road and pushed Bellvine to the back of my mind as it started to drizzle, just as Mom had predicted. I drove past several small groups of Freshman and Sophomores waiting for the bus, and I chuckled to myself, thankful that I was old enough to drive to school.
I surveyed the group as I passed another corner. My eyes stuck on a boy in a red hat who was particularly tall for a Sophomore. I slowed down and pulled over, peering through the small group. Was that Joaquin? Yep, it definitely was. I only considered the possible courses of action for a millisecond before I rolled down my window and shouted, “Joaquin! Do you want a ride?”
I was trying to take the high road; ‘kill him with kindness.’ Who knew if it would pay off or matter in the end, but I always tried to be nice to everyone, even if people like Joaquin made it exceptionally hard at times.
I was determined to break through to him.
He pretended not to hear me at first. I sat there for a long moment, looking at him with my eyebrows raised in expectation. The underclassmen with their umbrellas all turned to look at him. I saw his face turn beet red as he stared at the sidewalk determinedly. I shrugged and started to pull away just as the drizzle began to intensify into a downpour.
I heard him call out a weak “Wait!” and saw him running after me in my rearview mirror.
I stopped, and he slid into the passenger seat. “Thanks,” he mumbled, shaking the water off his hat as we drove off.
“Don’t mention it.”
We rode in silence until we were about a block away from the school. “You can let me out here,” he instructed.
“The school’s still a block away, and it’s pouring,” I protested.
“I know, I just… please, let me out here.”
“Why?” I demanded an explanation. I glanced over at him, and I noticed he was curled up into himself, as if he was trying to make himself smaller. Or disappear entirely.
“I don’t want to be seen with you,” he admitted, his voice small and far away.
I pulled over and slammed on the brakes. “Okay,” I spat, seething, “fine. Get out here, then.”
He stepped out of the car and closed the door behind him without turning around or saying a word. I watched him walk away, crossing his arms futilely against the rain and ducking his head low.
He doesn’t want to be seen with me?
After a second, it clicked. I just don’t think he wants to be seen.
I exhaled in a huff. You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped, I reminded myself. That’d be the last time I went out of my way to be nice to Joaquin!
I had spent as much time on my hair this morning as I could, but of course, I hadn’t wanted to get up at six a.m., so I hadn’t had as much time as I would’ve liked. Glancing in the mirror I’d affixed to the door of my locker, I fixed a strand of hair that had fallen into my eyes.
The door snapped shut and I jumped, turning to find my best friend Becca smirking beside me. “Earth to Ben!”
“That was rude,” I said.
She snorted. “Yeah, and staring at yourself in the mirror is vain,” she countered. “You look fine.”
“Do you think-”
“Your crush of the week is sure to immediately realize he is gay and fall all over you,” Becca whispered dryly, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know why you put so much effort into seducing these straight boys, Ben. It’s unhealthy.” She popped her gum loudly.
I flinched at the noise. “Don’t say I’m ga-” POP! “-Nobody can kno-” POP! “-for fuck’s sake, Becca!”
“I can’t believe nobody’s caught on yet, honestly,” she whispered, smirking, “I saw right through you. You’ve never been super discreet about your crushes. Luckily for you, at least most of these jerks are guaranteed to be 100% oblivious.”
“Heeeey, Ben!” A deep voice intruded behind me as an arm wrapped around my shoulders. The voice was almost too deep for a high schooler. I’d recognize it anywhere, and it always made my stomach drop in fear.
“Heeeeey, Omar,” I echoed weakly.
Becca’s face fell into a scowl.
“C’mon, Becca, get that stick outta your ass,” Omar said, only half-joking.
Becca rolled her eyes. “It is so nice to see you too, Omar,” she said, saccharine sweet. “Why don’t you just go right on over there and fuck yourself?” She huffed and sauntered off.
“Why do you even hang out with that bitch?” Omar asked me, sizing Becca’s backside up and down as she walked away. “She’s not even hot.”
“We’re friends. Drop it,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him.
He leaned in and asked, “Is she a freak? I bet she’s a freak!”
“Dude, shut up!” I pressed, raising my voice. A few people’s heads turned around to see what was happening.
He threw up his hands in a “whatever” gesture. “I mean, if you wanna fuck a stone-cold bitch, I ain’t gonna stop you, man. You gotta get some game!”
My fists and jaw clenched tight. I could feel my heart racing, its usual thumping working hard and pumping adrenaline through my veins. One of these days, I thought as I remembered to breathe deeply.
Omar laughed. “Don’t get your panties in a twist, it was a joke! Whatever. I don’t have time for this right now.” He made a shooing gesture as he walked past me, making sure to bump into me rather hard with his shoulder.
I rolled my eyes and gathered my things before I made my way to class, seething the whole time. I rubbed the back of my neck, knowing that I would probably pay for shouting at Omar at football practice that afternoon.
The familiar blue-and-purple-tinged glow of the arcade machines in the dark arcade greeted me as I entered. The place was practically deserted, now that school was back on. Still, it was Sunday; I guessed it was so empty because it was before noon, and church was still going.
I only had a fiver, so I immediately approached the change machine by the prize counter. It was strategically placed there for security reasons, probably. The worker had his back to me as I fed my bill into the machine. The clanking that the quarters made as they fell into the little dish seemed to grab his attention, and I saw him turn around out of the corner of my eye.
“Oh, hey! Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in,” he said.
I nodded in response as I scooped up my coins and stuffed them in my pocket. I turned to glance at him and give him a polite smile. Oh, that’s where I knew him from! The guy from the café last weekend. I immediately blushed and turned to walk away as I remembered that he’d caught me staring at him.
“Wait! You were at the café the other day, right?” He asked, and I nodded in response. “I thought I saw you. I wanted to say hi, but you ran off right after.” He leaned on the counter and ran a hand through his dark, wavy hair. “I’ve seen you around here at lot this summer.” He smiled at me, and my heart did a weird somersault.
“I was trying to figure out where I knew you from, actually,” I admitted.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “It’s always so dark in here, I don’t blame you for not recognizing me in daylight.”
I nodded and stood there for a moment, awkwardly silent.
“Well, uh, have fun. With the games, I mean. OH! I thought you should know, we got a new high score on the Mario Bros. Machine the other day, I just noticed this morning.”
I raised an eyebrow and said, “yeah, I know. That was me.”
His face broke out into a smile. “You been trying for that all summer? You seem to play that one a lot.”
I snorted a little laugh. “Try all my life. My goal was to be the whole list.”
“Well then, Ben, mission accomplished.”
I smiled and nodded, turning to move towards the Pac-Man machine. I stopped and turned back to the attendant. “What’s your name, by the way?”
He grinned and said, “Dean.”
“Nice to meet you, Dean,” I said with a nod as I approached the machine and fed it a quarter.
I got about a minute into the game before the “game over” noise played. I blushed as I glanced at Dean out of the corner of my eye. I’d always sucked at Pac-Man, but I really didn’t want him to know that.
“Do you want some help?” He chirped from behind the counter. Instinctively, my cheeks grew warm. “I’ve noticed that you, frankly, suck at Pac-Man.” He looked at me, and then, as if realizing what he’d just said, quickly added, “not that I watch you all the time, it just, gets super boring over here, and you’re one of our most frequent customers.”
I didn’t know what to make of that, but for some reason it made me feel… nice. Nice that he noticed me.
Stop being ridiculous, Ben! I commanded myself.
“Yeah, I bet you do get super bored, standing back there by yourself all day.” I offered him a curt nod.
“I really do,” he admitted. “It’s nice to get to talk to someone, though, for once. Will you be back tomorrow?”
I shook my head. “I have football after school, so probably not until this weekend.”
I noticed how he seemed to instantly deflate. He nodded and forced himself to smile. “Oh, okay. I’ll talk to you then, maybe.”
“Maybe,” I said with a nod. “Probably.”
Joaquin had breakfast with us every morning for the rest of the week, and every morning he had the nerve to look at me and say absolutely nothing – No “thank you” or even a “hello, Hannah, how are you this morning?”! Just a tense nod and sometimes a grunt, if he was feeling particularly cheerful.
By Wednesday I had taken to greeting him with nothing but a scowl. On Friday I’d had enough of his obnoxiously negative attitude, so I woke up early and marched out to the stable to confront him.
He was petting Felicia, and that pissed me off royally. How dare you pet my horse, you asshole!
I crossed my arms and cleared my throat. Joaquin turned around, one eyebrow up, and said, “yes?”
I glared at him. “What is your problem?” I spat.
He squinted at me. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You never said ‘thank you,'” I huffed.
Joaquin snorted. “Oh, I wasn’t aware that you’re supposed to do good deeds solely for a ‘thank you.'”
“No, you do it because its’ the right thing to do!” I sputtered, “but it’s also polite to say ‘thank you’ when someone goes out of their way to help you.”
He turned back to his work. “I didn’t ask for your help, Hannah.”
“Fine!” I spat, turning on my heel to walk away. “Don’t expect any more kindness from me,” I shouted over my shoulder.
“I think I’ll survive,” he said dryly.
I let out a frustrated noise through my gritted teeth as I stomped back to the house.
She used to wait for him here on their special days, the days he would emerge from the forest underbrush and hold her close to him and whisper his love in her ear. But as time wore on, he hardened, grew more worn and weary, and though she could sense his despair, she began to pull away.
So these days, it was he who waited for her.
This place had been only theirs, once. But now it was haunted by the memory of him, so she had passed the secret down to the girl who had his eyes. They haunted her, too, reminding her so frequently of what she had lost. What he had taken.
Today, the leaves had not yet turned, the autumn chill not yet invaded the little clearing. I was a pleasant sensation, the sun on his skin. He reveled in it; he didn’t mind waiting for her on days like this. It was one of the few times he regularly saw the sun.
“What have you come to steal from me this time, my love? There’s not much more to take. You have snatched my beating heart from my chest a thousand times only to drop it in the dirt again and crush it under your heel.”
“Yet you still come back.”
“Because every time I manage to find my shattered heart, I realize that you have kept some of the pieces. I want them back. This ends today.”
He lifted his hand to stroke her cheek; she pulled away. His eyes darkened, the signal that the man he used to be, the man he was for her and her alone, was once again overshadowed by his now-tortured soul.
“I cannot love a ghost,” she whispered.
“I will wait for you,” he promised.
“You will wait forever.”
A note from Lauren: HOW’D’YA’LL LIKE THAT TWIST, HUH?!
Because it totally came outta nowhere and I’ve totally never hinted at it at all, ever!! And it won’t be the last time we see him, either! 😉
I want to apologize for how long it took for me to get this chapter ready! It was nearly finished when something in my head thought “this isn’t right,” and I had to scrap most of what I’d already written (8 or so chapters… yeah) in order to tell the story properly. I have set a tentative schedule, from this point forward; hopefully there will be an update every 3 Saturdays at 2:00 pm! We’ll see if I can stick to it without burning out!
It didn’t help things that I had written a fucking car scene. Don’t do that to yourselves, kids. It’s nearly impossible to get good shots.
Also, anyone else enamored with Becca’s face?? No, just me? Okay. *sits in own corner to admire her*