I toss and turn as I lay in bed, trying to get comfortable. My mind whirls, jumping from one strange question to another, keeping me awake. My nose is raw and sore from constant rubbing.
How did I see the accident that didn’t happen…happen?
How did I actually prevent the accident?
What is Ian’s deal – does he like Poppy?
Why is he so nice to me?
Why is he so concerned with everything I do?
Does he like me?
The last thought is so unlikely, so ridiculous that I laugh out loud.
“What’s so funny?” Sage asks from somewhere in the dark.
“Nothing.” Like any sane guy would be interested in me when beautiful Poppy exists within range.
“Then why are you laughing?” I don’t want to tell her so I choose not to respond. “What’s going on with you?” She sounds both concerned and annoyed.
“It was dumb. Really,” I insist.
“Okay.” She’s not convinced and I wonder if she recently gained the ability to read my mind.
Eventually, everything quiets, my body shuts down, and I fall asleep, dreaming of amber eyes and red backpacks.
“Poppy?” I knock at her door at 7:57. “Are you almost ready?” There’s no answer. I try again. “Poppy?”
“Urgugh.” I squint at the door, confused by the sound. I don’t want to open it without permission because I don’t really feel like being verbally flogged so early in the morning, but if we leave any later, we’ll be late for school and I really can’t afford another tardy. Not now that my life is finally interesting.
“What? I can’t hear you,” I say, raising my voice to compensate for the lack of conversation on her end.
“Uuuhhh.” This time it’s louder and I’m fairly certain that the sounds behind the door are groans, not words. I decide to risk her wrath and open the door. She’s curled in a ball beneath her thick, cream-colored comforter. Her face is contorted in misery and her beautiful hair is a tangled, sweaty mess.
“Are you okay?” I ask her, alarmed. She looks so sick that I’m surprised she’s able to muster up the scary glare. I hold up my hands both to ward her off and as an apology for my stupid question because it’s clear she’s not okay. “So you’re sick?”
She nods and throws her arm over her eyes. I’m not really sure why she’s so upset. It’s not like missing school is the worst thing in the world. Her phone sounds from the nightstand and she jolts up, eyes wide.
“Ian’s probably ready. Oh… “ It dawns on my why she looks like such a wretched human being, beyond the normal sick and feeling shitty thing. She doesn’t want to miss the chance to see him.
“Don’t keep him waiting,” she croaks, managing to sound haughty even as the color drains from her face and she dissolves into a coughing mess.
“Do you…need anything?” I ask her. She shakes her head and collapses back onto her pillows, closing her eyes again. “Okay. Bye,” I breathe as I pull the door together without a sound.
Vvvvt. Vvvvt. I jump, alarmed, before I realize it’s only my phone vibrating in my back pocket. Clearly, I don’t get enough texts if the vibration produces such an intense reaction.
It’s from Ian.
Hey. You up?
My heart flutters annoyingly and I wait until my pulse is normal before responding.
Yeah. Poppy’s sick.
She told me. You okay?
Yep, about to leave. Address?
While I wait for the reply, I consider our conversation, wishing I’d said something more interesting, wondering why I want to impress him when I don’t even know him.
I grab a bagel from the kitchen and head towards the car, copying the address he sends into Google Maps and responding to let him know I’m on my way. My phone vibrates once more just before I pull out of the driveway.
See ya in a few 😉
I stare at my phone. A winky face emoticon?! What does it mean? Do I respond? Do I respond with another emoticon? Which emoticon?! WHY ARE THERE SO MANY EMOTICONS?!
“It’s just a winky face,” Sage says, her voice bland as she watches me deliberating.
“So now you read my texts?” I click the power button and the screen goes dark. I back out of the driveway, checking my mirrors as I pull onto the street.
“Well, since now you apparently get texts…duh,” she says, settling into the passenger seat and resting her feet on the dash.
I choose not to respond, focusing instead on the road and making it to Ian’s house safely. I don’t think mom and dad would forgive another accident so easily.
“You know, you don’t have to be his personal chauffeur just because Poppy agreed to it,” she says, breaking the silence.
“I know, but he’s nice. I don’t mind.” She snorts. “What’s your problem? Why don’t you like him?”
“There’s just something weird about him, something…off. It’s just…strange that he’s so interested in you.”
“It’s strange that he’s interested in me?” I raise my voice, angry and hurt that she seems to think I’m not worthy of a guy’s attention.
“That’s not what I meant!” She sounds frustrated. “I just mean that – I mean, everything is happening so fast. Too fast! You met him yesterday and he’s all up in your business, in your life, like you’ve been friends forever.”
“All up in my business? He was in the car I hit! I saved them and somehow he knows that it was intentional. Of course he’s curious about it. And me.” She doesn’t look convinced.
“It’s weird!” She insists. “And it’s weird that you’re defending him. You’re not normally so trusting.”
“Maybe I’m tired of being alone all of the time, of not letting anyone in because I don’t trust them. Maybe it’s time to start trusting people.”
“And you think this random guy is the one to start with?” She says. I shrug.
“Maybe he’s lonely too. Maybe he wants a friend.” She snorts again.
“I’m sure he won’t have any problem making friends. I mean, look how quickly he befriended Poppy.” She spits the name at me, her tone hostile. She’s not wrong, but besides her, I don’t have any friends and I’m lonely, intensely lonely, much of the time.
“I want a friend, Sage.” My voice is hollow, resigned.
“I’m your friend,” she says.
“I want a real friend.” She makes a sound like a wounded animal, but when I look over, she’s gone.
Frustrated, angry, and a little depressed, I pound my fist into the steering wheel. It doesn’t make me feel any better and then, on top of all my emotional aches, my hand aches as well. I pull up to Ian’s house a few minutes later. He’s sitting in a wooden rocker on the front porch of a beautiful home, reading. I honk the horn and he looks up and smiles at me. Then he holds up one finger to let me know he’ll be a minute longer. He reads a bit more, then closes the book and stretches as he stands. His shirt rising just enough that I can see a hint of skin above his jeans. I swallow hard as he strolls towards the car.
“Hey,” he says, as he folds his too-large body into the rental, a tiny Ford Focus.
“Hey,” I respond, wishing I didn’t notice the way his eyes crinkle slightly when he smiles, trying to think of something clever to say. “Have you always been so tall?” Has he always been so tall? In what universe is that a clever thing to say?
He laughs, then reclines the seat slightly and laces his hands behind his head. “I was pretty average-sized until 9th grade,” he says. “Then I grew. A lot.”
He smirks, his implication clear, and I’m able to pull myself together enough to say, “In some places less than others.” I tap my temple twice and he laughs again.
“We can’t all be great thinkers. Some of us have to be great doers.” He doesn’t know me well enough for this to be a dig, but it bothers me since I spend most of my time thinking much and doing little.
“You can change the radio station if you want to,” I say, purposely changing the subject. He starts flipping through the stations, listening to each one for a moment, until he finally settles on an alternative rock station. It’s not my favorite, but it’s better than rap or Top 40 and I decide I’ll allow it. Besides, I gave him radio control, objecting now would be rude.
He drums along with the band, seemingly content to ride in silence. When his phone vibrates in his pocket. A deep sigh emanates from his him and I glance over. His eyebrows furrow as he reads, texts a brief response, and puts his phone away.
“What’s wrong?” He looks sideways at me, his gaze thoughtful, before he answers.
“Nothing,” he sounds distracted.
“Okay.” I can feel the weight of his thoughts as he considers.
“It’s Poppy,” he says after a moment. “Texting me. She’s been texting me pretty much non-stop since last night. I don’t even think she slept.” I frown – this kind of desperation doesn’t seem like my sister, but then, I don’t really know her all that well anymore.
“Lucky guy! She picked you!” I exclaim, sure this news will thrill him. It would thrill any guy. He doesn’t smile.
“Look, don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered, because she’s beautiful, but,” he pauses and I wait for him to continue. “She’s not really my type.”
“Ha!” I laugh in disbelief, but stop abruptly when he doesn’t laugh with me.
“Oh. You’re not kidding?” He shakes his head. “Poppy’s everyone’s type.” I say, my tone lilting, like I’m asking a question. He only shrugs.
“I’m sure she is…usually, but I’ve never really been drawn to that kind of girl.” I draw a breath and he continues, stumbling over his words in an attempt to spit them out fast enough to appease me.
“You know the kind…like, the flashy kind of girl you see in movies, the one everyone wants to be with. There are certain expectations that come with dating a girl everyone knows and loves and watches. Too many expectations.” I nod, understanding what he means. “And anyway, girls like her, they’re not usually drawn to me either.” I cut my eyes to him, disbelief etched into my features. “Really!” He insists.
“There’s no way that’s true. Not when you’re…you,” The ghost of a knowing smile flits across his face as I gesture meaningfully in his direction. I immediately regret my words and wish I could will them back somehow. But – those eyes, that bod, the smile that makes even the most sensible of girls weak in the knees!
“I may be…me,” he mimics my tone. “But I’m also me,” he says, pointing at his head. “I’m different than people think, than they expect, probably because of,” he gestures again. “All of this. And then, when I’m not who they want me to be, they’re shocked or nervous or weirded out or…something. And I’m alone again.”
Though he says it nonchalantly, like it’s no big deal, like it doesn’t bother him, there’s something in his voice, in what he says, that speaks to me. My hands, which have been clenching the steering wheel, begin to ache, but loosening my grip takes more effort than I’m willing to exert when it takes all of my focus not to jump out of my skin. I want to tell him that I understand, that I know what it feels like to be alone, but my throat has closed. I want to look at him, but I’m driving and the conversation, which turned serious more quickly than I was prepared for, has made me emotional. I don’t like feeling emotional.
“I’m sorry,” I manage, unsure what else to say, how to give voice to thoughts that even I don’t fully understand.
“It’s alright. I’d rather be alone and myself than be part of a group and a possession, something to own, to show off.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Girls like Poppy want everything. They want to rule the world, swallow it whole, and possess everything in it. They think it all belongs to them and somehow, because of their exceptional faces or gorgeous legs or awe-inspiring red hair, they’re entitled to it. And the only person I will ever belong to is myself,” his finishes vehemently.
We stop at a red light and I’m finally able to look at him. I feel something loosen inside of me as our eyes meet. His amber eyes brighten and burn. My head spins and my stomach clenches. Unconsciously, I reach for his hand.
“BEEEEEEEP!” A horn blares from the car behind us and I snatch my hand back. Then I take a deep breath and keep driving, reminding myself that no matter what he thinks, he already belongs to Poppy. Neither of us says a word for the remainder of the drive to school.
* * * * *
The rest of the day passes normally. I go to class, do my work, and eat lunch alone. We have a pop quiz in English so even that class, with Ian sitting behind me, is quiet as usual. I think about him periodically the rest of the day – the fire in his eyes, behind his words, and the way it made me feel, for a moment, like I wasn’t alone. I float through the day, paying little attention to my surroundings. It hardly registers that I haven’t seen Sage since this morning.
After school, I walk to my car, bracing myself for another intense conversation, preparing for the onslaught of emotions. Instead, the ride is uneventful, boring even. Ian and I make ordinary small talk that is continually interrupted by the pings of text messages. I ask a question that he doesn’t hear, busy answering another message and suddenly, thick, awkward tension fills the car, choking me, cutting off my speech.
I decide I’m done talking, done pretending things are normal. I’m so tired of pretending all the time – that things don’t bother me, that I don’t mind being alone, that I don’t feel anything. He doesn’t try to resurrect the conversation. We spend the next ten minutes engulfed in silence. Except for the pings and taps as he texts and texts and texts.
When I drop him off, he puts his phone in his pocket, grabs his backpack from the back seat, and maneuvers his way carefully out of the car. For a moment, I think he’s going to leave without saying anything else. I rub my nose vigorously. Then he knocks on the window. I roll it down and he leans in.
“That nose rub thing you do when you’re nervous or irritated? It’s really cute,” he says with a grin. I blink up at him in shock. “See you tomorrow.” Then he saunters up the driveway without a backwards glance and I’m left sitting in the car alone, the hint of smile creeping onto my face.
* * * * *
I’m still smiling when I get home. My body is tingly and I feel breathless. I’m a little worried I’m coming down with Poppy’s illness.
“How did it go?” I look up and see Poppy standing at the top of the stairs, her hair in a topknot, her face clear and free of makeup.
“You look so much better!” I exclaim. She nods, but collapses onto the steps, resting her head in her heads. Maybe she doesn’t feel as well as she looks.
“How did it go?” She asks again.
“With Ian?” She drops her chin and looks up at me through her eyelashes, her expression an obvious “duh.” “Fine, I guess. We just drove to school and back.” For obvious reasons, I don’t share the details of our conversation with her.
“Did he…say anything about me?” Insecurity oozes from every bit of her and I try not to wince. I don’t know what to say to her. I don’t know this version of Poppy – the insecure, scared, confused, timid Poppy – but I know that how I handle this situation can make all of the difference in our relationship.
I take a deep breath and make a decision.
“He said your face is exceptional,” I answer, bending his meaning without lying outright. Her face lights up, her eyes, the eyes that look so much like my own, like Ian’s, shining hopefully, gleefully. “I think if you guys spend more time together, it’ll happen naturally.” She looks as though she wants to argue. It’s possible she doesn’t want to admit her obvious crush, but she knows it’s futile.
She smiles at me – probably the first genuine smile she’s given me since we were kids and I make myself a silent vow: to remove myself from the equation, to push them together, and to repair my relationship with Poppy.
I hear a noise, a deep, lengthy sigh. When I look up, Sage is leaning on the railing of the stairs looking down at us with a peculiar expression on her face. It’s gone before I can register what it means, but for an instant, I could have sworn it was jealousy.