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She stopped texting me after that, and when I looked out the back window I saw her playing in the garden with Mercy. I’d given her something to think about, though.

I decided to reach out to Darius and see how he was doing. I sent him a meme from one of his favorite movies, which also happened to be one of my favorite movies. Jolene had rolled her eyes when we’d made these confessions at the dinner table, citing that her favorite movie was The House of Sand and Fog. I’d wanted to tell her to take a chill pill, lighten up, but then Darius beat me to it, calling The House of Sand and Fog morbidly depressing.

Clueless? Jolene had shot back. That’s both of yours favorite movie? What type of morons do I associate with? There was humor in her voice, but we all knew she was a little serious too. It was funny how quickly you could get to know someone’s personality if you were really trying.

Darius and I had exchanged a look while she ranted about pop culture and how it was destroying people’s taste in quality. It’s oookay to like it, she said, but that shouldn’t be all you like.

He texted back right away with a LOL.

And then:

Would you call me selfish?

No, not to your face.

I knew right there that he was talking about Jolene, and I silently agreed. She wanted everyone to rise to her standards, and take themselves seriously. It was exhausting, and we were both victims of her overbearing judgment. I was delighted when he texted back and asked if I’d seen Magnolia, another one of his favorite movies. When I told him no, he insisted that I borrow his copy, and told me to come pick it up tonight. My heart was pounding by the time I set my phone aside and climbed out of bed.

The good news was—I no longer felt depressed. The bad news—I’d put on at least three pounds in the last few days, and I wanted them off. As I pulled on my workout clothes, I remembered the first time I came to the Averys’, how I’d pretended to jog down the sidewalk and been winded. Those days were long behind me. I examined my svelte figure in the mirror. Who knew I was so tiny under all of that flesh I’d been collecting? I was far skinnier than Jolene, who with large breasts and a round rear erred on the curvy side. Maybe that’s what Darius liked, but no, I thought, Darius was a worldly man. He had broad taste in all things, not conforming to one style or type.

I ran four miles, my limbs burning with gratitude for the exercise. I texted Jolene, asking if Ryan had sent her anything worth swooning over. There was a deep part of me that felt as if it was my duty to push Jolene toward Ryan. I had a feeling about the two of them, the same sort of feeling I had about Darius and me. I’d once had that feeling about George, but he’d blown it, hadn’t he? He’d taken me for granted and we’d drifted apart. Women needed to be nurtured.

Just a couple things. I mostly ignored him, she said.

She obviously didn’t know the effect she had on all of them. Grown men following her around like lost puppies. It was pathetic really. I went home and popped Magnolia into the DVD player.

I hated Magnolia, but I didn’t tell Darius that.

“It was good,” I told him. “Different.” He looked mildly disappointed in my lackluster response, so I added a sentence. “I really liked the theme: coincidence.” And I sort of had, hadn’t I? I’d spent two hours reading reviews online trying to make sense of what I just watched, and what message Darius was trying to relay to me. I read a dozen reviews before it clicked that I was part of a strange coincidence, and whether he realized it or not, he was affirming my move next door, as well as my interaction with them. I was endeared to the message in Magnolia even if I thought the execution was poppycock. And besides, I liked the way his mind worked—the things he watched and the way he saw the world. He was deep without being pretentious. When he spoke to me, he wasn’t speaking at me like George, he was speaking to me. Before I even left their house, he’d handed me another DVD, this one called Doubt. I breathed in the smell of his cologne, the place between my legs beginning to tingle.

“It’ll get you right up here,” he said, tapping his temple. I decide that Darius had an unhealthy obsession with Philip Seymour Hoffman. When Darius retreated into the bedroom to shower, I decided to proposition Jolene, something I’d been meaning to do for a while.

“You should go out tonight,” I told her. “Dinner, drinks, whatever. I’ll watch Mercy.”

I wouldn’t exactly call Jolene overprotective. I’d once seen her leave a knife on the counter right where Mercy could reach it, but she wouldn’t leave Mercy with anyone but her mother. It was frustrating. Mercy was comfortable with me. She liked me.

“You two need some time together, even if it’s only for an hour or two. She’ll be fine, Jolene.”

She didn’t look convinced, so I went in for the kill.

“Darius seems upset lately … maybe a little distracted. It’ll be good for both of you.”

That got her. Her face suddenly looked guilty, and she started chewing on her lip. I eyed her limp hair and dark circles, and for the first time realized she might be tired. My focus was mostly on Darius and Mercy. Sometimes I forgot to check if Jolene was all right.

“Maybe just for an hour,” she said. I kept my face still even though this was a victory.

“I’ll come over at seven,” I told her. “That means you have two hours to get used to the idea and get drunk enough to actually leave.”

She laughed, but I knew it wasn’t far-fetched for Jolene to drink a couple glasses of wine at this time of night. Nasty red stuff that tasted like rot. She said it was to unwind, but she wrote books for a living—what did she need to unwind from?

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