“No, not at all.”
“Damn, I thought I had it that time.”
“Here, man. Just take the panda,” the carnie said as he held the stuffed animal toward us. “Anyone who tries that hard to impress a girl deserves to give her a stuffed animal.”
Greyson smirked with his quickly bruising eye. He took the panda bear and handed it to me. “See? I knew that time was lucky!” he exclaimed.
I laughed. “Yeah, well, let’s just go find a place to sit so I can find ice for your eye.”
He held the stuffed animal to me, and I took it and hugged it tight.
I led him to a bench and forced him to sit down while I wandered off to find ice for his eye. When I came back, the guy was sitting there with a black and blue eye and a stick of cotton candy, smiling like a fool.
I liked him so much in that moment—so, so much.
He kept funneling cotton candy into his mouth as I sat down beside him.
“Hold still,” I ordered as I placed the cloth filled with ice against his eye. He cringed a bit as it touched his skin. “Sorry,” I said, pulling the cloth away from him. My fingers gently touched the swollen area of his eye. “I just want to get some ice on it before it gets worse.” I put the ice back against the skin, and he smiled.
“I like that,” he told me.
“The ice on your face?”
“No. I like it whenever you touch me.”
My heart stopped beating, I stopped breathing, and Greyson kept smiling.
I didn’t respond, because I had completely forgotten how to form words, but I was certain my reddened face told him exactly how his words had made me feel.
“So, I know today has been eventful, but if you’re up for it, I got one of my grandpa’s favorite kung fu movies on DVD. I figured maybe we could watch it at my place,” Greyson offered.
“Sure, that sounds fun.”
We headed back to his house, and even though I kept looking toward Greyson’s bruising eye, he seemed unfazed by it all. He simply began humming a tune, so I began humming along with him.
We hummed the whole trip back, right until we walked up to Greyson’s house and his smile faded away.
There was shouting coming from inside the house, and I could see his parents hollering at one another through the front windows.
Greyson’s whole demeanor shifted as embarrassment took over. He turned to me and rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh, maybe we should hang out another time.”
“Yeah, it’s fine, not a big deal.”
“I’ll talk to you later?”
“Yeah, of course.”
I turned to walk away, but then glanced over my shoulder to see him staring at his house with such a look of defeat. It was clear he didn’t want to go into the house with the screaming.
“Hey, I’m still not ready to go home,” I said. “Do you want to maybe go to Laurie Lake to just hang out for a little bit longer?” He needed the break. He needed something to shut his mind off of his own sadness.
Maybe he needed me just as much as I needed him in order to not be so broken.
He looked up at me and I saw a flash of relief wash over his face. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”
“Are your parents always like that?” I asked as we sat on our log at Laurie Lake.
“Even more so lately. I just don’t get it. If they hate each other that much, then why even bother being together? I can’t even think back to a time when they actually liked one another.”
“I’m so sorry, Grey. That has to be hard for you.”
“It’s easier when they aren’t home, and luckily they are hardly ever home. Besides, next year I’ll be off to college and it won’t matter much at all.”
“Still, I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t imagine living in a home without a strong type of love. My parents swam in each other’s love as if their hearts were oceans. They held one another up whenever times were hard. Their kind of love made the world a better place to be in. I couldn’t imagine them ever not being completely head over heels with one another.
They were the greatest love story I’d ever witnessed, and it was so hard to even imagine the two of them being apart. I swore their hearts beat together as one.
If there was one thing that I knew for sure, it was the fact that there was no Kevin without a Paige.
“I just never want to be like that,” he confessed. “When I fall in love, it’s going to be real. It’s not going to be a love for convenience, it’s going to be a forever kind of love. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“But I do have to thank my parents. If anything, they taught me what love isn’t, therefore I’ll know what it is when it comes.”
He kept doing his nervous fiddling thing with his hands, and I swore my heartbeats were directed straight to him.
“Sorry. We can talk about something else,” he offered. “Maybe we can talk about us.”
Heart skips and heart flips.
“Yeah? What about us?”
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, you know.” Greyson’s head tilted toward me, and we locked eyes. “About what it would be like to kiss you.”
I swore he controlled my heartbeats with those words. We hadn’t really talked much about things like that, about us and if there were any feelings involved other than friendship. The most we’d ever done was hug, for goodness’ sake, and a hug from him was enough to set my world on fire.
For a while, I’d thought my crush on Greyson was a one-sided thing, so to hear those words come out of his mouth somewhat felt like a dream.
“Do you ever think about that, Ellie?” he asked.
I inhaled slowly. “Only always.”
He inched a little closer to me, and I let it happen. He tucked my hair behind my ears, and I let it happen. His smile melted every part of me, and I let it happen.
“I think about it a lot. After we hang out sometimes, I beat myself up for not just doing it. I overthink it. Like, it should’ve happened when we got ice cream, or when you first brought me here. Or on Molly’s steps.” He scrunched his face. “Probably not on Molly’s steps, but still, I think about it.”
“Me too. All the time.” I paused. “Well, not all the time, but yeah…all the time.”
He placed his hand in mine and gave it a slight squeeze.
“I just want it to be perfect, you know? Especially now that I know it’s your first kiss. That’s important. In the novels you’ve had me read, it always happens naturally,” he said softly. “I take notes when I’m reading on how the hero does it, on where it happens, on how comfortable or uncomfortable both the characters seem.”
I felt his hands trembling slightly—or was it my hands that were shaky? It was becoming hard to tell what were his feelings and what were mine.
That was okay, though.
I liked the confusion.
“I know,” I agreed. “There’s always a moment…”
“When the timing is just—”
“Right.” I finished his sentence, knowing his thoughts the same way he knew mine.
“Would it be cliché of me to ask if I can kiss you?”
“Yes.” I scooted closer, so close that his lips were millimeters from mine, so close that his exhales became my inhales, so close that my mind had already decided it was going to be the best first kiss of my life. “But do it anyway.”
And then he did.
“He’s so goofy!” I exclaimed as Mom and I went grocery shopping. I wandered in front of her as she pushed the cart. “He kept trying to win me the stuffed animal, and ended up with a black eye. Even with the black eye, he seemed proud, though.”
“That’s so sweet, honey.”
“It was sweet, in a really dorky way.” I walked toward the fresh fruit, moving on my tiptoes as I thought about Greyson. Every now and then I’d start humming. “We’re supposed to go out for Mexican food next week, and I’m really excited about it.” My hands moved across the oranges.
Did Greyson like oranges?
I’d have to ask him. I wanted to know everything about Greyson East. The good, the bad, and his opinions on fruit.
“Oh, and I forgot to tell you—”
I whipped around quickly at the loud sound which snapped me from my current dreamy state.
“Mom!” I hollered, rushing over to her side. She was lying on the floor, and her eyes were crossing before they shut. I shook her body, but she wasn’t responding. “Mom, mom! Someone help!” I shouted.
She completely blacked out, and my heart shattered into a million pieces.
An ambulance was called to the scene, and I cried harder than I’d ever cried as I sat beside her and tried to wake her up.
When she came to, she was dazed and confused. She tried to speak, but she was too shaky. I just stared at her, wide-eyed and terrified. I watched as my tears splashed her cheekbones so prominent under her thin skin. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop sobbing. I couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t let go of the hopelessness I felt.
We were rushed to the hospital, and Dad met us there.
He forced me to sit in the waiting room as he searched for answers.
I sat, I waited, and I cried.
I sat, I waited, and I cried some more.
Mom was released a few hours later and the whole ride home was completely still.
That was the day when it became real for me. That was the first time since finding out about her cancer that I was really afraid. For a while, I was naïve enough to think that she was getting better than worse, then a wake-up call hit me in the fresh produce aisle.
The next morning, Mom walked into my room and gave me a small grin. She wore a Janet Jackson T-shirt with overalls, and her hair was wrapped in a bandana. For the most part, she looked like her regular self. You could hardly tell anything was wrong just by looking at her. From the looks of it, she didn’t seem like a woman who had just blacked out the day before. I thought that was the hardest part to wrap my mind around: how could she look okay but not be?