His expression gave nothing away as he asked, “What are you doing here?”
Straight to the point then.
I fumbled with my purse, glad that I’d prepared at least that much.
“I came to give you this. Milo told me you were here.” I held out an envelope and snatched my hand away as soon as he took it. I swallowed and said, “My parents had already bought your ticket. They got a refundable one, so I thought, um, I thought you could just change it from Oklahoma to Texas.”
He didn’t open the envelope, not even to look at the ticket inside. He just stared at me, his jaw set firmly and asked, “Is that all?”
In my head, I saw that blond girl touching him. That’s the second blonde I’d seen him with, both much more his type. Both the kind of girl my parents wished I was. If anything, this visit proved that I was right.
“That’s all,” I told him.
“Then why did you run?”
I did run, didn’t I? How embarrassing.
Because I was on the verge of doing something very stupid . . . like thinking I had made a mistake. Or thinking I stood a chance.
“Because you were busy. I was going to go grab a cookie from that food truck on campus, and then come back.” I was going to go stuff my face. Attractive. Good save, Max. “You should get back, though. I didn’t mean to take you away from the kids.” And Amy. I kind of wanted to maim Amy.
Silence grew up between us like weeds, and I didn’t know what else to say. I should turn around and leave. I should cut my losses, burn the end of the rope before it frayed further, but I couldn’t.
What if this was the last time that I saw him?
“I should go,” I said, except I didn’t leave. My feet had grown roots and burrowed into the concrete. “Um . . . it was good seeing you.”
His eyes searched mine, and I could see the distrust in them, like he was puzzling out my words, trying to decide if they were genuine.
I didn’t blame him.
Half the time I wasn’t even sure if I was genuine.
His expression was guarded in a way that it never had been before. Wearing a mask was my defense mechanism, and I hated that I had pushed him to it.
Whatever connection we’d had was long gone. I just needed to accept that.
I pasted on a smile and said, “Good-bye, Cade.”
Max, wait!” I didn’t really know what I was saying until the words had already left my mouth. “What time do we fly out?”
She turned, and something I couldn’t decipher flickered in her eyes. I’d been trying so hard to remain ambivalent, to not let her presence get to me, but I just couldn’t.
The look of shock on her face was pretty spot-on for how I felt. The moment the words left my mouth, I regretted it. But for some reason when she asked, “We?” I didn’t back out.
I looked at her wide blue eyes and said, “If you still want me to go, I’m in. I made you a promise, and I’m going to follow through.” Even if it killed me.
She crossed her arms over her chest, and surveyed me. I kept my face passive and my body relaxed. I didn’t want her to think this was a ploy to get her back. It wasn’t. This charade had been really important to her, and if she thought she needed me to face her parents, I wasn’t going to let her down. I was afraid if I didn’t go, she’d keep right on pretending.
“You would do that for me?” she asked.
I was a little afraid to examine what I was willing to do for her.
I weighed my words carefully before saying, “We made a deal. I would do it for anyone.” I swear she winced, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling her the truth.
She swallowed and nodded. “Okay, then. Um, thanks. We fly out Sunday morning at eleven.”
“Okay. I’ll come early, and we’ll catch a cab to the airport.”
“Right, well, I’ll see you Sunday then.”
I watched her go for few minutes before returning to the rec center.
Bad idea didn’t even begin to describe what I’d just done.
Over the next few days, I kept finding myself being drawn back to that airline ticket. Sometimes I would just stare at the numbers—dates and times and flights—until they stopped making sense. Other times I would hold the ticket in my hands and concentrate, as if I might be able to feel her intentions behind it just by touching it.
Was it just a ticket? Or did it represent something more?
I was sitting on my couch, holding the ticket, when the phone rang.
I looked at the caller ID and smiled. Talking to a friend from back home was exactly what I needed.
I hit accept and held the phone to my ear. “Rusty, if you’re calling to bitch about how much being a grown-up sucks, don’t expect a pep talk because I’ve got nothing.”
Rusty laughed on the other end, and just like that, all the time and miles between friends had been erased.
He said, “Tell me about it. Can we go back in time and tell our past selves to flunk a few classes so we can go back to being in college?”
“Hey, I am still in college.”
“Ah, grad school doesn’t count. That’s like college 2.0—all of the work and none of the fun.”
“And working full-time is so much better?” I asked.
“Hell no. Yesterday someone spit coffee at me. Okay, so on the counter in front of me, but still I watched liquid arch from a stranger’s mouth toward me. This is my life.”
We laughed, and then the line went quiet.
After a few seconds, he said, “Now that I’ve buttered you up with laughs, I’ll get straight to the point . . .” And so the other shoe drops. “Bliss. I heard about the engagement. I’m sorry, man.”
I picked the airline ticket back up, and held it as I said, “You and everybody else on Facebook.”
“How are you doing with it?”
I said, “Okay.”
And I was just fine . . . where Bliss was concerned anyway.
“Cade . . .”
“I am, Rusty. I promise. I mean, I saw them a week or two ago, and it was awkward as hell. And depressing, because I’m pretty sure my friendship with Bliss is DOA. But I’m okay. There’s actually this other girl.”
I hadn’t told anyone about Max. I’d liked feeling that she was this awesome secret that I refused to share with the world. But she had my mind so twisted up that I had to tell someone.
“Another girl, huh?” he asked. “What’s she like?”
“A total mind fuck, that’s what she’s like.”
Rusty said, “I like the sound of her already.” He would. “So you’re together?”
“Are you about to be?” he asked.
I looked back at that damn ticket and said, “Um . . . I doubt it.”
“Were you together?”
“Damn I’m confused, and I’m not even part of it.”
“Tell me about it.”
“If I’m reading between the Cade lines, I’d say you still want to be with her.”
“I don’t know, man. I do, and I don’t. She’s amazing, but she’s got a whole baggage claim to herself, man. If I’m honest, she stands to screw me up way more than Bliss ever did.”
“This is why I don’t date girls.”
“Not a solution I’m willing to take, man.”
He said, “It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind. You know this girl isn’t good for you.”
I did know that, but it didn’t stop me from thinking about her constantly. I had to keep reminding myself of how it felt waking up alone that morning just to stop myself from calling her.
“You’re right. I just want life to be simple again, you know?”
That’s what I’d seen in Bliss. I knew it now. A life with her would have been simple and nice and safe. Complication free.
“Good luck with that, Winston. Life isn’t ever simple. Not until you’re dead.”
The phone call went on for a while after that, but my mind stayed stuck on those words. We talked about what other friends were doing and the possibility of getting the gang together for New Year’s.
But I thought about how I’d spent twenty-two years chasing after a life that I’d convinced myself I’d wanted. A simple, predictable, perfect life. But it still had yet to become any of those things. I’d been accumulating talents and accomplishments, marking them off this unwritten checklist that had been in the back of my mind since I was a kid. But what did it all add up to?
The truth was . . . none of that kept people from leaving. Nothing could, if the person was determined to go. The only question was how long you were willing to chase them.
Rusty had to get to work, so we wrapped up the call with promises to talk again soon. I had hoped talking with him would give me perspective, but I still didn’t know what I wanted, and my thoughts were more knotted up than ever.
I refused to be nervous about spending time with Cade. Not when I had so many other things to worry about, but thoughts of him kept creeping into my head.
He’d ruined me.
Before I’d been like ice—cold and cutting and solid. But for weeks, he’d been thawing me out, and I hated it.
There was no control like this, no protection. And I had fewer than twenty-four hours until the end of the world. Also known as family Christmas.
Home was the lion’s den. My scars were always more sensitive there because that’s where I’d gotten the wounds. Now more than ever I needed my armor.
So today was about strengthening my resolve.
My mom had called seventeen and a half times today already. The half because one of the phone calls lasted so long that classifying it as one call just didn’t seem fair.
My brother and his wife, Bethany, had arrived yesterday, and I could feel the pretentiousness creeping through the phone just hearing them in the background.
I still hadn’t packed my bags. I had two sets of clothes folded and ready to go—my traditional holiday garb of turtlenecks and scarfs . . . or my normal clothes. As much as I wanted to make Cade happy, this wasn’t a decision that I could make lightly.
When I came home from my shift at the tattoo parlor, I reached out to tug open the door to my building, and it didn’t budge. I blinked, and then pulled again, but nothing changed.
I stepped back and looked around my street to make sure I’d gone to the right building. There was the Laundromat next door, which meant I was in the right place. I stepped forward and yanked on the door again. Nothing.
The door was locked.
The door to this building hadn’t been locked in ages, almost a year, I was sure.
I fished out my keys, and it took me a few seconds to even remember which key worked on this door because it had been so long. What had made the landlord fix it now? I’d given up bugging him about it months ago because nothing worked.
Unless he hadn’t been the one to fix it.
I froze with the key halfway to the lock. Would Cade have done that? Even though we were . . . well, not whatever we had been.
I weighed the probability in my mind of who could have fixed the door. Between my bum of a landlord and Golden Boy—the choice was obvious.
My heartbeat sped up faster just thinking about the possibility.
Maybe it didn’t mean anything. Maybe it wasn’t even him.
But what if it was and what if it did?
I thawed a little bit more.
I shook my head, and focused on my keys. When I found the right one, I shoved it into the lock a little too hard. Then I went upstairs and faced my packing options. I took a few turtlenecks, just in case, but for the most part I packed my normal clothes, the clothes I thought Cade would have approved of.
When I couldn’t hold back my nerves about tomorrow or my fantasies about Cade being the one to fix my door, I went to bed for the night, hoping I could stay strong . . . against everything.