“I’m sorry,” he said.
I sighed. My mom was good for him. I wished he were home more, because they really did balance each other out.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s all I wanted to hear.”
“I know. Sometimes I just want to protect you, and it’s hard for me to remember you’re not a child anymore.”
“I know. I’m glad I have a dad who wants to protect me, but let’s wait for me to call for help first, okay?”
“So I don’t need to beat up Cooper when I get home?”
He knew what happened with Cooper too. I looked at my mom with narrow eyes, and she acted innocent.
“No. I took care of that on my own.”
“You beat him up?” he asked.
I laughed, but then stopped. “Yes, Dad. I think maybe I did.”
“I found something for you out here.”
“I was going to wait until I got home to show you, but when we hang up, I’ll email you a picture.”
“Love you, kid.”
“Love you too.”
We hung up, and I waited two minutes to log onto my email. My dad was true to his word—he’d sent an email. The only thing it contained was an attached picture. I clicked on the image. A small gray stone resting on the palm of his hand filled the screen. It formed a lopsided heart. He’d found a heart rock, after all. I swallowed hard and smiled.
After throwing away, filing away, and rehanging my piles, I knew I could no longer avoid work and Mr. Wallace if I wanted to keep my job.
He was in his office when I arrived at the museum. He had done some cleaning of his own and the room looked bare.
“Hi,” I said, trying to be as humble as possible.
“Abby, are you feeling better?”
“Yes, for a while now, actually. I’ve been avoiding you.”
He shook his head, but a smile took over his face. “You’re always very honest.”
“I’m sorry for how I behaved last Sunday night. And I’m sorry my dad bullied you into letting me be in the show.”
He sighed and stood. “Come in. Have a seat.”
I did as he asked.
“He didn’t bully me into it. I was already on the verge. And your paintings showed amazing growth.”
“You still have things to learn, but yes. I hope you haven’t decided to leave us. I really value your work here.”
“I don’t want to leave. I love being surrounded by art.”
“Good. I have you on the schedule for tomorrow. Are you going to be able to make it?”
“Yes. Absolutely. And do you think . . .”
“I want to go to a winter art program. Do you think you can write me a letter of recommendation?”
“I’d love to.”
There were four weeks left of summer, and those weeks stretched before me like an undeserved prison sentence. With Rachel and Justin still gone, I was worried I’d have nothing but time to think about this. To think about Cooper and the failed art show and my still-strained relationship with my mom and grandpa. I wondered if Cooper had told Rachel or Justin what had happened. I wondered if we’d have to split up our friend group when school started or if I’d be able to get through these feelings of hurt and anger. My life was a mess.
But at least Lacey kept true to her word. She said she’d be there for me, and she was. She invited me to parties and perspective-shifting outings and late-night food runs. Plus, Mr. Wallace put me back on the schedule, and I worked well past my scheduled hours.
Two weeks had passed and the gaping hole in my life wasn’t getting any smaller, but it was easier to walk around it these days. I wondered if Cooper had a hole in his life too. He hadn’t texted or called me once since the night outside the abandoned church building. He was giving me time. Just like I’d asked.
I tried not to think about if it was the right decision. I tried to be in the moment. And in this moment, I was riding in the passenger seat in Lacey’s car. We were heading to Elliot’s house. I’d asked her to go with me to check out his art. It was hot. Sweat was forming behind my knees and beading along my upper lip.
“Is there a reason the AC is not on?” I asked as humid air blowing in from the cracked windows did nothing to cool me.
“Yes, it’s good to experience discomfort sometimes. It helps me channel that emotion better when performing.”
“So all your life is a stage?”
I smiled and turned my focus back to the window just in time to see we were passing Cooper’s neighborhood. I squinted my eyes, like I had gained the ability to see through houses. I had to literally clench my jaw to keep myself from asking Lacey if we could drive by his house.
We passed successfully only to come upon the now-empty field where the big hundred-year-old tree used to stand. They’d torn it down. The sight hit me in the gut. I placed my hand on the window. Poor Lance.
Lacey was asking me something, I realized. I needed to not let my mind wander so much. I looked at her, focused on the words she was saying.
“. . . stopped seeing her?”
“What?” I asked, knowing I missed way too much of that question to try to fake an answer.
“I was talking to Kendra, who was talking to Delaney, who apparently knows Iris’s older sister, and she said that Cooper broke it off with Iris. Is that true?”
My mouth opened and closed once before I said, “I don’t know.”
“Really? So no social media updates from him?”
“I haven’t looked.”
“Wow. I’m impressed.”
She shouldn’t have been. When I wasn’t forcing myself to go out with her, I was working or sleeping. “Yes, I’m the queen of self-control.”
“So are you happy about the Iris/Cooper breakup news?”
“Should I be?” It just made things worse, actually, because now I knew he had nobody. At least I had Lacey. Who had Cooper been hanging out with? Justin and Rachel would be home soon, but they weren’t home now.
“I wondered if I should tell you or not. I thought maybe I shouldn’t, but then I thought, if I were you, I’d want to know.”
“I’m glad to know, but it doesn’t change anything.”
“No, it doesn’t.” She nodded like she was the one that needed to be convinced, not me.
Elliot lived beachfront. I should’ve known this, after all his talk about hiring private teachers and worrying about sounding pretentious, but I was still surprised. His house was stunning. Ivy climbed redbrick walls and bright flowers filled boxes beneath windows, all with the backdrop of the ocean.
“Wow,” Lacey said. “Does Elliot seem a little more attractive all of a sudden?”
I smacked her arm.
“What?” she asked, laughing.
We exited the car and walked the stone stepway up to the house, where a gnome statue sat in a flowerpot to greet us. Its expression seemed to warn us away. I wondered if Elliot had sculpted it.
Lacey didn’t care about the gnome’s warning. She rang the doorbell.
Elliot had a much friendlier expression when he answered the door. “Hi. Welcome, ladies. Come in.”
He stepped aside. His house was just as charming inside as it was out. Someone with an artist’s eye had decorated. There were benches tucked in nooks with eclectic mismatched pillows and paintings on every wall and shelves filled with colorful glass shapes and twisted metal and foreign masks. There was something to look at everywhere, and yet it didn’t feel cluttered.
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