I lean under the hood next to him in an attempt to look natural as I continue my point.
"It's just really hard, Will. It was so easy for you to accept this and move past it. It hasn't been that easy for me. It's all I think about."
Will grips the edge of the hood with his hands as he turns his head toward me.
"You think this is easy for me?" he whispers.
"Well, that's how you make it seem."
"Lake, nothing about this has been easy. It's a daily struggle for me to come to work, knowing this very job is what's keeping us apart." He turns away from the car and leans against it. "If it weren't for Caulder, I would have quit that first day I saw you in the hallway. I could have taken the year off…waited until you graduated to go back." He turns toward me, his voice lower than before. "Believe me, I’ve ran every possible scenario through my mind. How do you think it makes me feel to know that I'm the reason you're hurting? That I'm the reason you're so sad?"
The sincerity in his voice is surprising. I had no idea. Over the last couple of weeks, I'd convinced myself he must have never even cared to begin with.
"I-I’m sorry. I just thought-"
Will cuts me off mid-sentence and turns back toward the car. "Your battery is fine, looks like it might be your alternator."
"Car won't start?" Nick asks as he walks up beside us, explaining the reason behind Will's sudden guarded behavior.
"No, Mr. Cooper thinks I need a new alternator."
"That sucks," Nick says as he glances under the hood. "I'll give you a ride home if you need one."
I start to decline when Will interrupts.
"That would be great, Nick," Will says as he closes the hood of the jeep.
I shoot Will a glance and he ignores my silent protest. Will walks away and leaves me with Nick and no other option for a ride home.
"I'm parked over here," Nick says as he leads the way to his car.
"Let me grab my stuff first." I reach for my bag and my hand goes up to find the ignition empty. Will must have accidentally taken my keys. I leave the door unlocked just in case he doesn't have them. I don't want to add a locksmith charge on top of our already mounting debt.
“Wow. Nice car,” I say as we reach Nicks vehicle. It’s a small black sports car. Not sure what kind but there isn’t a spec of dirt on it.
“It’s not mine,” he says as we climb inside. “It’s my dads. He lets me drive it when he’s off work.”
“Still, it’s nice. Do you mind if we swing by Chapman Elementary? I’m supposed to pick up my little brother.”
“No problem,” he says as he turns left out of the parking lot.
“So, New Girl. You miss Texas yet?” Although it’s been a month, he still calls me new girl.
“Yep,” I reply shortly.
He attempts to make more small talk but I treat his questions as if they are rhetorical, even if they aren't. I can't stop thinking about the things Will said to me before Nick interrupted us. Nick finally grasps the idea that I'm not in a chatty mood so he turns on the radio.
We pull up to Kel’s school and I get out of the car so Kel can spot me, since I’m not in my jeep. When Kel notices me, he comes running up to me, followed by Caulder. “Hey, where's your jeep?”
“Won’t start. Hop in, Nick is giving us a ride home.”
“Oh. Well Caulder is supposed to go with us today."
I open the back door as the two climb in the small backseats. They immediately start oohing and aahing. The remainder of the short drive consists of transformer comparisons and Nick's car.
When we arrive at the house, Kel and Caulder jump out of the car and run inside. I thank Nick and follow the boys toward the house when I hear Nick open his door.
“Layken, wait,” Nick calls after me.
Ugh. Almost in the clear. I turn to see him standing in my driveway, looking nervous.
“Later this week, Eddie and Gavin and I are going to Getty’s. You wanna come?”
I definitely should have laid off on the obvious flirtation with Nick. I feel guilty, knowing good and well I’ve sent him the wrong signals.
“I don’t know. I'd have to run it by my mom. I’ll let you know tomorrow, okay?” I see the hope fill his eyes and wish I would have went ahead and turned him down. I don't want to give him any more false hope than I already have.
“Yeah. Tomorrow. See ya.” Nick gets back in his car and drives away.
When I walk in the house, Kel and Caulder are both at the bar with their homework out. "Caulder, do you live with us now or what?"
He looks at me with his big, green, Will-looking eyes. "I can go home if you want me to."
"No. I was just kidding. I like you being here, it keeps this little creeper away from me." I squeeze Kel's shoulders then walk into the kitchen and grab a drink.
"So is that Nick guy your boyfriend? I thought my brother was going to be your boyfriend."
Juice spews from my mouth as Caulder catches me off guard with his observation. "No, neither of them are my boyfriend. Your brother and I are just friends, Caulder."
"But Layken," Kel gives Caulder a mischievous grin. "I saw you kissing him that night y'all came home. In the driveway. I was watching from my bedroom window."
My heart jumps to my throat. I walk over to them and place my hands firmly on the bar in front of them.
"Kel, don't ever repeat what you just said do you hear me?"
His eyes get big and he and Caulder both lean back in their chairs as I lean forward across the bar.
"I'm serious. You did not see what you thought you saw. Will can get in a lot of trouble if you repeat what you said. I mean it."
They both nod as I leave the room. I pull my notebook out of my bag and throw it on the bed, plopping down next to it to start on my homework, but I can’t. The thought of anything getting out about Will and I distracts me. As much as I hate the fact that we can't be together, I hate the thought of him getting fired even more. He needs this job. Will was only one year older than me when his parents died, and he essentially became a parent himself. The more thought I give it, the guiltier I feel for being so hard on Will and the decision he's made. The pain I'm feeling as a result of us not being together pales in comparison to what Will must be going through. I feel less and less like Will's peer every day and more like his student.
I decide to work on the poem I’ve yet to start, but after half an hour I’m still staring at a blank page when my mother walks in.
"Where's your jeep?"
"Oh, I forgot to tell you. It won't crank, alternator or something. It's parked at school."
"How can you forget to mention that?" she says, obviously frustrated.
"I'm sorry. You were sleeping when I got home. I know you’ve been sick this week so I didn’t want to wake you up."
She sighs as she sits on my bed. "I don’t know when I'll be able to get it fixed. I work the next few days. Do you mind just keeping it at the school for a couple days until I can work it out?"
"I'll ask tomorrow. I doubt they would even notice it’s there."
"Okay. Well, I've got to get to work.” She stands up to leave.
“Wait. Your shift doesn’t start for a few more hours."
"I need to run errands." She shuts the door, leaving me to question the validity of her response.
I'm drying my hair after my shower when I think I hear the doorbell. I turn the dryer off and listen for a moment and it eventually rings again.
"Kel, get the door!" I yell as I pull on my sweats. I pile my still-wet hair into a band and double it up on top of my head as I throw on a tank top. The doorbell rings again.
"Kel!" I yell as I make my way to the front door. I check the peep hole and see Will standing outside, his arms crossed as he trembles. My heart skips a beat at the sight of him and I turn to check my reflection in the entryway mirror. Sure enough, I look like I just got out of the shower. At least I'm not wearing Kel's house shoes. Ugh. Why do I even care?
I open the door and motion for him to come inside. He steps in far enough for me to shut the door behind him but doesn't come any further inside.
“I just need Caulder. Bath time.”
His arms are still crossed and his speech is curt. I take this as a sign that I'm not going to get any confessions out of him right now, so I tell him to give me a sec as I go fetch Caulder.
I check Kel's room, my mother's room and eventually my room when I run out of rooms to check.
"They aren't here, Will." I say as I walk back into the living room.
"Well, they have to be. They aren't at my house." He makes his way down the hallway and checks the rooms as he calls for them. I open the patio door, flick on the outdoor switch and make a quick scan of the small backyard.
"They aren't out back," I say as we meet back in the living room.
"I'll check my house again," he says.
Will makes his way across the street as I follow behind him. It's dark outside and the temperature has dropped since earlier in the day. I become increasingly concerned as we make our way to Will's house. I know Kel and Caulder wouldn't be outside this time of night. If they aren’t in one of the houses, I don't know where they could be.
Will makes a quick run of his house. I don't feel comfortable walking through it since I’ve never really been further than the kitchen, so I stand in the doorway and wait.
"They aren't here," he says, unable to hide the uncertainty in his voice. My hands go to my mouth as I gasp, fully realizing the seriousness of the situation. Will can see the fear in my eyes and he puts his arms around me.
"We'll find them. They’re just off playing somewhere." His reassurance is brief as he lets go and heads back out the front door. "Check the backyard; I'll meet you out front," he says.
We are both calling the boys’ names when the panic rises up in my chest. It reminds me of the time I was babysitting Kel when he was four, and I thought I had lost him. I searched the entire house for twenty minutes before finally breaking down and calling my mother. She immediately called the police who arrived within minutes. They were still searching when she finally made it home-the panic in her eyes when she walked through the door cut through me and we both started to cry. After searching for over fifteen minutes, an officer found Kel passed out on the folded towels in the bathroom cabinet. Apparently he had been hiding from me when he fell asleep.
I’m hoping to find the same sense of relief when I look through Will’s backyard, but they aren’t here. I make my way around the side of his house and see Will standing in the driveway, staring inside his car. When he sees me running toward him, his finger goes up to his mouth, instructing me to be quiet. I peer into the backseat where Kel and Caulder are both crouched in the floorboard, their fingers and hands clamped together in the shape of guns; they're both passed out.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
“They would make horrible guards,” he whispers.
“Yeah, they sure would.”
We both stand there, staring at our little brothers. Will's arm goes around me and he gives my shoulders a quick squeeze. His hug doesn't linger at all though, so I know it's nothing more than a gesture expressing relief that our brothers are safe.