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I trail off. The squeeze in my throat makes it impossible to go on.

“What did he say?”

I sidestep. “I haven’t thought about this for so long. I haven’t been home in eighteen months now. I missed Christmas, because Helene went back to France to see her family, and I wanted to cover for her.”

“I didn’t go home either.”

“Oh, yeah. My parents mailed me a big care package, and I ate shortbread and opened presents on the floor of my living room watching infomercials. What did you do?”

“Pretty much the same. What did he say to you, then? Your dad, on the back porch?” He’s a dog with a bone.

I can’t relay that entire conversation; I’ll start crying. I might never stop. My dad, his elbows on knees, the tears making clean lines down his tanned, dusty face. I abbreviate the conversation into a sanitized nutshell.

“That his loss was the world’s gain. And my mom, she couldn’t stop bragging, telling everyone about her daughter going off to college . . . She’s making a new variety of strawberry, and they’re all called Lucies.”

“According to the blog, Lucy Twelve was quite good. Tell me more.”

“I don’t understand your fascination with that blog. Mom was a newspaper writer, but she had to give it all up.”

“For what?”

“For my dad. She was doing a piece on the effects of some heavy rain on agriculture, so she went out to a local orchard. She found my dad in a tree. His dream was to own a strawberry farm, and he couldn’t do it alone.”

“Do you think she made the wrong decision?”

“Dad always says, She picked me. Like an apple, right out of the tree. I love them, but I think it’s a sad story sometimes.”

“You could ask her sometime. She probably doesn’t regret a thing. They’re still together, and it means you’re here.”

“Dad calls you other names starting with J, but never your real name.”

“What?” He looks alarmed. “You’ve told your dad about me?”

“He’s mad at you for being so mean. Julian and Jasper and John. One time, he called you Jebediah and I nearly peed myself. You’d have to grovel to my dad, that’s for sure.”

Josh looks so disturbed I decide to cut him a break and change the subject.

“When I’m homesick I can smell warm strawberries. Which is pretty much all the time.” I watch him scrambling to try to unscramble these nonsensical statements.

“Did you play out there in the fields? When you were a kid?”

“You’ve seen the blog picture. It’s pretty clear I did.” I turn my face away. Me, knees stained pink from berry juice, tangled mane of hair, eyes bluer than the sky. Wild little farm girl.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” He gently puts his fingertips on my jaw and turns me back. “You in your little overall shorts. You look like you’ve been outside for days. All dirty and wild. Your smile hasn’t changed.”

“You never see my smile.”

“I bet you had a tree house.”

“I did, actually. I practically lived up there.”

His eyes are bright with an expression I’ve never seen. I close my eyes for a second to rest them. He checks my temperature and when his hand lifts away from my forehead I complain. He touches my hand.

“I’ve never thought where you come from is inferior.”

“Oh, sure. Ha-ha. Strawberry Shortcake.”

“I think where you came from—Sky Diamond Strawberries—is the best place I can imagine. I’ve always wanted to go there. I’ve Google mapped directions. I’ve even looked up the flight and hire car.”

“Do you like strawberries?” I don’t know what else to say.

“I love strawberries. So much, you have no idea.” He sounds so kind that I feel a wave of emotion. I can’t open my eyes. He’ll see I have tears in them.

“Well, it’s out there, waiting for you. Pay the lady under the umbrella and take a bucket. Mention me for a discount, but you’ll get an interrogation on how I’m doing. How I’m really doing. If I’m lonely, if I’m eating properly. Why I won’t take the time to come home.”

I think of the job applications, side by side in a beige folder. A wave of exhaustion and dizziness hits me. I want to be asleep, that lovely dark place where these anxieties and sadness can’t follow me. I start to feel like I’m slowly spinning.

“What should I tell her?”

“I’m so scared. It’s all going to end soon, one way or another. I’m hanging on by my fingernails. I have no idea if their investment in me will ever pay off. And I’m so lonely sometimes I could cry. I lost my best friend. I spend all my time with a huge frightening man who wants to kill me, and he’s probably my only friend now, even though he doesn’t want to be. And it breaks my heart.”

His mouth presses on my cheek. A kiss. A miracle. Josh’s warm breath, fanning my cheek. His fingertips slide into my palms, and my fingers curl into his.

“Shortcake. No.”

I’m twirling through endless loops, and I tighten my grip on his hands.

“I’m so dizzy . . .” I am, but I also need this conversation to end.

“I need to ask you something.” Sometime later, his voice cuts through the hazy darkness.

“It’s not fair to ask now, but I will. If I could think of a way to get us out of this mess, would you want me to do it?”

I’m still holding on to him like he’s the only thing stopping me from falling off the planet. “Like how?”

“However I could. Would you want me to?” If he would be my friend for the days left, it would be enough. It would be wonderful enough to burn away the negativity.

That smile would be enough.

“This is the part of the dream where you smile, Josh.”

He sighs, frustrated. He holds me still, and as I orbit away into sleep, I whisper it through the fog of sleep.

“Of course I would.”

Chapter 11

I sit up cautiously in a bedroom lit bright by sun. Artifacts of illness are strewn everywhere. Towels, washcloths, my Tupperware container washed clean. Glasses and medication and a thermometer. My SLEEPYSAURUS pajama top is hanging from the hamper. So is the red tank. My paintball clothes lie in a puddle and need to be burned.

I suck the thermometer to confirm what I already know: The fever has broken.

I’m wearing a blue tank top now. I clutch the mattress as vulnerability makes a long overdue appearance. I feel my shoulder and realize I’m still wearing my bra. I thank all available gods. But still. Joshua Templeman has seen all the rest of my torso skin.

I peer out into the living room. He’s still here, sprawled out on the couch, one big-socked foot dangling off the end of the couch.

I grab fresh clothes and stumble into the bathroom. Good gracious. My mascara didn’t wash off properly in my shower and instead melted down my face into an Alice Cooper Halloween mask. I also have Alice Cooper hair, which I contain in a bun. I change, wash my face as fast as I can, and gargle mouthwash. At any moment I expect a knock on the door.

This feeling is worse than a hangover. It’s worse than waking up after a nude karaoke performance at the office Christmas party. I said too much last night. I told him about my childhood. He knows how lonely I am. He’s seen everything I own. He’s got so much knowledge the power will fog out of him in toxic clouds. I have to get him out of my apartment.

I approach the couch. It’s a three-seat sofa but he can’t remotely fit on it. He jolts before I can get a glimpse of him sleeping.

“I think I’m going to be okay.”

My magazines are stacked. There are no high heels under the coffee table. Joshua has tidied my apartment. He’s lying a few feet from my huge wall cabinet filled with Smurfs, stacked four and five deep. He turned the lights on, and it’s illuminated proof that I’m mental. He stands up and the room gets a lot smaller.

“Thank you for sacrificing your Friday night. I don’t mind if you want to leave.”

“Are you sure?” He is fussily pressing the backs of his fingers on my forehead, cheek, throat. I am definitely feeling better, because when he touches my throat my nipples pinch in response. I cross my arms over my chest.

“Yes. I’ll be okay now. Go home please.”

He looks down at me with those dark blue eyes and the memory of his smile is overlaid across his solemn face. He looks at me like I’m his patient. I’m no longer elevator-kiss worthy. Nothing like a little vomit to destroy chemistry.

“I can stay. If you can manage to stop freaking out.” There’s a kind of pity on his face and I know why.

It’s not all one-sided—I’ve seen a hidden part of him too during this endless night we’ve survived. There’s patience and kindness beneath his asshole façade. Human decency. Humor. That smile.

His eyes have flecks of light in their depths and his eyelashes look as if they’d curl against the pad of my little finger. His cheekbones would fit in the curve of my palm. His mouth, well. It’d fit me just about everywhere.

“Your horny eyes are back,” he tells me, and I feel my cheeks heat. “You must be feeling better if you can look at me like that.”

“I’m sick.” I say it primly and I hear his husky laugh as I turn away. He goes into my bedroom and I take several gulps of air.

“You’re a little sicko all right.” When he reappears he’s holding his jacket, and I realize he’s spent the entire night dressed in his paintball clothes. And he doesn’t even stink. How is it fair?

“I need to . . .” I’m getting frantic. I grab at his elbow when he toes on his shoes by the door.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m leaving. You don’t need to pick me up and throw me out. See you at work, Lucinda.” He rattles a bottle of pills at me.

“Go back to bed. Two more next time you wake up.” He hesitates again, reluctance written all over his face. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?” He touches my forehead again, rechecking my temperature though surely it couldn’t have changed in thirty seconds.

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